When it landed on Earth—on Parish Meadow, to be exact, outside a midsize town—the first people to see it thought it was an optical illusion; maybe a refraction of light that would go away when you turned your head or the sun disappeared behind a cloud. But it didn’t go away; it just stayed there, a few dozen inches off the ground—a strange round white luminescent object, about nine feet in diameter. You could get close to it, even touch it. Some people said the surface was warm and smooth; others swore they could feel something moving inside.
Either way, the sphere didn’t go away after a day, a week, even a month.
Soon speculations appeared that it was some sort of anomaly caused by the long-term overheating of the planet. There was talk of it being a warning, if not an outright punishment (though nobody seemed quite certain what of or what for). But one thing they all agreed on: it was a completely new and exciting phenomenon, and needed to be carefully studied and described.
“Until we know more, we just need to keep humbly doing our work and fulfilling our duties the way we have up to now,” said a well-known religious figure in one of the many endless debates seeking an answer to what to do about the situation. “We mustn’t let up in our efforts.”
“And what should those efforts be, in your opinion?” the sociologist facing him across the table asked.
“Our role is to be humble and work,” the man said with an indulgent smile. “I think that’s all we can do. We mustn’t let ourselves be distracted. That won’t get us anywhere.”
The sociologist shook her head. “All right, but distracted by what? A lot of us are already exhausted and burned out. We hear about inner emptiness, anxiety, panic attacks. The number of people addicted to antidepressants and opiates has skyrocketed over the past few years, and that’s just according to official statistics. The number of deaths due to overdose is growing yearly. Not to mention how many people are secretly taking pills, finding sources on their own, which means they don’t show up in the data. These are all problems that humility alone will do nothing to solve.”
“I don’t know what you’re driving at,” the religious leader said. “We should be talking about what this strange occurrence means in terms of its potential for our spiritual growth. You’re taking this debate in an entirely different direction.”
“I’m not concerned so much with the object itself,” the sociologist said. The religious leader snorted dismissively. “For me these debates are an opportunity for us to see how we measure the value of our lives and where we put our emphasis. We have a chance to take a new look at ourselves—and maybe see what’s not working.”
She took a breath as if about to add something, but the moderator cut her short with a wave of the hand. “Yes, yes, thank you both for sharing your views, but unfortunately we’re out of time, so we’ll have to say goodbye now. I want to thank our guests for being here in the studio with us today, and thank you, our viewers, for watching. We’ll look forward to seeing you next time.”
Four days after it appeared, the whole space around the sphere was sealed off air-tight. Nobody unauthorized could get near. You couldn’t even get close enough to see it anymore. Scientists descended on the site from all over the world to study the object. No official statement was issued by anyone, but nevertheless a few disturbing pieces of information found their way to the public:
They tried to tow the sphere away, but it didn’t budge an inch.
They analyzed it to see what it was made of, but the tests revealed nothing.
They tried to take samples, but it was impossible. Tthey decided to try and disrupt the surface by firing weapons at it—but the sphere just swallowed the bullets, remaining completely undamaged, with no apparent change.
Finally, out of sheer desperation, several scientists all pushed against the sphere at once, and one of them said they had the impression its surface slightly gave. Still, it seemed too risky, and most important it couldn’t be measured, so they made sure to avoid doing anything like that again.
The area remained completely sealed off for a year. Throngs of people flocked to the site during that time, hoping to get a glimpse of something. Anything. Not a chance.
But then something unexpected happened.
One young woman managed to penetrate the site. Ignoring the guards’ appeals, she just kept running and running, straight toward the sphere. The guards fired off several warning shots in an attempt to get her to stop (or so they later claimed). They swore that they fired into the air and the bullet must have riccocheted, but however it happened, one of the shots hit the woman in the stomach. She died on the spot within minutes.
The incident caused a huge scandal, and shortly afterward access to the spherical object was reopened to the public. Immediately the site was thronged by people in such numbers that their movement had to be coordinated the way it is at famous monuments. Once again, debates flared, with everyone wanting to know the same thing: where did the sphere come from, what was it made of, and what was it for. Nobody had a satisfactory hypothesis, though.
And the sphere meanwhile remained the same, wholly indifferent to everything.
One afternoon Oto comes to a stop on the bridgeway connecting the two buildings of the company he works at. The bridgeway is one of the few spots where you can really see out. On one side is a school, on the other a bus stop surrounded by new cube-shaped developments. Oto is just strolling across as he does so many times a day when suddenly out the window he sees a hulking blue zeppelin sailing majestically through the air. On its side, in big white letters, are the words We the drowned.
Oto is baffled. What kind of ad is that? Who would name their company that, or promote it with that slogan? It doesn’t even make any sense.
Either nobody else notices, or they just aren’t paying attention. Everyone just hurries across from one side to the other, gaze fixed straight ahead. Meanwhile, with each passing second, the zeppelin draws closer. It’s headed right for the bridgeway and it isn’t changing direction. It’s going to hit any second. Now. Now. Now. Oto knows he should get out of there quick, but he can’t bring himself to move.
He just stands there, watching the scene in fascination.
A strange hot wave of numbness flows through his body, causing his head to spin. It feels like all of a sudden his skin is flapping loose. He grabs hold of the handrail, but it’s like his hands no longer belong to him, like they’re devices with a mind of their own and he can’t control their operation. An unpleasant feeling of vertigo seizes hold of him, he feels sick to his stomach. He wants to get away as fast as he can, but his legs are shaking like jelly and his feet feel glued to the ground. The zeppelin is just a few feet shy of the bridgeway when suddenly it starts to climb. Rising higher, it barely misses the bridgeway at the last second. As Oto regains his senses, the world around him settles back into its usual shapes. Bridgeway, footsteps, faces, rustling papers, hushed conversation. Yet suddenly it all seems random, disconnected. He stands there for a good hour, staring out the window, clenching the handrail as if letting go would mean losing his last grasp on wholeness and he would fall apart.
Somebody lays a hand on his shoulder.
He turns around and sees his coworker.
“We’ve been looking all over for you. Don’t just stand there, come on. The meeting’s starting soon.”
Oto obediently joins the procession of his coworkers. It takes him a while to realize where they’re going. Then he remembers. Yes, of course. Today management is meeting with them to go over the New Employee Policy. It would be helpful if everyone could take part, wrote their boss when he forwarded the email. Nobody who got it asked what the meeting would be about. The boss wouldn’t have told them anyway; he never did. He himself didn’t know, he was just forwarding messages, hoping that nothing more would be asked of him. The skin on his neck sagged like a chicken’s.
They assemble in a large conference room with no windows, lit by pale fluorescent bulbs. The walls still smell mealy from a recent painting. There’s something coarse and indecent about the exposed freshness. The chairs are tightly packed together in several rows, all the same, black and uncomfortable, with a flimsy backrest that forces you to sit up straight the whole time. There are more people than Oto expected, a good hundred or so. Without being asked, everyone spreads out across the room and finds a seat, gradually falling silent. They do as they have been trained to do, no one needs instructions—performing their roles even before they find out what they are.
The Director enters the room. Oto has seen her only a few times in his seven years at the company; her office is in a different wing than his. She’s worked here ten years, and may stay another ten. She is smooth and round and wearing a soft light-blue woolen suit. Not the kind of person you expect anything insidious from, just the peaceful maintaining of order along the usual tracks. She clears her throat, but there’s no need. The room is dead silent, not a peep.
“Dear colleagues, I appreciate your work tremendously,” she begins, and Oto can sense the pungent smell from his terror-stricken colleagues spreading through the room. Their bodies already know what’s coming.
“I appreciate your work tremendously. Many of you have been with the company ten years or more, and believe me, nothing is more moving to me than your loyalty.”
She pauses a moment to rest her gaze on a few faces around the room.
“Being a typical Aries, though, I don’t like to drag things out, so let me get straight to the point. Those of you who’ve worked with me know that about Aries.”
As she winks cheerfully at the people in question, Oto can’t shake the thought that the winking has been carefully inserted into her monologue.
“As part of the rationalization of the labor force, our company, like most others, is moving toward automating a large part of our operations. Initially, this affected only a narrow range of positions. But now the scope is beginning to expand.”
Right then, everyone should have risen up from their seats and pounced on the Director. Ripping apart her soft light-blue woolen suit, tearing until there was nothing left of it but threads. They should have flung themselves at the fresh white walls, scraping off the plaster and smashing the walls to pieces, until they broke through to the outside, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake.
Instead, they go on sitting there, bolt upright in their black plastic chairs. Oto does too. He can’t bring himself to do anything else. His body has forgotten how to react any other way. All he can do is sit there, well behaved, not drawing any attention to himself.
“You’ll all receive severance pay of course. We’ll do our best to make the change as painless as possible. Personally, I’m very upset to be losing so many outstanding employees, but trust me, your work has not been in vain. It created the framework our new mechanical helpers will use to learn. Your work provided us with absolutely invaluable data, which have been processed and will serve as the basis for new, faster, and more efficient operating procedures. Your work will become the cornerstore of the technology revolution, which we cannot stand in the way of, that much is clear. All we can do now is lay the groundwork for it as diligently as possible.”
It is quiet a moment. A few seconds during which everything takes shape. Several variants of the future exist in the space of a single moment, fluttering over their heads side by side, waiting for someone to grab one of them and open it up. It is a dizzying moment, the only moment of true freedom. The fluttering and the rustling and the buzzing of fluorescent bulbs. Oto wishes it would last long enough for the timeless rift to expand, but a hand slowly rises into the air at the front of the room.
“How big will the severance package be?” asks a man in a loud voice. Oto watches as in slow motion the rift shrinks again. It shrinks, disappears, and the rustling dies away. The director smiles widely at them.
“I can’t say across the board, but each of you will get a sum several times your monthly pay. How many times bigger will depend on a whole range of factors, but I can guarantee you, the payments will be truly generous. We appreciate your work and mean to value it appropriately.”
The rift that could have allowed something ugly and necessary to burst to the surface seals shut again with a click. Everything is once again clean, smoothed over, safe.
Oto looks at the necks and shoulders of the people sitting in front of him. All of the shoulders, as if on command, drop at once, relaxing. The necks tilt inquisitively to the side. Oto does the same, without a second thought. His whole body is flooded with fatigue, and a weight descends on him.
“You could see that coming,” whispers someone behind him, but nobody says a thing apart from that. No one speaks up.
“I’m glad we had this meeting so we could exchange our points of view,” the Director says to the silent employees. “Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to pay tribute to you all before we say goodbye. For your devotion to the company, for your commitment, your hard work, your diligence and responsibility. For believing that we can always improve and, most importantly, grow. For all of that, you have my deepest gratitude and admiration.”
The Director takes a step back and then begins to clap. Fast and loud. But her applause sounds weak in the midst of such a large room, you can barely hear it. Then someone on the left joins in, then someone in front, then another and another. As the applause gains in intensity, it sounds like hailstones drumming on the roof: rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. People stand, one by one, and everyone is smiling. So strange and absurd. But then Oto finds himself standing too, and he too is smiling. Soon the whole room is on their feet, rubbing away the last remaining flutter between the palms of their hands as they come sharply together, squashing it like a mosquito. Finally the Director stops, gesturing to indicate that that will be enough.
“I’d like to thank you all one more time. By tomorrow morning you’ll have your termination of employment contracts. That should get under way at the end of next month. Along with those contracts you’ll also receive a part of your severance pay. Now all that’s left is for me to wish you a lovely time during your remaining days in this creative, visionary environment, and the best possible experience in your work on your future projects.”
The doors open and everyone leaves the room in the same obedient and orderly fashion as they entered.
Ota feels like he’s moving through a dense, opaque liquid. His mind is heavy and absorbed by a single absurd image that he can’t get out of his head. Even over the next few minutes, as he takes the elevator (which sways disturbingly), unlocks the door to his office (which suddenly seems so heavy), answers his colleague who asks if he plans to look for new work (yes, because he can’t afford the loss of income—it’s been hard supporting their family up to now even with two salaries), opens up his desk drawer and takes several tablets all at once (quickly chewing them up), all he can think about is the zeppelin he saw earlier. The way it moved through the air, the slogan saying We the drowned. Where is it now? Is it rubbing up against some other building, or has it already touched down? And who launched it anyway?
He feels like he’s seeing everything around him through a glass wall, so it takes him a while to register that two of his female colleagues are dissatisfied with the Director’s speech. Something ought to be done about it; they shouldn’t just let it go. But Oto doesn’t really hear them, and he has the impression the others aren’t listening to them either. The women’s indignation is just stirring everyone up when what they need now is peace and quiet to do their work. They’ve been held up enough for one day.
Oto doesn’t hear the whispered phone conversations either as his colleagues share with their loved ones what happened. They march up and down their offices, beating out an uneven rhythm that sounds like stones raining down.
And he doesn’t hear his colleague squatting out in the hallway either, wailing as he rocks forward and back. The sound of it is unbearable, as if its source had suffered some kind of terrible injury. There’s nobody else in the hallway at this point, everyone has gone back to their desks, pretending like nothing unusual is going on. Meanwhile the wailing grows more intense, resonating through the space, there’s no avoiding it. There is a painful, almost animal quality to it. Wailing. Over and over, the same drawn-out tone.
But Oto is still thinking about the zeppelin, and he thinks about it the whole time as he sits at his computer, opening his email like everyone else, looking at the messages, erasing some of them straight off, marking others to read later. He is thinking about it even as he clicks open the folder named Reports, Contracts, Agreements and one by one opens the files. It takes a while, but he’s careful about it, not missing a single one. Then, once he’s ready, he sends them all to print.
He thinks about the zeppelin as he sends the files to different printers around the company, in order to save time; as he opens the folder containing the files with his work attendance forms; as he sends every time sheet from every month of the seven years he’s spent at the company. He doesn’t stop thinking about it as he prints his emails either—at this point, he ceases to be methodical, just wildly clicking at random. What happened to that zeppelin? Where did it go? Where?! Somebody has to know.
He even continues to think about the zeppelin as he walks by the body of his colleague, now lying out in the hallway, arms and legs splayed to the sides. His nose is bleeding and his right leg is bent at a funny angle. Oto is unable to process the image; he just registers it, without attaching any meaning to it.
He has other work to do.
He walks the hallways on every floor, listening for the furious whir of printers as they spit out the towering stacks of documents he sent them. Examining the still hot sheets of paper and all those sentences brutally dragged into the light, they suddenly don’t make sense anymore. By now the pills have taken effect; he senses the warm familiar expanding of his stomach and the slightly dull, faraway shimmer as things around him lose their hard outlines, everything mixing and blending together, his thoughts finally free of the chain of fear-warped logic. The connections crumble away—everything is jumbled up, but peaceful.
He lets the printers run until all the paper is gone and there are no refills left. Nobody asks him any questions the entire time, nobody tries to stop him. The plastic trays sag under the weight of the printed pieces of paper. Oto tries to collect the documents from every printer, but there are too many and papers keep falling out of his arms.
He’s so exhausted!
He heads back to his office. His colleague is still lying there in the hallway; the blood under his nose has dried. He’s still breathing—Oto can see the regular rise and fall of his chest. The man’s eyes are open and he’s staring vacantly up at the ceiling. Oto walks up to the man, kneels down, then lies next to him on the ground.
There’s nothing else he can do anymore.
As they lie there side by side, Oto hears the overloaded printers burn out and fall silent around them, one after another. Then, at last, it’s quiet. Oto thinks it might be the prelude to something spectacular, but immediately that thought is absorbed by another, and then another, and then the whole thing slips irretrievably away.
Translated by Alex Zucker