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The Translation

Aaron Lee

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Copyright 2018 Aaron Lee

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I have a job.

I’m freelance, so I keep my resume on several sites where agencies or companies can find it. This new company doesn’t tell me which site they found it on, which is a bit unusual. Nearly all suspicions are eclipsed by their per-word rate. It’s utterly beyond arguing with. They want me to work on-site for four months, translating technical specifications documents, reams and reams of them. The estimated workload is more than I’ve ever handled in my ten years in the business. They won’t tell me the exact nature of the documents, but they are absolutely sure I can handle the work. They use those exact words. Also a bit unusual. But again, there’s that per-word rate. I prefer to work from the comfort of home, but four months of on-site work at their facility will allow me to take the next year and a half off if I want.

All correspondence with the company is through email, and my contact signs each message with the first two initials and the last name. I don’t know if it is a man or woman who has hired me.

A package arrives the next day, delivered by a package service I’ve never heard of. Before opening it, I Google the service and find only a half dozen hits and one official website. The two lines of text on the sparsely-designed page describes how they deliver sensitive packages for high-profile businesses. In small print at the bottom of the page, I see that they are owned by my new employer. I open the package. It contains an open-ended plane ticket, a secure key card, several keys along with a map to my lodging, a credit card for expenses and a handwritten note. Usually there are several non-disclosure agreements, but oddly, I find none. The note’s only stipulation is that I speak to no one about what I’m translating during my four months of employment, and that those four months may be automatically extended at the discretion of my employer. The note continues, that the moment I check in at the airport, this is understood as my agreement to be bound by these two rules. My key card will let me into the company facilities up to a week before the project start date. It is signed with the same two initials and last name as the emails. I look at the contents of the package, beginning to feel strange about the small oddities of the job. I look at the per-word rate again and begin to pack my bags.

I arrive a week early.

It’s a country that at once looks familiar and foreign at the same time. An island territory near the artic circle where visas and detailed business plans aren’t required by law. On the cold, icy streets, a few tall, fair-haired men and women walk by huddled into thick parkas speaking what sounds like Danish. Or it could be Icelandic. The languages in this part of the world never were my specialty.

At a pub I meet two contractors who installed all of the equipment in the facility and are on their way back to their respective countries in two days time. They don’t tell me where they’re from, and I can’t tell by their accents although I try. Australian? South African? I’m just jet lagged enough that it slips away from me like a spray of pebbles on the icy streets outside. They finished equipment installations early and are taking an extra day for one last inspection to make sure nothing was missed. They were paid much more than their usual rates as well, but ran into no problems at all other than a general dislike of the facilities.

“What is it?” I ask. They only answer that I’ll find out when we get there. I don’t like that answer, so I ask again.

“It’s creepy”, one of them says, relenting, and his friend just looks down at the table and drinks his beer thoughtfully.


We drive for lost hours and arrive at a promontory of black rock wearing streamers of ice, the face steep mountain foothills, crouching in the dark. Snow and ice stretch off into the distance as far as the night cares to reveal. We slouch out of the van with gigantic snow tires, my two new friends suddenly sullen. I can’t make sense of where we’re heading, because it looks like we’re walking straight for the rock face. I ask if either of my companions has a flashlight and they ignore me. We reach a dark steel door in the wall with no visible hinges and my two friends slide a panel aside and swipe their key cards. They motion for me to do the same and I do. A deep mechanical clunking sound and the door slides aside on pneumatic arms. I see only blackness beyond and my two friends stand motionless at the gaping doorway. A few seconds later a lamp flickers on about a thousand feet down the impossibly long corridor carved out of rock and lined with steel support struts at regular intervals that seem completely superfluous; there only to assuage the impossible, but inescapable fear of cave-in. The space in between the doorway and the lamp is in utter darkness.

We reach the lamp after a cold walk through the dark corridor, no conversation to break up the monotony of darkness and dripping stone above our heads. I look over my shoulder and cannot see the outline of the door against the night outside. Beyond the lamp is an elevator door that opens as we approach. It is big enough to park at least three vans like the one we drove. Padded benches line the walls and both of my friends sit.

“You’re not going to like this,” one of them says. The other one who had quietly drunk his beer looks me in the eyes, and I don’t like the coldness of his stare.

I sit down.

The silent friend pushes a button, the lights dim to nothing, and I’m nearly lifted off my seat as the elevator descends so fast I think we’re falling. My silent friend points toward an amber digital display, which is the only thing illuminating the massive elevator. The digits tick by fast, and I see we are already two hundred meters underground and descending further. I close my eyes and try not to regurgitate the beer in my stomach, wishing I was back at my shining new prefab apartment in a stack of hundreds at the edge of the town, hours away.

I feel a tap on my shoulder as I fight the nausea through clamped-shut eyes and my friends are already standing. They walk out of the elevator into a semi-dark, cavernous hall, lined with machines of all sizes and shapes. I recognize some of it as lab equipment. I see incubators, gene sequencers, centrifuges large and small, ultra-high pressure environments, vacuum chambers, environmental simulators, and then my knowledge fails me. All of the equipment is complex and expensive beyond belief. Some of it is older, some brand new with plastic wrapping and labels still affixed. It is all bolted to newly-poured concrete floors, and to frames affixed to the raw rock ceiling by giant staples.

“I told you you wouldn’t like the ride down,” my talkative friend says. I follow him down the corridors of machines, passing through an airlock. The airlock cycles and we pass into a cafeteria with gleaming white tables under fluorescent lights, chairs lined up at each one. “But you’re going to like the ride back up even less,” he says over his shoulder. Johannesburg? Adelaide? I still can’t place his accent.


We tour most of the facility while my friends check installations in a cursory way. What feels like hours melt away, the flow of time blunted by the unthinkable millions of tons of rock above our heads. I wonder how I’ll feel after four months here. My friends tell me they suspect there are levels below the one we are on now, but they can’t access them. I can tell by the look on their faces that they have almost no more information than I do. Something about the hard set of their expressions persuades me not to ask any more questions.

“Time to go back up,” my talkative friend says abruptly. We are in a different corridor than the one we entered via the elevator, the last few dozen meters carved out of solid rock. My silent friend stands at the mouth of a dark open square maw cut into the rock fiddling with something that looks like a harness.

“The elevators are for the higher pay grades, so staff like you won’t get to use them. We only rode it down tonight as one last test.” The silent one stretches black webbing around himself that looks like a cross between a hammock made of black mesh and a climbing harness. He smiles for the first time, stepping out into the maw and hangs there for a second, laying back like he really is in a hammock. My talkative friend hits a switch and the silent one shoots up silently out of sight. I step toward the dark maw and see the dim outlines of a shaft extending so far up it is lost to sight, lit only at intervals by small red LED lamps.

“The higher-ups wouldn’t give any more of an explanation about the elevator than we already told you. And to be honest, they didn’t look like the type who like being questioned too much. This system works on almost no energy at all, and they promise it’s safe. But you won’t like it,” my friend says as he works the harness around my body. I stand almost paralyzed until he pushes me off the edge, swinging out over the maw. My gorge rises and I can taste the acidic mélange of beer and digestive fluids. I didn’t realize just how terrified I was of heights until this moment. I don’t want to look down, but can’t stop myself. Red LED lights stretch down so far it is like an optical illusion. I look back to see my friend hit another switch and I am yanked up even faster than my descent. The only sound is the air rushing past my ears, and I close my eyes tightly. He is right. I like it even less than the elevator.


I show up for work a week later, and am given a small desk with three monitors and a computer. It is in the absolute corner of the room, surrounded by machines whose function I can only guess at. They make a cubicle around my desk and suffuse my workstation with a hum that is soothing, but cancels out any kind of conversation the researchers near me are having. I can’t see over the equipment even when standing. All of the researchers in my area wear yellow rubberized lab suits, sealed to the neck, although I’m allowed to wear street clothes. I try to talk to them, but they either ignore me or only nod in greeting. I give up after a few days of this. No one comes to initiate conversations, and I soon realize that I am left alone in total peace. This is usually the way I prefer to work, but it bothers me now. I receive all instructions and files via instant message. I send a message asking if I need a yellow suit, but a reply comes back telling me not to worry about it.

It’s a good thing no one comes. I have tens of thousands of pages to translate. I understand the content of the documents I’m translating, but they make no coherent whole. They are only technical specifications and configuration documents that don’t connect to each other as far as I can tell. I send messages mentioning my concerns that my translations will not be of the best quality unless I have the overarching concept, or at least some kind of context for my work. I receive a message that assures me that the quality of my finished work so far exceeds expectations and that I need not worry. So I keep working.

I translate for fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and even longer some days. New documents keep coming, and I am never any closer to understanding what the project is about. I am more tired every day, but keep a running tab of how much the company owes me for my services. After three weeks I realize I will not need to take any more work for the next six months. I wonder if it will be worth it. I eat in a cafeteria where the workers are much friendlier, either wearing street clothes like myself, or gray coveralls. We talk and enjoy our lunches, but no one ever talks about the content of their work. I reveal I work in an area where only yellow-suits can pass through the air lock, and my lunch mates slowly drift away over the days until I am eating by myself every day.

I start eating lunch at my desk. I almost hope that bringing food into such a clean environment will provoke a response from the researchers around me, but no one ventures into my corner of the laboratory. I eat while I work.


Two months pass.

I’m carrying my lunch tray back to my desk through the main concourse where mainly white-suited technicians are working. The white suits always show deference to the yellow-suits, and the only place the yellow suits work is in the laboratory where I translate. The chime rings, signaling the end of lunch and the cafeteria empties, spilling out talkative workers in street clothes and others in gray coveralls. I see a white suit in the far corner of the concourse hastily pull out a helmet and seal it, other white suits quickly doing the same until all of the visible white suits are now helmeted. None of my coworkers seem to notice or care. A klaxon blares twice and everyone freezes. A female voice sounds out over the intercom.

“Warning. A level two biosecurity event has occurred. You have been exposed to a highly infectious strain of laryngeal cancer.” My coworkers suddenly start murmuring loudly, pushing past each other, the tension rising each second. “This strain is dormant, but immediate decontamination is necessary.”

Some of the workers in street clothes and coveralls are pushing past each other, and others are starting to yell. One of them notices that the white suits are emptying the room, sealing themselves in an air lock that is cycling. One man in gray coveralls runs over and tries to open the door after it cycles, but it is locked. He pounds on the door with his fists, screaming something about cancer. But cancer isn’t infectious. Is it? A few yellow suits walk through the room and a hush descends. They look at each some of us as they pass, as distant as sharks at the bottom of the ocean. They unhurriedly open doors to the laboratory I work in and cycle the air lock while we watch dumbfounded.

“Please follow directions to proceed with decontamination.”

We do just that.

The voice on the intercom leads us through a series of airlocks to a room full of throne-like chairs pulsing with tiny purple bolts of arcing static electricity. We’re directed to sit in the chairs and we do, each one of us. I wait my turn and sit, feeling a slight shock and tingle as my hair stands on end, and a jet of air blows up from the seat. The voice over the PA leads us into a hallway where we all stand suddenly shocked. It is a hallway tiled in antiseptic white panels from floor to ceiling. We crowd into the narrow room, surprised at so much white surface after two months under dark rock ceilings and walking on concrete floors. The door shuts behind us with a sucking sound. The end of the corridor reveals only a closed door that remains shut. I am suddenly terrified, even though my coworkers have started to relax and talk about going home tonight. It is almost the end of our shift. I’m sweating, trying to reason through this unnatural fear that courses through me. Everyone else is making small talk, about how the company is probably testing us. We’ve been drilled before. But not like this. Why then, are the others not scared?

I remember translating a document that had detailed specifications about pressure valves, gaseous mixtures, and triple integrity seals. While translating it, I had had a terrible feeling that I was working on a document that described specifications for an exposure chamber. A place that could be used to infect a large group of people simultaneously. I only had a hunch at the time, but I feel it with utter certainty as we stand in the narrow white hallway, waiting for instructions that will never come. The document bothered me so much I can remember nearly every detail standing in the corridor.

The yellow suits are going to kill each and every one of us. Whatever we had been exposed to was not an accident. The white suits had put on their helmets before the announcement and the yellow suits had walked through and looked at us like they were expecting to see something in our faces. We are all going to die in here, and the yellow suits are watching. I see tiny nozzles in the ceiling, small enough to be almost unnoticeable and think back to the document I translated. Some of the white panels are like two-way mirrors and I know the yellow suits are peering through them and waiting. I start at the door and count ten panels until I am sure I have the right one. I push a coworker aside roughly and knock on the panel. Someone swears in German behind me. It rings like a hollow pane of glass. I hear muffled voices and shuffling behind the panel, and know that it is a mistake that I am in here. This is not part of the plan. I count thirty panels walking over toward the door and push on all four corners of one panel until it lifts off on a hinge, a manual release for the door nestled inside. I pull it, and the door hisses with inrushing air. I push the heavy door open enough for me to squeeze through as my coworkers start shouting at me. I shove my shoulder against it shutting it again as I hear hissing and sudden, terrified screaming. Thirty seconds of screaming and muffled pounding goes by. Blood spatters the window of the pressure door, and I run past the static seats, swing the outer airlock door shut and start the cycle. I look through the tiny circle of glass in the airlock door to see the heavy pressure door leading to the white corridor swing slowly open, a bloody hand appearing through the crack. Dozens of bodies start spilling through, bloodied, suddenly and utterly inhuman in the brief glimpse I have. The airlock cycles and I run through the main work concourse, as empty as a ghost town and I hear the hurried, running footsteps of rubber suited feet coming out of an airlock at the far end of the main concourse. I risk a backward glance and see yellow, helmeted researchers running, some in my direction, others toward different doors. The airlock to the decontamination chamber starts to cycle again, and I run toward the black maw, hoping there is an empty harness waiting for me.


Cover photo by Josue Valencia on Unsplash

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