Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi — translator and author of both science fiction (Malaaz) and young-adult (Reem) works — recently won the Egyptian Society of Science Fiction Award for his story “An Unusual Visitor” and generously shares it here:
By Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi
Translated by the author
It all started in Egypt with a single patient, who they later they named Patient Zero. He had a fever, and a cough, and then his condition deteriorated rapidly as he made his way to the hospital. He died within hours, all his vital organs ceasing to function. Despite the man’s mysterious symptoms, which doctors could not explain, they did not concern themselves for long. That is — until the doctors themselves began to develop the same symptoms, and several similar cases sprung up in different places in a frightening manner. Precautionary measures were taken immediately and a quarantine was set up. Egypt’s state of emergency was raised to its highest level; people were prevented from leaving one city for another, and flights, ships, and trains outside the country were canceled. Nevertheless, the bizarre symptoms had already begun to spread to neighboring countries, and everyone who caught this strange disease died within a few hours, or a day at most, and doctors went mad studying these unusual cases.
It was an Egyptian scientist from a research team made up of the world’s best virologists and pathologists who finally isolated the virus responsible for the disease. He was shocked to discover that the virus belonged to one of the viral families that cause influenza, one of the oldest and most prevalent of human illnesses. But this virus appeared to be far more advanced than the current forms the scientists were familiar with, and it was unambiguously fierce. It had achieved so many mutations — something that simple could never happen in such a short time. Then one of the team came up with the craziest idea: “It looks like the virus came from the future.”
Despite the strangeness of the idea, scientists began to take it seriously. Human immune systems are constantly evolving, just as viruses do. They have been wrestling, like Man and the Devil, since the dawn of humankind. So what if a person with an advanced immune system came from the future, afflicted with a simple disease like influenza? As the virus had continued to evolve, this simple disease would spark a deadly epidemic for humans in less developed times.
One thing was certain: this unusual visitor had appeared in Egypt, near the location of Patient Zero, and almost certainly had not left the country. The quarantine and travel-ban procedures prevented anyone from leaving Egypt, outside of a few experts who traveled in the most dire of conditions, and after taking the maximum possible precautions. Thus, the police and epidemiologists cooperated in the search for this stranger — although it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
They decided to search citizens for their official papers; if this stranger really had come from the future, he wouldn’t have official papers, or his papers would be wholly different from what people carried nowadays, or with a date that had not yet come to pass. And so the circle they searched began to narrow, as they raced the days, hours, minutes, and seconds before the human race would perish from this flu pandemic. They were searching for this last hope. Gradually, they identified a series of small circles scattered across various districts in Cairo, demanding citizens show their official identity papers, with the anti-epidemic experts moving through in their white clothes and protective masks, themselves looking like creatures from outer space. The streets were empty, as everyone had taken shelter in their homes, waiting for the police to knock on their doors, search the house, and ask them to show their identity papers. The eyes of all the planet’s inhabitants were fixed to their TV screens, a mixture of longing and fear filling their hearts as they waited for any glimmer of hope.
It was in one of the old districts of Cairo — one usually crowded with people, although now its streets were as deserted as a ghost town — that a man cautiously skulked among the dark alleys, hiding from the prying eyes that would be looking for him. How ironic! He had fled his time to be hunted in this past one! He walked steadily toward his landing point. He’d had enough of this time. He had to return to the future. But, before he returned, he’d leave a bottle of his blood with a message that explained everything. If they needed his immune system, they’d get it. As for him, they’d never catch him. He had no intention of being turned into a guinea pig.
He found himself standing in front of his cutting-edge machine in the basement of an abandoned house; the machine needed a long time to recharge its energy so that it could take off on another journey. So he sat in front of its complex devices, pressing a few buttons and flipping short metal levers. Suddenly, a brilliant soundless light illuminated the room; it was a pure white light, and then several other colors appeared, overlapping before his eyes to form a dazzling combination of colors before these colors gradually disappeared once again, into the pure white. He’d returned to his time. He stepped out of his machine and looked around to find ancient ruins scattered around him. There was no trace of man, animal, or bird. Had the human race perished? Had they not found his blood? What a disaster!
In an earlier time, a man found a bottle of blood with a letter. Immediately, he rushed to contact the anti-epidemic agency, and they came quickly and placed the bottle in a special box, carefully transferring it to their labs. Was this really the stranger’s blood, or was it a silly prank someone had played on them? But the test proved that the blood’s immune system was exceptionally advanced, and it wasn’t long before scientists could extract the antidote from the blood. Experiments proved it to be very effective. This was joyous news for all the inhabitants of our blue planet, Earth. People hugged each other in relief, scarcely believing this nightmare was finally at an end.
In his present time, the stranger watched civilization emerge again before his eyes. The scene shifted in a hyperspeed that he could not follow, until he saw the streets of his familiar city, with people walking in them, and he walked among them, putting his hands in his pockets, as if nothing had happened.