THE BLACK CUMIN CURE
Rohan, like many Bangladeshis who also went by just one name, woke up that Wednesday morning in October, 2081 in his tiny farm house feeling as refreshed as if he’d been asleep on a cloud for weeks. The 23-year-old sheepherder did appreciate his brothers’ attempt in coaxing him to move to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where opportunities flourished, but he knew better. Noise and pollution wasn’t his thing; serenity may as well had been his middle name. “The fastest path to insanity,” he once claimed, “was getting a suite down there.”
Life on his near-pristine, almost primitive, ½ acre farm in Domar, Northern Bangladesh, he insisted, was all he needed. Industrialization, exhaust, car horns, hundreds of mind-numbing faces to wade through on the busy streets every day, sky-high neck-straining structures, the infrequent but ominous blinding lights from military drones, overzealous smartphone users seemingly talking to themselves, crowded buses and trains, was simply information overload. Just one step out of his front door, with his fifteen-head herd of sheep in his foreground and the mountains in the back, he felt like a made-man in a promised land.
Slipping into the hip waders hanging just outside his front door, he walked over to the ramshackle barn next to his house, brought out a bucketful of grain, and ambled beneath the cloudless sky over to the meadow where the sheep were safely grazing.
“Hey, fellas,” he said to them as they assembled around him. “I have a riddle for you.”
Rohan paused as if half-expecting to hear from one of the herd, “Tell it to us.”
“Well, since you asked,” he continued, “riddle me this: in a white one-story house, there was a white man, a white dog, a white cat, a white computer, a white TV, a white carpet, a white refrigerator, a white sink, a white bathtub, a white wall and ceilings, and a white door. What color were the stairs?”
Just then, the sheep started backing away from the young farmer. Seconds later, they simply turned and ran off as quickly as possible.
“The hell?” Rohan asked, thoroughly perplexed by the shift. “There were no stairs,” he shouted at them, “because it was a one-story house, remember?”
His flock, paying absolutely no attention to him, kept on trotting like the devil himself was at their heels.
“Hey!” he yelled again. “What’s got you guys so spooked?”
Noting they’ll eventually get cornered by his territory’s fence, he simply groaned and turned towards the house.
The sheepherder gasped and instinctively threw up his arms to protect himself from the wolf-like creature that leaped towards him. Knocking him flat on his back, it turned to strike again. Rohan, already familiar with the wolves that lived in the hills which sometimes descended into the lowlands, rolled over on his knees, whipped out his jambiya, a short curved dagger kept in a sheath beneath his smock, and aimed it at the gnashing animal. As it lunged, he struck it below its chin, the curved blade exiting through its tongue. Howling in pain, it turned and raced off towards the mountains, the blade still lodged in its lower jaw.
“Dammit,” Rohan groaned, studying the lacerations on his forearms the creature had delivered from its initial pounce.
“That was my favorite jambiya!” he yelled after the fleeing monster.
Getting up, he gazed at his wounds again.
What kind of an animal was that? he asked himself. His brows furrowed, he wondered if it was a wolf. This thing, he noted, had a shorter snout, jet-black hair with blond streaks, large eyes, hind legs that were much larger than the foremost ones, and most importantly, no tail. Ambling towards his house, he began feeling light-headed. The farm became a swirl in his eyes. Staggering backwards, and barely able to stand on his feet, he fell to his knees and immediately vomited the paratha bread and mixed vegetable sabzi he’d eaten for breakfast. Seconds later, he passed our right there just fifteen feet from his house.
41-year-old Hazari, a farmer passing on the road nearby, quickly parked his fruit-laden 4×4 and ran over towards the stricken young man.
“Rohan!” he called him. “Rohan! Are you okay?”
“Ugh,” the young sheepherder said, stirring. “I was attacked.”
“Not by whom. By what. It looked like a wolf.”
“Damn things,” Hazari cursed. “That’s why you need a pistol.”
“They’ve never attacked people before.”
“So, they’re getting bolder.”
“Hazari,” Rohan uttered, staring into his eyes, “this was no wolf.”
“What do you mean? Like, a fox?”
“No. It was…like a man.”
“I think you’re delusional.”
“No, Hazari. I’ve seen wolves before. This thing had a face like man’s except it was squished out like a wolf’s. Plus, the hind legs were much bigger and it had no tail.”
“Maybe it got into a fight with another wolf and had it bitten off.”
“Could be. Still…”
Before the sheepherder could finish his sentence, he dry-heaved and passed out.
Hazari, removing some of the fruit from the cart in the back of his 4×4, placed Rohan on a tarp there and drove him to his house just up the road where his wife, 35-year-old Nazia, a nurse’s aide at the local clinic, could watch him. Within minutes, he was feverish and incoherent. Whenever he woke, he was delusional, and the rest of the time he seemed to be in a coma-like state. The farmer phoned the local doctor, but she had already been called away to a nearby village to help a victim of a drowning accident. The closest multi-use hospital, Baliadanji General some 60 miles away, couldn’t send an ambulance for him because a recent influx of refugees from West Bengal in India flooded their already fragile system.
After a few days, the young man awoke, began to scream incoherently and claw at his skin with his fingers. The farmer tied down the young man’s hands to prevent him from harming himself. Within hours, his body entered a state of metamorphosis, like a caterpillar getting ready to greet the world as a sawfly. After the metamorphosis was complete, the creature that exited the cocoon was no longer the young shepherd. It attacked the farmer, who fought it off, locked it in one of his chicken coops, and narrowly escaped with his wife and kids. Leaving his farm behind, he knew he had to tell people of what he had seen, to warn them.
The townsfolk thought the shepherd was joking or insane, until they too started losing their livestock one by one. Within days, the infestation—as it was then called—spread to neighboring villages, the ravenous creatures killing and eating livestock as well as wild animals like turtles, tigers, dholes, langurs, snakes, fish and low-flying birds. Eventually, they started attacking people as well. Within months, entire districts needed to be evacuated. Those who could drive did so hurriedly. Those who couldn’t were bussed out or flown to cities in neighboring India. Some went as far as Bhutan or Myanmar, crossing treacherous, alligator-infested rivers to get to safety. The international community started calling them Changelings because of their uncanny resemblance to the person they’d derived from. However, because they were so dangerous, none were ever caught or kept in captivity for long.
Eventually, entire districts of Northern Bangladesh started losing huge swaths of people and animal life. Many foot soldiers sent to eradicate the threat were massacred by the beasts. Some even morphed into them. The government, feeling their hands were tied, became more aggressive and started dropping petrol bombs in the most infested areas. The neighboring countries pitched in as they sought to prevent such a catastrophe in their own fragile states. Millions of Bangladeshis, including those from the central and southern areas, fled for their lives as their homeland was laid to waste. Neither the fowl of the land and air nor the fish in the rivers and lakes were spared.
The government, in a desperate attempt to contain the epidemic, launched a war against the vicious creatures. They were easy to kill, a shot to the chest or head doing the trick, but their numbers seemed endless. Some soldiers swore that the same “wolf” they’d killed a week before came around to be killed again. Then, after three months of military bombardment, and with most of the country in ruins, the brief war stopped. Heat radars indicated the infestation was finally eradicated, but because the last bomb dropped in central Bangladesh by the overzealous powers that be was thermonuclear, they had to wait at least a year before sending anyone in to assess the damage.
In 2084, an international contingent of scientific, medical and engineering personnel was sent to the city of Nilphamari, Bangladesh after the end of the War Against the Changelings. Coordinated by the UN Council for the Restoration of Northern Bangladesh, the goal of the 200-member team of doctors, students and engineers from universities around the world was to prepare the northern frontier to return to its former glory as a thriving metropolis where stately terracotta mosques and red brick administrative buildings stood side by side with Bengali bungalows and Hindu temples. This included testing and purifying the soil and water supply, landscape planning, planting crops, clearing out some of the rubble, setting up recycling and composting units, and helping with the general agronomic development of the war-torn wastelands. Because the team had no gas-powered vehicles with them, the actual heavy lifting for building the infrastructure would commence at a later date once the groundwork had been completed.
The Nilphamari contingent, led by medical geneticist Dr. Oleg Faustus from the University of Cambridge, lived and worked in a 1.4 acre compound nicknamed “M.A.S.H. Village” because of the plethora of green military tents there. Impressively assembled, the team included doctors and students of agricultural engineering and sustainable agricultural sciences from the Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City. The specialists in landscape horticulture and plant physiology were from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The professor and students from the Water Science Institute at the University of Nairobi were in charge of water purification, water systems, and delivery. The Dutch University of Groningen in the Netherlands sent personnel who worked in geology. Roads, building planning and communications was the domain of engineers from Lomonsov Moscow State University. Boston University sent botanists, chemists and biologists. Culinary and commissary staff, and various experts who specialized in sustainable living, were gifts courtesy of the Seoul-Pyonyang University of Science and Technology, one of the leading colleges from United Korea. While the professional staff was paid handsomely, all students received a stipend and had their tuition paid by the UN Council upon successful completion of their assignment.
In all, there were seven large canvas-encased tents for the various disciplines, one security and sanitation tent, a supply depot where the solar-powered generators and electric bikes were maintained, a mess tent/commissary, twelve sleeping barracks, a compost and recycling area, and a shower stall next to the latrines. For the most part, the crew didn’t mind M.A.S.H. Village because a variety of food was available, the medical tent was well-stocked with emergency supplies, and for fun, the students played soccer and volleyball using the hollow plastic float balls the water crew utilized for covering open tanks that were prone to evaporation. Some students and faculty members liked to jog through the ruins of the city while others occupied themselves by singing in drum circles, the percussionists using buckets for hand drums. Since there were no cars and trucks, everyone went around on foot or rode one of the twenty bicycles in the compound. There were six electric scooters, four electric bicycles, and three electric utility vehicles available, but because they took a while to recharge, were primarily used for official business only.
About a week after the erection of the village, the Russian engineers, led by Dr. Yuri Ivchenko, began their setup of the communications tower in the northeast section of the village. Ivchenko, a burly man who, at sixty years, had known his share of misfortunes, came to Nilphamari to, as he put it to his superiors back in Moscow, “redeem himself.” “Over there!” he’d yell to one of his underlings, or, “That’s not how it’s done!” to another. It didn’t take long for the members of his party to begin likening him to Nikita Kruschev, even calling him Little Nikita behind his back.
As the Russian team worked, their soldering and engineering techniques took a backseat to their new thoughts of trying to return home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in their haste, their cellular network malfunctioned when Artyom, one of the younger, less-experienced engineers, had accidentally connected their small satellite antennae to the wrong power output port of one of the newer solar-powered generators and fried its innards.
“You fool!” Ivchenko yelled, raising his fist in the air as smoke poured of the unit. “Go get an extinguisher.”
Racing to the supply depot some 150 feet away, Artyom quickly procured one of the few units there. By the time he returned to the fire, the use of his canister would’ve been in vain as the entire twenty foot tower was already engulfed in flames.
“Idiot!” his boss shouted. “Now look what you’ve done. How will we communicate with the outside world if we have no telephone or internet?”
“The medical tent has a two-way radio,” the guilt-ridden engineer answered. “It’s tuned into the UN Council’s satellite office in Haldibari, just thirty-five miles to the north across the border in India.”
“That’s it?” Ivchenko belched. “Just the one solitary connection? This God-forsaken place was a mistake!”
“You weren’t forced.”
“Son, if I were you, I’d keep my lips glued right about now.”
Turning and strutting off, the bushy-eyebrowed, stiff-backed Russian leader completely missed the middle finger the young engineer was giving him.
46-year-old Spencer Wollman was part of the group that set up shop in Nilphamari, some 200 miles north of the nuclear blast zone near Dhaka in the center of the country, to begin the tedious but rewarding job of restoration. A botanist from Boston University, he was tasked, along with his team and members of the Nairobi group, to help get the water supply flowing again by injecting the local rivers with bacteria-cleansing tablets and clearing the river beds of nuclear wastes. He also helped with planting fruit trees native to the area like mango, jackfruit and coconut, and vegetables like cassava, kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflower, brinjal, peppers, tomatoes, peas, cumin, coriander, soy, corn and flax. Other members of the Nilphamari contingent helped clean up the pockmarked roads and salvage whatever they could find, some of the crew keeping bottle caps from Shezan soda and Bangla Brew as souvenirs. Security personnel, sent in to protect the rebuilding team from possible foreign looters, also helped with the cleanup. And then it happened again.
One of Spencer’s Boston University colleagues had been the first to discover the remains. On his usual morning walk, a glint of light from the nearby field being set up as a possible gardening site caught his eye. As he got closer, he saw that it was a flash of sunlight reflecting off a ½-gallon Mason jar partly filled with soil. Beside it were the blood-stained boots and white boiler suit used by the Dutch geology team.
All scientific progress in Nilphamari came to a standstill at this grotesque discovery. The identity of the geologist, Dr. Frederik de Groot, was quickly determined. Did he have an enemy amongst them that could’ve perpetrated such a crime? As far as everyone knew, he was well-liked and bore no ill will against anyone. No one initially suspected Changelings—the idea was too ludicrous. Nothing could have survived the nuclear bomb.
During the investigation, several unusual partial footprints discovered in the area by the security personnel suggested the killer or killers may have stood on tiptoe, but from their experience working in forensic-related fields, they concluded that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone in the contingent was suspect. Team leader Dr. Faustus, deeply steeped in the killing methods of Changelings, suggested that one of those beasts may have survived the war and was to blame.
“If you’ll notice,” he explained, pointing to a video presentation hastily set up on his laptop during a question and answer session in his medical tent, “the Changelings are primitive in their kills. Unlike trained hunters like wolves or big cats, they don’t aim directly for the jugular. As long as their teeth meets flesh, that’s all that matters, this is why their victims are so maimed, so unevenly decimated. Quite characteristic of their behavior.”
“Dr. Faustus,” security officer Sergei Orlov asked, “if they really didn’t die off from the bombings, did they somehow mutate and get stronger?”
“Good question,” the doctor answered. “I’d considered that myself. I suspect they can be killed in the usual way. Since security is limited, I suggest that, from now on, we work out in the field in groups. These things are vicious.”
“In that case,” Dr. Ritabrata Banerjee from Jawaharlal Nehru University said, “we’d better start planting black cumin at once.”
“Oh, yes, Dr. Banerjee,” Dr. Faustus stated, “I’ve read your papers on the Changelings. You made an important discovery during the war, is that right?”
“Yes,” he nodded, then turned to the group of twenty department heads assembled for the session. “As you all know, the Changelings were opportunists. If something had a heartbeat, it was lunch. Interestingly, only man changed into them if they were wounded, severely or not. All injured animals, mainly the birds that got away, eventually died. Many of them flew across the border to India for safety. All the wounded ones died except for a greynecked crow. Barely able to walk, it had scratch marks that were consistent with an attack, so it was quarantined for observation.”
“What kind of scratch marks?” Sergei asked, raising his hand.
“Long, thin, deep. Mainly along its trunk.”
“Like a hand rake?”
“Somewhat,” the doctor answered, “but its damage wasn’t by some angry farmer trying to protect his crop. We noticed the virus, isolated in the Changelings, was discovered in the crow, and it was diminishing till it disappeared. Eventually, the bird made a healthy recovery. What we’d seen in the crow’s blood, in high concentrations, were thymoquinone, a phytochemical compound found in the plant Nigella sativa, and dithymoquinone, a bioactive isolate of Nigella sativa, or as it more commonly known, black cumin. We’re 99% sure those chemicals found in the seed’s oil worked, but the fact they probably inhibited the disastrous change was a step in the right direction.”
“But isn’t thymoquinone found elsewhere other than black cumin?” Dr. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan from the Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City queried.
“It is,” Dr. Banerjee answered, “in cultivated wild bergamot, but those plants are grown and steam distilled for their oils in America, not here.”
“That’s good news,” Dr. Nguyen nodded. “Our people in sustainable agriculture can get to work on producing as much of those plants as possible right away. Hopefully, we have enough arable dirt for it.”
“What’s arable dirt?” Sergei asked her.
“Able to sustain plant life,” she answered.
“I believe that’s what those jars of soil Dr. de Groot was collecting was for,” Spencer, standing in the back of the group, explained. “Not specifically for black cumin, of course, but to test its arability. Still, though, I wonder why he was out so late.”
“Why not?” Dr. Faustus answered. “Up till now, we had nothing to fear. Frederik de Groot was a colleague of mine, and a good friend. He preferred working alone at night; said he thought more clearly that way, you know, less distraction, that sort of thing.”
After the presentation, the contingent realized the danger they faced and began making calls for help, explaining in great detail that, since other wildlife had become extinct in that part of the world, they’d determined a Changeling was to blame. Several members of the group petitioned for emergency assistance from the UN Council, but curiously, no help arrived even after several pleas. The Council insisted that all the represented governments, and even those who were not represented, promised help. Still, nothing came. No food drop, no supplies, no additional security, nothing. As the days past, the scientists began wondering if their own governments had turned their backs on them. Then, slowly, the UN Council’s offices started becoming unreachable. Either they were no longer answering their radios, or they simply decided that the Nilphamari contingent was no longer feasible.
Sadly, the killings began again with both scientists and security hunkering down or fighting for their lives. Everyone grew more frantic as their members were murdered one by one. The security team, not heavily armed to begin with, were forced to use up most of the bullets in their possession. Luckily, they were able to fight off many of the monsters, causing the rest to flee to the hills.
“You know what?” Dr. Faustus said in another hastily arranged meeting in the mess hall, this time attended to by about 150 of his kinsmen. “We have to flee, or as the Americans say, get out of Dodge.”
“Where to?” Dr. Elim Ndungu, the professor from Nairobi asked.
“Where would we go?” Sergei shouted over the din of the collected contingent. “Our numbers are dwindling quickly. What have we lost? Ten people already? Twenty?”
“What about the electric vehicles?” Spencer asked as his younger brother, Stevey, from the security detail stood next to him.
“Those lousy toys are worthless,” Ivchenko complained. “They’re over-used and the batteries are weak. Leave the country? We’d be lucky to get them past fifteen miles of this compound, and who knows how many more of those things there are out there!”
“Well, we can’t just stay put,” Artyom suggested. “Those who can ride the regular bicycles, I say go for it.”
“You fool,” Ivchenko warned him. “You’d just be a sitting duck in the wastelands.”
“What about these damned seeds?” Sergei asked Dr. Banerjee, looking as nervous as a nuclear scientist at an atomic field test.
“What about them?” the Nehru University professor asked.
“We’ve been eating them for a week and people are still changing into those wolves.”
“They’re not wolves,” the good doctor corrected him, “and the chemicals have to build up in the body. We just haven’t had the time.”
“Ah,” the security officer said, flinging his bag of seeds to the ground. “Scientific hooey.”
To his surprise, roughly twenty people dived for the scattered seeds, frantically collecting them like they were the only food left on Earth.
“Since we have no choice but to stay put,” Dr. Faustus roared above the ruckus, “then we’d better start making weapons out of our supplies. I suggest we use rock chisels and broom handles with flagging tape to fashion spears.”
“Good idea,” Dr. Ndungu noted. “What about using the elastic headbands from safety goggles or inner tubes from bicycles, mining-shovel handles, and wooden survey stakes to make bows and arrows?”
“My goodness,” Dr. Nguyen lamented. “We’re turning into neanderthals.”
“I have another, more powerful idea,” Ivchenko added. “Make blasting caps and detonators out of mercury fulminate, the explosive we in the mining crew use to break walls down into smaller chunks, then build it into the aluminum fractional tubing the Kenyans use for irrigation. It’ll be a crude, but effective, one-shot rifle using small stones as projectiles.
“Wicked,” Sergei smiled. “When can we start?”
With every survivor at M.A.S.H. Village now focused on weapons development, all available energies were spent in confronting the threat. To expedite their work, each department delivered components to the mess hall which would serve as their interim headquarters. The Dutch geologists donated rock chisels, maintenance brought in broom handles, the Kenyans worked with the Russians to fashion aluminum irrigation tubes into gun barrels, and so on. It was a fairly festive calm before the eventual storm. Midway through their collaboration, a new wave of Changelings set upon them.
Fighting valiantly, many from the rebuilding crew, including the security personnel, were caught and eaten, some even turning into the savage beasts. Several people, trying to escape the compound via electric scooter or bikes, were viciously attacked and torn beyond recognition along with their transport vehicles. Many others discovered that hunkering down in camp was futile as the monsters either tore through the canvas tents or destroyed the generators, setting fires which burned every structure to the ground. If there were no more humans, the Changelings simply subsisted on whatever minute animal life they could find, like worms, flies, and cockroaches. They also attacked, killed and consumed the weaker of their ilk. Indeed, there was no honor amongst these creatures.
To make matters worse, some of the students began banding and confronting each other. The many factors which came into play was the growing dearth of food, the characteristically high temperatures in the north of the country, not one drop of rain since day one, and the present political conditions between some countries. It was only a matter of time before the Kenyans blamed the snafu on the Dutch, or the Vietnamese claiming the Americans were responsible. In any case, outright violence amongst each other, and the Changelings, cause a handful of students to commit suicide. A few of the people that survived this carnage was Spencer and his brother, Stevey. Arming themselves with a bayonet-modified mining gun and a set of bow and arrows, they secretly escaped to a mountain cave about three miles to the west during high noon when the creatures were least likely to be around.
The botanist from Boston University was running out of space. All the hash lines he’d carved on the moist, lamp-lit cave’s walls representing days passed would soon leave him with nowhere else to make an entry. He’d thought about erasing the symbols, the record of his time spent in the limestone and marl-streaked cave, and starting over from scratch, but it wouldn’t have mattered: he’d still not know what day or week it was. Hell, he was surprised he even knew what month or year it was. In reality, he’d lost track of time since arriving at the wide-mouthed mountain cave with Stevey near Nilphamari, even though his better instincts told him it’d only been a few weeks. And the fact that his younger brother had sieve-like memory, he wasn’t exactly reliable in the time management department.
Sticking his head out of their temporary home, he grabbed a pair of binoculars from his waistband and peered out in the distance. From his remote perch, he saw Nilphamari. It looked quiet. There was no more heavy smoke emanating from the burned-out tents like before when the last scientist fell. All there existed now were miles and miles of rubble and wasteland with barely any signs of human or animal life. At least he had his brother to keep him company. Turning around, he saw him sleeping under a blanket.
“Hey, Stevey! We have to go. Wake up!”
Stevey lowered the blanket to his neck and squinted. “What day is today?”
“I don’t know, but we’d better get going.”
Spencer had already stuffed both of their knapsacks the night before with most everything they’d need – canned curried tofu, bottles of water, socks, and other items. The one thing that was sorely needed, and the most important as far as he was concerned, was black cumin seeds. The Vietnamese agriculturalists, making the harvesting of Nigella sativa a priority, had planted several plants in and around the compound, mostly to the north where some of the soil was more suitable for plant life, but then the Changelings struck in earnest. The few students who were lucky enough to cultivate some seeds barely had the time to eat them as they were set upon and mutilated to death on the spot. Spencer, lucky enough to have discovered a few extra-compound plants on the way to the mountain, harvested whatever seeds he could find. But now that the brothers were running out, they realized they had to scour the environs for the plants since hitting up the sustainable agriculture labs wouldn’t work as they, too, had burned to the ground.
“You know what I’ve never understood?” Spencer asked as he tidied the cave. “You’re a botanist…”
“My bad. An ex-botanist from Boston University but you came, halfway around the world, to work security and not as a botanist.”
Stevey shrugged. “The Russians let me into their fold. So what?”
“I’m not questioning that part. It’s just that you stopped working altogether because your bipolar disorder got in your way.”
“Don’t remind me,” he said as he got up and began preparing to leave.
“Who do you know from Moscow?”
“Remember that chick from the environmental labs? Galina Petrov?”
“Pretty girl. What about her?”
Stevey, instead of giving an answer, simply flashed a devilish smile.
“Let me find out!” Spencer laughed.
“Uh, huh. It’s true.”
Spencer, sporting the visage of The Most Doubting Man in the Galaxy, eyed his brother.
“Sorry,” he shook his head. “Don’t buy your story. You’re not prime cut. She is.”
“She had connections to get me in the restoration team because you wouldn’t do it.”
“Sorry, bro. I just didn’t think you were capable. Just looking out for you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I get that. Overprotective Sibling 101.”
“Something like that. Face it. You’re the shy type. Keep to yourself all the time. Couldn’t see a skinny fella like you in, of all places, Bangladesh.”
“Well, you were mistaken.”
“And the Russians let you in with them? How come I didn’t notice you till after the attack?”
“I was around. You were just busy.”
“Well, anyway, let’s start booking. We must’ve been noticed by now.”
The two trekked northward that morning just past the Toronibari Railway in Nilphamari Sadar, an Upazila, or subdistrict, of Nilphamari. Plant and animal life was scarce amongst the rubble. Animal bones, perhaps those of birds, foxes and other native species, were strewn everywhere, but they looked like they’d been there for years. Perhaps there were live cockroaches or other tiny insects, but nothing as large as even a bat, cat or rat. All buildings had been leveled to ruins, their doorways often standing eerily unscathed; prophetically, gateways to nowhere. In one of the heaping masonry rubbles, Stevey found a damaged case of orange Shezan cola (“Bangladesh in a Bottle!” the smiling child exclaimed in a burned-out billboard). All of the containers of the citrus-flavored drinks were broken, save one.
“Look what I found,” he beamed, his exposed teeth as bright as the sun.
“Lucky you,” his older brother said. “Save me a drink.”
“Aren’t you worried it could be contaminated from the fallout?”
Spencer shrugged. “It was closed, right?”
“So save your brother a drink. He’s thirsty.”
After Stevey downed half the bottle of the warm sugary pop, he handed it to Spencer.
“How many seeds do you have left?” Stevey asked.
Spencer finished emptying the bottle down his gullet, removed his knapsack, took out his plastic baggie of matte black, almond-shaped seeds and did a quick inventory.
“I think there’s thirty here. What about you?”
“I have enough to get us to the border.”
“The border?” Spencer asked, his eyes widening like a saucer. “Thirty miles away? Why?”
“Why not? Something’s up with that Council, and I aims to find out.”
“Yeah, but you know what they say. The border’s impenetrable.”
“Would you rather go east, west or south and try your luck with those crossings?”
Spencer shrugged. “I would if the radiation level was down.”
“Then, we don’t have a choice.”
Just then, Spencer’s face took on a worried look. Maybe his ears were deceiving him, but he was sure he heard a slight plinking noise coming from somewhere in the distance. In the past, any unusual sound that caught his ear was immediately suspect. He used to joke that his nerves were as frazzled as electrified hair, but most people didn’t take him seriously. He knew better.
“Do you hear that?”
“No,” Stevey answered, removing his bow, “but I’m not taking any chances.”
Just then, a gray and white Changeling appeared from out of the rubble of a destroyed red brick building about 100 yards away. Surrounded by broken pieces of terracotta pots and clay cookware, the pacing, snarling animal was fairly easy to spot.
Spencer pointed to the creature in the distance. “There!”
Whipping out the crude shotgun from the holster on his back, he took aim at the beast only to remember one dire truth: “Dammit! I have no stones!”
Quickly scouring the ground for a projectile that would suffice, the hairy beast began charging towards them, its fangs bared and the muscles in its neck and limbs bulging like a weight lifter’s. Luckily, Stevey already had it in his bow’s sight.
“Relax, Spence. I got it.”
He let a wooden arrow fly. Unfortunately, it missed, zinging past the beast and landing in the broken cookware. Spencer, abandoning his search, dashed towards the gnarly creature with his bayonet-modified rifle poised to strike.
“Come here, motherfucker!” he yelled.
The wolven monster dived at him but Spencer deftly parried it off, causing it to go flying into a cache of bones and burned-out tin cans. Getting up, it turned and dove at him, its hind legs thrashing through the broken rubble like a drill bit on hyper speed. The botanist slid beneath the airborne beast and kicked it with both feet, causing it to fly a few feet behind him. Once again, getting up, it shook off its disorientation and charged the botanist. Flying through the air with its jaws opened wide, Spencer held his rifle with both hands and pierced the bayonet right through its mouth and out the back of its skull. He then swung the beast to one side to avoid getting any of its blood on him. Yanking the blade out, he poised to strike again but it wasn’t necessary as the animal took its last breath. Stevey walked over as Spencer cleaned his blade with found cloth.
“I’m sorry I’m slow at arrows,” Stevey apologized.
“That’s alright, brother. At least we got it.”
“Kinda odd how it attacked in broad daylight. Maybe it’s rabid.”
The thought that a snarling, drooling Changeling, already the poster child for Rabid Animals R Us, would obviously be rabid, caused them both to bust out in laughter, a much needed reprieve from the desolation they’d become accustomed to.
“That’s funny, Captain Obvious,” Spencer said, drying his eyes.
“Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m fine. We’d better get moving, though.”
“No rush,” Stevey opined. “I saw a building back there that’s loaded with canned stuff.”
That was just like Stevey. Known for his occasional mental drifts, he was sometimes devil-may-care when it came to fully understanding his surroundings and the dangers inherent in it. Spencer wasted countless hours trying to rein his brother in from his incessant distractions, but somewhere along the way, simply came to accept there was no cure for his flighty mien.
“Forget about that food,” Spencer warned him. “It’s gotta be spoiled by now. Let’s just go.”
“Why? Canned food lasts forever.”
“No, it doesn’t. Don’t act like you don’t know there’s a shelf life.”
“Well, they couldn’t have been on the shelves too long.”
“I was thinking about the nuclear fallout. Did you forget?”
Stevey smacked the sides of his legs in frustration. “Okay, let’s just go.”
A few hours later, after trekking through miles of unforgiving wasteland, they arrived at an oasis, not a figurative oasis as in a brief clearing, but an actual honest to goodness spot of green.
“I’ll be damned,” Stevey remarked. “The Vietnamese came all the way up here?”
Spencer shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s odd, though. So far away from the village.”
No larger than a baseball diamond, the oasis boasted a few beds of flowers and six jackfruit trees nearly forty feet tall. Half of the trees, all amidst scattered rubble, were fruited. Without skipping a beat, Stevey removed his knapsack and started to climb one of the cultivars.
“Stop!” his brother yelled. “Those things could be toxic.”
Stevey jumped off the tree and turned to his sibling. If there was love in his eyes, it had been replaced by years of built-up anger related to always feeling like he was second best.
“I can’t stand being around you anymore,” he scowled. “Just because you’re older doesn’t give you the right to boss me around.”
“Bro, I’m just looking out for you.”
“Well, look elsewhere.”
“Stevey,” Spencer tried to explain, although he felt what he was about to say would fall on deaf ears, “you’re a scientist like me, so you know damn well how nuclear fission erodes the soil and makes the fruit cancerous.”
“I’m hungry, Spencer. Can’t you understand that? I’m tired of these wastes. I’m tired of this knapsack. I’m tired of strolling past boxes of wasted sodas. I’m tired of killing Changelings day and night, and I’m tired of looking over my shoulder. I just…I just want something to eat, man. I’m just tired.”
As he burst into tears, Spencer walked over and hugged him.
“We only have about twenty miles to go, little brother,” Spencer whispered. “We should be at the border by tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry I lost it.”
“Hey, no problem.”
Spencer walked over to one of the jackfruit trees and looked up at the green offerings. Resembling large, green gonads, the jackfruit emitted a strong, fruity aroma he could smell even though he stood at least twenty feet beneath the lowest-hanging bunch.
“I wished I’d brought a Geiger counter,” he lamented, staring at the jacks.
“Do you want to take a chance?”
“I don’t know. Too risky.”
Spencer took out his bag of tiny, black cumin seeds and ate three of them, wincing from the smoky, earthy pungent taste they contained.
“Ooh,” he shuddered. “I could never get used to these.”
His brother took out his own bag and also swallowed a few seeds. The taste, however, didn’t seem to faze him.
“I guess I’ve gotten used to it,” Stevey smiled, staring at his brother.
That night, they camped out on the banks of the Jamuneshwari River, a watercourse which ran south to north all the way to India. It was Spencer’s suggested path as it led straight to Haldibari, the sanctuary city just north of the Indian checkpoint. Eating the cold, curried tofu from the two cans left in their supply, they knew they had little time to spare in trying to reach the border. Spencer hoped the stories he’d heard of the successful eradication of the beasts in the north were true, as it seemed he could barely trek any further. Stevey, though, looked like he could walk a million more miles, his body language exhibiting the strength of a well-hydrated camel in the Sahara. Almost improbably, he seemed relaxed and serene like he’d just spent the past day relaxing at a Bengali spa. Spencer’s feet, however, were murdering him. Taking off his shoes and socks, he studied the bottom of his feet in the campfire light. Both were charred, serrated, chewed up and bled like they’d been thrown into a trash compactor and forgotten about.
“If you don’t need your extra socks,” he asked Stevey, “can I have them?”
“Not a problem.”
Stevey opened his sack, fished the socks out, and threw them to his brother.
“Thanks,” Spencer said, snatching the socks out of the air.
He started putting them on. “Ow!”
Stevey walked over and looked at his brother’s feet. “I think you’d better soak those dogs in the river and put those socks on in the morning.”
“Sounds good. I’ll do it now. Just don’t fall asleep, huh?”
Limping to the edge of the Jamuneshwari, Spencer lied down and dangled his aching feet in the tepid drink. Minutes later, he was fast asleep.
Next morning, with his feet partially repaired by the overnight soak, he donned both his brother’s socks and his. After strapping up his shoes, the two began heading up north.
“I wished I had a boat,” Stevey declared, staring at the wide tributary.
“We can go back to Domar or even check over in the Debiganj District if you like.”
“Nah. That’s okay. What are we now? Seven miles from the border?”
Spencer nodded. “That seems about right. Shouldn’t be long now.”
As they continued further, all Spencer could do was think about reaching the promised land and taking the longest, coolest, most rejuvenating shower known to mankind. Northern Bangladesh, once thriving and productive as Dhaka, was now acrid and barren like the rest of Bangladesh, a forlorn desert, littered with bones and dotted by craters, stretching out for miles with no end in sight. Even the wail of an airborne condor would’ve given him hope. The river, thinning out since Nilphamari because it’s last inlet was several miles back, was finally dry, revealing a dry, cracked, inhospitable earth. Luckily, he had scooped out a few bottles of water to save for later.
Following the lifeless river bed, they passed by several cacti, some more anorexic than the next. Spencer thought about cutting into one, but the fear of toxicity prevented it. Around noon, with the relentless sun beating down upon them, they sought a place to hide. Looking to the east and west, they saw several mountains, but they knew in those areas they stood a good chance of running into the feral creatures once more.
Dropping a few times to his knees, the dry-mouthed Spencer had to rely on his effervescent brother to pick him up and give him water to drink. At times, Stevey assisted him with walking as his swollen feet started bleeding again. The hopeful sign was there were fewer bones on the ground. Minutes later, squinting from the gusts of sand that threatened to blind him, Spencer saw what looked like greenery ahead. Grabbing his binoculars, he gazed through them.
“Stevey!” he yelled. “There it is! We found it!”
He handed the ocular instrument to his brother who immediately peeped through them.
Putting the binoculars away, they trudged onward. At times, Spencer would fall to his knees again from sheer exhaustion, but like an eager explorer, he kept pushing forward.
Soon, they saw the border. It was near a high wire fence that seemed to stretch endlessly from east to west. Plodding closer, they counted twelve armed soldiers, their bodies and faces heavily covered as protection from the interminable sun, guarding the solitary entrance to paradise. When the soldiers saw the movement in the haze, they immediately drew their weapons.
“Halt!” their commander shouted, his arms thrust in the air.
“We’re from Nilphamari,” Spencer, standing about 100 feet away, yelled.
“We?” the commander asked.
“Yes. Me and my brother here have been walking for days.”
“What do you want?”
“We seek passage to Haldibari.”
“No one who is infected may enter.”
Spencer began to see where all this was going; he was no fool. The thought of being so close to the promised land, only to be denied entrance by some armed stranger, ruffled his nerves like nothing else. Standing beneath the blistering sun, he could feel the blood on his feet baking dry, turning into crispy sheets of crimson plaster. His lips were now so dry they cracked and bled. A mere 100 feet away from salvation, he had no intention of giving up that easily.
“I’m not infected,” he pleaded. “We’ve both been eating black cumin seeds the whole time. Some scientists doubted it would work, but we believed.”
“Return from whence you came!” the unwieldy commander hollered. “There won’t be a second warning!”
Spencer was beyond livid. He’d never in his life seen such brazen neglect.
“You can’t do that! All me and my brother want is sanctuary!”
The commander, tired of bickering, decided to end this charade once and for all.
“Open fire!” he screamed to his men.
His fellow soldiers did as he ordered. Firing their old but powerful semi-automatic weapons, they shot Spencer dead on the spot. Afterwards, a soldier with a flame thrower ran forward and burned his body to ashes. The commander leaned over to the soldier next to him.
“Did you see that?” he asked him. “Poor infected chap. He was already halfway to being a Changeling and didn’t know. So delusional, he even thought he had a brother with him. Shame.”
They watched as smoke rose up from the ashes and faded into the haze.