Spencer Wollman was running out of space. All the hash lines he’d carved on the moist lamp-lit cave walls representing days passed would soon leave him with nowhere else to make an entry. He’d thought about erasing the symbols and starting over, but it wouldn’t have mattered because he’d still not know what day it was.
In reality, he lost track of time since coming to the cave near Niphamari, a district in northern Bangladesh. A botanist from Boston, he was part of an international contingent of scientific and medical personnel who’d be sent to Bangladesh after the end of the War against the Changelings in 2084. Their goal was to return the northern frontier to its former glory as a thriving metropolis. This included purifying the water supply, erecting new buildings, and helping with the general reforestation of the war torn wastelands.
No one knew where the Changelings came from. They say the first one was spotted killing a lamb in a village in Domar, northern Bangladesh, in 2081. The sheepherder, at first, thought it was a wolf, but this one had a shorter snout, jet black hair with blond streaks, large eyes, and most importantly, no tail. The townsfolk thought he was joking or insane, until they started losing their livestock.
Within days, the infestation, as it was then called, spread to neighboring villages. Not only did these ravenous creatures kill and eat livestock and wild animals such as turtles, tigers, dholes and langurs, but they eventually started attacking mankind as well. Within months, entire districts needed to be evacuated. Whoever could drive did so hurriedly. Whoever couldn’t were bussed out or flown to cities in neighboring India. Some went as far as Bhutan or Myanmar.
The government, in a desperate attempt to contain the epidemic, launched a war against them. Easy to kill, a shot to the chest or head did the trick, but their numbers seemed endless. Some soldiers swore that the same “wolf” they killed a week before came around to be killed again. It was then discovered that the infestation weren’t actually wolves, but humans who changed into them. Once a man was bitten, he’d be consumed by its virus.
Within a short period of time, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, he’d go insane then his body would enter a state of metamorphosis, like a caterpillar getting ready to greet the world as a moth or butterfly. After he was done morphing into one of the creatures, it would wake up hungry and begin attacking any animal it could find. The international community started calling them Changelings because of their uncanny but familiar methodology. However, because they were so dangerous, none were ever caught or kept in captivity for long.
Eventually, entire districts of northern Bangladesh started to get wiped out 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 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.
Then, after three months of bombardment, and with the northern country in ruins, the brief war stopped. Heat radars indicated the infestation was finally eradicated, but because the last bomb dropped by the overzealous powers that be was thermonuclear, they had to wait a few months before sending anyone in to assess the damage.
Spencer was part of the first group that set up shop in Niphamari to begin the tedious but rewarding job of restoration. They got the water supply flowing again. They started planting trees, fruits and vegetables. They helped clean up the pockmarked roads and salvage whatever they could find. And then it happened again.
One night, one of the scientists was out in the field collecting soil samples when he was attacked. The next day, his friends saw his bloody tattered clothes on the ground and the carcass that was his body. Since other wildlife had become extinct in that part of the world, they determined a Changeling was to blame.
They petitioned for help but it never came then grew more frantic as their own members were killed off one by one. Eventually, they too had to flee. Many were caught by the Changelings and eaten. One of the few to make it out alive was Spencer. Outfitting himself with guns, knives and a sword, he escaped to a cave, killing a handful of monsters unlucky enough to get in his way.
Now, sticking his head out of his temporary home, he grabbed a pair of binoculars from his waist and peered out in the distance. From his perch in the mountain, he saw Niphamari. It looked quiet. There was no more smoke emanating from the burned out buildings like weeks before when the last scientist fell. All there existed now was miles and miles of rubble and wasteland. At least he had his brother to keep him company.
Turning around, he saw him sleeping under a blanket and called his name.
“Hey, Stevey! We have to go.”
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 everything they’d need – canned chicken, bottles of water, socks, and other items. The one thing that was sorely needed, and the most important, was black cumin seeds.
Through their endless experiments, the scientists had discovered that a combination of enzymes and proteins in the root, and especially the seeds, of the black cumin plant prevented humans from becoming Changelings. They were 99% sure that the thymoquinone and other substances found in the seeds worked, but the fact they probably inhibited the disastrous change was a step in the right direction. Even drinking purified water was considered unsafe until the seeds were consumed. And now that the brothers were running out, they realized it was time to hit the road and scour for more. Luckily, it was found that local seeds contained only tiny traces of radiation. Theoretically speaking, they were safe.
Spencer wasn’t sure when his brother, also a botanist, arrived to help with the crew. He was surprised to find him already working on a cultivating experiment in one of the abandoned schools. His brother was the shy type who kept mostly to himself, so it was a surprise to see him out and about in, of all places, Bangladesh. So, together with his skinny, dark haired brother similarly attired as him in army fatigues, they left the cave and headed out into the wasteland.
They trekked northward that morning just past the Toronibari Railway in Niphamari Sadar, an Upazila, or subdistrict, of Niphamari. As far as they could tell, there were no signs of animal life. Bones of unrecognizable animals were strewn everywhere. Perhaps there were cockroaches or other tiny insects, but nothing as large as even a bat, cat or rat. Buildings had been leveled to ashes, their doorways often standing eerily unscathed as if just a gateway to nowhere.
In one of the heaping masonry rubbles, Stevey found a whole case of cola, but before he could open one, Spencer objected.
“Don’t touch that!”
“I’m just taking one sip,” Stevey responded.
“How many seeds do you have left?” Spencer queried.
“I don’t know.”
Laying aside the soda, he removed his knapsack, took out his plastic baggie of seeds and did a quick inventory.
“I think there’s twenty or thirty here.”
“See?” Spencer informed him. “Barely enough for two days. No soda.”
Kicking the bottle of soda over, he replaced the bag of seeds and donned his knapsack. He then held his hand over his nostrils.
“It sure smells around here, like rotting carcass.”
Spencer eyed his brother.
“Stevey, I wished we didn’t have to go all the way to the northern border, but we already know what happened to those who went south, east and west.”
“But you don’t have proof.”
“My proof is no one came back to recount their experience and all telecommunications systems are still down. If that’s not good enough for you, try your luck in another direction.”
“It’s okay. No fool’s errand for me today.”
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 in the distance.
“Do you hear that?” he asked Stevey.
“No,” he answered, removing his crossbow, “but I’m not taking any chances.”
Just then, a Changeling appeared from the rubble of a destroyed building about 100 yards away.
“There!” Spencer shouted. “Dammit! I have no bullets!”
Removing his sword, he watched as the hairy beast charged with its fangs bared. Stevey already had it in his crossbow’s sight.
“Relax, Spencer. I got it.”
He let an arrow fly. Unfortunately, it missed. While he loaded another, Spencer dashed towards the gnarly creature.
“Come here!” he yelled.
The wolven monster dived at him but Spencer 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 Spencer. The botanist slid beneath the airborne beast and kicked it with both feet, making it 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 sword with both hands and pierced it right through its mouth and out the back of its skull. He then swung it so one side to avoid getting any of its blood on him. Pulling out his sword, he poised to strike again. 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,” he apologized.
“That’s alright, brother. At least we got it.”
“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. He was sometimes devil-may-care when it came to fully understanding his surroundings and the danger inherent in it.
“Forget about it,” Spencer warned. “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. No larger than a baseball diamond, it boasted a few beds of flowers and six date palm trees nearly forty feet tall. Half of the trees, the female ones, were fruited. Without skipping a beat, Stevey removed his knapsack and started to climb one of the female trees.
“Stop!” his brother yelled. “Those dates could be toxic.”
Stevey jumped off the tree and turned to his brother. If there was love in his eyes, it had been replaced by years of built-up anger.
“I can’t stand being around you anymore!” he yelled. “Just because you’re older doesn’t give you the right to boss me around!”
“Man, I’m just looking out for you.”
“Well, look elsewhere!”
“Stevey, 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 you understand that? I’m tired of these wastes. I’m tired of this knapsack. I’m tired of strolling past untouched cases of toxic 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. We should be at the border in just a few more days, okay?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry I lost it.”
“Hey, no problem.”
Spencer walked over to one of the fruit trees and looked up at the green offering.
“I wished I’d brought a Geiger counter.”
“Do you want to take a chance?” Stevey asked looking up at the fruit.
“I don’t know. Too risky.”
Spencer took out his bag of black cumin seeds and ate three of them, wincing from the smoky, earthy pungent taste they emitted.
“Ooh,” he shuddered. “I could never get used to these.”
His brother took out his bag and also swallowed a few seeds but the taste didn’t seem to faze him.
“I guess I’ve gotten used to it,” he smiled, staring at his brother.
It was the first time in eons they’d smiled at each other, a warm and welcome feeling amidst the despair they continually faced.
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, a sanctuary city just north of the Indian checkpoint.
Eating chicken breast 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 seems he could barely trek any further. Stevey, though, looked like he could walk a million more miles. He seemed relaxed, almost serene. 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, and chewed up, and bled like they’d been thrown into a trash compactor and forgotten.
“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.
He started putting them on.
Stevey walked over and looked at his brother’s feet.
“I think you’d better soak your feet in the river and put those socks on in the morning.”
“Sounds good. I’ll do it now. Just don’t fall asleep, huh?”
Walking to the edge of the Jamuneshwari, he lied down and dangled his feet in the cool clear stream. 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, they began heading up north.
“I wished I had a boat,” Stevey declared staring at the 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?”
“That seems about right. Shouldn’t be long now.”
As they continued further, all Spencer could do was shake his head. The land, once thriving and productive, was now acrid and barren, a forlorn desert, littered with bones and dotted by craters, stretching out for miles with no end in sight. Even the wail of a condor would’ve given him hope. The river, thinning out since Niphamari, was finally dry, revealing a dry cracked earth.
Following the river bed, they passed by several cacti. Spencer thought about cutting into one, but the fear of toxicity prevented it. Around noon, with the sun beating down upon them relentlessly, they sought a place to hide. Looking to the east and west, they saw 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, Spencer had to rely on his effervescent brother to pick him up. At times, Stevey assisted him 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.
“About time!” he beamed.
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. They counted ten armed soldiers guarding the solitary entrance to paradise, all of them with their weapons drawn.
“Halt!” their commander shouted.
“We’re from Niphamari,” Spencer yelled from about fifty feet away.
“We?” the commander asked.
“Yes. Me and my brother here have been walking for days.”
“We seek passage to Haldibari.”
“No one who is infected may enter.”
“I’m not infected. We’ve both been eating black cumin seeds the whole time. The other scientists doubted it would work, but we believed.”
“Return from whence you came!” the commander hollered. “There won’t be a second warning!”
Spencer was livid. He’d never in his life seen such brazen neglect.
“All we want is sanctuary!” he begged.
The commander, however, was through bickering.
“Open fire!” he screamed.
His fellow soldiers did as he ordered, shooting Spencer dead on the spot. Afterwards, a soldier with a flame thrower ran forward and burned his body to ashes. The leader walked over to one of his soldiers.
“Did you see that?” he asked him. “Crazy infected fella. Thought he had a brother.”
They watched as smoke rose up from the ashes and faded into memory.