Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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The Black Cumin Cure

by Robin Ray




Spencer Wollman 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, week, or month it was. Hell, he was surprised he even knew what year it was.

In reality, he’d lost track of time since arriving at the wide-mouthed 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 where stately, terracotta mosques and red brick administrative buildings stood side by side with Bengali bungalows and Hindu temples. This included purifying the water supply, erecting new buildings, making preparations to tend to the wounded both physically and mentally, 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, hind legs that were much larger than the foremost ones, and most importantly, no tail. The townsfolk thought he was joking or insane, until they started losing their livestock one by one.

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, crossing treacherous rivers to get to safety.

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’d changed into them. Once a man was bitten, if he wasn’t killed outright, he’d be consumed by its virus and fall into a coma-like state. Within a short period of time, usually a few days, he’d wake up and go insane, then his body would enter a state of metamorphosis, like a caterpillar getting ready to greet the world as a sawfly, moth or butterfly. After he was done morphing into one of the creatures, it would wake up hungry, shed its cocoon, and begin attacking any animal it could find. The international community started calling them Changelings because of their uncanny but familiar cocooning 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 after injecting the local rivers with bacteria-cleansing tablets and clearing the river beds of nuclear wastes. They also started planting fruit trees native to the area like mango, jackfruit and coconut, and vegetables like cassava, kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflower, brinjal, peppers, tomatoes, peas and many others. Other members of the crew helped clean up the pockmarked roads and salvage whatever they could find, some of the contingent keeping bottle caps from Shezan soda and Bangla Brew as souvenirs. And then it happened again.

One night, a geologist was out in the field collecting soil samples. Attired in a white, one-piece boilersuit and black boots, he was kneeling on the moist earth not far from the compound with a small shovel in his hand, a miner’s hat with a light on his head, and a 1/2 gallon Mason jar by his side. He stopped digging when he heard a noise. Looking up, he cast his headlamp around but saw nothing. Returning to his work, a Changeling suddenly raced up from the front and pounced on him, snarling, scratching and aiming for his throat with its sharp, overgrown teeth. The next day, his friends saw his bloody tattered clothes on the ground and the carcass that was his body, at least what was left of it. Since other wildlife had become extinct in that part of the world, they determined a Changeling was to blame.

They petitioned for help but none ever came. Everyone grew more frantic as their members were being killed off one by one. Eventually, they also had to flee. Many were caught by the Changelings and eaten, some even turning into the savage beasts. 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. One of the few people to survive this carnage 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 band and peered out in the distance. From his perch in the mountain, he saw Niphamari. It looked quiet. There was no more heavy smoke emanating from the burned out buildings, like weeks before when the last scientist fell. All there existed now were 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. Wake up!”

Stevey lowered the blanket to his neck and squinted. “What day is today?”

“I don’t know,” Spencer answered, “but we’d better get going.”

Spencer had already stuffed both of their knapsacks the night before with 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, 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 to consume.

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; it was a surprise to see him out and about in, of all places, Bangladesh. So, together with his skinny, dark haired sibling similarly attired like 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. Thin columns of smoke still rose from the detritus of the wide-ranging land. Perhaps there were cockroaches or other tiny insects, but nothing as large as even a bat, cat or rat. All buildings had been leveled to ashes, their doorways often standing eerily unscathed; prophetically, gateways to nowhere. In one of the heaping masonry rubbles, Stevey found a whole case of orange Shezan cola, but before he could open one of the citrus-flavored drinks, Spencer objected.

“Don’t touch that!”

“I’m just taking one sip,” Stevey protested.

“How many seeds do you have left?” Spencer queried.

Stevey shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Laying the soda aside, he removed his knapsack, took out his plastic baggie of matte black, almond-shaped 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.”

“Dammit!”

Kicking the bottle of soda over, Stevey replaced the bag of seeds and donned his knapsack. Still frustrated, he had to fight his own stubborn arms into allowing the straps onto his shoulder.

“We’re not gonna find any seeds out here,” he complained. “Why don’t we just paint targets on our backs and wait out in the open for the Changelings?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Spencer declaimed. “If we don’t find any out in these wastelands, we’ll get them up north by the border.”

“The north border?” Stevey asked. “I don’t know, man. You already know what happened to people who went south, east and west.”

“Could be rumors, could be true,” Spencer realized, “but we are closer to the north.”

“You know, Spencer,” Stevey explained, “no one ever came back to recount their experience, not from any direction, and all telecommunications systems are still down. Not for nothing, but we’re surrounded by those damned things.”

“Well, then,” Spencer said, “you know what? Let’s just go ahead and paint targets on our backs, lay down naked in this wasteland, and just get it over with.”

Stevey could see his older sibling, hot under the collar, was reaching his breaking point. In the past, when they were kids in Boston, it used to be one of his favorite pastimes - get Spencer so heated his face would turn Socialist flag-red. These days, they were both a little too old and tired for those kinds of shenanigans, especially now that they had bigger fish to fry.

“Sorry, big brother,” Stevey apologized, bowing. “I don’t want to be enemies with you.”

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?” he asked Stevey.

“No,” his brother answered, removing his crossbow, “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.

“There!” Spencer shouted.

Whipping out the shotgun from the holster on his back, he took aim at the beast only to reveal one dire truth: “Dammit! I have no bullets!”

Laying the gun aside, he removed the sword from the scabbard on his left waist and watched as the hairy beast charged towards them with its fangs bared, the muscles in its neck and limbs bulging like a weight lifter’s. Luckily, Stevey already had it in his crossbow’s sight.

“Relax, Spencer,” he told his brother. “I got it.”

He let a metal arrow fly. Unfortunately, it missed, zinging past the beast and landing in the broken cookware. While he loaded another, Spencer dashed towards the gnarly creature.

“Come here!” 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 Spencer, 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 sword with both hands and pierced it 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. Pulling out his sword, 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,” he apologized.

“That’s alright, brother,” Spencer said. “At least we got it.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No,” Spencer insisted. “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?” Stevey protested. “Canned food lasts forever.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Spencer countered. “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. “How is this thing here?”

“Yeah,” Spencer agreed. “This is odd.”

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 brother. 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 yelled. “Just because you’re older doesn’t give you the right to boss me around!”

“Man,” Spencer said, trying to utilize a non-threatening tone. “I’m just looking out for you.”

“Well,” Stevey screamed, “look elsewhere.”

“Stevey,” Spencer tried to explain, “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,” Stevey nearly cried. “Can’t 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,” Spencer whispered. “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 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?” Stevey asked, looking up at the fruit.

“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.

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 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 improbable, 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 your feet in the river and put those socks on in the morning,” he cautioned him.

“Sounds good,” Spencer agreed. “I’ll do it now. Just don’t fall asleep, huh?”

“I won’t.”

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,” Stevey said. “That’s okay. What are we now? Seven miles from the border?”

Spencer shook his head. “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, 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, 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.

“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, 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 thrusting in the air.

“We’re from Niphamari,” Spencer, standing about fifty feet away, yelled.

“We?” the commander asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “Me and my brother here have been walking for days.”

“What do you want?” the commander queried.

“We seek passage to Haldibari,” Spencer begged.

“No one who is infected may enter,” the commander told him.

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 seventy-five 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. The other scientists doubted it would work, but we believed.”

“Return from whence you came!” the unwieldy commander hollered. “There won’t be a second warning!”

“What?”

Spencer was beyond livid. He’d never in his life seen such brazen neglect.

“You can’t do that,” he entreated. “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. “Crazy infected fella. Thought he had a brother.”

They watched as smoke rose up from the ashes and faded into the haze.


THE END


2017 Robin Ray

Bio: Robin Ray is an author from Seattle, WA. His short stories has been published in magazines such as "Red Fez," "Darkest Before the Dawn," "Flash Fiction Online," and several others. His two novels, "Commoner the Vagabond" and "Murder in Rock & Roll Heaven" are available everywhere books are sold.

E-mail: Robin Ray

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