I staggered down the street away from the shaman with the roll of parchment under my arm. “The only chance in the whole village, and he does nothing but give me a map,” I thought. It was already two weeks since I felt wrong. I should have gone then, but I thought I would get over it.
I could not even explain what ‘felt wrong’ meant. Something was wrong with my vision, and I had a headache. I staggered instead of walked, my feet wide apart for balance. The ground seemed to vibrate and sway under me, yet no one else in the village seemed to notice.
I realized that I had walked past my own house with its bright blue door as I tried to recall the shaman’s words. I turned back and thought, “What did he say about my leaving the village?” It had something to do with the moon and the harvest, and something about his reputation. And something about tomorrow.
I looked up and found myself right back at the shaman’s door, the faded red stain and its bundle of bones tied with string and hung on a nail. I had walked right past my house again without noticing. I turned and hurried away in case he came out and saw me in the street.
When I made my way home and closed the door behind me, I looked around the house. I squinted in the bright sunlight that leaked between the sticks and boards of its four walls. The soft chittering of creatures in the palm frond ceiling felt comforting and familiar, and I relaxed my shoulders with a sigh of relief. I let thoughts of the shaman drift through my mind, and tried to catch the meaning of his words.
Not so long ago, the shaman poked & prodded me with his strange traditional instruments, never explaining what they were, how they worked, or what they told him about me. At one point, his breath hissed sharply as if I stepped on his foot. “You haven’t stopped by to see me in a while, have you?”
“The last time you said I wouldn’t need to, remember?” I said. “I had that rash on my hands and feet, and you said the spots would go away. They did, so didn’t come back. Was that wrong?”
He shook his head. “No, nothing I could do anyway,” he said. “And that first spot went away?”
“What spot?” I asked. I rolled up my sleeve and glanced at all the bumps, scratches and cuts I collect during my days in the fields. “Which one? I get a hundred every day.” I looked at his smooth arms that never held a hoe or a shovel.
“That big open sore across your finger,” he said. “It was a big mess, what I call a chancre, remember?”
I cringed at the memory of the oozing sore. “That was long ago, months ago,” I said. I looked at my hands, unable to remember which finger had suffered. “It didn’t hurt, didn’t itch, it just looked gross.”
“And the rash didn’t itch either, right?” he asked.
“No, but some of the spots were like warts,” I said. “Wasn’t that all a couple years ago? You were right, though, I started getting headaches back then, and I still get them.”
He rubbed his chin and said, “Hmmmm. Now you have trouble keeping your balance. I noticed you had a problem walking straight across the floor.”
I had forgotten about my balance. “I walk funny now, more like a drunken sailor. But I don’t fall down as often. Ow!” I jumped at the needle stab in my toe. I looked down and saw nothing there. “Do you have rats in here?” I bent over and cradled my foot but could see no bite or stab mark. “That hurt, whatever it was. You didn’t inject me with your needle, did you?” I looked across the several feet between us, then at the ground. “I don’t know why I said that. I’ll shut up now.” There was a silent space of time.
Then the shaman said, “I have something in the magic box, but this is outside – I think we need to send you to, to, to another place. A bigger place. A bigger village – no, a city.” He went to a fancy desk and pulled something out of a drawer. It looked like a rolled up tube of glossy paper or animal skin. As he handed it to me, he said, “This is a map of the whole state. You see, here we are. These are the highways in thick red. The roads and paths are in smaller lines. Way over on that side is a much larger village, a city with a much more powerful shaman. You will need his help on this. Just head west, into the sunset. When you meet the ocean, go south.”
“Is it something I did wrong?” I asked. “Something done to me?”
“If you stepped on a nail, you would feel the sharp pain right away,” he said. “If someone attacked you, you would feel the blow on the back of your head. If someone poisoned you, you would feel ill.” He scratched his chin and blinked. “A disease would make you feverish and you would need to recover somehow. Our magic boxes used to have something to help your body cure itself, but that magic was used up years ago. You understand these are not really magic boxes, don’t you? They are things that help me to help you.
“Centuries ago, I would have tried giving you poisons like arsenic, bismuth or mercury compounds. Then we learned to stop trying to kill our patients that way.
I pulled away from him, afraid that he might try to kill me with those things. I knew Mercury is a planet but could not remember ever hearing about the other two things he mentioned.
His eyebrows went up as I moved away, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to inject you with any of those.” He looked around his small office. “I don’t even have any needles anyway. No one bothers making them any more.
“We once had what were called antibiotics, what you would call magic charms against diseases,” he said.
That confused me. “I know I heard something about probiotics,” I said. “So those cause disease?”
He shook his head and grunted. “Not all biotics are bad, they don’t all cause disease. Some of them we need. So if the strong antibiotics kill off all the good bugs along with the bad, we used probiotics to give us new good bugs.”
“Bugs?” I asked. “Like the roaches and beetles?”
“I wish we could kill off some of them too,” he said. “But the bugs I mean are very tiny. Anyway, antibiotics are long gone. When we used them, someone needs to refill the boxes. Mine has not been refilled in all these years. I hope Doctor Sagroma is more fortunate. You must find him, starting tomorrow. I could be wrong about this, and he might just send you home.”
The shaman used a stylus and etched something onto the map. “This is his name, Sagroma. You might find him in the temple.” He squinted at the map and said, “It says, ‘Not drawn to scale.’ I have no idea how far away this is or how long will it take you. So you had better get started now, tomorrow, before it’s too late.”
“Sagroma,” I said. “Temple. Temple temple temple.”
He handed me a saltshaker and said, “This is not table salt, it’s potassium iodide. Try some of that on food or make a tea with it. Use an infusion of hops and a little sugar syrup. See if it helps relieve the pain and lets you sleep.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that,” I said. “Yes, I have trouble sleeping at night. Did I already tell you that? Temple.”
Only as I sat on the floor of my house did I realize I had no idea of where I was going or the city’s name. I unrolled the map and found what I thought was the spot. There were several spots, each with writing next to it. I chose the largest spot and tried to read its name. The handwriting was lush and florid but the characters blended together into swirling patterns that only suggested letters I knew. It could have been Triandium.
Someone knocked on the door. Through the gaps in the wall I could see it was the shaman and someone else. “Enter and be welcome,” I called out as the door opened too quickly. As it banged against the wall and swung shut again, I saw the shaman and a large burly man, both with their arms full of something.
“I will not send you out to starve,” the shaman said. “Here is a bag of things I collected for you. People in the village are grateful for all your work in the fields, and already gave more than you can hope to carry. Cograt here will act as your summons tomorrow morning. He will sleep right outside the door and make sure you are up before it gets too hot for travel.”
I looked at Cograt standing in the doorway. His arms were full of a sleeping mat and a large bag. He looked around and set his load down just outside my door. I knew his face from somewhere, I must have seen him without noticing. The village is small enough to know everyone in it. “Where have I seen him?” I thought. “Was it the fields? The market? He looks like…” I could not remember who he looked like. I thought of my days, weeks and years in the fields just outside the village. “Did this Cograt stand next to me with a sickle during wheat harvest time?” I thought. I tried to picture the time I spent, the hours waddling and stooping. Mostly I pictured the dirt, wheat, and clover as my hands danced. The short handle of the village sickles made us all squat close to the ground as we worked. I never cut myself in all that time once I had a rhythm going. My left hand reached down to grasp hold of stalks, and my right hand pulled the sickle close but not too close. I let go and took a waddling step to the next handful. Maybe it was normal that I couldn’t remember faces, even of people who worked next to me. Better to forget and keep all my fingers.
Betty sat in her office working on the evaluation report for prospective client BaryNucular Pharmaceuticals when she heard a strange chirping noise. After a few chirps, she realized it was the rarely used landline. “Who would be calling me on that old relic? Good thing I have a SilenTouch keyboard,” she thought. “I need to get this report done.” Her fingers danced on the keyboard as she answered with the hands-free set. “Betty Batter Buxholme and Bucolix,” she said. “This is Betty.”
The high-pitched whiny voice of Beekman Byrdkowski replied, “Hi, Betty, how are you?”
“Beeky Byrd,” Betty chirped. “How are you these days? Any new schemes for success?” Her fingers paused, then continued to dab and poke at the keyboard.
“Doubtless you heard about the Chinese lab that turns urine into brain cells?” Beeky said. “It was in Scientific American so you know it must be true. First, they isolate kidney cells out of urine. In less than two weeks, they can grow stem cells. In four weeks, they can turn these into neurons.”
Betty stopped typing. “That’s amazing. Are you thinking of gearing up a program to study neurogenetic diseases or autism spectrum disorders? Beeky, that could be huge.” She briefly thought about all of Beeky’s previous schemes as he sought her help in raising capital. “For once, I think you have a medically valid concept,” she said.
Beeky’s chuckle clucked in her ear. “Oh, I can’t be that ambitious all at once,” he said. “I have a plan for generating food for zombies.”
Betty laughed. “Zombies, indeed. Yes, I see, grow and harvest brain cells to keep your army of zombies fed.”
“Well, actually, you poison the cells and leave them outside to kill rampaging zombie mobs,” Beeky said.
“Ha ha,” said Betty. “Very witty. Now seriously, what can I do for you today?”
Beeky inhaled deeply and sighed. “Raise about twenty million for development, sterile bottle and filling, and marketing under the name ‘Zombie Zapper.’ There are ten zombie movies slated for release in 2013. We need to get ready.”
“Ten movies?” asked Betty. “Says who?”
Beeky sniffed. “Surely you keep tabs on the Zombie Zone News? IMDb lists twelve for 2013 release in the US, plus two more in 2014.” Beeky’s voice began to climb in pitch and urgency. “This will be huge, much bigger than global warming or the economy. This is about life as we know it.”
Betty rolled her eyes, glad that it was not a video conferencing call. “Beeky, we invest in biotech. You are talking entertainment, not our field at all.”
“Entertainment? You call rampaging hordes of zombies entertainment?” Beeky choked as he gasped for breath.
“It’s movie tie-ins, it’s entertainment,” Betty said. “None of this is real.”
“Then why is the CDC issuing videos to train medical personnel what to do during a zombie attack?”
“What?” asked Betty. “Oh, for heaven’s – that’s not true.”
“Is so. Look it up, it’s called Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. I’ll wait.”
Betty spoke the title and her computer brought up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She stared at the site offering the government-sponsored training to prepare for a zombie apocalypse and thought, ‘My tax money!’ “Beeky, that’s not real. It’s a joke.”
“Your government spies on and renders its own citizens with impunity. It does not joke,” Beeky said. “And neither do I. You know what this means. It’s fact wrapped up to look like fiction to avoid panic. Yet when the panic comes, they can claim they gave us all fair warning.”
Betty moaned. “Okay, we have gotten far off the topic of isolating cells from urine and turning them into neurons. Are you collaborating with the Chinese group?”
“Not yet, I need to develop a serious proposal and line up some serious funding commitments. Think about it. All those neurodegenerative diseases together are a small patient population. Zombies affect us all, the whole seven billion people’s worth.”
“What will you use as the poison?” Betty asked. “Since zombies are already dead, what harm could poison do to them? How will you conduct the trials to demonstrate efficacy? Do zombies need to sign informed consent forms?”
There was silence from Beeky. Followed by more silence. Then he uttered something more fowl than birdlike. “Okay, okay,” he said finally. “I’ll focus on feeding your very own zombie army. Keeps the bad guys out of your yard.”
“Stick to those neurons and their medical uses,” Betty said. “Diseases like Parkinson’s need better options. Leave the zombies to Hollywood.” She pulled a kitchen timer off her desk and set it to one second. When the alarm went off, she said, “Oh, sorry, I need to go now. Good luck, Beeky.” She broke the connection quickly to avoid any awkward pleadings and goodbyes.
After a pause, Betty called another number. A voice said, “Cappuccino Pharmaceuticals, this is Rupert Madasheck.”
“Really? Are you mad as all that?”
“Betty, good to hear from you,” Rupert said. “How are things going at BBB and B?”
“Stranger than you think,” Betty said. She briefly described her conversation with Beekman and said, “I don’t think we will spend time trying to raise capital for him on this one.”
“Good plan,” said Rupert. “Those urine cells were transplanted into rat brains. Make sure you know those rats actually exist.”
“Of course they exist,” Betty said as she glanced at her monitor. “I see at least one other paper published a year ago from the same group.”
“Well, not to be overly cautious or anything,” Rupert said, “but there was already a recent report of misconduct. Apparently someone published work on cardiovascular disease in diabetic patients. Important stuff, and there were about ten papers over the last decade, all using a strain of mouse that never existed.”
Betty gasped. “Oh, Rupert! That’s terrible. It’s not anyone at Cappuccino, is it?”
“No, of course not. It was some university guy. Just not a smart thing to do.” Rupert tapped on a keyboard, then said, “Oh, yes, opera night tonight. Shall we meet at the Met? According to the calendar, they are doing a special fundraising performance of Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera.”