A massive stroke of wind gushed through the dusty roads of what seemed like an abandoned and isolated town. It was though not as waste-clad as one would presume since the debris had either withered away or had become one with the stationary. There was no sign of any life anywhere. The absence of any traces of beings indicated how the place had long been deserted. A squirrel came out of a small opening to the sewer. It moved about for a while, searching for something to eat. The window-pane that lay behind her slightly gave way to reveal a dark pair of eyes staring directly at the little animal. All of a sudden, the window slid open as a woman, with her face wrapped in cloth, jumped out towards the squirrel. She chased the animal for a while. Then, a large number of humans started barging out of the different structures and corners of the block. They were all wholly wrapped in rugged clothes and were all chasing the small squirrel. A riot began amid the road as more people kept joining and jumping on each other, beating each other down and trying to grab the squirrel.
Suddenly, the public address system attached to the posts started sounding a substantial and long Siren, the sound of which could’ve rendered anyone deaf. The vast mob immediately started dispersing in a terrified manner, trampling over a few who couldn’t carry themselves well. The stampede left behind a few of them crippled, unable to reach back inside. The Siren went on for a few minutes and then became silent. No one was coming to help the fallen. The woman observed from her window-pane as the injured looked towards one side of the road with terrified expressions. They cried out for help, but no one listened. The winds started gaining pace. Everyone inside rushed further indoors. What followed was an enormous dust-storm. It continued for some time, causing no conspicuous damage to the buildings and other structures. They had apparently become used to it and had shed whatever they could have. As soon as the storm subsided, the woman slowly walked back to the window. She was shivering as she dared to look at the ones who had been left behind. They were all dead, and their bodies had turned black as if charred.
“Three more lost… They could’ve been fed to the scavengers…” said the young and muscular man standing on the window-pane beside her. She slowly turned back and walked inside. She then slid open a wooden cover on the ground, revealing a stairwell. Walking down, she reached a dark and small basement.
“Aasha…” she whispered as her sound reverberated.
“Aasha…” she repeated louder after hearing no reply. A small warm hand came and clasped hers. She took out a solar torch from her coat-pocket and switched it on. The light revealed a little girl sitting beside her in the dark. She was wearing half-torn and saggy clothes but had nothing covering her face.
“How many times I told you to cover your face?” the woman said in anger, as she looked for cloth in the little room.
“But… I don’t need it you told me…” Aasha said.
“No… but the world needs one on you or else they’d be afraid of you…” the woman said as she picked a ripped piece of cloth and started wrapping it around Aasha’s face.
“I feel Hungry, Mother…” the young girl said.
“I know… The storm hit before we could get any food. I’d be going out again soon. Did you finish the water-bottle I gave you? Preserve it. Asmit is acting weirder every day. He might not let many take their share of water next time…” the woman said. A rattling sound started coming from above immediately followed by someone saying “SCAVENGERS…”. The woman quickly pushed the child to a corner of the basement.
“No matter what happens… DO NOT MAKE A NOISE… AND DO NOT COME OUT…” she said while shutting her lamp off. She then climbed out of the basement and shut the lid, putting broken rubbles to cover it up. Everyone had gathered near the windows again. Outside, two black motorcycles had stopped, each ridden by one person. They both were completely covered in grey bodysuits which extended as helmets over their faces. They took out some electronic devices from their backpacks and put them on the road. Inside, everybody had picked up a piece of wood, knife, sword or any broken piece of equipment they could’ve used as a weapon.
“I have never seen such scavengers before…” said a young man standing at a corner of the building in which the woman stood.
The two riders were doing something with a signal-dish on the ground. One of them walked up to the charred bodies of the people who had died earlier. The other one said looking at their device “Radiation is low here… So is the groundwater… We can stay here but cannot extract for long.”
“Radiation is low… No Kidding… These are freshly burnt… We should expect company” the other one said while gazing at the charred bodies.
“Guess what… this place reported merely seven hundred thousand cases at peak…” the one sitting at the computer said.
“They must have migrated to the camps long ago… Damn, I feel hungry…” the other one said.
“Grab me that bar when you take one for yourself. I would do a pulse mapping of the place. We then move ahead. Sounds cool?”
“They have food…” said the muscular man standing inside the building. The woman looked at him and whispered: “Please do not do anything foolish Asmit…”
“Sarita… Why do you fear fights so much? Don’t you have that little girl below to feed? Feed her well, or she’d become too weak… and possibly scavengers’ food…” Asmit replied.
Sarita looked back at him with anger. He then gestured towards some people to come forward with their weapons. He reached inside his pocket and took out a revolver.
“Asmit… Where did you?…” Sarita questioned.
“It is just the two of them… We apprehend quick and steal whatever they carry.” Asmit said.
“And what about them?” Sarita questioned.
“We leave their fate outside… Storm or the Scavengers… whichever comes first.” Asmit replied. He then quickly opened the door, pointing the gun towards them. They were both startled. A crowd gathered behind him as he slowly walked forward.
“You are not from around here… What brings you?” Asmit questioned.
The two riders had both stood up and raised their hands slightly above their waists to show that they were both harmless.
“We are not here to take anything from you… We just wish to scan the red zones for habitable land… And then we’d be gone…” the rider next to the computer on the ground said.
“Hahahaha” Asmit laughed as the others behind him followed.
“What decade are you living in? There are only red zones here… Here… if you’re unarmed, you’re a settler. Or else, you are a scavenger…” he continued.
“Kill them and take their stuff.” A man behind Asmit said. “Yes…” many others followed.
“Are you a scavenger? Well… We come a long distance from the green zone…” said the other rider, as instant silence prevailed. They all looked at them in awe.
“You’re lying… There is nothing like that anymore… We were abandoned years ago…” Asmit said.
“No… we do… he is not lying. We’re from the Federation…” the rider near the computer said.
Everyone started discussing amongst each other after that revelation. Then, there was a gunshot. Asmit was holding his revolver up in the air. He pulled the revolver’s hammer to load another bullet and pointed his gun at the rider near the computer.
“The Federation is a myth… And those who speak of myths… Must die…” Asmit said furiously. Suddenly, a loud voice was heard from inside “NOOO”. It was Sarita. She came running in front of Asmit.
“If what they say is true… we can find the haven we once longed for…” Sarita said.
“Get out my way… I cannot waste bullets on the weak…” Asmit said. All of a sudden, another gunshot was heard. This one, not from Asmit’s gun. A man standing behind him had been shot in his leg. They all looked towards the other side of the road to see shadowed figures rising above the horizon. They were all riding horses.
“SCAVENGERS… RUNNN…” screamed one of them as they started escaping back inside. Sarita had run towards the fallen man. She tried to seal his bullet wound with her arm, trying to find a piece of cloth to tie over it. One of the riders came to her and said “It’s a waste… He’d die. Save yourself…”
Sarita looked up. Her eyes were desperate. She took off the cloth wrapped on her face and measured it. It was too small to be torn in half. She wrapped it around the injured leg of the man. One of the two riders pressed a button on their helmet, which slid open to reveal another glass coating beneath it. The rider’s face was visible. She was a woman.
“Let me help you get inside…” she said as she began to help Sarita drag the wounded man inside the building beside her. Meanwhile, the other rider was busy packing their equipment. After doing that, they pressed a few buttons on the electronic device attached to their wrist. They went close to the motorcycles and stood beside them. The scavengers had reached the spot. The heavy man sitting on a horse at the centre stepped down.
“My My… Someone give him a fancy-dress award…” he said, as the others behind him laughed.
The woman rider walked outside. Her face was still visible.
“We’ve got a pair have we now?” the man said.
“Who are you?” the woman rider asked.
“My apologies… My name is Mandeep… Though, with all the love that is due, around here they call me Rakshasa…” he said as he punched the woman in her gut.
“Hey… We want no trouble… We are here for the Federation’s work. We’re under oath and are protected…” the other rider said.
“The Federation you say… Vali…” Mandeep said as another man stepped down off his horse. He carried a substantial automatic rifle in his hand and a long knife on his side.
“They are from the Federation… I have heard of it before… much before the bright-night. You were one of them… those fighting for the cure… Weren’t they Vali?” he said as Vali replied, “Yes Sir…”
“It was because of a war of wealth that you and your likes waged that humankind was destroyed… My family… All our families… Everything. We lost. And with humankind… we lost our humanity too… And now you shall suffer a worse fate. Tie them up… A Man and a Woman… They would satisfy both the of hungers of my men…” he said as his men stepped down and rushed with ropes.
“Don’t go too close to my brother… He’s positive…” the woman said. Mandeep turned around.
“Brother… So, you’re siblings I see. He’s positive…” Mandeep said as he made a gesture towards Vali. The latter brought a small leather satchel to him. He took out a shiny metallic from inside and loaded it inside his pistol.
“The thing I have put in my gun is a raider-tech from the days of the civil war. When the ballistics of the world had expired, and the human-race still survived… Millions of these were made after the bright-night. The weapon of domination has never been the one to inflict the most harm. It is the one to inflict the most fear. The virus, in its most lethal mutation, was frozen with its carrier blood in these bullet capsules. Fear… The weapon of the Gods… Well, why am I telling you all this? Let’s see how positive your brother is…” Mandeep said, pointing his gun at the rider. Suddenly, the Sirens started sounding.
“It cannot be… So soon…” Mandeep, alarmed, said nervously. The scavengers behind him started climbing their horses.
“Fools… we cannot escape the storm… Find refuge inside… We would deal with them later… Come on” he said as the scavengers stepped down again. Mandeep and his men started trying to get the horses inside but to no resolve. The openings were too small to fit them. They then abandoned the horses and rushed inside the building where Asmit and Sarita were there.
“Everyone move inside… Whoever moves a muscle will be thrown out in the storm. Everyone other than my men are to drop whatever they hold…” Mandeep said in a commanding tone. They all followed his command. Then, Asmit spoke up “Mandeep… We told you… You’d find nothing here. We have been looted many a time by the eastern scavengers.”
“We still happen to find you every time, don’t we? Don’t push me to take more of you. We’d search… If we don’t find something… we take one of you. If we do find… I would take you this time…” Mandeep said. His men dispersed with their solar-torches trying to find anything of value. They grabbed all the little water containers they saw and collected them.
Meanwhile, the two riders sat in a corner on the floor near Sarita. The latter was trying to mitigate the pain of the man who had been injured earlier. The second rider also pushed a button on his helmet to reveal his glass-covered face.
“Hi! My name is Abdul… That’s my elder sister Inaya. We were not expecting… so much turbulence here…” the man said.
“Hey… I am Sarita” Sarita said, as she kept gazing at the rubble she had earlier kept above the lid. Abdul followed her eyes and observed meticulously to see the small wooden latch.
“What’s down there?” Abdul asked.
“Nothing… What? Where?” Sarita said anxiously.
“Abdul has the habit of troubling people. Ignore him. Why did you save this guy?” Inaya asked.
“We… Kill. We have been killing only. For once, I wanted to feel how it is like to save someone. But I couldn’t…” Sarita said as she left the wounded man’s hand. It fell down. He wasn’t breathing.
“It is a survivor’s world right now… Tell me. When was the last time you ate?” Inaya asked.
“It has been more than a week…” Sarita replied.
“We have food in our backpacks outside. We would give it to you… Don’t share. We only have one person’s worth extra, and we would want to give it to someone that believes in saving for a change.” Inaya said.
“But it is going to rot and burn in the storm outside…” Sarita said.
“There is no storm… I triggered the Siren.” Abdul said.
“What? You did? But… I would just need a little… not for myself…” Sarita said.
Abdul turned towards the rubble again. “For the one who is down there… Your child?” he asked.
“Not mine… She… I found her. I adopted her…” Sarita said. Just as she did, a scavenger tripped over the rubble. He fell and saw the latch.
“Sir… There is a lid here…” he said as he moved the rubble away. They opened the lid. Sarita began tightening her fist out of worry while Abdul and Inaya tried to calm her down.
“There is nothing down there…” Sarita screamed.
“Let’s see…” Vali said and went inside. There came a screaming sound of the young girl. Then, Vali came out, grabbing her in his arms.
“We have found a hidden treasure…” Vali said.
“Dessert today men…” Mandeep said. He then raised his gun towards Sarita.
“I have said to never hide anything from me… You shall get a reward for this…” Mandeep said, as he turned his gun towards Aasha and pulled the trigger. The bullet pierced through her shoulder. The little girl screamed in pain and fainted. Sarita got up and was held back by Abdul and Inaya. The scavengers were pointing their guns at them all.
“Reminds me… Why hasn’t the storm struck yet? Vali… Go outside and check…” Mandeep said.
“Me? Sir? Outside?” Vali asked.
“Don’t make me repeat myself…” Mandeep said. Vali asked a few men to follow him and went out. Mandeep walked towards Asmit. “You lie and lie and lie…” Mandeep said, moving his gun around Asmit’s face. He turned around over his shoulder and asked Asmit’s people “What should I do with him?”. Simultaneously, Asmit slowly drew his pistol. He immediately grabbed hold of Mandeep’s neck and turned him away from himself, pointing the gun to his head.
“I would kill your boss…” Asmit said. Everyone began laughing.
“You know why they laugh? You kill one head of a Rakshasa, and another takes its place…” Mandeep said as he threw Asmit over his shoulder. Utilising that distraction, Abdul and Inaya took out their guns from their suits and started shooting at the scavengers. Mandeep got shot in his right foot. There was an all-out battle. Suddenly, Asmit picked up his pistol and shot Mandeep in his head. The scavengers were shaken. They were immediately overpowered by the people around them and rendered weaponless within seconds. Vali came inside again with his men and was shot in his leg by Abdul.
“Seems like the head of this Rakshasa was without brain… The one that replaces (turned to Vali), hopefully, HAS a bran. Return now… There is no storm coming… The alarm was fake. We’d let you live.” Inaya said.
Vali asked his scavengers to retreat. They went out, climbed their horses and started back in the direction they came from. As soon as they did, Asmit said “Everybody… Grab all the plastic you can. We need to wrap the little girl. None of her blood or body remains here…”
“What are you doing? She would bleed out…” Sarita said. Asmit turned his pistol towards her.
“You stay out of it… We’re not going to die of the thing we have successfully avoided for so long…” Asmit said with determination.
“No… SHE IS IMMUNE…” Sarita said. Silence prevailed in the entire building.
“What… How can that be?” Asmit asked.
Sarita lashed out in tears “Yes… I found her… Post the bright-night… When those raiders unleashed the civil war and created fomites in every possible corner of the country… I was a health-worker for one side. We were sent to look for survivors. I initially didn’t know what they had planned for them. Eventually, I learnt that the immune were too big a threat to them… To all of them. They were ruthlessly killing them all. That’s what happens when you have cowards giving commands… But I found her. She was merely an infant… covered in too many bodies of the dead. All who died of the virus. Yet, she lived. I hid her from them all… And ran. Became a scavenger for as long as I could, but kept moving till we got tired. Then we became settlers with you… But she would never be infected of the virus. Let me heal her… or she would die of the wound…” Sarita said. Everyone was shocked to hear her.
“The risk is too high…” Asmit said as he pulled the hammer and started moving the gun towards Aasha. “Hey, Big Man…” Abdul said, trying to intercept him. Asmit, startled, shot Abdul twice in his neck. He kept pulling the trigger, but his barrel was empty.
“Nooooooo… Brother…” Inaya said as she rushed to her brother. Sarita ran to have a look at Aasha. He took his last few heavy breaths and then passed away. Inaya lost her senses and ran towards Asmit. She pushed him down and pointed her gun to his face and screamed at the top of her voice “I AM GOING TO KILL YOU…”. Everyone grabbed some or the other thing and assembled around Inaya.
“STOP IT… PLEASE… NO MORE KILLING…” Sarita screamed.
“Why are we humans, so hell-bent on just thinking of ourselves… First, the Pandemic… Then the war for the cure… We bloody launched nuclear missiles on each other. I don’t know why we call the darkest of all nights as the bright-night. Worse is what followed… a species already divided into so many warring nations was even further divided. ‘Every Man for Himself’ they said. What did it give us? WHAT DID WE GET FROM ANY OF IT? LOOK AT US… We have destroyed everything… and we keep on destroying each day we extend our hands to take away from another… rather than spreading them to help another. They say a virus defeated us… No… Not a virus. We alone defeat our own bloody selves…” Sarita said as she tried to stop Aasha’s bleeding. Inaya got up and kept her gun back inside. She was still furious. She walked to Sarita and got down on her knees. She then took a small tube out of the belt-strap she was wearing and applied the jelly-like liquid inside on Aasha’s wound.
“That’s an instant coagulant. She won’t bleed out. But we’ve to get her bullet out soon…” Inaya said. Sarita kept crying. “I’m sorry about your brother.” Even Asmit burst into tears as he sat up. “What have I done…” he said to himself. Everyone kept their weapons down and sat in circles around Inaya and Sarita.
“Can you save her?” Sarita asked.
“Yes… And she can save us all…” Inaya said as the Siren started sounding again.
“Is this you again?” asked a woman sitting beside them.
“No… This time it is for real… I have to leave immediately…” Inaya said as she lifted Aasha over her shoulder and started walking outside.
“My brother’s body… I would come for it…” she said as she walked to her bike. She kept Aasha over it and sat behind her.
“WAIT…” came Asmit’s voice as he came running out with a water-bottle.
“That’s the last of my water… Take it…” he said.
“Then keep it for yourself… You would need it. And wait (grabbed the two backpacks from the ground). Take these… Share the food and water with everyone. And, my brother’s guns… They hang by his sides. This time… Use them to protect your people…” Inaya said as she started her bike and moved forward.
After covering a little distance ahead, she tried to establish a connection with her base. “Foxtrot… Come in… This is Dr Inaya Rehman… Can you hear me?” she said over the radio.
“Yes, Dr Inaya… We can hear you loud and clear…” a woman’s sound came from the radio.
“I am reporting from the heart of the north-western red-zone… in the province of Awadh. Requesting relocation to nearest safe-bunker due to incoming storm.” Inaya said.
“Finding the nearest location for you, Doctor. Is Dr Abdul still with you or had you already parted your ways for mapping?”
Inaya took a pause. She then sighed and said with a shivering voice: “Dr Abdul was killed in action due to scavenger raids”.
“I am sorry to hear that…”
“One more request… Please make sure there is an infirmary at the bunker since I carry a wounded with me…” Inaya said.
“A wounded… Who?”
“It is a little girl. She has a bullet wound. But she has to live. She is Immune to the virus…” Inaya said.
“Yes… We have found a Naturally Immune Subject…” Inaya said.
“What? Can you confirm that you said “Naturally Immune Subject?” the woman on the other side of the communicator said.
Inaya looked at Aasha. She controlled the tears dripping down her eyes for her brother, concealed the pain that was still fresh and was engulfing her heart, gave in to the small spark of faith that the little girl had revived inside her, smiled and said “Yes… We have found… Hope…”