A girl and a boy, both in their mid-twenties and presumably in love, are walking leisurely across the moor. They seem to be completely unaware of the fact they are getting dangerously close to the prohibited grounds. Not their fault though. There being no cautionary fencing or signboard, it is easy for anyone to trespass inadvertently.
After crossing the moor, the couple waits for a while at the edge of the forest, perhaps taking some time to make up their minds. At this point a strange call is sounded from behind the brooding trees, cutting sharp through the stillness of the day. The boy stiffens while the girl takes a few steps back in alarm.
“Let’s go back, Ron,” the girl urges. “We heard the banshee, are you happy now?”
“Yvonne, you’re too old to believe in banshees” the boy mutters, taking a knife out of his pocket. “Gotta check for ourselves what that was.”
“Please Ron,” Yvonne begs. “Don’t invite the banshee’s curse upon us. We have a whole life to live. Why-”
But Ron is taking determined steps into the forest. Yvonne, now in tears, follows him reluctantly. There is a hasty rustle and someone climbs up a tree to perk themself behind the safety of the bushy branches.
Looking up Yvonne almost faints. “A banshee!”
“It’s not a banshee,” Ron asserts.
And then Ron makes a great show of setting the knife several feet away from himself. He looks up at the tree. The hazy form of the creature is partially visible through the leaves. Ron displays his disarmed hands to it. The invitation is luring enough. It begins to climb down. Yvonne probably would have fainted at the next instant but successive gunshots are heard. Two lethal bullets enter Ron and Yvonne from the back and pierce right through their vital organs, killing them instantly.
A lone adventurer, who clearly harbours a way too high opinion of himself, is strolling right into the forest. No waiting, no checking, no glancing around guiltily…just sauntering in like it is some kind of amusement park.
Wait! He cannot be doing that. But he is! He is setting out a picnic lunch right on the forest floor. Meat, bread, fruits…quite a sumptuous feast. One by one the strange folks crawl out from behind the foliage and begin to stare at the food with unabashed curiosity. There is no hint of fear on the adventurer’s face though, only wonder. He observes the group keenly for a minute and then grinning as broadly as he could, he begins to peel all the clothes off himself. I suppose he felt overdressed in front of the naked bunch.
This piques the curiosity of the folks and they come closer to scrutinise the adventurer. He sits down and takes a bite off a corn-beef sandwich. Closing his eyes, he takes a moment to chew the mouthful and lick his lips. Then he gestures at everyone to help themselves from the spread. At this Pango, the boldest of the lot steps ahead and lifts a banana. Then he turns back to face the rest.
Perhaps Pango wants to tell others that the food is safe or perhaps it is something else. But this is where the rendezvous is cut short.
The invisible gun fires. Two shots in a row. It had to be two…the adventurer had ducked to skirt the first one. The second bullet gets him dead alright. As always it scares the naked bunch and they run off deep into the forest.
A family of four finds their way into the forest. A middle-aged couple with their son and daughter. They have probably lost their way for the parents have scholarly looks and such people do not usually have a taste for reckless adventures in the wilderness.
“See Susie, flint stones,” the boy tells his four-year-old sister pointing to a pair of dull-looking stones.
“Wilma? Fred?” little Susie says as she looks around. “Where are they, Ned?”
“Not them, silly,” Ned laughs. “Look here.”
Ned picks up the stubby stones and rubs them vigorously. But nothing happens.
“Mom, why can’t I create a fire?” Ned asks, turning to his mother.
Suddenly a warm touch on his hands makes Ned recoil.
A short and stout person having simian features has appeared out of nowhere. He is now trying to wrench the flint stones out of Ned’s grip. Ned lets go with a small scream and runs to his parents. All four members of the family stand together in a shocked huddle watching the strange thing in front of them. The forest fellow now strikes the flint stones together and lights a bundle of jute sticks with a flash of fire. He holds out the torch gently towards the family as if to demonstrate the correct process.
“Early human!” Ned gasps.
“The Flintstones?” Susie exclaims. “But why is he naked? Where are his clothes?”
“Shut up,” Ned scolds. “That’s a show, this is reality. But how, dad? How?”
“I…I don’t know,” their dad stammers. “I think the forest boundary acts as a time portal. Liz dear, it looks like we somehow travelled back in time.”
“Nien, nien!” Liz fumbles with her words.
That is when the bullets find them. Four bullets, neatly aimed. All four of them dead on spot.
The forest fellow, who is none other than Pango, rushes ahead tossing his torch aside. He tries to bring the four people back to life but his efforts go in vain. He looks around helplessly. Or, is it the gun that he is looking for?
Note: What was Liz trying to say? Was she a foreigner? Or…
Patrick had written up to this when Jelena entered the laboratory noisily. Patrick stopped writing and snapped his book shut.
“What were you doing?” Jelena asked, eyeing the book in front of Patrick suspiciously.
“Er writing,” Patrick said.
“Writing what?” Jelena probed, taking a step closer.
“A logbook,” Patrick answered. “Recording the details of our project.”
“Our project?” Jelena laughs her lungs out. “You’re so stupid that you can’t even create an excuse properly! And you are staking claim to my project?”
“Ah…well,” Patrick stumbled with the words.
“I know what you were doing,” Jelena said. “You were writing stories. Dull, boring stories that nobody would ever read.”
With this, she huffed out of the lab. Patrick let out a sigh of relief as he quickly placed the book in his cabinet.
A week later Jelena found herself waking up in an unknown setting. She was in an air-conditioned room, comfortably ensconced in a leather armchair. The room was done in stark white but the muted lighting made sure that the ambiance was soothing to the eyes. Despite the sophistication and comfort, Jelena did not feel secure. After the initial fuzziness of sleep cleared away, she remembered how she had ended up there. Jelena silently yelled at herself as she replayed the event in her mind.
She had been discussing the security arrangements with her husband, Patrick in the laboratory when Hugo, the brawny guard burst in without even bothering to knock.
“Ma’am,” he addressed Jelena. “I just took a headcount. One of them is missing.”
“What?” Jelena and Patrick cried in unison. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, counted twice,” Hugo confirmed. “And…”
“And?” Jelena pressed.
“It’s Pango,” Hugo said.
Jelena and Patrick had rushed out immediately in the direction of the woods, looking frantically for Pango. Hugo had trailed them, offering myriad suggestions.
“Hugo, please ask all the guards to track the movements of each of the forest folk,” Jelena commanded. “We can’t lose any more of them.”
Hugo nodded and vanished in the opposite direction. That is when two pairs of hands appeared from behind to press chloroform-soaked cloth pads on Patrick and Jelena’s faces. When she regained her senses, she found herself in the pristine-looking room.
The door of the room opened soundlessly and Derek, the investigator walked in.
“Good morning, Jelena,” he smiled with fake warmth. “How’re you feeling now? Not too tired, I hope?”
“Oh, cut the nonsense,” Jelena snapped. “If you want to torture me for information, just get started with it.”
“Torture?” Derek raised his eyebrows cynically. “For what? We already found out every detail about your project Old World from your husband’s logbooks.”
“You’re bluffing,” Jelena smirked. “Patrick didn’t keep any logbook for me. He sometimes made up inane stories in his free time. That’s all.”
“Stories?” Derek laughed. “Well, you seem to know nothing about your husband of thirty-five years. Patrick has maintained several books over the years, capturing the tiniest details of your work and methods. He didn’t store them in the laboratory though. Maybe he kept some silly books with stories in them to mislead you.”
Jelena stared at him, her eyes going round and wild with rage.
“How about I tell you what I know about Old World and you fill me up when I go wrong?” Derek offered.
“I should’ve known,” she muttered. “That idiot had to bring upon the ruin of me.”
“Come on, lady,” Derek laughed. “No need to be so rude about your husband!”
“Tell me all that you found out,” Jelena commanded tersely. “What do you know about Old World?”
“Well, it is an ambitious project panning decades,” Derek began. “You successfully sequenced the exact genetic material of the Neanderthals. Then you convinced a whole lot of broke women to lend their wombs in exchange of money. That’s how you made the first batch of Neanderthal babies.
You released them in your forest estate, watching them closely yet interfering minimally. In three decades’ time, you’ve raised an entire tribe of Neanderthals, living in the pretty little sanctuary that you created for them. Brilliant! I don’t know what others would say but I say you are God!”
Derek clapped his hands dramatically, jumping off the table and settling on a chair to sit on the same level as Jelena.
“What I did was completely fair,” Jelena insisted, her voice gone softer. “The Neanderthals went extinct due to the brutalities of the Homo sapiens in the primitive eras. I just revived our cousins to give them what was long overdue. A fair chance.”
“Oh, my entirely altruistic lady,” Derek blinked his eyes in sarcasm. “How nicely you try to defend your unethical actions.”
“We needed alternative humans for the planet,” Jelena shouted. “Can’t you see how horrible we are? Global warming, water scarcity, plastic crisis…the issues are endless! We are choking the life out of this planet. Perhaps a stupider lot of humans would give more respect to the earth. If we bring upon our own extinction, the Neanderthals from my sanctuary can take charge of the world.”
“And that’s why you left them in the forest with no education, no basic equipment, not even proper food?” Derek observed. “I’m sorry, I see no effort on your part to prepare your people to shoulder the responsibility of running the world.”
“Tsk tsk,” Jelena clicked her tongue. “I left them on their own, to allow them to evolve naturally. I hope you know how that works? Or, you skipped the chapter of Evolution in school?”
“Oh please,” Derek waved his hand. “They are your lab rats. Don’t try to put a positive spin on this. There’s not a single thing that you can say to change my opinion-”
“Pango is my son,” Jelena said, her eyes looking defiant. “I volunteered to give birth to the first Neanderthal. It wasn’t easy, it still isn’t. But this is necessary for our own good. If you had some brains, you’d see it too.”
Derek gulped and took a moment to digest the newest piece of information.
“You seem to be looking forward to the extinction of human beings,” Derek remarked.
“No, I’m just keeping plan B ready,” Jelena corrected him.
“What if the Homo sapiens mend their ways?” Derek probed.
“Then they will share the world with the Neanderthals,” Jelena shrugged her shoulders.
“You have an answer ready for everything, don’t you,” Derek said, his face suddenly growing grim and his eyes narrowing to mere slits. “You know what I see when I see you? Unscrupulous ambition! Hunger to wield power!”
“Unscrupulous ambition…hunger to wield power,” Jelena mimicked Derek’s voice and gestured with her hands in a fit of rage. “You dimwit can think whatever you want to. It doesn’t alter the facts.”
“Verbally abusing me would change nothing as well,” Derek said, getting up. “We’ve already made up our decision. I’ll send your husband in to talk to you for one last time before you face the trial.”
Derek was walking to the door when Jelena called out.
“Wait,” she said. “Who’re you? I mean whom do you represent?”
Derek raised his eyebrows as he replied, “Isn’t that obvious? The government.”
Patrick walked in. He looked surprisingly strong as he rushed to Jelena and sat opposite to her.
“Jelena, darling,” he started, placing his hand on her head.
She shoved the hand away.
“You wrote down every detail of my project over the years?” Jelena asked. Her eyes seemed to be blazing with fire.
“Yes,” Patrick confessed.
“Even with the kind of idiocy you display regularly,” Jelena spitted out the words. “I fail to understand why you’d make notes of my work.”
“The world needed to know, dear,” Patrick said. “The utter seclusion of the Neanderthals, the ruthless killings of the innocent intruders, the gross abuse of your husband’s brains- “
“What?” Jelena looked surprised. “What are you babbling about?”
“How you controlled and manipulated me for so long,” Patrick carried on. “It’s all out in the open now. I’ll finally get my dues while you will be silently eliminated just like the ones you ordered to killed.”
“What are you talking about?” Jelena was surprised. “When did I order a killing?”
Patrick reclined on the armchair. There was a tiny hint of smile on his lips.
“I am the mastermind of the project, Old World,” Patrick said. “And you’re the one in charge of security. At least that’s what it says in the logbooks.”
“It’s the exact opposite of reality,” Jelena said, her voice raspy with strain. “You think nobody will figure that out?”
“Nobody will,” Patrick nodded confidently. “Don’t worry so much. You’ve done your bit, now let me do my bit.”
“You horrid animal,” Jelena got up and clamped her hands around Patrick’s neck.
“At least now you know I’m not so stupid as you’ve taken me to be,” Patrick mocked as he easily fended off the attack by scrunching Jelena’s fingers outwards. She screamed as she fell back. “Wait for your death. Derek said his team has injected you with poison already. You’ve an hour or maybe, two more. So, keep your temper and enjoy your remaining time. Goodbye.”
Patrick meant to storm out after this but the minute he yanked the door open, he saw Derek and Pango waiting outside.
Derek pressed a small button by the door and Patrick’s voice recording from the last few minutes began to boom through the room, explaining how he had falsified the logbooks to frame his wife and steal her work.
“Your wife was right,” Derek said, turning the button off when the playback stopped. “You’re indeed an incredibly dull man.”
A team of armed guards appeared and began to lead Patrick away. He started to flay his arms and shout all sorts of excuses as they dragged him away.
“Save your energy for the trial,” Derek advised before entering the room with Pango in tow.
Pango bared all his teeth and followed it with a jubilant grunt at the sight of Jelena.
“So, you taught him some skills, didn’t you?” Derek told Jelena. “Pango isn’t quite the clueless Neanderthal that history books taught us about.”
“He has my blood,” Jelena said, looking away. “I…I thought I’d give him a hand. Some basic skills like farming, puzzle-solving, and self-defence are known to him.”
“What you have achieved is a revolutionary project,” Derek said. “Just that your security team failed you and did a lot of unethical activities behind your back. Like murdering any human who happened to get close to the forest boundaries.”
Jelena looked down and sighed.
“How about getting a new team to work with you?” Derek suggested. “Yes, some of your ideas will be rebuffed. But most will be accepted and lauded.”
“The government?” Jelena looked up; her eyes wide.
“You’re smart Jelena,” Derek smiled. “Yes. The government wants to work with you. You will be given a team of scientists. Don’t worry, you can select them yourself. Old World is a pathbreaking project and with proper planning and execution, it can steer the future of the world in the right direction.”
“Thank you for the offer,” Jelena said, her voice cracking a little with emotions. “I accept.”
Pango made a sudden sound and threw up his arms in air. It startled Derek for a second but then he smiled back and thumped Pango on his back, at first with hesitation and then with abandon.
“Come with us, Jelena,” Derek said, as he and Pango stood up. “Top government officers are waiting to see the face of the creator!”
Jelena smiled shyly at the joke as she got up.
“I’ve one question,” Jelena asked.
“Yes?” Derek turned around.
“How did you break into the forest and abduct Pango?” Jelena questioned.
“Well, you are not the only one who can go primitive,” Derek joked. “We started burrowing the ground from outside and came out right in the middle of the forest! Just like dated thieves! As for abducting Pango, he was looking for a way to escape anyway.”
Jelena smiled as she walked alongside Derek and Pango. Finally, her dreams of a reunion were about to come true.
Image by MayaQ from Pixabay