Dr. Catherine Brand, known to her close friends as Cattie, watched the brown liquid trickle into the dirty mug as the black and silver machine burped and steamed. It was her fourth cup of the evening, even though she felt she had reached the point where adding more caffeine to her person would have moderate to no effect. Rifling the cupboard she found a package of Arnott’s Milk Coffee Biscuits, and took the balance with her.
The sign above the keypad that unlocked the double doors clearly stated that there was to be no food in the laboratory facilities, but as it was after ten and she was alone, she didn’t care. Jasper Rollins her lab technician had left at the end of the day, as it was his daughter’s birthday, but before he had left he started the chromosomal sequencing process, which he promised would be completed by eleven. Dr. Gideon, a visiting research fellow from Yale University, was also away to the mainland for a conference in Sydney. According to the clock on the wall, she had another thirty minutes.
She dipped a biscuit in dark black liquid, and quickly popped the saturated end into her mouth. It crumbled softly on her tongue, as she sucked out the coffee, just like she had when she was a child. From the cages that lined the wall, a hungry growl emerged. The misshaped face pressed up against the Cage, forcing the swelling and infected nose through the bars. She pulled another biscuit from the package, snapped it in half, and moved to the wall of cages. The animal pulled its pulpy snout back from between the cage bars to accept the broken biscuit, which it took to the corner of the cage to enjoy in peace.
Dr. Brand had been working with these creatures for most of her professional career. She watched the black and brown beast huddle into the corner, protecting its tasty prize. All her life she had been interested in animals. When she was young, she had always said that she wanted to grow up to be a veterinarian, but then she discovered cellular and molecular biology and a new trajectory was set. The science of life fascinated her. Unlike religion or philosophy, which in her humble opinion were merely man-made sets of propaganda, employed to control the masses, science actually sought out, and strived to find empirical answers.
Not only where does life come from, but also once it has arrived, how does it survive, how does it continue? She liked to look under the bonnet; she wanted to understand the how more than the why.
She checked the sequencing process, which was supposed to be complete, but according to the spinning hourglass was only three-quarters of the way done. I am going to be here all night, she thought to herself. Shit.
Another Friday night alone at the lab, which was becoming the norm. For the last few years, her life had been wrapped up in making her promotion, to reaching Assistant Professor status, taking the next step in acquiring tenure. This process included finalizing her research, getting published in as many scientific journals as possible, getting letters of support from colleagues at the University, as well as colleagues outside of the University. It was a laborious and all encompassing process, but with the promotion came job security. It didn’t leave much free time for friends or relationships.
She liked Gideon, he was tall, smart and handsome with grey blue eyes and a deep dimple on his chin, but he was also engaged, or engaged to be in engaged as he put it. He had been at the University for almost six months now, working on a cancer research fellowship through the World Health Organization.
There seemed to be some chemistry between them, when they were working in the lab at the same time the sexual tension was palpable, but as of yet, neither had made a move. She knew his time at the university was going to be short-lived, as the fellowship ended in another six months, and there was the almost-fiancé to think of.
Sarcophilus Harrisii is a small carnivorous marsupial found in the wild, solely on the Australian island sate of Tasmania. It is better known by its more popular name; the Tasmanian Devil. Most people are surprised the first time they see one. They expect some tall wild, drooling and growling beast that spins and spits, eating everything that gets in its way. What they encounter is a small dark brown and black, muscular, pungent animal no larger than a small dog. It is loud, with a disturbing screech and a ferociousness that becomes very apparent at feeding and mating time.
There were six specimens left in the lab. Earlier that day, Timbo, the largest male had expired. The specimens were officially given numbers, but she named every one of them. The current group consisted of three males and four females; Red, a small male who had a distinct red hue to his coat; Cue, another male with a white tip on his thick dark tail, and Timbo, who had been the largest and alpha male. The females were Henny and Penny, two small females who looked identical; Gillard, who’s features reminded Brand of the one time Labor PM Julia Gillard, and finally Pippa, obviously named after Pippa Middleton.
Since she spent so much time with them, she felt she got to know each one on its own terms. They were not children, or even pets, but she built emotional attachments to every single one brought in.
Her Tasmanian devil research had started several years ago, almost by accident. On a flight from Perth to the University of Brisbane she had packed a short stack of scientific journals that she had been trying to find the time to read. After finding her seat, ordering a mineral water with lime, and putting on a pair of noise cancelling headphones she pulled out the top most journal, Nature and began to scan the table of contents.
It was the title of the article that caught her eye; “The Devil’s Cancer.” The article described a form of cancer on the rise in Tasmanian devil population. A form of cancer so aggressive, that researchers feared if left uncontrolled would push the small marsupial to the brink of extinction. Almost seven years later she was a the University Of Tasmania conducting advanced research on what was now called Devil Facial Tumor Disease or DFTD.
This unique form of cancer is communicable, highly contagious and spread through the saliva of the Tasmanian devil. Her research showed that the DFTD cancer cells are not only a dangerous for the current host, causing rapid growth of tumors at the point of infection, but the cells seem to evolve, becoming more aggressive and infectious, allowing for easier transmission between individual organisms. The majority of infections are found in the facial structure of the animal, most likely due to the aggressive nature of the animal, around feeding and mating.
The data indicated that the speed of transmission, the rate of infection, the growth rates of infected cells, and expiration of host were increasing over time. There were of course other variables to consider, but in a homogenous, unpolluted population like her Devils, where environmental changes had been incremental, the disease was looking like the wild card variable.
Brand’s passion was partially based in her love of animals along with the real fear of a species becoming extinct right before her eyes. But it also had its footing in her abject disdain for cancer in all of it’s forms. She had watched as her father withered away to pancreatic cancer that was misdiagnosed and not discovered until is had metastasized throughout most of his body. He had been a giant in life, but had been reduced to a husk, small withered and empty in death.
The aggressive nature of the DFTD cancer was astonishing. With every infection the transformed tumor cells, through sequential mutation would activate genes to trigger genetic instabilities resulting in a unique evolutionary process of adaption and competition at a cellular level. With each new infection came a slightly new version of the infectious agent. Within each iteration of the disease, the level of mutation manifest in inconsistent ways. Some host animals would see little to almost no change in the manifestation of the disease, while in others there would be radical shifts, massive deformities and abnormalities.
In March, there had been a round up of new specimens, and Cooper Bundy was in charge of collecting. He was a real bushman; six foot three with deeply tanned skin, a disheveled mop of sun bleached blond hair, clear blue eyes and a handle bar moustache. Bundy came to the University from the Chowilla Game Reserve where he had been a zoologist, before that most people assumed he had crawled out of a billabong, or came in from the bush on a sandstorm.
“Right Doc…” He always called her Doc.
They stood in the kennel, a room in the lower level of the building that opened up on one end with a large automatic garage door, allowing two vehicles to be pulled into a paddock. One vehicle was a four wheel drive Rang Rover, which Bundy had chopped. He removed the roof and removed all but the two front seats. The other was the collection truck. Another Rang Rover with a modified back end that was fitted with cages that ran along the sides and back of the truck. Specimens were collected, and loaded into the individual cages from either side of the truck.
“We need to collect another group from the colony. Another five or six should be sufficient.” She read through the pages on the clipboard that hung on the wall by the cages.
As she talked Bundy looked into the cages that lined the walls. He tapped at the front of one cage with the stick he usually held in his mouth. The animal inside looked miserable. It rested in a heap; a pulpy mass of tumors deformed its face and snout beyond recognition. Blood, saliva, and puss oozed from sores which had spread beyond the head and face onto the back legs and hindquarters.
“Okay… Lemme get the Rover situated… get Ronny to give her a good once over with pressure washer and fill’er with petrol. We also need to replace a couple of boxes, doors were knocked off, latches busted.” He continued to watch the poor animal being eaten alive by it’s own cells. He moved the small stick back and forth across his teeth.
“I remember an infection that spread through the roos back in Chowilla… It was a form of staff that started in the eyes and nasal passages. It was ugh, nasty and caused blindness, but it was nothing like this…”
“This is more than a staff infection… much more.” she said as she hung the clipboard back on the wall.
The small animal moved, repositioning itself toward the presence of Bundy. The deformed pink maw opened, revealing small sharp teeth that jutted out at odd angles. A ragged, high-pitch screech emanated from the creature as blood and other fluids splattered the walls of the cage.
“Jesus H Christ…” he said slowly to himself.
“Come on Bund… lemme drive… I am ace behind the wheel.” Ronny had been pestering Bundy to let him take lead on a collections run. He had figured it all out; Bundy lets him do a couple of runs, he get real comfy with it, and eventually Bundy wouldn’t have to be bothered with the runs at all. He, Ronny could manage the collections of the animals, along with some other goodies and Bundy could deal with bigger issues.
“Buckley’s chance their mate.” He said as he climbed in the behind the wheel laughing.
“Right…” replied Ronny kicking the tire before he climbed in shotgun.
The University had sole access to over two hundred thousand square kilometers of government managed land preserve, a literal national park at their disposal. The park included waterfront and beach habitats, a series of small streams that fed into the Stinking Creek, a river that flowing into Port Arthur Bay through mountains, and rainforest. The park offered an unadulterated, and almost undisturbed environment for biological, environmental, agricultural and zoological research.
They took the service road that ran south toward the Agricultural Science farming compound. The Aggies, as Bundy referred to them, had one hundred square kilometers of fenced in prime farmland with the latest in irrigation and composting technologies. They could grow almost anything. Lately, they had been growing marijuana.
Years earlier, as recessions were impacting economies and research-funding dollars were drying up, Enando Roth Ph.D. Chair of the Agricultural Sciences School made a calculated decision after attending a public health conference ion Perth, focusing on the current war on drugs and it’s effectiveness. He left the conference certain that the war was lost, and that the only way to alleviate society from the collateral damage was through legalization. He also believed that many of naturally grown addictive substances today offered so much more to science and healthcare then was understood. For centuries aboriginal peoples from all over the world had used naturally occurring plants for medicinal purposes; milk of the poppy, cacao leaves, cactus, marijuana and countless others.
At first funding was difficult to come by. The political landscape was steep and slippery. The world was engaged in the self-named “war on drugs,” which was costing billions of dollars a year, and yielding little more than over crowded prisons.
Almost twenty years later the Aggies were leading the Australian charge on research on the medicinal uses of marijuana. The Aggies ran the largest federally funded marijuana research facility in Australia and New Zealand, producing over one hundred patented strains of marijuana, each genetically engineered to display specific characteristics, and target certain receptors for pain management for specific diseases or maladies. Cancer patients used a strain for pain management as well as appetite stimulant, while some children used a low THC content strain to help control epileptic gran mal seizures.
Marijuana was still illegal throughout most of the world, but Roth was certain of one thing. The market was there, and there was money to be made through patented strains. The lobbyists would be able to win over the public one MP, congressman or senator at a time., because it’s always about the money.
Bundy and Ronny turned off of the service road, and Ronny watched in the mirror as the fence protecting the crops shrank in the distance. He loved the hot, sweet and pungent smell that hung in the air as they passed by. One hot day a few weeks ago, when he and Bundy were up near the cellular towers, the smell of skunk and ammonia clung to the mountain, he joked about smoking some of that “boodahh”, as he referred to it, with Bundy. That hadn’t gone over well.
“Ronny… I need you to do something for me…” He paused.
Ron had expected a laugh, but Bundy was stern and serious.
He swallowed audibly. Sweat ran down his brow and into his eyes, but he was too nervous to wipe them.
“Ronny, I need you to put that Yandi over there out of yer mind, right.” He slowly moved his hand up to the collar of Ronny’s dirty tan work shirt, and pulled their faces closed together.
“I ain’t got time for no dero bake head, greening out on me when I am in the bush collecting. You seen what those little bastards are capable of… tear your balls right off.” He breathed hot breathe into Ronny’s face. “If you got any that is…”
“Oy Bund… I’m just having a laugh…” Ronny was nervous.
“Right… do that on your own time too…” he said as he pushed him back, releasing the collar.
They slowly made their way into the bush following the service road. Large green ferns, great Pandani palms and Fagus trees lined the road as it ran the perimeter of the grounds, ultimately turning north up to the peak of Mount Tibrogargan, where cellular towers and a communications and weather station had been installed.
Bundy slowed and checked his GPS. Each of the traps had a global positioning satellite tracking chip installed so they could be easily found and monitored. On the screen the trap points showed as blue when active, but changed to red when the trap had been set. It didn’t guarantee a catch but it saved them the hassle of visiting each of the twelve traps that had been set.
They visited the eight traps that had been set. The first two were empty and the bait was gone, which could mean anything from a snake to a rat. But the other six had done the trick. The little beasts hissed and screeched as the trap cage was slipped into the waiting spaces on the truck.
Bundy locked up number five and Ronny fumbled with number six. He lifted the cage to slide it into the open slot on the truck, but the box shook violently. Bundy had never heard screeches so agonizingly loud before. Inside the creature kicked and clawed at the walls and mesh. Ronny held on with all of his might. He was forced to hold the cage at arms length, as the animal was charging the cage, pressing its teeth and bloodied nose through the gaps.
“Fuck… Bundy… this bitch is throwing a wobbly. Give us a hand.”
Suddenly the beast stopped and slid back toward the rear of the cage. Ronny paused, looked and gained control of the cage. As he began to slide the cage into the open slot on the truck, it happened.
The still and quiet creature lunged with all of the strength and ferocity left in its tragically maimed body and the latch on the front of the cage released behind the weight of the mad creature, breaking free from its prison and the fate of the laboratory.
Bundy had moved to help Ronny to secure the last cage into the truck, but he stopped and fell backwards as the black devil ripped its way free from the cage. It snarled and screamed jumping from the cage, bouncing off of Ronny’s chest onto the ground with a bloody plop. Bundy tripped backward, and fell hard on the handle of the knife he kept on his belt. “Fuckin‘ell” he howled as he landed hard. Ronny was paralyzed leaning against the truck as a large dark stain appeared down the front of his pants.
“Traveling in a fried-out combie
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie”
Colin Hay and Ron Strykert.