Jeff Littleton had been on his job with Cintron, Corp for only a few months in Cleveland, Ohio, but he had already made several “lunch buddies” at the car-parts manufacturing plant. Rashad Muhammad al-Salem, from Morocco, was one of them. Cintron was known throughout the world for its forward policies for hiring many foreigners; even after the Nine-Eleven attacks of 2001. This, of course, was a good business move, as a kind of show to the world that Cintron would stay committed to being a global corporation. But it was also part of the company’s philosophy that, just as the world is populated by different kinds of people, so, too, should their plants reflect that.
It was the first coffee break of the day, and Rashad, a middle-aged man of average height and with a small beard that was common for men in the Middle East, was already at a table in the small cafeteria. It was entirely too small for such a good-sized manufacturing plant, but the workers took breaks on shifts, so that helped lighten the load. Even so, Jeff flowed into the break room with the sudden gush of human flood spilling in from the plant. Every table was full and the room was loud with chatting people and a TV set, perched near the ceiling. It was usually turned to the news.
“Hey, Rashad, I got those writings for you to look at,” Jeff told him as he plopped his coffee cup and a sack of munchies down onto the table.
“Oh, you mean the ones with the Arabic writing you told me about yesterday,” he said with a thick air of Moroccan-flavored accent. “Didn’t you say that your grandfather had gotten them during World War II?”
Just then another lunch-buddy, Anna Ozdan, from Cyprus, had joined them at the table, her hands full with her lunch for the day and other miscellaneous things. She was a very affable, pleasant-looking woman of middle age. Jeff, in his thirties, was the youngest and the only American-born of this little club at the table. Both men greeted her with a simple nod.
“No, actually it was the guy that I used to work with who had a grandfather that fought in World War II. Sy said his grandfather had somehow gotten these from Northern Africa, during one of the Allies’ operations against the Nazis there.”
Anna looked on with interest as Jeff pulled out a hand-sized, shallow container from his duffel bag. The container was transparent. It encased two folded pieces of paper, apparently quite worn with time. Already Rashad and Anna could see the inscriptions on either paper.
As Jeff unfurled both pieces of papers carefully on the lunchroom table, away from their food and drinks, Rashad was studying them. Immediately, Rashad was shaking his head at the writings.
“This does not appear to be Arabic, my friend. In Arabic writing, you read right to left.” That part Jeff already knew but he let the older man continue. Rashad carefully pointed to the larger sheet of yellowed paper, with its apparent faded, reddish text. “Notice the heaviness on the text here…you can tell it was written in the Western-style, from left to right. More to the point, it simply isn’t Arabic! At least, not that I can tell.”
“Could it be an older form of Arabic? Or maybe even Aramaic?”
Rashad both shrugged and shook his head. “I’m no linguist, Jeff, but this doesn’t even look like a sister language, much less an older form of one. You know we have other people around the plant that also speak Arabic, maybe you could ask them, just for a second opinion?”
Anna looked on as she chewed on her food, nodding at Rashad’s suggestion. Jeff began to replace the fragile paper back into that clear container while she spoke. “You know it almost looks like the text is written in blood!”
Rashad’s eyes widened. Jeff did not look so shocked.
“I kind of thought that when I got this years ago from Sy, but he never said much about the circumstances of his grandfather getting these.” Jeff became pensive after placing the container with the papers back into his duffel bag. “I have a friend who’s an anthropology professor. His specialty is in ethnic studies…he used to teach here until he moved to Nevada. I think I’ll email him about it.”
Since their coffee breaks were only fifteen minutes, it was already time for Jeff to go. He needed a couple of extra minutes just to put his belongings away into his locker and to use the restroom. He bid his friends ‘later’ until the next break and went about his business.
Right after work, Jeff rushed to his apartment and went online and looked up the faculty list of the University of Nevada and found Professor Ned Conwell’s email address. He requested of his old professor to take a look at the two pieces of artifacts he had and if he had any connection at the University’s forensics lab to see if the text was written with blood or not. And, in the fine tradition of the barter system, Jeff would agree to a full month of unpaid work for the professor, via online research for him. Dr. Conwell graciously accepted Jeff’s offer a couple of days later in a response email. That very day after work, Jeff went out at night and mailed off the artifacts to the University of Nevada, with the attention line addressed to Dr. Conwell.
It was another workday at Cintron, Corp and the cycle of life was once again turning. Workers for the first shift piled into the building while some of the third shifters gathered their things to go home, except for those who occasionally stuck around for overtime. This time, Anna was in the bustling lunchroom before Jeff. She was at a different table this time, apparently someone else had gotten to their usual table before she did. She was working on her Turkish coffee with some Euro-styled biscuits splayed out on a napkin when Jeff got to the table and placed his things down.
“Oh, no Rashad today, or am I that early?”
Anna, who had been watching the news on the cafeteria TV set, had paused and turned toward Jeff and shook her head with a shrug. That’s when Bridget, a middle-ager with reddish-blonde hair, came into the conversation.
“Hey, Hon…sorry, I didn’t mean to pry or anything, but I heard you ask about Rashad.”
“No, you’re fine, Bridget,” Jeff said while he turned his chair to face her. “I mean, it’s not my business where he is or anything…just being neighborly nosey.”
“Actually, it’s appropriate to be a lot more than just nosey,” Bridget said ominously. Her apprehensive tone made both Jeff and Anna scoot their chairs closer to Bridget after sharing a glance. “I saw him for just a few seconds yesterday,” she went on to explain, “but man did he look terrible! He had all these welts on his face and he looked swollen…I told him he really needed to be in an emergency ward instead of work. Said he’d stick around here for a couple of hours and if he didn’t improve he would go. Haven’t seen him since.”
“So you don’t know if he’s gone to hospital or a doctor or not,” Anna asked.
Bridget simply and slowly shook her head. It was quiet between the trio for a little while. The ruckus in the cafeteria continued, showing no respect for the worries of anyone’s personal life.
“During lunch time I’ll go over to personnel and see if they have anything on him,” Jeff volunteered. And with that, he gathered his belongings and left to start his shift early. He just wasn’t in a chatty mood. Not when he knew that Rashad was in poor health.
Later, Jeff’s assembly production line was having some technical difficulties later that same day, so he and his co-workers had to do some extra cleaning while Cintron mechanics worked on the machines. Jeff took advantage of the down time and went to the restroom. On his way there he ran into another of the Middle Eastern co-workers who also spoke Arabic.
“Hey, Nasir…! Nasir,” Jeff called out to the tall man as he walked away from the men’s restroom. Nasir was from Egypt and his English, like most of the foreigners at Cintron, was fluent.
“Hey, Jeff. How are you, my friend?”
“Well, I’m fine…”
Nasir, who was walking down a large corridor filled with shipments and moving, car-sized pallet-jacks driven by people, looked at Jeff. “Why do you say it that way?”
“Oh, I’ve heard that Rashad got sick and a couple of us don’t know whether or not he’s gone to see a doctor or not.”
Jeff noticed that Nasir was nodding his head as he spoke. Apparently Nasir had already known about Rashad’s condition.
“Yes…I was the one who actually convinced him to finally go.”
“Oh, so he did go to see a doctor, or to an emergency ward?”
“Like a cat being dragged in for a bath!” They both laughed. “I bothered him about it so much so until he finally went to personnel and told them that he was leaving. That’s all I know,” he finished with a shrug and turned to walk off.
“Uh, Nasir…can I get a quick favor from you?”
Subconsciously, the two men walked over closer to a towering rack so they could be out of the way of moving people and indoor vehicles. Jeff reached into one of his back pockets and took out a couple of pieces of paper that had some odd-looking writings and markings on them. They were photocopies of something, Nasir could see. As Jeff handed them to Nasir, he began to ask the Egyptian if he could read any of the copied script—but quite unexpectedly, Nasir quickly shoved the papers back to Jeff!
Needless to say, Jeff was taken aback by his action. Jeff thought that maybe Nasir heard his boss calling him and he did not want to be seen doing something that could be considered non-work related. But then Jeff looked at Nasir. It was a combination of anger and fear on the thirty-something’s face.
“Where did you get that,” Nasir demanded.
Jeff’s face contorted for the now surreal situation he found himself in. His mouth worked as he had to remember how he, indeed, got the original pieces of papers. “Uh…the originals are with a professor friend of mine out in Las Vegas. I copied—“
“You mean you and your friend have touched the originals?”
More confused looks by the American. “Generally speaking, for me to make a photocopy of something, I’d have to actually touch—“
“Please, Jeff, I’m very serious about this!”
“Uh, yeah! I’d say you are!”
Nasir looked around the plant and pulled Jeff into the restroom with him. Nasir gestured to Jeff to remain by the sink area then he went throughout the whole restroom and made sure there was no one else there.
“Look, before you ask me, this is not Arabic writing,” Nasir simply stated. “I’m assuming that’s what you were going to ask me.”
“Yeah, but Rashad already told me that. I wanted a second opinion.”
“Well my second opinion is that your friend in Las Vegas needs to destroy the originals…right now!” Jeff’s eyes strained at the man but he did not interrupt him. “I can’t fully explain it myself, Jeff, but it’s like one of those viruses that gets passed along via email. Only this virus is spread by old-school method.”
“The original script,” Jeff ventured.
“Yes! The first time I heard about it was late last year when I went back home for holiday. My family was telling me about all these mysterious deaths that had been happening in my village. My relatives aren’t exactly sure, but from what they’ve gathered apparently this strange literary death was spread by pieces of paper with some indecipherable text that look like whatever the local culture is.”
Jeff frowned at Nasir’s words. “What did you mean by literary death and that local culture thing,” Jeff asked.
“Those are just my words. It seems to make sense. What else could you call it when people end up dead after reading a piece of text? And probably from touching the paper it’s inscribed on? As for the local culture…that’s another curious thing about this literary virus. The next time I heard about it was just a few months ago. Well, I should say, read about it. I read the same situation in other parts of the world that happened in my village back in Egypt! Romania, Chile, Canada, Thailand, and now here in the U.S.! Apparently, this strange script takes on some characteristics of any indigenous language, from each respective culture.”
Jeff thought for a long while. “Question for you, my friend. How come I’m still alive? I’ve certainly handled the text quite a bit. In fact, for years! I got it from a friend of mine who had a grandfather that fought in World War II and who had gotten it from the northern parts of Africa.”
“Ah, well that probably would explain why you turned out fine. Remember the local culture aspect of this virus. You and your friend in Nevada, I assume, are American, and this other friend of yours had a grandfather that was in my part of the world and somehow acquired the text. And since it’s from North Africa, that would explain why this animal would configure itself to look Arabic!”
“It also would explain why Rashad had taken ill. He’s from Morocco.”
“Exactly,” Nasir curtly affirmed.
“As much as I don’t like to think this, it sounds like this literary virus attacks people base on their ethnic roots!”
Nasir sighed as he looked at the door to the restroom. They both knew, pretty soon, they would have to get back to work. “You know, the logical side of me says that it’s some terrorist organization that found a way to genetically target groups of people and somehow they put toxic materials into these pieces of paper. But I’m not quite so sure.
“I remember reading about the situation in Thailand, how an illiterate farmer had discovered some strange text there, but he thought it was in the Thai language. Even though he could not read, he still could recognize the alphabet…”
“I take it the poor guy died. You’re speaking in the past tense.”
“Fortunately, not in this case, Jeff. The old farmer was treated in time. That’s why I have hope for Rashad.”
“Okay, Nasir, before we get back to work, you told me about the logical side of you looking at this. What about the illogical side of you?”
Again, Nasir sighed, this time he leaned against one of the sinks. “The terrorist angle would make sense if all these other countries and cultures had something in common! Egypt, Canada, Thailand, Romania, Chile, the United State… Do any of these nations seem to share an overall philosophical view that would link them together, and make them prime targets for some kind of terrorist group?”
Of course the question was rhetorical. “More to the point,” Nasir went on, “your friend with the grandfather who’s a veteran…assuming that what he told you is true, then your text artifacts are the oldest of the literary virus that I’ve heard about so far! I’m no genetic scientist, Jeff, but the field of Genetics, as we know it today, was not in existence back in the 1940s during World War II. So how could a modern, terroristic tactic like genetic targeting be around that many years ago, before the technology even existed?”
Both silently thought within themselves for a few seconds. Nasir got off the sink he was leaning against, in preparation for getting back to work.
“Before, you almost sound like you wanted to call this literary virus a living creature,” Jeff observed.
Nasir stopped. He contemplated on Jeff’s statement. “In the field of biology, is not the virus a living entity? Some even argue that computer and Internet viruses are just as living as the biological ones! And if those viruses can be considered living things, why not this one?”
Two weeks had passed and Rashad had already been back at work for nearly a week. Officially, his doctor said he had some kind of allergic reaction to the spores in the air by some local plant life. When Jeff had the chance to ask him if he had ever had such reaction previously since being in America, Rashad directly answered, “Never in my life.”
Both Nasir and Jeff agreed to delay telling Rashad about the literary virus story until later on. Later, they would tell Rashad when his sickness was further behind him and, perhaps, when more news about the so-called virus had more time to get out into the media.
Two additional weeks passed and Jeff had nearly forgotten all about his mysterious text on those two old pieces of papers. He was reminded about them as he watched a documentary on public television about a group of archeologists recovering some ancient writings in Europe. The next day, during lunchtime, Jeff had gotten out his scratch note that he made for himself that contained the email and phone number of Dr. Conwell’s office in Las Vegas. He found himself a secluded area in the plant and made a call on his cell phone.
“University of Nevada at Las Vegas Anthropology Department, can I help you?”
“Yes, my name is Jeff. I’m trying to reach Professor Ned Conwell.”
There was a long pause.
“Is this one of those student pranks?”
“No, ma’am,” Jeff assured her, his voice tense with confusion. “Why would anyone pull a prank by trying to talk with Dr. Conwell?”
“Because the Professor has been deceased for about two weeks now.”
Jeff’s stomach dropped on him and he could feel goose bumps ravaging his skin. “How?”
“Bit of a mystery here on campus. One day he showed up to one of his lectures pretty sweaty and broken out with some kind of hives or something. He tried to soldier through it, but…” The secretary could not finish her sentence.
There was an uncomfortable silence over the line.
“Do you or anyone else there know whether or not Dr. Conwell received a shipment I mailed to him some weeks ago?”
“Oh,” the secretary exclaimed. Her voice was oddly more perky. “So you’re the one who mailed that to him.”
“Yes! A clear container with two aged pieces of paper in it?”
“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
Jeff kept running into that wall of confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Well, the Professor never got around to opening it! I remember him playfully telling us at the circulation desk to guard it with our lives, since it was from a good friend of his…and, yes, I do see your name on the return address now.”
Jeff had forgotten everything around him. Forgotten that he was at the Cintron plant, forgotten that he had five minutes to get back on the production line, and frankly did not care! “So, the package had never been opened?”
“No, sir. Would you like for me to—“
“Uh, no, that’s all right, ma’am.” Jeff was relieved. Besides, the package containing the literary virus was from Africa and Dr. Conwell was not African…so why in the world did he die? “I tell you what, is there some way the University could send the shipment back to me?”
“Of course, Jeff. It’s the least we could do.”
“And, ma’am, it’s very important that no one opens that package. Could you make a notation of that on the package somewhere?”
He could hear her chuckle just a tiny bit. “Of course…mind if I ask, Jeff?”
“You mean what’s the big deal about the pieces of paper that I mailed? It’s okay to ask. They were just some old scrap paper with script on them someone had found in Africa years ago. I was just asking the Professor to validate it for me. That’s really all there is to it. Anyway, thanks for your time.”
“Huh, now that’s funny,” the secretary’s voice came in softly, just before Jeff ended the call on his cell. “Professor Conwell had gotten another package before yours came in. It was from a fellow professor he had worked with in Arizona years before. Now that I think about it, this other professor wanted the same thing done for his shipment as you do for yours! How about that?”
There was nothing from Jeff.
“Jeff, are you still there?”
“Yes, ma’am…ma’am, what’s your name?”
“Marcie,” she said with some apprehension.
“Marcie, you didn’t happen to get a look at that other shipment, did you?”
“As a matter of fact, we all did in the Anthropology Department. Hey, anytime any of the professors bring something back from their expeditions or receive a cool shipment, the professors are nice enough to share the experience with us in the office.”
Jeff winced. “Did that shipment from Conwell’s friend have some odd inscription on it?”
Marcie gasped over the phone. “Well, how did you know that? It looked pre-Native American to the rest of us, but Professor Conwell said it wasn’t and that there was no such thing in the Americas…huh, go figure that!”
Again, Jeff’s end of the line was blank. This time the secretary’s patience was pretty much gone.
“Okay, Jeff, it was nice to talk with you. I’m truly sorry for your loss…I have to go now. We’re pretty swamped. We’ve got three people who called in sick today that we have to cover for.”
And the line was cut.