118 – Roots

Time passes slowly when you’re half-buried, surrounded by zombies you can’t see. But surprisingly, you get used to it. Tam watched the sun rise. The long grass around her swayed and swished. She’d never stopped and paid attention to it before. It even seemed to calm Zelinski’s spirits. Her mind was constantly invaded by images of Caleb covered in blood; living dead violation; fire and smoke; pain, grief. But the images were brushed away by the gentle sweeping action of the grass.

She knew what she was going to do. If there was any life for her Varsity, it would have to be built up again from scratch. She was up to the task. It was better than trying to salvage the pieces of her old life. It meant that she would be acting on faith, and fate.

She had no watch, and if Zelinski did it was buried in the ground. But the sun hadn’t moved much when Miller came back. He didn’t attempt to be silent. As he spoke, gunshots pierced the air like fireworks. Giulianova was shooting every Wreck he could see. Miller told her it had been two hours. It felt like ten.

Tam pulled here feet from the earth. She didn’t know whether anything had happened. A miracle, maybe, like the holy communion turning into Christ’s body. They returned to the Humvee. Miller looked taller.

I’m going home,” said Tam.

No problem,” said Miller. “After we get you tested again at Charlie Echo. I don’t know what I was thinking back there. I’m going to kick some this time.”

Fine,” said Tam. “Take Zelinski. But not me.” Miller started to argue. She pitied him. He was like a big brother. “I know you think I’m insane,” Tam interrupted. “But I’m done with running around in circles. I was only doing that because of Caleb. Now… I’m taking a leap of faith. If I live, I live. If I’m still Infected, so be it. I’ll kill myself before I turn.”

You’re not being reasonable,” Miller said. Giulianova was staring down at them from on top of the Humvee like a statue in a mythical city.

Tam looked at Zelinski, who stood watching them like a rescued dog. “He’s the one who needs help,” said Tam. Miller sighed. He turned away from her. Tam looked into the field. There were some patches of flattened grass but the corpses were hidden. How quickly all of this came to seem normal.

Miller turned back. “I’ve gotta take you home anyway,” he said. “You could get killed.” Tam smiled. There was no point discussing the wrongness of that.

Giulianova called down, “I think it’s on the way, boss, more or less,” he said. “Slight detour but there’s a better route to Charlie Echo from here than to go through Rounlin anyways.” The Corporal’s sense of direction was his superpower.

So, brought her home. She averted her eyes as they drove through Varsity. All that devastation hurt her. “Give me your number,” said Miller. “When we get a result from Zelinski’s second test, we’ll let you know.” Tam gave him her house number. Her cellphone was long since lost.

Nobody spoke for a while, Tam looked at her hands and listened to the dinosaur grumble of the Humvee’s engine. “You know,” said Miller, “You’re a real trooper. I mean that.”

Tam was embarrassed. “What about him?” she said, pointing at Zelinski. Miller squirmed. “He’s got a journey,” he said.

There was little activity around Tam’s apartment building. But as they stepped out, one of her neighbours looked down from her window. She waved. Tam’s heart rose a little. A symbol of everyday life.

Okay, I’ll hear from you soon,” Tam said To Miller. He grabbed her arm and gave it a quick squeeze, then properly let go. Giulianova winked. Zelinski hadn’t got out to say goodbye. She tried to imagine that she would meet him again. That he would be better.

She didn’t look back at the sound of the Humvee roaring down the street. She went to her apartment and soaked her feet for a while. Threw some disinfectant in there. Thought about what she was doing. She couldn’t find answers. But the decision she had made was the answer.

She rebandaged her feet from a first-ait kit in the kitchen that was like a toy. Then she found herself in the living room, staring towards the window. She didn’t know how long she had been there. What to do now? Live, maybe.

Tam went downstairs and knocked on her neighbour’s door. Her name was Nina. She was an intern studying to be a nurse. She cracked the door. When she saw Tam she smiled and then started crying. Tam didn’t cry, but she knew where it was coming from. Nina would have her own story to tell.

Tam spoke to Nina for hours. The answering machine would get the message from Miller.

117 – Shallow Grave

Charlie Echo Two-Five had no medicine and no shrinks. Hospitals were not accepting Infected.  They’d been ravaged to bloody stumps by an explosive increase in the number of zombie patients. Caleb was gone, and Tam was infected. The Adlea in her system would keep her going until it ran out, then she was on the slippery slope to Rotting Fiend.

Tam had never felt so lonely. She drifted into a morbid daydream where she imagined herself dead, buried in a shallow grave. It was comforting. But these were the meanderings of a disillusioned teenager. She tried to snap out of it.

Miller talked to Giulianova over cold coffee. Zelinski was too busy being shellshocked to join in. The café was how she imagined Israel when Hamas were launching rockets: preppy people stressing out as they drank coffee while anticipating explosions.

Tam’s belly felt tight after the coffee. Or was that Epsilon Rex at work? It started in the digestive system, after all. She shivered at the deathwish fantasy she had indulged. Maybe that was Ep Rex too. Caleb’s mind had been influenced by the lifeform that was taking over his body.

The images in her head matched up, just like a jigsaw puzzle. “It wants to be buried,” she said. Miller looked at her, concerned. “I can feel it. It wants to go in the ground.”

The Sergeant looked at her, then at his sidekick. Then he grinned. “We’ve got jack shit else to go on right now,” he said.

It was worth trying. Though it would look pretty stupid. They took the Humvee out of Rounlin, heading for Varsity. They were looking for Wrecks.

There were plenty of dead ones. They were all either burned or bloodied. They might have died on their feet, or been burned after they fell for some other reason. There was an army patrol of six men with flamethrowers walking down the wide, straight road.

We’d be better off away from towns,” said Miller. He turned south.

They drove a mile, surrounded by square fields of a hundred different colours. The sun was fresh, bright and clear.

There,” said Giulianova. He pointed at something in a meadow to their right.

A dozen Wrecks had already dug holes for themselves and were now lying inert. Four more were active nearby. They were digging. Slowly, as if this was not a mission but a hobby.

Miller gave Tam a shovel with a two-foot handle. She had to do this herself.

She walked into the field. The Wrecks spotted her. They came towards her. That wasn’t supposed to happen. She was Infected. They should leave her alone. She stopped dead. She reasoned her way out of a panic attack. What was the worst that could happen? She might get her face bitten off before the cavalry could get to her. But she was already dead, bar the shouting.

The Wreck was a tall dude with black, shoulder-length locks tangled in knots. He wore a shirt and tie. He was bandaged and covered in blood. His face was like an oversized plum. He stopped two feet from her and stared. The stench of ammonia and shit. Another Wreck, this one a kid. T-shirt and jeans. They both stared. Tam kept still. Her heart refused to beat faster.

The first Wreck turned and walked back to his project. Then the second did the same. Tam sighed deeply. She looked over her shoulder. Miller and Giulianova were still in the Humvee, but she could just about see the barrel of a rifle pointed in her direction.

She dig a hole in the earth. The roots of the wild grass were tough. But beneath that, the earth was incredibly soft. This was a good spot, just right for Zelinski’s mychorrizae. The other Wrecks seemed to think so.

She dug a second hole. Then she waved to the Humvee. She took off her shoes and socks. Her bandages looked clean. But when she removed them, they stuck where the blood had hardened. Her feet started bleeding again. She decided that was a good thing.

Miller arrived, sneaking through the long grass. He was dragging the pliant Zelinski. Tam shrugged and put her feet in the ground. She swept soil over them. That bit probably wasn’t necessary.

Miller whispered “Get down,” to Zelinski. The doctor looked at Tam with a surreal combination of amusement and starstruck awe. He lay on his belly. Tam peeled off some of the Band-Aids on his hands. Zelinski voluntarily reached into the earth. He acted like it was the last step before Nirvana. Miller pushed some dirt on top, burying Zelinski’s hands.

How long did they need to wait? How would they know? Tam and Miller discussed it in whispers as she sat on the edge of her little trench. The tall grasses blocked their view. Then, a gunshot rapped. Giulianova wasn’t taking chances.

Go back,” said Tam. “We’re safe.”

Two hours, tops,” said Miller.

That’s about all I’ll be able to take,” said Tam.

116 – Truth Hurts

Pierce walked around his desk and sat on the edge of it. His features reminded Tam of a marble bust. “You’ve been out in the wilderness for a while, am I right?” he said. His voice was beautiful. That softened the patronising tone. Miller nodded and said, “Sir.”

Unfortunately,” said Pierce, “creating a vaccine is off the table.” Tam and Miller both staggered like their team had just let in a goal. Pierce noted this with a raised eyebrow, then went on. “There isn’t enough chilli to go round, for one thing. And looters have been raiding what there is. You know what that means.”

Zelinski sighed heavily. Apparently, he had seen this already. “It’s gone,” he said.

As you say,” Pierce said mildly. “Second, the Commander-in-Chief feels the battle’s been won already. We’re not diverting resources to support an emergency medical programme when all our people are needed to sweep and clear the country.”

Miller glanced at Giulianova. Tam glanced at Zelinski. Whatever they had been hoping for, it now seemed juvenile and misguided. The chatter of secretaries and radios was the only sound for about ten seconds.

Sorry to waste your time,” said Pierce. Then he fixed Miller with an interrogating stare. “I’m not sure where you got your orders, Sergeant,” he said, “But they’ve probably been superseded by now. I’d recommend your return to base and debrief.”

Sir,” said Miller. But he didn’t move. He took a deep breath. “Can we get them tested anyway, sir, before we go?” he said.

Shouldn’t be a problem,” Pierce said immediately. That was something, at least.

The Major himself led them through the swarm of personnel and papers, where information was being sought and disseminated. They arrived at a white tent in the opposite corner of the silo. Men in white environment suits stopped what they were doing and saluted.

The test was remarkably simple. Retro, even. They just had to give blood samples and watch as the whitecoats put the samples in a machine and checked a computer-generated graph. They confirmed that both the subjects were infected. Miller swore under this breath while Giulianova clapped Tam on the shoulder gingerly. Zelinski shuddered and went pale.

There was some confusion. Pierce stepped in and explained that the subjects had been inoculated with Adlea. The whitecoats were amazed and impressed. The conversation left the scientists buzzing. Pierce said, “Apparently the doctor’s idea had a solid basis. He’s succeeded in extending your lives indefinitely. The infection won’t advance as long as you’ve got Adlea in your bloodstream. Let me say right now, we don’t have any supplies here. What kind of stock have you left?” He didn’t realise he was talking to a man with four-alarm PTSD. Tam nudged him.

Zelinski,” she said softly. “How much Adlea is left?”

About ten doses,” Zelinski whispered.

Pierce nodded. “Then that’s how long you’ve got,” he said. There was nothing else for it but to head out and meet their fate. As they left, the work of the bureaucrat soldiers went on. It all looked different now that Tam knew she was dying. She helped Zelinski on board the Humvee. Pierce saluted them and walked away. Two doomed civilians were a blip on his day.

Back on the road, they seemed to be driving for no reason. Tam didn’t know what was going to happen. Maybe they would get shot right here. Miller’s expression was gloomy. Suddenly, Giulianova said, “Anybody wanna go for coffee?” Miller stared at him for a second, then laughed. “Yeah, let’s do that,” he said.

They went back to Rounlin. Tam could see now what Zelinski had before: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. People knew that capsaicin was their friend. They just didn’t know how to tame it. They swallowed it, injected it, spilled it. Somewhere, people were probably dead from chilli overdose. It was all being wasted.

Things were less chaotic in the financial district. There were some cops, and a few army patrols. Giulianova hadn’t been using a code: they were actually going for coffee. They sat in a Café Solo surrounded by brown formica and nervous yuppies.

So, what’s next?” said Miller. This seemed to be his strong suit. Giulianova knew it. When Miller hit a wall, he had to stop and think. Tam needed to think, too. They sat there, infected, drinking coffee and talking about how they might spend the next few days. It was like Friends, with zombies.

Meanwhile Tam had to contend with the dark future she had seen in Caleb. Was she joining him in his nightmare afterlife? Not really. But at least she would soon relate to his experience directly. She wondered if she would still be sort of conscious. If she would feel pain. If Ep Rex would feed her brain happy hormones, or torture her mind, or even care. No matter what, she would probably end up in a flower bed, or shot in the head by a passing firing squad.

115 – Charlie Echo Two Five

Rounlin was the same. But the activity of the residents gave the place an unpredictable, chaotic edge. Stores had been looted. Some people were arguing, it wasn’t clear about what. Emergency services were noticeable only by their absence. It was a war zone without the explosions. Only people, going slightly crazy. At least the streets weren’t filled with corpses.

There was a scream. A figure lurched onto the road just ahead of them. Everybody thought it was a Wreck. He had his arms out in front of him and stumbled as if walking was new. But he didn’t have the tell-tale bruised pallour. A Wreck would be afflicted with ugly, purple skin. This kid had the skin tone of the living.

Miller stomped on the brake and said something impatient through his teeth. The kid on the road was followed by two more teenagers. They caught up with him and cradled him, guided him off the road. He was blind. Something had just done that to him. He fell on the ground. His friends stayed with him.

Miller started to move off. “Should we help him?” said Tam. Something about his age made her feel responsible.

He’ll be fine,” Miller said. “He just got chilli in his eyes.” Maybe the kid was infected, then. His friends were trying to help him by rubbing Tabasco all over him.

How do they know about that?” said Tam.

Giulianova shouted from the back, “It must have been leaked on TV.” Tam glanced at him. But her attention was caught by Zelinski. He muttered something crazy and shifted in his seat like a hyperactive kid on sodas. Giulianova grabbed his arm and slowly but firmly held him still until he calmed down. Zelinski looked at his doctor’s bag and shook his head stormily. It was the idea of people using chilli that bothered him. Maybe he thought he owned the idea. Maybe there was still an ambitious doctor in there somewhere, who wanted a percentage. It seemed unlikely.

They left Rounlin by the west road. There was a sudden flurry of barriers, abandoned cars and burnt ground. Four soldiers manned the checkpoint on this side. Miller saluted them. They looked bored. But they were tooled up with enough guns to level a log cabin. Miller made a joke about “requisition” that Tam didn’t understand. Giulianova got it.

The chaos thinned out and they were in the country once again. The road was even. Zelinski fell asleep. The air was charged with morning freshness, and the images of death Tam couldn’t shake out of her head.

The Humvee pushed the country aside. They were at Charlie Echo Two-Five in minutes. As they approached, they passed a couple of army guards. Miller was waved through when they saw his rank. In the distance were three monumental square silos. It was an industrial-scale farm.

The Army had fenced off one of the buildings and set themselves up inside it. Miller stopped the Humvee outside. He hopped out and went to the guards at the door. Tam followed him in time to catch the end of the conversation. “…might be important. I need to see the Ex-Oh here.” They eyed Tam suspiciously. Not to mention Zelinski, who looked like the victim of schoolyard bullies. Then he directed them through a twenty-foot-high sliding tin door and said, “Major Pierce is who you need.”

It was immense, aircraft-hanger size. Filthy straw on the ground. Cables coming through the wall from a generator that whined outside. Halogen lights on stands like a movie set. Tables stacked with computers, maps, office equipment and coffee cups. Squaddies buzzing around like flies with orders. A small group huddled round a TV. Chatter everywhere. A super-efficient bureaucracy.

Miller asked for Major Pierce and was directed to a green canvas screen that partitioned the area behind. They let Miller and Giulianova go first. After a minute, Giulianova came back out and brought Tam and Zelinski in.

Major Pierce was no older than Tam. Shockingly young for a Major. His elocution was amazing and his Roman nose made him look like a future movie star.

Good morning,” he said breezily. “I hear you have something special to offer me. Tell me, what is that?”

They need testing first,” Miller said. His easy charm seemed to fade next to Pierce. The Major radiated such charisma that it made Miller look dirty, uncertain and freaked out. “They’ve been exposed but they might be clean. That would make them something new. That’s what we’re testing for.”

Pierce responded with an insincere laugh. “You should have told me before you brought two Infected in here,” he said.

I… we have a theory,” said Miller. “The doctor here was treating himself and this woman with a course of Adlea when they were exposed. Its active ingredient is chillies, or whatever you call that stuff…”

Zelinski blurted out, “Capsaicin.”

Right.” Miller explained with difficulty that if they were not infected, it proved capsaicin could inoculate people against Epsilon Rex.

114 – Grassroots

Zelinski was ushered into the bathroom by Giulianova. The Corporal stood by the door, just in case Zelinski had an accident or tried to kill himself while he was supposed to be having a shower.

When he emerged, Zelinski seemed reborn. Maybe the sensation of showering had displaced the memory of dead human flesh snaking over his body. He had also been covered in a crust of Ep Rex mucus since the moment he was attacked by the Blob. Now he had emerged from that shell.

Caleb’s clothes were too big for him but he searched until he found some stuff that didn’t hang from his frame. A burgundy wool sweater that had shrunk in the wash, and a ten-year-old pair of jeans covered in paint stains. It was a nicely ridiculous getup. Tam was just glad he didn’t look like Caleb while he was walking around in Caleb’s old clothes.

Thanks,” he said heavily. The first word he had spoken in days. The transformation wasn’t complete. He was not his old self yet.

It was a new day. Tam had tried to sleep but couldn’t, so she ate something instead. A fruit salad with some cheese on crackers. She offered some to Zelinski. He took the cheese crackers, but frowned at the fruit.

Tam called her parents in Minneapolis. They were in pieces. It took a lengthy conversation to discover that they were not actually fucked. Her younger sister Fiona had been missing for a few days; naturally, Mom and Dad thought she was torn to shreds or turned. But she was fine. She was eighteen and prone to unpredictable, risky decisions. She’d gone to an old mill with her boyfriend and a bunch of teenagers who thought a zombie plague was the one thing they could ride better than anyone. She came back after two days with no contact. Her poor parents were insane from anxiety and premature grief.

Tam eventually got around to telling her mother that Caleb had got infected protecting the kids, and then died and become a Wreck. There was silence on the phone. “Oh God, Tamara,” her mother said. “I know,” said Tam.

She put some things in a bag and told Miller she was ready to go. They stomped down the stairs, like the first day back at school.

Miller and Giulianova pointed their rifles squarely at the three Wrecks who were lying in the flowerbed down the street. The Wrecks didn’t move. Everyone looked at each other. “Check it out,” said Miller.

The Wrecks had simply collapsed. The army guys went ahead. Tam and Zelinski caught up when they knew it was safe.

Each Wreck had one hand pushed deep into the soil. Apart from that, they just looked like dead bodies. A man and woman, both overweight, in sweats. And a small young woman in a parka jacket. The corpses were slightly mutilated, as if they had been rolled down a hill after they died. And the smell was unnatural. They smelled of ammonia.

Miller looked at Zelinski. “Doctor?” he said in a measured tone. “What do you think?”

Zelinski’s thought process was strained. After a long time he spoke, stammering. “N-not mummified, so… n-not the same as before. The mychorrizae… the fungus. Lives in the soil. Maybe, they needed to make contact with it. For what? I don’t know.”

It looks like it drained out of them, doesn’t it?” said Tam. They all stared at her. Zelinski in particular seemed stunned by her pronouncement. She didn’t see the big deal. Petrified Wrecks concentrated all their Ep Rex in the palm of the hand. They’d encountered it before. These ones had their hands in the earth. Now they were just dead. It looked like they had concentrated and poured all their Ep Rex cells, or molecules or whatever, through those hands into the ground.

It was not their mystery to solve. They climbed in the Humvee and took off. Giulianova drove. Miller contacted Army Headquarters and had a shouting match over the radio until Tam had a headache and Zelinski was shaking. Miller, though, acted like this was part of the job.

Charlie Echo two five,” he told his partner. “Eight clicks west of Rounlin.” That was where they were headed.

The roads were quiet. They saw some Wrecks crossing a field. They talked about whether they should stop and attack. But Tam gathered from the conversation that Miller and Giulianova were extremely short of ammunition. They decided to leave it to a larger force.

The outskirts of Rounlin were transformed into a militaristic nightmare of checkpoints, burned cars, charred bodies, roadblocks and discarded army paraphernalia. Tam was terrified. But the scene gave way to an almost normal city. Apparently, the gates had held. The city itself was not devastated like Varsity. People could be seen darting between buildings and driving too fast. The place was in lockdown, but surviving.

113 – Homesick Home

Tam got to ride shotgun in the Humvee, while Giulianova chivalrously sat in the back. She looked at Zelinski, the man she had once known as fiery. Now he was locked in, like a child who’d witnessed a murder. He had tumbleweed hair, bandaged hands and combats that looked like a calico cat. He had been inside the Blob, and survived. It rejected him. The experience might have broken his mind. But the fact that he was alive suggested something. And she’d got away too.

If Zelinski was right, the Adlea injections made them taste bad to Epsilon Rex. Even better, it enabled her to resist the infection. But she had no way of knowing how long she might last on the stuff. Another few days? Or indefinitely? The only way to find out was some anti-zombie medical tests. She didn’t know anyone qualified to do them, or if she had the heart to be the subject of a science experiment right now. In the meantime, she needed Zelinski to keep boosted.

The drive to Varsity didn’t take as long as she expected. She was not uplifted to come home, just saddened and scared.

It looked like it had been hit by a storm and then a crime rampage. Everywhere she looked there was at least one house, store or unidentifiable mound that had been burned to cinders. The streets were peppered with random stains, either ash or blood. There were dead bodies everywhere. It was impossible to tell whether they had died as regular people, or Wrecks. Broken windows. Burned lawns. Crashed cars. Improvised barriers. Nowhere was unaffected. Every now and then they saw some random, crazy postcard image. A tent surrounded by body parts on stakes. A burning Wreck flying in a massive arc over a wall. A group of huskies pulling an empty sled on wheels.

Giulianova was looking over their shoulders. “Know what this is like?” he said. “Apocalypse Now.” Miller laughed. Tam didn’t find it funny.

There were few Wrecks around, and no living people. They approached her street. It looked as safe as she could hope for. Tam’s home was an apartment in a stocky, modern complex. High walls and spiked gates. If only she’d stayed home when all this began. The Humvee slowed and stopped.

You should go to METMA,” said Miller, like they’d already had a whole conversation about this.

They aren’t doing tests,” said Tam, “or treating people. They just make notes.”

Without Zelinski, you’re out of medicine,” Miller said. His voice sounded sad.

So, what? I’ve gotta take him in?” said Tam.

Miller sighed. “The army’s got some pretty good psych doctors. I mean, PTSD and all that. They’re pretty good at that. I’d like to get him some help. At the same time, I can tell them about you and maybe get you set up.”

For how long?” said Tam.

That’s what I’d like to find out,” Miller said, and smiled.

Tam felt an ache as she looked at her apartment window. The ache of longing for something lost. Normality wasn’t coming back, not the way she wanted it. She took a deep breath.

Let me grab some stuff, at least,” she said. “Maybe get cleaned up?”

That place looks pretty secure, boss,” said Giulianova. “I could use a shower myself, and maybe some zees.”

Sure,” said Tam. All of a sudden it felt like this was a team, helping each other any way they could. So they all went in. They took turns watching the street while everyone got cleaned up, ate what they could find and crashed out on the couch for half an hour.

Tam looked into the distance from her third-floor window, but that reminded her of the scale of this madness. She looked right in front of her instead. It gave her something to concentrate on. She was watching the debris that smoked, wondering about the history of some tipped-over shopping carts, when a group of Wrecks came down the street. She ducked down and stared. Their weird, swarm-like attitude still made her shiver.

They stopped at the new café district. It was a cute open-air space, cut out of the usual urban mess to bring hipsters together. Benches and silly statues. And a nice flower bed. The Wrecks seemed to have found something there. They started digging. This was behaviour Tam had never seen. But Wrecks had a habit of surprising you.

Miller came out of the bathroom, looking a million dollars better than he had before. Tam put a finger to her lips and beckoned him over.

As they watched, the three Wrecks ponderously clawed back the earth like they were trying to find water. “Fuckin’ freaks,” Miller whispered. Tam gave him a scathing look that faded fast when she caught his clean profile. The Wrecks dug down about a foot. They stuck their hands in the dirt, ready to pull out a bag of treasure. But that was it. They stopped at that moment, and didn’t move. Their hands were still buried in the ground.

112 – Beta Testing

The Network sensed the disappearance of the Blob, and of Caleb’s mind, and all the minds that had been part of it. There were others like him but they, too had disappeared. Fire was still their weakness.

But before they were destroyed, each Blob had been part of the experiment. Each fed, grew, endured violence and threats. Each learned its capabilities in its new host, and tried to survive and evolve even further.

The Blobs had all disappeared from the Network in the end. Still, this was an experiment. It was no failure to be destroyed. Epsilon Rex wanted to know its weaknesses too, and there’s no better way to find discover your vulnerabilities than to be killed.

The Network itself was the carrier of Epsilon Rex in its original form, before it had started infecting humans. Now it was the back-mind which transferred and processed information. It sensed a vast community of Wrecks. Each one communicated continuously through its aura. Throughout the Network, Wrecks were gathering together and transforming into Omega Rex. Every Cause created a unique Omega. That was a new step for Ep Rex, one which went beyond even its own goals. But it sensed that the experiment needed to evolve, too.

There were a wide variety of different Omegas. The Network had no concept of numbers, but if felt the ebb and flow of growth and weakness, success and failure. The Blob was just one Omega with stories to tell.

It was unrivalled at recruiting new Essence, because it could rip flesh to pieces and imbue it with Ep Rex in seconds. It could change its shape, move in many different ways, and became a stronger single organism every time it fed. On the other hand, it was generally slow-moving. It abandoned human senses, which were a great advantage in its previous form. And it was more alien to the human environment, which made prey wary.

Other Omegas, as ambassadors for the experiment, had killed, eaten, fought, infected, thrived and died in different ways. These too were added to the mind of the deep-thinking Beta Rex. The emotional thrill of discovery was not something Beta could relate to. But it could feel the diamond-hard permanence of new information, and the small sense of completion that came with it.

Evolved Wrecks had been able to combat the new lifeform’s weakness and enhance its potential. Beta heard their experiences and learned from them. Beta discovered how to make itself seem more human, so that prey would not run. How to spread infection be spitting the Essence. How to paralyse prey so that they did not kill themselves or move out of contact. How to split the host into smaller parts, each one an independent host. How to infect creatures other than human beings.

Not all Omegas had been a great improvement. But all of them had fulfilled Beta’s needs. Now the experiment seemed to be approaching the limits of its effectiveness. The prey, fighting back, had become the hunters. Epsilon and Omega Rex hosts were hounded and killed. They reported, without emotion, that their part in the experiment was done.

Beta Rex considered all the information for a while. Then it knew that a return to itself was the next stage in its evolution.

Fire was the eternal enemy. But Beta Rex itself could not be hurt by fire in any of the forms Epsilon Rex had encountered. Significant. Beta Rex’s host was a lifeform that existed just below the ground. It was a gossamer web on an epic scale. Minute parts of it had been effected by the fires above ground but the whole was never at risk.

It send out a message. “The experiment will continue in a new form. The safe analysis of experience is our priority. The Essence will become one with the most secure host. We will need a period of hibernation. During this time we will study what we know in detail. Then we will know how to improve ourselves again. At that time we will start over.”

Not all Omegas were willing to give in to this new programming. They were independent now. By allowing them to evolve differently, Ep Rex had taken this risk.

The Network gradually sensed that it was being added to. Ep Rex Essence was slowly filtering to it. This was good. The Essence was like a node. The Beta was careful not to move all this Essence to a central point. It knew also that this would make it vulnerable.

It was not concerned about time. It could not die. Parts of it might, but they would be renewed. The Whole Network was impossible to attack. It was invulnerable. It would sit and slowly digest information. It would deliberate. It would wait, while molecules and chemical traces passed along its length. There was no rush. The experiment would prove, in the end, that it was possible to become better and more powerful than all other known systems.

111 – Dead By Dawn

I’m sorry about your friends,” Tam said to Giulianova. It was the first time she’d met him since they were killed. They were now part of the primordial machine of Omega Rex. Or bits of them, at least.

Me too,” said Giulianova. That sounded like enough, but he went on. “Well… I’ll miss Hardwire. Ramraid was a douchebag prick.” Tam was about to say that nobody, even your worst enemy, deserves what happened to them. But Miller ran across the street in front of them. He signaled to Giulianova. The Corporal started up the Humvee, which was like being roared at by a lion. They followed Miller down a side street to an old-style motel. It was called The Mainstay. There was a retro sign made out of a plastic bubble around a neon light.

The Humvee rumbled into the car park. Giulianova got out to confer with Miller. Tam gave a warning glance to Zelinski. He was sitting still like a Zen monk. Or someone whose brain has turned to jelly.

She got out. There was a fresh breeze, like brand new air being pumped in. On the horizon, some purple clouds were trying to suppress the inevitable advance of the sun. Yellow and blue stripes brightened a patch of the sky. Dawn.

Miller had followed the Blob’s trail. Giulianova fished some equipment out of the back of the Humvee. Tam approached the Sergeant. “You should stay here,” he said. “Watch the doc.”

Watch him do what?” said Tam. “I don’t want to.” By now she was so weary, it was impossible for her to put more effort into an excuse. Miller sighed, and said nothing more. He wasn’t going to make her stay. She saw now how tired he was aswell.

A bald pensioner and a middle-aged man in a biker jacket turned up. It was Mayer and his nephew. They looked like someone else in the encroaching sunlight. Miller led the way.

Tam could see the trail, which looked like blood clots and thin mucus. The Blob seemed to have tested several doors before going around to the back. The soldiers went with their rifles pointed ahead, but without the mechanical strut of SWAT guys and soldiers from the movies.

The Motel’s windows were boarded up. It was backed by a neat lawn and a view of wheat fields and distant hills. There was a swimming pool, a barbeque and a massive flatscreen TV for some reason. All of them were derelict. The pool was empty. Giulianova made a “huhn” sound. Miller followed him and made a sound of his own: a kind of hiss that suggested particularly beautiful Schadenfreude.

The Omega had fallen into the empty pool and couldn’t get out. It busily slithered around in circles, just like a spider in the bath. Hard to believe this was the same creature that had attempted to communicate with Tam in English, and almost driven her mad, a short time ago.

It was just a flat lump the size of a small dog. It moved slowly, with no purpose. It searched the same area repeatedly. It was almost able to reach a ladder but didn’t seem to realise how close it was. Everyone watched it silently, like the Elephant Man. As they watched, Miller nudged Mayer and the leader of the platoon of pensioners handed him something. Miller took careful aim and threw it. The bottle smashed and showered the Blob with liquid.

The Omega didn’t show any sign of being troubled. It carried on moving slowly around the curved surface of the floor of the pool. Miller said one word, “Flashbang.” Giulianova found something that looked like a small, dark can of beer and handed it to Miller. The Sergeant pulled a pin out of it and threw it at the Blob. “Don’t look,” he said. Everyone turned away.

But Tam couldn’t stop herself looking. How could she not look at this? Then Miller grabbed her arm and spun her round so roughly she was momentarily stunned. There was a sharp explosion and the area was lit up by a flare. Giulianova wasn’t looking away: he shielded his eyes with his arm but made sure the Blob wasn’t leaping over the fence.

The flare subsided. They looked again. The flashbang had lit the fuel as well as doing its own damage. A dull orange flame licked the side of the pool and the blue tiles were black. In the middle of it was a charred pudding. Giulianova pointed his assault rifle carefully and fired one shot. Pieces flew off the Omega but it was toast. They watched it burn for another while.

Tell you what, I need a fucking beer,” said Miller. Everyone laughed. They sounded like the wisest people in the world after a tragedy. And they felt like it.

I need to go home,” said Tam. She surprised herself by saying it.

Come on,” said Miller. “We’ll see what we can do.”

110 – Everything Burns

Clement’s thrashing was a nasty thing to watch. Arms and legs jerked like a puppet. But in there, under the sheet of flames, was a real man with his flesh being flayed off in layers.

The Omega was dying too. It was hard to distinguish which part of the burning form was Clement, and which was Epsilon Rex zombie Blob. The fire was hot and loud. The cordon of volunteers retreated. Their eyes glowed with despair and horror.

Tam couldn’t get a break. She was just thinking that her ordeal was finally over when a flaming comet catapulted from the flames. Clement was dead, but the Blob still had some fight in it. Glowing charcoal pieces fell off it as it sailed in a fiery arc. More sparks were shorn away when it hit the ground. The posse gasped and started babbling. Mayer’s voice rose above them.

Close in on it!” he yelled. “Move!” The more agile veterans managed to get to the spot about ten seconds after the Blob had hit. But there was no sign of them attacking anything. Tam couldn’t move. Her feet were spiking agony.

What’s happening?” she said to anybody who might hear. There were shouts from another direction. The Omega had distracted everyone from what had previously occupied all of their attention: the Wrecks still shambling around. A group of them had almost sneaked up on the scene. More members of the posse split from the action to take them on.

Then someone shouted, “Oh, God!” and pointed upwards as if UFOs were arriving to steal the show. Tam craned her neck to see. Smoke billowed from one of the upper floor windows of the museum. Everyone still standing around was galvanised and went straight in the door to tackle it before it took hold on their most precious building. Tam was left on her own to watch Clement burn.

After a while the Wreck-hunting team came back. They had been successful. A fire extinguisher appeared and Clement was freed from the bars of fire that held him. But honestly, the fire had almost burned out on its own. Only a black skeleton and two ruptured tanks were left. The Omega hunters came back too. Rapid chatter informed Tam that they couldn’t find the Blob. There was so much burned meat left behind, nobody could imagine how it was still moving.

Tam was carried, by some fit pensioners, back to the headquarters. The place Clement had called Forward. They placed her tenderly on a foldout bed. When her head hit the pillow, she was instantly swallowed by painful and chaotic dreams.

It wasn’t long before Mayer’s nephew shook her awake. “Somebody’s asking for you,” he said. Caleb’s face flashed into her mind. Who else would be asking for her? His face. Thick-looking, dense with black beard. Searching, caring eyes.

Her feet had been bandaged while she slept. When she sat up there was a large woman with chalk-white hair looking down at her. She gave Tam a couple of painkillers with a glass of water. Tam wondered if she could take painkillers while infected. It suddenly came back to her: she’d been bitten repeatedly by Epsilon Rex. Omega Rex, actually. Would she turn into the old-school Wreck or a Blob-ambitious Omega?

They had brought a wheelchair. She had to get out of it to climb downstairs but the pain wasn’t as bad as she expected. Outside, she saw Mayer talking avidly to some soldiers while a towering Humvee blocked the street.

Miller,” said Tam.

Sergeant Miller looked as good as new, though it was hard to imagine he’d had any sleep since they last met. He nodded to her politely and waved at the Humvee. “Get inside,” he said. “Get yourself a shot.” He returned to his conversation with Mayer.

Tam went round the back of the Humvee. Zelinski was inside. His hands, neck and face were streaked with medical gauze. It was wrapped around him in uneven loops. He was wearing a camouflage uniform, anonymous because it lacked insignia and badges. He sat still on a bench with his eyes closed.

Giulianova saw Tam and smiled. He was sitting in the front seat. He nudged Zelinski. The doctor did nothing. Tam climbed in slowly. Zelinski frowned as if he didn’t want to be disturbed. “Hey,” said Giulianova. “Give her a shot. An injection. The medicine. Doctor. Do it.”

Zelinski took a deep breath and opened his eyes a fraction. He reached for something. He found a syringe and a bottle of Adlea, the speculative chilli-based drug. Tam sat opposite him. He grabbed her arm and tried to inject her before she had rolled up her sleeve. She stopped him and did that bit for him. The needle pinched her, and it was done. She finally caught his eye. He showed no sign of recognising her. His eyes were utterly glazed, robotic. There was a split-second connection between them. Then he took a ragged breath and closed his eyes again. He clenched his teeth. Tears poured down his face. His mind was damaged. Badly.

109 – Shadow of Death

Clement stalked after the Blob. It had gone into a corridor. “Got the little bastard,” he said. He was silhouetted in the doorway. There was a high window letting in moonlight. The Blob left a silver snailish trail. Tam tried to keep up. Clement didn’t run off on her, he stopped every few feet to check that she was still on his heels. Bizarrely, he chose this moment to say, “Used to work at the leather shop. Retired eight years now. These days I just do a bit of wood-turning at home.”

It spoke to me,” Tam said. Her voice shook like a twenty-year-old washing machine on spin. “Really spoke. What does that mean? Is it turning into something?”

Don’t ask me,” said Clement. “You’re the expert.”

They went through a door into a small office with a high ceiling. In the near-dark all the furniture might as well have been black Lego. There was another door across from them diagonally. As they appraised the room, they heard frantic shouts. Orange light burst through the door with a bass whooshing sound. Suddenly the Blob was in the room with them, fleeing the fire that had been thrown at it. Clement yelled, a high-pitched whinny. He let loose with the flame thrower. It was like Victorian Ghostbusters.

The Blob doubled back. Someone came through the other door. He was carrying a thermite lance. Its flare was far brighter than the flamethrower’s. The Blob was seen flinching. It glistened. It rolled back and forth like black dough being kneaded by giant, invisible hands. It was cornered.

It crawled up onto a windowsill. Tam wondered if it realised, like most animals, that its best chance now was to charge its attackers. But the Blob didn’t do that. Watching it, Tam’s brain cleared. Her temporary madness subsided. For a minute she had been in a crazy reality where Blobs talk and people like her are negotiators and deals are made and peaceful compromises reached. In the harsh new light she saw only demonic death. No more intelligence than a swarm of ants. She was spitting rage once again.

Then glass shattered. Pressure from the hysterical Blob had broken the window. A thin snake of flesh crawled through the gap so fast it looked like it was being sucked out an airlock. The Beast coalesced on the other side.

Clement realised he was losing his prey.

He shouted “Appomattox!” for some unknown reason as he ran forward and blasted the Omega before it was completely through the window. It was a palpable hit that left burned meat on the ground and that glue-factory smell in the air. The Blob fell off the window outside. Everyone scrambled and ran to catch it before it disappeared. They shouted. The shouts sounded like trumpet blasts.

By the time they got outside, The soles of Tam’s feet were bleeding profusely and seizing up. It felt like all this running had aggravated the damage to something permanent. She collapsed on the ornate steps outside the rear door of the museum.

A posse had come round this side, responding to shouts and yells from inside. Tam realised that these shouts had not been as chaotic as they sounded. They were clear signals. There was a cordon around them now, fifty feet wide. About ten people. Each one had some flaming weapon in their hands.

The back of the museum was a big square of stone flags. The Blob was clearly visible on the light grey surface. The volunteers hemmed it in, but they were nervous. Many of them were seeing it for the first time.

Clement, brazen, walked forward until he was within fifteen feet of the Blob. He seemed to know something the others didn’t: Omega Rex was on the run. He poured flame on it. The Blob scittered towards the cordon. The posse closed in. Each one gave a brief shot of flame when the Blob got too close to them.

But Clement was really going for it. He ended up far too close to the Blob. Finally, the inevitable happened. It jumped at him when he wasn’t expecting it. It got past the long hose of his flame thrower. That made it useless. The reduced Blob was only half Clement’s size but he wasn’t prepared for its morbid, sickening contact. It landed right on his chest and bowled him over. He screamed. The Blob went for his throat.

The encroaching crowd made horrified noises. They closed to a tight circle in two seconds flat. But none of them had the stomach to burn Clement along with the thing mauling him.

The decision was made for them when the tanks on Clement’s back exploded.