Tam’s reunion with Zelinski was soured by Rand’s condition. He was scarred, suicidal and now doped. They discussed what to do while the same two soldiers kept watch. Tam wanted to help the Infected on the coach but Zelinski said it wasn’t an option. Then he sighed, and got on the bus anyway. He made a short speech where he said that there was no cure for Ep Rex, and there was little point in moving from here. They should send runners to grab as much Tabasco sauce and chillies as possible. But everyone capable of running had already been sent for food and water. The runners had run away. Or else they’d been killed. Zelinski took the nurse and her cool partner aside and told them to be prepared to euthanise people, either voluntarily or otherwise.

The Infected watched as Tam and Zelinski got in the Humvee and drove off. Probably asking each other what made her so fucking special. There was no good answer to that.

The inside of the oversized jeep was not as roomy as Tam expected it to be. It was full of crates, bags and boxes and it smelled of sweat. There were two soldiers up front. In the back were two more with Zelinski, Tam and now Rand stretched out in the middle. Tam sat on one of the side-facing benches, squashed between Hardwire and some baggage.

Zelinski spoke to Miller, the Sergeant. He had a sharp face with incredibly charming eyes. The Humvee hit a heavy bump (or rolled over a corpse). Tam tried to find something to grab but couldn’t. She went sprawling and almost landed on top of Rand. The communications guy, Hardwire, helped her up. He looked like a singer from and indie band with his frothy black hair and black-rimmed glasses.

Zelinski changed seats to sit next to Tam. “Okay,” he said. “We’re going to a place called Position Eclipse. It’s not far from here. It’s where the Wrecks are gathering. We hope… well, I hope we’ll get some more information there.”

Great,” said Tam. “I’m just glad to see you.”

Zelinski said, “What?” then seemed to realise very slowly what the Hell she was talking about. “Sorry,” he said. “What happened to Caleb?”

We lost him,” said Tam. She was about to launch into an epic retelling, like the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, about everything that had happened since she last saw Zelinski. But the mood in the Humvee was businesslike, professional. No point offending that with a sad tale of some crap they had seen a hundred times.

There was a pause. The Humvee sounded like rolling thunder as it skipped around and through every zombie in its path. Zelinski made a cursory check of Rand’s vital signs. Sergeant Miller looked at Tam with a sympathetic smile.

It’s very exciting,” said Zelinski.

Really?” said Tam. It was hard to hide her cynicism. Zelinski noticed but went on anyway.

I found out where it started,” Zelinski said in a conspiratorial whisper.

Where what started?” Tam said.

The disease,” said Zelinski.

Tam assimilated this and worked out what he meant. “Holy shit,” she said.

Epsilon Rex started out as an idea.”

It was a simulation. An experiment devised by scientists to see whether they could invent a new life form. But only in theory. The idea was to teach a computer (or several) about various life forms and then program it to design the best possible new one. The system was fed a mine of information regarding simple organisms like bacteria, fungi, amoebas. It was also taught about more complex organisms: jellyfish, insects, lizards, sharks. All this was done using a sort of jargon developed especially for the project which would allow the computer to make possible new connections. The programming was as close to Artificial Intelligence as its creators could conceive. They wanted it to come up with ideas itself, not just crunch numbers. The system was told to imagine a new entity. Its purpose would be to survive, propagate and and evolve. The system was called Nanopoleon.

Why?” said Tam. A pretty fucking legitimate question, she thought.

The government thought it could have all sorts of future applications,” said Zelinski. “Terraforming Mars, cleaning up oil spills, making steak from grass, you name it. It was more about testing the programming.”

Of course, the Nanopoleon system was wired up to a massive network and ran constant simulations. With every generation, it improved. And the scientists fed it more information and set it running again.

Somewhere along this journey, the leap happened. Zelinski spoke of a Quantum form of Ep Rex called Alpha Rex. Tam could not understand what he was talking about. But the simulations starting basing themselves on real-world tests that involved sowing seeds, then letting them grow quietly. Nanopoleon was able to begin creating its body in labs. At that point it was just a fungus. A hybrid lifeform whose purpose was to spread itself wide before altering its hosts to become the next generation. Beta Rex.