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.