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 “I’m not sure where you got your orders, Sergeant,” he said, “But they’ve probably been superseded by now.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.