Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nature of the Beast

I'm stuck outside Jack's compound with my wife and the rest of our scout team. Twelve of us all told, and we can't get back inside any time in the near future. We only left a few hours ago, but we turned around when I got the call that Jack's was under attack from a swarm.

We're sitting on a low hill in our vehicles watching the action. We're about as far away from Jack's as the factory that we're converting into a hydroponic mega-garden, say a quarter mile. From this distance it's easy to forget that the small figures darting about in front of us are people (or used to be people, depending on which side of the wall you're seeing).

I wish there was something we could do to help, but we were given orders not to fight. We don't have much in the way of guns or ammo with us as supplies are still very low. Courtney brought some with her, but her team had trouble finding people willing to trade for ammo, which is totally understandable. We've mainly got handheld, melee weapons with us, which wouldn't do a lot in a fight with what looks like at least four hundred zombies.

Maybe if we were driving some of the modified vehicles that worked so well during the huge attack a few months ago up here, we could make a difference. We're not. Those things aren't used for scouting trips. So, instead of driving in to the crowd of undead and mowing them down in a blaze of glory, we wait.

It's surprising how much waiting you do in your life when distractions like television and the like are gone. It takes a lot of work to make daily living happen nowadays, but there are still long periods of time where there's nothing to do but sit and talk, or look out at the world around you. I'm sitting here tapping away on my phone, glancing up occasionally to make sure the swarm hasn't breasted the berm of dirt that makes the base of the wall around Jack's. It hasn't, though the piles of broken blacktop and debris that form the wall itself are littered with bodies. I hope they're the enemy...

Hmm. Pause!

Ok, sorry. I never know when to insert something that mentions time has passed between paragraphs, but now it's about twenty minutes later than it was before I said "Pause!". Jess got a call while I was typing, telling us to drive around the far western and eastern sides of the clearing that Jack's is in. The lookouts there saw movement in the trees and wanted confirmation. We got it; looks like a hundred or more zombies waiting in the little woods that are left around here. They're getting antsy and shuffling around.

We're back to our little hilltop. Nothing seems to have changed on the walls at Jack's.

As I look at the building that houses the majority of his people, I'm realizing something that had been in the back of my mind for a while. I've been thinking about it without knowing I've been doing it, I guess.

Nature is going to take back almost every square foot of land we ever stole from her. Back at our own compound, we had some animals around that moved from house to house, grazing on the bits of grass that hadn't been plowed up for growing food. Most of our yards, back and front, had been broken up to make farm land. For us, there wasn't a lot of upkeep on yard work. We took down all of the trees within the compound. Our numbers made it easy to do the little maintenance required.

Jack's is the same. The vast majority of the ground inside the walls is for growing food, and the kudzu and other creeping plants that try to move up the walls of the buildings here are killed by the citizens here regularly. It seems that most places that have a decent amount of people tend toward being neat and untouched by the destructive power of a living, growing thing.

Elsewhere, though...

We've been scouting off and on since we've been here. It's winter and the ground is mantled in snow, but the signs are still there to see. Grass left uncut for months sticks out through the smooth white coat everywhere you look. Houses are being covered in vines, though many are brown and dormant right now. Weeds are breaking through the concrete all over.

It says something deep to me. Seeing the slow march of earth's greenery, temporarily halted though it is by the season, take over and break apart the things that have marred the beauty of the land amazes me. It's a perfect example of the persistence of life. I don't want to get all emo here, so let me quote a movie: Life finds a way.

It really does. The slow crawl of creepers over brick, shattering them with time and pressure, is an obvious and awesome example to be sure. Think also of people, survivors; we're converting a factory into something that will make food, grow living things. It will take time and effort, but we will make life work there. Plants do as their genetics command them. Are we any different? Our chromosomes are packed with the base pairs that give us conscious thought, creativity, and ingenuity. The structure of our cells makes we human beings strive to not just live, but to alter our circumstances consciously to better survive. To thrive. Spectacular.

And I am reminded, as I look at the figures methodically bringing makeshift spears and clubs down on the advancing hordes of undead, that our most prevalent enemy is perhaps the best example of life's determination to persist that I can find. Something--a bacteria, fungus, or parasite--infiltrates our bodies as we live and breathe. From what we can tell, it learns us and how our bodies operate. When we die, that silent invader takes the empty shell and makes it useful again. Makes it walk and survive.

And eat.

Terrible, it's true, but remember also the adaptability of whatever it is that reanimates our dead. It got better at using the intelligence of the its host (us), making the smarties. Thankfully only a small number of zombies seem to be able to handle that strain of the disease, or we'd probably all be dead. Think about the much greater (I would guess approaching total) number of them that have adapted to the cold. We went from not seeing any undead when it got below forty five degrees or so, to watching them move toward us, half frozen, when we ourselves could barely move even within the layers of clothes we wear.

Human beings adapt by changing the circumstances we're in. Sort of like Captain Kirk hacking the computer that gave him the Kobayashi Maru test, the unbeatable scenario now winnable through his manipulation of the test itself. (If you don't know this reference...shame on you. Everyone should! Ask a nerd about it.) We do that--changing the rules around us to make survival and thriving possible.

Zombies, though, seem to change themselves. That's a huge advantage. If human beings were capable of single-generation mutations that way, there's no telling how far we could have gotten. It's staggering to think that we face something like that, and fills my heart with pride to know that we've stood against it and found ourselves equal to the task.

Time will be the judge of which way is ultimately better. It will have to be us or them eventually, and we're tough. We won't lose easily.

Back to watching the battle. We will try to get in through the gate if there's any break in the fighting. I don't have much hope for that anytime soon; my instinct says this will be a long, long day of waiting...and thinking about the way our enemies work.

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