Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chapter 9: Truckin'

When we left Haven, fuel was not a concern. Okay, let me qualify that: fuel wasn't impossible to come by. The oil fields of Texas were producing, the associated communities making up the Union had the old United States strategic petroleum reserved, and those two sources of crude were fed into the handful of refineries in an almost nonstop stream. Hell, Haven itself even had a little refinery. All it takes is a constant heat source and some basic equipment. 

It's a wonderful way to crack oil into all sorts of useful things, and the end result was to give Haven a stockpile of fresh, usable fuels. Primary among them gasoline. At the time of our departure, every vehicle used for more than local security sweeps was outfitted with admittedly homemade but functional extended fuel tanks. Few of them could go for less than seven or eight hundred miles thanks to this extra capacity. 

Our truck, on the other hand, had just a regular tank and even that was only about half full. Or half empty. Pick your own perspective on that one. 

The nearest hidden fuel cache was well outside our range, which was how we found ourselves walking a solid twenty miles southwest of the bunker which was supposed to be our rendezvous point. 

"This sucks, just FYI," I said. "Why did we take the long way around, again?"

It was a rhetorical question--well, okay, a rhetorical complaint, if such a thing exists--but Adam, plodding along between and slightly ahead of me and Jess, answered. 

"Trust me, it's the only way I know to stay ahead of these guys. Even being inside the truck won't have completely eliminated my smell or whatever they track."

Jess shook her head. "You were inside the cab the whole time. It'll be thin. We might have gotten away clean."

"Don't bet on that," Adam replied. "I stole a car to get away from them the first time. They still found me."

No one had a response to that, because what was the point? If he was right, there was nothing we could do about it anyway. Adam could be tracked or he couldn't, a rigid binary. We fell into another long, semi-companionable silence. Those were common on the road. Adventures in books were always interesting. As William Goldman made famous, books are usually the 'good parts' version of a story. They skip over the long walks (excepting, of course, The Long Walk by Richard Bachman) and the boring routines, and who am I to break that trend?

No world-changing events occurred on that stretch of road. Nothing of note would happen until the next morning, as a matter of fact. But every time Adam talked about his strange invisibility to the zombies, I couldn't help turning it over and over in my mind. I'd spent a fair amount of time studying the undead, and I had a basic grasp of biology. Adam seemed impossible. 

Oh, not that he put off some kind of blocker that made him unpalatable to the dead. That much I was a hundred percent behind. After all, ammonia will drive zombies away in all but the most extreme examples. Covering yourself with a thick enough layer of zombie gore will mask you, so long as it's not New Breed zombies you're dealing with. Nor was it the idea that Adam had some weird mutation of the Chimera organism inside him that would create such a unique and useful trait. The damn thing mutates like nobody's business. Hell, we once--and ONLY once--saw a zombie that had the ability to ward off others of its kind by vomiting up a secretion its body made. 

It was the total invisibility that bugged me. For zombies to not notice him at all rather than just not find him interesting or be seen as a threat--that implied something much deeper. Chimera began its life as a symbiotic organism famous, at least among the researchers who knew about it, for constantly adapting to new hosts, snipping useful DNA to keep for itself, and making the host better in some way. That same adaptable nature also made it ridiculously dangerous. Proof: end of the world. Not a hard sell there. 

But this smacked of information transfer. For a zombie, whose brain no longer functions and is in fact controlled by a delicate lace of Chimera inside the skull mimicking those functions, to wholly be unable to see Adam, it had to first know what not to look at. Right? I mean, if the dude is invisible, then how does the organism know not to see him? It's obviously being tricked somehow, but the mechanism was beyond me. Possibly the data was transmitted by the electromagnetic field living creatures put off, but I had a hard time buying that. Maybe the chemical or pheromone Adam exuded acted like a primer: smell this, and utterly ignore whatever is putting it off. That one I bought more thoroughly. It would be like having a scent that forced your brain to see a blank space where something was.

That's actually not as hard as it sounds. The brain is weird and can be tricked in a lot of ways to confuse the senses. But it still felt somehow...less than perfect.

What if that second theory was right, but not the whole story? What if Adam's pheromone functioned like a hammer or a stun gun, temporarily walloping the zombies around him. Then when he gets close, the Chimera in his body puts off little chunks of itself. The stuff eats up DNA and incorporates it into itself. 

Holy. Shit.

I stopped in the middle of the road. What if that was it: Adam put off Trojan horses. Tiny packets of cells floating on the air that contained instructions like a computer virus. Ignore this guy, it would say, then be integrated into the dead around him. That would explain why his pheromones were so persistent. You'd want to coat everything around you as much as possible to get the best effect. 

"You okay?" Jess asked, eyes narrowed against the afternoon sun. 

I had a theory, but it was just a theory. And it wasn't like it mattered. Surely the people who had imprisoned the kid and studied him already knew the answers. My suspicions and ideas had no impact on the real world or our immediate future. Not to mention a lot of it was speculation fueled by a lifelong addiction to science fiction and medical thrillers. Sure, I felt like it was a revelation, but that didn't necessarily mean Adam and Jess would even care. 

"Yeah," I said, and began walking again. "Just struck by a thought. But it can wait. Let's keep on trucking along."

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