Dreams and Journeys

We never did find anyone at the base, but we did find a small reservoir of fuel so we could fuel up the Jeep. We spent the night on base and called in the next morning. We told Natalie about the locked up clinic we found in the center of the base.
"When we broke through the doors, it looked like there'd been some kind of fight. The room is scorched and there are bodies in cages. It's the only human signs we've found. I think there was a breakout of PTA here, Natalie," I told her.
"That's impossible, Dahlia. The virus is so strained now, you know as well as I do that the government has every resource to kill the virus even if an infected does overpower someone. How many bodies were there?"
"At least ten. The clinic is small, about the size of my lab, so you can imagine the mess..."
"We'll never be able to figure out what happened without pulling record, and we can't do that without access to someone who worked there. What about the antibiotics? Did you find any medicine?"
"There were a few vials left in a freezer. Enough to get everyone through til the next truck. And there was some insulin, too. I don't know if there's enough for everyone, but we can be careful and ration it. I've got everything on ice in the Jeep, we're ready to move."
"Try to hurry, Dahlia. We're treating everyone as best we can, but you know this is risky. Nobody's allowed in the research building til you guys get back with the medicine. We don't want to risk anything with weakened immune systems. I estimate at least half the subjects will be past the turning point by the time we can get back in there, so every minute counts."
"Yes, ma'am. Understood. We'll be there as soon as we can."

As we drove back, the conversation was awkward to say the least.
"Do you... have nightmares a lot?" John asks.
"No, not really. Just when I'm very stressed." I answer.
"Are you stressed right now?"
"Well, a little."
"Belle's sick."
"Is that it?"
"Is there any way I can help?"
"No, not really. Thanks though."

After waking up in the middle of the night, John had drilled me about the dream. Mostly all he got out of me was that my mother was sick and my brother died of PTA. I didn't let on to my mother's secrets. I didn't give him any dates or names. I still felt a bit invaded by all the questions, and the ride home I was still feeling on edge. But he wouldn't let up, every ten or fifteen minutes he would come up with a new question.

"Did your mom die from her illness?"
"What happened to your brother?"
"He's gone."
"And your aunt?"
"With my brother."
"So they... abandoned you?"
"No! Of course not! God, what's with all these questions, John?"
"Sorry! Sorry, I guess I misunderstood. I didn't mean to offend you, or say anything about your family, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, it's ok. Sorry for yelling..."
"I get it, it's a touchy subject."

It was the longest two days of my life. And as far as I could tell, John didn't get any closer to learning my family's secrets than the moment I woke up screaming.

Devils in the church

I'm in the church my mother once took us to on Sundays when I was a child. I'm in a small children's room and we are about to join our parents in the sanctuary for the sermon. We are walking across the familiar carpeted room where we play tag and dodgeball before classes, and we line up single file at the door on the far end. There are ten of us counting my brother and myself. The teacher, a friendly fat old lady with short red curls on her head and pale whitish blue eyes that, even of they were not squinted in an eternal smile, she probably couldn't see out of anyway, puts one knobby finger with a pink manicured nail up to her lips and we all know we are supposed to follow suit. Finally we file into the sanctuary. The room is small, with about thirty pew benches in total. There are probably half as many families in the building, some familiar and some new. Then I see my mother standing in the middle of the aisle way and realize what's going on. This is a memory, and I know exactly what's about to happen.
The church we are standing in is a very moderate group. Most of the people are middle class, day to day people with moderate, day to day beliefs, and the speakers at this church generally reflect that. In short, they are not prepared for my mother.
"There are devils in this church!" is what I remember hearing her shriek. I remember fear, her terror and my own, as a grasp my brother's hand tightly. I remember being confused and embarrassed, because, even though I was young enough to believe my mother really saw these things, I was old enough to know that it was a secret, and strangers shamed her for it.
What I don't remember, however, is what happened next. Those familiar faces, which I remember showing faces of fear and anger, are instead melting away, corroding, lengthening into the jaundice profiles of my subjects at the lab. There is moaning and screeching and my mother's incessant declaration, and it all jumbles together in my view and ears and I can't understand what's going on til I see my brother looking at me and calling me. His face starts to morph and I scream, waking myself up to stare into John's concerned face.


Ghost towns.

Every couple hundred years, the earth gets a little full. People just keep multiplying and multiplying, and soon there's not really enough space to fit them all. Usually when this happens, the human race becomes such a big target that there's something that happens to thin us out immensely. There was PTA here recently. There was a plague a few hundred years ago. There have been many different happenings that have brought us to our knees, all the way back to a traumatizing flood around ten thousand years ago. It's amazing to be part of the few who have seen both sides of one of these happenings. I was old enough to remember what the world looked like full. No empty towns, cities, counties... So it's still weird when I walk into a place that looks habitable, but there are no people to inhabit them.
Ghost towns are creepy.
That's why, when we got to F4, needless to say I was creeped out. The place looks like a military town. Gates and fences all around, checkpoints to get in at any entry, you've seen the places. But there was no one anywhere. There weren't even any dead cars like there are in most abandoned towns. It was like there was some mass evacuation. John and I drove into the compound and found the phone. There's one on every safe base, and they work the way they did in the old days, with an operator and everything. We patched through to home, and told them what was going on.

We talked to Natalie Max, who is basically the head of our base.
"We made it, but there's a bit of a problem..." I started.
"What's the issue? You have permission to offer them whatever they need to get the food and fuel to last us til the next truck. You'll be back tomorrow night, right? Don't forget we need medicine, our coolers shut down so all the penicillin and insulin is unusable."
"Well, that's just it, Natalie, there's no one to trade with." John said.
"What do you mean, no one? Is their commander off base?"
"No, Natalie," I said, "there's no one, literally not a single person here. In the whole place, nobody living or otherwise anywhere. It's a ghost town."
"Well, is there any food or energy there?"
"We haven't checked yet," I answered.
"What about the people?" John interrupted, "Don't you even care that hundreds of people are just gone?"
"Of course I care, John," Natalie answered, "But right now we don't have the time to worry about that. I've got to secure our people before I can worry about them. We can't even order the medicines that our people need til the next truck gets here, then it's at least another week til it actually arrives. Dahlia, Belle is one of the people who needs medication, you know how important this is."
"John! She's right," I stopped him before the argument could get any more heated, "You've both got valid points, and we'll investigate as soon as possible, but we have to save the people we know we can save first, and worry about the others as soon as possible. If we worry about everything at once, we'll get nothing done."
"Fine. Let's get on it, then."
"All right, so you have the list, right?" Natalie asked.
"Yes, ma'am. We'll call back when we head out." I answered.
"All right, good luck to you, and hurry."


Road trip.

Even after a disaster is over with, it can take a while to get your mind back on gear. It can take even longer to get everyone in a community back to their usual routines. Yes, we were all anxious to get back to work, but at the same time, there were plenty of other things on our minds. Belle was pretty sick, her new little friend was having dizzy spells. Some of the elderly people were having trouble as well. There was a food shortage, as, after the arsonists set fire to the fuel, they raided our food supplies.

In the end, we took to a vote and decided that we send two people out to follow the gas truck to the next stop and get some food. Everyone else was either sick or too interested in getting back to work, so John and I ended up going. Belle was still fighting her ear infection, so I left her with the Wendz's so that Mrs. Wendz could take care of her and so she and Eve could play when they got better.

It was two days since John and I had kissed. Two days since we'd even talked. We volunteered simultaneously, neither of us knew that the other was going to go. It's not that I was avoiding him, it's just that I was busy. And I didn't want to be distracted. This is the first time I've ever had a 'crush' and I have so much else to focus on. There's no time for that stuff. But there was no backing out at that point, people needed medicine and food. So John got in the passenger seat of a state Jeep and I got in the driver's seat and we took off. It's a two day drive west to the next sanctuary, which is simply named "F4".

F4 is the army base where all basic training is done now. It's also the home of one of the largest food creation plant in America. They grow and preserve all sorts of food: fruits, grains, veggies, even chickens and cows.

The first hour we listened to the radio, but you can't really listen to the same broadcast of "these coordinates for safety" and "these tips for avoiding infection" for more than an hour. The second hour, I drove in silence and John read some of his notes and scribbled some math on a diagram. For the third hour, we switched drivers and I watched the road pass by. And by the fourth hour, we were ready to talk, even if it wasn't about anything we were really thinking about.

We talked about work, about Belle, about the different places we've been, the different places we wanted to see. We didn't talk about anything heavy, no talk about PTA, about actually having kids, about the people we'd lost... We just talked about the funny things, and about the things that made us happy, and about our dreams and hopes. We talked for hours, but eventually we got to the point we were too tired to drive anymore, so we stopped on the highway by a tall median so that we could take turns sleeping. I went first, the back seats in the jeep had been taken out so there was enough room to lay down, though I had to curl up. John sat watch for four hours while I slept, then we traded off and I watched for four hours. I have to admit though, I wasn't watching the road for all four hours.

When he woke up I slept for a bit in the passenger seat while he drove. When I woke up, we stopped and ate some of the food we had brought. Bagels with honey. Finally, he started talking about real things. I couldn't think of anything else to talk about to avoid the subject.

"Dahlia, I want to tell you something."
"Oh? What's that?"
"I had a wife once. She was older, and she had a daughter. They're both dead. PTA victims."
How do you answer that? And why would he even tell me? I didn't know how to respond, so I just looked at him and prayed he would say he was joking so I could just be mad at him for making such a cruel joke.
"I just thought I should tell you. I don't want any secrets here."
"Oh, well, ok... That's...good?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sure  you're a bit confused. I'd like to try and have a relationship with you.. And I don't want you to agree to it without knowing full well what's entailed. I'm over it, she wasn't very good to me in the first place, but I just want to be open."
"Well, that's... a lot to process. I mean, thank you for being honest with me. And I'm sorry that it happened like that. But, what if I don't want to get into something serious right now?"
"Ok, answer this for me, Do you enjoy my company?"
"All right, and can you tell me why you don't want to try?"
"Because, I've got--"
"Other things to focus on? I can help you."
"Well, there's also--"
"Belle? I'm great with kids. Remember, I was a step dad."
"But I've never--"
"Done this before? That's ok. Just be yourself and if it works then we got it right, if not then we do something else and we can be friends and not have that question in the back of my mind every time I see you smile whether or not we could have made it work. What do you say?"
I thought about it for a few minutes, weighed the pros and cons, and made the best decision I could.
"Yeah, what the hell. Let's try it."


Darkness in paradise

Last week, an arsonist set fire to the base's generators and backup gasoline cache. Because of our lock-down system, we were all trapped inside the living quarters. Every night at dark, the doors lock with a mechanical system and every ranking adult has a code to open them. However, the power went out in the middle of the night, so we were all trapped inside til help came.

Every week we get a gasoline truck to refill the genny's. Unfortunately, the arsonist came the night after our truck, so it was a full week til any help came.

So, the result was a week of no light, little food, rationed water, no moving air in the middle of the hottest summer we've had in years. Thankfully the plumbing still worked, though there was no hot water, so a week of cold showers and 105 degrees plus body heat and humidity. It's no surprise both Belle and I wound up with upper respiratory infections and she got an ear infection by the end of it all.

If there was an upside to the tragedy, it was that, with a week off from work and nothing to do but talk, we all got to know one another much more intimately. It's amazing the kind of progress intelligent minds can make when you take away the computers and test tubes. I learned a lot about what the world was like before the outbreak from Jenna Hart, a senior biologist who has worked on the floor above mine for almost eight years now, and who I had only ever met twice. She's fifty eight, and she had five brothers and sisters, eight nieces and nephews, and an adopted daughter before the outbreak. "Now," she told me Wednesday night about three in the morning, "I have no one. I am alone. The only reason I go on is because I know there are others out there who still have someone to live for and they are depending on me." It's good, sometimes, to know that you are among like people. Maybe not to have that pity party you really want to have, but instead to see how strong they are when you're not feeling so strong. Inspiration.

I learned from Julian Grant about strings. I had learned a little about them in my research to get my degree, but I never understood them so well as he does. His current research is an old project that's been picked back up in the last six months because of a proposition he made to the state that if we could see strings, the most basic basics of the building blocks of reality, we could possibly see the foundation of what makes PTA so different from any other disease. He shared with me on Thursday that this was total bullshit, but because string theory research was on the bottom of the list of priority research, nobody that actually read his report knew that he was making it all up. The real reason he even wrote that proposal was so that he could carry on his father's work after he passed away two years ago. "I'm afraid you'll rat me out," He whispered to me, "But I just can't handle the secrets anymore. I have to know that someone knows. And if this is the end of my time here, so be it." I'm not going to tell our supers.

Everyone had a lot to say, and it feels like we are all more like a family than coworkers. Even secluded little Belle managed to make friends with the Wendz's daughter, Eve. Mr. Wendz, according to Eve, is the person who makes sure that everyone on base gets enough food, and Mrs. Wendz is a doctor. Lucky we had Mr. Wendz, because he was able to make the canned food in our storage, which is only supposed to last everyone on base a maximum of four days, last for all seven. Maybe nobody was full, but certainly no one was hungry.

Every night after most people were gone back to their rooms to sleep, John and I sat in his sitting area and talked for hours. He taught me about xenobiology, and I taught him about human brain function. We compared notes on PTA; it was amazing to see something I'd seen millions of times through someone else's eyes. I feel like I have a much stronger understanding and even a connection with the animal. John has me convinced now that it's not just a parasitic bug, but a living, thinking animal. He believes it's just as intelligent as humans. His theory is that the violent outbursts of the first few weeks of infection is the adolescence. We usually exterminate infecteds by the fourth week, because they become so strong and PTA has such accurate control of their bodies that we can't afford to keep them contained. John believes that if we were to either expose the virus to a vacuum or to extreme conditions of all sorts, we could find out a rough idea of the origins. We could try to trace their home planet down. Or at least find them a new home where they don't have to kill us.

John Smith is a genius. He may not have specific knowledge about human anatomy or biology, but what he lacks in learned intelligence, he makes up for in being utterly brilliant and creative. The last night we were in the dark, I told him so.

"Brilliant," he responded, laughing, "I'll accept, but creative? I think you've crossed the line, ma'am."
"You don't have to call me ma'am," I countered, "I may out rank you in this operation, but I'll permit you to call me 'Dahlia.'"
"Well, Dahlia, if that is your real name," we laughed, "I must admit that I've got a 'thing' for brilliant people. I love to surround myself with intelligent, clever friends. And, while this building is full of intelligent people, I still seem to be having trouble finding a true friend. It seems that the lines of personal relations have been drawn for a long time, and while there is a little shift permitted between long-term acquaintances, I don't seem to qualify just yet. Why is that?"
"Dr. Smith, you've just come in to this community fairly recently. Most of the people here are only here because they've got nothing left at home. Why do you think there are only four or five children below working age here? Because nobody's got their teenage sweethearts still alive. The people here are brilliant because they've got no reason to hold themselves back. Nothing is left to live for, so instead of simply dying, they stop feeling and start thinking. They won't be comfortable with you for a very, very long time. Not til you've stopped feeling, or at least act like you have."
"Have you stopped feeling, or are you just acting? And by the way, you can call me John if you like."
"I still feel. I feel deeply. Deeper than what I can tell is normal, at least from what I've read and seen. I think that's why the people here at least respect me if not accept me. I went straight for the polar opposite as far as reactions to tragedy. While they have a basic need to know things because there's nothing left to hope for, I hope for everything and the only way to tie it all together is to learn and seek the truth. I just can't let it go, you know?"
And that was when Dr. John Smith kissed me.


Meeting new people can be a good thing.

Last week, a new researcher started working in the lab next to mine. He is from Miami, and relocated here because of some personal issue with some staff back there. They won't tell us what. I've gotten a few chances to talk to him since he started, and the man is a genius.
His name is Professor John Smith, and he studies what he calls Xenobiology. Upon my own research I've found that he practically founded the field. Until a few years ago, it was all about how extra terrestrial biology would work if it existed, all kinds of theory and hypothesis, untested ideas and speculation. Then, suddenly, Smith enters the game and the field takes a corkscrew towards real science, with testing and discoveries about actual materials and life forms, collected from meteors and returned space shuttles. It was all stuff that was already here, right under our noses, and nobody had the right idea of how to look for it until him. All the life forms are single cell organisms, of course. He has yet to find a space squirrel, let alone a sentient creature capable of communication and society, but it's still amazing what he has got in the short time since he came onto the scene.
Professor Smith was working in Miami for NASA, which is greatly under-funded these days, as our biggest mystery is now the deaths that are sweeping the earth down here, not up there. He was studying the PTA virus there, as a possible extra terrestrial life form.
Here's what I've gotten out of him so far: about 6 years before the first reported infection, which as we know happened in Germany, there was a meteor that we lost track of. NASA has been watching all the rocks in space that are close enough to hit us for years. This one just dropped right out of the sky. It broke its orbit, apparently, and landed in the German countryside, in the middle of the night. The field in which it fell was so large that the boom could only have barely shaken the windows of the nearest house, which was that of the German farmer who worked the land. That day, he found it and reported it and we had a big piece of space junk for the astrophysicists of the world to enjoy. In the six years between his finding the rock and the outbreak of PTA, he and his family sell the farm and move to Berlin. The next buyer of the land works the land as farmers usually do, and six years later one of his farmhands, who was on leave for a vacation to see his family in a small town called Luebeck, falls ill.
Because Luebeck is quite a good distance from where the rock was found, and because the name of the first reported infected man had almost nothing to do with it, nobody put two and two together to think maybe they were connected, until Professor Smith. The farm was not large enough that the food it created was spread throughout the country, let alone the world, but it was big enough to be quite successful in the local markets, and soon enough the infection, which had two starting points at that point, grew to meet itself between Luebeck and the farm, half the people infected virally and the other bacterially. Since Luebeck was the first point of origin, it was the first place people studied, and since it was apparent that those people were communicating the sickness virally and there was no evidence of food poisoning or bacteria, there was no reason to assume the infection a week later near the farm (which is just one out of dozens in the area) was any different.
Traveling cross-continent is dangerous and difficult to do now, even for leaders of countries let alone plain old researchers. For that reason, Smith has had to study from a distance, making phone calls and reading newspapers, trying to gather enough evidence and money to get him across the water, and he's making good time. I look forward to working with him, and now that I've got a new lead on the possible origins of PTA I can try to test some new possible treatments or cures for it. Starting with the fact that, according to Smith, it's very likely that this disease may not be a sentient being, but it's possible it was designed by one for any number of different reasons. The purpose of the disease could be the key to curing it. Is it a form of terraforming? If they're trying to make the world habitable by gases, then maybe the right type of gases that may not be deadly to the virus can stop its ill effects. Are they trying to breed more of themselves? Some form of spermicide may do the trick. Who knows? I'm going to be busy for a while til I explore every possibility.


It's the small things

When you think about a "world changing catastrophe", when you read a book about the apocalypse, when you hear a story about the probable destruction of life as we know it, you don't think about the changes that may happen to the little things in life. Beyond survival, humanity has a billion little things that gives a life variety and texture. Things like music, television, books, entertainment. What happens to them after the world ends and humans are still crawling around trying to restore it?

Some things aren't important to survival, so they just dissolve. Things like fashion, video games, or children's shows. After things stabilized, we started developing them again, but after 15 years a lot was lost. Some things are not important to survival, but they are vital to our emotional well being so we hold on to them in some way or another. Things like music, art, or storytelling. While we run for our lives, while we fight back, we pass those things on, the songs from our childhoods, the things that give us comfort. We create more, to vent and to share and help each other, we tell stories to help save each other from making the same mistakes, and to give each other hope. And then there are the essentials, like math, medicine, agriculture, and architecture.

The other day, Belle was out looking for treasure and she came across an old radio with a compact disc player in it. There was still a disc in the player somehow, and the radio plugged into the wall with the same plugs as our news radio. When I asked Leroy at work about it, he said the music was probably from around the 1990's. Leroy's one of the security guards, he's about 50 now. Anyway, the disc is red and says "californication" on it. It's weird to listen to the songs, there's a lot of drums and guitar, and the lyrics are mostly pretty fast. A lot of our music now is a'Capella, sometimes you'll find someone who still has a guitar or other true instrument, but most of our music is voice over drums, beat out on whatever is around. The music on the disc is different in sound, but the words are pretty common. A lot of disappointment in the way life goes, a lot of hope about the beauty of life, and as always sex and government. She's listened to it with me a few times, I don't think she really gets it, because the lyrics don't make sense a lot of times, but some of those nonsensical phrases are similar to some that my mother said when I was growing up. I think maybe she listened to this music when she was younger. I listen to that disc almost every day, and think about my family and wonder who and what I'd be if things were different.

No matter what I imagine, though, when I open my eyes, I'm still Dahlia Linz, biologist, surrogate mother, searching for a cure for the end of humanity, and every day it seems more and more like I'm going to fail.


Sometimes your mind just needs a little altering.

I vaguely remember, and I've read about a bit, the "war on drugs" before the outbreak. What I remember is that it was very controversial. It shouldn't have concerned me, since I was so young, but it just so happened that my mother had some serious mental health issues, and was therefore often heavily medicated, and a good portion of that medication was self-prescribed. When she got in the spirit to right her condition, the doctor usually prescribed her lithium. I remember how she would start being sick in the mornings for the first few days, then the drain in the shower would soon fill with the hair she was loosing. She was still beautiful, even with thinned out hair and the 10 or 20 pounds she would loose every time, but she didn't feel beautiful, so the treatments never lasted long. And so, whenever she got sick of being sick, and sick of being depressed, and sick of her imaginary friends all at the same time, she would call up her old friends who seemed to always be available. She used to say that even though mom wasn't her most regular customer, she was definitely her favorite. Mom would give her a big wad of cash, and she would hand her a little box. Once, I got curious as to what was in this secret box, and when mom was out one day I snuck in her room and opened it. It was full of this white powder, I thought it looked like sugar. I smelled it and it was smelled wrong, so I left it alone and didn't bring it up with mom. When I got to learning about human biology and medicine, I learned that it was probably cocaine.

Since my mother was a drug user, and I was a child who loved my mother dearly, whenever the issue has ever come up about drugs and the old war on them, I've had to avoid the conversation. But just because I've never voiced my opinions, doesn't mean that I don't have them.

Nowadays, there is no war on drugs. They're not legal, it's just that there is no extra military or police presence to warrant it. It's just become excessively hard to find them. Since everyone is basically living on government property, there are apartment checks to make sure everything is working properly, like stoves heaters and air locks. It's pretty difficult to grow suspicious plants or cook suspicious chemicals when a soldier could be knocking on your door at any given moment. However, there is still the occasional user and a few pushers left, they're just increasingly hard to come by. It's almost like people were using so much before simply because it was illegal, taboo, naughty.

I personally don't believe mind altering drugs should be legal. However, seeing what my mother went through, and seeing what the undead go through to get to what they are, I see the necessity for them. There are things in this world that human bodies and human brains are not capable of surviving. We can't live through some types of pains and illnesses and conditions without help. Drugs may not give you super powers, but they sure do seem to make your lack of super powers a little bit easier to cope with.

At the beginning of the outbreak, families of the undead could get prescriptions for controlled drugs, usually anti-depressants, sometimes something stronger. We stopped doing that a couple years in, though, because people were getting hooked. I think they were getting hooked for good reason. Who wants to remember every day that their oldest daughter suffered insufferable pain, then died, then wanted to kill you? Who wants to remember every day that their mother, who said she'd protect them from everything bad, turned into, for all intents and arguments, a fucking zombie? Nobody. It's one of those pains that a human body cannot survive alone. However, we should never have given those drugs to the public in the first place. That pain can be overcome in time, it can be survived, if you wait it out long enough for it to fade on its own, but if you neglect dealing with it for years, and suddenly you try to take it on by yourself, it will hit you with a force ten times what it would be initially. My aunt didn't believe the drugs would make things easier on me or her, so as my guardian, she declined them. I'm glad she did. I never would have made it to be the person I am today if I had avoided that chest-pounding sorrow.

I do wish, however, that we had a drug to relieve the pain of the undead as they die. The parasite, as you know, eats away at everything, the brain in particular. Fortunately for the parasite, and unfortunately for doctors, they burrow down to the center of the brain, and become so entangled in the nerves and tissue there, that you can't remove the parasite without killing the infected. This also means that there is no way to ease the pain they're going through. During the hours that they're dying, they feel pain everywhere: their arms, legs, back, everything hurts excruciatingly. However, no tested drugs can ease that pain because it's an action, not a reaction. Usually, pain in your body is your brain's way of telling you something is wrong, something is injuring you. The parasites bite down on the receivers and transmitters in your brain, and basically just confuse you so much it hurts. Your brain tricks your nerves into thinking there's something stimulating them, even though there's not a thing there except your brain and the bugs that are quickly making themselves at home and re-writing your neuro-pathways. It's terrible, and no chemical can relieve the resulting pain. No chemical kills the bugs, it just kills the human, so it's pointless to try that route, and anything that would usually slow brain function enough to relieve pain is cancelled out by those parasites, who work so quickly the brain is forced to keep up, regardless of the drugs pumped into it.

In short, we are no closer to relieving the pain of the infect than we are to curing them. The best we can do is try to keep everyone in this seemingly eternal quarantine til the bugs run out of food, which is unlikely to happen until the end of the human race. We haven't managed to go without an infection, world-wide, more than 24 hours, and 24 hours isn't even close to how long the eggs stay viable before hatching. The population is slowly dropping, by about 300 people a year world-wide. If we don't stop this thing by the time Belle's generation is dead, it's unlikely humanity will survive.


I tend to think too much when I'm unable to sleep.

For years now, I've had trouble sleeping. Every night, I climb into bed at ten, and every night I'm tossing and turning til about three. I've tried listening to music, leaving the lights on, total darkness, and different temperatures. Nothing helps me get my mind to slow down when I'm tired and ready for sleep. When I told the physician about it last year at the yearly bio-metric screening for work, he gave me some pills. They made me practically catatonic for eight hours, but they didn't get my brain shut off any better than usual.

I suppose most people my age and older probably don't sleep well. The younger people who don't remember the outbreak, I can't say, I mean Belle seems to pass out as soon as her head hits the pillow. I think the reason that I (and many people I've talked to my age) have so much trouble going down at night is the fact that we grew up in a world where what is normal now was unthinkably horrific. Now, when we see an infected body sit up after it dies, of course there's fear, there's adrenaline, there's sorrow. But there's no shock anymore. This is what happens now. All the time. Every day.

Some scientists have been reporting cases of bodies reactivating after a healthy death. Is this the new stage of PTA? Are we all infected, carrying this parasite, trait genes in almost all of us, so that when we die we will come back? The thought, to me, is exhausting. To try to fight something so huge seems impossible. Belle was the one who heard about these reports first. She told me over supper a few weeks back, like she was talking about the weather.

"You know, you don't even have to be sick for your body to come back now," she told me between bites of rice. "So that's good, now we don't have to suffer before we die."

It's like she assumes that everyone will get sick with this parasite when they die. Like, for people her age, this is life, and death is equivalent to PTA. Maybe it would be easier to look at it that way, instead of looking at it as this huge travesty to mankind. I just can't seem to wrap my head around understanding it from her point of view. I guess it's like that rhyme my mother used to sing when she was feeling well, 'because you can't hate the night if you've lived your whole life without life and you can't hate the dish if you've only ever eaten fish and you can't feel alone if it's all you've ever known. The deep sea anglerfish has no reason to be happy but it has no idea what else to be.' Maybe she doesn't know it's scary because it's all she knows.

I think at night, when I'm unable to sleep, and unfortunately I don't think about things that would help my work. I think, rather, about non-scientific, non-helpful ideas, about fear and hope and dreams and silly things. I think about the life that I could have had, but missed out on, because of PTA. I could have gone to high school with other people. Could have gone to college, had some kind of normal career. I could have met a guy. Or a girl. I've avoided the idea of partnership so long and with such passion, I don't even know what I would be interested in.

It's not like it would be easy to meet someone when I decided I wanted to date anyway. It's not like you can just go out barhopping these days, and even if you could, it's difficult to look sexy in an upgraded scuba suit. I can't date someone from work, I could loose my job for fraternizing. I guess it'll happen when it happens. Part of me feels like I'm ready to start looking, but part of me wants to get some answers at work first. Belle is enough company when I feel alone, but I also feel like there's a side of being human that I've neglected. I'm not sure. I need to find some way to sleep better and get my mind off these unimportant thoughts.


Annual Findings Report

PTA Research Foundation
Dahlia Linz
Virology Section Lab Supervisor
Suite 101 PTARF, NIH
Cincinnati, OH

Annual Findings Report: PTA Viral Origins, effects on infected humans, and projected mutations

PTA is a highly aggressive parasitic virus, airborne to approximately a two yard radius from the infected. The parasite has been documented in humans since CE 2012. The average incubation period between infection and activation is 75 hours. The parasite procreates by cellular fission, therefore the former theories that the original infection was in 2010 and the original activation didn’t occur til after hatching has been proven unsound.

The immediate effects of PTA infection are apparent after an average of 3 hours. The infected will display extreme flu-like symptoms, hence the original name, Flu X. Within 24 hours, the infected is extremely dehydrated, regardless of IV fluids. The flu-like symptoms persist until death. The cause for these symptoms seems to be the rapid multiplication of the parasites within the infected’s body. During the 72 incubation hours, the individual parasites multiply at a rate of 200% per hour. It is aggressive from the first infection, absorbing cells and tissue like a cancer, usually starting in the lungs and stomach. The key difference between the effects of this virus and those of a cancer is that, while a cancer will simply devour and destroy tissue, the virus devours tissue and changes the construction of the DNA before relocating. In 52 hours, most infected humans are catatonic, and within 72 hours, all signs of human life are extinguished.

There has been limited, incomplete research on infected human bodies after death, however there is documented evidence that the parasite causes the bodies to move. It appears that it has mutated in such a way that it begins devouring and changing the brain and spinal cord in such a way that the body will appear to come back to life, muscles move and quickly adapt to a sort of walk. General protocol is to destroy the brain and upper spinal cord by three shots to the facial area, thereby stopping the body from moving. We have found that, although the body is then paralyzed, the parasites inside remain alive.

There is reason to believe that, after the human host is fully out of order, the parasite will continue to survive for up to a year, however it loses its aggression after one month. It appears to ration the human remains for it to survive as long as possible. The next rational step in understanding the parasite will be studying the brain activity in a functioning infected cadaver. From eyewitness reports of researchers and civilians alike, the functioning cadavers eventually display signs of self-awareness and aggression towards humans and animals.


The pressure is on

Harper just called my home phone to tell me that I have to write up a report on my progress thus far. It's due next week. I hate it when upstairs wants all this damn paperwork with no prior warnings. Yeah, of course, a week is plenty of warning for a report to them, all they do all day is paperwork. But I'm down here, in the basement, doing work and I really don't have time for this crap.
All ranting aside, though, this is how I get paid and get funding for my research. Stupid bureaucracy. Paperwork will be the death of us all, possibly quite literally. 

Childhood is something to cherish

I do have memories of my childhood. I can't remember what order most of the go in, but they're there, making me who I am. I can remember playing video games with Drake in our mother's apartment. I can remember having a friend, a young girl, maybe a year younger than me, and she had a puppy and we would play in her back yard with him.
I also remember the day I grew up. My mother told me that dead things don't always stay dead. From that memory forward, everything is chronological. Everything is in strict order.
We were in the kitchen, working on supper. I was washing carrots, she was gutting a fish. I can't remember how to conversation took that turn, but it did. Those words are etched into my mind, "Dead things don't always stay dead." We had a full conversation, albeit a bit one-sided. She told me, in great detail, everything she saw when she closed her eyes. Everything she saw when she looked through windows. Everything she saw when she locked herself in her room, away from Drake and me.
To this day, I can't imagine what possessed her to tell her 10 year old daughter about those terrors. But she did.
Having Belle around has been a blessing. Yes, she's had to grow up. Yes, she's damaged, hurt, scarred. But she's still got that hope, and that persistence that I haven't seen in people as a whole since the outbreak. She is too young to remember life before this mess.
Every night, I come home to a meal. She spends her mornings studying, fixes herself lunch, then gears up and goes scavenging. It's dangerous, and I don't like the thought of her doing it, but she doesn't exactly follow orders. The truth is, she's very good at it. It's like she has radar that can see where no one else is looking and where she can find excellent stuff. If she finds something worth selling, she sells it, if not, she goes to the store and gets whatever we can afford, then goes home and cooks it right in time for us to have dinner together.
I never imagined myself as a mother. For years I've focused on vengeance against the force that took my family away. But Belle was just what I needed, I guess. She has a fresh view on everything. She has that way of thinking that so many young people have, illogical, irrational, but somehow relevant.
She was the one who opened my mind to the possibility that PTA didn't originate in humans. Of course, she thought (still believes, actually) that it was some kind of biological warfare from aliens. I wouldn't go that far, but I must admit that the possibility of a transmitted disease from another species had not been my first guess. Obviously, I had considered it once or twice, but PTA is strange. It's not just a molecule, not just a cell. It's actually a sort of parasite. A very aggressive parasite. What threw me off was that it wasn't compatible with any other animal that has historically spread diseases to humans: rats, monkeys, birds, chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, hundreds of different species we analyzed, all the way down to house pets, when we put the PTA organism near samples of their tissue, it didn't touch them. When you did that with human samples, it gobbled it right up. But only human. I still haven't found the animal it can from, or evolved from, or whatever the case may be, but I can't see any other explanation.
So instead of PTA, Belle calls the disease the Alien Bug.
I can't imagine my life without Belle now. She is my best friend, and she calls me mom. I could do without the nickname, but she does so much for me, and helps me so much, gives me whatever I need, so I'll do whatever makes her feel better about this situation. I dread the day that she realizes that the world won't be easier when she gets older, so I try to hide the worst from her.
She's asked to come to work with me before, but I can't imagine how horrified she'd be when she saw all the bodies and parts and vials of blood. I don't want to make that memory resurface. It's hard enough for her to see me in uniform. I think it reminds her of the people who executed her family.
I wish there was an easier way to detain the undead. The way we do it is so brutal... I wish I could know what Belle was like before her world was shattered.


When you're a kid, everyone wants to know what you want to do when you grow up.

I remember being seven, and we had to write a paper for school about what we were going to do when we grew up. I stared at that paper for an hour trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I think I finally settled on writer or something like that. I never really had a plan til my brother died. A week after they took his body away, I decided what I wanted to do: I wanted to fight back against God or the Devil or whoever or whatever had caused my only blood relation in this world to die so horribly. So I started thinking, started researching. I could be a finder, researching and hunting down the undead, but that wasn't fighting the cause, it was treating the symptoms. I thought about becoming a doctor, but after some research I found that there was no treatment, not a single way to even relieve the pain of the people who were dying. That's when I realized what I wanted to do when I grew up: Become a biologist. Study the undead. Find a treatment, find a cure, and, ultimately, find the source.
I continued my schooling by mail, like everyone else who grew up around the same time I did. I worked every day, even the weekends and holidays. I worked from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed, and I ended up finishing my basic education two years early. Then I applied for special training with the government. They didn't take me the first three times I applied. I talked to dozens of different people from all over the country. Finally, I came into contact with Harper Nelson, the woman who eventually became my advocate and supervisor. At the time I met her, she was recruiting safety assurance assistants, like Jerry and Daniel.
I told her my plans, and she told me the only way she would help me is if I started at the bottom. So I took the job, moved to Cincinnati, and started training to be a safety assurance assistant.
I worked that job for about six months, every week I applied for special training. Finally, sick of filing my paperwork, Harper called me in on my day off.
"You're annoying." That's what she told me when I came into her office.
"I've just been doing my job, I don't see how that's annoying."
"Every single week, I have to file your application. Do I need to schedule you more hours? How do you have time to fill out that application, with updated information, every single week?"
I didn't know if I should tell her the truth, or make something up. I sided with the truth, "All I do when I go home every night is work on that application and study anything I can find on the origins of PTA online or in the library. It's getting difficult to find new information, though. My access to confidential is basically limited to safety protocol, and after six months of reading, I'm running out of fresh materials."
She sighed, and pulled out her stamp from the drawer in her desk. She inked it and looked at me and asked, "Why do you want this job, Dahlia?"
"Because I want to set this world right. I want to see it how it was supposed to be."
"You'd be the second youngest person to be a PTA biologist. Do you think you'll be worth my time and payroll?"
"I'm old enough to remember going to school with other people. I remember seeing actual faces in crowds, not just masks and suits. I'm only young in the sense that I hope one day to raise kids and tell them about how I worked with the team who brought them a world like that."
Harper stamped the papers in front of her. "Take these to payroll." She handed me a folder. "And take this all the way upstairs, to my boss, Lee Baker."
"Yes ma'am." I turned to walk out the door.
I turned back to Harper. "Yes?"
"Congratulations on your promotion. Make me proud."
I couldn't help but smile. "Yes, ma'am."


48 hours is a long time.

When you spend two days, completely alone, in PTA (or Puretoc anagennmenou) quarantine, wondering if, in a few hours, you'll stop breathing and have to be destroyed, fear and loneliness and desperation can actually change you. The first time I had to endure it, I was changed.
As a kid, I was shy, pensive, fearful almost. I would avoid human contact any time possible, particularly after my mom died. However, the moment I stepped out of that red and white, sterile room, I felt a difference in me. I wanted to hug everyone I saw after that. Harper, my supervisor told me to go home til I was less shocked, and come back with a full report on everything I'd assessed from the live sample.
The desire to constantly be in contact with someone has faded, but never completely gone. I've been in isolation twice since then, once because of a chemical spill and the other because of an injury. All three times, I've come out alive, and each time that panic hits as soon as I escape that tiny room. And each time, I go home for a couple days and the desperation fades.
Thankfully, I don't have to go home to an empty room. All of us who work for the government are assigned rooms. For those who still have family, they have little condos. For singles, like me, there is the equivalent of a pre-PTA hotel or motel room. Mine is on the third floor, with a little balcony, overlooking what was probably, ten years ago, a fantastic theme park, here in Cincinnati Ohio. By the time I moved in, however, the signs were all but destroyed so all you can make out is K------and. There's a sliding door which has had the glass replaced with steel and equipped with an air-tight locking seal. The room inside is beige on beige on beige, with a queen size bed with a worn down comforter (burgundy floral print), a little love seat (burgundy floral print), a small table with two chairs, a dresser with a TV, a bedside table with a lamp, a corner desk, a bathroom (burgundy floral print), and a kitchen equipped with sink mini fridge and microwave. We aren't allowed to keep pets, as it's too easy for them to get outside and infect us, but we're allowed to have someone move in, as long as they pass a few tests, drug tests, infection tests, common sense and priority law tests and the like.

So, for the first few hours after getting home from my first quarantine, I cried and panicked and paced my room, trying to think of how to survive a world like this, and I couldn't sleep, so I started walking. I walked for hours, with my oxygen mask strapped on my face, and finally I made my way around the safe perimeter, and back to the vast parking lot of Kand, that old decaying park across from my room.
I found an old bench and sat, looking at a huge metal wheel. What did they call them? I'd heard them when I was a kid... Tetris Wheel? Terrace Wheel? It'll come to me... I was sitting there staring at this massive construction thinking about loneliness and the human instinct toward community, and out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. I wanted to run at first, but then I realized I didn't need to. There was no point in running. If I was meant to be dead, I'd be dead. I had no one to protect, provide for, find the answer for, other than me. So I waited.
The movement got closer and I watched it. Every so often, it would stop, I could feel it watching me back. Then it would start again, making its way closer in the pitch black darkness. Finally, I looked away, up to the stars, and felt a little gloved hand rest on my knee. I looked down and made eye contact with what, at first, appeared to be a scuba diver. I tiny scuba diver. I looked into the mask and saw little eyes peering out. Little blue eyes, so deep they were almost purple, blinked at me.
"I'm tired, miss," said a little girl's voice from out of the scuba helmet. "I've been walking for two days. Could I please sleep here tonight?"
"Out here? On the bench? Where are you from?" I asked.
"Yes, miss. If it's not ok, I'll go on. I'm from Dublin, Ohio," she answered.
Dublin's a good two days walk away from my room. Something about her struck a chord in me, "Have you been disease tested?"
"Yes. I'm healthy."
"Do you have your social identity card?
"Yes, ma'am."
"Follow me, you'll have a real bed to sleep in tonight."
I got up and started walking home, and the girl didn't follow at first, but I guess the dropping temperature of the night time air was making its slow creep to her skin under her suit, because she decided started following me.  I took her to my room, she was processed at the receiving desk, and a quick vial of blood and two hours later, she was settling down in my room, and I gave her the bed, and I slept on the couch.
Within an hour, she was asleep, but before she passed out completely here's what I learned: She had bright red hair and freckles. She was 12 years old. Her name was Belle. Her mother had un-died and killed her whole family, three brothers, a sister and a father, before her local sheriff came and shot them all. She ran away and never looked back. Her story was fascinating, even though it was told in short spurts between dozing off. Her mother had become aggressive in only a week after her original symptoms started.She had come to a few hours after death, just like the rest do, but she had learned at a much faster pace than my live sample or any undead in stories I'd read about.
Forty-eight hours is a long time to spend alone, especially when you know there's no one waiting at home to make you feel better. The only thing that's made it bearable the last two times was thinking of my reason to keep going, to keep looking for an answer: Belle.


My job is to study the undead.

My live sample watched me as my assistants and I dressed in our protective gear. Kevlar and oxygen masks, it feels like being a scuba cop.
It didn't watch either of my assistants. Just me. We stepped into the vacuum-sealed chamber that connected my world with hers. I noticed as the vacuum seal activated, its chest moving. Breathing? Pretending to breath?
"Jerry," I said to my head assistant. "Does it look like she's breathing to you?"
Jerry paused, and said, as the second seal unlocked, "Yeah, yeah I think so. What do we do?"
Daniel looked at us and waited.
"We have to get her tied down. We take the usual samples, then check to see if it's actual breath."
The three of us stepped in, and I watched it watch me and make its gummy smile as the two young men approached it.
They gently took her by the elbows and tied her down. I took blood and tissue samples, checked her reflexes. Her eyes were still working.
"How do we check if she's really breathing?" Daniel asked me quietly.
I took a glass sample dish and held it under her nose. Almost instantly, the heat and moisture made two small patches of condensation. She was actually breathing. I pulled out my notepad and wrote "actual breathing,  day 59."
Then I heard the sound I still have nightmares about. It was like a whining cat, high pitched, and ethereal. I looked up and saw Daniel and Jerry stepping away from it. She was pulling against the restraints, and making a face like she was baring her teeth, except that there were no teeth there.
"Don't release her yet. Let's she if she calms down," I said and we left the isolation chamber.
We ran the usual tests on the samples, and watched her through the corners of our eyes, struggling and pulling on her restraints.
A few hours later, I heard another scream, and I heard something rip. I looked into her chamber and saw that one arm had ripped the restraint out of the lining of her mattress. You could see the snapped bone trying to push through her skin, and she was pulling with the other arm to free herself. Soon enough, she had worked her way out of the restraints, and was pacing the window of her chamber, head tilted to one side, gums bared.
"Jerry, Daniel, take these observations upstairs," I said. They didn't argue.
I suited up, and took half a raw turkey in one hand, my revolver in the other, into the chamber. I stepped into the chamber and tossed the turkey across the floor past her. Her eyes followed it for a split second, then trained back on me again.
She opened her mouth and made this hissing sound, like air escaping a balloon. Then she lunged at me, mouth wide open and her good hand in a claw shape. Her body hit me with the whole force of her 98 pounds, and we hit the floor. I shoved her off of my gear and shot her in the face. One. Two. Three shots to the face. One: Between the eyes. Two: between the lips. Three: the center of the neck.
Just like I had been trained to do on my first day on the job, it hit the floor, it writhed for an eternally long moment, then it died. Some greenish-black gunk filled the bullet holes and scabbed almost as soon as it touched the air.
I sat in the chamber beside her for what seemed like years until Daniel and Jerry returned. All I remember is a lot of yelling, air seals locking and unlocking, and quarantine. Forty-eight hours alone, when all I wanted in the world was someone to hold me.


It's been 10 years since my brother died.

Five years ago, we had the worst outbreak, nearly a third of the world, dead, undead, dead again (hopefully for good). I study them now. I dissect their bodies and tissue and cells like aliens. Try to find cures, treatments, weapons...
By the time they get to me they've died twice, and their tissue is almost goo. I had an undead sample once, and I still have nightmares about the night I had to re-kill her. But she gave me some ground breaking info. Some my supervisor told me to forget.
Their DNA isn't quite human by about 24 hours after becoming undead. And it continues to change as the human  part of them decays.
Also, they get smarter, and I've all but verified it by reports and stories every where from the books of the police to hospital reports to civilian accounts on-line. They don't learn quickly, but it's enough to notice. My subject learned to walk on all fours within 48 hours, two feet by the fourth day. One of the strangest things I noticed was that her eyes were unresponsive, she had no life signs except for on the cellular level, and she didn't need to eat or drink for over a week. Then, all of a sudden, it was like she wasn't looking through me or toward me anymore, but she was looking at me. So, I checked her reflexes again, and, amazingly enough, she was using her eyes, seeing through them.
The next day, she had a pulse, and two days after that she began eating. She tried to eat the coverings on the bunk in her isolation chamber, but her teeth were pulling out. So I tried feeding her different vital human foods, and she would take a bite or two, but wasn't able to digest anything. I tried every food available that humans could eat: fruit, veggies, breads, rice, noodles, cooked meats, everything. I didn't want to accept the possibility that she was going to be like the undead zombies in old movies and eat human flesh, but she was getting weak and I didn't want to lose my only almost live subject, so I started giving her raw meats. She was able to digest fowl, but didn't seem to like it, quit eating it after a while. I tried pork and beef, and finally settled on a rotating diet of the three, so that she wouldn't get tired of them and starve herself.

I studied her for twelve hours a day for nearly two months. I watched her skin deteriorate, I watched her cells change and it is my belief that finally she, no, it, became self-aware. It wasn't a woman anymore, its features were distorted and its hair was rotting off. One day I came into the lab, turned on the lights, and it was just standing at the window of the isolation chamber. There was half a bloody chicken lying by its feet.
It looked at me, slack-jawed, the whole time I was taking off my jacket and putting on my protective gear. Every time I changed task, it would tilt its head to the other side.
Finally, I walked up to the glass, tried to figure out what was happening to it. It raised a nail-less finger to the plexiglass and tapped....
It tapped slowly at first, with a definite rhythm, gradually speeding up, then suddenly, it stopped. finger in mid air, and it opened its mouth, only two teeth left now, and it made a face that looked almost like a smile.
That was the day I had to kill it.

Dead Things Don't Always Stay Dead.

That's what my mom told me, my first memory. I think I was six, maybe seven. It's my first memory of her. She died when I was ten.
They said she was manic. That she saw things that weren't there. That she killed herself.
But I know better. I see them, now. Not the same ones, but I know she wasn't hallucinating. She was seeing the future. I know better than to share that knowledge, though. I'd never have gotten my job if they thought I believed that.There's not much room for belief in ESP in biology. Not right now. The government wants answers. They want facts.
Here are the facts that I remind myself of every morning; here's what motivates me to continue looking for the answers.

A few months after my mother died, people on the news started telling everyone to wear medical masks, that a new flu or something was going around. So my aunt got us masks and we stopped going to the park to play. Soon they told us to stop going to school, and they mailed us packets to work on every week. Then, my brother got sick.
He had gone to the grocery store with my aunt, he had met a girl and, being a sixteen year old boy, he had gone against common sense and direct instruction and he had taken off his mask. He was already sick by the time he came home, and my aunt told me to keep my mask on, even in the house, and he wasn't allowed to leave his room. Or maybe he wasn't able to. All I know is that by the next week, I could smell death, even through my mask. My aunt came in my room as the sun rose, but I'd already been awake by the smell coming from the next room. She told me my brother, Drake, was with our mother. Her eyes and face were wet but she didn't sob. Then she left my room and I heard her make a phone call, her voice trembling with sorrow.
They sent out a crew to get his body, but by the time they got there, we could hear stumbling around in the room, someone bumping into things, groaning, like he was looking for something he couldn't see.
The crew arrived and a nice lady took us out to the lawn. She talked to me, but I couldn't hear her. All I could hear was my brother's groans and the thumping and bumping from his room, so she turned to my aunt and they talked and cried.
I don't remember anything else except for three gunshots and a body bag. I guessed that was why my aunt hadn't been letting us watch the news anymore, when I saw his name on the list of the 'victims.' The dead were not staying dead, just like mom had said.