After tying down the infected, the guard left the room, going back to his post at the front of the chief’s building. Jen gave me the spear and went back to the prison. I was left behind, by the chief’s wishes, to take care of the infected in case it broke free. The guard didn’t question it when he left, so I assume it happened pretty often.
“So you’re Chris, one of the new wardens,” the chief said. He was messing around with a drawer, pulling out tools and putting them onto a rolling metal table similar to the ones at hospitals that I saw all the time in TV shows and movies. “I heard a little bit about you. What do you think of this place?”
“It’s a good place.” It could use some running water and electricity like Jen said, but those were a little too much to ask for in these times.
The chief pushed in the drawer and rolled the table over to the infected’s side. “Not one for conversation, are you?” he asked. “That’s fine too.” He picked up a bottle of ethanol and doused a cloth with it. Then he picked up a scalpel and wiped it with the cloth. His gloved hand wrapped around the infected’s wrist, and he pressed the blade against its forearm. A stream of black blood leaked out. Then, he let go of the infected and wiped the scalpel with the cloth again before touching a metal tool with a small loop on its end to the blood. With the loop, he dabbed a droplet of blood onto a glass slide meant for microscopes. “You’re probably wondering why I’m not using a needle.” Before I could answer, the chief continued, “That’s because I ran out. The hunters went out to raid a pharmacy; hopefully they’ll come back with more soon.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so I grunted.
The chief didn’t seem to mind. After placing a small translucent square over the slide, flattening the droplet of blood into a smear, he took out a marker and wrote down a “1” on the edge. He placed the slide on the lower shelf of the rolling table in the top left corner. Then he wiped the metal tool with the loop with the piece of cloth. “How much do you know about the infection?”
“If you get infected, you die and turn into one of these.” I gestured at the struggling infected on the table.
“That’s not necessarily the case,” the chief said and picked up a lighter. He lit the fire and placed the small metal loop at the end of the tool into it. “If your immune system is strong enough, you won’t die.”
“Really?” Somehow, I doubt that. This man looks, well, looked pretty healthy before he turned.
“That’s right,” the chief said. Once the metal loop turned orange, he removed it from the flame and put the lighter down. He waved the loop back and forth in the air, cooling the metal down. Once the orange glow faded away, he placed the tool onto the table and turned towards me. “Have you ever heard of histoplasmosis?”
“It’s an infection that causes flu-like symptoms caused by a fungus, histoplasma. It’s usually found in soil containing a lot of bat droppings. If you disturb the soil, fungal spores shoot into the air, and you breathe those in. Some people, despite inhaling spores, don’t contract histoplasmosis because their immune systems are strong. Mostly the elderly, young children, or people with compromised immune systems will get the disease.”
“And you’re saying the infection turning people into zombies is similar?”
“That’s right. Despite the fact we’re living in a zombie apocalypse, the world really did have good countermeasures to prevent an epidemic. Ebola, swine flu, any contagious disease was contained in the modern world. So how did the outbreak start?” The chief held up a finger. “Hold on a second.” He picked up the loop and dipped it into the wound, placing another droplet of blood on a different slide. He repeated the same process as before: placing a square on the slide, writing the number “2”, setting the slide to the right of the first one, and wiping and heating the metal loop. “The only situation where the measures we had in place would fail is if a large number of people got sick everywhere at once. Why do you think you only meet healthy teens and adults? It’s because at the onset of the outbreak, children and the elderly turned. Of course, there’s a few exceptions: elderly with strong immune systems, young adults with weakened ones.”
“Then why do people turn when they’re bitten? If our immune systems were strong enough to fend off the infection at the onset of the outbreak, why are they failing now?”
“It’s the quantity of spores,” the chief said, watching the infected struggle. “When you kill an infected, bash its head open, no doubt, spores are being sent into the air that you’re inhaling. Your body can fight those off. But if you’re bitten, the quantity of spores entering your body is much greater, too much for your immune system to fend off.”
“Doesn’t that mean once we’re old and our immune systems are compromised, we’ll turn even if we aren’t bitten?”
The chief picked up the loop and touched it against the infected’s wound again. “It’s scary to think about, isn’t it?” He used the blood to prepare another slide. “Not only that, but babies’ immune systems are terrible. They won’t even have a chance to grow up. Without a cure, the human race is doomed. Not just humans, but most mammalian, avian, amphibian, and reptilian life on earth too. Perhaps only insects and marine animals will survive.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“The girl that came with you, she was your girlfriend, right?” After putting away a third slide, the chief looked at me. I couldn’t see his face due to his hazmat suit. “Don’t have kids.”
An unsettling feeling gnawed at my stomach. “You’re working on a cure, right? How far along have you gotten?”
“I’ve tested every anti-fungal medication out there. None of them worked. Not to mention, I don’t have access to any equipment for MRIs or PET scans. Quite frankly, I’m at a loss. I need a hint, anything to lead me in the right direction; otherwise, it’s like I’m throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing if it sticks or not.”
A hint, huh? “Have you heard about the smart infected?”