Someone Should Really Write a Story About Zombies
I noticed this when I was in the bookstore. ”Gosh,” I thought to myself, “maybe if someone wrote a book about a zombie outbreak, maybe that would be cool!”
Probably it will never happen, though. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about zombies.
Speculation in the media, after we realized what had happened in Mt. Gilead, was that the oubtreak was caused by a virus. This was ridiculous for several reasons, which I’ll get into later, but the DoD decided it wasn’t worth trying to correct anyone. If it’s a virus then we can quarantine the town, prevent the outbreak from spreading.
A virus doesn’t really make any sense, when you think about it. The most effectively transmissible viruses — the ones that can spread across the country in a few days — are rock hard little things that hang suspended in aerosolized saliva. They don’t get very far, though, without a set of working lungs to sneeze with. And transmitting a disease by bite just isn’t very effective — that’s why rabies hasn’t conquered the world yet.
Nothing about the whole scenario made any sense, until we managed to get a hold of a body and look at it under the microscope. This was no mean feat; Mt. Gilead, Ohio is practically off the map when it comes to cell phone or radio service. Most of its population was turned before we understood what was happening, and that made it a pretty hostile environment to try snatching a violent walking corpse off of the street.
There were a lot of unanswered questions, of course. Why didn’t the zombies bloat? Why didn’t their muscles rot beyond use after a few days? They didn’t even smell that bad.
The answer was that it wasn’t a virus at all, it was a kind of fungus. Early stage infected (and I say this advisedly; we didn’t realize, again because of Mt. Gilead’s isolation, just how this infection progressed) just start dumping spores into the atmosphere. They colonize on skin cells, sometimes slowly breaking through in the blood stream or, more often, infecting an open wound.
Fungi grow in long, slender tendrils called hypae, that are ideally-suited for piercing skin cells, blood vessels, and digging deep into muscle tissue — most species of fungi have one kind of tissue that they prefer, but whatever this new one was, it didn’t discriminate. It broke through the skin, sank into muscle tissue, colonized the brain and spinal column; about the only thing it didn’t eat were the bones.
It was also the most advanced fungus any of us had ever seen. One of my colleagues suggested it might be from space, which, well, why the hell not, right? Fungal spores can survive in absurd conditions, and if the galactic panspermia theory is accurate, then we could share basic DNA in common with species all around the universe — not that the fungus even needed to have anything in common with our cells to colonize them; it was feeding off of the mechanical energy produced as the tissues rotted.
The fungus actually creates a complete, subdermal network of fibres that operate like a primitive nervous system. In certain places it breaks the skin and “blooms”, producing those sticky-looking clusters of black spots. On the news they call them sores or buboes, but they’re really dense packs of chemoreceptors and primitive eyespots. That’s what the zombies were using to track prey — their regular eyes turned to jelly in less than a week.
Anyway, those blooms also dump spores into the air. Lots of them. All of the zombies are surrounded by clouds of spores. They don’t eat their prey, either, did you notice that? They kill it, yeah, and they chew on it, but they don’t actually eat much — they’re really just breaking the skin so the spores can find something to grab a hold of.
The fungus is also able to, at first, stimulate muscle tissue — eating up chemical energy in the body, turning it into electrical signal, using up the muscles before they rot. As the infection progresses, the fungal fibres begin to mimic muscle fibres and replace them in infected bodies. You noticed, probably, that the zombies get less agile, more shambly, their bodies look gummy and disgusting as the days go on — the fungus isn’t a GOOD nervous system; once the regular nerves and muscles die out, the zombie stops being particularly effective.
Anyway, if you’ve managed to live this long and you haven’t figured it out by now (some miracle, maybe?) don’t try shooting them in the head. They don’t keep brains in there; the neural network in the fungus is distributed throughout its length. In the very early stages of infection, once the fungus crosses the blood-brain barrier, there’s some mental stimulation that causes behaviors that might be, vaguely, recognizable as personality, but it’s an illusion: the fungus is eating up brain tissue and producing accidental electrochemical discharges as it goes, keeping the dead brain “functioning” a little past its expiration date.
The specimen we managed to catch hadn’t completed whatever was supposed to happen inside the skull, so we’re not sure what it is, precisely, but it’s definitely something, and it’s definitely not random. Certain heavy minerals, like selenium, are concentrated there, and made into long, extremely thin coils. I don’t know why; some of us theorized that it was building a radio antenna — that the selenium would be receptive to certain particular frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum.
This could be true, but we’re not sure what it is that could send a signal to them — there’s definitely not enough energy to be had from their decomposition to transmit something, and we don’t have the equipment here to listen for it, whatever it might be. Certain species of slime moulds respond collectively to chemical signals; maybe this fungus works the same way.
We don’t know for sure. We do know that after the initial period of infection, with the rabid, aggressive zombies that you see on the TV, something changes. They turn around, start dragging whatever dead, uninfected matter is left away. They’re taking it to the center of Mt. Gilead, but we can’t get in to figure out what they’re up to.
We’ve found pieces of other infected humans that we think are in “late stage” infection — usually severed limbs that are still struggling towards Mt. Gilead. We know that after a certain period, the fungi, which use chitin in their cell walls, start to extrude it, building small, hard shells around nutrient sacks that form on their chests. We found at least one head and neck that, in place of the extremely soft matter in the mouth, had grown a cluster of long, feathery fronds. These were extremely sensitive to external stimuli, and had an incredibly sophisticated network of what can only be described as nerves. They were producing luminescing agents, and chromophores, as well.
We can’t say what those were for, either. The fungus doesn’t produce eyes that are complex enough to perceive chromophores. Is it a lure of some kind? Possibly. It may be that as the chemical energy from decomposition runs out, the fungus enters into a more sedentary state and has to lure prey towards it. It’d be out of character for a fungus, but it’s not like anything that’s been happening lately is normal.
I’d like to believe — I really would — that the fungus is switching over to a less energy-intensive mode; becoming just some kind of blanket or death-forest or something, content to feed on whatever animals it happens to lure nearby. But then I think about those weird structures it builds inside a human skull, those chitinous nodules, about the possibility that the spores themselves came from another world, and that they’re waiting for a signal from their home.
Something terrible is happening in Mt. Gilead, something that’s going to make the zombie outbreak look like a walk in the park.