The caravan arrived at The Home Depot without incident. Some isolated zombies had begun approaching from the South, out of town, but it seemed that the main push had been to the West, through the residential areas of town. Sam and Cameron stayed out front to keep an eye out and warn the group if Zed got too near.
The rest of the group quickly hashed out what supplies they would need: more lumber and hardware, rolls of insulation, tubes of sealant, spools of rope, and so forth. Dee went straight to the electrical department and started loading a flatbed cart with spools of wire, electrical tools, and how-to books. One of the trucks was loaded with empty five-gallon jugs which would be filled later with gasoline.
The group was loaded and ready to go in thirty minutes. By this time, the zombies had reached the parking lot. Sam and Cameron were taking them out in the ones and twos that got close enough to warrant attack, but they weren't too thick yet. As the caravan left, they could see that the zombies following them along the highway were getting within range of the store. Good - they had kept up their pursuit.
The group drove to a gas station on the East side of town, different than the one Seamus and Dee had hit on their last pass through, and filled up the trucks and jugs. The filling went a lot faster this time, as more people were available to pump. Seamus and Cameron fired their shotguns at the zombies that approached, wanting to bring as much attention as possible to this side of town in order to spare their headquarters on the other side. Dee broke into the shop to grab motor oil and snack cakes - not the most nutritious of foods, but they had a long shelf life, and that was what counted. The caravan then went on a tour of the grocery stores and hospitals in town.
Menard's, the Eastern Wal-Mart, and every grocery store were crowded with zombies. Cameron could see through his binoculars that they were both inside the buildings, and milling about outside. The areas around the hospitals and the mall were surrounded by dispersed zombies, just like the residential areas, but the group couldn't tell what things were like on the inside. These places would be easy enough to assault, but the problem was that once inside, there might be no coming out. No matter; they would just have to focus on getting a garden growing sooner. If they rationed their food, they could hold out long enough for the first harvest, such as it might be. Hopefully, they would then be able to occupy and fortify some of the farmland surrounding the town to grow crops in earnest.
With nothing left to do in town, the caravan departed for the country roads to the East, in order to loop around town and approach Wal-Mart from the South, as they had planned. Once they got South of town, there were no zombies in sight. They picked up the pace - with no zombie tail, every minute spent getting back to base was a minute Zed had to spread back out to them. When the store came in sight, Seamus tried to raise Jack on the raidio. By this time, the rain had stopped and the skies were clear.
"Hey, Jack, you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here. How did things go?"
"So-so. We didn't have any difficulties getting gear and gas, but food's a different story. How are things looking over there?"
"All clear. We can't see any zombies at all from up here."
"Excellent. Send someone down with the keys to the garden gate, we'll be ready to start our attack as soon as we get back."
"All right. See you soon."
As Dee drove into the parking lot, she could see a few isolated zombies shuffling about in the entranceways.
"Seamus, you see that?"
"Yeah. No way they could see that from the roof."
"They probably got pushed out when we took off, then didn't have anyone to follow once they got out."
"Shit, if they're thick enough inside to push out, this could be bad."
"My thoughts exactly. Radio back for some flashlights, will you?"
Seamus did as instructed. Without much to keep them occupied while the trucks were out around town, the group on the roof had set up a plan for ferrying supplies back and forth from the roof to ground level quickly and efficiently, so they could move gear even if access to the shipping bay doors was delayed. Jim met them at the garden gate with the keys and opened up. The eight from the trucks clambered over the barricade they had set there the night before, and approached the entrance to the store interior.
"Jack, we're just outside the entrance from the garden center. It looks pretty hairy in there."
"Ehh, nothing we can't handle, but it'll be pretty tough." One of the closest zombies had heard their conversation, and had begun approaching the door.
"You think you need more people?"
"I dunno, I kind of like the supply chain thing you guys have going. Why don't you start moving tools and lumber up from the trucks? We'll need that stuff up there anyway to build the garden. We'll stick together in here, and I'll keep in touch with you."
"All right, sounds good."
Jim stayed at the garden gate. He didn't want to lock them in, but had to be on hand to lock up behind them if things got too rough and they had to evacuate. The roof crew began moving gear from the trucks up to the roof as Dee pried apart the sliding doors that led into the store.
Once inside, Dee rounded up the troops for a quick pep talk after the nearest zombies had been dealt with.
"OK, listen up. I want to try to conserve ammo here, especially because there's a lot of stuff we can use. However, there are a lot of places for zombies to hide in here. So this is the plan: we stick together as a group and clear out the store one department at a time. Then we'll split up into pairs to mop up the stragglers. We'll get one person with a shotgun on point, to look down each aisle - this will rotate every time, since it's fuckin' stressful to risk popping your head around a corner only to get a faceful of zombie. Then we'll work our way down the aisle with crowbars, then back out and do the next one. That sound good to everyone?" There were nods and murmurs of assent. "OK, let's do this."
The group soon fell into a steady grind, and the work went rather quickly. Sam almost got bitten by a zombie who had fallen down into a clothing rack in the men's clothing department, but other than that, the store was cleared without incident. Once they had made their second round of the store, Seamus radioed to Jack that they could come down from the roof and use the lifts to look around for isolated zombies that they'd missed the first time. They split into pairs, one shotgun and one crowbar, as they'd been in the trucks. Dee, Seamus, Sam, and Cameron stayed inside to work with a lookout from each lift; the other four went out front to clear the entrances.
Dee and Seamus stalked down the aisles with care; the lookout shouted down to them, which was fine because it would draw the zombies out of hiding, but they themselves stayed quiet so as not to advertise their presence, giving hand signals to the lookout to indicate their comprehension. Turning down the cleaning aisle, Seamus spotted a lone zombie at the other end, facing away from them, almost completely covered in moss. Large mushrooms were growing out of his torso.
"How did we miss that asshole," Seamus asked under his breath.
"Shh," Dee whispered. "Look. He's breathing." Sure enough, the zombie's torso was rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm.
"Well, they need their lungs to moan, it's probably just some muscle memory thing."
"But - look, later. This -" She was cut off as the zombie noticed them and grunted. Spinning around, he moved his arm out to the shelf for support, but his hand plunged into the merchandise and he fell against the shelf, knocking jugs to the floor. He tried to regain his balance as he went down, moving almost in slow motion, but his hand caught a clip strip that had been hanging from the shelf, and tore his hand open. Some of the caps had popped off the jugs as they landed, and the smell of bleach filled the air. The zombie was on hands and knees in the middle of the mess, trying to regain his balance but repeatedly slipping. Dee and Seamus watched in silent awe as the zombie began to convulse, the black moss turning a dull gray and then a chalky white in under two minutes. Finally, the zombie stopped moving and fell face down into the puddle, issuing forth a few last grunts as the moss and fungus soaked up the bleach. "What - the fuck?" Dee cautiously approached the fallen zombie and tentatively poked at the shriveled white fungus on his back with her crowbar. It crumbled apart. Seamus failed to suppress a giggle. "What's so funny? I don't get it."
"Hey, Jack," he said into the walkie-talkie.
"Cleanup, aisle twelve."
Dee joined Seamus in his laughter. Soon, they were both doubled over, laughing out loud, holding onto the shelf supports to keep their balance. It was just too much.
With the store cleared, the group set about re-fortifying their position. The barricades at the entrances had held surprisingly well; they had been breached by going up and over, rather than through. Fiberglass insulation was stuffed in the gap above the shopping carts, and then the whole thing was filled in with an expanding foam sealant. Bodies were hauled out to the shipping doors in carts and unceremoniously tossed onto the grass beyond the curb of the back lot. Dee had the man who had fallen in the bleach hauled up to the roof for examination, as well as a couple other bodies for comparison. She didn't know how much she'd be able to learn from them, but she hoped it would be something.
With the store re-taken and secure, the supplies were brought into the store and the trucks re-positioned once again. Still no sign of Zed. Dee got a few people started on building frames for the garden they'd have on the roof. Without a robust ecosystem to support the soil, they would have to irrigate their mini-farm and rely on chemical plant foods. They would eventually have to raid the other stores in town for canned food to get them through the winter, but next summer they ought to be able to start farming at ground-level. If not, they were doomed for sure.
Dee then went to examine the corpses she'd had brought to the roof. A few people wanted to watch, some out of morbid curiosity, others out of a more detached interest. Most didn't think they could stomach it.
"OK, so - before we get started, here's what we've got so far," she said to the group, as she donned her gear: rubber dish-washing gloves, a particulate respirator face mask, and a pair of chemical goggles. "This black plant matter is what's responsible for the zombies. It starts out as a lichen, which you may have seen growing on the walls of the building already. After that, it develops into a moss, and finally, a fungus. Somehow, it's able to parasitize human hosts, turning them into zombies. Apparently, if the host is engulfed in flames, the parasite dies - of course, this is also lethal to the host. Bleach seems to have a similar effect, as you can see on whitey over here."
"How'd you figure all this out," one of the Wal-Mart employees asked. Dee thought his name was Greg - or was it George?
"Guesswork, mainly. And repeated observations. Just so everybody knows, none of this is 'Gospel Truth' or anything - we're just as much in the dark as you. If anybody finds the owner's manual for this stuff, please, speak up. And if you see anything of interest, tell everyone. The more we know, the better we're prepared. Knowledge is power, and all that." She took a moment to look at the group, but there were no other questions. "OK, well, let's get started, shall we?" Lifting a hacksaw, she removed the heads of the five non-bleached corpses, saving that one for last so any differences would stand out more. Then she started cutting the heads into left and right halves.
"Interesting," she muttered to herself, comparing the open heads after she had wiped away the viscous black ooze that seemed to have replaced their blood. "Here, at the base of the skull," she said, scooping tissue out to show the group. "There's a tangle of black stuff. Now, uh, I'm not a doctor or anything, but I'm pretty sure this shouldn't be here." She pulled what looked like black roots out of the pulpy mess. "Hey, looks like it goes all the way around the brain. There's also another knot up here by the frontal lobe. Huh."
Dee spent another couple of minutes poking around in the brains of the corpses, then used a steak knife to open up their thoracic cavities. "Oh, hey, that reminds me," she said, working the ribs free from the sternum on one of her cadavers. "You've all seen those things of like, 'healthy lung, smoker's lung,' right? OK, well, now compare that to - zombie lung!" She hefted a lung into the air before the group. It was recognizable as such, but there were thick tangles of black roots coming out of it in all directions. "We've figured out that infection can take root in the lungs. Err, we think so, anyway. Look, after a couple days of exposure, if you smoke a cigarette, you'll start coughing up black shit. We're pretty damn sure that means that spores get in your lungs and start fucking you up, so I would highly recommend that you all pick up smoking. Pray you live long enough to worry about lung cancer, huh?" Nervous laughter came from the group. Sam, working on a wooden frame nearby, exchanged winks with Dee upon hearing her previous sentiment restated. "Seriously, though. This is some pretty insidious stuff, so we want to try to take it out whenever we can."
Dee turned back to the corpse and rooted around in the organs for a while. Finding the stomach, she cut it open. "Son of a bitch," she said. "Check this out. I kinda thought earlier that stomach acids would kill it off, but if you look, it's like a slime mold in here. You can tell it's the parasite because the roots extend out again. Shit, this is bad news." Dee spent a few more moments contemplating the stomach before moving on to other organs. "We're going to have to start watching what we eat. Jesus." Rooting around for the heart, Dee found it similarly infested with the wiry black roots, as were the intestines. The kidneys, liver, and other organs were relatively untouched, though.
"What do you think that means," Cameron asked.
"Dunno. Could mean a lot of things. Might not mean anything."
"The liver stores toxins that the body filters out," Seamus volunteered. "If the parasite's so sensitive as to be dislodged from one deep drag off a cigarette, it might not be able to get at the liver."
"Ooh, good call," Dee said, struggling not to absentmindedly tap her forehead or chin in thought.
"Or, it might be that it's not needed. If that black slime is the equivalent of blood, then the parasite might need to keep the heart, lungs, and digestive tract working. The liver and kidneys would be fairly obsolete."
"Hmm - how would the goo function as blood? I mean, what would be the point," Dee asked.
"Err - I guess, maybe if the fungus photosynthesizes, it could hijack the host's circulatory system and use that to get nutrients to the roots on the inside. I mean, lichens, mosses, and fungi don't really have centralized - fuckin' - whatever you call the equivalent of a circulatory system in a plant."
"Yeah, but then how would it start growing in the lungs? No light, no exterior photosynthesis going on, no hijacked circulatory system."
"Well, we've already seen that it develops differently depending on the growth medium, maybe it metabolizes differently as well. Like aerobic and anaerobic respiration, it does what it can with what's available."
"Maybe, sure. Actually, that could also explain why we're seeing growth on the walls so soon, but it takes a couple days to get going in the lungs. Damn." Dee pondered this while she examined the organs in the other corpses, finding the same results. Then she started cutting open limbs to look at the muscles. What she saw made her curse, wishing she'd been taking notes.
"Now what," someone asked.
"Well, I kinda wish I'd made some notes on what the different organs had looked like, before I started poking and prodding and taking them apart, but I guess it's a moot point now. If you look at the areas where there are patches of moss on the skin, you can see that the roots are boring down from there into the muscle tissue." She peeled back a flap of skin that she had cut from a zombie's forearm. "My guess was that the parasite had a favored vector of entry - in this case, lungs or stomach - and then grew throughout the body and came out somewhere to spread to other hosts. But this - damn. This changes things. This guy over here, he's got this mossy patch on his shoulder blade. I didn't really think anything of it at first, but now that I look, it's at a spot he can't reach. And if you pull back the moss, you can see that he's got like an abscess or something here. What I don't know is whether this is an outgrowth or whether the parasite came in through here, by wound or otherwise. If that's the case, then the zombies might just have to bite us, like in the movies. And I don't know how we'd be able to clean out an infection in the blood."
"My vote goes to alcohol," Seamus said, grinning. "Alcohol kills everything."
"Look, sure, maybe that would work. But if it can get through the skin, too - I mean, what if it just looks like a rash at first? Then we might be well and truly fucked."
"I'm with Seamus on this one," Cameron said. "That's two votes for booze. Who else is with us?" There were nervous chuckles from the crowd, but for the most part, people were worrying about how to identify warning signs, without the knowledge of just what those warning signs were.
"Anyway," Dee continued, unfazed. "If I'd taken notes, I might have been able to guess, but - nah. Maybe if I weighed it, I could tell - no, shit, if it gets in through the blood, it could start anywhere. Son of a bitch. Where the fuck did this thing come from?"
"The moon." Seamus was losing interest. "Didn't they like send salmonella out to space, and it came back stronger or some noise? I want to get superpowers from space rays, instead of, y'know, die."
"Yeah, I think I saw that in the news a couple weeks ago," Cameron said. "I was all like, 'Hell yes, spacepowers!' Soon, we'll be able to harness this power for evil!"
"Dammit, guys, will you shut up for a second?" Dee was losing patience.
"Look, this Alien Autopsy reenactment is fun and all, but what are we really learning here?"
"Well, Seamus, aside from confirming that it takes root in the lungs, we've also figured out that it's got something to do with the brain and the heart, and it can live in the stomach."
"Well, I don't really like mushrooms, anyway, so I don't see as how this is really useful."
"It's - dammit, the whole point of this was to have a baseline of comparison so we could get a better idea of what happened to Bleach Boy over there."
"Well, crack him open, let's see what's up."
"Fine." Dee went over to the corpse with the whitened growths and started pointing out the external differences. "OK, as you can see, the plant matter on the outside of this guy has turned white. This happened within minutes of exposure to the bleach, so whatever it does, it does it quickly." Dee grabbed at a chunk of white moss, which crumbled at her touch. "Also, the stuff gets all dry and crumbly, as you can see. Now, let's pick this guy's brain." She removed and halved the head of the cadaver, as with the others. The smell of bleach filled the air. "Huh. Take a look at this. The clumps of the roots are all dried up and crumbled, and it looks like - yeah. Instead of that black viscous fluid, this stuff is much thinner. And, well, it smells like bleach." Dee took apart the corpse as she had done with the rest, and the results were the same all over: the parasite had become dry and brittle even in its root systems, making them impossible to pull out as she had done with her other specimens.
"OK," she said, standing up and removing her gear after the inspection was complete. "First, the obvious. Bleach fucks up the parasite, but it's fatal to the host, too. Aside from that, any ideas?"
"I don't know," Kevin spoke up. "Maybe we should hold off until we can do some proper science on this thing."
"Look, this basically is the scientific method," Seamus countered. "You come up with a bunch of ideas and try to test them one at a time until you get something that works. It's crude, but we don't exactly have a lab available. Or time."
"I'm just saying that I don't think we want to get sold on an idea that turns out to be wrong."
"I'd rather have any plan than no plan."
"Unless that's the plan that kills you."
"Well, hopefully it won't come to that, but still, better shitty preparation than none at all."
"Fair enough." Kevin shrugged his shoulders.
"Well," Cameron mused, "I think it's pretty obvious that if bleach kills this thing that quickly, it's really porous. Maybe we can weaponize the stuff. Even water balloons filled with a diluted solution should be able to do the trick. This guy just fell in some bleach and bought it, right?"
"Yeah," Dee said, running her hands through her hair. "Goddamn zombie killer death fungus from Hell. Can't stand up to household cleaners, though."
"Well, really, what can?" Cameron was scratching his head. "Also, if this thing is taking root in the brain, there's probably no way to cure the infection. Even if we managed to kill the parasite safely, the host would probably be brain-dead."
"Well, without healthy blood, there's no way you could survive, anyway," Seamus said.
"That's true," Dee said. "Oh, the thing I was going to say earlier, in the cleaning aisle. If you look at the zombies, I mean, I hadn't really noticed them breathing. Maybe they do, but really slowly."
"Gotcha. You think maybe the metabolism might be slowed?"
"I dunno. I don't know what starving people look like on the inside."
"Just an idea. That seems like it could help the host keep running with no food."
"Oh. Yeah, that's a good call."
"Hey," Cameron interjected. "This thing absorbs fluid quickly, but the host bodies aren't all dessiccated and shit. Maybe it's like a one-way thing, you think?"
"Could be," Seamus said. "Actually, I can't think of anything else to explain that."
"Shit, we're gonna have to disinfect everything." Cameron sighed. "We probably ought to raid the antibiotics, too. What do we have, penicillin, streptomycin, amoxicillin -"
"Anything ending in -cillin or -mycin is an antibiotic," Dee said. "That may or may not do anything. I mean, antibiotics work against bacteria mostly, and some fungi, sure - but there are side effects that could cause problems. If someone gets diarrhea and has to start drinking more water, this thing might be in the water and they could be doing more harm than good. I'm not saying it won't work, I'm just saying we ought to be cautious."
"Why don't we test it," Kevin asked. "We have antibiotics. We have the fungus. I'm sure we could jury rig something to test whether it's effective or not."
"Yeah, good call. OK, let's do that, then."
The conversation started winding down at that point, and the frames for the gardening project had been completed. They related their findings and conjectures to the rest of the group, as well as their plan to test the antibiotics. The corpses were dumped over the side of the building, and while they still had daylight, everyone pitched in to clean the floors so as to stop any zombie gunk from taking root inside the building. As the sun went down, there was still no sign of the zombies from town. A lookout was posted to the roof, with plans for relief every three hours. Tomorrow they would fill in their frames with dirt and start planting seeds, as well as work on purifying their water and testing the antibiotics. Everyone bedded down for the evening with a sense of confidence, tempered only mildly by anxiety. Sure, shit was hitting the fan, but they had a plan, and they were still all alive. That was more than they could say for the rest of the town.