Newest Book ...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

'Terminals' & Zombies: Compare and Contrast

An alternate title to this post could be "The Mechanisms of Zombification."

I'll be talking about the undead, how mine stack up, the science behind my choices and so on.

Full details after the JUMP:

First off, how about we go through some of the other famous zombie archetypes so we'll have a good baseline?  I'll choose a few differing zombie manifestations.  (Spoilers, I guess, if you haven't seen these films or read my book.  Get my book here and here.)

1968's Night of the Living Dead (and associated sequels)
Called: Ghouls
Method of infection: Radiation from destroyed satellite animates the dead
Characteristics of the affected: Slow moving; flesh eaters, despite their bodies not requiring sustenance; moaning and groaning; some near-instinctual actions and memories are retained; a few zombies even display the ability to be educated, as well as intelligence and cunning
Means of dispatch: Destruction or extreme damage to the brain

1985's The Return of the Living Dead (and associated sequels)
Called: Zombies
Method of infection: A toxic compound called "2-4-5 Trioxin" animates the dead; depending on the film, the compound can even infect the living
Characteristics of the affected: Normal mobility unless the body has been damaged; brain eaters, because neural cells ease the pain of their "affliction"; can make all manner of noises and even request more brains; retains all memories of their lives and are able to conspire to bring more brains within their grasp ("Send more cops.")
Means of dispatch: Electrocution or immolation (though this means may spread the trioxin compound further)

2002's 28 Days Later (and associated sequels)
Called: Infected
Method of infection: "Rage" virus, spread via bites or absorption of infected fluids
Characteristics of the affected: They are not dead; fast moving; incredibly violent
Means of dispatch: Since they are still alive, any normal means of killing someone will do; the infected will die of dehydration and/or starvation within days

2003's & 2010's The Walking Dead (comics and TV series)
Called: Walkers
Method of infection: Virus akin to meningitis, everyone is infected (though survivors once believed only bites and fluids transmitted it)
Characteristics of the affected: Normally slow moving but with occasionally quicker individuals; flesh eaters; growling and hissing; little-to-no memory of past lives; little-to-no intelligence displayed but some have utilized tools
Means of dispatch: Severe damage or destruction of the brain

OK, now let's do mine:

2012's Diary of a Second Life
Called: "Terminals" in Lee; "corps" by Mountaineers/Rogues; "the Blessed" in New Jerusalem; "APMPs" (Ambulatory Post-Mortem Patients), "a-pimps," "pimps" in Detrick
Method of infection: colonial bacterial infection present in all forms of life that have a microbiome (more info below); upon death of host, the colony grows and asserts control of the corpse
Characteristics of the affected: Mobility dependent upon amount of electromagnetic fields (which agitate the bacteria) -- in modern times, the APMPs would be very quick and after the apocalypse they are very slow; flesh eaters out of a need to consume protein; they are silent (no breathing, no speech, no hissing/growling/etc.); no memory of past lives; no intelligence displayed (more below on this, too)
Means of dispatch: Complete destruction of body (as in fire); decapitation works in that it prevents the APMPs from being able to consume flesh, causing starvation, but the head and body parts are still animated; after a time, bodies decay to the point that protein can no longer be ingested and the colony will starve

In my original outline for Journal from the Wasteland (as DoaSL was going to be titled), I left the details of my bacterial infection vague.  Intentionally.  I'm no scientist and I didn't want to explain so much that I 1) get something stupidly wrong and 2) take the fun out of it.

A few years later when I sat down to actually write this thing, I decided to brush up on some bacterial science.  I studied enough to drop a few lines like, "LPS activated and interleukin-10 produced," which describes part of the immune system's response.  But the most important thing, to me, was the functioning of the bacteria and how it works in these dead people.

Here's what I wanted: everyone turns once they've died, they're both fast & slow moving, they're quiet, ...

Why "everyone turns?"  It far more dangerous if anyone can become a zombie without touching or even seeing one.  Why "both fast & slow moving?"  Aesthetics.  I liked having shufflers but I also wanted some action scenes with faster undead.  Why "quiet?"  I think it's far creepier.  If you can't hear these things coming and they don't make a sound until they start snapping their teeth at you, ... that's frakked up.  It's also something I don't recall ever seeing in a zombie film.  (Watching Walking Dead recently and hearing all the snarling and growling, I really wanted to see my silent zombies on screen.)

The bacteria is named, binomially, of course, Deducosurio mortiparum.  From the Latin deduco, meaning "colony"; esurio meaning "hungry"; mortis meaning "death"; parere meaning "to give birth."  The name is supposed to mean "hungry colony born from death."

It is a eukaryote (a cell with complex structures within a membrane) and a bacteria, at that.  The model for D. mortiparum is slime mold.  No, slime mold isn't a fungus; scientists have changed their minds in that regard.  It acts in a colonial fashion and can reconnect separated parts of its colony, expand its colony, etc.  This is the kind of thing I wanted for my lil' protist.

It utilizes "quorum sensing," a capability of many bacteria (and other organisms) that allows it to know how many and where others of its kind may be.  This sensing is accomplished through the release and reception of signalling peptides.  In a full-blown colony (found only in deceased hosts), "quorum sensing" continues in a way similar to pheromones so that other APMPs will not attack.

The bacteria situates itself primarily in the microbiome of the host.  Now, just about every living animal has a microbiome, which is the term for the collective of so-called "foreign" bacteria and cells in your body.  The vast majority of them reside in your gastrointestinal tract and they aid in digestion and the like.  Once you die, they speed up the process of decomposition.  The figure in the book is true: for every one cell in your body that is yours, there are ten "foreign" ones.

For my purposes, mortiparum begins its life in a host body in the gut where it is able to fool the immune system.  Many species of bacteria and viruses can do this.  ("TIR" in the book refers to "toll/interleukin receptors," which is part of the immune system that can be fooled into allowing the invader to remain.)  Once there, it begins to spread throughout the host and small "tendrils" of the colony deposit themselves at muscles, sense organs, etc., so that they "learn" the function of the body part to which it's attached.  Are there any real-world examples of this?  Well, I'm not certain.  BUT, there is something called zombie fungus and it's creepy as hell.  Not quite behavior learning, but it is an example of an invader that influences behavior.  Whatever.  This is scifi/horror fiction.  I can make stuff up if I need to.

The protist becomes "excited" and enters into binary fission (cell division) in the presence of electromagnetic fields.  Now, where does one find these EM fields?  Everywhere.  The sun and the Earth itself give off loads.  Lightwaves, magnetic fields, lightning, etc.  Now, let's add in the innovations of mankind: radio, TV, cell phones, wifi, power lines, radar, etc.  In living hosts, EM fields increase reproduction of mortiparum (but only to a point) and increases the need to ingest protein.  In deceased hosts, the bacteria is still agitated and increased EM fields lead to more rapid movements.

The bacteria feeds on protein.  This causes the host to suffer oft-debilitating hunger and forces the host to eat more food.  After the death of the host, the colony uses the corpse to find more protein.  Once food is ingested, colonial representatives in the belly are able to extract protein and the energy is dispersed through the mortiparum network or "body."

If an APMP is beheaded, the "body" can no longer process protein and will eventually starve.  Also, once the host corpse has decayed sufficiently (mortiparum itself employs a kind of immune system that slows the decomposition process), the terminal won't be able to eat and the network will starve.  Certain "core" parts of the mortiparum colony will enter a kind of hibernation so it can re-enter the food chain at a later time.

Where did it come from?  I dunno.  Outer space?  At any rate, it ended up frozen in Antarctica and unwittingly unearthed in a scientific mission to retrieve ice core samples.  Later on, the sample was washed down a sink or something, freeing the hibernating mortiparum microbes and allowing it to enter the world's water supply.  Thanks to the high concentrations of electromagnetic fields in 2046, it was able to reproduce very quickly and it infiltrated many animals in the oceans, rivers, etc.  After a matter of weeks, it spread all over and entered the food chain of land animals, too.  By the time the shit really began to hit the fan and people realized what was happening, nearly every animal on Earth was infected.


OK, back to real life.

Why did I make the choices I made?  Some of the answers you'll see above.  But why the hunger thing?  Well, I wanted this to be a real apocalypse.  I wanted humanity to be brought to its knees and even lower.  In most zombie fiction, despite the aims of the creators, doom isn't so irreversible.  Zombies are still rotting and humans are still very armed.  By adding the hunger element, I added a reason for huge gobs of people to die without having to fight zombie hordes.

The EM field element was a way for me to have both slow and fast zombies, plus it helps lend atmosphere and motivation for our characters to live underground or travel at night ...

I didn't want them to be "intelligent" or anything like that.  At most, the colony can "learn" certain actions in order to get food.  Usually this only extends so far as walking.  Some are able to reach for things.  You might remember part of the book when Wess is accosted by a terminal horse.  It doesn't walk with any kind of grace.  Also, there's a bird in a field nearby and a character says, "Flying is sometimes too hard for terminals."

Why did I deviate from the classic zombie kill method: the headshot?  Initially, I didn't want to.  The whole nailing process employed by the people of Lee derives from the time before I decided brain damage wouldn't do the trick.  (Nailing is too cool to get rid of, though.)  Because the microbe acts as a colony independent of the corpse and without a true brain, damaging or destroying the human brain doesn't do much of anything to the colony itself.  Since I was going for a scientific feel, making headshots effective would have run contrary to that aim.  So it had to go.  In the end, it works pretty well.  It makes terminals more relentless and harder to kill.

Essentially, for the most part, I wanted dead bodies to be nothing more than a puppet and the colony of mortiparum to be the hand that manipulates it.

And that's the science of Deducosurio mortiparum and how it stacks up to other examples of undead fiction.  I hope it hasn't been too terribly dull.

No comments:

Post a Comment