Date: Year 14, day 11.
Location: Somewhere in the middle of the great plains.
Plan for today: Go home.
I woke up to sunshine on my face. I was lying on a blanket in the back of the locomotive cabin. Conner was gone, but there was a folded-up blanket tucked under my head. I sat up and looked around. Pippen was snoring on top of the pile of blankets. Conner was driving and Tan was sitting in the co-pilot seat, reading Jon’s papers. I went over and stood next to Conner.
“Where are we?” I asked, smothering a yawn.
“I think we’re in Kansas. Tan drove most of the night. We got stopped by a couple of trains, but we got around them without having to wake you up.”
Conner reached out and took my hand and gave me a smile that warmed me more than the sunshine. I’m sure I had a goofy grin on my face. I’d been worried that if my relationship with Conner changed, it would be the end of our friendship. Instead, I felt like the time I was walking through a bookstore and discovered that the book I’d been reading over and over had a sequel! Conner and I were the same characters as before, but we were starting the first page of a brand new adventure. I would have been happy to stand next to Conner forever, watching the track roll under us, but a full bladder trumps even true love!
The bathroom down in the nose of the train was a closet, just a metal toilet and a tiny sink. Someone had stowed several two-liter bottles of soda down here, so I used a bottle of Mountain Dew to flush. I was about to go back up the stairs when I saw a steel door with a little round window at the front of the locomotive. I opened it and found myself on the short platform at the nose of the train. A waist-high railing was the only thing keeping me from falling off the front edge. We were back in the middle of the great plains. On the way east, it had been all boring and flat. It was still the same dry grass stretching from horizon to horizon, but today it was beautiful. Here the grass grew clear over the tracks, although the dragon was having no trouble plowing through it. I stepped clear up to the railing and leaned out against it. I couldn’t even see the locomotive out of the corners of my eyes now. I spread my arms the way I do in dreams. The wind blew through my hair, and the grass whipped past below my feet. I whooped with joy. I had a pet dragon, I was going home with the shut-off, my best friend was in love with me, and I could fly!
The door behind me opened and I was standing on the front of a locomotive again. Tan stepped out on the platform. “Breakfast?” he shouted, offering me an Orange Crush and a can of ravioli.
I swept my arm around, taking in the whole prairie. “Look at this! Isn’t this a fantastic place?” I asked.
Tan looked around. “It gives me the creeps.”
I guess not everyone was in as good a mood as I was. “Why does this place give you the creeps?” I asked, taking the food.
“I’ve read botany textbooks, so I know how plant succession is supposed to work. You start with a grass meadow, then it gets colonized by bushes, and then trees move in, and finally you have a forest. Maybe it was all farmland before Fixer, but it’s been fourteen years, and this place is still stuck in the grass stage! Why?”
I looked around. Tan was right; there were no trees or bushes anywhere. I shrugged. “No idea. You’re cranky because there are no trees?”
“It’s not just that. I spent most of last night trying to read Jon’s notes. I can read medical journals pretty well, but these guys were using terms that make no sense to me. It’s driving me crazy! We need to understand Fixer. We still don’t know why Jon came down with it again and why we didn’t.”
“Does it matter?” I asked. “We’ve got the shut-off now.”
“Well, I think we’ve got the right stuff. But we had to leave the dungeon in a big hurry…”
I was stunned. “You mean we might not have the right shut-off? We could get all the way home and not be able to save Jon?”
Tan shook his head. “No, no, I mean, I’m pretty sure we’ve got the right stuff, but we have no way to find out until we get back.” Tan lowered his voice. I could barely hear him over the rushing wind. “And Pippen’s getting worse. I think the infection’s spread to her bloodstream. The ibuprofen isn’t keeping her temperature down any more. I’ve got antibiotics back home, but we won’t get home for another couple of days.”
My good mood evaporated. “Well, let’s stop at a town and get her some medicine!”
“Um, there’s a problem,” Tan said. “Antibiotics can break down and go toxic after they expire. Like, enough to kill you. I’ve tried to figure out which antibiotics would still be okay, but the studies I’ve read in medical journals were printed several years before Zero Day, and they didn’t cover the antibiotics in Walmart. I suspect that in the last few years before Fixer, past people were–”
“–publishing the latest information on the internet instead of in books?” I asked. “Yeah, I have the same problem with repair manuals.”
Tan nodded. “I’ve got a couple of types of pills at home I trust, and a very powerful intravenous antibiotic I tested on the rats, but I can’t be sure about anything else.” Tan grimaced and ran his fingers through his hair. “We could stop and get Pippen some drugs now, but they might kill her. I think our best bet is to just get Pippen home as soon as we can. But now I’m worried the delay might kill her! I…I just don’t know!”
I looked closely at Tan. He had a tired, worried look. Worse, he looked like an adult!
“Tan,” I said, “you’ve made the best decision you can, and we just have to see how it turns out. What you need now is something else to occupy your mind. Why don’t we try reading Jon’s email together? Fixer was half virus and half machine. You explain the biological stuff to me, and I’ll explain the mechanical stuff to you.”
Tan looked relieved. “Thanks, Callie! Maybe that will help.”
Pippen was awake when we went back in, but looking very pale, even for Pippen. I tried to get her to eat, but she only took a few swallows of Coke and declared she wasn’t hungry. Her skin was hot and dry, but she shivered as if she were cold. Tan changed the bandage on her leg. The cut was red and oozing a bit. Conner turned in the engineer’s seat to look at me, and I made a lever-shoving motion and held up three fingers. Conner nodded and bumped the throttle up from two to three.
Tan and I sat on the floor in the back of the cab with Jon’s papers in front of us. Tan leafed through and found a particular email message.
“Okay. Back when they were developing Fixer, Mark Kelling tells Jon about a breakthrough in getting something called the ‘master timer’ working. He says, ‘The tricky part is setting the child timer to the parent timer so the copy is synchronized with the original.’ What’s he talking about?”
I pushed the words around in my head for a minute. “Parent” must mean a Fixer bug, and “child” must mean the new copies of Fixer that it creates. But what was the bit about a setting the timer? Then the pieces started to connect. “Oh, I get it!” I turned one of the papers over and started drawing a timeline on the back. “See, each Fixer bug has a little clock in it that tells it when to change from replicate to repair phase. Every single copy must have its clock set to the same time, so all the copies of Fixer switch to repair phase at the same time.”
“That makes sense,” said Tan. “There are bamboo species that do the same thing. If you take a cutting from one bamboo grove and grow a new bamboo plant on the other side of the world, the new plant flowers at exactly the same time as the original grove. Every cell in the plant knows what time it is.”
“That reminds me of a funny story,” I said. “When I was teaching myself electronics, I made a little timer circuit. I set it to count up from zero and trigger a buzzer when the timer reached 120 seconds. I used it to time heating up my morning hot chocolate over the Bunsen burner in my room. It worked perfectly. But one day I forgot to turn the timer off, and in the middle of the night, the buzzer went off again. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I sat down and played with the circuit to figure out what had happened. Turns out the timer could only count to 65535.”
“Um, okay,” said Tan.
“So when it got to its limit, the timer started counting again from zero. 65535 seconds is eighteen hours. So eighteen hours later it got back to the 120 second mark I’d set, and the buzzer went off again.”
Tan had an odd look on his face, and I realized I’d been going on and on. I sort of do that sometimes. “Sorry, I guess I was babbling,” I said apologetically.
“No, no!” said Tan. “Go back! You said when your timer got to its limit, it went back to zero and started counting up again?”
“Yeah, lots of electronic and computer timers roll over like that. Just like the odometer on Arnold, they go back to zero.”
“Would the master timer in Fixer have worked the same way as your alarm?” Tan asked.
“Not sure. Probably.”
“Okay,” said Tan excitedly, “so Fixer starts out at zero in replicate phase, then it changes to repair phase when it gets to the right count on the timer, right? So the original Fixer, let’s call that one ‘Fixer A,’ was tested out on Jon, and it worked perfectly. Well, except the part where he went into a coma and stopped breathing.”
“Right,” I said. “Both versions of Fixer had that flaw.”
“So what if the shut-off factor deactivated Fixer, but the timer kept running? How long would it be before the timer reached its limit and started over?”
“That’s impossible to say. I’d have to know what unit of time it used, and how many digits–”
Tan interrupted. “It had to be fourteen years! The Fixer bugs were still inside Jon, just sleeping. Then about fourteen years later, the timer got to its limit, started over at zero, and Fixer woke up and went into replicate mode.”
Even over the noise of the engine, Tan’s voice had gotten Conner’s and Pippen’s attention.
“So Jon didn’t get infected with Fixer again, he still had it inside all along?” Conner asked.
“Right,” Tan said. “There may have been only one left in Jon’s body, but it started making copies until there were millions of them again. Then when they all switched into ‘Repair’ mode, Jon collapsed!
“So why didn’t we pass out when Jon did?” Conner asked.
I jumped in. “Because Jon had Fixer A, and it was keyed to just Jon’s DNA. We got infected with Fixer B. It works on anyone, and it had different timer settings.”
Tan’s face went white. “Then we still have Fixer inside, us, just like Jon! And our timers are ticking too!”
There was a moment of silence.
Then Pippen wailed, “Fixer’s gonna get me!”
“Calm down,” I told her. “Fixer’s not going to get you. We have the shut-off factor!”
“It’s not just Pippen,” said Tan urgently. “Everyone in the clan except Jon has Fixer B. We’ve got to get home with the shut-off factor before the timer reaches the repair mode, or everyone in the clan collapses, and poof! There goes the last of the human race!”
Pippen gripped her blanket, eyes wide.
“How much time do we have?” Conner asked.
Tan rifled through the stack of papers and yanked several out. “Here it is! Fixer A went into repair mode at 7:01 PM on June 2. The first day of the conference, when Fixer B went into repair mode, was June 14. So we have twelve days, starting from when Jon collapsed. Callie, you’ve been keeping track in your notebook, how long have we been on the quest?”
“Eleven days,” I said.
The papers fell from Tan’s hands. “Eleven days? Then Fixer B strikes tomorrow!”
For a few seconds everyone was frozen. The only sound was the rumbling of the big engine. Then Tan grabbed his medical bag and started digging through it. “I’m not waiting until tomorrow! I’m going to give us the shut-off now!”
While Tan got out supplies, I opened the box of shut-off. There were hundreds of little bottles of the kind you see movie doctors use to fill a syringe before they give someone a shot.
I handed one to Tan, and he read the label. “‘Universal Shut-Off Factor. 10cc. Property of Utopia Labs. Dosage: one milliliter for every ten kilos of body weight.’ Okay, for me that would be about…half a bottle.” He wiped his arm with an alcohol pad. “I’m going to do myself first,” he said apologetically. “We could pass out any second, and I’m the only one who knows how to give an injection.” He wrapped a large rubber band around his upper arm and clenched his fist a few times. I’d never seen anybody get a shot before. We’d never gotten that sick. Tan flipped the cap off the bottle. He got a syringe, took the cap off the needle, plunged the needle through the rubber stopper and sucked out half the contents of the bottle. He picked a spot in his arm, poked the needle in, and pressed the plunger on the syringe. It hurt just watching him do it. “Well, I’m protected now,” he said as he pulled the needle out. The place on his arm where he’d stuck the needle oozed blood, and Tan stuck a Band-Aid over it. I was horrified. Shots never bleed in movies!
Tan turned to Conner. “I think we’d better use a whole bottle for you.”
Conner kept his eyes on the track, but held out his right arm while Tan got the shut-off dose ready. When Tan shoved the needle in, Conner didn’t even flinch. Then it was my turn.
“Um, I’ll do it later, after I see if you guys turn purple or something.”
Tan grabbed my arm. “Come on, you rabbit! Past people got shots all the time. In fact, they liked it!”
I turned my head away, but I could still feel the needle sting my arm like a hornet. I tasted something salty in my mouth and wondered if the chemicals in the shut-off had moved through my bloodstream that fast. Then I realized I’d bitten my lip.
Pippen closed her eyes and held her arm out weakly. Tan knelt down next to her on the floor and measured out a quarter of a bottle. He wiped her arm, felt for the spot for the injection, and touched the needle to her skin. Then he froze. Tan pulled the needle away and let go of Pippen’s arm.
“Wait,” he said, looking up. “I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to let Fixer get her!”