The Wretched are at once a terrifying cannibalistic menace to the remnants of human society, a reproach to the old pre-war world for its endless capacity for self-destruction, and a tragic metaphor for the state of post-war society, gradually losing its memories, skills and humanity in exchange for a single-minded, brutal, all-consuming animal-like struggle for survival.
It is thought that the disease was originally engineered as a weapon, with infected individuals being introduced into the target areas with the intention of causing panic and disruption. As the infection progressed the symptoms appeared, the victim became aggressive, and began to attack and infect others.
Infection is by contact, passed on perhaps by breath, perhaps by touch, certainly by bite. This includes contact with dead victims. Burning of the bodies is recommended, and loot, especially food, should not be taken from the bodies of fallen Wretched.
Once infected the onset is rapid, with almost immediate stiffness, increased appetite, high fever and confusion. These symptoms may persist for several weeks until the victim passes into a coma. On emerging from the coma days later the victim is recognisable as one of the Wretched.
Physical symptoms include a greyish complexion, thickening of the blood, bleeding from all orifices, slowing or ceasing of healing, slowed reactions and movement, reduced sensitivity of nerves, and reduction of circulation resulting in atrophy and eventual loss of extremities. Internal organs appear to continue to function, but at a reduced rate, and certainly Wretched are killed by wounds to these in the same way as anyone else. However in some cases wounds which would incapacitate a non-infected person due to blood loss and shock have lessened effect on a Wretched, presumably due to the thickened blood, reduced circulation and lessened nerve sensitivity. Ageing appears to be slowed or halted, and in immature victims growth ceases - infected children do not mature. Although ageing itself does not bring about death, the lack of healing combined with continuing atrophy leads to death through accumulated injuries or collapse of a vital organ.
The increased appetite apparent in newly-infected victims remains in fully infected Wretched, along with a new preference for human flesh although any food and water is consumed regardless of its condition. Wretched appear to be highly resistant to toxins. The flesh of other victims of the disease is rejected by an infected person, while the flesh of animals is eagerly devoured.
In addition to the physical degradation mental atrophy occurs. The recently infected retain the skills and knowledge they had before infection. This gradually fades until only the appetite for flesh and the urge to infect others remains. The growing appetite for human flesh gradually replaces all other appetites and becomes overwhelming. Determined individuals by force of will may retard, but not halt, the advance of the disease. There is a grudging admiration in some quarters for some Wretched leaders in their determined resistance to their own inevitable decline, which is seen as a symbol of man’s inner struggle against his own bestial nature.
Some of the more aware Wretched live in colonies and maintain rudimentary defences and stores of food, equipment and ammunition. In some cases they may even attempt to delay the advance of the disease, usually relying on some vestigial memory of medical treatment – often limited to wrapping decaying extremities with bandages or cloths. These less de-evolved Wretched also often maintain memories of previous behaviour, including the use of artefacts and weapons. Most horrifying to the non-infected, some even capture live prisoners and hold them for later consumption.
Others live in roaming predatory packs. Possibly as the disease progresses and individuals lose self-control they leave colonies, drawn by the desire for human flesh, or are expelled to join or form these packs. Certainly as the disease progresses the ability to use artefacts and weapons declines, along with all other human behaviour including the wearing of clothes.
Many attempts have been made by the non-infected to research the disease's progress and cure it. These attempts have been carried out on restrained individuals in all stages of the disease, newly-infected victims as well as highly dangerous captured individuals suffering from the full disease, and include a wide range of drugs, counter-viruses and other treatments. All have so far failed.
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