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Authors: Dan Wells

Tags: #ScreamQueen

Ruins (6 page)

BOOK: Ruins
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The control, she knew, came through something called the link—Kira had discovered that the Partials used a system of chemical communication, like pheromones in an ant colony, breathing one another’s thoughts and feeling one another’s emotions. Ariel, however, could never sense any of it. She breathed deeply, trying not to be obvious about it. Nothing. It made her wonder if Nandita was simply lying to them—if they weren’t some alternate Partial model, but human after all. She’d lied about everything else, why not that?

“Hi,” said the Partial in the doorway. “I’m Eric. That’s Chas.”

Ariel stared back, furious at the soldier’s attempt at conversation. How dare he treat them like friends—like equals—in the middle of an enemy occupation? In the middle of an armed home invasion? She wished she could use the link just so she could blast him with the full force of her rage.

Caught by a sudden impulse, before she knew it she was blowing out a long, slow breath, right toward his face. Any harder and he’d feel the wind of it. Her heart seemed to stop as she waited, watching his eyes for any reaction, but she saw nothing—no sudden alarm, no glimmer of recognition. If she had the link at all, he was as deaf to hers as she was to his. She didn’t know if she should feel triumphant or disappointed, and the confusion only made her feel sicker. She scowled, and gripped the door frame for support. The Partial in the doorway shot her a quick glance, saw nothing important, and continued with his scan of the living room.

The Partial named Chas inspected Khan, presumably trying to determine for himself whether this fevered newborn was the fabled Miracle Baby. The women’s plan, posed by Xochi, was to present Khan to any Partial scouts in the hope that they wouldn’t bother looking for a second baby. The only problem would come if one of their neighbors—perhaps someone starving, or hoping to free a loved one from the Partials’ prison—had sold them out. All the humans knew about Arwen, and where she was hiding, but none of them would dare to betray the Miracle Baby.
She hoped.
Ariel held her breath, trying not to look as scared as she felt, waiting for the Partials to leave.

“What are these blisters?”

Ariel felt her chest grow tighter; she was still facing the doorway, but she could hear the sharp intake of breath as Xochi or Isolde, maybe both of them, reacted in sudden fear to the question. Had the Partials noticed their fear? Did they suspect the girls were hiding something? She wanted to spin around, to see what was happening in the room, but forced herself to stay calm. She studied Eric in the doorway, looking for a sign of alarm in his face, but saw nothing.
That might not mean anything,
she told herself.
The link makes them express emotions differently from us. He could be on the verge of killing us, and we’d never know.

The silence dragged on, the soldier’s question hanging in the air unanswered, and Ariel realized that Isolde was too shocked to speak. Maybe the Partials would miss a sudden intake of breath, but a failure to answer a direct question was bound to arouse suspicion.

Ariel turned around slowly. “He’s sick. I told you already.”

Chas adjusted his rifle and leaned in closely over Khan; the baby whimpered slightly, too exhausted from its constant pain to keep screaming. Chas reached toward one of the dark-yellow blisters. “This doesn’t look like RM.”

“RM’s not the only disease a baby can get out here away from a hospital,” said Ariel, her anger laced with fear.
Why won’t they just go away?
She swallowed nervously.

Isolde turned and stepped back, shielding the baby from the soldier’s hand. “Don’t touch him,” she snapped. “The blisters are painful.”

Eric raised his rifle—not all the way, but just enough to signal that it was still there, and that the Partials still had all the power. Ariel felt things spiraling out of control, the situation turning dark and desperate and ready to snap. She raised her hand to reach out, but she didn’t know where or to whom. Chas reached for Khan again, more aggressively this time, and saw Isolde raise her hand.

“Isolde!” Ariel tried to force her voice to be bright and chipper. The blond girl looked up, her hand frozen halfway through what might have been intended as a slap or worse. “Can I get you a drink of water?”

Isolde glared at her, her pale face practically red with rage, but she allowed the soldier to touch Khan’s face, probing carefully at the rough patches of hardened skin. Isolde seemed to swallow a scream and nodded to Ariel as mechanically as she could. “Thank you.”

Ariel walked toward the kitchen, but Chas barked a sudden order.


Ariel froze. She could just see Xochi from the corner of her eye, edging toward the curio cabinet where she’d hidden her handgun.

“No one’s allowed to leave the room,” Chas continued, his voice grim and serious. “You all stay exactly where you are, where we can see you.”

Ariel looked the other way, still frozen in place, and counted the steps to her own rifle’s hiding place.
Three steps, and cover when I get there.

It still won’t be enough.

If they started a fight, Senator Kessler would be here in seconds, surprising the Partials and, if they were lucky, taking one out of the fight. If the fight went long enough, Nandita would expose herself as well, using her power over the Partials to stop it—she didn’t like to use her control out of fear that it would attract too much attention from the rest of the Partial army, bringing out forces they couldn’t hope to deal with, but for a situation like this she might step in. But Xochi or Isolde or both might already be dead by the time Nandita came out, and maybe even Ariel herself.

At last Chas turned away.

“Let’s go.”

He walked to the door, and that was it—no warnings, no parting words, no acknowledgment of Khan’s illness or Isolde’s desperate cries for help. They were looking for Arwen, and this wasn’t Arwen, so they left. Isolde clutched her baby close to her chest, and Xochi closed the door the soldiers had left hanging open.

Ariel grabbed her rifle, checked the barrel, and tried to slow her breathing.

“We’ve got to get out of town tonight,” said Kessler, stepping into the room with her own rifle gripped tightly in her hands. “That was too close.”

“I think we handled it pretty damn well,” Xochi snapped.

Kessler growled, rolling her eyes. “I never said you didn’t.”

“Be quiet or you’ll make him start crying again,” said Isolde, and hurried out of the room. Ariel slowly peeled her fingers off the rifle, though she still couldn’t take her eyes off the locked door, or the windows they’d so carefully blocked to keep from being spied on. Xochi and Kessler pulled the bags out of the cupboards in the kitchen, running last-minute checks to make sure everything was ready. Ariel set her rifle on the table beside her but couldn’t bring herself to take her hand off it.

“You may have saved their lives, Ariel,” said Nandita, so close behind her that she almost jumped when she heard the old woman’s voice. She shot her a dark glance over her shoulder, then walked into the kitchen to help with the bags.

“The other girls froze,” Nandita continued. “You didn’t. I thank you for that.”

Kessler glared at Xochi, but neither of them spoke.

“You still haven’t told us where we’re going,” said Ariel.

“Does it matter?” asked Madison, walking in with Arwen on her hip. “We need to get out, I don’t care where.”

“Where this group goes matters more than almost anything else in the world,” said Kessler. She had a soft Irish lilt in her voice; Xochi, her adopted daughter, was Mexican by birth, but had lived with Kessler so long that the same lilt crept into her voice when she was angry.

It was fully evident now. “You know that’s not what she meant, Erin.”

“Yes, we have to get the children away from the Partials—” said Madison, but fell abruptly silent almost before she could even finish speaking. Ariel felt everyone’s eyes on her but said nothing. “The Partial soldiers,” said Madison, correcting herself. “We had the perfect cover today, and it still almost fell apart.”

“I’m not suggesting we stay,” said Kessler. “I’m just agreeing with Ariel. We need to know where we’re going.”

“To the same lab where I spent most of the last year,” said Nandita.

“That doesn’t tell us anything,” said Ariel.

Nandita sighed. “And what if one of you is captured? They could torture you, and get the location, and cut the rest of us off before we even arrive.”

“What are you expecting this trip to be like?” asked Ariel. “Two infants, an old woman, and barely enough survival training to go around. We’re sticking together just to stay alive, and if they find one of us, they find us all.”

Nandita glared back at her, but after a moment of silence she spoke. “Before the Break there was a government laboratory on a tiny island off the eastern tip of this one, the Plum Island Disease Research Center. Being separated from the rest of the continent made it the only safe place to study the most contagious organisms, but it turns out that same isolation saved it when the rest of the world fell apart. It has its own power source, its own air and water recycling system, and a hermetically sealed interior—it hasn’t fallen apart the way everything else has. That’s where I made this.” She held up the hand-sized leather bag that hung around her neck, containing the small glass vial with a chemical trigger; the trigger that would release . . . something inside Ariel’s and Isolde’s bodies. Nandita had thought it was the cure for RM, but given everything unexpected that had happened with Khan, they could only wonder. “If there’s any facility in the world where I can study and cure Khan’s illness, it’s there.”

Ariel found herself instinctually assuming that Nandita must have other motives as well, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it. Isolde entered the room, and Khan, in a rare moment of surrender, was passed out from fatigue, asleep on her chest. Isolde looked just as exhausted.

Ariel looked back at Nandita, fixing her with her stare. “Can you actually save him?”

“I will stop at nothing.”

They stared at each other, sizing each other up. Ariel wondered what the old woman was thinking, what she was reading in Ariel’s face and attitude.

“If you can really help him,” said Ariel, “then I’ll stop at nothing to help you do it.”

And as soon as he’s safe, I’ll kill you.


eneral Shon, leader of the Partial invasion force, climbed down from his horse in the yard outside the Dogwood outpost. He handed the reins to his assistant, Mattson. The human Defense Grid had used Dogwood to patrol East Meadow, keeping threats at bay, and Shon now used it for the opposite purpose of keeping the humans contained inside the city. As the most remote outpost, it was also a handy place to keep certain things he didn’t want anyone, human or Partial, to find. The link data in the yard crackled with anxiety—Shon could feel edginess and uncertainty in the soldiers, just like the rest of the army, but here they were outright terrified, and with good reason.

The humans, it seemed, had released a biological weapon, and Dogwood was where Shon had been keeping the corpses of his Partial brethren who’d died from the disease.

“Are you sure it’s safe here, sir?” asked Mattson.

“I wouldn’t have anyone here if it wasn’t,” said Shon. “Let’s go inside.” He tried to project as much strength and certainty as he could, hoping his example would bolster the soldiers. Ideally it would be a real general here, not Shon—he was just another infantryman, like them, created to be a sergeant at the most—but he was the one Dr. Morgan had promoted when the other officers expired. Authority was more than just rank for the Partials, it was a biological fact: A general could command those under him through link data that enforced their obedience, and they passed those commands down with link authority of their own. Everyone knew where they fit, and why, and it worked. Now the entire army was flailing, leaderless, and Shon felt it more than anyone. He forced the thoughts out of his mind, determined again to present the most confidence he could muster.

“General,” said the guards, saluting as he approached. They were men he’d handpicked for Dogwood, and they knew not to be confused by an infantryman in a general’s uniform. He saluted back, and they opened the door to the main building. The strong scent of antiseptic wafted out, and the guard offered Shon a paper mask to cover his mouth and nose.

Shon hesitated, not wanting to muffle the link by restricting his air, but the guard shook his head. “Trust me, sir, you’ll want it. The link still functions, it’s just weaker.”

Shon took the mask, and motioned for Mattson to do the same. They walked inside, where an old friend of Shon’s met them with a crisp salute.

“Sir, welcome to Dogwood.” Michelle, a sergeant herself, had driven Shon’s armored personnel carrier in the Isolation War, and they’d fought together in ten or twelve military campaigns since, most of them against other Partials after the Break. Since Long Island had no easy access to fuel for the APCs, Michelle had been scheduled to return to the mainland after the initial invasion was successful, but Shon had asked to keep her as a tactician. Now she ran Dogwood. The weary tinge to her link data told Shon she was as exhausted by the demands of emergency promotion as he was.

Shon saluted back. “Sergeant.”

“Thank you for coming, General,” said Michelle. “I wish I had better news.”

“More victims?”

“Two more, though all the victims were stationed inside East Meadow. I have the bodies isolated, and I’ve sent everyone in their units to Duckett Farm.”

Shon sighed. “Do they know they’re in quarantine?”

“They know they’re not allowed to leave; maybe they suspect the truth, I don’t know. Even if they do, they might not suspect it’s a bioweapon.”

“We’re genetically engineered to fight off all disease,” said Shon. “Now that there’s a disease we can’t fight, I don’t know what else they’d think it is.”

“I’m just hoping for the best, sir,” said Michelle. “So far none of them have gotten sick, just like the previous units we put under quarantine, so unless they’re carrying the disease and haven’t manifested yet, I think we’ve saved them all.”

BOOK: Ruins
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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