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Authors: Dan Wells

Tags: #ScreamQueen

Ruins (7 page)

BOOK: Ruins
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“Not all, though,” said Shon heavily.

Michelle shook her head. “Not all. Come with me.” She led them to a small room full of white plastic bodysuits, talking as they pulled the protective coverings on over their uniforms. “The doctor arrived only two days ago, but he’s already made some excellent headway toward figuring out what the bioweapon is.”

“That’s good.”

“I suppose it’s progress,” said Michelle, “but as news goes, it hardly classifies as ‘good.’ The blisters seem to be caused by an autoimmune response—the bioweapon affects Partial biology in such a way that the body becomes allergic to its own skin; the skin cells can’t connect to each other properly, and the entire epidermis starts to disintegrate. There’s a word for it that I can’t remember; something big, at least five syllables.”

Shon glanced at her sidelong, confused by the self-deprecation. “You know plenty of five-syllable words.” Almost immediately he felt her embarrassment through the link data. She was trying to stay on top of everything, and she’d learned the word, but this was so far outside the realm of her expertise and she hadn’t slept in days and there should be a doctor or a general handling this outpost, not a driver, and—

He held up his hand. “It’s okay, Michelle, I know you’re doing your best.”

“Acantholysis,” she said quickly, and her link data returned almost immediately to a professional calm. “I’m sorry, sir, it won’t happen again.”

“It’s not your job to know the names of the diseases,” said Shon. “That’s what the doctor’s for. So if this . . .” He shook his head, struggling to remember the word, and eventually gave up. “If these blisters are caused by an autoimmune response, I assume that makes it harder to cure?”

“Much harder,” said Michelle, opening a door to a basement stairwell. The antiseptic smell was stronger here, and the plastic-lined steps were puddled with disinfectant. Shon pressed his face mask tighter against his mouth and nose to keep from coughing. “But I haven’t told you the worst part yet. The other primary symptom is rough, scaly skin, something the doctor can only diagnose as icthyosis.”

Shon parsed the Latin roots of the word and frowned in confusion. “Fish. Because of the scales, I assume?”

“Exactly. But icthyosis isn’t communicable, it’s genetic.”

Shon stopped short, one hand on the stairway railing. “This is a genetic disease?”

“Somehow the humans have found a way to make a genetic disorder contagious.”

Mattson swore, and Shon couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment; the link data from both Mattson and Michelle was sharp with fear, detectible even through the face mask. Shon looked at the door at the bottom of the stairs, which Michelle’s team had converted to a makeshift air lock, shrouded with plastic and ringed with rubber seals. Shon felt a surge of trepidation, stopping just for a moment; the urge to turn and flee almost overpowered him. It occurred to him that if he could still sense link data through the mask, it probably wasn’t protecting him from an airborne disease, either. He kept it on anyway.

“Let’s do this.”

Michelle opened the door and they followed her through.

The basement was as carefully sealed as the door, not only the windows but the walls themselves covered with layers of protective plastic. The room was crammed with bulky medical computers and the two hospital beds, each one bearing a Partial covered with boils and rough, scaly skin. Shon had considered housing the victims and their researchers in the East Meadow hospital, but he was concerned the disease would get out, and wanted it as far from the Partial population on the island as possible. Instead he’d brought several of the hospital’s solar panels and set them up here, to power the medical equipment and air recyclers.

He’d also sent Dogwood the hospital’s best human doctors, since all the Partial doctors had already expired.

“This is Dr. Skousen,” said Michelle, leading him to an old man in a medical gown and a face mask of his own. The human looked up from a twitching, sweating patient and scowled at Shon.

Shon nodded but didn’t bother to extend his hand to shake. “We’ve met,” said Shon. “Tell me, Dr. Skousen, have you had any luck isolating the cause of the disease?”

Shon was only beginning to understand the full range of human facial expressions, but the hatred on Skousen’s face was easy to read. “The only reason I’m even looking for this germ is to shake its hand for killing you so spectacularly.”

Shon radiated irritation on the link, even though he knew the human couldn’t sense it. “But you are looking for it?”

Skousen simply scowled at him, and after a moment Michelle answered for him. “As far as we can tell, yes,” she said. “He may as well be doing magic down here for all we understand it.”

“He’s not hurting anyone,” said Shon, meeting Skousen’s stare. “That’s not who he is.” He looked back at Michelle. “You’re giving him time to study our RM resistance in return, like I said?”

“Two hours a day,” Skousen snarled, “with no access to my notes or my team from the hospital.”

“I can give you some of that,” said Shon. “If Michelle vouches for your work, I can bring some of your notes from East Meadow.”

“And my team.”

“I can’t take the risk that you’ll collude against us.”

“I thought you said that’s not who I am.”

Shon shook his head. “I trust you, Doctor, not your colleagues.”

“More time, then,” said Skousen. “Two hours a day is nothing—my people are dying, and I might be the only man alive who can help them.”

“He only sleeps four hours as it is,” said Michelle. “We expect him to collapse in exhaustion any day now.”

“I can do the work if you’ll give me the time!” Skousen growled.

“Your priority is to cure these Partials,” Shon ordered.

Dr. Skousen laughed coldly. “That’s not even close to my priority.”

“You can’t cure anyone if you’re dead.”

“You already tried to kill me,” said Skousen. “Thirteen years ago when I cared for an entire hospital full of RM victims. You think this is bad?” He gestured wildly at the dying Partials, his hands shaking with age and anger. “When the bodies pile so high in this room that you have to step on the dead just to reach the dying, then you can tell me how serious this is. Then you can tell me I’m working too hard and I need some
. Then you can see what it’s like to watch an invisible monster kill everyone you’ve ever loved, assuming you love anything at all.”

Skousen’s chest was heaving, his old frame out of breath and shaking from the tirade. Shon watched passively, moving only to grab Michelle’s arm when she advanced on the doctor angrily.

“Tell me again why we trust you at all,” Michelle said, her voice neutral but her emotions raging like wildfire on the link. “This is a weapon your people created—”

“We still don’t know that for sure,” said Shon.

“—and you’re the only one on this island with the medical expertise to create it,” Michelle continued, tugging against Shon’s grip on her arm. “You should be hanging from a traffic light being eaten by crows, not hiding down here laughing while we parade your victims past you like a highlight reel.”

“He didn’t create it,” said Shon.

Dr. Skousen sneered. “Why do you think you know me so well?”

“Because when my platoon arrived in East Meadow, you were treating our wounded outriders in your hospital. Because you continued to treat them even after we started Morgan’s daily executions.” Shon spoke simply and softly. “Because you’re a healer, and you hate us, and you heal us anyway. You remember RM too well. You couldn’t create a new disease even if you wanted to.”

Skousen looked back fiercely, but soon he began to sag. “I’ve dreamed of your deaths every night for thirteen years, but not like this. No one should die like this.”

Michelle stopped trying to reach the old human, and Shon relaxed his grip on her arm. The air recyclers hummed loudly in the background, filling the dark plastic room with an unfeeling hiss. Shon gestured at the dying Partial soldiers. “Do you know how to cure it?”

“I barely even know what’s causing it,” Skousen whispered.

“Michelle said something about it being a genetic disorder.”

“Two different ones, if I’m reading the data correctly,” said Skousen. “It might be a bioweapon, but at this point you have to consider the possibility that this is a . . . malfunction. A factory error in your DNA, possibly related to your expiration date.”

“Expiration doesn’t look like this,” said Shon.

“Nothing in your history looks like this,” said Skousen. “We have to base our theories on analysis, not precedent.”

“So what’s causing it?” asked Shon. “Why is it only appearing in East Meadow, and why only in specific quadrants? Every victim we’ve seen has come from one of two patrol assignments, overlapping in a very specific region of the city—that has to be environmental.”

“Every victim we’ve seen has appeared in the last four days,” said Skousen. “This disease is too new to make any assumptions about—something that looks like a trend might just be a quirk blown out of proportion by a small sample size.”

A muffled alarm sounded down through the insulated ceiling, just loud enough to hear. Michelle looked up sharply.

“New victims.”

“Damn.” Shon moved to the door, but Michelle blocked his path.

“The disinfection procedure to get out of this room takes ten minutes. We might as well just wait.” She sighed. “They’ll bring them right to us anyway.”

They waited, agonizingly helpless, listening to the shouts and footsteps above them. Finally the door opened, and two gas-masked soldiers dragged a stumbling, blistered Partial into the basement laboratory. Skousen helped them get the man onto a table, and Shon used the link to demand a report.

“Same patrol as the others,” said the first soldier, saluting as he spoke. “Symptoms are about two hours old; we grabbed him as soon as his unit reported them.”

“The others have been quarantined?”

“They’re in the yard,” said the soldier. “We knew you’d want to talk to them first.”

Shon nodded and walked to the sick man. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Chas,” said the man, grunting the word through gritted teeth. “The pain, it’s—”

“We’ll do everything we can for you,” said Shon, and turned to Michelle. “Stay here; learn everything you can from him. I need to get upstairs and debrief the others.” He looked at Skousen. “Figure out why this is happening.”

The human’s voice was firm. “Bring me my notes.”

“We don’t have time for this.”

“Then give me what I want,” said Skousen.

Once again Shon felt the impossible weight of his assignment bearing down on his shoulders, threatening to grind his bones to dust against the ground. Invade the island, subdue the humans, find the girl Kira, kill the humans, control the humans . . . and now silence. Morgan’s orders had piled up like corpses, and then she had found the girl and closed herself off, with no new orders at all. Shon was undertrained, understaffed, and completely on his own, and now the situation on the island was breaking down faster, and more catastrophically, than he could possibly keep up with. He nodded curtly to Skousen, promising the old man his notes, and raced to the decontamination chamber, where he and Mattson and the two arriving soldiers scrubbed themselves and their boots and their plastic bodysuits with sharp, harsh chemicals. Shon threw away his face mask with disgust and grabbed a new one before racing outside to talk to the rest of Chas’s patrol.

What he found in the yard was not remotely what he had expected.

The soldiers in the yard were braced in a wide semicircle, the Dogwood guards and the visiting patrol mixed together almost haphazardly, their rifles up and their sights trained solidly on some . . .
 . . . in the middle of the open yard.

Shon drew his handgun as he approached, staring in shock at the thing before him. It was man-shaped, at least vaguely—two arms, two legs, a torso and a head—but it was at least eight feet tall, with a broad, solid chest and thick, powerful arms. Its skin was dark, a kind of purplish black, and plated like the hide of a rhinoceros. Its fingers and toes were clawed, and its thickset head was the most inhuman part of all—hairless, noseless, with a jagged mouth and two dark pits for eyes, which watched them all silently. Shon drew even with the soldiers in the semicircle, his gun level, his mind barely comprehending what he was seeing.

“What the hell is that?”

“No idea, sir,” the soldier next to him breathed. “It’s . . . waiting for you.”

“It talks?”

“If you want to call it that.”

Shon looked over his shoulder, seeing Mattson there with his own gun drawn. Shon looked back at the creature and swallowed, stepping forward. The thing watched him, never moving.

Shon took another step and spoke. “Who are you?”

“I am here to speak to your general.” The thing’s voice was deep, rumbling through Shon’s chest like an earthquake and reverberating in his mind with shocking clarity. It didn’t seem to have used its mouth at all.

Shon reeled in shock. “How are you using the link?”

“I am here to speak to your general.”

“I am the general.” Shon stepped forward again, lowering his gun slightly to display his uniform. “You can speak to me.”

Wide holes opened on the thing’s neck, sniffing like nostrils, or a blowhole. “You are not a general.”

“Battlefield promotion,” said Shon. “All our generals are dead.”

Shon felt a wave of confusion so crippling he nearly dropped his gun, and saw in his peripheral vision that the other soldiers were staggering under the same effect. He righted himself, trying again to project as much strength and confidence as he could.

“What do you want to say to us?”

“I am here to tell you that the Earth is changing,” the thing rumbled. It shifted its weight from one massive leg to the other, and still its mouth never opened as it spoke. “You must prepare yourselves.”

“For what?”

“For the snow.”

The giant turned and walked away.

“For snow?” Shon took a step to follow it, confused at the strange pronouncement, and even more so by the sudden departure. “Wait, what do you mean? Winter? What are you talking about? What are you?”

BOOK: Ruins
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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