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Plague War
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Plague War

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Author: Jeff Carlson
Publisher: Ace Books, 2008
Series: The Plague Year Trilogy: Book 2

1. Plague Year
2. Plague War
3. Plague Zone

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Researcher Ruth Goldman has developed a vaccine with the potential to inoculate the world’s survivors against the nanotech plague that devastated humanity. But the fractured U.S. government will stop at nothing to keep it for themselves.


Excerpt

Chapter One

Ruth kicked her way through another tangle of bones, stumbling when her boot caught in a fractured chunk of ribs and vertebrae. Interstate 80 was a graveyard. Thousands of cars packed every mile of the wide road, each one full of slumping ghosts—each one pointing east.

Always east, toward the mountains.

Ruth hiked in the same direction, huffing for air against her face mask. Her movements were less like walking than dancing. She lunged and sidestepped through the wreckage, because many people had also continued on foot as far as they were able. Everywhere their skeletons huddled among endless garbage. Some still held boxes and bags and rags and jewelry. Most had gathered in clumps wherever the standstill traffic pinched too closely together, blocking the way.

Each step was made more difficult by her broken left arm. The cast affected her balance. Worse, she never wanted to look down. The skulls were a silent crowd. Ruth tried to avoid their gaping eyes, so she blinked constantly and glanced sideways and up as she walked, letting her gaze move like a pinball. In three days that dizzy feeling had become normal. Ruth barely remembered anything else. It helped that she always had Cam in front of her and Newcombe behind, walking single-file through the ruins. The steady clumping sound of the men's boot steps were markers for her to follow.

Then they came to a clot of vehicles that had burned and exploded, throwing doors and bodies into the confusion. The spaces in between the cars were thick with splintered bones, steel, and glass.

Cam stopped. "We need to try something else," he said, turning his head from the raised Interstate toward the neat, sprawling grid of the city below. All three of them were wrapped in goggles and face masks, so Ruth couldn't tell exactly where he was looking, but the streets were even worse in the downtown areas. The neat lines of the city were deceptive, full of traps and deadends. The carnage was unimaginable. The human debris filled hundreds of square miles just here in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, mixed with dogs and birds and every other warm-blooded species.

"This way," Newcombe said, pointing past the blackened cars to the downward slope of the shoulder.

Ruth shook her head. "We'd be better off pushing through." Several drivers had tried to escape by ramming the guardrail, only to overturn on the hill below. She didn't want to start an avalanche of cars.

"She's right," Cam said. "We'll just take it slow."

"Then let me and him go first," Newcombe said to Ruth, stepping past her.

Mark Newcombe was twenty-two, the youngest of them, younger than Ruth by more than a decade, and he had trained as an Army Special Forces soldier for two years before the machine plague. The end of the world had only continued to harden him. His assault rifle, pack, and gun belt weighed fifty pounds—and barely slowed him at all.

Cam's stride was more uneven. He was hurt, like Ruth, which she thought made him a better leader. Cam wasn't so sure. He worried about things, and Ruth liked him for it. He was more willing to admit he was wrong, which was why they were still on the Interstate. The road was bad, but at least it went through. Their small trio had tried to hike cross-country more than once, wherever the residential areas or commercial buildings eased back from the highway, but they'd encountered too many fences and creeks and brittle gray thickets crowded with beetles and deadfalls. Even the burned traffic was better.

Newcombe cut his elbow and both knees before they were through. "Let's keep moving," he said, but as soon as they cleared the burn, Cam made him stop and immediately flushed the wounds with a canteen, trying to outrace the plague. Then he bandaged the cuts, wrapping Newcombe's pantlegs with gauze.

Cam stood up before he was done. "Wait," he said, tilting his head to listen to the sky.

It was a clear blue May afternoon, sunny and calm. Goose bumps prickled up the back of Ruth's neck. I don't hear anything, she thought, but the cool, vulnerable shiver in her spine made her turn to stare behind them. She glanced through the dead cars, seeking any threat. Nothing.

Cam shoved at her. "Move! Move!"

They ran beneath the twisted metal bulk of a truck rig. Cam and Newcombe had their guns drawn but Ruth needed her good arm to crawl under the wreckage, suddenly half-blind out of the sun. Her glove crunched in a litter of glass and plastic.

"What—" she said, but then she felt it, too, a low, menacing drumbeat. Helicopters. Again. In the vast ruins of what had been Sacramento, California, there were no longer any sounds except the wind and the rivers and sometimes the bugs. It was a small advantage. So far they'd always heard the choppers while they were still tens of miles away.

Closer this time, and coming fast.

"There was a culvert about a quarter-mile behind us," Ruth said, her mind jumping. Twice before they'd gone underground because the enemy had infrared.

Newcombe grunted, huh. "I saw it. Too far."

"Oh." Cam lifted one glove to the inhuman shape of his

goggles and hood. "Ants," he said.

Ruth turned to see but cracked her head in the tight space. The crumpled bulk of the trailer read SAFEWAY in letters as long as her body and she said, quietly, "It's a grocery truck."

"Christ." Newcombe scuffled back toward the sunlight, moving on his elbows to keep his rifle out of the grit and dust. But his backpack caught on the metal above him and he had to squeeze even lower, pushing his weapon in front of him.

Ruth clenched her teeth. The cutting roar of the helicopters, Newcombe's struggle just to gain a few inches—it set the fear in her spinning and she realized there was another noise all around them, creeping and soft. The dead had begun to live again. The bones and the garbage vibrated in the rising thunder, rattling, sighing. Somewhere a car door wailed as it sagged open.

"Go," Cam said, just as Newcombe hissed, "Stay back."

Ruth shifted urgently. She had to move even if there was nowhere to go. She had seen ant swarms in the heart of the city like impossible black floods, surging over ceilings and walls, stripping entire buildings of carpet glue, rubber, and upholstery. If they were on top of a colony now, it would be a hideous death.

"We need to get out of here," she said.

"Go," Cam agreed.

Ruth tried to ease past him, shoving herself between the broken asphalt and the white-and-red bulk of the trailer. Then she saw two tendrils of ants.

The choppers slammed across their position, overwhelming her pulse and her mind. Everything in her shook. Everything was noise. The trailer overhead echoed with it and Ruth thought to scream—and then the thunder tipped away, sliding by like a falling building or a train—and Newcombe grabbed her arm.

"Goddammit, stay back!" he yelled as the crushing sound continued past. "They might not be sure! They might only be following the highway!"

Ruth made herself nod. She couldn't breathe. She tried to look out, but when the truck rolled it had hit at least one other vehicle. There was a badly dented beige sedan in front of her, and yet the noise was still a solid thing and easy to follow. It hadn't gone far. It was landing.

Suddenly she could see through a gap between the car's torn fender and wheel well. At first there was only sky and trees. Then she saw two helicopters. Maybe there were more. The aircraft dropped smoothly, meeting the ground with almost perfect symmetry. The side doors on both helicopters were open, spilling men in green containment suits—men without faces or shoulders, deformed by long hoods and air tanks.

"They're down," she said.

There were open fields on this side of the highway, an irregular stretch of flat brown earth where the commercial buildings stopped short of the road. Ruth saw a chain-link fence that might slow the soldiers, but it was leaning over in one spot where they could probably shove it down. The sound of the choppers echoed and rapped from the tall face of a warehouse.

Cam pushed in beside her, craning his neck to see. Ants covered his shoulder. "We can't make our stand here," he told Newcombe.

"The bugs," Ruth said. "Get the bugs between us and them."

"Okay, yeah. Move." Newcombe rolled over and began to pull off his pack.

Ruth turned and scrambled away, looking for Cam as soon as she hit daylight. He came out slapping at one sleeve and they ducked into the motionless cars together.

The glinting she had seen, sunlight on air tanks and

weaponry, were there ten soldiers? Twenty?

"Here! Stop!" Cam pulled at her and they circled behind a white Mercedes. "If they come up the embankment we can try to force them back toward the truck."

Ruth nodded, dry-mouthed. Where was Newcombe?

Waiting, she became intensely aware of her exhaustion, old bruises, new hurts. Waiting, she drew her pistol. In another life this much pain would have stopped her already, but she was not who she had been. None of them were. And that was both good and bad. In many ways Ruth Goldman was less complicated now, thinking less, feeling more, and there was real strength in her anger and frustration and shame.

She owed it to her friends to fight. She owed it to herself, for every mistake she'd made.

Panting through the bitter taste of her face mask, Ruth kicked aside the small, partially melted ribcage of a child to reach the car's rear bumper, where she brought her pistol up and braced for the assault.

~ ~ ~

Copyright © 2008 by Jeff Carlson


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