Arturo el Rey [Book 1]
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by Joan Upton Hall
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: Art Reyes, a young Marine, suffers eerie visions of dying with a lance in his chest--as none other than King Arthur. Had it only been a legend--Arthur's promise to return when the world needs him? Then bio-terrorists unleash a plague that ravages the population and crumbles civilization. With marauding gangs vying for power, Art is launched into a leadership position as the one man with the charisma to unify citizens to fight back. Miles away, a girl named Shanna struggles to survive the chaos of the new dark age. But fate inexorably draws the two together, the reincarnated King Arthur and Lady Guinevere. Their task: to restore order, rediscover their lost love and this time to get it right.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications, 2005 www.zumayapublications.com
eBookwise Release Date: June 2005
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [539 KB]
Reading time: 332-465 min.
Under his gas mask, sweat trickled along a new knife-scar on Lance Corporal Art Reyes's cheekbone. Los Angeles's heat cooked up the mask's rubbery stink and steamed his goggles. An NBC Suit would have been even hotter, but as much as he hated that and the scrub-down after discarding it, he felt naked to the plague virus with nothing but the mask. Vulnerability crept up the back of his head, left bare by a high-and-tight Marine haircut.
Earlier Marine expeditionary units had used up the supply of Nuclear-Biological-Chemical protective gear. And for what? Only thirteen of his unit were still standing, not enough for mob control.
The hospital loomed behind them, all black glass and concrete. It had been the city's newest, a beacon of hope for the sick, with state-of-the-art equipment and an elite staff. Until it filled up. Outside, cries of agony rose and fell in a discordant hum.
Out of the hundreds sprawled in the street and parking lot across the street, a gray-haired couple caught Reyes's eye as they inched forward. The woman supported the man, whose face looked like half-melted wax. He collapsed, and she fell with him. A dark, bloody mass let loose at the seat of his slacks. Authorities said the plague liquefied a person's insides.
Olive drab trucks--six-bys--blocked all entrances except a curved cascade of steps that led to the front door. Marines held their M-20s at port arms to barricade that passageway from the civilian mob. The massive glass doors reflected the early morning sunlight in vertical slabs like clenched teeth.
Orderly procedure was supposed to facilitate quicker attention, and at nineteen, who was he to question his superiors? He'd botched his own life plenty of times. But there were no new admissions, and the only releases he'd seen were in body bags out the back door into six-bys to be hauled off to the source of the smoke roiling up in the distance.
"Stand firm, Marines." Sergeant Jones stalked the line, his voice metallic through his mask. He moved farther back to communicate with his superiors on his compact Singars radio.
Ironic that the military would use Singars. Sure, their frequency-hopping capability could foil enemy listeners. But who the hell was the enemy?
Recent boot camp indoctrination blocked Reyes's survival instincts, but holding the line would have been easier if the sight before him was completely fogged. It wasn't.
In the mob, a woman and a freckle-faced boy and girl were struggling to half-drag, half-carry away the body of a man. The man's face barely looked like a face at all, but the hair was the identical sandy color of the kids'. They must have loved the guy--loved him a lot. Most bodies were abandoned where they fell.
A disheveled blond woman struggled under the weight of a small child wrapped in a blue blanket printed with little yellow ducks. The blanket looked as if it had been dragged around and cuddled too much. Probably the kid's favorite. His small head wobbled with every step the woman took. When she came closer, Reyes could hear her crooning "...and if that mockingbird don't sing..." Her voice thinned to a hum.
Had the kid looked like her? Reyes couldn't tell for the purple swelling of ruptured veins under the skin, but he tried not to think about it. Blood from the kid's puffy eyelids dribbled to join a red stream from his nose.
The young mother shifted her little boy's weight and mopped at the blood with a corner of the blanket. She set down a gallon water jug she'd carried hooked over one finger. When she eased onto the hot asphalt, a guy near her eyed the bottle. Trouble.
Why hadn't somebody told her there was no room in the hospital before she started out? Reyes tore his gaze away. Better to think of them as one teeming lump, not even human. Better to be just one cog in the wheel of the Corps' battle machine, following orders.
Sergeant Jones seemed to have no trouble with orders. Stocky and gravel-voiced, he had marched along the line spreading confidence since predawn hours when this unit came out. He left them only long enough to use the Singars or to check conditions in the hospital lobby, which was serving as a decontamination area.
A scowling young man in a suit and tie called to the sergeant, "Hey, is it true they have a vaccine in there?"
"Ha!" yelled a redneck in jeans and a gimme cap. "You mean not enough. They're hoarding it for the rich bastards."
"I can pay, sergeant." The suited man held up a briefcase. "You'll get your cut--just to let me through."
"Sonofabitch!" The redneck grabbed his shoulder.
Sergeant Jones raised his M-20.
The suited man jerked free and bellowed. He charged through the crowd and swung the briefcase, knocking down anyone in his path. His rage ignited others, and they fell in behind him.
Sergeant Jones's rifle thundered. The man staggered backward, gazing at the bloody hole in his chest. He laughed in disbelief then crumpled lifeless to the pavement.
"Jesus Christ!" The Marine beside Lance Corporal Reyes nearly dropped his weapon.
"Get back in line!" Reyes ordered, and the soldier remembered himself before anyone could seize on his weakness.
The crowd fell back, the sun beating them down. When a Marine reported sickness or wavered, Sergeant Jones sent him to the truck they'd arrived in, but was there anyone to care for them? The sergeant went inside the hospital. Was it imagination, or did he stagger a bit?
The sergeant trudged back out of the hospital, his gas mask in his hand. Purple welts distorted his face. His eyes were raw liver.
"Remove masks at your own discretion, Marines," he called out. "Headquarters just confirmed they're useless." He went back inside.
A few uncertain hands fingered the devices, but none acted. Lance Corporal Reyes removed his. If he was going to die, by God, it wouldn't be from heatstroke.
The air hitting his face reminded him of something he'd grown used to in the past few days. Oily black smoke from the garbage dump filtered the daylight to an unnatural color. The stench of burning corpses hung in the air.
"Get comfortable. This could last awhile." His accent, a cross between Texan and Spanish, marked his origins. His light gray eyes against tan skin showed his mixed race. The others seemed to find reassurance in his lack of plague symptoms, and they, too, took off the masks.
As the morning wore on, the sergeant ordered Reyes into the building to see if the staff had room for any more patients. They didn't. The staff had given up maintaining the lobby as a decontamination area and now moved between it and the hospital rooms without decon procedure. Even some of them lacked NBC Suits.
The only difference for admitted patients seemed to be that they died cooler than the ones waiting outside. Death wasn't particular where it invited itself.
Back in the broiling sun, Reyes heard plate glass breaking, shouts, gunfire on another street. If martial law was called, some other unit would have to take care of it. Somebody else's detail, a detail he would have preferred. At least looters were looking for trouble.
The young mother sat on the hot pavement, still rocking her dead child while she shaded his face with the ducky blanket. Reyes stared through them. Don't think of them as separate people. Giving a damn hurts too much.
But how could he keep from it? Giving a damn was what had made him trade in the gang world for the Marines. Presented a way to do what he was good at--fighting--without going dead from the neck up. Like guys who had been in the gangs too long.
"Reyes," Sergeant Jones said behind him.
He turned to see blood snaking out of the sergeant's nostril. The civilians backed away fast.
The sergeant corked the flow with his thumb and shoved the radio into Reyes's hand. "You're in command, Reyes. Hold your position. You'll take further orders from Lieutenant Haggarty inside the hospital. Trouble is he's sick, too." The sergeant's misshapen face showed no emotion. He headed up the steps toward the hospital door, weaving like a drunk. Twice he sank to his knees, got up and finally toppled forward. His face crunched against the step, and blood spread from under it.
The sight of their dead sergeant on the steps shook the men. He'd been immortal to them. Immovable and invulnerable. Like The Corps. Now he was gone, a disintegrating corpse. Hopelessness set in. Panic would follow.
A lance corporal makes a pretty weak leader. And I thought I was such hot shit getting promoted right out of boot camp.
As Reyes dragged the sergeant off to a flowerbed flanking the steps, nausea surged through him. He'd grown up with street fights and seen a lot of bad stuff. Knife wounds. Violent deaths. But he'd never handled a contaminated corpse before. He covered it with a sheet he got from inside. Nothing he could do about the blood drying on the steps.
Emptiness and fatigue made it difficult to focus on his duty. He took a sip of water from his canteen and grimaced. It tasted bad, but at least it was boiled and supposedly safe to drink. Forget how much water he'd consumed before they realized it was contaminated.
"Better ration the water you have in your canteens," he called out. "We might be here awhile."
These were guys he'd joked with, shared training with, griped about hard treatment with. He wanted to tell them he was scared, too, but if he did, discipline would go to hell. And everything depended on discipline.
Where's the relief shift?
He opened communication on the radio, brought it to his ear and made his voice sound as mechanical as the device in his hand. When he raised Lieutenant Haggarty, he reported the situation. Put into bare words, it sounded insignificant.
"Sergeant Jones is dead. No other casualties among the Marines for a while now, sir. But I'm not sure how much longer they can hold up. Can I tell them how long before we get relieved, sir?"
After a long, static-filled pause, a weak voice on the other end of the line said, "The radio and TV stations that are still operative are broadcasting that the hospital's full. No reinforcements available, Lance Corporal. Carry on." He didn't wait for Reyes's "Yes, sir."
While people in and out of uniform collapsed, new waves of civilians kept rolling in. They banked up in the parking lot. Five Marines besides him remained on their feet. As their numbers had decreased, the squad had gradually pulled back and were halfway up the steps. The crowd could have engulfed them if they'd tried. The five Marines knew it, too, but they didn't show it.
In the uneasy lull of crowd activity, he went around among the Marines to give them encouragement and to distribute crackers and candy bars he'd gotten out of a vending machine in the hospital lobby. Too bad the drink machines were empty, but he dared not fill canteens from the faucets.
He realized that none of the five had dropped since the last count a couple of hours ago. While he talked to them, he studied their faces for symptoms of the virus. They looked tired. They looked worried. But they didn't look sick, and he felt healthy enough himself.
"Here's some chow to eat while you can. Go easy on your water supply. I don't like the looks of some of the crowd. Our orders are to shoot if we have to."
"Like Sergeant Jones did?" Benny Johnson rested the butt of his M-20 between his feet and tore the cellophane off his peanut butter crackers with his teeth. He was close to thirty years old, a black career man and fellow Texan who had taken Reyes under his wing ever since he arrived at Camp Pendleton. Why wasn't Benny in charge instead of him? But Benny kept getting busted down to private because of one insubordination or another.
"Seems pretty damn cold, don't it, Art?" he said.
Lance Corporal Art Reyes didn't answer. The afternoon sun had swung a shadow over the front of the hospital. Dead-eyed, the black glass facade no longer glared, and the dark entrance was a slack mouth.
Sun on the parking lot had beaten down the sea of people. Their defeat shook his sense of control. Discipline. Lance Corporal Reyes must hold his position here, but damn if that meant shooting citizens you were supposed to protect.
Only vaguely aware of what he was looking at, he saw the young mother soaking the corner of the ducky blanket from her water jug. She began bathing the child's face.
"Hey!" a man near her shouted. "Don't waste that on a dead baby!" He grabbed the bottle, and the woman shrieked.
The crowd surged forward, and Reyes lifted his rifle. Something heavy struck his head. He fell backward. Dazed, he looked up at the hospital's slick facade.
The glass and concrete blurred out, became ancient, mossy stone. The walls of a castle, one he loved fiercely. He was on a horse, and he wore armor, heavy but familiar. The dream darkened and fog closed in, so dense he couldn't see. Dread engulfed him. Just out of his memory's grasp ... the knowledge that worse was yet to come. He tried to blank out all thought.
A knight in black armor bellowed and charged at him. The attacker's ax clanged against Reyes's shield. The impact unbalanced him for a second. Adrenaline surged through him. He swung his mace, wheeling his horse to add force. Through the mist, the spiked steel ball crumpled metal. Connected with flesh and bone.
His head cleared, and he was back to reality. Benny helped him to his feet behind the other four Marines, whose bayonets held the mob at bay. Only three insurgents really, the other people hanging back as if waiting for an opportunity.
Farther away, he saw the young woman trying to retrieve her water jug while holding her baby's body with one arm. The thief held her off and guzzled, water dribbling off his chin. The woman sank to the ground in defeat.
Reyes fired his rifle in the air. Its sudden thunder silenced even the flies. The mob moved back. The water thief froze, his eyes wide as he turned around.
"Give it back," Reyes commanded.
A gray-haired woman rose to her feet beside the thief, and Reyes recognized her as the one who had collapsed beside her dying husband, who still lay in a pool of his own fluids. She took the water jug from the thief like a stern parent correcting a naughty boy. She gave it back to the young mother and knelt beside her.
"The water's yours." Reyes hooked his rifle strap over his shoulder. "Go ahead."
The young mother blinked up at him in bewilderment. She brushed away a dried crust from the little boy's eye then bundled the blanket all around him, covering his hands, his feet, his face. She struggled to her feet with the older woman's help and stepped up to him. Holding out the bundle, she pleaded, "With your sergeant?"
"My honor, ma'am." Reyes took the bundle, an odd mix of fuzzy softness, damp slime and crusted nap in his hands. Somehow, it didn't revolt him this time. If he was going to catch this virus, it must be already working inside him.
He did a sharp about-face and bore the bundle up the steps to the flowerbed. He placed it gently beside the sheet-wrapped form of Sergeant Jones.
The two women held on to each other.
Discipline. Lance Corporal Reyes must report in on the Singars. With forced composure, he called the lieutenant.
Nothing for several attempts, till finally a shrill voice answered, "Lieutenant Haggarty's dead. We can't faze this damned virus. Let 'em mob the hospital if they want to. I'm going home."
The lance corporal couldn't raise anybody else at company headquarters, so he called battalion headquarters. Without any lower-ranking intermediaries, a tired voice answered, "Major Peterson here."
Art identified himself and the situation, asking for backup.
"Son, your mission is unachievable. We've done all we can do. You men are relieved. Save yourselves if you can."
"Son, we can't even raise anybody in Washington. Not at the Pentagon. Not at the White House. Not anybody. I'm the only officer here and I've got the virus. Just enough time to destroy the Camp Pendleton arsenal and keep it out of terrorists' hands."
At sixteen hundred, Lance Corporal Reyes's order-response mechanism failed. He shook like a defective robot. His mind dredged up an awful sense of the time before...
Before what? For an instant, he almost remembered, as if through a door barely ajar, a glimpse of familiar things gone wrong. And the blame was his, wasn't it? The door of his memory creaked shut.
It must have been that damn dream that came when he got hit. No more than that. But why the hell does it seem so familiar? I've never worn armor, and I don't know a horse's front end from its ass.
On the way back outside, the rebel inside him revived his survival instincts.
"Marines, listen up. Battalion headquarters has released us from duty." He waited a second for the news to soak in. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going home to Texas."
He was barely aware of the footsteps that followed him--five sets of combat boot heels echoing off the concrete and the muffled steps of the two women who had surrendered their dead.