The Cobra Event is set in motion one spring morning in New York City, when a seventeen-year-old student wakes up feeling vaguely ill. Hours later she is having violent seizures, blood is pouring out of her nose, and she has begun a hideous process of self-cannibalization. Soon, other gruesome deaths of a similar nature have been discovered, and the Centers for Disease Control sends a forensic pathologist to investigate. What she finds precipitates a federal crisis.
The details of this story are fictional, but they are based on a scrupulously thorough inquiry into the history of biological weapons and their use by civilian and military terrorists. Richard Preston's sources include members of the FBI and the United States military, public health officials, intelligence officers in foreign governments, and scientists who have been involved in the testing of strategic bioweapons. The accounts of what they have seen and what they expect to happen are chilling.
The Cobra Event is a dramatic, heart-stopping account of a very real threat, told with the skill and authority that made Preston's The Hot Zone an internationally acclaimed bestseller.
"The nonfiction roots of this book run deep," writes Preston while introducing his much anticipated first novel, a kind of fictional sequel to The Hot Zone. Indeed, where that bestselling report on natural viruses run amok employed fiction techniques to dramatic effect, this exciting tale of bioengineered viruses on the rampage leans on the sort of cool, fact-packed prose usually associated with nonfiction--or with the sort of cautionary science thriller aced by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton, who's an obvious influence, Preston knows how to explode from the gate: his opening, in which a schoolgirl attacked by an unknown virus spasms and bleeds and eats her own lip, will plunge readers into shock. The subsequent story proceeds crisply, focusing on how a female physician at the Centers for Disease Control and assorted FBI agents trace the incident to a madman who aims to decimate our species through explosives laden with the virus--nicknamed "Cobra." There's authoritative exposition about viruses and their exploitation by military, political and financial interests, as well as abundant forensic and procedural descriptions, including graphically detailed autopsies. There's a pumped-up finale, too, as feds chase the terrorist through the New York subways. What's missing--and what separates Crichton from Preston--are vigorous characters and the passions and strong dramatic arc they can embody. Preston's heroes and villains are neatly tagged but only molecule deep; none develop substantially and all exist only to further the plot, which itself seems designed only to further an idea: that bioterrorism is viable, and terrifying. Preston marshals his narrative with sufficient precision to persuade and terrify readers (who will be legion)--but more from the horror of a grotesque diorama come to life than from the moral terror that more accomplished storytelling can engender. (Nov.) Copyright (c) 1997-2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 29, 1998
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Excerpt from The Cobra Event by Richard Preston
Arc of the Circle
NEW YORK CITY, LATE 1990S
KATE MORAN was an only child. She was seventeen years old and lived with her parents in a loft apartment on the top floor of a handsome old building to the west of Union Square, just on the edge of Greenwich Village. One Wednesday morning in late April, Kate was slow getting up. She had woken in the middle of the night in a sweat, but it went away, and she fell back asleep, into bad dreams that she could not remember. She came awake with a fresh cold, and she could feel her period coming on.
"Kate!" It was Nanette, the housekeeper, calling to her from the kitchen. "Katie!"
"Okay." She didn't like being called Katie. She sat up and found a Kleenex and blew her nose, and went into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, then went back into the bedroom and dressed in a flowered dress that she had found in a flea market. The mornings could be chilly this time of year, so she put on a sweater. Kate had wavy russet hair, beautiful hair with natural pale highlights, which she wore medium length. Her eyes were grayish blue or bluish gray, depending on the light and the weather and her mood (or so she liked to think); complicated eyes. Her face was changing fast. She could almost see the bones of the woman emerging, yet she had found that the more she stared at her face in a mirror the less she understood it. She thought about this as she brushed her hair, pushing it back so that the two platinum earrings in her left ear were visible.
Kate's mother called her the Packrat, because she accumulated things. The worktable in the corner of her room was littered with old cigar boxes covered with their original illustrations, plastic boxes, metal containers, purses, bags, puzzles. Things that opened and closed. There was an old dollhouse that she had found in a junk shop in Brooklyn and had been taking apart, cannibalizing it for a project. She reached into the dollhouse and pulled out a prism made of glass, and the smooth white skull of a vole, with tiny yellow teeth, that she had bought at a bone shop in SoHo. She held the prism up to the light falling through the skylight of her bedroom, and just to see what it would look like, she held the vole's head behind the prism. No colors appeared; you needed direct sunlight. She stuffed the objects into her knapsack. They were going to become part of the Box that she was constructing in Mr. Talides's art room at the Mater School, a private girls' school on the Upper East Side.
"Katie!" Nanette was calling.
"Okay, okay." She sighed and threw her knapsack over her shoulder and went out into the living area--a large open space with polished wood floors and antique furniture and rugs. Her parents had both already left for work. Her father was a partner in a Wall Street investment house, and her mother was an attorney at a midtown law firm. In the kitchen, Nanette had poured orange juice and toasted a bagel. Kate shook her head. She wasn't hungry. She sneezed. Nanette tore off a paper towel and handed it to her. "Do you want to stay home?" "Uh-uh." Kate was already out the door and into the elevator.
It was a glorious morning. She hurried along Fifteenth Street to Union Square, striding on long legs, heading for the subway entrance. The ash trees in the square were threatening to break bud. Puffy white clouds drifted in a blue sky over the city, winds whipping in from the southwest, bringing a warmer day than Kate had expected. The daffodils were mostly gone and the tulips were blown and flopping their petals. Spring was beginning to give way to summer. A homeless man passed Kate going in the other direction, leaning into the warm wind as he pushed a shopping cart piled high with plastic garbage bags full of his possessions. She threaded through the stalls of the farmer's market that filled up the northern and western sides of the square.