Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Chapter One

Belem, Brazil


Seconds from collision the vehicle lurched.

Mud sprayed from knobby tires as the bulky truck whipped around and slammed back-first into the mouth of the tunnel. Dirt and rock clanged against the roof outside. The whine of electricity bleeding out from the ultracaps below Skyler’s feet dropped off to nothing, allowing the clatter of heavy rain on armored body panels to fill the cramped compartment.

“All clear,” Pablo said from his perch in the gun turret. “You’re up, señor.”

Skyler gripped the long chrome handle on the rear door with both hands. The full suit of body armor made him feel like he’d been dipped in concrete. Plates of carbon fiber were woven into thick ballistic fabric, even the gloves. He glanced back at Ana. She sat cross-legged in shorts and a T-shirt on the bench that ran the length of the compartment, an improvised explosive in her hands. The thin brick of wrapped plastique sported a hand-built receiver glued to one side. As he watched she stuffed the bundle out a murder hole, then smacked the portal closed with her hand.

The arming beacon lay on the bench beside her, safely in the off position.

“All set,” she said. Then she caught Skyler’s nod, leaned in, kissed him hard on the lips, and flipped his face mask down for him. “Good luck.”

She’d been confined to a bed for the last few weeks after suffering bruised kidneys and some internal bleeding in Ireland. The camp medics, and Skyler, had advised against her going on this mission at all, but when her eyes had flared with dogged determination he’d known the argument was pointless. At least she’d promised to stay inside the vehicle.

He grinned. “You, too.”

Ana returned his grin with a half smile of her own, then brushed a strand of hair from her face. In that instant she looked as lovely as she ever had, and Skyler glanced away. He couldn’t quite explain why, and hoped against hope that Ana hadn’t noticed his sudden distance. The truth was, ever since Tania had given him her air aboard that alien ship he had found himself in a strange sort of limbo. He turned back to the task at hand, focused. With both hands he yanked the door handle.

When the door swung open, Skyler found himself staring down the tunnel once again. A steady stream of dirty water ran down the center of the floor where, after all this time, a deep and erratic gouge had been carved. More water dripped and trickled from the curved ceiling and walls, making the inside of the tunnel appear to be engulfed in the same storm that pummeled the rainforest outside.

With all the dexterity his combat armor would allow, Skyler hopped out of the APC and raised his gun. He smacked the weapon’s light on, and then did the same to the one mounted on his helmet. Already he regretted wearing the heavy suit. Sweat trickled down his back, and his legs felt like lead weights under the bulk.

The gun he’d chosen only made matters worse. The heavy assault rifle fired large-caliber rounds, regular from one magazine and explosive-tipped from a second. He could switch with a flick of his thumb. Mounted halfway down the barrel was a slightly curved steel plate that came up a few centimeters above the body of the weapon save for a small gap through which he could aim. The bulk of the shield descended from the barrel, which provided an extra barrier to anything that might seek to hit him in the chest. The protection might come in handy, but it made the weapon unbalanced and difficult to aim. Skyler had almost left it behind in favor of something smaller when Ana pointed out that he needed it only to get to the shell ship. Once he had the relic that lay within, he could ditch the bulky thing and run.

He glanced back one more time, some clever bit of reassurance on his lips. The words were drowned by a thunderous eruption. Pablo, on the roof-mounted rotary cannon. Individual gunshots could not be heard, only the steady hum as the weapon spewed bullets like a fire hose. It sounded like a pure bass note run through a stack of concert speakers. The vibration shook droplets of water from the circular tunnel around Skyler and made the plates of his combat armor chatter together.

The brutal noise vanished, replaced by the prattle of shell casings tumbling down the side of the APC and into the mud. Pablo fired the weapon for only a few seconds. Whatever had been his target, Skyler imagined it had been reduced to a few shredded bits of meat. He saw none of this, though, as Vanessa had stuffed the vehicle’s rear end expertly into the maw of the tunnel, ensuring Skyler would not have to worry about attack from behind.

“Get moving!” Ana shouted at him. She stood crouched in the center of the compartment now, pistols in both hands, ready to move to murder holes on either side of the vehicle should anything get past Pablo’s Gatling gun.

The plan required speed, and Skyler had not moved a step yet. He faced the tunnel again and started to jog forward, as if pushed by Ana’s gaze at his back.

Skyler’s breath fogged the inside of his face mask. Moisture from the humid air of the tunnel formed droplets on the outside. The thick sheet of clear plastic curved around in front of him and offered decent enough protection as long as he kept his chin down, visibility be damned.

He walked forward. The mud swallowed and sucked at his boots with each step. He moved farther to the outside of the curved passage, where the mud wasn’t as deep, but walking along the steeper part made his footing awkward and forced him to use his left hand to steady himself. This meant he had to carry the heavy rifle and its huge shield with his right. By the time the crashed ship came into view his arm burned, barely able to keep the tip of the barrel from dragging in the rising water. Aim of any effectiveness would be all but impossible.

Pablo’s rotary gun hummed again, strangely muted here at the end of the tunnel, as if the sound came rolling down the long tube and then canceled itself out where the space abruptly ended. Beneath the thrum came a rapid series of claps—Ana’s pistols. Skyler forced himself to ignore it. They had their job; he had his.

Water pooled in the cavity at the end of the tunnel. Despite the time that had passed since Skyler had first come here, the water had not increased in depth, leaving the scarred vessel resting in waist-deep water. Visibility dropped the closer he came to it, and by the time his boots filled with water Skyler found himself surrounded in humid air that smelled and tasted vaguely of copper.

Movement in front of him.

A black shape, slipping out of the opening on the side of the craft and into the water, so smoothly no splash was generated. Instead a subtle ripple fanned out across the surface.

Skyler braced his feet and raised his weapon with both hands. Between the riot mask in front of his face, the swirling steam in the air, and the plate of shielding mounted halfway down the gun barrel, he could barely see anything. The thing that had slipped into the water had merged with the darkness around it, and his gun’s light failed to illuminate anything other than the fine droplets of moisture in the air.

He held his breath and waited, counting silently. Four … five …

Something surged in the water, a bow-shock spray of dark liquid as torso and arms came up and lunged forward.

Skyler recoiled on instinct, felt himself tipping backward under the weight of his gear as the subhuman came fully out of the water, red laser light flaring from its eyes.

Some small corner of Skyler’s mind kicked in during the split second it took for the creature to close the distance. He thumbed his weapon’s clip selector, switching to explosive-tipped rounds.

He fired.

The bullet hit the creature square in the chest at the same instant its outstretched fingertips brushed Skyler’s shield. A deafening crack, a blinding flash of light. Pressure on Skyler’s own chest as the blast pushed the two of them apart. He fell backward into the water, had a strange awareness of cold seeping around his combat armor and into his clothing. His ears rang, yet he still heard the subhuman splash back into the pool and writhe there, thrashing in the water like an irritated alligator. Skyler sat up. He raised his gun from the water and aimed toward the splashing chaos a few meters away.

This time he held the trigger down.

A rapid series of small explosions lit the cave, as if someone had thrown a string of lit fireworks into the pool. Some of his rounds hit the back wall; others exploded on impact with the water around the creature, filling the room with a violent spray. Still more found their target, racking the augmented being with brilliant flashes of light, pushing it back.

The subhuman somehow found its footing, tried to dodge first left then right. Skyler gave it no relief; he kept firing even as he came to his feet. He swept the barrel of the gun in synch with the creature’s movements and sensed the desperation there. It was hard to tell for sure, but Skyler thought he saw one of the creature’s arms had been severed just below the elbow.

With a click the magazine of explosive rounds ran dry. The weapon automatically reverted to the main clip, and after only a split second the bark of gunfire filled the space again. Skyler had his legs under himself now, and despite the added weight of water that soaked his clothing, he found himself energized by the sight of a severed arm bobbing in the choppy water nearby. The creature could be hurt.

He focused his armor-piercing rounds on the subhuman’s glowing red face, those strange traces of laser light that vaguely marked where its eyes used to be. The creature had backed up all the way to the far wall now and had nowhere else to go. The aggression seemed to drain out of it, and Skyler almost relented when the being took on a sudden, pathetic slouch against the rock and mud, accepting its fate.

Skyler kept firing until the creature slumped and slid down the wall into the water, disappearing below the surface. He fired into the water then, another burst just for good measure.

Then, silence.

Smoke wafted off the barrel of the gun. The water around him sloshed against his legs briefly before settling into an inappropriate serenity.

Skyler waited, breathing the gunpowder-scented air in voracious gulps. He focused on the space where the creature had been, and realized he could just see the top of its head above the water. The black armor had cracked like an eggshell, revealing matted, bloody hair beneath. Jagged bits of the exotic material floated nearby. The sight gave him enough confidence to yank the empty clip of explosive rounds out of his weapon, toss it aside, and slap in his only spare. He flipped the selector back to the more powerful ammunition and willed himself to be calm.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Another deep buzz from Pablo’s Gatling reminded him of the urgency of their plan.

Emboldened, Skyler waded to the Builder ship. The surface of the hull seemed to drink in the light from his helmet and gun. Geometric grooves along the surface crawled almost imperceptibly as light and shadow played around them. Skyler stepped carefully, unable to see his feet or the tortured lumpy cavern floor below the pool’s surface. He moved to the opening on the side of the vessel, gun raised and ready.

Nothing within. No subhumans, at least. Just the pedestal he’d seen before, and on top of it, the object.

Circular, with a single small half-circle notch along the edge. Red light rippled along the straight-edged grooves on its surface. It seemed to brighten as he came closer.

Skyler took one glance around the room, saw nothing moving, and set his rifle on the edge of the opening in the crashed ship. He placed his hands on both sides and hauled his waterlogged and armored self into the cramped space, groaning with the effort. Memories of what had happened in Ireland bloomed to mind, and he wondered for the hundredth time what would happen when he lifted this “key” from its resting place. He’d imagined all sorts of scenarios, the worst being a simple cave-in. Being buried alive was pretty f**king low on his list of preferred ways to die. Standing inside the ship might give him some protection if the cave’s roof fell in, and at Ana’s insistence he’d packed two days of food and water in his already overloaded kit. “I’ll dig you out if I have to, no matter how many of those things try to stop me,” she’d said.

The memory of her words urged him into action. Skyler gripped the alien object with both hands, his teeth clenched as he imagined himself being covered with that same black coating the object provided to the subhumans. Nothing happened, though. Perhaps it was his gloves, or his lack of SUBS infection. Either way, the object did not seem to have a taste for him.

He lifted it and braced himself for the worst. An earthquake, a shower of rock … anything. Again, nothing happened.

The alien object mercifully weighed less than the one they’d taken from Ireland. He found he could hold it with one arm, like clutching a sleeping child to his side. Skyler left his gun where he’d dropped it and hopped down from the ship.

He was halfway down the tunnel, grinning despite himself, when the rumbling started.

Clumps of dirt and rock began to pelt his shoulders as the tunnel shook apart. Skyler felt a sudden, deep affection for the helmet and riot mask he’d worn. Not so much for the bulk of his body armor and the steel-toed boots that sloshed with each heavy footfall.

Many years earlier, when SUBS finally reached Amsterdam, Skyler had seen an elderly woman running along a rain-slicked cobblestone street. She’d had high heels on her feet, a long dress tangling about her legs, and two bloodied knees flashing into view with each awkward stride. A bundle of clothing under one arm and a wailing child under the other. As the cave shook apart around him, Skyler thought that old woman would probably beat him in a footrace right now.

A man-sized clump of dirt fell in front of him, forcing him to dodge and traverse the curved side of the tunnel floor. Somewhere outside, above all the noise, he heard Pablo’s gun again. This time it hummed and stayed on, a sound so low and steady it seemed to loosen something in Skyler’s gut. He clutched the alien artifact tighter under his arm and forced his legs to move faster.

A few steps later the back of the APC came into view, and Ana stood in the door, urging him to move forward with frantic gestures.

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