Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(10)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(10)
Author: Jason M. Hough

The leader was still crowding Pascal. She heard the word pretender and some pseudo-religious nonsense. He had two heavies just behind him, ready to move in and help if Pascal resisted. Their attention was fixed on the man on the ground.

The two who’d come around the front of the truck were closest, and they had their backs to her. She decided to start there.

A yelp of pain down the street, out of sight. Skadz had struck. One of the heavies heard it, looked back that way.

The one across the street by the wall finally noticed Samantha. “Oy,” he snarled. “Piss off, whore.”

Sam ignored him. The two in front of her were alert now but still looking the wrong way, confused. She closed the gap, raised her pistol, and shot the first in the back of the knee. His leg buckled and he started to go down.

Everyone jumped at the crack of the gunshot. The noise echoed down the streets like thunder.

Sam shifted her aim to the second and fired again. The round took him in the thigh, a bit higher than she’d wanted so she squeezed another around. But he’d moved, and she missed. Despite his wound, the man spun around and swiped at her, knocking her gun away.

The leader spun toward her, as did his two heavies, Pascal momentarily forgotten. One heavy carried a police baton. The other was unarmed. No, she saw the glint of metal in his hands. Her heart lurched. Two pistols? Then she realized the man was adorned with brass knuckles on both hands.

The one near her staggered when his swipe attack forced him to put weight on the wounded leg. Sam slugged him with a right hook and he flew backward, knocking his head against the front of the truck as he fell.

She glanced around for her gun as the two heavies came around to face her, putting themselves between her and the leader. The weapon, she realized, had slid under the vehicle. She’d never get to it in time. Right.

Movement across the street. The scrawny runner had come halfway across. Indecision flashed in his eyes—join in, or go get help?—and he hesitated. A huge shape emerged from the alley and loomed up behind him. Prumble. Sam winced. She’d wanted him to stay out of sight. Any onlookers would have a hard time describing Sam and Skadz, but Prumble’s immense frame would be an almost immediate giveaway.

Pascal grabbed at the leader’s leg. The man jumped back and then kicked the pilot in the stomach. Pascal groaned and curled into a fetal position.

Better end this quickly, she thought.

Knuckles stepped toward her. Sam grinned at him. He grinned back and swung. The meaty fist whooshed just over her, so close she felt the cap on her head shift as she ducked under the blow. In the same motion she yanked her knife free from the sheath on her calf, lurched forward onto one knee, and thrust the blade forward into his belly.

He screamed, twisted away. She lost her grip on the hilt of her knife at his sudden movement. Knuckles staggered, his scream turning into an inhuman wail. Sam clubbed him on the side of the head and he went down.

The runner in the street turned to go for help. He took one step and ran straight into Prumble. The big man lifted the poor kid up by his armpits, then slammed him down into a raised knee. Six meters away and Samantha still heard the jaw break. Prumble heaved the limp body up again and tossed it into the wall across the street.

At this, the leader broke and ran.

The second heavy with the police baton still seemed willing to fight. Samantha let him come to her; she raised her fists, her gaze dancing between his eyes and the black stick in his hand. The man moved in fast and swung in a controlled manner, surprising her with his skill. She was forced to dive backward and roll.

When she came up she noticed the leader, now fifteen meters away and fading in the gray murk of light rain. He skidded to a stop, and then Skadz appeared and tackled him.

Police Baton came at her again. She tried to duck left and her foot slipped on the damp ground. His blow caught her on the shoulder—the meaty part, luckily. It still erupted in pain and sent her to the ground.

Sam rolled twice, grunting each time her shoulder met the asphalt. She’d have a nasty bruise in the morning. Worse, if she didn’t get up and finish this a**hole.

She started to stand, and then Prumble was there.

The big man came at the heavy with surprising speed. Baton swung but his footing was wrong and he didn’t get much behind the blow. Prumble blocked the riot stick with his forearm and the black baton flew from the man’s hand. Then Prumble lifted one massive leg and kicked outward. His foot plunged straight into the heavy’s stomach and pushed him a full meter back until he slammed into the door of the truck.

Prumble continued toward him, both arms held out, hands upturned, middle fingers extended.

The thug tried to run, but Pascal suddenly reached out and gripped his ankle. The Jacobite went down hard, landing next to Sam. She leapt on him and clasped her arm around his neck. “Finish them off,” she said through gritted teeth. “No witnesses.”

Thirty seconds later the truck drove away, seven bodies left behind in its wake. Sam saw pickers rushing out from a half-dozen nearby buildings before the whole scene faded into the distance. With any luck, they’d drag the bodies off the street before they stripped them clean.

Her heart hammered in her chest. This marked the first overt action they’d taken against Grillo, and in her mind leaving a trail of bodies did not equate to a good start. Even if they could get back here tomorrow, the place would be swarming with Jacobites—inner-circle types, probably—looking for answers. She’d have to hope the locals kept quiet or didn’t see enough to describe them.

On the other hand, it only took one poor beggar to describe them—a fat man, a tall woman, and a black guy with dreadlocks—and they’d be blown. She cursed inwardly. They needed to be more careful, avoid trouble until the time was right.

Darwin didn’t work the way it used to.

Chapter Six



Tania sat cross-legged on the floor of the Helios, a map spread out in front of her, a pencil tucked behind her ear.

She took a small sip of instant coffee, winced at the cold temperature, and set it aside. A quick glance at her slate indicated eight minutes before she should check in with Vanessa for the next position fix to chart. She’d made a mark every twenty minutes since takeoff, hoping to find some pattern to the path the emerald aura towers had taken. Normally Tania would have used a slate for such work, but seeing Skyler’s hand-marked map in Belem had inspired her to try the old-fashioned method. It turned out to be strangely cathartic, and the large size of the paper was somehow liberating.

The marks on her map traced a wavy line that swooped and turned, erratically if gently. She was beginning to suspect that the random nature of the path was deliberate, as if this set of towers for some reason didn’t want to be found.

The sky outside her small window dimmed as the sun neared the horizon. Soon they’d have to land, having no way to track the path in darkness.

She stared at the curvy line again, focusing on the landscape over which it traversed rather than looking for some pattern in its shape. But there was nothing obvious there, either. The path seemed indifferent to the land over which it crossed. Twice they’d lost it when it went out over water, but luckily the curves the path took were not so extreme that it couldn’t be extrapolated with reasonable accuracy for short distances. As of yet, the line had not left land for more than twenty kilometers or so. Tania had fretted about this as they’d flown up the spine of Central America. Anything more than about one hundred kilometers of water and she feared they’d lose the path for days, maybe weeks.

Her headset crackled, and Vanessa’s voice came through. “Everything okay back there?”

Tania glanced at her timer. Five minutes left before they were due to mark another position. “Yeah, I’m good. Is something wrong?”

“We’re going to need to land soon. I’ve been looking for a place on the path with power so we can top off, but it’s pretty desolate below.”

“Cap level?”

“Seventy percent, so it’s not critical.”

Not yet. Tania looked at the general direction the path took on her map. Although it curved erratically, the general direction was north. For all she knew it could end over the next hill, or wind all the way up to the North Pole. A frown tugged at the corners of her mouth at the idea of the path wrapping all the way back around and ending a few kilometers south of Belem.

“Hold on,” Vanessa said. “Pablo’s spotted something on infrared. Yes, there’s a heat source to the northeast.”

“Okay, let’s mark the path here and go check it out. Any opportunity we have to spool the capacitors is worthwhile.”

Vanessa rattled off a latitude and longitude combination. Tania confirmed the numbers and a few seconds after she felt the aircraft bank. The tone of the engines dropped.

“Tania?” Vanessa again. “There’s something else I need to tell you.”

The woman’s tone gave Tania pause. “Go ahead.”

“Tim contacted us a few minutes ago to let us know the Magpie has left Belem on the yellow path.”

“Good to hear.”

“He also said, well … look. Skyler and Ana took Russell Blackfield with them.”

Her stomach tightened. “What? Tim allowed that?”

“I’m sure they had their reasons,” Vanessa said. “He didn’t elaborate.”

Tania forced herself to remain calm. Vanessa, though no doubt loyal to Skyler, was probably right. Skyler hadn’t wanted to take anyone along, much less someone he despised. There must be a reason. But the fact that he’d done this without asking permission, or even telling anyone, meant he knew the action was ill-advised.

She thought back to when she’d first told him that Blackfield had come to Belem, hat in hand, asking for asylum. “Put him out the nearest airlock,” Skyler had said immediately.

Could it be they’d taken the prisoner along just to dispose of him? She wanted to believe Skyler had a bit more compassion than that, but perhaps he’d seen his chance and acted rashly. Perhaps it had been Ana’s idea. The girl had been known to do reckless things in the past, and maybe she held more sway on Skyler than he held on her.

Stop that, Tania. There must be a reason. Skyler’s mission called for continuing on to Darwin to pick up the object Grillo held. Perhaps he felt Blackfield could be useful there. Maybe he intended to exchange the fugitive for the device. That plan seemed ridiculous to her. She knew nothing about Grillo, but if he saw the object as some kind of holy relic, she doubted he’d hand it over for a broken man like Russell.

No, there must be something else, something worth adding such a huge risk to their mission. Whatever it was, Skyler must think it’s a long shot or he would have made his case to take the prisoner along.

“Are you there?” Vanessa asked.

“Thank you. I’ll try to raise Tim once we land and get the details.”

“Copy that. I would have patched him through, but he was in a rush.”

“No problem.” Tania clicked off transmit mode and set the headset aside. Then she pinched the skin between her eyes to stem a coming headache. Too many pieces were moving at once. Too many variables, points of possible failure. She hated the feeling of not being in total control of a situation. More than that, she hated not having the luxury to analyze and plan. She lacked Skyler’s ability to act purely on instinct and never look back. It was a characteristic he shared with Neil Platz, and she knew it was the reason she felt incomplete when he wasn’t around.

Of course, it was also the reason she often felt infuriated when he was.

The Helios set down shortly after dark on a landing pad beside a dry lake. Tania found the location on her slate’s map and, when switched to historical view, saw that there had once been a man-made body of water here, created by a dam. A hundred or so years ago the water had dried up, either by choice or due to a shift in climate. Hydroelectric power had all but vanished in the face of much cheaper and more flexible thorium reactors, so it made sense that the dam had simply been shut off. The lake had once again become a stream.

However, the electrical infrastructure in place would still have been useful, and what Pablo had spotted on the infrared turned out to be a large complex with an array of thorium reactors inside. The units predated miniature versions but were nonetheless reliable enough that electricity still flowed despite a lack of supervision for the last seven years or so.

Tania studied all this from the tiny porthole window on the aircraft’s door. She longed to go outside, to stretch her legs and look around, but unsealing the cabin now would mean she’d be in her spacesuit for the duration of the trip and they still had no idea how much farther the search would take them.

So she remained inside, and watched. Since landing she’d turned all the lights off in her cabin, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness outside. The buildings were simple cube-shaped affairs with metal stairwells and catwalks attached to the outside. Each was identical from the last, save for one that was roughly half the size of the others, and had windows. An office, she guessed.

For five long minutes the immunes remained in the cockpit, studying the immediate area for movement or sound after the engines finally went quiet.

“All quiet,” Vanessa said. “We’re going out.”

“Okay,” Tania replied. “I’ll keep an eye from here and let you know if I see anything.”

A few seconds later she saw the pair walk out toward the reactor complex. They carried their assault rifles casually. Vanessa took the lead and walked purposefully to a metal box the size of a refrigerator a few meters away from the landing pad. Pablo followed, constantly turning to scan the area around them.

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