Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(11)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(11)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Cover me,” Vanessa said.

Pablo walked a circuit around the charging station while Vanessa tried to open it.

“It’s locked,” she said after a short pause.

“Shoot it open?” Tania asked. She wondered if they’d brought any explosives, but then thought that might damage the unit.

“Too risky.”

“Might be a key in that office,” Pablo said.

Vanessa stood and looked toward the smallest of the six buildings. “We’ll try that first. You okay, Tania?”

“Yes,” she said despite a growing anxiety. She didn’t want to voice it, afraid she’d sound weak. Who cares? she told herself. You are weak. You’re stuck inside here, isolated and helpless. “Actually, no. Wait.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I …” She swallowed. “I’d feel better if you stayed with the aircraft, Vanessa. God forbid anything happens out there, but if it does, you’re the only way any of us are getting home.”

The pair walked back to Tania’s window so they could see her. “If anything happens out there,” Vanessa said patiently, “we’re better off handling it as a team. But … you don’t look convinced.”

“I’m trying.”

“Okay,” Vanessa said. “I explained this to Pablo already but you should know, too. If something happens to me, suit up and get to the cockpit. There’s an autopilot unit just above your head when seated in the pilot’s chair, and before we left I set it to record our departure position. Tap the option to execute, then confirm, then power up. The Helios will fly back to Belem, no further action required. Just make sure they clear the landing pad, because it will set down exactly where we took off from.”

Tania balked initially, but when the words sank in she found a surprising amount of comfort there. Her anxiety melted away. “Thanks, Vanessa. I understand.”

“Good. Stay put, we’ll be back in a few minutes.”

They moved more purposefully now, reminding Tania of Special Forces teams she’d seen in dozens of action-thriller sensories. She noted how Vanessa always took point, her focus on the goal unwavering, while Pablo came behind, his gun and gaze sweeping in a circle around them, then up above, too. It amazed her that just a few years ago they’d been a lawyer and a farmer, respectively. Skyler had trained them well, and despite all the firearms training and the endless hours of Krav Maga sparring, Tania realized then she still had no idea what she was doing. Worse, she doubted she’d ever have thought to look in the office building for a key to the charging unit, yet Pablo had suggested the idea almost instantly. A scavenger’s instincts, as if he’d been at it all his life.

She watched as they took positions on each side of a first-floor doorway. They were almost two hundred meters away now, but even from this distance she could see Vanessa count to three on her fingers. Then Pablo kicked in the door, causing a sudden distorted burst of sound in Tania’s ear. He took a step back and Vanessa stormed inside.

Tania remained glued to her window, watching the door, listening to her headset. Other than breathing and the occasional footstep she heard nothing, as the two immunes were working as silently as possible.

They’re good. They’re really good. Skyler would know this already, but she made a mental note to tell him later. Skill like this deserved recognition.

“Clear,” Vanessa said a short time later.

“Clear,” Pablo agreed.

Tania let out a relieved sigh. She listened in silence to the sounds of them searching the building. In her mind’s eye she saw them rifling through desk drawers and coat closets, perhaps knocking aside things that in any other circumstance would have been collected and returned to the colony.

A subtle movement caught Tania’s eye. Something small crept along the edge of the landing pad. A cat? It was just a shadow in the darkness, bobbing along the lip of the circular raised platform. Then it stopped, and Tania went still.

An arm appeared over the edge, hoisting a rifle. The weapon was set down on the pad, and then she saw another arm. He or she placed both hands on the landing pad and thrust up on to it, one leg swinging over the side and then the other. The person picked up the gun and stayed crouched at the edge of the pad, studying the Helios. A man, Tania numbly realized. He had a catlike litheness to the way he moved, and he seemed to be staring right at her.

Tania tried to speak and couldn’t. She didn’t move, unsure if she’d been spotted. She wanted to duck away, to find a gun and wait in the corner. A sudden panic filled her when she realized she wasn’t suited. If this intruder opened the cabin door from the outside, she’d be exposed. Her pulse pounded in her ears and her hands were shaking. Tania swallowed, made two fists, and squeezed. She took a deep breath and exhaled it.

“There’s someone here,” she finally managed to say. Her voice cracked, and sounded childlike.

“Repeat that?” Pablo said.

“Someone’s on the landing pad.”

“A sub?”

“No,” Tania said. “An immune I think. He’s got a rifle.”

“What’s he doing?” Vanessa asked, urgency in her voice.

“Just crouching there, looking at the aircraft.”

“Okay. We’re coming back. Pablo found a key ring.”

The man on the landing pad stood and began to walk—no, creep—around the aircraft. It took all the willpower Tania had to remain still, knowing she’d killed the lights in the cabin upon landing, which meant her window would be dark. She moved back a little, just to be safe.

A sudden blinding light fell upon her, and she leapt backward. A flashlight, she realized with dread. She moved away from the door, stumbled on the water bottle she’d left on the ground, and almost fell. Her heart raced. Had he heard that? The light slid away, then swept across the window, then fixed on the window again. Tania willed herself to calm. Maybe he hadn’t seen her after all.

“We’re coming out,” Vanessa said quietly in Tania’s ear. “What’s happening now? Where is he?”

Tania gathered her wits and pressed herself against the wall by the aircraft door. The light became very bright and began to dart around the inside of the cabin. “He’s right at the door. Has a flashlight. I think he saw me.”

“Relax, Tania,” Vanessa said. “Don’t assume he means harm. He’s just a survivor, probably saw us land and came to see what was going on. We might be the first people he’s encountered since the virus swept through here.”

The words made perfect and complete sense, or at least would if she hadn’t seen the way the man moved. Curious didn’t apply. Tania thought him more like a thief trying to find an open window.

“We see him, almost there,” Vanessa said.

Once again the light shifted away from the window. Tania heard something soft and mechanical. She looked down to see the large door lever starting to turn.

“Oh God!” she exclaimed, and grabbed it with both hands. She pushed it back with more force than she’d intended. The man outside reacted a split second later, pushing from his side. Tania strained, squeezed her eyes shut as she leaned into the lever arm, and pushed with both arms. The lever remained caught between two positions.

Then, one horrid centimeter at a time, it began to move in his favor.

“No …” Tania grunted. She gave up a few centimeters to get better footing, then shoved with every bit of strength she had. Still the lever arm ratcheted toward open.

Vanessa spoke in her ear. “What is it?”

“He’s trying to open the door.” The words came out like an angry growl. A burning sensation began to rise in Tania’s shoulders and at the base of her spine. For one fleeting second she wanted to laugh. Months of training and all of it worthless now. And yet she knew that was dishonest. A year ago she wouldn’t have been able to push back on the handle at all. She’d been soft. Not anymore. “Hurry, dammit!” she shouted.

Through the strain she turned and glanced at the porthole beside her. Centimeters away from her was the gaunt face of a survivor. He had a shaggy beard and wore spectacles. His weathered skin was filthy, and as he strained to move the door handle she saw a row of dirty, uneven teeth in his snarling mouth.

She met his gaze. The man might be an immune, but his eyes had the same insanity that a subhuman’s did.

“You! Step away!” Vanessa’s voice.

The man ignored the command. Maybe he hadn’t heard it; maybe he didn’t understand English. The door latch clicked into the open position. One pull from the outside and the cabin would flood with contaminated air.

I’m going to die. Or worse.

“My suit,” Tania said breathlessly. She shot a glance across the cabin, looking for the case. With horror she realized it wouldn’t matter. The suit would fill with the same air as she put it on in, and there was no way she’d get it on before he opened the door. “No time.” She turned toward the door instead, braced one foot against the wall, and pulled the handle toward her, hoping against hope she could keep it closed with the seal integrity intact. She only needed to last until the others returned.

The man outside started to laugh.

A distant gunshot interrupted him. Tania heard it a fraction of a second later in her headset. Vanessa or Pablo had fired, and Tania heard the round ricochet off the airplane’s fuselage. Two more shots followed, these much closer. The man, returning fire. A third and fourth came a split second later, sounding farther away. Tania heard a dull smack as a round pelted the porthole window.

Then silence.

“He’s down,” Vanessa said.

Tania realized she’d closed her eyes. With trepidation she stopped pulling on the lever. Somehow she had the presence of mind to yank it into the closed position again. Only then did she look out the window. Blood, and what she assumed was bits of skull, dripped down the clear surface. Through the red she could see Vanessa and Pablo, still only halfway to the aircraft and running hard.

“Is he dead?” Tania asked.

“Unsure.”

Tania tried to crane her neck to see the body on the ground, but it was useless. She could only wait and watch through a lens of blood as her companions raced back up the steps to the landing pad.

Belatedly she glanced up at the light in the cabin that indicated the state of its seal. To her relief it still glowed pale green.

Ten agonizing seconds passed before Vanessa and Pablo reached the aircraft. Pablo went to the body, and Tania watched his face as he prodded it with his gun. His eyes then met hers. “It’s over,” he said.

“Thank you,” Tania replied, her voice just more than a whisper. The post-adrenaline crash combined with the physical exertion made her arms feel like two dead weights. She let her death grip on the lever relax and slumped against the door. Of all the scenarios she’d played out in her mind, she’d never expected someone to try to force their way into the aircraft. She’d imagined subhumans clawing without effect on the fuselage, but this.… As hard as she tried, Tania couldn’t dispel the image of bone fragments sliding down her lone porthole. Nausea forced her to drop to a sitting position on the floor.

“Okay in there?” Pablo asked.

Tania inhaled through her mouth and let out the breath through her nose. “Shaken up a bit, I guess. That was close.”

Pablo didn’t reply. She heard rustling sounds through her headset. A moment later he spoke. “The guy was carrying a wallet. From Panama.”

“That’s a long way to go just to be in this dump,” Vanessa replied.

“Mm. A notepad here, too,” Pablo said. “There’s a map, and drawings. Lots of them.”

“Drawings of what?” Tania asked.

“Aura towers.”

Tania caught herself nodding despite the empty cabin. “He must have seen them come through, and followed the trail this far.”

“All that distance just to try to force his way inside the Helios?”

“From the way he looked,” Tania reasoned, “I don’t think he was entirely sane.”

“Wait till you see these sketches,” Pablo said. “Anyway, it’s over. I’m going to try these keys now.”

“Pablo?” Tania asked.

“Yes?”

“Before you do that, could you wipe the window clean?”

Vanessa slept while the Helios spooled her ultracaps off the platform’s charging station. It took three hours to reach capacity, during which Tania dozed fitfully. She woke every twenty minutes or so and checked in with Pablo, who’d offered to keep watch from a second-story catwalk on the side of the nearest reactor building, fifty meters away.

Just before midnight Vanessa fired up the engines and flew them back to the last position they had marked on the emerald tower path. She landed there, in the middle of a vast desert, and shut down the engines again. They slept in total silence and isolation there, until the sun rose.

Chapter Seven

Off the Coast of Liberia

29.MAR.2285

Upon leaving Belem, Skyler had flown as high as he was comfortable with, visually tracking the path that ran almost perfectly east from Belem until it reached the ocean. At that point there was no reason to keep the land in sight, and so he’d climbed to a cruising altitude.

When the west coast of Africa appeared on his map, Skyler dropped the engines to zero and glided, letting gravity pull the Magpie down to a comfortable three hundred meters.

“We’re going to need to land,” he said to Ana. “Caps are already low.”

She nodded. “Want me to check on him?”

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