Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(12)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(12)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Sure. He’ll say he needs to use the bathroom. Tell him to hold it.”

She gave his shoulder a squeeze and climbed out of the co-pilot’s seat.

“Better yet, just ignore him.”

Ana flashed him a grin as she went aft.

Escape was the furthest thing from Russell Blackfield’s mind. Part of him thought maybe he should at least pretend to be trying, just to feed a little kindling to Skyler’s paranoia. Something as simple as a guilty expression when the pilot checked on him would keep the man tense and provide a little amusement.

This time it was the woman, Ana, who came back. That was a change, at least. A welcome one.

She had a little swagger to her step, a confidence in her movement that he found undeniably attractive. When she ducked through the cockpit’s door he craned his neck in hopes of a glimpse of cl**vage, but the young woman’s small, proud br**sts were well covered by a buttoned-up shirt.

At least she was still wearing those khaki shorts. They left plenty of long, tan legs to study.

“Keep looking at me like that,” she said, “and I’ll blindfold you.”

“Whatever you’re into, I’m into,” he shot back.

A few seconds later her bandanna was firmly tied around his head. Dammit, he thought. “I was just having a bit of fun,” he said.

“Have some water instead.”

He felt the cold rim of a cup press against his lips, and opened his mouth to sip. She gave him two mouthfuls, no more, just as Skyler had.

“Something to eat?” he asked.

“Later,” she said. Her hand pressed hard against his shoulder, leaning him forward so she could inspect his bindings.

“I’m not sure what you two are so worried about. Where the hell am I going to go?”

“We’re not taking any chances with you. Skyler says he knows you too well.”

“He barely knows me at all,” Russell said. “Look, I’m sorry for staring at you but you must be used to it. You’re very attractive.”

She leaned in close. He felt the heat of her breath on his ear. “Do you really think so?” she cooed.

“Yup.”

“Well, Blackfield, everything you see”—she leaned in closer until her warm breath tickled the skin of his earlobe—“is Skyler’s. Is that clear?”

He chuckled. “A bloke can look, can’t he?”

In answer she tightened the blindfold.

Touche, Russell thought. “You could just take it as a compliment,” he tried.

He heard her walking away.

“I need to use the head!” he called out. In response he heard her slip back into the co-pilot’s chair. Some conversation he couldn’t quite make out passed between the woman and Skyler, and then the two of them laughed.

He wanted to hate her, then. Wanted to tap into that well of rage that had always been ready and waiting, as long as he could remember. A thirst for vengeance when someone slighted him. Something had changed, though. The day he’d left Darwin some piece of him had fossilized. A buried fragment with Grillo’s name on it, waiting to be unearthed.

For Ana he found something unexpected. Attraction, yes, but also admiration. Respect, even, he supposed. Instead of a burning desire to conquer her like a mountain summit, he could think only of that shared laugh with Skyler. The way she looked at him, as if they were a team. A multiplication rather than two opponents in the oldest game. No woman had ever looked at Russell Blackfield like that. Or if they had he’d never noticed.

Somehow Skyler had earned it. From this little tart and Dr. Sharma before that. How? What was he doing that drew such women in like moths to the flame? Perhaps it was all just that cocksure flyboy attitude, or maybe she just really dug his apparent total lack of ambition.

Russell slumped back in his chair and forced his thoughts from tan legs and selfless heroes to slumlords and priestly white robes.

“There’s the path,” Ana said, pointing.

Skyler guided the Magpie in low over the Liberian coastline. Where the Azores had mostly rocky cliffs for a shore, this part of Africa was dominated by kilometers of sandy beaches broken by the occasional river delta. A remarkable portion of the land beyond was still forest, and sure enough he could see a swath of flattened palm trees exactly where they’d predicted. After half a kilometer the towers had run headlong into Sinoe City, leaving a path of destruction exactly like those in Belem.

He knew little about Liberia, or much of the rest of this part of Africa. The area had gone through an explosion of investment and prosperity eighty years ago or so, when most of the continent had finally achieved a long-sought political stability. Foreign money came pouring in, mostly from China and India, resulting in gleaming new cities like Sinoe. The place reminded Skyler of Darwin in some ways—a chaotic forest of metal and glass towers, tall at the center and shrinking down to residential structures on the outskirts. Slums on the inland side, luxury homes and mansions along the coastal edge and lining the river that ran through the heart of the city.

“I’ve got four possible landing sites,” Ana said. She’d been poring over maps in the Magpie’s computer for much of the flight.

“I really need to piss back here!” Russell shouted.

Skyler ignored the outburst. “Our best bet is a military base. Preferably one with the lights on.”

“I know, but the nearest is a hundred klicks north. I did find two commercial landing grids within the city.”

“Nice work.”

“Marking them for you now.”

He flew over the first and didn’t even bother to slow down. Skeletal remains littered the ground around a handful of crashed aircraft, a sight Skyler had come across all too often—everyone wanted to get to Darwin when the disease finally came, and when the mobs realized there wasn’t enough room they took on a “if I can’t go, no one can” mentality.

The second location proved better. A row of ten landing pads, all empty, in the center of a gated warehouse district. He’d scavenged dozens like it all over Southeast Asia. In crisis situations, for reasons Skyler couldn’t quite fathom, people seemed to flock to grocery stores and the like to loot their supplies. Riots ensued and hardly anyone found what they needed, all the while the warehouses that supply such venues were left relatively untouched.

Blue landing beacons still winked on and off at steady intervals. Skyler picked the one at the end of the row and circled around so that the Magpie would be pointed down the rest of the row, making it easy to hop pads if needed.

“One of these days,” he said to Ana, “I’ll teach you how to parachute. I hate landing without someone on the ground first.”

“Sounds like fun,” she said.

If only she had the patience for a sniper rifle, he thought, she’d be a perfect stand-in for Jake. In time, perhaps, she’d get there, but time wasn’t exactly an abundant commodity anymore. Besides, her strange mix of fierce independence and fierce loyalty was starting to grow on him.

Once safely on the ground, Skyler let the engines unwind and unbuckled his harness. “Watch for subs,” he said to her. “I’ll get our passenger suited.”

“Yes sir,” Ana said. She winked when he glared at her.

He lumbered aft on stiff legs, chuckling to himself at the sight of Ana’s impromptu blindfold tied across Blackfield’s face. He yanked it off and tossed it on the seat across the aisle.

Russell blinked a few times, then leaned his head back against the seat. “Where are we?”

“Africa.”

He frowned. “Big place.”

“Yup.”

“Last time I was here, Tania tried to kill me.”

“I’d be happy to rectify that mistake.” Skyler drew his pistol, and felt some satisfaction as Russell eyed the weapon. “You need to get suited up now, so we can open the door and recharge.”

“Can I piss first?”

“Yes. Once suited, though, you’ll have to hold it.”

“Maybe you can scavenge up an adult diaper for me, Captain.”

“I have an easier solution. No more food or drink until we find the towers.”

That finally caused the man to shut his mouth. Skyler undid the bindings on Russell’s wrists and stepped back toward the cockpit as the former Nightcliff security chief rubbed feeling back into his hands. Russell stood then, and rolled his feet in circles to get the blood flowing again.

“Head’s over here,” Skyler said, waving his gun at the aircraft’s only bathroom. Despite the luxury appointments, the space was still tiny. “Leave the door open.”

“Maybe you could swap places with Ana for this part?”

“Not going to happen.”

“Ah, the overprotective boyfriend, is it?” Russell laughed. “Or maybe you play for both teams? I’ve seen you na**d, so it’s only fair I guess.”

“Blackfield,” Skyler sighed, “urinate, take a shit, whatever you need to do, just shut your damn mouth. If you’re not suited in five minutes I’m opening the door anyway.”

“You won’t do that; you need me.”

“Fine, then I’ll club you until you’re unconscious and suit you up myself.”

Russell seemed on the verge of continuing his attempt at witty banter, then thought better of it. With a sigh he squeezed into the tiny bathroom and took care of his business.

“Now,” Skyler said, “the suit.”

The man went to the back of the cabin and unzipped the duffel bag. The spacesuit seemed a waste on such a pathetic person, but Skyler saw no viable alternative. A normal environment suit, while effective enough, was a bulky affair that made movement slow and awkward. Tania had managed to survive Hawaii in one, but only just, and there was no telling what dangers awaited her when she found the emerald towers. He’d rather Russell not slow them down, even if it meant putting the impressive suit at risk.

“What’s this thing on the arm?” Russell asked. “Looks like a gun.”

“A thruster. Before you get any ideas, it doesn’t work unless vacuum is detected.”

“That’s okay. I can thrust just fine without help.”

Rolling his eyes, Skyler turned and called out over his shoulder. “Any movement out there, Ana?”

“It’s quiet.”

“Good.” Skyler stepped in to help Russell with some of the more complicated parts of the suit, recalling the fact that he’d needed two helpers when he’d suited up aboard Platz Station. Just before the helmet went on, Skyler held up a hand.

“Something wrong?” Blackfield asked.

Skyler shook his head. “Listen up, and for your own sake cut the snark for a minute. It could make the difference in your survival.”

To his surprise, Blackfield said nothing. He just nodded once.

“Once that helmet goes on, a clock starts. If we don’t find and secure those aura towers within the next twenty hours or so, you’re a dead man.”

“Twenty? I thought you brought all these tanks along so I’d have forty hours.”

“I did. And it’ll take us the better part of twenty hours to get back to Belem if we don’t find what we’re looking for.” Skyler thought it best not to point out he had no intention of turning around just to save Russell’s life, though the man would probably expect as much.

Russell said nothing, so Skyler went on. “I’m telling you this because I want you to understand: Every time you do something, or say something, that delays us, it’s your own life you’re putting in jeopardy. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you live or die, so please, if you want to keep up the aloof-chauvinist act then be my guest. I’m happy to trade barbs if that’s how you want to spend your time. And I guarantee you Ana will, too. She’s much better at it than me.”

In answer Russell fitted the helmet over his head. “What are we supposed to talk about, then? The weather?”

“I have a better idea,” Skyler said, adjusting the fit and clicking the sealing ring into place. He tapped a button on the chest and waited.

“What are you doing?”

“Making sure we have integrity. This might be the first time in your life that word has been used on you.”

“Ha-dee-fucking-ha. You know, mate, it’s not fair if I’m supposed to be quiet and you can still blabber on like that.”

The suit integrity light came on, green. “Clock starts now, Blackfield, and it’s just an estimate. If you do nothing else, keep an eye on your air level and let us know if it drops below ten percent so we can refill the tank.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

“Ana, let’s see if that charging port works,” he called out.

She emerged from the cockpit a few seconds later, took in Russell’s status with one glance, and started to open the cabin door.

“What was your idea?” Russell asked Skyler. “For what we could talk about.”

“Grillo,” Skyler replied. “I want to know everything you can tell me about Grillo. Now, outside.”

“I’m not a prisoner anymore?”

“You’re the manual labor. Get moving.”

Russell couldn’t help but be impressed by the suit he’d donned. Compared to the bulky outfit he’d been forced to wear during the Purge, and again when he’d made his first ill-fated trip to Africa, this suit was far more advanced. He could move almost as well as if he were wearing normal clothes, but the best part was the weight. The breathing apparatus, air tanks, and other systems were not all in one massive package on his back. They were spread out evenly across his body, and the net effect made them almost invisible. Other than the slight reflection of his own face in the helmet, he found within just a few minutes that he’d almost forgotten about the outfit.

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