Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(13)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(13)
Author: Jason M. Hough

As instructed, he walked behind Skyler at a comfortable distance of three meters. Ana trailed behind, her gun presumably trained on him. If the suit had one drawback, it was that he couldn’t easily look backward. That he rectified a minute later when he found the HUD and began to explore the suit’s menu of options. A rearview camera was built into the back of the helmet, and when he turned it on a small, widescreen view of the world behind him came into view. Ana, against the backdrop of the sleek aircraft, filled the image. Russell smiled. I can look at her without Skyler knowing. Better yet, I have eyes on the back of my head.

He found another menu, next. One that controlled the thruster built into the suit’s right arm. He saw an option called “diagnostics,” and within that another choice caught his eye. Vacuum detection override?

Russell Blackfield grinned again. He suddenly felt like a prisoner who’d been slipped a hidden shiv in his care package.

Chapter Eight

Darwin, Australia

29.MAR.2285

The air inside was stifling and smelled of sweat. Though she did not enter as a prisoner this time, she remained an outsider, and Samantha received more than a few mistrustful glares as she circled the periphery of the dimly lit space.

A fight in the center of the room otherwise held the crowd’s attention. They echoed the constant rhythm of landed punches and grunts of pain with a mix of enthusiastic cheers and sympathetic groans.

Sam noted one change to the room right away: Nobody was drinking. She wondered if bets would be settled once a winner emerged, and got her answer a few seconds later after the distinct thud of a body toppling to the ground.

Most of the crowd cheered, some grumbled. What followed almost made her laugh aloud. Quiet conversations started all around the room, forced smiles and polite handshakes across the board. They reminded her of extras in a crappy theater performance, pretending to be having real discussions at the back of a stage. Bets were being settled, she had no doubt, but it couldn’t be done overtly lest they draw attention from the guards posted at the door.

That the league had been allowed to continue at all surprised her. It didn’t fit with Grillo’s way of doing things at all. It must have been a concession to keep morale up, just as he’d compromised on the rules laid out for the scavenger crews. Grillo certainly had a knack for giving his subjects just enough slack to keep them happy without drawing wrath from the Jacobite hard-liners.

Sam completed her circle of the room without any sign of Vaughn. In her mind’s eye she’d imagined him leaning against the wall, arms folded, in exactly the same place he’d waited for her when she’d fought here. But no, he was not there, nor anywhere else. She turned her attention inward, toward the center of the room. Another match was starting. Sam pushed forward, scanning the faces of the audience. If anyone recognized her, they hid it well. She had to remind herself it had been almost two years since that night. Her performance in the ring had faded from memory, not become something of legend. She hadn’t really expected that, but some part of her hoped for a flash of “oh shit, she’s back!” recognition.

Maybe I should go a few rounds, she thought idly. Remind them.

The current bout ended almost as soon as it began. Sam hadn’t been paying attention, but from the pained looks on the crowd’s faces someone had just been dropped on the first or second blow. Another comically obvious stealth-settling of bets ensued.

It took her a moment to realize that the room had grown quiet and people were looking at her. No, not simply “people.” Everyone.

Sam felt a slight rush of fear at the sudden attention. She half expected to turn and see Grillo marching toward her, a slew of guards at his back, her murderous escapade in the Narrows exposed.

What she saw when she turned was Vaughn.

He stood in the center of the fighting ring and was pointing at her.

Calling her out.

Sam smiled. “You want a piece of me?” she said with a mock accent.

Laughs from the crowd.

In response he turned his hand over, held it flat, and then beckoned her with his fingers.

He wasn’t smiling. That worried her. But she cracked a grin anyway and strode into the circle of onlookers.

She walked a circuit around him, studying him. Vaughn seemed leaner than the last time she’d seen him, and he’d been na**d then. Right now he wore brown shorts and a bloodied white tank top. If any of his previous opponents had landed a blow on his face, there was no bruising visible to indicate it. Impressive, she thought.

His lunge came out of nowhere. Two quick steps closed the distance between them and a meaty fist flew straight at her nose. Sam ducked on instinct and felt the blow graze the top of her head. In the same movement she lashed out with one leg, expecting to kick his feet out from under him. He wasn’t there, though. He’d jumped, straight up, and landed hard on her thigh and calf.

Sam yelped and rolled, heard a roar of approval from the crowd. Her leg throbbed and she had to grit her teeth when she came to an awkward stand.

Vaughn was right in her face again. He punched and she parried this time. Another blow came right behind and she just managed to block it, the fist stinging her forearm.

Fucking hell, what’s his problem?

Sam fought back. She slugged him on the jaw with a left, which seemed to surprise him. Her right hook took him just below the eye and sent him staggering back.

A chorus of oohs and aahs erupted from the audience with each punch, as if they were watching a fireworks display.

“Miss me?” she asked.

“Something like that,” he grumbled. She’d hit him hard—most would be on the ground now—but he’d already found his footing and now faced her with an expert stance, dancing from foot to foot.

“Aren’t you full of surprises,” she said, and took her own stance, bringing both fists up in front of her. Clearly the man had some pent-up aggressiveness, and Sam decided to let him deplete it.

In truth she didn’t have a choice. He fought as well as she did. They danced around each other for a good five minutes, each landing as many blows as they blocked or avoided. Sam had a split lip and a pounding headache when she decided enough was enough. Another few minutes would have decided it anyway, and although she thought she could beat him, she decided that letting him win in front of his comrades would be wise.

Sam let the next punch fall; she feinted away at the last instant so it didn’t do much damage but still looked good. Vaughn’s fist still stung. She closed her eyes, whirled with the impact, and collapsed to the ground.

Wild cheers erupted from the crowd. When Sam opened her eyes, Vaughn stood over her, sweat dripping from his chin onto the floor next to her. She blinked away the sparkles floating around her vision and held up a hand. A few seconds passed, and just as she thought he might not help her up, he clasped her forearm and she his, and he hauled her to her feet with one easy motion.

“Hello, Vaughn,” she said, her face just a few centimeters from his.

He frowned. “What are you doing here, Sam?”

“Looking for you.”

“I figured that part out.”

Bets settled, the crowd shouted for Sam to depart the ring so that Vaughn could face his next opponent. When Vaughn waved them off and pulled her by the elbow toward the exit, they booed him, though she could tell it was mostly in jest. They hadn’t even reached the door yet when another match had started and the crowd had forgotten them.

A strong wind whipped the clotheslines that hung between buildings outside, bringing with it the smell of coming rain tinged with the ever-present salt of the ocean. Lightning danced across the sky to the east; a bright full moon gleamed to the west. Somehow it all seemed to mirror the way Sam felt as Vaughn tugged her into the darkness between two buildings and pushed her against the slat wall. The bruises, blood, and sweat on her face suddenly forgotten, Samantha gripped his shirt in both hands and pulled his lips to hers. They were warm and urgent and tasted like battle.

Sam fumbled in the dark for the glass of cider and giggled when she almost knocked it over.

Vaughn’s room was pitch-black, illuminated only in staggering flashes of white light from the thunderstorm to the east that filled the tiny space every few seconds. But sometimes a full minute would pass in total darkness. Sam found those periods of exploration only by the sensation of touch and taste to be intense, but there was something equally thrilling in seeing his na**d flesh lit up by a lightning strike—on top of her, under her, behind her.

He lay next to her now, a sweaty sheet covering one leg and the rest of him exposed. She sipped the cider and watched, studying his form every time a flash of white filled the room. He’d been in decent shape the first time they’d slept together, and a passable performer between the sheets. That had been two years ago, and he’d changed. Whatever workout regimen he’d undertaken had hardened his form in all the right places. And, she suspected, he must have taken another lover or two since they’d parted, or perhaps found a good whore, because his skill in lovemaking had improved even more dramatically.

“I should have come back sooner,” she said, running a finger along his thigh and up his chest.

“You probably shouldn’t have left in the first place.”

Sam had expected this, and had thought up a variety of responses. She’d been his prisoner before, and they’d f**ked on the floor of her cell with such intensity that he’d fallen asleep almost as soon she’d dismounted him. Exactly as she’d hoped. “I guess it doesn’t matter in the end. Grillo was right outside, waiting for me. On his way to talk to me, in fact. What happened between us didn’t change his plans.”

“Not for you, no. And if you’d hung around for thirty seconds he would only have faulted me for shagging a prisoner.”

The words hung in the air like silence after a thunderclap. Sam had to wait for a flash of lightning to try to read his face, only to find him staring blankly straight up at the ceiling.

“Vaughn, I—”

“Forget it. Ancient history.”

“Part of my deal with Grillo was that you not be punished.”

She heard him sigh, then sit up. “What the f**k did you tell him that for?”

This she hadn’t expected. “I used you. I felt like shit about it, and … Jesus, Vaughn, I couldn’t leave thinking you’d be.. ” She paused, remembering the man in the hospital, and the sound of Grillo’s knife plunging into him. “Did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Punish you.”

“No, Sam. No he f**king did not. That I could have handled.”

Don’t be so sure.

“Nah, I wasn’t punished, I was rewarded. Of course both are just a matter of perspective, right? But they couldn’t exactly leave me in my post. I’m too easily swayed by the temptations of flesh, you see?”

Sam swallowed, hard.

“Tonight being no exception.”

“Hey,” she said. “This was just a bit of fun. A lot of fun.”

A complex lightning strike flickered through the room, long enough for her to see him turn to face her, the bedsheet covering his lap. “Really, Sam? No other shoe to fall?”

He’d caught her, of course. She swore, inwardly, at her stupidity. For some reason she thought he might be sympathetic to the cause, or at least willing to take a night off when the night came for action. She hadn’t bothered to consider his perspective. She’d used him, marked him as a failure at his job, and left in Grillo’s good graces.

“You should go,” he said flatly.

“Vaughn …”

He lay back down and went silent.

Sam sat next to him for a long time, trying to think of something to say, some way to salvage things so that she could at least leave without him hating her.

In the end she rose and dressed, hating how clumsy the darkness made her now.

“Tell me one thing, Sam,” he said while she laced her boots.

“Okay.”

“Is this another test? Are you one of them?”

“One of who?”

“The Jakes. You’re supposed to tell them if I declined your advances or not, right?”

She balked. “Of course not. Goddammit, no.” Then she turned and sought out his face in the dark. “Wait, if you thought that, why’d you sleep with me?”

“Simple,” he said. “I keep hoping they’ll give up on me and leave me the hell alone. You can tell them that, when you report in. I’m sick of this.”

Sam made her decision then. She went to him, sat in front of him, and found his face with both hands and gripped. “Listen to me, okay? I’m not with them. Far from it. And that is the reason I came here. I wanted to tell you to be ready.”

A long, lightning-punctuated silence filled the room. “Ready for what?” he said finally. A whisper.

“I’d tell you if I knew, exactly. But something’s going to happen, Vaughn, and soon. I didn’t want you to be caught on the wrong side. That’s all.”

He started to speak and she kissed him, hard. At first he didn’t respond, but after a while she felt the stiffness in his lips, his shoulders, begin to melt away. When she pulled away he leaned forward until their foreheads touched.

“Last time we shagged,” he finally said, “you left me in a right f**king mess, Samantha.”

“I’m sorry. I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“You coulda just said something in the canteen.”

“And miss out on this?” She gave him a squeeze and felt him stiffen. She pecked his cheek just below the eye.

“Somehow I get the feeling this right-fucking-mess is only going to get worse.”

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