Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(16)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(16)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“What was that place?” Ana whispered.

“I don’t know.” He looked at her, and saw raw fear in her eyes for perhaps the first time. “Let’s worry about landing for now.”

“Okay,” she said. She exhaled through her mouth and shivered slightly, mentally banishing the gigantic building from her thoughts. “Do you have a plan? We’re dropping fast.”

“Look for one of the larger pits, preferably one we can make without spinning up the engines.”

Ana leaned forward and studied the landscape on her side of the aircraft. “There,” she said. “Two o’clock.”

Skyler trusted her judgment and banked in that direction. The pit that came into view was perfect. Perhaps a hundred meters on a side, and only fifty deep, with a wide and flat bottom. Some machinery dotted the basin, but it was all off to one side. Skyler circled the location three times, bleeding out the last of their altitude. The Magpie was dropping like a stone now, and he sensed more than saw Ana grip the arms of her seat as they neared the ground.

At the last instant Skyler rammed the accelerator to full throttle position, all engines aimed straight down for maximum hovering. His guts felt like they were going to be yanked right out of him as the aircraft went from falling to hovering in less than two seconds. He groaned from the g-forces tugging at him but maintained focus and heaved the accelerator back to almost zero as quickly as he’d ramped it up. The Magpie dropped the last few meters. Skyler gave one more short burst of half-power thrust to cushion the landing itself, then killed the engines entirely. The high-pitched electric whine died immediately, followed by the slower rush of air from the ducted-fan thrusters.

He felt a small rush of pride at the landing, and glanced at Ana with a grin on his face. She was staring straight ahead, breathing hard.

“Goddamn,” she said between gasps. “You’re crazy.”

“I’ll second that!” Russell shouted from the back.

He ignored them both. “Gear up. Desert camo. We need to make sure none of those subs follow us here.”

“And after that?”

“What do you mean?”

She grimaced at his lack of understanding. “How the hell are we going to get into that place, Skyler? It’s crawling with them.”

“Offer Blackfield as a sacrifice?”

Ana frowned and fixed a glare on him.

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But I suspect it’s going to involve guns.”

In the passenger cabin Skyler walked straight to Russell Blackfield and turned off his external suit speaker.

Russell looked confused at first, and then his lips moved. When the suit, which piped in external sounds, did not reflect the man’s voice, he began to shout. Realization that the effort would be fruitless came quickly, however, and after a few obvious expletives Russell sank back into his chair and stared at the seat in front of him.

“You’re in luck,” Skyler said to him. “We found the towers. That means we can scrub our air, and you’ll get to live another day.”

The defeated man mocked gratitude with clasped hands and batting eyelids, like a bad actress in one of those sensory melodramas.

Skyler grinned and moved to where the gear was stowed. Ana joined him, and while she found and laid out their desert camouflage, Skyler prepped the weapons. He worked quickly, removing two pistols and a pair of silencers they’d found inside one of the APCs left behind by Gabriel. Skyler would have preferred something with more stopping power, but the noise of gunshots from their assault rifles would draw far too much attention.

The arsenal prepared, he stood between Russell and Ana to let her don the appropriate fatigues without unwanted attention, then she did the same for him.

Skyler checked Russell’s bindings one last time, then nodded to Ana and went for the door. He stopped when she grabbed his arm.

“You should stay here,” she said.

“What? No way.”

“Let me scout it first. If you die neither myself nor Russell is getting home anyway, so it doesn’t make sense for you to go.”

“Ana,” he said, “we’re both going. Sooner or later we’re going to have to face whatever dangers await us in that building. A few minutes of safety right now won’t make any difference.”

Her lips parted slightly, an argument on the cusp of escaping. Whatever she’d been about to say, Ana thought better of it and let go of his arm. “At least let me take point.”

Skyler opened the door and motioned for her to go first. She did a mock curtsey and stepped out into the heat.

“Talk among yourselves,” Skyler said to Russell, and followed her.

The air outside was dry as paper and scalded his skin.

A ramp wound its way up from the pit’s floor to the rim, blocked at the base by a dilapidated rock-hauler truck and two bulldozers. Fine beige sand covered everything, and Skyler was happy to see a complete absence of footprints other than those Ana’s boots left.

She moved with the urgency he felt, running to the abandoned vehicles and waiting there for Skyler to join her. When he arrived, he nodded to her and took aim at the crater rim while she raced up the first leg of the ramp. They repeated this pattern until the last leg. The last ramp they took in leapfrog fashion, moving more slowly since they’d have less warning if any subs crested the crater rim.

Finally, Ana reached the point where she could see over the top. She stood on her tiptoes for a few seconds, scanning the horizon in every direction, then motioned for Skyler to join her.

Other than a brisk hot wind that pushed loose sand about like swarming insects, nothing moved. The ground around them was dotted with metal poles roughly three meters high, each of which had a sand-coated solar panel on top. Half-buried electrical wire snaked across the ground, combining into larger trunks in various places and ultimately into metal junction boxes strewn throughout the area.

Skyler looked northwest toward the crater where the alien structure was, easily spotted by the ring of aura towers around it. He put the site at two kilometers distant. From ground level the jet of humid air rising from the place was much more obvious. The invisible plume made the sky near the horizon shimmer in a gradually expanding column.

“What is that?” Ana asked. “Exhaust or something?”

“Maybe it’s a reactor.” Skyler recalled the young scavenger Nachu’s words, about the SUBS virus starting near here, and wondered what, if anything, this place had to do with it. He forced himself to focus on the situation at hand and shifted his gaze to the flat landscape between there and the pit they stood in. A small mining village stood roughly a quarter of the way, a few hundred meters off. Skyler continued to the rim of the crater and lay down at the end of the ramp. He waited until Ana joined him before removing his binoculars. “Keep an eye on the area around us,” he said.

“I wish we’d brought the sniper rifle now,” she said.

“Too loud. Besides, I don’t see anything moving. I think we’re safe, at least for the moment.”

“We should scout those buildings for supplies,” the girl mused.

Skyler set his binoculars down and grinned at her. “There’s a good scavenger.”

Ana flashed a smile, then blinked as a sudden gust filled the air with a fine powder of sand. “We need goggles,” she said.

He grunted agreement. The sand forced him to squint, and blink constantly. Goggles would impede visibility, and for that reason he hated wearing them, but it would be better than this. He began to taste the grit, too, and spat. “I’m suddenly jealous of Russell’s suit.”

“Not me. Poor thing has a Russell stuck inside it.”

Skyler chuckled, got the crude innuendo a second later, and barked a laugh. He clapped a hand over his mouth, but it was too late. The sound echoed slightly off the “ceiling” of solar panels around them.

For ten seconds he remained perfectly still, scanning the forest of raised panels, angry at himself as much as Ana for acting unprofessional.

“Behind us,” she said.

He turned. A lone subhuman, short and scrawny, zigzagged through the rows of metal poles, racing toward their crater. Blinded by rage or just lacking enough intelligence, the creature went straight over the rim of the pit mine and tumbled brutally down the sloped side. It rolled to a halt on the first terraced surface below, opposite Skyler and Ana’s position and ten meters lower.

A cloud of dust surrounded it. Not willing to take chances, Skyler took careful aim at the body. The instant he saw it lurch back into motion, he fired twice. The first round sent up a plume of dust from the pit wall behind the body. The second caused the body to convulse once before going still.

For a minute they sat in total silence, waiting for more to come. None did, however. Skyler lowered his gun and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Sorry,” Ana finally whispered.

“It’s all right. Maybe we should save the jokes for later, though.”

She nodded like a chastised child, looking much younger than she was for a brief instant before gathering herself and focusing on their surroundings again.

Unbidden, Prumble’s voice echoed through Skyler’s mind. “You treat them as equals,” he’d said so long ago about the old crew, implying Skyler needed to boss them around more instead of treating the arrangement like a club. Sage advice to be sure, but he’d found it impossible to apply with Ana. Treat her like an equal and she thrived, until some invisible line was crossed and she strayed into recklessness. Correct her, sternly or otherwise, and she seemed to withdraw into herself to the point of being only slightly more useful than a deadweight. Point that out and the trouble would really begin.

The fact that she’d already returned to scanning the horizon meant something of an improvement, so Skyler decided not to say anything further and see if she’d find that balance that so far had eluded her.

“Let’s go scout those buildings,” Skyler said, pointing at the cluster of single-story structures that lay between their crater and the one the alien building occupied. “Maybe we can move Blackfield there, and lock the Magpie. I feel uncomfortable leaving it open like this.”

“Okay,” she said in a gloomy tone. It’d be an hour or two before she was back to trading innuendo, he knew, and said nothing.

Despite the blazing sun above, the darkness under the canopy of solar panels was nearly absolute. On closer inspection Skyler realized the square surfaces were mounted atop their poles on small gimbal motors to keep them pointed at the sun. Even coated with sand, enough sunlight filtered through to the surfaces for the motors to perform their only function: keep the panels fixed on the sun. One in ten didn’t work, forever frozen in time, pointing to where the sun had been at the time of death. Otherwise, the sea of squares made a near-perfect ceiling that left a grid of centimeter-wide bright bands of sunlight on the sand below. Only the open patches of the pit mines and housing clusters broke the monotony.

With an unspoken change in the plan, Skyler took the lead now. He jogged through the maze of steel poles with his pistol in front of him with both hands, keeping it sighted at all times. Should any subs approach, he wanted to drop them before they could make a noise.

He stopped behind a junction box ten meters from the edge of the tiny village and rested his hands on top of the green metal container. Ana took a position next to him a second later, aiming around one side.

The place consisted of a dozen structures in all, arranged in a square with some sort of motor pool in the center. All of it baked in the furnace of the sunlight, which glared so intensely off the sand it made everything seem like an overexposed photograph. Skyler waited for his eyes to adjust before studying the scene with any seriousness. He could just make out the wheels and a door of a large rock-hauling truck, every horizontal surface coated in sand, every vertical surface scoured almost down to the bare metal. Some faded writing on the side indicated a Chinese origin. It made sense. There’d been a flood of Chinese, Indian, and European companies seeking to exploit the minerals left exposed by the continued expansion of the Sahara. Proxy wars had been fought in some places over newly discovered pockets of thorium and other rare elements. In other instances, such as here in Chad, the local government had managed to keep their international suitors in line, divvying up the sites in a way that would actually benefit everyone involved. Except the environment, of course. Skyler could smell faint hints of chemicals in the air, and kept eyeing a stack of barrels to the side of the village in front of him, labels of “toxic” and “danger” needing no translation.

“Skyler,” Ana said.


“There’s nothing alive here. Besides the subs, I mean. No insects, no plants.”

He’d noted that himself, but only insofar as being relieved to be out of mosquito-ridden Belem. “And?”

She turned away from her vigilant aim. “How are the subs surviving out here? And in such numbers.”

Skyler turned toward the plume of humid air rising in the distance. He squinted, hoping some explanation might come to him, a little embarrassed she’d noticed it first. “Good question.”


He smirked, then turned and readied his gun. Together they moved into the sunlight. After the shade of the defunct solar panels, the na**d heat of the sun bordered on painful. Skyler felt it on his neck and ears first, then, more gradually, like a weight on his shoulders and legs. He fought the urge to race to the meager patch of shade offered by the nearest building. The baked, sandy ground crunched and cracked under his footfalls, and he felt the heat on the bottoms of his feet then, too. For the span of two steps he imagined what it would have been like to work here, day in, day out, mining these enormous pits. A misery, no doubt, and probably one with shitty pay.

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