Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(17)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(17)
Author: Jason M. Hough

When he reached the rear wall of the nearby structure, Skyler paused only long enough to let Ana catch up. He nodded to her and moved when she nodded back. Silently, they crept around to the front. Other than a single, skeletal body in the driver’s seat of the truck, there were no signs of human life. Most of the buildings had been left open, exposed to the wind and sand for years now. Skyler avoided those and jogged around the perimeter to the only one with a closed door. Another shared glance with Ana and he twisted the handle. She went in as the door came open, flicking on her rifle’s light as she crossed the threshold. Skyler swept in behind her, standing tall to complement her crouch. He activated his LED, sweeping the beam across the left side of the room while she took the right.

“Oh, God,” Ana whispered.

“Stay calm, stay calm.”

Lines of laundry were strung across the rectangular room. Men’s shirts and pants, Skyler noted. After so much time each article of clothing had become brittle and started to fall to pieces, allowing the flashlight beams to stream through thousands of tiny holes. Bunk beds lined the perimeter of the space, three high. Almost every bunk contained a corpse, each still in the relaxed pose of sleep or, perhaps, sedation. Years of dry air and heat had parched the skin down to a horrible leather texture, stretched over the bone beneath.

In the center of the room, next to an overturned meal table, were two dead subhumans, also mummified by the environment.

Ana was breathing hard. Her light began to waver.

“Relax,” Skyler said through his teeth. “The disease must have hit in the middle of the night, and those two survived infection only to lack the intelligence to open the bloody door.”

“So they turned on each other,” she completed.

“They’re animals. Never forget that.”

The girl shuddered, but the beam of her light steadied. “As much as I dislike Mr. Blackfield,” she said, “I don’t want to lock him up in here.”

“Agreed,” Skyler said. He forced himself to ignore the grisly scene and looked instead for anything that could be salvaged. There were plenty of backpacks and small lockboxes tucked under the bottom row of bunks. Personal effects, doubtful to contain anything they needed. Skyler filed the information away and hoped he wouldn’t need to come back here. “Let’s go.”

The exposed buildings were dusty, crumbling affairs, with piles of windblown sand along the edges of their floors. One, which appeared to be a meeting room for whoever ran the place, at least had metal outer walls and heavy furniture inside. The main room had been left open to the elements, but a smaller closet inside was closed, and within it Skyler found a bar for hanging clothing that was bolted into the surrounding structure. The bolts themselves had been painted over. He tested the strength by hanging from the bar with both hands for ten seconds. Then he braced his feet on the back wall and pulled as hard as he could. The bar didn’t budge. “This’ll do,” he said. “Let’s go get our prisoner and the rest of the gear, and then we’ll go take a look at the Builder’s pit.”

Chapter Eleven

Darwin, Australia

30.MAR.2285

The afternoon warmth had just begun to fade when Samantha heard the trucks arrive.

She knelt amid dappled sunlight beside a sack half full of freshly picked jackfruit that still glistened with clinging raindrops from a brief morning storm.

From below came the rapid-fire sound of doors thudding closed. A dozen or so, she guessed, feeling her stomach twist into a knot. Grillo had brought the cavalry, which could mean nothing good.

An image forced its way into her mind. Seven dead Jacobites, facedown in that dirty road in the Narrows. What else could he be here for?

The idea of running, of sliding down the back of the hangar and loping off through the weeds and into the maze, came to her first. A glance in that direction dispelled the idea as quick as it had formed, however. Two outriders on electric motorcycles ambled along the fence line, rolling to a stop once even with the hangar. Their white Jacobite ponchos took on an orange hue that matched the perfect disk of the sun, now kissing the tops of the buildings to the west.

She stood with a groan, pressed one hand to the base of her sore spine, and drew the other across her sweaty brow. Briefly she toyed with the idea of pretending she hadn’t heard them, of making Grillo climb up here to speak with her. This idea she also discarded. Every time he’d made a visit to the hangar she’d made it a point to meet him at the door. A change in behavior now might be exactly what he was looking for.

Besides, this could just be another spur-of-the-moment mission. Or perhaps he’d simply learned of her visit to Vaughn and had come to voice his disapproval. She swore under her breath at the thought of once again making him the subject of Grillo’s attention. But this, at least, she thought she could argue her way out of. There’d never been any explicit order to stay away from the man.

Decision made, Sam left her spade and hand shovel where they lay and climbed the ladder down. It led to a door that entered into the hangar’s second level. Inside, the cavernous room was very dark. A few lights were on near the massive sliding doors where her two constant guards had been watching a sensory. One was frantically trying to turn off the display while the other waited at the door control.

Neither had noticed her entrance, even as her boots hit the catwalk that ringed the interior of the building. It wasn’t until she’d marched to the halfway point that one of them glanced up at her, relief visible even from that distance. One of them should have been watching her, and now they would appear to have been doing just that.

A vertical line of light appeared as the huge doors began to roll aside. Soon the shadows of a dozen people, cast long by the late afternoon sun, began to stretch across the concrete floor.

Sam hopped down from the catwalk onto a stack of wooden pallets, then to the floor itself. She gathered herself and forced the knot in her gut to one corner of her mind. Belatedly she realized her clothing bore fresh soil stains. Likely her face did, too. Not that Grillo had ever shown the slightest interest in her or anyone else’s appearance. His own flawless presentation often came across as an unspoken demand that others do the same. Oh well, she thought, and hoped her state of cleanliness would imply a casual, innocent state of being. She continued toward the center of the room as Grillo and his men began to file in.

It took every shred of willpower she had to keep walking as the group came into full view. Grillo stood just off center, and standing beside him was a man with a black hood covering his head. His faded gray T-shirt sported a dribble of blood right down the center.

Grillo had to urge the man forward. It became clear the hooded figure’s hands were bound, and that he was in pain. Or, at least, the anticipation of pain. He walked with pure apprehension, as if being forced into a furnace.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Who’s your friend?”

In answer Grillo stopped and yanked the hood from his captive’s head. The black cloth settled to the floor between the two men in a tidy little heap.

“Do you know this person?” Grillo asked, voice level.

Pascal.

She should have known from the clothing, the posture. She swallowed, and hoped against hope Grillo had not seen the recognition on her face.

Stalling, Sam tilted her head. Dried blood trailed from both of Pascal’s nostrils, giving the pilot the odd appearance of having a red mustache and goatee. Other than the bloodied nose, he seemed to be unharmed.

Sam’s mind raced. Had he already talked? Had they interrogated him and learned everything? She knew what kind of violence Grillo was capable of. Pascal, though, she did not know terribly well. They were friendly, but Sam had no idea how far the man would go to protecting her, or to holding on to the truth of what had happened on that street. Even if he did harbor the kind of loyalty that required, was he the type of man who could withstand the sort of interrogation Grillo likely employed?

Suddenly his inclusion in their adventure to the Narrows seemed ill-advised. Stupid, in fact.

Maybe no interrogation had yet occurred. Maybe this was about something else entirely. She tried to bury the flood of worries that coursed through her under a façade of calm.

“Well?” Grillo asked.

“Of course. Yeah. He’s Pascal, one of the better pilots here on the strip. The blood threw me off. What happened, a brawl down at Woon’s?”

“I’m afraid not,” Grillo said. He released the pilot’s arm and let one of the flanking guards take over the job of holding the prisoner. With calm, fluid motions Grillo removed a white handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his hands. He looked at Samantha very deliberately then, not breaking the gaze until her eyes had met his. When they had, he turned, and walked back out through the wide hangar doors.

Sam followed, as she knew he’d expected her to do.

When they were out of earshot of the others, he wheeled on her. “Are you aware of what transpired two days ago in the Narrows?”

There’d been some talk at Woon’s. She’d listened like a spy to the conversations and all of it had the ring of rumor. The only common thread was that a Jacobite squad was ambushed. Some said in retaliation for the brutal crackdown on a Han game a few nights earlier. One drunkard claimed more subs had made it inside the aura and that they were only targeting the cult members. This had drawn howls of laughter.

Someone had even speculated that the vaunted, secretive private army of Prumble the Fence had finally reemerged to challenge Grillo. The guards had perked up at that comment, but it died out quickly. Prumble hadn’t been seen in two years, and the scavenger crews had all but written him off as dead.

She shrugged. “Nope. What happened? And what does it have to do with Pascal? He’s harmless.”

His gaze bore into her like a scalpel. Sam met it and held it, barely.

“An entire patrol of guardians are missing.”

“Jesus.” She covered her mouth. “Sorry, I mean—”

Grillo’s eyes narrowed. He worked his jaw for a moment before speaking again. “I’m low on patience today, Samantha.”

“I’m just shocked. Again, sorry.”

He pointed vaguely toward Pascal. “Your friend borrowed a truck from the gatehouse captain. The vehicle was seen in the area, and it’s been in some sort of accident.”

“You think he ran them over or something?”

Grillo studied her for a long moment. “What I think is irrelevant. He’ll tell us exactly what transpired.”

“I’m sure he will.” The knot in Sam’s stomach twisted with the cold realization that she meant it. She had to leave, she knew. Or silence Pascal somehow. She felt her pulse quicken. “Do you want me to talk to him?”

“You’ll forgive me if I decline that offer.”

She knew then, with absolute certainty, that Grillo knew more than he was letting on. But whatever he’d learned, it wasn’t yet enough to simply walk in and execute her.

Grillo’s thin mouth twisted into something approximating a smile. “Protecting your friend here, though understandable, is pointless. We have witnesses, on their way to Lyons now.”

She glanced at Pascal, forcing herself to turn her head slowly, as if trying to recall a forgotten conversation. The pilot would not meet her gaze, and this unsettled Samantha more than anything Grillo had said.

“Samantha, I’m giving you one last chance here to tell me what you know.”

Footsteps from the direction of the airport gate broke the tension. A boy of ten or eleven years strode up. He worked the cap spooler behind Woon’s, and twice a day during lulls he would run requests from outside to the scavenger crews. Sam had given him specific instructions the prior morning. Notes of a certain color, left in a certain place, were to be brought directly and immediately to her.

The boy held out his hand, a folded piece of red paper pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“For me?” Sam asked.

The kid smiled, revealing a jumbled mess of teeth.

She plucked the paper, swallowing with difficulty under the intense stare Grillo had leveled on her.

The note was from Skadz. Not wanting to further risk word of his presence, and more the point his immunity, reaching Grillo, he’d taken to passing himself off as a desperate swagman. He would approach the airport fence well away from the main gate and push messages for her into the chain link like all the other pathetic requests, using distinctive red paper and a crude code hastily worked out two days earlier.

This exchange occurred four times in the forty-eight hours following their battle in the Narrows. Skadz learned that Jaya’s shop had been closed the day after the attack. The move to the basement at Selby Systems had been accelerated in the wake of the attack, apparently. Grillo might not know what happened, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

The latest message was simple:

2AM COFFEE. SUNDAY BEST.

The words opened a door in her mind. A door that led to a decision.

“Thank you,” she said to the kid. “There’s jackfruit on the roof. You can take two.”

“Three,” the kid said.

“We’re in the middle of a conversation here, young man,” Grillo said. “Return later for your payment.”

“Three,” the kid repeated.

Grillo started to raise a hand.

“Three,” Sam agreed. “But later, okay? After dinner.”

The child, oblivious to how close he’d come to a savage backhand, nodded and darted away.

“Is everything all right?” Grillo asked her.

Sam folded the note and slipped it in her pants pocket. “Fine. Just a jilted admirer, trying too hard.”

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