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

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

Still more came through, in a wider spread than Skyler would have guessed. One, a shorter tower whose tip sat well below the tree line, broke through close to where they stood, outside the cleared wall section. Karl saw it the same instant Skyler did.

“Hell,” he said, “too close.”

“Get to the ladder!” Skyler bellowed. He was closest and went first, taking the rungs two at a time and jumping the last three. His boots landed in the mud below with a splash, and he stumbled trying to make room for Karl. He braced his fall with one hand and whirled in time to see his friend slip on the scaffold top, still two steps from the ladder. The man landed hard on the wooden slats, one arm folded awkwardly underneath his torso. His binoculars tumbled over the edge and into the mud below. Wincing, Karl started to stand again and move for the ladder.

Then the wall wrenched and broke apart.

The scaffold heaved and tilted. Skyler had time to see Karl tumble off it and fall to the mud, before he, Skyler, had to move or be crushed himself.

Sheets of aluminum siding and chain-link fence crumbled as the tower pushed through. The scaffold walkway finally tipped and fell, slamming into the murk below with a tremendous sound and sending up a wall of milky brown water. Somewhere, underneath the broken remains of the wall and the ankle deep mud, was Karl.

Once the tower passed by, Skyler leapt forward. He hoisted a segment of fence away and tossed it aside. Someone else appeared next to him and lent a hand. Then two more people, shouting Karl’s name and tossing chunks of debris aside.

A hand grasped Skyler’s and he yanked without a second thought. “Help,” he grunted. The others around him converged, and then Karl came free of the mud. He was covered in the stuff, screaming and coughing in agony as his leg and foot came out from under a section of the collapsed walkway. The foot splayed out at an unnatural angle. “Careful of the leg,” Skyler said to the three people helping.

They moved the injured a few meters away and laid him on a patch of paved ground. Karl whimpered when they set him down, then spat, groaned. He swiped mud from his face and Skyler could see the intense pain on the man’s face.

“I’ve got him,” a nearby man said. “I’m a medic. Go help the others.”

In the confusion Skyler had forgotten all about the rest of the towers. He glanced toward the center of camp in time to see the first of them reach the line of colonists who’d volunteered to try to stop them, an act of selfless bravery Skyler greatly admired. The men and women held their ground despite having just witnessed Karl’s fall. The first of them, a stocky woman with short curly hair, held out their hands to an approaching tower, dug in her feet, and pushed.

The tower slowed, and stopped.

Skyler let out a sigh of relief, and turned back to help his fallen friend.

“Arm’s broken,” Karl said with a medicated slur. “The leg, too.”

“Yeah,” Skyler replied, kneeling down next to the cot in the infirmary tent. “I saw the way it was bent. Not pretty. Are you all right?”

“High as a kite.”

Skyler grinned. “Thought we’d lost you when you went under the mud.”

“How I had the presence of mind to hold my breath, much less keep it in, I have no idea.” His eyes lost their focus for a few seconds, then he seemed to come back and see Skyler again. “I remember the snap in my leg, and then, then, waking up here.”

The injured limbs were engulfed in thick spray-on casts, both propped to minimize swelling.

“How’s it look out there?” Karl asked.

“You took the only wounds, you clumsy bastard.”

Karl’s laugh slid into an anguished grunt.

“Sorry,” Skyler went on. “Twenty-two towers back, all safely back in the yard. And one alien key, or puzzle piece, or whatever, ready to make the climb up.”

“Who’s taking it up?”

“I am.”


Skyler looked at the man’s leg again, recalled the way his foot had been pointed the wrong way. He shivered despite the humid afternoon. As if the slight infection of SUBS weren’t already enough for Karl to deal with …

The hammering of rain on the tent suddenly subsided, and then vanished altogether.

“You shoulda heard the twang of the cord when you picked that object up,” Karl said. “Damnedest thing.”

“Tim’s coming down. Just to help manage things here, until you’re up and about.”

“You won’t hear me complaining—Fucking hell! Ow!”

His leg had slipped off the stack of books that propped it up, landing with a thud on the thick canvas cot. Skyler winced, stifled a laugh without much success, and helped him get resettled.

Chapter Two

Platz Station


“How do you feel?”

“Like … like vomiting.”

And so she did.

Skyler had imagined a number of reactions Ana might have on her first visit to space, her first time in weightlessness. This hadn’t been his preferred outcome. Still, he’d prepared, had a plastic bag handy for her to use. He even had a handkerchief ready, and by the time they reached the climber port on Platz Station, Ana wore a wide grin and her eyes sparkled with an almost adolescent delight.

She bounded through the airlock with too much enthusiasm, drifting across the wide space beyond until she finally landed halfway up the far wall. He watched her drift in the microgravity, and laughed with her.

Ana pushed off with better aim on her second attempt, and he caught her, clasping a hand on her forearm as she did the same to him. She landed and slipped her other arm around him.

“This is better than swimming,” she said.

“I prefer the water.”

She punched him playfully on the shoulder. The motion made her body try to drift away, saved only by the fact that her other arm was around his waist. Skyler gave her a tug and pulled her back to the floor. She met his gaze, a silent thanks passing between them. Then he glanced down at the hard-shell case they’d brought up.

“I should probably—”

Ana spoke over him, saving him from an awkward conversation. “I think I’ll stay in here for a while, if they’ll let me. Learn how to, er, swim. Come get me when you’re done.”

When I’m done. Right. He didn’t know if that day would ever come, but one thing he did know is that they would have to talk through the more complicated aspects of their relationship sooner than that. Skyler sighed and kissed her on the forehead. With that she pushed off the floor again and floated up to the ceiling.

He watched her for a few seconds, stalling, admiring her lithe form and the way her hair looked all tucked back in a tight ponytail. Finally he lifted the hard plastic case from the floor with one finger and pushed it ahead of him toward the cargo bay’s exit—an alcove in the wall with a lift that went “down” to the outer portion of the station’s central ring. He tucked the case under an elastic blue netting at the back of the lift to free his hands, then hooked his foot under a metal loop on the floor by the activation button. He tapped it, and waved to Ana as the cargo lift drifted slowly outward. He watched her perform a spiraling dive across the room and chuckled to himself. A dancer at heart, no different than the first time I saw her.

“Excellent work, Skyler,” Tim said as Skyler approached the infirmary. He must have heard about the climber’s arrival, as he seemed to be waiting.

“Thanks, Tim,” Skyler replied. “Aren’t you supposed to be headed below to fill in for Karl?”

“I’m taking your climber back down.” Tim nodded once toward the case. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Can I go and visit?”

Tim’s gaze lingered on the black container for a moment, then met Skyler’s. He held Skyler’s stare for a few seconds, then nodded and stepped aside.

Skyler couldn’t quite decide why he treated the younger man with such blunt formality, such distance. Maybe it was just that Tim had an easy life up here, and unless Skyler was mistaken he’d yet to volunteer for any activity that would put him in harm’s way. A desk jockey, through and through.

It’s none of my business, Skyler thought as he pushed past the lanky man and into the medical section. He forced himself to think of Ana, somersaulting from wall to wall in the cargo bay. He’d made his choice, for better or worse, and Tania’s heroics, as insane and remarkable as they were, wouldn’t change that.

Dr. Brooks took one look at Skyler and pointed toward a curtained section at the end of the room. “Keep it to fifteen minutes,” she advised after he’d passed her.


At the curtain he cleared his throat. He was about to call out when Tania drew the fabric aside.

She looked impossibly tired, her face thinner than he remembered. Had it been just a week? Ten days? Her raven hair hung loose and unkempt about her shoulders, a look he’d rarely seen, and it seemed to frame her face in a shadow that only served to accentuate her tired appearance. A pale blue hospital gown draped from her shoulders to her knees. Her feet were bare.

“I look that bad?” she said.

Skyler coughed once, rubbed the back of his neck. “No, no. I just … I’m glad you’re awake.”

“I look that bad.”

“Awful,” he said. “Awful … and, somehow, never better.”

Her eyes brightened at that, the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth. Skyler pulled her into a gentle embrace before she might catch any stray emotion in his own gaze, then let her go when he caught the scent of her hair. A slight hint of vanilla and cinnamon there that reminded him of their first meeting. She’d been disguised as a maintenance worker then, and full of the kind of confidence that can only come from almost total ignorance of what lies ahead.

She held him by the arms, studying his face. For an odd, uncomfortable second he thought she might be expecting him to lean in and kiss her. Instead she tilted her head, one eyebrow arching slightly. “Say something; this is getting weird.”


“‘Thanks for saving my life, Tania’? ‘Thanks for the air’?” Her eyes narrowed slightly at his continued silence. “‘Glad you’re not dead, Tania’? ‘How’s the food in this place’?”

Skyler shook his head. “I would have given you my air, had I known how to do that. Nice trick, by the way.”

“Well, for once I was the one who had a survival technique up their sleeve.”

“I …” He paused, trying foolishly to find the perfect thing to say. “You shouldn’t have done it, Tania. I’m nobody. It was more important that you make it back.”

“Stop,” she said with a perfect mix of strength and finality. “First, that’s bullshit. Second, what I did I’d do again without hesitation. You would, too, if you knew how, so if you’re mad that I beat you to the idea …”

“I just …” He chewed his lip. “If you’d died—”

“I didn’t, though. Okay, okay, technically that’s not true.”


“Moot point; they found us in time.”


“The fact remains. Dr. Brooks says I need to take it easy, and by that I think she means not to have conversations like this. So we’ll table it, all right?”

“Okay,” Skyler said. Absently he rubbed his shoulder. Old wound, old habit. “Well, um. I’m glad you’re not dead. How’s the food in this place?”

She laughed, and a bit of the vigor he’d seen so often before returned to her cheeks and her eyes.

A few seconds of silence passed. Tania sat there, studying her hands. Then she closed her eyes. At the same instant, her hands clasped together. “I have to tell you something, and there’s no easy way to do it.”

“This always leads to a fun conversation.”

“Just … listen. And try to withhold judgment.” She took a breath, exhaled, and looked at him with absolute sincerity. “There’s only one more Builder event.”

He’d expected, well, anything but that. “Pardon?”

“After this ship’s arrival, there’s only one event left in this … sequence.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“Because,” she said, and paused. Another deep breath.

Skyler felt a tingle ripple across his scalp and down the center of his back. The room seemed to go totally silent.

“It would seem,” Tania said, “that Neil Platz knew more than he was letting on.”

The tingle became an outright chill. Before he could ask the next question, she held up a hand and went on.

“He sent a note to Zane, just before he died. Literally, as Warthen’s men were storming Platz Station. We only found it recently. According to the letter, Neil knew all along. Neil and my father.”

“He—wait, your father?”

She’d closed her eyes again, and nodded solemnly. “Listen for a moment. I’m tired.”


“All the note said, all I know, is that they knew. Somehow, they knew, because something happened before the Darwin Elevator arrived. An earlier event that, at least at some level, explained what was going to happen.”

Skyler felt a flood of realizations pour into his mind from every angle, as if everything that had happened since the moment he left Amsterdam were disconnected pieces of the same puzzle, and Tania had just shown him a glimpse of the picture the pieces were supposed to form once joined. “He f**king knew?”

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