Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(4)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(4)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Don’t judge—”

“Don’t judge? He knew about the Elevator and built an empire around it? Nightcliff and the water plants and all that. All those aerospace companies he bought up. He, Jesus, he f**king knew about SUBS and didn’t warn anybody?”

“Stop.”

Her voice hit him like a whip, snapping his mouth shut.

“You’re not just talking about Neil: You’re talking about my father. And we don’t know what exactly they knew, except the number. Six events, Skyler, and we just experienced the fifth.”

He had more to say. A lot more. But the look in her eyes, and the memory of her brush with death, pulled him back from that precipice. He stared into those eyes, the deep brown with flecks of gold, and felt one final revelation, one more piece of the puzzle, click into place. All of that business in Japan and Hawaii had been bullshit. Neil had already known what they would find; he just didn’t want to expose that fact. No other explanation made sense. Which meant he’d sent Tania into mortal danger, and Jake to his death, to keep his secret. He’d known. It was, quite possibly, the most brazen example of insider trading in history, and like so many bankers and politicians before him, Neil had clearly gone to great lengths to cover it up. Only when faced with certain death or capture had he bothered to tell anyone. Despite the plea in Tania’s eyes, Skyler couldn’t bring himself to suspend judgment. He knew better than to tell her that, though.

“Thank you,” he said, “for telling me. It makes things easier.”

“How so?”

“A light at the end of the tunnel.” Tania didn’t look convinced, so he tried a different tack. “Can you imagine if Neil had said ‘there’s eighty-seven events, just eighty-two more to go!’ No offense, but I probably would have thrown up my hands and walked away.”

She was nodding as he spoke. “And I wouldn’t have blamed you, Skyler. You’re right. Knowing this somehow makes the task ahead seem worth the blood, sweat, and tears I fear will be required. It’s like …”

“Like the surge of energy you get when you know the end of the race is just over that next hill.”

Tania grinned at the analogy. “I’ve never run a race,” she said.

He laughed.

“I was going to say it’s like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, when you reach that moment where suddenly the pile of remaining pieces seems … manageable. A narrowing of possibilities.”

“Your analogy is better,” he said. Her smile at the compliment carried something more. An implied thank-you for swallowing his opinion of Neil. Skyler decided then that he’d keep his revelations to himself. It wouldn’t do any good to point out to Tania what he now understood. She knew it, too, probably, and had enough on her mind already. Neil was dead. What was done was done.

“I brought you a present,” Skyler said.

“Chocolate?”

“Er …”

“I’m kidding. A little. What’d you bring?”

Skyler stepped aside and watched her reaction as she saw the black case just behind him.

A split second of confusion crossed her face, then her eyes darted back to Skyler. “Is it … which one?”

“The red one. Belem. The triangle.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “And you’re lecturing me about reckless behavior?”

“There was nothing reckless about it.”

Tania rolled her eyes. “How’d you do it?”

“We just went in and asked. Nicely.”

“Uh-huh.”

“There may have been some explosives involved. A lot of explosives, actually.”

“Perhaps you can share the details another time.” She patted the sheets next to her.

Skyler sat, and they both stared at the case for a long moment in silence.

“I’ve been racking my mind,” she said finally, “trying to imagine what possible motive lies behind all this. What the Builders are up to, I mean really up to.”

“I think I’ve figured it out,” Skyler said. “They’re a race so advanced the only amusement left for them is to pull elaborate pranks on their neighbors.”

She elbowed him. Then she stood and walked to the case. She ran a single finger along the surface of the thing, as if trying to feel some energy from the object within. “I supposed the more pressing question,” she said with her back to him, “is what do we do now?”

“Tania,” Skyler said, heat rising around his collar.

“Is it wise to install these things in the ship the moment we find them?”

“Tania.”

“Or, should we hold on to them until we know more about their purpose.”

“Um, Tania.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “What?”

“Your gown is open at the back.”

A high-pitched yelp rang out across the room. Tania whirled, clutched the garment tightly at her spine, and returned to her seat, all in the span of a heartbeat.

Skyler stared at the curtain next to the bed for a long moment. He studied the ceiling, estimated the sizes of the various pipes that snaked across it.

“Would you give me a minute?” she eventually asked.

He stood and walked away, heard the sound of the curtain drawing closed behind him. Skyler grimaced, stifled a smile, and crossed the infirmary to where Dr. Brooks leaned against a table, studying a slate. Skyler introduced himself formally and shook the woman’s hand.

“How’s she doing, really?” he asked.

“Tania? She’s fine, but you don’t need to tell her that. I’ve only kept her here so she can get some rest.”

“She looks exhausted.”

“You should have seen her a few days ago. She slept twelve hours last night, which is as much as she’s been getting in an entire week lately. Now if she’d just eat.”

“So she’s okay?”

Dr. Brooks nodded. “We’re always concerned about possible brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, and she was certainly in the danger zone in terms of time. But the tests are all negative. She’ll be fine with a little more rest and a decent meal.”

“When can she leave?”

The doctor shrugged, then nodded past Skyler. “Now, from the look of things.”

He turned to see Tania emerge from the curtained area in one of her jumpsuits, a white one with blue stripes that ran from the neckline down the arms. She tied her hair back into a loose knot and gestured for Skyler to rejoin her.

“Thanks, Doctor,” he said, and went back.

Before he could get a word out, Tania held up a hand. “We won’t speak of it.”

“Never happened,” he agreed.

Her gaze went back to the container. “I guess we’d better decide what to do with this.”

An hour later the alien object sat on a table in the cafeteria, a crowd of people around it. Someone had even brought a special microscope, the images it produced enlarged on a few slates that were passed around, eliciting excited commentary from those who studied them.

Skyler kept to the periphery of the group. He held his tongue for the most part, except occasionally when they asked him questions. Apparently Tania had been chastised for not allowing such an opportunity with the first object that was brought up. Somewhat hypocritically she’d also been criticized for allowing these alien objects aboard without careful decontamination measures. Tania defended herself, and Skyler, by explaining that in the excitement to explore the Builder ship she’d simply forgot.

There’d been a time when such carelessness could not be explained away, or overlooked, so easily. But here, now, with everything at stake, her excuse earned scattered grumbles and more than a few sympathetic nods.

Food was brought in—a mix of fresh fruit and cut vegetables, some hummus, and nutrition bars likely brought up from the growing mountain of scavenged supplies in Camp Exodus. Someone even produced a bottle of cider, which lightened the mood in the room slightly.

Ana came in at one point, a sheen of sweat on her skin. She ate some food, said a few polite hellos, then begged off from the gathering of scientists to find a place to shower after her low-gravity antics. She didn’t like being around the colonists much, especially the scientists. “They treat me like some kind of circus curiosity,” she’d once said to him. He couldn’t blame her.

When she’d gone, Skyler turned back to the group and caught Tania looking at him. She glanced away when their eyes met.

By late evening the people in the room had dwindled to what Skyler assumed were the most senior scientists on station. Zane Platz came by, and Tim was there, too, hovering about Tania like a manservant. His affection for her was so obvious, Skyler found it amusing if a little boyish. To his surprise, Tania didn’t seem too bothered by it. She even squeezed Tim’s arm at one point, giving Skyler an unexpected twinge of jealousy.

A natural pause in the conversation gave him the chance to ask the question.

“Well, what do we do with it?”

They’d been debating just that all evening, but never with enough seriousness to call their conclusions a decision. Skyler asking the question served to crystallize it, and to his surprise they all turned to Tania.

“I think we should take it over there and install it,” she said.

A few of the people present shook their heads. “Hold on,” one woman said. “This thing has the ability to coat subhumans with some kind of weaponized armor. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like to understand how that works.”

Others voiced similar ideas, concerns, worries. For his part, Skyler held Tania’s gaze. He saw an apology there, and her eyes darted to the door and then back to him. “Outside,” she mouthed.

He met her in the curved hallway, the sound of the animated crowd vanishing as the door clicked shut behind them. They stood an arm’s length apart, dense red carpet at their feet. A few curious onlookers were milling about, probably hoping for a glance at the object. At the sight of them Tania moved off a few paces.

Skyler followed. He took in the bystanders and felt a sudden, surprising tingle on his neck.

“What is it?” Tania asked, sensing his sudden worry.

“Nothing. Well, just a … after what that woman Jenny did, I think we should post guards here. And anywhere people might gain access to a vehicle that could make it to the Key Ship.”

“Guards?”

“Yes,” he said under his breath. “That’s a chunk of alien technology on the other side of that door, Tania. Jenny might not be the only closet Jacobite around here who can’t resist the temptation to snatch it. Or destroy it.”

“I really don’t think—”

He pulled her farther from the people hovering in the hall. “Let’s assume for a second that what we’re supposed to do here is find these five objects and install them, okay?”

“Seems a fair assumption.”

“Good. Can you imagine if we had to stop at four because someone walked off with the fifth and hid it somewhere? Or that we lost it? Maybe some experiment caused it to crack and fall apart?”

Tania glanced at the handful of people in the hallway with palpable suspicion now in her face. Then she turned her gaze to the doorway.

“I don’t mean to make you jump at every shadow,” Skyler said. “Paranoia won’t help us right now, either. All I’m saying is that I don’t think we should take chances with this. If we agree the task before us is to find and install these … keys, or whatever … then we should do that and nothing more.”

She engaged in some silent deliberation, then took a deep breath. “You’re right, of course. Okay, I’ll give them until morning to study the object, but restrict their efforts to passive methods only. And I’ll find some guards.”

“Two outside, two inside.”

She winced at the implication but nodded anyway.

“What about the ship?” Skyler asked. “We can’t have any unauthorized visits to that room.”

“Ah, well, we don’t have to worry about that.”

“No?”

“The outer door closed when Tim picked us up. A few of the scientists tried to go back and document the place, but apparently it won’t open unless a ‘key’ is present. Well, a key or an immune, we’re not sure which. Both, maybe.”

“Interesting.”

“We’ll find out soon enough what the requirements are. I’ll have a team, trusted people, take it over in”—she glanced at her watch—“twelve hours. You can observe from ops if you wish.”

Skyler shook his head. “I think I’ll get some sleep and head back to Belem. There’s too much to do.”

Tania nodded. “Well, if the door won’t open, we’ll need you or one of your comrades to assist.”

He rubbed at the stubble on his jaw. “One of the others, maybe. It’d be good if I wasn’t the only one with experience. Vanessa can come up, I think.”

If the suggestion disappointed her, she hid it well. “Thank you, Skyler. For finding this, and bringing it in.”

“Thank me when we’ve got all five.” He turned to go. A few paces away, he stopped and turned toward her. “That reminds me.”

“Yes?”

“There was a vibration that ran up the cord when we picked up that object.”

“We felt it,” Tania said. “Rattled the station. Even went as high as some of the farms. The same thing happened when you picked up the object in Ireland.”

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