Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(5)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(5)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“It happened once before that, too,” he said, and waited.

Realization dawned on her face a few seconds later. “I’d forgotten. Of course, yes. But that means—”

“One of the other keys has already been picked up.”

Tania’s gaze fell to the floor, as the possible implications percolated through her mind. Her mouth opened, then closed.

“Get some rest,” Skyler said. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Chapter Three

Darwin, Australia

23.MAR.2285

Despite the hour, and the citywide mandate against such things, a lively crowd filled the Chō-Han joint. Men for the most part, though Samantha could see a few painted women in the mix, arms draped around some of the players seated at the long dice table. The gathered audience for the game spilled out into the street in a rough half circle around the tiny gambling club.

A sake bottle passed between the onlookers. From her shadowed vantage point across the street, Sam couldn’t see the contents but guessed it would be cider, being much easier to acquire or produce.

“Some balls these blokes have,” Skadz whispered at Sam’s shoulder. “Look at them, they’re flaunting it.”

“They better. I paid them to,” Prumble said. He stood in the darkness on the opposite side of the alley.

Sam could barely see him, just a splash of wan yellow light on his round face. The cloak-and-dagger activity in the dead of night seemed to add a hardness to his features that she’d never seen before.

“Ah,” the big man said. “Entering stage right, our pious and predictable Jacobite enforcers. Drawn from their station like moths to a flame.”

“I’d rather be elsewhere,” Skadz said. “As in now.”

“Patience, patience. Let the kindling catch.”

Whether the crowd pretended not to notice the approaching patrol, or genuinely didn’t, Sam couldn’t be sure. Their excitement at the game within the tiny storefront was realistic enough. Bets were placed. The shirtless dealer waved down the murmur and silence fell.

Sam could barely see the dealer through the crowd, but she heard him call out the result when the cups were flipped over. “Han!”

Roughly half the crowd roared in delight, loud enough to wake those in the cramped apartments above the street. Sam could already see a few candlelit windows above, shadows of worried faces looking down on the gathering in disbelief. Gambling and drinking in the open like this just wasn’t done in Darwin anymore.

There was a flurry of activity as the bets were settled, and then the enforcer’s whistle blew. The crowd turned almost in unison to face the approaching patrol. Sam held her breath in the brief silence that followed. Instinctively she appraised the Jacobites. A few held riot clubs; one had a wooden table leg studded with nails at the top. The leader, the one with the whistle, had a pair of pistols.

“Get ready,” Prumble whispered.

Sam glanced at their destination. An alcove, diagonally across the street, where a steel-plated door that was rarely unlocked would now be having its dead bolt turned by Prumble’s contact.

When the violence came it came quickly. A shove, one Jacobite fell. The swing of that nasty table leg and a spray of blood. Then chaos as someone in the gambling room killed the lights. Concealed weapons came out; the crowd fanned. The Jacobites were taken off guard, unused to anyone standing up to them as the consequences were well established.

“Go,” Prumble said.

Sam did. She ignored the melee, ignored the cries of pain coming from both sides despite her natural instinct to step in and crack a skull or two. Instead she jogged across to the steel door at a half crouch, aware of Prumble behind her and Skadz bringing up the rear. Three paces from the door she saw it open and she kept moving straight inside.

And just like that they were in. The door closed without a sound, cutting off the light coming in from the street. A second later fluttering candlelight bathed the entryway. The glow revealed the face of an Asian boy, no more than ten years old, Sam guessed. He looked bored. “This way,” he said with a heavy Malay accent.

Per some unspoken agreement, Prumble fell in behind him. The boy led them up a few flights of stairs, then down a long hall that ended at an open window. Without even a glance back, the kid stepped out the window and clambered across a ramshackle bridge erected between this building and another just a few meters away. The bridge creaked and swayed when Prumble stepped onto it. Sam decided to wait until he was across before stepping out herself.

She’d seen thousands of such bridges in the city, but never traversed one. They allowed buildings to join forces, or simply for commerce to occur, eliminating the need to risk the streets below. They also frequently collapsed, a tragedy made worse by the fact that children were usually the runners who made use of them. This one, mercifully, seemed sturdy, if Prumble’s successful crossing proved anything.

More stairs followed. A lot more. The big man was barely breathing hard as he kept pace with the boy.

“Didn’t you used to walk with a cane?” Skadz asked him, sucking wind.

Prumble shrugged. “Used to need one.”

“What, healed did you? Some kind of f**king miracle?”

The big man laughed. “Cured of the need to cultivate that particular myth, is all. Give credit to Blackfield for that.”

Sam’s thighs were on fire by the time the kid finally turned and went to a door. He stepped aside and used one foot to prop it open, holding out his hand eagerly. Prumble fished a candy bar out of his pocket and slapped it into the boy’s tiny palm.

The woman in the room beyond looked like a brothel’s couch.

She was enormous, larger even than Prumble, and draped in a gaudy mix of red velvets and patterned silks. Her puffy face hid under a veneer of white-powder makeup and purple eyeliner.

Two effeminate boys in garish makeup stood to either side of the madam, fanning her with broad, colorful antique fans like she was some kind of queen or goddess. The whole display was so absurd that Samantha glanced in instinct to the corners of the room on either side of the entry, anticipating a trap. She saw an armed man in each, hard-faced and well muscled. They showed no sign of taking any action, though.

“Oh, pooh pooh,” the gigantic woman said. “I thought we had customers.” She spoke slowly, in a gravelly voice that implied a lifetime of smoking.

“Greetings, Dee,” Prumble said. “Delightful to see you, too.”

Dee made a show of looking to either side of him. She took in Samantha and Skadz in turn, then smiled. “Perhaps they wish to partake, even if you don’t?”

“Another time, maybe,” Skadz offered. “Cheers, though.”

Prumble quickly added, “We’re on a schedule, I’m afraid.”

The corner of the woman’s mouth twitched. “You have the payment?”

“Of course,” Prumble said. He pulled a thin case from the inner breast pocket of his duster and held it out to her.

Dee plucked it like one might pull a grape from the vine. She smiled slightly as she opened the box, and her eyes gleamed as she took in the contents. Sam hadn’t thought to ask Prumble what this little venture had cost, but she guessed jewelry of some sort. Diamonds, or pearls, judging from the madam’s fashion sense. “This is glorious,” she breathed. “You’ve always known the key to my heart, Prumble.”

“It’s the keys to your comm I’m interested in.”

“All business tonight, is it? You used to at least make an effort at a little foreplay.” Dee shifted on cushions upon which she lay. Each movement made one roll of fat hide and another emerge from her silks. Sam fought to keep the revulsion from her face.

Prumble spread his hands in apology. “Sorry about that, Dee, but we have a link to make. Not my schedule. And with all these Jakes around …”

“Let’s not talk about them,” the woman said. “You know, Prumble, the only reason I’m entertaining this little bit of intrigue is because you said the bloody Jakes couldn’t know about it. If you can’t tell me who you’ll be talking to on the comm, can you at least tell me if the end result will be to get rid of these prudish bastards, hmm?”

Prumble only shrugged.

Perhaps he just didn’t want her to know something she might later relay, or perhaps he sensed a trap. Either option made Samantha’s trigger finger twitch. She shifted her weight slightly to her left foot, in case she needed to draw and turn on the guard behind her.

“Relax, dear,” Dee said, leveling a condescending gaze on Samantha. “These walls have no ears. I’m just starved for information in this cave. No one comes to visit anymore, to tell me stories or buy some pleasure. I used to count some Orbitals among my clientele, did you know that?”

Prumble cleared his throat. “Clock’s ticking, Dee.”

The big woman mad a theatrical sigh and shooed them with one fat, jeweled hand. “Blake, show them to the comm. Give them privacy for twenty minutes.”

One of the guards came forward. “Yes, madam. This way.”

The comm room had once been someone’s kitchen. Tiles had been chipped off the counters, leaving glue-smeared plywood underneath. A refrigerator still sat in the corner, though it had been turned to face the wall, all its guts ripped out through the back for spare parts.

On a rickety wooden table in the center of the room sat a serving platter dotted with lit candles, providing the only light. Next to that a dusty, antique comm waited for them. Cables snaked out the back, across the table, and over to the countertop before exiting through a boarded-up window. Sam guessed there’d be an aerial on the roof, well hidden, no doubt.

Comms were rare in Darwin. Before SUBS, most everyone carried a personal slate that relied on the global mesh for connectivity. That infrastructure vanished shortly after the city became the City. Looted equipment, failed power sources, and the hubs that ran the whole thing off in places like Sydney and Ho Chi Minh City. A comm, though, could make a direct connection with another comm. Private relays could be arranged. Corporations and governments used them to avoid the bottlenecks of a shared network. Rural homes and ocean vessels loved them for the range they provided. Criminals used them to keep away from prying eyes and ears.

Sam assumed this one had been stolen, probably during the chaos when the refugees started to pour into the city. There was writing on the side, Vietnamese, she thought, so it might have been brought there and bartered with. She wondered how many hours a man could have purchased in one of the rooms below for such a thing. Just one, most likely, ending with a knife in the back.

There were only two chairs at the table. Prumble moved one into the far corner, sat, and rotated the comm to face him. Skadz offered the other chair to Sam, but she waved him off and leaned against the counter instead. He mouthed “your loss” and sat next to Prumble.

While the big man waited for the comm to start up, he fished around inside his duster and produced a small pink box. He handed it over his shoulder toward Samantha without looking. “Set this on the counter there and switch it on, okay? Aim it at the door.”

“Sure,” Sam said. The pink device had the words SLEEP, BABY, SLEEP! written on the side. “What is it?”

“Infant sleep aid.”

“I can read.”

“It generates soothing sounds,” Prumble said. “Like white noise, for example. A paranoid precaution.”

Samantha didn’t think it paranoid at all. They were about to make contact with the runaways, the first action they’d taken that Grillo would likely have them all killed for. If Dee had an untrustworthy bone in her body—and Sam guessed she had a lot of those—she’d record this supposedly discreet use of her precious comm. Once she realized the Jacobites would be very interested in the conversation, she’d either try to sell the information or keep it for bartering her way out of any trouble in the future. Given the nature of her business, such trouble was a virtual guarantee. Sam set the device on the counter and switched it on. Static came from the tiny speaker.

“Come stand behind us, Sam,” Prumble said. “Keep your voices low.”

Sam followed his command and moved around so she could see the screen. A ripple of excitement ran through her at the prospect of hearing Skyler’s voice again.

Prumble tapped in some codes from a piece of paper, and waited as the words ESTABLISHING LINK flashed. Then the connection light went green.

“That’s Kip,” Prumble said, already tearing the slip of paper to shreds. A red circle came up around the green light. “He’s started encryption, good. Now for the relay link through Anchor.” He glanced at his watch, not trusting the time displayed on the comm’s screen.

Kip had said he could get them ten minutes on the powerful antenna in Nightcliff while shifts changed in the control room, and route the signal up through Anchor Station to achieve the required strength. Anything longer than that would arouse suspicion.

A relay icon appeared, and then Skyler’s voice came through, crystal clear. “Hello, are we on?”

“We are indeed!” Prumble said.

“Hello, Skyler,” Sam said. She felt the sting of tears welling in her eyes and laughed them away. “Nice to hear your stupid Dutch accent again.”

“Sam,” he said laughing, his voice thick with emotion. “Damn it’s good to hear your voices! I—oh, right. I’ve got some people here with me. Tania Sharma, Zane Platz, and Tim Jordan.”

Introductions were made all around. “We have a surprise guest with us, too,” Prumble said.

“Oy, Skyler,” Skadz said. “What’s the rumpus, mate?”

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