Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(6)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(6)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“My God. They let you back in the city?”

The grin on Skadz’s face almost touched his ears. “For now. And at least I stayed in Australia for a proper walkabout. You had to f**k off halfway around the world.”

“All right, ladies,” Prumble interjected. “Save the weepy reunion nonsense for another time. We have much to discuss. Skyler? Would you start?”

Sam listened with rapt attention as he recounted the last two years. How they’d fled aboard part of Anchor Station, and met up with Zane, who’d taken Hab-8, a facility supposedly still under construction. Skyler alluded to difficulties in getting the colony up and running, but didn’t elaborate. She knew from his tone that there must have been some major problems.

Then he spoke of what they’d learned about the Builders. They had a space elevator in Brazil, but with a much more limited aura. Instead, the aliens had provided a number of small towers that created pockets of aura and could be moved around. Sam’s mind immediately began to run through the possibilities that must have created. She forced the thoughts away when Skyler detailed how an errant explosion had somehow woken the towers and sent them off in four groups to various parts of the planet. He’d tracked one set to Ireland and found something incredible there.

When he described it, and how it made their space elevator vibrate when he removed it from where it lay, Sam spoke up.

“I found something similar,” she said. “In Darwin’s Old Downtown. When I picked it up it caused the space elevator to shudder for a moment, too.”

A new voice, barely a whisper, broke in. “Hi. Um, hello. Kip here. That’s happened again since. Just the other day.”

“That was us,” Skyler said, “both times. Found the one in Ireland, and another here in Brazil.”

“This is great news,” Tania Sharma said. “We knew there were five but only four groups of towers fled Belem. So Darwin was the fifth location, and you have it! That only leaves—”

“Hold on,” Sam said. “I picked it up, but I don’t have it. Grillo took it, and where it is now I have no idea. He never speaks of the thing.”

The comment earned a few seconds of silence. A sudden sense of guilt swept through Sam, for not mentioning it sooner, and for not doing anything to stop Grillo in the first place.

“Grillo,” Skyler said. “Yeah, we’ve heard about his rise, his alliance with the Jacobites. Um, Blackfield is with us over here. House arrest, and he’s been talking.”

Prumble cleared his throat. “In a few minutes this link will be cut. I suggest we make some plans.”

“Agreed,” Skadz said. “Let’s keep it simple, though, all right?”

Skyler and Tania explained what Kip had already alluded to before. A new Builder ship, massive in size, had arrived in orbit a few weeks earlier. Inside it was a room that had slots for each of these objects. Keys, Skyler called them, for the Key Ship. Two were still unaccounted for. Skyler would lead a team to find one, and Tania the other.

“Hold on,” Sam said. “What the hell are we dealing with here? What are these ‘keys,’ and why is an immune required to install them?”

“This is the Builders we’re talking about, Sammy,” Skadz said. “You’d have an easier time figuring out the bloody Jakes.”


“He’s right,” Skyler said. “No one knows, Sam. Tania tried taking the last one over and nothing happened. One of us had to go along and help.”

“Well, are they some kind of weapon?”

“At this point we simply don’t know,” Tania said. “We don’t know what the point of the room is, why an immune must be present, or what will happen when all five objects are installed.” She let that sink in. “But we’ve all talked through the possibilities and decided that we can’t just ignore this. We can’t wait. I have … information implying that the next Builder event, in just under a year, will be the last, and there’s reason to believe we have even less time than that. Skyler, tell them about the dome in Ireland.”

Sam listened intently. Hearing the tale from anyone else she would have chuckled with disbelief. An aura that f**ks with time, yeah right. From Skyler, though …

“If either of the remaining objects is within such a dome,” Skyler said, “we need to get to them now. Get them and get out as quickly as possible, or we may well be too late.”

“Exactly,” Tania added. “The nature of this room and the objects implies we are up against a timer now. We need to act immediately, not just wait around. The only sensible thing to do is gather these objects and install them as soon as possible.”

“Sensible might not be the right word,” an older man said. Zane Platz, Sam assumed. “Nevertheless …”

The implication of their words crashed down on Sam like a load of bricks. “You’re saying we need to get that thing back from Grillo, like yesterday. Move it up to that Key Ship somehow.”

Skyler cut in. “I think it might be easier to get it to Belem. We can haul it up from here.”

“Oh, sure. We’ll just nab it and pop over to Brazil. Easy as pie. We don’t even know where Grillo is keeping it. He might have destroyed it, for all we know. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“Er,” Kip said, his voice a whisper. “I can help there. From what I hear the object is in Nightcliff. It had been in Lyons, but Grillo recently moved it here.”

“Any particular reason?” Skadz asked.

“No idea, but I can speculate.” When no one objected he went on. “Be aware that he knows there is more than one object, and of the large ship that arrived. A Sister Jennifer, I don’t know her, reported this. I was listening in. She made no mention of his room inside, however.

“Since then there’s been a, well, a schism of sorts, within the Jacobite ranks. A faction led by Sister Haley that now openly questions Grillo’s rise, his motives and conviction. I’m not sure how much her faction knows, but they know he found something. I suspect he feels Nightcliff is the easier place to defend, should his detractors become more aggressive.”

“Ah hell,” Skadz said. When Sam looked at him he frowned. “The bloke’s already worried someone’s after the thing. That’s going to make our task even more difficult.”

Prumble urged him to silence with a wave of his hand. “Perhaps, perhaps not. Kip, do you know where in the fortress the object is? Can you get us in? Provide a map?”

“Secure storage. I’ll do what I can, but the vault itself is beyond my capability.”

“Leave that to me,” Prumble said.

The rest of the plan came together so quickly that Samantha felt dizzy. It sounded too complicated to her, too many failure points. Exactly the type of thing she’d have called Skyler on had he proposed something similar for a scavenger job. And yet, given all the angles, and the distances involved, she saw no other solution.

“One minute left,” Kip said.

Prumble let out a long breath. “Let me recap so we’re all in agreement. Tania will be responsible for one of the missing keys, and Skyler the other. Skyler, once you’ve recovered yours you’ll fly here, landing just beyond the aura at the old raceway in Hidden Valley. If we’re ready, we’ll meet you there.”

“Yeah,” Skyler said. “Minimal baggage, okay? It’s a small bird.”

“And if we’re not there, you’ll hike in and help us.”

“Or finish the job, if you made a bloody mess of it.” His words broke a tension Sam hadn’t realized had fallen upon them. She snorted a laugh and out of old habit glanced at Skadz.

The other man, however, looked worried. “It’s complicated, lots of ifs. In my experience that’s rarely a good thing.”

“Granted it is a complex task, and there’s still one more if.” Prumble paused long enough to let the words settle. “If we yet live, we’ll all fly back to Belem with you and finish the job from there. Clock’s ticking, everyone. I suggest we get started immediately.”

“Agreed,” Skyler said. Tania Sharma echoed the sentiment.

“Time’s up,” Kip whispered. Without ceremony or goodbyes, the link dropped.

Chapter Four

Belem, Brazil


When the climber door swung open, Tania found herself staring at Ana, not Skyler as she’d hoped.

The day was clear and bright. Drops of rain still dappled every flat surface, shining like diamonds in the rare na**d sunlight. Insects danced about, so many that they simply became part of the landscape.

“Welcome back,” the young woman said. She wore khaki pants and a maroon tank top. Her brown hair hid under a silk scarf tied over her head. Mud caked the bottom halves of her brown hiking boots. She had a pistol strapped to one hip, and a small machine gun slung over her shoulder.

The outfit made Tania feel suddenly very unprepared for what lay ahead, despite all the training she’d been doing. Three times a week she brawled with old Beram in Melville Station’s common room. Karl had told the soft-spoken, unassuming man to go easy on her, or so Beram said. She had suffered dozens of bruises and sore muscles that said otherwise, but the end result was worth it. Her body had changed as much as her mentality. When she stepped out of the climber, Tania could feel the change in her own presence. The way she held herself, the way she walked tall and yet somehow coiled at the same time. She found herself appraising everyone she came in contact with, thinking how she’d block if they suddenly struck out at her, how she’d counter. The simple mental exercise made her look at everyone differently than before.

She thought Skyler must make the same calculations, only at a subconscious level, and she understood how it was that he always seemed in command no matter who was present.

“Hello, Ana,” Tania said, her feet clanging on the metal ramp as she walked down. “It’s good to see you.”

The young immune smiled politely. “Skyler’s not here,” she said, reading Tania’s face. “We don’t expect him back until this evening.”

Tania resisted the urge to ask where he’d gone, what he was doing. “Fine. We’ll visit Karl first. There are a lot of preparations to make.”

Ana squinted at her, glancing down briefly at the simple jumpsuit Tania wore. “You’re going after Emerald wearing that?”


“The towers that went northwest had that color to their light.”

“Of course. Yes. I mean, no. I brought an environment suit, of sorts.”

“Oh,” Ana said. “Of course, you’re not immune. Forgive me.”

Whether or not this comment was an insult, Tania wasn’t sure. She decided to let it go and simply waited.

A thin, compassionate smile crept onto Ana’s face. “Come to the armory after you speak with Karl. I’ll help you pick out some gear.”

“Thank you,” Tania said, surprised. Between Karl and Beram she’d been instructed on how to break down, clean, assemble, and shoot just about every gun the colony had available, but there was an implied offer of tacit friendship in Ana’s invitation that took Tania off guard. Skyler’s lover had all but outright avoided Tania in the past. Yet she knew a peace offering when she heard it and accepted it gladly.

Tim stumbled out of the climber car behind her. He had a backpack in one hand and a briefcase in the other. He’d chosen to wear a jogging suit, comfortable on the space stations and in a climber, sweltering here on the ground.

“See you later then,” Ana said, and walked away.

Tania watched her go while Tim swatted at mosquitos, a task made all the more awkward by the gear he carried. “Karl better heal quickly,” he grumbled as he smacked the back of his neck, his backpack now lying on the black alien disk at their feet. He inspected his hand and frowned in disgust.

“Let’s go find him,” Tania said, and led the way to the infirmary.

Karl sat on the edge of his bed, his broken leg outstretched before him. “I’m not saying you’re not ready, Tania. I just think it’s unwise for you to go.”

“Why?” she asked. “Not that I need your permission, but I’ve trained hard. Ask Beram.”

“He’s given me regular reports,” Karl admitted. “I suspect you could break my other leg right now if you wanted to.”

Tania shrugged, forced her voice to remain casual. “Waste of a strike; you’re already hobbled. I’d go for the bones on the top of your good hand, which is exposed and in easy range, in case you had a gun or a knife hidden somewhere—”

“Jesus,” Tim said. He stood by at her right.

“At the same time I’d kick Tim in the stomach and flip him on top of you. By the time you two even knew what happened—”

Karl held up that good hand in defeat. “Okay, all right. Beram’s done his job well, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Tim echoed.

Tania smiled victoriously. She tried to ignore Tim’s slack-jawed expression and kept her focus on Karl. “I think,” she said, “Beram should start working with Tim next. He’s the weak link now.”

“No kidding. Sign me up,” Tim said. “Wait, did you just call me weak?”

Karl winced, tried to scratch his leg, and gave up. “But this mission, it’s not about training Tania. It’s about you not being here.”

She’d expected this argument. Indeed, she’d already had it with Skyler, Tim, and Zane. “You guys are plenty capable of making decisions without me. Tim will be down here until you’re healed, and Zane is improving every day. Besides, I’ll be with Vanessa and Pablo, who’ve more than proven themselves in Ireland. Skyler can’t be in two places at once, and with your condition I’m the next-best choice to lead the expedition.”

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