Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(7)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(7)
Author: Jason M. Hough

He opened his mouth to speak but Tania waved him off. “We have no idea what we’ll find out there. I’m a scientist, I’ve got experience in the field—Hawaii, and in the rainforest here—plus I’ve been inside the Key Ship. I know what we’re looking for.”

Karl frowned. A light rain began to tap against the tent above them, and the sunlight dimmed as clouds began to cross the sky.

“On a lighter note,” Tim said, “we brought Russell Blackfield down with us.”

A dark scowl crossed Karl’s face. He shifted on the bed again as the news settled. “I suppose it’s for the best. It’s too easy to sabotage a space station, and down here at least he can be put to work.” His focus moved back to Tania. “There’s no talking you out of this venture into the Clear?”

“No.”

He nodded for several seconds. “When do you leave?”

“As soon as a suitable aircraft—”

The sound of roaring engines drowned her words.

“Easy,” Skyler said.

Vanessa tapped the stick with a gentle deftness, pushing the bulky aircraft back over the clearing just outside the colony’s gates. “You can take over,” she said.

“Your bird, your landing.” He grinned at her reaction and studied the array of instruments before his co-pilot’s chair just to be safe.

The aircraft, designed for coastal patrol and rescue, had ample storage and crew capacity, excellent range, a full medical bay with supplies, and even a winch to lift people or gear while hovering at one hundred meters. Skyler felt a little jealous, in truth. The Magpie’s only advantage was top speed. Well, that and luxury, but Skyler had no use for the latter. Given the choice he’d take this craft any day, but given the circumstances he felt it better that he make do with the lesser aircraft.

He tested the intercom as Vanessa descended. “You boys okay back there?”

“Copy that,” the one named Colton replied. The young man, one of the better scavengers Skyler had trained, spoke easily despite the thunderous noise around the craft. Out of necessity he’d worn an environment suit for the mission, and he had apparently figured out how to plug it into the intercom. “Some bits weren’t quite secured, but Nach’ and I have it all sorted.”

They’d spotted the aircraft in one of the gigantic collage picture layouts they’d assembled of the city. A barge, run aground on the shore of the Pará just north of the city, had caught their attention. It was listing as it deteriorated, revealing a portion of the tarp-covered cargo it carried: the tail wing of an aircraft. It was a hell of a piece of scavenging work, he thought, and had told them as much. He could only imagine what kind of operation Prumble could run with these two geniuses working for him, and grinned at the idea. Maybe it would come to pass, if everything ran according to plan.

The aircraft rotated at a leisurely pace as Vanessa pointed the nose toward the colony’s gate. Water and dust began to stir from the ground below, filling the air around them. Skyler saw colonists on the wall now. They held hats to their heads in the press of the powerful wind. He waved at them.

The craft had a similar design to the Melville, with four cap-driven engines out at the ends of four broad wings. Unfortunately it did not have the plating required for atmospheric reentry, an exceedingly rare feature given that it made sense only for people or parties with access to the space elevator in Darwin. Even on the other side of the planet, Skyler had only seen a few such vehicles in his years searching.

He could hardly complain, though. This bird had a larger cargo capacity, bigger crew compartment, and could even lift heavy loads. It was a boon.

The gun felt cool in her hand. Perfectly weighted, solid.

In a way, she could appreciate the art of it. The masterful combination of ergonomics, design, and engineering were beyond question. Tania had never cared much for guns. She’d seen them as a tool for killing, and she saw killing as something human beings should not be in the business of. Even after the subhumans arrived it had been easy for her, from her isolated, almost utopian place aboard Anchor Station, to take the position that there must be a more humane way to deal with the former people.

Her opinion had changed.

“That’s my favorite,” Ana said quietly.

Tania thumbed the clip release, pulled it out, and slapped it back in. “It’s a Sonton?”

“SIG Sauer, actually. Not as common, but I like the way it feels and since the ammo is the same …” She shrugged. “No laser sight. I find those distracting. Of course, Skyler chides me for it, but—”

Footsteps on the stairs cut her words short.

“What do I chide you for?” Skyler stepped into the windowless room and paused to let his eyes adjust. Tania heard the reinforced door clicked closed behind him.

The armory had been set up in a storage room within the university that overlapped with the colony on the western side. A courtyard just outside served as the impound yard for the aura towers, and most of the rooms that fell within the subsequent protective aura were dormitory-style bedrooms, put to good use by the colony. This room, probably once for cleaning supplies, Tania guessed, was off an interior hall below a stairwell. Concrete walls kept it cool and dry, even at this time of year, and at some point a pair of metal plates had been welded to the door. A heavy lock had been installed, too, just in case. Tania thought it telling that Ana knew the combination and clearly knew the room like the back of her hand.

“Laser sights,” Ana said without turning.

“Ah.” Skyler offered Tania a bunch of bananas. He held one, half eaten, in his other hand. “Quite useful when shooting from the hip.”

Ana turned finally. She waved off the bananas when Tania offered them. “I’m standing there trying to figure out where that stupid little dot is when I could just be shooting.”

“Waste of ammo,” Skyler said over a mouthful of the fruit.

Ana’s eyes flared. In answer she gestured to the wall of boxes behind her. Boxes of every size, shape, and style of bullet.

Skyler took another bite, chewed. “All that matters is what’s in the clip.”

“You want to sleep outside tonight, pendejo?”

Tania, stuck between the couple, with nowhere to go, turned her focus to peeling a banana. The girl’s tone, playful and flirtatious, nevertheless had a note of challenge to it. She might be Skyler’s lover, but she was also part of his crew. Tania didn’t consider herself an expert, but she’d seen enough of the old romance sensories to know mixing business and pleasure was rarely a good idea.

Skyler just grinned, though, and looked to Tania. “The others are gathered in the Helios’s crew cabin. It’s time to make our plan.”

“Helios?” Tania and Ana asked simultaneously.

“Vanessa’s name for the new aircraft. Something to do with her jujitsu.” He said the words over his shoulder as he departed. Deep down, he probably felt more uncomfortable than Tania, though he did a good job of hiding it.

When his footsteps faded and the door clicked closed again, Tania turned back to the weapons. She picked up the SIG again, hefted it, and cracked a smile toward Ana. “I don’t really like laser sights, either.”

The young woman chortled.

A paper map lay splayed out on the crew compartment floor of the Helios, located just aft of the cockpit.

Skyler had marked the location of the Ireland object with an hourglass shape drawn in pencil. Similar markings noted the crash sites in Belem and Darwin where objects had been recovered.

Then he’d drawn lines out of Belem marking the two remaining paths taken by aura tower groups. At the extent to which they’d been explored, he’d expanded the lines into cones, indicating a best-guess search area for the ultimate whereabouts of the crash sites. One went north and west, toward the Gulf of Mexico and on up into North America.

“This one,” Tim said, tracing a finger along the line Skyler had drawn east from Belem, “runs roughly toward where the mother ship is parked in orbit.”

Skyler frowned. “Roughly?”

Tim nodded and held out a hand for the pencil. Skyler handed it over, and the young man drew a box around a portion of the Sahara in northern Niger. “Right about here,” he said.

The spot lay just below the cone Skyler had drawn. His guesswork on the spread of the cone had no evidence to back it up; it was really more optimism than anything else—something much wider would take months to explore even from the air. Still, the mark Tim made was close enough that it couldn’t be ignored. Perhaps the Builder’s mother ship had parked itself directly over one of the crash sites.

“Interesting,” Nachu said after a moment. He and Colton had remained in the cramped room in case additional supply requests came up. At this point they knew the city better than Skyler himself.

Skyler glanced at the kid and was reminded of the university students he used to beat at cards back in Amsterdam. All the intelligence to take on the world, just enough experience to think they could pull it off. Only one in a thousand could stand out in a crowd like that, and this kid was one of those. Same went for the other, Colton. In another time they’d have been future Neil Platzes, waiting to happen. “What’s interesting?”

“That spot.” Nachu pointed to the mark in Niger. “It’s due south of where they say the SUBS virus started.”

Skyler looked closer. Tania and Tim both leaned in, too, and Nachu took the pencil. “They never nailed the exact place down,” he said, “but it was somewhere around … here. This map shows it as forest and grazing land, but this is a historical map, see? A.D. 2100. Today that’s all part of the Sahara.”

The circle he drew encompassed parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria, and it lay right in the middle of the cone Skyler had drawn. He swallowed hard. It couldn’t be a coincidence, and as he stared at the map a sudden chill made him shudder.

“Tania,” he said.

She looked at him, eyebrows raised.

“What if …” He paused, considering his words. “Suppose that new ship is a weapon. Only, not aimed at us, but aimed at the disease.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Why would they start the disease and then attack it?”

“Maybe it got out of control?” Tim offered.

“Or,” Skyler said, thinking aloud now, “maybe they didn’t start the disease.” Everyone stared at him now. “Look at us. I mean, humanity. We’re a mess. Our colony. Blackfield coming after us, Platz and the Council, factions like the Jacobites. Grillo and all the other minor syndicates. We’re fractured all over the place, but we’ve been making this assumption that the Builders are a cohesive whole.”

Tania nodded slowly. “So, one Builder faction decides Earth should get a free space elevator. An opposition group can’t stop it from being sent, so they decide to wipe us out instead.”

“Exactly.”

“Then,” Tim said, “the first group somehow sets up the Elevator to offer some protection, the aura, until they can devise a way to stop the disease.” He was smiling, but it turned to a frown almost instantly. “Doesn’t explain the Belem Elevator, or the aura towers.”

“Or these crashed ships, and that room inside the Key Ship,” Tania said. “I mean, if it’s a weapon, why not have it ready to go? Why scatter these bits across the planet and require us to reassemble it?”

Skyler shrugged. “How should I know?”

“Besides,” Tania added, “it doesn’t mesh well with the fact that Neil somehow knew exactly how many events would occur. Hmm …”

“It’s just a theory.”

Tania patted him on the forearm. “Relax, Skyler. We’re scientists. Poking holes in theories is part of the job.”

Nachu spoke up again. “Maybe this opposition group sabotaged the weapon in flight. They couldn’t destroy the parts, but they could make them really hard to find, hard to gather. Buy time for the virus to do its job.”

“Yeah,” Skyler said. “How about that? I like this kid.”

“Not bad,” Tania agreed. “I’ll admit it’s probably the best theory I’ve heard yet, save perhaps for the insane space clown theory Greg and Marcus cooked up. But it doesn’t change the mission. It adds urgency, yes, but the task remains the same.” She gave him a serious look. “Are we agreed to the plan?”

The conviction in her eyes startled him. He’d hoped against hope she’d abandon the idea of joining the Emerald mission. “Look,” he said. “I know you’ve trained hard, Tania. But you’re not immune; at least it’s highly unlikely that you are. Your presence on the mission is an unnecessary complication. I mean, it could last weeks.”

“There’s plenty of room for compressed air tanks in this plane.”

“Air, sure, but how are you going to go to the bathroom?”

“Is this craft rated for high altitude?” she asked.

“Yes,” Vanessa said. “Thirty klicks.”

Tania nodded. “So, we keep the cabin sealed until we reach the aura towers, or get to half our air.”

Skyler shook his head. “Too many things could go wrong. A leak, an emergency landing. Hell, you’ll have to recharge the caps at some point.”

“Um,” Vanessa said, raising her hand. “Don’t forget, on this aircraft the cockpit is a separate compartment. Pablo and I would ride up there, get out if we need to, all without breaking the seal on the cargo compartment.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” Skyler said to her.

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