Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(8)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(8)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Vanessa shrugged.

“A third pair of hands,” Pablo said, “could be useful.”

Skyler looked at all of them, exasperated. Then he turned to Tania. “You’ll be cooped up in here for days. Weeks, maybe.”

“Skyler, I’ve lived on a space station for almost my entire life.”

“Okay, okay. What about when the time comes to get out? How much help can you be in one of those environment suits?”

“I thought of that, too,” Tania said. “I won’t need one.”

“Come again?”

She grinned knowingly. “Remember those spacesuits we wore over to the Builder ship?”

“Yes. I won’t soon forget those.”

“Well, I brought them. They’ll work just as well in atmosphere. They’re sealed, and they have excellent mobility.”

He grunted agreement. The suits were undeniably superior to any environment suit he’d ever seen. “You brought both? Why?”

Tania shrugged. “I thought you might want some help on your mission, too. Maybe one of these two,” she said, gesturing at Nachu and Colton. The two young men glanced at each other, then back at Skyler.

He knew he’d lost the argument, probably before Tania had even stepped off her climber. The next hour was spent hammering out details, supply requirements mostly. He waited until the group had split up for the evening to tell Colton and Nachu that he thought they should stay in Belem. The colony would need them for any scavenging needs while the immunes were away.

He felt glad when both agreed. Though either of the young men would be a welcome addition, Skyler had a different sort of help in mind.

Two days later the Helios took off. Skyler watched the aircraft arch across the cloudy sky until it disappeared behind the city’s dark downtown skyline. The Tombstones, so the colonists called the ghostly high-rises. The bleak structures moaned when the wind came up off the Pará and rushed through their broken windows. Usually rain would drown that sound. Today the thunderous roar of the Helios’s engines did the job, though that noise dwindled with each passing second.

“Everything’s green here.” Vanessa’s voice, over the comm. “We’ll see you soon, amigos.”

“Godspeed,” Tim said. He stood within the comm room, hunched over the lone terminal. Skyler had spied the young man wiping a tear away when the aircraft lifted off. He’d seen the way the man looked at Tania before that moment, too.

A cool sprinkle of rain whipped about him. Even now, with the Helios gone from view, he stayed just outside the comm room and ignored the playful spray of water. He tried to imagine the aircraft, putting himself in the pilot’s chair as city gave way to the wide river, then rainforest, then the unknown. Nothing but a path carved almost two years ago to guide the way. And Tania, huddled in back, isolated, one small window to look out of. A pang of guilt rippled through him as he recalled the final words he’d said to Vanessa before she climbed into the cockpit: “Don’t let her out until you know it’s safe.”

Vanessa had agreed, but her eyes held a hint of something that said otherwise. She’d been impressed by Tania, he saw the evidence of it in that look, and he couldn’t blame her. Still, he had to say something, despite the fact that Tania would probably slap him again if she knew.

She’ll do worse when she finds out what I’m doing next.

“Keep an eye on them?” he asked Tim.

“Will do,” the man said, and smiled. “For as long as they’ll put up with me.”

“Good.” He shook the water from his hat and studied the sky for a moment. “I guess it’s the Magpie’s turn, before this becomes a real storm.”

Tim nodded. “Good luck out there, Skyler.”

“Thanks. We’ll be off within the hour.”

Skyler entered the dimly lit room and set the duffel bag on the floor beside him. The prisoner’s gaze darted to it for a split second, only the slightest hint of fear on his face. Then he glanced up, past Skyler at the woman behind him.

“Well, well. Skyler Luiken, we meet again,” Russell Blackfield said. “Who’s the tart?”

His words tumbled out with no real emotion behind them, as if some part of his mind had forced him to speak. The once-impressive man looked thin, haggard. Dark lines marred the skin under his bloodshot eyes. He had an uneven beard and his hair was matted. There were bruises around his wrists, likely from restraints applied too tightly. His lips were cracked from dehydration.

Skyler glanced away from him and focused on Ana, who stood in the doorway of the colony’s only holding cell, arms folded.

“Well?” Skyler asked her.

She pursed her lips slightly, then gave a small shrug. “Yeah, I could do it.”

“Do what?” Russell asked, a slight amusement in his voice.

“Kick your ass from here back to Darwin,” Skyler said.

“Ah. No need for violence, young lady. I’m a lover, not a fight—”

“He gives me the creeps,” Ana said to Skyler, ignoring the prisoner. “But I’ve met worse.”

With a grudging nod, Skyler went to Blackfield and set a canteen on the floor in front of him. “Go start the preflight,” he said over his shoulder. Then he waited until he heard the outer door click closed.

Russell picked up the canteen, removed the cap, and sniffed the contents before taking a swig. His eyes closed ecstatically as he swallowed.

“The water has a price,” Skyler said.

Russell took another sip. “Put it on my tab? I’m good for it, thanks to this work furlough program they’ve planned for me. Digging ditches, my dream job.”

“I want information.”

The man paused. His eyes flicked to Skyler, then back to the canteen. “Is this going to be more bullshit about how my presence here is some kind of ruse? I’ll let you in on a secret, Skyler. The only secret here: I am not that clever.”

“Oh, I know.”

Russell laughed once, raised the canteen in cheers, and took another sip.

“I want to know about Nightcliff.”

The man lowered his hands, a flicker of doubt crossing his face. Then the bemused smirk returned. “What about it? No offense, mate, but I’m not running the show there anymore.”

Skyler rubbed his neck, feeling a headache coming on. I can’t believe I’m doing this. Still, if he could kill two birds with one stone … “Maybe not, but you know its secrets.”

Blackfield gave a slight shrug. “Maybe. Some, yeah. I’m a bit curious why you’d care.” His gaze went to the black duffel bag again. “Darwin’s a lost cause, or hadn’t you heard?”

“That may be true, but there’s still people I care about there, and I’m going back for them.”

“So? You’re immune. Land in the Clear and hike in. As long as you keep your head low, I doubt the vigilant Jacobites will notice.”

“It’s more complicated than that, unfortunately.” He’d debated how much to say all night, and he chose his next words carefully. “There’s something we need, inside Nightcliff. Something Grillo won’t want to lose.”

Russell’s eyebrows shot up, and Skyler knew he’d played the right card. Blackfield was a lot of things, but at his core lay a thirst for revenge. The slumlord-turned-ruler was currently atop that list, from the look on the man’s face. “That so?” he said, mustering an impressive disinterested tone.

“You can help, Blackfield.”

“How?”

“Patrol routes. Door combinations. Weapon storage locations. Medusa launch codes.” Skyler saw a flash of interest in the man’s face and went on. “How to gain access to the secure storage.”

“Is that all?”

Skyler shrugged. “Anything else you can think of that will help, I’m listening.”

Russell held up his hand and gave a thumbs-up. He held it there in silence for a long time.

A hot flare of temper began to course from Skyler’s head down to twitching fingertips. He checked it, took a breath. “You’ll want to start helping right about now, or this ends badly for you.”

Blackfield raised his thumb higher. “I am helping.”

Skyler drew his pistol.

“This,” Blackfield said, wiggling his thumb. “Everything you asked for Grillo would have changed. He’s smart, that one. But one thing he can’t change is the biometric access for the locks. Those are keyed to my thumbprint.”

“If he’s so smart, wouldn’t he have them re-keyed?”

“Sure. And he’ll succeed, for the primary access. But I was there when the system was recalibrated. I bribed the contractor to use my print for the maintenance access. The fallback in case all other parties leave or die. He had to fly someone in from his home office in New Zealand on the same day SUBS hit, just to make that happen. On the down low, if you get me. Cost me a f**king fortune. Point is, Grillo won’t be able to change that. He probably doesn’t even know it’s in there.”

Skyler put his pistol away and removed a knife instead.

“A pulse is required,” Russell said with a wry smile. “You can put that away.”

He walked to the man anyway, and slipped the knife back in its scabbard easily. He dumped the duffel bag slung on his shoulder at Russell’s feet, stepped back, and nudged it toward him with a toe.

“What’s that?” Blackfield asked, rubbing his wrists.

“Open it.” When he started to unzip the bag, Skyler continued. “I figured you’d try to turn this into a free ride back to Darwin, so I planned ahead. If that fits, you’re coming with us.”

Russell glanced at the elaborate suit in the bag. “And if it doesn’t?”

“Hope that it does, Blackfield, because if it’s your thumb I need it’s your thumb I’ll get. And honestly, dragging a subhuman version of you to Darwin might be less of a hassle.”

The suit fit.

Half an hour later, Skyler led Russell Blackfield from his cell. Hands retied, and the prospect of returning home if he just kept his mouth shut, made him a cooperative prisoner. Whether or not Blackfield sensed the clandestine nature of his removal from captivity, Skyler figured it didn’t matter as long as he said nothing and went where he was guided.

None of the colonists questioned the sight of Blackfield being led from his cell. Skyler had broad authority to do as he pleased inside Camp Exodus and beyond. The people he passed probably thought he was moving the prisoner to a more secure holding place, or perhaps taking him for questioning. For those who bothered to ask, he had a simple answer: “You don’t want to know.” Not exactly a lie.

La Gaza Ladra was already provisioned and charged when he led the prisoner inside and chained him to a seat. They’d stored enough air tanks for Russell to last forty hours. Plenty of time, Skyler estimated, to reach the circle drawn by Nachu on the map in central Africa and locate the “yellow” towers. They could refill the tanks there using a compressor, then worry about the next leg of the journey to Darwin. Skyler knew that distance was beyond the Magpie’s range but figured they’d still have time to stop somewhere—Yemen, perhaps—and locate a thorium reactor to spool from for a few hours.

A lot could go wrong, which normally implied a bad plan. But here the net result was a 90 percent chance of death for Russell Blackfield. Or, maybe Skyler would get lucky, and the bastard would survive infection and become a subhuman with one very useful thumb.

This started with a finger, he thought, and it’ll end with one.

Tania, Karl, Tim, Zane … none of them need ever know the outcome. He’d simply explain the reason he was forced to bring Blackfield along, and make up something plausible for the rest. The colony was better off with Blackfield gone, and Skyler figured if everything worked out and the man somehow did manage to help them enter the bowels of Nightcliff, well, that was simply a debt repaid. He could decide then if the man could live. He might just leave him in Darwin, alone and unarmed, hopefully still fostering a thirst for revenge against Grillo. Russell could certainly be a threat when he set his mind to it.

Or Skyler would just shoot him, and be done with it. The world would be a better place. He doubted Tania would understand, much less approve, of such an action. “So be it,” he muttered to himself as the Magpie’s engines roared to life. Maybe he and Tania could call a truce then, wipe the past away, and get on with their lives.

He took off with a terse goodbye to Tim and flicked off the comm before any questions could be asked about why the prisoner had been taken aboard.

Chapter Five

Darwin, Australia

28.MAR.2285

Approaching the mouth of an alley in the Narrows, Pascal yanked hard on the truck’s steering wheel. Samantha winced as the metal side of the vehicle scraped along the brick-and-mortar wall of the building there, until she remembered the vehicle was borrowed.

The truck rocked as portions of the wall came free and went under the rear tires. The side mirror on the passenger side next to Samantha crumpled and tore free. Pascal stomped on the brakes and came to a sudden stop.

“Jesus,” Skadz said from the backseat. “Take it easy.”

“It has to be convincing,” Pascal replied. “Go now. Go!”

Sam pulled the door handle and pushed. It didn’t budge. Behind her the back door opened. She heard Skadz and Prumble slip out. “Help me with the door,” she called to them.

Skadz’s face appeared at her window. He motioned for her to lower the window, and when she did he grabbed the frame of the door with both hands and pulled.

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