Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(9)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(9)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Sam put her shoulder into it and pushed. Nothing.

“Hurry,” Pascal said, “they’re coming.”

“Fuck it,” Sam said. She yanked the seat recline lever and lowered herself instantly to a prone position. Then she pushed herself into the backseat and went out that door.

A cloud of dust from the collision filled the air. She grabbed Skadz by the elbow and urged him deeper into the alley as angry shouts began to drift in from the street on the other side of the supposedly crashed vehicle. The locals would be angry until the nearest Jacobite patrol arrived, which wouldn’t be long.

Prumble was already at the first turn in the alley, coughing from the concrete dust in the air. Sam urged him around the corner and then forced herself to walk. Per the plan, Skadz ran ahead to the far end of the L-shaped lane. He glanced out into the street, looking left and right, then turned and flashed an a-okay.

“Clear,” Sam said.

“All this to visit the tailor,” Prumble replied. He moved to a door on the back of an unremarkable three-story building. A sign at eye level read PRIVATE. And below that, CUSTOMER ENTRANCE AT THE FRONT.

Prumble tried the handle, found it to be locked, and gave a sharp rap on the door. Sam drew her pistol and waited.

A muffled voice from inside answered Prumble’s knock. Sam couldn’t understand the words, but the tone was clear: Go away.

“It’s Prumble. Open up, Jaya.”

“Piss off.” Sam heard that response clearly enough.

“You owe me, dammit. Open the bloody door.”

The door swung open so fast Prumble almost fell backward. Inside stood a short, balding Indian man wearing a dirty white tank top that accentuated a round belly. Thick glasses were pushed high up on his bulbous nose, tape holding together the wire frames. “I owe you?! I owe you?! What the f**k—oh, hello, Sam.”

“Hello, Jayateerth.” She mustered her best apologetic smile and glanced into the room behind him. Though dimly lit, she saw reams of heavy fabric, enormous canisters of one chemical or another, and part of a machine. She saw no one else inside.

“Uh,” the tailor said, suddenly confused. He scratched absently at the greasy, curly gray hair that ringed the bald dome of his head.

“We need your help,” Sam tried. “Can we come in and talk, at least?”

He hesitated. Sounds of commotion came in from the mouth of the alley around the corner. “Heard a crash,” Jayateerth said. “That you?”

“We needed a distraction,” Prumble replied.

The tailor nodded solemnly, as if he’d just accepted the way the city worked now. In years past all the scavengers came to Jaya’s shop for patchwork on their environment suits, and they paid handsomely for it. They still did, but under Grillo’s watchful eye. There was only one reason someone needed an environment suit, and Grillo wanted total control over who came and went from the city. Word had come down months ago that anyone wishing to procure the services of one Jayateerth Laxman had to have their order approved by the Jacobite leadership. As far as Samantha knew, there was no one else alive who could be trusted to patch the suits. Certainly there was no one who could provide what they’d come for.

“Fine,” the man said, and waved them in. When he turned to go back inside she saw a silver pistol tucked into the back of his pants. He drew it and stuffed it inside a cubbyhole on a shelf near the door.

Sam glanced to where Skadz waited. He gave her a single nod, and she returned it. They’d agreed he’d stay out of sight if possible. Jaya was known to be trustworthy, but if there were any Jacobite minders within it would be good if they didn’t provide a description back to Grillo. Skadz had already tempted fate with his initial presence at the airport, but so far they’d been lucky. None of the Jacobite guards seemed to know who he was, and Sam had talked the other scavengers into silence. Walkabout or not, Skadz was one of them.

Sam followed Prumble inside and closed the door behind her, leaving it unlocked. The room stank of glue and fabric, electronics and lubricant. LEDs hanging from the ceiling provided the only light, and implied the space was powered. This came as no surprise. Jayateerth’s trade required electricity, and even in a city controlled by Grillo no one would dare shut the man down.

Environment suits of every size, shape, and color lay in stacks along one wall of the long room. Floor-to-ceiling shelves along the opposite contained all manner of supplies and spare parts, organized in a way Samantha figured only Jaya could understand. Mismatched tables ran down the center of the space, each covered with suits in various states of assembly or repair. Scraps of fabric littered the floor.

At the far end of the room was a closed door. Next to it, a scrawny child slept on a cot.

“Blink!” Jaya called out.

The kid, a girl of no more than ten, Samantha decided, rose immediately and stood on bare feet, eyes still bleary from sleep. She blinked rapidly.

“Go out front, girl, and make a ruckus if anyone comes in.”

The child gave a nod, her eyes continuing to blink erratically. A nervous tic that had earned her her nickname, apparently. She turned and slipped through the door.

In the front room Sam glimpsed through the door there were cardboard boxes, some stacked, some open as if being packed.

“All right,” Jayateerth said. “I’m listening. What do you need?”

“An environment suit,” Prumble said.

“This I know.”

“For me.”

“This is impossible.”

“In two days.”

“This is goodbye. Thank you for the visit. Nice to see you.” He swept his arm toward the exit.

Prumble didn’t budge. “You have to help us, Jaya. It’s important. For old times, please.”

“Old times?” The short man leaned against his shelves and folded his arms. “My recollection of old times is that you still owe me a lot of equipment. Things I paid for in advance.”

“Blackfield blew up my garage! I’ve been in hiding!”

“Two years and you can’t send a messenger?”

Sam sat on one of the tables, testing it first and deciding the wooden thing was sturdy enough. “C’mon, Jaya. Everything’s changed. None of that matters anymore.”

The man ran a hand over his face and stared up at the ceiling for a long moment. Then he turned to Sam, the look in his eyes profoundly sad. “I’m tired, you know? Tired of all this. I just want to tend my garden and watch the sun rise and set. I didn’t want any trouble with Platz, or Blackfield after him. Especially not with these new f**kers.” His voice dropped to something just above audible on the last word.

No one said anything for a long time. Then Sam tried a different tack. “Jaya, what’s with the boxes out front. Going somewhere?”

He waved a dismissive hand toward the door Blink had used. “In a week, to a place over by the stadium. Something about consolidating essential services. Can you believe that shit? I’ve been in this building for sixteen years. Now I’m going to be stuck in some basement at Selby, surrounded by Jakes, Grillo breathing down my ass.”

“Selby,” Sam said. “That rings a bell.”

Jaya nodded. “Selby Systems, Limited. The only remaining supplier of propellant for moving those stations around. They had an exclusive with Platz back in the day. Grillo’s got the factory running again.”

“That explains a lot of the lists Grillo’s had me handing the crews lately.”

“A lot of raw materials for that goop they produce, you know. And they’ve got it fired up to full capacity.” Jaya ran one hand tenderly along the wooden table in front of him. Years of stains and scrapes marred the surface. He let his hand fall to his side. “Once I’m over there Grillo will have all his Orbital needs under one roof.”

She glanced at Prumble, and he stared back at her. “One place to guard,” the big man said.

“Yeah,” Sam replied.

Finally, Jayateerth turned to Prumble. “What do you need a suit for, anyway? What business do you have outside that you can’t just send her?”

Prumble fixed a hard stare on the man. “We don’t plan to come back, Jaya.”

“You’re going to die out there? A bullet would—”

“There’s another aura,” Sam said. That stopped the man cold. “Another safe place.”

“Ridiculous,” he said. He wanted to believe her, though. She could see it in his eyes—a flicker of hope like a match being lit and settling into steady flame.

“Skyler found it.”

He glanced between the two of them, then his gaze became distant. “Where?” he whispered.

“Make the suit,” Prumble said, “and we’ll tell you.”

A light rain had begun to fall when Sam stepped back out into the alley. Skadz stood casually at the western end, one foot propped on the wall he leaned against, cap pulled low as if he slept. She glanced at her wristwatch. They’d been inside for just under an hour as Prumble’s measurements were taken. Jaya had grumbled and moaned at the difficulty of making a suit that would fit, but in the end declared they could pick it up in twenty-four hours. The prospect of moving somewhere, anywhere, other than Darwin turned out to be a fantastic motivator.

Telling him about Belem was a risk, but one she thought they’d forgive at the prospect of having someone with Jaya’s skills in their fledgling camp.

Sam whistled to get Skadz’s attention, then pointed at her watch. The rendezvous was only minutes away. He waved and remained in position while she walked east to the bend in the alley.

The borrowed truck no longer blocked the alley entrance. Good, Sam thought. Pascal had done his job. Well, that or the vehicle had been stolen or apprehended by one of the street patrols. In a few minutes they’d know, one way or the other.

While Prumble waited in the middle of the alley, Sam walked around the bend and moved up to the gap they’d originally entered through. A pile of debris still lay in the road beyond from where the truck had clipped it. A few kids were collecting the larger chunks of concrete onto a shabby wheeled cart. They scattered at the sight of her.

She looked both ways and waited. The street wasn’t too crowded. None were, really, under this new regime. Nobody really knew what was allowed or frowned upon in the Jacobites’ view, and even the obvious things were enforced erratically. Only one thing seemed certain: The cult, or rather Grillo’s muscle behind it, owned the city now.

A vendor rode by on a rickety bicycle, mesh bags of jackfruit and some overripe durian hanging from the handlebars. He circled back, a salesman’s grin forming on his weathered face, but which vanished when Samantha shook her head. The man completed his circle and continued down the road, his bike splashing through potholes.

“C’mon, Pascal,” Sam muttered.

She heard the truck before she saw it. Pascal hadn’t turned on the headlights, and with the near-silent electric motors he was only thirty meters away when she spotted him through the misty rain. She turned, nodded to Prumble at the elbow in the alley. He turned and nodded to Skadz down at the other end.

Pascal rolled to a stop across the wide street. When she met his gaze, he pointed back the way he’d come. Sam looked, and her heart sank. A street patrol of toughs in Jacobite colors jogged after the vehicle. There were six of them, which meant a seventh would be lurking behind. They often kept one member back, usually the one with a gun, in case trouble arose. Sam guessed that trouble to them meant drunken mahjongg spectators who had yet to come around to the Jacobite way of thinking. A brawl might ensue, but one gunshot in the air would probably be enough to disperse such a crowd.

The way this group jogged up to Pascal’s borrowed truck, however, brought goose bumps to her arms. They were fanning out. One even came to Samantha’s side of the street, as if expecting Pascal to get out and run.

What the hell are they doing? Pascal was dressed in Jacobite garb, and a vehicle in Darwin said “don’t f**k with me.” Yet on they came, and they clearly weren’t stopping to chat.

She glanced over her shoulder. Skadz stood behind her, gun drawn. He’d probably sensed the danger from her posture. Prumble lingered farther behind, looking more irritated than anything else.

“Something’s wrong,” she said.

Skadz nodded and pressed himself against the wall. Prumble took a few steps forward, craning his neck to see what was going on.

The Jacobites reached the vehicle and surrounded it, two of them moving around the front. Pascal could still drive away, but he’d kill or injure two of them in the process.

“Out!” one of the patrol shouted.

Pascal complied. His eyes darted to Samantha briefly, looking for guidance. “Easy,” she mouthed.

The patrol surrounded him. The leader of the group moving right up to her pilot in a blatantly aggressive stance. He was saying something, agitated. Pascal started to argue something, but after a few seconds he just looked at the ground with his shoulders slumped.

The leader took a pinch of Pascal’s poncho between two fingers and tugged at it.

Fuck. Sam drew her pistol, wishing she’d brought her shotgun. “Skadz?”

“I’m ready. Lay it out.”

“Go around. The trailer with the gun.”

“On it.” He slipped away silently.

She watched him go, and held up a hand to Prumble, motioning him to remain in the alley.

When she glanced back around, she saw Pascal doubled over on the ground. The leader loomed over him, spitting words into his ear, still tugging on the improvised garment Pascal had worn.

Sam slipped around the corner, hands behind her back. She walked swiftly toward the truck, sizing up the group as she went. There were two outliers: Gun, down the street and about to meet Skadz, and the one that had come across to Samantha’s side of the street. He looked unarmed and was thin. Their fastest runner, in case of chase, she guessed. She ignored him for now.

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