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The Dire Earth: A Novella (The Dire Earth Cycle), страница 1

 

The Dire Earth: A Novella (The Dire Earth Cycle)
 

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The Dire Earth: A Novella (The Dire Earth Cycle)


  The Dire Earth is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  A Del Rey eBook Original

  Copyright © 2014 by Jason Hough

  Excerpt from The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough copyright © 2013 by Jason Hough

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

  DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  A portion of this work originally appeared on Tor.com in significantly different form as the short story “Wave of Infection.”

  ISBN: 978-1-101-88303-7

  Cover design: David G. Stevenson

  Cover illustration: © Paul Youll

  www.delreybooks.com

  www.jasonhough.com

  Del Rey eBook edition: November 2014

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Epigraph

  Part One: Wave of Infection

  Chapter One

  Part Two: Promise of Violence

  Chapter One

  Part Three: Barrier of Sanity

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Part Four: Distance of Hope

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Excerpt from The Darwin Elevator

  Fight or flight? Take your pick, man. It’s an F-word either way.

  —Skadz, 2278

  Part One

  Wave of Infection

  Chapter One

  ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT

  13.APR.2278

  The aircraft rested in a windswept field a few hundred meters up from the beach. Her crew, a pilot and co-pilot, sat nearby. Gulls wheeled overhead, their occasional calls as lazy as the Mediterranean whitecaps stretching north as far as Skyler could see.

  Today he could see a long way. The clear sky, blue and even from one horizon to the other, was marred only by the blazing white disk of the sun directly above. On any other day, in any other circumstance, the afternoon would be among the most pleasant he’d ever experienced. That wasn’t saying a lot, of course. Other than a rail trip to Rome two summers back, for his twenty-fifth birthday, he’d kept mostly to the colder portions of Europe.

  Until this week. The week from hell.

  And it was only Wednesday.

  “They’re late,” Finn said.

  Skyler had thought the pilot asleep. He glanced at the man. Captain Finn Koopman lounged in a foldout chair, one of two he kept in the plane for just such “hurry up and wait” scenarios. Skyler sat in the other, perched on the rough fabric edge, hunched over a slate he had split between newsfeeds and a map of the continent.

  Finn’s posture couldn’t be more different. Shoes and socks off, feet propped up on a sun-bleached rock. Hands folded across a belly a bit rounder than was really appropriate for a pilot of the Luchtmacht. Finn had earned that, though, Skyler supposed. The man had ten years and a few thousand sorties on Skyler. He didn’t need to pore over flight plans anymore. That’s what copilots were for. He’d said as much when they’d met.

  “Maybe I should check in,” Skyler said. “They might have moved us again.”

  Finn cracked a half grin. “Relax, Luiken. Can’t get any more north than this, assuming they’re trying to contain this thing to Africa. My guess? They’ll set up a naval blockade next and wait it out.”

  “I just wish they’d tell us what’s happened.”

  At that Finn shrugged. “Some kind of nasty flu, probably. Or, hell, maybe a clever new seed that fell into counterfeiters’ hands.”

  “They’d shut down a whole continent over some engineered grass?”

  Finn shrugged. “A flu, then.”

  “Hmm,” Skyler said. He didn’t like the information on the newsfeed half of his slate. Or rather, the lack of information. If command wouldn’t tell them what all the medical supplies were for, surely someone in the quarantine zone could slip a note about it out through one of the HocNets. Something should have leaked by now. It’s not as if the informal networks could be locked down. Jammed, maybe, but surely not on this kind of scale. Skyler had connected to every one he could find, despite the violation of military procedure. Damn the protocols—he didn’t want to catch whatever bug had plunged half of Africa into a media dead zone in just four days.

  They’d made their first flight in two days ago, a joint op at the UN’s request, dropping private corporate doctors plus a mountain of “unspecified” equipment into Chad. The orders were simple: Fly in, drop the goods off, speak to no one. Maintain silence on all channels and nets, no exceptions.

  Sixty klicks from the landing site in Chad they’d been rerouted, told to turn east and land in a hastily erected staging area in the desert outside Nyala. There’d been soldiers there. Soldiers from many different places, looking just as confused as Skyler had felt. Finn took off ten minutes after landing, ordered to make haste for the port in Rotterdam. Another load of gear, though no doctors this time. They’d dropped that off a day later outside Aswan, another redirect. Another staging zone, this one massive, blanketed with white tents and people in bulky hazard suits. Skyler and Finn hadn’t even stepped out of the cockpit that time.

  And now, Alexandria. The third mission, the third change of plans. They were supposed to land at a university in Cairo, only to be told to avoid Cairo’s airspace when they were already two kilometers inside it. The new coordinates brought them to this desolate strip of land with orders to wait. They’d be met by … someone. In the confusion no one seemed to know who.

  The air controller, a woman with the Egyptian military, had started laughing then, just before the connection died. There’d been no humor in that laugh, nor much in the way of sanity, Skyler thought.

  Beneath the sound of seagulls and the gently lapping sea, Skyler heard the crunch of soil beneath tires, then the distinct whine of ultracaps discharging.

  “About time,” Finn said. He came upright and went to work putting his socks and shoes back on. “Open her up. I want to be off the ground the instant they’re done.”

  “Sure.” When Skyler stood and turned, the sight of the approaching vehicle drove all such actions from his mind. Despite still being a half kilometer away, Skyler could see the flames licking out the back windows of the huge white vehicle. The smoke plume hid within a massive dust cloud being thrown up behind. It was some kind of mobile laboratory, moving fast. Careening as if driven by a child. Not slowing.

  Skyler broke for the aircraft. In through the side hatch and forward to the cockpit in seconds. He palmed the unlock. “First Lieutenant Luiken,” he growled at the vocal sensor.

  The controls lit up, recognizing him. Skyler flipped to systems-ready state and tapped the preflight warm-up sequence, urgent departure. The sound of turbofans whirring to life filled the cabin.

  Through the window he saw the van storming toward them. It swerved off the dirt road and began to hop awkwardly over the uneven ground, then pivoted hard right back toward the road, almost rolling on its side in the process. Flames consumed the entire back half now. The nose dipped suddenly, sending a huge spray of tan dirt into the air almost in time to obscure the body being propelled through the front window.

  Unable to look away, Skyler sli
pped into his co-pilot’s chair and pulled on his helmet. Finn came in. The captain did not sit. He just stood, hunched to see the spectacle outside.

  “Stay put, Lieutenant,” he said.

  “I thought they were going to ram us.”

  “Me, too, but they’re not going anywhere now.” The captain’s voice sounded tight, strained.

  Skyler chanced a glance over his shoulder in time to see Finn pinching the bridge of his nose, grimacing. “What’s wrong?”

  “Migraine or something. Look, keep the fans hot. I’m going to see if I can help.”

  Skyler watched as Finn jogged toward the stuck vehicle. The pilot hefted a fire extinguisher in one hand. Black smoke rose in a plume now as the fire ate its way toward the front of the mobile lab.

  A man in a white jumpsuit climbed through the hole in the shattered driver’s window. He scrambled down into the dirt and began to run toward Finn. This was not a rush to greet a rescuer. Fear drove those steps. The person was looking back at the burning van, not at the pilot. When he finally turned and saw Finn he almost tripped over himself, turned ninety degrees, and ran off as if the pilot and the flames were equally dangerous. His face was contorted in a scream that seemed never-ending. Finn stopped and waved to no avail.

  Skyler swallowed with difficulty. Without looking down he switched the aircraft into liftoff configuration. The engine note shifted higher.

  Another man emerged from the crashed vehicle. His jumpsuit was white, too, or had been. Most of it was charred now, one sleeve completely black and in tatters, revealing a badly burned arm beneath. He sprinted away, too. Not simply following the first, Skyler thought, but chasing.

  Finn was shouting.

  “Get back in here, Captain,” Skyler said under his breath. “Let’s go.”

  The burned man saw Finn. He halted, dropped to a crouch more animal than human. An unnatural pose that sent a cold chill up Skyler’s spine. The pause lasted barely a second before the man charged forward. Before Skyler could think to breathe, the white-clad figure had closed half the distance to Finn and showed no sign of slowing. This was not flight, like the other, but aggression. A snarl of pure hatred contorted the man’s face.

  Finn saw it, too. He spun and raced back, dropping the fire extinguisher and raising his index finger in the air. He twirled it in a tight, fast circle.

  “Way ahead of you,” Skyler said.

  Compared to his pursuer, Finn’s pace might as well have been a jog. The burned man tore across the ground, feet pounding, that snarling face growing more terrible with each loping step. Finn disappeared from view below the hull of the aircraft. Skyler felt his gut twist as the thing that hurled after him vanished underneath the canopy only two seconds later, like a hunting dog closing on wounded prey.

  “Finn!” Skyler shouted.

  He heard a clang. Then a thud that vibrated through the craft.

  “I’m in!” the pilot called back, breathless. “Get us off the ground!”

  _

  “Take the stick,” Finn commanded once they were out over open water.

  The textured metal of the flight controls was cool to the touch and somehow reassuring, as if Skyler could draw reason and clarity from the emotionless machine after what he’d just witnessed.

  He struggled with what it all meant. Africa, or at least North Africa, was lost. There could be no other explanation for the burning van and its two deranged inhabitants. Whatever calamity Finn and Skyler had flown equipment in to fight—disease or chemical weapon, it made little difference—had spread from southern Chad to Alexandria like the wind.

  He glanced over his shoulder, east toward the massive city on the horizon. A blanket of smog marked its location—he’d seen that on the way in—but there were smoke plumes now as well. That meant fighting, or perhaps looting. A breakdown of society in a matter of hours. Skyler’s gaze drifted north to the blue waters of the sea below. He thought of Finn’s comment about a naval blockade. Even if such a tactic could contain whatever this was, Skyler knew it would be too late.

  There were boats in the water below, all moving away from the coast, headed toward Italy, Greece, or Turkey. Spain. Christ, he thought, damn well anywhere but here. His stomach tightened at the thought that these may have been the last to flee. But surely there’d been smarter people who’d left earlier, who’d flown or driven.…

  Beside him, Finn leaned back in his seat and pinched the bridge of his nose again, wincing. He’d said nothing since returning to the aircraft, except the order for Skyler to handle the controls. The veteran did not give up that task easily or often. The minimum required, in fact.

  Skyler flew to Naples, only to receive an automated message that the airport had been placed on emergency lockdown. Terse orders from home compelled him toward Madrid instead. He landed there, without approval from local authorities, at the far end of a dark and empty landing grid.

  Engines off, he left Finn in the cockpit and went outside. A warm breeze carried the smell of smoke. Skyler studied the windows of the distant terminal. There were bodies in some of the seats, unmoving. Someone ran from one side to the other, another chasing.

  “No thanks,” he muttered.

  Finn had barely moved. Skyler patted him on the shoulder and settled back in. He reported their status. The orders that came back instructed him to take off, get to cruising altitude, and circle while awaiting further instructions.

  That, he thought, did not sound good at all. “They have no idea where to land us,” he said to Finn. The pilot just grunted.

  At altitude, Skyler pulled the slate from his pocket and palmed it. The screen lit up with information. He eyed the connection status. An ad hoc link had been made, but with zero participants. Skyler swore inwardly. There were the usual slew of commercial options, and of course his military band, but he’d been trying those for two days only to find his access locked down. Not surprising given the nature of their mission.

  HocNets were another matter. Their topography was transient, amorphous. Swarms of personal devices talking directly to one another without any underlying infrastructure or membership requirements. Silence there unnerved him even more than the deranged lab worker who’d charged Finn on that windswept field. Silent HocNets meant no one was talking. Not even in Madrid below. There should be hundreds of thousands in a city that size. Millions. Someone should—

  Finn shrieked.

  At first Skyler didn’t know what he’d heard, so shrill and high was the sound. Then the pilot started to kick wildly at something below the dashboard.

  “What is it?” Skyler asked, unbuckling himself. “Snake? What?” Something nasty must have crept aboard while they’d been sitting outside, waiting.

  The pilot kept screaming between desperate sucking breaths. His boots mashed frantically at the pedals in the footwell.

  “Knock it off,” Skyler rasped. “You’re going to break something—” He placed a hand on the captain’s shoulder. Finn recoiled so violently his head cracked into the low ceiling. The man thrashed now, clawing at his harness, pushing Skyler away. Kicking all the while at something in the darkness of the footwell. A kick grazed the rudder control, lurching the aircraft to the left and throwing Skyler off balance. He fell, caught himself on the armrest of his own seat.

  “Captain, get ahold of yourself! Go in back, I’ll take care of whatever’s down there.”

  A flicker of recognition in terrified eyes. The pilot had his legs fully outstretched now. He drew breaths like a man deprived of oxygen. Lurching heaves of the chest, followed by almost childish whimpering exhales.

  “Go,” Skyler repeated, more forceful now despite talking to his superior officer. “I mean it.” He tried again for the shoulder. This time Finn only flinched at the grip. His breaths were coming easier now, too.

  “My … my …,” the pilot said between rapid inhales. “My shoes …”

  “A scorpion? Spider?”

  “I, I … Please … help.”

  A goddamn s
pider. Skyler fought the urge to slap the man. He activated the autopilot and leaned, awkwardly in the cramped space, to untie Finn’s boots. A bead of sweat dripped off his brow as he pulled the first one off. The pilot was holding his breath.

  When the shoe came away Finn exhaled.

  Skyler peered in. Held it upside down and shook. Nothing. He glanced at Finn. The man was pale. Sweating visibly, lip quivering. His gaze met Skyler’s, only for a second, but in it Skyler saw profound terror and something else, too. Embarrassment.

  Grimacing, Skyler took the other boot in one hand and pulled, ready to drop his fist on whatever nightmare fell out. The boot resisted, then gave. A centimeter, no more, but Finn flew into hysterics unlike anything Skyler had ever witnessed before. He pulled away so fast the boot in Skyler’s hands flipped upward, spinning before it slammed into the ceiling.

  Finn flailed as if fighting invisible restraints. Skyler just managed to keep focus on the falling shoe as the other man made a frantic scramble from his chair. He was out through the rear of the cockpit before the boot landed, slamming the door behind him.

  Through it all Skyler had never taken his eyes from the shoe. Nothing had come out. He tipped it over, cautious until his patience ran dry. Finally Skyler lifted and shook it as he had the other, one fist raised and ready.

  Nothing.

  “Empty!” Skyler shouted toward the door.

  No response came. Then something thudded against the door.

  “Captain? The shoe was empty. Relax, okay?”

  Skyler heard Finn speaking then, difficult to discern thanks to the door and the low, fractured voice. Skyler pressed his ear against the cool barricade.

  “… don’t … want … to be like this. Like them. Like me. I will save you.”

  Save me? Skyler turned the handle and pushed. The door didn’t budge. He put his shoulder into it and managed a few millimeters, just enough to get a crack of light through from the galley space and the cargo bay beyond. Not enough to see his pilot, or what blocked the door.

 
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