Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(14)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(14)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Sam didn’t bother to deny it.

He pulled her back onto the bed.

Chapter Nine

North America

29.MAR.2285

The emerald towers had carved an unceremonious hole in the Great Border Wall before vanishing into the New Mexico desert. The path, now almost two years old, had succumb to the dry, sandy expanse and disappeared.

“We’ll keep searching until the caps are at sixty percent,” Vanessa said, a hint of defeat in her voice. “If we haven’t spotted a place to spool up by then, we’ll have to backtrack.”

Tania had all but given up on her tiny porthole. It only gave her a partial view of the western horizon, and anyway all she could see when she looked through it was the ghost of an insane man. Her thoughts often drifted back to that moment, which seemed like such an incomprehensible waste to her. That man had survived for years, and traveled thousands of kilometers to follow the towers, only to try to force his way into the aircraft and, perhaps, the woman within.

Instead she turned to her slate and asked Pablo to slide a video feed to her from the Helios’s landing camera. The resolution wasn’t great, but at least it was a straight-down view from two klicks up. Channeling a bit of her old friend Natalie, Tania put together a program to pull frames from the video every quarter of a second and stitch the resulting stills onto a map. She even had the images rotated based on the compass heading at the moment of capture, and then resized slightly based on any shifts in altitude. Finally she configured a cycling sequence of filters that ran all the images through various color enhancement algorithms that should, she hoped, accentuate subtle differences in the ground below that might otherwise be missed. That last feature seemed to come from Natalie’s voice in her head, and Tania, though delighted at the result, wondered if she was starting to go stir crazy alone in the cabin. She dismissed the concern by recalling all the long nights she’d spent on Anchor Station, poring over telescope images searching for tiny luminosity shifts. This was really no different. In fact, the nostalgia alone made the effort worthwhile. At the very least it took her mind off the tainted air that rushed past just outside.

“Vanessa, do me a favor?”

The pilot replied an instant later. “Sure.”

Tania explained her improvised visualization and asked the immune to fly in a zigzag pattern—northwest, tight turn, southwest—with each leg of the pattern one hundred kilometers long. Until then Vanessa had been flying about somewhat randomly. “I’d rather do this in a structured way, if you don’t mind.”

“It’s a great idea,” Vanessa replied. Within seconds the aircraft banked sharply and began the pattern near where the path had disappeared.

Two hours later, when Tania had several rows of zigzag-pattern images laid out on her slate’s map, she spotted something. They’d had two false alarms before that, both turning out to be portions of the same irrigation channel. This time, though, the width was just right and the depression quite shallow.

“Take a look,” she said into her headset, feeding the images back to Pablo in the cockpit. She circled the places in question—the line went across two legs of the V flight pattern.

“Best one yet,” Vanessa replied. “We’re near our turn-back point anyway, so we might as well check it out.”

“Agreed,” Tania said.

The Helios banked hard and Tania felt her weight change as the aircraft started to descend. On her screen, the program continued to run, laying out images that marked the route of the aircraft perfectly. The pictures shrank as the plane lost altitude, so Tania zoomed her view in.

Her image filter pass cycled to negative mode, and there, with obvious clarity, was the path.

Vanessa’s voice came over the headset before Tania could speak. “We see it!”

“Me, too!” Tania said, a wide grin on her face despite the solitude. “Are we okay to follow?”

“I wouldn’t advise it. Pretty desolate out here, and we burned a lot of energy flying that pattern. If we turn back now we can make our previous landing site and pick this up again tomorrow.”

Tania frowned. It would mean losing a precious day. She switched to her slate’s map and mentally projected out a cone along this leg of the tower path. “What about Tucson, in Arizona? It’s only a few hundred klicks and in the right direction.”

“It’s a risk,” Vanessa replied. “This country was in bad shape well before the disease came, remember. I’d feel more comfortable returning to a known functional charging port. Trust me, Tania, for your sake—the last thing you want is to be stranded out here.”

“Everything we’re doing out here is a risk,” she replied. “Skyler told me that. We have to press on.”

The path turned north again forty kilometers outside Tucson, so Vanessa marked it and flew on to the city. She said nothing about the range left in the capacitors, and little about anything else. Tania began to wonder if she’d made a mistake at overruling her, not to mention throwing one of Skyler’s lines at her to seal the directive.

Under the blazing noonday Sun, the fringes of the city shimmered at the horizon. Tania craned her neck to look below, but it was a fruitless exercise. She saw nothing but an ocean of cloned tract houses, shockingly wide expressways crammed with abandoned vehicles, and bleak patches of sand where the desert had reclaimed some of its former domain. Vast swaths of homes had burned at some point, leaving nothing behind but charred skeletons and blackened ground.

Even from this height she could see the grit and sand that blew through the dry, cooked city on stiff winds. Bits of trash and dry weeds drifted through the streets. A huge pack of feral dogs rested in the shade of plastic playground equipment, until the booming aircraft engines stirred them into a frenzy.

All of it blended together as the Helios stormed by. Tania’s stomach began to sink at what she saw. This was a miserable, forgotten place.

She hadn’t studied America much in her youth, other than what her coursework required. She knew the nation had once been the world’s dominant economic engine, only to spiral downward over the course of the twenty-first century, finally settling somewhere in the middle of the pack. The city she saw out the window could just as easily be Mumbai.

“Tania,” Vanessa said through her headset. “We’ve spotted something.”

“What is it? The towers?”

“No. Going to bank so you can see this for yourself.”

The aircraft banked hard, so hard, in fact, she had to grasp the handle by the door. She had a view of blue sky at first as Vanessa turned the craft to fly perpendicular to whatever it was they’d spotted. Then it leveled off before banking slightly in the opposite direction. Tania saw the ground come back into view, and her breath caught in her throat.

Aircraft, as far as the eye could see, covered the ground below. They were arranged in orderly rows, grouped by size and type in meticulous fashion. She saw everything from ancient jet planes and helicopters to more modern cap-powered aircraft with vertical flight capability. There were hundreds—no, thousands—of vehicles, all clearly military in nature. Excitement rippled through her at the find. This place could provide parts, even entire aircraft, to the colony for decades to come. Perhaps even weaponry.

Her enthusiasm dwindled as Vanessa took them lower and circled the sprawling grounds. The planes were all in various states of dismantlement and decay. Tania began to realize this was not a storage facility, but a graveyard.

“Do you think there’s anything we can use here?” Tania asked.

Vanessa brought the Helios to a hover near a row of warehouses near the center of the field. “None of the aircraft look fit to fly, at least to me. These buildings might have parts we can use, but nothing we can’t find in Brazil.”

“What a shame.”

“However,” Vanessa said with a hint of the dramatic. She spun the plane a bit farther until Tania could see a low administrative building, circular in shape. Around the base of it, four landing pads were arrayed, and each had landing lights that happily blinked away.

By the time the caps were spooled again, Tania had begun to feel the side effects of being trapped in a box for twenty hours. It wasn’t the lack of fresh air, or not seeing the blue sky above—she’d lived most of her life on space stations, after all. No, what Tania began to realize she missed most was real human contact. Her early morning chats with Zane and her afternoon inspection walks with Tim. Tim’s plain, youthful face came to mind frequently during the long flight. His goofy grin and nervous laugh, which she’d found so quaintly awkward at first, and now so endearing.

Between the idle thoughts and the lull of Helios’s engines, Tania drifted off for a time. She woke to a weak light coming in through the porthole window, and glanced at her watch. 5 P.M., unless they’d crossed a time zone. She sipped water from her thermos and ate dried mango while studying the line of overlapping images her slate displayed.

The tower path had continued to swoop and curve in apparent randomness, including a stretch that ran through the heart of the Las Vegas metropolis. Tania frowned at that. She’d seen pictures of how it looked before, and always dreamt of visiting just to experience the place. To her it always seemed like an unintentional monument to the American collapse. Her images were too low-resolution to make anything out other than a vast sea of crumbling hotel and casino skyscrapers.

From there the path turned back east, cutting a barely discernible swath through eastern Utah before finally reaching the foothills and then mountains of Colorado, where flattened trees made the path obvious. From the flight pattern, Tania could tell her pilot had not lost it once all the way to their present location, a few hundred kilometers southwest of Denver.

Tania set the slate aside and stretched. She needed to get her blood pumping if she was going to stay awake for the landing they’d need to do at sunset. So she did what exercises she could in the cramped cabin: a set of sit-ups and push-ups, shadow boxing, and a little yoga. Then she used the restroom and washed her face with cold water.

The routine helped, and when Vanessa finally called over the headset, Tania felt ready to face another landing.

“Lost the path,” Vanessa said suddenly.

“Oh, no.”

A few seconds later. “Hang on, belay that. Tania, you might want to get suited up.”

Nothing Tania had done, not the exercise or the cold-water splash, set her heart racing like those words. She hopped to the window immediately. “What? What do you see?”

Once again Vanessa turned the aircraft to give her a better view. A small city filled her view—Boulder, if she recalled correctly from the map—and Tania swallowed. For some reason she hadn’t expected the towers to stop in an urban environment. There didn’t seem any point to such a long trek when they’d started in the much larger Belem.

But the Helios kept turning until the city lay behind them. A mountain range came into view, one so stunningly beautiful that Tania found herself speechless.

“What is this place?” she mumbled.

“Our nav calls it the Flatirons.”

From deep green forests came massive sheets of flat rock that jutted upward at almost perfect forty-five-degree slopes. The sheer faces receded in a line toward the south, and almost glowed orange in the reflected light of the setting sun. Huge clouds, burning with the same color on their west-facing fringes, drifted lazily overhead. It looked like a painting, Tania thought. Perfect in every way.

Except for the aura towers.

They stood like sentinels in a circle at the base of the closest rock face. Half were on the ground in a clearing they’d made among the trees. The other half rested on the slanted rocky mass, each having carved a chunk of rock out at their chosen resting place so they could stand upright.

Somehow the towers were even more ominous than the red-glowing group she’d seen in the rainforest east of Belem. Those almost seemed like they wanted to hide, surrounded by their mists and the tall trees. This group, with their shimmering emerald-colored lines of light, were right out in the open for anyone to see. It was as if they were begging explorers to come and look around.

“No dome here,” Vanessa said.

“Not one we can see at least,” Tania corrected. “Can you get a little closer?”

“Sure.”

The aircraft banked and Tania lost her view for a few minutes. She felt her weight decrease as they descended to just a hundred meters or so above the dark green canopy. Then Vanessa turned the craft again so Tania could study the site.

Her eyes went straight to the center of the circle. She’d hoped to spot a crashed shell ship there, exposed and waiting, another prize nestled inside.

Instead all she saw was a hole in the slanted rock. “Perhaps it’s another tunnel,” she said. “Like the one Skyler explored in Belem.”

“Only one way to find out,” Vanessa said. “But it’s getting dark, and we need to find a place to land. I suggest we wait until dawn to scout it out.”

Reluctantly, Tania agreed. “I’ll suit up an hour before that, and then you two can come back here and get your gear ready.”

Tania didn’t sleep that night. Vanessa had landed the Helios on a plateau with a view of the towers. The fine traces of green light that rippled and shimmered along their surfaces cast the surrounding rock face in a ghostly hue, augmented by moonlight that grew and faded as the great clouds drifted by overhead.

A full three hours before dawn she left the window and began to prepare for vehicle exit. Tania took her time. She broke down her rifle, cleaned it, and oiled the few moving parts. She laid out her EVA suit and inspected it for any signs of wear, despite the fact that the outfit’s own diagnostic system would alert her to any problem. Then she topped off the air and water tank built into the backpack. Satisfied, she stripped and used a dry-shower cloth to clean up a bit. It was no substitute for a nice hot shower, but it was all she had. She put on some clean undergarments and then a skintight leotard so the suit wouldn’t chafe against her skin.

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