Home > The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(15)

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle #3)(15)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Finally, Tania slipped into the suit. She’d practiced putting it on without an assistant, but even so she had to squirm and strain multiple times just to squeeze into the outfit. The semi-rigid pressure webbing that snaked through the material would be useless here on the ground, but even at its most relaxed setting the veinlike substrate still made the suit almost impossibly tight. Tania had watched sensories set in Victorian times, and it seemed a staple of such programs for the he**ine to have to squeeze painfully into a corset before invariably meeting the hero. She felt the same pain now, only over her entire body. And, she mused, there was no hero waiting outside to meet her.

Of course, the last time she’d worn the suit, Skyler had been there. This made her chuckle. Arguably she’d been the hero on that excursion. Then another darkly humorous thought came to her. Somewhere, right now, Russell Blackfield was probably wearing the suit Skyler had worn. She shook her head, still unable to fathom why he’d taken the man along. There must be a good reason. At least that’s what she kept telling herself.

She didn’t have her headset on, so Vanessa’s voice came through the cabin intercom. “Good morning, Tania. Are you ready?”

Out the porthole she could just see the first hints of daylight on the eastern horizon. “Putting my helmet on now. Give me five minutes, then wait at the porthole for an a-okay.”

The helmet weighed more than she remembered. Tania sat on the edge of her seat and studied it, fighting a flood of memories from her trip into the Builder’s ship. As much as she tried to force the thought away, holding the helmet now seemed to crystallize, to amplify, the basic truth: She’d died in this helmet once before.

Once is enough, she thought, and filled her mind with one vibrant picture until it blotted out the rest. The circle of green-glowing towers, standing vigil at the base of that wall of rock. The Flatirons. She’d had to look up the term to understand the reference, and though she did agree the strange rock formation resembled a row of clothing irons jutting up from the ground, to her they looked like the walls of some natural fortress in the process of being pulled back into the earth.

Tania focused on that picture in her mind, and pulled the helmet over her head.

She walked between her two companions, Vanessa on point and Pablo trailing behind. Once they were within the trees all sign of the alien towers vanished, and Tania shifted her focus to where she stepped. The ground was a patchwork blanket of melting snow and long-fallen pine needles. Both crunched pleasantly under her boots but both presented problems. The snow was slick here. One false step and she’d fall, which under any other circumstances would be cause to laugh. But out here one tiny puncture of her suit carried terrifying consequences.

The pine needles were another matter. It surprised her to find they provided even less traction than the ice. Worse, they were centimeters deep in some places, concealing chunks of rock or small depressions, all of which could easily send her sprawling if she wasn’t careful.

It made the hike a slow and tedious process, and it was only after ten minutes of walking that Tania suddenly realized she’d never seen snow before. Not in person, anyway.

“Hold up a sec,” she said.

Vanessa immediately knelt in a defensive posture. “What did you see?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “That’s the problem. I’m so focused on my feet I haven’t even looked up. I just need a second to … center myself.”

The woman nodded and made a gesture to Pablo that Tania assumed meant “stay alert.”

Though her suit told her the temperature was a cool 7 degrees Celsius, she felt perfectly comfortable. Even when she knelt and touched some of the snow, the suit’s construction allowed none of the cold to seep beyond its outer layer. Tania frowned. It might as well have been a sensory. Even the forest sounds were piped into her helmet via external microphones, giving them a manufactured taint.

At least when we get to the towers, I can open the mask and breathe this air. She’d never been able to breathe the air in Hawaii but imagined it would have been hot, sticky, and rank with decaying vegetation. In comparison, this place seemed crisp and pure, like a drink of cold water.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

“One moment,” Pablo said.

She turned to look at him. The tall, thin man was crouched beside a tree, his hands cupped over his mouth. It took Tania a second to realize he was breathing onto his fingers to warm them. “Forget your gloves?”

He shook his head. Then he pointed at a patch of ice by the tree. “Tracks here. Human.”

“Sub?”

“Yes. Unless some immune is going barefoot in this cold.”

Tania backtracked to his position and looked at the footprints. They were fading in the melting snow, but unmistakable.

“Looks like it was standing by this tree,” the man said, “facing our plane. See these two deep ones? Then it turned and went toward the towers.”

Tania felt a chill then, the kind her suit couldn’t compensate for. “It didn’t just attack. I thought they always attacked.”

“No,” he said. He stood up and glanced around, sniffing the air. “The ones you see are the ones that attack, so it can feel that way. Almost as many just run.”

“Remember,” Vanessa said, joining them. “Subs are gripped by primal emotions and responses. Some are blinded with the desire to fight, others to flee.”

“Fight or flight,” Tania said, nodding. Her experiences had been so clouded by the battles around the colony that she’d forgotten the fundamental symptoms of the disease.

“Exactly. There used to be others, too. Those who wanted to play, or even love. As you can imagine, few like that survived more than a few days. This one looks to be the flight type. It probably became curious at the noise of our engines but ran when it saw us emerge.”

Tania nodded. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling the creature was baiting them. She held her rifle at the ready when they continued.

The farther into the foothills they went, the more snow they encountered, and by the time Vanessa glimpsed the top of an aura tower through the trees, white patches blanketed most of the ground.

They crept the last hundred meters to the edge of the clearing the towers had created. Vanessa took up a position next to a tree, and Tania placed herself directly across from her at the trunk of another. Pablo crouched in the snow between them, visibly shivering. He rubbed his upper arms as they studied the scene.

Just like in Belem and Ireland, the towers were arranged in an almost perfect circle roughly half a kilometer in diameter. In Ireland there’d been a purple dome that somehow manipulated the flow of time, something Tania still found hard to believe. In Belem, the towers were cloaked in a humid mist that reduced visibility to almost nothing.

Here the entire circle of towers rested in plain sight, which somehow made the place more unsettling. Nearly half of the towers were positioned on the ground amid fallen trees and flattened foliage. The other half extended up onto the rocky face of one of the five Flatirons. Each had carved a small flat space upon which to rest, and hints of the violence used to do this were there in the form of rocks and debris that trailed down the rock face like tears.

In the very center of all this was a hole in the base of the rock. From the plane it had looked small, but Tania saw now this had been a deception. The opening in the mountain’s face was ten meters wide and twenty tall. All jagged-teeth edges, too, as if the mountain had formed a mouth and screamed. If she’d seen it without the towers surrounding it, she might have thought it to be a cave, but somehow with the presence of the towers it seemed obvious to her this opening had not been here before the ship crashed. Perhaps it had been blasted open rather than carved, or perhaps the ship had somehow cracked into an open pocket in the mountain that previously had no exit here.

“We should test the air,” Pablo said in a flat voice.

Tania swallowed and thought of Karl, who’d done the same in Belem more than two years ago. He’d been infected then but returned to the aura so quickly, the disease went into stasis before it had done any serious damage. And yet even that had resulted in a constant battle with raging headaches, and an addiction to painkillers. Over and over Tania had told herself she could live with the same if she had to, but standing here she found herself wavering. Only after remembering the urgency of their mission did she release the latches on her helmet, twist, and lift the glass away.

Her first shock came from the brisk air. The cold made her nose tingle, her earlobes throb. She inhaled and got her second shock. The air smelled of pine and something else she couldn’t quite place—rock or snow, perhaps both in concert. It was the smell of purity, of cleanliness, and in all her life she’d never experienced anything like it. The frigid thin air caused a slight ache in her chest, her lungs unused to both the temperature and the low oxygen level. When she exhaled, she was delighted to see her breath rendered like a puff of smoke where hot air met cold.

“Well?” Vanessa asked.

“I feel fine,” she said. She was either immune, a statistical improbability, or the towers were generating aura.

Her companions wanted to wait a bit, just to be safe. After two minutes with no symptoms, Tania attached her helmet to her belt and looked at the two immunes. “Let’s go see what’s in that cave,” she said.

Chapter Ten

Southern Chad

29.MAR.2285

The instant Skyler saw the end of the yellow tower path, he killed the Magpie’s engines and lights, gliding over the scene at an altitude of one thousand meters.

“What are you doing?” Ana asked, stirring from a catnap.

“I’m trying not to be noticed. Look at this.”

Her head jerked up, alarmed by the dire tone of his voice.

The scene below bordered on incomprehensible. Dozens of open pits stretched out for kilometers in every direction. Some were shallow, probably dug by hand. Others were massive, dark depressions in the earth big enough to swallow a small city.

Dotted throughout the landscape between the open gashes in the earth were what Skyler assumed to be villages. Rows of single-story rectangular buildings surrounded by crumbling mud huts and patchwork shacks. Mining colonies.

Blanketing all the remaining available desert were what must be millions of strange, raised patches of sand all perfectly square in shape, all tilted toward the sky. It took Skyler a few seconds to realize what they were: an ocean of solar panels, coated with sand after years of neglect. They lined the rims of the craterlike mines and filled the unexploited expanses of ground far out into the Sahara, until their coloration made them merge with the surrounding desert.

And there was more. Pockets of destruction radiating out from the aura towers. Not caused by their arrival, but older. Skyler saw a crashed aircraft and many abandoned vehicles, most of which appeared to be military issue. They were coated with sand, having been sitting out here for years. He even saw the tattered skeleton of a large tent near the pit, shreds of material hanging from the structure like clothing on old bones. Inside, half buried by sand, were tables and shelves and lumps on the ground Skyler assumed were bodies.

All of this served to create the strangest landscape Skyler had ever seen. And yet it all paled in comparison to the additions made by the Builders.

“Skyler,” Ana said, “I’m scared.”

“Me, too,” he admitted. He let the aircraft continue to glide.

Below, the path of the aura towers had carved an almost perfect line of destruction through the field of solar panels. They’d plowed through one of the villages and dipped through many of the pit mines. In the center of it all they’d formed not a circle but a square, perfectly spaced around the rim of a pit mine that was easily a half kilometer deep and wide, like an inverted pyramid.

Resting in the center of this pit was no mere crashed shell ship. What Skyler saw defied belief.

The structure filled the bottom half of the pit, making it hundreds of meters on a side. It matched the shape of the pit mine almost perfectly, rising up from the bottom in terraced levels. A pyramid within the inverted one of the pit itself. The surface of the structure looked like every other Builder construct Skyler had seen—a graphite-black coloration that seamed to soak in light rather than reflect it back, laced with patterned grooves of varying size and geometric properties.

Dotted across the structure’s “rooftops” were deep, square-shaped depressions. When the Magpie flew above the structure Skyler tilted her so he could look straight down. He strained against his seat harness and took in the scene directly below.

The holes in the surface of the building descended hundreds of meters in some cases and glowed at the bottom in a bright yellow exactly like the towers that now ringed the crater. Without warning the Magpie lurched upward, hitting a pocket of warmer air directly above the facility. Ana yelped at the sudden jolt.

“Oy, mate!” Russell shouted from the back. “A little warning next time?”

“Shut the f**k up, Blackfield.” Skyler reminded himself to turn off the man’s suit speaker unless he actually wanted to hear him.

At the corners on the base of the structure, Skyler glimpsed what appeared to be openings that led inside.

Crowded around these were subhumans by the dozen. Milling about, as if patiently awaiting his arrival.

The loss of altitude finally forced him to look away from the insane building and focus on landing the aircraft with minimal noise. The landscape ahead was more of the same. He figured the solar panels would make a hell of a landing surface, and the mining towns were too visible. A pit mine would be perfect, though. Flat bottom, and below the horizon line to any of those subhumans milling about.

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