3.10 The Big Empty

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At first, Margo wasn't sure if the shadows on the horizon were transports. They seemed too low to the ground.

"Fly lower," Thomas urged her. "The map turns red when you're close to the ground. Let's keep it red."

Margo realized that the higher up they were, the more they made a silhouette against the horizon. The distant Torth transports must be trying to go unnoticed, as well.

She had a lot to keep track of simultaneously—the meter, the map, the knobs, and the view—but it was a lot like the racing games she used to play and win. The ground rolled below them in a blur.

"What is that?" Varktezo asked, pointing to distant boulders that were evenly spaced apart.

Margo risked a glance. The gigantic boulders had eyebrow ridges, and beaks half-buried in sand.

Torth wouldn't have made gigantic sculptures to honor ummins. Judging by the erosion, the statues might have existed before the Torth Empire came to the planet Umdalkdul.

"Your people used to call this desert the Mesev," Thomas said. "It means the 'Big Empty' in the language of your ancestors. Sand buried those statues, but they're replicas of ummins who used to be famous during the Tropical Empire. They're standing atop a buried palace complex."

"How did it get buried?" Varktezo asked with a degree of disbelief.

"This used to be a lush landscape," Thomas said. "Over time, people diverted water to feed their cities and crops, and the ground dried up. Sand blew in, bit by bit, over many generations." He sounded regretful. "There's a lot of lost knowledge buried beneath this desert. The Torth Empire just doesn't value cultural knowledge. They leave it lost."

Varktezo looked dazed with wonder.

"Here's the canyon," Thomas said. "Dip inside."

The desert looked unbroken, to Margo. But she followed the map, and soon spotted a narrow crack. The closer she skimmed, the more apprehensive she became. The canyon was an unpredictable zigzag, barely wide enough for a transport.

"It will get wider." Thomas sounded calm, but he was sweating. "Just get in, and do your best. We have about a hundred transports incoming."

Margo scanned the horizon, but all she saw were distant beads that might be transports. She tried not to think about how Thomas could count how many there were. What if he was hooked into the Megacosm?

"I'm watching through Varktezo's perceptions," Thomas said crossly. "Ummins have much better vision than we do. Now, get into the canyon, because I guarantee those Torth are peering through the eyes of their ummin slaves."

Margo slammed the knobs, and they plunged downward. Craggy walls zoomed past on either side.

She flipped the transport sideways in order to fit through a narrow passage. Supply packs flew through the air, ummins yelled, and Thomas swore.

Margo tipped them right side up again. She didn't dare lose speed, even if this vehicle was capable of it. She'd glimpsed its huge engines. It would either hover in place, or it would glide, and either way, it would need a lot of room to maneuver.

The canyon widened, and grew deeper. They skimmed past a ribbon-like waterfall. They passed overhangs shrouded by vines, and a hive of cave openings. Margo saw details she normally would have missed, her senses heightened by adrenalin. Everything was sharply memorable.

"There's going to be an area for us to hide," Thomas said. "Coming up on your right. You'll see a mess of vines. Slow down, and dive into the vines. It will look dangerous, but I'm ninety-five percent sure there will be an alcove where we can hover unnoticed by the Torth."

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