Kappy woke grumpy the next morning and her mood only grew darker as the morning wore on. It had rained the night before, not one of the intense thunderstorms that often blew from the plains, but a steady drizzle that had made the night miserable and the morning cold and uncomfortable. The rain stopped before the sun rose, but water still dripped from everything. Miles was tired and shivering and didn’t feel like talking, which was probably for the best considering Kappy’s mood.
They’d packed up in silence, Kappy not even acknowledging Miles’ presence. He’d shaken out the tarp they’d used the night before to keep the rain off and tried his best to dry it before he rolled it up and tied it onto the tractor along with the rest of the sleeping gear.
Kappy’s bad mood was solidified when her tub refused to start. Miles was just grateful it wasn’t his vehicle that had stopped working as he was sure Kappy would have left him again. Since she couldn’t abandon herself, she spent an hour and a half on her back in the mud hammering around on the inside of the tub. Miles had offered to help, but Kappy ignored him.
Kappy finally pulled herself out from under her tub and stalked around the vehicle, her face dark and angry. She gave the tub a hard kick and then reached inside and pulled out a few more tools. Miles sat on his tractor and watched as Kappy began removing panels from over the engine. Kappy’s outbursts of frustration were so silent that Miles would have found them funny if he wasn’t so worried she was going to force him to leave. He was also keeping a nervous eye on her rifle which was poking ominously over the edge of the tub. It took another hour before Kappy found the problem.
“I just replaced you!” she shouted as she hurled the offending bit of metal into the bushes.
“Hey, don’t do that!” Miles shouted as he jumped off the tractor and went to retrieve the piece.
“It’s defective! It’s already completely rusted through!” Kappy kicked the tub again.
“But I have a patch kit in my tractor! It’s stupid to throw your engine parts around like that.”
“That mechanic is going to get it when I get back to Taggen! Selling me defective parts.”
“Are you going to shoot him too?”
Miles arms were soaked as he pushed aside the leaves looking for the part. He found it at last and picked it up from among the wet brown leaves that covered the ground under the bushes.
“Here it is,” he said as he looked the part over. “Kappy, it’s not even that badly rusted. What do you expect, so close to a stack?”
He held the rusted piece of metal out to Kappy. She took it with a glare and stomped over to Miles’ tractor and rummaged through the baggage.
“The kit is under the steering wheel, Kappy.”
She found it, tore it open and started mending the piece. Miles watched as she chipped away the worst of the rust before selecting a piece of patch metal. She wrapped her hand in her shirt and held the engine piece while she removed the plastic covering from the underside of the patch metal. It glowed brightly red for a brief moment as the metal melted. Once the color had faded Kappy tapped the patch with a finger and then shook the part a few times to make sure the seal was good. Satisfied at last, she tossed the repair kit back under the steering wheel and returned to the dismantled tub.
Miles edged around her to his tractor and repacked the repair kit before putting it away again.
“How do you know there’s a stack near here?” asked Kappy from inside the engine.
“My family is from around here and I grew up in Washerwoman. They built the stack maybe ten years ago, just outside of town. There was a little hill up above the construction site and I was there every day watching the work. My mom gave up trying to get me to attend school that summer, she couldn’t keep me away from the site. I loved watching all the big equipment they had up there. I probably could have operated any of their machinery by the end of that summer.”
Kappy grunted as she forced something into place inside her tub, “A lot of people complain when one of those stacks go up.”
“No, not in Washerwoman. Sure, that gritty smoke is a pain when you’re downwind and it made the drinking water taste bad for a few months, but the wind is strange up in that valley and was keeping the stack down on the plains from being any use. Things had gotten pretty bad.”
“People getting careless with their metal?”
“Not even that. Actually, the town had strict limits on how long you could keep metal before it had to be melted, but… you know. Everything from the Old World is so overgrown now that a lot of metal gets missed, even if you’re looking for it.”
Kappy fixed the panel back over the engine and began screwing it into place. “That’s for sure. Nature has reclaimed a lot of the Old World out in the fields, but there at least the rust keeps things from getting too bad. Did anyone die?”
Miles was silent and Kappy glanced at him.
“Someone you knew?” she asked finally.
“Yeah, my mom.”
Kappy’s work stopped, but she didn’t turn around. There was a moment’s pause then she said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Miles took a deep breath then continued cheerfully, “It’s ok. It was a long time ago. One of my dad’s friends had been clearing trees in one of the valleys above us and got too close to something and it came after him. It wasn’t even that big, probably just an abandoned car or something, but you couldn’t tell by that point. He got away ok, but all that metal came tearing down the valley and my mom was caught out in the open and… well… you know what that stuff can do.” He was quiet, lost in his thoughts as he sat on the tractor. Eventually he turned his attention back to Kappy who had started working again. “The town had some old service guns which they used to kill it. They got it before it made it to Washerwoman which was good, but… yeah. Anyway, we moved not long after that. My dad couldn’t stand the valley anymore.” Miles looked up the sloping hills at the ridge above them. Kappy still didn’t say anything, so he continued. “The sad thing was it all happened just a month before they got the stack started up. I couldn’t help but think that if they’d only finished it a few months sooner it might have saved her. Might have rusted that old metal out before it woke up.”
His voice trailed off and Kappy finished putting the tub back together in silence. When the last piece was back in place she stoop upright, placed her hands in the small of her back and stretched, her eyes squeezed shut. Then she shook herself and tilted her head, listening.
“Well… we’ve lost all the distance we made up yesterday.”
“You mean on the white truck?”
“Yes, they’re still on the main road, heading towards the mountains. Which way is Washerwoman?”
Miles pointed up over a nearby ridge and Kappy closed her eyes once again, concentrating.
“What are you looking for?” asked Miles.
Kappy shook her head, eyes still closed, “You were right about the wind up there. No wonder I didn’t notice the stack, it’s hard to see anything in the valley. Did the Rust Initiative have anyone stationed at the stack?”
“Yes…” said Miles slowly, thinking back. “There was a service building attached, but… I don’t think anyone is assigned to the stacks permanently once they’re up and running. They just get checked on every few years or so.”
Kappy nodded, “Yes… but it’s only about an hour away and it’ll be worth the lost time if anyone’s there. I want to ask them about their probe.”
“Ok,” said Miles, “I doubt there will be, but it’s been years since I’ve been back. I’d like to see the valley again.”
The tub protested as Kappy tried to start it, but eventually it coughed to life and the two rumbled off down the main road. They took the first side road they came to and twisted their way up the ridge. The clouds were finally beginning to clear around noon, just as Kappy pulled her tub to a stop at the top of the ridge and looked out over the valley.
“There’s Washerwoman,” said Miles pointing. “And that’s the stack.”
A patchwork of forests and fields lay before them and the valley was hemmed in on both sides by steep mountain cliffs. The Rust initiative’s smoke stack rose from the center of the valley looking like a bleached candy cane. It was quite large, even from this distance, and painted with white and red stripes that rose in a spiral around the cylinder of the chimney. Black smoke drifted from the mouth, staining the top of the stack a dirty yellow. The rooftops of the little town of Washerwoman could just barely be seen beyond the canopy of trees.
“We’ll get down there and check if anyone’s at the station, then I’m leaving. You can stay and visit if you want,” said Kappy, starting down the trail.
“No, it’s ok. I don’t know anyone here anymore really. No one I’d care to see at least,” said Miles quickly. He wasn’t about to risk getting left again. “But why does it matter if we get after the white truck right away? You’ll be able to track it wherever it goes right?”
“No,” said Kappy. “Things get harder to see the farther west I go. The sound’s less solid out here, harder to see through, like the difference between looking at a footprint on dry dirt instead of one in wet mud.”
“So, if they get far enough away we could lose them?”
“Far enough away, into thick trees, behind a ridge, into a city, yes…” said Kappy. “That’s why we need to hurry.”
They could smell the smoke as they approached the tower. The acrid smell hung in the air despite the breeze blowing across the hills. It clung like oil to everything, the bark of the trees, the stones of the mountain, the entire valley was saturated after years of exposure to the corroding fumes. Tiny floating black specks could be seen drifting through the air, slowly succumbing to the pull of gravity.
The red and white stripes of paint running up the stack were years old and the red had paled and was nearing pink on the side of the structure that was exposed to the most sunlight. The tiny station office was boarded up and very empty.
Miles half-heartedly pounded on the door, but Kappy was already heading back towards the ridge.
“Stop messing around and come on!” she called to him. “We have a lot of time to make up!”