The Exodus Towers
Out the other side, he turned and knelt. When the first invader’s head appeared above the sloped bank, Skyler fired, killing the person instantly.
He spun and ran up the far bank, diving over the top and rolling in the tall grass beyond as more bullets traced paths through the vegetation around him.
In any other scenario he would have fired wildly in return, hoping to send the enemies diving for cover. But with the colony as a backdrop, the risk was too great. Instead he flipped the holo-sight on and took aim at the closest invader. Skyler squeezed the trigger and sent the person sprawling, clutching their leg.
The others took cover as their second comrade hit the ground.
Satisfied, Skyler began to crawl through the meter-high grass. He went east, or so he hoped, moving to a bent-over run as soon as he thought it safe to do so. Twice he tripped in the darkness. On the second fall his head smacked into a rock buried in the deep grass, cutting his forehead. He bit back a groan and ran on as blood began to trickle from the wound.
The immunes chased him through grass fields and rainforest for an hour before Skyler happened upon a flimsy boathouse.
Double images blurred before his eyes. He swayed on his feet and needed every ounce of concentration to keep his legs under him. Throwing caution to the wind, he kicked his way into the feeble structure and turned his flashlight on again, finding the single room empty. A concrete channel full of black water held a tiny, two-man fiberglass boat, tied down with a single nylon rope.
The water went out through the wide-open fourth wall, ten meters out through a mangrove cathedral to the swift Guamá. Whatever smugglers used this place in the past hid it well from above.
Blood still trickling from his forehead, Skyler lumbered forward and stepped into the boat, his foot splashing in stagnant water that had pooled in the hull. He ignored the foul smell and lay down on his back. After three tries to grab the yellow rope, which swam and blurred in front of him, he finally found it and undid the simple knot. Fighting the searing pain in his skull, he reached over the side of the boat and probed with his hand until he found concrete. Using just his fingertips, he pushed with all the strength he had left. After what felt like an eternity, he cracked his eyes open enough to see the roof of the hidden boathouse pass above him, giving way to tangled mangroves and dark sky beyond. The pain soon became unbearable and he let his eyes close.
Voices nearby. Shouting. The door of the feeble shack being kicked in again. Brittle wood shattering this time. Skyler lay still, aware his pursuers argued at the water’s edge, their words a meaningless jumble. They had not fired at him, not with intent to hit him, since leaving the auras behind. The thought flickered in a corner of his mind, then danced away, intangible.
Adrift, skull throbbing, Skyler felt rather than saw the transition into the swift and churning waters of the wide river. As the light of dawn began to touch the sky above, he lapsed into unconsciousness.
VAUGHN SHIFTED IN his sleep. He rolled away, his moist skin separating from hers in a sound that made her think of peeling a banana.
One sweaty arm still draped across Samantha’s stomach. She lay on her back, on the floor of her cell, naked and glistening from their roll in the hay. Despite his mirthless personality, Vaughn performed remarkably well for his first time with her. Fit, young, and otherwise bored proved a good mix, if enthusiasm counted for anything. He wouldn’t win any awards for originality, but she didn’t care. He slept now; that’s all that mattered.
She lay there in the humid air and musky smell until he did not stir when she lifted his wrist from her stomach. On the previous three tries, he’d resisted having his arm moved, despite his regular breathing and rapid eye movement. This time she lifted his arm and dropped it back to her stomach in a wet slap. Satisfied, Sam slid from under him, her skin breaking into goose bumps when his fingertips brushed across her waistline.
In any other circumstances, you’d make a decent sparring partner, Vaughn, my boy. He’d declined to tell her his first name when she’d finally asked after rolling off him. Something about how they shouldn’t get to know each other too well. “We just fucked,” Sam had replied.
He’d grunted, considered for a moment, and said, “Fine, it’s Bruce.”
Sam had never met an actual Australian man named Bruce, but she didn’t press it.
The tiny window on her cell door cast a square of dim light onto the concrete floor. Sam pulled the guard’s clothing into the beam and went through his gear. A nightstick, Taser, and red utility knife she set by the exit, on top of her discarded clothing.
In one pocket she found a set of old-fashioned metal keys, the card-swipe system having apparently failed a year earlier, something Vaughn griped about every time he entered. Six silver and bronze keys dangled from the ring. She clasped her fist around them, pulled them from the pocket, and set them carefully next to the other gear, her ears tuned to the sound of his breathing.
The door squeaked when she slipped out. Not enough to stir the guard, but plenty to send her pulse racing. She left her clothing behind. If Vaughn stirred she thought she could return to his side and raise no suspicion. Now out of the cell, she figured her naked state would give her a brief advantage to anyone coming across her.
Samantha padded down the hall and poked her head into the office the guards used. In the middle of the night, Vaughn appeared to be the only person on duty.
She set the nightstick on the desk there and checked all the drawers for proper weapons, a futile effort. One of the keys she’d taken might open a weapons locker somewhere in the building, but a search could take awhile.
A clipboard on the wall caught her eye. A stack of stained papers was tucked under the metal fastener, rows of names written in one column and numbers in another. Using the weak light coming in from a curtained window, she scanned the names. On page two, she found it: Adelaide, cell listed as “Royal 004.” Samantha’s own name noted cell “Main 212.” The numbers were rooms, she guessed, but the words held no meaning for her.
“Royal 004,” she whispered to herself over and over. Near the door an idea struck her, and she snatched up a half-empty bottle of some alcohol or another. Fermented cider, Darwin’s poison, if the smell was any indicator.
Leaving the nightstick behind, she held the bottle loosely in one hand and clutched Vaughn’s keys in the other, and stumbled out the door in what she hoped looked like a drunken swagger.
Her bare feet splashed in puddles on the cracked sidewalk outside. A half second later a spray of warm rain dappled her bare skin. She paused a moment and closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of freedom, both physical and metaphorical.
“We have a dress code within the walls,” someone said.
She whirled around, slipped, then righted herself. Liquid sloshed in the bottle, a splash of it clapping onto the ground. The clumsy move fed into her ploy. “Thass a new rule!” she barked.
The man stood between her and a yellow LED bulb mounted on the wall by the guard’s office. How he’d gotten behind her, she had no idea. He wore an overcoat, and had slick hair. Shadows hid his face.
“True,” he said. “However, a rule is a rule.”
“Can’t make an exception in my case, sweetheart?” she said, and tried to strike a flattering pose, deliberately off balance.
“You may be the worst actress I’ve ever seen, Samantha Rinn.”
She dropped the façade and whipped the bottle around in her hand, holding it like a club. The alcohol poured down her leg in a noisy gurgle. “Who are you?” she asked. “How do you know me?”
As an answer, he sidestepped into the light.
“Grillo …,” she said.
He tilted his head to one side. “It’s been awhile since you declined my job offer.”
“The bennies were shit,” she said through a tight smile. He’d tried to hire everyone on Skyler’s crew, after Skyler declined to join his operation. He even tried to pay poor Jake to assassinate their leader, claiming an accident. Jake said no, of course, and told Sam about the offer only after a night of hard drinking at Woon’s.
Her hand tightened around the keys, and she set her feet wider, ready to pounce or run. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I came looking for you,” he replied.
A pair of laughing Nightcliff regulars came around the corner. At the sight of Samantha they pulled up. One hooted at her nakedness; the other froze in wide-eyed recognition of a captive on the loose.
“Move along, gentlemen,” Grillo said to them without so much as a glance in their direction.
“Sir, she’s a prisoner,” the stunned guard said. “Dangerous. Russell said no one was to touch her.”
“I’m in charge now,” Grillo said. “You may have heard. Miss Rinn is an old friend and is going to accompany me to my office.”
“I am?” Samantha said. She draped an arm across her breasts and crossed her legs.
At some point Grillo had slipped a pistol from his coat pocket, and it now rested against his thigh. Samantha couldn’t decide whom he meant to threaten with it.
“You,” Grillo said to the guard who still gawked at her, “you’re almost tall enough. Give the young lady your jacket and pants.”
“Huh?” he managed.
“Please do not make me repeat myself,” Grillo said. His even voice intoned deadly threat.
Ten minutes later she found herself seated at Grillo’s desk, the stiff and smelly borrowed jacket itching her skin, too-tight black pants covering her legs.
She asked for scotch; he gave her water.
For a time they sat in uncomfortable silence, sipping their drinks. The office was cluttered with mismatched furniture and obnoxious decorations. Blackfield’s things, she surmised. Skimmed from years of impromptu searches of returning scavenger ships. Sam even recognized a painting on the wall as one she’d grabbed in haste in a mansion in China. Abstract and tacky, it nevertheless reminded her of entwined limbs, like some crazed orgy. The same impression hit her now, and the painting seemed even more out of place here than in that party official’s home. Nothing in the room matched Grillo’s personality.
Lightning flashed outside, followed a few seconds later by distant thunder, as wet season made its curtain call.
“So you’re running things now?” she said.
He considered his words. “Russell needed order in the city, and I’m the man for the job.”
“How come you were skulking about outside my cell in the middle of the night?”
“As I said,” Grillo replied, “I was looking for you. You seemed … busy, so I thought I’d wait.”
“Looking for me, why? The others either want to scrape a knuckle or get in my pants. Sometimes both.”
“I need your help.”
“Go fuck yourself. I know how you work, crime lord, and it’s not my style.”
He frowned, if only for an instant. “I never understood that moniker. Crime, by definition, does not exist in an anarchy.”
Grillo swirled the water in his cup and watched the vortex that formed for a moment. “It’s integral to my plan for Darwin that the scavenger crews return to full capacity, that they cooperate. My unfortunate rivalry with them over these last five years does not make me the best person to try to convince them of this fact.”
“But me …”
“You they love.”
Sam shook her head. “Forget it. Our independence is, was, the only reason we bother.”
“Not the greater good?”
Samantha chuckled. “The only people who ever ask that can’t afford to hire the crews. Look, forget it. I’d rather rot in this place than help you and Russell Dickfield.”
Grillo leaned to one side and looked toward the door they’d entered through. He raised his voice and said, “Bring her in.”
The doors opened a second later, and Samantha rose from her chair as two nurses wheeled a stretcher into the office.
“Kelly Adelaide,” Grillo said.
Samantha rushed across the room and took her friend’s hand. Kelly didn’t grip back, and Samantha eased, afraid she would crush bone.
Fighting tears, Sam whirled on Grillo, who now stood near the center of the large office. “What did you bastards do to her?”
Grillo took a step back, holding his hands up before him. “Let me explain.”
Without thinking, without a care in the world, Samantha balled her fists and stormed across the room. She threw the punch without a second thought, her calloused, meaty fist whooshing through the air.
Grillo dodged it. He sidestepped with uncanny agility, his calm expression never changing.
Momentum threw Samantha off balance and she stumbled forward. The failed attack only fueled her rage. Before she could stop herself, she swiped an arm across Grillo’s desk, scattering papers and sending a comm terminal crashing to the floor.
“She’s been sedated,” Grillo said.
Sam gripped the wooden desk, squeezing with all her might to release her anger. Tears threatened to spill from her eyes and she fought to keep them within. “Bollocks,” she managed. “Why?”
“Because the two of you together are a rather volatile combination,” Grillo said.
“You think this will convince me? I’ll tear your arms off and shove them up your bloody ass before I help you.”
Wisely, Grillo moved to stand on the opposite side of the stretcher. By the time Samantha crossed to face him, her sympathy for Kelly quieted the rage within.
“Here’s your choice, Samantha,” Grillo said, voice low. “Get the crews running, and Kelly lives. Refuse, and her next injection will be drain cleaner. You’ll remain in your cell until Russell finally gets tired of waiting for you to be a willing bedmate.”