The Exodus Towers
When the white-hot rage faded, Sam saw only Kelly’s serene, vulnerable face. She knelt beside the bed and took her friend’s hand again, a light grip this time. Kelly’s eyes fluttered beneath the eyelids in reaction. “I won’t help you if she’s rotting in a cell alone.”
“I understand,” Grillo said. “But I can’t have the two of you together, at least until I know where your allegiance is. Sorry, but I know what you’re capable of.”
“Think of something.”
Grillo mulled it over for a moment. Then he turned to the two nurses. “Take her to my facility in Lyons, a guest room with a barred window. When she wakes, tell her that if she tries to leave Samantha will be shot.” They nodded and wheeled the woman away.
For a time Samantha just stared at the empty space where her friend lay. Grillo kept back, respectful of her turmoil.
“Let me get this straight,” she said when her grief and anger had faded. “I convince the scavenger crews to work for you, and you’ll let Kelly live in your mansion?”
“Not exactly. Tacit agreement from the airport crews does me little good, and I sense you want more for Kelly than just ‘house arrest’ status.”
Samantha turned to face him. She towered over the man but somehow felt his equal. The way he’d avoided her fist, the unnerving calm in the way he carried himself. This man demanded respect in a way Russell Blackfield could only dream of. “So,” she said, “what then? Stop being vague.”
His head tilted to one side as he spoke. “You’ll ask the scavengers to work for you, not me. You keep them flying, you supply their missions based on my needs, and you take responsibility for the success or failure.”
“What’s the big push? Russell asking for more guns, or does he want fine art and gold chains now that he’s the big boss?”
Grillo shook his head. “Soil,” he said. “Fertilizer. Shovels, hoes, and spades. Weed killer. Seeds.”
“I thought the ‘traitors’ took all the farms?”
A thin smile flashed on Grillo’s face. “I work for Darwin, first and foremost. I intend to change the face of this city.”
Sam blinked. “I’ll be damned. You’re full of surprises. It sounds like you actually give a shit.”
“Not the words I’d use, but yes. And thank you.”
Samantha crossed her arms. “So what about Kelly?”
“Work for me,” Grillo said, “and you’ll no longer be a prisoner. Kelly will remain under my care, house arrest, until I’m convinced you’re a believer, a partner in the metamorphosis. At that point, when I no longer fear you might flee, I’ll release Miss Adelaide to you.”
“And Blackfield is on board with all this?”
That flash of a grin again. “I have broad authority here.”
This time Samantha grinned. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Grillo met her gaze, and allowed his smile to stay this time. “Mr. Blackfield doesn’t know a lot of things, Miss Rinn, and that’s the last we’ll talk about it.”
RADIANT AMOEBA-LIKE SHAPES swam in a sea of molten orange, and any attempt he made to focus on one served only to obscure it further.
A long time passed before Skyler realized he was looking at the inside of his eyelids.
A feeble attempt to open them resulted in stabbing pain, so he gave up and focused on the sounds around him: birds overhead, water lapping softly against wood and stone. A distant wind chime tapped out random harmonic chords.
His lips were dry and cracked. Throat and mouth so dry he couldn’t summon enough saliva to swallow.
The sun sat directly overhead, it seemed from the heat on his face. He hoisted one arm to block the painful light and felt the world sway. His head pounded, a steady drumbeat from the back of his skull.
After what felt like an hour, Skyler opened his eyes against the blackness of his arm. Moving one careful millimeter at a time, he lifted his wrist and let his eyes adjust to the blaze of daylight.
“Don’t move,” a voice said. A girl.
Skyler let his arm fall. He tried to say something but managed only a weak cough.
“Don’t move, or sit up?” Skyler croaked.
When no reply came, he grunted and propped himself on an elbow. A wet tearing sound signaled more pain when his hair, matted with dried blood, detached from the floor of the boat. The drum in his head turned to a marching band, and Skyler ceased moving to let the throbbing pain subside before finally pushing himself to a sitting position.
Blinding light forced him to squint. He turned away from it, only to find it in all directions. “Fuck. Enough with the flashlight, eh?”
No response. Gradually his eyes adjusted and Skyler saw white sand reflecting sunlight up from below. A beach, stretching twenty meters to a row of vacation cottages. Behind the homes he could see the vague forms of skyscrapers against the white sky. Downtown Belém, he hoped.
The girl stood between him and the cottages. She wore hiking boots and long, dark blue shorts. Tan, toned legs filled the space between. An oversized white T-shirt was stretched tight across her chest by the black straps of a backpack, accentuating small breasts.
“I know those legs,” Skyler found himself saying.
She shifted in the sand, and he realized she held a pistol pointed at him.
“I know that gun, too,” he added.
“Stand up,” she said.
He groaned. “Would if I could.”
“Are you drunk?”
In answer he turned so she could see the sticky blood coating the back of his head and neck. From her sharp intake of breath, he knew it looked as bad as it felt.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“I could ask you the same,” Skyler replied. “Though I’d rather know why you were dancing the other day. Lovely as the performance was, it’s a damn dangerous place for a recital.”
He saw her face clearly then. Light brown eyes and a little bulb of a nose. Her cheeks were dappled with dark brown freckles that matched the color of her hair, which she’d tucked behind each ear. If not for the suspicious scowl on her face, the worried brow, she’d be rather cute.
The girl held her ground, shifting her weight again, adjusting her grip on the weapon. “You’re following us.”
Skyler rubbed his temples. “Us. You’re with this Gabriel character?”
The girl jumped forward, her gun filling Skyler’s field of view. A stream of curses in a language Skyler didn’t know flew from her lips. Spanish, he guessed, not Portuguese.
“Not with Gabriel then,” Skyler said, looking down and away. “We’ve got something in common.”
She flexed her fingers on the grip of the weapon and seemed to will herself to be calm. “If you’re not with Gabriel then what are you doing here?”
Skyler met her gaze and held it. A fleeting moment of clarity came to him, and he realized she’d shot at him in that courtyard because she thought he was one of Gabriel’s people, one of the invaders. He’d scared her much more than he’d realized. Skyler tried to swallow. “His people hold our camp, and I escaped in this boat. Hit my head in the process and … that’s the last I remember.”
She studied him for some time. “How far to your camp?”
“Depends on where I am.”
“Are they following you still?”
Skyler pinched the bridge of his nose as a wave of nausea crashed over him. When it passed, he said, “Probably. They seem hell-bent on finding me.”
The girl swore again, her eyes sweeping the horizon behind Skyler’s right shoulder. Upstream, he guessed. “Imbécil,” she muttered.
“That I understood.”
She renewed her aim, square on his chest, and narrowed her eyes. “Why are they chasing you?”
“Give me some water,” Skyler said, “and I’ll tell you.”
She led him at gunpoint to a cottage a full kilometer farther down the beach.
“Davi?!” she called out as they approached the stand-alone structure, part of what once must have been a luxury resort.
A young man poked his head up from a hammock on the patio. When he saw Skyler, the kid rolled out of the rope bed and emerged a second later with a rifle in hand. He called out in Spanish and the girl replied in turn.
She circled around Skyler, her aim never straying from his torso, and held up a hand for him to stop when they were ten meters from the tiny vacation home.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Skyler,” he said. “He’s Davi, I gather. Who are you?”
She studied him for a second before replying. “Ana.”
When the young man joined them on the beach, Skyler saw their resemblance. Other than gender differences, the two looked exactly the same.
“Immune twins,” he said. “I’ll be damned.”
“He’s the one I saw in the courtyard,” Ana said, ignoring Skyler but speaking English for his benefit.
“Are you with Gabriel?” Davi asked.
Skyler shook his head. “I’m with …” How to explain? “You’ve seen the thread going up into the sky?”
“The space elevator,” Ana said.
“Like the one in Australia.”
He nodded again. “You’ve heard of it, good.”
“We had an education,” Davi said with pride. “Before …”
“I’m with the group that came down this one,” Skyler said, gesturing toward the sky. The motion made him dizzy. “From space. From Australia before that.”
Ana spoke rapidly to Davi in Spanish again. Soon the boy stood a few meters away from Skyler, a healthy dose of skepticism on his face.
The girl came to her brother’s shoulder, standing just behind him. “They’ll find his boat,” she said under her breath, but loud enough. “And search the beach.”
“I know, manita. Let’s move to the other place.”
The pungent aroma of grilled fish filled Skyler’s nose and he found himself salivating.
Gingerly, he turned his head to one side. He lay on a bedroll a few meters from a small cookstove painted in glossy red, the kind Skyler imagined rich adventurers would buy before a guided trip up the Amazon. Fortunes spent to see an actual rainforest, to set foot in wilderness, before it was too late. Who knew back then that it would be the humans that vanished. The forests had the better end of the Builders’ bargain.
On one burner, half a gutted fish lay in an oiled steel pan, sizzling. A pot of canned beans and rice steamed away on the second burner. Skyler licked his lips and found they had been coated with ointment.
A plate of food lay near his head, he realized, white picnic fork daring him to get up. He couldn’t resist, and struggled to one elbow, trying to remember exactly where they were and how they’d come here. He remembered the beach, and walking in silence through the twisted city streets. He’d been too tired, and still a bit dazed, to pay much attention. Now he cursed himself for it.
He had a forkful of fish in his mouth before he noticed Ana and Davi, sitting opposite the stove. They both sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, a plate in the right hand, fork in the left. Ana had tied her hair back, and if the two of them had worn matching clothes Skyler might have failed to tell them apart.
Dim light came from an LED lantern set so low it barely chased the darkness from the otherwise empty, windowless room. Skyler shoveled a forkful of beans into his mouth and wondered if they’d set the lantern that low for safety, or out of sympathy for his head injury.
“Delicious,” he said after scraping half his plate clean. “I mean it. Best meal of my life, I think.” Even as he said the words he wanted to take them back. Prumble, and that bowl of ramen, still held the top spot. The memory made his eyes water.
“It’s time we talked,” Davi said. “Are you well enough?”
Skyler nodded, then hefted the last of his food from his plate. He chewed as long as he thought polite, savoring every last second of the flavor. Ana crossed the room and set a bottle of water in front of him, and he’d gulped half of it down before she even returned to her place on the floor.
He probed his head and found it had been wrapped in gauze. It still hurt to touch the gash, but not so much that he saw the heavens. Belatedly he noticed his gun, leaning against the wall behind his two hosts. “You start, or shall I?” he asked.
Davi nodded to him.
“Me first, then,” Skyler said. He sat, cross-legged as they were, and wrapped the blanket they’d given him around his shoulders. Part of him became aware of the foul stench his body and clothing emitted. Something to resolve tomorrow, he decided, and told his story.
He left out only the details of the shell ship he’d found, and the transforming subhuman he’d seen within. There might be a time for that, he thought, but right now it would only complicate matters. The twins hung on his every word when he explained what had happened in Darwin over the last five years. They’d heard nothing since the disease spread, save for a rumor or two that Darwin was safe, which they had assumed was just that … rumor. Ana asked far more questions than Davi, especially about the aura towers, and Skyler quickly assessed that she was the brains of this brother-sister team.
The idea that there could be survivors who still could catch the disease rattled their worldview in a way Skyler could only imagine. He guessed they must have been sixteen or seventeen when the disease struck, and within months must have found themselves alone, forced to survive while being attacked constantly by the subhumans that ran rampant in those first days. How these two kids managed to last he had no idea.