The Exodus Towers

Page 14


Skyler turned to him. “Let’s go.”
Chapter 13
Gateway Station
ALEX WARTHEN LAID three gray slates on the table.
“What’s this?” Russell asked. He angled his head to get a better look, and took a noisy sip of his vodka. Each panel showed a schematic of some sort.
Pointing at each screen in turn, Alex said, “maps of the space stations along the Elevator. Past, present, and future. Future being later today, if we all agree on the plan.”
Ten Backward had been cleared for the meeting, not that the tavern had seen much activity lately. Everything, even alcohol, was on ration until things settled down.
Sofia Windon, the only other council member genuinely motivated to retain her former position, loomed at Alex’s shoulder. The others had faded away when Russell disbanded the group. Good riddance, as far as he was concerned.
The woman, Sofia, hovered like a gnat, annoying and difficult to dismiss.
“Okay,” Russell said. “Station maps. And?”
He couldn’t ignore the stark difference between the maps from before and after the farms were stolen. The platforms made up the bulk of the Platz-built stations, and their absence after the traitors fled stood out like missing limbs.
A twang of pride coursed through Russell when he compared that to the future map. The vacant gaps between the lonely habitat stations were partly filled in again.
“The farms were originally clustered in groups of four,” Sofia said, “at specific altitudes. The higher up, the more time the stations are in sunlight. As you can see, a few members of each cluster are being returned.”
“Sunlight’s good, right?” Russell looked at each of them. “Why not move them all to the top?”
Sofia shook her head. “The scientists had all this tuned to perfection. Some crops do better with more sunlight, yes, while some provide better yields on a more normal diet.”
“We’re talking percentage points, though,” Alex Warthen said. “What I’d like to do is re-cluster them all down here, closer to Earth.”
Russell slurped his drink again. “Why?”
“Logistics. As long as we’re in a state of emergency like this, the closer the farms are the easier it will be to move—”
Russell held up a hand. “Look, do whatever the fuck you want, eh? What the hell do I know about crop yields? I got you the farms, my work is done. Debating details like this is exactly why I told the council to piss off in the first place.”
“You said you wanted all major decisions submitted for your approval. We’re just trying to explain—”
“Approved then. Jesus fucking Christ. Do the needful, as the blokes in Rancid Creek say.”
A technician rapped his hand on the open door to the tavern. “Mr. Blackfield?”
“What now?” Russell barked.
“Tania Sharma is on the comm,” he said. “Asking for you.”
Russell took in the words like a sweet song. He met Alex’s gaze. “Hear that? Asking for me. I deal with the runaways, you deal with the day-to-day.”
“Provided we get your approval on everything first,” Alex said.
“Not everything. The big stuff.”
“Can you define ‘big’ for us, please?” Sofia asked.
Russell considered telling her to look at her own ass in the mirror, but thought better of it. “Use your best judgment,” he said. “No, don’t do that. Until we’ve learned to work together, assume everything is big. I’ll tell you what is and isn’t.”
Alex and Sofia exchanged a glance, then Alex sighed. “So not everything, just the big stuff, which is everything.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. What else do you have for me today? Just the big stuff, please.” Russell winked at him, enjoying the confusion on his face.
“Nothing, really. Shore-leave requests, we can prioritize those.”
“All declined,” Russell said evenly. “That is big stuff. We’ve got a mountain of work to do, shore leave can wait. If anyone bitches about that, have one of my boys kneecap ’em, all right? All right. Let me know when the farms have been reattached.”
The tech wanted Russell to take Tania’s call in a cramped little communications room. “Can you set it up anywhere?”
When the man shrugged, Russell beckoned him to follow and strolled to Section H, the portion of the station Neil Platz used to use as a satellite office. He thought it might be nice to let Tania see him sitting at Neil’s old desk, even if it wasn’t his true office on Platz Station. Mentally he set that place as his next destination.
As he strolled through the vacant area, a large meeting room caught his attention instead. Red carpets surrounded a sunken area in the center lined with black leather couches and chairs. A wet bar lay open on the wall to his right, empty. Looted by the cleaning staff, probably.
None of this held Russell’s attention. He walked instead to the far wall, which didn’t exist. An illusion of course, but a damned good one. The transparent panel that spanned the entire back of the room must have cost a fortune. Russell’s stomach fluttered at the sight of Earth below them. Darwin, and the rest of Australia, lay partly in shadow, the time being just after dusk.
“Put the comm on the table,” he said without looking back.
While the technician worked, Russell took in the entire horizon of the planet. Tania was out there, somewhere, along with Zane Platz and who knew who else.
“All set,” the tech said. “Let me know when you’re done.”
“Oh, of course. I’ll make it my number-one fucking priority,” Russell said. “How about you just come back in an hour.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said. He slipped out of the room with his shoulders hunched.
Alone, Russell let out a long breath. The blue crescent of the planet below begged to calm him, and he decided to let it. Show Tania a face of control, even one of relaxed ambivalence.
He put on his best smirk, testing it in the faint reflection on the glass. Satisfied, he turned and went to one of the leather chairs. He carefully arranged the comm’s camera to catch him with the spinning blue globe behind him. Then he leaned back, folded one leg across the other, and took the call.
“Good evening, Miss Sharma.”
She looked haggard. Dark bags under each eye ruined her otherwise flawless face. Her black hair had been pulled back in haste, judging by the uneven strands that framed her cheeks. “Blackfield,” she said with a slight nod.
“I’m told our exchange is going smoothly; is this a social call then?”
The tics in her facial expressions proved a fascinating puzzle to decipher. Russell noted her lips purse slightly, her eyes narrow. He wondered if a recording of the call could be reviewed later, for a deeper study.
“We have an additional request,” she stated. She waited for him to say something, to ask the obvious question. When he didn’t she visibly gathered herself and went on. “An aircraft, one capable of atmosphere reentry.”
“Those don’t grow on trees.”
“I’m willing to trade additional food—”
“How about another farm,” he said.
She froze, blinked. Then the woman mumbled something and put the feed on hold. Always putting me on hold when a decision needs to be made, Russell thought. She must have her own halo of gnats buzzing about, a veritable flock of Sofia Windons, all anxious to be part of the leadership process. Hell, Tania was probably a gnat herself. He could see them now, huddled around the bright screen of a slate and making lists of pros and cons.
“Make sure all voices are heard, Tania,” he said to the blinking screen, smiling. “No rush.”
Russell sat back and clasped his hands behind his head. At this rate he’d have all the farms back without breaking a sweat, and the traitors would be at his mercy. He’d have food enough for Darwin, too, which would kill the steam driving Grillo’s ambitious plan. Still, he could let the slumlord ramble on for a while. Even if 50 percent successful, he’d deliver a much more cooperative city before Russell relieved him of duty.
Tania’s face reappeared on the screen. “We can’t afford to part with another farm,” she said. “Perhaps our shipments could increase—”
“No farm, no plane,” Russell said, and ended the call. She’d call back. He tapped the station directory on the screen and selected the Nightcliff interconnect, then Grillo’s, or rather his own, office.
Kip Osmak’s face appeared. “Mr. Blackfield, hello,” he said.
“Where’s Grillo?”
“Uh,” Kip muttered, his eyes dancing left and right.
“Doesn’t matter,” Russell said. “Tell him I need an aircraft, one that can drop from orbit. No pilot, no crew, and nothing military. Get it up here on the next climber.”
The sickly man only just managed to nod before Russell killed the link. Then he dialed Alex Warthen. It took a moment for the security chief to answer.
Russell leaned in to the camera. “Do you have another tracking device? Like the one you stuck on that briefcase, months ago?”
“I’m sure one of the technicians can cobble one together. Why?”
“With video?”
“That’s harder to do. What’s on your mind?”
Russell recapped Tania’s request, and his idea. Place a remote camera in the aircraft’s cockpit, and feed it back to Gateway. They could learn all manner of interesting things, he pointed out.
“It’ll be complicated,” Alex said. “The range on such things isn’t great, so we’ll have to patch it into the comm system. If we’re not careful, they’ll detect it.”
“So be careful. It’s worth the risk to get a fix on their location, perhaps even some pictures. Lay of the land.” An icon appeared on the comm’s screen. Tania, calling back, he guessed. “Put it together, and quickly.”
He disconnected before Alex could respond, and tried hard to contain his glee when Tania’s face reappeared.
Chapter 14
Belém, Brazil
HE HAD THE dream again.
The same one he’d had before the Japan mission, of falling from a great height toward a vast engine. A machine that spread from horizon to horizon, pistons firing, massive metal gears turning, all laced with a maze of circuits upon which electrons raced.
As in the previous vision, he sped toward the apparatus and braced himself for the impact with it. Last time he’d punched through the surface like it was tissue and continued to fall, but he flinched and braced himself nonetheless.
This time, though, an iris opened before him, revealing a warm, pulsating glow. He fell into it and hovered. The energy seemed to snake toward him, tendrils as thin and fine as the Elevator cord itself, lacing out from the greater field and worming their way into his ears, eyes, and nostrils.
A flood of memories came to mind all at once. Clear and yet eluding any attempt to focus on their specifics.
And then the light vanished. The memories disappeared with it, and he fell once again, punching through the machine in an explosion of parts.
He flipped over in the air to look up at the damage, and found that the machine was just the other side of the sky. Now he fell toward the ground, the endless jungle with its dark heart.
Skyler felt the evil lurking beneath the canopy again and resolved to face it this time. His pace slowed toward the end, and the leaves at the greatest height began to tickle his arms. He ignored them, brushed them aside. Someone stood in a clearing directly below. A person wearing a suit of black. Black like the Builders’ material. Red light sizzled along the fine lines in the surface, gradually coalescing into what might be called eyes.
The branches grew thicker as he fell toward the being. They slapped at Skyler’s face, and he frantically tried to shove them away to see below.
In the clearing, the being looked up, arms outstretched, and waited to catch him.
Skyler woke with a start and sat bolt upright.
Next to him, Ana knelt, her hand still held out from gently slapping his cheek.
“You were dreaming,” she said.
Skyler nodded and rubbed his eyes. They’d camped within the mansion he’d found, the one he’d scavenged the motorcycle from. A third-floor master bedroom with a grand balcony that overlooked the southern district of the city. From that viewpoint they had line of sight on the encampment at the base of the Elevator, and Skyler knew the home was relatively safe, given that it had not been looted or soiled by subhumans.
“Is it my watch already?” he asked.
Ana shook her head. “There is talking on the radio. Come and listen.”
She tiptoed back across the opulent room and out the balcony door without another word. Skyler could see Davi already standing out there, leaning against the railing, a pair of binoculars trained in the direction of the colony.
Crawling from his sleeping bag, Skyler stretched and threw his jacket over his shoulders. He glanced at his watch, 3 A.M., and took a healthy gulp from his canteen before joining the twins outside.
Ana sat cross-legged on the Spanish-tile surface of the wide balcony, holding the radio in both hands like some kind of holy relic. She dialed the volume up slightly when Skyler took a seat next to her.
The first voice he heard was Karl, and a flood of relief coursed through him.
“… water supply. And these we placed to gain access to the hospital.”
Skyler closed his eyes and pictured the control room, set up inside a modified cargo container. He imagined Karl standing before the map of the Belém on the wall, tracing a finger along the aura roads.