The Exodus Towers

Page 15


“And you cannot travel beyond these … auras?” A new voice, thickly accented.
“Gabriel,” Ana said, distant and cold.
“Not without a protective suit.”
Silence followed. Skyler heard a tinkling sound, like a spoon rattling against a teacup.
“So, the suit contains some of the aura? It can be bottled like wine?”
“No,” Karl said. “As I said before—”
“Never mind what you told me before,” Gabriel said, his tone light, conversational. “I want to hear it again.”
“The aura puts the disease into a kind of stasis. If you bottle air within an aura, and pump it into a special suit, the disease will stay asleep. It’s only when it comes in direct contact with the live disease that it will wake up again.”
“Fascinating,” the other man said. Another long silence.
“Please,” Karl finally said. “Please, let us ship air and water up to orbit.”
Gabriel chuckled. “We’ll discuss that tomorrow. I’m tired.”
“You’ve said tomorrow four times—”
The smack made Skyler jump. Ana did, too, and Davi turned from his vigil.
Another smack. Then the distinct sound of a person toppling to the floor.
“And I’ll say tomorrow as long as I wish, pendejo. Take him back to his tent.”
Sounds of rustling, grunts of men hefting a body. Skyler gritted his teeth when he heard the scraping of feet across the floor of the room. Then a door slammed shut.
Again came the sound of a spoon stirring tea. Then a new voice, a woman’s, in Portuguese. Skyler looked to Ana and Davi, who both shrugged. They didn’t understand the words, either.
Gabriel replied in turn, and the door opened and closed once again.
No one spoke for a minute. Then two. Skyler motioned for Ana to turn the volume up again, and soon they could hear the sound of someone sipping a hot beverage. Then chewing.
When the door opened again the new arrival spoke in Spanish.
Gabriel replied and a quick exchange occurred.
“Gabriel asked for a status,” Ana said, “and the other man, Carlos I think, said the scout team still hadn’t reported in.”
“Those must be the men we fought,” Skyler mused.
Ana held up a hand to quiet him as more conversation spilled out of the radio’s tiny speaker. “Carlos wants to lead a search party at dawn, but they’re arguing about how they’ll watch all the prisoners.”
She listened to their words, her eyes dancing back and forth. Then she glanced at Davi and her eyebrows arched.
“What is it?” Skyler asked.
“Carlos said if they don’t have enough people to watch all the newcomers, they could start the trials early, which would reduce the population.”
Ana shook her head. Then, “Hold on.”
A long back-and-forth between the Gabriel and Carlos followed. There was laughter, as well as periods of serious tones.
Their conversation continued but grew quieter; then Skyler heard the door close and they could no longer be heard. “What were they saying?”
“Carlos noted excitement about the start of the trials. But Gabriel urged patience. He said when the trials start the incerto will panic, and they’ll need everything ready. Then he said he wants someone to go out to the lodge first thing in the morning and bring the others back.”
“What trials?”
Ana shrugged, her look apologetic. Whatever Gabriel was planning, he expected it to cause panic among the colonists, and that meant nothing good.
“Tell him,” Davi said to Ana.
Skyler glanced at him, then at the girl. Her eyes were downcast.
“Gabriel said it’s critical that the ‘rogue’ be captured or killed before then. That he’d prefer you be taken alive so that he could try to talk to you, but because you had killed some of his own family—he refers to us as his family—he realized you may have been among the incerto too long, and will never claim your place within the new society.”
“It’s like … uncertain. Or, untested.”
Skyler stood and went to the railing. He stared at the horizon, in the direction of the Elevator, trying to see any sign of the camp in the darkness. Davi offered him the binoculars but Skyler waved them off.
A second later he changed his mind, took the glasses, and studied the buildings closest to the encampment.
“What are you looking for?” Ana asked.
“High ground,” Skyler said.
“We need to get moving,” Skyler said, otherwise ignoring her. “We don’t have much time.”
“An attack now is suicide,” Davi said. “The deal was that we would free our friends, then—”
“I know,” Skyler said. “The lodge he mentioned, is that where your people are being held?”
“My heart says yes,” Davi answered. “We can’t know for sure until we look.”
Skyler handed the binoculars back to him. “That’s why we need to get moving. He said they were going to ‘bring everyone back,’ so we need to act before that. When the sun comes up they’re going to send someone to this lodge, and we need to track them. Follow them there, and rescue your friends. We can’t do that unless we see which road they take out of the camp.”
“High ground,” Davi repeated, understanding.
“Pack the gear,” Skyler said to them. The twins set to work immediately.
Later, as he rolled his sleeping bag and tied it, he tried to pinpoint when he’d become the leader of this little group. Only the night before Ana barely trusted him to go to the bathroom unsupervised. Considering his track record as captain of a crew, Skyler resolved to look for a way out of the position as soon as their goals were accomplished. They were kids, after all, and people under him didn’t have the greatest survival rate.
By the time the three of them began their trek toward the camp, the sky in the east had become a purple stain, growing brighter with every minute. Skyler set a hard pace and showed them how to move between cover positions so that one of the three was always still and vigilant.
Moving through the dark streets, he weighed the situation. No air or water had been delivered up the cord in a week, and supplies had already been strained before that. From what they’d overheard on the radio, he guessed Tania was still in the dark as to the situation in Camp Exodus. Who knew what was going through her mind right now?
Whatever happened, Skyler realized, when he finally attempted to retake the camp, if all else failed he must clear the base of the cord so that climbers could come down again. At least then Tania and the others who huddled in orbit would have an option. A choice, if they wanted it, that wasn’t to turn tail and head back to Darwin.
If he only accomplished one thing, Skyler would give them that.
Chapter 15
Above the Atlantic Ocean
IN THE DEAD of night an aircraft dipped into the atmosphere high above the Atlantic Ocean. Heat generated by friction with the air made the underbelly glow bright orange, and the fighters inside clutched their harnesses with white knuckles against the bone-shaking turbulence.
The aircraft, a long-range paramilitary troop carrier originally built for the Thai army, began to turn in a wide circle once the violence of reentry ended. It set itself on a course for Belém and began to drift lower as the coast of Brazil approached.
A small device, installed in a cavity behind one of the instrument panels in the cockpit’s ceiling, transmitted telemetry information sapped from the ship’s computer to a relay in orbit. The relay, bolted to the top of a small inspection robot, sent the information to a terminal in Alex Warthen’s office on Gateway Station.
No one aboard knew about that, though. They’d searched, twice in fact, but not to the point of dismantling anything. Even Tania had poked around when the vehicle first arrived, looking under seats and inside every storage compartment. The urgency of the situation didn’t allow for diligence beyond that.
The crew were all in back, slipping out of their jump-seats and pulling on their gear. Ten men and two women all armed to the teeth after a carte-blanche rummage through “Room 17,” the armory Neil Platz had stocked inside his secret station.
Environment suits went on first. Much debate had gone into whether the bulky protective outfits were needed. The aircraft, programmed to land between the colony and the reservoir to the east, would set down in a clearing that fell within the “aura road” set up to link the two locations.
The soldiers balked at the idea of trying to fight with the suits on. But as they planned their mission, it became clear the precaution would be wise. They had no guarantee the aura road had even remained in place. Whatever had befallen the colony, it was possible the aura towers had been moved, scattered, or pulled back to camp. No one knew.
“Five minutes,” someone said.
“Five minutes,” a voice in the background said.
Russell leaned in over Alex’s shoulder and studied the image. The camera had a perfect view right down the middle of the cockpit. The aircraft, another loaner from Grillo’s dwindling fleet, had a side-by-side pilot and navigator seat layout. Flat monitors made up the bulk of the dash, showing virtual instrumentation along with maps and other indicators.
Both seats were empty. The colonists apparently didn’t have anyone who could pilot the ship—an interesting detail—but they’d been able to program the autopilot system.
The view out the vehicle’s window was too small and grainy to discern anything yet, but the location of the traitors was now known: Brazil.
Russell hadn’t stopped smiling since that bit of information came in. Already he’d thought up and discarded dozens of attack plans, always thinking up something more spectacular than the last.
He watched as the craft slipped over the coastline and followed the edge of a river. It skimmed low over the ground. Russell saw treetops zoom by above the height of the plane.
“Interesting,” Alex said.
“Flying so low; it’s a risk. Like they’re worried someone might see them if they came in at a normal angle.”
The aircraft banked again and followed a smaller river. This time there were hints of a cityscape to the west. Russell glanced at another window on Alex’s terminal, which showed the physical location of the tracking device on a map. The plane followed a river that marked the northern edge of a city called Belém, heading east and then southeast.
“One minute,” the voice in the background said.
At a bridge spanning the river, the aircraft slowed to a crawl and then turned to follow the road that extended out from the bridge back toward the city. The road, Russell saw on the map, snaked around to eventually meet the city’s southern edge, where dockyards lined a wide river.
Then the plane slowed completely and hovered. The sound of the thrusters spinning down could be heard. Their view out the cockpit showed the black shapes of the metropolis’s skyline against a clear, starry sky.
“They’re going in dark,” Alex said. “Taking pains to land in secret.”
The plane turned in place to orient itself toward the south. Treetops replaced Belém’s skyline. The rainforest spanned the horizon.
A second later the aircraft’s engines stopped and the landing lights came on.
The aircraft had landed in a clearing alongside a dirt road. The road went up a small rise maybe thirty meters away and then dipped back down and out of sight. Dense rainforest lined both edges, the trees still rippling from the exhaust wash generated by the landing.
Russell ignored all of this. His eyes were locked on a black tower that sat beside the road, not far from the craft. The object looked to be about as tall as a two-story home, and its square base was perhaps two or three meters wide.
It looked wholly out of place in the surroundings. And, despite being on the sloped road and uneven ground, it sat perfectly upright.
After a second Russell realized that another tower loomed in the distance, just over the rise. A black, angular monument against the night sky, completely out of place among the dense trees.
“The fuck are those?” he whispered.
Alex shook his head and continued to study the screen. He zoomed in slightly to remove most of the cockpit from their view.
Within seconds a squad of environment-suited soldiers flowed past the nose of the aircraft, rallying at the base of the nearby tower. They crouched there and waited until the entire group had exited the plane.
“Hmm … odd,” Alex said.
“They’re wearing environment suits, but according to the map they’re only about one klick away from the Elevator.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have an aura like ours.”
The idea explained a lot about Tania’s recent requests. Air and water, in exchange for so many of the Space-Ag platforms, made total sense if they had no way to scrub Belém’s air of the disease. The supplies would only buy them time, though. Maybe they had some plan to activate the aura? He racked his brain, trying to figure out how any of that would require a commando squad to fly in the dark. Whatever it was, this mission was worth nine farm platforms, almost all of Tania Sharma’s remaining leverage.
Russell watched with bemused interest as the combatants readied their gear. Gun-mounted flashlights were activated, the beams sweeping across the ground. Some part of him yearned to be there with them, gearing up for a fight. That corner of his mind didn’t care whose side they were on, or what their purpose was. Combat just got his juices flowing, in a way no woman could. None he’d yet to meet, at least.