The Exodus Towers
Outside, he flew down the driveway, taking the bumps and dips in stride, swelling with juvenile delight at the high-pitched whine of the motor-and-cap combination. Out on the main road, Skyler twisted the handle to full acceleration and nearly fell off as the motorcycle came to life, its front wheel lifting off the ground as it surged forward.
As he weaved his way through the streets of Belém, the speedometer kissing 100 kilometers per hour in some stretches, he thought of Samantha. She would kill to ride a bike like this. Over the years they’d brought a few back to Darwin, but the price offered always outweighed her desire to keep one.
The thought of her dampened his mood.
Flying past the vine-choked buildings of Belém, Skyler wondered if Samantha was having anywhere near as much fun, wherever she was.
THE FIST CAUGHT Samantha squarely on the temple.
A solid blow, and she might have fallen had she not expected it. Fallen and lost.
Instead she let the guard’s punch assist her in a shift of position, her weight moving to her left leg. She pushed with that leg and brought her right arm around in a vicious uppercut to the guard’s abdomen. Air rushed from the man’s mouth in a gasp.
A few of the onlookers groaned in sympathetic pain.
Fueled by their reaction, Sam pressed the advantage. A left jab, again to the midsection. Then a right hook that caught the poor bastard on his jaw and produced a loud, sharp crack.
He spun a half turn, his eyes rolling back in his head, and toppled to the floor. Just like that, Sam’s first bout ended.
Shaking the sting from her knuckles, she walked over to the guard and leaned over him. “Can you stand?”
He coughed in response. Then the Nightcliff goon turned his head and spat blood onto the dusty concrete floor. “Damn well try,” he muttered.
Sam extended her hand and he took it. Conversations embroiled the room as bets changed hands. Fistfuls of stamped notes here, a half bottle of cider there, and all the bravado and excuses that went with such things.
“That was fun,” she said, rolling her head from side to side. “Who’s next?”
“Take a break,” someone replied, handing her a labeled bottle of vodka, quarter-full. “No one fights twice in a row. That’s a rule.”
She shrugged. “Advantage, me.”
Another bout started and the fifty-or-so gathered Nightcliff personnel returned their attentions to the fight, bets, and drinks. She pushed through the crowd, noting the icy stares of potential opponents as she passed. Each wore their thirst for revenge like a badge.
Her handler waited at the back of the room near the only door, billy club resting across his knees. His face betrayed a hint of admiration as Samantha handed him the bottle.
Sam had learned his last name, Vaughn, from the handwritten label on his helmet. She’d yet to learn his first. A field of even stubble grew on his face, framing a wide nose and narrow eyes. The brown hair atop his head he kept shaved as close as his young beard. “I’ll eat like a king this week thanks to you,” he said.
“Told you,” she replied, taking the spot on the wall next to him. “Should’ve brought me here sooner.”
“No kidding.” He took a polite sip from the bottle and offered it back.
“That’s yours. I need my wits.”
He grunted. “Well, I’m on duty, so I guess we’re both staying dry.” He handed the bottle to his right instead, and the spectator there took it without hesitation.
As much as she hated to admit it, she was warming up to the bloke. He’d become her target for seduction on the first night of her imprisonment. The look in his eyes the first time he’d brought her food marked him as possible prey. A way out if she played her cards right.
Seduction had never been her strong suit, though. She knew from past experience that being too overt usually killed her chances, and that most of the men who sought her company liked her for her toughness and robust curves, not for her feminine wiles. So she’d skipped the batting of eyes and licking of lips bullshit, and taken a more subtle strategy: tough talk, opportune lack of modesty, and what she hoped came across as a genuine interest in his miserable, mundane life.
A month on and all she’d managed to do was get Vaughn to admit her into the informal boxing club that met once a week in the mess. Still, she counted this as a big milestone in her escape. She was out of her cell, step one in any prison break.
Next on her list was finding Kelly. Vaughn occasionally answered her inquiries about the woman, with reluctance. Blackfield had ordered the two of them held separately, he’d told her. No contact whatsoever. Kelly was doing okay after a short hunger strike, kept in a similar cell to Sam’s but on the other side of the fortress. That’s all he claimed to know.
Remembering her gambit, Sam began to tug at the collar of her tank top. Men loved a wet shirt—she knew enough about seduction to know that—but the bout had ended quickly. In hindsight it might have been a good idea to drag it on just to get her white shirt nice and sweat-soaked. She settled for stretching the collar in and out to fan herself, giving Vaughn an eyeful with each pull should he bother to glance.
All you have to do is ask, you idiot, she thought, and we’ll be rolling between the sheets. A good time for both of us, though the last time you’ll ever see me. I’ll make it worth your while.
The crowd erupted as another match ended. Someone was dragged from the makeshift ring, feetfirst.
“My turn, jailbird,” came a rough voice nearby.
Sam stood to face her next opponent. The swarthy giant of a man stood a few centimeters taller than her and had a bushy beard that came down to his chest. Faded tattoos laced his neck and arms. “I’m not sure if that’s drink in your beard,” she said, “or drool.”
He glanced down at her chest, then back. “Bit of both. C’mon, prisoner. If your owner don’t mind …”
Vaughn gave the slightest of nods, and folded his arms. Sam knew where his wager would fall.
They walked to the center of the crowd, where an open space formed the boxing ring. Samantha flexed her hands and then did a few quick jumps off her toes. The resulting bounce of her breasts caught the attention of half the room, though if Vaughn saw from his place at the back, she had no idea.
Her opponent noticed, though. He licked his lips. “Nice big targets,” he said with a drunken grin.
“Sorry, mate,” Samantha said. “If I can’t hit below the belt, you have to stay away from the twins.”
Laughs went up from the audience.
The big man tilted his head to one side, looking genuinely wounded. “Christ, woman. Wasn’t gonna punch them.…”
Vaughn guided her by the arm through Nightcliff’s dreary yard.
He hadn’t bothered to cuff her, a good sign, in her view. Still, he kept his black baton in hand. He would put up a hell of a fight if she picked one, and besides, there was still the issue of Kelly. Patience.
“I’ll find you something to put on that eye,” he said after a time.
“Don’t bother. It’s not that bad.”
Samantha sighed and gave a terse nod. Her skull pounded. She had to keep her right eye closed for fear it might bulge right out of her head.
He led her between buildings and through narrow, fenced-in spaces. Clouds kept an otherwise bright moon from providing much illumination, but it was enough that Vaughn didn’t bother with his flashlight. Their wet footfalls almost drowned out the loading work going on at the climber port.
She took a chance and feigned a stumble. Righting herself, she groaned and stepped wide.
“You okay?” he asked.
“A little dizzy. It’s fading.” After a second she tried to rest her head on his shoulder, but her height made the position awkward, so she simply leaned on him.
Vaughn caught the hint and slipped an arm around her waist.
Perfect, she thought. A nice romantic stroll.
“So,” she said, “what’s the news outside?”
Vaughn shrugged. “I don’t pay it much attention.”
“You must have heard something.”
He fell quiet for a dozen steps. She imagined he must have orders not to share any news with her. The fact that he now wrestled with that she took as a very good sign indeed.
“I heard,” Samantha said, “they tricked Russell into going to Africa, then dropped a bomb on his fleet.”
“Wasn’t a bomb,” Vaughn said. “They pushed an old satellite out of orbit, or something.”
“And missed? Well, obviously.” Russell had paid two visits to Samantha, peppering her with flirtatious small talk and vague threats. Mercifully he’d stopped coming a few weeks ago, finally convinced she did not know the whereabouts of the “traitors.”
“Still took out a bunch of the scavenger planes Russell brought along.” Vaughn let that settle. He knew of her past, knew she might have had friends out there. “They also tried to drop a satellite on Nightcliff, but missed. The thing fell outside the aura over in Old Downtown, took a few landmarks with it.”
Two misses? Skyler’s new friends either had horrible aim or Vaughn had things wrong. Sam couldn’t see what they’d gain by nuking Nightcliff anyway. Even if the alien cord of the Elevator survived, the infrastructure would be annihilated beyond hope of repair. No, it must have been a warning shot. Blackfield might not comprehend it, but she saw the angles.
“Water plants are on strike,” the guard went on, opening up. “Platz people over there, you know. They’re the only ones who can work all that machinery.”
“A strike, eh? What do they want?”
He hesitated. “Doesn’t matter. Blackfield is sending in a few squads to put an end to it.”
“That’s our Russell. Way of the gun.”
“He’s got no other choice.”
“Give them what they want?”
Vaughn tightened his lips. “No,” he said. “No, that he can’t do.”
“They must be asking a lot,” she said.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
There it was. A line, and Vaughn was tightroping it. Another week, she thought, and he’d be telling her all about it in the afterglow of a good romp.
“What else, then? How are the Orbitals handling their new generalissimo?”
He paused and let go of her. For a split second she thought she’d gone too far, but he made a twirling motion with his index finger. Sam turned her back to him and clasped her hands behind her back. She held them low, against her buttocks, so that he couldn’t avoid incidental contact in order to replace the handcuffs. Some small part of her didn’t mind the brush of fingers there.
For the first time since she’d attempted this tactic, he didn’t jerk her hands to the small of her back. In fact, he took longer than usual getting the cuffs on.
Shackled again, he led her back into the brig. A pair of guards on patrol wandered by them and grunted their hellos to Vaughn. The cuffs were a show for them, she realized. Vaughn didn’t want them to know he’d broken protocol. She knew, though, which meant they shared a secret now. Not long now, she thought, and you’ll be snared in the web.
The low jailhouse building butted against Nightcliff’s north wall. She heard waves crashing on the rocks beyond, as reliable as a beating heart. Unfortunately that calming sound didn’t reach her windowless cell. Nothing reached there except cold meals and her mirthless guards. Vaughn at night, an ass named Saul during the day. She called him Paul, just to piss him off, which was easy enough to do.
Vaughn guided her back into her makeshift cell in the makeshift prison. The bars had been welded together from rebar and old pipes. It worked well enough. The bed, a flimsy foam mattress that left her feet hanging, lay upright against the back wall. Someone had swept the place while they were gone. Probably searched for contraband, too, not that she had any.
“See you tomorrow,” Vaughn said after the cuffs came off. He closed and locked the gate behind him.
“You were telling me the news,” she said to his back.
“Tomorrow,” he repeated.
Samantha folded her arms and leaned against the wall by the door. “Vaughn …”
“C’mon, man,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like, trapped in here, no way to know—”
“We’re both trapped in here, Sam.”
The words tripped her. His voice held more than a hint of wrath. Not for her, she thought. “So talk to me, then. What’s the harm?”
“I have orders.”
She snorted a laugh. “Hell … Orders. I’m not going to squawk.”
The guard stood in the outer doorway, half-in, half-out. Without looking back, he said, “Food’s scarce. The traitors took the farms, I heard, and Nightcliff’s reserves are either used or spoiled. So Russell needs the roofers to share theirs, but no one is playing along and he doesn’t have enough manpower to force the issue.”
Sam swallowed and kept quiet. “The traitors took the farms.” The words almost brought tears to her eyes. If Skyler were sitting here, she’d crush him with a hug. Stealing the farm platforms, what a damn brilliant move.
The guard sighed. “Water plants are on strike. The bloody scavengers are on strike.”
“Hey! I was a scavenger, you know.”
“Everyone wants a part of Russell’s pie,” he said, ignoring her, “before they’ll throw in with him. That’s what I hear, anyway.…”