The Exodus Towers

Page 25


Stop! Tania screamed inside. She shut her eyes tight and fought to banish such thoughts. No price could be affixed to Skyler, or any person.
Yet Zane was at least half-right; she couldn’t deny that. Without information, without a chance to talk to Gabriel and evaluate his ability to follow through on what he intended to do, she was helpless. She had to go, had to cooperate. Buy time.
“Tim,” she said as she stood. “Get a climber prepped.”
Chapter 21
Belém, Brazil
SKYLER TURNED OFF the handheld radio and stared at it.
He wanted to crush it, or dash it against the wall. Both. But all he could do was stare in disbelief. “I understand,” she’d said. “It’s just … There’s logistics—”
Logistics? She understands?
Her situation must be dire if she’d agree to such demands. Of course she hadn’t expressly agreed, but Skyler saw little point in picking apart the semantics. What she had not done was tell Gabriel to rot in hell, that she’d be damned before she subjected her people to his “test,” or give him one of her …
What? What am I?
A tool, Skyler realized. In Darwin, he could walk beyond the aura and few could follow. But now, in Belém, he was a colonist who happened not to need an aura tower in tow when he bumbled around.
“Knock that off,” he hissed to himself.
Tania’s only knowledge of Gabriel came from the silver-tongued words he gave her. She had no idea what lay behind the mask. The prison he’d set up for his unwilling immunes, the forced breeding.
And that nonsense about a test for immunity. If it existed, which he wholly doubted, it went up in the fire, or vanished when the barn exploded. Either way, no such test existed, and so Gabriel’s promise of a civil option was, in reality, utter bollocks.
But at least he offered to let them live on in Belém after his group moved on with their prize immunes in tow. Skyler had needed all his self-control not to laugh at that part.
None of this matters, he decided. Tania had agreed to hand him over, or else she’d lied. She really believed Gabriel’s offer to play nice with those who didn’t pass his test, or she suspected treachery but saw no alternative other than a retreat. The only truth in all of it was that Gabriel needed to be stopped, now.
Skyler stuffed the radio in his pocket, stood, and stretched. His ankles and knees cracked with the effort.
He slung his rifle and climbed down the maintenance ladder that provided roof access to the top of the building. A department store, once. Looted and vandalized almost beyond recognition, but the roof was all that mattered. Two kilometers southeast, the colony was just visible between trees and half-collapsed houses.
Out of habit, Skyler paused when his feet met asphalt. He studied the deserted street for a few seconds, but saw nothing, of course. The subhumans, he knew, were all gathered in the rainforest to the east, around that small Builder ship. He’d said nothing of its existence to anyone yet, despite the burning desire to share the discovery. Such revelations would only confuse the immediate goal.
Across the road Skyler jogged down a steep concrete embankment to a man-made river. With the wet season having passed—which in Belém meant it rained only half as often—the basin was mostly hard-packed mud, with a trickle that ran down the center, looking more like chocolate milk than water.
The others were camped beneath a bridge, their tents just silhouettes in the shadows below the overpass.
Ana and two others were awake. Once closer, Skyler recognized them as Elias and Pablo. The three were huddled together over cups of Skyler’s instant coffee, heated on a small cap-powered stove as a cook fire might draw attention.
Elias was a soft man. Greasy strands of gray-brown hair were drawn across his nearly bald scalp. He’d probably once been as large as Prumble. Skyler guessed the man had lost half his weight or more in the years since SUBS swept across the world, from the slack skin on his upper arms. Months in captivity under Gabriel had taken a toll as well. He talked with nervous anxiety, and Skyler wondered how useful the man would be in a fight.
Pablo, on the other hand, stood tall and lean, corded with muscle. A curly mess of black hair spilled from the top of his head to his shoulders, over skin so tan and rugged it looked like he’d never spent a day indoors in his life, which was true enough. He’d been a farmer in Colombia and continued in that role for years after the disease took his family and everyone else he knew. His land was isolated, and so he had little trouble from subhumans. Then Gabriel’s caravan had come through. Pablo had thanked them for the offer to join up, and asked them to move on. They had, until two men entered his meager home the next night, hog-tied him, and stuffed him into a truck.
Pablo spoke little and seemed perpetually in a dark mood. Skyler had seen him smile only once, a grin that revealed brown, crooked teeth.
“Fifteen hours,” Skyler said as he approached.
Ana raised an eyebrow at him. “Until?”
“Until we raise hell,” Skyler said. “I don’t think they know about the ranch, about all of you. We need to use that to our advantage while we can.”
Davi emerged from his tent at the sound of voices. A moment later, the final two members of the motley group appeared as well. Skyler nodded at both of them.
One was Wilson, a Canadian student who had found himself stranded in Brazil at the peak of the disease. He was gawky and socially inept, spoke too loud, and smiled at everything. Skyler had accepted his offer to come along despite a lengthy diatribe about his lack of skill with a weapon. All he could offer, he said, was a hatred of Gabriel and his inner circle. “What were you studying in Brazil? Medicine? Engineering?” Skyler had asked. Wilson had frowned. “Indigenous tribes of the upper Amazon. Useless, I know.”
Last was Vanessa, a woman in her early thirties. She might have been a model or actress from her startlingly voluptuous body, but she had an imperfect face—a wide mouth that filled with teeth on the rare occasions that she smiled. In reality she’d been a lawyer, and the daughter of a Brazilian senator. She’d been practicing law when SUBS arrived. Her husband died early on, as did one of her children. The other child had survived the infection to become a subhuman, and she’d been forced to kill the girl, a story she’d told in a quiet voice long drained of any emotion. Skyler suspected she’d suffered more than the others while a captive of Gabriel’s. She’d been beautiful once, and though battered and broken from her ordeal she still held an undeniable appeal. Skyler felt like a monster for even harboring such a thought. He could not imagine the horror she’d been through, and she never spoke of it. Her eyes told the story well enough.
“Fifteen hours?” she asked, tying her hair into a bun as Tania often had. Unlike the scientist, Vanessa’s beauty seemed to melt away with the change, as if her chocolate hair somehow hid the worry lines, the bruises, the cracked lips and wide mouth. Give her a Dutch accent, Skyler thought, and a bit of gray in that hair, and she could be my twin sister.
“Yes,” he said to all of them. They gathered about, some standing, some sitting. Skyler gestured toward the Elevator camp. “At that time, some of those stranded in orbit, the leadership I suspect, will be coming down the cord to meet with Gabriel. He means to test each of them for the immunity.”
“How do you know this?” Davi asked.
Skyler tapped the handheld. “Overheard them.”
Ana raised a hand and Skyler nodded to her. “What’s this test? And what happens after?”
He sat on an overturned plastic box they’d salvaged as a chair. “Gabriel means to march each of them beyond the aura, see who is affected, and who isn’t.”
A bleak silence settled on the group. Wilson spoke up. “Won’t most of them get infected that way?”
Skyler nodded. “Not as bad as it sounds, though. The initial infection brings on a devastating headache, but if they can get back inside the aura quick enough, the virus goes into stasis, and the headache along with it. They’ll still carry that initial infection, yes, but as long as they remain in the aura, they’ll be fine.”
Davi’s brow wrinkled. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Maybe not,” Skyler said. “We’re assuming Gabriel and his people will let them back inside fast enough. They might suspect a true immune is faking the headache. It wouldn’t be that hard. And some are so overcome by the pain that they collapse, unable to return to safety. Will someone be allowed to help them?”
“Knowing Gabriel,” Pablo muttered, “no.”
This earned frowns from the group.
“I thought not,” Skyler said. “He offered an interesting alternative. Gabriel claims there’s a medical test for the immunity, and that the kits to perform it are at ‘a nearby ranch.’ I assume he means where you all were staying.”
“I never saw anything like that,” Wilson said. The others nodded.
“So I guessed,” Skyler said. “Gabriel probably intends to hold them there, as he held you. I don’t think he knows what happened, that you’re free. That’s good news.”
“Why wait?” Ana asked. “Why not attack now, before the people come down?”
Skyler made a point to wait a few seconds before answering. The eagerness in Ana’s voice, and her brash actions during the assault on the ranch house, spelled trouble, he thought. If even a brief pause took some of the push out of her, he’d count it as progress.
“When the Orbitals arrive,” Skyler said, feeling a twinge of bitter nostalgia at the slang term. “When their climber reaches the ground, Gabriel’s people will have their hands full. Lots of colonists to watch, and that moment of heightened alert when the climber doors open. All eyes will be on it. We’ll use this to our advantage.”
“You have a plan, then, Skyler?” Davi asked.
He nodded, and told them.
Wilson and Vanessa had the least experience in handling firearms. The group balked when Skyler announced he would pair the two, but when he explained their role in the attack the murmuring stopped. This was not the time, Skyler argued, for weapons training, and he felt it best that the group’s strengths be used to full effect.
For his part, Wilson didn’t seem to mind at all. He had a pacifist’s demeanor, and from the way he stole glances at Vanessa, Skyler guessed the kid was already romanticizing the mission to come.
Vanessa just shrugged. “Twenty years of jujitsu,” she said with a laugh. “A lot of good that’s done me.”
He gave the two of them their marching orders and turned to the rest of the group.
Davi, Elias, and Pablo would team together, he explained.
“What about Ana?” Davi asked.
“She’s with me,” Skyler said. He fixed Davi with a hard stare that he hoped conveyed the reason. Davi would be too distracted with protecting his reckless sister, and Skyler wanted none of that. Young as he was, Davi had proved himself in combat, and all of that skill would be needed.
Whether the young man understood or not, Skyler couldn’t tell. Davi looked to Ana, studied her, then turned back to Skyler and gave a grudging nod.
“You three,” Skyler said, “will come in from the west. Ana and I, from the east. We move when Wilson and Vanessa’s distraction is in full swing.”
“And when do we start?” Wilson asked.
Skyler glanced upward. “When you see the first vehicle from space about to reach the bottom. Say, twenty meters from the ground. We’ll give Gabriel and his people as many problems to juggle as possible, and use their confusion to our advantage.”
The finer points of the plan were laid out, debated, refined. Elias commented twice that it would be better if everyone stayed together, but the rest of the group liked Skyler’s plan. Come from every side, split up and confuse the enemy, get the colonists to join the fight from within.
An hour later, Skyler and Ana set out. Their trek was the longest, and Skyler had a few things he wanted to scavenge along the way. No goodbyes were said when they left, just some quiet well-wishes. Ana gave her brother a peck on each cheek, and tousled his hair when his frown didn’t vanish.
“Be safe,” Davi said to her, but his eyes were on Skyler.
“The greatest treasure in all of Belém,” Skyler said with a mock bow.
Ana peered inside the building with a skeptical frown.
“I’ll show you,” he added, and wiggled through the security gate he’d torn open a month earlier with a crowbar. A gate that had, for years, saved the store and its contents from looters.
The dusty beam of his flashlight swept across a large banner hung on the back wall. AVENTURA NA AMAZÔNIA, it read. And below, SUPRIMENTOS DE SOBREVIVÊNCIA.
Row upon row, rack after rack, of high-end quality camping and survival gear lay before them.
Ana whistled, her eyes wide. Exactly how I felt, Skyler thought. He’d found the building ten days after initial landfall. Windows boarded, doors chained. Pristine, if a bit musty.
The girl crept inside and strolled slowly down the nearest aisle, past rolled sleeping bags, air mattresses still in boxes, tents of every size and color, and bundled blankets. She ran her hand along an entire wall of hiking boots, and picked up a bundle of climbing rope, price tag still attached. Skyler left her to wander, grabbed a fresh duffel bag from one shelf, and set about finding the items his plan required.
When Ana returned to him she sported a new vest, a pair of sunglasses, and a water bottle with filtration built into the cap. A confused smirk grew on her lips as she watched Skyler strip two mannequins of their fashionable survival gear.