The Exodus Towers

Page 27


It would make landfall in less than a minute.
One of Ana’s grenades, then. Perhaps she’d stayed put, after all, and he’d just lost track of her. According to the plan she was to put her explosive rounds into three of the trucks that guarded the northern edge of camp, forcing Gabriel and his people to devote precious resources to defending that angle.
Somewhere west of him he heard screams of pain, and more shooting.
A guard ran past, just meters away, heading toward the river. He saw Skyler and tripped in surprise, fumbling a handgun into the dirt as he went down. Instinct took over and Skyler fired, twice, into the man’s torso. His position would be known now, so he ran.
From tent to cargo container to tent, Skyler weaved an erratic path that brought him closer to the center of camp. Fighting raged on the opposite side of camp, where Davi and the other two men were tasked with spearheading the attack.
People were shouting all around now.
Skyler ducked inside an empty tent and knelt to catch his breath. He would assume for now that Ana had simply moved to get a better angle for her part of the plan. That meant only Wilson and Vanessa were unaccounted for. Their task, to crash the captured enemy APC into a building a few hundred meters from camp, in hopes of drawing Gabriel’s people out to investigate, should have started the overall attack. Perhaps the inflatable raft’s arrival had preempted that, and so one ruse had caused the other to go ignored.
He could only hope they were okay. The two were supposed to crash the vehicle, then retreat to a safe distance, avoiding combat unless absolutely necessary.
Another explosion rocked the ground beneath him, sent him to one hand. Ana. Good work, girl.
Outside the tent the air smelled of smoke. A chorus of angry voices could be heard from the south side of the camp where the prisoners were being held. He hoped they’d joined the fight, but he had no way to know just now.
The climber car loomed just ten meters from the ground now, and Skyler surged forward. If Gabriel and his closest lieutenants held the base, at best Tania would become a hostage, at worst a casualty. He couldn’t let either happen.
The vehicle slipped behind a cargo container and out of view. Skyler pumped his legs, throwing caution aside.
A third explosion tilted the ground beneath him.
He staggered, found his footing, and raced on. A woman in black combat gear appeared in front of him, her face hard and sly. He didn’t hesitate, firing at her in a wild yet effective burst. The woman dove aside, a bullet ripping through her leg. Her own salvo missed, a line of dirt eruptions in the ground between them.
Skyler fired again, intent to put her out of the fight for good. He saw the other attacker too late.
The butt of a rifle caught Skyler in the stomach. Air rushed from his lungs and he could do nothing but curl into a ball as the sounds of battle raged around him.
As he fought for breath he felt himself being dragged through the dirt. His mind screamed to fight, to escape from whoever pulled him through the muck, but his body refused to do anything but breathe. Everything else seemed to fall away.
Suddenly he saw Tania in front of him. She knelt on the alien surface at the Elevator’s base, the open hatch of the climber behind her. Tears lined her cheeks.
Skyler tried to reach for her, but his arms wouldn’t cooperate. They were being held, gripped so tight he could feel his hands going numb. His legs lay in the dirt, but something or someone held his torso from the ground. The position bent his back in a growing agony. He glanced left and felt a lance of pain from his skull. Blood trickled into his eye, stung, and he blinked hard with little effect. He shut the eye and looked right instead. There he saw the boot and pant leg of one of Gabriel’s immunes, a carbon combat knife sheathed in leather strapped to the thigh. The man held Skyler by the armpit, his grip like a vise, and Skyler realized another most be holding his left arm. It occurred to him then that some time had passed. Ten seconds or a minute? An hour? He had no idea how long the crack to his skull had knocked him out, but there was still the sound of gunfire in the distance.
Someone knelt in front of Skyler, boots crunching the dirt beneath. He turned and saw Gabriel’s face, eye level with his. The man tilted his head, studying his captive. “Can you talk?” the immune asked.
Skyler spat in his face. He heard Tania gasp in shock.
The leader of the band of immunes made no effort to wipe the spittle away. He just frowned. “I’m not sure how I’ve wronged you, friend, but your actions are uncalled for. Call off your fighters, please, and we’ll sort this mess out.”
One eye closed tight, Skyler did his best to meet the man’s intense stare. “Sergeant Zagallo,” he said. He laughed at the confused expression on Gabriel’s face, a chuckle that came out more as a gravelly cough. “Go fuck yourself, monster.”
Realization dawned on Gabriel’s face. His frown deepened, and he rose to his feet. As Skyler watched, Gabriel stepped to one side, bringing Tania into view. There were others behind her, cramped inside the climber.
Gabriel raised a handgun and pointed it at Tania’s temple. She whimpered, her eyes closed now. “Call them off, or this one dies first.”
“No need,” someone said from outside the circle. Another group of guards arrived. One prodded Pablo forward, and the tall man stumbled into view. His hands were bound in front of him, and Skyler could see a trickle of blood running down his arm. Elias? Davi?
“Is it over?” Gabriel asked.
The guard in charge of Pablo nodded. “More from the ranch were with him. They’re all dead.”
Ana. Skyler felt a rage boil within him. He squirmed, only to incur tighter grips on both his arms. He tried to kick, and found his legs had been bound.
“Good, that’s … good,” Gabriel said, lowering his gun. He looked at someone behind Skyler. “You can silence him,” he said.
Skyler closed his eyes and waited for the bullet that would end his life. Instead he heard the telltale sound of duct tape being unrolled and torn. The strip came over his head and was pulled across his mouth, then smacked hard for good measure.
Tania finally spoke. “What are you going to do with him?”
“That’s a decision for tomorrow,” Gabriel replied. “Right now we’ve got a little test to perform and I think we’ll start with you.”
Tania began to protest when another of the immunes grabbed her by the upper arm. She winced and tried to pull away, to no effect.
“Take her beyond this ‘aura,’ ” Gabriel said. “Diego, bind the ones inside this sardine can and bring them next. After that, the ones down by the river, ten at a time.”
Skyler tried in vain to free his arms again. When he looked up, Gabriel was kneeling in front of him once more.
“With any luck,” he said, “we’ll be done by morning. And then I’ll decide what to do with you.”
A sound caught the man’s attention. The other guards came alert, too.
The whine of an electric motor, running at full power. Heavy wheels crunching over dirt and rubble.
Skyler heard a distant shout, from the northwest, the direction in which they’d begun to march Tania.
The man holding Tania by the arm cried in alarm, and then came a horrific sound. A deafening smash, metal grinding against metal, glass shattering. It came from the edge of camp, Skyler judged, and though he could only see darkness there, he knew with a certainty what made the noise.
Wilson and Vanessa. Late to the party, they must have ditched the plan of crashing their vehicle a few hundred meters down the road. Such a diversion would achieve little now, so they must have aimed the vehicle straight at the camp. Risky as hell, Skyler thought, and something he would have done himself.
Everyone in the circle, even Gabriel, hunched down instinctively at the gut-wrenching sound of the crash. Skyler guessed the runaway truck had collided with one of Gabriel’s own vehicles, and so the diversion had ended before it even really began.
But then he heard another WHUMP from the south, and the center of camp lit up as a rocket flare hissed just over their heads. Shadows swept across everything in opposition to the blinding light that whooshed across the camp.
The two guards who held Skyler ducked on instinct. He felt their grips loosen in tandem, and he should have run, but he couldn’t help himself in following the rocket as it sped to its target.
Everything seemed to slow to a crawl.
Skyler watched in numb horror as the plume from the rocket lit the scene. The projectile flew wide, too high and too far left of the crashed APC.
Its path took it straight into the side of an aura tower.
“No!” someone screamed.
Skyler winced as the rocket exploded against the alien monument. Fire and smoke roiled across and around the device, and the entire mass moved backward a meter from the impact.
A half second of shocked silence fell across the camp. Skyler’s guards momentarily forgot their task to hold him. He gripped the tape across his mouth and was about to tear it away when a horrifying sound began.
A deep, mechanical moan, so low it came more as a vibration felt in the gut than in the ear. He’d never heard a sound so ominous, so sinister, before.
It only grew worse. Louder. Deeper, impossibly deep.
He had no doubt it came from the tower that still smoked from the rocket’s explosion. If the projectile had done any damage at all, Skyler couldn’t see it, as darkness once again enveloped that side of camp.
When the other towers began to echo the anguished noise, Skyler felt a terror so deep he wanted to run. Some did, and panic began to take hold. He saw Tania, just meters away from him, her hands clasped over her ears. Gabriel stood next to her, mirroring her stance, though in one hand he still held a pistol.
And still the sound grew. Louder, deeper.
The ground began to shake. Dirt and dust loosened from the walls of the cargo containers.
Someone near Skyler fell to their knees and vomited. Two others tried frantically to flee, their hands against their ears, only to collide with each other.
Still the sound grew.
And then the camp began to glow. Red, green, and yellow, from different directions. Purple, brightest of all, from the south. Skyler looked at the towers arrayed along the northern perimeter of the camp and saw their black surfaces laced with glowing lines.
“What’s happening?!” someone shouted. Gabriel, Skyler thought. The voice could barely be heard, and no one answered.
Skyler risked his sense of hearing to yank the tape from his mouth, wincing as it tore stubble from his young beard and skin from his chapped lips. The vibration from the noise shook his knees, and he stumbled to one side, into a guard. The man hardly noticed, and Skyler saw a handgun holstered at the man’s hip.
He wrapped his fingers around the grip, pushed down and forward to release the gun from the holster, and pulled it free. The guard finally realized what was happening and gripped Skyler’s wrist.
Only then did Skyler notice the fog.
The cloud enveloped the camp with astonishing speed. Within seconds Skyler could see almost nothing. The man he grappled with, and nothing else.
People were shouting, screaming. He couldn’t hear anything except the tortured, steady moan the aura towers gave off.
The sound began to change. The deep groan remained, but a new voice emerged, higher and yet somehow more terrifying. A second later, a third voice joined. Then a fourth.
Skyler used his free hand to chop the guard across the throat, and when his shooting hand came free he pressed the pistol against the man’s temple and fired. The bark from the weapon sounded dull and distant in the press of the towers’ noise.
His legs still bound, Skyler dropped to the ground. The motion made him dizzy, his head pounded. They’d wrapped duct tape around his ankles and knees. Without a knife, the quickest way to freedom was to simply unwind the gray binding. He set the pistol in the dirt at his side and worked at the tape with his fingertips. The fog draped his world so completely now that he could not see his own hands working at his bound knees.
“Skyler!” he heard someone shout. Tania? Ana?
He dare not reply, not until his legs were free. His fingertips shook with fear and adrenaline. They groped along the slick tape and found no edge to pry. He wanted to scream in frustration.
Skyler remembered something. He rolled in the dirt to his right until he collided with the slain guard. He slid his hands along the man’s limp leg until they brushed the combat knife. Skyler drew it free and sawed through the tape that bound his legs.
He bounced to his feet, coiled in a low crouch. The fog left him with only a meter of visibility, if that. Every direction looked the same.
The pistol. He dropped to his knees again and patted the ground. Someone ran past him and stepped on his fingers. Skyler yelped and pulled his hand back, shaking away the pain. He felt like a fool.
A shape emerged from the fog in front of him. A person.
Gabriel. Their eyes met and Skyler lashed out with the knife, but Gabriel moved quicker. The man lunged forward and tackled Skyler to the ground.
He was fast, relentless. Skyler scarcely hit the dirt when the first punch landed on his jaw. It rattled his skull, and the second blow was worse. A fist caught him above his eye, splitting skin.
Skyler felt the world slipping away as the third blow landed. He tried to raise an arm to block his face, but Gabriel smacked it aside. He straddled Skyler now, his fists up before his face as if they were in a boxing match. Three more punches landed in rapid succession, and Skyler’s entire head felt like one massive bruise.
He heard something odd, a new sound above all the others, like a bulldozer rushing headlong through a pile of debris. The noise grew and grew, and beneath it he could hear shouts of alarm, screams of pain.
Gabriel stopped his assault and glanced around. Then a person loomed up behind him. Tania, and she held something in her hand. A length of pipe or a—