The Exodus Towers

Page 28


She swung viciously and the metal smacked into Gabriel’s neck just below the ear. He grunted through clenched teeth, his eyes unfocused. The impact wrenched the bar from Tania’s hands, and she took a step back, suddenly frightened as Gabriel turned to see her. He thrust an arm out to try to grab her, his fingertips brushing the fabric of her pant leg.
Run! Skyler thought, and miraculously she did.
The opening might be Skyler’s last, and he took it. The knife was still in his hand, and he flipped it around and plunged it into Gabriel’s side, just above the waist. The man wore a thick police-style vest, though, and the blade’s tip failed to push through.
“Motherfucker,” Gabriel said as his attention swung back.
Skyler stabbed again. This time he aimed for the leg, and felt grim satisfaction as the blade buried itself up to the hilt in Gabriel’s thigh. He felt it slide through muscle and then the sickening scrape as it slid off bone.
Gabriel grunted, winced, and then Skyler twisted the knife.
“EIIAAHHHHHH!” the man bellowed, so loud everyone in the camp might have heard it, if not for the cacophony of grinding metal and destruction that grew ever louder.
Head swimming, Skyler had just enough focus to lurch his knee upward. The move toppled Gabriel into the dirt, and the man barked in pain, the knife wrenching again as he rolled on top of it.
Skyler staggered to two feet. He knew he could not fight anymore. He could barely compel his limbs to move.
A pillar of brilliant purple glow emerged from the fog. An aura tower, alive with lines of light traced along its surface. A tent, poles and ropes and all, draped across the obelisk’s base, along with various other debris.
Skyler held a hand out to push back on the tower, a technique he’d mastered in the last few months.
The tower kept coming. It bathed him and everything around him in a surreal, purple glow. It pushed him back and he stumbled over Gabriel, who had been attempting to crawl away. Skyler fell backward and just managed to break his fall with an elbow. A stinging sensation raced up and down his arm.
The tower did not pause. It continued to drift forward, and pushed Gabriel aside like a toy. The man cried out again, a noise that brought sudden focus to Skyler’s mind. Despite the chaos around him, Skyler crawled around the gliding aura tower and over to Gabriel. He ripped the knife out of the man’s thigh and gripped it with both hands.
Gabriel sensed the blow about to fall and raised one arm. “Not like this,” he muttered.
“Yes,” Skyler said, plunging the blade into the man’s neck. “Exactly, like this.”
The dying man pawed at the hilt of the knife weakly for a brief second, then slumped to the dirt, lifeless.
From Skyler’s left came the sound of wrenching metal, and he saw the hint of another tower there, or rather the shimmer of emerald-green light on its surface. The alien object moved in unison with the one Skyler had just crawled away from. It collided with one of the cargo containers near the camp’s center, and shoved the massive metal box aside as if it had been made of cardboard.
More of the alien objects came drifting into view.
All Skyler could do was to curl into a fetal ball and wait for the towers to pass him by. The fog began to thin a little then, and he saw many towers alive with emerald light disappear into the distance. Confused, Skyler came to his knees and glanced around. He saw another large group of towers, this one shimmering with yellow lines. They moved off at a slightly different angle to the first set.
As the fog receded, so did the sounds of battle, leaving behind a haunting mixture of screams, shouts for help, and sporadic coughing. Some of that would be from people suddenly outside the protective auras, the towers once protecting them now gone.
He knelt for a minute in the center of camp, near the Elevator, unsure what to do. Debris littered the ground. Bodies lay everywhere, some limp, some moving. A woman wandered in a daze. He smelled smoke, and blood, and churned earth. A voice in his head screamed at him to get up, to take action, but his legs wouldn’t move. His hands shook uncontrollably. He looked down at them and watched, as if they belonged to someone else. Then he curled his fingers in, made fists tight enough that his fingernails drew blood, and willed calm. He closed his eyes, tried to focus on his breathing and ignore all the injuries he’d suffered.
When he cracked his eyelids again, he saw things with a bit more clarity. Ana, he thought. A pang of guilt hit him for thinking of her first. Tania, he corrected himself. She’d saved him. She’d come after Gabriel with a pipe and given him his chance. “Tania!”
“Here!” A weak voice, somewhere to his right. A cough followed the words, and for a split second he wondered if the Elevator’s aura had failed as well.
He stumbled in the direction of her voice, calling her name one more time. The fog had all but vanished, and he finally saw her, hunkered down just inside the climber car. The climber itself, an eight-pronged scaffold built to lift cargo to orbit, had come down with only one car attached, the one Tania rode. The other arms of the vehicle were empty, and three were now badly bent.
The personnel car itself was tilted to one side and bore a long scrape across its surface.
Skyler came to the door. Tania reached out for him and he took her hand.
“The towers,” he said sharply. “Tell me how you feel. Headache? Strange thoughts?”
“My God,” she whispered, “your face.”
“That handsome, eh?” he sputtered more than said. She was okay. Despite the towers’ abrupt departure, the aura provided by the Elevator still held.
Tania laughed in relief, a pained sound. Tears were on her cheeks.
“Are you okay? Can you walk?” he asked her. More people were behind her, crowded within the dark space. “We should survey the camp.”
Tania grimaced and shook her head. “Twisted my ankle, I think, when he tried to grab me. What’s happening, Skyler? Did we lose them all?”
“I don’t know yet. Most, I think. Some colonists were surely left outside the aura. Stay here. I’ll come back.”
“Don’t go—”
“I have to,” he said, too stern. Tania nodded, a grave look on her face.
He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and walked away to survey the camp.
Chapter 23
Belém, Brazil
SKYLER CUPPED HIS hands over his mouth and roared, “Everyone to the Elevator! Now!”
He made his way south, where most of the towers had been, and where part of the colony extended past the aura provided by the Elevator. The survivors he passed, though dazed or injured, seemed free of the disease. At least, then, the Elevator still provided protection.
Ahead someone screamed. Others cried out in alarm. Skyler began to sprint, ignoring every ache and injury on his body.
When he rounded a half-fallen tent the tower yard came into view. Skyler froze in his tracks. “Oh hell,” he whispered.
Well over one hundred towers had been there before, the rest employed along Water Road and Mercy Road.
Now he counted only twelve. They stood in a tight bunch, like some kind of tribute to Stonehenge. “Spread the towers out!” he shouted.
A number of colonists were in the area, but none of them heeded his order. They were all focused on something off to Skyler’s left. He glanced that way and saw a colonist near the river. A man he thought, though it was too dark to tell for sure. The person staggered in erratic directions, hands clasped over his ears, moaning from abject torment.
Skyler had seen this many times before, most recently with Karl on that first trip down to Belém. He went to raise his rifle, only to realize he’d neglected to pick it up. And the knife—he’d left the knife buried in Gabriel’s neck.
As the man near the river screamed in sheer agony, Skyler turned and searched the partially collapsed tent nearby. He found no weapon but did find a thick, polished walking stick made of hard wood. Good enough, he decided, and grabbed it.
Skyler strode toward the infected man with calm resolve. He knew it was too late for the poor bastard. Already the man acted more like a creature than a person. He still wailed from the pain between his ears, but he crouched now, and in his few fleeting moments of near-human clarity his eyes remained wild.
“Everyone get to the Elevator,” Skyler said as he passed a few colonists standing slack-jawed nearby. “Or look away, at least. You don’t want to see this.”
Skyler walked right up to the subhuman, wound up, and swung. The walking stick hit the creature full in the face in a sickening, meaty thud. The sound of the impact was wet and marked with the crunch of bone and broken teeth. Skyler knew better than to pull punches when it came to subs, so he’d swung as hard as his aching limbs would allow. Hard enough, it turned out, to lift the man from his feet and send him sprawling into the water of the river, limp as a rag doll.
The current tugged at the body, gradually pulling it in until the corpse floated away from shore.
Somewhere behind Skyler one of the colonists broke into sobs. Someone who’d known the man, Skyler guessed. He threw the walking stick on the ground at his feet and stared numbly at the rippling water. Nothing could be done about it now.
The colonists behind him took the hint, finally, and backed off to a safe distance from the Elevator base, no longer trusting the few remaining towers. Skyler wandered back toward the center of camp, listening and looking for more subhumans. He found none, and for that he felt an immense relief.
An hour passed and he still hadn’t pieced together exactly what had happened. Every person he spoke with, those who weren’t tending to the wounded or in some state of shock, told only bits of the story, often conflicting with what others said.
Of his immunes, Vanessa found him first. Skyler’s knees buckled at the sight of her, partly from simple relief and partly because it gave him hope that Gabriel’s henchman had lied and more were alive. Vanessa had one forearm wrapped in gauze. Her account of the battle, seen from afar, filled in the most blanks.
The plan called for their diversion to happen first, in hopes it would draw away some of the enemy when the attack started, but they found their path through the city fraught with blockages and arrived late. When she and Wilson heard the raft explode, they rushed their attempt to crash the APC a few hundred meters outside camp. It missed the intended building and continued on down a Belém street for five blocks before smashing into a one-room home. The two of them spent the next ten minutes just reversing the damn thing, and by then Camp Exodus was in chaos.
Wilson had argued they should just hide and wait out the fighting. But Vanessa shamed him into action, and together they set the vehicle on a collision course with the camp itself, jumped out, and watched it go. “Stupid and reckless, I realize now,” she said, her head down.
Skyler assured her the action might have saved the whole enterprise.
When the vehicle crashed into one of Gabriel’s idle trucks, Wilson and Vanessa were already racing toward the camp, intent on joining the fight as best they could. Then the enemy’s rocket had knifed across camp, missed the diversionary APC, and slammed into an alien tower.
The pair had watched the rest from a distance, baffled and awestruck. They heard the deep groan from the towers and saw the blanket of fog that enveloped the camp in less than ten seconds. Vanessa swore the fog seemed to come out of the air itself, but Skyler knew the towers had somehow created it. A defense mechanism, maybe, after one was “attacked.”
“Where’s Wilson now?” Skyler asked her.
Her lip quivered. “He’s gone, Skyler. One of those towers hit him and just kept going. He went underneath. I’ve never … It was …” She covered her mouth and nose with both hands, her voice muffled when she spoke. “He deserved better.”
Unsure what else to do, Skyler embraced her and let her sob against his chest. “Maybe you should lie down,” he said, feeling helpless. Wilson he’d known for only a few days. A nice enough fellow, and an immune for all that meant. Skyler had seen the way the Canadian looked at Vanessa, but he’d also seen how she’d pointedly ignored the attention. “Don’t blame yourself,” he said, assuming she was doing just that.
Her sobs dwindled until she suddenly pulled away and wiped her face with one sleeve. “This isn’t like me,” she said. “I need to do something useful. I’m going to help with the wounded.” Without another word she walked away.
Skyler had turned, intending to join her, when he spotted Ana a few dozen meters away. The girl stumbled toward them, her shoulders slumped and feet dragging. Smears of dried blood marred her face and neck.
Ana’s gaze was on the ground in front of her, but every few steps she would glance up, as if gauging Skyler’s temper. He waited, frozen in place by the sight of her exhausted, wounded form.
She stopped a few meters from him and started to say something. Her knees buckled, and Skyler closed the distance between them in two steps, catching her before she fell. Her arms wrapped around him and she began to sob.
“It’s okay now,” he whispered. “They’re gone.”
Between sharply drawn breaths she said, “I lost sight of you in the shadows, and moved. But I still couldn’t see you, and then the raft blew up and I just panicked. I ran.…”
“Doesn’t matter,” Skyler told her. “You did good.”
“I ran,” she repeated. “I fled.”
He held her tight, and when the sobs began to fade he checked her for wounds.
“The blood is someone else’s,” she said.
A short distance away Skyler spotted a cot tipped onto its side. He led Ana to it, righted the portable bed, and eased her down to a seat. When he offered her his canteen, she took a mouthful, swished, and then spat the liquid onto the ground beside her. Then she poured some water on her hand and began to wipe the blood from her face. Her effort only smeared the gore.