The Exodus Towers

Page 29


Skyler knelt before her, took out a fresh white handkerchief from a pocket on his pant leg, and eased her hand down. Ana closed her eyes and sat motionless as he cleaned blood, sweat, and tears from her cheeks and brow.
“My face,” she said, “feels like yours looks.”
It hurt to laugh, but he laughed anyway. “Now we’re twins, eh?”
He heard footsteps behind him.
“Skyler, when you have a moment?” Karl’s voice. The man sounded so haggard Skyler almost didn’t recognize it.
Ana opened her eyes and gave Skyler a nod. “I’m just going to sit here a while,” she whispered. “Then I’ll find Davi and the others.”
He brushed a stray strand of auburn hair from her face, offered the best smile he could, and went to Karl.
The man had two black eyes, and the rest of his face hid under a mess of bruises, cuts, and scrapes. “You look like hell,” Skyler said as they embraced like soldiers.
“I always do. And anyway, speak for yourself,” the man replied. He sounded as if his mouth were full of marbles. “Tania wants you at the climber, so we can start to sort out this mess.”
“Later,” Skyler said. “There’s injured, dead. People missing.”
Karl took the rejection in stride. “All but twelve towers are gone,” he said. “Looks like even those deployed as roads moved out.”
“Already with the bloody towers? Secure the colony, treat the wounded. Fuck the towers, we’ll find them later.”
The battered man held up his hands in surrender. “Calm down. Everyone’s pitching in. We need to think about what happens at dawn.”
“What happens at dawn?”
“The camp just got a lot smaller, Skyler, and our plans for water and medical access are shot. We need a new strategy.”
Skyler had plenty of opinions but decided to wait until Tania was with them. He swept his arm toward the climber and followed Karl to the center of Camp Exodus in silence.
With the air now clear, the full extent of the devastation became apparent. The exodus of aura towers had moved through the camp with total abandon, leaving trails of broken tents, overturned supplies, and broken bodies. They had pushed vehicles and heavy steel cargo containers aside like they were toys.
Skyler asked Karl to halt near a cargo container flipped on its side. The gruff man waited as Skyler shimmied his way onto the roof, or what had become the roof.
From the top, he could see beyond the crowded camp.
Four paths stretched out from the aura’s edge. Paths of devastation. The towers seemed to have moved off in tight formations, and in the distance Skyler could still see two of the groups working their way through Belém. One, lit in emerald green, moved north by northwest. The other ran northeast. The towers in that group shimmered with a milky purple light.
Both demolished every structure they came in contact with, instead of just stalling as a tower pushed by human hands would do. Belém consisted largely of shanty hovels built from plywood and laminate, and these fell before the towers as if they’d been made from playing cards and toothpicks.
The emerald group looked to be on a path that would take it through downtown, and Skyler wondered if the skyscrapers there would provide enough resistance to halt the alien objects’ progress.
He turned toward the east. The remaining two groups were hidden by the rainforest. He saw their trails—swaths where no trees now stood. Yet even with such destruction in their wake, the forest had consumed them from view. The only hint was the glow they emitted, which lit the trees from beneath.
One moved east, colored with a yellow so brilliant it looked like sunlight.
The last went northeast. The scar it left through the forest left little doubt in his mind where it had gone. Even from here, he could see the cloud that perpetually clung to an area of the forest past the reservoir. The cloud now glowed red.
“Karl,” Skyler said.
The man looked up at him. “Yeah?”
“Bring Tania and the others here instead. There’s something they need to see.”
By the time Tania reached the container upon which Skyler stood, a ladder had been found and placed against the giant metal box. She took the steps slowly while Karl held the base of it.
When she reached the top, Skyler offered her a hand and helped her off the ladder.
He was filthy, bruised, and smelled of dirt and sweat.
“Thanks,” she said, brushing dust from her hands.
Karl joined them a moment later. Tania had urged him to seek out one of the few doctors in camp, but he’d just shaken his head. He looked like he had one foot in the grave already, his face bruised so. “I can’t decide which of you looks worse,” Tania said.
“Skyler,” Karl said.
“Karl,” Skyler said at the same time. “Where’s Zane? Tim?”
“I left them in orbit,” she replied. “In case this was all some trap.”
Skyler regarded her for a moment. “That was smart.”
She doubted anything she’d done recently could be called smart. Brushing aside the compliment, she looked out across the camp. Colonists already worked to re-stake the tents, and toward the river she saw a group of twenty or so people all huddled together, their arms stretched in unison as they pushed a cargo container onto its side. The sight of teamwork gave her a sudden pang of hope, until she saw the body that lay beneath the metal structure. Man or woman she couldn’t tell; the body had been crushed and pressed halfway into the mud. Tania covered her mouth with one hand and forced herself not to turn away.
At least, not until Skyler nudged her. He pointed north, and for the first time she set her attention beyond the camp’s perimeter.
Trails of devastation marked the paths the aura towers followed. As she watched, one group moved through the slums of Belém, half-hidden by night and the dust thrown into the air as buildings collapsed in its wake. The towers there rippled with murky purple light.
“They started moving the instant that RPG hit one,” Skyler said.
“Four groups,” Karl noted. “Why four? And why didn’t they all go?”
“And where will they stop?” Tania added. “At least they’ll be easy to track.”
Skyler gestured east. “Those two groups crossed water already, so that answers one question. It would seem they don’t sink.”
“Oh hell,” Karl said. “That means—”
“When they hit the Pará, or even the ocean, they may just keep going.”
The words left both men silent. Tania looked at each path in turn, trying to form a hypothesis as to where the towers might be traveling, and why. Four groups, each at least forty towers in number, gone without any concern or care for what lay in their path. Was the movement some kind of programmed self-preservation? The fog and noise some kind of defense mechanism? One gets attacked and the rest instantly scatter to the four winds, in groups, on different paths?
She wondered if they would stop somewhere, or just keep going, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning right back here. That didn’t make much sense to her, but when it came to the Builders nothing seemed to make sense.
“Well,” Karl said for everyone’s benefit. “Who wants to talk first?”
Tania decided to take the opening. “I will. For what it’s worth, four days ago we sent an aircraft down to try to secure the camp. Or at least help us figure out why we’d lost contact.”
“What aircraft?”
She told them of the plane, and the fighters aboard it. “They never made it here,” she whispered. For the moment she thought it best to leave out the price she’d paid for it, and for the air and water she’d acquired from Russell Blackfield.
“Gabriel’s people must have spotted them, and set up an ambush,” Karl said.
“Maybe,” Skyler said. “Maybe not. Tania, where did they land?”
“On Water Road, about a kilometer from camp.”
Skyler glanced in that direction, his eyes two narrow slits, his bloodied face grim and full of disapproval.
“We had no other options,” Tania said, “and no information. After that failure, our only choice was to listen to Gabriel’s demands.”
If Skyler heard her he didn’t show it. His focus remained on the northeast.
“And those demands were …?” Karl asked. “I think I know, but I’d like to hear your version.”
Tania started to speak but caught herself. How much to say? “Gabriel wanted to test each of us for immunity from the disease. He held some delusion that he was supposed to gather all immunes together to form some new society.”
Karl nodded slowly. “He must’ve asked me a hundred times where Skyler was. I said nothing, because I knew nothing, not really. Didn’t stop them from giving me a bruise or three. As if this constant goddamn subhuman headache wasn’t bad enough. Remind me not to go without pills like that again.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Skyler told him. “And, for what it’s worth, I’m grateful that you didn’t cooperate.”
“I might have,” Karl admitted, “if I had known anything. Where the hell were you, anyway?”
Skyler told them of two immunes, twins in fact, whom he’d met in Belém. Escapees from Gabriel’s flock. “They told me of more like them, ones who didn’t want to be part of Gabriel’s new world order. The dissenters were being held at a ranch house, in a valley west of here. So I made them a deal. I’d help free their friends, if they in turn helped me oust Gabriel from the camp.”
“Your timing was impeccable,” Karl said. He smiled then, and winced for the effort. With one finger he gently probed a cut on his lip.
“Not really,” Skyler said.
Skyler ignored him. He looked at the metal surface upon which he stood. “Tania, about this test. Were you coming down to take it? To get the others to, as well?”
She held his gaze as long as she could, then turned to Karl and found no strength there, either. “After the aircraft and crew vanished, I didn’t know what else to do. Coming here seemed a better choice than abandoning everyone and returning to Darwin.”
“Grim choices,” Karl said. “I don’t envy you.”
“Did Gabriel want anything else?” Skyler asked.
Her stomach clenched, and Tania felt her cheeks grow warm. “He wanted you,” she admitted. “He wanted me to convince you to come in, to surrender.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him no,” she said, lying. I didn’t say yes, either, but I may as well have. Lying to Skyler pained her more than negotiating with Blackfield, or caving to Gabriel. What choice was there, though? It was over, and thankfully the moment never came where she would have had to ask Skyler to lay down his gun. Would I have?
Skyler stared at her for a long moment, so long that Karl began to shuffle awkwardly. Tania suffered the gaze like a spotlight she dare not turn away from. “I’m just glad you’re safe,” she managed to say.
At that he finally turned away, and with it went the weight of her shame. Not all, but enough.
Skyler returned his focus northeast, and Tania followed his gaze. The reddish glow of the towers in the rainforest appeared to have slowed or even stopped.
“I think I know where one of the tower groups is headed,” Skyler said a moment later. He pointed northeast, toward the reservoir. “I found something out there, in the forest. Something you both need to see. And it may explain what happened to that aircraft, too.”
“What?” Karl asked. “What is it?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Skyler replied. “Whatever it is, the Builders sent it.”
Tania and Karl exchanged a glance.
“There’s a shell ship out there where that red glow is,” he said. “A small one. Crash-landed, or, maybe not a crash exactly.” He visibly struggled to find the words to describe it, then sighed. “Sorry, I’m asleep on my feet. I’ll explain better in the morning.”
Karl nodded sympathetically.
Tania wanted to ask a thousand questions, but Skyler’s mention of sleep suddenly made her own exhaustion come forward. “We could all do with some rest. Let’s talk more at dawn,” she said.
Once down from the overturned cargo container, Karl mumbled something about finding a medic to look at his face, then he wandered off.
When he’d vanished amid the bustle of the liberated camp, Skyler turned to Tania. “Follow me. I need to show you something.”
A vague uneasiness festered within her as he led her toward the base of the Elevator. His path took them beyond it to another cargo container, the one that served as the camp’s headquarters and comm station.
At the door, Skyler turned and handed her something. A small gadget made of metal and plastic. A handheld two-way radio, she realized. She stared at it, confused, and then Skyler reached out and switched it on.
“Stay here,” he said, then went inside. A few seconds later she heard him speak through the tinny speaker. “I heard your conversation with Gabriel,” he said, his voice gruff and metallic. “I make no judgment on your decisions, Tania, but you lied to me just now. You never told him ‘no.’ You said there were logistics. Logistics.”
Tears welled in her eyes and she made no effort to stop them. She just stood there, in the center of the wounded camp, surrounded by death and pain and despair, and stared at the radio in her shaking hands. The world around her receded to a blur, leaving nothing but the tiny speaker through which Skyler’s voice lashed out at her.