The Exodus Towers
“And Russell’s not the sharing sort.”
Vaughn laughed at that. “No, no he is not. Besides, all he cares about anymore is finding the runaways. He hardly ever comes down here now. See you tomorrow, Sam.”
Half an hour later a kid came in and handed her breakfast through the bars. Inside the parcel she found an ice pack, still frozen.
Samantha lay down on the thin mattress, ignoring her aching arms and knuckles, and placed the frozen block against her swollen eye.
“Another week and I’ll come for you, Kelly,” she whispered to the ceiling. “One more bloody week.”
She drifted off to sleep as the sun rose over Darwin.
Not that she could see it.
AT THE RESERVOIR Skyler decided to ditch the bike.
Rain had begun to fall in large, irregular drops and when the paved portion of the road ended he found that even the knobby tires on the motorcycle had trouble keeping their grip. Worse, tall grass choked the land around the square, man-made lake.
He slowed enough to keep from killing himself, and upon reaching the lake he dismounted and sought a dry place for the motorcycle. A worthy candidate came in the form of an office behind the deserted purification facility, and Skyler tucked the bike inside, harboring selfish hope that it might still be here the next time he needed it. The colony, being populated entirely of Orbitals, had a strong “community property” bent. Teams of technicians and scientists worked out here frequently, trying to get the machinery back online. After two months, the colony still had no way to purify large quantities of water, a situation now at the top of the priority list.
He set the motorcycle’s key on top of the back tire, gave the machine one more appreciative look, and left. Outside again, he traced a path around the water’s edge. Swelled by months of near-constant rainfall, the water nevertheless gave Skyler pause. If he stuck his arm in up to the elbow, he doubted he’d be able to see his fingers in the greenish brown murk.
At the far side of the lake, he turned north and trudged across the wide field that buffered the water from the rainforest. Rain began to fall in a steady thrum. Skyler stopped in the tall grass and knelt. He’d taken to keeping a wide-brimmed bushman’s hat on his back, and flipped it up onto his head. The dark brown leather reeked when wet, but it kept the rain at bay.
The reservoir, despite being less than a kilometer outside the city, was completely surrounded by thick rainforest. Belém’s eastern edge transitioned from slum to forest so abruptly that Skyler had been initially reminded of Aura’s Edge in Darwin. On one side dense slums and concrete buildings were packed in with a density that rivaled the Maze. Walk a few paces east across a street or creek and the rainforest took over. He guessed some sort of conservation law had been in place here before the disease came, designed to protect the resource that brought in wealthy would-be adventurers from everywhere else. Unlike many cities, Belém had grown up instead of out.
From his position, Skyler heard no choir. The mild storm, thwacking against both his hat and the endless green canopy, would likely cover up any such sound, if it even existed. He had his doubts. More likely the missing colonists all ate the same tainted food.
A thorough scan of the horizon produced no hint of an aura tower above the treetops. This came as no surprise, as the mobile work crews were usually assigned the smaller towers, the assumption being that the tall towers were “better” and thus more valuable. Skyler knew of no evidence for this, but he had long given up arguing such trivial points.
He moved on. A perimeter road, almost consumed by the regrowth, marked the border between the clearing and the imposing tree line. A crude barricade, less than half complete, was being erected along the meter-wide path, more to keep local wildlife out than subhumans. Skyler walked to the endpoint of the improvised fence and took in the surroundings. The work had stopped at a sharp corner in the perimeter, and from there a wider dirt road forked off and plunged straight into the dark heart of the rainforest. The canopy stretched over the trail from one side to the other, forming a natural tunnel filled with weak green light. The ceiling of broad leaves also served to keep the dirt below mostly dry.
Dry enough to still hold evidence of an aura tower’s passage, at least.
Despite being small, the aura tower still left a wide, smooth trail in the muddy path. Though the towers seemed to float above the ground when they moved, the “cushion” field they created still smoothed out the rougher parts of the ground beneath. A clean series of footprints trailed in the wake, spaced at a walking pace. Skyler concluded that the missing team must have been calm and in control when they left. The accepted practice for moving with an aura tower was to keep one person on each side of it, ready to nudge it should the thing start to drift. Once in motion the towers would keep moving, and thus they were prone to stray if not kept under constant watch. But they could just as easily become tangled or stalled if they collided with anything of significant bulk or height, thus the need for spotters ahead and behind the alien objects.
Beyond the four guides, anyone else in a party tended to stay out in front, ready to warn the others if a course correction might be needed.
In a low voice, Skyler spoke into his radio. “I’m at the point where they left the perimeter. Looks like they went into the rainforest here. Going to follow.”
A few seconds passed before Karl replied. “You made good time. Any sign of the alleged choir?”
“Negative,” Skyler said. “But I did pass a simply lovely string quartet.”
“Keep in touch, you prick,” Karl replied, chuckling.
Skyler clung to the edge of the path, where a carpet of fallen leaves served to keep his boots from sinking into the hungry organic mulch beneath. Flush tree limbs made a cathedral ceiling above him, thick with flowers and birds and strangler vines. Emerald-tinged light filtered down in tiny patches, and the air smelled of fresh rain mixed with old decay.
The path had once been a narrow road. Chunks of blacktop poked through in places where the relentless rain had eroded everything to the hardpan and beyond. Mother Nature had already won this war, and Skyler thought even the hint of a path here would disappear in another five years, giving way to ferns, roots, and strangler vines.
Ahead, as the road crested at a low rise, Skyler saw a break in the canopy and a wisp of rising smoke. The acrid smell of flame hit him an instant later.
A memory tugged at him of his descent on that first climber down to Belém. There’d been smoke northeast of the Elevator base, debris from the climber destroyed in orbit earlier that same day. But that had been months ago, and rain had fallen almost daily since. Surely those flames had long since been banished.
He readied his new weapon, a compact machine gun scavenged a week earlier from the basement of a Belém police station. Skyler left the path and worked his way parallel to it through the forest. Years of wet dead leaves softened his footfalls. Even just a few meters off the road the forest became dark as night. Almost no vegetation grew this low to the rainforest floor, with so little sunlight available, but vines hanging from the branches above still forced him to take a winding path. It took every ounce of self-control to keep his machete sheathed against his leg instead of slicing back and forth across the tangle all around him. Such a sound carried, even in rain this heavy.
At the crest of the rise he paused to study the scene before him.
The path made its way through a ruined village, long succumbed to the unchecked forest growth. Vines as thick as Skyler’s arm snaked their way through every opening. Tall grass sprouted in damp clumps from the fractured soil.
A body lay just inside the perimeter of the small town, facedown in a puddle of brown water. Skyler dropped to a crouch and brought up the rifle scope to his eye, clicking off the holographic target in order to clear the view.
Other than the body, the village looked empty. He could not see the far side through the misty rain, however. Near the corpse, white smoke rose from the wall of a tiny wooden shack. Flames licked out from an object lodged there, too small to discern at this distance.
He let a moment pass before creeping down the rise. A backpack lay discarded just off the path, ten meters from the body. Stepping over it, Skyler raised his gun again and crept forward.
It was a woman. A colonist, from the clothing. He could see the rash on her neck clear enough, but walked to her anyway and used his boot to nudge her onto her back.
Facedown in the dirt, that’s no way to go. Skyler kept walking.
The meager fire came from a flare. It struggled to burn the moldy, rotten wood of the structure. Someone had fired the thing straight into the building, either in self-defense or a botched attempt to launch it into the sky above. The glowing fuel within the yellow shell sizzled under the falling water.
Two more bodies lay near the center of town. One still held the ankle of the other in a viselike grip, and both had the rash. SUBS affected people differently, and a propensity for either fight or flight often manifested first. In Skyler’s experience, the fighters survived more often—assuming their brain wasn’t crushed by the infection.
“That’s three,” he muttered to himself, glancing left and right. “Where are the rest of you?”
He found the aura tower on the far side of town, resting against a low building of rotten wooden walls. Some planks had snapped where the tower’s hard edge collided, and only vines now held the flimsy single-room structure together.
The stillness of the tower’s idle state gave Skyler a chill. He wondered if the thing would move an inch, or look any different, should a billion years pass. In the wan light he could just make out the strange, overlapping geometric patterns that laced the surface of the alien object.
He stepped around a Land Rover parked near the small home. Weeds and wild grasses burst through every seam in the rusted body panels. A power coupling was still attached to the recharge port on the rear flank, though the cord had all but disintegrated.
Skyler jumped at the hacking noise, which carried through the static of rainfall like glass shattering in a silent room. The sound came from within the damaged hovel, still five meters away behind the hulking form of the aura tower.
Without a second thought he clicked his holo-sight back on and brought his newfound gun to a ready position. Stepping sideways, he moved in a slow arc around the crumbling shack.
“Someone there?” he called.
Another cough came in response, muffled this time.
“You can come out, I won’t hurt you.”
In a span of five seconds, the rain dwindled to a sprinkle, and then stopped completely. Only residual runoff could be heard, clacking against the forest floor from the lush canopy that ringed the village.
Still moving sideways, Skyler continued his curved path until he’d come around to the back of the building. There were gaps, once filled by a door and window, now rimmed with pale yellow vines, like maggots clogging a wound. The room within remained shrouded in total darkness.
Skyler paused long enough to click on the flashlight slung below the barrel of his weapon. The strong LED beam had limited impact outdoors, but it was enough to cast the interior in pale white.
Having already announced himself, Skyler strode to the window frame with little concern for the plodding, crunching sounds his boots made.
Two meters from the opening the creature leapt out at him.
He fired on pure instinct, the bullet leaving a coin-sized red splotch in the center of the being’s forehead. Only after it slumped to the ground did he allow himself to exhale. He quelled the urge to put another round in its back, and swept the room with his light instead.
Another body slumped against the wall. A man, his throat torn out in a bloody mess that made Skyler’s stomach clench. No rash marked the poor bastard’s neck, which meant he’d managed to stick close enough to the aura tower to survive, for a time. Too bad his comrades hadn’t.
Five of the six accounted for, Skyler backed away from the building and walked a wide circle around the edge of town. Made up of perhaps fifty small structures, the tiny village turned out to be otherwise devoid of life. He crisscrossed from building to building and found nothing larger than a two-meter-long snake, which he happily left alone.
Satisfied there was no immediate danger, he returned to the aura tower and sat near it. A full hour passed in quiet solitude. He ate some dried mango, a staple of the fledgling Belém colony, and a Preservall-packaged granola bar, something he’d pocketed earlier in the day. It tasted like almonds and honey, not bad if he ignored the chemical aftertaste the preservative gave. Two long draws from his canteen washed down the midmorning meal, and he took his time refilling the stainless steel bottle with rainwater dripping from a plate-sized leaf, allowing the carbon filter in the canteen’s lid ample opportunity to purify the cool liquid.
The sixth member of the doomed group never materialized. Skyler had no trouble imagining the man or woman lying dead in the tangled undergrowth, vibrant rash proudly worn on their once-human neck. Or maybe they were a survivor, doomed to a life as a subhuman, and even now were stumbling through the rainforest in search of a meal or shelter like any other primal creature.
Whatever their fate, he doubted they would ever be found. Certainly they posed no danger to him anymore.
He lifted his radio and spoke. “Karl, Skyler. I’ve got bad news.”
When Karl responded, Skyler painted the scene for him. He knew the stoic man well enough not to sugarcoat any of it.
“The Mercy Road team brought back a bunch of stretchers,” Karl said, sounding numb. “We’ll send a team back out there tomorrow to recover the bodies and their gear.”