The Exodus Towers
Skyler went on. “I understand the dilemma you were in, Tania. One man for the safety of a thousand. Not a bad deal under the circumstances. But you lied to me. You’d let me believe that you stood up to that monster, when in fact you did no such thing.”
I wanted to. I tried. The aircraft. I tried and I failed. “I never asked for this position. To make such decisions,” she whispered, unsure if he could hear her.
“Go make rounds of the camp.” Through the speaker he sounded so cold, and half a world away. “I’m not of a mind to talk about this more right now.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, frozen in place.
Skyler remained inside the dingy room and paced its length until his heart stopped hammering in his chest. I should have just let it go, he thought. For some reason, he couldn’t do that.
Tania had been in a fog the last few months. Since Neil died, really. Skyler couldn’t claim to know her well, but he knew enough to realize she’d fallen into some kind of pit within herself. Even if a rift now formed between them, at least he might have shocked her back into her true self. At least, he hoped that would be the result.
When he exited through the door, she still stood there, the radio held in two cupped hands, her eyes fixed on it. If she noticed him, she made no move to speak or even look up.
“See you here at dawn,” Skyler mumbled, as he walked away.
He went to the south side of camp, first, where the colonists had been sitting on their hands when the battle started. Almost all the towers had been parked here, and had careened away to the north and east with reckless abandon. As such, the human toll turned out to be worst here. By now most of the dead and wounded had been moved, or at least covered. Sixteen dead, twenty-three injured, Skyler overheard. One older man was still being treated nearby. A crushed leg, and Skyler guessed from the look of it that it would need to be amputated. Mercifully, someone had brought a medical kit taken from the hospital and injected the poor fellow with a powerful painkiller.
Others were busy picking up the tents and other supplies knocked aside by the runaway towers. A few acknowledged Skyler when he passed. Some even thanked him for coming to their rescue. Just as many, though, looked at him with accusing eyes, and he couldn’t blame them. They didn’t know what he did, didn’t know what Gabriel was capable of. As far as they knew, Tania had come down to negotiate some peace, and he’d ruined that effort.
A few had even seen him dispatch the newly infected subhuman. In hindsight he might have chosen a less brutal method, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
At the tower yard Skyler paused only a moment. The few towers that remained were silent, dead hulks. They almost looked lonely. A few of the colonists lingered about, working to reposition some of the huge monoliths. They guided the bulky forms with a newfound reverence, he saw.
Skyler hiked through the old university grounds west of camp, then toward the dockyards.
He found the rest of his immunes in a small field between three buildings, huddled below a tree.
A few were crying, he realized. Ana knelt below the tree, a limp body in her arms.
She looked up at Skyler, her cheeks wet with tears already shed. He wanted to look away, to fall to the ground and cover his head in guilt and shame. Anything but meet her gaze. He expected to find accusation there. My brother is dead, thanks to you.
Skyler forced himself to return her look. In her raw, red eyes he saw no accusation. Instead she seemed to convey one simple thought:
I have nothing now except you.
TANIA SLIPPED INTO the makeshift comm room shortly before midnight. The events of the day had drained her to the point of collapse, but there was one more thing she had to do before she could find sleep.
She closed the door behind her and flipped on the LED lantern that hung from an exposed bolt on the wall. For a long time she simply stood just inside the door, numbly studying the cramped and cluttered room. None of the tables or chairs matched. Maps and scraps of paper littered every horizontal surface, save for the few places where the communications equipment had been assembled.
She tried to picture Karl sitting in here, chatting with her when one of Gabriel’s people had stormed in and clubbed him. The poor man had been through so much since the day Neil Platz had sent him to Anchor Station disguised as a common janitor. She couldn’t recall a single time that Karl had questioned an order, or flinched in the face of danger.
Then she imagined Skyler, more recently, sneaking into this room while enemies lurked just outside. He’d had the presence of mind to hide a handheld radio, transmit button taped permanently down, so that he could spy on the intruders. She pictured herself in the same scenario and knew she’d never have thought to do something like that. She would have powered up the comm and tried in desperation to raise Melville Station before they came in and caught her.
She would have blown it, if she’d even made it that far.
A feeling ate away at her, the undeniable sensation that she did not belong in the role she’d somehow wound up in. That Neil Platz, for all his amazing instinct, had misjudged her ability as a leader.
She’d first entertained the thought the very moment she and Skyler had sealed Black Level and disconnected it from Anchor. For months she’d been able to talk herself out of such doubt. Surely being surrounded by so many talented, smart people would shore up any faults she possessed?
No, she thought bitterly. No, I’m just a scientist lucky enough to be the daughter of Neil’s old business partner. She knew that if she’d not grown up as part of the Platz inner circle she’d be just another researcher trying to find that next materials or manufacturing breakthrough that would increase the company’s profit margin.
Tania walked slowly though the narrow room until she reached the chair in front of the comm. With a deep breath she lowered herself into the seat and flipped the unit on.
Several minutes later, Tim’s awkward, affable face greeted her. The relief in his eyes came through with such clarity that she looked away slightly. He mistook this for disappointment. “I’ll get Zane?”
“No,” she said. “Not yet.”
He studied her, and the frown on his face grew deeper with each second that passed. “Karl called up earlier and told us what happened. How’s your ankle?”
“My … who cares about my ankle, Tim? People are dead. The towers are gone, the camp is in ruins.” The words tumbled out as if spoken by someone else. A heat rose behind her eyes and nose, the precursor to tears, and she couldn’t stop it.
Zane Platz appeared at Tim’s shoulder. His hair stood at odd angles in places, and he wore a plaid flannel shirt. “Thank God you’re okay,” he said.
A tear rolled down her cheek and Tania swiped at it angrily with the back of her hand. “Yes, that’s it, praise the Almighty that Tania Sharma still lives. Everything’s sure to be okay now.”
The two men exchanged a glance.
“What is it, Tania?” Zane asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She closed her eyes and tried to get her breathing under control. “I can’t do this. It’s in their eyes. I see it everywhere I go down here.”
“They blame you for what happened,” Zane said.
“No,” Tania replied with a sudden sharp laugh. “No, that is what they should do! But there’s no blame in their faces, Zane. They look at me with … hope. With the expectation that I’ll know the path forward. They look at me and their eyes say ‘we’re with you, Tania, to the bitter goddamn end.’ ”
Everyone except Skyler.
“You’re their leader, Tania,” Tim said. “Our leader.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “We govern by consensus; that was the agreement. I’m just one woman.”
Tim held his hands up. “That’s not what I meant—”
“Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” Tania said with a force she hadn’t intended. She inhaled a long breath, pressed her palms against the cluttered desk in front of her, and let the air out through her nose. “You meant that I’m the face of things, right? You said it before. That I’m the spiritual leader of this … whatever this is? Well, I’m telling you that is not me.”
Neither of them spoke.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Tania heard herself saying. “I walk among these people and I want them to look at me as if I am responsible for the deaths of their friends. I don’t want to see resolve or bloody admiration, as if this was somehow all worth it for my sake. Yet that is what I see, and I can’t bear that. I can’t. Do you understand, guys? I’m done. I quit. I just want to go back to my telescope. I want to walk through the farms again with Neil, stay up until all hours drinking wine with Natalie. I want …”
I want Skyler to look at me again the way he did when we first met.
No one spoke for a long time, and in that ocean of silence Tania felt the weakness in her turning into something she could live with, like an ice cube melting into the water around it, soon to be indistinguishable from the rest.
“Well,” Zane Platz said in a hard, level voice that echoed his famous brother, “what a bunch of crap.”
Tania glanced up at the screen. She expected to see disappointment on Zane’s face. More than that she craved it, because it would mean he’d accepted her resignation. Instead she saw a near-perfect portrait of Neil Platz—the face he took on when calling someone’s bluff in a card game.
She glanced to Tim for support, but the young man was staring at Zane with the sort of mortified stare she should have. The longer he studied the older man, though, the more Zane’s reaction and posture seemed to flow into him, until they both looked at her in some unspoken united front.
“Think of it however you like,” Tania said, “but that’s how I feel. I resign. I—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Zane erupted in a fierce coughing fit. He held up an unsteady finger as the racking sounds erupted out of him in rapid succession. The man leaned away and covered his mouth. Tim stared on helplessly before turning to Tania with a shrug.
“Zane?” she asked. “You okay?”
The question seemed to force him to get his breathing under control. “The air up here,” he said dismissively. “Been through the recyclers one too many times, I think.” He glanced down at a cup of water that Tim produced from off-screen. “Thanks,” he said to the young man, and sipped.
“We can finish this later,” Tania said.
“I’m fine, and no, we should finish this now.” He drank half the water and set the cup aside, then ran one hand down his tired face. “Tania,” he said, “did Neil or your father ever tell you about when Platz’s operations in India were scuttled?”
She squinted, confused. “I remember bits and pieces. That happened before I was born.”
“Your father, Sandeep, championed that initiative when it started. He believed with absolute conviction that the old superpower still had potential. Neil had his doubts, but he agreed Sandy should run with it. It was the first time your father had spearheaded a business operation.”
It felt strange to hear someone refer to her father as Sandy. Only a few of his close friends had used the nickname. “Okay …”
“The company took a massive write-off, massive even by Platz standards, when our partner companies collapsed. The venture failed spectacularly. Billions of dollars vanished overnight. Thousands of people lost their jobs.”
“So it runs in the family, is what you’re saying?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking. Sandy wanted to quit then, just like you do now. He couldn’t imagine why anyone, much less Neil, would want him around after such a debacle. Your dad had never dabbled much in the business side of things before that, and he vowed never to do so again. I was there when he returned, hat in hand and eyes downcast. Neil walked straight up to him and clapped him on the shoulder. He said, ‘Think of it like any other experiment. The result is just data, and even if it’s not the data you wanted, you can still learn from it.’ ”
Tania saw the sense in the words, and could even hear Neil say them. “I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”
Zane leaned in and lowered his voice enough to force her to concentrate on what he said. “Your father woke up the next morning and left without a word on a hopper back to India. He went in like a demon with a completely different plan. Bought up the choicest patents, surplus equipment, real estate, and talent left behind by our failed partners. Things that would have either faded away or fallen into competitors’ hands had Platz Industries pulled out completely. Then he bundled all that wreckage together in a package our competitors salivated over, and offered it as a partnership to the most eager one. Six months later your father acquired that former competitor, completing a turnaround even Neil hadn’t thought possible.
“It was brilliant, and it was all because your father had that scientist’s knack for treating anything, good or bad, as data that can be learned from. A trait I’m fairly certain you possess, too. He just needed a little prompting from Neil, and today I’m giving you the same advice. This whole venture, everything we’re doing, is a grand experiment. Allow yourself to do what you do best, to step back and impartially analyze. You do that, and whatever actions you take will have the conviction behind it that people can’t help but follow.”
Tania slumped back in her chair and let the words settle into place. “Why me?” she asked them. “Can’t you two do that?”