The Exodus Towers
Zane shook his head. “If Tim and I have one thing in common it’s that given a task we will get something done. Coming up with the tasks? That’s something we have never been good at. I hope you don’t mind me speaking for both of us, son,” he said to Tim.
“It’s the truth,” Tim replied. “Why do you think I was a technician on Anchor, instead of in the science lab?”
Tania felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth at that. They’d worked aboard Anchor together in proximity for years, yet she’d known him only well enough to greet him on the rare occasion they passed each other in a hallway. It wasn’t until he came forward in that moment of desperate need, and offered to pilot Black Level away from the rest of the station, and Darwin, that she really knew him. She’d given him a task and he’d risen to the occasion.
“And why,” Zane said, interrupting her memory, “do you think I was left to handle things like the Platz Charities? Neil and I both knew I’d make a mess of anything else.”
“That’s not true,” Tania protested by reflex. Zane’s quickly raised hand silenced her.
“It is true. No need to sugarcoat it.” He shifted farther in his seat and tilted his head quizzically. “Come on, now, Tania. We need you. Don’t make me look to the kid here for my orders. Tim will have us resolving disputes with table tennis.”
“I stand by that suggestion,” Tim said.
Tania laughed, and only partly succeeded in suppressing it. She knew then that she couldn’t walk away from these two.
Zane went on. “This little triumvirate doesn’t work if it’s just Tim and me. We need you. You’re part of this. You’re what makes it work.”
“Okay, okay. If you two keep going on like this I’ll be in tears. I’ll … try. That’s the best I can offer right now.” And she would try, for their sake more than her own. But deep down she knew that Skyler had carved the hole in her confidence, and that wound would fester unless she did something about it.
“Get some sleep, guys,” she said. “There’s something I need to do.”
Tania rapped on the rear door of the APC and took a few steps back.
The camp around her had finally settled into a strangely peaceful silence. The gentle sound of the river filtered up from the south like a calming fountain. Sprinkled just above that came the flirtatious chatter of nocturnal birds, the occasional mew of a feral cat in the slums just north, and the muffled talk of the few colonists still awake. Nearby, a group of them still toiled to right a collapsed tent, and it occurred to her she should help them since Skyler seemed unlikely to rouse.
The sound of the APC door unlatching dispelled that idea.
She’d neglected to bring a flashlight or lantern, and realized suddenly she was standing in near total darkness outside the door. The door swung open just enough for Skyler to poke his head out. “Who’s there?”
“It’s Tania,” she said.
He climbed out with a tired sigh and latched the door behind him with deliberate care. Without a word he led her by the elbow a few paces away, to where a campfire had burned earlier. A few embers still glowed in the fire circle.
“I’m tired, Tania,” he said when he let go of her elbow. “And I’m not sure there’s much else to say.”
“There is,” she said. “Just one thing, and then you can go back to sleep.”
She felt, more than saw, the serious look he gave her. Despite herself she inhaled deeply, hoping to find some strength in his scent. But all she found was the smells of smoke and churned earth, of ash and rainfall. The action made her feel pathetic.
“Go ahead then,” he said.
Tania looked up at his face, just a shadow against the faint glow of starlight that filtered through the cloudy night sky behind. Somehow not being able to see his features, to stare into those narrow brown eyes that always seemed to be scouring the horizon for any looming danger, helped focus her resolve.
“I’m sorry for lying to you,” she said. “It seemed innocent enough at the time. Easier than explaining the truth.”
“And what is the truth, exactly?”
She looked up into the shadow that hid his face. “That I agreed to Gabriel’s demands. That I would have turned you over if it meant saving everyone else. At least, that’s what I let the others convince me to do. And that’s the real truth. I’ve been letting others do my thinking for me, Skyler, because I’m terrified of making a mistake. The future of all these people, hanging on my every decision, is crushing me. I don’t feel like myself, I feel like an actor on a stage. Or a … or a …”
“… a politician,” Skyler said flatly.
“Yes, exactly. And I hate it. It’s not the person I want to be.”
He stood still for a long moment, staring down at her. “I’m not sure what you want me to say. Are you here for forgiveness? I forgive you.”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t ask for that.”
“I guess I’m here to tell you that your little trap to catch me in a lie was childish and disrespectful. You knew the truth and you made me say otherwise.”
“I didn’t make you say anything.”
“You created the opportunity for me to shed something I wasn’t proud of, something I hated myself for. Of course I’d take that. It would shock me, frankly, if you wouldn’t, too, had the roles been reversed.”
He seemed on the verge of saying something, but instead he sighed and looked away toward the rainforest.
“What I did was wrong,” Tania said, “but I resent how you handled it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re even. Maybe not back to where we once were, but I hope at least we understand each other enough that we can get back there someday, because I need you, Skyler. We all do.”
If he’d intended to respond or not, she didn’t know. Before he could reply she turned and walked away, toward the colonists working to repair the fallen tent. She stepped in and helped to stabilize one corner, the person next to her grunting thanks.
A minute later she turned to see if Skyler still stood there, by the remains of the campfire, but he was gone.
DAWN PROVED TOO ambitious a goal.
When Skyler woke, the sun had already cleared the horizon, and the APC he slept in had become stifling.
He shoved the rear door open and drew in a long breath of fresh air. Parked as it was, the back of the vehicle faced the rainforest. The cloud of thick fog that hung over the crashed Builders’ ship was now visible to the naked eye, and he knew that everyone in camp would have seen it.
The path gouged by the red-lit aura towers traced a perfect line toward the hazy blanket.
Ana slept soundly on the bench opposite his. Skyler had suggested she share the vehicle with Vanessa, as much in the hope that the two women could console each other as in propriety. But the young woman had insisted Skyler stay. In fact, she’d scarcely left his side since he’d found her kneeling in the dirt, her brother’s lifeless body clutched in her arms. Have I adopted her, or she adopted me? He studied her sleeping face for a time and decided there was truth in both.
“Now we’re twins,” he whispered. He’d said the same last night as an offhand joke.
Yawning, Skyler tugged on his boots and left the vehicle, taking care to leave the door cracked so the small cabin would not become an oven as the sun climbed the sky. Outside only a few colonists were up and about. Two stoked a cook fire, and the smell of coffee drew Skyler to them.
Steaming mug in hand, Skyler made small talk with the pair as long as was polite, and moved on. He stopped at his own tent, a blue and black camping tent that he’d slept in only a handful of times. From inside he snatched two white towels scavenged from a nearby hotel’s linen room, and fresh clothes, then headed for the river.
Stripped to his underwear, Skyler swam out into the cool water. He kicked underneath the surface, down and down until the water turned from cool to cold, and stayed there until his lungs began to complain. The water did wonders for the pain he still felt from his fight with Gabriel. Exhaling bubbles, he returned to the surface, inhaled deeply, and settled onto his back. He drifted on the current toward the docks west of the camp, then kicked hard and wheeled his arms against the water’s strength. By the time he’d come parallel with his original entry point, the muscles in his arms and legs burned from the effort. Skyler rolled onto his back, drifted again, and repeated the process.
By the fourth repetition his thighs and shoulders screamed. It was a lot of exertion for the morning after a battle, and he felt sure he’d get odd stares from the colonists. Partly because he’d gone outside the aura to swim, and partly for exercising when there was so much work to be done. He’d take the risk: He needed to clear his head and wash the sweat, dirt, and blood from his body. After one more trip down to the colder depths, Skyler finally paddled back to shore. He placed one towel in the mud and stood on it while he dried off. As he pulled a clean gray shirt over his head, he began to form plans. Yet no matter what approach he thought up, he found himself unable to concoct a strategy for exploring the crashed alien ship. There were too many unknowns, the biggest being that black-clad subhuman. The image of the creature and its strange laser-light eyes brought goose bumps to his arms and the back of his neck.
He pulled on a brand-new pair of gray pants, which happened to match his shirt. The pants were made of a tough blended fiber, and the knees and lower legs were coated with a protective black material with a rubbery texture. Another find at the high-end supply depot for would-be Amazon explorers. There’d been no shortage of adventure travelers in the last hundred years, when the age of the computer petered out. The giant tech conglomerates and their sponsored universities ran out of clever tricks to increase the speed of processors. With no big leaps in performance, people grew bored, then outright rebellious at the previous generations who’d hid inside their precious Internet for so long, shunning real contact.
Kids eschewed the global Internet for invite-only Hoc-Nets. All the data, none of the riffraff. Skyler remembered the slogan. As for the adults, they rediscovered the physical world. Skyler recalled pictures on the wall of his childhood home in Utrecht. Photographs of his parents and their friends on camelback in the Arabian Desert, or mountain climbing in Unified Korea. So many others they blurred together.
Over the shirt he donned his combat vest. A pair of fresh white socks felt almost decadent against his cracked, battered feet, and it almost seemed like an insult when he yanked his worn black combat books over the clean, bright cotton.
Skyler ran the towel over his hair, dabbing gently in the places where bruises and cuts were still raw. He ran a hand over his ragged cheeks and neck, and scratched at the stubble there. “Why not,” he muttered, and trudged back to his tent.
Ten minutes later he emerged freshly shaved. He’d strapped his machete to his left thigh again and donned a bushman’s hat. Aside from the purple bruises that lingered on his cheek and forehead, he felt like a new man.
“Morning,” Karl said, walking up from the camp center. “You sure clean up nice.”
Skyler clasped hands with the older man. “You still look like shit.”
“And I’ve the smell to go with it,” the man replied. “Glad I found you. No one else here seems up for a little gallows humor.” He glanced toward the river. “One of these days you’ll have to teach me to swim.”
Skyler cocked an eyebrow. “It’s a deal. Seen Tania?”
“Yeah. She, um … She’s rather down this morning.”
The comment came as no surprise. Her camp had been badly damaged, lives had been lost. And I had to go and call out her lie. What the hell was I thinking? The woman had enough problems, surely. He’d been angry, though, and so tired.
Karl cleared his throat. “They’re planning a funeral right now. For the dead.”
“Funerals are often for the dead, I hear.”
Karl rubbed his eyes with his middle fingers, something Samantha used to do. The thought of her quieted Skyler, and for an uncomfortable moment the two men stood there, saying nothing, watching the camp. Skyler decided not to ask the question on his lips. The answer seemed obvious: There was little desire, from anyone but him, to rush headlong into another battle today.
“I’ve posted guards, and patrols,” Karl noted. “Two people already wandered out beyond the Elevator’s aura, so we’re re-marking the boundary. Gabriel may be gone, but a few of his people are still unaccounted for.”
“Any captured alive?”
Karl grimaced. “Sorry, no. The poor bastards who were guarding our people were beaten to the point of being unrecognizable.”
“Speak for yourself,” Skyler said, looking the man’s face up and down.
“At least I’m breathing,” said Karl. “The headache is under control again, too.” He tapped a pant pocket and Skyler heard the rattle of a pill bottle.
Dawn turned into noon. Then early evening, and no one had mentioned a sortie into the rainforest.
Every time Skyler saw the scars left behind by the wayward groups of aura towers, he felt the burning urge to go after them. But when his attention drifted to immediate matters, the desire vanished.
The next morning came and went without mention of the crashed Builder ship that sat just a few kilometers east. Tania led a funeral procession, aura tower in tow, and carted down to the docks the bodies of the six colonists who’d died. Rafts had been prepared. Crude squares of logs lashed together by scavenged rope. One by one, the bodies were pushed out on rafts set afire, and those who wished to watch stood solemnly on the dock as the flames grew and the rafts drifted down the Guamá.