The Exodus Towers

Page 4


“Suits me,” Skyler said.
“Can you bring the tower in?”
“Sure,” he said. “See you soon. Over.”
Ten minutes later, as he packed his gear in the shadow of the aura tower, Skyler heard singing.
Not singing, he decided.
No, this was a chorus of primal humming. He knew the sound well enough: subhumans, and a lot of them. The sound was distant still, coming from the northeast, by his estimation.
He listened for a full minute. The voices were just on the edge of his hearing, fading in and out. There was, he realized with dread, an unmistakable rhythm to their hum.
“Perfect,” he said to himself. “Every time I figure you bastards out, you change again.”
Kneeling in the mud, Skyler set to work disconnecting the flashlight attached to the barrel of his gun. He slipped it into his backpack and pulled out a plastic green case. Willing himself to remain calm, he thumbed the latches and opened the hard-shell box, revealing a grenade launcher within.
He’d yet to fire it. The weapon had been recovered the same day he found the gun itself, in the munitions locker of a Belém police precinct. Normally he would test any equipment before taking it into a dangerous situation, but with only five rounds of ammunition, he’d erred on the side of conservation. The flashlight would do him little good in the outdoors, though, so he took the risk and slid the launcher module into position until it snapped into place.
Skyler slipped his backpack on again and pulled the shoulder straps as tight as they would go. Satisfied it wouldn’t jostle about, he focused on the sound and began to walk toward it.
Chapter 4
Melville Station
“REMOVE YOUR CLOTHING,” Zane Platz said, “and lie facedown on the floor. Please.”
Tania held her breath and watched, uncomfortable with the order but unable to deny the wisdom of it.
The new arrivals glanced at one another. Their surprise and discomfort at the order came through the video feed with surprising clarity, by way of nothing more than their body language. Some of them must have recognized Zane’s voice, too, which only added to their confusion.
Tim suggested the strip-down tactic after the first batch of colonists came aboard, one month earlier. With them, the order had been to simply sit on their hands and wait to be searched. The process took far too long, she thought. More important, after studying the video they’d found a correlation between those who obeyed eagerly and those who were spies.
A request to remove one’s clothing, Tim suggested, would be even more telling. The idea surprised her coming from the young man. Or, man, rather. She’d learned over dinner recently that he was a year older than her, despite his boyish looks. It was the freckles, Tania decided, that seemed to radiate youthful innocence.
One of the forty individuals began to disrobe without hesitation.
Zane put one hand over the microphone. “Spy,” he said.
“Yup,” Tim replied from behind. “That one, too,” he added, pointing. “Too eager to comply. See?”
Tania grinned and shook her head at the same time, as if she’d lost a friendly bet. She wrote quick descriptions of the two on a pad of graph paper, marking their rough position within the larger group. By the time she looked back up, all of the candidates sent from Darwin were in the process of undressing. A few already lay naked on the deck of the curved room. Only then did she find she could exhale.
That first moment, when the fresh arrivals walked out of their capsule, terrified her. Up until that instant, all she could picture was a stream of well-armed Nightcliff guards rushing forth from the makeshift shuttle. Or worse, no one at all, but instead a bomb with a red ribbon tied around it. Russell Blackfield is toying with us, she thought. He needs the food, yes, but not enough to set aside his wounded ego. Sooner or later he will try something, something more ambitious than a handful of informants. At least this second shipment contained no overt surprises.
There was still the matter of interviewing the newcomers. They’d be photographed, too, the images sent up to Black Level and down to Camp Exodus so existing members could look for people they recognize, vouch for them. She promised herself she would apologize personally to all the legitimate colonists. Tim’s technique for rooting out spies might be effective, but she wanted to make sure the others realized they were leaving indignity like this behind.
Of course, she had more to apologize for. Leaving in the first place, taking the farms. The innocent scavengers and crews who’d died when the farm platform came down in Africa. These crimes weighed on her, as if she bore the corpse of her former self on her back.
“Are we ready?” Zane asked.
“Ready,” Tim said.
“I’d feel better if Skyler were here,” Tania said. “We’re not as good at judging people.”
“There’s too much to do down below.…”
“I know, I’m just …” Tania let the sentence die and handed Tim the graph paper. “Take the team in, and be careful.”
He took it and offered her a reassuring grin. Then he vanished through the door of the tiny security office.
A section of hallway one level over had been designated for “colonist processing,” if for no other reason than it had lockable doors at both ends, and an access tube up to the cargo bay. Tania felt strongly that no one should be in direct contact with an arriving group until they could ascertain that none carried concealed weapons. As with the first shipment a month ago, Russell appeared to be exercising some restraint once again, if the nude bodies on the monitor said anything.
“We’re at the door.” Tim’s voice, over the handheld.
Zane replied, “It’s still clear, son.”
On the screen, the door at the far end of the room opened, and Tim entered with the processing team, a group that consisted of seven other fighters trained by Kelly Adelaide months earlier. Most had either a military or law enforcement background.
The process went smoothly. The fresh colonists were escorted in groups to cabins that lined the hub hallway beyond. Each would be interviewed later, the spies or miscreants sent back at the earliest opportunity.
Soon only the two men marked as spies remained. Tim returned with four of his team in tow. The suspected Nightcliff agents’ bags and clothing were searched, and then Tim gave them a short speech. “Sorry, going to need to hold you two for a while.”
Slumped shoulders and heads hung low, the two men walked between an escort of guards toward their improvised cells. They weren’t stupid.
“I wonder how many more we’ll find,” Zane said, “in the interviews.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Tania replied, standing. She dreaded this but saw no other choice. So much work had yet to be done on the ground, not to mention the myriad of tasks being neglected on the farm platforms.
Before she reached the door of the security office, the comm activated and Karl’s face appeared.
“I’ll take it,” Zane said. “Hello, Karl.”
“Zane. Is Tania around?”
“Right here,” Tania said, stepping back into the room. “How about some good news?”
Karl grimaced.
Oh, hell, Tania thought.
“Just talked to Skyler. He found the reservoir team. Looks like they let their tower get away from them somehow. All are lost, I’m afraid.”
Tania slumped into her seat, her eyes never leaving Karl’s sad, exhausted face. “Go ahead without me, Zane,” she said flatly. Her focus went to Karl. “Tell me what happened.”
She closed her eyes as Karl recounted the story. Memories of Hawaii, of battle and the crumpled bodies that resulted, helped her picture what Skyler found out there. More than anything, she wished a role could be found for him here, in orbit, next to her.
His immunity still meant too much, though. Despite the aura towers, Skyler’s unique attribute and his ability to find things made him ideal for scouting and mapping the city. If anything he could help even more down below by training others to scavenge. They had two years, a bit less now, to get Camp Exodus running smoothly before the Builders’ schedule indicated another event would occur.
Schedule. The concept still boggled her mind, even though the math worked. For reasons she figured she’d never understand, each Builder event arrived after a specific fraction of time from the last. First the Darwin Elevator arrives, then almost twelve years pass and the SUBS virus begins its relentless march across the planet from somewhere in Africa. A bit less than five years later Tania spots the next ship, the one that brought the Belém Elevator and the strange aura towers. Forty-two percent of the time elapsed between prior events. If that pattern holds, in just about two years something new will happen.
She shuddered. On most days two years seemed like a luxurious amount of time to her. Sometimes, though, it seemed like a blink of the eye. She had to resist the urge not to rush things. They’d only get one chance to start over, of that she felt sure.
“How’s it going up there?” Karl asked, breaking her train of thought.
She sighed. “So far, so good. Only a few obvious spies this time.”
“A welcome change, I guess.”
“Tim is processing them now. Anyone able-bodied we will send down to you as soon as we can.”
Karl nodded. “I do have some good news. We’ve got a climber loaded with a partial shipment of water and air. The crane just hoisted it onto the cord, and it should begin the climb in about ten minutes.”
“That is great to hear,” Tania said. Other than a few test shipments, no significant delivery of air or water had occurred since they arrived above Belém. She’d already moved all noncritical personnel down to the surface and closed off empty portions of the station. Recyclers were few and far between on Platz-built stations, as the design specifications relied heavily on the promise of resupply via the space elevator. “Cheaper that way,” Neil used to say.
Karl glanced at the watch on his wrist. “Twelve hours, give or take, and you’ll have it.”
Under any other circumstances, Tania would have called for celebration. Her mind returned to the dead colonists instead. “About the lost team. We’re not going to … leave them out there, are we?”
“I’ll take a group out there tomorrow,” Karl said. “Recover the bodies and give them a proper burial.”
“And the tower?”
A flash of disapproval crossed his face. “Relax. Skyler’s handling it,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The loss is heartbreaking. I shouldn’t be bothering you about the tower. It’s just—”
Karl held up a hand. His attention had shifted away from the camera. She heard a faint noise through the speaker. It sounded like an argument.
“Just a second, Tania, there’s shouting outside.”
“What’s going on?”
Karl stepped away from the camera, out of view. “A sub at the perimeter, maybe? Hold on.”
Her view now consisted of the wall behind Karl’s seat. The corner of a map of Belém filled the left side of the screen. She heard a rustling sound and then saw light as Karl opened the door, off camera.
“Who are you people?” Karl barked, his voice faint but unmistakable.
A second later a form flashed across the image: Karl, falling. His shoulder smacked against the table and knocked the camera on its side.
Tania stood, tilting her head to match the angle. “What’s happening? Karl?!”
A gloved hand came into view, straight to the camera.
The image went black.
Chapter 5
Belém, Brazil
TEN STEPS INTO the rainforest, Skyler came to a steep embankment that dropped two meters down to a narrow stream. Rivulets of water traced miniature caves and waterfalls into the earthen wall. He hopped down and crouched by the water. The rhythmic sound of subhuman humming danced at the edge of his senses, as the dense foliage confused and baffled the noise. He forced himself to pause in order to ascertain the source’s direction and let his eyes readjust to the twilight darkness of the world below the treetops.
Satisfied he had the right vector, Skyler moved ahead. As the sound grew ever louder, he took care to step over any fresh-fallen twig or leaf in his path that might otherwise crack beneath his boot.
The trees here were tall, forming a ceiling above that blocked almost all hint of the sky. Raindrops fell in irregular places as they percolated through the maze of broad leaves and smooth branches. Insects small and large buzzed around his face, an annoyance he’d grown accustomed to since arriving in Belém.
A chill swept over him. With so little sunlight, the air here had a surprising bite. Skyler zipped his vest all the way to the top and did his best to ignore the tingle from his earlobes and nose.
After fifty meters, the chorus of crooning subhumans became unmistakable. The farther Skyler crept, the more voices he estimated were part of the inhuman choir. They came from left, right, and center. After a dozen more steps, a growing fear slowed his pace to a crawl. He’d stepped over countless roots and vines, ducked under as many low branches. Retreat would be slow, should he need to run. Part of him said to go back now, report the subhuman tribe, and come back with twenty armed colonists.
Yet the strange noise pulled him. He couldn’t deny that, and he had to know what the miserable beings were doing out here, in the middle of nowhere, deep in the Amazon rainforest, singing softly in a babble of meaningless sounds.
Skyler slowed further when he came to realize a thick mist enveloped the forest ahead. He thought it might be smoke at first, but no odor accompanied the haze. Against every instinct save curiosity, he took another step. Then another. Before long the still mist surrounded him, and visibility fell to five meters or less.