The Exodus Towers
“Stupid, stupid,” he whispered, even as he took another step.
Individual subhuman voices stood out against the thrum now. The sounds came from the left and right, but not from ahead, he realized. It was as if the beings were formed in a line, and he’d just crossed it. He glanced left and tried to peer through the heavy mist. Just at the edge of his vision he thought he saw a human form, swaying on its feet as if in a trance. To the right he saw the same, or thought he did. The cloud made it hard to trust his eyes.
Only then did it occur to him that there were no trees here. None upright, anyway. Fallen trunks of shattered wood littered the ground around him, some still tucked in the embrace of strangler figs. He stepped around the huge stump of a kapok tree. The smooth, fleshy base ended in a violent mess of splinters. Another nearby had been uprooted completely. The chill he’d felt before vanished, replaced by humid warmth that grew with each step.
The mist cleared slightly, if only for an instant, and Skyler realized he’d walked into a wide ravine with curved walls. The ground beneath him sloped gradually downward.
Not ten steps later a wall of earth loomed ahead of him, and then he saw the mouth of the cave. Or, more aptly, the tunnel, for this huge circular opening was clearly not a natural formation.
Skyler knew then, with sudden certainty, where he was.
Something had crashed here. It didn’t take much imagination to guess what. The proximity to the Elevator, the ring of chanting subhumans lining the site …
He’d found one of Tania’s five mystery shell ships. Of this he had no doubt. The objects had trailed in behind the Belém Elevator’s construction vessel, and then she’d lost track of them. In truth, no one had given the objects much thought since then. Not that he was aware of, anyway.
Swallowing a growing dread, Skyler crept forward, gun constantly sweeping the fog ahead of him until he reached the mouth of the tunnel.
Faced with that black opening, tall as a two-story home, and no backup, Skyler finally stopped. He stood there, caught between the sane choice of returning to get help and the intoxicating urge to see what lay within.
A vision hit him. The colonists, huddled around the comm, a dozen people speaking at once and as many more coming through the speaker, as they debated the proper course of action to explore the crash site. If it even was a crash site. A slew of other theories were offered. Fair or not, the mental image resonated.
“Yeah,” Skyler said to himself, “enough of debate and consensus.”
He set to work on his gun again, taking care to keep noise to a minimum. The grenade launcher came off, the flashlight taking its place once again. Backpack re-slung over his shoulders, he took a few tentative steps into the darkness. He glanced back with each step, waiting until he could see little of the ground outside before turning on the flashlight. The last thing he needed right now was for a slew of subhumans to spot him and come charging in.
Root systems from the trees above the tunnel dangled from the ceiling, charred and gnarled. The air had an overpowering smoke scent to it. Exposed rocks dotted the curved wall of the circular passage, some cleaved in half, signs of slag from the heat of whatever had forged this cavity. Water trailed down the center of the floor, eroding a jagged path into the darkness.
When the trickle of runoff began to widen into a pool, Skyler knew the back of the tunnel loomed. The diameter of the cavity began to shrink as well, and the heat became stifling. Without taking his eyes off the dark passage, he reached and unzipped his vest. Moisture and sweat trickled down his neck and sides.
Two steps later he caught the first hints of a shape in the gloom. The light from his gun struggled to illuminate the form at first, as if it were somehow absorbing the beam. Each step brought more clarity, and Skyler was up to his knees in water when he finally had a clear view.
A shell ship, just as he thought. Perhaps ten meters long, miniature compared to those above Belém and Darwin. It rested on the bottom of the tunnel, a portion of it submerged in the pool of runoff. How the Builders’ vessel had forged this cave so much wider than its own girth, Skyler had no idea.
The tapered end wasn’t quite circular, he realized, but ovoid. The very tip of it folded inward on itself in a sharp beveled edge, not unlike the corners of the aura towers. He stepped to one side, staying behind the hulking black form, to study the length of it. Much of the fuselage lay submerged in the rainwater, obscured by steam where the cold pool met balmy air.
His beam caught a gap in the center of the vessel, as if part of the shell had torn off. The gap spanned three meters left to right and went clear over the top of the vessel.
Knee-high in cold water, Skyler froze up. He dared not draw a breath.
Something lurked within.
DESPITE THE INTENSE heat, Skyler shook all over. It took a conscious effort to suck in a breath. His heart raced unchecked.
Contact. My God, like this. Contact.
After a time the shiver abated. His breathing returned to something akin to normal, his hammering heart slowed.
Skyler swallowed. “Hello?” he said. It came out in a croak, and he coughed. “Hello?” he repeated. No response from within the vessel. No movement, either. Yet he thought he heard something. Breathing.
Fighting every instinct he had, Skyler waded forward toward the hole in the ship. He kept to the edge of the tunnel as best he could. The deeper he went into the water, the more the humid mist clinging to its surface obscured his view. Yet he found he couldn’t move any closer to the fuselage of the ship.
The water came halfway up his abdomen before he finally got a clear view inside the hole. A hexagonal pillar rested in the center, perhaps a half-meter high, topped with a myriad of irregular protrusions, the tallest no longer than Skyler’s hand.
The surface of the object resembled the aura towers: matte black with geometric indents layered across. As he took in the sight, the barest hint of red light pulsed within those patterns, tracing impossibly thin lines in a wave across the surface.
Movement caught Skyler’s eye.
At the base of the pillar, something stirred. He took a step back on reflex, and in that small movement lost what little clarity he’d gained by approaching the ship. Mouth dry, eyes itching from the strain, Skyler leaned in toward the ship even as he backed away.
Hands gripped the base of the pillar. Human hands, if only in shape. The skin had been replaced, or covered, in that same black material.
Frozen with pure fear, able only to move his eyes, Skyler glanced along the being’s arms. Near the shoulder the black material became fractured, like broken glass tattooed onto pale skin.
On the neck he saw the subhuman rash.
The creature was on its knees, legs bent all the way, perfectly still. It was naked, most of the body still exposed, pale where grime and bruises didn’t mar the skin. A woman, he realized.
Her face, though, had become partially enveloped by the Builder material. Even as Skyler watched, one of the sub’s ears vanished underneath the material. In the span of ten seconds the other patches of skin still visible on its head were obscured.
The sound of breathing stopped, then.
Skyler stepped back, unable to quell his instincts any longer. His foot slipped on debris hidden below the water’s surface, and he stumbled before righting himself.
The splash he made broke the intense silence.
He heard an alien noise. Like breathing, but coming in sharp bursts. Glancing back to the cavity in the ship, he saw the woman again.
Her head turned, until she faced him. That same red glow rippled across the surface of her alien skin, coalescing where her eyes and mouth should be, before fading.
Skyler turned and fled.
He waded through the water in a panic, until his knees were free of the liquid and he could run. He stumbled twice, landing hard on his elbow once. If it hurt, he had no idea. Every neuron in his brain screamed Run, RUN.
Boots heavy, fluid sloshing with each awkward step, Skyler flew from the tunnel and back into the gray mist outside.
Subhuman wails rose all around him. He had enough sense to ready his weapon, and he surged forward, not wishing to slow down and allow himself to be surrounded.
A human shape formed in the mist ahead. Skyler fired without thinking, and the creature dropped. He did not break stride, even as he heard snarling from left and right.
He dodged shattered stumps and fallen trees, using the angle at which they lay to tell him which way was out. When he reached the stream he leapt across, took a sharp right turn, and followed the water. Skyler had no idea whether he had the direction right. He just ran. Figure it out later.
After a time he chanced a quick glance over his shoulder, then slowed to a stop when he realized he’d outrun them.
“The hell I did,” he muttered. Never in the last five years had he outrun a sub over any significant distance. They stopped short, for some reason. Baffled, he took a knee and waited for five long minutes. When his breathing and heart rate returned to normal, and no subhumans came loping out from the undergrowth, he stood and forced himself to relax.
Suit yourselves, he thought, and started walking. He let his feet guide him where they may, his mind wholly consumed with the image of that … thing … inside the shell ship. Patterns of red light pulsing through the microscopic lines of its skin, converging where its eyes should have been. He replayed the scene over and over, hoping it would become less terrifying. The fact that it didn’t only served to scare him more.
After a few hours of wandering he found himself back at the tiny village where the abandoned aura tower still waited, lodged into the side of a shack. The sun sat low in the western sky, kissing both horizon below and rainclouds above.
Halfway through securing a small home to make camp in, Skyler swore. He’d never reported his findings.
“Karl, come in,” he said after fumbling with the radio. “Hello? I need a team sent out here at dawn; it’s urgent. Full kit. We have a problem. Please acknowledge.”
Skyler smacked the radio with his palm, tried again, and found the same result. Either his device had failed, or Karl’s had. He tried a quick search of the dead colonists’ bodies, but if any had carried their radio out here, it had been lost in the confusion of their demise.
He had no other option but to camp here and return at dawn, and went about securing a small outlying building to serve as shelter. Satisfied he wouldn’t be surprised in the night, he ate a quick meal and cocooned himself in a blanket on the gritty tile floor.
Drifting off, beneath the insects, frogs, and other wildlife, Skyler thought he could hear the chanting again. It lulled him to a dreamless sleep.
He woke in a foul mood.
The sun blazed, already well above the horizon. Clouds huddled in angry clumps, scattered evenly across the sky, allowing long periods of sunlight to fall. Not even noon and the day promised uncomfortable heat. At least in Darwin the ocean breeze provided some respite.
After washing his face and swishing the staleness from his mouth, he heated a military-style packaged meal over a small flame. “Pork in rice,” the Aussie army package boasted like a dare. With some hot sauce it might have had enough flavor to excite a taste bud or two, but Skyler ate the mush just the same. Calories were calories, and it sure beat munching on another goddamn mango.
Sweating through breakfast, slapping his neck when insects landed there, Skyler mentally plotted his course. His duty to return the aura tower prevented him from reclaiming his motorcycle, so he saw no need to return via the reservoir and Water Road. Besides, he thought it best to keep the bike secret as long as he could. Instead he decided to take a shorter path to Belém’s edge, then return to camp via the straight and wide city streets, which were somewhat easier to navigate with a giant alien device.
Skyler took some time cleaning up the camp. He found the breakaway colonists’ backpacks and piled them neatly together under an awning. With no way to carry them all, Skyler figured they were safe enough after he draped a parka over them. Next he searched the bodies, finding only a few useful items: a pocketknife, a flashlight, and two compasses. Bloody amateurs. He made a mental note to prescribe a standard kit for any “away team” traveling beyond the established perimeter. The adventure travel store he’d found three weeks back would provide all the gear necessary and could be emptied out with one well-staffed mission.
He tried and failed again to contact Karl with his radio, then dashed the useless thing against a brick wall.
Belatedly he remembered it might be Karl’s radio on the fritz.
By the time he’d dislodged the aura tower and started to guide it back toward the Elevator, Skyler had begun to dread the colony’s reaction to what he’d found. They would probably debate it for a week, if not two.
So it had been with every topic in the last two months. He imagined that even the sighting of an actual Builder would be unlikely to change that.
Back during those first few exciting days he’d pictured himself in lockstep with Tania, working side by side with intelligent, highly motivated scientists and techs. Good people making good decisions, all under a clearly defined goal of building a colony worthy of the price they’d all paid to leave.
Skyler paused to take a drink of water. The liquid came out warm and tasted of minerals. He twisted the bulky cap back onto his canteen, but the threads didn’t line up. He tried again, gritting his teeth. The cap slipped again, and Skyler threw it in frustration before catching himself. He stood there in the muddy road, breathing evenly and unclenching his fists, until the emotion passed.
“Let it go,” he whispered to himself. “They’re doing the best they can.”
The truth was, most of the colonists in Belém hadn’t asked to leave their previous situation, in orbit around the Darwin Elevator. Tania had taken them when she detached Black Level. There’d been no time to explain, and most thought it was simply a temporary measure to escape the heavy-handed guards of Nightcliff. In the afterglow of their escape, they were seduced by the news of a fresh elevator. Another gift from the Builders.