The Exodus Towers
And then came the aura towers. The scientists were in nirvana, for a time.
Less than two weeks later, the grumbling started. Scratching out an existence was hard enough. Add to that the grueling work of loading climbers to get supplies on the cord before the farms began to fail. With astonishing speed, questions were raised about societal structure. Who put Tania in charge? When will we have an election, a constitution? Who gets to live in orbit? Who is this dirty scavenger from Darwin and why isn’t he out finding us some meat?
Most Orbitals were used to buying their survival.
Rock bottom was reached, in Skyler’s opinion, when the first shuttle load of colonists arrived from Darwin. Tania and the others had really botched this part. Skyler found himself shaking his head even now, two weeks on.
Blackfield sent over an even mix of Cro-Magnon rejects from Nightcliff security and coughing swagmen from some forgotten corner of the Maze. The ones who showed any intelligence at all were so obviously spies that Skyler found himself chuckling about it right in front of them. “Back inside, mate, and give Russell our regards.”
Sam had not been among them, nor Kelly, despite his request to Tania that they be asked for by name. Blackfield claimed he was trying to track them down, and Skyler could practically see the smirk surely on his face while making that claim.
Slogging through the mud and broken concrete, he guided the device roughly in line with the road, fine-tuning its pace until he could walk beside it without exhausting himself. The queer creaking sound made by a moving tower still raised the hairs on his forearms, but he found it somehow comforting. The constantly shifting form of the tower’s base, as it altered its shape to track the ground beneath it, mesmerized him. Informal tests done at base camp implied the towers could deform over and around objects about thirty centimeters high, and climb inclines as steep as twenty degrees. At least, that was the maximum slope they had available to try.
Remarkably, the towers required human contact, the firm press of an ungloved hand, to be set in motion. The implication rattled many in the camp, that the Builders had somehow “keyed” the objects to humans. It meant their actions were specifically targeted at us, and not just a random event. So the theory went, anyway. Skyler thought they were jumping to conclusions, and besides, what difference did it make?
He heard the scream just before impact.
The creature plowed into him and they both went sprawling into the mud of the road, Skyler falling backward, his hands pinned down, gun slung over his shoulder. The subhuman hit him squarely in the abdomen, wrapping strong arms around him. They tumbled and rolled, down the sloped road back toward the village.
Mud filled Skyler’s mouth and nose. He gasped and spat, blinking his eyes. Kicking wildly, he yanked his arms straight upward, freeing them even as he rolled. The tumble ended with Skyler on his back, the sub clawing at him. Skyler threw a blind punch, cuffing the animal on its ear. It held on, so he hit it again, and then once more, before it finally fell away and scrambled for a better position.
Skyler rolled in the opposite direction, using one hand to push himself to a crouch and the other to wipe the mud from his eyes. He cleared his vision enough to see the sub—a woman—bounding toward him again. No time to ready his gun, Skyler dipped his shoulder low and let the creature topple over his back. He jerked upright at the same time, raising his shoulder, sending the creature in a full flip straight into a thorny, gnarled bush.
It shrieked and flailed, which only served to entangle it further.
Skyler spat more mud from his mouth, feeling the grit between his teeth. He brought his gun to bear and unleashed two rounds into the creature’s torso.
A tech from Belém, the clothing implied. The sixth member of the missing team.
“There you are,” Skyler muttered, between gasps. Everyone present and accounted for, finally.
When the creature drew its last breath, Skyler slung his weapon again and washed the mud from his face with water from the canteen. The earthen taste in his mouth took some time to cleanse, ample opportunity to come down from the adrenaline high.
Wits gathered, he jogged back to the still-moving aura tower, giving it a small course correction as the road turned.
SKYLER KEPT A slow pace on the way back to base camp. Mock conversations played out in his mind about how to explain what he’d seen. The colonists were scientists for the most part, and would ask him endless questions.
The truth was he had no idea what he’d seen. A subhuman, he thought, being—transformed? Enveloped? Armored? Hell, he might have it reversed. What if the ship was creating them? Clones, or something.
He shook his head. Speculation accomplished little, and he could leave that to campfire chats among the colonists. As soon as Tania and the others voted to do so, he’d take a team back there and figure out what new toy the Builders had sent.
At the city outskirts he guided the alien tower over a short bridge that spanned a man-made tributary. Despite years of neglect, runoff still raced toward the Rio Pará. He nudged the tower around a derelict Toyota. The tall mass glided as if it weighed no more than Skyler himself.
He’d spent more time than he cared to admit pondering the point of the devices. Their usefulness was obvious: movable pockets of precious aura to fend off SUBS. His immunity didn’t lessen an appreciation for the gift.
But why? Usefulness aside, what were the bloody Builders up to? He shook his head again. More speculation. A pointless topic to ponder. Everyone at base camp had theories, from plausible to crazy and everything in between.
Someone had suggested that perhaps the Builders had intended to colonize Earth, had sent their construction vessels, but had themselves died along the way. That or the project lost funding, someone had joked. Skyler had barked a hearty laugh at that. “What a terrifying thought,” he’d said, “that they’re just as fucked-up as we are.”
Across the bridge he found himself in Belém’s vast outer slum. Kilometer after kilometer of shanty homes, hopeless churches, and the occasional grouping of shops and taverns. All abandoned, all in some state of embalmment by the unchecked growth of the rainforest. Skeletal corpses littered the ground with such number that they became as mundane as trees.
Skyler pulled the tourist’s map from his breast pocket, along with a permanent pen. Once he found his bearings, he began to walk again and make abbreviated notes. A pharmacy he noted with “rx.” Taverns and liquor stores got a little happy face. A circle around the marking meant he’d gone inside and found it to contain useful things. An X meant nothing worthwhile remained. The map had around fifty such markings already, all within a few kilometers of the Elevator. He’d barely explored the city at all yet.
For an instant his eyes lingered on the mark he’d made the day before. IMMUNE. The vision of that young woman, white dress billowing about her perfect legs, clouded his mind’s eye. He pictured her naked backside as she ran from him across the field. A longing stirred within him and he mentally slapped himself back to reality.
He drew a little monster wherever he encountered a subhuman. In the month since touchdown, only a handful had been encountered, until yesterday. The bizarre scene at that crash site explained their absence across the rest of the region. He drew a bold circle around the rough location of the crashed shell ship.
A chill coursed through his body and Skyler paused. He let the tower drift on and ducked into the shadow of a single-room home made of lashed-together aluminum siding. For a long minute he stood there, studying the surrounding homes. Nothing moved, save the occasional lizard sprinting across a wall, or birds darting from tree to electric pole.
He’d been deep in thought, and sensed something, heard something perhaps. The moment passed. With nothing else to go on, he readied his weapon just in case and jogged to catch up to the aura tower.
Halfway there he heard the faint sound again. A wump wump wump, scarcely loud enough to be heard over the constant background of birds, insects, and countless drips of runoff water.
A machine gun. A big one, at that. Not like the weapons some of the colonists carried.
He pushed the tower around a corner in the road to get a view south, toward the space elevator.
Sunlight caught the thin cord like a strand of spider silk. Skyler followed it to the ground and saw birds. Hundreds of them, streaming from the trees that surrounded base camp.
He started to run.
Some stupid sense of duty kept him from abandoning the aura tower altogether.
He pushed and guided it through the uneven grid of streets, around abandoned vehicles and the occasional tree sprouting right through the road.
The gunfire had stopped. Or at least he hadn’t heard any more over his own labored breathing.
With the aura tower in tow it took almost an hour to weave his way through the city before he found familiar terrain. The Elevator had implanted near a tributary that fed into the Rio Guamá, on the city’s southern edge. A university campus to the west were the nearest buildings of any real size, ringed by a two-meter-high stucco wall that had been white half a decade ago. Vines blanketed the surface now.
Skyler slowed the tower as he passed the campus entrance.
There were tire tracks in the mottled road. Fresh ones, from multiple vehicles.
Baffled and concerned, he let the massive object amble along on its own while he kept it within arm’s reach. He moved around to its side, keeping it to his left and the stucco wall on his right.
At the edge of the wall, base camp came into view. He saw the sign first, hand painted on a plank of wood. CAMP EXODUS. One of the colonists had made it of their own accord and nailed it to a fence post. In a colony where every little decision required hours of pointless debate, Skyler reveled in the fact that the name had been coined on a whim and stuck. It wasn’t the greatest name, not by a long shot, but he could only imagine what sort of stupid blandness a consensus would have arrived at. A hundred tents of varying size and color dominated the mottled field beyond, interrupted here and there by shipping containers that constituted the communal buildings—meeting hall, mess, and storage.
The aura towers were interspersed throughout all of these, arranged now in concentric circles, with the smallest ones at the outside.
In between these towers and his position, a dozen or more military and police vehicles were parked, forming an inverted wedge around the landward part of the colony. At least two had gunners manning turrets, sweeping back and forth in slow arcs.
Skyler counted roughly twenty men and women, in matching black uniforms, fanned out across the line, weapons in hand. Beyond them, colonists were standing in clumps, hands raised. Some of the black-clad intruders were barking orders at them, too far away for Skyler to hear the words.
Nightcliff? No. Impossible. Unlikely that they could have found the colony, and even more ridiculous that they could get so many fresh ground vehicles halfway across the globe. Who then?
He realized with sudden panic that he was standing in the open, a few steps out from the cover of the wall. The aura tower he’d brought back now drifted slowly east in blissful, uncaring ignorance of its surroundings. Its path, Skyler realized, would take it straight into the side of an armored personnel carrier.
The scene gripped him. He knew he should back away, find cover, and watch, but the ambling tower’s collision course was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Two of the militant intruders sat atop the vehicle, their posture relaxed, their focus on the colony. Skyler thought of shouting a warning but found he couldn’t. He knew the tower would halt its own progress, but the men sitting there might not. They’d just see a giant black obelisk bearing down on them—
One of the intruders, a dark-skinned man, finally turned enough to see the shape looming, a second before impact. He shouted something and leapt from the roof of the massive truck. His partner dove off the other side, an instant before the tower reached them.
The aura tower hit the side of the vehicle, rocking it slightly before coming to a rest.
A moment of confusion passed. The closer man had come up on all fours, looking at the huge shape. Others from the group called out. Some of the militants were running over to investigate.
The man on the ground, though, stared directly at Skyler.
He rocked back onto his knees and raised an assault rifle.
Skyler took a gamble with his life. He turned and ran, rather than taking cover. Bullets hissed over his head even as the crackle from the gun reached him. The man was firing from the hip, a shot that only worked in movies and sensories.
A chorus of alarmed shouts followed. Skyler figured the man would correct his position and take a more calculated shot next, so he grasped a thick vine that ran horizontally along the old university wall and used it to propel himself up and over the barricade.
He landed hard in a courtyard on the other side, in knee-high wild grass. A plan formed on pure instinct: Move west, into the city. Disappear.
Weaving through the old campus at a full sprint, Skyler reached the wall on the western side in less than a minute, the shouts at his back growing dimmer with each second. He spotted a section of wall that had partially collapsed, and hurdled it without breaking stride. The ground beyond was muddy and he slipped on it, tumbling and rolling. Old wounds complained, a din he knew he could shove from his mind. He’d be a mess in the morning, assuming he survived that long.
A quick glance back proved inconclusive. He heard activity but saw nothing. Looking west, he scanned the low buildings along the city edge, looking for a good place to go to ground.
Behind him came the sound of bulky tires crushing rock and soil, and the high-pitched hum of electric motors.
He began to run again. A snap decision made, he raced toward the wide river and the dockyards that lined it.