The Exodus Towers

Page 7


The realization hit him as he reached the dockyard: The newcomers must be immunes.
They’d arrived in that hodgepodge armada of combat vehicles without any aura towers to protect them. No other explanation made sense. There were deep implications his brain desperately wanted to analyze, but the roar of tires on the tortured road behind him renewed his focus.
Skyler raced through an open gate and down a steeply sloped asphalt road that led to trampled shore. The murky Rio Guamá stretched more than a kilometer wide here, still swelled by the rainy season. A line of trees on the horizon marked the far shore, too far to swim. On this, the northern side, long wooden docks stretched out fifty meters over the water, as far as Skyler could see. Two- and three-story warehouses, all broken windows and weathered walls, backed the crumbling structures.
Corpses of watercraft filled the spaces between docks. Many were cargo ships and flat barges, faded logos of international produce companies still visible on their sides. The rest were smaller, recreational, likely borne down the fast river over the years only to snag here on the piers. Amassed around the boats were islands of trash, dead trees, and other debris. The smell of mold, dead fish, and rotting vegetation permeated everything and churned his stomach.
Skyler slowed when his feet met the wooden slats of the dock. Many of the boards were black and rotten, and he guessed the massive vehicle chasing him would fall right through. He chanced a glance back and saw the beast careening down the ramp he’d just traversed. Knobby tires under an angular black shell of riveted steel. An anti-riot car, he guessed. It looked like it had been painted black recently, with hints of an FNSP logo—national police—underneath. A shielded turret topped the vehicle, and Skyler could see someone’s helmet behind the slotted plate. The gunner struggled to keep his aim as the vehicle careened down the ramp.
Skyler angled toward a gap between warehouses just as the buzz from the chain gun shattered the quiet of the shore. Shards of rotten wood filled the air around him. Skyler covered the sides of his face with both arms and high-stepped the last few meters until he’d safely moved behind the building.
His heart raced, blood pulsing in his ears. His breaths came in short bursts as the rush of the narrow escape swelled through him. Skyler vaulted himself over a stack of blue plastic fruit crates and kept running, angling toward the wall of the next building over. He came to an open door and took a glance in, only to find it a horrible rotting mess. Rats were everywhere, bolting for shelter when he stepped into view. The smell of the place forced him to cover his mouth and nose. He moved on, rushing around the back of the building, dancing around abandoned skid-steers and electric forklifts.
Shrieking tires and anxious shouts were heard behind him. They’d stopped short of driving onto the dock then, killing Skyler’s hopes for a farcical end to the chase. He let his pace dip so that he could get his breathing under control. Everything stank, worse than even Darwin’s choked shoreline. The odor brought tears to his eyes.
He jumped over a corpse, a dockworker judging by the faded coveralls. Nothing but bone and some gray skin with matted hair underneath the brittle clothing now. Bodies were everywhere in the urban places Skyler had visited, but once in a while he saw one that still disturbed him. They were a hard reminder of the billions that died in the first months of the disease.
He heard footsteps somewhere behind, and took the next corner to put himself between buildings again, facing the brownish river now. Guessing his pursuers would flank him from both ends, he stopped and lay down on the grimy wood. A hard three-count later, he rolled back around the wall with his gun at the ready.
The man pursuing him was looking down, stepping around the decayed body of the dockworker.
Skyler lined up the red dot of his holo-sight on the man’s chest and squeezed off two rounds. The gun’s sight made his aim virtually flawless, and the poor fellow collapsed on top of the body that already lay there. One more to the tally.
A pang of regret gripped him for shooting a fellow immune, something he’d never done before. The sound of approaching footsteps meant he would have to repeat the performance if he didn’t get away. So Skyler set aside his instinctual urge to search the body, stood, and ran.
Moving quickly again, he dashed along the backside of the warehouses, scaling one chain-link fence and ducking through a gap in another. Near the end of the dockyard he heard shouts off to his left, over a series of ragged grunts.
Then came a familiar wail.
He never thought their presence would be so welcome.
Against a backdrop of shouting and gunfire, Skyler left the dockyard and bolted straight into the dense slums of Belém, head thick with confusion and numbing fear.
Chapter 8
Melville Station
TANIA COULD NOT look Zane Platz in the eye.
He sat across the metal table from her, drumming his fingers like his older brother had sometimes done. Between them lay the comm, their link to the ground, theoretically. Nothing had come across in forty-eight hours.
They should be celebrating. The first climber to rise from Belém with a significant shipment of air and water was supposed to have arrived hours ago, a critical milestone in the colony’s survival. But the climber never left the ground. Instead Tania had seen Karl thrown violently across the screen, then a hand deactivating the camera. Five seconds later a simple message filled the screen: “Connection lost.”
“Something has to be done, Tania,” Zane said, in a quiet and pitiful voice.
People, Karl had said, not subhumans. People. It couldn’t have been a mistake.
“Tania …”
She kept her eyes on the comm. “What did he mean, ‘Who are you people?’ What people?”
Zane ran a hand over his tired face. “We’ve been over this many times.”
“Suppose Blackfield snuck an aircraft in and has taken over? They could be on their way up.”
“The controller still shows red. The climber is attached, but it hasn’t left Belém.”
Tania grimaced. “What other explanation is there?”
Zane broke eye contact at that. He stared at the table in front of him, a vein visibly pulsing at his temple. After a moment he pinched the bridge of his nose and winced. “I should have a lie-down.”
Tania studied him. His face contorted in pain for a few seconds, then he seemed to relax. “Okay. We can talk later,” she started.
“My headache can wait,” he grumbled. “This decision can’t.”
“Maybe it’s the Builders,” Tim said. He leaned against the wall by the closed conference room door, a steaming cup of tea in his hand. “Maybe they look like us, like people.”
Zane did a half turn in his chair. “You’re worse than she is.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Tania,” Zane said, gathering himself, “we can’t continue to sit here and speculate endlessly. It’s been two months since we had a solid shipment of consumables. We’ll have to evacuate soon. Crops are starting to brown—”
“I know,” she said.
“Something’s gone wrong down there, and we need to act—”
“I know, dammit!” She looked up at him, finally. Met his eyes, saw the thick black bags under them. She saw his fear, his yearning to fix things, but most of all she saw his plea for someone, anyone, to make a decision. Zane had spent his whole life leaving the decisions to his deceased brother, Neil. In many ways she had, too, and she wondered if Zane saw the same plea in her eyes. She turned back to the screen. “The climber controls show red. We can’t send anyone down to investigate, or rescue them, or anything else.”
Zane and Tim both stared at her with glum expressions.
“Worse,” she added, “we can’t evacuate.”
“Not to Belém,” Tim whispered.
A long silence followed. Until now, no one had voiced that option. Tania forced herself not to speak until she could control her voice. “Returning to the Darwin Elevator is a last resort, agreed?”
“Personally, I’d rather suffocate,” Zane said.
“Hear, hear,” said Tim.
Unable to stare at the comm any longer, Tania stood and paced the back wall of the room. Tim’s posture by the door made her feel trapped.
Think, think.
More than anything she wished she could talk to Skyler. Increasingly gruff attitude aside, he still had a certain knack for laying out stark options in a clear manner. Somehow it made things easier. Taking a deep breath, Tania decided to try the technique herself.
“Let’s assume for now that Nightcliff has taken over the ground colony below us.”
“We don’t know—”
“Would you just listen for a moment, please?”
Zane closed his mouth and gave a slow nod. Despite his words, she caught a glimmer of relief in his eyes.
“Nightcliff holds the ground. Fine. Let’s get Blackfield on the comm, then, and find a way to resolve this. We still hold the farms.”
“You’d think he would have contacted us by now,” Zane mused.
“If they hold the Elevator base, the air, and the water,” Tim said, “we’re in no position to negotiate.”
“We have to try,” Tania said. “It’s the only logical action at this point. Unless you have other ideas?”
Neither man offered a suggestion.
“Okay, settled,” Tania said. “Tim, see if you can get us a connection, and patch it through here, please.”
“You got it,” he replied.
A half hour later, Tania found herself looking at Russell Blackfield. He looked like he always did. His blond hair was uncombed and close-cropped, and stubble shadowed his face. His eyes perpetually gave the impression that he was about to spar and wanted to win.
“A video feed this time,” he said with a grin. “How lucky for me.”
She made a conscious effort to keep her face blank. They’d spoken only three times since she’d tried to kill him, and she’d avoided video in those calls lest he see the fear and uncertainty in her face. This time she decided it was worth the risk, so that she could study his expression as well.
“Hello, Russell.”
The man nodded. “Nice to see you, too. I’d forgotten what a lovely woman you are.”
Tania fought to keep a wave of revulsion behind her mask. Dark memories of a dank cell below Nightcliff, two foul-smelling guards scrubbing her naked body as she stared at herself in the wall-sized mirror, retreating within, knowing somewhere in a deep corner of her mind that Blackfield watched from the other side. She’d refused to acknowledge it, and sat there in numb stillness with no effort to cover herself. The lack of struggle had been seen as an invitation to continue. A shudder rippled through her.
“Talkative as ever,” Russell added.
“We need to discuss the situation here,” she said, surprised at her own words.
His eyes dipped for a moment, and he shifted his weight in his seat. “Was our second delivery of slaves—pardonnez moi, volunteers—not up to snuff?”
Tania kept her eyes on the screen, but in the corner of her field of view she could see Zane Platz. His eyebrows went up, and she knew they shared the same thought: Russell doesn’t know. He doesn’t know about the silenced colony, he doesn’t even know where they are. The tone of his voice told her this with absolute certainty.
“The new colonists will do fine,” she lied. “We’re still placing them.”
“Oh, colonists. What an interesting word to use, as it implies a colony.”
A sarcastic grin stretched across his face. “Let me know when you’re ready for more.”
Tania drew a breath. “About that. We would like to change the parameters of the next shipment.”
“Want a few whores this time? We’ve got plenty of them. Nothing keeps a bunch of cooped-up men happy like a few loose tarts.”
She refused to be baited. “No, thanks.”
“Handling the needs of the men yourself?”
If not for their predicament, she would have ended the call right then. She would let Darwin starve, just to avoid ever speaking to this man again. If only … if only the colony wasn’t offline. If only supply shipments were coming in at a reliable pace. If only they’d had more time to think this whole endeavor through. If only Skyler would rescue me again so Russell didn’t have to, she thought, lamely.
Tania wanted to slap herself for that. She felt weak and helpless, and despised that feeling even more than she despised the man on the screen in front of her.
There were no other options though. Time was not on their side, either. Something had to be done. “No people this time, Russell. We’d like you to deliver two standard shipments of air and water.”
Russell’s laughter came through the speaker so loud that Tania winced.
Across the table, Zane had his hands over his face. He was shaking his head.
What? Tania mouthed, but Zane didn’t see.
“Wow,” Russell said, his chuckling finally under control. “Bad move, sweetheart. You admit to me that you’re all about to die. Unless we help, of course.”
Tania’s hesitation gave him his answer, and Russell pounced.
“Now I have you over the barrel,” he said. “God, the visual that gives me.”
He pretended to daydream for a few seconds, and Tania could only watch.
“Sorry,” Russell said, “I was in another place there for a second. Air and water, eh? Tell you what, love, I will trade you … oh, let’s see … twenty standard shipments, for the return of the farm platforms.” He folded his arms in satisfaction, leaned into the camera, and smiled.