The Exodus Towers
She held his gaze for a few seconds, aware of the stunned silence coming from Zane and Tim. “Two. We just need two shipments.”
“But I need all the bloody farm platforms, and not dropped on my head this time, please. Twenty shipments in exchange is my very generous offer.”
There were nineteen farm platforms, and they represented the Belém colony’s only leverage against Darwin. To give them up, she knew, would either make Belém dependent on Darwin or force the abandonment of the colony’s other two space stations. Neither scenario could be allowed.
Tania exhaled, slowly, through her nose. “Nine shipments, for nine platforms.”
“Deal,” he said, without hesitation.
Zane stood, red-faced. She’d never seen him angry before. “Hold please,” she said, and tapped the corresponding icon on the screen. When Russell’s face vanished behind a red overlay, she met Zane’s eyes. “What?”
“What the hell are you doing?” he barked.
“Buying us time.”
“You’re giving away our leverage!”
“Less than half of it,” Tania said. “They’ll still need us. We’ll probably get fewer people now, but considering the quality of the first two shipments, I don’t think a deluge of spies and vagrants is what we need right now.”
Zane grimaced. “We should have discussed this first.”
If Skyler had been in the room, Tania expected he would chuckle at that. “Everything’s a discussion now,” he’d said to her in frustration a few days ago.
Tania gathered herself. “If the two of you are going to sit off camera every time we have to deal with Darwin, I’m going to take that as permission to act on our behalf.” The words tumbled out before she could think to soften them.
Tim stopped leaning against the wall. His hands went to his sides and he glanced at Zane, then back. “Come on, Tania, it’s not like that. You’re just … the face of things.”
“Just a pretty face?”
“I didn’t mean that, you know I didn’t. Er, that didn’t come out right. Pretty, obviously, but … can I start over?”
“Tania,” Zane said, “you put too much burden on yourself. This … Camp Exodus, Melville Station, all the farms, this was Neil’s plan. We all followed it, we all knew the risks and knew what we were leaving behind. You don’t have to redeem yourself.”
“There’s plenty of people here who didn’t ask to come.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Zane said, “but no one has yet requested to go back to Darwin with the food shipments, despite the blanket approval to do so.”
Tania checked herself. Anger had risen so quickly she’d failed to recognize it, and had let it sneak out. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Zane cleared his throat. “Still, you make a good point. Major decisions should be put to a vote, as a general rule. That being said, sometimes it’s better to show decisive strength. Neil knew this.”
“He was the master at it,” Tania pointed out.
“And you may be right,” Zane went on, nodding. “We’re overburdened dealing with all these farms. Picking and packaging the food, the logistics of shipping ninety-five percent of it to Darwin. We have as many people working on that as they’re sending us, so what’s the point?”
“My thoughts, exactly,” Tania said.
Tim cleared his throat. His cheeks were still red from his earlier flub. “Nine shipments of air and water will last us months, a big chunk of the two-year plan. And half the remaining platforms will still be enough to feed us all, many times over, for years after that. I say we proceed.”
Zane took a breath, then nodded.
Tania tapped the hold icon again, and made her deal with the devil.
RUSSELL BLACKFIELD PROWLED across the rooftop, back and forth, barely able to contain his glee.
“I should call Alex first,” he said to himself. Gloating would feel so good.
Ten minutes earlier, before Tania came begging, he’d been slumped over his desk, beset by problem after bloody problem. A strike across the bay at the water plants. Confusion and lack of cooperation from the remaining space stations. Scavenger crews refusing to fly. Whispers of more rioting from the hungry mouths of Darwin. Rumors of the missing farm platforms sparking turf wars among the rooftop garden communes. From his vantage point high above Nightcliff’s yard, Russell could see a handful of smoke plumes rising off the skyscrapers that surrounded his fortress.
It all came back to food. And I’ve just solved that. “Thank me later!” he shouted at the city below him. “Ungrateful sods!”
All he wanted to do was get back to orbit, away from this miserable mess. The farms would come back soon. Not all, but enough to placate the miserable masses. He’d be the hero again and could focus on the most important issue: wrapping his hands around that gorgeous woman’s Indian neck and—
Russell spun at the voice. Kip Osmak stood in the doorway that led downstairs to the office, stringy gray hair framing his skeletal face. He might be, Russell mused, the ugliest secretary in the history of mankind.
“You’re supposed to bow,” Russell said.
“I … what—”
“I’m joking, you moron.”
Kip nodded. “Sir.”
After a few seconds of silence, Russell spread his hands. “Well? The fuck do you want?”
“Mr. Grillo is here to see you,” Kip said flatly.
“What the hell does he want? Is he at the gate?”
Kip stepped aside.
Grillo stood in the stairwell behind him. He stepped forward onto the roof, gingerly, as if afraid to get his shoes dirty.
The slumlord stood well short of two meters tall, his stature so slight that Russell thought he could pick him up with one hand. He wore narrow glasses low on his nose, and kept his black hair slick and combed back. A neat gray suit covered his thin frame, over a black turtleneck sweater. Russell had no idea how the man didn’t faint from the heat. How this slim and prim man built an empire of thugs and pushers across Darwin’s eastern quarter was an even bigger mystery.
“Greetings,” Russell said.
“Your grace,” Grillo said, with a respectful if sarcastic bow.
“Very funny,” Russell said. “Kip, shut the door behind you.”
Once the secretary clicked the door closed, Grillo stepped farther out, avoiding the puddles, until he reached the roof’s edge. He looked over the press of buildings beyond Nightcliff’s wall, ignoring Russell’s gaze.
They’d spoken by comm, briefly, after the fiasco in Africa. Russell had made a point not to apologize for the loss of aircraft, many of which Grillo had provided. The last thing he wanted was to admit any debt to the man. Instead he’d given him a scavenger list.
“Fantastic view,” Grillo muttered.
“I’ve got a busy day and a climber ride at six. Are you here to deliver the tracking device personally?”
“Your request has top priority,” Grillo said. “Scavenger resources are somewhat limited. We will find a working sample soon.”
Just ask me to apologize, man. Left unsaid was the fact that the independent crews, working out of the old airport, refused to cooperate with Russell after the immunes’ hangar had been searched and looted. He desperately wanted to take a few truckloads of regulars over there and clean house, if only he had some pilots to take their places. “Well,” Russell said. “What then?”
Grillo studied the city for a moment longer. “No fires to the east,” he said.
The comment surprised Russell. He glanced in that direction, and then studied the rest of the horizon. Sure enough, all of the buildings showing evidence of violence were south, and west.
East, Grillo’s territory, looked the very picture of business as usual. Russell struggled to see the point. “You run a tight ship, I’ll give you that.”
Grillo replied with a thin smile. Smug son of a bitch.
“Are you here for an apology?” Russell asked.
The short man cocked an eyebrow at that.
“Fine. I’m sorry,” Russell said. “I apologize for your aircraft lost during our chase of the traitor, Tania—”
“Apology unnecessary,” Grillo said, waving a hand as if the air held a stench. “That endeavor was worth its risks. And, no, that’s not why I’m here.”
The measured way he spoke unnerved Russell. “Why, then?”
“I’d like to show you something,” Grillo said. “Perhaps you could spare a few hours.”
“Show me what?”
“A solution,” the man said with total sincerity.
Russell’s assumption that Grillo had flown to Nightcliff proved wrong. The man had walked, through the Maze, with just two bodyguards. His turf, after all.
So Russell commandeered an idle water hauler from Nightcliff’s yard, and in less than half an hour they were airborne, heading east.
The cramped cabin had not been made for casual passengers, and Russell found himself sitting in a foldout hot seat across from Grillo. Their bodyguards filled the four remaining spots, save for the cockpit, where a bitter Platz company pilot guided the aircraft over Rancid Creek, then the Maze, toward the old football stadium where Grillo ran his scavenger crews. The pilot’s daughter had made the mistake of shacking up with one of Nightcliff’s workers, and thus became the perfect motivator to keep her father from striking like the rest of the Platz workers across the bay. The girl would remain confined to her lover’s quarters until the storm passed. “Anything other than total enthusiasm from you,” Russell told the pilot a month earlier, “and I’ll start visiting the little whore myself.”
He’d been a model of reliability ever since.
Grillo stared out the open side of the cabin, watching his territory drift by below. The wind swirling into the cabin failed to ruffle even one hair on the slickster’s head. His expression held no hint of the ruthless overlord everyone claimed him to be. No, Russell thought, he looked upon the crumbling buildings like a concerned father.
Not just concerned, he decided. Proud.
“Solution to what?” Russell shouted over the roar of wind.
Grillo took a few seconds before removing his attention from the ground below. He fixed his gaze on Russell and leaned in. “Riots. Disease. Hunger. Warring neighborhoods. Unruly, ungrateful citizens who ultimately only care about one thing.”
“Saving their own asses?”
“No,” Grillo said with sadness. “Whom to blame for their misfortune.”
Russell’s mouth snapped shut with a click.
“We no longer live in a world where Neil Platz can shoulder the burden of scapegoat.”
The aircraft banked, circled, and began to descend.
“Scapegoat,” Russell said. “I suppose that’s my job now?”
Grillo tilted his head to one side and back, so that he could study Russell through his narrow glasses. “The line between scapegoat and savior is a thin one, Mr. Blackfield.”
Whatever you’ve got to show me, Russell thought, it better be fucking incredible after this sermon. “Wise words,” he said.
The aircraft set down in the center of the playing field. The vast space that once held green grass and painted boundaries had long ago been stripped down to bare concrete. Makeshift houses and tents covered the stands where roaring fans once cheered. Despite their ramshackle materials, Russell couldn’t help but notice the orderly layout. Laundry hung from wires between the gaps, and wisps of smoke rose through ductwork chimneys.
Only two other aircraft were parked on the improvised airfield. Seven had been destroyed in Africa thanks to Tania’s lie. Russell knew the loss had depleted Grillo’s fleet, yet somehow the sight of two lonely planes made the impact a tangible thing.
A fleet of trucks and vans waited for them, parked in a perfect line at the edge of the landing zone. Men and women in plainclothes sat on the bumpers or atop the roofs, weapons resting across their knees or strapped across their chest. They watched as Russell and the others stepped down from the idling aircraft.
Through some silent order, the foot soldiers sprang into action. Drivers jumped into their seats, sparking up their electronics to warm the vehicle’s ultracaps. Others moved to stand in the truck’s empty beds, leaning over the driver’s cabs, rifles at the ready.
Russell couldn’t help but harbor some envy. If only his men reacted with such efficiency at the simple flick of a hand.
Grillo led them to a nondescript truck near the center of the line. If the vehicle held any special feature—armor plating, or some hidden weapon—Russell couldn’t see it. The crime boss might have chosen it at random, for all Russell knew. It fit his personality, at least.
“Old McMillan’s, in Coconut Grove,” Grillo said to the driver.
With only a second to spare, Russell managed to find a handhold. The truck’s motors whined as it surged forward, spearheading the group as the others fell in behind.
The driver took them out a huge gate at the far end of the field, and in less than a minute the line of vehicles snaked through the slums Grillo owned. Men, women, and children alike came out to watch the caravan roll by. Their complacent faces filled the windows above the narrow streets, too.
Russell kept quiet. Coconut Grove was near Nightcliff. Why Grillo hadn’t gone straight there from the fortress confused him, until he realized the obvious difference: Grillo didn’t have a small army with him when he met Russell at Nightcliff.