The Exodus Towers

Page 9


Yet he could have lined all these vehicles up outside the fortress gate. Rolling through the Maze, Russell thought he understood. Grillo wanted him to see this. Calm streets, faces filled not with fear or dismay but with quiet respect.
In Coconut Grove, a portion of Darwin that butted against Nightcliff’s southern edge, the buildings were much taller. Offices and luxury apartments before the disease came, the once-gleaming structures were called home by many multinational aerospace and tech companies that had flocked to Darwin during the heyday of the space elevator. Some had been abandoned before completion, their upper floors just framing and scaffolds. These made the best gardens, with potted plants and trees stretching all the way up the open grid of steel beams.
One, Russell saw, had a few spot fires burning near the lowest floors of the garden.
If Russell’s intelligence was up to date, Grillo had little sway in this area. Barreling down the center of the street, at the tip of a fleet of vehicles carrying armed civilians, Russell didn’t need any more hints to guess the purpose of Grillo’s theatrics.
He played along, regardless. “What are we doing here?”
“Attempting to impress you,” Grillo said.
Russell grinned, despite himself. “I’ve been to orbit. Fought in orbit, shagged in orbit. Saw the Builders’ turd of a spacecraft.”
“There’s fondness in your voice,” Grillo said. “I’ve heard you spend most of your time up there now.”
True enough, Russell thought. He shrugged.
“Hold your judgment,” Grillo added. He leaned around the truck’s cab and spoke to the driver again. “Proceed,” he simply said.
Russell heard a noise above. He glanced up, fighting the noon sun, and saw two aircraft swooping in over the skyscrapers. They were in formation, side by side. As Russell watched, one banked and separated while the other matched the same direction the ground vehicles were on.
The truck slowed and turned. Russell glanced down in time to see other vehicles in the line surge forward on either side. They approached the same building the aircraft had and surrounded it.
Grillo’s people leapt from the backs of their vehicles before they even stopped. They took down two lackwit guards at the barricaded entrance and swarmed inside before the bodies even hit the ground.
Russell took a quick glance backward, expecting to see the remaining portion of Grillo’s force moving in behind. His eyebrows shot up when he saw the truth: They were moving on a building across the street, using the same tactics.
Grillo hadn’t budged. He stood firm, on the bed of the truck, both hands resting on top of the cab. Five minutes passed, marked by sporadic gunfire from within the building. The aircraft above circled the two buildings. Twice Russell thought he heard machine-gun fire from them, but they were too high up for him to be sure.
“I would have gone in with them,” Russell said, hoping to sound casual.
Grillo frowned. “We all have our specialties. Yours is fighting.”
“What’s yours?”
“I make friends.”
Russell snorted a laugh. He doubted many residents in these buildings would be friendly now.
Grillo turned and stepped lightly from the back of the truck bed. His bodyguards stayed behind. Russell followed, ordering his two men to wait in the truck as well. He fell in next to Grillo, expecting they would enter one of the buildings. Instead Grillo moved with calm confidence to the center of the street, placed his hands behind his back, and waited. Unsure what to do, Russell stood next to him. He shifted from foot to foot, feeling exposed in the middle of the wide avenue, out in the squalor and anarchy of Darwin.
“In hindsight,” Grillo said, “I should have had you wear a disguise of some sort. Your presence adds some complexity.”
“Give me a gun and I’ll go inside where the action is.”
“The real action is out here, Mr. Blackfield. Ah, as you now will see.”
A group of Grillo’s people came out of the building to their right. They prodded an Asian man ahead. Three other prisoners were shuffled off to the side and held there. All four of the captives shared the same bewildered expression.
The man, an elder, was ushered toward the center of the street. His eyes grew even wider when he recognized Russell.
Before anyone could speak, another group came out from the building to the left. Two burly men were led forward. One held a hand to his forehead, and Russell could see a trickle of blood coming down his wrist and forearm.
These two scowled when they saw Russell, and their expressions turned to raw hatred when they saw the Asian man held across from them.
Grillo moved to stand between the two parties. He held out a hand toward each, motioning downward, willing them to be calm.
“You are Shane Killen and Ben Paston,” the crime lord said to the two men on his left. “You claim ownership and control of the building called Phoenix, and its inhabitants.”
“Who the hell are you?” one asked in a thick New Zealander accent.
“I go by Grillo in most circles,” the short man said.
The two men exchanged a glance, faces flushed. Their eyes both darted to Russell, then back.
Grillo ignored them for the moment and turned to the Asian on his right. He spoke to the man in accented Chinese. The man’s anger melted away as Grillo spoke. “May I continue in English?” Grillo asked, and received a nod.
The fighting had stopped, and a strange serenity fell over the wide street. Russell saw faces in the shadows, people gathering in the alleyways, watching.
“If you’re going to kill us, get it over with,” the one called Shane Killen said.
“On the contrary, Mr. Killen, I’m here to hire you.”
The word tripped everyone present, including Russell.
Shane’s eyes narrowed as he recovered his composure. “Meaning what?”
“I’ve a job for you,” Grillo said. “For all of you. It’s a simple one, one you’re already extremely good at: growing food.”
“We do this already,” the Chinese man said.
“Not lately. Not enough,” Grillo said. Russell marveled at how he kept his voice calm, even when calling someone a liar. “You see, gentlemen, rumors have spread like SUBS through this city of a problem with the farms above. Such chatter has brought panic to certain districts—”
Except yours, Russell added mentally.
“—and has led to a situation humanity cannot afford right now. You fight each other. You fend off the poor who live on these streets, forcing them to fight among themselves. The problem cascades across the entire city. Worst of all, you hoard your food even as you burn the other’s.”
The Chinese man cast his eyes down to the cracked pavement, shamed. The two Kiwis remained steadfast, if not defiant.
“Unity is required,” Grillo said in a new tone of unmistakable authority, without raising his voice.
“You want us to work with him?” Shane said.
“No,” Grillo said. “You’re going to work for Darwin. You’re going to set aside your petty squabbles, your outdated sense of ownership and entitlement. You’re going to grow food, more of it than you thought possible, and you’re going to share it.”
“Or what?”
Grillo tilted his head, the same way he had with Russell when they stood atop Nightcliff. “Or nothing,” he said. “I’ll leave you to your vertical kingdom, and devote all of my energy, resources, and friends to the buildings that surround yours.”
Another group came out of the Phoenix building. Shane and Ben both turned to watch as a gaggle of women and children were ushered outside.
“Ah,” Grillo said. “Your wives and families. I’ve invited them to visit my home over in Lyons.” With a simple gesture, Grillo’s people prodded the terrified group toward a pair of waiting vans.
Shane stepped toward Grillo. “You lay a damn finger on them—”
“Please,” the slumlord said. “They’re to be my guests until our new business arrangement is fully up and running.”
For a span of ten seconds Shane stared down Grillo, his nostrils flaring. His partner, Ben, reached out and gripped the man on his shoulder. “Give us a minute, Grillo,” he said.
They stepped away and began a quiet, animated chat.
“All right,” Russell said. “I’m impressed. But this is two buildings out of a thousand.”
“Dominoes,” Grillo said.
“Even you don’t have enough people to enforce such deals across the city.”
Grillo offered a quizzical look. “No? Mr. Li, how many people reside in your commune?”
The Chinese man had been watching his own family, who still stood near the entrance of his building. “Four thousand.”
“A similar count across the street, I’d guess.” Grillo looked at Russell with total sincerity. “You see? I’ve just added eight thousand people to my sphere of influence, and it’s not even lunchtime.”
Russell bristled. “Li, give us a moment,” he said. When the man moved out of earshot, Russell stepped close to Grillo, using his height advantage to full effect. “I’m not going to let you take over my city.”
Grillo shook his head. “Let’s not pretend you exercise any authority out here. You’ve left these people to their own devices for years.” He raised a hand to quell Russell’s objection. “Who can blame you? You have enough problems to deal with.”
“Get to the damn point, Grillo.”
“Under centralized, coordinated leadership, this city can flourish. I can make that happen, with your … blessing.”
“Or without, it seems.”
Grillo shook his head. “You still don’t understand.”
“Stop talking like a Platz, then, and get to the point.”
The man nodded. “Under the flag of Nightcliff, I can bring order and prosperity to this city. They will sing our names.”
“Or,” Grillo said, “I could fan a shit storm beyond anything you can imagine.”
Russell clenched his fists.
“Raise a hand against me,” Grillo said, “and no less than six snipers will compete to put the first bullet through your brain.”
“I don’t like being threatened,” Russell growled.
“No one does. This is an excellent deal for you, Blackfield. I’m offering to take over the headache this city gives you and allow you to focus on bigger issues.”
“And all I have to do is, what, turn a blind eye to your conquest of the roofers?”
“A bit more than that,” Grillo said. “Without your explicit mandate, this won’t work.”
“Make me your prefect of Nightcliff, with full confidence to do whatever is required to bring the city under control. I’ll give you regular reports, and you’ll still have full authority, while being able to spend your time in orbit, settling matters there.”
The words percolated through Russell’s mind. He craved a healthy gulp of vodka.
“Six months,” Grillo said. “If you give me that, I’ll give you Darwin on a silver platter.”
“Starting when?”
Grillo extended a hand. “About an hour ago.”
By the time the firm handshake ended, Russell found himself considering ways to root the ambitious prick from his inevitable hold on Darwin. Three months, he thought, should be enough for Grillo’s strategy to become a bullet train with no brakes, and then he could be tossed over Nightcliff’s north wall and no one need know any more about it.
Really, was it any different than allowing Kip Osmak to handle the day-to-day operations at the climber port? A good leader delegates. Russell had read that, somewhere. Maybe Neil Platz had said it, in one speech or another.
And in the meantime, Russell could get down to the business of finding Tania Sharma and her band of merry misfits.
Later that day, he called everyone of importance to his office in Nightcliff and introduced them to the new prefect. Their shocked expressions told him what they thought of the arrangement, but they weren’t people whose opinions mattered much.
By sunset Russell found himself on board a climber. He felt the weight of Darwin’s problems fade as his altitude increased, and understood then why all the world’s elite had fled the city as well, five years ago, rather than deal with the aftermath of SUBS. He’d stuck it out then, taken the reins and done what had to be done.
No matter what anyone said, Russell had earned his place at the top of the food chain, and it was high time he enjoyed the perks that came along with it.
Chapter 10
Belém, Brazil
A SNAKE SLITHERED over his left leg, then under his right.
Skyler guessed from the weight that it must be as thick as his arm. Confirmation would require looking, and he had no intention of moving a muscle. The creature took so long to finish its languid journey that he imagined it being more than five meters in length.
Only when he felt the tail tickle his right ankle did he allow himself to breathe. He’d fallen asleep, stupidly, in the undergrowth east of the Elevator and base camp. The last two days had left him exhausted. The tenacious immunes were stubborn to the point of insanity and had chased him through the city for six hours. When they finally gave up, Skyler collapsed in the first place he found to sleep: on the couch inside a psychiatric office. Offices were less likely to be tombs for the first victims of SUBS as most people forgot about work when the end came, and that had proved true here. He’d dusted off the plush leather couch, lain down, and listened to the river through a broken window. A pack of dogs woke him three times, baying and snarling at one another as they roamed their masterless world.