The Exodus Towers Page 1

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Chapter 1

Belém, Brazil

27.APR.2283

THE GIRL DANCED for an audience of ghosts.

She twirled in a slow, graceful motion, sending ripples through the pristine white dress that draped her lithe form. Her outstretched arms glided through the humid air with a poise and balance Skyler had not seen in many years.

She’d yet to notice him. She was a mirage under the bright sun, and he’d tucked himself in the shadows at the edge of the secluded square. Her focus lay entirely on movement and footing. The cobblestones beneath her bare feet were cracked and uneven, like everything in Belém. Aside from Skyler’s motionless form, two skeletal corpses lay in one corner of the courtyard, locked in an infinite embrace, grass sprouting up through their hollow rib cages. She paid no attention to them, either. Ghosts, all.

The looted remains of boutique shops hid the square from the wide avenue beyond. Skyler had only stepped in to find a defensible, quiet place to prepare his midday meal. If that had been one minute ago or ten he couldn’t say. For now he stood, whisper quiet, beneath a stucco awning that gave some respite from alternating bouts of glaring sunshine and torrential rain. Pillars, once white and elegant, supported the partial ceiling. They were nearly encased in flowering vines now, just like the walls and surrounding rooftops. Even the statue that stood watch over the woman had succumbed to the embrace of the rainforest’s green, tentacular limbs. In a few decades the whole city would be engulfed, Skyler thought. Just like everywhere else.

Except Darwin, of course. A different scourge consumed that place.

He leaned against the nearest pillar, wholly absorbed in the fluid motions being performed. The girl was not beautiful, not in the classic sense. Not like Tania. She had short auburn hair that flared as dramatically as her dress, but it was dirty and matted. Her deeply tanned skin showed traces of scars on the forearms. When her skirt billowed on the more enthusiastic turns, Skyler could see welts and scrapes on her toned legs. Despite her exquisite movements and dancer’s figure, she was a survivor.

She was an immune.

Moving with great care, Skyler slipped a handheld radio from his belt. He kept it switched off when scouting, lest the frequent anxious calls from base camp give away his presence to the forbidding wilderness around him. On any other day he’d wait until his return to camp to give an account of his findings, but the sighting of an immune was worth breaking that pattern, he thought.

Skyler thumbed the power switch.

“—it’s urgent!” boomed a frenetic voice from the speaker. In one heartbeat the serenity of the courtyard vanished.

Skyler had had the volume on maximum during an earlier downpour and forgotten later to dial it back. The crass sound echoed off the walls, sending a trio of parakeets fluttering from the tangle under the awning. The girl stumbled and caught herself. Her eyes found Skyler and widened.

He started to raise his hands, a universal sign of noble intentions, but he’d scarcely leaned away from the pillar when the girl turned and ran.

“Camp Exodus to Skyler. Come in!” Karl’s voice blared from the radio.

Skyler’s hand flew to the device, knocking it loose. It fell to the ground in a plastic clatter. He knelt, snatched it up, and wheeled the volume to zero, all in one motion.

When he glanced back up, the courtyard was empty. “Wait!” he called out. She’d darted into an open archway on the opposite side of the square, and he ran toward it, not bothering to swing his machine gun off his shoulder.

He rounded the corner into the arched tunnel and almost had his head blown off.

The crack from the handgun blotted out all other sound. The bullet passed so close to his earlobe he felt a tickle. Skyler skidded to a stop and dove back the way he’d come, only just rounding the corner again when another shot rang out, sending chunks of cobblestone into the air mere centimeters from his feet.

“Cease fire!” he shouted, barely hearing himself over the high-pitched whine in his head.

And she did. The yard fell silent again.

“I mean no harm,” he called out. “Just … relax.”

No answer came. Cautiously, he poked his head around the corner, enough to clear one eye. The hall beyond was empty. “Dammit,” he muttered, and bounced to his feet. He ran ahead, his machine gun instinctively in hand now, pointed at the ground five meters in front of him. He slapped the flashlight attached to the barrel and bathed the hall in a pale blue beam, warming to white a second later as the bulb came to full strength.

Her bare feet left obvious tracks in the grimy tile floor. She’d taken a turn, then another, moved around a thick root that had wormed up through a crack, and jumped a spate of broken glass. Skyler repeated her route, wondering absently how long she’d lived here, and how many times previously she’d danced in the noonday sun without a care in the world.

Often, till I came along, he thought.

At the end of the hall he came to a bedroom. Her flowing white dress lay in a heap in the doorjamb, a portion of the skirt hooked by a nasty splinter that jutted from the wooden frame. She’d shrugged out of the garment and left it like the meaningless trinket it was.

The window on the far wall had been thrown open, and he could see the wide, churning waters of the Rio Pará beyond.

In another corner he saw a green bedroll, upright and neatly tied in a circular bundle. A lantern sat on the floor next to it.

His ears still rang from the woman’s failed attempt to shoot him in the face. She could be screaming taunts at him from outside and he doubted he’d hear it. Nevertheless he chanced a look out the window.

The young woman was sprinting across a parking lot toward a row of cottages that fronted the swift river. She was naked save for a pair of hiking boots on her feet. In one hand dangled her pistol, and she clutched a heavy olive-green backpack in the other. As he watched she shimmied the full bag over one shoulder, then the other, before disappearing from view.

Not once did she look back.

Skyler sighed. “I’m the least of your worries, dear.”

Remembering the radio, he switched it on and immediately heard Karl’s frantic voice.

“—in now. Urgent!”

“What? What?!” Skyler growled into the mic. Everything was urgent. The word had no meaning anymore. “You just scared off—”

“Skyler, thank God. Some colonists are missing, along with a tower.”

He closed his eyes and willed himself to relax. “They stole it?”

“No. God, no. They were working on the reservoir perimeter and reported hearing something in the rainforest. They’ve made no contact since.”

“What did they hear?”

“The leader said it sounded like a choir.”

“A choir. As in singing?”

“Those were his words.”

Skyler pinched his nose between his eyes to stem a coming headache. “Did they mention if they ate some wild mushrooms, or wandered too far from their aura tower, or anything like that?”

“I know how it sounds,” Karl said, “but this is a reliable group that has been building that perimeter barricade for two weeks.”

“Okay, okay,” Skyler said. “I’ll head over there. How long ago did they go silent?”

“Two hours.”

Skyler swore. “And you’re just telling me now?”

“You had your radio off!”

Skyler glanced at the device. “Fair enough. All right then, uh, send a team to meet me there. People who can shoot—”

Karl spoke over him. “Sorry, friend. Tania doesn’t want to risk another tower.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” His frustration with the frugal use of the aura towers fell on deaf ears, unless he spoke to Tania alone, a scenario that happened rarely in the last two months. She kept to orbit mostly, after an initial wondrous week of exploring the bizarre alien towers. The logistics of survival took precedence, and Skyler couldn’t begrudge that. Still, a weekly visit might be nice, for the colony’s morale as much as his.

“If they were moving,” Karl added, “and something happened to them, the tower could be adrift.”

Skyler grunted. If true, the tower might reach a river or pond. No one had yet tried to send a tower into deep water. They were as likely to explode in world-consuming hellfire as they were to simply float, sink, or stop. As such, Camp Exodus ratified a decree, put forth by Tania, that the towers should be kept away from any water deeper than ten centimeters. For his part, Skyler had chuckled at the arbitrary number and counted himself among the few “no” votes. Now was the time to experiment, he thought. In private Tania chastised him, if gently. “Your survival doesn’t depend on the aura, Skyler.” A fair point. He still voted no.

“Skyler?” Karl asked.

“Give me their last coordinates,” he said, “and I’ll see what I can find.”

The base camp leader rattled off the numbers.

Skyler spread out his map on the floor of the bedroom. From his breast pocket he pulled a pen that included a convenient ruler along the side. He traced a route through the city from his current position. “I’m all the way over on the west side of town, near the hospital. I’ll go northeast until I hit Water Road, and follow from there.”

“That’s a hell of a hike. Please, hurry.”

“Oh, I plan to,” he said.

He drew a mark on the group’s last known position. Then he traced a circle around the area he currently occupied and wrote IMMUNE in bold letters above it.

The dancer would have to wait.

Outside on the street, Skyler picked up his duffel bag and glanced east in the direction of the reservoir. He turned south instead.

The sack weighed heavily on his shoulder. He’d filled it that morning, in the dingy back room of a touristy gift shop, with eight hundred palm-sized packets of water purification tablets. Iodine and something else, a vitamin he suspected, but the Portuguese label offered no specifics. The partially collapsed store had little else to be scavenged. Shelves of snacks were long rotted, save for a few Preservall-laden candy bars, which he’d bagged. The toiletries he left behind, knowing the hotel found close to base camp had a stockroom full of such things.

He walked one block south and then another east until he reached Mercy Road, so cleverly named by the colonists because it led to the nearest medical facility to the Elevator base, a few kilometers west. The aura “road” twisted and turned down many of Belém’s original streets, but all that mattered to the colonists was the trail of Builder towers placed along the path, providing safe passage to those bringing supplies back to camp.

In less than a minute he heard the hum of a truck coming down the street. Skyler waved and the driver pulled to a stop. After a terse explanation, Skyler hoisted his bag onto the flatbed and shoved it under a stack of folded mattress frames bound for the camp. Then he smacked the passenger door twice and gave a friendly wave to the tense driver.

Skyler had to remind himself of the peril being undertaken by anyone working the aura road. Stray too far from a tower and you might never return. If you did, the chances were good it would be in a psychotic, primal rage.

Orange traffic cones had been placed in rough circles around the towers that linked the Elevator to the hospital, indicating their safe zones, but the markers didn’t always stay put. A stiff wet-season storm could wash them away if they were placed carelessly, a situation that happened with surprising regularity considering the stakes involved.

Word of strange sounds and a missing crew had undoubtedly spread, which could only add another dimension to the fear among the colonists.

As soon as the truck moved off, Skyler jogged south down an alley. He crossed the next street diagonally to a row of mansions near the waterfront. His aim was a large house tucked behind a three-meter-high wall. A week earlier he’d explored the place after hearing the faint hum of electricity coming from somewhere within. He’d found some portions of the villa had power, likely coming from a small thorium reactor buried far below, a luxury all the mansion owners along the avenue pooled their money for, no doubt.

Skyler jogged down the crumbling driveway, hopping over clumps of wild grass that knifed through the bricks. He hoisted open a garage door at the end of the path and found his discovery still sitting within, practically begging him to hop on.

The motorcycle would have been expensive a decade ago, and even now, despite five-odd years of neglect, it looked like it had never been touched. Sleek red paint covered the carbon-fiber portions, surrounded by either polished chrome or brushed aluminum arranged as much for aesthetics as functionality.

Unlike the other five bikes in the long garage, this one had knobby tires and ample ground clearance. The others were all low-slung, built for racing just like the row of sports cars that shared the space. Useless on the cluttered roads of Belém, so full of cracks, sinkholes, weeds, and worse.

Skyler ran a hand along the bulging pack at the center of the bike’s frame. “I’ll call you Takai,” he said with sincerity. The bike had an Italian pedigree, but he didn’t think it would mind.

Tucked within that central red shell were the important parts: a fully charged Zigg ultracap and a powerful electric motor.

He yanked the charging cable from the receptacle on the side of the bike and tossed it aside. Depleted when he found it, the gauge cluster showed a full cap now, and Skyler grinned from ear to ear. One small Zigg could run a bike like this for a thousand kilometers, easily.

A helmet rested on a nearby workbench, but Skyler ignored it. He needed his senses more than he needed the protection it offered. He did, however, grab the pair of sunglasses that lay next to it. Wiping away the dust, he studied the reddish lenses and then slipped the pair over his nose. Driver’s glasses, in good condition. He smiled again.

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