Above the Indian Ocean
BLOOD STREAMED DOWN the inside of the tiny vial and pooled at the bottom. A finger, the source of the fluid, knocked against the glass with a dull thud.
Skyler turned the vessel over again. Fresh from its temperature-controlled sleeve, the vial felt cool against his skin. A small refreshment in the otherwise balmy cockpit.
The scene replayed again in his mind. The dead subhuman, half its scrawny body still smoldering, the scent of burned hair so strong that Skyler had retched. Then Samantha, always acting, never thinking, stood triumphant over the corpse. In one swift motion her dark combat knife flashed from a sheath on her calf, flashed again as she brought it down on the poor creature’s hand. Two fingers and half of a thumb skittered away. “Before it all burns,” she’d said.
“We only need one,” Skyler had replied when his nerves allowed.
Hair would have been simpler, cleaner, but the hair had all singed away. A messy piece of work, though the end result was all that mattered, or so he kept reminding himself.
“Visual on the Elevator,” Angus said from the pilot’s chair.
Skyler grunted acknowledgment and flipped the vial over again. The muscular digit was caked with dirt and ended in a yellow, cracked fingernail chewed to uneven length. It almost defied belief that it had been shorn from a once-human hand. Almost.
Even by subhuman standards, this creature had been extraordinarily aggressive. And part of a large pack, twice the typical “family.” Strange, yes, but thankfully in the past now.
He glanced up. Ahead, a series of lights marked the line of the Elevator cord. Eight climbers, Skyler counted, from the peaks of the clouds all the way to the stars above. He watched them long enough to discern which way they were going. Up, at the moment. Air and water then, for the Orbitals. Some spare parts, maybe. A little contraband thrown in for good measure.
He pictured the contents of his cargo bay, flush with spoils from a decaying Malay air force base outside Kuala Lumpur. Tomorrow, maybe the day after, one of those climbers would lift the items stowed back there. Paid for first, of course.
Skyler grinned. Success felt good. He’d almost forgotten the sensation. The finger alone would cover the mission’s cost, if the DNA matched.
“Do you want the stick back?” Angus asked.
The grim, hypnotic spell of watching blood slide down the glass tube vanished with the question. He slipped the vial back into its sleeve and sealed it. Out of pure habit he reached for the flight stick, then stopped himself. Old habits die hard. He balled his fist and pulled his hand away. “You handle it this time.”
“You’re ready. Just take it slow.”
Angus turned in the pilot’s seat, trying to see Skyler over his shoulder and failing. A few seconds passed before the kid flashed a half hearted A-Okay.
The Melville tilted forward and began to descend. Skyler leaned to his left and looked down, watching mountainous clouds rise toward them. Lightning danced beneath the purple morass, which grew and grew until finally the aircraft slipped into the thick haze.
A ghostly fog roiled around the cockpit window for less than ten seconds and then they were through. Once below the storm, monsoon rain pelted the cockpit window and hammered against the fuselage.
Another minute went by before they passed under the storm. Over Darwin itself the sky was clear, such a rare thing in wet season. A nice welcome to their return.
“Aura’s Edge,” Angus said. “In ten, nine . . .”
Skyler closed his eyes. Some small part of him wanted to feel it, wanted to know the Elevator’s strange aura on a physical level. The invisible field emanated roughly nine kilometers out from the space elevator before abruptly ending. It protected those within from the alien disease that had laid waste to the rest of the planet. How, or why, the aura did this was as much a mystery as the Elevator itself.
“. . . five, four . . .”
The shifting, rippling effect ended in a zone coined Aura’s Edge. A no-man’s-land where the protection faded.
Skyler leaned his head back against the copilot’s seat. He would feel nothing. He never did; nor did the rest of his crew. The disease had no effect on them.
They were immune, an inescapable fact. A blessing and curse, a trait few others shared. Very few.
“. . . three . . .”
Though immunity allowed him to leave the city at will, there remained that small part of him that wanted to be normal, to be trapped like all of the rest of them. He didn’t want to be special. Or sought after. Truth be told he’d rather be back in the Netherlands, flying mundane patrols for the air force, living a good life. But that was a long time ago, in a different world.
“. . . two, one . . . mark.”
The aircraft bucked.
Not much, but Skyler felt it. Damn fine timing for a spell of turbulence, he thought. An embarrassed laugh escaped his lips.
Below, out the window, trash fires dotted the city’s edge. Small crowds huddled around the flames for protection more than warmth. The worst-off lived here, so far out from the Elevator, so close to the Clear. Skyler thought it must be like living on the edge of a cliff.
“Weird. Did you feel that bounce?” Angus asked. Then, “Oh, shit. Look at this.”
Skyler glanced up. The kid’s voice had shifted from wonder to fear.
Something had changed, ahead of them. Skyler couldn’t decide what—
“Where’d the climbers go?” Angus asked.
The lights on the cord were gone. “What in the world?”
The wireless crackled. “Melville, this is Nightcliff control,” a panicked voice said over a hiss of static. “What the hell did you do?”
Skyler’s throat went dry. He could only stare at the thin strip of sky where the climbers had been.
“Melville! Answer or be shot down!”
“Angus,” Skyler said, ignoring the radio. “Hover here.”
The kid nodded and tilted the aircraft back, switching to vertical thrust.
“Think, think,” Skyler whispered to himself. He leaned forward in his seat, as if a few extra centimeters would give him a better view. Squinting, Skyler traced a line from the tip of Nightcliff’s tower.
There, against the dim clouds, he saw the black shape of a climber, motionless on the cord. Not vanished, then, just dead.
Loss of power? he thought. It shouldn’t be possible. Something about friction with the atmosphere, he remembered. The Elevator couldn’t help but generate power. In the five years since he first came to the city, he’d never seen Darwin’s skyline without the awe-inspiring sight of climber vehicles gliding their way along the cord, taking fresh air and water up to the Orbitals, or bringing food back down.
“Melville,” came the garbled voice again. “Last warning.”
Skyler absently tapped the transmit button. “Nightcliff, this is the Melville. Don’t fire. We’re holding position. What happened?”
Even as he waited for a response, Skyler saw the beacon lights on the climber cars flicker, then come back on at full brightness.
A few seconds later they turned off again. One by one this time, in perfect sequence from space down to the fortress.
Minutes passed. Skyler felt a trickle of sweat run down the side of his face and he mopped it away with the back of his hand.
A blast of static from the tiny speaker preceded the controller’s voice. “You will reroute to Nightcliff and submit to inspection. Failure to comply will result in the destruction of your vessel. Any delay will result in the destruction of your vessel. You have thirty seconds to acknowledge.”
The order rattled Skyler like a sick joke. The mission had been flawless, a masterpiece, until this. Inspection. He shook his head. All their hard work, dashed with that loaded word.
“What do I say?” Angus asked. He strained against his harness to glance over his shoulder at Skyler.
The young man’s brown eyes pleaded for reassurance. Skyler could only shrug. “Stall,” he said. “I’m thinking.”
He tried to conjure a memory of the last inspection. It must have been two years ago. More than that. They’d claimed fear of a flu epidemic on that occasion. A case of vodka had settled the matter, if he remembered right. He’d been the pilot then, stuck in the cockpit, uninvolved. This time it would be his neck on the chopping block.
The first successful mission in months, since Skyler took over the captain’s chair.
And now this. Inspection. Goddammit.
They probably just wanted a handout. The pick of the litter from a returning scavenger ship. Maybe they’d blinked the climbers’ lights on purpose, now that he thought about it. A clever ploy, really.
He ran through a mental tally of the Melville’s cargo bay. For two days they’d rummaged through the abandoned complex, and they’d packed the old girl full. There’d be no shortage of goods to bribe Nightcliff with. The trick would be steering them away from the high-value items. The specific requests.
The neoprene sleeve hanging from the back of the pilot’s seat caught Skyler’s eye. He thought of the morbid contents within, and the commune that had pooled their money to have the evidence recovered. A lot of money, in fact, along with the promise of six crates of fresh food. Even after Prumble’s cut, it was too tempting a reward to pass up. “All we want is to know the fate of our father. Bring us something, anything, that we can give a proper burial.”
Like a finger. Skyler yanked the container from its cord and slipped it into his inner jacket pocket.
He activated the intercom. “Sam, Jake, I need you to bury that welder.”
A few seconds passed before Samantha replied. “We could toss it overboard. Pick it up later.”
“Negative. We’re over the Maze.”
“You’re not going to land, are you? Call their bluff,” she said. “They won’t waste a missile on us.”
Skyler bit back an urge to argue. The welder, a special model suitable for work aboard a space station, had a large reward associated with it. The highest out of everything they carried. Trying to wrestle it back from the occupants of the slum below them would be difficult, and very dangerous.
Angus interrupted the thought. “Five seconds. We’d better answer them.”
Unhappy with the alternative, Skyler sighed. “Acknowledge it. Change course for Nightcliff, and drop to two hundred meters.”
Within seconds the aircraft began to turn and descend. The fortress of Nightcliff, which surrounded the Elevator’s base, came into view.
Samantha’s voice crackled over the speaker. “I guess we’re playing along then?”
“We can’t risk our lift privs, Sam. Can you and Jake go through the crates and put anything valuable at the bottom?”
With a frustrated groan, she said, “Aye, aye,” and clicked off.
Skyler grunted. He thought of placing a few choice items near the door—an unspoken bribe—but that might backfire.
Through the rain-streaked canopy, Darwin looked like it had for years: a nearly perfect circle of chaotic slums and dense shanty neighborhoods, graduating to taller buildings toward the center. Gardens flourished on the more defensible roofs.
At the heart of it all, perched on the coastline, the fortress of Nightcliff surrounded the space elevator.
A flotilla of derelict barges and rusting cargo ships radiated out into the ocean beyond. The sea, a garden in its own right, provided a haul of fish that shrank a little every day.
“The climbers aren’t moving,” Angus said.
Skyler looked from the tower at Nightcliff all the way up to the clouds. Sure enough, the climbers were frozen in place.
“Very strange,” he said. He kept deeper concerns to himself. No traffic on the Elevator meant no trade. No way to move the goods they’d plucked from Malaysia.
Damn the luck, he thought.
Angus did another half turn in his seat. “Should I ask Nightcliff about it?”
“Don’t bother,” he said. “We’ll know soon enough.”
Angus guided the Melville in a wide arc to approach the fortress from the east, as instructed, handling the gusting winds with quiet precision.
“Mind your altitude,” Skyler said. The kid flew with natural skill, and giving him the pilot’s seat, even for brief periods like this, built confidence. Yet even as the Melville leveled off for her approach to Nightcliff, Skyler caught himself mimicking the pilot’s actions. He loved to fly, to feel the bond between man and machine. The desire flowed deep within his psyche. Passing on the flight duties felt like the end of a lifelong friendship.
Someone has to lead, he reminded himself. With a smirk he contemplated putting Angus in the captain’s chair. The thought of returning to the simple pleasure of flying would almost make it worthwhile.
The sun, now set, left only a thin red smear along the western horizon. Darwin hid mostly in shadows. It looked almost peaceful from above—a cruel deception.
Few structures had electricity this far from the Elevator. Those that did were fueled by miniature thorium reactors buried deep underground. Based on the large payments offered to Skyler for finding spare parts—breakers, insulated wire, and the like—he knew such buildings were prized among the citizens. Electricity meant power, in every sense of the word. The ability to run lights, an air conditioner, or even spool capacitors could make all the difference in laying claim to a neighborhood.
Closer to Nightcliff, the buildings became taller. Gardens blanketed every rooftop, giving the skyline an eerie, forest-like silhouette in the waning light. The gardens were defended even more jealously than power sources. The wealthy, if they could be called that, barricaded themselves into the upper floors in order to protect their private food supply, their cisterns of water. Garden owners did not have to squabble over rationed food sent down from orbit. They could live in relative ease, trading any surplus for whatever goods and services they required. Like the recovery of the bodily remains of some left-behind patriarch. Skyler patted the vial inside his jacket.
These rooftop denizens could not, however, leave their penthouse enclaves. Not without a healthy, trusted escort. The price of success.
Darwin’s poorest lived at street level, cut off from the rooftops. They were wholly reliant on food grown in orbit for their survival, and they fought for every scrap. Some had informal jobs, running errands for the garden owners or extracting protection fees from the neighborhood street vendors. Swagmen, pickers, thieves. A skill of any sort all but guaranteed a life in modest comfort. Bicycle repairmen were cherished as much as midwives.
To be a scavenger, like Skyler, brought with it a celebrity status and all the problems that entailed. Everyone needed something from the outside, but few could pay.
The thrum of the Melville’s engines changed as Angus shifted power to the vertical thrusters. Glancing forward over his pilot’s shoulder, Skyler could see the wall of Nightcliff clearly now. They’d fly over the massive barrier in less than a minute.
He felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. “Sam, Jake, how’s it going back there?”
“We need more time,” Samantha said over the speaker. “One crate to go.”
“Should I hover here?” Angus asked.
“No, it’ll just look suspicious.” He tapped the intercom. “There’s no more time, Sam. Hurry it up.”
“And if we find something truly offensive?”
At that Skyler paused. He knew what she really meant: Should we hide it? Her preference, of course, would be to do just that.
“Captain, take a look at this,” Angus said.
Skyler leaned forward to get a better view over Angus’s shoulder.
A knot formed in his gut at the sight ahead.
Outside Nightcliff’s southern gate, in Ryland Square, a massive crowd churned and roiled. People streamed in from every adjacent alley.
A riot, Skyler realized.
Enforcers formed a line in front of the gate. Their black batons rose and fell like a millipede’s legs. Pockets of white tear gas obscured the center of the square. Through the haze Skyler could just make out a large cargo container lying on its side. Ragged citizens, clutching bits of cloth over their faces, swarmed over the contents like ants. On the edge of the crowd, Skyler could see children throwing bits of debris toward the fortress.
“What the hell is going on?” Angus asked, shades of hysterics in his voice.
“Just relax,” Skyler said. “Breathe, nice and deep. Stay on course.”
The intercom crackled, and Samantha spoke. “Skyler? What do you want us to do? There’s some onc-rope back here.”
Octanitrocubane cord. He recalled it from his military training and winced. High explosive shaped in the form of a rope. Nasty stuff, perfect for precise explosions. Just the type of thing Nightcliff wanted as far away as possible. The fortress had one mandate above all else: Keep the Elevator safe. Such weapons were seen as a threat to the alien-built device.
Stunned by the view of the riot, and the dark, frozen climbers on the Elevator, Skyler muttered, “I don’t know, Sam. I don’t know.”
“We either hide it or throw it overboard,” she said. “You pick, Captain.”
He doubted that the third option, to let Nightcliff have it, even occurred to her. She just didn’t think that way. Skyler did, and he judged that such a prize might keep the inspectors from taking too much else. Assuming they believed it hadn’t been fetched on purpose.
“We’re over the wall,” Angus said.
“Sam,” Skyler said, “we’re inside. We can’t toss it.”
As he watched, the huge fortress wall passed under them, obscuring the view of the riot. He had a vague awareness of Angus negotiating a landing pad with the controllers in the fortress tower. The aircraft lurched as the young man adjusted their course.
“Easy, Angus,” Skyler said. “Deep breaths.”
“Can you handle this? I’m going in back.”
“I’ll try,” Angus said.
Skyler tapped the intercom again. “Leave the explosives where they are, Sam. If they’re found, so be it.”
“I knew you’d say that,” she replied.
In the cargo bay, Samantha and Jake crouched over a green hard-shell case with white block letters painted on the top and sides. They were sorting clips of ammunition. A storage locker on the wall next to them stood open, already half-full.
“We can say it’s ours,” Jake said, “not from the mission.”
Insurance against a total confiscation of the cargo, Skyler translated, and he couldn’t blame them. Bullets served as currency in much of Darwin. And they certainly had their use beyond Aura’s Edge. Skyler nodded agreement and continued on.
Samantha stood and blocked his path. Well over two meters tall, she stooped slightly in the crowded compartment. Upright she’d tower over him, but when she was hunched over, their gaze met. Her long blond hair had been tucked under a camouflage cap, accentuating already sharp features. “You’re letting Angus land?”
“Sam . . . not now.”
He skirted by her and worked his way to the rear loading ramp. The aircraft banked steeply as Angus guided her down, forcing Skyler to grasp frayed nylon straps hanging from the wall for support.
The items recovered on the mission filled six large wooden crates arranged in a line down the center of the bay, held in place by yellow plastic nets anchored to hooks on the floor. Despite the hurried search, the crates still looked secure.
“Good work,” Skyler said. “Like you never touched it.”
A dull thud from below marked the Melville’s landing, followed by a rapid decline in the hum from her engines.
“Nicely done, Angus,” Skyler said into the intercom.
“Thanks. There’s . . . ah . . . a bunch of soldiers waiting outside.”