The Darwin Elevator

Chapter One

Above the Indian Ocean

12.JAN.2283

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.”

“Sure?”

“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 halfhearted 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 then 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