Jul 24 2013 3:30pm
In the mid-23rd century, Darwin, Australia, stands as the last human city on Earth. The world has succumbed to an alien plague, with most of the population transformed into mindless, savage creatures. The planet’s refugees flock to Darwin, where a space elevator—created by the architects of this apocalypse, the Builders—emits a plague-suppressing aura.
Skyler Luiken has a rare immunity to the plague. Backed by an international crew of fellow “immunes,” he leads missions into the dangerous wasteland beyond the aura’s edge to find the resources Darwin needs to stave off collapse. But when the Elevator starts to malfunction, Skyler is tapped—along with the brilliant scientist, Dr. Tania Sharma—to solve the mystery of the failing alien technology and save the ragged remnants of humanity.
Parachute slowly descending, Skyler aimed for a dried-up pond, centerpiece to a public park on the southern end of the town. Once it might have been a nice space, with families strolling along the paved walkway under the shade of irrigated trees. The pond, now bone dry, dominated the piece of land. From above it looked like a bomb crater, lined with skeletal trees for victims.
When he hit ground a sharp pain lanced up his leg. The gash from the rooftop antenna seared, and warm blood trickled down his leg into his boot.
He stumbled and rolled in the dusty bowl of the former pond. With no further need of his parachute, and no time to collect it, he let it drift away in the hot wind.
From all around, the disturbing howl of subhumans grew to a fever pitch.
Skyler put sunset at an hour away. He needed shelter, some place he could defend while bandaging his wound.
Grunting with effort, he limped to the rim of the pond, unstrapped the rifle from his chest, and scanned the town. Most of the structures were small shops in various states of decay. Farther north, toward the center, he could see the tops of small stores and a church steeple. Some distance west an office building, perhaps ten stories high, stood against the red sky.
Nearest to his position, he spotted a two-story building with some sort of shop on the bottom. A stairwell outside led up to a covered walkway that ringed the second floor. All the exterior windows were broken, so it wouldn’t be much use as shelter. But at least he could reach the second floor and get his bearings while using the stairwell as a natural choke point.
Good enough, he decided, and limped toward it.
He didn’t bother to keep low, now out in the open—a dark figure against a sandy landscape. Best to move as fast as possible. He ignored the pain in his shoulder, the wound on his calf, and jogged toward the building.
When he was still twenty yards from the stairs, three subhumans came around from the front of the building. They moved as one, protecting one another as they hunted. A typical pack, and Skyler felt glad for it. Not the collected mass like in Hawaii. He took a knee and opened fire, dropping them easily. They hadn’t even seen him yet.
Throughout the town the howls grew louder, and he knew there were far more subhumans here than he had bullets for.
At the sound of more scuffling footsteps coming from the street, Skyler sprinted the rest of the way to the stairs, grunting back the searing pain in his calf.
Reaching the stairwell, he tossed the gun’s strap over his shoulder and climbed, two steps at a time.
Halfway up, the rusted stairs collapsed under his weight. Skyler heard the bolts splitting an instant before the structure fell, and he used his last step to jump toward the walkway at the top. His arms just made it over the lip of the landing, but they immediately began to slip on the dusty concrete.
Below him the stairs crashed into the dirt, creating a calamitous sound surely heard for blocks.
He had to ignore it. Reaching to his left, he grabbed a rusted iron bar—part of the railing on the second-floor walkway. To his amazement it held. Pain bloomed anew in his shoulder as he struggled to lift himself onto the platform. Legs dangling, kicking for momentum, he groaned through clenched teeth. It took all the strength he could muster to pull his upper body onto the walkway.
Below, more subhumans arrived, hissing and growling like primates. A child led the way, perhaps ten years old, with filthy wild hair and a mangled arm. It jumped with astonishing power toward Skyler’s dangling legs, sheer savagery in its bloodshot eyes.
He felt the small hand grasp his boot, and then Skyler felt its added weight in his tenuous hold on the rusty iron bar. Without thinking, he reached down with his right hand and swatted the subhuman’s filthy fingers from his boot.
The child fell.
Only then did he realize his mistake.
The gun, slung over his right shoulder seconds before, slid down his arm. Skyler fumbled for it, but the strap slipped past his fingers, and he watched helplessly as the weapon dropped to the ground below. It landed in the wreckage of the flimsy stairwell.
Skyler flung himself over the railing and onto the walkway proper. He lay back on the platform, clutching his wounded leg with both hands, and forced his breathing into a regular rhythm.
He stayed still for a long time, staring at the sky. Around him, the cries of the formerly human receded with the setting sun. He could hear a group of them sniffing about below, grunting at one another like dingoes.
He fought against heavy eyelids, not wanting to sleep. Sleeping felt like giving up.
Give up, he thought to himself, darkly amused. Then, Give up what?
I haven’t got a damn thing left to give up.
Skyler put the thought out of mind. Focus on the immediate, he told himself. Survive.
As the last light of the sun faded, Skyler set to work bandaging his leg, using fabric torn from his shirt. He knew he could not stay here long. The creatures below might eventually lose interest, but clearly the town was infested with them. There would be no easy way out.
Satisfied with the wound dressing, Skyler rolled over and pushed himself to the edge of the walkway. In the darkness below, he could make out the shapes of a few subhumans. Some milled about, most crouched in the dirt, still as death. He focused on the wreckage of the stairs, and thought he could see a glint of light coming off his dropped weapon.
As he considered his options, one of the subhumans—the small one again—noticed him and began to snarl. The sound, so inhuman, paralyzed Skyler. The other creatures took up the call. As if spurred on, the small one began to leap for the platform where Skyler lay, but it fell short by about a foot and a half. Then it started to use the wall beside it as leverage, and sent Skyler’s heart racing with a swipe that missed his face by mere inches.
Skyler knew the next attempt might succeed; yet he lay still, frozen in place. I’m going to die here, he thought. The subhuman child leapt again, savage hunger plain on its face.
The tip of one dirty fingernail scraped Skyler’s nose. No more than a tickle. The child-creature’s mouth curled in frustration as it fell back to the ground. It landed on the stairwell debris and stumbled, its ankle folding in an unnatural way. A howl of pain erupted from the poor animal as it rolled in the dirt.
The tingle on the end of his nose coaxed Skyler from his fog. He crawled back from the edge of the walkway and sat up against the wall, intent to be silent and invisible. Let the monsters below get bored and move on.
Several hundred yards away, against the crimson sky, he saw the silhouette of the one tall office building.
High ground. The first step in figuring out where he was, and what his path back to Darwin would be.
The clouds above were thinning. From where he sat, Skyler could only see the southern sky. He decided to crawl around the walkway to the north face of the building and scan the horizon for telltale lights of climber cars on the Elevator cord. If he was close enough to Darwin, and the sky clear enough, it would give him his bearings.
His leg throbbed. The ache in his shoulder, from the melee aboard Gateway, flared whenever he lifted his right arm. He rubbed at it, coaxing out the tenderness.
The idea of crawling around the walkway suddenly seemed like an impossible journey. As far away as Gateway Station itself. He felt the energy drain from him as the surge of adrenaline wore off. His focus shifted to simply breathing in long, regular measures. His vision blurred from sheer exhaustion.
With nowhere to go, and no energy to move anyway, Skyler lay down and closed his eyes. One hand rubbing at his shoulder, the other clutching the bandaged wound on his calf.
Sleep never came.
He lay still on the cold concrete until well after dark, imagining a heroic death. A preferable outcome to dying here, cold and alone, in God-knows-where.
The mere thought of hiking his way back to Darwin, however far it might be, exhausted him. Part of his mind kept offering the same question: Why bother?
Platz and his dubious plan to save the Aura, if it even needed saving, could go to hell, Skyler thought. What did an immune need with the Aura? If it failed and the rest of the ungrateful world perished, he could finally have some peace and quiet. No more scavenging, no more damn request lists and desperate pleas.
“Stop it,” he whispered to himself. He shut his eyes and willed the pessimism back into the corners of his mind.
His thoughts turned to Prumble. If nothing else, he should find Prumble. Tell him what happened. The big man could help, or give him a corner of his vast garage to convalesce in.
It was a first step, a tangible goal.
Hours passed. A crescent moon offered poor light, augmented every few minutes by lighting that rippled in clouds to the east like a distant war. A poor way to navigate unfamiliar territory, but the subs should at least be dormant now. Sleeping, conserving heat and calories like any wild animal.
Skyler sat up with a grunt. He checked the bandage on his leg and found that only a little blood had soaked through. The wound looked minor despite the pain. He could only hope that infection would not occur.
Time to get moving.
With care not to make noise, he crawled to the edge of the walkway where the stairway had collapsed, and studied the ground below.
The subhumans had indeed wandered away. Either that or they were well hidden in the pitch-black shadows below. He held his breath and listened for a time. No sounds of their ragged breathing.
Skyler gently lowered himself over the edge, hanging on by his fingertips. The ache in his shoulder returned as he began to swing his legs. When the pain became unbearable he let go, swinging his fall to land away from the pile of metal and concrete.
He took the impact on his good leg, rolling as he landed, vaguely proud of the nimble move. Standing, he pushed himself back against the wall of the building and waited. No cries arose from the surrounding buildings. Satisfied, he knelt before the remains of the stairway and retrieved his weapon.
The weight of a gun in his hands bolstered his confidence. He crouched and did a half-walk, half-run along the wall, gun pointed at the ground a few yards ahead. He peered around the corner into the wider road beyond. Dusty and trash strewn, and blessedly empty. The building he stood next to had once been an art supply store, so the faded sign told him. The windows were empty, and he didn’t need to see inside to know the place was a ruin. He tried to think of anything useful to scavenge from an art store but came up blank. Not worth the time to look.
More shops lined the rest of the street, all in similar states of disrepair. None was more than three stories tall. Skyler suspected that nothing in this poor town remained unscathed by the ravages of rioting, abandonment, and plague. He’d seen a hundred just like it. In his mind he pictured his beloved Amsterdam, languishing in a similar state.
All the great cities of man, left to rot. All except Darwin—and Darwin would be along soon enough.
He looked for the office building to get his bearings. At least four hundred yards west, and perhaps a hundred yards south. He knew from experience that subhumans were drawn to sound and movement. Most had lost their ability for higher thought, but their primal senses remained. Indeed, the curse of SUBS was that one primal emotion would intensify to the point it drowned out all other thoughts, a phenomenon made all the more unpredictable by the fact that one never knew which emotion would take over. Anger, fear, lust... even humor. He’d seen a few in the early days who laughed hysterically at everything around them. They tended not to survive for long.
Gun held low, safety off, Skyler set out. Many of these buildings likely served as shelter for the subhumans, and they all looked straight out onto the road. He needed a path that kept him out of view.
He crossed the street to the building directly opposite, formerly a bookstore, and stopped to listen. He heard only the barest whisper of wind, and pressed on past the broken shop windows to an alley just beyond. The narrow space, barely the width of a car, was pitch black.
This he followed one careful step at a time until it met the next junction. The street beyond appeared to be simply a wider alley, something the shop owners could use for deliveries. To the west Skyler could see the brick and glass office tower, looming black against the starry western sky.
Another three hundred yards, and now straight ahead.
He stepped up his pace and moved to the end of the backstreet. A wide avenue crossed his path, dotted by the husks of abandoned cars and a commuter bus that had burned. Charred passengers still sat in some of the seats, dry and black. A sculptor’s demons set against a nightmare background.
The alley’s end marked the edge of the business district. Adjacent was a residential section of town, with evenly spaced homes nestled in weed-infested yards. One section had succumbed to fire, years earlier. He ran along the road between businesses and burned-out homes.
A soda bottle ruined his silent passage. In the near blackness, he kicked the old thing, sending it rolling and hopping along the cracked asphalt. The clicky-clack sound went on and on, calamitous in its volume after so much silence.
Like clockwork, the cries of newly agitated subhumans returned, emanating from the empty buildings that lined the street.
Pumping his legs as hard as his injury would allow, he beat a direct path to the office tower. He could hear rapid footfalls behind him.
A quick glance over his shoulder—at least ten of them were in pursuit, and gaining. He forced his attention ahead and in doing so caught movement to his right. Another sub emerged from an old house and raced toward him. Skyler squeezed off a burst of bullets from his hip. The poor creature pitched forward to a sliding stop, utterly limp.
The deafening crackle of the machine gun brought a chorus of mindless howls from every direction.
Skyler pushed himself harder, lungs burning as he sprinted the last few yards to the building.
Thick planks of wood and pieces of sheet metal covered the entrance, with rows of razor wire nailed across it in haphazard fashion. With despair he ran past the barricade, circled around to find the side door in the same state, and kept running toward the rear of the building.
In back there was a small parking area secure behind a tall wrought-iron fence. An electric gate provided the only way in, but it had been chained closed and padlocked. Next to it was a small white ticket booth.
With panting, snarling sounds just yards behind him, Skyler angled toward the tiny structure. The booth’s windows were intact. Skyler fired a single round into the one facing him and watched it transform from a clear pane to thousands of tempered shards. He leapt at the last second with his gun held before him, shattering the glass in a shower of sharp bits.
There was no time to waste. Skyler stood up. Broken glass fell from his clothing and crunched under his feet. He ignored a few small cuts and aimed. A subhuman jumped through the open window even as he fired. Bullets tore through the creature’s chest but momentum carried the body straight into Skyler’s torso, driving him back into the far wall of the tiny shack.
Air rushed from his lungs. Something cracked, and pain lanced up his side. His head snapped backward and knocked into the wall with a deep thump. Stars swam before his eyes. Gasping, unsteady, he pushed the limp body off him and fired again at the next one. This sub had some sense of self-preservation and ducked away. Those that followed it slowed, too, and looked at one another as if deciding what to do.
Skyler grasped the opportunity and stumbled out the thin door of the booth. Inside the gated parking area now, he hobbled toward the building’s rear entrance, fighting to keep his balance the whole way. His torso burned, the pain growing with each movement.
Desperate now, he fired blindly behind him while studying the back of the building. He limped toward the double door in the center of the wall, ignoring the fierce agony coming from his ribs.
The doors were locked.
Skyler spun around and saw four subhumans scaling the gate. He hoisted his gun with a grunt. The weapon felt like it had a sack of stones tied to it. Searing pain flared along his torso with the effort but he could do nothing about it. Skyler aimed at one sub as it reached the top of the barrier. He pulled the trigger.
He fumbled for his last clip of ammunition, which he’d stuffed into his jacket as the Melville plunged toward Earth. The black metal case slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground.
For a split second Skyler welcomed his fate. He slumped and waited for the devolved human beings to come and tear him to pieces, as the disease had programmed them to do.
Something caught his eye to the left. He glanced and saw a stairwell tucked up against the side of the building, leading down into darkness.
He went for it, pausing only to grab the ammo. Each limping step toward the stairs produced a spike of pain in his ribs that felt like knives. He shouted through it as he slapped the clip of bullets into the center of his gun.
The stairs he took three at a time, more of a controlled fall than a descent. A door loomed at the bottom, and it was all Skyler could do to raise one arm as he reached it. He expected a hard impact, but his weight and momentum flung the door wide.
Skyler fell, hard. His cheek slapped against a carpeted floor that smelled of mold and something else. Something feral, like an animal’s cage. His vision began to blur at the edges and then grow dark.
He spun onto his back and aimed back up the stairwell even as the first subhuman crested the edge. Skyler squeezed the trigger and kept firing until the bullets ran out.
As consciousness began to fade, he was vaguely aware of crawling toward the door, reaching for it.
The rest was blackness.
The Darwin Elevator © Jason Hough 2013