I recently reviewed Jason M. Hough's The Darwin Elevator (Canada, USA, Europe). And to help promote the release of the upcoming sequel, The Exodus Towers (Canada, USA, Europe), which you can pre-order for only 5.99$ on Amazon right now, here's an excerpt which consists of a number of deleted scenes from Hough's debut that should please existing fans and maybe entice potential readers to give the series a shot!
Here's the blurb for The Darwin Elevator:
Jason M. Hough’s pulse-pounding debut combines the drama, swagger, and vivid characters of Joss Whedon’s Firefly with the talent of sci-fi author John Scalzi. 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.
To learn more about the author and his work, check out Hough's official website.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet read The Darwin Elevator, this sequence of omitted chapters may spoil certain elements of the story for you. Stop here! Read the book! Then come back! If you have read Darwin, a little context: This sequence took place when Skyler crashed the Melville outside the city. Though everyone involved agreed these chapters were good, they were ultimately pulled for a simple reason: They were not germane to the story. I knew this when I wrote them, but I had a problem that needed solving: I had to get Skyler out of the picture for a while. Indeed, in the first draft of the novel Skyler crash-landed nearly 1,000 kilometers from Darwin, met up with his old friend Skadz, got into some adventures, and finally returned to Darwin weeks later to pick up the story. Some of my beta readers were okay with this, but most could not get over the coincidence that Skadz would happen to be in the exact place Skyler crashed. I agreed with them, so I changed the chapters to what follows. That is to say, a crash-landing about 30 kilometers from Darwin, and a meeting with someone else entirely. But another new subplot, added around the same time, eliminated the need for Skyler to vanish. I was too close to the book to see it though, and not yet good at culling my own excess. I left it in because I liked it. It had a real Stephen King vibe that I was quite proud of. It was tough for me when I first spoke with the editors who offered to acquire Darwin. When asked about their editorial vision for the books, every single one of them brought up these chapters as something to remove. “The Clever chapters,” Mike Braff at Del Rey said. “I love them, but I think we can remove them to tighten up the pace and lower the word count.” It was tough for me to hear, but I knew it was the right move. Luckily, I’m able to share them with you here as a fun little glimpse into what could have been. Enjoy! Jason M. Hough
To say that I fell in love immediately with The Darwin Elevator is not an exaggeration. When Jason’s agent pitched me a sci-fi adventure that read like a John Scalzi and Joss Whedon collaboration, I had my reservations, but I was ultimately blown away. The rest of Del Rey were too, and we were off to the races with an awesome new sci-fi trilogy! But have you ever wondered about that liminal period between acquisition and publication? Well that, dear reader, is where I come in. My job as an editor is to help authors tell the best possible versions of their stories. Often that means helping them rephrase something, or providing insight into why a scene may not be working. We'll go back and forth with a series of notes until we have something that we both love. Sometimes, however, I have to cut large passages out wholesale. I loved the Clever chapters (what we're grouping here as A Clever Ploy). The scenes are dark and funny, with loads of suspense and danger. As a character, Clever is deeply layered, being both friendly and menacing at various times. All in all, there is some great stuff here. But I had it earmarked for a cut just the same. Why? For me, it came down to pacing, which is one of the more ephemeral elements that an editor has to be aware of in a manuscript. In the chapters leading up to A Clever Ploy, Skyler received an important mission from Neil Platz, and had to get back to Darwin ASAP in order to save the city. Ultimately, I felt that having Skyler get wrapped up with Clever for an extended amount of time would kill the tension and focus of getting back to Darwin and saving humanity. Moreover, I wanted to see what Skyler would do on his own in the wilderness, and how he would manage the many-kilometer trek back to Darwin through subhuman territory. Thankfully, Jason is a dream to work with, and once I shared my notes on the Clever scenes, he immediately took my advice and wrote up a new section. “But, Jason,” I had said at the time, “don't lose those Clever chapters. Maybe someone will be interested in reading them someday. Like a deleted scene on a DVD.” I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed The Darwin Elevator and will further enjoy a peek into our “deleted scene.” Happy reading! Mike Braff Editor
The Clever Ploy
Skyler aimed for a dried-up pond, centerpiece to a public park at the southern end of the town. Once it may 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 as 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, someplace 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. Further north, toward the center, he could see the tops of small stores and a church steeple. Some distance west a water tower, the tallest structure around, stood against the red sky.
Nearest to his position, he spotted a two-story building with some sort of shop on the bottom. A stairway outside led up to a covered walkway that ringed the second floor. Skyler noted that all the windows had been broken long ago, but at least he could reach the second floor and get his bearings while using the stairs as a natural choke point.
Good enough, he decided, and limped toward them.
He didn’t bother to keep low, 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 twenty meters 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 there was 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.
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 stairway, 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 used his last step to jump toward the walkway at the top. His arms just made it over the lip of the landing, but immediately began to slip on the dusty concrete.
Below him the stairs crashed into the dirt, creating a calamitous sound surely heard for miles.
He had to ignore it. Reaching to his left, he grabbed a rusted iron bar—part of the railing of 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 animals. 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 stairs.
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. Give up what?
He thought of everything he’d lost. The Melville, Samantha and the rest of the crew—his entire world. The weight of it all brought tears to his eyes.
I haven’t got a damn thing left to give up.
Skyler put the thought out of his 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 paralyzed Skyler, so inhuman. The other creatures took up the call. As if spurred on, the small one began to leap for the platform where Skyler lay, but fell short by half a meter. 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 centimeters.
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 stairway debris and stumbled, its ankle folding in an unnatural way. A howl of pain erupted from the wounded 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 meters away, against the crimson sky, he saw the silhouette of the water tower.
High ground. The first step in figuring out where he was and how far the journey to Darwin would be.
The clouds above were thinning. From where he sat, Skyler could see only 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, had almost abated, provided he didn’t lift his right arm too high. He rubbed at it, coaxing out the tenderness.
Crawling around the walkway suddenly seemed like an impossible journey. Like traveling to 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.
His mind instead replayed the chaotic escape from Gateway. Guilt consumed his thoughts. No matter how he tried to justify it, he’d left his crew behind. He’d fled. Whatever sense that decision might have made at the time, he struggled to recall it now.
He tried to picture the crew, languishing in some high-tech brig aboard the space station. He could hear their conversation, wondering where he was. If he was okay. Would they assume he was being held separately? Or maybe that he’d died, in heroic fashion, trying to save them?
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 sod itself, 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 that,” 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.
And then Skyler remembered that Prumble had a sat-comm. A direct link to Platz. At the very least, Skyler could find out what happened to the crew. That, he thought, would dictate what he would do next.
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. That or they were well hidden in the pitch-black shadows beneath him. 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 meters ahead. He peered around the corner at the wider road beyond. Dusty and trash-strewn, and blessedly empty. The building he stood next to had once been an art supply store, the faded sign told him. The windows were long ago shattered, 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 were 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. 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 water tower to get his bearings. At least four hundred meters west, and perhaps a hundred meters 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 where it drowned out all other thoughts, the result 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. Hearing only the barest whisper of wind, he 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, which appeared to be simply a wider alley, something the shop owners could use for deliveries. To the west Skyler could see the water tower, looming black against the starry western sky.
Another three hundred meters, 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. Beyond was a residential part of town, with evenly spaced homes nestled in weed-infested yards. One section had succumbed to fire, many years earlier. The homes were too spread out to offer much in the way of cover. Skyler decided to keep moving rather than find a more advantageous route.
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.
Skyler made a run for it.
Pumping his legs as hard as his injury would allow, he beat a direct path to the 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, to face the tower. Then he 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 pitiful 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 meters to the tower. With despair he realized there was no way up. He would have to try and climb one of the metal support struts.
A ladder lowered as he approached.
Without thinking twice, he leapt on to it, grunted at the impact, and climbed.
A blissfully short climb, as luck would have it. Four meters up, the ladder ended at a narrow metal stairway that spiraled up the outside of the round tower. Behind and below, he heard a subhuman hit the ladder. Skyler turned in place and crouched, taking careful aim. He saw only the whisper of a shadow as the creature cleared the top of the ladder. He fired a single round, catching the skinny thing full in the face. It fell backward to the dirt below.
Skyler turned and took the rest of the steps two at a time. Behind, he heard a small crowd of subhumans clamor for access to the ladder.
Never mind. Run.
At the top of the stairs he saw the shadow of a man against the sky, a hand outstretched.
“Duck,” the man said.
The man raised a pistol. A big one, silver and gleaming in the faint moonlight. Skyler covered his ears just as the shooting began.
The stranger unleashed a flurry of rounds. Unable to turn and look, Skyler listened to the result, hearing bodies tumbling over the stairway rail, landing with a wet smack on the dirt far below.
“Inside. Now,” the man said, pulling a makeshift lever. On the street below, Skyler heard the iron ladder clang to the ground.
At the center of the tower’s roof, Skyler saw an open hatch, warm light glowing from within. He crossed to it and hopped onto a narrow ladder that descended inside.
At the bottom he stepped off and took in his surroundings. The cavernous space held no water, those days long past. On the bare metal floor, Skyler saw a glowing lantern, a bedroll, and a large camping backpack.
“Cover your ears!” the man yelled from above.
Skyler complied, this time a split second before a huge explosion from below rocked the entire structure. He felt as if inside a bass drum struck with zealous ambition. Even his teeth vibrated from the blast.
Above, the man got on the ladder himself and closed the top hatch. He tightened it down with a wheel on the underside, a mechanism that had obviously been added recently. He’d had probably rigged both it and the ladder release.
“Concussion grenade,” he said as he lowered himself down the rungs. His thin voice came in odd, deliberate syllables. “Thin the herd, scare the rest away.”
Skyler stared at the stranger in disbelief. “Do you live here?”
“Yes. Well, until dawn,” he said. “Been here a few years, but it’s time to move on. The subs are changing, you know. Working in big groups. I don’t like it, so I found a little place in the outback that is nice and secluded. Been moving my stuff there for weeks. You were aboard that aircraft? The one that crashed?”
“What happened?” the man asked.
The events of the past twenty-four hours swirled in Skyler’s head. “I don’t know where to start.”
“How about a name? I’m Clever.”
The man, African in descent, had a mop of curly black hair that came down to his shoulders. He wore a black coat and fashionable blue jeans, both in near-pristine condition. The silver handgun rested in a holster on the man’s hip. “I can see that,” Skyler said. “The ladder rigging. The hatch. Very clever.”
“I meant Clever’s my name. A boyhood nickname,” the man said. “Clever Cleveland, they called me.” He let out a deep breath, shook his head repeatedly as he ran his fingers through unkempt black hair.
“I see. Call me Skyler.”
“Any crew? Were they able to get out?”
Skyler winced. He decided he wasn’t ready to share that story. “Just me aboard.”
Clever watched him with suspicion. “We can search the wreckage after the fire stops.”
In the flickering lantern light, Clever sat down and folded his arms over his knees. A boyishness in the action contrasted with his apparent age. Skyler wondered if he was really immune, or just somehow mildly afflicted. He’d met immunes in the Clear a few times before. One, Takai, had joined the crew and proven a valuable friend. The others had been unstable at best. Immunity from SUBS did nothing to help the loneliness of surviving outside Darwin, year after year. It took a certain kind of person. A certain kind of mentality.
“You look exhausted. Grab a nap,” Clever said. “I’ll wake you at midnight—they should have lost interest by then. That’s when I gotta bust for home. Not getting caught here during the day.”
Instinctively, Skyler glanced at the gun on Clever’s hip.
“I’m the least of your worries,” the man said. “Relax. We’re safe in here.”
Or trapped. Skyler decided not to show a lack of trust. He could lie down and pretend to sleep, and think through his options. He removed his backpack and flight jacket, laying the latter down as a makeshift pillow.
“Drink some water first,” Clever said, handing him a canteen.
He nodded. “I’ll cook up some beans later. You must be hungry.”
“Again, thanks.” Skyler tipped the canteen back, letting the cool liquid pour into his dry and dusty throat. It tasted sweet, pure. “Damn, that’s good.”
“From a well by my new place,” Clever said, “a day’s walk from here. Can’t say more than that till I know you better.”
“Where are we, anyway?”
“A town called Gunn, according to the signs.”
Skyler took another sip and handed back the canteen. Gunn was only ten kilometers southeast of the Aura. He could make it to Darwin on foot, and in half a day if his leg permitted. “Thanks, really,” Skyler said.
“Sleep, man,” Clever said. “You’ve got a few hours.”
The smell of baked beans coaxed Skyler from a bizarre dream about turtles with castles on their backs.
He opened his eyes to the high ceiling of the water tower’s interior. Light from a small flame illuminated the place in ever shifting patterns. He turned on his side, rubbing the sand from his eyes, to see Clever hunched over a portable butane stove, stirring a pot with a worn plastic ladle.
“Christ on the damn cross, that smells good,” Skyler said.
Clever paused his work and gave Skyler a stern, untrusting glare. “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Skyler froze at the vehement order. Clever’s eyes were wide and bulging. “I meant,” Skyler said, “the beans smell delicious.”
The expression vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “I found them in some poor bastard’s attic,” Clever said. “Lots of people around here hoarded stuff when the plague approached.” He tasted the thick brown mixture and tossed in a generous pinch of salt from a tin container. “Bit old, but keeps pretty well. Thank the Almighty for Preservall, eh? Best invention in human history, if you ask me.”
“What time is it?” Skyler asked.
Clever checked his watch, a gaudy piece made of gold and diamonds. Skyler noticed an extravagant tattoo on the man’s forearm, too faded to discern in the weak light.
“A bit after midnight,” Clever said. “Was going to wake you when supper was served.” He removed two coffee mugs from his pack. Both were chipped and faded, but they had been made to resemble the faces of Laurel and Hardy. Clever divided the beans between them and dropped a plastic spoon in each. “Tuck in,” he added.
Skyler accepted the offered mug with eagerness, shoveling a bite into his mouth almost before Clever could pull his hand away.
The beans tasted of hickory and molasses, cooked down to a stewlike softness. Skyler chewed anyway, drawing out the flavor as long as possible. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d eaten something that satisfied him so perfectly.
Clever sat in total stillness for thirty seconds, eyes closed, his mouth moving in a silent prayer. Finished, he opened his eyes and set to work on his beans with slow, deliberate bites. His spoon scraped the edges of the cup as he worked to scoop out every last bit of the meal. Skyler copied him, not wanting to be rude.
The spoon no longer effective, Clever set it aside with great care and proceeded to run his finger around the inner edge of his cup. He noisily slurped the remnants of the beans from his finger, so focused on the task that Skyler wondered if he’d forgotten what it was like to have company.
Clever glanced up as if hearing Skyler’s thought. “Sorry,” he said. “I have a scorched-earth policy. No food left behind.”
Skyler shrugged. He couldn’t fault that.
The stranger set his mug aside and began to break down the rusted old stove. Skyler watched as he poured a little water over it to cool it down, sending a puff of steam upward toward the roof.
After some time, Clever said, “How’s your leg?”
Skyler glanced at the bandage. It looked no more bloody than before he’d fallen asleep. “A scrape during my landing. It’s feeling better.”
“Can you walk?”
“All right then,” Clever said. “Eat up. Time to go.”
Nodding, Skyler wolfed down his last few bites and returned the cup and spoon.
After a quick rinse, Clever tossed it all in his bag, then rolled up his own bed. Skyler did the same with his borrowed blanket and handed it over as well.
“Any bullets left in that thing?” Clever asked.
Skyler picked up the gun he’d brought from the Melville. He checked the clip. “Just five, but I have an extra clip.”
“Good,” Clever said. “Let’s go. Long walk ahead.”
“Where are we going?”
Clever pulled his backpack on. “I’ve got another little safehouse, about three klicks from here. Best to be back by dawn—keep the afflicted from following us there.”
The idea of some rest in a safe place, and some company, sounded good. Skyler could give his leg another day to heal before saying goodbyes and starting his trek back to Darwin. He nodded.
“You first,” Clever said, gesturing to the ladder that hung from the high ceiling.
Skyler had one foot on the bottom rung when the blow landed, and his world went black.
Spectacular, relentless pain throbbed in Skyler’s head when he came to.
He lay on his back against a cold metal floor. The ache in his head blared like trumpets at point-blank range. He rolled to his side, and the pressure of the floor on his skull abated, and some of the pain along with it. Gingerly, he reached up and touched the back of his head.
The lump there, big as a lemon, blossomed with fresh agony at his touch. Skyler yanked his fingers back and they came away sticky.
He lay still for a time, eyes closed, unable to think above the droning ache. Minutes passed. An hour, for all he knew. The torment subsided enough that he could form a thought.
He shot out his hand and patted randomly around the cold floor. Every movement of his head threatened to send him back to unconsciousness. He kept as still as possible, swiping his hand across the steel surface in vain.
He found nothing. He realized then why the floor felt so cold: his clothes were gone, too. He felt his body and found that only his undershirt and undershorts remained. Even his socks were gone.
Skyler closed his eyes and inwardly cursed Clever’s name.
More time passed in absolute silence and total darkness.
With a grunt, Skyler forced himself to sit up. He blinked as pain bloomed once again at the back of his skull. Less now—not so much that his thoughts were clouded. He tried touching it again and found he could put a little pressure on it.
Complete blackness surrounded him. He couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face.
“Hello?” Skyler said. His own gruff voice echoed slightly. Still inside the water tower, then. He crawled until he found the wall, and then he moved in a circle around the entire inside of the structure to build a mental map of the place. Still crawling, he moved back toward the center and reached up for the ladder.
His hands found only the stale air. He stood and reached higher, swiping his hands about like an idiot. Still nothing. Skyler tried to jump for it. The motion brought a new pang from his head, enough to send him back to his knees. He clutched at his skull and groaned with agony.
Clever had left him for dead. Stolen everything. His gun, his boots, his clothes. Locked him inside a steel tomb.
Skyler leaned back and shouted as loud as he could. “Bastard! Goddamn bastard!”
A brief, tinny echo punctuated the words.
He staggered his way to the sidewall again, hands outstretched to feel for the surface. Once there, Skyler ran his fingers in wide circles, reaching as high as he could. He probed for something he could get purchase on. A bolt, a joint ridge . . . anything at all.
He did this around the entire perimeter until he wondered if he’d already made a full circle. He might have gone around twice; there was no way to tell.
His back against the wall, Skyler slid down to a seated position and hung his head. His throat felt dry as sun-bleached bones, and his stomach grumbled, empty again. He figured he’d been unconscious for some time.
He tried to recall the floor of the water tower when lit. It sloped gently toward the center, where Clever’s camp stove and backpack had been. Skyler crept to the spot, brushing his fingertips against the rough floor. A small, flat area marked the center. He searched for a drain or hatch. The absolute darkness filled him first with annoyance, then anger. He probed and probed but found nothing. No grooves, no hint of any way through.
A dull metallic thud caught his attention. Skyler sat perfectly still and listened. Another thud. It came from his left, from outside. On his hands and knees, Skyler crawled that direction in slow, smooth motions, not wanting to make any noise of his own.
Footsteps now. Outside, on the spiral stairs that encircled the building. They had an odd cadence. Tap-thud, tap-thud. Skyler tilted his head to follow the noise as it wound its way around and up, toward the roof.
A spark of fear ignited in him. He stood and pressed himself against the cool metal wall. Despite the total blackness, he looked up, and waited.
Above him he heard the sound of the top hatch opening. A weak light poured in, and Skyler could see a small circle of sky, a faint purple. He put the time at dawn.
Blinding light suddenly washed over him. He threw a hand up to block the worst of it. A flashlight, and a damn strong one at that.
“Rise and shine, O cursed one,” came a voice. Clever’s voice.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?” Skyler shouted. “Lower the ladder!”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Clever said. “The bloody hell. The bloody hell indeed.”
He’s insane, Skyler thought.
“Lower the ladder?” Clever went on. “The ladder can go no lower. The ladder can only go higher.”
“Clever, listen. You can have my things, just please . . . extend the ladder and let me out of here.”
An odd grunt came from above, abruptly cut off as if part of Clever had tried to answer and another part had stifled it. Except the noise sounded different somehow.
“You’ve sinned, Skyler,” Clever said. “You took the Lord’s name in vain. Unacceptable behavior in my flock. You must repent before you can ascend the ladder and join the angels on high.”
“Fine, I repent. Forgive my poor choice of words.”
Soft laughter drifted down from the blinding light. “Lies only deepen your debt to God, and to me.”
The desperation within Skyler transformed into hopelessness. He knew then that nothing he said would placate the man. He was a Jacobite, clearly, and even more insane than most.
Yet he had come back. He must have some reason for returning, beyond the simple act of taunting his captive. Though insanity could explain that.
A different tactic, then, Skyler decided.
“Clever,” Skyler said calmly, “what do you want? Why’d you come back, you goddamn son of a bitch?”
“DO NOT SPEAK THAT WAY TO ME!”
Skyler flinched at the booming voice, amplified by the enclosed steel tomb.
“I’ll say whatever the hell I want,” Skyler shot back. “Damn you, Clever! Damn you and your pitiful, imaginary God!”
The light above faltered. Skyler heard an exhale filled with shock and frustration. Good.
“You mock me? You mock the Lord in my presence?”
“Go fuck yourself, Clever,” Skyler said as casually as he could muster. “Leave me the hell alone, or come down here and speak with me directly. I won’t participate in this conversation any longer.” With that he sat down, and folded his arms.
“You . . . what . . .” The light vanished. The hatch slammed closed with a deep crash that shook the wall at Skyler’s back. Above, Skyler could hear the sounds of footsteps on the roof of the tower. Clever paced back and forth.
Good, Skyler thought. Get agitated. Make a mistake.
Silence followed. Not more than ten seconds of stunning silence and absolute darkness, then the hatch opened again.
“You are a lost soul, Skyler,” Clever said, a shadow against the purple sky. His voice had lost its authority. He sounded sad now. Truly sad. “God says he wants me to test you. You must prove yourself before you can reenter the flock and ascend the ladder.”
Skyler kept quiet. A rustling above caught his attention, but he resisted the urge to look up. Then he heard another strange grunt. Strange enough that he did glance toward the roof.
He saw something falling. A bundle the size of a person.
The hatch slammed closed. All light once again disappeared.
Skyler heard a thump from the center of the floor. A gasp of pain, then silence, and then a long, anguished, inhuman groan.
“Clever?” Skyler said. Had the idiot jumped? Or slipped and fallen?
A muffled voice came down from the roof. From outside the hatch. “Your test begins, sinner. I will return in two days.”
Footsteps followed, clanging off the roof.
From the sheer blackness before him, Skyler heard a violent rustling sound, followed by ragged breaths. Snorting. Smelling. Then a voice, incomprehensible but nevertheless human.
No, Skyler thought. Not human. Subhuman.
A rush of fear flashed through him. Cool sweat rose to his skin. He braced his bare feet in the grime on the floor. Without thinking about it, his hands pushed at the wall. One last desperate search for anything he could use. A way to climb, or something loose he could hold as a weapon.
He found nothing.
His heart hammered. Blood pounded in his temples, in the veins along his neck. Phantom blotches of light began to swim across his vision.
Skyler fought it back. He had to think. He had to be . . . clever.
The ironic thought almost brought a laugh to his lips. It broke the cloud of fear, and he took the opening to focus.
Skyler lifted his left arm straight out, extending his hand. He couldn’t see anything, but the last thing he wanted was the creature to get to him before he could raise a defense.
He listened. Sound and feel were his only friends now. The creature thrashed against the floor. It might have been hurt in the fall. Broken a rib, or a leg. Skyler should attack now, press that advantage.
Footsteps dashed the idea. The creature sprinted across the floor, to Skyler’s left. It managed only three steps before it crashed into the outer wall with a calamitous noise, shrieked and fell. More trashing filled the cavernous room as the animal righted itself.
Skyler took a few tentative steps away, to his right. Buy distance and time, he thought. Let the sub wear itself out. He could smell it now, the smell of sweat and urine and rotten meat. The scent of a wild animal.
The sound from across the floor stopped, and Skyler froze in place. He heard a slow, deliberate sniffing sound. Subhumans were, in the physical sense, human. Their sense of smell was no better, yet their total reliance on senses had sharpened them. In the enclosed room, Skyler had no doubt the subhuman would be able to locate him by smell alone. It was only on a question of how long it would take.
The creature ran again. This time, Skyler heard the footsteps grow louder. One, two, three—
Skyler kicked. He braced his hands against the wall and thrust his leg straight out. In the dark, his timing and aim were off. The strength of the kick ended before the impact, and his foot only brushed the side of the sub. Not ideal, but better than nothing. The creature deflected off his leg and slammed into the wall again.
It struck out with wild rage. Sharp fingernails raked across Skyler’s upper arm. Ignoring the pain, he pushed out from the wall and rolled away, coming up in a coiled stance that faced where he thought—hoped—the creature was.
More silence, then sharp intakes of breath through the nose. Skyler centered the sound in front of him, and shifted his weight from foot to foot, ready to move in any direction.
It came again. Closer now, so Skyler waited for only two steps before he acted. The noise came slightly from his right, so Skyler dropped his left hand to the floor and swung his right leg out in a wide arc.
This time his kick landed. His leg whipped across the creature’s knees, sending it sprawling. It cried out in surprise and agony as it smashed into the floor.
Skyler pressed the attack. In total darkness, he followed the sounds and dove, knees first. He landed squarely on top of the creature and rained blows against the back of its head.
It flailed in a last, primal urge to survive. Skyler grunted as he struggled to keep on top of the thing. He grabbed two handfuls of tangled, rough hair and twisted. Twisted with all his strength.
With a sickening crack the neck broke. The creature went limp in the span of a heartbeat.
Skyler let go, hair sticking to his sweaty hands. He rolled off the subhuman and lay on his back, struggling to control his breathing.
Many minutes passed before he regained calm. The last of Clever’s words echoed in his mind. “I will return in two days . . .”
Two days. The need to conserve strength came forefront in Skyler’s mind. He lay still, and breathed slow. After a time he rolled onto his knees and crawled to the wall again, for the simple reason that he didn’t want to lie next to a corpse.
His eyes felt heavy, but he resisted the temptation to sleep. He needed a plan. Possible conversations with Clever played out in his mind. He wondered if defeating the creature would be enough to earn his freedom. No matter what, he decided he would play the pensive, repentant sinner, as genuinely as he could, until Clever let him out.
Footsteps outside interrupted his thoughts. More clanging steps on the circular stairs, at a normal pace this time. Skyler couldn’t be sure if Clever had returned already, or if someone else had arrived. He thought it unlikely that another immune would be here. There probably wasn’t another immune within a thousand kilometers.
As the footsteps reached the roof, Skyler thought up a new plan. He crawled back to where he thought the subhuman’s body lay, and curled into a fetal ball on the floor near it.
The hatch opened above, and Skyler closed his eyes. He sensed the bright flashlight on the inside of his eyelids and knew that Clever had returned.
“Well, well,” the man said. A long pause followed, and then, “Sinner? You okay down there?”
Skyler lay as still as he could. His heart hammered, and it took all his self-control to hold his breath.
“I guess we have a tie,” Clever said to himself. “That’s . . . unexpected. But then God’s plans often are.”
A few long minutes followed in total silence. Then Skyler heard the telltale sound of the ladder being lowered. He kept still, straining his ears for any hint of the man’s location.
Quiet footfalls came from above as Clever worked his way down the ladder. The steps grew louder, though Skyler could tell the man was trying to keep quiet. He heard a noise from the floor and realized he’d lain down with his back to the center of the space, a bit of luck. He risked opening his eyes and saw the wall a few meters away, illuminated by Clever’s light. The beam swung around in confusing fashion, as if the lunatic had started dancing. Then the light clicked off, replaced by a weaker light from the small lantern Clever had used before.
In the warm yellow glow, Clever’s shadow appeared on the wall. Skyler tracked him as he took a few timid steps to the side and crouched down, apparently checking the body of the subhuman. Skyler could see the shape of a pistol in the shadow of Clever’s hand.
“Your soul returns to hell,” Clever said, “from whence it came. God have mercy on you.”
The shadow on the wall stood, and then shrank as the man walked toward Skyler’s spot on the floor.
Skyler closed his eyes.
Clever began his eulogy again. “Your soul returns to hell—”
Skyler rolled. He threw a punch as his body spun. Clever knelt a half-step away, his hands clasped in front of him in sincere prayer, one still gripping the pistol. An odd sight to see. The man’s eyes sprang open just in time to see Skyler’s fist.
The punch fell with perfect aim against Clever’s eye. Skyler felt a satisfying squish as the man fell backward, an awkward motion from his kneeling position.
The gun slipped from Clever’s hand as he braced for the fall, and it clattered away toward the center of the room.
Skyler jumped to his feet and prepared to punch again. His opponent surprised him with a nimble kick against the bandaged wound on Skyler’s calf.
White-hot pain erupted from Skyler’s leg and he lost balance. He fell hard against the steel floor, one arm underneath his body. Wind rushed from his lungs.
“Risen from the dead! Unexpected!” Clever shouted. Then the pain from Skyler’s punch seemed to catch up to him. He groaned and staggered.
The moment gave Skyler a chance to draw a breath. He pushed himself up on one arm and struggled to get his good leg underneath him.
A powerful kick in the back sent Skyler down again. He managed to roll this time, and rolled again, and again.
“You’ve taken a path of treachery, Skyler, and to your peril. God’s wrath is on my side. Eternal love, too, but mostly that awesome wrath.”
Skyler managed to get to his knees. The pain in his leg made stars swim across his vision. He felt faint, and he shook his head violently to dash the sensation.
He turned just in time to see Clever standing before him. The man threw a punch this time and it landed against Skyler’s cheek. A solid blow, but not enough to force a retreat. Skyler threw a punch of his own. His fist found only air as Clever stepped back. The action spun Skyler to one side and left him open.
Clever attacked Skyler’s midsection next. Skyler heard a crack, and pain lanced into his lungs like a hammer-driven nail. His next breath added salt to the wound.
Unsteady, Skyler clutched at his ribs and staggered away. The small lantern filled the room with exaggerated shadows, dancing across the walls in dizzying fashion. Blinking tears from his eyes, Skyler stumbled across the floor. He heard Clever laughing behind him. A low, rumbling chuckle.
“Lord, guide my fists,” Clever said. “The sinners shall fall and the righteous shall climb, all the way to ladder’s end.”
A glimmer caught Skyler’s eye. The pistol, oddly forgotten on the rusty floor. Skyler darted toward it, a drunken stagger. Each step brought a fresh wave of pain from his cracked rib.
“No you don’t,” Clever said. Skyler heard him rushing forward, exactly as he hoped.
Clever had the shorter path. He ran and dove for the weapon, his fingers curling around the butt as he slid in the grit that coated the floor.
With every bit of strength he could muster, Skyler leapt into the air and came down, knees first, as Clever rolled to aim the gun.
Skyler’s knees landed squarely on the man’s stomach. The Jacobite screeched as the air in his lungs rushed out. Skyler took a wild swing at the gun and knocked it loose again. It clattered all the way across the floor until it hit the wall with a deep clang.
Stunned from the impact to his abdomen, Clever lay almost still for a split second. It was enough for Skyler to rock himself forward, driving his forehead into Clever’s nose.
Bone shattered with a sharp crack. Clever tried to scream but had no air to do it with. A horrid, guttural sound came out instead.
Skyler rolled off the man. The ache from his ribs threatened to send him unconscious. He lay still on the floor as Clever writhed, hands covering the bloody mess of his face.
Struggling to his feet, Skyler tried to focus. Two options came to him: keep fighting or leave. He didn’t think he could take another blow.
He rushed to the ladder and jumped for the rungs. The edges of his vision darkened and he only just managed to hold on. The cold metal bars felt reassuring in his hands as he began to climb with jerky, awkward motions. His left calf burned, and the right side of his rib cage throbbed. Even his knuckles screamed for relief, bruised from the punches he’d thrown.
“Oh God, oh God,” Clever muttered from below.
Skyler did all he could to swallow the agony that blared from every corner of his body, his mind. He climbed faster at the sound of Clever stumbling across the floor of the water tower. Not climbing, Skyler realized, but going for the pistol.
Four steps to go. Skyler pushed himself harder. His lungs burned. He focused on the circle of slate-blue sky above. He reached for the open hatch.
A shot rang out from below. Deafening in the enclosed space. Skyler flinched and almost lost his grip. He heard the whoosh of a bullet, felt the passing of it near his face. It ricocheted off the roof near him.
Skyler reached up and found the lip of the hatch. Grunting with the effort, he grabbed the round edge with both hands and pulled himself up, kicking his legs wildly to get over the side.
Another shot. This one hit the ceiling with a pocksound, punching clean through. On the roof now, Skyler rolled onto his back, took one solid breath, then came to his knees and slammed the hatch down.
Clever’s horrified shout was cut off as the round metal door closed.
Skyler spun the wheel to lock it in place. He rocked back into a seated position and then inched his way backward.
Two more gunshots sounded from below, neither puncturing the roof. Then the shooting stopped. Out of bullets, Skyler guessed. A strange silence followed, and he sat there for a while, just breathing until the pain in his side abated to something he could tolerate. He felt a lump forming on his forehead.
The sun cracked the eastern horizon, a bright line of fire between Earth and the heavens.
A cool breeze picked up. It carried the smell of rain, the hint of lightning. A clean smell, and comforting. Skyler found some strength there, and mentally he latched on to it.
With a long sigh he struggled to his feet. One careful step after another, he staggered to the railing at the edge of the tower. The steel surface felt cold on his bare feet.
Near the top step of the spiral stairs, he found his backpack and machine gun, along with Clever’s own gear. The sight of his supplies drained enough anxiety and pain from his mind that he could focus again. Grunting with effort, he knelt down and picked up both packs.
“Thanks for the food,” Skyler croaked. “Rot in hell, and take your God with you.” He didn’t know if Clever could hear him, and he didn’t care.
Skyler put one shaky hand on the railing and started down the stairs, one painful step at a time.
Skyler awoke in total darkness.
He lay on a surface of cold metal, and it brought tears to his eyes. Back in the water tower, back in Clever’s trap. He must have passed out before getting far, and somehow the bastard had escaped and dragged him back.
Pain throbbed in his side from the cracked rib. He probed it gently and found his torso tightly wrapped in gauze. A vague memory of dressing the wound tugged at his mind, like a distant beacon in thick fog. He brushed his fingers along the floor until they crossed an edge and found vacant air.
His tears turned to those of relief. He lay on an operating table. Vague fragments of how he’d come to be there flitted through his mind.
Wandering, staggering, through dark streets. Seeing subhumans in every shadow and knowing he would be powerless if attacked.
A veterinary clinic, gated and barred. He’d climbed to a second-story window and hauled himself in, thinking he would die from the sheer agony of it. Inside he had to crawl, lacking the strength to stand on two feet. He remembered tumbling down a flight of stairs to the first floor and lying at the bottom for a long time, expecting never to move again.
He did move, sometime later. Warm light poured in through the windows, shafts of gold and swirling dust. He crawled along the mildew-coated floor until he’d found the operating room. It had taken hours to get to a sitting position, then standing. He remembered rifling through the cabinets, tears of joy streaming down his face at the unmolested supplies there. Gauze, gel stitch stored in Preservall, anesthetic.
Twice more he’d passed out. Perhaps more times than that. Awaking in sheer black, half bandaged and on the floor. He’d slept then, and had woken in the meager sunlight that found its way to the room from the hallway. Parched and shaking with hunger, he’d pulled himself onto the gurney and finished dressing his wounds.
He’d made a sloppy job of it, too, but couldn’t find the energy to fix things. With a grunt he rolled off the table and pulled on his shirt and jacket.
On a high shelf in a supply room, Skyler found an unopened carton of distilled water. He drank greedily from it, letting the cool liquid spill down his neck and chest. After splashing some on his face, he poured the rest into his canteen and left the half-full bottle on the dusty floor.
Food eluded him. His stomach groaned at the unbidden memory of Clever’s delicious beans. Remembering anything about Clever with fondness made Skyler want to kick himself. After searching every corner of the clinic and finding nothing edible, he gave up. He hoped the water would give him enough strength to reach Darwin.
The rest of the day he spent sitting on the roof, looking north and west. The town of Gunn spread out before him like an untended hedge maze. It rippled in the distance, as the bright sun baked away the previous day’s rain.
Discerning a path to take was impossible from his low vantage point, so instead he focused on landmarks he could move between once the sun slipped under the horizon. His gaze came across the main landmark, a church steeple, and it reminded him of Jake.
The thought brought a new wave of grief over the fate of his crew. He realized with sudden, overwhelming clarity why he could never walk away from Darwin. Why he could never use his immunity as a vehicle to leave it all behind and make his own way, as Skadz had done.
With that single thought, a flame reignited within him: the drive he needed to forge ahead with the task Platz had given him.
If I don’t, Skyler thought, and the Aura fails completely, loneliness will be my only option. He’d be stuck on this pitiful rock with a scant few people to ever talk to. He might find people like Samantha, Jake, Takai, and Angus, sure. But also people like Clever.
And the chances were just as good that he’d never see another friendly face again.
He focused on the northern sky, where he thought he could just discern the line of the Elevator.
If Darwin needed help, Skyler would give it. The alternative, he thought, was far worse.