Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(10)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(10)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Sam, incredulous, glared at him. “You think?”

“We’ll force it later, keep moving,” Skyler said to her.

They continued down the hallway and came to an alcove. On one side they found an elevator, useless without power, but beside it an open door gave way to a dark stairwell.

Takai approached another sign next to the elevator, covered by filthy glass. He wiped a gloved hand across it to reveal a basic map of the building. “Record keeping is basement three,” he said. “This is floor one.”

Skyler nodded. “There, see? Glad you’re here, Takai.”

“Yes, delighted,” Samantha said.

“Down we go?” Skyler asked.

The woman objected. “We should clear this floor first.”

“It’s fine, there’s nothing here.”

“Clear this floor,” she said, “then down.”

Skyler stifled the urge to pull rank. He nodded, instead.

The next door proved unlocked, giving way to a conference room. Water dripped from the ceiling onto a long oval table. Mold grew everywhere. Skyler covered his nose at the stench. Chairs in various states of decay littered the floor.

“That screen looks intact,” Samantha said.

Skyler followed her gaze to a large monitor hanging from the wall. Coated in dust, it appeared otherwise undamaged. “Probably dead.”

“Components are very useful,” Takai said.

“And very heavy. We’ll grab it on the way out. First priority is the goods on the list.”

They moved back into the hallway. Behind the last door they found a lobby and small gift shop stocked with space-related products geared toward children. Most were electronic. Skyler remembered the list Prumble had supplied him. “Hold up,” he said, then removed a large canvas bag he kept folded in his pack. Takai helped him shovel ultracapacitors of all sizes from a circular rack, avoiding those ruined by exposure and time. Skyler then found pairs of two-way radios meant for children, which he knew to have excellent range, and bagged them. In another aisle Takai discovered a locked glass case protecting high-end game tablets. He explained that the screens and memory might be salvageable. Skyler agreed, kicked in the glass, and grabbed the boxes.

He glanced across the rest of the lobby, looking for anything else of value. A receptionist’s desk appeared to be the only furniture not ruined from exposure. The surface of it looked barren, save for a postal container covered in dust, packages still inside. “Good enough, let’s move on.”

They headed back for the stairs. Takai left the bag of toys in the hallway. Skyler felt himself relaxing, his confidence bolstered by the quiet as much as by Sam’s tactical attitude.

The stairway led both up and down, pitch black in both directions. On the landing one level up, Skyler’s flashlight came across the carcass of a cat, long dead. Only fur and bone remained.

“Down we go,” Samantha said. She kept the lead as they descended, boots thudding loudly on the metal steps, echoing throughout the stairwell. The sound caused Samantha to move faster, stealth no longer on their side.

Jake’s voice suddenly came into Skyler’s ear, barely a whisper. “Movement on the tree line.”

Skyler grabbed Samantha’s shoulder, stopping her halfway down the flight. He tapped his earpiece. “Subs?”

A tense moment of silence followed. “Negative. If you can believe it, there’s a deer approaching the building.”

Skyler let out his breath.

“I can drop it if you want. Scrawny little bugger, but there might be some meat on it,” Jake said.

Skyler felt his stomach twitch at the idea. “Only if it’s moving away. For now let’s keep things quiet out there.”

“Copy that,” said Jake.

“What’s going on?” Samantha asked.

“Local wildlife. Keep going.”

She complied. After two flights of stairs they came across another locked door. On Skyler’s silent order, Samantha ignored it and continued down.

Basement level three proved to be the bottommost floor. Sam approached the door and tried the handle.

It didn’t budge, so Skyler signaled for her to force it.

One kick from her leg and the door flew open, stopping hard against the wall with a loud thud. The sound of it reverberated through the entire complex.

Somewhere above, Skyler heard movement.

Samantha dropped to a crouch and froze in place. She turned her flashlight on the stairs above. Skyler followed suit.

He saw nothing, yet the sound, like small feet scuttling across sheet metal, continued. Another cat, Skyler guessed. Perhaps a large rodent.

“I think it’s in the crawl space between floors,” Samantha whispered.

“Keep still,” Skyler said, listening. He crouched there, straining his ears until the sound receded.

“This place is creepy as hell,” Samantha said.

“I agree,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

She glanced into the space beyond the door and swung her shotgun and flashlight across it. Skyler watched from over her shoulder.

It appeared to be a vast library, about twenty meters square. A strong odor of rot and mildew greeted them. Water dripped from numerous cracks in the ceiling.

Skyler feared the shelves of material would all be water-damaged beyond usefulness, until he noticed the cracks did not have the typical brown splotches that indicated long exposure. Recent, then.

Sam pushed inside, and Skyler followed.

The rows of shelves extended all the way to the far wall, where they could see a single door, closed. Skyler whispered to Samantha, “Sweep this first, then clear that back room, before we turn Takai loose.”

“No shit.”

He let the comment go, instead looking back at Takai.

The engineer’s eyes were wide, his face sheet-white. He managed a nod. “I’ll follow.”

Samantha set a faster pace, checking each aisle of shelving. Most were stocked with a mix of black binders and beige data cube holders. All appeared to be labeled and organized, a good sign assuming Takai could be able to decipher the scheme used. For now, he set his concerns aside and continued toward the back of the room, where Samantha waited by a door.

He took up a position on the wall to the right of the entrance, a mirror of Sam’s stance on the left. He nodded. She turned the handle and pushed it open.

Skyler could hear Takai suck in his breath at what greeted them inside.

A skeletal corpse sprawled in a desk chair, head titled to one side.

Bits of leathery skin stretched over the bones. Skyler guessed it was a man, judging by the style of the clothing that remained. He appeared to have shot himself through the mouth. A revolver remained clutched in the body’s hand, and a spray of dried blood decorated the wall behind.

“Suicide. Dead a long time,” Skyler said. Obvious to all, but he hoped to calm Takai down. The short man was breathing hard.

“Better than letting the subs get you,” Sam said.

Skyler grunted. “No argument here.” He mentally cataloged the rest of room, looking for anything that might be of value. A desk of cheap fake marble jutted from the wall. A computer console, though caked with dust, seemed intact. “Takai, start looking for the cubes.” He handed his engineer the paper that Prumble had provided.

Takai practically ran from the morbid scene.

“I’ll cover the stairway door. Didn’t like that sound earlier,” Sam said.

Skyler flashed her a thumbs-up and went to work searching the office for valuables. First came the gruesome task of prying the revolver from the dead man’s hand. The weapon had rusted a bit, but Skyler felt it could be cleaned up. Worth a sack of vegetables back in Darwin, if it fired. He unloaded five bullets from it, a nice bonus. Smiling, he unfolded another duffel bag from his pack and dropped the weapon inside.

Everything on top of the desk went into the bag: console, sleek monitor, and an old-fashioned keyboard. Despite being caked with dust they could still fetch a good sum. Then he got down on his hands and knees to inspect the area below the desk. All of the various power and computer cables went into his bag.

On a bookshelf behind the dead scientist, Skyler found a framed photograph. He wiped the dust from it. The image showed four men in casual clothing, smiling in front of the observatory. Two were Japanese, the third a handsome Indian fellow.

The fourth Skyler recognized.

“I’ll be damned,” he said to himself.

The last man was Neil Platz, the business tycoon who had owned most of Darwin, and nearly all of orbit, before the disease came.

Skyler flipped the frame around and coaxed the picture out. A date on the back indicated 2260, a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The bastard had his hands in everything back then, Skyler thought.

On a whim he folded the picture and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Then he realized a glass bottle had been hidden behind the frame, filled with an amber liquid.

“Well, well,” he said. The faded label said Lagavulin Whisky, dated more than five decades past. And, more important, unopened. Just the type of thing he could give to a Nightcliff inspector to turn a blind eye.

Jake’s voice interrupted him. “How’s it going in there?”

“Decent,” said Skyler. “We’re in the records room now. One rotting corpse is about it so far.”

“How much longer?” Jake asked.

“Why, something wrong?”

“Something’s boring.”

Takai stepped into the doorway, frowning, holding a small, beige data cube container.

“Just a moment,” Skyler said, excitement surging within. He raised his eyebrows at Takai. “Excellent! Found them already?”

“Numbers match, but cubes are missing.” He turned the empty container for Skyler to see.

In that instant Skyler’s excitement crashed. His knees buckled, forcing him to lean on the desk. “You’re sure? Searched the whole room?”

Takai nodded, his face a mask.

Skyler took a long, deep breath. “Were any other cubes missing?”

“No,” Takai said.

Sitting on the edge of the dead man’s desk, Skyler hung his head. He doubted another crew had beaten them here. Rich Orbitals sometimes hired multiple crews to increase their chances, but the place seemed otherwise untouched. No, more likely the intel was bad. Old, outdated, or just plain wishful thinking on some Orbital’s part. The end result was the same.

Another failed mission, and worse—one based on the recovery of a single, valuable item. A mission on which he’d staked his very job.

Salvage what you can, he told himself. At least he could leave the others without a debt.

“Looks like we’re shit out of luck,” Skyler said into his communicator. “Smash and grab, everyone. Anything of value.”

He heard Samantha curse in the hallway outside. She kicked something.

Jake’s voice was faint over static. “I’ll arrange pickup with Angus.”

Skyler shook the failed mission from his mind. To dwell on it now would be pointless, and dangerous. “Copy. Takai, bag some data cubes anyway. The Orbitals ask for blank ones all the time.”

“Okay.”

Skyler rifled through the desk drawers. None were locked, to his relief. He bagged a variety of items: a stapler, scissors, a box of pencils, and what appeared to be a wristwatch, though it had a strange layout.

Next he examined the shelves on the sidewall. On one he found a portable music device, and inside it some zinc-air batteries. He put the whole thing in his bag, which had become rather heavy. He set it back down and slung his rifle over his shoulder to free up both hands.

“I carry,” Takai said from the doorway, putting his own pistol away with awkward movements.

Skyler nodded and stepped back. “All yours. Let’s get the hell out of here, eh?”

He led the man back to the stairwell. Samantha was gone.

“She went up,” Takai said.

Skyler took the stairs quickly and had to wait at the first landing for his engineer to catch up. The next flight he maintained a normal pace. From the main hallway, he could hear Samantha cursing from frustration.

They found her in the conference room, hands on her hips, staring up at the wall-mounted monitor. “Damn thing is bolted down. I trust one of you brought some cutters?”

Skyler shrugged and turned to Takai. The little man grimaced and said, “In the plane.”

“Amateur hour.” She pushed past the two of them and stalked back down the hall toward the door they had entered from.

“Wait a second,” Skyler said.

Samantha turned around. Her narrow glare brimmed with annoyance.

“Something about this feels wrong,” Skyler said.

“No shit,” Samantha said. “You goosed it. Again.”

“Not that. The dead guy.”

She folded her arms. “Billions of them around.”

Something still nagged him. “No other cubes were missing.”

“So?”

“Odd, isn’t it?”

Jake’s voice crackled in Skyler’s ear. “Angus is three minutes out.”

“Understood,” Skyler said to him. He focused back on Samantha. “Someone offered a small fortune for this. We get here, and it’s the one set missing from the entire room? If a bunch were missing, I’d chalk it up to the chaos of five years ago. But the exact set we came to find, gone?”

Samantha gave a grudging nod. “Okay, Sherlock. So where is it? Not in the room, not on the dead guy … You did search the body, right?”

He hesitated, felt a knot grow in his gut. “No. Didn’t seem right.”

She stormed off toward the stairs. “He’s not going to mind, Sky.”

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