Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(11)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(11)
Author: Jason M. Hough

As her footsteps faded, Skyler realized what he’d missed. He jogged back to the lobby area, bypassing the gift shop in favor of the reception desk. Takai waited at the door, throwing constant nervous glances back toward the stairway.

On the desk in the lobby, Skyler brushed a thick coat of dust off a neatly wrapped package sitting in one of the two mail bins. The parcel’s dimensions were identical to the data cube cases Takai had pulled from the shelves in the records room. He tore at the brown paper wrapping, an easy task—the brittle material all but disintegrated in his hands, leaving only a faded shipping label behind. Skyler’s hunch proved accurate.

“Takai, have a look.”

“We should stay with Sam,” he said from the door.

“She can take care of herself,” Skyler said. “Come over here.”

Takai crossed the room with timid steps. He jumped when a sudden beam of light came in through the tattered drapes that covered the lobby windows. Within a few seconds, the room filled with pale orange shafts.

Dawn.

Skyler tapped his ear. “Status, Jake? Angus?” While waiting for a response, he unlatched the plastic container. Inside, four ceramic cubes were packed in a bed of Styrofoam shells.

“Thirty seconds,” Angus said.

Takai appeared at Skyler’s elbow, holding the list Prumble had provided them. “Numbers match the second set.”

Though he felt a rush of hope, Skyler fought the urge to celebrate. He rummaged through the box and found a folded piece of paper beneath the cubes. Something had been written on it in Japanese.

“‘You must finish what I could not,’” Takai said.

“Hmmm?”

“That’s what the paper says. You must finish what I could not.”

A chill ran up Skyler’s spine. The message, the entire situation, implied that these cubes held something worth every council note offered for their retrieval. He closed the box and slipped it inside his jacket. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

He turned back toward the door. Takai ran ahead, no longer content to be led.

In the hallway Skyler found Samantha emerging from the stairwell.

“Found an old phone, and a wallet,” she said. “Why are you smiling?”

“Tell you outside,” Skyler said. He made a conscious effort to wipe the grin from his face as he ran for the door at the end of the hallway.

Sunlight on snow patches blinded. He stopped their progress just outside the door, allowing his eyes to adjust. In the distance, he saw Jake emerge from the tree line, carrying a small deer over his shoulders. A broad smile graced his haggard face.

“Not as scrawny as I thought.” Jake eased the dead animal off his back and rubbed at his shooting shoulder. “Venison stew tonight, I think.”

As Sam and Takai admired the carcass, Skyler tapped his headset again. “Angus, ETA?”

The kid replied quickly, voice clear without interference from the building. “How flat is that field?”

Skyler imagined himself trying to land here. “Should work. Favor the east side.”

“Any resistance?”

“None,” Skyler said, “but let’s have a nice quick dust-off, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Ultracap level?”

“We’ll make it. Just.”

A moment later Skyler heard the Melville’s ducted-fan engines. The noise grew louder until the four of them were forced to cover their ears.

Angus set the craft down in the southeast corner of the field, a textbook landing. He’d even positioned the rear cargo door to face them, open and inviting. The engines remained on for a quick departure. Skyler admired the kid’s work and envied his natural skill.

Samantha once again took the lead, passing back through the chain-link fence and across the weed field. Takai and Jake were last, under the burden of their respective prizes.

Once inside the Melville, Skyler punched the red button that controlled the cargo door and instructed Angus to lift off as soon as the rest of the team was strapped in.

“What about that monitor,” Sam asked, “in the conference room?” She held a tool belt.

“Forget it. The caps are running low.”

“The parts will fetch a good price.”

Skyler patted his jacket and smiled. “Nothing compared to—”

She punched the button to reverse the cargo door and ran off toward the observatory.

“Sam! Dammit.” He hit the communicator. “Angus, hold tight, Sam went back inside.”

His voice came right back over the speaker. “Kill the engines?”

Skyler weighed the options. The noise would only draw attention, but to spin them down meant spinning them up again, a lengthy process. He glanced at Jake and Takai, who both just stared back. “Keep them hot,” Skyler said to Angus.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Jake, can you cover me from the ramp?”

In answer, Jake picked up his long sniper rifle and removed the lens cap from the scope. Skyler wasted no time racing back across the clearing. Only when he passed through the fence did he realize he had left his machine gun in the Melville.

Before he could unholster the backup pistol kept on his thigh, Samantha emerged again from the building, arms wrapped around the large black monitor. Her face strained from the weight of it.

“Piece of cake,” she said.

“Except a lot heavier.”

She giggled. “Shut up and help me with this.”

With a quick laugh, Skyler grabbed the leading edge. He turned and started back toward the waiting aircraft.

Jake knelt on the cargo ramp. For some reason his rifle pointed well off to the side.

A plume of fire and smoke erupted from the muzzle of the long gun. A split second later the booming sound of the weapon reached Skyler, loud even above the Melville’s idling engines. He felt his clothing pulse with the concussion wave. Birds erupted from the surrounding trees. Skyler glanced right in time to see a human form drop into the weeds and out of sight.

“Subs! Run!” Samantha shouted.

Skyler pumped his legs as fast as the weeds would allow. Patches of snow thwarted any hope for an all-out sprint.

He glanced right and saw two more subhumans loping toward them. The closest one ran hunched over, using one hand for balance. In the other hand it held a length of plywood. A club, of sorts. The one farther away had stopped. It coiled itself, preparing to throw something.

Another shot boomed from the plane. The rock thrower jerked and dropped to its knees, toppling over and out of sight.

The runner closed in on Skyler and Sam with terrific speed.

Skyler felt his grip on the heavy monitor failing. His gut told him to ditch the bulky device, then Jake’s rifle boomed again. Skyler glanced at the runner just in time to see it tumble into the weeds.

They reached the cargo door, Takai closing it the moment their Sam’s touched the ramp. The engineer gestured toward a blanket he had laid out on the floor. “Place it here,” he said.

Skyler and Samantha carefully lowered the screen onto the padded blanket and laid it flat.

“Secure it,” Skyler said to no one in particular, and tapped the microphone. “Angus, dust off, but keep it slow until we’ve got everything stowed.”

“Copy that,” he replied.

Skyler turned to Jake, finding him already in the process of breaking down his rifle. “Hey.”

Jake stopped and turned to face Skyler, rubbing his shoulder more vigorously now, the shoulder where he rested the butt of his weapon.

“Nice shooting,” Skyler said.

Jake shrugged. “They made it easy, running straight at you like that.”

Chapter Eight

Darwin, Australia

18.JAN.2283

The dignitary wore a perfect business suit and a false smile.

He slipped on the wet steps as he came down from the climber car, his grin faltering in concert with his balance. One hand shot out and found the railing just in time to save him from a slapstick tumble down the rest of the stairs. He righted himself and put his smile back on. “Mr. Blackfield,” he said, extending a smooth white hand. “So nice to meet you.”

Russell thought that if he opened his mouth he might never stop laughing, so he returned the handshake instead.

“Michael Carney,” the man said. “Immigration director, Orbital Council.”

He spoke with a strong British accent, punctuated by dangling jowls that shook with each word. He wore glasses, a rare thing in this day and age, perched on the end of his nose so that he had to tilt his head back in order to look through them.

“Immigration,” Russell said. “Why’d they send you?”

“I volunteered,” Michael replied. He sucked in a breath through his enormous, hairy nostrils. “Haven’t been down here in a decade, I wanted to smell the rain.”

“Well gosh. We’re honored to let you have a sniff.”

“Cheers, cheers.” If he noticed the sarcasm, he did a good job of hiding it. “Thanks for allowing the climber to come down.”

“Thank me when I decide it can go back up.”

The man’s eyes flickered back and forth. A few secretaries waited patiently behind him, at a polite distance. Russell’s own security detail loitered a dozen meters away.

On the opposite side of the loading yard a team worked to detach a food container from the climber. From a third car, a repair crew disembarked. They wore matching gray overalls and were bound for one of the desalination plants across the bay. One of the giant processors had malfunctioned, and Russell felt he’d shown considerable goodwill in allowing the repair team to piggyback on the lone climber.

“Enough with the pleasantries,” Russell said. “You’re here to negotiate, so negotiate.”

Michael glanced around. “Somewhere more private, perhaps?”

“Here is fine.”

“Ah … right then.” The man took a breath and gestured to the container of food. “A peace offering.”

“Don’t need it,” Russell said. “Do better.”

The man’s eyebrows ticked up, if only for a half second. “My visit proves the climbers are working fine. The power fluctuation last week, while certainly odd, should not continue to hamper our trade agreements.”

“Odd?” Russell asked. “That’s all you can say about it? Odd?”

“We’ve tripled-checked everything on our end, Russell, and found nothing wrong.”

“Try harder, then. Until I get an explanation, the climbers stay put.”

“There’s nothing left to check, Russell. Perhaps if we could assist in your analysis down here?”

Many years ago, Russell received a piece of sage advice from a wrinkled old con man. “If someone you just met repeatedly uses your first name in conversation, they’re either lying to you or hiding something.” He’d never forgotten the tip, and it had proved useful many times.

“You think we’re doing this on purpose,” Russell said. “That we, what, faked the blackout?”

“All I can tell you is we’re not ruling anything out,” he said with a smug grin.

A politician, through and through. Russell wanted nothing more than to ram his fist into the man’s uneven teeth.

Rain began to patter the ground around them. Thick, warm drops. The sprinkle grew to a downpour in the space of seconds.

“Perhaps,” Michael Carney said, “we could move indoors?”

Russell turned and stalked away, leaving the councilman scurrying to keep up. He thought of doing the polite thing and guiding the visitor to his opulent office, but a better idea came.

Increasing his pace further, Russell turned toward Nightcliff’s massive southern gates. Two huge doors, both patchwork quilts of rusting metal and hasty welds. He angled toward a scaffold stairwell beside the huge entrance and clanged up the steps two at a time.

At the top he paused to let Michael Carney catch up.

The Brit was breathing hard by the time he hit the last step. His once flawless business suit had soaked up the rain like a dry sponge. Drops of beaded water covered his glasses. He removed them, tried to find a place to wipe them off, and quickly gave up and stuffed them inside his blazer.

Russell stepped aside to make room. The narrow walkway ran the entire circumference of the fortress wall, but he knew he wouldn’t need to take his guest any farther than this spot.

A murmur started below. Michael took in the view beyond the wall in stunned silence.

The gathered crowd stirred at the sight of a man wearing garb other than Nightcliff black. They sensed it meant something. Something important. The murmur grew, first to anxious talk and then to angry shouts, spreading through the crowd like a shock wave.

Yesterday, after nearly a week of pointless protests, their mood had shifted from riotous to bored. They’d camped in Ryland Square despite the unpredictable weather. They sang songs and played football in the mud. A few rather comical fistfights broke out. Occasionally they threw rocks toward the fortress.

Russell had watched them for a long time and noted how often their eyes turned to the Elevator, hoping to see the climbers moving again. Hoping that a meal would come down the cord.

No meal, Russell thought. But I’ve brought a sacrificial lamb.

“My word,” Michael said, his wits finally gathered. He wiped the water from his face and strained to focus on the sea of people. “What are they all doing here?”

Russell clapped the man on his back. “They’re dying to hear what you’ve come to offer them.”

Michael recoiled from the edge of the wall. “You can’t be serious,” he squeaked.

In answer, Russell held out the small microphone he’d been using to address the crowd over the last few days. He’d had it rigged up to a speaker system originally installed to provide alarms if an attack on the Elevator was imminent.

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