Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(12)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(12)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Michael Carney stared at the device as if it were a coiled cobra.

“Go on,” Russell said. “Tell them.”

The man stammered. He gathered enough of his wits to wave off the microphone. “Point taken, Mr. Blackfield. The people are restless, I get that—”

Russell didn’t budge. “You think I’m joking?”

The councilman’s eyes grew wide. The rain began to hammer even harder. It poured down the man’s face in rivulets.

“Here,” Russell said, “I’ll do it.” He turned to the sea of ragged people and held up an arm. He pressed the microphone to his lips. “We have a visitor from above!”

The crowd surged forward, shouting insults. They were beyond desperate by now. Those who knew how to find a meal in Darwin had long since left the square. Even the Jacobites had given up.

Those that remained were truly pitiful.

Russell went on. “He’s come with a peace offering.” His voice boomed across the wide expanse, echoing off the crumbling skyscrapers that lined the far side. The mood of the rabble shifted slightly at the words, and Russell seized the opening. He pointed, swept his arm in a half circle across their hungry faces. “Five containers of fresh food, all for you lot. What do you say?”

They roared in unison. Russell found the sound of it intoxicating.

Michael leaned in. “I only brought the one,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “And that was for you and your staff.”

“Relax,” Russell said. “I’ll pull a few from the emergency reserve. You can owe me.”

“Owe?! I … I can’t authorize that.”

Russell grinned at the crowd. He threw his arm around Michael Carney’s shoulder and turned him to face the cheering mass. “Exactly the problem, Michael. You’re a powerless twat. So I’ll give you a choice. I can push you over this wall right now, or you can go back to your betters and tell them that I’ve staved off anarchy for a few more days, despite their indecision and incompetence. But in return, they owe me. And more than food.”

“What then?”

“Simple. I’ll restart the climbers when I’m added to your council.”

The man went rigid. He started to speak, then snapped his mouth shut.

Russell continued to wave at the crowd. He nudged the councilman closer to the edge of the parapet.

“A vote will be required,” Michael said. “It may take some time.”

“You just have to deliver the message, Michael. Surely you can handle it.”

“What about the climbers? Please! This crowd proves you need food shipments just as much as we need air and water.”

Russell sighed. “I suppose I can fire them up temporarily as a gesture of goodwill. In exchange, however, I want to ride one myself. Pay a little visit.”

Michael started to object.

“Shut up and listen,” Russell said. “I want to meet with Alex Warthen, in orbit, and I want to negotiate through him from now on.”

“The task was given to me,” Michael said.

“I don’t give a rat’s anus. Alex I can work with. You? You’re a fop and I don’t like you.”

Color rushed from the man’s face. He swallowed, all composure banished.

Russell spun the man so they were face-to-face. He tugged his wet lapels and smoothed out the sopping wet tie. “A business suit?” he asked. “You’ve forgotten the world we live in, Carney. You’re too far removed, all of you.”

“I … I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to say.”

“Thank God for that. Just smile and wave, one last time, to the shit-wallowers. Then you can climb back to Platz and the rest of them and deliver my warm regards.”

Chapter Nine

Darwin, Australia


Neil Platz scratched at his beard, still unused to the rough hair. When he pulled his hand away, black greasepaint stained his fingertips.

“I can’t believe this worked!” he shouted. The rush of wind coming into the water hauler’s cabin drowned the words. Neil had asked for the door to remain open so he could enjoy the salty air.

His assistant sat in the middle seat of the bench, flanked by more members of the supposed repair crew. Bodyguards, to a man. His assistant, rigid and green-faced, shook his head in response and pointed to his ear. The poor bloke had vomited shortly after takeoff from Nightcliff and looked close to doing so again.

Neil raised his stained fingers and wiggled them, grinning. The disguise, a black beard and the gray coveralls of an engineer, had worked to perfection. His heart still pounded from the sheer thrill of passing through Nightcliff, under the bastard Blackfield’s nose, undetected. No one recognized him, and after spending the last thirty-some years as the most famous man alive, Neil found the sensation of anonymity intoxicating.

Doubly so, since they’d come down on the only climber to descend in six days, carrying a council member to negotiate with Russell Blackfield. “Neil sends his regards,” he imagined Michael Carney telling the onerous man. “He regrets he could not make the trip in person.”

Neil laughed aloud. He felt alive, like he was half his age. The regrettable business aboard Hab-8 was already a distant memory. Men of power must make choices and move on. No point in dwelling on the past, and anyway there were worse skeletons in that closet. Far worse.

He looked forward to the return trip, to walk through Nightcliff again as a common man. Maybe he should have been a spy, or a con artist. Perhaps he’d missed his true calling, though he suspected many a former competitor would argue he was an accomplished swindler. The idea made him grin even wider.

The gigantic hauler cruised over the bay southwest of Nightcliff, en route to a spit of land called East Point. Neil strained against his harness, leaning out of the aircraft to look straight down. They were far enough from shore now that he could see the rippling ocean below, instead of the derelict boats that crowded the coastline. Whitecaps rolled toward the city. He inhaled deeply, and despite the slight hint of sewage, the air carried with it a flood of treasured memories.

When the engine noise began to drop, Neil looked ahead and saw the shore of East Point approaching.

Six massive desalination plants lined the coast. Square, sky-blue buildings each surrounded by a nest of pipes in every imaginable size. Intake pipes snaked far out into the ocean, disappearing in the depths. Giant towers spewed white plumes of nuclear-fired steam high into the sky. He swelled with pride at the sight of them, still churning through tons of seawater every day—decades of continuous operation. They were the first piece of the Platz empire that he took over from his father. By the time the Elevator arrived, the plants provided drinking water to nearly all of the Northern Territory, at a time when wars were fought over the commodity.

His father was the real genius behind the construction of the plants. He’d laid the groundwork for the water processors a decade before the need became critical. Bought the land, hired the right engineers, and greased the wheels of bureaucracy. When the alien-built space elevator touched down in Darwin, these plants were what allowed the city to grow so rapidly into a megalopolis.

An amazing stroke of luck for the Platz family, or so everyone said. The truth was a burden Neil intended to take to his grave.

In the post-disease world, these machines were a key reason humanity survived at all. In Darwin, and in orbit. The Elevator might protect from the SUBS disease but it didn’t sustain anyone. Neil considered that his job, thankless though it may be.

Fifteen other such facilities lay outside Aura’s Edge, dotting the northern coastline, lost to the world. They served as spare parts now, occasionally visited by scavenger crews. Only these, on the shore of East Point, could be staffed.

The aircraft angled toward the farthest plant in the line. As the pilot set the bird down on a landing pad behind the facility, Neil felt like a deposed president returning from exile. He reminded himself of his disguise; for the moment he was simply part of a repair crew.

He let his crew exit the passenger compartment first. Neil stepped out last and kept his head low. The engines howled as they wound down, deafening. He walked in a crouch, focused on his balance in the violent exhaust.

Already a team rushed toward the aircraft to begin detaching the empty water container slung beneath. Such productivity made Neil happy.

Inside the facility, he followed his team across the cavernous ground floor. The constant hum of the water processors, each as big as a family home, filled the place. Steam vented from a dozen relief valves. Banks of triacetate membrane arrays filled a quarter of the space, looking like rockets pointed downward.

He saw the intake pipes, tall as himself and dripping with condensation. Neil imagined the seawater rushing through, straight into a series of chambers where it would be flash-heated to separate the salt. He’d run this plant for years and knew each component by heart.

“I’m not happy about this, Neil.”

The familiar voice tore his attention from the machinery. Neil turned and confronted the plant manager, Arkin. “Keep it down, would you?”

The man fretted as he fell in beside Neil. “Nice beard,” he said.

“Grown just for this visit. I had to pretend my supply of razors ran out. How’d you recognize me?”

Arkin shrugged. “I’ve known you all my life. You walk like a tyrant.”

Neil barked a laugh.

“I’m not happy about this,” Arkin repeated.

“Let’s get off the floor, and we’ll talk.”

Arkin led the crew away from the water processing area and into an adjoining warehouse.

He walked at a hurried pace, giving Neil little time to study the contents of the storage area. Rows of wooden shelves held the spare parts that kept the facility running. Some sections looked sparse, but Neil decided now might not be a good time to point it out.

Water containers filled the bulk of the warehouse. The bulky cylinders were stacked from floor to ceiling, held in place by metal scaffolds. Neil glanced at each one, looking for signs of deterioration.

“Would you like to discuss your special containers first,” Arkin said, “or your, um, guests?”

“They’ve arrived, then?”

Arkin said nothing. Instead he led Neil and his team around the last row of water containers.

At the end of the building, near a series of loading docks and garage doors, an armored van waited.

Three guards stood nearby the vehicle, chatting. They came to attention at the sight of their boss.

Arkin stopped short of the van and pulled Neil aside.

“I’m not happy—”

“So you keep telling me,” Neil said. “How long have they been here?”

Arkin stifled his concerns. “Ten minutes, I guess.”


“As requested.”

Neil looked about the building, then focused on the van. “Let me take it from here. We’ll talk about the containers later. I want a full report. We may need to ramp up soon.”

“What of the climbers?”

“Don’t worry about that. A deal is being struck as we speak.”

Arkin hesitated.

“You’re not happy, I know,” Neil said. “Go about your business. I’ll have them out of here soon enough.”

Neil motioned for one of his bodyguards to open the van door. The vehicle had thick armor plating, and Neil thought it must have been used for bank deliveries in the pre-disease era.

Inside, on benches that ran the length of the compartment, two men sat facing each other. Both wore black hoods over their heads, but the similarity ended there. The one on the left was rail thin, the one on the right remarkably overweight.

A third man sat with them, near the door. One of Arkin’s security force. Neil leaned in to speak with the fellow. “How’d it go?”

“We found them at a café in the maze. A place called Clarke’s. Tracked the scrawny bloke to it, where the other was waiting.”

“And they came willingly?”

“More or less,” the guard said.

Neil nodded. “Take the fellow from Nightcliff out. I’d like a word with the other.”

With professional calm, the guard took the skinny man by his upper arm and guided him out of the van. Satisfied, Neil stepped inside, took the vacated bench, and slid the door closed.

“You,” Neil said, “must be Mr. Prumble.”

The fat man’s head tilted under the black hood. “At your service, Mr. Platz.”

Bloody hell. Neil snatched the black hood away and set it aside. “How did you know?”

“I know your voice,” Prumble said. “Heard your speeches.”

Neil regarded the smuggler. Sweat glistened on the man’s nearly bald head. He breathed with short, stunted exhalations, a side effect of his weight, Neil guessed. In a city full of starving souls, Neil had never seen someone with a weight problem. He found it mildly disgusting.

“Call me Neil. First name?”

“None worth remembering.”

“I see. Darwin was a fresh start for you, I take it?”

Prumble inclined his head. “We all made sacrifices to reach the city.”

Many used Darwin to hide from their past as much as a disease. And who could blame them? Neil thought. “Fair enough. Prumble it is.”

The huge man shifted in his seat. His long coat, a brown leather duster, squeaked as it rubbed on the vinyl bench. He made a show of reaching for an interior pocket, from which he produced a metal hip flask. He unscrewed the cap and offered it to Neil.

“No, thanks.”

Prumble shrugged and took a healthy swig of the drink. “Forgive my behavior, Mr. Platz. It’s not every day I meet an Orbital. Especially someone of your … stature.”

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