Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(13)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(13)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Call me Neil,” he repeated.

Prumble tipped the flask back again. “Of course. I forgot.”

“Let’s get to business,” Neil said. “You were tasked with finding something for me in Japan.”

“Ah,” Prumble said. “You’re the buyer. I should have guessed from the extravagant reward.”

“I wanted to ensure my place atop the priority list.”

“Quite. Well, I believe I’ve succeeded.” Prumble returned the flask to his coat and fished around in a deeper pocket.

Neil reminded himself to relax. The stale air inside the vehicle smelled of sweat.

The big man finally pulled out the item from his pocket and presented it to Neil.

A child’s toy. A furry green monster with big eyes, white fangs, and one hand raised in menacing fashion.

“Not exactly what I was hoping for,” Neil said.

Prumble snickered. He pushed his fingers inside a small hole in the back and rooted around before removing the hidden contents: a small ceramic cube.

“My team found four of these,” Prumble said, placing the tiny storage device in Neil’s open palm. “Recovered from the facility in Japan, as requested.”

Neil took a close look at the object. The cube, a few centimeters on each side, had a white ceramic outer shell. A grid of dark graphene leads lined one edge. Inside, Neil knew an array of crystalline sheets held data in holographic form. A single cube could hold a vast amount of information. “I need to validate this.”

Prumble cleared his throat. “The others are safe in my office.”

“Naturally,” replied Neil. He turned and rapped his knuckles on the van’s door. When it opened, he summoned his assistant over. “My briefcase, please.”

The silver case in hand, Neil slid the door closed again. He placed his thumbs on each catch, his fingerprints triggering the locks. Inside, a portable terminal screen lit up.

“What will happen to my associate?” asked Prumble.

Neil looked up from the device. “Mr. Osmak has served his purpose. You will work directly with me now.”

Prumble grimaced. “That’s a bit unfair.”

“He’ll be paid handsomely,” Neil said. “I prefer to minimize the people involved in my affairs. Loose lips sink ships, as they say.”

The fat man laughed at that. A sly chortle, full of irony. “That puts me on shaky ground, then.”

The manifest from the data cube recovered without error and appeared on the screen. “Perhaps,” he said. “Who does your recovery work?”

“What, can’t picture me gallivanting about Japan?”

Neil grinned. “Stranger things have happened.”

On the screen, he saw a handful of markers—dates, the observatory logo, Japanese names—that confirmed the data matched Tania’s request.

We’ve got it, Neil thought. He forced himself to quell a rush of excitement. He could almost hear Tania reminding him that “it” might be nothing at all.

Prumble let out a sigh. “I contract with a variety of—”

“Names, Mr. Prumble. Security is a priority for me.”

Prumble licked his lips. “Maybe I should keep that to myself. For my own security.”

“I could ask Kip,” Neil said. “Wag the promise of a life in orbit before him, and I suspect he’ll do just about anything.”

The big man stared at Neil, his face a picture of concentration. “Are you wagging that prize in front of me?”


Another bead of sweat tricked down the man’s forehead. He mopped at it with his filthy handkerchief. “Fine. A pilot called Skyler Luiken, and his crew.”


“Extremely,” Prumble said, “though I can’t vouch for his entire team.”

“You’d better. I want them working for me, exclusively.”

“Skyler’s a good man. Terrible leader, too nice, but a good man. His crew is … unique.”

“How so?”

“They’re immunes. Every last one of them.”

Neil couldn’t mask his surprise. He knew that some people were immune to SUBS, a few dozen out of the million people still alive. He’d hired a few, in the early years of the disease, to be studied by his medical staff. Nothing conclusive came from the research, and the project was abandoned.

A group of them banded together as scavengers was a smart play. A good business move. The possibilities raced through his mind. They could stay outside for days instead of hours, and would never have to worry about an environment suit tearing. “They could be very useful,” he said. “And their aircraft, good ship?”

The fat man shrugged. “It gets the job done, as long as Nightcliff leaves them alone.”

There’s the rub, Neil thought. Of course such a crew would suffer additional scrutiny. Still, there were ways around that.

“Well,” he said, “we have the genuine article, it seems.” He removed the data cube and held it before Prumble. “I’ll have my men drive you back so they can collect the remaining three.”

“There’s still,” Prumble said, “the matter of payment.”

“When we have the data, you will be paid in full. Plus a retainer, for future requests.”

Prumble pursed his lips, as if holding words back. Neil knew the man would be deciding, now, if he could trust such an arrangement. Life in the slums of Darwin was one constant look over the shoulder, and such a state of mind was not easily changed.

Neil extended his hand. A gentle push toward agreement.

The big man reached and shook. A firm, if sweaty, clasp.

“We’re in business,” Neil said. “Put the hood on, please.”

Prumble compiled.

Satisfied, Neil put the cube back in his case and pulled the van door open. Outside the cramped vehicle he stretched and called his assistant over.


“Any news from Nightcliff?”

The man nodded. “The climbers have resumed, for now.”

“Fantastic,” Neil said. “What did we have to give Blackfield for his cooperation?”

“Carney offered to let him meet with Alex Warthen, aboard Gateway. Blackfield agreed.”

“What an idiot,” Neil said. He suspected Russell was simply content that they’d offered anything at all. “Perhaps I should have Alex arrest him there and throw him in the brig.”

“They say a crowd is celebrating in front of Nightcliff.”

“No doubt singing Blackfield’s name.” The true reason behind the blockade, Neil guessed.

His assistant shifted, nervous.

“Is there something else?” Neil asked.

“Something happened aboard one of the farm platforms,” the man said, “an hour ago.”

“Well? Out with it, lad.”

“Security had to kill a woman. She went crazy, apparently.” The assistant swallowed, hard. “They say she had the rash.”

“Impossible,” Neil said, an easy lie even as his mind raced. The creature he and Kelly dispatched had been no freak of nature. Another subhuman found within the Aura? It signaled a potentially cataclysmic change. One with impeccable timing. A flaw in the Aura’s effectiveness now, so close to the next phase of the Builder’s plan, could be no coincidence. “I’ll look into it,” Neil muttered. “A mistaken diagnosis, no doubt.”

The comment did little to dispel his assistant’s worried look. The man turned his attention to the van. “What are your orders?”

“Take the fat one back to his place. He owes me three data cubes. When you have them, pay him, and leave him with a sat-comm and dish.”

The man nodded, then waved to the other guards to get back into the van.

“What about the other one?” he asked.

Neil looked toward the garage entrance, where Kip stood facing the wall, hooded head down. An armed guard waited next to him.

“We won’t be needing his services anymore,” Neil said. “Double his fee and drop him off at the dump where they found him.”

Chapter Ten

Anchor Station


At the main airlock on Red, Tania tried in vain to press the wrinkles out of her lab coat—a task made all the more difficult without gravity. At least she’d remembered to tie her hair back.

A series of mechanical thumps emanated from the large round door. Then the sound that followed would normally terrify her, or any Orbital: precious air escaping. The hiss lasted a few seconds as pressure equalized.

“The suspense is killing me,” Natalie said. She drifted at Tania’s left, wearing a simple white jumpsuit instead of her own lab coat.

“A few more seconds,” Tania replied. She’d pulled her assistant away from research to meet some “special guests.” The young woman had never met Neil Platz, or his affable brother, Zane, and Tania felt the time was right. Natalie could assist on the special project, something Neil had forbidden. If they’d met, became friends, perhaps he would change his mind. “I’m glad you could take the time to join me.”

“You let me out of the lab! I’m the one who’s happy.”

“I still expect you to finish the debris plots.”

Natalie grinned. “Slave driver.”

“Shush now.”

The airlock door pushed inward and rolled out of the way. Tania wondered if she should have prepared a more formal reception. Too late now.

Neil hovered in the junction tube, a sour look on his face. He wore a gray turtleneck and black slacks and held a briefcase in one hand.

Behind him, two others were waiting, neither of whom was the younger Platz brother, Zane.

Tania recognized one as Alex Warthen, security director and constant thorn in Neil’s side. The man rarely came to Anchor, and Tania considered that a blessing. She never understood the need for a security detail here, and she suspected most of her staff agreed.

“Welcome,” Tania said, “to Anchor Station.”

Neil cracked a broad smile. “Tania, always a pleasure.” He floated forward and shook her hand, as if they hardly knew each other.

She gestured toward her companion. “This is my lab assistant, Natalie Ammon.”

Neil bowed slightly toward her, his movements fluid and comfortable in null gravity. “Delighted,” he said.

“She’s a genius at data analysis,” Tania added. “Couldn’t do it without her.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself,” Neil said. “Have you met Alex Warthen, and Sofia Windon?”

“Alex, hello,” Tania said. The man only nodded. He’d visited the station a few times before but never mingled beyond his own security staff. Tania turned to the other guest. “Miss Windon, I’ve not had the pleasure.”

Sofia smiled, polite and nothing more, as she shook Tania’s hand.

The woman sat on the Orbital Council, but Tania struggled to remember details about her. Recently elected to her first term, if Tania recalled. A former member of the Australian senate. She was short and plump, and wore a brown business suit with a few visible patches. The black shoulder strap of a messenger bag ran diagonally across her chest. In the absence of gravity, she kept the bag pinned to her side with one elbow.

Few council members bothered to visit Anchor. The bulk of their constituents lived aboard stations at the Earth end of the cord. To travel the forty thousand kilometers out to Anchor just to visit a bunch of anachronistic scientists was an errand they seemed content to avoid. Only Neil, and occasionally his brother, Zane, made the effort.

“Sofia handles resource management,” Neil said. “You can thank her for the timely shipments of food, air, and water.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tania said. “I didn’t realize you’d be bringing guests, Neil.”

“Neither did I.”

Alex Warthen drifted forward, grasping a handhold to steady himself with expert ease. “A last-minute thing. We wanted a face-to-face with the team solving the power problem. The situation has taken a nasty turn.”

“More fluctuations?” Tania asked.

“Much worse than that,” Alex said. “A subhuman was found aboard Space-Ag Three.”

“What?” Natalie asked. “How?”

“Impossible,” Tania said over her.

“Not impossible, Miss Sharma. I’ve got two dead civilians who’d tell you that if they could.”

“Oh my God,” Natalie said, one hand covering her mouth.

Tania felt paralyzed. She’d heard talk of the outbreak in the halls, but no official word. Few among the station staff even believed the rumor. The Aura had never been anything but infallible; no one ever thought it could be otherwise.

“I want to brief my staff before news spreads,” Alex Warthen said. “This should be everyone’s top priority now.”

Unable to help herself, Tania looked at Neil. Her gaze settled on the briefcase in his hand, and the data cubes she hoped were within. She wondered if Neil would ask her to set the special project aside, given these events.

The timing of the news watered a strange seed of hope, deep within her. The Elevator faltering, a SUBS infection inside the Aura … all right when she and Neil decided to start looking for signs of another Builder ship. The coincidence was too great.

Neil ended the uncomfortable silence. “I’ll make the priority calls here, Alex—”

Sofia Windon interrupted him. “We’ll discuss this in due time. I must admit, Tania, despite everything the real reason I came is to see the Shell. May we do that, if it’s on the way?”

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