Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(14)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(14)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Of course,” Tania said, “no problem. Follow me?”

Taking their silence as agreement, she turned and pushed herself into the curved corridor. Rungs attached to all four sides of the hall aided speed and trajectory.

She frowned at the station’s austere décor, a trait she’d never paid any thought to before. Visible pipes and ducts laced the walls, unpainted. Flat areas were used to store things in custom bins bolted to the surface. Little thought had been spent on the aesthetics. Compared to what she’d seen of Platz Station, it all seemed rather mundane.

Natalie nudged her.

“This is Storage,” Tania said to the group. “Or Red Level, as we call it. The central hall on each level has a different colored floor, since they tend to look alike. As you’ve seen, this one contains our primary airlock and docking bay, along with numerous supply rooms.”

“There’s also a cargo bay on Green, for backup purposes,” Natalie added. “Black Level, at the other end of the station, has one, too. But since the Elevator cord doesn’t extend there, it’s never used.”

Sofia asked, “This ring doesn’t rotate. Why?”

“It’s much easier to pack things in zero-g,” Tania said. “Easier to move supplies and maximize our space.”

“Yet the hall is curved?”

Neil cut in. “Reuse of manufacturing plans. It’s cheaper that way.”

The curt answer silenced her. Tania continued along the wide hall, curving ever upward. Large segmented doors spaced at regular intervals lined all four walls. Each door had a code stenciled on it.

“I’ll need to survey all this later,” Sofia said.

“Of course,” Tania replied. “It’s all in order, I’m sure.”

“The climber problem has everyone spooked,” Neil said. “Sofia has a mandate from the council to ensure all stations have ample reserves.”

“And,” Alex added, “that they are appropriately staffed.”

Tania caught a hint of venom in Alex’s tone.

“Don’t mind Alex,” Neil said. “He’s fretting over what to wear for his date with Russell Blackfield.”

“Someone has to talk to him,” Alex said.

“Children, please,” Sofia said. She frowned at Tania. “They were at it the whole way up here, like a couple of grade school brats.”

After a long series of storage rooms, they came to an open lift.

Tania waited at the entrance and ushered the guests inside. “Orient yourselves so the red floor is down.”

She entered last and pressed the control to take them to Green Level, via the central spine.

“Hold on to something, please,” she said.

The lift plodded along in relative silence, broken by the occasional lurch as it transferred from Red Level to the central spine, and then into the rotating portion of the station.

Gravity, or the illusion of it, increased the farther the lift moved away from the spine. Soon Tania stood on the floor, and she thought her guests looked much more comfortable.

She led them through the green-carpeted level quickly, passing only one group of researchers who were in a quiet conversation with a maintenance crew. When the workers realized that Neil Platz walked at her side, their responses varied from shy nods to awkward salutes.

Halfway around the long, sterile hall, they came to a series of thick glass doors. Three security guards manned a desk in front. They stood at attention at the sight of Alex Warthen.

Before Tania could speak, Alex approached the men. He greeted each of them by their first names. The guards were tense in their commander’s presence, a far cry from their usual relaxed demeanor.

“At ease,” Alex said. “I want the squad assembled for inspection in exactly fifteen minutes.”

The guards exchanged surprised looks.

“In the meantime,” he said, “we are taking Councilwoman Windon to see the Shell. I will personally escort them.”

“Yes, sir,” said the ranking member. He punched a series of codes into his console and the first set of transparent doors silently slid apart.

Tania led the group inside, where they waited as the first doors closed again. After a short pause, the second set opened. Beyond, a long, straight hallway led into the distance, illuminated at regular intervals by pools of dim white light.

They walked in silence until the halfway point, where they passed through an open bulkhead. “Halfway to White Level,” Tania said.

Sofia asked, “Why are these two levels so far apart?”

“Fear,” Neil Platz said, before Tania could open her mouth. “When we began construction here, to study the damn thing, everyone was worried it might explode. Or some such nonsense. So as we expanded we left a two-hundred-meter buffer on either side of White Level.”

At the end of the connecting hall they entered a utilitarian tunnel, replete with unpainted metal walls and exposed ductwork. “I expected white floors,” Sofia said.

“This was built first, more than twenty years ago,” Tania replied. “The coloring scheme came later.”

Sofia looked confused again. “Then why call it white?”

Tania shrugged. “Good question.”

Neil cleared his throat. “It was supposed to be eggshell, as in the shell ship, but everyone kept saying white.”

The level was cramped, haphazard compared to the others. The hallway jutted at right angles, around exposed ventilation shafts and bare metal pipes. Electrical panels graced the walls like paintings. The group’s footsteps clanged on a floor of steel grid tiles. Air flowed in through circular vents that hung from the ceiling.

Neil explained as they walked. “Platz Industries built Anchor Station to study the Elevator, and of course the remnant of the construction ship. A rush job at the beginning. We added on only later, when we realized all the other research that could be conducted with so much scientific activity centered here. The hub of it all, until the plague came.”

“What did you hope to learn here?” Sofia asked.

Neil paused in his tracks and turned to face her. He studied the woman’s face for a few seconds before answering. “How to build another space elevator. To replicate this incredible gift.”

Tania grinned at his enthusiasm.

“For your own profit,” Alex said.

Neil shrugged. “Of course. I was a businessman. Even now, it’s still a worthwhile pursuit.”

“We can barely keep this one running,” Alex said. “What the bloody hell would we do with another?”

Neil glared at the security director. “Double our rate of trade? Allow for some raw materials to flow once again? It’s essential that we continue our studies here.”

“We’re all looking forward to some actual results,” Alex said. “Maybe you’ll be done before this one fails completely.”

Tania saw Neil’s fists clench. In the uneasy quiet, she struggled to think of something to say. It had never occurred to her that Anchor Station’s purpose might be considered a waste of time, especially by a member of the Orbital Council. She wondered if others shared the view. A glance at Sofia Windon gave no hint of her opinion.

Natalie broke the silence. “The Shell is this way,” she said, then took a few steps toward the destination.

The natural cheer in her voice diffused the lingering tension and the moment passed. Tania walked toward her assistant and mouthed a silent thank-you to her. Natalie winked in response.

One by one, the others began to follow them.

At last they came upon a large room that resembled an auditorium. Numerous scientists sat at desks facing a bank of enormous screens on the far wall. Nestled in the center of the monitors were two large windows.

Outside, the remains of the Builder’s ship dominated the view.

The Shell, now hollow, had served as the hull of the machine that built the Elevator. To Tania the shiny, obsidian-colored object resembled the elongated tail of a wasp, on a massive scale.

Sofia, in na**d awe, said nothing.

Tania couldn’t blame her. She recalled the first time she’d seen it. She’d been only ten years old at the time, and held Neil Platz’s hand as they stood at these windows. Neil had told her all about the ship, but Tania had heard none of it. She’d simply stared, overwhelmed.

“Why did they leave it behind?” the councilwoman asked after a long silence.

“As an anchor,” Tania said. “Hence Anchor Station. Literally, a counterweight for the Elevator cord.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Sorry,” Tania said. “Imagine you’re holding a long piece of yarn, and you spin in place. What happens to the yarn? It trails and curves, and eventually wraps around you. But tie a small weight to the end and the yarn will pull straight as the weight tries to fly away from you.”

Sofia curled her lip and nodded.

A research team outfitted with thick space suits floated next to the shell. They worked to position a large piece of equipment against the surface. Gold foil and white insulation against the pure black vessel. The ship dwarfed their man-made device.

“One hundred and nineteen meters, tip to tip,” Natalie said.

“What are those people doing?” Sofia asked, pointing to the space walkers.

“I’m not exactly sure,” Tania replied. “My work is mostly in the observatory.”

A scientist at the window turned to them. “Electron aberration imaging. We’re compiling a more detailed surface map, at the atomic level.”

“What for?” Sofia asked.

“To understand the materials. This object survived a journey through interstellar space, unscathed and still functioning—”

“Could this activity,” Alex asked, “be what’s causing the power blips?”

The scientist hesitated. He looked to Tania. “I … it’s a passive scan. I don’t—”

“It’s unlikely,” Tania said. “The climbers get their power from the Elevator cord, which generates it from friction with the atmosphere.”

Alex jerked his head toward the Shell. “You’re so sure of what’s inside? Maybe it doesn’t like being probed.”

“The vessel is inert,” the scientist said, his voice jumping an octave. “We’ve been doing this for years.”

“Thank you, that’ll be all.” Neil glared at the man, who quickly returned to his work. “Our efforts may seem a waste to some, Sofia. But understanding how this got here, what it’s made of, and how the SUBS disease is put into stasis … these are all keys to freeing us from being trapped in its shadow. That’s why we study it. It’s shortsighted to think otherwise.”

Alex kept his hands clasped behind his back and stared out the window. “Care to explain that to those who died on Space-Ag Three this morning? We had a subhuman running loose in orbit, for God’s sake. The climbers are losing power on an almost daily basis!”

His voice, raised to a shout, brought the room to silence. Everyone stared at him, their work forgotten.

“That’s unfair,” Tania said. The words tumbled out before she could think to stop.

The security director glanced at her. “Is it?”

“We have an ample team looking into the power issues. A plan is being formed.”

“Oh, wonderful. A plan, you say?” Alex turned his gaze to Sofia Windon. “A full audit of Platz operations would prove how the staff is being allocated.”

“This,” Neil said, “is no time to debate council business.”

Tania decided to change the subject before the argument worsened. “Shall we move on to the observatory?”

“Wonderful idea,” Neil said.

“Make it quick,” Alex said. “I need to meet with my security staff.”

“Talk about a waste of resources,” Neil grumbled.

Black Level capped Anchor Station, making it the farthest human habitat from Earth.

Dim amber lights lined the main hall. Tania explained. “Red light has the least impact on night vision. Easier to see details when using the telescopes.”

“You have carpet up here,” Sofia noted.

Tania glanced down. She never thought about it. The red surface, irreplaceable now, had many worn patches. “It keeps noise to a minimum.”

“We should arrange a tour for the children,” Sofia said.

Tania smiled. Those on staff who had kids left them in the care of others on lower stations. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a child’s laughter. “That would be delightful.”

“I’ll speak to our education director.”

Natalie tugged at Tania’s elbow. “I think I’ll get back to work,” she said. “If that’s all right?”

Tania caught the unspoken request—Natalie would rather return to her research than continue to tag along, which spoke volumes. Nat never missed an opportunity to get out of the lab. “Of course, dear. I can handle this.” She added a wink, which Natalie returned before waving to the others.

At the door to the observation lounge, Tania stopped and poked her head inside. On more than one occasion she’d surprised amorous couples in here, sharing the romantic view. Right now the room was, thankfully, empty. She led her guests inside.

Sofia sucked in a breath.

A twin pair of enormous geodesic windows dominated the walls to their left and right. One looked out into space, an impressive enough sight, and the one Tania preferred.

But the Earth-facing window caught the attention of newcomers. It never failed.

Sofia took a seat and folded her legs beneath her, eyes never leaving the grand view. Tania watched her with a twinge of jealousy. A life in orbit provided little chance to see anything new. She loved to watch the reaction of others when they first saw the Elevator from this angle.

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