Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(15)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(15)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Out the window, the tail end of the Shell dominated the view. And some forty thousand kilometers beyond that, Earth. The planet sat in full sunlight at this hour, a swirl of deep blue oceans and white clouds.

The other rings of Anchor Station encircled the derelict alien ship. As all the rings rotated in unison, they appeared to be at rest. Only Red Level, the ring that didn’t spin for gravity, had the illusion of motion.

A few transport shuttles drifted in the distance, yellow warning lights blinking. Both sped toward the next station down the Elevator, almost a thousand kilometers “below,” and used the Elevator cord as a guide wire.

“Thrilling,” Alex said. He stayed near the door. “Now may I go, mother hen?”

“Alex,” Sofia said, “take five minutes to relax and enjoy this. Honestly, you’re both too serious.”

“I’d rather get to work,” Alex said.

Neil snorted. “For once we agree.”

“Fine,” Sofia said. “Before you run off, Alex, can we at least come to some agreement on how we will address the climber failures?”

The security director shrugged. “As good a place as any,” he said. “Thanks for the tour, Miss Sharma. Could you give us a few minutes?”

“She can stay,” Neil said. Before Alex could object, he added, “She practically runs this station, and knows the staff better than anyone. If anyone can coordinate the investigative team, it’s her.”

A brief silence followed. Sofia broke it. “I’m okay with it if you are, Alex.”

Tania kept quiet and looked to Neil for any clues as to how he expected her to act. She wanted nothing more than to focus on their secret project, and she couldn’t help but glance at the square-edged bulge in Neil’s jacket pocket—a data cube case, she recognized.

Alex Warthen was staring at her, she realized. When she caught his gaze, he looked away and shrugged. “Whatever it takes to solve this.”

“Good,” Sofia said. “First, I think—”

An alarm cut her off.

The sudden noise wailed so loud that Tania covered her ears without thinking. Three long beeps, grating and obnoxious. It rolled through Black Level’s curved hallway.

A prerecorded voice came over the station address system.

“SECURITY TO GRAY LEVEL. SECURITY TO GRAY LEVEL.”

“The hell?” Neil said.

Tania glanced at him, then Alex Warthen. The security directory looked composed, his eyes cast upward as he listened to the address. Tania saw a small weapon in his right hand. A gun, drawn so quick and sure she hadn’t even seen him move. The weapon frightened her more than the alarm.

A series of dull clicks cascaded along the curved hall.

“What is that?! What’s happening?!” Sofia said.

“The doors are locking,” Alex said. “Safety precaution.”

“Precaution against what?”

Alex ignored her. He took two quick steps to the door nearest him and shot a foot out. His timing couldn’t have been better as the door slid closed by remote command. It hit his shoe and retracted, half-open.

The alarm began to repeat. Three shrieking beeps.

When the sound stopped, he crouched and checked his pistol. His foot still held the door open. “Tania, how far is Gray Level?”

She heard the question. The words made sense. No answer came to mind. She realized she was shaking and tried to still her hands.

“Tania!” Neil said. They were all staring at her.

“One,” she said, hating the fear she heard in her voice. She swallowed and tried again. “One level over. Not far, but you’ll need a code to override the junction door.”

“I don’t need the code,” Alex said.

“Of course, I—”

“You all stay here until the alarm ends.”

“No,” Sofia said. “I don’t want to be trapped in this dark little room. The alarm could last hours.”

Neil nodded. “She’s right. We’re coming with you.”

“You’re not coming with me,” Alex said. “End of discussion.”

“Gray Level isn’t far,” Neil said. “What’s—”

“The problem isn’t on Gray Level,” Alex said. His voice was so calm, so collected.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Neil asked.

Alex finished checking the gun. He held it upright, now, and had a finger on the trigger. He was looking outward, toward the hallway, and didn’t glance back. “We don’t rally security to the location of the problem, especially on a station-wide alert. We rally to the adjacent section, so we can go in together.”

Realization hit Tania like a shadow falling.

“The problem isn’t on Gray,” Neil said, for all of them. “It’s here, on this level.”

“Yes,” Alex replied, and stood. His voice had dropped to almost a whisper, Tania realized. “Wait here. I’ll be back soon.”

Tania took a step forward. “We could go to scope control. It’s just a few doors down. There’s food and water there, and a bathroom. In case …”

He looked ready to argue, before pushing the door open. “Fine. We’re just wasting time. Follow me, but not too close.”

The deserted hallway beyond was lit with bright yellow emergency LEDs, running in strips along the edges of the floor. Every few seconds a bank of red lights on the ceiling would flash.

Alex went ahead, keeping to one side of the upward-curving hall. He drew the fingers of his left hand along the wall as he walked. His gun remained pointed at the ceiling. In the brightness, the weapon seemed small, pitiful even.

At the first door, Alex glanced back to Tania, eyebrows raised. She shook her head and signaled with four fingers the number of doors yet to go.

He nodded and went on. Ten seconds later he stopped dead and crouched. Without thinking, Tania mimicked the pose. She chanced a look back and saw that Neil and Sofia had done the same.

She saw a hint of a smile on Neil’s lips. Some part of him was enjoying this.

Alex made a soft noise. Tania turned back to him and found the security director had come back to her. He was crouched right in front of her, eye to eye.

He placed a finger to his lips and pointed back the way they’d come.

Tania turned, her heart hammering inside her chest. She felt her eyes watering and realized she hadn’t blinked in some time. If felt as if someone were holding her eyelids open. She forced herself to blink, and felt tears forming at the edges.

Alex put a firm hand on her shoulder and pushed her into swifter motion. He guided her back to the door they’d just passed. Neil and Sofia kept going until Alex made a subtle click with his tongue. They both looked back in unison, then stopped.

With a quiet professionalism, Alex moved beside Tania, stood, and tapped in a code to override the door lock. The thud as the lock disengaged made her jump.

He crouched again and whispered, “Inside. Stay until the alarm ends. No noise.”

The words left no room for argument.

Half an hour passed in total silence. Then another.

The room, someone’s vacant quarters, was even smaller than the observation room. A simple bunk on the far wall, a desk with terminal, some shelves of books, and a closet. Standard issue, identical to Tania’s own. She’d tried the terminal right away, only to find it locked with someone else’s passphrase.

Sofia Windon sat on the floor, legs tucked underneath her. She kept near the door as if to be ready to leave the instant they could.

Neil and Tania sat on the bunk. Twice Neil had tried to speak, but Tania waved him off. She tried to focus on sound. Every little noise spooked her.

Each tiny shift in the hum of the air processors. A repetitious grinding from somewhere inside the walls, probably a bad bearing inside a fan. Neil’s fingers tapping absently on the blanket.

Her own measured breathing.

As the minutes rolled by, with no activity from outside, no sound of struggle or combat, she felt her pulse drop to something close to normal. The third time Neil spoke, she didn’t try to stop him.

“Alex and I might not get along,” he whispered, “but he can handle this. Whatever it is.”

She nodded. The man had reacted to the situation with surprising poise, she thought.

If Sofia heard, or cared, she showed no sign of it. Her attention remained firmly on the door.

Neil tapped Tania’s arm. He’d set his briefcase on the bed between them, and at some point opened it. Inside was a small box. He lifted the lid and spoke in a low voice. “The genuine articles. I hope you can read Japanese.”

Tania shook her head. Annoyance rose within her that Neil would want to discuss their secret project now. But the sensation faded. After sitting for an hour, with no indication at all from Alex, a diversion held some appeal. She chanced a glance at the contents of the box.

Four white cubes were nestled inside, each marked with kanji. The tension of their situation vanished as she shifted focus. “I don’t read Japanese,” she said, “but I can feed them through the translator down in Compute.”

“Is that safe?”

Tania shrugged. “It’s probably logged,” she said, careful to keep her voice low, “but at least I can move the results to my secure cube.”

Neil pressed his lips into a thin line. After a few seconds, a slight nod. He looked gloomy to Tania. A trick of the light, perhaps.

“Do it then,” he said, “but erase the logs when you’re done.”

“I have no idea how to do that. And such things are monitored.”

“Hell,” Neil spat. He wrung his hands together. “Why is everything so complicated?”

Tania leaned back into the wall as his mood worsened. She attempted to impart calm with her voice. A tough thing when speaking in whispers. “It may take some time. If I could get Natalie to help—”

“We discussed this already,” Neil said. “It’s too early to trust anyone else. Until we know what we’re dealing with—”

“If there is something to deal with,” Tania corrected.

“If? If? Of course there is. Why would the Builders send—” He stopped, glancing at Sofia. The woman hadn’t moved. Neil lowered his voice further. “Why send the space elevator here, then the bloody disease, only to stop there? A little prank? No, something will happen. It may already be happening.”

“What do you mean?” She knew the answer but asked anyway.

He frowned at her and jerked his eyes toward the door. “The power disruptions on the cord? The subhuman on Ag-Three? I have a hunch what’s going on outside that door, too. I’m beginning to feel these are the signs of the fourth—sorry, third—event. What if, instead of another ship, the Elevator simply expires?”

His words chilled her to the core. She’d never seen him like this, so full of bottled-up fear. Tania closed her eyes and digested his words. “It’s speculation. Accurate, perhaps, but speculation. The data will tell us. There’s no reason to worry about it until then.”

“There’s every reason to worry,” he said through clenched teeth. He leaned against the wall, too, massaging his temples.

“Neil …”

“Let me think.”

“No, Neil … the door.”

A shadow obscured the tiny line of light at the base of the door. A firm knock came and Sofia jumped to open it.

“Find out if another ship is coming, Tania,” Neil said as he stood. “Do it fast, but do it alone.”

Alex Warthen stood in the hallway outside. He looked disheveled. Tania’s eyes were instantly drawn to a splotch of blood on his shirtsleeve.

“It’s over now,” he said. “I’m keeping lockdown in effect until we can clean up.”

No one spoke.

Alex answered their unspoken question. “Another sub. A woman.”

Tania covered her mouth with her hands to mask her gasp. “Oh no. Who?” Please, not Natalie.

“One of the janitorial crew, I’m told. She thought everything was trying to kill her, and ran until cornered.”

“Was anyone hurt?” Neil asked. He sounded tired.

“Six injured, one seriously. The subhuman we had to … put down.”

“Oh no,” Tania said. A death, a violent death, aboard the station. It sounded more alien than the Builder’s shell. She felt dizzy and put one hand on the wall. Her heart raced. She looked to Neil, wanting the strength she’d found there so many times before.

He was staring back at her with an expression hard as stone.

Tania realized he was looking for strength, too.

Chapter Eleven

Darwin, Australia

22.JAN.2283

“Payment,” Prumble said as he dropped a heavy satchel on the wooden table. Three coffee mugs on the weathered surface rattled.

Skyler stared at the bag.

“In full,” the fat man added. He grabbed the only empty seat—a white plastic patio chair, faded and scuffed with age. Grunting with effort, he squeezed himself in.

The tiny coffeehouse had only one table and two chairs. A sign on the wall outside named the place Clarke’s, and bragged of “real coffee,” a claim Skyler thought far-fetched. He’d left his steaming mug alone despite the pleasant aroma.

Samantha had relinquished her seat when Prumble entered. She now leaned against the wall by the café’s grimy window, arms folded, her expression impassive. When Skyler told her the odd location where their fence wanted to meet, she’d insisted on coming along.

For protection, she’d said.

The ground-floor café looked out on a dark, cramped alley, deep within an area called the Maze.

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