Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(16)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(16)
Author: Jason M. Hough

The labyrinthine district butted up against Nightcliff’s eastern wall and straddled the territory of a powerful slumlord named Grillo. His thugs patrolled the ad hoc markets that appeared every morning, where people bartered their meager belongings for surplus food. Skyler couldn’t fathom why anyone bothered to do business here, between the rampant theft and bribery. The desire to survive, to gain even the smallest improvement in life, must blind people to the risks.

The original skyscrapers hid under a crust of ramshackle bolt-on additions, squeezing the old streets into narrow, unplanned alleyways where sunlight rarely fell. Skyler hated the place. It reeked of human waste.

“Job well done,” Prumble said, a satisfied smile drawn across his face. “Just rewards, et cetera.”

An old woman, with dark wrinkled skin and frayed gray hair, shuffled into the room carrying an antique stainless steel mug. Steam spilled from the open top. “Coffee,” she managed in broken English, smiling. With great care she set the beverage in front of Prumble.

“Renuka, my dear, you are an angel,” he said.

The old woman beamed at the compliment, a toothless grin stretching across her ancient face.

“Someday I’ll buy this place from her,” Prumble said as the lady shuffled away. “Just sit here and banter with the locals. Retirement would suit me.”

From the sincerity in the man’s voice, Skyler knew he meant it.

“Well, say something, man! Count it!” Prumble said.

Skyler lifted the satchel, enjoying the weight of it. A feeling of satisfaction surged within him. Only now did the Japan mission feel like a success. He resisted an overwhelming urge to tell Sam, “I told you so.” That little victory he’d save for later.

“It’s been a week,” Skyler said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “I assumed the cubes didn’t pass muster.” With care, he pulled the zipper open.

Outside the dirty window, the citizens of Darwin hurried past, hunched over, ignoring one another. Their festive mood of the last few days, celebrating the resumption of climbers on the Elevator, had already faded. Life returned to normal, and now they probably hoped to get through the day without a shiv in their back.

Most of them would go their whole life without ever seeing paper money that still held value. The satchel in front of Skyler contained stacks of it.

Samantha leaned in close. For once, he thought, she’s speechless.

Unable to resist, he reached in and thumbed through the money. Crisp, flat, Australian dollars. In one corner, the Orbital Council’s embossed watermark was plainly visible. In another, the counterstamp of a money broker from Milner street. The only legitimate tender in Darwin, though few accepted it. For an average citizen it would be hard to spend, but Skyler could. Most of the crews along the runway honored it for supplies, and the odd bit of gambling. He knew a handful of garden owners who’d take it in exchange for fresh vegetables. Even for seeds, sometimes.

The blokes in Nightcliff would take it to turn a blind eye. They knew where the most discerning brothels were.

Most of all, he could use it to purchase a climber lift for the Melville, up the Elevator to the edge of space. A drop from there almost doubled the old girl’s range. Nightcliff exacted a large sum for the privilege, something few scavenger crews could afford.

Skyler felt a weight lift from his shoulders. For the first time in months, his thoughts turned to pleasure rather than business.

He thought of giving the crew a few weeks off. Perhaps they could fly to a remote island and enjoy some sun. Fiji, or Palau. Catch some fresh fish and cook on the beach. Build a bonfire and dance around it like idiots.

Prumble clasped his hands behind his neck, grinning ear to ear. “The buyer is very happy.”

“He should be,” Skyler said. “His cut just for passing on the list must have been—”

“No, no, I mean the buyer. Kip, that weasel, was removed from the chain.”

Skyler set the satchel down as if it were toxic.

Samantha spoke with an uncharacteristic quiet tone. “Murdered?”

Prumble dismissed the idea with a wave. “Nothing so dramatic. The client merely prefers to deal with us directly.”

“Who is it?” Skyler asked.

Prumble smiled.

“C’mon, who?”

The big man savored the attention. He took a sip from his coffee, swallowed, and set the mug down. “Neil Platz.”

“Fuck,” Samantha whispered.

“You spoke to him?” Skyler asked.

Prumble did a little jig in his chair. “Even better. I met him in person.”

“Not up—”

“Of course not. Me? In orbit? I doubt I’d fit through the airlock,” Prumble said, over a rumbling laugh. “No, I was whisked from this very café to a secret location. Neil even wore a disguise.”

The ramifications swarmed through Skyler’s mind like angry hornets. “This café? Is that why you wanted to meet here?”

“Guilty as charged,” Prumble said. “Kip and I meet here often. I’d hoped he might show, so I could make sure there is no ill will.”

“And in case there was, Sam and I would be around to help.”

“We’re a team, are we not?”

“You seem eager to point that out.”

Prumble sighed. “Platz and I made a deal. We’re to be his exclusive suppliers. Myself, you, and your crew.”

“You agreed? On my behalf?”

“Don’t worry, I vouched for you.”

Skyler looked at the money on the table. “Platz is behind this.”

Prumble nodded. “Powerful man.”

He wore a disguise. “Powerful enemies.”

The smile vanished. “I couldn’t refuse him,” Prumble said.

“It’s just,” Skyler said, “we’ve always kept our hands clean. I deliver to you, you supply your contact, and he deals with whatever shit goes on from there.”

Prumble’s expression soured. “I thought you’d be grateful.”

“It’s not that,” Skyler said. “Sam, would you give us a minute?”

She shrugged. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Peruse the quaint boutiques along the promenade?” Prumble offered.

She extended her middle finger.

“Or guard the door,” Skyler said. “You pick.”

She offered a sarcastic salute and stomped out of the room.

When the door closed behind her, Prumble chuckled. “Such a handful.”

“She misses Skadz.”

Prumble rubbed at his unshaven chin. “Success might ease that. The promise of more.”

On reflex Skyler eyed the money.

“I’ve watched you, Skyler,” Prumble said. “You treat them as peers. Make them follow you, not like you. That’ll come later.”

“Care to wager your cut on that?”

“You know I’m not a betting man,” Prumble said.

Skyler snorted a laugh.

The big man lifted his coffee mug. “You haven’t touched your drink,” he said.

“Talk about a gamble.” Skyler eyed the mug with suspicion.

“Nonsense,” Prumble said, “you supplied it. The Vietnam mission, a few years back?”

He remembered it. A hospital near Da Lat, where they recovered spare parts for an X-ray machine. In a storage room, Skyler came across a box of preserved coffee. Prumble had paid handsomely for the beans and the special canisters they were packed in. Far more valuable than the instant powdered stuff commonly brought in, he’d explained. “She bought them?” Skyler asked, and shot a glance at the old woman behind the counter.

“A gift,” Prumble said. “Laying the groundwork for my twilight years.”

Skyler took a sip. The strong brew had a spicy flavor, bitterness cut by ample sweetening. “God, that is good.”

Prumble raised his glass in salute and sipped.

From the breast pocket of his flight jacket, Skyler produced the photograph. “Have a look,” Skyler said. “I found this in a dead man’s office inside that observatory.”

Prumble glanced at it and shrugged.

“Platz founded the place,” Skyler said.

“Yes. So?”

Skyler arched an eyebrow. “It seems odd to me.”

The big man shook his head. “Not so odd. He owned many things, back then. He probably felt nostalgic about the research done there and wanted some of it back.” He handed the picture back to Skyler.

“None of our business, in other words,” Skyler said, returning the print to his pocket. “What happens next?”

“Platz said he’ll be in touch. He seems eager to do business, and a lot of it.”

A steady stream of work from the most powerful man alive. Skyler couldn’t help but smile. It might not be such a bad arrangement, after all.

“A pleasure doing business, Captain,” Prumble said, with a mock bow and jovial grin.

Chapter Twelve

Above Darwin, Australia

23.JAN.2283

Russell Blackfield felt a perverse sense of pleasure watching Darwin shrink below the climber.

The flat monitor, mounted on the climber’s cabin wall, displayed a live image of the view outside, aimed straight down the Elevator cord. The city resembled a gray splotch from this height. A stain of ashen vomit on Australia’s otherwise glorious coastline. Russell drew a finger along the screen, tracing the circular shape of the city, so distinct from this altitude.

He looked down at his feet, imagining the view below in place of the boring black tile floor. He saw himself, drifting slowly higher like a soul being called to the big party in the sky. The image made him grin. For an instant he could see the appeal of the Jacobite’s silly sermons. A ladder to heaven—sure, why not?

The bulky climber inched up the Elevator thread, like a plump spider traversing the first strand of an epic web, eight kilometers into its journey to Gateway Station. The slothlike pace meant a fourteen-hour trip.

Russell sighed. “The Americans only needed four minutes to get to orbit. And that was three hundred years ago.”

The only other person in the cabin, a middle-aged man, lazed in a chair, cradling a thick book with yellowed pages. An Orbital, Russell knew. Overdressed and overfed. And pretending to be overdeaf; that wouldn’t do.

“Four minutes,” Russell said, louder. “How about that?”

The man looked up from his book. “Well, the Elevator is far more efficient. Resources are terribly scarce—”

“But we didn’t build the damn thing, did we?” Russell barked the comment. Too loud, perhaps, as the Orbital flinched. “No, some bloody aliens had to give it to us, and they couldn’t even be bothered to stop and say hello.”

“Well,” the man said, “we built the climbers. The infrastructure.”

“Four bloody minutes,” Russell said. As far as he was concerned, that settled the matter.

The man swallowed a retort and went back to reading.

Russell eyed him with quiet contempt. He’d studied the cargo manifest for this climber, as he did all of them, and knew the man to be an administrator who worked aboard Gateway Station in resource management. Or, in Russell’s view, a man who plotted the looting of Darwin’s freshwater supply. He wondered what it might be like to watch the drongo bastard fall from this height. “What’s that you’re reading?”

The man looked at the cover of his book, where the title was prominently displayed in large block letters. War and Peace?

“Never heard of it,” Russell said. “Which part are you on?”

“This is book three—”

“The war, or the peace?”

The man stammered. “It’s not—”

“Half of it sounds interesting,” Russell said. “I don’t recall any such book on the manifest, however.”

The color ran from the man’s face. “I didn’t … it is a personal effect, surely …”

“Have to say, smuggling is not tolerated.”

“That’s ridiculous! It’s a book, for God’s sake. I’m no criminal.”

Russell sauntered over to the man. He held his hand out, motioning for the thick tome.

The man tried to hold Russell’s gaze but relented in a few seconds. With a sigh he gave up the book. “Think I’ll sleep the rest of the way, if you don’t mind.”

“Suit yourself.” Russell returned to his seat, enjoying the weight of the novel. He thought the “war” part could be worth a look. He’d tried to read The Art of War once. His predecessor had left it on the desk when he vacated Nightcliff. A parting gift, and a boring one at that.

The climber lurched. Motors whirred down to silence and the lights in the cabin flicked off, replaced by dim emergency bulbs.

Russell almost dropped the heavy tome at the change in motion. His companion sat bolt upright, hands gripping the bench on either side of him.

Seconds later the lights came back, and electric motors hummed back to life. Russell could feel the sensation of motion as the vehicle began to climb again. “That gets the blood pumping,” he said.

The other man ignored him and looked around at the ceiling and walls, as if trying to see through them. The plain fear in his expression had a comical quality to it.

Eventually he settled back into his seat and closed his eyes again.

Russell laughed softly to himself. The unexplained malfunctions couldn’t have come at a better time, almost as if he’d planned it. Almost. “Opportunity knocks,” he muttered, and laughed again.

He floated at the airlock while the other seven cargo pods were unloaded. “Why the hell did they put us last?”

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