Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(17)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(17)
Author: Jason M. Hough

The question went unanswered. He looked to his traveling companion for a response and found the man still sleeping.

With a long hiss, the airlock door rotated open, revealing the interior of a flexible white tube connected to the climber. Plastic windows ran the length of the round corridor, revealing an expansive cargo bay beyond, where busy dockworkers floated by with no regard for up or down. The cargo bay’s dark gray walls were lit sporadically with small pools of yellow light. The room matched the octagonal layout of the eight-slot climbers, and from Russell’s vantage point he could see cargo containers lined all the way to the wall, waiting to hitch a ride up or down.

Russell floated out past a cleaning crew and passengers waiting for their trip down to Nightcliff. They made room for him to squeeze past, and he recognized each from the manifest he’d studied the day before. None looked happy about their impending journey, as if traveling to Nightcliff was some terrible chore they were being forced to endure.

Fuckers, he thought.

He drifted along the umbilical tube attached to the passenger car, running his hand along the soft material as he went. He checked his fingertips; no dust. They were meticulous up here. To live amid such cleanliness would either be refreshing or boring beyond belief, he couldn’t quite decide which.

The title “Director of Nightcliff,” a position he’d fought tooth and nail for just a year earlier, had many perks. And now he could add a visit to Gateway to that list. His bluff with the climber traffic had earned the trip, a foot in the door, exactly as he’d predicted.

The council would have to take him seriously.

At the end of the tube, a woman in a white coat and pants waited for him. She had curly red hair and a splash of freckles on her cheeks. Soft skin and a full figure, too—nothing like the bony women in Darwin.

“Are you the welcoming committee?” Russell asked.

“The nurse, I’m afraid. Decontamination is this way.”

She pushed off the wall with practiced ease and disappeared around the corner. Russell tried to swim in the air to gain speed, which only left him upside down and disoriented. He grunted as his body impacted the wall.

The woman giggled, a sound she tried to stifle with her hand. Russell heard it, though, and a felt a rage boiling within.

“It takes practice,” she said.

Her voice had a kindness to it that he found calming. A lovely smile as well. “Must be hard to shag,” Russell said. “Up here. Flailing about like this.”

The nurse’s smile vanished. “We’ll be in gravity soon.”

“If that’s what you prefer,” Russell said with a grin. He winked at her, but the woman turned away.

“Follow me, please,” she said. Terse, now.

She led him along a long, white hall, lined with a series of red rungs on one wall. The further they went, the more Russell felt a sense of vertigo. He mimicked the woman’s movement as she started to use the rungs on the wall to guide herself.

Slowly, gravity began to tug at him. He realized then that they were traveling toward the outer edge of the ring-shaped station. The rungs on the wall became a ladder, and soon he found it easier to climb than drift.

At last they reached the bottom, and Russell felt grounded. Up was finally up, down was down.

The nurse guided him through a door and into a stark white room. “There’s a shower through there,” she said. “Leave your clothing. I’ll have them scrubbed.”

“Your clothes might be dirty, too,” he said. “Care to join me?”

She hurried from the room without a word.

Worth a try, he thought.

Thirty minutes later, showered and dressed, he sat in an uncomfortable metal chair. “Is all this really necessary? I don’t have SUBS.”

A new nurse, not nearly as cute as the last, sat next to him. She prepped a needle. “The Elevator protects against that,” she said. “It’s the rest we try to keep out. Colds, flu … all the usual suspects.”

“I’m sure it was nothing,” Russell said as she took a blood sample, “but my companion on board the climber had a bit of a cough.”

The nurse’s eyes widened.

Russell shrugged. “Just thirsty, maybe? Still, I thought I’d mention it.”

“You were sitting with him?”

Oops. “Do I look like an idiot?”

“My apologies,” the nurse replied.

Though not as attractive as the previous nurse, by Darwin standards she still looked pretty good. He’d heard all the stories and jokes, among his guards, about Orbital women. When you could pick and choose your citizens from the herd at large, why bother with the ugly ones? The thought tickled him. Even at the brink of extinction, people still behaved like people.

“You’re clear to enter the station,” she said, then departed.

Russell put his coat back on, placed the newly acquired book under his arm, and strode out of the medical bay with a smile on his face.

He gave a curt salute to the security inspector on duty, who allowed him through the checkpoint without a word. It was the first guard Russell had seen, and it occurred to him then how easy it would be to bring a climber full of soldiers up here and overrun the place. If his demands weren’t met, it would be an option.

Alex Warthen waited for him on the other side of the checkpoint.

Russell had met the man a few times before, but always in Nightcliff. They were equals, Alex had assured him. Just in charge of different aspects of the Elevator.

The choke points, Russell thought.

And yet Alex held a seat on the Orbital Council, despite presiding over a fraction of the population and an incalculably smaller area. Meanwhile, Russell remained a simple employee, a dog to do their bidding.

I deliver your air and water, he thought. I can stop just as easily. So a few Darwinites might starve. There’s too damn many of them anyway.

The man looked sharp, as always. Black hair combed to one side, clean shaven, and a face that gave nothing away.

“Taken up the classics?” Alex asked, as they shook hands.

Russell arced an eyebrow. “Classic what?”

Alex pointed at the book.

“Oh,” Russell said, “we’ll see. How’s it going, mate?”

Alex sighed. A long loud hiss of air. “Not good. The climbers are faltering, and now we’ve had a few subhumans get loose up here. Everyone is on edge.”

“The rumors are true, then.”

“Afraid so.”

Russell knew there was no way such a creature could have made it all the way up to orbit unnoticed. No, someone had contracted the disease inside the Aura. There was no other way to explain it. He almost grinned at the turn of events. More wood on the bonfire. “Sounds like you need a vacation,” Russell said.

“No time, nowhere to go. How about a drink instead?”

Russell motioned for his counterpart to lead on. He expected to be taken to an office. Instead, Alex led him to a tavern, just a short walk from the station entry.

A sign on the wall by the door said “Ten Backward.” Alex entered first and pushed through the crowded room.

Russell glanced across the faces within. A mix of men and women, wearing mostly blue coveralls, filled the dozen tables, talking and drinking. If anyone recognized him, they didn’t show it. In fact, they hardly reacted to Alex Warthen’s entry, either. Russell wondered how much respect the man really commanded.

Alex made his way toward the sparse bar. The patrons huddled there wore mostly black—security personnel. Their conversation died when they saw Alex, and room was made.

Alex asked, “What’s your poison?”

“I’m in a vodka mood.”

The bartender bypassed the closest bottle on the shelf behind him and reached for something with a printed label, something from before. Russell didn’t recognize it, and grunted. Smuggled up, no doubt. A little theater Alex probably arranged just to irritate him.

As the drinks were poured, Russell took stock of the busy room. “Don’t these people have anything to do?”

“Work, drink, screw, as the saying goes up here,” Alex said. “It’s good to mingle with them now and then.”

Russell raised his glass.

“Sláinte,” Alex said.

They both drank. The chatter in the room had all but died, Russell realized. He toyed with the idea of making a speech to the locals. After another drink, he decided.

“Enough dog and pony,” Russell said. “Let’s go to your office and chat.”

The dreary room felt less welcoming than a Jacobite prayer hall. Furnishings consisted of a faux granite desk and two simple metal chairs. No personal touches adorned the desk or the walls; merely the minimum needed to get the job done.

“Nice view,” Russell said. The room had no windows. Russell hadn’t seen a window since arriving. The realization made the place seem even smaller.

His counterpart offered him a chair, and Russell sat. The seat was hard as rock, uncomfortable in the extreme.

Alex became serious. He rested his elbows on the chair’s armrests and folded his fingers together. “I need to ask you something, between us.”

“Fire away.”

“Are you tampering with the climbers? Causing these power outages?”

The accusation stunned Russell. A flash of anger gave way to pride. Pride in knowing Alex thought him that mischievous. He imagined himself standing at some cartoon lever, throwing it to “off’ with a mad cackle before returning it to “on.” Russell threw his head back and laughed. “No,” he said. “No, but it’s not a bad idea. I might ask you the same question.”

“We’re as baffled as you are,” Alex said.

“That’s … terrifying, frankly.”

Alex gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Well, thanks for starting the climbers again. The council appreciates it.”

“Pleasing the council,” Russell said. “I live for it.”

A pregnant pause followed. Alex deflated slightly in his chair, his eyes dancing from one side of the table to the other.

Russell cleared his throat. “How’s our old friend Platz?”

Alex Warthen smiled. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

His tone caught Russell off guard. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I heard about his visit last week.”

Russell felt his cheeks grow warm. He despised being embarrassed, perhaps more than anything. “What are you on about?”

Alex grinned.

“Are you f**king with me?”

Alex leaned back, clearly enjoying himself. “Either you’re getting sloppy or the old man has friends in low places.”

Russell winced. He didn’t like implication. He didn’t like the pun, either. “Well, what the hell was he doing there?”

“According to my source,” Alex said, “he was buying something from the venerable Mr. Prumble.”

Russell sat down again. “Buying what?”

“I’m working on that,” Alex said.

Russell felt lost in the possibilities. “Perhaps I should look into it. Pay Prumble a visit—”

Alex raised a hand in opposition. “Exercise some subtlety, will you? Let things develop.”

The revelation boiled Russell’s blood. If it proved to be true, the consequences were unsettling. Strict control over what comes and goes through Nightcliff was one of the few pieces of true power Russell held. It meant little if the most famous man alive could slip through unnoticed.

Russell wanted to break something. Someone. Best to change the subject, he decided. “Any progress,” he said, “on my request?”

A sour look crossed Alex’s face, if only for an instant. “The council voted it down. ‘It’s the Orbital Council. Mr. Blackfield is on the ground.’ Their words, not mine.”

Perfect, Russell thought. He forced himself to look disappointed. “The ground. It’s not just dirt and rock, you know. We have air and water, too.”

Alex spread his hands. “Processed at facilities owned by Platz. “

“Shipped through facilities run by me.”

Alex digested the comment like a bad egg. “The council will have none of that.”

Russell spread his hands. “They’d probably order you down there with your more-than-capable forces.”

“Which,” Alex said, “would clearly be a surprise to you.”

“Imagine how that would go. Your soldiers stepping out, two at a time, from those cramped little climbers.”

“Interesting,” said Alex.

A silence followed. Only the sound of air being pushed into the room by machinery hidden in the walls could be heard. It served as a nice echo to Russell’s argument.

He tapped the thick novel on the table. “War and Peace. It’s the gray area in between where we live, you and I.”

Alex kept his face still. “It seems we’re at an impasse.”

“Then why bring me here? Going to toss me in the brig?”

“The idea was mentioned …”

“Your idea, or the vaunted council?”

“Same thing,” the man said. “I’m a member, after all.”

“True,” Russell said. “The only member in control of armed guards. In fact, between us we command the only remaining military the world has left.”

Alex said nothing. His face betrayed nothing.

Russell continued. “We own the choke points, you and I. I don’t see why we have to listen to anyone. Especially the old goat, Neil Platz.”

Still no reaction.

Russell took that as a good sign, and went on. “A lot of power in our hands, eh?”

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