Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(2)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(2)
Author: Jason M. Hough

These rooftop denizens could not, however, leave their penthouse enclaves. Not without a healthy, trusted escort. The price of success.

Darwin’s poorest lived at street level, cut off from the rooftops. They were wholly reliant on food grown in orbit for their survival, and they fought for every scrap. Some had informal jobs, running errands for the garden owners or extracting protection fees from the neighborhood street vendors. Swagmen, pickers, thieves. A skill of any sort all but guaranteed a life in modest comfort. Bicycle repairmen were cherished as much as midwives.

To be a scavenger, like Skyler, brought with it a celebrity status and all the problems that entailed. Everyone needed something from the outside, but few could pay.

The thrum of the Melville’s engines changed as Angus shifted power to the vertical thrusters. Glancing forward over his pilot’s shoulder, Skyler could see the wall of Nightcliff clearly now. They’d fly over the massive barrier in less than a minute.

He felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. “Sam, Jake, how’s it going back there?”

“We need more time,” Samantha said over the speaker. “One crate to go.”

Skyler cursed.

“Should I hover here?” Angus asked.

“No, it’ll just look suspicious.” He tapped the intercom. “There’s no more time, Sam. Hurry it up.”

“And if we find something truly offensive?”

At that Skyler paused. He knew what she really meant: Should we hide it? Her preference, of course, would be to do just that.

“Captain, take a look at this,” Angus said.

Skyler leaned forward to get a better view over Angus’s shoulder.

A knot formed in his gut at the sight ahead.

Outside Nightcliff’s southern gate, in Ryland Square, a massive crowd churned and roiled. People streamed in from every adjacent alley.

A riot, Skyler realized.

Enforcers formed a line in front of the gate. Their black batons rose and fell like a millipede’s legs. Pockets of white tear gas obscured the center of the square. Through the haze Skyler could just make out a large cargo container lying on its side. Ragged citizens, clutching bits of cloth over their faces, swarmed over the contents like ants. On the edge of the crowd, Skyler could see children throwing bits of debris toward the fortress.

“What the hell is going on?” Angus asked, shades of hysterics in his voice.

“Just relax,” Skyler said. “Breathe, nice and deep. Stay on course.”

The intercom crackled, and Samantha spoke. “Skyler? What do you want us to do? There’s some onc-rope back here.”

Octanitrocubane cord. He recalled it from his military training, and winced. High explosive shaped in the form of a rope. Nasty stuff, perfect for precise explosions. Just the type of thing Nightcliff wanted as far away as possible. The fortress had one mandate above all else: Keep the Elevator safe. Such weapons were seen as a threat to the alien-built device.

Stunned by the view of the riot, and the dark, frozen climbers on the Elevator, Skyler muttered, “I don’t know, Sam. I don’t know.”

“We either hide it or throw it overboard,” she said. “You pick, Captain.”

He doubted that the third option, to let Nightcliff have it, even occurred to her. She just didn’t think that way. Skyler did, and he judged that such a prize might keep the inspectors from taking too much else. Assuming they believed it hadn’t been fetched on purpose.

“We’re over the wall,” Angus said.

“Sam,” Skyler said, “we’re inside. We can’t toss it.”

As he watched, the huge fortress wall passed under them, obscuring the view of the riot. He had a vague awareness of Angus negotiating a landing pad with the controllers in the fortress tower. The aircraft lurched as the young man adjusted their course.

“Easy, Angus,” Skyler said. “Deep breaths.”

“Sorry.”

“Can you handle this? I’m going in back.”

“I’ll try,” Angus said.

Skyler tapped the intercom again. “Leave the explosives where they are, Sam. If they’re found, so be it.”

“I knew you’d say that,” she replied.

In the cargo bay, Samantha and Jake crouched over a green hard-shell case with white block letters painted on the top and sides. They were sorting clips of ammunition. A storage locker on the wall next to them stood open, already half-full.

“We can say it’s ours,” Jake said, “not from the mission.”

Insurance against a total confiscation of the cargo, Skyler translated, and he couldn’t blame them. Bullets served as currency in much of Darwin. And they certainly had their use beyond Aura’s Edge. Skyler nodded agreement and continued on.

Samantha stood and blocked his path. Well over two meters tall, she stooped slightly in the crowded compartment. Upright she’d tower over him, but when she was hunched over, their gaze met. Her long blond hair had been tucked under a camouflage cap, accentuating already sharp features. “You’re letting Angus land?”

“Sam … not now.”

He skirted by her and worked his way to the rear loading ramp. The aircraft banked steeply as Angus guided her down, forcing Skyler to grasp frayed nylon straps hanging from the wall for support.

The items recovered on the mission filled six large wooden crates arranged in a line down the center of the bay, held in place by yellow plastic nets anchored to hooks on the floor. Despite the hurried search, the crates still looked secure.

“Good work,” Skyler said. “Like you never touched it.”

A dull thud from below marked the Melville’s landing, followed by a rapid decline in the hum from her engines.

“Nicely done, Angus,” Skyler said into the intercom.

“Thanks. There’s … ah … a bunch of soldiers waiting outside.”

Chapter Two

Darwin, Australia

12.JAN.2283

Unsure what else to do, Skyler pressed his palm against the ramp control button.

A buzzer sounded from the ceiling, matched by a spinning amber warning light. The bulb flickered as if reminding him to replace it, a task he’d put off many times. Months without a successful mission meant necessities slipped by the wayside. Sorry, old girl, he thought. You deserve better.

Hydraulics below the floor whirred to life, and he stepped back from the ramp as it began to rotate down.

Rainwater from the earlier storm, whipped up by residual thrust from the Melville’s dwindling engines, sprayed in through the opening and lashed across Skyler’s face. He squinted as he wiped the water away with his sleeve.

As the ramp lowered, the sprawling compound of Nightcliff came into view. To Skyler’s left, the Elevator tower rose more than two hundred meters toward a dark purple sky. On any other night a string of climber car beacons would mark the actual Elevator cord, like a vertical strand of holiday lights stretching all the way to space.

But not tonight. With the climbers dark, the thin strand was all but invisible.

Skyler wondered if the stalled cars alone had driven the crowd outside to violence. Perhaps something had led to the shutdown. A spat with the Orbital Council, or striking water haulers. Rumors like that would spread like fire. The whiff of trouble, of a serious change to their already bleak situation, might spur such a desperate, violent action.

A group of tall buildings clustered around the base of the tower, obscuring from view the crater left behind when the cord punctured the earth. Climber vehicles were loaded and queued within the structures, behind massive rolling doors. A series of cranes, each more than fifty meters tall, ringed the area. Here cargo containers were attached to, or detached from, the climbers. Skyler noted an empty climber dangling from one crane. The spiderlike vehicles consisted of a central shaft that housed electric motors, inversion plates, and billions of tiny arms that gripped the incredibly thin cord. Attached to the top and bottom of the shaft were eight scaffold arms where cargo could be attached. A stack of the long steel boxes waited on the asphalt, idle workers huddled nearby.

To his right, toward the ocean-facing wall of the fortress, Skyler saw a jumble of barracks and other support buildings, including the old Platz family mansion, boarded up long ago. Someone told him once that the lavish home now served as storage. Such a waste.

The fortress at Nightcliff had been constructed out of pure necessity, to surround and defend the alien-built Elevator. Why the Builders placed the Elevator here thirty-two years ago, no one knew. Few cared anymore. The aliens never presented themselves, never said hello. No explanation, just an automated construction vessel settling into orbit and firing its thread to the ground like a fishing line.

Skyler subscribed to the “blind luck” theory. The cord had come down out of the sky, led by a dart-shaped black mass, and implanted itself deep below this small spit of land.

Almost overnight Darwin transformed from sleepy beach town to bustling metropolis: the center of the world. Skyler remembered the footage shown in school; before-and-after comparisons astounded his young mind. Such a time of progress and wonder. A time of hope.

It didn’t last.

Almost five years after the Elevator arrived, the disease appeared and spread across the globe. Why the Elevator negated it, or even how, remained a mystery. The two were linked, that much was obvious, but in that time of worldwide panic only one thing mattered: Get to Darwin. Darwin is safe. The city as it was collapsed under the onslaught of refugees, Skyler among them. Memory of that journey made him shiver even now. Amazing what humans could do to one another when their survival instinct kicked in.

The Melville’s ramp met concrete with a deep crunch, forcing Skyler’s attention away from the view.

Russell Blackfield, prefect of Nightcliff, waited on the landing pad. His presence dashed any hope Skyler had for a cursory inspection.

Flanking the powerful man were four guards, two on each side. They wore maroon combat helmets, the only common piece of gear among them. The rest of their clothing came from a variety of pre-disease military uniforms. Skyler saw mostly Australian army fatigues, of varying condition. One wore an ill-fitting Chinese officer’s coat.

Their weapons were trained on Skyler—sleek black machine guns, to a man. The uniforms might not match, but the guns did.

Russell stepped forward. “Come out of there. Your crew as well. Hands where we can see them.”

The man wore a simple white T-shirt, soaked. His closely cropped blond hair lay in wet clumps. Black cargo pants and military boots completed the outfit. He carried no weapon that Skyler could see.

Skyler glanced back to see that Jake and Samantha were already coming. “Jake, get Angus, would you?”

His sniper nodded and turned back.

Samantha walked between them, down the ramp to the tarmac. Russell followed her with a lecherous gaze, the conversation suddenly forgotten.

Skyler leaned into the prefect’s view. “What’s this all about?”

“Sabotage,” Russell muttered, craning his neck to see past Skyler.

Jake emerged from the ship a few seconds later, with Angus in tow. They took positions next to Samantha, hands outstretched.

“Right, then,” Russell said. “What the hell did you do to my Elevator?”

Silence fell over the yard.

With the Melville’s engines fully off, only the distant sound of the riotous crowd beyond the south gate could be heard.

Skyler saw genuine concern behind Russell’s dictator façade. “You think we caused that?”

The brusque man stepped in close. His eyes narrowed. “Power failed the exact moment you hit the bloody Aura. Exact. Play stupid all you want, scavenger, but we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Russell gestured. Three of the guards jogged up the ramp and began to remove the yellow nets from the cargo bins. The fourth remained steadfast, his rifle pointed at the ground between himself and the crew.

Skyler could only watch, helpless. “Look, we were surprised to see the climbers go dark, just as you were. We’re not carrying anything that could cause that. I don’t even know how that could happen.”

Russell strode halfway up the ramp, his focus on the contents of the ship rather than on Skyler. “You’re the crew of immunes, right?”

“That’s right. In from a spec run up north.”

If Russell heard, or cared, he made no indication of it. His interest remained firmly on the crates of cargo. “Immunity. Must be nice to leave the city without a suit. To travel freely.”

“It’s no Eden out there,” Skyler said.

“Still, you have the choice.”

Skyler kept quiet. He rarely told people of his immunity to the disease, because of the questions that followed. They always asked the same things: Do you feel different? Do you think the Builders chose you? Could you search for my wife, or my child, or the earthly remains of a commune leader left behind?

And ultimately: Why do you bother coming back?

He had no answers that would satisfy them.

Most of all, he hated describing the world outside. The Clear, people called it. “What’s it like?” they would ask. No one wanted to hear that the world had fallen to shit, that all the great cities of man were now home to weeds, rats, crows, and worse. No, they wanted to believe that the world had recovered from the sins of man. They wanted a silver lining after everything that had happened.

Such questions from Russell Blackfield, the tyrant of Nightcliff, would have their own surreal flavor. Though he’d never admit it, Skyler wished he’d taken Samantha’s advice and ignored the call to land.

To his surprise, Russell skipped the topic. He seemed wholly uninterested. “Define ‘north,’” he said.

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