Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(3)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(3)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Malaysia,” Skyler said. “An air force base.”

“Run into subs?”

“Not on this trip,” Skyler lied. He could feel the weight of the subhuman finger in his jacket pocket.

Russell stared into the cargo bay as if he expected a subhuman to leap out. “That’s smart,” he said, “hitting military bases. Plenty of spare parts and ration stores to pick through?”

“That’s the idea,” Skyler said.

“And weapons, too?”

Skyler shrugged at the rhetorical question.

“Like an EMP bomb, maybe?”

Which would knock out my own aircraft, and every other gadget in the city, moron. “I see where this is going,” Skyler said. “I’m telling you, we didn’t sabotage the Elevator. It’s our lifeblood, after all.”

“It’s everyone’s lifeblood,” Russell said.

“Even more to the point.”

The prefect walked farther up the ramp, to the lip of the cargo bay. His men were yanking everything out of the crates and tossing the items aside after a cursory glance. “Anything for the Orbitals in here?” Russell asked.

“I have no idea,” Skyler said. “Our agent provides a list, and we try to fill it. Who he sells to is his business.”

“Keeps your hands clean, eh? Deniability. I like it.”

Skyler shook his head. “I’d just rather focus on the mission.”

“Who’s your agent?” Russell asked. “Grillo?”

“Prumble.”

“Ah,” Russell said. He raised his voice, speaking to all of them. “A petty middleman like that is wasted on a squad like you. You should work directly for me. For Nightcliff.”

Skyler shot a glance at his crew. Samantha had folded her arms across her chest, her eyes brimming with defiance. Jake, unreadable as always. The young pilot, Angus, was staring at Skyler, craving a role model, it seemed from the look on his face.

“I could use a group like you,” Russell added. “There’s plenty of things we need here in Nightcliff to keep you busy, and you won’t have to deal with the rabble out there.” He gave a casual gesture toward the south gate, where the riot now raged, judging by the sound carrying over the high wall.

No one spoke. Skyler searched for something to say, a clever response to assert himself as the decision maker. But words eluded him, and the moment passed.

“Think about it,” Russell said as he strode up the ramp into the cargo bay.

They went through the entire ship, front to back, for almost thirty minutes.

At one point Skyler saw Russell speak into a handheld radio. A short time later another Nightcliff crew approached the ship. Not guards, but ordinary workers dressed in greasy overalls. They pulled a pallet mounted on a hand truck with them.

Under Russell’s orders, the men began to load select items onto the pallet.

Another failure, Skyler thought, dismayed. The fourth in a row. He doubted they could afford a fifth.

“Told you not to land,” Samantha said, just loud enough for Skyler to hear.

He shook his head, frustration brimming inside him. She never missed an I-told-you-so.

Russell then stomped down the ramp, his face grim, the case of onc-rope cradled in his arms. “You know I can’t allow shit like this in the city. I’ve stated this many times.”

“Packed it by accident,” Skyler said.

“We’ll be taking some things, as penalty.”

Skyler assessed the items being loaded on the cart. Three boxes of ammo, a case of whiskey, and a welding kit. The welder irritated him most. Prumble, likely on behalf of an Orbital, had specifically requested the device. A substantial payment would vanish along with it.

It could be worse. They could take it all, and he couldn’t stop them. Once again he kept his mouth shut.

A booming explosion shook the yard.

Distant, from the direction of the riot. Skyscrapers beyond Nightcliff’s wall lit up in the sudden flash. A fireball rolled into the air before dissipating.

The ground shook and rattled the Melville’s wings, sending a shower of fine droplets into the air. Skyler dropped to a crouch on instinct, and closed his eyes against the sudden spray. The sound of the blast echoed through the compound like rolling thunder.

Everyone flinched. Everyone except Russell Blackfield.

“See what I mean about explosives here?” He held the radio to his mouth again. “I want second battalion at the gate, full gear, in five minutes. Time to crush these lunatics.”

Skyler watched the plume of smoke rise into the sky. When he looked down, Russell stood only centimeters away. Their eyes met.

“I get it,” Russell said. “You provide a cherished service, I get it. But the contraband stops, right bloody now.”

“No EMP bombs aboard, though, right?”

“Don’t f**k with me, Skyler,” he said. Then he smiled. “You’re off the hook, for now. Just remember I control your only access to our betters up above. I can lock it down just as easily.”

Skyler glanced upward, along the empty path of the hair-thin cord. “Point taken.”

“You’re wasting your time fetching junk for that rabble out there. Or the bloody Orbitals,” Russell said. He paused, and sized Skyler up. “Consider my offer. Before I take it off the table.”

“I will,” Skyler said.

Russell turned to the larger group. “I hate to cut our visit short, but I’ve got an adoring public to address.”

With that he walked away. A casual pace, as if nothing had happened. The guards and workers followed, prize cart in tow.

“Angus,” Skyler said.

“Yeah?”

“Let’s go home.”

The pilot needed no further prompting and jogged up the ramp.

Jake went next, quiet as always, his hard face impossible to read. The man kept his head clean shaven, and a vein bulged near his temple, the closest thing to a display of emotion he would likely show. In the years since they’d met, Skyler had never seen the man lose his composure. A good trait for a sniper, perhaps not so good for squad cohesion. Still, he got along with Samantha, which Skyler realized probably took a sniper’s patience.

The thought made him grin.

“Is this funny to you?” Samantha asked. She waited on the landing pad, arms folded.

“No, it’s just … C’mon Sam, it’s not a total loss. They didn’t take everything.”

“They took plenty,” she said. “Another cock-up.”

She stalked up the ramp, her combat boots pounding on the steel surface.

Skyler lingered, trying to think of something—anything—he could say to her that might win her support. He thought back to the crew as it had been, before Skadz walked away. The former captain had no problems handling Sam, somehow always turning her concerns into jokes.

He thought of kicking her out but dismissed the idea as quickly as it arose. He needed her, and not just because she had the immunity. There were precious few immunes in the world, sure, but Samantha could also fight.

Footsteps from the direction of the Elevator tower scattered his thoughts.

A pale man, and thin. Sickly, Skyler decided. Stringy gray hair hung in wet clumps around the man’s bony face. He wore a long, dark blue overcoat, which clung to him like a wet blanket. Both hands were shoved deep into the front pockets. Another Nightcliff official, looking for a bribe.

“You’re Skyler, yes?” he asked. “The immune?”

Not another special request, Skyler thought. “Maybe. Who’s asking?”

“You work through Prumble?”

“I do,” Skyler said.

The man paused, brow furrowed as if making a decision. “Would you deliver a letter to him? I can’t leave on account of the lockdown.”

Before Skyler could respond, the man produced a thin memory card from his overcoat. He pressed it into Skyler’s hand. “Thanks,” he said, and turned to go.

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“What happened to the climbers?”

The sickly man cast his gaze upward. “Some kind of malfunction,” he said. “Power went away, then came back.”

A malfunction. The idea that the Elevator could fail sent a sharp ripple of fear through him. That would be the end, he thought, for everyone except himself and a handful of other immunes. “If power came back, why are they still not running?”

“Carpe diem on Blackfield’s part. It’s a game of chicken, now,” he said, and began to walk away.

Skyler didn’t know what that meant. He decided not to press. “Who should I say it’s from? The letter, I mean.”

The man in the overcoat kept walking. “Kip!” he shouted over his shoulder. “He’ll know. See that he gets it.”

As the stranger ambled off, Skyler pocketed the card.

Back in the cockpit, Skyler requested clearance to depart and the tower granted it. Angus did not wait for an order before he spun up the verticals.

On the short flight to the old airport, Skyler strained his eyes to find the Elevator thread, a difficult exercise without the beacon lights.

Eventually he spotted the dark climbers, still stalled on the cord. Bloated mechanical spiders clinging on for dear life.

Chapter Three

Platz Space-Ag Station 12

13.JAN.2283

Tania Sharma watched with keen interest as a swarm of tiny black ants carried away the remnants of a fallen avocado. The fruit, dark and rotten, lay discarded on the white tile floor.

Above her, the huge tree that had dropped it grew in a chaotic sprawl, gray branches flush with green leaves. It extended out in all directions from a central tube filled with a nutrient-rich synthetic soil. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves into a sporadic dance, taken up in sequence by the entire orchard. The gusts came every three minutes, exactly on schedule. Each time the wind blew Tania inhaled deeply, trying to identify all the smells carried by it—a fun exercise, hopeless as it may be.

The “sky” above dimmed, then brightened, as the station adjusted to keep sunlight pouring in. Articulated mirrors directed the beams in through expansive borosilicate windows. Tania had memorized the layout and programming of the farms as a child, fascinated. She’d studied the crops grown, their genetic modifications, and their ideal soil composition. Everything she could find, her young mind insatiable. Even now, at twenty-six, the orbiting farms gripped her imagination.

“Missed one, did we?”

She turned at the familiar voice.

Neil Platz bounded toward her in the low artificial gravity, a childlike movement that belied his mane of silver-gray hair. For her own part, Tania preferred full Earth gravity, which most stations maintained, but she knew the agriculture platforms were configured for optimal plant growth, not human comfort. Each ring of the station rotated at a different speed, depending on the crops grown. Apples grew best in a fraction of Earth norm, while potatoes hit their optimal yield in a pull slightly more than Mother Nature’s. That always struck Tania as particularly curious.

The grin on Neil’s face told of his joy at being here, light on his feet. Despite his age, he exhibited more zest for life than anyone she knew. He’d dressed casually today, black slacks and a simple white sweater. A fresh pair of running shoes adorned his feet.

She smiled at the sight of him. “Missed one what?”

Neil landed in a graceful stance in front of her, dropping to a knee to study the avocado. “This little bugger. The ants don’t seem to mind.”

“The ants just follow their genes.”

“Cheapest cleanup crew I ever hired,” he said. “Marvelous efficiency.”

Tania smoothed her plain blue jumpsuit and folded her hands across her lap. “You wanted to see me?”

“Indeed,” he said. “Thanks for coming all this way.”

“I love it here, the air is so … it’s delicious, really.”

He drew in a deep breath, and nodded. “I’ve missed you, dear girl. You look radiant, the very image of your mother.”

“I like the beard,” she said. “It suits you.”

He scratched at the gray stubble covering his chin. “Ran out of bloody shaving cream. I hope the scavengers will find more.” He spoke with an Australian accent, as strong as ever, despite his time living in orbit. Tania found it charming.

“Did Zane come with you? I haven’t seen him in so long.”

“My brother is on Gateway, keeping the council at bay.”

“Four months is a long time between visits,” she said, enunciating the words so that Neil would catch her chastising.

He broke away from the insect parade and moved to sit next to her on the bench. “I’ve been preoccupied. But now, this climber blockade …”

Tania knew then why he’d called, why he wanted a personal meeting in a tranquil place. A shift in priorities, an end to pet projects. Four months had passed since she’d made her request, four months of silence, and now he’d kill it officially.

She bit her tongue, allowing her disappointment to fade. “The power fluctuation on the cord. It’s that serious, is it?”

“Hah!” he barked. “Some sure want it to be. The self-styled king in Nightcliff has grasped the opportunity with both hands and shut everything down. Just the excuse he needed.”

“Shut down until when?”

Neil looked up as another waft of air stirred the branches. “Until he gets a satisfactory explanation.”

“Well,” she said carefully, “it is unprecedented. We should have a team look into it.”

He waved off her remark. “Relax, dear. I’m assigning Greg and Marcus to study that. You’ve got a more important project to work on.”

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