Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(4)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(4)
Author: Jason M. Hough

A rush of excitement coursed through her, a feeling quickly dashed by anxiety. Neil swore her to secrecy every time the theory came up. She glanced over her shoulder toward the entrance.

“We’re alone, dear. I gave the staff a few hours off. Except the ants, that is.”

She took a long breath of the fragrant air, willing herself to be calm. “I thought perhaps you’d forgotten about it.”

“Just the opposite. I can’t get the idea out of my head.”

“I’d nearly given up on the theory, Neil,” she said, conscious of how meek her voice sounded. “You could have told me. Why wait so long?”

He grimaced.

Tania studied him closely, looking for any subtext in his expression, and as usual found little. She knew his face better than her own dad’s. Sometimes when she dreamt of her father, rest his soul, he wore Neil’s face.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I had preparations to make.”


He leaned back on the bench, tilting his face to the reflected sunlight, and closed his eyes. “Tania, you’re a brilliant scientist. The best I’ve got. But there’s politics to consider. If your theory is correct, the world is going to change. Again.”

“Maybe. Until I’ve been able to analyze—”

“I need to be ready for what happens if you’re right,” he said. His voice took on a full, sonorous tone, one Tania knew only from his speeches to the Orbitals, or the citizens of Darwin in times past. He’d never spoken that way to her before, not when they were alone.

Since she first voiced the theory three years ago they’d discussed it often. Sometimes over hot tea in his opulent office on Platz Station, sometimes over terse interstation messages. Neil gave her the original spark, an offhand comment that the Builders “probably weren’t done,” though he maintained he’d said no such thing. Tania took the idea and ran with it, theorizing that they might be on a specific schedule. The disease had come almost twelve years after the Elevator, 11.7 to be precise, and it made sense to her that if they were to return it would be after a similar time period.

“Maybe they’ll get lazy, take longer,” Neil had said in a message four months ago.

Tania’s tunnel vision fell away with that remark. Or … what if they come sooner? What if they’re here and we missed it? She’d called Neil in a mild panic, asking him to find the data she needed right away. He’d said he would look into it, and avoided the topic since.

“It’s just …” She paused. “Granted, we might have years, if they’re even coming back at all. But we could just as easily be too late already. Without data, it’s impossible to know.”

“I know,” he said. “I know.”

“Plus, the analysis may take ages. If my assistant, Natalie, could help … She’s brilliant—”

“Forget it,” Neil said. “Secrecy is paramount. You must do this alone.”

The breeze picked up again, rustling the leaves along the line of trees.

“It reminds me of the ocean, that sound,” Neil said. His voice now fatherly, again. “Waves on the shore of Nightcliff, before the disease came.”

“I barely remember it,” Tania said. “Bits and pieces. My home has always been up here.”

He smiled. “I used to walk with your parents along the rocks, discussing their research of the Elevator. Your father and I took turns carrying you. You hated to get your feet wet.”

The mirth drained from his face then. Tania knew this expression well—an inevitable outcome when her parents became the topic of conversation. He’d be thinking now of how they died, and she hoped he wouldn’t talk about it.

She was twenty-one at the time, in the first days of the disease. Her mother, a doctor, had rushed back to India, hoping to find a way to stop SUBS. A fool’s errand, in hindsight. Tania never heard from her again.

At the same time, Neil had sent her father to one of the older space stations the company ran, one far from the Elevator. But a freak accident destroyed the place. Her father had been the only person aboard.

Neil felt responsible for them, despite Tania’s assurances otherwise. They were gone, along with almost everyone else. She found it hard to mourn her parents with so many dead.

She changed the subject. “You were saying, about preparations?”

“Yes,” he replied. “You know we’ve spent years trying to complete another habitat station. Hab-Eight.” When she nodded, he continued. “Well, it’s much closer to completion than the council realizes. It’s better if you don’t know more. Point is, I’ve been stocking it like a bomb shelter, just in case.”

“In case … what?”

“What, exactly,” Neil said. “The unknown, one of my least favorite things. Which is where you come in.”

“There may be nothing to it. It’s only a theory.”

“A brilliant theory,” he said, a hint of annoyance in his voice. “There’s something to it, Tania. I know it. Call it a gut feeling, I don’t care.”

She nodded, slowly, despite her disagreement. She couldn’t make that kind of mental leap, not without evidence. “Without the data—”

“That’s why I wanted to see you today. The data.”

Excitement rippled through her again, and she couldn’t suppress it now. The anticipation of discovery was too strong. “You have it!”

“Not yet,” he said, then noted her disappointment. “Soon, I hope. It’s a difficult thing you’re asking. Any venture beyond Aura’s Edge is risky as hell, and your data is quite far from Darwin. It’s going to cost me a small fortune.”

She said nothing. Neil’s concern about spending a fortune, however small, depressed her.

He’d become the richest man in the world when the space elevator connected to Earth on land he owned, some seventeen years ago. Platz Industries dominated the ensuing renaissance in space activity. Neil ran the company with ruthless efficiency, Tania’s father always nearby as his chief scientist.

She caught glimpses of that Neil, the business tycoon, too often. From her perspective none of that mattered anymore. Wealth should no longer have a place in society, and yet it remained—ingrained in the psyche.

Neil went on. “They’ll have to take their own air and water. Put their lives in the hands of environment suits made decades ago. One little puncture, Tania, and that’s it.”

Tania knew all this. She’d studied SUBS, as much as one could. Little had been learned before the bulk of the human brain trust perished. It bore some similarity to Alzheimer’s, a disease cured almost a century earlier. Only one detail mattered: Outside Aura’s Edge, the disease killed most people in less than four agonizing hours. Around 10 percent survived only to be left in an animalistic state, “devolved,” their primal urges and emotions amplified beyond what the sane mind could handle. Entering Darwin would not help them. The Aura did not cure SUBS; it only put the virus in stasis. Leave its relative safety, and once the inactive cells contacted active ones, they’d wake and grow again.

A microscopically small percentage was totally unaffected.

“Point being,” Neil said, “I’ve set things in motion. Today, in fact.”

“Then we’ll have it soon?”

“Patience, dear. Even if the data is out there, they have to find it, bring it to Darwin, and get it up here. All difficult tasks.”

Her mind raced. She knew of the scavenger crews in Darwin; their adventures beyond the Aura were often talked about. The romance of danger and adventure in forbidden places. Tania assumed the stories to be greatly exaggerated by the time she heard them. “Who did you hire? Someone trustworthy, I hope?”

“I have no idea.” He patted her arm. “Nothing to tie me to it, should things go awry.”

Chapter Four

Darwin, Australia


The armored truck hummed through Darwin’s old warehouse district, crushing rock and garbage alike beneath its thick, knobby tires.

“Where is everyone?”

Skyler emerged from a daydream at the sound of the voice. He’d slumped into the deep cushions of the passenger seat and let the warmth of the day and the motion of the ride lull his senses. He looked across the wide cab at Angus, and noted the tense manner in which he gripped the steering wheel. “Hiding. Watching from inside.”

Angus nodded, but his brow creased. “Why?”

The innocence in his voice made Skyler grin. Angus had lived a privileged life by Darwin standards. He’d grown up inside a sky crane, sitting beside his pilot father, flying water shipments from East Point up to Nightcliff. At age six, his dad let him take the stick for the first time, or so Angus told it. He was seventeen now, all gangly limbs and shaggy black hair, and already a better pilot than Skyler.

If only he had some street smarts, Skyler thought. “A working vehicle, this far from the Elevator, means nothing but trouble to these people.”

Angus eased back into his seat. “Right. Makes sense.”

They drove past a lone bicyclist, wearing a scarf across his face and an AK-47 on his back. Saddlebags were strapped to a frame over the wobbly back tire. A courier.

“Don’t fool yourself,” Skyler added. “Once they realize we’re not from Nightcliff, they’ll try to take it.”

A white lie, but he wanted Angus alert. In truth, the locals had no use for such a large and complicated machine. They couldn’t maintain it, much less charge the capacitors. And even if it were stolen, Skyler knew there were twenty more just like it waiting, never used, at a supply depot in Russia. The same place he and Skadz found this one, three years ago.

No, the bicyclist, disappearing in the rearview mirror, had much more reason to worry. A bike meant all sorts of opportunity.

Skyler turned to face the window, watching with vague interest as a light drizzle rearranged the dirt on it.

Looking up, beyond the rooftops, he could see the cord of the Elevator. Morning sunlight glinted off the thin thread. It looked like a strand of spider silk, stretching to infinity. After all these years the sight still filled him with awe.

Lifeline to Earth, they say. Yet everything of value goes up.

He strained his neck to look higher, tracing the line until it faded into the sky.

“Any climbers?” Angus asked.

“Not a damn one,” Skyler said. He frowned. Ten hours ago, Skyler had stood on the roof of his hangar and watched with growing concern as the stuck climbers began to move again. Instead of continuing their journey up to Gateway Station, the vehicles had come down. Since then, nothing. The cord, for the first time Skyler could remember, was vacant.

If the situation went on much longer, he feared, a full-fledged revolution would ensue. As nasty as Blackfield was, Skyler didn’t like the alternatives. Ambitious crime lords, or even zealous Jacobites, would try to fill that void.

The truck slowed. Skyler turned his attention forward and saw a shanty building that had collapsed into the road. Laborers young and old, of varying ethnicity, scrambled over the rubble, picking it clean of useful items. Bits of copper pipe, electrical wiring, insulation. They worked under the watch of two Asian men armed with machetes, enforcers for whatever local gang claimed this stretch of road. They shared a cigarette between them, and one swatted a resting worker, using the flat of his blade to urge the sullen youngster back to his task.

The laborers would be paid with a meal, perhaps two. A hell of a way to put food on the table, Skyler thought. The city teemed with such unskilled workers. Those who’d fled to Darwin as the disease raged across the planet, with nothing but the clothes they wore and no goal other than survival. Few had the skills humanity needed, and they found little opportunity to better themselves. To learn a trade here meant moving up into a wholly different caste. The ability to stitch a wound or a sweater, fix a bike, cultivate a seed—such knowledge made all the difference.

Several lean-tos, made from bits of tarp and plastic trash bags, clustered around the base of the debris pile. A Middle Eastern family huddled within one, wrapped in threadbare silk scarves and thin blankets. One child among them was racked with a violent cough.

“Go around,” Skyler said. Though he was immune to the disease beyond the city limit, earthly ailments were another matter. “Not too slow.”

Angus complied, jerking the vehicle hard to the right and accelerating. He squeezed the truck between the rubble and a concrete wall across the street, a scant few centimeters separating them from the hard surface.

“Nice piece of driving,” Skyler said.

At the next corner, a small crowd gathered around a man clad in improvised white robes. A Jacobite preacher. He stood atop a wooden box, his face contorted as he spewed a sermon. A woman paced back and forth in front of him. She hoisted a tattered flag, blood-red with their emblem hand-painted in white: the Christian cross, with a ladder forming the vertical part.

Skyler had no stomach for the sect, who believed the space elevator to be Jacob’s Ladder. They preyed on the bored and desperate rabble of Darwin’s outer districts and in Skyler’s view were little more than a criminal gang. Worse than that, a criminal gang with devout followers.

“Give this freak a wide berth, Angus,” Skyler said.

“Gladly,” he replied.

Skyler scanned the crowd and the buildings all around them. Jacobites usually traveled in groups, often armed.

The sermon halted at the approach of the vehicle. As the truck rolled by, the preacher stared at Skyler with an unflinching gaze full of simmering hatred.

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