Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(5)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(5)
Author: Jason M. Hough

He must think we’re from Nightcliff, Skyler thought. And if he has friends around …

“Quickly now, Angus.”

The kid steered back into the center of the road and pushed the accelerator. The electric motors whined from the surge of power, and Skyler felt himself pressed into his seat as they picked up speed.

Through the side mirror, Skyler watched the preacher and his crowd fade from view.

After a few blocks, he told Angus to ease up. The streets were clear here, and safe, in relative terms. One of the rare neighborhoods that banded together for the collective good. Such places were easy to spot from above, with gardens flourishing on every roof. Maintaining a grove of papaya or banana trees wasn’t easy with thieves or jealous vandals next door.

He wondered, not for the first time, how much food Darwin would really need from orbit if the populace would stop living like prisoners in a gulag.

Crumbling warehouses passed by, each one a relic of Darwin’s boom years after the Elevator arrived. Skyler tallied the faded logos of aerospace companies and construction firms.

More than a few bore the Platz Industries name. On one, a likeness of Neil Platz had been painted to resemble Stalin. Skyler smirked at that; the drawing was rather good.

“Turn in here,” he said, pointing at a nondescript parking garage.

Angus swerved the vehicle into the open maw of the multilevel structure. Darkness swallowed them. Inside he stepped hard on the brakes, just centimeters from an interior iron gate. “What now?”

“Just wait,” Skyler said.

A thick exterior barricade rolled closed behind them, sandwiching the vehicle. Angus began to drum his fingers on the steering wheel.

With a loud creak, the gate in front lurched and rotated out of the way.

“Take the downward path,” Skyler said. “Nice and easy.”

The vehicle spiraled down a decrepit concrete ramp, descending three levels before reaching the bottom. They rolled to a stop in front of a rusty chain-link fence, illuminated only by the truck’s headlights.

“Engine off please,” Skyler said. “Lights, too.”

Devoid of enthusiasm, Angus complied. The whine of electricity from the motors faded to a stop, leaving them in a silence broken occasionally by dripping water. The only light came from the gauge cluster on the dash.

“Thought there’d be guards,” Angus said.

“Who said there aren’t?” Skyler removed his pistol from its shoulder holster and placed the weapon deliberately on the dash in front of his seat. He turned to his right, nodding calmly at Angus. “Shouldn’t take long,” he said. “Keep your wits about you, eh?”

Angus kept his eyes forward, studying the layout of the room. “You’re going in there alone? Unarmed?”

Skyler nodded and pushed open the passenger door. “Relax. Prumble and I go way back.”

His worn combat boots thumped against the floor as he dropped from the vehicle. Without another word, he slammed the door shut.

Two floodlights mounted high on the walls blinked on, filling the space with a sodium-yellow pall. They hummed like swarms of insects, electricity stressing the antique wiring. Skyler kept his head down, letting his baseball cap shield his eyes from the jarring brightness.

He approached the fence with his arms spread wide, palms open. A narrow gate in the center unlocked with a dull click, and Skyler pushed through it. On the opposite side, he waited. The sodium spotlights clicked off, plunging the area into darkness again.

He heard the slightest scrape of metal and saw a tiny yellow dot on the wall in front of him as a peephole opened.

“What’s your business here?” came a voice.

Skyler fought the urge to laugh. Prumble’s theatrics grew with each visit. “I’m expected. Skyler Luiken.”

“Luke Skywalker?”

“That never gets old,” Skyler growled.

“Ah, sarcasm! The lowest form of wit.”

Skyler smirked, despite himself, and shook his head. “Open the bloody door, Prumble.”

The peephole snapped shut. Skyler looked back at Angus, whose face was drawn in red by the dashboard lights. The kid gripped the steering wheel with one hand, drummed it with the other.

Nearly a minute passed before a brief commotion from beyond the door, as many locks were undone.

Finally the door opened. “Leave your weapons outside.”

Prumble was already snickering when the door slammed shut. “How’s the new guy?” he asked between laughs.

Skyler grinned. “On pins and needles, thanks to you.”

The fat man wore a constant, jovial smile. Despite the cold of the garage, beads of sweat dotted his bald head, and he dabbed them with a white handkerchief. He motioned for Skyler to follow him. “You have a keen eye for people, Skyler.”

“Speak for yourself.” Skyler gestured to the vast space he now stood in. “The vaunted private army of Mr. Prumble.”

Prumble chuckled, the sound echoing through the cavernous garage. “Must keep up appearances, you know. Come, come. I want to hear all about the mission.”

Skyler followed the man, who’d been his fence and friend since the scavenger crew’s were first given run of the old airport. Prumble required the aid of a cane and he moved at a languid pace through the former parking garage, which served as a warehouse. Random items crowded every available space, many of them procured by Skyler and his crew. They passed organized sections of electronics, weapons, preserved foodstuffs, furniture, containers, clothing … at least fifty sections, organized in a way only Prumble could understand.

“What have you brought me?” Prumble asked.

Skyler rubbed his hands together, then breathed on them. “I always forget to wear gloves when I come here.”

“You’re stalling.”

“I’m cold! Cold … and stalling.”

“Bloody hell,” Prumble said. “Not again.”

“We had it. The exact model you requested. Pristine condition, too.”

“And what? It fell out?”

“Nightcliff ordered us to land,” Skyler said. “When we saw the Elevator vacant—”

“So ignore them, damn it. They wouldn’t shoot you down.”

“Sam said the same thing.”

“You’ve a keen eye for people,” he repeated. “Listen to them once in a while.”

Crestfallen, Skyler spread his hands. “They were spooked. So were we, really. Rioters at the gate, the climbers just sitting there, dark, on the cord. I had to land.”

The big man grumbled a response. He led Skyler to a specially constructed room, retrofitted into the far corner of the underground garage. Skyler recognized the enormous steel door like an old friend. He and Skadz had pulled it off a meat locker in Perth, a decade ago, at Prumble’s request—their first mission for the man.

A keypad on the door served as the lock. “Avert your eyes,” Prumble said as he tapped the numbers. The latch released with a dull thud.

An old oak desk, well worn by time and use, dominated the room. An enormous map of Earth covered one wall, marked with hundreds of colorful thumbtacks.

Every flat surface in the office hid under piles of books and papers. Skyler noted technical manuals and medical texts chief among the stacks. Such items were favorites of Prumble. Small and highly valuable. He would spend hours cataloging them. Skyler took the chair by the door, moving aside some books about home childbirth and midwifing.

Prumble went to the map on the wall. From a box on the shelf below it, he removed a blue thumbtack. Skyler watched in silence as the big man placed the marker just north of Kuala Lumpur. Blue represented a scouted site.

“Any subhumans?” Prumble asked.

“No.”

He took a green tack and placed it next to the blue. “Anything of value still there?”

“Plenty,” Skyler said. “A few trips’ worth.”

A white tack went up.

Satisfied, Prumble lowered himself into a huge suede executive chair behind the wooden desk and dabbed his forehead again. The handkerchief vanished into his coat, replaced by a yellow pencil.

Skyler pulled his own jacket tighter and wrung his hands together to chase the cold away.

“Down to business, then,” Prumble said. His pencil hovered over a thick, leather-bound ledger. “My coveted arc welder is in Blackfield’s hands?”

“Sorry about that,” Skyler said. Part of him wanted the big man to fly into a rage at the news of another failure. Skyler tried to think of something—anything—he could say to redeem himself. Nothing came to mind.

No admonishment came. Instead, Prumble calmly jotted a note in his ledger. “At least when we scavenge for the Orbitals we can factor Nightcliff’s greedy hands into the price. They control the Elevator, and fair’s fair.”

“He doesn’t seem content with that anymore.”

Prumble grunted. “If he’s going to start rummaging through our bread and butter …”

“So he implied,” Skyler said.

The pencil hovered as Prumble digested the statement. “I suppose you did the right thing. Landing, I mean. The way Blackfield is behaving, he may well have shot you down just to send a message to the other crews. The man has become unpredictable.”

“And the climbers?” Skyler asked. “Think that’s a message, too?”

“Yes,” Prumble said, “but not to you.” His face grew sour. “This is all posturing. A power loss, even for just a fraction of a second, is disturbing, sure. But to shut all traffic down for a day? Days? No, he’s thumbing his nose at the Orbitals.”

“Why?”

“Boredom, probably.” Prumble’s pencil moved over the ledger again. “Traffic will resume. They need our air and water; we need their food. There’s no other choice. Right, then. What else did you find?”

From memory, Skyler rattled off the list.

“I can fence the rations and first-aid kits,” Prumble said. “Did you bring them?”

“It’s all in the truck.”

“What else did the bastards take, aside from the welder?”

Skyler recounted the story. In hindsight, it could have been worse. They could have taken everything, even the Melville. He shuddered at the thought. Nightcliff’s odd exclusion from the Orbital Council had left Blackfield beholden only to his own whims. And by all accounts he had whims in abundance.

“For what it’s worth, we found the old man,” Skyler said. “The one the roofers wanted closure on. He was full sub, but tell them he was already dead. Brought back a sample, a finger actually.” He gently set the sleeve on the edge of the desk.

Prumble eyed it. “That’s something. While you were gone I found a hoodwink who can test the DNA. The poor guy doesn’t get much work these days. If the sample matches you might at least break even.”

“Oh,” Skyler said, remembering the stranger. “I also have a letter for you.”

“Now you’re the postman, too?”

Skyler took the memory card from his jacket and tossed it onto Prumble’s desk. “Some bloke in Nightcliff asked me to deliver that. Weird guy. Can’t remember his name, but he knew mine.”

The big man plucked the card with two thick fingers, eyebrows arched. “Kip Osmak,” Prumble said.

“That’s him.”

Prumble stood and crossed to an old safe, the size of a refrigerator, and dialed in the combination. The thick door swung open and he began to rummage through the contents.

Skyler couldn’t help but peek over Prumble’s shoulder. Within the safe he saw an array of high-value items—primarily ammunition. A case of hand grenades. The top shelf was filled with bottles full of seeds, each meticulously labeled.

The big man finally settled on what he was looking for: a yellow envelope. He kicked the safe closed and gave the tumbler a spin before returning to his chair.

Skyler cleared his throat. “Who is this bloke?”

From the envelope, Prumble removed a second memory card and a rigid sheet of white plastic. He set the sheet on his desk and placed both cards in the upper corners. Black text began to fill the programmable “paper.”

“Kip Osmak is a weasel of a man,” Prumble said without looking up. “A well-connected weasel, as it happens.”

“Speak for yourself,” Skyler said.

Prumble ignored the jibe, his gaze dancing across the letter before him. His face lit up as he read.

“What is it?” Skyler asked.

“I may have some work for you.”

Skyler grunted. “I certainly need it. The crew will mutiny if I offer another spec mission.”

Prumble frowned. “Skadz used to run them all the time.”

“His were successful.”

The fat man’s frown grew deeper. “Don’t offer missions, Skyler. Lead them.”

Skyler had no retort for that. He studied his boots instead.

“When was the last time you pillaged in Japan?”

Skyler winced at the choice of words. “Two years, give or take. This better not be a bloody Tokyo mission. Nothing but bad news up there.”

“You have an irrational fear of urban places, my friend.”

“I disagree. It’s quite rational.”

A strange look came across the man’s face. Wistful and childlike. “How I wish I could venture out with you. Get away from this tomb. Darwin, I mean.”

Then he fell silent, his gaze on the wall map. Skyler waited. He could think of nothing to say. Prumble did not have the immunity and so would need a special environment suit to leave the city. Skyler knew of no suit large enough to fit the enormous man.

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