Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(6)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(6)
Author: Jason M. Hough

“Can that ship of yours reach the island without a drop from the Elevator?” Prumble finally asked.

Mentally Skyler calculated the electricity burn. The ship’s ultracapacitors could handle it, but it would take a few days to spool them unless he paid Woon for a feed. The subtext concerned him more: a long-range mission without using the Elevator meant working off Nightcliff’s radar. Given the inspection yesterday, Skyler wondered how easy that would be. “Depends,” he said at last.

“Good answer. Read this.”

Skyler took the plastic sheet and scanned it. “Toenail clippers? It’s amazing how these pricks live.”

Prumble removed a bottle from his desk drawer, along with two glasses. “The interesting bit is on the last page. Care for a drink?”

Skyler nodded. He scanned the entire list:

Titanium-oxide powder—4,200/gram

Seeds (citrus), any type/quantity—100 per seed

Gauze and bandages—negotiable

Zigg ultracapacitors, all sizes—6,000 per

Cartridge filter pack for Aqua-Solve M7 membrane array—17,500

The list went on, for two pages, covering all manner of desired goods. Vitamins, electronic components, chemicals, and so on. A typical list, in Skyler’s judgment. Then he came to the last page:

Prumble,

An anonymous client wishes the following item to be recovered:

- NEO Telemetry Logs (cubeSTOR preferred), Torafuku Observatory, Toyama, Japan. Full set marked 93093xxxxx or 97259xxxxx.—200,000 per set (pending verification)

The amount is not a mistake. Knowledge of this request will be denied by myself and my client should it be confiscated.

If this item is not delivered to me at Clarke’s on 16 January, I will contact other suppliers.

Skyler whistled, took the offered glass, and threw the drink back in one gulp.

“That last was encrypted.”

Skyler felt the alcohol warm his throat and let the sensation fade before talking. “Not fooling around.”

“And time critical,” said Prumble. “Three days, or he shops it elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere meaning Grillo.” Skyler uttered the name of Prumble’s chief competitor like a curse. Grillo ran a crime syndicate that all but ruled Darwin’s eastern slums. He also owned a handful of unscrupulous scavenger crews, using the old football stadium as an air base.

“Grillo, naturally.” He handed Skyler a pencil and a sheet of yellow paper torn from his ledger. “Write it all down.”

While Skyler copied the list, Prumble sipped his own drink.

“It’s risky,” Skyler said. “There might be nothing out there. But the payment …”

Prumble nodded. “Risk and reward.”

“What are these numbers?”

“No idea,” Prumble said. “You know these scientists. They speak their own language.”

“No kidding. And ‘NEO’?”

Prumble shrugged. “The verification bit concerns me. You may retrieve the item, only to have it declined.”

“Still, two hundred thousand in stamped council notes. If this pays off, it more than makes up for the last two outings.”

“Four outings.”

“Well don’t rub it in, damn you.”

Prumble went back to the map on the wall. “And if it doesn’t pay out, certainly your costs will be covered by some of the other items. If you can find them,” Prumble said. “Japan is still fairly ripe. Not many subs, either.”

“Except Tokyo. I’m not going anywhere near that dump again.”

“Fair enough,” said Prumble. He traced a finger over the city of Toyama. “This is hundreds of kilometers from there. Rural. Are we in business?”

“Can you front me the spooling cost? I can’t charge the Mel’s caps fast enough, not without Woon’s reactor coupling.”

Prumble sucked a breath through clenched teeth. “Skadz never asked for that.”

“He had a mind for these things.”

“Had. Past tense,” said Prumble. An uncomfortable silence followed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have brought him up. Sure, I’ll float you. An advance against the goods in your truck.”

“Then we’re in business. First thing tomorrow if Nightcliff will clear us.”

Prumble removed a stack of bills from his desk and passed them over. “This cover it?”

After a rough mental estimate, Skyler nodded. He stood and stuffed the money inside his jacket.

“You can let yourself out,” the fat man said. “Be sure to tell your driver about my well-armed guards.”

Chapter Five

Darwin, Australia

13.JAN.2283

A few dozen swagmen loitered near the old airport gate.

They waved with desperation at the sight of Skyler’s vehicle and shouted for attention, bare feet splashing in the muddy road. A handful of mercenaries kept them at bay, pushing the ragged bunch back with ease.

Skyler did his best to ignore the sorry lot. They would wait there, day and night, ready to petition any crew heading out of the city. Most often they wanted medicine, offering in exchange their food, or labor. A sister or daughter, in those rarest acts of desperation. Sometimes they would write their requests on scraps of paper and push them through the chain-link fence. A thousand such scraps littered the ground just beyond the barricade; a mulch of ignored hopes. A waste of paper.

He felt sorry for them. They had no other options. Scavengers represented the only way to acquire something from beyond the Aura. Yet he knew their requests were low paying, and often impossible to retrieve. Items rendered useless by time or the elements. Preservall could only do so much. Skyler used to try to explain this, or tried to direct them to Prumble, but he’d given up long ago. Let the short-range crews handle it, assuming any needed work that badly.

Beggars harried the group of petitioners in turn, hands out with palms turned upward, dressed in soiled rags and makeshift sandals.

Part of the crowd, away from the gate, stood in a circle facing inward. A body lay in the mud at their feet. Skyler squinted, catching glimpses between muddy legs. A child, a girl, he guessed, lay dead. Her eyes were still open.

He sucked in his breath when he saw the telltale rash of a subhuman on her neck.

A commotion erupted near the corpse. The crowd pushed an older man back and forth, shouting at him. He screamed back, na**d terror on his face.

“Slow up,” Skyler said.

Angus eased off the accelerator as they reached the mercenaries guarding the entrance.

Skyler rolled his window down and waved to one of the men. “What happened?”

The man turned his head and spat. “Crazy sheila was full-blown subby. Ran out from the shanties and started clawing at one of the swags. They beat her till she dropped, Sky. Can’t blame ’em.”

Skyler nodded. Desperate beggars were known to push children out beyond the Aura, long enough to develop symptoms. They would let it develop until the rash became visible, enough to mark them, and thus make them useful as a sympathy tool. They would pull the poor kid back in, and the Aura would keep the disease in stasis, indefinitely. No worse, no better, for the rest of their pitiful life. Scrubs, they were called. “A scrub, huh? Looks like she was left out a bit too long.”

“Her pa there swears she’s never been outside,” the mercenary replied. “A lie like that is going to get him killed, too.”

Skyler could only shake his head. Such a ridiculous claim meant the father was either incredibly stupid …

Or he actually believes what he says, Skyler thought. Insane, more than likely. “Drive on, Angus.”

The rain had stopped, giving way to a clear sky and oppressive sun. Heat shimmered off the cracked asphalt at the far end of the airport. Lightning rippled through dark clouds far to the east.

Angus steered the vehicle through the gate and then along a dirt path that paralleled the old runway. The kilometer-long tarmac, once needed for aircraft to take off and land, now served as a foundation for an array of hastily constructed hangars, barracks, and warehouses.

Through the windshield, Skyler watched a fifty-year-old crate hauler descending. Thrusters wailed as the aircraft angled for a landing.

Angus saw it, too. “Whose is that?”

Skyler studied the markings on the side. “One of Kantro’s old birds.”

“What do you think they’re hauling?” the young man asked.

“Soil. That old girl doesn’t have much range, so Kantro does the Bathurst run most of the time.” The island, some twenty kilometers off Australia’s northern shore, was a safe bet for work beyond Aura’s Edge. Isolated and cleared of subhumans long ago. The land had been stripped clean as a result. “Miserable work,” Skyler added.

The truck jostled over the uneven ground, mud sloshing from beneath the tires. Skyler noted a patrol walking along the high fence that lined the airfield. Volunteers from the crews that made home on the old runway. The sight reminded him to check the duty roster, written on a chalkboard hanging in Woon’s tavern, and find out when he should next make the circuit.

Angus pulled the truck off the dirt road and onto the flat asphalt runway, a welcome end to the bumpy portion of the ride. He drove down a narrow alley, created by a gap between a pair of concrete buildings, before emerging into sunlight.

The center of the old runway buzzed with activity. Crews swarmed over their aircraft, unloading cargo or preparing for takeoff. Many more sat idle, waiting for repairs, spare parts, or simply a mission worth flying.

Angus weaved between a dump truck and an ancient sky crane. The enormous aircraft could pick up and move an entire shipping container, and lift an massive amount of weight. Too bad her range is so limited, Skyler thought.

They rolled to a stop in front of a weather-beaten old hangar. Angus laid on the horn, four times.

Huge doors creaked and rolled back. The Melville loomed in the center of the room. Her name was written on the side in small, simple white letters, just like the first time Skyler had seen her, when she was sitting forgotten on a landing pad in the Netherlands. An old, scarred aircraft painted in olive green. Four massive engines dangled from wings that sagged under the weight, a design that allowed for ample access to the craft’s belly. Originally built to carry a small attack force to the far corners of the planet, with gear and one vehicle, the cargo bay provided Skyler and his crew modest room for scavenged goods. What she lacked in space she more than made up for in range.

Ceramic tiles covered the underside, a feature that allowed atmosphere reentry. The squares were charred from frequent use. No one alive knew how to repair the heat shield, as far as he knew, and as soon as even one block showed a crack Skyler would have to retire the bird.

Angus parked to the left of the aircraft and powered off the truck’s engine. The electric motors whined to a halt.

“Don’t get comfortable,” said Skyler, “I need you to round up Jake and Takai.”

Angus frowned. “Where are they?”

Skyler jumped down from the passenger seat. “Jake’s probably drinking down at Woon’s. Takai, well, look for repair work on the strip, and he’s probably helping.”

“Got it.” Angus wiggled out of the driver’s seat and dropped to the concrete floor of the hangar.

“Oh, Angus. Ask Takai if he’ll jump with us. We need a translator.”

“You want me to ask him that?”

Skyler shrugged. “Soften him up at least. Make things easier for me. Take off is oh-three-hundred.”

“So much for sleep.”

“I can start flight prep. That’ll help a bit.”

“Sure thing, Captain.” Angus snatched his jacket from a hook on the hangar wall and started off down the runway toward the communal kitchen and improvised tavern at Woon’s hangar.

Skyler stifled a yawn as he watched him go. He pondered getting some sleep, weighed against all the preparation to do. Check the parachutes, load the weapons, prep the Melville … and, of course, brief the crew.

He decided the parachutes could be done during the flight, and shuffled across the hangar floor to a ladder. He climbed up to a catwalk that ran the entire circumference of the cavernous building. A rough mission plan began to form in his mind as he headed toward the far wall.

Samantha waited for him outside her room, at the midpoint of the catwalk. “Where’s Angus going?”

“Nice to see you, too, Sam. He went to get the others. We’ve got work.”

She folded her arms over her chest and leaned against the metal railing, blocking his path. “You and Prumble cook up another treasure hunt?”

“Believe it or not, that walking raincoat last night had a genuine lead.”

“And he gave this lead to Prumble? And Prumble gave it to you?”

“That’s right.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It’s pointless, anyway. The climbers are stuck.”

“They’ll get fixed.”

“You hope. What if they don’t, Skyler? People are saying the Elevator just gave up the ghost. Quit working.”

He understood then the source of her anxiety. The situation had everyone contemplating the worst. Thinking the one thought no one wanted to say aloud.

So Skyler said it. “If that’s true then it’s over. End of the world.” Her nostrils flared and Skyler raised a hand to calm her. “Which is why they’ll get fixed. It will get resolved because it must.”

Her eyes danced left and right as she pulled meaning from the words.

Skyler managed a thin smile and pulled from his pocket the wad of cash Prumble had fronted him. “This one has potential,” he said, “so relax, back off, and go see if Woon will let us spool the ultracaps from his primary line.”

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