Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(7)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(7)
Author: Jason M. Hough

She kept her eyes on his. For a second he thought she might not obey, but then she snapped the money away.

Skyler pushed past her and continued along the catwalk.

She followed. “What about food? The storeroom—”

“Empty. I know.”

“I don’t jump hungry.”

Skyler ran a hand through his hair. “Anything growing on the roof yet?”

“Nothing ripe. But I heard some of Kantro’s crew saying that Woon is making ramen.” Her lips curled in a suppressed smile.

He threw his hands up in sarcastic fashion. “Oh the delightful irony.” Skyler had traded an entire crate of the freeze-dried noodle packets to Woon for some reactor time, a few months back. Spooling wasted on an ill-advised, fruitless mission.

They reached the door to Skyler’s room. He sighed and removed a few more bills from his pocket. “Get enough for everyone.”

She took it, turned, and headed for the ladder.

“Briefing in three hours,” he said after her, then closed his door.

Finally alone, he sat on the edge of his bed and removed his muddy boots. He studied the holes in them, pushing an index finger through one. If this job didn’t pay off, he doubted he’d be able to keep the crew going. Tossing the shoes unceremoniously in the corner, he fell back on his bunk and shut his eyes.

Sleep came quickly. He dreamt of falling through a massive engine room, bigger than Darwin itself. He crashed through the floor and continued to fall. Far below, he saw a jungle canopy. Evil lurked there, dark and pulsating, waiting for him in the black space beneath the treetops. Soon branches were slapping at his face …

He emerged from the dream to find Takai standing over him, slapping him gently on the cheek. “All right, all right,” Skyler said. “Knock it off.”

“Noodles,” Takai said, his Japanese accent thick.

Skyler rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, okay. Down in a sec.”

Takai nodded, satisfied, and marched to the door.

“Wait,” Skyler said. His engineer stopped. “Angus tell you about the jump?”

Takai nodded. His face remained impassive.

“Will you come?”

He hesitated. Skyler knew well the man’s aversion to violence, and to the perils of parachuting. Even so, he needed him.

“I get full share?” Takai asked.

“Of course.”

The engineer’s face twisted in concentration. A full share might mean nothing at all, as recent history proved. Skyler tried to think of some ancillary reward, but before the thought fully formed, Takai nodded once and walked out.

As the dream faded from Skyler’s mind, he stood and stretched. A check of his watch showed that more than four hours had passed. He cursed and pulled his boots back on. At the door he paused to look at himself in the mirror hanging there. A worried man looked back. An attempt to pat down his disheveled brown hair failed. He grimaced at the gray coming in. Thirty-two going on fifty, he thought, and flipped the mirror around so he wouldn’t have to see himself next time.

Stepping out on the catwalk, he saw his team sitting around the rear cargo door of the aircraft. Each cradled a bowl of steaming food.

“Are we spooled?” he called out.

Samantha answered through a mouthful of food. “Three-quarters, all the time he could spare.”

“Is it enough?”

She shrugged. “Depends on where the hell we’re going.”

“Japan.” Skyler heard a few groans from the group.

Angus spoke up. “I’d feel better if we could get a lift.”

“No lift. Climbers aren’t running, in case you hadn’t noticed.” He regretted the tinge of anger that crept into his voice and took a deep breath.

“Well,” Angus said, “Japan is cutting it close.”

Skyler clanged along the metal catwalk until he was right above them. “We’ll stick to lighter goods, then.”

Angus wiped his mouth on his sleeve, set his bowl down, and retreated into the craft toward the cockpit.

Shimmying down the ladder, Skyler joined the rest of the group, taking a bowl of noodles offered by Takai.

The broth nearly burned his tongue, but tasted wonderful.

Samantha broke the silence. “If you say Tokyo …”

Skyler chewed a mouthful of noodles, savoring it. “It’s out in the mountains, some kind of telescope. Bring up the map, Takai.”

The engineer wheeled over a large screen and turned it on. Skyler prized the device, found in the conference room of a mineral prospecting company in Sydney. It contained detailed satellite photos of Earth, accurate to just a few meters, updated only months before the disease rolled across the planet. He could have updated them, the Orbitals had newer pictures, but the ability to see how things stood before the post-disease chaos provided useful insight into the salvage potential at a given location.

Skyler shoveled another wad of noodles into his mouth and crossed to the map. He magnified the region of Japan where they would land.

The telescope complex was nestled into a small valley near the top of a mountain. The circular white dome sat atop a large, rectangular building. A parking lot surrounded the place, along with a few outlying structures. Trees blanketed the land beyond, in all directions.

As the crew looked it over, he wolfed down the rest of his soup and set the bowl aside. Warm food in his stomach helped ease his nerves.

Angus returned from the cockpit, flashing the thumbs-up. “Adjusted the flight plan, Captain. If we keep the throttle low, we should be all right.”

“Excellent.”

Jake rubbed his shoulder as he studied the image on the screen. “Plenty of hills to make use of,” he said. “Are we expecting subs?”

Skyler regarded the man. “It’s well outside the city.”

Samantha cut in. “What about immunes?”

Before Skyler could respond, Jake answered. “The ground looks steep, bad for farming. I doubt any immunes are living out there after all this time.”

“Let’s follow the usual precautions,” Skyler said.

“Why not wait for a lift?” Samantha asked. “The climbers will surely be fixed soon. So why not? Can’t afford it?”

“Even if I could, we need to keep this one quiet.”

Her eyebrows shot up. Excitement filled her face like a child at Christmas. “A smuggling op, then! Kick-ass. What are we looking for?”

Skyler pulled the request list from his pocket. “Some kind of research data.”

She frowned. “Boring.”

“Maybe, but the price is right. It’s a memory cube or something.”

Takai reached for the list and Skyler gave it to him.

“Or something?” Samantha asked. “Can you recognize it?”

“Takai can handle it.”

She folded her arms again and fixed a withering glare on Skyler. “So he’s jumping with us?”

“Sure. He’s done it before.” Skyler thought he did a decent job of keeping the apprehension from his voice.

“Yeah, once. I’m not babysitting.”

“Not asking you to,” Skyler said. “I’ll partner with him.”

Jake and Samantha responded in unison. “You’re jumping, too?”

“Angus handled the Nightcliff landing well, he’s ready to pilot—”

“Fucking Christ, Skyler,” Samantha said. “Takai’s second jump. Your first in … what, a year? And Angus taking lead on the stick? I missed the ‘Amateur Night’ sign when I came in.”

Skyler felt his fists clenching, and slowly released them. “That’s enough, Sam. Let’s discuss it in my room.”

She got up and came to stand in front of him, her height ever intimidating. “Let’s discuss it right here.”

Skyler stood his ground and tried to channel the voice Skadz had always used. “The truth is we’re on the ropes. It’s time we faced it. Time I faced it.” He clasped his hands and looked at each of them in turn. “This is a hell of a talented team, no question about it. Even so, we haven’t hit a winner in some time.”

Samantha snickered.

“As I see it,” he continued, ignoring her, “we have three assets. The Melville, a damn fine ship that can range half the Earth. Then there is Prumble’s faith in us. He continues to give us work. I’m not quite sure why.”

He glanced around, meeting each of their eyes. “And, of course, our strongest asset: you people. This crew. You’re all immune, and you’re all the best at what you do. Not a single other crew on this strip can claim either trait. Even Blackfield can’t match that. So if there’s a flaw in this operation, it’s me.”

Part of him hoped they would shout encouragements now, but everyone remained quiet. That hurt.

He swallowed hard. “I know things haven’t run so well since Skadz left. I know I’m not the leader he was, but I am the senior member, so I’m asking for one more chance.” He settled his gaze on the young pilot. “Angus, you’re ready to take the stick. I’m trusting you to take good care of our girl.”

He nodded once.

The kid could do it, Skyler knew. “If I’m going to lead this mission, I can’t do it circling three klicks above you. That’s why I’m jumping with the rest of you.”

“Huzzah,” Samantha said, without enthusiasm.

“The primary goal is finding the data logs in this observatory. Yes, it’s a problem that the climbers aren’t running. A huge, nasty problem. But it’ll pass, and Prumble will fence the goods like he always does.”

He stopped there, gauging their reactions. He realized he needed to offer more. “If we find what we need fast enough, and juice permitting, we’ll hit the nearest town as well. I’ve got a list of desirables, plus the usual sundries. Questions?”

Jake asked, “What happens if this mission doesn’t hit, Sky?”

Skyler tried to look his sniper in the eyes, and found he couldn’t. He blurted an answer that surprised himself as much as anyone. “I’ll step aside.”

A bleak silence filled the hangar.

“Who will take your place?” Samantha eventually asked.

“That’ll be for you all to decide.”

Everyone started talking at once.

“Hey, hey,” Skyler said over them, “at least let me fail first.”

Angus raised his hand, waited for Skyler to acknowledge him. “And if no one else wants to lead?”

Skyler shrugged. “We disband, I guess.”

The sobering thought quieted them.

Let them mull that over, Skyler told himself. As bad as things were, the alternatives might hold less appeal. The misery of daily life in Darwin. Throwing in with one of the other crews, only to be slowed down by their reliance on environment suits and compressed air. Or to follow Skadz’s example, and simply walk out into the world and leave everything behind.

“I’m asking for a last chance. Let’s get the big girl ready to fly, and head into the Clear.”

It took the others a few seconds to realize the speech had ended. One by one they stood and started the routine of preparing for a mission.

Skyler sulked back to his room, wondering why he said what he said. A final chance? he thought, cursing at himself. He had let the moment take control, and said too much. Right now they were probably all thinking of ways to botch the mission and force him out.

From a locker bolted to the wall of his room he removed his winter fatigues. Russian issue, hardly used. A soft knock at the door distracted him. “Come in.”

Samantha pushed the door open. “Nice speech. I liked the bit at the end.”

“My offer to step down?”

She shook her head. “You laying down the f**king law around here. Telling people what’s what.”

He set the thick winter jacket on his desk and turned to her. No words came.

“Pretty good speech,” she said. “Too much pu**yfooting about, but not bad.”

“Let’s just hope the mission pays off.”

“It better. For your sake.”

Before he could reply, she closed the door.

Chapter Six

Hab-8 Station

14.JAN.2283

Neil Platz left the card game a poorer man.

He’d let the skeleton crew win, but they’d all been too drunk to notice his deliberate poor play.

A lonely bunch, stuck here under secret orders, travel restricted to the short distance between Platz Station and Hab-8. A construction crew, so the story went. Neil had cultivated that lie over many months. In truth their job entailed the menial task of sorting and storing supplies.

Neil’s arrival, booze in one hand, a set of magnetic-backed playing cards in the other, had been met with smiles and gratitude. A break in the monotony and isolation. The crew set aside their work without a second thought, and poker ensued.

Hab-8, the perpetually-under-construction, long-promised new space station. Quarters for a thousand. Four recreation rooms. The chance for more Darwinians to be lifted from their squalor.

When SUBS broke out, work on the station all but stopped. Materials dried up as Darwin’s warehouses ran dry or fell to looters. Workers went idle, their minds on friends and loved ones below. But Neil pushed and pushed over the five years since, counting every rivet made or component installed as a victory, and ultimately finished the job. Hab-8 was done, and should have been handed over to the council months ago, but Neil had a different purpose in mind.

He let the door click shut. The eight-man crew and their boisterous game would go on fine without him. The gift of scotch, two precious bottles, consumed through special spigot caps, with would ensure that. Drunken men in zero-g, always a party.

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