Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(8)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(8)
Author: Jason M. Hough

Neil flipped on the lamp attached to his hat. The corridor filled with blue-white light, and he could see his breath on the chill air. To warm the station, or begin its rotation to generate artificial gravity, would signify readiness and draw unwanted attention. Those comforts would have to wait. He zipped his coat closed, all the way to his chin, and began to drift toward the central hub.

Shadows danced as the beam from his light swept across the cluttered hall. Crates and boxes of every shape, size, and color lined the walls, lashed in place with mesh netting and elastic cord. He let his fingers brush across the containers as he floated along, pleased with the progress in stocking the facility.

Enough supplies for five hundred people to survive six months, his goal. Plus the gear needed to operate a private security force.

All because of Tania and her theory. A theory he’d spent years cultivating in her. Subtle hints and suggestions, dropped casually. The idea had to be hers, and she’d finally come to it.

The whole business was a gamble. An epic gamble. Neil knew this. He’d accepted it and moved on, driven not by her innocent speculation, but by the possibilities of what came next. His imagination fueled the rest.

He stopped once, at the door of a crewman who’d begged out of the card game due to an upset stomach. The poor bastard had floated from the common room with both hands clutched around his waist. Neil found the door to be locked. “Okay in there?”

No response came, only the muffled sound of retching.

Poor sod. Satisfied the man would remain in his room, Neil continued his drift along the main corridor.

On reaching the airlock, he opened the circular door and coughed three times, loudly. He swept his gaze, and his lamp, along the direction he’d come, and saw nothing. The sounds of inebriated men at cards had faded to silence. Neil heard nothing but the ever-present hum of air processors.

Kelly Adelaide emerged from the airlock door like a specter.

“I was worried you forgot about me,” she said with mirth.

Neil offered his arm to halt her momentum. The tiny woman, dressed in a skintight black outfit, declined his help. She floated to the far wall of the corridor, flipping in air to land feetfirst. Her fluid movements spoke of decades spent in orbit.

With one hand she steadied herself. “Dark, no spin. I give up. Where are we?” she asked.

“This is Hab-Eight,” Neil said. He handed her a small flashlight.

The woman turned it on, glanced around. “I didn’t realize you’d pressurized it.”

“If anyone asks,” Neil replied, “I haven’t.”

“Who else knows?”

“A skeleton crew. My brother, Zane, though he doesn’t know why I’m stalling. And I told one of my scientists, Tania Sharma, that it is ‘close’ to completion.”

She cracked a wicked grin. He knew she would. The woman, now in her early fifties, had led a checkered life. A daughter of missionaries, her childhood a checklist of every third-world hellhole on the map. She’d learned to be resourceful, to survive. At eighteen she joined the Army Engineering Corps before shifting to Special Forces. After that, a brief stint as a contract assassin, which brought her to Neil. She’d been paid to kill him.

She would have succeeded, he knew that, but SUBS broke out and the world changed. All contracts null and void. Instead of completing her mission, she asked Neil for a job—a life in orbit. His bodyguard, or spy. Whatever he required.

His gut said to take her on, and so he had. He’d learned early in life to trust such instincts.

For the last year she’d spent most of her time sneaking around Gateway, providing Neil with regular reports on everything that went on there. She knew the maintenance tunnels better than the workers who used them, and even played little pranks on them out of sheer boredom. Turning the odd dial, disconnecting random pipes. The people on Gateway spoke of a ghost, and Kelly swelled with pride when she first heard the nickname.

Once a week Neil arranged to have her come up to Platz Station, where she trained select members of his staff in self-defense and basic tactics. For recreational reasons, as the story went. “I should have brought you here much sooner,” he said.

Kelly studied the boxes lining the wall behind her. “You’ve been busy.”

“I have at that.”

“Show me.”

He led her to the second level, and let the station speak for itself. Room after room filled not with furniture but supplies.

Steel canisters of compressed air, stacked in neat rows, filled one section.

“Level three is all food,” he said. “Four is water, though we’re behind on that front.”

Kelly kept silent as they drifted along. Finally she said, “It’s like a bomb shelter.”

“Astute observation,” he said.

“How long have you been hoarding this stuff?”

Neil almost told his rehearsed lie, the one he’d told Tania. Such deception, however innocent, would not work with Kelly. “Almost two years.”

“Clearly you know something I don’t. What’s going on?”

I’ll know soon enough, he thought. “Call it a hunch. Change is in the air.”

The woman laughed softly. “Why show me now?”

“Because of room seventeen,” he said. When she raised an eyebrow, he laughed, too. “This way.”

A special lock adorned the door to room seventeen. “Eight seven four four,” he said aloud as he tapped the code. “Don’t forget.”

With a thud the lock disengaged. Neil pushed the door open and waved Kelly inside.

She gasped at the sight within. The large room, intended for recreation according to the station plan, instead served as an armory. Stacks of hard-shell cases in army green or police black, lethal contents packed within. Many months of secret purchases and smuggled shipments led to the cache.

Kelly moved inside with some trepidation. She drifted to the nearest box and threw back the catches. “Sonton 90. Holo sight, mil-spec. Excellent handgun,” she said.

“So I’m told.”

She ran her hand over the row of identical black pistols. “I get it now.”

Neil waited.

“You don’t know what half this stuff is, do you?”

“I’m not even sure any of it works,” he said. “I’m going to be asking more from you, Kelly, in the months ahead. For starters, I need to know who in your self-defense classes is showing the most promise. I’m also going to give you a list of my staff who have had military experience.”

She stifled a response when Neil held up his hand.

“Prep them,” he went on. “And send the most promising ones here, to train and plan.”

“Plan for what?”

Neil grimaced. “I don’t know, yet. I’d tell you if I did.”

“Horseshit,” she said. “I know you, Neil. You wouldn’t do all this without a goal in mind.”

Every possible future Neil could imagine, at least those with a happy ending, required people like Kelly to be at his side. And he trusted her, more than anyone perhaps. He’d waited long enough to let someone in.

“Here it is, then,” he said. “The Builders are coming back. The next phase in their plan.”

“When?” she asked without hesitation.

“I can’t tell you that, yet—”

“Wait,” she said. “What do you mean, plan?”

He spread his hands. “A figure of speech,” he said. Slip of the tongue, more like. “All I know is they seem to be on some kind of accelerating cycle, and it’s about to come around again. Tania Sharma is working on the details.”

Kelly glanced around at the crates of weapons. “And you plan to fight them? With a handful of crusty, out-of-shape infantry?”

“I don’t mean to fight anyone,” Neil said. “My plan is for this station to serve as a lifeboat, in case we need to clear out for a while. Don’t look at me like that. We don’t know what they intend to do this time, and I won’t let the people I love perish up here if the bastards mean to finish us off. Call it hiding, call it cowardice, I don’t care.”

She searched his eyes, her face as stiff as a cold breeze.

“I want people who can fight,” Neil added, “in case we have to battle our way here. In case we have to fend off a rush of desperate stowaways.”

“Okay, okay,” she said. “I get the idea. Turn my students into fighters. Is that it?”

“No,” Neil said. “First I need you to help me figure out what we have here. And what we’re missing.”

The beam of her flashlight swept the room. Boxes, containers, and canvas bags were lashed together in rough aisles. They stretched from floor to ceiling.

“I’d better have a look around, then,” she said.

“Thank you, Kelly. By all means.”

She pushed off toward the ceiling and tumbled around to land with her feet. With deft, precise movement she propelled herself toward the far corner of the room, then quickly vanished behind the tightly packed goods, out of Neil’s view.

He settled in by the door, and wondered if he’d gone overboard in this endeavor. He could hear Tania, and her oft-repeated caveat: It’s just a theory. She would uncover the truth on her own soon enough, and then Neil could feign his surprise and act on the news openly. Besides, Tania could figure out the specifics, the piece of the puzzle Neil so desperately needed. The devil, as always, hid in the details.

“Thought I’d find you here, fuhkerrrrrr!”

Neil jumped at the slurred, raspy voice.

One of the crew floated in the doorway. The sick one, the one who’d left the game with a stomach problem. His face had an odd red pall. “Mysterious room … seventeen—”

“—is off-limits,” Neil said. “You should be in your quarters.”

The crewman ignored the order. Instead he doubled over and gripped his head in front of the ears, as if trying to tear away some invisible pair of goggles. For a second he drifted free, utterly consumed by pain, his face contorted in anguish.

“Bloody hell, man,” Neil said. “What’s the matter with you?”

The tortured look vanished as quickly as it had arisen. He pushed his way into the room with a queer violence, shouldering Neil out of the way. “Been wondering what secrets you’re hiding in here,” he slurred. “What the point of this bloody station is.”

Before Neil could object, the man collided with the crate of Sonton handguns. The lid came loose and floated open.

“Stay away from that,” Neil said. The words sounded ridiculous, weak.

“The hell?” the man said. He picked up a pistol and studied it, alcohol-fueled confusion plain on his face. “Guns? What … what the f**k, Platz?”

Be calm, Neil urged himself. Think. He shot a glance in the direction Kelly had gone, and found no sign of her.

The man turned. The gun waved casually in one hand. His other hand had gone back to his temple. His fingers probed for relief before drifting lower, scratching along the neck.

Neil noticed the rash.

He froze, unable to believe what he saw right in front of him. It was, frankly, impossible.

The man had SUBS. Of this Neil had no doubt, and it made no sense whatsoever. The crewmen had been stationed here for weeks, no way to have traveled beyond the Aura.

The gun nearly slipped from the man’s hand. He caught it and tightened his grip, all the while waving it about like a toy.

Neil had no idea if the weapon was loaded. “Put it back, friend. You’re ill, you need help.”

“Friend?” The man scratched his cheek and neck with the butt of the weapon, so hard that Neil thought he might draw blood. “You’re my bloody boss, not my friend. What’s all this for, Platz?”

“None of your concern.”

“Bullocks!” the man shouted, enraged now. The disease would amplify his emotions. It would grow worse by the minute until it consumed him.

Something had to be done, and soon.

“Bullocks,” the crewman repeated, a darker tone now. He blinked, stuttered. “Something’s going on here. I should tell someone. The Council … yeah.”

Neil steadied himself. “We need to take you to quarantine. You’re talking nonsense.”

The crewman shook his head, an attempt to focus. His breathing became a husky growl, an animal sound. “I slept … all my time. Clear now, and watered.”

A shadow, along the ceiling, caught Neil’s eye. No, a ghost. Kelly. She’d turned off her light.

“What did you say?” Neil asked. “You make no sense.”

With a heaving cough, the crewman leveled the weapon toward Neil. A shaky aim, but dangerous enough. His mouth twisted into a raw snarl. “‘Hell with you. Help me, f**ker. Up on your beanstalk …”

Kelly descended from the ceiling in perfect silence, a spider on an invisible web. She landed right behind the babbling man and looked to Neil for his approval to take action.

In the span of a few minutes the disease had almost taken over the man’s mind. He’d likely be dead soon, anyway.

Neil nodded to her.

In a single motion she knocked the gun from the crewman’s hand and brought her arm around his neck. At the same time she pushed off from the wall.

The pair sprawled into the air, a tumbling mass of limbs. With no purchase, the man—the subhuman—could not gain an advantage. Kelly held her arm tight across the creature’s neck.

Neil could only watch, numb with disbelief at the scene before him. A full minute passed before she let go.

The crewman slumped, dead. The limp body drifted into a corner and settled there.

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