Home > The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(9)

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle #1)(9)
Author: Jason M. Hough

A subhuman, Neil thought. In orbit. A litany of other thoughts blared in his head, but that alone drowned them. A man had contracted the disease in orbit, breathing air sterilized by the Aura—hell, inside the Aura. Something Neil never dreamed would happen, or even could happen. It was, by all rights, impossible.

It occurred to him then that this might be the next Builder event. He had assumed another vessel would arrive, like the last three times.

Two times, he corrected himself. Even a mental mix-up of the count was something he punished himself for. The Elevator and the disease, that’s what history will say. That line must be towed at all costs. What came before that was his business and his alone.

His focus swerved back toward the present, and the future. He’d been so fixated on the idea that another ship would arrive, it never occurred to him that the next event could simply be a change in the existing circumstances.

The last event, the arrival of a small vessel carrying the seed of the SUBS disease, had forced those who could do so to huddle within the Aura. Neil swallowed bitterly as his mind churned through possibilities. What if, he thought, the last five years have just been a grace period? What if they had meant for us to vacate?

A chill washed over his entire body. Goose bumps sprouted along his back and arms.

He couldn’t bring himself to look away from the corpse, bobbing in the corner, legs cocked in inhuman fashion. “Kelly,” Neil said. “My God, Kelly. How the hell did it get up here?”

Hands grasped his shoulders and shook him. Kelly’s hands—she’d come to him at some point.

“There’s nowhere safe now,” he muttered. “We misunderstood. We’re doomed …”

She slapped him across the face. “Snap out of it,” she hissed.

The sting of pain dispelled the fog in his mind. He managed to focus on her. If anyone else hit him like that, he would have sent them back to Darwin’s slums in a heartbeat.

“Misunderstood what? Were you keeping that thing here?” she asked. “Some kind of damn experiment?”

“No,” he said, incredulous. “Of course not. I have no idea how this happened.”

“It got here somehow,” she said.

“Listen to me,” Neil said. “He’s been here, Kelly. For weeks. I assigned the man. This … this can’t happen.”

She faced the floating body, as if seeing it for the first time. The anger on her face turned to dread.

I might have seen this coming, Neil thought. If only Tania’s father hadn’t blinded me. Foolish, foolish. He pushed the memory aside. Nothing but pain lay down that road.

“We should alert the other stations,” Kelly said. “Initiate a lockdown.”

“No,” Neil said. “God, no! There’d be chaos. You were in Darwin when the survivors started pouring in. You saw how people acted.”


“What if he’s the only one,” Neil said. His words silenced both of them. “A freak of nature,” he went on. “There’s people immune to the disease, right? Maybe there’s some immune to the Aura.”

“You’re clutching at straws.”

A laugh slipped from his lips. “Let’s bloody hope so, anyway, or we are well and truly damned.”

She took her time to nod. “Then we’ve got to put him out the airlock, before anyone finds out.”


“If you don’t want chaos, we can’t have the body of a subhuman found up here.”

“And then?” he asked. “The others will know something’s happened. They’ll search for him—”

She gripped his chin, forced him to see her. “Then we leave. If anyone asks, he left with us. You had other work for him.”

Her words rang true. No matter how vile the business, no other option would work.

He took the lead, moving fast, guiding Kelly and the corpse toward an airlock one level over. The lack of gravity made the task trivial. A strange thing to think about, Neil realized. Murder in zero-g. It sounded like the title of a detective story.

At the inner airlock door, he helped Kelly steady the body, and then entered the access override code. She pushed the body and let it float into the small compartment.

“Did you know him?” she asked.

“Not well,” Neil said. He swung the thick door closed and activated the lock again. “Trevor, I think.”

Override code still in place, Kelly handled the sequence of commands to open the outer airlock door. Neil couldn’t help but watch through the tiny window. In total silence, the black of space came into view. A flash of humidity as air met vacuum. The body jerked and spun, sucked along with the air into the void, slack limbs flopping in grotesque manner. The corpse gained distance with surprising speed.

“I’m too old for this,” he said.

“You and me both.”

Neil forced himself to look away from the porthole. He turned to Kelly and searched for something else to say to her. Nothing came to mind.

Kelly gripped his shoulder. “What’s done is done. Let’s get out of here.”

He grinned, despite the circumstances. Only he knew his past sins. In this he had a co-conspirator, someone to share the burden with. He could draw strength from that.

Chapter Seven

Toyama, Japan


Three thousand meters over the target, the rear cargo door of the aircraft opened and Jake jumped out.

The sun, just cresting the eastern horizon, cast the cloud tops below in a deep red.

Skyler watched until the sniper vanished into the nebulous puffs. Satisfied, he picked up a handheld microphone that hung on the wall and pressed it to his mouth. “He’s out, Angus. Slow circles, engines off.”

“Copy,” the pilot replied through a speaker on the wall. The engine noise faded a second later, until only the rush of wind could be heard. Skyler punched the large red button that controlled the ramp. Hydraulics wheezed as the thick metal door closed.

“Sixty seconds,” he said, and set to work strapping on his parachute.

Samantha leaned against the cabin wall, chewing at a fingernail. She’d put her gear on more than an hour ago. A camouflage outfit of gray and white, insulated for winter climates, black combat boots, and her favorite sawed-off shotgun strapped across her chest.

Skyler caught her attention and motioned toward Takai. Help him out, he mouthed. She rolled her eyes and began to inspect the engineer’s equipment.

“That parachute has seen better days,” Skyler said to her, noting the frayed stitching along an edge.

“The whole world has seen better days, Sky.”

Takai tried to look, but Sam held him facing forward. “Not funny,” he said.

Skyler took a closer look at the yellowed material. “Maybe we should drop on a nylon factory, fix these up.”

“Or,” Sam said, “a paratrooper base? The Brits were big into that.”

“Even better. Hell, we might find some Guinness.”

She grinned at him and he returned the smile. For a fleeting instant it felt like things used to be, when they were equals.

Jake’s voice came over the speaker. “I’m on the ground. No activity here; it’s safe to drop.”

However safe it might be, he’s whispering, Skyler noted. “Angus,” he said into the mic, “are we back over the target?”

“Thirty seconds,” he responded.

Skyler made sure his primary weapon, a small machine gun, was securely fastened to his chest. He double-checked his pistol as well, holstered on his thigh. Satisfied, he punched the red button on the inner wall and the cargo door opened once again.

Wind screamed outside. A few kilometers to the southeast, Skyler could see a pair of snowy peaks jutting up through the cloud layer.

He looked at Sam. Her blue eyes were luminous in the dark cabin. Her serious expression said she was ready.

Takai’s face said the opposite. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he fumbled with the pistol Jake had loaned him. Skyler carefully crossed to him, helped him stow the weapon properly, and grabbed him by the shoulders. “You okay?”

Takai managed a smile. “I prefer home, fixing things.”

“You’ll be fine,” Skyler said. “Stick with Sam.”

“Stick with Skyler,” Sam shouted over the wind. “That was the deal.”

Skyler hoped she’d forget that detail. “That’s what I meant. Stick with me.”

With a running start, Samantha jumped out the back of the Melville. In an instant she vanished into the clouds.

Takai stood frozen in place, staring at the puffy red-gray wall. Skyler began to worry that he would have to push the little man, but Takai closed his eyes and followed Sam’s example.

Satisfied, Skyler took the two steps to the end of the ramp and kept going, into the howling wind.

It whipped his hair and clothing with a fury. He tumbled over, facing up, and saw the Melville receding above him. Angus had already started to bank, beginning his circular holding pattern.

Skyler rolled over just in time to punch through the clouds.

Far below, Japan rushed toward him.

He steered toward Sam’s and Takai’s parachutes, both black blotches on the ground below. They had both landed well by the look of it, in a flat clearing that probably used to serve as parking for the observatory complex. Maple and pine trees covered a landscape dotted white by snow.

As he hit the ground, Skyler’s foot slipped on a patch of ice and he went down. Waist-high weeds scratched at his face as he fell to one side, black mass of his chute collapsing around him.

“I see you,” Jake said over the helmet comm. “Nice landing, Sky.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied. The chilled air of the descent had numbed his fingers, his nose. On the ground the air hung still, cold and silent.

“No movement at all,” Jake said. “I think this place is dead.”

Skyler worked frantically to untangle himself. “Roger. Keep us posted.”

Clouds kept the rising sun largely hidden, casting the surroundings in muted shades of gray and brown, broken occasionally by patches of snow.

Finished with his gear, Skyler moved through the weeds to where Sam and Takai waited. He crouched with them behind a small earthen berm dusted with fresh snow, and studied the target.

From the vantage point, the observatory looked long abandoned. The semispherical telescope dome had collapsed on one side. A fire had gutted part of the complex at some point, years ago. The blaze had charred one side of the main building and reduced one of the outlying structures to nothing more than a pile of blackened wood.

Sam pointed toward the back of the main building, which faced them. “Door’s open,” she said, rubbing her hands together for warmth.

She was right: The door hung by one hinge, half-buried in a knee-high snowdrift that had collected along the back of the building. Even from fifty meters away Skyler could make out vicious scratch marks along it, and a large chunk of the frame was missing where a lock should have been. He noted the scratches were on the inside of the door.

A feeble chain-link fence stood between the team and the structure, but it had numerous holes in it and wouldn’t need scaling. Skyler pressed a finger to his earpiece. “We’re moving up, Jake.”

“Copy. Still clean,” he replied in Skyler’s ear.

Samantha didn’t need further orders and moved in a low run toward the fence. Skyler hefted his machine gun and clicked the safety off. He motioned Takai to follow and headed for the fence in a half crouch.

When she reached the door, Samantha pressed herself against the outer wall and took one quick glance inside. Skyler moved up next to her. They kept still for a moment, letting a silence settle.

A cold wind picked up, pushing past them and generating a deep, eerie moan from within the building. Skyler shivered. Samantha flipped on the flashlight affixed to her shotgun and looked to him for the sign to proceed.

He turned his light on as well, and waited as Takai removed a smaller handheld flashlight from his belt pouch. He had to smack it against his open palm a few times before it came to life. Skyler, satisfied, nodded to Samantha.

She vaulted over the pile of dirty snow and disappeared into shadow.

Skyler moved in right behind her.

The hallway stretched from one side of the building to the other. A few meters inside he saw the remnants of a small animal. Bones and fur in a tiny pile, the faded carpet below smeared with blood. The carcass had been there for many months. Ahead, Samantha pointed to more signs of habitation. Dried feces, and the gray remnants of what might have been an apple.

“This looks old,” she said.

Skyler nodded. His stomach turned at the sight, yet part of him marveled at the animalistic instincts that survived in the subhuman brain, despite the disease. Scientists predicted the diseased would die out within months, but nearly five years later their numbers had grown, if anything. Skyler had seen the children; he’d killed them and the adults alike.

The same instincts must be latent in all humans, he realized, glad he would never have to worry about becoming such a creature.

He shook off the thought and tapped his earpiece again. “We’re inside. Hallway is clear.”

Jake acknowledged him over the radio. Takai finally crept over the snowdrift to join them.

Satisfied, Skyler tapped Sam gently on the shoulder and gestured toward the nearest doorway along the hall. She led them toward it, keeping close to the wall, her weapon aimed slightly toward the floor.

Reaching the door, she tried the handle and found it to be locked. Skyler motioned for her to keep moving. She hesitated and pointed at faded kanji on the wall.

Takai read it aloud, keeping his voice low. “I think ‘Janitor.’”

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