Authors: Nicholas Sansbury Smith
Books by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
The Orbs Series
The Extinction Cycle Series
The Hell Divers Trilogy
Hell Divers II: Ghosts
Hell Divers III: Deliverance
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
Published in 2016 by Blackstone Publishing
Book design by Kathryn Galloway English
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher,
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
First edition: 2016
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CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress
31 Mistletoe Rd.
Ashland, OR 97520
To my agent, David Fugate, who provided excellent feedback and encouragement, and the Blackstone Publishing family for believing in my story. I'm lucky to work with such a talented team.
There is no death, only a change of worlds
The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver was fifteen jumps. This was Xavier Rodriguez's ninety-sixth, and he was about to do it with a hangover.
He waited outside the doors of the launch bay in silence, head bowed, palms against the cold steel. The armed guards standing across the hallway might have thought he was praying, but he was just doing his best not to puke.
The night before a dive was always fraught with tension, which sometimes led to poor decisions on the
. Normally, Captain Ash turned a blind eye to the diver teams' debauchery; after all, she was dropping them into the apocalypse to scavenge for parts on the poisoned surface of the Old World. Rarely did all the divers come back. A bit of booze and sex the night before was practically a given.
“Good luck, X,” one of the guards said.
X sucked in a long breath, tied the red bandanna with the white arrow insignia around his head, then pushed open the double doors. The rusted metal screeched across the floor, drawing the gaze of Team Raptor's three other members. Aaron, Rodney, and Will were already suiting up near the lockers.
At the far end of the room, past the dozen plastic domes of the launch tubes, stood a few divers from Team Angel. They were easy to spot in the crowd of technicians and support staff gathered along the wall. Engineers, soldiers, thieves: divers had a wide variety of skill sets, and they would stand out like a flame in the dark even without their red jumpsuits.
He gave the room a quick scan. Team Apollo hadn't shown up this time. That was fine with X; he didn't like being watched anyway.
“Nice of you to make it, X!” Will shouted. The newest member of Raptor threw on his dented chest armor and looked X up and down as he walked over to his locker.
“You look like hell, sir,” Will said, chuckling.
“Nothing a few stims can't handle,” X replied.
He didn't need to look in a mirror to know that Will was right. X looked much older than his thirty-eight years. Crow's-feet had formed around his eyes from too much squinting, and his habitual frown had carved its way into his cheeks and forehead. At least he still had most of his teeth. But for his unusually white smile, he would have looked a good deal worse.
X stopped at his locker for another ritual. Tracing a finger over his name tag, he took a moment to remember the divers who had come before him. It was growing more difficult by the day. Some days he couldn't remember some of their faces at all. But today that was partly a product of his pounding headache.
Opening the door to his locker, he searched the top shelf for a bottle of the stimulants he had discovered on a dive a few months back. The precious tabletsâone more thing that was impossible to make on the
were worth their weight in gold.
X felt the burn of eyes on him as he swallowed the tablets. The tall, lean figure of his best friend, Aaron Everhart, filled his peripheral vision.
“Just say it,” X said.
“I thought you said you were cutting back on the 'shine.”
There was no point in lying; Aaron would see right through it.
“Haven't gotten around to it yet,” X said.
Aaron held his gaze and frowned. “You sure you're upâ”
X held up a hand, as if about to scold a rookie diver. “I'm fine, man.”
After a tense moment, X went to check on Rodney, who was pushing one dark brown foot through his black bodysuit. He glanced up, his blank, emotionless gaze seeming to look through X rather than at him. He was the third most experienced diver on the ship. The work had hardened him over the years, and sometimes X had the passing thought that Rodney
to die. One of the doctors had asked X the same question after his last health exam. But who could say? Deep down, all Hell Divers must have at least some hint of a death wish.
“Listen up, everyone,” X said. “I just came from Command. Captain Ash said the skies look good. No sign of electrical storms over the drop zone.”
“What's on the list this time?” Rodney asked.
“Nuclear fuel cells. That's it. The captain was very clear.”
“Man, what happened to searching for other shit?” Will said. “I miss the days of scavenging for real treasure.”
X glared at him. “You should be happy that today's dive is over a green zoneâless chance of radiation on the surface.”
“I guess I could get used to these green-zone dives,” Will said. “Maybe I'll live to become a legend like you someday.” He flashed a grin that evaporated under X's scowl.
Will was about as young as X had been when he joined the Hell Divers, and just about as naive.
Hard to believe that was twenty years ago.
X wasn't a legend by any stretch of the imagination, but he did have more successful jumps under his belt than any other diver in history. The only one who came close was a guy named Rick Weaver on their sister ship,
. Last X heard, Weaver was still diving.
Throwing back his head, X swallowed two more stims. He washed them down with a swig from his water bottle, grimaced, and faced Aaron.
“How's the little man doing?” he said. “I haven't seen Tin for a few weeks.”
“Michael's growing up way too fast,” Aaron said. “He just got accepted into engineering school a couple of weeks ago. They took him two years early.” X caught the trace of sadness in Aaron's sharp blue eyes, but he wasn't sure what it meant. Was it because he hadn't made an effort to see Tin lately, or because Tin had decided to become an engineer instead of a Hell Diver?
“You didn't think he would want to follow in
footsteps, did you?” X asked.
“Aw, hell no!” Aaron said. His blond eyebrows scrunched together. “Would never want this life for my boy.”
“Can't say as I blame you.”
Aaron hesitated, his lips forming a thin line. “I wasn't going to mention it, but you missed his birthday.”
” X muttered. “When did he turn nine?”
Aaron's brows scrunched again. “He's ten.”
X looked at the floor. “I'm sorry. I'll make it up to him after we get back.”
Aaron shut his locker. “I won't hold my breath.”
There was nothing else to say, really. X needed to prove himself, not make another hollow promise. He grabbed his well-worn bodysuit from his locker and slipped his legs through. The internal padding conformed to his musculature as he zipped up the front. Aaron handed him the black matte armor that shielded his vital organs. The piece felt light in his hands, but the titanium outer shell could stop a shotgun blast. The chest plate had saved him from broken bones or worse on countless dives.
Sliding the armor over his head, he sucked in his stomach and fastened the clasps on both sides. It was snug, molded to fit the body of a much younger man, long before his metabolism slowed and his bad habits caught up with him.
The titanium leg and arm guards didn't fit much better. He clipped them over old muscle covered in a layer of fat that seemed to cling on no matter how many push-ups or laps around the ship he did. After affixing the guards, he slid the helmet on. He completed the routine by inserting his battery unit into the socket on his chest plate. It flickered to life, spreading a cool blue glow over the dull black armor. The equipment was old, like just about everything else on the ship, but the pieces fit together perfectly and protected him from the hostile conditions of a dive.
“Tubes are ready!” a voice yelled from inside X's launch tube. Ty, the team's technician, climbed out, wiping grease onto his yellow jumpsuit. He chomped nervously on a calorie-infused herb stick. No matter how many of the damn things Ty ate, he stayed thin as a whippet.
X grabbed a vest stuffed with flares and shotgun shells, slung it over his shoulder, and headed for the drop tubes, scanning the porthole windows as he walked. Nothing to see but swirling dark clouds. The divers from Team Angel made room as X and his men reached their tubes. Rodney and Will hurried over, but Aaron paused, as he always did, and nodded to X. It was more powerful than any words. Despite the tension from earlier, they trusted each other with their lives.
One by one, the divers climbed into their metal cocoons.
Even after all these years, X still felt the lump of fear as Ty closed the plastic dome over the top. It took a few moments of squirming before he settled into a comfortable position. His mind quickened, and the hangover fog began to clearâthe stim tablets were finally kicking in.
X breathed out and tapped the minicomputer on his right forearm. Behind the cracked glass surface, the control panel flickered. He punched the button activating the Heads-Up Display (HUD). A green translucent subscreen emerged in the upper right corner of his visor, and digital telemetry scrolled across it.
He flicked the monitor on his forearm a second time. Another translucent subscreen emerged above the data on his HUD and solidified into a rectangular map. Four blips emerged, one for each member of Team Raptor.
X chinned the comm pad in his helmet to open a line to his team. “Raptor, systems check.”
“Ready, sir,” Rodney replied.
“Everything's looking good,” Will said. A second's pause, then, “Ready to dive.”
The faint quiver X heard in Will's voice didn't surprise him. This was the kid's fifteenth jump, and according to the numbers it should be his last.
X thought. If the numbers told the whole truth, he himself would have been dead eighty jumps ago.
“Systems look good, X,” Aaron said. “See you on the surface.”
” X replied, putting emphasis on the second word.
A new voice crackled in his helmet. “You're mission clear, X.” Captain Ash's voice, clinical and characteristically smooth.
“Roger that,” he replied. “We dive so humanity survives.” It was the Hell Diver motto, and his typical responseâa reply that reassured the captain she could count on him.
slowed to a halt, X flipped up his mirrored visor and pressed the thin polymer mouth guard against his upper teeth. The ship was now at hovering altitude, but he waited for Ty to confirm what he already knew.
“We're in position,” Ty said a moment later. “I'll launch the supply crate to the surface in a few seconds.”
X flashed a thumbs-up, and Ty locked the plastic dome over the top of the cylinder. He patted the translucent ceiling, removed the herb stick, and mouthed,
A siren wailed in the launch bay. The first warning.
X felt the familiar tingle of anticipation building. It was a messy, addictive combination of fear and exhilarationâthe feeling that pushed him to jump again and again. Although he would never admit it to a soul, X lived for this rush.
Every drop was risky, often in its own new way. You couldn't jump twenty thousand feet from an airship, plummet through electrical storms, and land on a hostile surface without risk. And this wasn't a normal salvage mission. The fuel cells Ash had ordered them to recover weren't easy to come by. Only a few known locations on the continent remained where they could find the nuclear gold. Without the cells, the
wouldn't be able to stay aloft. If they failedÂ â¦
X clamped down on his mouth guard at the thought. He wouldn't fail. He never failed.
The seconds ticked down on his mission clock. His senses were on full alert now. He could smell the worn plastic of the helmet, feel his hammering heart and the rush of blood pulsing in his ears, and see the soft blue glow from the interior LEDs of his helmet.
A second siren screamed right on time, and the emergency light bathed his pod in red. The sound of creaking metal, then a loud pop as Ty launched the supply crate from another tube.
One minute to drop.
X skimmed the data on his HUD a final time. All systems clear. Rodney's, Will's, and Aaron's dots were all blinking, their beacons active. They were good to go. The final minute ticked down in X's mind. He squeezed his knuckles together until they cracked.
Thirty seconds to drop.
The sirens faded to a faint echo, and the red glow shifted to blueâthe last calm moments before the tempest. The clouds seemed momentarily lighter beneath his feet, but that had to be an illusion. Command had said no electrical storms in the drop zone.
The voice of Captain Ash, dispassionate yet soothing somehow, crackled in his helmet. “Good luck, Raptor.”
Five seconds to drop.
A shiver ran up X's spine when he saw the unmistakable bloom of lightning across the clouds below. The distant flash waned and died, leaving only traces of fuzzy light.
Bumping his comm, X screamed, “Delay launch! I repeatÂ â¦”
He reached up to pound on the dome just as the glass floor whispered open. His gloved fingertips raked the metal surface of the tube as he fell, his voice lost in the shriek of the wind.
For a moment, he felt weightless, as if he were nothing but pure consciousness. Then the wind took him, sucking him into the black void. Anger boiled up. How could ops have missed the storm? A faulty sensor? A negligent officer too busy playing grab-ass with some cute trainee? He didn't know, and none of that mattered anyway right now. He had to focus on the dive and getting his team to the surface alive.
X surrendered to the forces lashing his suit and flinging him earthward. Stretching his arms and legs out, he broke into a stable free-fall position. The smooth, beetlelike shell of the
floated overhead, the turbofans flitting like insect wings. Far above the ship, deep in the meat of the clouds, he glimpsed something he hadn't seen in a long time: a plank of golden light. The sun, struggling to peek through. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone.
He shifted his gaze back to his HUD. They were already down to nineteen thousand feet. In his peripheral vision, he saw the blue glint of Aaron's battery unit. For a millisecond, he wondered what was going through his old friend's mind, but he probably had a fair idea. Aaron dived with the weight of more than just his chute and armor. He had a son waiting for him above.