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Authors: Nicholas Sansbury Smith

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BOOK: Hell Divers
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Tin was waiting. X jogged down the hallway, which curved and narrowed into a corridor lined with hatches on both sides. The apartments were cramped, but it beat the communal spaces beneath his feet, where the lower-deckers lived.

Outside an apartment door stood a short figure holding a bag and wearing a crooked metallic hat.

Seeing Tin, X felt a tug at his heart. The boy was small for his age, and skinny. His blue trousers and black sweatshirt hung loose from his gaunt frame. His tinfoil hat, the source of his nickname, arched into a spike, like some ancient gladiator's helmet. Blond hair spilled over his ears. Tin glanced up with the same bright blue eyes that looked like his fathers, but quickly looked away.

X put a hand on the boy's shoulder. “You got everything you need?”

Tin glanced down at his bag and nodded.

“You ready to go?” X asked.

Tin nodded again and pulled out of X's grasp. He hadn't said a word since Aaron's death. X didn't blame him. He hadn't felt much like talking, either. He followed the boy down the hall to the launch bay where they would honor his dead father.

* * * * *

The dimmed overhead LEDs spread a carpet of blue light over the
's launch bay. Captain Ash stood in the center of the room. She turned away from the dark portholes and took a moment to examine the twelve plastic domes covering the launch tubes in front of her. Each had sent countless Hell Divers to their deaths, and now a small crowd had gathered to mourn the loss of three more.

Ash could not help reflecting on the original purpose for the tubes: to drop not people but bombs—the very bombs that had turned the surface into a wasteland, forcing humans to take to the sky in the very ships that had doomed them.

was never designed to be a life raft. It was a weapon, one of fifty built in the late twenty-first century for the war that did, in fact, end all wars. Flying at an average altitude of twenty thousand feet and impervious to electromagnetic pulses, the
and her sister ships were the military's response to electronic warfare that rendered even the most advanced drones and jets obsolete.

According to the records that Ash, as captain, was privy to, the world had ended so fast that the airships had become lifeboats for the families of military brass, who had boarded them before the bombs dropped and made the surface uninhabitable. Much of humanity's past was lost in those chaotic days. She didn't even know what had caused the conflict, or which side was in the right. Hell, she didn't even know who the sides had been. She only knew that the darkness and the electrical storms outside the portholes were the result of what her ancestors had done.

The people gathered in front of her didn't care about history. They didn't ask why the sun was hidden behind miles of dark clouds and lightning. Unlike Captain Ash, the poor souls aboard the
weren't hell-bent on making up for the sins of their great-great-great-grandparents. Most of them didn't even know they were the descendants of the men and women who had brought humanity to the edge of extinction. And most of them, like her own staff, had long since given up on Ash's dream of finding a new home somewhere on the surface. Every captain before her had promised the same thing, but these people no longer seemed to care. They were driven by a far more basic desire: to survive.

In the center of the group stood Aaron's son. Tears glistened on his pale cheeks. X stood on his right, eyes downcast and three days of stubble covering his face.

Ash wished the ritual weren't so familiar, but she had seen too many orphans and grieving families. The boy deserved to know why his father had died.

Folding her hands together, she launched into the speech she had given so often she knew it cold. “Today we gather to celebrate the lives of three men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of us might live. They dived so that humankind could survive. For these men, diving was a duty they performed time and time again without complaint, without question.”

She pointed at the plastic domes. “For two hundred and fifty years, the Hell Divers have dropped from these tubes to keep us in the air. And on this last mission, they succeeded, once again, in bringing back the fuel cells that keep us in the sky. For their service and their sacrifice, we salute them.”

The captain raised a hand into the perfect salute and held it there. She kept her gaze on Tin as the crowd whispered their thanks to the fallen men.

The room fell silent, and Ash dropped her salute. One by one, the crowd filtered out of the double doors.

Jordan squeezed into the launch bay and hurried over to Ash. The moment the last mourner had left, he cleared his throat. “Captain, we have another problem.”

She gave her XO a sharp look. “What now?”

“Please follow me,” Jordan said.

She hurried after him to the bridge, her mind racing with every step. The crowded hallways were not the place to have a conversation about another potential issue with the ship. The thought reminded her, she was supposed to visit the lower-deckers later today. It had been weeks since she last showed her face down there.

“Captain,” said a sentry posted in front of the bridge. He waved his key card over the security panel, it chirped, and the door whispered open. Ash strode inside and paused at the railing that curved around the topmost deck of the bridge. The two floors below were thrumming with activity.

She followed Jordan to the first deck, past the oak wheel, all the way to the wall-mounted main display. He reached up to flick the screen.

“We just picked up an SOS from
” Jordan said.

Ash felt a tightness in the pit of her stomach. They hadn't heard from the other airship in weeks. Last she knew, they were on a recon mission to locate a second cache of nuclear fuel cells hundreds of miles to the west, out of range of digital communication.

“We're still trying to hail them, but there's a ton of electrical interference. All we have to go on now is the message we intercepted.”

Ash resisted the urge to massage her achy throat. “Play it.”

Jordan turned and snapped his fingers. “Ensign Ryan, feed that message to the main screen.”

“Aye, Captain,” the ensign replied. He shifted his glasses and sat down at his station on the floor above where Ash and Jordan stood.

A moment later, an image of Captain Willis emerged on the screen. Lines crackled across the display, the feed cutting in and out. But even with the fuzzy video, Willis looked awful. His white hair had receded even further. Deep creases on his forehead overshadowed a scar that ran from his eyebrow to his hairline.

Ash took a seat in her chair.

“Maria. Captain Ash. God, I hope this message gets through.
was severely damaged in a freak electrical storm a week ago. We lost several generators, and we've been forced to shut down all reactors. We're running on backup power. I'm deploying an HD team to the surface to search for critical parts and cells, but we need your help.”

Static crackled from the PA speakers above.

Ash clamped the headset over her ears. A few seconds passed before the audio returned.

“We are hovering above the following coordinates: forty-one degrees, fifty-two minutes, forty-one seconds north; eighty-seven degrees, thirty-seven minutes, forty-seven seconds west.”

A second wave of white noise sizzled across the room.

Ash looked up at Jordan. A hint of fear flickered in his eyes. They both knew the coordinates by heart. It was the location of an Old World metropolis, dead in the center of a red zone. The radiation was so high, and the surface temperature so low, that only three missions had ever been attempted to retrieve cells from the area. All three had failed, with all divers lost.

She couldn't remember the city's original name. Everyone on the ship just called the wasteland “Hades.”

“Captain, what are your orders?” Jordan asked.

The transmission replayed over and over in her mind.
Damn it,
how could Willis have been such a fool? Sure, every captain knew that Hades was home to Industrial Tech Corporation, the company that had designed and built their airships, and that its headquarters was a gold mine of power cells and repair parts. But as with all great treasure troves, Hades was cursed.

“Cancel my visit to the lower decks, Jordan,” she said. “I won't be visiting today.”

“Aye, Captain.”

As Jordan turned to leave, she added, “Get me Samson and X. I need to see both of them, ASAP.”


Ash sank back in her chair as Jordan loped up the stairs. She didn't know what desperation had driven Willis to Hades. But even if Ash could fix the
she wasn't sure there was anything she could do to save


Commander Rick Weaver shifted in and out of consciousness. The closer he came to reality, the more he wanted to stay asleep. In his fragmented dreams, he was still with his family aboard
He could still see his wife, Jennifer, and the freckled faces of his daughters, Kayla and Cassie, standing in the crowd of family members in the launch bay.

“Promise me you're coming back,” Jennifer said.

He gazed into those green eyes for a moment. “I promise, baby.” He sealed the words with a kiss.

“Bye, Daddy,” Kayla said, looking up with the wide, curious eyes of a seven-year-old still innocent of the real world's horrors. Five-year-old Cassie had even less of a clue. And that was fine with him.

“I'll be back in no time,” Weaver said. He leaned down and hugged them both, then gave Jennifer a last lingering kiss.

A stab of pain shook him free of the memory. He opened his eyes to find his family gone, replaced by a sky the color of bruises. Lightning flashed overhead, splitting through the clouds like a network of veins.

“No,” he choked, reaching toward the storm. He closed his eyes again in a vain attempt to stay a few more minutes with his wife and daughters.

The rumble of thunder kept him from slipping away. Reality slowly closed in. His family was four miles up there, waiting for him to return with the fuel cells and pressure valves that would save his home and everyone on it.

A voice called out. “Commander, can you hear me?”

Weaver gradually became aware of being on his back, and of someone shaking his armored shoulder. He blinked away the stars floating before his eyes and saw a mirrored visor staring down at him. He recognized the small cross cresting above the visor. It was Ralph Jones, the youngest member of Team Titanium.

“Where's Jay and Sarah?” Weaver mumbled.

Jones shook his head.

Another fragmented memory surfaced: the flash of lightning that hit both divers in free fall. They were dead before they even had a chance to open their chutes.

His eyes lingered on the little white cross. The only thing he really knew about the new guy was that he was a deeply religious man and that this was his fifth jump. Jones had done well in training, but he had almost no surface time. But no matter. He had survived, and Weaver was glad to have another diver at his side.

“Let me help you up, sir,” Jones said. He grabbed Weaver under his arm and gently hoisted him into a sitting position. The frozen landscape surrounding them came into focus, and Weaver got his first look at Hades. The skeletal remains of the Old World city stretched to the west. Mounds of snow, like castle walls, bordered the once great metropolis. But these ramparts didn't guard a magical kingdom like those in the books he'd seen. This place was cursed.

“Help me up,” Weaver said.

Jones pulled the aluminum capewell covers and popped the capewells free, releasing Weaver from his chute. Then he grabbed him under both armpits and helped him to his feet.

“Shit,” Jones said. “Looks like your booster is toast.”

Weaver craned his neck and looked at the pack. The helium balloon hung from a crack in the metal booster.

“Great. Just fucking great.”

Weaver took another look at their surroundings.

“Sir, I'm not picking up any other beacons,” Jones said.

Putting aside the matter of the broken booster, Weaver tapped his wrist computer and waited for the digital telemetry to emerge on his HUD. The data fired and solidified in the subscreen. Besides the beacons of the two supply crates
had dropped, there was no sign of Jay or Sarah or of Team Gold. Captain Willis had deployed Gold twelve hours earlier. No beacons meant they were dead—whether from the dive or from something else, Weaver wasn't sure. There had been no radio transmission after Gold jumped. The entire team, his brothers and sisters, had joined in death every diver before them who ever tried to jump into Hades.

The weight of this realization squeezed the last vestiges of grogginess from Weaver, and he snapped alert. Everything was riding on him and Jones. They had forty-eight hours to return to
with the nuclear cells and pressure valves and save roughly half the humans in existence. The doomsday clock was ticking along in sync with his heartbeat.

He steadied his breathing and took a moment to examine the map on his HUD. The first supply crate that
had dropped was less than a mile away, but their main target, the ITC headquarters, was six miles from their current location. They would have to trek through the city to reach their objective.
had dropped a second crate a quarter mile from the HQ.

Weaver's eyes flitted to the radiation readings displayed under the map on his HUD. Whatever luck had saved him from dying in the storm seemed to have vanished when they reached the surface.

“We need to get moving,” he said. “Radiation's off the graph here.”

Jones nodded his acknowledgment and jogged ahead, his boots crunching over the snow. The greenish-black of his suit's exoskeleton looked alien against the stark white landscape, the blue glow from the circular battery unit the only sign of life in a place where there was only death.

Weaver pulled the duct-taped handle of his revolver from his holster and gripped the gun in his gloved hand. He would have preferred the blaster, but he had lost it on the dive. They would need to keep moving fast if they wanted to reach their objective without attracting the attention of whatever lived in this frozen waste.

No one had ever returned from Hades to describe what was down here, and with the loss of Team Gold, Weaver's mind ran wild with images of mutant creatures prowling the city—monsters he didn't want to encounter without a bigger team and heavy weapons. He imagined the beasts he had seen on other dives: lizards the size of a half-grown child, and one-eyed birds with scaly wings. There were also the massive “stone beasts” he had seen on a salvage dive in the desert city of Las Vegas. The rocky abominations moved like Turtles, but his friend Ned Rico had stumbled into a building where the monsters sat camouflaged, looking like the work of a deranged sculptor. One of them had chomped Rico in half with its massive crocodilian jaws.

The wind howled like a wild animal in the distance. This was Hades—whatever awaited them out there was going to be a lot worse than some mutated little reptile or bird.

“Think we can get across that?” Jones asked, pointing to a bridge over an ice-covered waterway. The structure had partly collapsed, but the right side was intact. Barely four feet wide, but it would have to do; they didn't have time to backtrack or find another way across the ice.

“Follow me,” Weaver ordered. He tested the ground with one foot and cautiously made his way across. When they reached the other side, he took off at a brisk trot.

His helmet bobbed up and down as he ran, making it a little harder to scan the windowless buildings that lined both sides of the road as they entered the city's outskirts. Countless decades of accumulating snow had buried much of the Old World, perhaps hiding pitfalls while leaving only the tallest structures visible.

An arctic blast bulldozed into him, making him stagger sideways. Planting his boots against the blustering wind, he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.

Stay focused, Rick. Pay attention to what's real.

His eyes went to his HUD again. It was hard to believe that anything could survive out here for long. The sensor readings put the temperature at negative twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, though he was warm enough inside the layered suit. Indeed, his skin felt slimy from the heat. He blinked away a drop of sweat and relaxed into a loping run, keeping Jones' blue silhouette in his peripheral vision. Jones maneuvered around jagged obstacles with a grace that reminded Weaver that he was twice Jones' age. He was having a hard time keeping up with the younger man.

“Stay close,” he ordered.

Towers framed his view to the west, blocking his view of the industrial zone. They were in the heart of the city now, surrounded by ruins and tilted or broken skyscrapers. He continued to scan the area for signs of life, but the shifting snow was covering their tracks almost as they made them.

“Hold up,” Weaver said. He stopped and crouched. “We gotta get off this road. We're too exposed here.”

He spied an off-ramp that led northwest. They were getting close to the first crate. Only a quarter mile now. The thought put an extra spring in his step as they pushed their way down the street.

“Up there,” Weaver said, pointing toward a steep snowbank that rose up from the roadside.

He leaped onto the pile and pulled his way up on all fours. At the top, he dropped to his belly, pulled the binos from his tactical vest, and glassed the area, searching for the crate.

Jones dropped down beside him and pulled out his binos.

“Looks like we have to find a way around that,” Weaver said, pointing to a massive sinkhole that had swallowed an entire city block to the northwest.

Jones checked his minicomputer, then looked back over the landscape.

“You sure?” he said. “The map shows the crate's beacon somewhere between here and that hole.”

Weaver brushed off the layer of snow that had stuck to his visor. Jones was right. They were damn close to the supply box.

“Let's move,” Weaver said. He scrambled to his feet and took off in a rolling trot toward the sinkhole. His eyes darted from the nav marker on his HUD to the cavernous pit in front of him. He panted as he worked his way through the thick snow, every stride more exhausting than the last.

“Wait up!” Jones called after him.

up!” Weaver shouted back. He clambered over hunks of icy metal and courses of brick protruding from the ground. Reaching the edge, he dug his boots into the snow and pivoted to brace against the gusting wind. The crate's beacon blinked on his HUD. They were right on top of it. Their supplies, weapons, and extra boosters—it all was supposed to be right there. A blast of ice and grit whistled past him, nudging him closer to the edge.

Jones arrived a second later, gasping for air, his hands on his armor-plated knees. “It's got … It's got to be down there.”

“Hold my armor,” Weaver said.

Jones slipped his fingers under Weaver's back plate, and Weaver leaned closer to the side for a better look. The pit was too dark for his night-vision optics to penetrate, so he snatched a flare from his vest, tore off the end, and rubbed it against the coarse striking surface. Red flame shot out the end. He held the crackling flare over the edge, and fuzzy outlines of rubble came into view. And there in the center of it all, canted at a steep angle on a pile of concrete and rebar, was the supply crate.

Weaver cursed the technicians. They never managed to drop the crates close to the DZ, and this time, they had dropped it straight into the only sinkhole within a mile of the target zone.

“It's here,” Weaver said. “We've gotta find a way down.”

He waved the flare left and then right. The red glow spread across the bottom of the hole. There was something else down there. Where there should be only snow, he could see a half-dozen lumps the size of massive pumpkins, covered in some sort of spikes or thorns. Jones held on tighter as another gust of wind slammed into them. Scrambling to keep his balance, Weaver dropped the flare and watched it tumble lazily to the bottom. It hissed, and a halo of red blossomed out to light the enclosed space.

” Weaver said. He was reaching for his binos, when the floor of the pit came strangely alive. A tremor rippled across the snow, and the thorny bulges dotting the ground began to move.

Weaver stared, dumbfounded. It had to be some sort of illusion.

“Jones, I … I see something,” he whispered.

To his astonishment, one of the lumps shook itself and slowly rose up on what looked like two long, gangly legs.

“There's something else down there?” Jones asked.

Weaver took a full step back and tried to say something, but a croak was all he could muster. He didn't need his binos to see that the thing was some sort of humanoid creature. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if it was a Hell Diver who had somehow managed to survive.

He leaned back for a better look, flinching when the beast dropped to all fours and shambled toward the flare. It crouched next to it, tilting a face Weaver couldn't see, and pawed at the fire streaking across the snow. With a shriek of agony, it snapped its hand away from the brilliant glowing heat and darted away, still yowling. In a matter of seconds, similar creatures had arisen from the other strange lumps on the sinkhole floor, and they, too, were shrieking. The wails reverberated out of the hole and morphed into a high-pitched noise that hurt his ears.

Questions, too crazy even to give voice to, bounced and tumbled in his mind.

“What in the hell
that!” Jones shouted.

Weaver felt Jones' grip on his armor loosen. “Don't let go!” he snapped. He looked through his binos. The creatures seemed to distort and shift in the glow, but he could see the bizarre wrinkled skin and the jagged vertebrae as they gathered around the flare. The frailest of the group crouched next to another thorny blob in the snow and clawed at it.

Weaver zoomed in and the creature's head came into focus. A bony crest jutted up from its skull.

“What do you see?” Jones asked, his voice trembling over the comm.

The creature suddenly tilted its face in Weaver's direction and stared directly at him. But it wasn't looking at him; it couldn't. The thing had no eyes.

Weaver almost dropped his binos when he saw a meaty red cord hanging from the thing's thin lips. The beast tilted its head back and swallowed it whole. Then it bent down to pluck another piece from the crimson snow and scrambled away, the rope swinging from its mouth. That was when Weaver saw the armored body of a diver in the center of the pit. Jay or Sarah, but the corpse was so mangled, he couldn't tell from here.

BOOK: Hell Divers
11.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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