Authors: Nicholas Sansbury Smith
Amazement turned to raw fear. “Pull me back!” Weaver said. “Pull me the fuck back and run!”
“Why? What'd you see?”
Jones yanked him back to safety and took off, his labored breath crackling over the channel as Weaver took another cautious step backward. His slight movements provoked the monsters into a frenzy of motion, and they let out a chorus of whines that intensified until Weaver couldn't stand it anymore. He froze, as if paralyzed by the sounds.
they sounded just like emergency sirens.
Motion in the center of the pit snapped him out of his shocked reverie. The creatures scattered in all directions and leaped onto the walls. Some clambered up the near-vertical surface; others, missing a hand- or foothold, slid back down, their claws scrabbling over the rock.
Weaver still wasn't sure whether it was Jay or Sarah down there, but it didn't matterâthere was nothing he could do to help them. He eyed the crate one last time and then turned to run.
* * * * *
Chief Engineer Samson opened the door to Captain Ash's office, stepped inside, and slammed it shut behind him. His cheeks were so covered with grime and sweat, Ash couldn't tell whether he was grinning or grimacing.
She gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Have a seat.”
“I'll stand,” he replied, wiping a filthy sleeve across his forehead. “I need to get back to engineering as soon as possible.”
Ash grabbed the glass of water she had poured for herself, and handed it to him. He gulped it down.
“I hope you have
good to tell me.”
Samson gently placed the empty glass on her desk and said, “I've managed to get seven of the eight reactors back online. My crews have also patched four of the internal gas bladders. We're operating at eighty percent powerâbest we've had in years.”
Ash smiledâan expression so unfamiliar, it made her cheeks ache. “Excellent news, and right in the nick of time. We received a distress beacon from
.” The smile disappeared as she remembered the message.
“An SOS?” Samson blurted.
“They lost several generators in a storm and were forced to shut down their reactors. They're running on backup power. Captain Willis sent a team to the surface to retrieve nuclear fuel cells and parts, but they've requested our help.”
“I was waiting for you to fix the
before I made a decision.”
“It's not exactly fixed.” Samson ran a hand back and forth over his smooth scalp. “What kind of help did Captain Willis request?”
“He didn't specify. The transmission cut out. All I know right now is that
is in trouble and they need our help.”
Samson crinkled his nostrils. “We're in the best shape we've been in years. We shouldn't riskâ”
“Which is exactly why we're in a position to help,” Ash said, cutting him off. She didn't have time to argue with the engineer or anyone else. Besides, she had called him to her office for a report on the
not for his opinion on helping
“Anything else?” she asked.
He shook his head and left her office without another word.
A moment later, Jordan entered. “X is on his way,” he said. “Should be here in fifteen minutes.”
Ash paced behind her desk as they waited. The dull, tarnished plaque on the wall caught her eye
: Commissioned in 2029. US Army. Model #43.
“Hard to believe there are only two left,” Jordan said.
“Might be only one left if we don't answer Captain Willis' call.”
He waited for her orders. She wasn't ready to give themânot until she talked to the most experienced Hell Diver on the ship.
A knock sounded on the other side of the door, and Jordan opened it. X stood outside, with his back turned to them.
“Come in, Commander,” Ash said.
X turned away from the bridge and walked into the room. He cracked his neck, on one side and then the other. Unlike Samson, X wasn't covered in workplace grime, but he looked just as bad. His features were hardened into a mask of anger, and even from here she could smell the 'shine on his breath.
“How's Michael?” Ash asked.
“Still an orphan. But with all due respect, Captain, you didn't invite me here to discuss Tin.”
Ash sat back down and folded her hands primly on the desktop. “You're right, I didn't. Have a seat, Commander.”
X glanced at Jordan, then reluctantly sat.
is in trouble,” Ash said. She repeated the same thing she had told Samson a few minutes earlier, then waited, searching X's face for a reaction.
He scratched the stubble on his chin for a few seconds. “I'm assuming there's something else you haven't told me yet.”
X wasn't just a good diver. He was smart. Ash had always appreciated that about him. She told him what she had kept from Samson.
is hovering above Hades. Captain Willis has already dropped a team down there.”
X tilted his head, as if he hadn't heard correctly. “
What the fuck are they doing there?”
“Good question,” Jordan said.
Ash shot her XO a look, then brought her gaze back to X. “We're not exactly sure how they got there, or why, but at this point it doesn't matter. I asked you here for your counselâto see what you would do if you were in my shoes.”
X picked with his thumbnail at something stuck between his front teeth. He had an unusually white smileâa rare feature on the ship. But during Ash's long history with him, he was usually too hungover or angry to crack a grin.
He pulled his thumb away from his teeth and, inspecting the nail, said, “So you're asking if I think we should attempt a rescue?”
“You're the best diver on either ship,” Ash said. “You know the skies and the surface better than anyone.”
X scowled. “I know as much about Hades as you do. The electrical storms there are the worst on the continent. Even if Captain Willis' divers make it to the surface, they're going to have to deal with off-the-chart radiation, and if they survive the storms and the rads, they still have to survive whatever monsters are down there.”
Ash leaned back in her chair, and X fidgeted in his.
“Monsters like the ones you saw on your last dive?”
“YeahÂ â¦Â maybe something even worse.” He wrinkled his forehead and squinted as if he had a pounding headacheâwhich, she reflected, he likely did.
“I know it's painful, X, but think back. We need to know what you saw, so we can prepare the other divers before the next jump.”
X chuckled. “
them?” Tracing phantom quotation marks in the air, he said, “Nothing's going to â
' them for what I saw.”
“And what, exactly, was it that you saw, Commander?” Jordan asked.
X didn't turn to Jordan, but met Ash's stare instead. “Some sort of creature unlike anything I've seen on other dives. They were humanoid, with long arms and legsâbipedal, but to move fast, they went on all foursâlike the baboons on the old nature vids. AndÂ â¦” X looked away.
Ash waited patiently.
“And they had no face. No eyes or noseâjust a big-ass mouth full of shark's teeth. Their skulls were coated with some scabby-looking shit and bristles. And their backs were covered in spikes, kind of like a dorsal fin or something. Some of them had scrapes on their wrinkled skin. It was leathery and tough, though. Reminded me of dried cowhide. I suspect it protects them from the radiation. I don't know. Shit, it's not like I had time to do a detailed examination. They weren't holding still, and I wasn't waiting for 'em to.”
Ash ran a finger over her lips. She had heard all the stories of the creatures the divers encountered on the surface, and she had combed the ships' archives during nights she couldn't sleep. But this? Nothing in the ships' logs was even remotely close to what X described. No one had encountered anything with humanoid anatomy.
“What else can you tell me?” Ash asked.
X straightened in his chair. “I left out the worst part. They make these high-pitched noises like an emergency alarmâa sort of whine so loud it was paralyzing.”
“Are you saying these things could be part organic and part technological?”
“No,” X replied. “There wasn't anything robotic about 'em.”
“You sure the radiation wasn't screwing with your senses?” Jordan asked. “Organic or mechanicalâit all sounds pretty far-fetched to me.”
X twisted in his chair. “So which is it you're suggesting, sir: that I'm lying, or delusional?”
Ash glared again at her XO. Sometimes, she wondered if he had something against Hell Divers. This wasn't the first time he'd questioned their acuity or their truthfulness.
“I think Jordan meant you were down there for a while and that maybe your eyes and ears were playing tricks on you,” Ash said in her calmest tone. “High doses of radiation can do that.”
“Was supposed to be a green dive,” X said. “There wasn't supposed to
significant radiation, remember? Just something else you guys fucked up. Not giving either Ash or Jordan a chance to respond, he turned back to her and said, “I know what I saw.”
“I believe you,” she replied. “But right now we need to talk about
A moment of quiet fell over the room. X stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. “We're talking about the only other ship in the world, Captain. No one else is going to help them. We're it.”
Ash nodded and opened her mouth to speak, but X beat her to it.
“If I were in your shoes, like you said: I'd plot a course and get there as fast as possible. You can reevaluate the situation when we arrive.”
“He has a point,” Jordan said.
“Indeed, he does,” Ash replied. “And I agree with the commander. I won't abandon
. I won't risk the extinction of the human race if there is something we can do.”
“Unfortunately, Captain Willis already put us all at risk when he decided to fly to Hades,” X said.
The words lingered as the PA system crackled and played an automated message. Ash used the stolen moment to check the clock. When the static cleared, she stood up. She had made her decision. “Jordan, plot us a course,” she ordered.
Ash looked to X. “Get some sleep tonight, and lay off the 'shine. Tomorrow you start training your new team.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. “I know, you said you were done. But
needs you. An endangered speciesâyoursâneeds you. Are you really going to say no?”
He glowered for a moment, then shook his head. “No.” He stiffened. “No, Captain. We dive so humanity survives.”
Commander Weaver ran like a man possessed, his lungs burning with every breath. No matter how fast he sucked in air, he couldn't get enough.
He wasn't running from the monsters in the pit. The beasts had retreated soon after they climbed out of their lair. Something had scared them off. He could still hear their faint wailing in the distance, but now there were other, equally disturbing sounds. A low rumble broke over the horizon, drowning out the cries of the monsters.
Weaver leaped over a rusted tangle of rebar jutting from a piece of broken foundation. A tremor rumbled beneath him, causing the snow on the surface to shimmer.
A dozen yards ahead of him, Jones fell. Scrambling back to his feet, he yelled, “What the hell is happening?”
Weaver turned, shielding his visor from the gusting snow, and scanned the city. Beyond the bare girders of high-rises, he could see only a solid wall of darkness.
that?” Jones asked.
Weaver didn't reply. He was frozen in place, staring in awe at the biggest, most powerful storm he had ever seen or even imagined. Half as tall as the highest skyscraper, the wall of snow stretched for miles across, and it was barreling toward the city at an astounding speed.
“Holy shit,” he breathed. Never in his life had he seen such a force of nature.
“Run!” Jones yelled, yanking on Weaver's arm. “Come on, we have to get out of here!”
Weaver ran sideways for a few strides, watching lightning flash over the storm. The eastern edge glowed blue for several seconds before it reached the city and flooded the streets. In minutes, it would be on them. The sounds of cracking ice and groaning metal jolted Weaver to action, and he turned and sprinted after Jones.
The two divers were on the western edge of Hades now, almost to the industrial zone. Weaver could see the ITC warehouses spread out across the landscape. Their concrete walls were built to withstand storms. But
? How could anything in Hades still be standing? It was a true testament to human engineering.
Fighting the urge to look over his shoulder, he concentrated on his breathing instead.
Deep and steady, in and outÂ â¦Â
Little dots like swarming bees caromed about at the edges of his vision. He wasn't getting enough oxygen, and his body was paying the price. Every pounding step forward came with a sharp jolt of pain. His calves and quads, at their functioning limit, burned with lactic acid buildup.
They were within a hundred yards of the nearest structure when a panel of corrugated sheet metal whistled past Jones' head and buried itself edgewise in a snowbank. Weaver ran hunched over, bracing himself as gravel and shrapnel hissed and whined through the air all around them.
In a sudden whiteout, he lost sight of Jones, who then reemerged a moment later at the entrance to a two-story building. The exterior appeared to be metal, not concrete. Jones pulled open the door and waved him forward.
“Come on!” Jones shouted.
Weaver began to yell back when a blast of wind picked him up and cartwheeled him over the snow. The drift broke his fall, but the impact knocked the air out of his lungs.
“Grab my hand, Commander!” Jones shouted from the doorway.
Weaver fought for breath and reached up as waves of red swam across his eyes. A strong grip took his hand and pulled him through the open door.
The steel door banged shut as the screaming storm hit the building. The structure groaned in protest, and the metal walls seemed to sway. A heavy cable detached from the ceiling and whipped the floor next to where Weaver stood. He rolled to his side, shielding his visor, as the warehouse shook violently.
He was going to die. They both were. The storm was going to rip the building from the ground and grind them to paste.
Weaver curled up into a ball, trembling not from fear, but from cold, as the relentless wind pummeled the building. He fought his pounding headache, blinking away the stars, trying to focus.
“Sir! Are you okay?” Jones said. He was shouting, but the words sounded dull in the roar of the storm. There was something else, too: an electronic hum that didn't belong. Jones was dragging him toward a concrete staircase. The noise faded away as the heart of the storm engulfed the building.
* * * * *
The warehouse trading post was the largest and most frequented room on the
X could always hear the chatter of bartering patrons and smell the black-market foods before he rounded the corner and saw the open double doors that led to the dim, cavernous space.
X stepped through the doors, his thoughts as unorganized and chaotic as the flow of commerce going on around him. Days had passed since the dive that he swore would be
his last, yet his muscles were still tense, his skin still burned, and his nerves were on edge.
He pushed his way through the throng of haggard faces: a blur of buyers, sellers, and hustlers. Some loitered, hoping to scrounge out a handout from him. He tried his best to ignore the murmured pleas and resentful glares as he walked through the close, sultry air. None of them seemed to care that he had saved their lives countless times. They only saw a member of the privileged elite in front of them, not the parts that X had risked his life scavenging to keep the ship in the air.
Not that he could blame them. Their focus was on one thing: survival. Most of them had never seen the inside of one of the ship's classrooms. Education was reserved for the children of engineers and farmersâpeople who would grow up to play a vital role in keeping the
in the air.
X focused on the faded signs and dead lightbulbs that hung from makeshift huts and carts where merchants sold and bartered their wares.
Shouts of vendors echoed through the room. “Moonshine that'll numb your senses!” a man yelled at a group of water technicians passing his booth. One of the men stopped and exchanged a few credits for a bottle of the potent hooch.
An elderly woman with waist-length gray hair waved X toward her stand. She wore a coat stitched together from colorful rags. He recognized her as the woman who had sold them a “cure” for Rhonda's cancer. All Rhonda had gotten from it was a rash. Resisting the urge to rake the bottles of green liquid onto the floor and stomp on them, he contented himself with waving his middle finger at the snake-oil seller.
She turned away without a response. He filed his anger away and walked quickly through the next aisle of merchants, passing tables piled high with soap, candles, and other items that made life belowdecks a little more bearable.
Reaching the end of the bazaar, he paused at the cages of guinea pigs, rabbits, and chickens. He could empathize with them. The thing he loved most about diving was slipping out of his own cage for a few hoursâsomething these creatures would never do except at the end, when bound for the stew pot.
“Only two hundred credits!” a child shouted, his hands cupped around his mouth so the words would carry farther.
X raised an eyebrow at the ridiculous price and walked on, to a stand filled with fresh produce. The potatoes and lemons looked small and shriveled compared to those that the farmers grew on the level above. These were the products grown in the two communal living spaces belowdecks, where there was never enough water or light.
Year by year, these small luxuries continued to dwindle. Soon, the last doe rabbit would die, or the grow lights would blink out and not come back on. With the rising prices and disappearing goods, people were growing more desperate. There would be more riots, more bloodshed. In the hallways, he had heard the whispered rumors of rebellion. X had ignored them. He had enough to worry about just keeping the
in the sky. If the people aboard chose to tear it apart, there was nothing he could do about it.
A cough rang out, and immediately a space cleared in the middle of the crowd as shoppers and browsers backed away in fear. Cancer wasn't the only thing rampant on the ship. A flu could be just as deadly. Several passengers bumped into X while frantically pulling on their white masks.
X just pushed ahead through the crowd, toward his favorite merchant. A sign that read “Dragon” came into view. The lightbulb behind the “N” had burned out since the last time X visited. Looking at it, he ran smack into another passenger.
“Watch it!” the man growled.
X turned to find Ty staring back at him.
“Shit. Sorry, Ty.”
The technician flicked the herb stick in his mouth from the left side to the right. “No problem.”
X took a step back to let a shopper by, then closed the gap, but couldn't think of anything to say.
Ty broke the awkward silence. Taking the stick out of his mouth, he said, “I didn't have a chance to tell you at the funeral, but I'm real sorry. Shit luck, them sendin' you guys down there in an electrical storm. You doing okay?”
X just nodded. Ty and everyone else wanted to know what had happened down there, what he had seen.
“How's the kid doing?”
“Hasn't said a word since he found out his dad died. He blames me. I can see it in his eyes.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Ty said. “My boy didn't talk for two weeks after his aunt died of cancer. But he came around.” He continued to ramble on, but X was barely listening. He wasn't sure Tin would recover. The kid had lost the sparkle in his eyes; his stare was cold and brittle. He was damaged, like everything and everyone aboard this squalid excuse for a home.
“I'd better get going,” X said. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
Ty jammed the herb stick back in his mouth. “Oh, right, I almost forgot: tomorrow you get your new team.”
“Can't wait,” X said, turning to leave. He wasn't sure who the new divers would be. Angel and Apollo both had extra members, but he didn't know who they'd be willing to give up. He also didn't know where Jordan would find new recruits to replace them. Not many promising candidates remained.
X stopped at the Dragon's stall and sat down on one of the four bar stools at the counter. He rang the little bell.
He heard some clanking behind a partition wall, and a middle-aged man with curly red hair emerged a moment later. Stepping into the dim light, he cracked a toothless grin. “Ah, Xavier! Haven't seen you in a while.”
“Hey, Dom, how you doin'?”
Dom looked X up and down, his eyes stopping on the white arrow pattern embroidered on his red uniform. “Today's not so bad. I always like feeding a Hell Diver.”
X gave a tired grin. “Good, because I want an order of noodles to go.”
“Give me a couple of minutes,” Dom said, disappearing back into the booth.
X relaxed, enjoying the moment of solitude. Dom had owned the place for as long as he could remember. As with so many others on the ship, the traditions of his family had been handed down from generation to generation. There was no concept of race on the ship. All were citizens of the
. But this didn't mean everyone was treated equally. In some ways, it was even worse now than it had been in the Old World. The caste division of lower-deckers and upper-deckers was painfully apparent everywhere.
Dom returned a few minutes later with a steaming carton of the best noodles that remained in the world. The intoxicating scent pulled X back from his thoughts, and for the moment, he forgot about the ship's societal problems.
“How much I owe you?” he asked.
Dom looked up at the broken sign dangling off the canopy. “You get me a new lightbulb, you get free noodles.”
X examined the sign. His brow furrowed. “Not many of those left on the surface, but I'll see what I can do.”
Dom slid the bag to X, his gummy grin growing even wider.
X took the warm carton, eyed the sign one more time, and left. “See ya, Dom,” he shouted over his shoulder.
X walked back to his apartment, wondering what he could say to Tin. He knocked. Twice. It felt odd to be knocking on his own door, but he didn't want to alarm the boy. X wanted him to feel at home.
After two raps, X grabbed the handle and pulled it open. It creaked, revealing the cramped living room. He hated everything about his apartment, from the rattle of the air-handler unit to the cracks in the fake leather couch where his wife used to wait for him every day. He could still picture Rhonda sitting there, legs crossed, judging brown eyes looking him up and down to see if he was drunk.
Tin sat curled up in her spot, tablet in hand, the glow illuminating the innocent face of a ten-year-old boy.
“I got you some noodles,” X said, shaking the bag.
Tin didn't even look up.
Crossing the room in three strides, X carried the bag into the kitchen. Two backless stools were pushed underneath the simple oval table. Only a dash of the original yellow paint remained.
X put the bag down on the countertop and checked on the tomato plant under the flickering grow bulb. The stem drooped. He scooped up a fallen leaf and put it back into the pot.
Sighing, he squeezed into the bathroom and closed the door. The toilet, or “shit can,” as most passengers called them, smelled faintly of something rotten. He held his breath as he relieved himself, then closed the door.
Tin had moved to the floor in the living room. He sat cross-legged on the floor, fumbling through the tool pouch on his belt as he worked on repairing the vacuum cleaner. Unscrewing the front bolts, Tin slid off the cover to expose a skein of wires. He took a small pair of tweezers from his pouch.
“You hungry?” X said from the kitchen.
The boy shook his head.
“Come on, you have to eat. Besides, I got noodles. No one turns down the Dragon's noodles. I figure it's the least I can do to repay you for fixing that vacuum. Also”âhe pointed at the sinkâ“the grow lamp isn't working very well. I'll owe you for fixing that, too, right?”
The savory smell filled the room. Tin's eyes searched the dimly lit space and fell on X for a blink. Leaving the dismantled vacuum cleaner on the floor, he hopped to his feet and went to the kitchen. He checked the lamp, then sat down at the table.