Authors: Nicholas Sansbury Smith
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ALSO BY NICHOLAS SANSBURY SMITH
FROM THE ORBS SERIES
Orbs II: Stranded
White Sands: An Orbs Prequel
The Biomass Revolution
A Royal Knight
For those in the armed services, and everyone else who puts their life on the line for freedom. Thanks for keeping us safe.
If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans.
LOCATION: SOMEWHERE ABOVE THE COLORADO WASTELANDS
awoke to the thrumming of helicopter blades. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she craned her neck to stare out the oval window. As the drowsiness faded and her vision cleared, she fixated on the weathered dunes below, her eyes glued to the infinite monotony of the sand. If the landscape hadn't been a light shade of brown, she would have thought they were flying over the ocean.
“How far out are we?” she yelled over the sound of the thumping blades.
“We're still at least an hour from the site. You should go back to sleep, ma'am; the scenery isn't going to change for a while,” the pilot said without taking his eyes off the controls.
Sophie had no idea where the site was, and she certainly wasn't going to ask. She pulled her long blond hair back into a ponytail before reaching to adjust her headset. There was no way she was going to fall back asleep with the increased turbulence and the vibration from the chopper's blades.
Settling back into her seat, she focused on the view. Below, the dunes extended as far as she could see, the crimson horizon slicing the panorama in half. She squinted for a better look, imagining she was peering through the thick glass of a visor at the harsh landscape of
Mars. The fantasy was one she had daily. It was mystifyingly realistic, so vivid she would sometimes reach out as if she could touch the sand of the red planet.
Sophie blinked and returned to reality. She was still on Earth, where more than 15 percent of the surface had been baked by the solar storms of 2055. Areas affected were rendered uninhabitable due to the radiation. Scientists had argued for years that a solar storm wasn't capable of that level of destruction; that a coronal mass ejection would never break through the Earth's atmosphere. But something about the storms of 2055 had been differentâunnatural. Now the planet was dying, and there was nothing science could do to stop it.
Not that it hadn't been tried. For decades China had been leading the world on a quest to strip the Earth of precious metals. After international talks failed, the world's leading private science and security company, New Tech Corporation, took matters into its own hands. It secretly hired mercenaries to set off five electromagnetic pulse weapons (EMPs) in strategic locations across the country. It solved China's thirst for resources instantly, by sending the country back to the Stone Age.
Unfortunately, the EMPs had only stalled the inevitable. The Doomsday Clock was still ticking, and humanity's time on Earth was limited. So a group of leaders had gathered in a closed-door meeting, as they had always done, deciding for the masses that it was time to jump ship. Humans were officially heading into space, and leading the mission was none other than New Tech Corporation.
Sophie could have lied and told her team she was surprised they had been picked for the first stage of the experimental mission, but none of them would have believed her. This wasn't the first job NTC had hired them for. Two years ago they'd been sealed into an underwater biosphere off the coast of Puerto Rico for just over a month. The data they collected was used by the tech and science giant to design manned underwater probes that would be used on the mission to Europa.
They were the best private sector team in the world; six months in a biosphere deep within some mountain wouldn't be a problem. But she couldn't deny the fact that they would be rusty. They hadn't worked together since Puerto Rico. After the success of the mission, everyone
under her command had received offers from tech companies around the world, and had quickly found work elsewhere.
Sophie exhaled her concerns with a long breath. She would see her team soon enough, and it would probably take only a few days to get readjusted.
Suddenly the com blared to life, the static echoing through her headset. Sophie clutched the armrests of her seat, her nails scratching the cold metal.
“Halo 1, this is Black Echo, stand by for report. Over.”
“Black Echo, this is Halo 1, standby to copy. Over.”
“Roger, Halo 1, reports of a massive dust storm heading your way. Over.”
Sophie watched the pilot, trying to control her labored breathing. She hated flying, especially by chopper. With the constant weather fluctuation in the Wastelands, there was no such thing as a safe trip. Dust storms could form with little to no warning, and had caused multiple crashes. Often the crews of downed flights were never found, more than likely buried by the very sand and dirt that had sealed their fate.
She didn't want to end up like those other crews. Not now. She'd worked too hard to let a dust storm stand in the way of her destiny. She had a mission to complete.
Shocked into motion, she unclipped her safety belt and ducked into the cockpit, plunking herself down in the empty copilot's seat.
“What are you doing, ma'am?”
“You're going to need a copilot if you want to avoid this storm. And seeing as I'm the only other person on this chopper, I believe that makes me copilot by default.”
The pilot paused, his thick goggles emitting a fiery red glow. Rather than argue with her, he asked, “Do you know how to read radar?”
Sophie bit her lip and studied the controls. “I'll figure it out, Captain,” she said confidently.
The pilot returned her smile with a sly grin. “Whatever you say, ma'am. Just keep an eye on that screen,” he said, pointing at a
translucent holographic image of the landscape. “You see that blip in the corner that's heading right at us?” She scanned the image and then nodded. “That's the dust storm, and by the looks of it, a big one. If we even come close to it, we're worm food. You may want to buckle in,” the pilot said, eyeing her unclipped belt.
Sophie grabbed the harness and shot the man a quick glance. “I need to get to this site, Captain. Crashing isn't an option. Consider that an order.” She knew she wasn't in any position to be barking orders at an NTC soldier, but she figured her assertiveness might motivate him to fly a little faster, and perhaps a little safer. She watched the pilot's grin fade as he spoke into his com.
“Black Echo, this is Halo 1. Stand by for report. Over.”
Static crackled over the radio. The pilot cursed under his breath before raising the transmitter to his mouth again. Sophie watched the curl of his lip as he spoke. “Black Echo, this is Halo 1. Come in. Over.”
Nothing but the hiss of white noise followed. He slammed the transmitter back onto the dashboard. “Looks like the storm already knocked out radio transmissions. We're on our own.”
“Then you'd best keep focused, Captain,” Sophie replied.
She turned to watch the red blip of the dust storm on the screen. With a flick of her index finger, she enlarged it and mentally computed its distance.
“Look,” the pilot said suddenly.
Through the armored glass she could see a brown cloud swirling on the horizon, the storm slowly swallowing the crimson sunset. The sight was chilling.
The pilot glanced over at her. “Hope your belt's tight, ma'am.”
Sophie didn't bother lifting her gaze from the storm. “Just get us to the site in one piece. A lot of people are counting on my safe arrival.”
The pilot grinned again, his lips twitching slightly as if he wanted to respond, but his fiery red goggles rotated and focused on the storm. He gripped the cyclic tightly in his hands, shaking with the effort to keep it steady.
“Can you go above the storm?” Sophie asked anxiously.
“Negative, ma'am. Our only chance is to go around it, but by the
look of it we won't be able to.”
“Well, there has to be something we can do. Why not turn around?” she yelled over the increasing sound of turbulence.
The pilot momentarily took his eyes off the incoming storm. “Ma'am, that storm is barreling down on us at over three hundred and fifty miles per hour. Even if we tried, we wouldn't be able to outrun it. Our best shot now is to head right through and try to ride it out.”
Sophie stared ahead, watching the swirling brown particles racing toward them. She blinked as the first pieces of dirt and dust crashed into the armored windshield.
I didn't come all this way to die in a damned dust storm
, she thought, grabbing her belt and tightening it across her chest.
Before she could think anything more, the storm was on them, the wind hurling particles of dust and dirt at the chopper from all directions. The pinging of rocks and debris making contact echoed throughout the interior of their metal tomb. The blades above groaned in protest as the rotor reluctantly ground them through the harsh wind.
“Hold on,” the pilot yelled, pulling up on the cyclic and heaving the chopper deeper into the center of the storm.
Sophie cried out as a rock the size of a baseball bashed the windshield, the crack spreading like a spider web.
“It'll hold,” the pilot said unconvincingly. “The windshield was built to withstand a fifty-cal round at point-blank range.”
“Those engineers better have been right.”
Sophie didn't trust many engineers, especially those who made their living testing products designed for war. She knew better than anyone that there was a major difference between how products held up under laboratory conditions and how they performed in real life. Companies like NTC had been making billions every year designing faulty products. It was simple economics, a concept she had learned at a young age. Weak products had to be replaced, which increased revenue. Quality was a thing of the past, and warranties had become extinct.
Sophie eyed the crack, hoping the windshield wasn't another one of NTC's money-saving ventures. She didn't like gambling, especially with lives.
“How much farther?” Sophie yelled.
“You tell meâcheck the radar!” the pilot yelled back.
Before she had time to look at the radar, she saw an object through the glass. Squinting, she tried to discern what it was. “What theÂ .Â .Â . ,” she muttered under her breath. The object swirled through the storm, moving toward them faster and faster.
Sophie was flung to one side, her insides scrambling against her rib cage, as the pilot yanked the cyclic hard to the right. It was too late. A second later, the spinning piece of debris smashed into the windshield, covering it. The pilot cursed in Spanish. Sophie understood every word.
“Get it off the windshield!” Sophie screamed.
“This isn't a car. It doesn't have wiper blades.”
The pilot loosened his goggles, pulling them over his helmet to get a better look at the metal object stuck to the windshield, and Sophie saw his face for the first time. His eyes were crystal blue, unlike any she had ever seen before. He couldn't have been more than nineteen years old.
They sent me out here with a rookie?
“It looks like a road sign,” he yelled, pulling his goggles back over his eyes.
She squinted at the green piece of metal, desperately trying to make out the weathered white letters. “D-E-N-V-E .Â .Â .” Sophie hesitated. Could it really be?
“Denver,” she shouted over the noise. “It fucking says âDenver.'â”
The pilot chuckled. “My girlfriend grew up there. Before the solar storms scorched it.”
“I don't find this situation particularly humorous, Captain. Now let's figure out how to get theâ” The chopper shook violently before Sophie could finish her sentence, as more debris crashed into the metal exterior.
“Hold on, I have an idea!” Slowly, the pilot pulled the cyclic up and then rammed it toward the floorboards. The sign slid off the windshield with a whoosh, and became metal confetti seconds later as the chopper's titanium rotor blades tore it apart.
Sophie didn't have time to celebrate. Another barrage of debris tore into the exoskeleton of the chopper, melon-sized dents forming on the inside of the door.
The pilot tried to straighten the bird out, holding the controls so tightly his knuckles looked as if they were going to explode. “She can't take much more of this. Check the radar again!” he yelled.
In the center of the console, the radar was fading in and out, the blur of red disappearing in a wave of static. “The storm must be disrupting the transmission,” Sophie guessed.
A deafening groan interrupted her as the blades above struggled through the cloud of dust. Every inch of their metal cage creaked and moaned. They were in the thickest, most violent part of the storm now.
Two more baseball-sized rocks smashed into the windshield, cracks exploding in all directions.
“Just a little farther, baby,” the pilot pleaded.
Sophie continued to monitor the cracks, mentally willing them not to get any larger. But her pleas went unanswered as another small rock hit the windshield. She held her breath, listening to the sound of her fate as the windshield slowly split, inch by inch. Even over the roar of the storm, she could hear the acrylic glass splintering. It was an odd sensation, knowing a thin piece of glass molded on some NTC assembly line was all that remained between her and the storm. She could almost picture her skin peeling off her bones as the windshield gave way and brown dust swallowed the chopper.
“The radar,” the pilot shouted, shocking Sophie out of her trance.
The hologram was working again, the red bleep representing the storm crawling across the translucent image. “It looks like we're almost through it!” she exclaimed, maneuvering to the edge of her seat for a better look.
“Thank God. We aren't going to last much longer,” the pilot said. His red goggles dipped toward the control panel where he studied the pressure gauges. “We're losing hydraulic pressure by the second.”
Sophie remained glued to the radar. The chopper appeared to be on the eastern edge of the storm, a mere fingernail's length from safety.