by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
Hell Divers Trilogy Book One
More than two centuries after World War III poisoned the planet, the final bastion of humanity lives on massive airships circling the globe in search for a habitable area to call home.
Aging and outdated, most of the ships plummeted back to earth long ago. The only thing keeping the two surviving lifeboats in the sky are Hell Divers: men and women who risk their lives by diving to the surface to scavenge for parts the ships desperately need.
When one of the remaining airships is damaged in an electrical storm, a Hell Diver team is deployed to a hostile zone called Hades. But there’s something down there that’s far worse than the mutated creatures discovered on dives in the past—something that threatens the fragile future of humanity.
Genre: Sci Fi TechnothrillerPurchase link(s): Amazon ARe BAM iTunes Kobo B&N
Content/Theme(s): Mutants, Dystopian, Thriller, Post-Apocalyptic, Futuristic
Release Date: July 19, 2016
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Excerpt & More
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 Hive. 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.
Will’s beacon blinked off a moment later, his heart stopped by a fatal jolt of static electricity. The kid had ended up precisely on the statistical mean after all: dead on his fifteenth jump.
X felt a tremble of anger. The two divers had been so close, almost out of the storm, almost through to the relative safety of a toxic earth. And now they were dead. A waste of precious human life that could have been avoided if the officers in ops had done their fucking jobs. How could they miss a storm a hundred miles wide?
Screaming in rage, X burst through the cloud floor at terminal velocity and bumped the pad in his helmet to activate his night- vision goggles (NVGs). Below, a decaying city exploded into view. The rusted tombstones of skyscrapers rose out of the metal-and- concrete graveyard. Those buildings that hadn’t crumbled stood leaning against one another like a forest of dead snags. Their tilted girders, showing vivid green, filled his visor, growing larger with every thump of his heart.
Three thousand feet.
Clear of the storm at last, X tucked one arm and made half a barrel roll, then lay on his back, legs and arms spread. The glow of a battery unit came into view, and two seconds later a diver shot through the clouds above. Having confirmed that it was Aaron, he rolled back into stable position and pulled his rip cord. The suspension lines came taut, yanking him upward, or so it felt. Reaching up, he grabbed the toggles and steered toward a field of dirt to the north of two crumbled buildings.
With the drop zone (DZ) identified, he pulled the left toggle, turning the canopy to scan the sky. Aaron came back into view a heartbeat later, but something was wrong. He was still in a nosedive and screaming toward the pyramid of ruins.
“Aaron, pull your fucking chute!” X shouted into the comm.
Static crackled, and a second passed. Another two hundred fifty feet closer to the ground.
Aaron’s panicked voice boomed over the channel. “I can’t see! My night vision isn’t working!”
X squandered a half second checking his DZ. He was still on course for a clear landing. He returned his gaze to the sky, locking on the blue meteor that was Aaron.
“Pull your chute! I’ll guide you.”
“I can’t see nothin’ but rooftops!” The flurry of static couldn’t hide the fear in Aaron’s voice.
“Pull your chute, God damn it, unless you want to eat one of those rooftops!”
X breathed again as Aaron’s canopy finally inflated. He still had a chance to slow down, a chance to live. X would guide him. His eyes would be Aaron’s eyes.
Aaron pulled away from the towers, but there were so many. Too many. He plunged toward the jutting bones of what had once been a magnificent high-rise office building.
X rotated for a better view, his ears popping from the change in pressure. Dizziness washed over him. He blinked it away, keeping his eyes on Aaron. He was slowly gliding away from the stalks of broken buildings.
“I can’t see, X!”
“Keep pulling left. You’re almost clear!”
There was a pause.
“Remember what I told you about Tin?” Aaron’s voice was softer now.
X’s heart caught for half a beat. “Yes.”
“You have to take care of him. Promise me!”
“Aaron, you’re going to make it! Keep to your fucking left! You’re almost clear.”
The canopy pulled Aaron away from the jungle of steel and glass,
but X couldn’t see a clear landing zone. He squirmed in his harness, eyes roving frantically across the desolate landscape for a way down.
“Promise me, damn it,” Aaron repeated.
X sucked in a measured breath. “I promise. But you’re going to—” Before he could finish his sentence, the blue silhouette swung around and smashed into the side of a building. X watched helplessly as the chute caught on jagged metal. The force tore it free, and the blue glow plummeted into darkness.
The lonely crackle of static washed over the comm. An eyeblink later, he lost sight of Aaron, but he heard the crunching thud over the comm as his friend’s body smacked into the pavement.
X stared at the ruined buildings, the air seized from his chest, unable to process that Aaron was really gone. He had only seconds before he had to flare his chute and hit the ground himself, but he couldn’t pull his gaze away from the towers or bear the thought of finding Aaron’s mangled corpse. Not now, not after surviving this many dives.
At some point, he snapped out of his dazed state, jolted alert by his promise and his duty. Humankind was counting on him. Aaron had died, and Will and Rodney before him. But X couldn’t die. He still had two things to do: find the power cells and see Tin through to adulthood.
The square of dirt was rising up to meet him. Bending his knees slightly, he pulled on the toggles to slow his descent and performed a two-stage flare. A halo of dust billowed up around him as his boots connected with the poisoned ground. He tried to run out the momentum, but with no grass or leaves to flutter in the breeze, he had misgauged and approached crosswind. His knees folded, and he lost his balance.
X hit the ground hard, his body tumbling and then skidding across the bare dirt. When he finally fetched up, he was on his back. He lay there for a few seconds. That horrible crunching sound still echoed in his ears. He couldn’t see or breathe. He had lost his entire team in a single jump, in what was supposed to be a green-zone dive.
Furious, he thrashed at the risers and cascade lines wrapped around his midsection and legs. The loose low-porosity nylon rippled in the toxic breeze. He squirmed and pulled it away from his armor, tripping and falling again in the process. Pulling his knife, he sliced through the harnesses, finally freeing himself. He swore again and kicked at the dirt from a sitting position.
The wind had calmed, and the roll and clatter of thunder was far away. He sheathed his knife and lingered on the ground before finally pushing himself to his feet.
Wobbling as the blood rushed from his head, he looked through the bees swarming in his field of vision at his HUD. The beacon of the supply crate Ty had dropped was a half mile away.
Reaching down, he activated his wrist computer. A map rolled out across the screen. He flicked the surface with a fingertip and dragged a navigation marker to the crate’s location.
At least he wouldn’t have to trek across the wasteland for hours to secure his gear. He checked the map for a second time to search for the main target. The Hive’s records put the nuclear fuel cells in an old warehouse two miles from the supply crate. He set a second nav flag to mark the location.
When he had finished plotting his route, he checked the radiation readings. His heart skipped when he saw the digital telemetry on his HUD. Something had to be wrong. The numbers were astronomical.
Green dive, my ass!
He hadn’t the time right now to curse Captain Ash’s team. He had to get moving. His layered suit wouldn’t keep out all the radiation, so the clock was ticking. He pulled his blaster from the holster on his right hip and cracked the triple-barreled break-action open to expose two shotgun shells in the breech. It was good he checked; he had forgotten the flare. He plucked one from his vest, inserted it in the top barrel, and snapped the action shut with a click.
The training and experience he had acquired over ninety-six dives kicked in. He scanned the devastation all around him, framed on either side by hundreds of skeletal buildings, and at the top by the swirling storm. It was a sight other Hell Divers had seen countless times, but this time X was the only man left standing to see it.
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Be on the lookout for Nicholas Sansbury Smith's future release(s): Extinction Aftermath coming October 2016 and Hell Divers: Ghosts coming July 2017
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