They will dive, but will humanity survive?
Left for dead on the nightmarish surface of the planet, Commander Michael Everhart and his team of Hell Divers barely escape with their lives aboard a new airship called Deliverance. After learning that Xavier “X” Rodriguez may still be alive, they mount a rescue mission for the long-lost hero.
In the skies, the Hive is falling apart, but Captain Jordan is more determined than ever to keep humanity in their outdated lifeboat. He will do whatever it takes to keep the ship in the aireven murder. But when he learns the Hell Divers he exiled have found Deliverance, he changes course for a new missionfind the divers, kill them, and make their new ship his own.
In the third installment of the Hell Divers series, Michael and his fellow divers fight across the mutated landscape in search of X. But what they find will change everything.
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SIX YEARS AGO
Lightning forked through the center of a massive storm brewing above the badlands. The bowl of cracked dirt seemed to continue forever in all directions. The constant stream of light illuminated a roadway that twisted through the barren terrain. Hundreds of years ago, fields of crops would have framed this road, but now there were only two living creatures here, leaving tracks in the dust.
A man and his dog trekked over the broken asphalt. The man wore a black radiation suit, with an olive scarf wrapped around the area where the crest of his chest armor met the bottom of his helmet. Long ago, the metal of his armor had shone, but years of exposure had faded everything to a dull gray. He walked with a slight limp in his gait — a product of injuries and bad joints.
The man motioned for the dog to join him by his side as they plodded down the decaying road. While the sixty-pound Siberian husky kept his crystal-blue eyes on the path, the man kept his eyes on the swirling storm clouds.
They were both searching — the dog for hostiles, the man for something he could hardly remember. Squinting, he studied the shape of a swollen cloud that reminded him of an oversize beetle. He halted on the road and lowered his rifle, tilting his head as memories flooded through his tormented mind.
"What you're looking for doesn't exist anymore," he said in a scratchy whisper. "They're all gone now."
The dog glanced up at him questioningly and then trotted ahead. The man remained standing in the gusting wind, scarf blowing like a pair of wings behind his helmet, as he tried to recall his past. No matter how hard he tried, he simply couldn't remember certain things. Important things. Things such as who he had been in his old life, before he was left behind. But he could remember his name. It was scribbled on the first page of a dog-eared book he kept in a plastic sleeve inside the breast pocket of his vest.
"You are Xavier Rodriguez." He swallowed, forcing saliva down his dry throat. "You are X," he said, louder this time. "You are the last man."
Miles looked back at him. The plastic of the dog's radiation suit whipped back and forth as he wagged his tail. X felt a tingle at the edges of his lips. It was the closest he had come to smiling in ... how long? It took him a moment to realize he couldn't remember the last time.
"Keep moving," he said to himself. The words became a mantra that he repeated in his mind as he navigated the shattered asphalt that had once been a highway.
His path was the road. It connected the cities of the Old World, where humanity had once thrived. In the distance, the skeletal husks of scrapers reached for the storm clouds. A child who had never seen a city wouldn't guess that the structures were made by humans. Someone who had never set foot down here would have thought they were part of the earth.
And in some ways, they were, just like the bones of the humans and animals that had once lived here. But X knew all too well what the ancient cities were — and what dwelled in the networks of interlacing streets. This city would be no different. It had once been home to millions of people, but now it was the lair of mutant beasts such as the Sirens — genetically engineered humans that had evolved into monsters.
He no longer had a permanent home. His home was wherever he decided to stop and rest. Sleep came whenever his body needed it. With no one to talk to and nothing to do but trek across the blasted land, he had fallen into a routine that made him feel more machine than human.
He didn't know how long he had been walking. He had lost track of time. In the wastes, time was everything, and time was nothing. He had learned this long ago, but how long, he couldn't say. In truth, he didn't want to know. Like the grit whirling around him, memories of his old life surfaced and then blew away. Images and sounds were nearly impossible to recall. But something from his past kept him going.
His destination was the place where water stretched across the horizon. The memory of that sight haunted him, called to him. He had forgotten the name humans used to call it, but he remembered from dives just how cold and dark it was. That seemed a lifetime ago. But so did his journey across the wastes. How long had he been traveling since he left Hades? Four years, or was it five? Could it be longer than that?
Lightning lanced into the ground in the distance, searing the scarred earth. The boom of thunder rattled his visor. The wail that followed stopped him in midstride. Miles halted, ears perked inside his helmet.
The screeching of the wind sounded just like them — a Klaxon that signaled danger and death on swift wings. It was a sound X never forgot, a sound that always made him raise his battered carbine and point it at the irradiated landscape. He searched for the shadowy forms of the Sirens but saw nothing.
Cold fingers of wind sneaked through the holes in his tattered boots and his clothing. Another draft blasted his side. The grit collected in layers beneath his suit and armor. No matter what he did, he couldn't seem to keep the dirt out.
He threw the strap of his rifle over his back and pressed down on the loose duct tape flapping over his wrist. It had come undone and exposed his dark skin. He studied his flesh as if seeing it for the first time. The dirt caked his body like an extra layer of skin. He couldn't remember the last time his body was clean, but he had stopped caring. All that mattered was keeping out the radiation.
X sucked in a long breath of filtered air, filling his lungs. Sometimes he forgot how exhausted he was from walking from city to city all this time, raiding old structures for anything he could use to survive as he searched for the ocean.
That's what they called it, he thought. The ocean.
He tightened a string over his wrist to hold the tape down and then reached for his rifle. It caught on his rucksack. The massive ruck contained everything he owned, from the water purification kit that he pissed into each night to the blocks of calorie-rich synthetic food that gave him and the dog the energy to continue.
The weight was a burden on his shoulders, but nothing like the weight of not knowing whether he was the last man on earth.
He pressed forward, forcing his legs to carry him a few more steps. Keep moving. His eyes flitted back to the storm clouds disgorging bolts of electricity. The bright tendrils speared downward, licking the ground to the west. Another strike lashed the dirt to the east. In the interval between flashes, an oddly shaped light emerged across the dome of clouds, like a lightbulb with a dying power source.
This wasn't lightning.
He studied the rays with a sense of awe. Where there should have been the blue residue of lightning, he saw a warm orange.
"It can't be," he mumbled.
Miles tilted his helmet to look at this new, anomalous sight.
By the time X realized it was the sun, clouds had swallowed the warm glow. He hadn't seen the sun in a long time and had almost forgotten how beautiful it was.
He exhaled, noticing he had been holding in his breath. Seeing something from the past sometimes helped him remember other things. Closing his eyes, he tried to visualize the smooth beetlelike contours of the airship he had once called home. Next, he pictured the interior. In his mind's eye, he saw the silhouettes of passengers walking through the narrow corridors. As in all the other times he tried to remember, these people had no faces.
Pulling out his journal and a pen, he prepared to jot down anything he could recall. But the mental image was gone again already.
A bolt of lightning slashed the earth in front of him, raising the hair on his neck, and rain began to pelt his body. He quickly placed the precious book and pen back in their waterproof sleeve and stowed them in his vest. Then he raised the scope of his rifle to his visor and slowly raked the muzzle over the landscape, searching for shelter.
There wasn't much out here besides the occasional trunk of a dead tree, or the retaining wall of a building long since destroyed. But to the east he noticed patches of red poisonous weeds. Beyond the field of foliage that thrived in the radioactive conditions, a rocky hill shielded the brick foundations of an old community.
It would have to do.
X lowered the scope just as a flash of movement darted from one of those foundations and vanished into a hole in the ground.
Lightning flashed above him, but he didn't so much as flinch. His gaze was locked on to a single spot. Out here, the movement could be anything from a dust storm to a mutant monster. Most of the beasts fed on plants, but they would happily feed on him and his dog if he got close enough.
Thunder boomed above — another threat barreling down. He raised his left arm and checked the rad meter, which looked like an oversized clock. The radiation here was minimal. Then he scanned the sky again for any sign of the Sirens. He hadn't seen any of the winged monsters in a long time, but he never let his guard down, always aware of the threat and listening for their otherworldly wails.
"Come on, boy," X said.
He left his night-vision goggles off to conserve the battery and flicked on his flashlight instead, directing the bright beam at the dirt to the right of the road. Using the light to guide them, he fell into a run, with his only friend in the world by his side. Everywhere he looked, cracks and holes marred the earth like deformed flesh.
X didn't like to stray from the road. It was safer to stick to the path.
The road didn't move. It was the one thing on the cursed earth that seemed to remain constant.
A beetle half the size of Miles poked a pair of ropy antennae out of a cavern in the dirt. X slowed and watched the black chitinous shell emerge. It skittered forward, antennae wobbling back and forth. Like many creatures on the surface, it had no eyes.
Again he was reminded of the airship in the sky. But he was also reminded of all the things that lived underground, from the badlands to the desert he had once crossed. Snakes large enough to swallow a human hunted in the dunes, their scaly armored flesh tunneling beneath the sand. His first meeting with them had nearly cost him his life.
Usually, the insects were harmless, but he didn't take any chances. Using his boot, he kicked the creature aside, sending it scuttling for cover. He continued, eyes flitting over the cracks and holes in the ground.
He was more concerned with falling in a crevice and breaking an ankle than with anything that might crawl out of the ground. That would be bad. And sometimes the holes harbored bigger things than insects. That would be worse.
The ground was solid here, at least. Trekking across sand was something he never wanted to do again.
"Stay close, boy," he said to Miles.
The rocky hill grew larger as they approached. It was a natural bluff, not a mound of scree or debris from a destroyed building. Even better, there was an overhang that would shield him from the wind and rain.
He jogged faster, anxious to set out his tracking gear and start a fire. Lightning sizzled across the sky to the west, and the rumble of thunder followed an instant later. The field of poisonous plants retreated in the sudden downpour of rain, curling into holes in the ground.
Drops of rain hit his visor, sluicing down the thick glass. X shut off his flashlight and chinned his night-vision goggles back on as he approached the hill. Miles halted, too, but not for lack of light. Unlike the man, the dog had genetic modifications that allowed him to see in almost complete darkness.
"What is it?" X asked, bringing up his rifle.
They stood in silence for a few moments, sheets of toxic rain beating their radiation suits. The dog finally trotted onward, and the man lowered his rifle, following cautiously.
Brick foundations traced the ground two hundred feet ahead. The bluff rose three or four stories into the sky. He used the side of his boot to scrape mud off an old street that carved through the terrain. Streets were good. Not as good as the road, but they didn't play tricks on the eye the way the dirt did.
Metal poles protruded out of the dirt at odd angles, like arrows carelessly dropped along the street. Hundreds of years ago, they had provided power to this small community, but the wires were long gone.
X navigated the wet, ruined settlement, wondering whether this place had survived the initial bombs that destroyed most of the Old World. He stopped and bent down to look at something else sticking out of the soil. He brushed the dirt off the skeletal remains of a human hand. Plucking a ring off one of the fingers, he examined it with his flashlight before slipping it into his pocket for later. Then he covered the shallow grave with fresh dirt, which was quickly turning to mud.
Standing, he scanned the area once more, looking for the hole where he had seen something dart away. That creature was bigger than a beetle, and he didn't like surprises. It took him only a few seconds to identify the sinkhole. He motioned for Miles and then trained his rifle on the entrance as he approached, listening for the electronic noises of the Sirens but hearing nothing besides the boom of thunder. At a hundred feet, he stopped and brought up his hand.
The dog sat on his haunches, waiting for orders.
Reaching into his back pocket, X brought out an old can full of coins he had collected on his journey across the wastes. He dropped the ring inside and secured the lid. After making sure the thin cord was attached tightly to the top, he tossed the can. It vanished in the hole, clanking as it fell.
The cord caught in his hand, and he began pulling it back toward the surface. Another sound replied to the echoing metal. It started as a squawk but rose to a high-pitched squeaking.
X pulled the cord until the can reemerged. It clattered over the dirt as he yanked it a few more feet. Then he raised the rifle and aimed it at the lip of the hole, waiting for his bait to draw whatever lurked there out into the open.
He could hear the creature's claws scraping rock on its way to the surface. This was no beetle. Miles' tail dropped between his legs, but X remained steady, keeping the rifle barrel trained on the opening.
A deformed head with a spiky flesh Mohawk popped out of the opening, focusing a pair of bulging bloodshot eyes on the can. It sniffed the air with a nose that was little more than holes in the middle of its face. Then it glared at X, undeterred by the rain striking its crazed eyeballs or, apparently, by the sight of a man.
The beast heaved itself from the hole with two long arms covered in hardened scales like a sort of organic armor. The raised plates ran the length of its body, covering broad shoulders, a wiry torso, and powerful back legs.
X had never seen one of these before. Not wanting to waste precious bullets, he studied the beast for weak spots. It stood on all fours, its arched back lined with ridges and several fins. At its throat, a collar of thicker armor opened and closed like a vent as the beast breathed.
Miles growled a warning, and X aimed at the gill-like feature. The creature tilted its head toward him just as he pulled the trigger. The round lanced into the soft flesh in the opening of the collar, blowing out gore that painted the rain-soaked ground. The blood looked green, but then, so did everything else in the view of his NVGs.
Unable to cry out, the creature flopped silently on the ground as it choked on its own blood. X lowered the rifle and pulled his knife. By the time he reached the body, the abomination was dead.
He looked toward his dog. "You think it tastes good?"
Miles trotted over, sniffed the body through the breathing filter around his muzzle, and walked away, uninterested.
"Yeah, me neither," X said. He pushed the carcass back into the hole and pointed the rifle barrel into the green-hued darkness. The lizard-like monster hit the bottom a few seconds later, the thump and crunch echoing up from the hole. The sound faded away, leaving the man and the dog once again alone in the downpour.
X lowered his gun and walked over to the shelter of the bluff, where he took off his rucksack and rested it on the ground. He checked his rad meter again, and seeing that the area was still a green zone, he took off his helmet. Then he bent down and removed Miles' helmet for him. Next, he pulled out three foot-long stakes attached to the side of his backpack and handed one of them to the dog.
Excerpted from "Hell Divers III Deliverance"
Copyright © 2018 Nicholas Sansbury Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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