They dive so humanity survives. Now they take to the sea.
In the fourth installment of the Hell Divers series, the Sea Wolf sets out to search for the Metal Islands. Leading the expedition is legendary Hell Diver Xavier Rodriguez. After enduring for a decade on the poisoned surface, his survival skills will be put to the test on the dangerous open seas.
But storms, sea monsters, and the cannibalistic Cazadores aren’t the only threat to X and his small crew. Their mission will uncover hard truths about the history of the war that left humankind stranded in the air for centuries. And the fate of those still living on the airships might very well rest on this fragile and perilous journey to find a new home.
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The third day of the sky pelting rain was when Xavier Rodriguez felt the first tingle of annoyance. Over the years, he had become a very patient man. Trekking across the radioactive wastes for the better part of a decade allowed him to claim patience as a virtue. But by the fifth and sixth day of rain, his patience was nearing its end.
He hated being cooped up in a boat, and the new storm brewing overhead wasn't helping his mood any. Sitting around gave him plenty of time to think. There were still moments of deep anger and resentment when he reflected on those ten long and perilous years on the surface. For hours at a time on the journey, he found himself either lost in his thoughts or jerking away from the nightmare images.
Lightning webbed across the horizon — a welcome distraction from the memories. Each rumble of thunder shook the Sea Wolf with a gentle vibration.
X sat in the control room, eyeing his enameled mug on the dashboard. The precious contents sloshed inside, blending the tea spiked with good old shine from the Hive. Miles, his trusty Siberian husky hybrid, sat on the floor, muzzle on his paws, crystal-blue eyes glancing up every few minutes.
The twin hulls flanking the command center groaned as the two turbo engines pushed the craft through the heaving seas that slapped the port side. X flipped a switch on the dashboard, and the high beams lanced through the inky darkness, illuminating waves like snowcapped mountains as far as he could see.
The reinforced fiberglass-and-metal frame suddenly didn't seem all that sturdy. He considered taking the boat off autopilot but didn't want to risk veering off course. So he tried to relax in his leather seat and put his trust in Timothy Pepper, the AI program guiding the Sea Wolf.
A glance at the on-screen map showed they were still sailing east of an island once known as Cuba. They had already passed through the dark Bahamas, with no sign of the Metal Islands or the Cazador ships.
He checked the circular navigation monitor on the control panel to look for landmasses, other vessels, or mutant creatures that he assumed lived in the cold, dark waters.
A green light blinked, revealing no contacts. The view through the windshield revealed nothing but open water as far as he could see.
While he wasn't at all opposed to having an uneventful first leg of their maiden voyage, he was starting to get bored. He twisted in his chair at the screech of the hatch opening. Magnolia Katib stood in the entryway, a hand on her pale forehead.
"How you feelin', kid?" X asked.
"How's it look?"
She lurched over to the other chair. Slumping against the cushioned leather, she let out a groan. "I think I prefer diving to sailing."
To conserve energy, X flipped the lights off on the dashboard. The dark waves stretched into dark infinity, making it difficult to see where the ocean ended and the sky began. If not for the sporadic flashes of lightning, it would have felt as if they were sailing through the void of space.
"I always wanted to see the ocean," Magnolia said, "but this really sucks. I've puked four times this morning."
X gave her a quick glance. Her short-cropped hair, dyed blue, hung over her sapphire-blue eyes. It used to give X the creeps, but he had warmed to her style.
"Better drink some water to stay hydrated," he said. They had a good supply of water and a recycler unit to help it last, but at this rate, she would need more than her daily ration.
"Yeah, yeah." She turned her attention back to the dashboard, tapping the fuel-gauge monitor with a purple fingernail. "Is this right?"
"What?" X leaned over to double-check.
"Looks like battery two is losing power," she said. "Why didn't Timothy warn us?"
"Pepper?" X said. "He was annoying me, so I shut him off."
Frowning, Magnolia swiveled her seat to another section of the control panel and hit a button.
The AI's voice broke over the speakers.
"Good afternoon, Miss Katib and Mr. Xavier."
"'X.' I told you to call me 'X.' "
"My apologies, sir."
"Just 'X'!" he said in a voice just shy of a shout.
Magnolia smirked, giving X a cockeyed glance. "He's really getting on your nerves, isn't he?"
"I'm not used to robots."
"Timothy, what's the deal with the battery power?" Magnolia asked, returning her attention to the monitor.
"The boat, as you may know, is equipped with two batteries that charge the twin turbo engines," Timothy said.
X groaned. "Cut to the chase, pal."
After a pause, Timothy continued. "Battery two has malfunctioned, although I'm not certain of the cause. It may require a manual assessment, as it could be something as simple as a faulty sensor."
X checked the gauge for battery two. Sure enough, Mags and the AI were right: it was down to 25 percent. But how the hell could that happen, and how had he missed it? Both batteries were lithium-ion, and Chief Engineer Samson had said they were two of the best ever recovered from the surface.
"Shit," X said. His tone drew the attention of Miles, who glanced up from his paws and then went back to sleep after letting out an exasperated sigh. X could empathize. Despite having spent most of the journey in this chair or his bunk, he was exhausted.
Boredom had a way of creating fatigue, leading to mistakes, and even in these churning seas, X was bored as hell. He wasn't used to being cooped up in a small vessel, and part of him missed the freedom of roaming the wastes — although he didn't miss the Hive one bit.
"I'm going topside," he said, unbuckling his harness.
Magnolia's eyebrow went up. "You serious?" Her eyes flitted back to the windshield. "In this downpour? Can't this wait?"
"No," he said firmly. Truth be told, X wasn't overly worried about the lithium-ion batteries — he just needed some space and air. He was used to being on his own, and as much as he appreciated Magnolia wanting to join him on this adventure, he missed his solitude, and the AI was getting under his skin.
X moved over to check the readout on the main monitor, looking closely for radiation and any trace of mercury in the rain. Both were in the yellow zone, and he decided he would suit up on the second deck above them.
"Stay here, boy," he said to Miles.
The dog let out a whine and sat on his hind legs, watching as X prepared to leave the room.
"Be careful," Magnolia said, wrapping a strand of blue hair behind her ear.
"Shall I assist you, X?" Timothy asked.
"Nope. You just keep us from capsizing, okay, mate?"
Timothy's hologram flickered and then smiled. "'Mate' — that's a new term to me, and I'm pleased to find in my database that it means 'friend.'"
X shook his head as he stepped out into the narrow hallway belowdecks. He didn't trust the AI — or any other robot with a conscience. If Katrina hadn't insisted, he would never have allowed the program on board. But he couldn't deny that Pepper was useful, especially when it came to guiding the Sea Wolf through rough weather.
The hatch clicked shut behind X, and he made his way past his quarters on the left. Magnolia had taken the quarters on the right. The third room included a shared eating space with a stove, small kitchenette, and oval table where they ate most of their meals.
The next two rooms were bathrooms, and aft of these, a maintenance room and storage closet, where they stockpiled their extra rations and medical supplies.
He climbed the ladder to the second cabin, which they had transformed into a staging area for future missions. Racks of weapons were bolted to the bulkhead on his right. Brand-new submachine guns, a speargun, and even fishing rods were stocked and secured throughout the room. Crates bolted to the deck contained scuba gear, life jackets, and buoys.
X made his way over to the crate containing his suit, armor, and helmet. The metal gleamed in the overhead light, but the polishing did little to obscure the scratches, dents, and other abuse inflicted during his decade on the surface.
After throwing on his new suit, he donned the trusty old armor. Back on the Hive, when Michael Everhart had asked him whether he wanted new gear, X had declined. Why give up something that had saved your life countless times? The gear was old, sure, but he had made modifications to his helmet and battery unit that made it more useful than ever before.
He secured the helmet, clicking it into place, and made his way to the rack of weapons, opting for an automatic rifle with a grenade launcher attachment. He left the bandolier of grenades on the rack, slung the gun over his shoulder, and spun the wheel handle to open the hatch to the weather deck.
Gusting wind peppered his suit with rain. He fought his way out onto the seventy-foot-long deck using the glow from lightning flashes. A fork speared through the sky and into a wave. The glow lit up the stern. X examined his handiwork. Two strands of razor wire were looped around the rails to dissuade any mutant beasts lurking in the seas from coming aboard.
Three spearguns were mounted on the deck, in slots retrofitted from fishing-pole mounts. X had welded them on himself, taking a lesson from the Cazadores, who had mounted such weapons on their ships.
In the center of the deck stood a twenty-foot mast with a crow's nest at the top. There was a second mast in the stern, but neither had sails up right now, and they weren't extended to full length, to present less of a target for lightning.
Chinning his comm pad, he opened the channel to the command center.
"Mags, you copy?"
"I'm on deck and heading to the engine compartment."
"Please try to keep water out of the compartment, mate," Timothy said.
X chuckled in spite of himself. "Let's lay off the 'mate,' okay?"
"Okay ... X."
"Please be careful, X," Magnolia added. There was trepidation in her voice. Not that he blamed her for being nervous at this point — she was sick as a dog, and he was starting to think she regretted coming along.
X uncoiled a rope from the bulkhead outside the hatch and looped it through two carabiners. He tested the hitch before setting out across the slick deck, keeping his eye on the silhouette of a Siberian husky painted on the deck not far from the mast. The name Sea Wolf was painted on the rectangular hatch that opened into the guts of the boat.
That was his objective. The sails were stored inside the compartment, close to the engine and battery units. The only access was from the hatch he was walking toward.
Battling the fierce winds, he slowly made his way forward. Beneath his boots, the entire boat rattled from the booming thunder. A wave slammed into the starboard side, sending a cascade of water over his armor. The shower didn't bother him, but he did fear taking a bath in the ocean.
He made cautious progress, pulling on the rope for slack on his way to the hatch. Bending down, he grabbed the handle and prepared to open it when the vessel crested a wave. X braced for impact.
The boat continued rising, then crashed back down with enough force to knock X off his feet. Water came over the side, hitting him with the force of a hurtling Siren. He scrambled back to the hatch and wiped his visor with a gloved hand.
"Be advised, I'm picking up a heavy electrical disturbance about two knots southwest," Timothy said.
"You picked a crappy time to go topside," Magnolia stuttered over the comm channel.
"Just keep us steady, Pepper," X said. He reached out for something to hold on to, but the only other thing to grab was the mast, which wouldn't do him any good. Clinging to the hatch, he prepared for the next wave.
He couldn't see over the cabin forming the bow of the boat and had no idea when it would hit. The vessel climbed again, engines purring beneath the deck, straining against the rough water.
"X, I highly recommend you come back inside before —"
X cut Timothy off. "And I'd highly advise you not give me orders, Pepper."
The boat rose onto a wave, and X gripped the handle tighter, gritted his teeth, and waited. This time, the bow slapped back down so hard, water broke over the top of the cabin. He looked up through the spray as lightning slashed the sky, illuminating a wall of waves in front of them.
"Magnolia, take over for Timothy," he ordered.
"Do it, Mags. I trust you over him. No offense, Pepper."
"None taken, sir," Timothy replied.
Still clinging to the handle, X looked over his shoulder at the hatch leading back into the boat. It wasn't even twenty feet away, but he couldn't risk getting flung over the side, not even with the rope hitched to his armor.
"X, you should follow Timothy's suggestion and get back inside," Magnolia said.
"That's a negative, Mags. I'm going inside the battery room."
Static crackled over the channel with her reply. "Okay, but do it soon."
X prepared to open the hatch and climb inside. He couldn't risk flooding the compartment. While he waited for the right moment, his eyes darted to the razor wire on the rails. He had looped the wire there to protect them from sea creatures, but if he should get caught in it ...
The boat rose up on a wave again, lifting X to a fleeting view of the ocean in all directions. Miles of dark, churning water surrounded the tiny boat. In the wake of a lightning flash, he thought he saw something moving in the murk.
Slapping back down, the vessel creaked from the impact. Although he had braced himself, the force still rattled his bones.
He shook off the shock.
Magnolia continued bringing the boat about, but the damage was already done. A sensor beeped over the comm system, and X didn't need to hear her frantic report to know the Sea Wolf had taken damage.
"We've got a crack in the right hull," she said. "Sealing it off."
A clanking sounded, and he looked up as the sail mast began to extend, the three-piece pole rising toward the storm clouds.
"What the hell is happening!" X shouted. "The mast is raising!"
"Must have malfunctioned," Magnolia quickly replied. "I can't stop it."
X looked back down at the hatch. He had to get inside before the mast took a lightning bolt and fried him where he stood. He spent the next few seconds timing the waves and waiting for his opportunity to climb inside.
"X, I'm picking something up on ..."
The rest of her transmission cut off. He clicked the handle left and pulled the hatch open. With seconds to spare, he unclipped his tether and turned to climb inside, when his peripheral vision caught a darting movement over the port gunwale.
In the split second it took his mind to process what he was seeing, a thick sucker-covered arm the size of a tree trunk slapped the deck and quickly slithered back over the railing, taking a coil of razor wire with it.
"What in the hell ...?" he mumbled. His pounding heart skipped as three more arms curled out of the water and rose above the railings. These weren't the snakelike creatures from the swamps. These were all arms of the same beast.
"X, something's attached to the boat!" Magnolia shouted. "Something —"
"Big? Yeah, I see it!"
X finally ducked into the hatch and had started to close it when one of the arms grabbed the handle, forcing it open. A third arm curled around the mast, twisting and curling its way to the top, where it bent the pole just below the crow's nest.
Using all his strength, X tried to force the hatch shut. But the Sea Wolf crested another wave and came slamming back down, dislodging X from the hatch and lofting him into the air.
He flailed for something to hold on to. With the rope gone, he had nothing to hold him steady. He crashed onto the deck, sliding as soon as he hit. The port rail stopped him with the clunk of his rifle on metal. The impact knocked the air from his lungs, and red encroached on the edges of his vision. When it cleared, he had no more than an eyeblink to avoid another arm darting over the deck.
Kicking it away, he pushed himself up and fought his way back to the hatch leading inside the boat. Lurching past one of the spearguns, he grabbed it, his boot sliding on the slick deck. He swiveled the weapon toward the nearest arm and harpooned the meaty flesh.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hell Divers IV Wolves"
Copyright © 2018 Nicholas Sansbury Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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