Book VI of the Hell Divers saga from New York Times bestselling author Nicholas Sansbury Smith. The dive continues this November ...
About the Author
Nicholas Sansbury Smith is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Hell Divers series. His other work includes the Extinction Cycle series, the Trackers series, and the Orbs series. He worked for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management in disaster planning and mitigation before switching careers to focus on his one true passionwriting. When he isn’t writing or daydreaming about the apocalypse, he enjoys running, biking, spending time with his family, and traveling the world. He is an Ironman triathlete and lives in Iowa with his wife, their dogs, and a house full of books.
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TWO MONTHS LATER
Xavier Rodriguez clove-hitched the fishing boat to a pier piling and pulled the rope tight. He felt refreshed this morning, and strong. Over the past few months, he had recovered from his injuries and put on muscle mass by taking long daily swims and working in the sun.
Nearing a half century of age, he found it ironic that he should be in the best shape of his adult life. But he wasn't complaining. Age, after all, was just a number.
With the rope secure, he reached back into the boat for his backpack and motioned for Miles to hop out. The dog hesitated at the gap between the gunwale and the pier. He was wary of the depths ever since a snake pulled him under back in Florida.
"It's okay, boy," X said. "Come on."
Miles backed up, then ran and leaped onto the pier. He slid a foot before turning and wagging his tail.
X took an apple out of the bag and bit into it as he slung the pack over his shoulders. The fruit here was unlike anything they ever had on the Hive, and with fish added to his diet, X had added twenty pounds of lean muscle to his scarred frame. But he still wasn't used to the sun and had to protect his skin with lotion he bought from an old woman on the trading-post rig.
He bit off another chunk of apple and tossed it to Miles, and they set off down the long pier, past other boats bobbing gently in the afternoon sun. A light breeze ruffled his button-down shirt and shorts. He had traded in his Hell Diver gear for the loose-fitting clothing and sandals.
It sure beat the leather outfit Imulah had given him to wear.
"You are a king now," the scribe had said. "You must dress like one."
"You want me to dress like a court jester," X had replied. "Fuck that."
If it were up to him, he would have worn what was left of his old Hell Diver armor, but he had stowed it away in a locker, where it waited should he ever need it again.
Gazing out at the balmy skies, it was hard to imagine, but he knew there would always be a need for Hell Divers — and, more specifically, him.
He finished the apple and rested his hand on the pommel of the captain's sword from the Hive. He thought of all those who had carried the iconic sword before him. Their sacrifices had allowed him and so many others to experience life as it was meant to be lived.
But before he could truly enjoy the sunshine today, he had to get something out of the way that he hated: talking.
Today, it wasn't just a talk. He was practically giving a speech, and the gathering of boats told him a lot of people had come to hear him. If that weren't bad enough, he had a council meeting later in the afternoon.
X halted at the sight of dark canopies sailing across the western sky.
The new Hell Divers deployed their chutes as they broke through the cloud cover on their training runs. Normally, they jumped at night to better approximate conditions in the wastes, but today the rookies were doing it in the sunlight.
He paused to watch as several veterans led the new recruits and volunteers. Many of the greenhorns, surprisingly, had come from the Cazador military. Who would have thought so many of them wanted to join the "sky gods," as they referred to his people.
His heart thumped with longing to be up there again.
But he was just a retired, grumpy old man now, and he had business to attend to this afternoon. Miles nudged up against him as if to say, Keep moving, boss.
"We're late, I know," X said.
Miles wagged his tail, and his crystal-blue eyes seemed to brighten in the mat of graying fur. The dog was only about twelve years old, but even with the genetic modifications, he was aging and, like any other creature, starting to slow down.
He wasn't the only one. Despite feeling great, X couldn't run quite as fast or jump quite as far.
"You and I are starting to geeze, old buddy," X murmured.
He reached down, and Miles lapped at his scarred wrist. There was nothing in the world like the love of a dog. He couldn't bear the thought of losing Miles like so many others he had grown close to over the years.
The clank of boots sounded ahead, snapping him out of his melancholy train of thought.
Several militia guards patrolled the docks ahead, keeping an eye on the boats. Two more guards stood in front of the elevator that would take X to the top of the capitol oil rig, from which el Pulpo had ruled his people. It was now under the militia's command, but Cazadores still lived here — mostly accountants, scribes, and wealthier merchants who kept the economy humming.
X continued toward the platform. The militia guards there wore black armor, but instead of the batons they had carried on the Hive, they had automatic rifles.
Red airship symbols with a "V" through the middle marked their helmet crests and their chests.
"Coming down," one of soldiers said.
The cage at the top of the lift rattled its way down to the marina while X waited. He turned back to watch the divers in the western sky.
A moment later, the elevator clanked and the door opened. Freshly promoted Lieutenant Lauren Sloan, leader of the militia, stood there with her arms folded across her armored chest, clearly annoyed.
"King Rodriguez," she said gruffly. "You're late."
"No, you're late," X replied. "I've been here thirty minutes waiting for a ride up." He grinned and looked at the two guards. "Right, fellas?"
They exchanged a glance, then nodded unconvincingly.
"Whatever you say, King Xavier," Sloan said. "Now, can we get going?"
"When you stop calling me 'King,' sure," X replied.
"You are indeed a king," boomed another voice.
X turned as another soldier jumped from a boat onto the dock. This man was no militia guard. The dark, brawny fighter lumbered across the platform, the shaft of a double-headed spear gripped in his massive hand.
"You earned the title, Xavier Rodriguez," Rhino said.
The warrior also had a new rank, now that X had bumped him up from lieutenant all the way to general. The promotion had not sat well with Vargas, Forge, and Moreto, the three colonels next in line.
Rhino stopped a few feet away and tapped one point of his spear on the dock. Then he pounded his metal armor, which still bore the insignia of the Barracudas.
"It was your destiny to become king," he said.
X snorted. He didn't want to be a king or a leader of any sort. He just wanted to retire and live out his days with Miles, a fishing pole, and a mug of shine.
The only rest you're going to get is when you're dead, old man.
"King, Commander, Immortal, Xavier, X — whatever you want to be called, we need to get going," Sloan said. She stepped aside to let X and Rhino into the elevator. Miles moved inside between X's legs.
The gate closed, and the cage started up toward the airship rooftop. The vantage gave the occupants a view of the latest construction project in the Vanguard Islands.
"They're almost ready," Sloan said of the oil rig that had been retrofitted with a single platform. Two ships were anchored alongside, their decks, busy with cranes and other construction equipment.
The rig was one of twenty-one inside the territory and was about to become one of the most important. There were other rigs that also played vital roles in the darkness outside the Vanguard Islands, including a prison rig known as the Shark's Cage, and several fuel outposts that X had just learned about. The Cazadores had a manned facility in Venezuela, called Bloodline, and another, the Iron Reef, in Belize. Both outposts held their precious fresh gasoline and diesel fuel, thanks to a fuel stabilizer that ITC chemical engineers had developed before the war.
"I could never do that," Rhino said, looking at another team of Hell Divers sailing over the water. Their canopies were slowly spiraling down toward the ship waiting for them in the limpid blue water.
One of the divers narrowly missed the deck and splashed into the sea. A rider on a Jet Ski sped over the waves to fish him out before he could get ensnared in his lines.
"It's great training," X said. "Something I would have loved to have when I was just a greenhorn. When I first started, we dove blind as bats through storms."
Several of the divers on the decks had stowed their chutes and used their boosters to pull them back into the sky. Discovery's belly poked through the clouds, the open launch bay sucking them up like a whale swallowing fish.
Back from its third journey into the wastes, the airship had yet to find a single survivor. The Hive, too, had been searching for isolated pockets of humanity, with nothing to show for its twenty-plus missions.
The only dive with real promise of finding human life had ended with the death of Trey Mitchells, ambushed in Jamaica by a team of defectors. The machines had beaten Team Raptor to the signal, killing the survivors living in a bunker under the prison, and destroying the cryo chambers that housed other people and animals.
Discovery had dropped a low-yield nuclear bomb that ended the threat, but X knew that more teams of defectors were out there, hunting humans. The Cazador logbooks documented several encounters over the decades.
X's most important job now was to make sure the machines never found the Vanguard Islands, and, if they did, to protect both sky people and Cazadores.
The battle for the islands, plus Trey's death, had brought the sky people's numbers down to just 402 people — even with the recent births, less than half their numbers of only a decade ago.
And this was why X hadn't authorized a single mission since Trey's death two months ago. It was time to protect and defend what they had, not risk more lives in an effort to save potential survivors in the wastes.
The elevator cage clanked to a stop, and Rhino opened the gate to the rooftop. A line of palm trees swayed in the wind. Evidence of the pitched battle for the capitol rig was everywhere X looked: bullet-holed palm trunks, and gouges in the dirt where damaged trees had been blasted over.
Rodger Mintel had put all the wood to good use, though, in the new shop that his parents, Cole and Bernie, had started on the trading-post rig. They were two of the first people X saw on the rooftop when he stepped out of the cage.
The Mintels had gathered with a group of mostly former residents of the Hive, but some Cazadores were here as well, including wealthy merchants, scribes, and farmers.
Several of the people Katrina liberated from the Cazador container ship before the battle had also joined them on the rooftop. Among those rescued were Victor and Ton, the two leaders who had joined the militia. They had gained some weight over the past few months, but both men were still thin under their armor — especially Ton, who couldn't speak after losing his tongue to the Cazadores.
Victor had started to pick up English quickly, and spoke for both himself and the older African warrior. Despite all their tragedy and hardships, they always greeted X with a smile.
"Hello, King Xavier," Victor called out with a thick accent. The middle-aged warrior pounded his armor proudly, happy to fight alongside the people that had saved him.
X raised a hand to both men as he walked toward the crowd.
It was easy to tell who was who. The sky people wore hats and covered their sensitive pale skin that had never seen the sun until recently. The Cazadores, by contrast, wore little clothing over their bronzed flesh, save for the merchants, who dressed strangely in fancy trousers and vests over white shirts. On their heads, they wore round white cloth hats, of the sort worn by sailors in archives of the old-world US Navy, but with small silver fins affixed to the crown.
X was doing his best to assimilate the two societies, and events like today's were perfect opportunities. The scars from the battle were deep, and reconciliation had been painful and slow. A lasting peace on the islands was going to take a lot of work. But according to his own people and most of the Cazadores, only one person could do it. And it meant X being king.
He cursed under his breath and strode over to the crowd with Sloan, Rhino, and Miles. Seeing the fresh mound in the graveyard caused him to slow. This one was different from the others. Though it had the same engraved wooden plaque, it was empty. Trey Mitchells was just ashes now.
X couldn't imagine how painful the order had been, but Les had executed it, dropping the bomb that obliterated both his son's remains and the machines that had killed him. That hard decision had proved he was the correct choice to replace Katrina DaVita as captain of the airship.
Les was in the crowd today, standing almost a full head taller than anyone around him. No wonder they called him "Giraffe." Most of the people were busy watching the Hell Divers floating back up into the airship as their training for the afternoon ended, but Les saw X approaching.
"King Xavier is here," he said in a commanding voice.
X shook his head as he walked. He would never get used to the ridiculous title. The crowd parted to let him through, treating him as if he were indeed the Immortal that Janga had promised them all in her prophecy. But he knew what he was: just a flawed man with a very high pain tolerance.
Familiar faces turned to watch him as he made his way toward the crew of Discovery. They waited in their white uniforms with the red embroidered Vanguard logo.
Absent was their AI, Timothy Pepper, piloting the ship for the Hell Divers so that its crew could be here for the ceremony.
Les gave a sharp salute, and X returned the old-world gesture. Lieutenant Ada Winslow, the new XO, also greeted him with a salute and a dimpled smile. Ensign Eevi Corey also raised her right hand sharply over her brow. The former militia investigator and Hell Diver was now an officer on Discovery while her husband, Alexander, remained a diver. Also present was Michael's girlfriend, Layla Brower, now seven months pregnant. She stood with a hand on her swollen belly.
She smiled warmly at X, and he smiled back as he walked to a platform built onto the hull of the ancient airship that served as the oil rig's roof. He gripped the warm metal rail in his calloused hands. Miles, sitting on his haunches, nudged up against him again.
John Wynn, the new militia sergeant, stepped over, holding a walkie-talkie to his ear. The former communications expert from the Hive was now Sloan's right-hand man.
"Almost ready, sir," Wynn said.
With his hand again on the pommel of his sword, X turned to face the crowd, taking a moment to scan the familiar and not-so-familiar faces for a moment.
"Today, we gather for a pivotal moment in our history," he announced after a pause. "But first, I'd like to take a moment to remember all those we have lost over the past few months, many of whom are buried here."
Les held his head up high, so far holding back the tears. His daughter, Phyl, and wife, Katherine, were at the front of the crowd, their pale faces looking up at X.
X waited a few more seconds in silent commemoration of those who had perished. His gaze flitted to Katrina's grave. Now he too was holding back tears. He could feel them welling up, and he didn't especially give a shit whether anyone saw. Shedding a tear for Katrina was the least he could do to honor her memory.
"Captain DaVita made the ultimate sacrifice so we could have a home here," X said. He drew the sword and raised it skyward. "Today, we honor her and everyone else who gave their lives so that humanity could survive and thrive together, in the sun."
Wynn put the walkie-talkie back into a pouch and nodded — they were ready to proceed with the next part of the ceremony.
X lowered the sword and looked to the west. Discovery, with its belly full of Hell Divers, began its descent through the clouds.
It wasn't alone. To the south, another airship hovered below the clouds. The whir of turbofans carried in the still air. The hull seemed to pop out of the cloud cover.
Seeing the smooth beetle shape of the Hive brought with it a pang of nostalgia. X straightened his back, sticking out his chest with pride at the sight of the airship he had spent most of his life protecting.
At the helm was Chief Engineer Samson, who had also been doubling as captain for the past few months while they figured out what to do with the ancient airship.
X had finally made his decision a week ago. It was time to put her to rest.
The Hive was officially being decommissioned and would be put down on the oil rig that el Pulpo had planned to turn into a prison for the sky people. Over the airship's curved top, a platform would be added for gardens and maybe even a tropical forest, like the one on the capitol rig.
Rodger Mintel had worked with Samson and the lead technician, Alfred, on the massive project that required multiple ships, cranes, and dozens of workers.
X nodded, and Rodger joined him on the platform.
"You sure this is going to work?" X murmured.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hell Divers VI Allegiance"
Copyright © 2019 Nicholas Sansbury Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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