The Skyfire Saga
On the run from a dangerous media empire, H124 places her hope in learning more about the Rovers, the last bastion of humans to embrace science as a solution to Earth's ongoing environmental catastrophe. But with the planet under imminent threat from plummeting asteroid fragments, H124 must take on a perilous new mission: find and assemble the pieces of an ancient spacecraft capable of pushing the deadly projectiles off course.
Her journey will lead her to the hurricane-ravaged remains of the east coast, and onto the brutal streets of Murder City, where she learns a startling secret about her own past. Death Riders and night stalkers prowl the badlands, but an even greater danger lurks above as H124 fights to build the craft that is humanity's only hope for survival.
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Even with the heat suit on, H124 felt like her insides were cooking. She trudged along beside the others, the heat waves shimmering on the ground before her, distorting the landscape. The oxygen coolant fan rattled inside her suit. The tech was old, which wasn't reassuring. Even with it wheezing away, the air she breathed nearly seared her lungs. She checked the outside temperature gauge on her wrist: 152Â° F.
In front of her, Raven turned around, his face obscured by the rising heat. The sun flashed off the red metal of his suit. "One more mile," he told them. She almost hadn't come. He hadn't wanted her to risk it, even though the medpod had done its work restoring her shattered body. She still ached in more bones than she'd ever known she had.
But she'd come this far, and she was not about to let a formerly broken body get in her way. Back in her previous life, when she'd been a laborer in a megacity, she'd discovered an ancient university in ruins, upon which the city had been built. Deep in the university's interior, she'd found a machine warning of an imminent asteroid collision with the Earth. Her only hope had been to find the Rovers, a legendary group of people who continued to embrace science. And she had found them. Now she had to see this through.
They'd been unable to fly into the location because it was too hot; the air was too light to land a plane or helicopter. So they'd driven close in a climate-controlled all-terrain vehicle. But it was too heavy to venture into this precarious place, the site of an ancient city now overtaken by desert sands. There were too many places where the vehicle could get bogged down.
So for now, they walked.
"Will you look at that!" Rivet said. A slender red-haired engineer in her mid-thirties, she was always animated. Her pale, freckled face lit up as she pointed to an elaborate spire sticking up out of the sand, the tilted remains of a destroyed building, once proud and gleaming, now a sand-scoured mass of twisted steel and shattered glass. "Can you image what this place must have looked like?" She powered on across the sand, easily the most exuberant of their little party.
"I can imagine a lot of things. Like how right now I'm being cooked to a crisp inside this damn suit," Cal grumbled. In his late fifties, with grey rumpled hair and a face permanently reddened and creased in a frown, he was as dour and grumpy as Rivet was cheerful. But as he was an expert in radar, they needed him for this mission. Today they'd find out how close the asteroid fragments were to hitting.
H124 looked up at the sky expectantly. She could almost feel those incoming rocks out there, making her cringe.
"You holding up okay?" Raven asked, moving next to her.
She nodded, even though she felt like her face was on fire. The heat felt kind of good on her mending bones though.
Raven operated a maglev sled carrying a UV charging station. Four small rotors hovered above the ground, each fitted with a powerful magnet that levitated a flat surface. He'd programmed it to follow them. Hopefully the charger would be powerful enough for their mission. Orion trudged along behind it. He was a slim man in his early forties, with deep umber skin and short black hair that was starting to recede. His long fascination with astronomy made him their best candidate to figure out how to deflect the asteroid. On his back he carried a sandblower.
"I hope we find this place before we melt," Cal said. He carried a mapping unit that kept track of how far they'd walked while highlighting the location of their target. "It's still another mile to the north-northeast."
They'd come out here to find an ancient radar facility. In the last week, while she'd been recovering with the Rovers, she'd seen them use radar to determine if any Public Programming Control airships were on the move in their area. But this radar was something different. The Rovers believed that at one time, humans had used radar to image objects in space, to get an accurate idea of their size and trajectory. If they had any chance of deflecting the oncoming asteroid and its fragments, they had to get updated information on how big they were and when they were due to hit. The data she'd brought from the buried university in New Atlantic was still being studied and retrieved. The data storage technology was old, some of it older than anything the Rovers had on hand. They'd had to reverse engineer ways to read it. Rowan, the Badlander who had helped her escape New Atlantic, had been instrumental in figuring that out. He was truly a tech whiz.
She hoped Rowan was okay. He'd stayed behind with the all-terrain vehicle to protect it from theft. It was the only vehicle of its kind that the Badlanders possessed.
H124 trudged along, taking breaths as tiny as possible.
"It's hard to believe people actually lived here," Cal said, gasping inside his suit.
"It wasn't always like this," Raven told him. "It's hard to believe now, but this was once one of the most populated cities on the planet. It was a mecca of entertainment. People came from all over the world to work here."
H124 looked over at him. "What happened?"
"A combination of things. When the first Apollo Project came crashing down, incredibly high temperatures killed a lot of people." Raven had talked with her before about the geoengineering project designed to block some of the sun's incoming radiation in an effort to slow human-caused climate change. The project failed miserably. They'd made a second attempt, and it was still up there, its particles suspended in the stratosphere. They were designed to come down gradually, but instead had stayed up there permanently, causing unpredictable storms and chaos on a massive scale.
Raven went on. "Sea levels rose, inundating the popular coastal section. The place had already been dry, mainly surviving off irrigation. But megadrought depleted their water sources, and people couldn't live here anymore. The desert advanced, eventually taking over this valley."
Cal trudged ahead of them. "Well, this hell hole is an oven I can't wait to get out of."
"Are you serious?" Rivet said. "Think of the opportunity. Normally we'd never venture down here. Look at all these old buildings! And the sky, have you ever seen a more intense shade of blue?"
"Glad you're enjoying yourself," Cal retorted. "I feel like an overheated MRE." He slowed down, lifting one boot. "Damn. My boots are melting." As he lifted his leg, a long, stringy mass of melted material clung to the sand.
"Let's pick up the pace," Raven said. "We don't want these suits breaking down on us before we get there."
She thought of Rowan waiting in the huge armored car, and the giant wheels that had lifted them above the heavy heat of this place.
They all started walking faster, Cal taking the lead. Then he stopped. "Damn! This sand burns!" He limped a little farther, and let out a piercing scream. He wheeled around, facing H124 and Raven. "What is that?" he shouted. He flung aside the mapping unit and started ripping at his body.
H124 saw something surge up inside his suit, swarming over his face. He thrashed around, grasping at his helmet. "Get them off!"
She rushed forward, hitting the face shield release, and the glass slid down with a click, revealing thousands of tiny grey bugs scuttling over his face and neck. He screamed again, throwing his arms up, scraping at his face with his heat gloves. They came away bloody, strips of flesh hanging off his fingers. He started to run, stumbling in the deep sand, then tripped and crashed down.
They all hurried over. Raven turned him over. "Get some water!" he shouted.
H124 ripped off her pack and pulled out her water bottle, kneeling beside Cal. Raven grabbed it, dumping the liquid on Cal's face.
It did nothing. The grey swarm shifted over him, blanketing every feature, even going up his nose. Cal gripped her hand, so tightly she thought he would break her newly mended fingers. She peered down the neck hole into his suit to see they'd swarmed over his entire body; his suit was alive with the wriggling mass.
Then he let go, and his hand fell limp.
The mass shifted abruptly, streaming down. As the bugs moved away, revealing Cal's head, H124 blinked at the horror. They'd stripped him of every last bit of flesh, leaving only gleaming white bone. Where there were once eye sockets, there were now windows to an empty skull.
Then she heard an eruption of insectoid clicking; the bugs were streaming from the hole in Cal's boot.
Raven stood up and grabbed her hand.
H124's pack slammed against her back as she ran in the shimmering heat. Orion moved to the lead, grabbing the mapping unit and holding it out in front of him. "We're close!" he called back.
The sled whirred along behind them, matching their pace, the charging equipment sliding around erratically. H124 couldn't breathe. The air was too hot. She couldn't get enough oxygen, and the cooling fan was humming violently now, threatening to shut down. But she thought of Cal, his lifeless body lying back there in the sand, and ran on. She glanced back, not seeing anything moving on the ground.
"It's possible ... they can't get into our suits," Raven said, his words coming in gasps. "It was the hole in his boot ... that let them in. We've got to be careful ... and limit exposure to the hot ground."
"This is it!" Orion cried. "Everybody stop." He set down the mapping unit, then hefted the sand blower off his back and blasted away at drifts by his feet.
The sun beat down on her back as she started sweating profusely in the confines of the suit. Her heart hammered at the thought of those things bursting up from underground. The sand blower revealed a rooftop vent. Orion turned off the blower and knelt, tugging at the grate covering the air vent.
Raven bent and helped him, and with a groan of rusted metal, the grate came free.
Orion stuck his head inside the dark opening. "There's a ladder," he told them. He picked up the mapping unit and entered the aperture. A moment later his head stuck back up. "It's safe."
Raven insisted H124 and Rivet go next, before he descended himself. The sled hovered, lowering down after him. He closed the vent above them, and in the darkness H124 could hear his boots on the metal rungs of the ladder growing louder as he went lower. "Is everyone okay?" he asked as he touched the bottom.
A murmur of assent answered back.
H124 turned on her headlamp. The four clustered at the bottom of the ladder, just a short distance from a cement stairwell leading down. They descended a flight, stopping at the next landing. It was much cooler here. She read 74° F off her temperature gauge, and opened her faceplate.
Orion slumped to the floor. "I can't believe he's gone. What the hell were those things?"
Rivet opened her faceplate, her eyes wide with shock. "They ... ate him."
H124 felt numb inside, staring out in disbelief.
Raven shook his head. "I can't believe it. "
Orion shot him a panicked look. "We're not going to make it out of here, are we?"
"Of course we are." Raven pointed up. "Those things got in because Cal's suit got compromised. We're on a ticking clock here. We can make it out. We need to get the radar information as quickly as possible, then get back up there. We'll wait until the coldest part of the night, just before dawn, then walk out to meet Rowan."
Rivet looked up at him, mouth agape. "Night? We're on foot! We'd be a walking buffet out there, lumbering around in these suits. What about night stalkers?"
Everyone went quiet. H124 had had more than one encounter with those things. They hunted in the dark, but that didn't slow them down.
Raven lifted his hand. "I know. But those things that killed Cal — if they sensed his skin through the tear in his boot, maybe the night stalkers are just as vulnerable. They might just stay away from the area."
Orion gave a low whistle. "That's a pretty big guess to bet our lives on."
Raven gestured down at his suit. "These things are old. At least a hundred years. Probably a lot more. We have no idea when they're going to fail. We know for certain if another of our suits breaks down, that person doesn't stand a chance. Going at night is our best bet."
Orion gave a ragged breath. "Okay. Okay."
Rivet glanced at Raven and H124. "I don't like this." She extended a hand to help Orion up. "Let's just keep moving. Do what we came to do and get out."
"But what do you think they were?" Orion asked again. "Insects of some kind?"
H124 had been voraciously flipping through books since she'd come to stay with the Rovers. She couldn't read them too well yet, though Raven had been helping her learn. But she'd read that some kinds of beetles stripped flesh off of bones.
"No," Raven said, panting. "Something else. Maybe something human-made." They all looked at each other in the dim light. "Let's find this radar equipment and start it up. We need to get out of here."
She thought of Rowan back there and worried. He probably wasn't walking around barefoot though. More likely he was sitting inside the climate-controlled vehicle, tinkering with his latest invention, whatever it might be. She switched on her PRD, bringing up a communication window in the floating display. She called him. Once his smiling face appeared she felt a little comfort.
"Wasn't expecting to hear from you so soon, H."
She was relieved to see him inside the vehicle, but dreaded the news she had to give him. "We had a ... mishap. Cal is dead."
He immediately leaned forward. "What?"
"There's something out there, in the sand. Don't go outside."
"I'm coming to get you guys." He moved to the front of the vehicle to start it up.
"No, it's too dangerous. We're safe for now. I just wanted to let you know."
He withdrew his hands from the controls, albeit reluctantly. "I don't like this."
"Neither do we." She scanned the spooked faces around her. "We'll contact you when we're heading out. It'll be at night."
"Night ... are you crazy?"
"Raven has a theory that the night stalkers are vulnerable to these things, too. They may steer clear of here."
He lifted his eyebrows. "A theory?" He glanced around, seeing the others through her PRD. "H," he said quietly.
She stepped away from the others. "Yes?"
"We don't really know this guy. He could be dead wrong about this."
She bit her lip. "We have to take the chance."
Rowan sighed in frustration. "If you're sure."
She looked back to see everyone nodding. They were still listening, apparently. "We're sure."
"You be careful."
"We will." She shut down the communication window.
Orion had switched the mapping unit to the plans of the building. "It's down here."
With heavy hearts they turned and descended the stairs.
Once they reached the subbasement, the old place creaked around them. A deep silence settled over them as they moved through a structure entombed and lifeless. Orion led the way, consulting an old schematic on the mapping unit. At last they reached a metal door with a sign: Radar Astronomy Research.
The rusted door came open with a piercing screech, admitting them to a vast room with several computer workstations, shelves of books, tables, and chairs. Some were still strewn with papers, the chairs pulled out slightly as if the researchers were due back any minute. Two coffee cups sat near one another on a table. H124 approached them. Grey dust coated their empty insides.
Cobwebs hung thick in some places. Orion chose a workstation and brushed the chair off, a plume of dust billowing up. He waved it away and stifled a sneeze. He couldn't hold back a second one, which thundered along the walls. He checked over the computer. "Looks okay."
Raven steered the sled over to the station, where they hooked up the UV charger. Rivet had drifted over to the books, browsing titles.
"Here goes," Orion said, pressing the power button on the computer. For a discouraging moment nothing happened. Then they heard the whir of a fan and a ticking noise. He switched on the monitor, which soon glowed. "Outstanding!" he cheered, clapping his hands together.
Once it booted up, he tinkered with the programs installed on the computer, clicking through icons and opening folders. H124 looked over his shoulder in fascination. It was the same kind of ancient tech she'd found under New Atlantic. So huge and bulky, so physical. Ingenious how the screen was made out of glass.
She wondered why it had all been left here, the cups on the tables, the loose papers, all of this equipment that must have been worth something back then. Maybe they'd meant to come back or had to leave suddenly. Maybe frequent megastorms had driven them out, or the crushing drought.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shattered Lands"
Copyright © 2018 Alice Henderson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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