The Skyfire Saga
As a deadly asteroid careens towards Earth, H124 and her Badlander companions race against time to piece together the ancient ruins of a spaceship that can intercept it. But this is not their only mission. In case their plan is not successful, they must warn the residents of Delta City of the impending impact, giving them a chance to seek shelter.
Aligned against a power-hungry media empire that feeds off an apathetic and unsuspecting populace, H124 knows that knowledge is her greatest weapon. And as news of the incoming asteroid spreads, the citizens begin to turn away from those who have kept them shackled in ignorance. Backed into a corner, Earth’s corrupt rulers will do anything to stop H124, even if it means sacrificing the planet itself . . .
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The submarine lurched sickeningly to the right, the klaxon blaring above H124's head. Flashing red light filled the tiny space as she grabbed onto one of the bunks to steady herself.
"Captain to the conn! Battle stations!" someone cried from the command deck. The captain squeezed through the doorway from the next chamber and pressed by her, hurrying to his station.
"What is it?" H124 called to Raven, grabbing onto the bunk edges to move forward to the next compartment. Raven stood in the doorway to the command deck, his long black hair falling into his eyes as he struggled to keep his balance. "I don't know!"
She moved next to him, peering toward the command deck, and heard the sonar tech shout, "Torpedo incoming bearing 150!"
The captain was quick to respond. "All ahead full, come left to 240, depth twenty meters!"
The sub lurched to the side and she caught herself against the fuselage. They waited in a tense ensuing silence, then once again the command deck burst into action.
"Torpedo incoming bearing 170!" the sonar tech shouted from her station.
"All ahead full, come left to 260, depth thirty meters!" the captain yelled.
"Aye!" the helmsman called back.
Once again the sub swayed to one side with a sudden burst of speed. But the enemy craft had been too close to them when it launched its projectile. She heard something clang dully against the sub, and seconds later a violent explosion wracked the submarine. The sea around them erupted into a tempest of bubbles.
"Glancing blow, sir," the weapons officer reported.
"Is there a breach?"
"Doesn't look like it, sir," the officer responded.
"We need to neutralize that thing now! Fire torpedo tube one!" shouted the captain.
"Fire torpedo tube one, aye," shouted the weapons officer.
H124 could hear the clanking of boots on metal as crew members hurried back to the torpedo bay. Moments later she heard a dull thunk as a torpedo left one of the bays.
"We're too damn close. Brace for the shockwave!" the captain called, and H124 grabbed onto a metal handle. But an impact didn't come.
"Missed the target, sir," said the weapons officer.
"Damn!" cursed the captain. "Fire torpedo tube two!"
"Aye!" called the weapons officer, relaying the order to the crew in the torpedo bay.
Much quicker this time, she heard the dull thunk of a torpedo leaving the bay.
"Direct hit!" called the weapons officer.
"Brace for the shockwave!" shouted the captain. H124 gripped the handle and Raven held onto the door frames to either side of her. His dark brown eyes met hers in the red flashing gloom of the submarine, and then the entire vessel rocked violently to one side, tossed in the concussive wave from the explosion. She struggled to remain standing. He grabbed her arm. They steadied each other as the sub shuddered and fell still again.
"Enemy craft disabled, captain," reported the weapons officer.
Raven turned and approached the command deck.
They'd connected with this group of ocean-going Rovers in the hopes of finding the next piece of equipment for their mission.
An asteroid was careening toward the earth on a collision course. It had fragmented into four pieces in antiquity. Two pieces were still on the way: a smaller fragment soon to hit the Pacific Ocean, and the main asteroid, which was heading for a devastating land strike. Though they had a blast deflection craft to deliver a nuclear detonation and throw it off course, they still had no nuclear weapon and no way of launching the craft into space. But they hoped with this Rover crew journey, that this would soon change.
A few weeks before, Onyx and Orion had finished recovering much of the data from the disks and drives that H124 had picked up at the university under New Atlantic, along with the drives they'd recovered from the various aeronautic facilities where they'd found pieces of the blast deflection craft.
One of the monumental tasks before them had been building a rocket that could deliver the blast deflection craft into space. Then they'd lucked out. On one of the disks, they'd found plans for a launch vehicle that could take off from the ground and fly directly into space, no rocket needed. It was the craft designed to replace something called "the shuttle program." But the new program hadn't gotten far. One had been built, and then all the funds from the project had been diverted into military spending.
The vehicle, named the A14, had been built and housed in a facility that was a mere ten feet above sea level on what had then been the east coast. But as the temperatures had risen due to anthropogenic warming, so too had sea levels risen to disastrous heights, inundating coastal cities and flooding facilities like this one.
The vehicle they searched for now might have been more than two hundred feet below the waves, lying there for so many years it felt futile to even hope that it was still down there and still reparable, even if they'd have to salvage parts to rebuild it. But they had to try.
They'd been lucky that a group of Rovers lived in the area, people Raven had met as a kid when he'd traveled around with his parents, checking on the experimental forests that the Rovers had planted, trying to restore some areas to what they'd been before.
He'd contacted them, and they'd agreed to help.
"What was that thing?" Raven asked the captain, an older, sharply dressed man with a mane of white hair that spilled down his shoulders. In the gloom, his pale face hovered above a thick black woolen turtleneck sweater and black woolen jacket. H124 didn't know how he wasn't sweating to death. Even his pants were wool, and he wore knee-high boots and a fancy hat with a gold emblem on its brow depicting a porpoise cavorting between two curling waves. "Ancient nuclear AUV. Autonomous underwater vehicle," the man said. "A long time ago, they were designed to patrol these waters and disable any enemy ships in the area."
"And they think we're an enemy ship?" H124 asked.
He nodded. "Back when they were built, friendlies were tagged with an old identify friend-or-foe system so the AUVs knew who was supposed to be there. If you don't have a tag, you're a hostile."
"And these things are still operational?" Raven asked, his voice wavering. "After all this time?"
"They're nuclear-powered, like this sub. They'll go and go until their fuel gives out. This area's full of them, probably put in place to guard this very facility you want to break into." He glanced thoughtfully toward the sonar station. "This place used to be a heavily guarded base full of top secret projects in development. They employed hundreds of these AUVs to patrol the water. We've disabled quite a few over the years, but countless others are probably still out there. We've got to be careful unless we want to end up in a watery grave."
"What the hell was that?" came an out-of-breath voice behind them. H124 turned to see Dirk framed in the doorway, a collection of wires in one hand and a multitool in the other. Perspiration beaded on his sepia skin, soaking into his long purple and black dreadlocks.
"Apparently ancient tech that wants us dead," Raven told him.
Dirk wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. "That was a hell of a blow. Tell me there aren't more."
"Lots more, unfortunately," the captain answered.
"Captain," said the helmsman, looking at his screen. "We're here."
H124 took a deep breath. It was time to dive.
The dive master appeared in the doorway and gestured for them to follow him back to the lockout trunk. It was a chamber where divers entered, and water filled to match the outside water pressure. Then the door would open, and divers could swim out from there.
The dive master had already gone over all the diving equipment, and now she, Raven, and Dirk climbed into the bulky diving suits with full-face helmets. Each helmet had been fitted with transducers that converted their voices to ultrasound, and receivers that converted those ultrasonic signals back to audible sound. This would allow them to communicate with each other and the sub while underwater. Exterior lights on the helmets would allow them to see in the murky depths. She felt the heavy weight of oxygen tanks being placed on her back as she secured the seal on her helmet. Other crew members buzzed around Raven and Dirk, securing them. Dirk looked distant and sad, just as he had every day since he'd woken up from his coma. She'd never forget his reaction when he'd learned about his twin Astoria's fate.
That day, she'd heard Dirk's scream from the far end of the hall. He'd staggered out of the med lab, gripping the doorframe, swaying there in the open doorway. Byron had reached out to steady him, but he'd shoved his friend away, bringing his hands up to the sides of his head. His mouth had opened in a silent scream, his eyes squeezed shut, as if begging his brain to take back the horror. Byron had reached out again, steadying his friend, who'd nearly crumpled to the floor. He'd gripped his elbow, steering him to a nearby bench. Dirk had shaken his head, teeth clenched. "It can't be. I don't believe you!"
H124 had felt frozen to the spot. She'd told her legs to move toward him, but they wouldn't. She'd been with Astoria when it happened. And though she didn't know how, she'd felt she should have saved her, felt she could have done something, anything, to have returned to Sanctuary City with her alive. Though logically she knew that Astoria had forced her hand, had shoved her off that rooftop and run shouting into the tangle of soldiers, H124 couldn't help but feel she'd let Dirk down, that she was somehow responsible for the gaping hole that had yawned open in his life.
Now in the gloom of the submarine, Dirk's eyes looked hollow, and though he'd never been incredibly talkative before, he definitely wasn't now. He'd been the first to volunteer to go on this mission, insisting that he come along because he knew his way around old tech, and while that was certainly true, she knew that mostly he just didn't want to be left alone with his thoughts. She'd noticed that he'd been working with Orion nonstop since emerging from the med bay. He'd barely slept, and kept busy constantly. Now he stared vacantly off into the distance as a crew member secured the seal on his helmet.
"It's going to be dangerous down there," the dive master warned them for the twelfth time. "Doorways, hallways, narrow passages, a million places where you could get hung up or trapped and run out of air. You're going to be at a dangerous depth, more than two hundred and ten feet, so don't screw around down there." He checked them all over, making sure the suits were secure. It was old tech his crew had retrofitted, and they'd only have an hour of air. "We've mixed other gases with your O, sort of an updated version of the old gas Trimix."
"What's that?" Raven asked.
"It'll let you go deeper than a regular Omix and will protect you from the narcotic effects of nitrogen. Still, this is a fool's mission. There's no way that ship is still down there."
H124 peered through the opening into the cavernous lockout trunk. A sudden fear squeezed her stomach.
"It's our only lead," Raven told him. "We have to do this." Now fully suited up, he stepped into the lockout chamber with H124 and Dirk.
The only way the sub crew had agreed to take them out to the facility was if they didn't have to risk any of their own crew by diving.
"We lost a man last year," the dive master had told them when they'd first met him. H124 had only learned later that it had been his son, that he'd become hung up when a rusted wall had collapsed on him, damaging his air tanks. Though he'd had a diving partner, the other man hadn't been able to lift the debris off, and he'd died in a matter of minutes.
Now the dive master locked eyes with H124. "It's dangerous diving. The most dangerous kind, entering a structure. This could well be a suicide mission."
"We don't have a choice, unfortunately," Raven told him. "Not if we're going to divert this thing. It's either risk our lives here, or die when the asteroid hits."
"It's your funeral," the dive master said with finality, giving a sterling vote of confidence. He shut them inside the lockout trunk and flooded it with water.
Once the water pressure equalized, the hatch opened with a groan. H124 peered into the dark depths of water beyond. She'd never been in salt water before, never been in such depths. The most she'd ever done was swim in rivers and, once, a small, sapphire-blue lake up by Sanctuary City. The water there had been bitterly cold. Here, though the surface temperature wasn't so bad, she knew they'd be experiencing severe cold at this depth.
She pushed off the lip of the sub. The dark water yawned beneath her. This was a crazy crapshoot. If the craft was even still down there, it would be rusted and ...
She pushed the hopeless thoughts away.
Dirk and Raven swam out of the chamber, joining her in the water. Raven nodded to her, and all three switched on their helmet lights. Brilliant beams cut through the water. All three swam deeper. They'd each been fitted with special PRD displays that could operate down there, adjusting for the magnification of the water. She turned hers on and it shimmered, showing a schematic of the old building, the way to the hangar that had historically held the A14.
The cold water pressed against her body, and she could feel the added pressure on her chest as she descended, allowing the weight belt around her waist to pull her downward.
"Everyone okay?" Raven asked. His voice, reassuring in the dark cold, came across clearly. She gave him a thumbs-up. "Remember we only have sixty minutes of air, so we have to make this quick."
As she slid into the dark, she turned on the lights mounted on her helmet. The others did the same, and she glided down through the water until a shape loomed up beneath her. Strange white fingers covered it, and as she drew lower, she could make out more detail. A long, flat surface lay beneath a myriad of small tangled white shapes, some indeed shaped like fingers, others like small trees.
Raven drew up beside her. "It's coral."
She'd heard the captain use the term. It was something the Rovers in this area were trying to save, a living organism that formed reefs, which provided habitat for a number of marine species. She'd read about how warming oceans and unsustainable fishing practices had destroyed the reefs in antiquity, how warming seas had caused them to bleach and die. Slowly these coastal Rovers were trying to fix that, planting coral where it had once thrived.
H124 took in the expanse of the flat surface, stretching away into the gloom in both directions. She peered down at her feet, where the shape extended into the darkness in that direction as well. It was the roof of the building, covered in coral.
"All this coral is bleached and dead," Raven breathed. "The sea here is too warm for it to survive." From what they'd told her, the sea had been too warm for so many years that no one even remembered when the coral had thrived here.
As she drew closer and could make out the ocean floor, she saw that the coral wasn't just bleached and white here. Much of it was broken and shattered, the original shape of the reef destroyed. "What broke all of this up?"
"Bottom trawlers," Raven told her. "Back before the oceans were overfished and fishing was still economically viable, these seas were full of life. To dredge up bottom-dwelling fish, they dragged massive weighted nets along the sea floor, grinding up everything in their wake."
She stared at him through her faceplate. "What?"
"They weren't too good at considering the consequences. Just the immediate profit."
Raven turned away, staring down at the destroyed reefs.
H124 touched down on the roof of the building, finding an old rooftop door leading down. It stood open, rusted solid on its hinges.
She took the lead, lowering herself into the building. She followed the schematics down a long hall to a stairwell. Everything inside the underwater structure was covered with white corals and dead sea creatures she recognized from books as barnacles. She reached an open elevator shaft and peered down into the darkness. If the elevator car still existed, it was at the bottom of the shaft.
She pulled herself facedown into the dark passage and kicked her legs, descending into the black. Her helmet beam shined over more bleached coral and barnacles. The water was murky with floating debris, and she was starting to really feel the cold through her suit. Light flashed on the walls around her, and she looked up to see Raven and Dirk following her into the elevator opening.
She reached what would have been the first subbasement of the building and paused at a closed elevator door.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shattered Skies"
Copyright © 2019 Alice Henderson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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