A Hero Rising (A New Dawn, #3)
Genre: Sci-Fi Romance
Release Date: February 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-937044-83-1
After watching his love leave on a colony ship, James Wilfred must save those left behind from a planetary apocalypse. Their salvation lies in an unfinished ship tucked away in a secret government base, and only James can break in and pilot him and his people to freedom on a nearby space station.
Skye O’Connor’s boyfriend never returns after his gang attempts an assassination of the Governor, and the State Building is destroyed. Worse, crazed moonshiners addicted to the chemical Morpheus have stormed the city, and she must find a safe place for her and her boyfriend’s daughter. When a heroic man saves her, Skye asks to accompany him on his quest to find the last colony ship left on Earth.
As the city falls around them, James and Skye must work together to build a new future, all the while rediscovering their ability to love, before the apocalypse claims them both.
Clutching his retractable cable, James lowered himself down the glassy surface of the high-rise as the wind stole the warmth of the sheets he’d just left behind. He glanced at the fluttering curtain three stories above his, wondering how Mestasis would feel when she awoke to an empty bed. He detached his grappling hook and slipped inside the balcony of the building, fast as a diving raven’s shadow.
If only I could stay longer. If only things could be different.
His wristband flashed another message. If you don’t get down here within the hour, I’m coming to look for you.
The thought of Dal stumbling through the abandoned subway by himself sent adrenaline rushing through James’s veins. The lower levels had been dangerous since Dal was a boy, but with the introduction of Morpheus, the desperate scavengers had grown into vicious savages.
James typed a message back, hoping Dal would believe him. I’ll be there. Stay where you are.
Mestasis will have to understand.
He took an elevator down as far as it worked, holding onto the slim hope he’d have a chance to give Mestasis a decent good-bye later. The elevator creaked to a halt and the doors parted to a corridor lit by one flickering bulb. Crumpled rags and broken vials dusted with the dried, silvery sheen of Morpheus lined the floor.
The lower levels.
No one decent ventured down this far, so the government didn’t find it necessary to cover low level repairs. It would only bring up gangmen, like himself, to the upper levels. But some of us are good. It’s those Razornecks that give gangs a bad name.
He jogged to the end and slid down a plastic recycling chute to Level Five. The chute ended with a rusted metal grating piled high with cracked bottles and compacted cans. He kicked out the grating and emerged on a stairwell landing. Cracked bottles rattled around him as he shuffled through the debris to Level One, the place where only the bravest, or craziest, treaded alone.
The scent of dank air and old garbage wafted up from the moldy floor. It smelled like home. He’d been away too long. James ducked through a shattered window to an alley between the buildings.
Twilight spread through the sky, stretching the shadows of lumbering heaps of old mattresses, broken ionizers, and tattered plastic bags. Using the darkness as his cloak, he climbed through the debris and checked over his shoulder. The alley lay as silent as a wasteland. Residents had boarded most of the windows to keep out thieves, but apartments lay empty and dark as deep space.
Three windows down, a small child with wispy black hair peered out, clicking off a flickering light stick. The child disappeared as he approached. James reached in his pocket and left an orange on the sill before ducking away.
A stone stairway loomed at the end of the alley like a mouth to the underworld. James slipped down a corroded railing to an old subterranean transportation system once used by his ancestors in the days before the mega-high-rises and the elite’s reign of the upper levels.
Pitch-black oozed from under the brick, and his hair glowed neon green as the darkness enveloped him. The radiance was just enough to light his path, the permanent dye a trademark of his gang. James picked up his pace and jogged along the tracks, approaching a thick cement door with graffiti scribbled in hasty strokes.
He raised his hand to knock, but he paused with his fist in midair. Shuffling echoed down the track to his right. No one could see him entering the Radioactive Hand of Justice’s underground facility—he had to find out who had found him and make sure he or she wouldn’t talk.
James slipped past the door and tiptoed closer, his hair casting light a few feet around him in every direction. No one could sneak up on him.
Was it Dal?
“Hello?” His voice echoed down the shaft.
The shuffling continued and James froze, listening for footsteps. The motion sounded more like the fluttering of bats than any tapping of feet. Bats didn’t scamper on the ground.
Someone snickered and then sucked in a long breath before cackling lightly like a witch in a fairy tale. The person smacked his lips together. James narrowed his eyes.
Oh great—some desperate savage, looking for anything he can sell for Morpheus. Maybe I can knock him out and leave him on Level One where he came from.
“Stay where you are.” James’s voice was deep and authoritative.
The shadow moved toward him in a flurry. The smell of mold and rotten food clogged his throat, and James resisted the urge to gag. Where had this man been?
“I said, stay where you are.”
He blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the figure had scuttled ten feet closer, arms writhing like snakes in the air. James stumbled back. He’d only seen them from the safety of the city walls before.
Oh geez. A moonshiner gone over the edge.
Moonshiners got their superhuman speed from the drug Morpheus, a chemical mined on the moon. Too bad the drug also caused an insatiable urge to kill. James had heard about the moonshiners who lost their minds from stories the city wall guardians told. He reached for his laser, but the man scurried closer like he was in an old movie on fast-forward.
James had enough time to deflect the moonshiner’s jaws with his elbow as the man’s face came into view. Sunken cheeks held shadows where the chemical spread like ink underneath the skin. James pushed back against the man’s weight, throwing him off. The moonshiner lunged at him before James could recover, scratching his chest with jagged fingernails that had grown so long, some of them were curled. James kicked him in the gut, but it did no good. The moonshiner was past the point of reacting to pain.
The man pushed James over and fell on top of him, jaws clacking an inch from his face. James held him back with one arm while the other worked his laser out of its holster. The man’s eyes had turned into black holes, the pupils bleeding over the whites to give him a fiendish glare. Strands of hair shed from his scalp, trailing down his arms to tickle James’s face. The moonshiner’s head was disproportionately larger than his body, as if his skull had begun to grow and change, morphing into an oval.
Yeah, this moonshiner is past gone. Must have been using for years. Why didn’t the guard take him out when he entered the city?
James yanked his arm free to fire his laser directly into the man’s midsection, and the moonshiner fell back with the force. Jumping to his feet, James raised his laser again. He shot the moonshiner three more times in the chest and shoulder, but the man scrambled up and kept coming.
Panic rose inside James in a riptide. Would the moonshiner never tire or die? Hissing with a black-toothed grin, the man crashed into him, pushing James into the wall and knocking the air out of him. Even the guy’s teeth looked different—inhuman, pointed like a shark’s incisors. James banged his head against the cement and dropped his laser. He struggled to focus as the world warped.
Would he die like this? Torn to pieces by a druggie monster?
No. Too many people needed him. He had to see Mestasis one last time.
James fought, wrestling the moonshiner to the ground. He rolled over and stretched his hand out, clawing for the laser. His index finger curled under the trigger and he brought the gun up in one swift motion. The man caught his wrist, and James struggled to point the laser at the moonshiner’s head.
Just a little lower.
The moonshiner opened his mouth, and a dry, rasping voice whispered, “Aliens. They left something behind on the moon.”
“What the—” James hesitated, and the moonshiner lunged for his neck. He fired at the man’s head and the moonshiner stilled and collapsed.
Pulling himself up, James tried to calm his racing heart and think straight.
Where did this moonshiner come from? What brought him into the tunnels? And what aliens?
James didn’t have time to decode the strange riddle leaking from a moonshiner’s crazy mouth. Worried about Dal, he rushed to the cement door and banged five times: two quarter notes followed by three eighth notes. If anything had happened to them while he was away, he would never forgive himself—even if it meant regretting his last hours with Mestasis.
The door creaked and three laser barrels poked through the crevice. James held up his hands. “Whoa, guys. It’s only me.”
An older man with a tuft of white hair stared back at him. Relief shone in his bright blue eyes.
“James, we thought they got you.”
“The Razornecks, the government, or the moonshiner I just blasted in the tunnel?”
“Any. All three.” Dal clapped him on the shoulder and led him inside while two guards stayed behind to close the entrance. Even though the cement locked in place, James had a hard time letting go of the encounter outside. The hideout didn’t feel safe any longer.
“What’s happened while I’ve been on the upper levels?”
“Nothing good.” Dal led him through a tunnel to the concrete bunker underneath the subway system. He talked over his shoulder as they hurried down the steep incline.
“As you can see from your new friend lurking by the door, moonshiners have infiltrated the sewers, climbing through miles of pipeline to rise to the lower levels.”
“Yeah, the one I met smelled like death.”
“That’s not all. A crazed mob of ’em storms the city walls as we speak. Guardians pick them off with gallium laser blasts, but they don’t have enough firepower to keep them back.”
“Hold it now.” James stopped midstep and Dal halted beside him. “The walls are five feet thick. No way the moonshiners can get through, even if they clawed with their fingernails all day long.”
Dal shook his head slowly. “They are, and they will. Some of them still have part of their brains left, and they’ve been tossing hypergrenades at the cement.”
James scratched his head. “Jeez, where have I been?”
“Making sure three hundred of our people got the hell out of here.” Dal squeezed his shoulder. His voice was shaky. “Did it take off?”
James shook his head. “Not yet. But it’s on schedule. I’d like to see it leave, so if we could hurry…”
“I understand.” Dal clapped him on the back. “Just checking to make sure my grandkids made it safely.”
“If you’d tell me why I’m here, I could make sure of it.”
“Yes, yes. Let’s go. There’s something I have to show you.”
James followed him to a low-ceilinged room lined with wallscreens displaying input feeds from all over the world. In the dim light, Dal’s wispy hair glowed like James’s, giving the old man a halo of green, otherworldly light.
Dal sat in a rolling chair across from a circular desk and gestured for James to follow. James waved his offer away. “I prefer to stand.” Every second counted. He knew Mestasis wouldn’t wait for him—shouldn’t wait for him. She’d probably think he’d left to avoid such a painful good-bye.
“You may want to sit down when you hear what I’m about to tell you.” Dal gave him a sad smile.
“I can take it.” James’s gaze passed from a riot in Mexico to a volcano warning in the Hawaiian Islands to flames consuming Utopia, the last giant greenhouse that fed all of New England and the surrounding states. “No place is safe, is it?”
“No.” Dal pressed a button, zooming in on the ruins of Utopia. “One of our spies got a lowdown on the Razornecks’ counterattack…”
“A counterattack? Already? I thought most of the Razornecks died in the blaze?”
Dal shook his head. “They have cells throughout the city, and they’re all seeking revenge.”
James ran a hand through his hair. “What is it this time?”
“Assassination attempt. Governor Ursula Grier. They found out she was the one who ordered the counterstrike on Utopia after they took it over.”
That’s why Dal had called him down so quickly. “Should I organize a team to stop them?”
Dal clicked a button and the screen changed. “No.”
“No? What do you mean no?”
“The Radioactive Hand of Justice shouldn’t get involved in government affairs. Besides, she’s got enough guards and artillery to defend herself, and in two days’ time, she’ll be leaving on the Heritage, along with the other heads of state. The government in New York will be nonexistent.” The inevitability in Dal’s voice sent a shiver down James’s back.
“They’re going to abandon us?” Government officials didn’t just get up and leave their posts. This was serious.
“It’s their only choice for survival.” Dal clicked on another screen, bringing up a meeting of world leaders from at least five countries, all sitting around a circular table.
“More problems?” James studied the screen, recognizing the faces: most from the World Coalition. “What are they saying?”
“They want to nuke the areas with the largest concentration of moonshiners before the mobs grow out of control. As it is, the force outside these gates could rip through this entire population within days.”
“They’re targeting us? Citizens?”
“Bingo.” Dal sighed. “We think this bunker would hold during the attacks, but we’re not sure we could live here until the fallout dispersed. We have the fluorescent greeneries, and the stocks are piled high, but it would take years for the radiation to return to safe levels.”
“Not acceptable.” James shook his head, refusing to resign to such a fate. “There has to be another way.”
“There is.” Dal’s fingers flicked across the keypad and a picture of a gigantic chrome hull loomed over their heads.
“Wait a second. We were deemed unfit for the Expedition. Who’s to say whoever built this ship wouldn’t conclude the same thing? I’m sure they have their own people to transport.”
“The project was abandoned three months ago. It’s not finished. The biodome hasn’t been completed, and it isn’t stocked with enough energy cells. It won’t be able to fly us on a hundred-year journey, but with a little work it could get us off this doomed rock.”
James put his hand on his hip. Every paradise planet he’d heard of was hundreds of years away, which could only mean one thing. “You’re thinking Outpost Omega, aren’t you?”
“It’s the biggest space station within a parsec of Earth, fully equipped with biodomes, solar panels, and energy cells.”
“It’s also the most important and the most heavily guarded. They’d never let a ragtag army like us live there. Only government workers are allowed to set foot on it.”
“Then we’ll take it by force.”
James exhaled a long, slow breath. “No. It’s too dangerous. Too many deaths.”
Dal leaned back in his seat and raised his hairy eyebrows like when he had a winning move at chess. “And staying here isn’t?”
James considered the impending attack of moonshiners coupled with the plan to nuke them all. Even if his group survived the mob and stocked their shelves high, did they really want to huddle underground for the rest of their lives, hoping rations wouldn’t run out? “You’ve got me there.”
“Exactly.” Dal slumped forward, clicking off the screens as if in resignation.
James’s mind whirled with all the possibilities and probable outcomes. “Even if we secure this quasi-built ship, who’s going to fly it?”
The room had gone black, and only their haloed heads illuminated their faces. Dal folded his hands on the table as if further discussion was unnecessary. “You.”
“You’re kidding me. I’ve never flown anything that large.”
Dal grinned. “Practice makes perfect.”
James’s wristband beeped. He glanced down at the time and his stomach sunk. “Dammit, Dal, the Expedition is leaving in fifteen minutes.”
Dal gave him a knowing twitch of his eyebrow. “Do you really want to see it take off?”
“I have to.” James shot toward the door, adjusting his backpack.
“Whatever you do, don’t try to defend the governor. Leave that to her bodyguards. They view all gangs as threats, and you’d be killed along with the Razornecks.”
“I won’t.” Although the governor had always been a thorn in his side, James still worried about her and her family surviving the attack. Yes, she blew up Utopia and planned to abandon her own city, but she didn’t deserve to be taken out by the Razornecks. Besides, James needed some sort of structure until the Expedition took off and he could get to the Destiny. If the Razornecks gained control of the city, every street would go to hell. He pressed the panel and the sides parted, revealing a crowded corridor.
“James, you never agreed to fly the Destiny.” Dal’s voice was a gripping force, holding him back.
James turned around. “You know me better than that, Dal. You know it’s a yes.”
Dal’s face softened. “All the more reason to be careful. We can’t have the most important person in the Radioactive Hand disappearing on us. Every time you go through those passages, you risk your life.”
James shot Dal a steady stare. “I’ll be back. Besides, some things are worth the risk.”
© 2012 Aubrie Dionne