As promised, here is a substantial sample of Sunlost! This selection is two and a half chapters long, a segment further into the story than the other two snippets previously offered. At the same time, these chapters do not betray anything that precede them or divulge too much about what follows (which is why it’s only two and a half chapters rather than three).

MediaFire is hosting the sample files for you eReader and onscreen folks (.mobi, .epub, and .pdf). Feel free to share the files as much as you like!

Sunlost has also released on the Nook. Meanwhile, Amazon.com is just a few days away from releasing the paperback! You can still get the Kindle version if you like, or snag almost every conceivable format at Smashwords.com.

For ease of access, the new samples are posted below a brief description of Sunlost. Enjoy!

A furious sea of heat below; a savage, frozen wasteland above. Life in the Coalition had become a test of will for those who survived the disaster. After all, they were lucky to have mines so vast and so deep underground. When the Sun fizzled and vanished, millions fled the radical temperature drop, taking up refuge in an extensive network of tunnels already bored out by several mining companies. Soon, war broke out among brutal gangs, conquests for control over territory and ever scarcer resources.

Denver was a mining engineer, already used  to life below Earth’s crust. As millions of survivors flowed into his underground city, a government was formed; a Coalition to provide safe harbor for those fleeing the vicious gangland warfare. As the Coalition’s meager prosperity grew, the gangs banded together and targeted the peaceful society with as much loathing as jealousy.

For Denver, every day was a regimen of work, rations, and fleeting, joyous moments spent with a girl. He knew he would eventually marry Leah, knew they would finish out their lives, one way or another, beneath twenty miles of rock, never to see the surface again, much less any hint of the departed Sun. And just when his mind was settling onto this idea, a glimpse of escape arrived.

Lizeth wasn’t what anyone expected from a relief worker. Could rescue from this wretched world really follow in her wake? She promised it would, but a monumental task stood in the way; a journey across two continents, under an ocean, and a perilous trek on the devastated surface in icy winds more than a hundred degrees below zero! The gangs blocked most of the passages, and there was also a curious psychological strain called the Confines which dredged up fear in Denver’s stomach.

But if that’s what it would take to free the millions of refugees from the cooling planet, the strife, and the bloodshed; Denver knew they had to try, even if the Coalition didn’t want them to…

Sample Chapters

The Slopoke grumbled and curled around the tunnel at each intermittent wind, unlike traversing the long-haul passages which had been designed for rapid transportation. This grotto was carved to match a series of underground channels, as much as possible, to save time in removing all the material tooled out for passage. That mining method didn’t require such expensive machinery as the uniform passages. What Parkland Excavation had gained in cost savings was offset by the tight space. Yet, there was still enough room to allow vehicles to maneuver at low speeds.

“We shouldn’t be going so slow,” Zeth grouched over the noisy treads. “They’re going to catch up to us,” she stated, matter-of-factly.

“No, they won’t.” Steck nearly laughed. “They’ll have to slow down to take these turns just like us. I’m more concerned with obstructions, and they’ll be also. Besides, once we’re at the Devil’s Maw, it won’t matter anymore.”

“I don’t like the sound of that name,” she huffed.

“Denver, you want to tell her about it?” He focused on avoiding the tunnel walls. The granite had a vaguely spider-webbed appearance where veins of the rock shone brighter in the powerful floodlights.

“As I said, I haven’t been there, but I read a lot about it. Pretty amazing, actually.” I leaned in my seat to talk to Zeth. She had one eyebrow arched with the skepticism of a pessimist.

“Okay, so Parkland was looking to open another deep-crust mine to the south and they were grinding a bunch of passages to find the rich deposit sites, but they kept having trouble at this one section.”

The tunnels were fine, but when more trucks came to resupply the tunneling teams, they found a huge section of the ground had disappeared, sank right into a gorge of running lava. A few specialty teams were called out; the remaining ridges were found to be stable. Parkland had a bridge built and the resupply lines had their quickest route again. The Devil’s Maw was connected to an amazing expanse of underground passageways.

Then, a few days after it was built, the bridge collapsed, right in front of another supply convoy. An even sturdier bridge suffered the same fate. Finally, the engineers performed a week-long study of the two ledges that remained and found that each precipice was almost constantly moving with respect to the other, not to mention the tunnel walls.

It was ever so slight, but there was always some level of movement: side-to-side, forward-and-back, and up-and-down, often some combination of directions. Whatever bridges Parkland constructed couldn’t last, even a telescoping bride built to expand and contract and angle as the situation needed. Too much movement hampered just about any clever design.

“They could’ve just abandoned the tunnel; dig a new one somewhere else.” Zeth interrupted my telling of the story.

“Not really, because the planning necessary to dig new tunnels can take a long time; due to the air handlers and fault lines and lava flows and on and on.” I tallied off the complex issues on my fingers. “Besides, we engineers like a technical puzzle, am I right?” I grinned.

Zeth just sighed and Steck didn’t respond. “Uh… anyway, a team of guys came up with a design, something really ingenious. You’re going to love it!”

The Slopoke lurched forward, pressing us into our seats. I felt something new, something I hadn’t noticed before. “These seats are different.”

Steck responded, “Yeah, they’ve switched out the regular cushions with an active gel. It seems to respond somehow to the g-forces applied to it.” He nudged the throttle icons a hair further up the dashpanel, keeping a foot poised over the floor brake. “If I recall correctly, this cavern should be the last hassle. Soon as we get to the other side, we’ll be seconds away from the Maw.”

There had been no mounted lighting in this tunnel since we’d turned into it a few hours earlier, but now Zeth leaned forward gazing into the inky darkness, “I’m not so sure I want to be going faster.”

“Don’t worry. We can see the ground far enough ahead. We’re only doing seventy.” Zeth looked at me like I was crazy, but sat back in her chair without another word.

The uneven ground tossed our Slopoke on its suspension, tipping us to one side and then another. The mechanical noise was louder at this speed than it had been with the throttle wide open, probably because the stone floor could reflect back more of the tread-cranking at the lower velocity.

“And there it is,” Steck gestured ahead. A faint glow ebbed in the distance, casting light a little to the right of our direction. Steck kept the tread on the roadway through the cavern, solely illuminated by our brilliant floodlights. “Hey, Denver, wanna see something else on this rig?” Steck tapped the dashpanel controls, and a thump grunted out of the ceiling. A panel of the exterior armor slid back, showing a rather large skylight above the passenger seats.

The closer our crawl carried us to the glow, the more my eyes began to catch glimpses of the cavern ceiling; a vague flash here, ice glistening on broad stalactite; even drips of water sparkled, slinging by in the piercing surround lights.

“Wow,” Zeth murmured, awestruck for the moment.

Steck smiled, “You two haven’t seen anything yet.”

Suddenly narrowing, the glow ahead resolved into the cavern’s edge. A broad tunnel, even larger than the maintained passageways, stretched hollowly before us, huge and yawning. Lights were mounted against the walls, most of them working, a few extinguished from some unknown failure. Steck accelerated the ride even harder, thundering around the gentle bend to the right.

“If you guys don’t use this section, why are these lights still on?”

I was stunned by the intimidating scale of this mostly-natural channel; so much that I scarcely heard my own voice reply, “Geothermal… Power’s drawn straight from the Maw.”

Gradually, the walls began to spread even wider, and then Steck finally began to slow the tread as the route angled upward, the gradual curve easing straight. The light from the Maw cavern was brilliant, most of the powerful illuminators still operating at peak capacity.

By comparison to the massive, pitch-dark void we had just left, this one was dazzling, at a thousand shadowless feet across. Almost half of the length was missing the granite floor, and there, like a burning sip of the planet core, the Devil’s Maw glowed.

“That? You thought I would like that?” Zeth sat upright when Steck brought the Slopoke to a stop. “You’ve got to be kidding!”

We piled out. Steck walked over to a small shed mounted to the right wall of the cavern. Zeth and I took a few tentative steps toward the Maw. Steck hollered after us, “Careful over there, you two! Watch the edge!”

We stopped several feet shy of it, where the cliff began to curve downward. A foul, acrid odor bit through the air, stinging my eyes. All around the chasm, the stone glowed, reflecting the light from the magma flowing through the basin of the gorge. Way down there, it was all a bright orange, with lines of enraged red streaked through its hellishly gelatinous surface. Several pockets steamed away noxious fumes, black boils on the fiery stone-flow.

“Wow, that’s hot!” Zeth turned her face away with a grimace. Her sandy blonde hair glowed orange with the Devil’s lighting, effectively shifting the natural color to redhead. “How far down is that?”

“About a hundred and ninety feet,” I replied, astounded by the blasting heat. “It sorta depends on how high the flow is, right now.”

“It can rise?”

“It’s liquid stone. Magma, you know? If the pressure increases, the surface will raise up.”

Zeth stepped back a step. “Doesn’t that worry you?”

I shrugged, wondering how sure Parkland’s Geology Department had been that magma wouldn’t rise and become mine lava. What could they have done, anyway? If the pressure rose, it could pound through any devised block. After all, volcanoes were raised by pure magma pressure.

If only to reassure Zeth, I decided to venture a guess. “They wouldn’t’ve left this if-“

“Okay, everything seems to be working!” Steck interrupted, yelling out of the shed. “Let me call the Sway over! Denver, I’ll need you to guide me!”

I waved to indicate that I heard and then walked over to the center of the precipice. I stared at the Maw’s superheated glaze as it sludged along, slowly disappearing, draining somewhere underneath the stone wall to the west.

I had seen the configuration engineered for this particular hurdle before, in pictures taken for promotions of the Parkland’s parent corpration. Those were impressive images shot by professional photographers, but now even my engineer’s fascination was falling away, like the scaly skin shed by a decaying reptile, revealing a terrified rot of uncertainty inside my stomach.

Suspended from the ceiling, almost halfway across the Devil’s Maw, the Sway’s rigid structure hung in place, rocking  slightly with the tiniest tremors transmitted to the edge of the arm. A massive column, reinforced with steel cabling, jutted from the stone roof, holding up a broad platform that could hold several big rigs.

The whole construction could swing the arm around from one side of the Maw to the next, but the real innovation was in the hydraulic motors which could raise and lower the lift, and even adjust the axial tilt of the arm, hence the term Sway. Vehicles could board, swing around, and disembark on the other side, forgoing the need for a conventional bridging of the gap.

All that protected people from falling off the Sway arm was a set of long railings wrapping all the way around the polycrete platform, except for the boarding section; one steel bar at knee level and one a few feet higher. That certainly wouldn’t stop an out of control Slopoke from smashing through and plunging into the hissing inferno below.

“He can’t expect us to cross on that! How long has it been since this thing has been used?” Zeth insisted.

Her obvious panic was also creeping into my own bones, but I gasped in and sighed out the stiflingly warm air to suppress that survival instinct. It didn’t work. “Steck knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, right. How can you be so sure?”

The motors on the Sway ground to life with servo and hydraulic whines; each of the massive engine-housing cases underneath the Sway were bigger than our X-type Slopoke. I shrugged at Zeth and waved to Steck, indicating which way to turn the Sway. “He was on the crew that put it up.”

The Sway rocked gently, and then began to creep upward, its climb increasing in speed until I yanked a flat hand across my neck for the ‘cut’ sign. I waved my left hand and Steck edged the arm over. Once I gave him the cut sign again, he punched a few controls, sending the ramp out a few inches at a time. I waved him off and indicated that the Sway arm had to climb another six inches and change tilt. Finally, the ramp could extend and make contact with the stone.

Steck came out and looked at it, deciding to try and get the ramp resettled on the stone again. The second time, he was more satisfied with its purchase and said, “Alright, I’m going to bring the Slopoke over. Go ahead and get onto the platform.”

Zeth refused to budge until I walked onto the arm and hopped a little on the polycrete, settling butterflies in my own stomach. I grinned nervously, “C’mon! It’s safe, I think.”

“Oh, you think!” She sputtered, heel-toeing her way out onto the platform, her arms slightly elevated for balance even though the Sway was nearly forty feet wide. The Slopoke treads thump-thump-thumped along the granite, crashing onto the ramp with a metal clang that startled Zeth. “Whoa!” She stumbled and I barely caught her from falling headlong across the polycrete.

She trembled in my arms, terrified and furious at the same moment. Steck hopped out of the Slopoke. Zeth instantly leapt to her feet, screaming “Steck! What’s the matter with you?”

He stopped short, “I told you I was bringing up the Slopoke, Lizeth. Calm down.”

“You!” She spat, visibly shaking, although her anger was fading fast. “You… Look, I’m not fan of heights, okay? And I didn’t think I’d be finding any cliffs underground.” She blinked still angry and nervous, looking at the lava that ran right beneath us. “You know what? I’m just gonna stay in the Slopoke until you grunts get us off this deathtrap.” She cautiously strode around Steck, arms slightly raised, as though the Sway were a tightrope.

Steck shook his head, “There’s something about her, Denver.

12 Caught

Steck put his hand on my shoulder. “Alright, come here.” He escorted me over to the edge of the arm.  On the railing, a control panel booted to life when he tapped his finger on it. He typed in a password and the technical readout displayed the options.

“It’s a bit more complicated. There’s supposed to be a two man crew running this thing: one operator in the eagle’s nest and another right here.” Steck punched a few icons and the ramp began to retract, severing the Sway’s contact with the ledge.

“The pitch and extension can be controlled here, but someone has to control the turn up in the eagle’s nest.” He pointed out another control tower built around the main support column where it lodged into the stone ceiling. It was almost a hundred and twenty feet above the arm. “So, it’s either up there, or down here.”

“Uh…” I stammered.

“Look, frankly, it’s a lot easier to manage the turn than it is to keep the Sway steady from here. I’d feel much safer if you’d take the nest.”

I stared at the ladder that led to the nest. “So, you want me to climb up and turn the arm?”

“Yeah, we can relay our cards through the Slopoke, so I can walk you through how to do it. Just be careful on the ladder, okay? It can get pretty hot up there. In fact, you’ll probably need some gloves for the ladder. I’ll get the ventilation rolling on the nest while you climb so it’s cooler. Also just in case there are toxic fumes collecting up there.”

Just standing alongside the railing was making me uncomfortably warm, just moderate exposure to the hammering rays streaming out of the brilliant liquid far below. “Okay, I’ll try,” I relented, feeling my gut clench with worry. I hoped my voice didn’t reflect the anxiety I felt.

“Go ahead and put a headset in and I’ll get the Slopoke transmitting for us.” Steck tapped away on his card.

While returning to the Slopoke, I took off my jacket and shoved a tiny earbud into my right ear. I chucked the jacket on a seat inside the vehicle.

“You tired of him, too?” Zeth asked, her chair swiveled around to face him.

“No, I need to get some gloves.” I fished into a supply locker, looking for a pair of heat-shielding gloves, unable to remember the last time I needed apparel that could shed head, instead of insulating it in. I had used heated gloves many times in the past.

“Well, if I had known what he was like, I wouldn’t’ve had him do the planning. He’s a jerk.”

“Steck is?” I found the pair and drew them out. They were white, insulating fabric a thick, multi-layered synthetic cloth.

“Yeah,” she grumbled.

My brow furled in confusion. “But we stole this Slopoke and abandoned everything for you.”

She dismissed those facts with a wave of her hand, “Doesn’t matter. It’s how he treats people.”

I was about to ask what she meant, when Steck interrupted on the earpiece, “Denver? Can you hear me? How about those gloves?”

“Yeah, yeah. I got ‘em.” I tugged the mitts on and stepped back out onto the Sway, mind nauseatingly dizzy with a false sense of tremors from the polycrete. I knew better than to think the whole structure was shaking as much as my knees seemed to insist. Climbing a hundred-foot ladder while dizzy wasn’t wise. I inhaled deep, tasting the foul grit of frying rock, almost feeling the crunch of powder between my teeth.

The heat increased the closer I got to the center. On the far side, the glare was much more powerful, since no polycrete blocked the stone-cooking pool below. Vengeful rays drenched the center of the arm in an unceasing splash of thermal radiation.

Even the breezes emanating from the tunnels couldn’t penetrate the curtain of rising, shimmering heat. The distant walls seemed blurry and looked as though they were moving, as though they were evaporating away. By the time I got to the ladder, sweat had already begun building on my forehead. I wiped the back of a glove across it, feeling the itch of the material.

“I’m at the ladder.” The rungs were rebar welded between two stout, steel braces, which were intermittently attached to a rigid structure built around the main support. I stared upward for a moment, recalling the news stories on the Devil’s Maw transit structure.

The column went deep into the stone ceiling overhead, like an upside-down root structure. Its anchor was capable of sustaining five thousand tons of weight, but somehow that statistic didn’t help to soothe my queasy stomach at all.

I looked down where the ladder dropped further, through the polycrete floor, a hold cut to accommodate the vertical staircase. Since the whole arm could raise and lower, the rungs continued down for another thirty feet, ending with a heavy-duty chain net, probably to keep people from falling through.

To fall into such a limb-thrashing safety net and hang like a piece of meat on a grille terrified me and I could feel it in my legs. I shifted anxiously on my feet, trying to shake out the ache of paralysis. Why would they use chains down there? It seemed so menacing. But then, with the blaze endlessly frying upward, only metal would last. Anything else would’ve cooked away by now.

“You okay?”

I looked back two hundred and thirty some feet to where Steck stood, looking coolly back at me. “I think so,” I realized I was panting with fear.

“Denver? Just control your breathing. Take it slow and you’ll do fine.”

“Alright,” my gut still insisted otherwise, almost screamed otherwise. I put my gloved hands on a rung and began to climb. The fabric worked well; at least I suspected it did since I couldn’t feel whether the rebar was warm or not. I eased my way upward, opposite hand and foot moving in unison. It occurred to me that I could be pretty high up already. I looked downward to check my progress, “Whoa…”

As soon as the groan escaped my lips, Steck chided me, “Don’t look down.” I averted my eyes from the dizzying height by looking up. That was even worse! The bulk of the climb was still yet to come! “Don’t look up either. I’ll tell you when you’re getting close. Just take it nice and easy. Watch where you put your hands.”

Battling my mind for control over my pounding heart, I cemented my eyes onto the gloves and galvanized my limbs into a rhythm; breathing in for two rungs, holding it for two, and exhaling for one.

“It’s hot up here, Steck.” Sweat streamed off my brow and I stopped to wipe my forehead so the salty drips wouldn’t sting my eyes.

“I know, pal. You’re doin’ good. The eagle’s nest is showing a nice, cool eighty-two.” The earpiece sounded distant.

I hooked an arm around the rebar, feeling the warmth of the metal through my long, sweat-dampened sleeve. I peeled off the glove on my free hand and pulled out the earpiece. It was slick with sweat. I wiped it on the gloves and wiped my ear with the spare glove, then replacing the earpiece. “Sorry about that.”

“No, that’s good. Take your time.”

I nodded, mostly to reassure myself, tugging the glove back on, “You’re not worried about the Defenders catching up?”

“Not particularly.” Steck prodded me, “Okay, you’re most of the way there. Just another thirty feet and you’ll be in… seventy-nine degrees.”

Resuming the climb, I couldn’t help but smile. Steck sure knew how that would motivate me. I wondered how many times Steck had made this climb, how many times he had been braced up here working on setting in this anchor so the Sway could be built onto it. My arms began to shake at the idea.

“Almost there, Den.”

I could feel my chest rattling with each heartbeat, imagined the welds of the rebar ladder coming apart in this oppressive, scorching, awful-smelling blaze. I grunted with each step, limbs burning from exertion and tingling with the raging, merciless temperature. My head ached and I wondered if the fumes would make me pass out.

I risked a glance downward and was nearly overcome with vertigo. The arm stretched out below me, seemed so thin and narrow, like a needle, that I couldn’t imagine landing on it, if I fell. Instead, I’d be gobbled up by the Devil’s Maw, ablaze before ever splashing into the three-thousand-degree river. My gloved hand slipped, and I let out a hoarse yelp.

“Denver!” Steck’s voice pinched at my ear lobe. “Denver! Are you alright?”

I grabbed at the rebar and hugged the ladder to my chest, rust staining my shirt. Despite how much I was sweating, it was drying too quickly to be wet in very many places. I panted, eyes closed, teeth chattering with adrenalin.

“Denver, you’re pretty much there. Just a few rungs more! You can make it.”

My entire body was wracked with pain and rippled with enough radiant heat to bake a holiday feast. My hand reached up and slid open the door on the floor of the eagle’s nest. A chilling blast of icy air tumbled out and I almost passed out from the sudden change in temperature. It took me another thirty seconds to climb into the cab.

“Steck, wh-what’s the temperature in here?” I shivered.

“About seventy two. Should feel pretty good. You’re used to sixty. Why?”

I raked the sliding door closed, latched it shut, and slumped into the eagle’s nest control chair. “Crank it back up some. I’m freezing!”

Steck laughed, “Alright, I’ll put it up near a hundred. Might get a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t be so rough when you have to climb back down.”

“Can’t wait,” I groaned, still breathing heavy. “I don’t suppose there’s some water up here is there?”

“There used to be some in a cabinet. I have no idea if it’s still there.”

I reached back down to work the latch and then looked in the worn, tin cabinet, “Nope.”

“Hmm, probably should’ve sent you up there with some water. You gonna be able to make it? Or will you need me to bring you some water before you come back down?”

“We’ll see. Let’s just get this rig turned.”

Steck replied, “Affirmative to that, private. Okay, you see the control panel?” It was right in front of the chair. “Tap it, and then type in tilda set underscore ee en gee twenty-seven nine-twenty-six. Then hit enter.”

I pulled off the gloves and tapped the screen. “Okay, it looks like I have a main menu.”

“There should be a large icon to the left that says ‘primary angle servo,’ do you see it?”

“Yeah, should I press it?”

“Go ahead. It’s pretty basic. You’ll set it to rotating and the motors will continue to work until the turn is complete. I’ll have to be sure I’ve retracted enough, so make sure the speed stays low.”

I tapped the control on the touchscreen. “You couldn’t set up this panel down there?”

“I just installed, didn’t design the Sway. Oh, that reminds me; also keep an eye out for any vibration on those cables out the window. If they get looking wild, go ahead and kill the turn. There’s an emergency shutdown option. Just keep an eye on that.”

Oh, great, my mind jabbed as I looked through the insulated glass at the thick braids of steel spiderwebbing from the main column.

Down below, far down below, the tunnel we had come from was glowing white, the bluish beams of light snatching my attention. “Uh, Steck?” A pair of Slopokes burst from the tunnel, braking hard. “Steck?”

“I see it, Denver. Don’t worry. The platform is retracted.” Defenders poured out of the vehicles, ten or eleven total. The men stayed back from the edge of the Devil’s Maw, watching. “Go ahead and start the turn, Denver.”

I shrugged and tapped the button, noting the information change on the screen. My elbows finally quit shaking from the chill. The temperature readout for the exterior of the nest read 135. It was half that temperature inside the nest when I’d crawled in. Never did ninety feel so good! The cables outside quivered, but maintained a low level of vibration. The nest reverberated with the motors turning the arm. I could see it turning beneath the nest.

I listened and watched as Steck waved to the Defenders, “Howdy, fellas!” The microphone in the Steck’s earpiece didn’t pick up their response. After the pause, Steck answered, “What we have to do!” Two men were dispatched by the officer in charge to the shed against the cavern wall. “You boys’ll find that kinda tough!” Steck lowered his voice, chuckling. “I pulled some wires in the shed.”

Even from the distance, I saw Steck wave a bundle of cables for the Defenders to see, tossing them over the edge of the railing into the molten mire below. His hands went back to the controls to stabilize the twisting arm as the turn continued.

Frustrated, the Defenders stood with their rifles in their hands, dumbfounded, watching as their quarry made an insultingly slow escape. I knew Steck’s first objective was complete. We were free. The Defenders didn’t want to kill us; just bring us back. Now all we had to deal with were the struggles ahead. What we left behind, Refuge and the Coalition, was truly behind us.

Then the first shot rang out.

13 Heat

Slow as the Sway arm turned, it seemed to freeze in time as I scanned the underscape, thunderous shot still echoing through the chamber. The Defenders were trained, many of them having seen combat while guarding the watchpoints, and in other skirmishes. They reacted instantly, most of them dropping to the ground, rifles trained, sights brought to their eyes.

My eyes flicked over to the X-type Slopoke. I saw the barrel of the Zeth’s rifle as she aimed and then the flash when she fired a second shot. The sound took half a second to reach the eagle’s nest, and then rang across the metal flooring, buzzing in my ears.

The impromptu Defender line opened up, suddenly filling the Maw cavern with a raging hail of weapons-fire. Steck had reacted instantly as well, bolting right for Zeth. He arrived, rounds zinging past him, and smacked the rifle from Zeth’s hands as she fired again. He pushed himself against her, shielding her body as she dropped to the polycrete. Over the booming reflections of sound from sporadic gunfire, I could hear Steck growling, “Get down! Get down!”

Zeth’s voice was muddled, impossible to make out what she said. Steck shouted again, “They can’t do anything!” He rolled over and waved his hands in the air. “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!”

The Defenders blazed through their ammunition for another ten seconds, even after the officer in charge bellowed a cease fire order, throwing a hand away from his chest; the signal for the same command. My view was riddled with currents of rising heat, making the image from this high ripple and twist. Steck slowly stood, Zeth’s rifle taken down into its upper and lower parts. He held each part in a different hand to gesture the non-threat to the Defenders.

The Defender officer yelled something across the ever-so-slowly widening gap. Steck was about to yell back when the Sway’s alarm klaxons blared, the entire assembly shook violently, pitching me back into control the seat! Until that moment, I hadn’t even realized I’d been standing.

The screen flashed red warnings all over; deep, unearthly creaks and moans ached up the support column. Movement hauled my attention onto the support cabling; the wires thrashed and whipped, even as they were secured to the rock ceiling and the Sway!

“Denver! Reverse the angle! Pull the Sway back!” Steck’s howl nearly splintered my earpiece. I blasted a glance down at the arm. It rocked side to side, torque angle tossing Steck like a drunken rag doll as he stumbled back to his own set of controls. The Slopoke pitched with each twist, but her treads held fast to the polycrete.

I stared at the panel; mind flooded with sensation, leaving precious few neurons to process the scattered data sets on the screen. The largest warning read, “Torque Diseng. Reinitialize?”

My hand hovered over the touchscreen for a split section before pressing “yes” and the screeching whine of the motors revved down. “Reinitialization complete! Engage angular transmission?” I punched “yes” again, immediately feeling the large gears clunk into place.

Steck felt it too and yelled out, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Denver!” I leaned out and looked down, seeing Steck at the controls once more, holding on to the railing with one hand, “Pull back a bit!”

“Okay, uhh!” The screen seemed like a jumble of jargon that I had never been trained for. I was an engineer! Not an operator! “Oh, here!” I tapped on a meter labeled Lateral Angle. The meter read -01.70149. I glanced at the geometric diagram for the angles and tapped the dial image, rotating my finger to drag it backward. It read -03.11115. I punched execute.

Both shaking, the Sway and I shared a sigh of relief when the vibrations began to subside, reducing to the normal shudder of the transmission, bracing cables no longer testing their limit. The arm tracked back for several seconds and then drew to a halt.

By this time, Steck had wrestled control into the pitch and now began to drop the entire arm deeper into the Maw, “What happened, there?” I had almost forgotten about the Defenders. I glanced at the men as they watched, some of them in shock.

Steck panted through the comlink, “Whew! Good thing for the safety automation! If the transmission hadn’t disengaged, we’d’ve sheared gears, or burnt out the engine!”

“Or fractured the arm,” I added in horror.

“Nah, the arm’s robust. It’d take a massive detonation to crack it. The machines would’ve failed first.”

I glanced at the panel and shutoff the alarms. “So, we hit the wall?”

“Mashed into it, yeah. It looks like the ramp is out of commission, but that shouldn’t be an issue. There’s an outcropping down here. I would’ve dropped us below it with plenty of time, but…” He held the pitch steady as the arm flexed with the gradual descent.

I stood up from the operator’s seat so I could look down at Zeth. She was sitting upright now, head on her arms, those crossed over her knees. Her sandy blonde hair glistened in the light. Steck left his statement as it was and focused on a diagnostic of the arm. It only took a few seconds.

“Alright, go ahead and creep forward about six degrees and then I’ll have to bring us up before we can finish the turn.”

The arm continued onward at our coaxing, Defenders merely observing, brass cases glittering like golden dewdrops on the slate-gray granite. Finally the turn was complete. Steck waited until the Sway had come to a complete halt before he set to pulling the arm up. A level pitch was much harder to maintain when both of those drives were roaring. As the arm was still raising, Steck said, “Alright, come on back down. Or do you need me to bring you some water?”

“I think I’ll manage,” I grimaced.

“Watch that first step, all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I-” My chapped throat choked down a gulp. “I know.”

I crouched down and unlocked the floor panel, sliding it back. Despite the warmth of the eagle’s nest, a harsh, seething blast slapped at my face, drying my eyes in split-seconds. I blinked a few times.

The ladder stretched away from me, impossibly far down. In my nightmarish imagination, each rung boiled and sizzled, almost red like embers. Since the Sway was turned around, the ladder now dropped down to the narrow back side of the arm, looking like a tiny gray thread against a background of crimson and orange death. I pulled the gloves on and took a long, haggardly-dry breath.

Some brackets were bolted to the floor to prop up the operator’s seat, so I grabbed the metal with both hands. Ordinarily, I wasn’t afraid of heights, but this was no ordinary climb. This was an oven, baking the metal and me as well. “Guess I just gotta climb down into the frying pan,” I groaned, trying to urge myself along.

“What did you say?” Steck asked.

“Nothing.” I eased one knee and calf over the edge finding the ladder with my toes. The sharp sting of the heat licked through my pants. The scalding metal slipped on my neoprene soles, which meant that the ladder just beneath the nest was upwards of one hundred seventy degrees.

I sighed, trying to expel the queasy fear inside, and then I ignored my gut, placing both feet on a rung, third down. My right hand left the chair brace and snatched the top rung. Reluctantly, my other hand followed and I started down, all too aware of the quaking of the arm below. Only a six foot wide section of platform waited below me, and the feeling that I was climbing right down into the Maw itself, began to gnaw away at my focus.

Everything beneath me was glazed in a hazy yellow. I moved slowly, trying to take care with every grip. I would drop one foot down a rung, move one hand down a rung, and then repeat with the other limbs to catch up. It was taking forever, growing hotter with each rebar step drawing me closer to the furious power of the Devil’s Maw, power no longer deflected by the broad Sway.

The arm’s ascent had long been complete by the time I finished my climb. I could scarcely believe I’d actually made it all the way down. Steck was there and helped me off the ladder. Looking me over, Steck raised his eyebrows, “Denny? You okay, private?” I heard stereo, as Steck’s voice relayed through the earpiece.

“Got a… excruciating headache.” I blinked and squinted, raising a gloved hand to shield my face from the glare of the magma. Steck guided me around the walkway and back onto the broad arm. It felt like walking into a freezer! I was thankful the engineers designed the arm as liquid chilled polycrete because it insulated surprisingly well against the Maw.

I felt distinctly cooler, though a layer of warmth seemed to hover around my face. Just when I started to wonder what the deal was, my stomach unquenched and reversed gears. “Hold u-!”

I leaned away from Steck, collapsing to my knees, leaving everything I had eaten for days there on the polycrete. Then my body was washed over with that disgusted and yet satisfied feeling you get when you have just finished the awful experience. I felt better, even though it was revolting at the same time. I dry heaved a few times, Steck patting me on the back. “C’mon, Den. We’ve gotta get you some water.”

Shaky, weak in the knees, I hauled myself back up onto my feet and stumbled along, with my arm draped over Steck’s shoulders to help me keep steady. Zeth met us halfway, averting her eyes from Steck. She brought three bottles of water and handed an open one to me.

I rinsed out my mouth, spat, repeated, and then emptied the bottle in a single ravenous gulp. Before we made it the hundred and seventy feet to the Slopoke, I finished the other two, feeling groggy and worn down, utterly spent. They helped me into one of the seats and reclined it backward. I shivered with chills, yet my face still felt like it was roasting.

Zeth grabbed more bottles of water and opened another one for me. Steck retrieved something from a locker and left the cabin again. Zeth’s eyes were wide enough that I had to ask, “What?”

“You just… Here.” She grabbed her card and brought up an app that chromed the screen over to form a mirror. I looked at myself. My lips were cracked and bleeding, eyes bloodshot, nose had run and dried out; although I couldn’t recall when that had happened.

“Wow,” I mumbled. “Never-” A ragged cough slammed through my chest, my voice hoarse from rapid dehydration. “Never thought I’d be sunburned again, Absol.” The skin on my face was blushed dark with blotchy, first-degree burns. I tried to laugh at that, but mostly hacked another cough. Zeth chuckled along with me.

Steck was only gone for half a minute, appearing outside the Slopoke again. Even in this condition, I saw him offer a salute to the Defenders, although I couldn’t see if they returned the gesture. Steck hopped through the doorway and thumbed the roll-down switch. Without speaking a word, he slid into the driver’s seat and coaxed the Slopoke into a cautious turn, backing up and inching forward until the vehicle faced the crushed end of the arm.

Because the ramp had been damaged, Steck had extended the arm as far as it would reach, leaving an eight or nine foot drop above the stone ledge. “Alright, everyone. Strap in tight.” At the advice, my hands weakly pulled the harness up, snapping only the waist belts together. The shoulder harnesses were swinging underneath the reclined seat and I was sapped of energy. I tugged on the waist belt to tighten it.

Steck didn’t wait to see if everyone was ready, simply gunned the treads as soon as his own belt was secure. Acceleration pressed Zeth into her seat, even as she struggled to attach her second shoulder strap to the four-point harness.

My stomach registered a momentary weightless sensation as the Slopoke dropped from the edge, then a heavy jolt as the suspension absorbed the momentum from the fall. Without waiting for the rocking to cease, Steck whipped the T around, bringing the Sway back into view.

He tapped a command into the dashpanel, transmitting a detonation code to a small explosive mounted to the control panel on the Sway arm. Though the blast was muffled at a distance, it was strong enough to shred the electronics and maim the wiring. No one would be crossing over the Devil’s Maw again, at least not before after some major repairs. I whispered to myself, “One way from here on out.”

Steck unbuckled his harness and stood up from the seat. “How much water have you had?”

I tried to think through the pounding headache as Zeth answered for me. “He’s had five bottles.”

He nodded, “Denver, I want you to keep drinking water as much as you can until your urine turns clear, okay? You probably have heat stroke.” Steck moved to another locker and began fish through the supplies.

Lying, aching, feeling cooked, I could hardly whisper a sound past my chapped throat. I took the largest swig of water I could manage before my lungs pined for oxygen, forcing the bottle from my lips. Steck turned around and dropped two packages onto my chest. I picked up the tube that read, “Lidocaine.” The plastic pouch was full of mints, spearmint. “Rub that cream on your face. It’ll help with the burns.”

I stared at my hands, befuddled. I didn’t remember taking the gloves off. Steck knelt down as I squeezed some of the green gel out of the tube. It smelled like alcohol and when I wiped the gel on my forehead, the waves of heat instantly salved away. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Steck brushed a thermometer against my neck, “Hmm, One-oh-one, point two. Lizeth, take his boots off so his feet can get some air. He needs to cool down more.”

I felt the laces being tugged, felt detached from my legs, and decided to ignore everything except for the numbing relief that soaked into my skin from the gel. Zeth tugged on the boot and managed to wiggle it free from my feet. “Oh, gross!” She pinched her nostrils shut.

“Sorry,” I apologized in a hoarse whisper, realizing that my feet were soaked with sweat and probably smelled awful.

Zeth tried to smile as she continued the task. She took off the other boot and pulled my sox off as well. Steck gave her a disinfectant spray can that included a deodorant. The aerosol tickled my feet distantly. Steck returned to the dashpanel and set the temperature regulator to a lower degree.

When he moved to the rear again, he picked up the two pieces of the rifle and took care in slowly snapping the upper back onto the receiver. “Lizeth, why did you open fire on the Defenders?”

She looked up at him and shrugged, “It’s important that we get to New Salerno. I can’t let anything stop us.”

“They couldn’t do anything to us. Did I look like I was panicking?”

She pouted, “I didn’t really-Well, what’s the difference? No one got hurt and we got away!” Zeth leaned back in her seat, “I guess we’re lucky they’re terrible shots, like me.”

Steck yanked the charging handle, fingers over the ejection port to catch the unspent round. He snapped the round back into the magazine which was now three low. “They weren’t shooting at us.”

“They weren,” I tried to clear my throat, sounding grizzled and foreign to myself, “They weren’t shooting at you?” My voice still crackled.

“No, they were firing over our heads to scare Lizeth.” Steck looked at me. “Nine trained shooters within a hundred yards firing automatic weapons? We would have been no trouble if they had intended to kill us.” He looked back at Zeth, “We never would’ve had a chance.”

She slumped to the side, refusing to respond, refusing even to look at Steck. The sergeant’s tone was quiet and commanding, “I was recommended to you because I’m thorough, Ms. Prater. I agreed to take you to New Salerno because I think it’s the only way to end the war and save people. From this point on,” He set the rifle in the weapons locker, “you have to trust me, fully, absolutely. Without question.”

Zeth remained despondent, her eyes glaring through the windshield at the Sway. Steck closed the locker and latched it shut. I polished off my seventh bottle of water and chucked the bottle toward the pile of other empties in a rear corner of the cabin.

The Slopoke tread bit at the gravel and granite, turning into the tunnel that awaited us, its geothermal lights performing moderately well. Fatigue wrestled with my mind. I swallowed some pills for the headache and tossed back even more water, surprised that my system still craved it. Not long after, my eyelids began to sag and exhaustion overcame me. The thrumming from the ride rocked me into a deep sleep.

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