“Anybody else just about shit themselves?” Niko roamed her beam across the wide expanse of the dome.
Sammy spoke. “Local fauna appears alive and well.” Amelia saw him bending to inspect a fern, his headlamp focused on the greenery. He rubbed a spiky leaf between his fingers. “Hydrated. I suspect the power hasn’t been off long. My readings of the plant’s temperature show it’s been in a daytime cycle recently.”
“So not synced with the seasons then?” Amelia considered why.
“Well, if this dome’s been uninhabited for some time, it could be in power-save mode. Automation would be limited to pre-sets and factory defaults.” Sammy stood up and shone light against a wall of corn. “Corn’s gone to seed, and there are new stalks.” He stepped toward the maize.
“Sammy, stop.” He froze.
“What you seeing?” Aasim swept his beam over the crop.
Amelia felt stupid. Just… the atmosphere… creepy. Maybe too many old-world movies. But one thing she knew… you leave. The corn. Alone. “We don’t enter the corn. Besides, the package won’t be near it.”
She saw helmets nod in agreement. They needed little convincing.
Sammy continued studying the wall. He moved his beam along the length of the field. “Well, from what I can see, I’d say this field’s been wild for a few decades. No rows left. Lots of undergrowth. A thick mat of organic litter compared to ours back home.”
“You got all that standing ten feet away?” Stark said, amazement in his voice.
“Where’s the package supposed to be in this place?” Amelia wanted to resume the foot travel.
“Same as ours.” He brought the paper map to his visor. “Between the cherry and apple orchards.”
“Ours failed, dummy.” Niko whacked the back of his helmet and pressed an index to her temple. “That’s why we’re out here.”
“Ya, I know… You know what I meant.” He waved his hand to the left. “Want me to take point, ma’am?”
“Lead the way. Aasim, join him.” She wanted their bulldog with him. With face to map, the navigator could get lost and miss lurking danger. Always where he should be, but not knowing it.
He walked side-by-side with Stark, lighting the way ahead. The team followed, with Niko watching the rear.
Growth continued in the bio-dome despite neglect and diminished conditions. Thick mist on ground level, and clouds near the ceiling, indicated a stimulated weather system.
They passed by fields of potatoes, wheat, oats, carrots, cabbage, and more. Some retired to seed, some ready for harvest, and all crops wild.
The SM operatives came across an orchard of apples. Row upon row of trees covered in purple or white flower blooms. “I really hoped they’d be ready to pick,” Niko said. “I want an apple. Haven’t had one in some time.”
The fog increased on Amelia’s visor. Combined with the dark, she felt the frustration building. Couldn’t see a damn thing. Eyes flicked up to check the internal status lights. Nothing red yet. CO2 levels safe. “Sammy, have you checked the atmosphere? Is it okay to remove our helmets?”
“I have. But we don’t know why this dome failed. Could be an air-borne contaminate, virus, fungal spores. I can’t check for that without samples and a lab.” Sammy gave his sister an apologetic look. “Try an O2 blast. Maybe it’ll clear out the vents.”
“Sure.” Amelia hated suit-flush drills. The pressure felt uncomfortable. And if done wrong, she could end up dead from a ruptured lung. “Halt here guys. I need to blast some O2.”
The squad halted, and everyone took up defensive positions. She reached for the regulator mounted on her waist, inhaled, and cranked the knob left for a burst. The red pressure-warning LED lit, and nervous hands twisted right to reduce the kPa to harmless levels.
Before she could open her mouth for air, the safe light must emit its green hue, letting her know the excess pressure finished venting. She waited… and waited.
Lungs fought against the restriction of movement. The need to suck in oxygen turned them into starving panickers. To take a breath now would subject her to ruptures and bubbles in the blood. Nasty shit.
She forced the diaphragm to comply and still its automated contractions. Stay silent and obey. A frantic mind and darting eyes willed the air to flush the vent faster. The light taunted her. A crimson, glowing eye begging her to give in.
Spots danced in the visor and mocked her. The red circle reproducing itself like an amoeba. Blackness approached vision’s edge and squeezed. A motion of falling assailed the gut, yet she must not inhale. Ruptures…
“Ma’am? Are you with us?” In an undertaking to pry the brain from a mire of sludge, she didn’t prioritize matching voice with speaker.
“Amelia. Come on, girl.” Jacob? Vision returned as seeping honey. Helmets floated above, and the interior lighting inside them lit the knitted brows and frowns of friends. The safe-pressure light emitted a beautiful green.
Her first effort to inhale brought forth a cough as the lungs jolted at the interruption to a re-established breathing rhythm. The body’s autopilot had taken over command when her brain induced shutdown and muscles rag dolled.
She ran through a mental checklist on herself. Any chest pains? No. A glance at the top-right corner of her HUD display read blood pressure and pulse high, but lowering. All good. “Jacob, when we’re working, I’m ma’am. Got it?”
He smiled down at her, “Yes, ma’am,” and stood straight, giving a half-assed salute. What a smart ass. How did their genes ever match? He and Sammy bent, and each gripped an arm, hoisting Amelia to her legs.
“Close call there,” Sammy said. “Even with some dust, that shouldn’t happen.” A frown. “Turn around. I want to check out your vents.” He grabbed the side of her helmet and angled his headlamp into the vent ports. “What in the sick hive…?”
Amelia turned. “What?”
“Hold still.” Her skull jerked forward by the force of Sammy’s grip. A rip of velcro and some muttering preceded, “Ah ha.”
Her brother prodded the rear of the helmet, Amelia’s head adjusting with every new angle directed to dig out whatever he spotted in the vent.
“You digging out a stubborn seal or something? What’s going on back there?”
“Got it.” He released his hold, and she fell forward, catching herself with both arms against the grass. She jumped to her feet to look at what he found.
On a gloved index finger, his lamp shone on the discovery. Jacob and Amelia added their light as they examined the find. “What is that?” she asked.
“Looks like some sort of resin,” Jacob said. “Is that… glue?”
“I think so.” Sammy lifted the substance to her visor.
She agreed. “That’s repair cement… Damned wasp-loving techs almost got me killed.” She’d have the ass of the last guy to work on her suit. “At least I can bloody see now. Fog’s gone. Let’s move out.”
The team resumed formation, and they continued the journey deeper into the ominous dome, passing through the apple orchard. Stark held up his hand to halt the squad. “We’re almost there, ma’am.”
“Great. Niko, Aasim, check it out.” The South-Asian and small, oriental woman disappeared into the darkness, weapons up, ready for trouble. The remaining operatives camped in place, waiting on the two combat specialist’s return.
“I expected to see bees by now being this close,” Stark said.
“Do bees pollinate in the dark?” Amelia directed her eyes toward Sammy, even though the chatter took place over comms.
“Not usually. But it has more to do with temperature than darkness.” He twisted his helmet, scanning the surroundings. He appeared to focus on the apple blossoms. “Dome pre-sets would have the night temperatures set lower than day. So, I wouldn’t expect much activity with the lights off.”
They waited in silence for a time until the time waited grew uncomfortable. “How far out is the package, Stark?”
“Should have been a couple minutes from here. Should have sent me. They’re probably lost.”
“Okay, we’ll wait a few more minutes, then we’re moving to the target.”
And so, they waited. No Niko or Aasim. Amelia stood, ready to order the advance.
A scream bounced off the megastructure of the dome and reverberated through her helmet. Everyone leapt to attention, rifles raised.
“What the dirty stinger!” Jacob’s curse blasted the comms with an electronic whine, a common side effect of excess volume.
The cracking of multiple rifle shots vibrated the atmosphere. High in the dome’s ceiling, bullets popped the panes of the inner shell. The whisper of tempered-glass cubes in free-fall tinkled across the black.
A whump thumped through dirt and air to shake Amelia’s boots and rattle her HUD.
“Hive Queen, have mercy.” The start of Sammy’s prayer broadcast brought a lump to her throat. Amelia looked at her brother and found his face pale, his lips moving, and his eyes closed. Somebody threw a grenade. Not good.
A long stutter of rifle fire echoed amidst the expanse of black. She knew the length of a full-auto magazine discharge. Only desperation drove pros to flip the switch and empty a mag of their valuable ammo.
“Move. NOW!” Darkness swallowed Amelia and her operatives as they hauled ass toward the fight.