Concern tickled Amelia’s thoughts as their headlamp’s bright beams bounced across the ground while running. At this speed, if danger sprung from the walls of black pressing in, they’d face it with the tactical disadvantage of the surprised. And to avoid tripping over a log, rock, or the Hive Queen help them, the threat, their feet must emulate the agility of the little saviours.
The rifle fire ceased. And years of experience counting rounds spent during a fight told her Aasim and Niko still had plenty. Two scenarios occupied her: The pair of combat specialists eliminated the threat… or, well, there was one other possibility. She hoped the former.
“Only… thirty seconds… out,” Stark said, huffing over the comms.
“We’re going in hot. See anything not Niko and Aasim… sting ‘em dead.” Amelia held back speed to match her people.
“Uh, guys… my O2… it… my light’s red,” Sammy said, squeezing out the message.
Shit. “We don’t have time for a team tank change.” She thought for a beat. “You stop and switch. Jacob, assist him.”
“Roger.” Jacob stopped, and Sammy followed suit three steps later. They dropped to the grass and began the faster two-person version of the drill.
“Catch up quick, guys.” Amelia forced a longer stride. She trained with Stark in the SM Operatives’ gym and knew pushing to the end within his power.
They burst from the last row of the apple grove into a forty-foot-wide strip of flowering clover. Blossoming cherry trees marked the legume crop’s opposite edge. A white box sat between the two orchards.
Blood-drenched vegetation smashed into slathers of red ominous liquid churned with the soil. Crimson splattered the white of the box.
Niko and Aasim… the blood.
“Bloody stingers,” she said into the helmet’s privacy before chinning the comms. “Jacob, Sammy, they’re M.I.A. What’s your E.T.A?”
“Jacob, Sammy, you copy?” Ten seconds passed. Nothing.
Stark looked at her with puffed cheeks as worried air exhaled puckered lips. She pointed to her ear, the visual sign of ‘do you read me?’, and received a nod back.
The hive was right here. Bees droned around in a lazy murmur. Not the busy workers she imagined. But Sammy said they slowed by night.
The human species would survive. But, without the bees… they’d never thrive. This dusty wasteland planet served as a diseased comparison to Earth’s splendour witnessed in historic National Geographic films.
She considered grabbing the hive, taking it home, and returning to rescue the team… but, they might be dead by the time help returned two weeks later.
A search now increased the hazard of Stark and herself encountering the same perilous fate… And no human would live to see a green planet. Her spine shivered at the thought of the threat watching from the trees, waiting to strike. She had to decide… and quick.
Stark’s eyes darted to Amelia, the hive, and the apple orchard’s edge. Cheeks flexed in and out with each breath.
The weight of civilization’s greatest failure pushed against her. The people of the old world let the bees die, knowing they had power to save the little saviours… but individuals and nations declined united purpose. Too preoccupied with singular problems. Too complacent in comfort.
The plight of bees ignored, a problem for ‘scientists and government’… the buzzing of tiny translucent wings vanished.
The world crumbled.
Wars, drought, starvation, disease.
All this… now on her. The old world’s people chose not to sacrifice for an insect. Could she pick bugs in a box over friends? Over her mate? Over flesh and blood? Dear Sammy…?
Carver’s words before the team exited their dome: “To the last, bring them back. They are more important than any of our worthless lives.”
Every man, woman, and child received education from birth on the sins of humanity. But now, when staring the choice down its black gullet, she froze.
Redemption or damnation?
For if the world’s last remaining hive of little striped heroes perished on her watch, she’d live accursed. A soul forever twisted and stretched, crushed and bludgeoned. She clenching the hot poker branding ‘traitor’ into every inch of her flesh.
“Ma’am?” Stark squinted. Preparing to give an order, she still chinned the comms switch during her outburst.
“We’re grabbing the hive. Retrace our way back to the airlock. We’ll pick up Jacob and Sammy on route.” No need to add ‘if they’re even there.’ Both grabbed metal handles on the hive with one arm and supported their rifles with the other. “Lift.”
Grunting, they took the load. “This thing’s gotta be a couple hundred pounds,” he said.
Amelia knew of now-dead hives much heavier. This honey factory had one super and a brood box. The beekeepers must have evacuated before adding another super. Lucky for Stark and her.
Rogue colonies had to exist in the dome, though. A swarm will split multiple times without hive management. If they failed the mission, a second attempt to collect a wild nest could prove worthwhile.
“Okay, let’s move… gently.” If they desired to keep forty thousand bees from expelling in an angry cloud of terror… well, careful feet required. She feared for the little ladies; each stinger caught in the fabric of the SM suits meant one bee dead.
They scanned left, right, and behind. Amelia knew to expect an attack on route to the exit.
“We must stop at some point to wrap the hive.” Stark’s reminder knocked in her gut. Of course, the colony naked to Earth’s toxic environment assured its death. With all the rocks hitting the proverbial wasp nest, she’d forgotten.
“We’re approaching Sammy and Jacob’s location.” Her beam landed on a patch of flattened grass between two apple trees and spotted a white object behind a trunk. “We aren’t stopping.”
Amelia zoomed in on the thing with the helmet cam while shuffling by the tree. Eye’s darted to the HUD, and she fought an urge to scream. A sole helmet with a crimson-splattered and cracked visor supplied protruding roots with a pool of protein-rich blood. Inside, the flickering interior lights lit up dead eyes, staring through the canopy of leaves and white blossoms.
Amelia faltered, grip slipping on the box’s handle, but her resolve regained ground.
Sammy. Was. Gone. Her brother: a hive martyr. A hero. “Keep moving.”
Stark stumbled at the repeated command, but caught his balance. Renewed fervour strengthened her fingers’ clutch on the hive’s hold.
They marched forward. A whisper of bees between them.