After multiple breaks to allow the blood back into their fingers, Amelia saw the lights of the airlock. They needed a secure place to drop the hive and wrap it. Someplace with one entry to defend.
Drops of water splattered her visor, disturbing thoughts of another rest for tired limbs. A look at the ceiling showed the headlamp’s beam dispersed against solid, dark clouds. Just what they needed.
The image of Sammy’s dead eyes staring through the leaves and blossoms of an apple tree, and thick drops of rain leaking through the visor to soak his colourless face, assaulted her. How could she recover from leaving him to fertilize foreign soil?
He always put her above himself. When Amelia received a surface mission assignment, there was no doubt he would take care of… her daughter. When… her name? Her name…? Bloody stingers!
When… her little girl… called Sammy papa, an eye never blinked, an internal cringe never stirred. Adopted as his own, and when…. when she resigned from the dying Earth… Sammy joined Amelia’s SM team, even though the surface kept his precious dome research out of reach, sometimes for weeks.
A door to the dome’s outer-perimeter habitation ring stood open. “Let’s go in there,” Amelia said, pointing at the entrance with the rifle.
“Sounds good.” Stark turned toward the door, and they dropped the hive outside. “I’ll check it out.”
“Stay in sight. We can’t get separated.” That had resulted in losing two-thirds of the team. If he went missing, getting the box of bees out would prove impossible.
He flashed light into the opening, lighting up a wall, a hallway passage. Construction of domes in this part of the world followed the same blueprint. All engineered by the same builder. Getting lost posed no challenge. But who knew what lay waiting inside the living quarters of the dome’s former residents?
Tight spaces worried Amelia more than the open fields, and yet they suffered the loss of four friends and family in the wide agri-zone of the biosphere.
Stark’s voice came over the comms. “Hallway secure. I see the entrance to SME storage.”
“Good. We can defend from there. Get back here.” Amelia grabbed the handle on her side of the hive when Stark returned. They hefted the load and took it inside. The storage room entry presented a better look at a metal door with large scratches up and down its length. “What nightmare did this?”
“I don’t want to find out. Good thing it couldn’t get in. Means we should be safe in here.” The door’s handle levered down when Stark pushed, but pressing on the door proved futile. “Shit. It’s locked.”
“I brought a set of keys from home.” Amelia reached into a leg pouch and produced a key ring, holding one between two fingers. “This opens our SME storage. Should work here.”
The dome builders keyed the interior of their projects the same. A good thing? As long as the various habitats maintained peace. Go to war and breach an enemy dome, and the invaders had easy access of the interior. If word got out, her people possessed the last hive… might want to look into changing the locks.
The key inserted, she turned it, heard a click, and pushed. The beam of her headlamp illuminated the room. Two racks of surface mission suits faced each other on both left and right walls. Parts sat stacked in neat order on racking at the back, and underneath, boxes of Nutri-quid. A cage of upright O2 cylinders brought a smile to her face. They performed an O2 change on a previous break, and a good SM operative knew to take advantage of clean air when found.
“We’ll see if those tanks are full and switch out for fresh ones. I’d recommend restocking your Nutri-quid supply, too.” The liquid nutritional packs expired forty years from packaging. Lucky for them, they never had to taste it; the suit’s absorb-all system did the work of depositing the nutrients and energy through the skin.
Stark nodded, and they lifted the hive, shuffling into the room. He shut the door and locked it. “Think we have power in here?” A flick of the light switch, and a tube on the ceiling buzzed to white brilliance… and exploded. “Well, that sucks.”
“Let’s wrap the hive.” She bent to sling off her pack.
“Was that you?” Amelia asked, voice shaking. The HUD flashed red, registering an alarming spike in heart rate and an abrupt halt to her breathing. Stark kept silent, and she raised a heavy head to study him.
Behind the visor, his face drained of colour. “Somebody survived?”
“Good to,” a gasp, “hear your voices… guys.”
“Niko?” Amelia’s brain exploded into a chaos of hornets; they had to rescue her. But the hive. Eyes fell and locked on it.
“Ma’am… I’m hurt bad.”
“Okay… Okay.” Focus. Focus. “What about Aasim?”
“What happened?” Amelia prepared for the worst kind of news.
“Some sort of,” Niko let out a painful hiss, “animal, ma’am. It… it ate Aasim.” An animal? Did she just say an animal ate Aasim? An animal removed Sammy’s head, disappeared his body, and took Jacob?
Stark’s voice quivered over the comms. “Niko… it ain’t no animal.”
“It’s a monster… a demon,” Amelia said. “Where are you?”
“Somewhere in the… outer ring… I think.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Again, the colony attracted the focus of her eyes. “Start wrapping the hive and stay here. I’m going after her.”
“You guys got the hive? Hell,” pained wavering, “ya…”
The acceleration of blood thumped in her ears. “Niko?”
A solemn voice answered. “Ma’am. Get it out… of here.” Then, a hard, “Get it home.”
“Niko…” Forsake a friend to a sure death? Her brain spun, the pressure blocking sound, sight, and the fetid stink of sweat trapped in her helmet’s seal. To live with herself. But… the hive… the planet… the bees ‘more important than any of our worthless lives.’
“Ma’am?” Niko snapped Amelia back to the situation.
“Are you in a safe place?”
“I… no. The animal… I think it’s with Jacob somewhere. I heard him,” a wincing breath, “cussing up a nest… earlier.”
Niko next on the beast’s menu? Dessert after Jacob? Not while she lived. “Niko. I’m going to find you.”
“No, ma’am. You need to get… the hive out of… here.”
Suck a stinger. The woman’s resolve and self-sacrifice choked Amelia’s mind into a state of paralysis. Carver’s words: ‘more important than any of our worthless lives.’
“I’ll help you wrap the hive,” she said to Stark. “You’re going to wait here, and I’m getting her.”
“Ma’am, if you don’t make it, I’ll have one hell of a time getting this home.” He pointed an arm at the white box.
“We can’t leave her. She’s alive.”
“Niko,” Stark said, “where are you hurt?”
“My leg. I’m sure one’s… broken. Looks unnatural. I’ve… dosed my absorb-all… some powerful shit. I’m losing feeling to, uh, both legs.”
“Ma’am, how do you propose we even get her out of here? We still have the hive to move?” Stark grew irritating. But, how to fight his logic? She should agree with him, take the colony, get the hell out of here, and come rescue Niko… two weeks later.
“We’ll bring her here. She’ll have oxygen and Nutri-quid to last weeks. We’ll come back after.” Chew on that.
“Fair, but if either of us doesn’t make it back… this ball of rock is low on luck as it is. We’ll never reclaim the planet.”
“We have artificial pollination.”
“That’s not enough.” Stark crouched in front of the hive. “You can’t justify yourself out of this, ma’am. If it were an option, we’d have used it long ago.” Bees climbed the white wood. “Let your resentment of these little ladies go.” A gentle, gloved finger extended forward and pressed against the box. A bee crawled onto him, and Stark brought it inches from his visor. “They’re going to save us all.”
“That’s nothing to do with it. And you are out of line.” Amelia crouched beside him to watch the bugs herself. Resilient creatures. The fact they hadn’t swarmed away from the hive after years of neglect testified to their strength.
Carver’s interrogation of the source revealed a strong genetics program in this dome before abandonment. How far had the research come before the end?
She said, “Look, you guys are all that’s left of the team. If we just give up on each other, what’s the point of saving the planet? What’s worth saving?”
Niko laughed. “I think the fact I’m willing to be a monster’s snack, so you can get out of here, says something.” Uninterrupted speech meant the drugs had peaked. “Come on, get out of here. Save the world, baby.” Giggling. How much ketamine did she absorb? Broken leg… probably more than a dose.
Stark stood. “Let’s get this wrapped and go from there.”
“Sure.” Amelia pulled out a white plastic cover from the pack, stood, and unfurled it with a snap to dislodge creases. Stark grabbed the loose end, and they draped it over the hive. He lifted one side of the colony, and then the other as Amelia fed the material underneath. They zipped it and folded over the sealing flap.
She reached into her pack and removed a gas torch, and Stark held the seams straight as Amelia melted the plastic together and said after, “Okay, let’s connect the O2 and gauge and test for leakage.”
Stark connected a tank of O2 to a black hose’s quick connect. “Sending pressure.” The cover inflated, and as it did, Amelia watched the digital gauge.
“Just a bit more.” She tapped the gauge to make sure the inner stem floated, displaying an exact measurement.
He gave the regulator a pinch of a turn.
“Looks good. Adjusting the vent, now.” Amelia turned a knob, setting the bubble’s pressure relief. “Okay, pressures good. Check for leaks.”
He brought out a mister filled with soapy water, sprayed the cover, and using the beam from his headlamp, searched for escaping air. “Some bubbling around the valve stem. But small. Tank will keep up.”
Don’t the techs check shit before sending it out, remembering her clogged vent. “I swear to the Hive Queen, I’m kicking some wasp-cursed tech’s ass when we get back.” No joke. There would be blood.
“Roger. I’ll help.”
“Sorry I won’t be there to see it.” Niko laughed, but Amelia sensed the sadness hid underneath… and fear.
The task complete, time had arrived to sentence her friend: Rescue… or a twisted ending conceived of teeth and claws.
Eyes and apple blossoms.
Blood and soil.
A final glance at the white box. The bees could wait.