A patch of fog on her visor increased and decreased in size with each breath. The moisture slicking the visor’s interior a contradiction to the barren wasteland sun baking her white, armoured surface mission suit.
Amelia would have to clean out the suit’s ventilation system… again. Damned dust. She chinned the comms switch. “Stark, how far out?”
Stark’s voice responded through the helmet’s internal speaker several seconds later. “Ma’am, could give you an accurate answer if our nav gear actually worked. But… should see it over this hill if our source isn’t just tossing wasps.”
“For his sake, he better not be.” Desperation and blind hope fuelled this operation. But Carver put enough fear into their unwilling informant. Observing his ‘powers of persuasion’ through the one-way glass of the interrogation room…
Hell… would have pissed herself if sitting in that chair against Carver… and she’d experienced enough intense shit these last few years with people getting desperate for food, water, oxygen and whatever else they thought required violence.
The team stomped through the dust, kicking fragile deadwood to the side, and went off-trail to avoid a jungle gym and rusted swing set. They kept silent as they passed. She refused to acknowledge the playground. Lips pressed tight. Eyes locked ahead.
“Halt here,” she said. They reached the top of the hill and crept forward to look down the opposite slope. A forest of dehydrated trees blocked their view of a glass dome’s lower two-thirds. Its height reached above the treetops, and the area covered extended kilometres in each direction.
As the habitat situated the bottom of a man-made bowl dug into the lifeless planet, they stopped on the bowl’s rim. Not different from their own home, yet this dome avoided detection for… well, nobody heard about it until a couple weeks ago.
“O2 check.” With a gloved hand, Amelia clutched the gauge hanging from a tube on her left shoulder.
She angled the gauge to see past the condensation. Half tank. Each operative carried a spare. Heavy… but necessary. Voice’s chimed one-by-one over the comms. “O2 half,” or “O2 quarter.”
“O2 half,” she said. “When the first of you reaches an eighth, we’ll perform a tank change. I don’t want to be stopping every time one of you runs low.”
The team started down the hill. As they penetrated through the dead woods, a tree crumbled into a pile of dust. The dirt billowed into a cloud engulfing the party. Just what she needed. More grit to clog up shit. Moisture buildup inside her visor compounded as gummed ventilation ports slowed exhales to atmosphere. She’d have to keep the CO2 levels in check. “Watch your toxic levels. I don’t need anybody going rag doll right now.”
They all knew. Professionals. But a reminder never hurt.
Her right arm raised with a balled fist as they approached the main pedestrian airlock to the dome. The squad halted behind her. “Aasim, check it out.”
Aasim brought his rifle up in gunfighter stance as he acknowledged the order in his thick South-Asian accent. “Yes, ma’am.” Rifle and body swung as one from left to right and back to the front, checking angles as his feet pushed forward with the precision of a predator . At the airlock entry, he ran a glove around all the edges.
Looking for traps. Good man.
He pushed a green button to trigger the bulkhead. No movement. So, gripping the two-foot handle beside the door on the dome’s exterior, he pumped. Amelia expected the entrance locked, but the metal mass inched open with a jerk for each downward thrust of the handle.
“Advance.” She lifted her rifle face high, quick-stepped ahead, and scanned for contacts. A click of her headlamp cut a luminescent pinhole through the vast darkness of the chamber beyond the door.
“Where’s the lights?” Niko’s sweet voice bore a hint of caution.
“I read you, girl,” Stark said. “Something’s not right?”
“Aasim.” His helmet dipped, and he strode into the black, headlamp bobbing away. Amelia looked back at Niko. “You’re last one in. Watch our six.”
“All clear, ma’am,” Aasim said through the comms. Stark strode in to join the combat specialist, and the remaining operatives cycled through the door. She counted them as they entered.
Once the six of them stood in the airlock, Niko guarding the entrance, Amelia pointed at a digital panel on the wall. “Jacob, can you activate the airlock?”
“I’m looking into it, sweet cheeks.”
She looked at the faces of the team through their visors. Big grins. Niko glanced back at her giggling, though no sound made it to her ears. Irritation threatened to escape her lips and lash the idiot.
Jacob came back through the comms. “Airlock system is down. Blow ’em open?”
They must not compromise the dome’s atmosphere.
“Is there power to this dome at all?” Stark walked over to the airlock-system panel. He tapped on the touch-screen with a thick-gloved finger.
“Watch it. Don’t need your ape hands breaking shit.” Jacob whacked Stark’s hand away from the panel.
“Hey, man. I ain’t breaking shit. It’s already broken.”
“I’m the tech. I’ll decide that.” Jacob pulled his pack off his back and commenced digging through it. A balled mess of cables with multiple plugs protruding fought to remain in the bag. A tug, and they dangled from his fist. “I’ll see if I can connect to the system through my visor’s display. Could just be the panel’s down. Or, I can access the dome’s schematic and find another way in.”
“Should be the same as ours, right?” Stark asked. Some operatives nodded their heads. Some shrugged their shoulders. Amelia expected Sammy to clear the confusion, but he held silent.
With a small screwdriver, Jacob removed the display from its wall mount. A confident hand selected the correct jack from the knot of cables and popped it into the screen’s back cover. Another connector, he clicked firm to a side port on his helmet.
The outside door’s pneumatic cylinders hissed. The steel slab emitted a groan as it ground rust in its tracks to dust and completed sealing its occupants from Earth’s poisonous air. Above, lights flickered on, and the corrosion marking this airlock’s age and lack of care became apparent. A familiar vibration and the sound of suction from the vacuum pumps kicking to life brought a smile to Amelia’s face. “Good job.”
Jacob turned around and looked at her, his face white. “That wasn’t me.”
Concern rose from the pit of Amelia’s stomach to her chest. Heart beats thumped against strained ribs. “What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t even connected to the system yet. I couldn’t find power.”
Everyone raised their rifles. Three faced the entry. Niko, Stark, and Amelia aimed at the inside bulkhead. The vacuum finished sucking, and she recognized the hiss of oxygen flooding the room. A red light above the door switch to green. “Green means go, ladies and gentlemen. Aasim-”
“On it.” He closed in on the door and peered through the view port. “It’s dark in there.”
“Figures,” Stark said.
Amelia focused on the door, wishing she could look through it. Before Aasim grabbed the handle, the door’s cylinders whooshed air, and the bulkhead strained and creaked open with a stutter. Its scheduled maintenance forgotten for who knew how long. “Could the system be glitching out?”
“No. Airlocks are all manually activated via a button or pump handle. Can’t have a computer killing the biom because it’s having a bad day. No, somebody is letting us in, Amelia.” Jacob’s familiarity with her name grated. A pairing didn’t mean ‘insubordinate behaviour allowed.’
The team must stay focused. She’d hold back giving him shit now. But if he tried grabbing her ass… “Sammy, any thoughts before we enter?” As a dome engineering specialist, he should have volunteered input by now.
“It’s dark.” A throat cleared. “Well… the auto-shaders should be letting in light. They’re not. There is power, so the growing season must be set to a system default. The biosphere’s going to be in rough shape if it’s been like this a long time. We’ll be lucky if the package survived.”
Amelia considered the words. She hoped Sammy was wrong. But her brother didn’t make mistakes… at least big ones. Smartest guy she knew.
Aasim entered the cavernous blackness of the dome, his light shining deep into the distance and lighting the sky-high, curved ceiling. She waved the rest forward, and one after another, they exited the airlock.
The door closed behind them. Amelia shivered. Her spine tingled. SM suites regulated body temperature.
She wasn’t cold.