*ADULT CONTENT – SOME STRONG LANGUAGE*
The beacon of the Cardiff bio-dome reminded Barker of a mirage. After sustaining a forced-march for three hours straight, he felt no closer. The dome towered over him, but, like the end of a rainbow, the shimmering surface at ground level never seemed within reach. It’s huge. His ‘home dome’ of London was 200 miles to the southeast. Each gel-like structure glistened with the pearly sheen of a soap bubble. Varying the air pressure inside the bio-habitats maintained surface tension, although, on some days, the profile had a snub-nosed pointed appearance caused by the lower air pressure at higher altitudes.
Looks like I’m going to have to crash at the neighbors. Let’s hope they don’t shoot first. Barker laughed. ‘Crash’ being the operative word.
Ten miles south, the ditched Harrier’s landing gear remained buried in a dune, although the sand covered landscape outside the domes consisted more of rubble and pebbles of eroded glass than anything else. When the engines lost power, the plane’s vertical landing manouver had resembled a stone falling from the sky, the craft lurching sideways on impact.
The force of hitting the ground bruised Barker’s flesh, but, pushing through the pain, he gritted his teeth and kept walking. He set the bio-med setting to cool, but the aviator’s jumpsuit still clung to his perspiration soaked skin. The weight of the army duffle bag grated along his spine with each stride. The emergency medical supplies inside it were the reason for the mission. But the destination, outpost ‘Sega’, would have to wait. Barker hoped Lieutenant Crowe remained stable. Bacteria mutated faster than a man could spit in the constant warmth of Earth’s post meteor-strike atmosphere.
Arctic tundra took 300 years to heat up, but now they faced the dilemma of slow heat ascendance. Inside the city domes, humans were protected. Barker tapped the cuff-console secured to his forearm, rotating through the viewing options build into his helmet’s visor. His hair stank of sweat, overwhelming, even to his own nose, but losing the helmet was a no go. The retina scan fed information directly to his brain, cutting his reaction time by eight milliseconds. The difference between life and death.
With dusk falling, running out of time, Barker jogged along the bottom of a deep trench where railway tracks once ran; the salvaging of the metal tracks and wooden sleepers formed part of the first wave of missions scavenging for resources.
The escarpments rising steeply at either side could be a blessing or a curse. Nothing could see him, but he couldn’t see them either. Walking with his chin raised, Barker’s neck ached as he kept the crest of the dunes in view in case a carajaw scuttled over the rise. Nightfall made little difference to temperature outside the dome. The infrared lens Barker favored focused his attention on black spots — cold.
The electric blue tint of the carajaw carapaces glowed in daylight, but in darkness, their cold blood was all Barker could rely on. If you can call the yellow jello, blood. Digging into his pocket, his fingers closed around Mort, his grenade. Other Marines thought the nickname came from ‘morte’, the French word meaning dead. Or ‘mort.’, for immortality. In fact, it was named after Mortimer Mouse. Walt Disney sold out and called him Mickey, but Barker was on Mort’s side. You don’t change a winning M.O.
When landmines or Claymors were not readily available a grenade enabled Barker to blast his way out of more tight spots than he could shake a stick at. Mort was his last resort. Okay, I’m not gonna survive a carajaw encounter, but I’ll take the bastard with me. The fire service’ metal ‘jaws of life’ had nothing on the carajaw bite. Barker had seen one slice clean through a fellow Marine’s thigh bone. Mort had kept him company ever since. I’m not going out like that.
Reassured his ‘friend’ was where he needed him to be, Barker withdrew his hand, leaving Mort in this pocket. He flipped the safety on his rifle to off and scanned the banks on either side as he continued forward. The rifle had ammunition locked and loaded. Target practice was one thing, but firing an armor piercing round into the mouth of a moving carajaw required Barker to have nerves of steel.
Taking a compass reading, Barker left the trench, dropped to his belly and looked out over the crag-strewn landscape. The close proximity of the thick black line across the sand, where the shell of the dome disappeared underneath the ground, caught Barker by surprise. The abrupt switch from churned sand to fine glittering silt which had been leveled like icing on a cake proved it was not a mirage. I’m here.
Tamping down the surge of relief, Barker tapped the navigation setting on his cuff-console and picked up the beacon signal of the Cardiff dome. His display revealed that the bio portal into the dome was four clicks west. Nearly there.
As he turned to move, sweat erupted on Barker’s face. A chittering sound filled his earpiece. The light outside the dome was failing fast and precious little help came from the glow inside as it dissipated between the inner and outer skin. Shit, I can’t see a damn thing. A hiss of panic shunted his thoughts aside when the sand beneath his feet shifted, his boots quickly submerging in a collapsing crater. A mass rose up from beneath the undulating landscape some thirty yards away. Flicking through his viewing options, his retina display picked up the colossal black shape. Wet sand fell away and the glacier smooth finish of a carajaw shell gleamed. How many legs they had was a topic of constant debate. All Barker knew, was that once they were moving, the appendages were a blur and the creatures, about the size of a saloon car, moved fast.
Barker dropped to his knee, hefting his weapon up to his shoulder. He blocked out the shudder of fear and released his breath slowly. The cluster of wet black eyes gleaming in the blue tinted shadow beneath the upper-shell turned in his direction. The chittering sound that haunted him crawled inside his head as the mandibles vibrated open.
Okay, you can do this. Three sets of pincer-like jaws opened and closed on a rotating synchronised movement, yellow saliva pooling in the sand as the carajaw appeared to grin. Don’t be stupid, they can’t grin. In the split second of the third blade of bone shunting out, and before the first snapped in again, the chittering scream vibrated through Barker’s chest and he pulled the trigger.
The ear piercing crack accompanied a splinter of shattered mandible thudding into his helmet visor. He rocked back on his heels and when he focused again, the scowl beneath the electric blue shell was rushing in fast. Damn, I missed.
Turning to run, instinct jerked muscles into action even though he was already a dead man.
Razor-edged bones-like jaws snagged on his suit, the serrated mandibles hooking into the duffle bag. He hit the release mechanism in the centre of his chest and the webbing straps were torn from his shoulders. He catapulted forward, hitting the ground hard. The air left his lungs in a whoosh. His visor steamed up and he waited for the searing pain of the slicing blades to bite. Instead, a sudden blast flattened his jumpsuit to his back, and thick yellow fluid splattered his body. Endless seconds passed as globules of wet flesh made craters in the sand around him before he started to believe.
Rolling onto his back, Barker opened his eyes. Staring up into a sky where pink smears of dusk streaked across his vision, he took a deep breath, wincing as his ribs shifted and pain spiked inside his chest. That was close. Lifting his head, he looked straight into a chasm of what was once the carajaw’s face. The blue shell remained intact, but wisps of smoke billowed from holes where appendages had once protruded.
Sitting up, Barker scanned the jaundice-yellow lumps of tissue peppered around him. Grabbng his rifle, he rolled to his knees and put down a hand. He froze as a vibration stuttered up his arm. Shit, there’s more. Rising to a crouch, he drove his body forward into the gaping carcass. The pressure of liquified flesh made him gag. His bio-screen flashed red inside his helmet and a calm voice spoke. “Captain Barker, your heart rate is 178bpm. Turn your console to rescue mixture and breathe slowly.”
Damn. I would if I could. In the dark ash-grey space, he couldn’t feel his cuff-console through the viscous swamp of innards. He closed his eyes, and concentrated on the breathing thing.
Tapping and a chattering sound vibrated through the shell. How many are out there? He decided it was best not to know. The cocoon was sickeningly warm, and he surrendered to the urge to zone out.
When his eyes opened again, the sludge clinging to his body was cold. Shit, how long have I been in here. “Mother, bio scan.”
The automated voice in his ear said, “Vitals are good. Two broken ribs. Minor contusions.” The list was shorter than Barker expected. Swallowing down the bile burning in his throat, he wriggled backwards until his thighs grated over the lip of the carajaw’s shell. When he felt sand beneath his knees, he eased back into a crouched position. After clearing the egg-yolk colored slime from his visor, he did the same to his cuff-console and then clicked through the vision settings.
Turning slowly, he studied the immediate area, before sagging against the shell of the dead carajaw. Okay, I’m alright for now.
Pushing to his feet, he took Mort out of his pocket. Settling his thumb through the looped metal of the pin, he drew comfort from the familiar feeling of the deeply scored casing. He broke into an efficient run, and by the time he arrived at the bio-gate, his lungs were burning.
The Marines manning the bio-portal inside the dome jerked to attention. Barker flicked a switch on his cuff and hit ‘transmit’, and the Marine inside the dome studied a monitor until his narrowed eyed expression gave way to a smile.
“Captain. You’re a surprise, Sir,” crackled through Barker’s earpiece.
Barker nodded. “It’s a bit lively out here, permission to enter?”
His image, reflected in the gel-like wall, disappeared as the bio-portal opened. Stepping forward into the area between the two skins, the stillness of being cocooned between the two layers brought welcome relief as the portal behind him closed. The square marked on the ground indicated the confines of his cell.
“Activating decontamination,” the Marine’s voice erupted in his earpiece.
The fine sand beneath his boots shifted as ‘scuttlebugs’ poured out from between the grains. The bio-engineered insects were parasites, genetically programed to devour every particle of matter on Barker’s bio-suit. The thought of consuming the sludge-like innards of the carajaw made Barker’s gut churn.
As he closed his eyes, a tingling sensation shot them open again. His skin burned. Hundreds of scuttlebugs invaded the confines of his suit through a tear in the fabric. Barker realized he’d been contaminated when his skin began to bleed. The slick plasma feeling as the scuttlebugs stripped away the epidermis filled his chest with panic. The hot ash of searing pain clouded his brain. As he began to scream, he held Mort to his chest.
The Marine inside the dome jerked to attention.
“Do not pull that pin, Captain. We’re recalling the bugs. We’ll get you into quarantine.”
The words made no sense to Barker. He pulled the pin. As his helmet filled with blood, his body folded to his knees.
The explosion ripped through the dome. A blood-red bone fragment shattered a Marine’s cheekbone as the bio-portal failed. The sand beyond undulated like a storm at sea, glimmering with electric blue light. The harsh shriek of chittering mandibles filled the air.