Darren and his friends loved playing in the bio-dome. Almost like being outside.
Down below the station the planet promised endless open spaces if humans and Nivelaxians figured out a way to share. It didn’t make sense. Kl’ct didn’t understand it either.
When an unexpected attack threatens the station Darren and the others find themselves trapped in the bio-dome with older kids, no way out, and no time.
The whole station shuddered like the rabbits back in the biolabs. Darren noticed but Kl’ct twisted around one of the bio-dome trees and hissed from his perch on the branch above. Lex grabbed onto Mike’s left wing and pulled.
Mike yelled and swung at Lex’s arm. “Let go!”
“What was that?” Darren said.
Kl’ct curled around the branch even higher, pushing his iridescent face through the leaves to peer down at the rest of them. “Chase?”
Mike pulled free from Lex but the left wing was out of alignment in the harness. He twisted, trying to see the shimmery feathers. “If you broke this I’m going to break your arm!”
“You’re not,” Lex said.
“Stop!” Darren said. “Listen!”
“Chase,” Kl’ct said.
There was a loud whistling noise. The station shook again. A loud siren sounded through the dome. They all noticed that. Kl’ct’s antenna rose and spread as he reared up from the branch.
“We hear it,” Darren said.
Augmented warnings popped up from the corners of his eyes. Depressurization, destabilization, compartmentalization procedures in force, whatever those meant.
“Shit,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”
Darren said, “Call home.”
An augmented warning popped up in front of him. Systems error. Please try again.
He did and it still didn’t work. The other guys were doing the same thing, trying to call out without any luck.
“Come on, call home!” Lex’s voice rose.
Mike hit the releases on his wing harness and swung the broad wings free. “I’m going to fix this and then get out of here.”
Kl’ct’s beads rattled as he spiraled down out of the tree to the ground. “Disconnected. Disaster.”
Darren waved away his own error messages. They dissolved in a drift of smoke and were gone. He reached out and tapped Lex’s arm.
“Come on, we’ve got to go.”
Lex nodded. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go.”
“Wait!” Mike said. He had realigned his wing and was pulling on the harness. “I’m coming too!”
Lex was already running. He wasn’t waiting. The red lights flashed and reflected on his bouncing blond hair.
Mike finished strapping on his wings and activated them. Responding directly to his thoughts — the wings were an expensive gift from his Earth-bound father — Mike launched himself into the air.
Darren started running after the others. Mike flew faster than any of them could run.
The whistling noise started fading. Darren looked around, noticed shadows moving on the ground and looked up. Hundreds of fist-sized repair drots swarmed over the face of the dome spraying sealant over holes punched through a section of the dome.
“Look!” He jabbed a finger up at the drots.
Kl’ct and Lex stopped to look up.
Kl’ct’s external display flashed on his face. “Structural failures!”
“We’ve been hit,” Lex said. “Meteorite impact?”
Mike swooped down and circled over their heads. “The hatches are sealed!”
“What?” Three voices asked at once.
Darren clenched his fists and looked toward the exit hatches, but the plants were in the way. He couldn’t see the way out. The biodome had two primary exits at each end, it was a like a swollen bead on the string of the station’s main body. It was one of four similar domes spaced around the station, each designed for different sorts of environmental conditions. This one was a temperate forest environment, although it contained species from a half-dozen different worlds. They’d learned about all of them in their lessons.
“I’m gonna check it out,” Mike said. He flapped off over the tops of a Broken Pearl tree. The canopy of broad leaves formed a complicated pattern of pearlescent leaves around the central trunk.
“We should go help,” Darren said.
Up above it looked like the drots had a handle on sealing the holes. At least for the moment it didn’t look like they were going to depressurize.
Darren took off running again, this time getting in front. Lex’s feet slapped the path behind him. Kl’ct’s pointed prods sounded like someone drumming their fingers against the path to make a sort of galloping sound.
They rounded the planter that held the Broken Pearl tree among the thicker undergrowth and could finally see the closed hatches ahead. Both the inner and outer hatches were shut, with red lights tracing the edges.
Mike had landed, his wings folded down his back as he tried the hatch controls. It kept throwing up a red warning message each time he tried before Darren got there.
Mike looked down at him. “It’s not working. The hatches won’t open!”
Lex and Kl’ct arrived. Kl’ct lifted his upper body from the ground and swayed back and forth.
“Trapped. No way out?”
“We can try the other side of the dome,” Lex said.
Darren shook his head. “It’s probably closed.”
“But we don’t know that,” Lex said. “What if it’s not?”
“I could go check it,” Mike said. “I can get there faster than anyone.”
Kl’ct’s probs tapped on the controls and a second later the display showed a schematic of the station complete with read highlighted sections.
“Areas damaged,” Kl’ct said. “Hatches reported closed, sealing off sections.”
Darren joined him and flicked through the reports. It was true. There was damage to the station in sections on both sides of this dome. They’d taken the worst of the impact.
“Still unidentified?” Lex said, peering over Darren’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”
“They don’t know what hit us,” Darren said.
“Not meteorites?” Lex said.
Darren stepped back from the panel. “It doesn’t say.”
Which was very frustrating. Wouldn’t it say if there had been a meteorite impact?
Mike’s wings spread and folded back up. “So I shouldn’t go?”
Darren shook his head. “Stay here. We shouldn’t get separated, and we’re already at this hatch. Someone will come.”
Just then there were voices. Lex and Mike rushed to the hatch doors.
“We’re in here!”
Mike pounded on the glass.
“Stop it,” Darren said. “Stop!”
Both of the guys turned around. Darren pointed off into the dome. “The voices came from out there. Someone else is in here.”
Sure enough, two big kids came around the corner. They were both a lot taller, almost as big as adults, and human. One of the guys had wavy black hair and was holding a broken drot in his hands, the legs dangling around his fingers. The other kid was a red-head, with hair a deep rusty red-brown and a spray of freckles across his pale skin.
The guy with the drot sneered when he saw them. “Shit, we’re stuck in here with a bunch of squirts!”
The red-head nudged the guy and pointed at Kl’ct. “But look, there’s a Milliroach with them.”
Kl’ct hissed softly and scuttled backward around Lex.
“I’ll bet it’s a spy,” the one holding the drot said. “Sent here to scout out the station before the attack.”
“Attack?” Lex said.
“Yeah, squirt. Me and McQueen here saw ‘em. Milliroach ships fired on the station. Looks like the war finally started, alright.”
War. Darren’s stomach shrank. Dad had talked about the chance that there was going to be a war. The disagreement with the Nivelaxians — Milliroach was a bad word — over the colony planet below was all his parents talked about some days. It didn’t make much sense. It was a whole planet! There should have been room for everyone, but the Nivelaxians were there first and weren’t looking for neighbors on the surface.
“We ought to take him prisoner,” McQueen said. “Right, Rod?”
The other kid, apparently Rod, nodded. “I think so. We could be heroes when we get out of here.”
“Not a spy,” Kl’ct said. “Exchange student.”
“Right.” Rod laughed. “Like anyone believed that! You wanted to spy on us.”
McQueen said. “Want to tie him up or something?”
Darren stepped forward. “He’s not a spy. He takes lessons with us. Just leave him alone.”
Rod stepped up and loomed over Darren. “You telling me what to do, squirt?”
Darren squeezed his hands into fists. There were four of them, even if they were smaller. “Yes. You can’t do anything to Kl’ct, he’s not —”
There was a blur and something smacked Darren’s face. It was loud and hurt! He staggered and his whole face smarted. Tears stung his eyes.
Rod had hit him!
Darren wiped the tears away just as Rod stepped closer and gave him a two-handed shove. Darren flew back like a leaf caught in wind.
McQueen was laughing, his voice high-pitched and gasping.
“That’s what I can do, squirt,” Rod said. He pointed at each of them in turn. “Don’t the rest of you think about trying anything unless you want more of the same.”
Darren picked himself up. Lex and Mike stood together in front of Kl’ct. It wasn’t fair, and Darren couldn’t let it go. It didn’t matter what happened, he wasn’t about to let Rod pick on anyone else.
“You’re pretty tough,” Darren said.
Rod looked at him. “What did you say?”
“You’re tough.” Darren walked in front of the others. “Big guy, you can pick on someone half your size. Makes you pretty tough, I guess.”
McQueen’s eyes bulged and he covered his giggles with one hand.
Darren gestured at McQueen. “Even your buddy thinks that’s pretty funny.”
Rod turned and when he saw McQueen trying not to laugh he glared. That made McQueen lose it. The kid started laughing great big belly busters.
Rod shoved McQueen’s shoulders. “Cut it out! It’s not funny!”
“Yes it is,” Darren said. “It’s hilarious.”
Rod pointed a finger at Darren. “You’d better stop.”
McQueen laughed harder.
Rod chucked the broken drot at McQueen. It hit McQueen in the chest, then fell with a dull clank to the floor.
“Ow!” McQueen rubbed the spot. “Why’d you do that?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” Rod said. “Now help me get this Milliroach.”
McQueen kicked the broken drot aside. “Come on kids, don’t give him any excuses.”
Darren stayed where he was and tried not to shake. He lifted his arms and made two fists. “I’m not letting you do anything to Kl’ct. He doesn’t have anything to do with the attack.”
“It was them!” Rod said. “We saw the ship!”
“You saw them?” Lex stepped up. “What sort of ship did you see? Can you describe it?”
“It wasn’t human,” Rod said. “We know that. No one has ships like that one.”
Mike spoke up. “How do you know it wasn’t some other species?”
“It looked like a giant bug,” McQueen said. “Some sort of beetle.”
Kl’ct’s body rose up, rocking back onto his rear prods. “Ships not like a beetle.”
Rod sneered and tried to step around Darren. “Like we’d believe you.”
Darren moved in front of the big kid. “He’s telling the truth!”
“Their ships look like spheres,” Lex said. “We studied them in class. They’re like giant balls.”
Which wasn’t telling the bigger kids that the reason they studied it was because of the report that Kl’ct did in front of the class when he joined their lesson group.
Rod said, “So what other aliens could it be? It’s the Milliroaches that don’t want to share the planet.”
“I don’t know,” Darren said. “But it wasn’t them. And even if it was, it’s not up to you. Help will come, they’ll know what to do.”
“What if the dome depressurizes?” Lex asked.
Rod shoved a hand back through his wavy hair. “The drots are sealing the domes. It’s fine, kid.”
He was actually right. It wasn’t easy to see from here, but it looked like the drots were crawling down the face of the dome. There was a dull, darker spot where they had applied the patch.
Mike picked up the broken drot that Rod had thrown at McQueen. It’s legs dangled limply around his hand. “What happened to this one?”
“It fell,” McQueen said. “Lots its grip up there and fell all the way down. We saw it, give it over.”
Mike threw it back at McQueen. The bigger boy simply reached out and caught it. McQueen laughed, tossed the drot into the air and caught it again.
Rod tapped his arm. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“The other side of the dome,” Rod’s tone suggested that McQueen’s question was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. “While these squirts are sitting around here waiting for this hatch to open, we’re going to see if the other way out is open.”
“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said.
“Yeah?” Rod said, sneering. “Like I’m going to listen to a Milliroach. We’ll go check it out on our own.”
Rod was already walking away. McQueen hesitated for a moment, tossed the drot up, caught it and then he started whistling as he followed Rod away.
Darren finally relaxed and turned back to face his friends.
“That was insane,” he said.
“Do you think they’ll get out?” Lex said.
“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said. “No leaving.”
Now that the immediate danger was past Darren felt his excited rise. “Did you hear what they said, though? About the ships? Not human or Nivelaxian — that means there’s some other alien species here.”
The science lessons said that it was unlikely for two civilizations to be spreading around the same portion of the galaxy at the same time. Most went extinct before gaining the ability to travel between solar systems. There’d been plenty of ruins found on alien worlds in the past hundred or so years.
“Great,” Lex said. “And they took a shot at us because they’re the big kids?”
“I could fly up and see what those guys are doing,” Mike said.
“They probably wouldn’t like it if they saw you,” Darren said. “We should stick together.”
“They can’t do anything if I’m flying above them.”
“Throw rocks?” Kl’ct said.
Mike’s wings flexed and folded. “Maybe, but they probably couldn’t hit me.”
“How long do you think it’ll take before someone comes for us?” Lex said. “I’m getting hungry.”
It was almost lunch time. That introduced a new wrinkle to the whole experience. What were they supposed to do about food? Most of the edible plants grown on the station were in the hydroponics bay. The bio-domes were parks, places for people to get out even under the black sky.
“It probably won’t take too much longer,” Darren said. “Let’s check the panel.”
He went over to the panel beside the hatch. Kl’ct reared up beside him but kept his prods to himself. Darren swiped through the screens but it was only displaying the same information as before. The areas on both sides of the bio-dome showed sealed sections and damage. Portions of the station had been vented by the damage but the interior seals were holding.
“Nothing new,” Kl’ct said, dropping back down to the ground.
“He’s right,” Darren added.
Lex made a frustrated noise. “I can’t connect! How’s that even possible?”
Darren activated his augmentation layer and right away was alerted that the only viable connections were his friends — and the two older kids that had gone off. Nothing outside the dome.
He waved away the interface. “I guess we just wait.”
“Other ways out?” Kl’ct said.
“I don’t think so,” Lex said. “Unless you can override the security on the hatch.”
“Is that even safe?” Mike said. “If sections are depressurized, doesn’t that mean we couldn’t breathe? We might vent the whole dome.”
Darren remembered something on the schematics as he was viewing the damage to the station. He pulled that back up and found what he was looking for.
“There,” he said, spreading his fingers to zoom in on the area. “What about the supply shaft?”
“What’s that?” Kl’ct said.
It was a radial arm that ran from the hub out to the bio-dome. The passage was small on the schematics, but it had to have room for all of the air, water and power supplies to the bio-dome. But there should also be room for them. It was used for maintenance after all.
“Supply shaft straight out to the hub ring,” Darren said. “If we can get in, we can get all the way to the hub ring. There’s no damage reported there, only out here.”
“Let’s do it,” Mike said. “Better than sitting around here.”
Lex nodded. “Sure okay.”
“Sure okay,” Kl’ct said.
The fact that they all agreed surprised Darren but there wasn’t anything else to do except go check it out.
As they set out along the paths Lex and Mike hurried to the front. He let them. Maybe they wouldn’t have any luck opening the supply shaft, but he felt better about it than sitting and doing nothing. Seeing the damaged sections on the panel, all he could picture was his parents caught in one of the depressurized section. Logically, there wasn’t any reason for his parents to be in those areas — they were both supervisors that worked in parts of the hub. No reason for them to be out in the main ring at this time.
Except sometimes they had to for their jobs, but the station was a big place. What were the chances?
It didn’t matter. He’d be happier when they were all safe in the hub and there were grown-ups around to tell them what was going on. Plus, even though the drots had patched the damage to the dome he didn’t quite trust the patch. What if it failed? Or the ships came back. The hub would be safer.
It wasn’t easy to find the supply shaft hatch. The path was almost covered by long trailing ferns. Kl’ct spotted it, but then he was ambling along on his prods much lower than the rest of them.
Darren pushed through first, followed by the other guys. Past the ferns the path opened up into a firm path with an almost rubberized feel to it, even though it was designed to look like gravel. At the end, not that far, was the dome wall and a plain metallic hatch with a bright red and yellow bar across the middle.
EMERGENCY ACCESS ONLY. NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS.
“I think this counts as an emergency,” Darren said.
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Open it.”
“Is it going to sound an alarm?”
“Likely result,” Kl’ct said.
Darren grabbed the big red lever in the hatch. There were arrows showing that the lever needed to be lifted and rotated around to face the other way, counter-clockwise. He wrapped both hands around it and pulled.
It didn’t move.
“Come on,” Lex said. “What’s wrong?”
“It won’t move,” Darren said.
Mike shoved Lex out of the way. “Let me try.”
Darren and Lex got out of his way, but the wings still hit Darren’s arm. Mike liked to act like he was a big guy, but he really wasn’t. Darren crossed his arms and waited.
Mike strained to move the handle with both hands and it refused to budge.
“Give up?” Lex said. “Maybe Kl’ct should try?”
“Unnecessary,” Kl’ct said.
“No,” Mike said. He glanced back. “Stand back.”
“What are you doing?” Darren said.
Mike’s wings spread out on either side. He wrapped his hands around the handle, crouched and then jumped into the air. His wings swept down and he swung up and crashed into the hatch.
He yelled and fell down, landing on hands and knees.
He climbed up onto his feet and his wings folded back into place. “It’s busted. We’re stuck.”
“Larger humans help?” Kl’ct said.
They all looked at him and Darren saw that they all had the same opinion of Kl’ct’s idea. Ask the older boys for help? Darren didn’t want to see them again, but it might be the only way to get out.
“No way,” Lex said. “You saw what he did to Darren.”
“Right,” Mike said. “We’ll wait until a rescue team gets to us.”
Darren said, “No. Let’s ask them.”
“Really?” Lex said.
Darren took a deep breath and it didn’t feel right. Thin. He hadn’t noticed before, but the air seemed thinner. And there was a faint whistling noise.
“Yes,” he said. “I think the drots’ patch isn’t holding. We need to get out of here into a sealed section.”
“I can check it out,” Mike said.
He stepped away and spread his wings.
“Be careful,” Kl’ct said. “Thinner air, harder to fly.”
Mike nodded. “I’ll be careful. Thanks.”
Darren started up the path. “We’ll go on foot. You can help us find them.”
“Right!” Mike said.
Mike jumped into the air and his wings swept down. Leaves blew around them as he flapped up into the air over the ferns and bushes. Soon he was nearly out of sight over the trees.
Darren ran up the path with Lex and Kl’ct running with him. He turned left and headed down the path in the direction of the other side of the dome because that’s where the older boys said they were going.
None of the paths in the bio-dome went straight. They twisted and went up and down the small hills in the bio-dome. Across a wood footbridge over the stream. It was almost fun except Darren realized that he was breathing heavier than normal.
Mike swooped back over them. “Turn at the next split — they’re heading back.”
Darren shouted, “Okay.”
Up ahead the path split beneath a big tree that curved and made almost a tunnel of branches. It was a favorite spot of theirs because it was easy to climb the tree. Mike dropped down and landed on the thick branches.
“They’re just up ahead.”
Darren ran on through the branches tunnel and coming up the next rise. He sucked air and bent over, hands on his knees. The big kids were just up ahead at the top of the next rise. As Lex and Kl’ct caught up, and Mike hoped down onto the trail, McQueen saw them. He tapped Rod’s arm.
Rod turned around. “What are you doing?”
Darren straightened and ran down the hill towards the bigger boys. They stayed where they were until he got there.
“The air’s leaking,” Darren said, breathing hard.
The guys caught up.
“The drots fixed it,” McQueen said.
Darren shook his head. “It didn’t hold. Listen, you can hear the whistling.”
Everyone was quiet and the whistling was like a distant tea kettle. Rod’s eyes widened.
“We have to get one of those hatches open,” he said. He looked down at them. “You’ll have to keep up.”
He was already turning and Darren grabbed his arm. “Wait.”
Rod scowled and yanked his arm away. “We can’t wait unless you squirts want to be sucking vacuum.”
“There’s another hatch, to the access shaft,” Darren said. “We couldn’t lift the lever, but maybe you can.”
“Okay,” Rod said. “Where?”
“You’re not listening to them, are you?” McQueen said.
“Why not?” Rod looked down at Darren. “He seems tougher and smarter than you.”
Darren pointed back down the path. “This way.”
They all ran, even Mike. He tried to take off but didn’t get much lift from his wings. Darren took the lead with the bigger boys behind him, and the rest of the group following. The air was getting thinner. His lungs were burning by the time they got to the access hatchway.
Rod immediately grabbed the lever and tried to move it. It moved a little, but then he stopped and looked at McQueen.
“Don’t be dumb, help me!”
McQueen crowded in beside Rod and put his hands beneath the end. Rod grabbed it from the top. With McQueen pushing and Rod pulling the lever moved up. As they forced it vertical they switched their grips and pulled it the rest of the way down.
Rod pushed on the hatch and it didn’t move.
Darren went to the panel and looked at the readout. “There’s more pressure on the other side — it’s pushing the hatch shut!”
“Everyone!” Rod said.
He planted his back against the hatch. McQueen did the same thing. The rest of the kids crowed around them and Kl’ct went between the big kid’s legs to reach the hatch.
Darren was pressed against Lex, both of their hands on the hatch. “Push!”
They all pushed. At first Darren didn’t think it was going to work. He was heaving lungfuls of thin air but they weren’t making progress. Then a breeze blew in his face. He realized after a second that it was air escaping around the hatch into the dome.
A centimeter at a time they pushed the hatch inward into the access tunnel. The breeze became a wind blowing in their faces but it was at least easier to breathe. Soon they had the hatch shoved wide open and kept pushing until it was fully open. Even then the wind threatened to shove it close.
“Get out of the way on three,” Rod said.
“One. Two. Three!”
Darren darted into the tunnel. Lex was with him. Kl’ct scurried past on his prods. Mike stumbled as McQueen shoved him forward. Rod was still on the door, legs planted to try and hold the hatch but he was sliding. Then he rolled away from the hatch into the shaft.
The hatch slammed shut with a loud bang and the wind stopped. Rod slowly picked himself up. Darren walked over and held out his hand. Rod hesitated for a moment and then shook it.
“You’re a weird kid, but sorry about smacking you around.”
Darren noticed the pinched look in Rod’s face. The older boy really was sorry. It suddenly occurred to Darren that Rod had been reacting out of fear from the attack.
“It’s Kl’ct that deserves the apology,” Darren said. “He didn’t have anything to do with the attack.”
Kl’ct lifted his front section up from the floor. “We would never attack you, physical confrontation, very distasteful.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Rod said.
He brushed past them. The access shaft curved sharply just ahead and there was a ladder leading up. The whole station rotated to simulate gravity. To get up to the hub they were going to have to climb up the access shaft.
“Come on,” Rod called. “We shouldn’t stay here.”
Mike flexed his wings but the tips quickly hit the sides of the narrow shaft. “Too bad. If this was bigger I could fly up.”
Rod was disappearing up the ladder, with McQueen behind him.
Darren motioned to the others. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He waited until all the others had gone first and then followed. It was hard to climb the ladder at first. The shaft was narrow, surrounded by pipes and wiring that extended through the access shaft. The further they climbed the easier it became until they were all making good time. Kl’ct looked like he was running along tracks instead of climbing.
When the hatch smoothly opened at the far end, they climbed out and were quickly surrounded by excited and relieved adults.
The crowd parted and Darren’s parents came through the crowd. Darren threw himself into his dad’s arms and hugged him tight.
“We were so scared!” His mother said. “We didn’t know where you were, but we knew the bio-dome was failing.”
Darren pulled back. “Who attacked the station?”
“We don’t know,” his father said. “But between the Nivelaxians ships and our own, we’ve driven them away. We’re safe now.”
For now. But the aliens could come back. Darren squirmed down from his father’s grasp.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Darren said. “I’m fine.”
This time. But what about the next time? If the aliens came back, he needed to be better prepared. Rod had hit him and knocked him down, but he was nothing but a scared bully. That didn’t mean there weren’t bigger threats out there in the dark. For the first time he realized that he could have died and shivered.
He had to be better. Plan better. Know more about what to do and be ready to deal with whatever happened. He couldn’t grow up faster, but he also couldn’t wait. It was a big universe after all.
He had to be ready for it.
This story is the 67th weekly short story release, written a couple years ago in May 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.