Sirens echoed off the glass dome of the colony. The sound would have been unbearable without the oxygen mask covering most of Crystal’s face. Stapleton Farms was losing oxygen at an alarming rate. The colony should have had enough oxygen to last roughly four hours—plenty of time to safely evacuate the eight hundred people that called Stapleton Farms home. Or it would be if whatever had shut down the atmosphere generators that provided breathable air hadn’t also locked down every docking port and the escape pods.
Crystal’s team had been forced to make a hard dock, physically cutting a hole in the colony’s base, in order to get in. There wasn’t a direct path to the town at the center of the dome, so Crystal’s team was forging a path through rows of tilled soils and freshly planted crops. They were still a half mile away when the cart carrying the reserved oxygen tanks got stuck for what felt like the thousandth time. Crystal hadn’t factored in these delays. Even with the extra oxygen they were carrying, they were going to be cutting it close with the evacuation. She glanced down at the computer strapped to her wrist and cursed every salad she had ever eaten. Only sixty-five minutes until the colony was out of breathable air. She reached below the cart and pulled several large heads of lettuce from under it, freeing its wheels.
“Flint, any luck yet?” Crystal asked into her headset as she ran. The two combat teams had split up as soon as they had arrived. Their greatest chance of success was to attack this problem from two fronts: evacuation and restoration. It was a race to see who could complete their mission first. Personally, Crystal hoped Flint’s team would be able to bring the atmosphere generators back online long before she had completed the evacuation.
“We just reached the command room for the west fields,” Lieutenant Desiree Flint’s voice rang in Crystal earpiece.
“As long as the computers there are connected to the main network, like I think they are, I should be able to get into the atmosphere programing,” Tyler’s voice replaced Flint’s over the headsets. Tyler sounded confident, and Crystal believed him. He was the best program LAWON had and it wasn’t like they would have to deal with the crops getting in their way.
“Good. Keep me posted.” The computer on Crystal’s wrist started to vibrate. She had already used a quarter of her oxygen reserve. “And Ty? Work fast.” Crystal knew that small breech in protocol would be enough for Tyler to understand everything that was running through her head. Even though they hadn’t grown up together their bond as siblings had always been strong.
Her team started moving faster once they were finally through the fields. She had read the colony’s emergency plan and knew that the escape pods were located in the basement of the Community Center. It was standard set up for a bubble colony. It was easy to build the pods into the colony’s platform, which usually rested at least ten meters above the ocean floor.
They carried the carts up the three steps into the Community Center without breaking stride. The sound of the sirens was muted now that they were off the street. A steady hum of voices filled the large open atrium even though the room was empty. “Find the entrance to the basement,” she told her team.
There were at least fifteen doors in the circular room. She rushed at the first one only to find it led to a supply closet. She glanced down at her computer and shook her head. More time wasted. She moved to the next door leaving the supply closet open so they wouldn’t accidently check it again. Every second matter.
“Over here,” Justin yelled from the other side of the room. She shot him a smile, even though he couldn’t see it through her oxygen mask. Justin never let her down.
“I want four people to a cart,” Crystal ordered as she ran across the atrium. Her team quickly arranged themselves, and a few seconds later, she was leading them down the stairs. A fluttering sensation grew in her stomach with every step she took. She couldn’t explain the sudden onset of nerves. Even with the high level of civilian lives at stake, this was a simple rescue mission. No one was even shooting at them. She could have led a mission like this in her sleep; still she couldn’t stop her hand from resting on the butt of her gun.
Chaos crashed around her as soon as she entered the basement. It looked like a few of the colony’s engineers were attempting to get the airlock to the escape pods open, but were having a hard time given the hundreds of scared citizens crowding them. Crystal tapped a button on her wrist computer to get an atmosphere reading. The oxygen levels were dangerously low compared to the rest of the colony. It wasn’t surprising given how many people had crammed into the small space. Unfortunately, only a handful of them were wearing oxygen masks. She had expected them to be more prepared. It looked like they had never even run a simple evacuation drill before.
Crystal turned to her team. “Grady, set up two oxygen tanks on opposite sides of the room.” Grady nodded and left. “Anderson, coordinate the distribution of masks. I don’t want any delays once we start moving people.” Justin quickly squeezed her hand as he moved past her to carry out her orders. He could tell she was on edge, but his touch never failed to calm her.
With her team immersed in their orders, Crystal turned her attention to the man standing on a box in the middle of the room, attempting to restore a semblance of order to the situation. Crystal assumed he was the colony’s leader. “Everyone please, give them some room to work. We’ll figure this out!” he yelled through his mask. It had no effect on the people surrounding him, but his voice sent a shiver down her spine. She knew that voice, even if she wasn’t sure where she had heard it before.
Crystal pushed the feeling aside; she had a job to do. She needed to find a way to calm the pandemonium that had overtaken the room. Crystal’s team was dispersed throughout the basement, trying to hand out supplies. The colonists were so wrapped up in their fear, they hardly noticed what they were being handed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm.” The mask gave Crystal’s voice a robotic quality that was easily lost in the panic.
“Everyone shut up!” Grady bellowed. He had pulled off his mask so that his voice carried over then noise. The room feel silent, except for the faint echo of sirens. Grady returned his mask before Crystal could reprimand him for breaking protocol.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she started again. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Crystal Wolf from the LAWON ship Journey.” Crystal noticed the colony’s leader dissolve into the crowd. She could only assume he wasn’t thrilled about LAWON’s presence at the colony. Stapleton Farms was not a member of the Lands and Waters of Neophia and had been adamantly against joining every time they had been approached. In Crystal’s opinion, they were a little overprotective of their farming technology, but given their importance to the planet’s food supply, the brass at headquarters didn’t hesitate to divert Journey hundreds of miles off course to respond. In fact, they had only been able to pick up the distress call because of a new booster she had installed on the ship’s antenna last week. “As we speak, there is a team working to bring your life support systems back online. In the event they aren’t able to restore the systems quickly, we are going to begin a complete evacuation of the colony.”
“Our escape pods are down! How do you suggest we evacuate?” yelled a man from the control panel for the pods. He wasn’t wearing an oxygen mask, so Crystal was clearly able to see his eye roll. She knew the people here didn’t have any faith in LAWON. She let it slide off her back, reminding herself that despite the tough guy act he was putting on, he had to be scared. They were farmers; Crystal doubted any of them had ever been in life or death situation before. She murmured a quiet “Anderson” into her comm, audible only to her team. When Justin looked up on the other side of the room, Crystal nodded to the man that had yelled at her. Justin started to make his way over, his arms weighted down with oxygen masks. Crystal hoped people would start to calm down a little once they each had their own oxygen supply.
“We were able to create a hard dock on the west side of the colony,” Crystal explained, keeping her voice steady, showing she was unfazed by the colonist’s doubt. “I have shuttles standing by to bring everyone to Journey. My team will come around to break you into groups and will pass out oxygen masks to anyone who doesn’t have one. We have set up a few oxygen tanks in this room to temporarily bring levels back up to a safe range.”
A pressing calm filled the room as the first of the tanks was released. The citizens might feel like they had been saved, but Crystal knew better. Moving eight hundred people half way across the colony would be no small feat. She looked at her computer. Forty minutes of breathable air left.
Rescue missions were not Desi’s strong suit. There was far too much planning and not enough action to keep her attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the lives they were trying to save; it was just hard to get overly excited when all she had to do was get Price to a computer and let him work his hacker magic. The countdown to suffocation did add an element of tension to the mission, but honestly, it didn’t really faze her. Price was the best programmer in the military. She was confident that he would have the systems back up long before they were in any real danger.
It hadn’t taken them long to reach the command center for the west field after helping Wolf’s team unload the oxygen tanks. Wolf had insisted that it was their first priority, though Desi wasn’t sure why. She had bet Justin twenty bucks that they would have the system back online long before Wolf’s team even reached the center of the colony. Standing outside the command center with the rest of her team while Price worked at the computer, she was confident she would win.
“Flint to Wolf switch to channel five.” Desi quickly switched from the open channel to the private channel she shared with Wolf.
“What’s wrong?” Wolf’s panic cut through the line.
“Calm down Crystal, I just thought you’d like to know that Tyler’s working on the computers now so this mission should be wrapped up any minute now. Have you even reached the Community Center yet?”
“Don’t get cocky, Flint. I’ll have the first group of evacuees moving out in two minutes. This isn’t over yet. Now switch back to channel one. Wolf out.”
Desi switched her comms back to the open channel then stuck her head through the doorway of the command center to check on Price. “I told Wolf you’d have this wrapped up any minute, so you got this handled right?” Price’s fingers didn’t stop moving. She admired his focus.
“I’m connected to the main network. I should have a better idea of what caused the malfunction soon,” Price said without looking up from the monitors.
Desi walked over and stood next to him. Numbers scrolled over the screen so fast she wasn’t sure how he could even tell what he was looking at. Price had started to teach her some basics of computer programming, but there was no way she could follow what he was doing. She only gave herself a headache.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Price said under his breath.
“What doesn’t?” Desi stared at the screen harder, hoping she would be able to spot the problem, but it was useless.
“It’s fighting me.”
“What do you mean it’s fighting you?” Desi half expected to see pictures of warriors flash across the screen, but the freight train of numbers and letters continued.
Price stopped typing and ran his hand through his hair, causing Desi to worry for the first time since arriving at Stapleton Farms. “The virus attacking the system is blocking my attempts to send data from this computer to the main server.”
“So you can’t bring the life support systems back online?”
Price sighed, finally looking away from the screen. “No. Not from here anyway. I need to get to the central computer system.”
“Let’s move out.” Desi took off running toward the center of the colony with the rest of her team trailing behind her. “Flint to Wolf,” she said into her headset as she ran.
“Go ahead Flint.” Wolf’s voice played in Desi’s earpiece.
“We are unable to restore systems from the field command center. Heading your way now,” Desi said as carefully as she could over the open channel. There were no secrets during a mission on Neophia. It was still something Desi was getting used to.
“Do you have a plan?” Wolf asked.
“Price needs to get to the central computer system.”
“I’ll find someone who can get him access.”
“We’ll be at your location in five.”
“Understood. Wolf out.”
Crystal scanned the room quickly. She needed to find the colony’s leader. She was sure that any number of people in the room could tell her where the central computer system was, but if she went around asking random people, she was afraid she would only cause another wave of panic. She finally spotted him toward the back of the room. She pushed her way through the crowd, which was still overwhelming, despite the fact that Grady had already left for the shuttle with the first group of evacuees.
She was halfway across the room before she realized she was clenching her hands. Something about this man put her on edge. Crystal wished she could place him. She stopped a few feet away from him. He was arguing with a woman, a young girl was clinging to her leg. A teenage boy was standing next to her with his arms crossed in defiance. Crystal watched them closely while trying to relax the muscles in her hands.
“Take Gina and Leo and go with the next group,” he said.
“Dad, let me stay and help,” the teen said.
“No Leo, you need to go with your mother. I need you to help look after Gina until I get there.” Part of Crystal wanted to turn away and find someone else to show them to the server room, but she couldn’t tear herself away. Something about this man was so familiar. She just stood there watching as time ticked by.
“I’m not leaving without you,” the woman said. Crystal could hear the tears in her voice, even though the woman’s face was covered by an oxygen mask.
“Yes, you are. I need to stay behind and make sure everyone gets out. I can’t do that unless I know you’re safe. I’ll meet up with you as soon as I can. I promise.” The colony leader reached out and gently squeezed his wife’s hands. Crystal’s heart throbbed at the sight. She remembered her father doing the same thing whenever he and her mother were sent on separate missions.
The family interaction blocked everything else from Crystal’s mind. Her parents had never entered her thoughts during a mission before, but now she found herself wondering how they would’ve acted had this been their colony. Would they go with her, or stay behind to help? She wanted to believe they would have gone with her, though all the evidenced pointed in the other direction.
The computer on her wrist started to vibrate, breaking her from her trance. She glanced down at it to see a message from Grady. The shuttle had just left with the first group of evacuees. Crystal did a quick calculation. More time had passed than she realized. Flint would be here any second.
Crystal forced herself to move again. “Excuse me,” she called out as she approached. He turned toward her, hesitantly. “Are you in charge here?”
“Um, yes I am.” His voice faltered. She could only assume the pressure of the current situation was getting to him.
“I need you to come with me.” Crystal didn’t wait for an answer. She relied on her perceived authority over the situation to motivate him to follow. Justin was at the bottom of the stairs waiting to lead the next group to the shuttles. “Alister, take over here. Anderson you’re with me.”
There was no logical reason to pull Justin off his job, but Crystal’s gut was screaming at her not to trust the man trailing in her wake. She had learned to trust her instincts while working counterterrorism and those instincts were telling her to bring back up. Alister was the better fighter, but Justin had become her rock in the month they had been dating. She hoped having him with her would help put her nerves at ease, even though it went against everything she had made him promise when she agreed to give their relationship a chance. Who would have thought she would be the first one to break the relationships-can’t-affect-the-mission rule?
“Is everything all right?” Justin asked as he followed her up the stairs and out to the street.
“I’m not sure.” Crystal glanced over her shoulder at the man following them.
Crystal didn’t stop walking until they had reached the middle of the street outside of the Community Center. She had to make sure they were far enough away so that they wouldn’t be overheard by the groups of evacuees heading for the shuttles. She turned to the colony leader, who finally caught up with them. “We were unable to stop the virus attacking your life support systems from the command center in the field.” There was no use beating around the bush.
“So, we’re all going to die here. Is that what you’re telling me?” The man’s shoulders slumped and he ran his hands through his hair. Just like Tyler did when he couldn’t solve a problem.
“No one is going to die if I can help it, Mr…”
“Martin, Ben Martin.” The words tumbled out of his mouth.
“Mr. Martin, what I’m telling you is that plan A didn’t work, so we are moving on to plan B. We have the best computer programmer in LAWON here. If anyone can fix this, it’s him.” Crystal’s voice was calm, even though a quick glance at her computer told her that only a quarter of her air supply was left.
“How can I help?”
“We need access the central computer system.” Crystal glanced over Ben’s shoulder as she talked. She could see Flint’s team at the other end of the street.
“Of course. Where’s your tech guy?” Ben looked from Crystal to Justin, who shook his head so adamantly Crystal had to really focus to keep herself from laughing.
“He’s there,” Crystal answered, pointing at Tyler, who stopped just behind them, slightly out of breath.
“Follow me.” Ben took off toward a building at the end of the street. Tyler and Flint followed after him while the rest of Flint’s team went to assist with the evacuations.
Crystal was about to follow when Justin asked, “Do you want me to stay and help with the evacuation?” There was new level of concern in his voice that hadn’t been there before.
“No. I need you with me. Something feels off, and I want to be there in case Flint needs backup.” Crystal was glad Justin couldn’t see her face through the mask. She didn’t want him to worry about her needlessly.
“You’re the boss.”
They hurried down the street. When they arrived at the colony’s control room, Tyler was already at work. Ben was talking to two people in the corner of the room. Crystal assumed they had been attempting to fix the issue when Tyler showed up and pushed them aside. They left a few minutes later.
Crystal was trying hard to pay attention to what Tyler was doing, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Ben was watching her. Even though every time she glanced in his direction, he was looking at something else. She couldn’t be imagining it, could she? She looked to Justin for support, but he was standing guard at the door. He was taking her suggestion of backup to heart. Instead she looked down at her wrist computer to give her something else to focus on. She had about twenty minutes of air left in her mask, and the colony was down to ten minutes of breathable air. “How’s is going Price?” she asked.
“I’m working on it.” Tyler didn’t look up from the computer. “Every time I get close to killing this thing, it launches a new attack. The coding is incredible.”
That wasn’t the reassurance she was looking for. She turned away from the computer and connected to the open channel. “Grady, status update.”
“The first shuttle just left. The second shuttle is making its approach. We should begin loading the next group in less than five minutes,” his voice echoed in her ear.
“Jim, children first,” she said quietly. She could feel Ben watching her.
“I got this, kid. Don’t worry.”
She closed the link to Grady and turned her attention back to the computer screens in front of her.
“We got a problem,” Tyler yelled over his shoulder. She noticed he was flexing his fingers. She had never seen his hands cramp while coding before. She hoped the low oxygen levels weren’t affecting his circulation yet. They needed him.
Flint was by his side in an instant, though Crystal knew she wouldn’t have any idea what she was looking at. “What is it now?”
“The virus was planted manually. The colony was sabotaged from the inside.” Tyler turned away from the computer.
Crystal’s hand shot up to her ear and instantly opened the link to Grady back up. “Stop the evacuation.” She couldn’t risk sending the person who had sabotaged the colony to Journey. It wouldn’t take much for them to plant another virus on the ship. Then they would have access to countless highly classified LAWON databases, or worse, the ship’s weapon systems.
“You can’t stop the evacuation. Innocent people will die without your help,” Ben argued. He started to move toward her, but Justin stepped between them.
“Repeat the order,” Grady’s voice rang with desperation in her ear.
“Stop the evacuation.”
“Are you sure?” His voice was softer this time. He rarely questioned her orders. She could only imagine the panic her order would cause, but she didn’t have any other choice.
“I am. No one in or out without my permission and make sure the shuttles that have left don’t dock with Journey until I give the all clear.” She glanced over at Ben, who was still trying to get around Justin. He looked like he was about to explode. She couldn’t really blame him. “But keep everyone in a holding pattern in case things change.” She needed time to figure out the best course of action. Unfortunately, time wasn’t something she had.
“Yes, ma’am.” Grady’s voice was filled with reluctance, but she knew her orders would be followed.
“What gives you the right?” Ben had managed to get around Justin.
“As the commanding officer of this mission, I have every right.” She tried to remind herself that he was just scared, but she was having a hard time being understanding as he moved closer, in what she could only assume was an attempt to intimidate her.
“There are children here and you’re condemning them to death.” Ben swayed slightly. Crystal looked down at her wrist computer. The oxygen levels in the room were dangerously low.
Crystal was about to respond when Tyler stepped between them. “If you would stop arguing for a second none of this will matter.”
“What do you need Ensign?” Flint asked. At least one of them was still behaving professionally. Crystal took a step back and tried to get her emotions in check. What was it about this mission that had her so on edge? She usually had no problem remaining professional, even with someone screaming in her face.
“The server room,” Tyler said.
“Down the hall on the left.” Ben pointed in the direction as he spoke.
Tyler sprinted past them. By the time Crystal got there, he was already searching the panels in the room. “Life support, life support,” he muttered to himself.
“Over here,” Flint called.
Tyler was at her side in a second. He pulled the panel out of the server, quickly looked it over and removed a small chip. The alarms stopped the second he returned the panel to the server. The silence was deafening. Crystal hadn’t realized she has been yelling over the alarms since they had arrived at the colony. Now that she could speak at a normal volume, she noticed a dry scratching feeling in the back of her throat.
They waited in stiff silence. “Atmosphere generators re-engaged.” The automated messaged played over the colony’s intercom system. Crystal looked down at her wrist computer. The oxygen levels in the colony were slowly starting to climb. It would take a few hours to completely replenish the system, but they were out of danger now.
Crystal pulled off her mask and flexed her jaw to loosen the muscles in her cheeks. She should really try to come up with a more comfortable design. As she glanced around the room, she saw that everyone had removed their masks except for Ben. After a few seconds hesitation, he pulled his mask up. He maintained eye contact with Crystal the whole time.
It was as if Crystal was looking into the face of a ghost. She recognized him at once, even if her mind couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. Maybe she was still feeling the effects of oxygen deprivation, because this simply wasn’t possible. Yet here he was, standing an arm’s length away from her. Part of her wanted to run to him. To fling her arms around his neck and cry as he held her. Another part of her wanted to sprint from the room and never look back. It didn’t matter, though, as it seemed her feet were glued to the ground.
“Commander, is everything all right?” Justin asked quietly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him standing next her, but she couldn’t force her eyes away from Ben. There was nothing she could say to make him understand anyway.
“Crys.” Justin gently grabbed her hand. His touch gave her strength.
She finally pulled her eyes away from Ben and fixed them on Tyler. The resemblance was incredible. She was surprised she hadn’t noticed it before. Tyler was looking at her with growing concerned. He hadn’t pieced together what was happening yet. Crystal wasn’t surprised; the two men had never actually met in person.
“Tyler,” Crystal said finally managing to find her voice, “I’d like you to meet our father.”