Moss wasn't more than thirty meters from the entrance but didn't realize it. He stood looking out from the shade of the red rock escarpment that breached the flat desert landscape, arching its spine toward the east. The only irregularity in the smooth sweep of terrain out in front of him was a sandy knoll to the southeast.
He had walked a grid pattern back and forth through the sagebrush and mescal and ocotillo since noon without success. His clothes and the bandana tied about his head were soggy with sweat, and his eyes ached from the scorching sun despite the expensive sun shields he had bought for the trip. There had at least been spots along the access road in from the two lane visible now and then, where the wind had bared the shoulder enough to keep him from driving off into the soft sand. But right where his comsat compass confirmed the coordinates shown on the blueprints, there was no sign anything had ever existed there but sand drifts and mesquite, cholla and tumbleweed and saguaro.
In the suffocating late afternoon heat, he busied himself setting up camp, determined to keep doubt from staining his hopes. He rigged a shade break with a tarp off the side of the pickup to two tent poles and set his camp chair and table under it. He had decided not to bother with the tent this first night. He would sleep in the open in his bivouac bag. The shadows cast by the saguaro stretched farther and farther as the sun slipped lower in the desert sky. He put a pot of water on the camp stove he’d set on the tailgate, and when it came to a boil emptied a pouch of dehydrated beef and vegetables into it. While it simmered and the water thickened to a more or less satisfying broth, he went looking for firewood. It was cold at night in the desert even in June.
When he returned the stew was ready. With a small campfire under way just beyond the shade break, he opened a tube of saltine crackers and sat eating at the table under the tarp. The landscape was in deepening shadow, the sky turning from sanguine to purple as the sun dropped behind a butte off in the distance to the northwest. He threw a piece of mesquite on the fire now and then, watching the flames dance higher again, casting swirls of sparks up into the rapidly chilling night air. As he dipped saltines into the stew, he was aware of how odd the smell was, the aroma of stew mingled with the odor of a sweat-soaked man and the bone-bleached scent of the desert sand.
This was the first time since starting out that he’d taken a break of any duration. All at once he realized how weary he was after a week long drive and merciless heat, then crisscrossing acres of spiny desert underbrush on foot and finding nothing. He wondered if he had come on a fool’s errand.
He awoke before daylight. The cold desert air had settled on his face and on his ears exposed as they were to the night. Lying there in his bivouac bag, staring up at the glory of the heavens, he became aware of a weight on his hips, like when his cat, Charlemagne, slept on the covers.
He started to get up, but the instant he moved he heard the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. Moss became as still as a stone, feeling the movement of the snake on top of him, as it wound itself into a new coil. His heart was pounding and he could hardly take a breath, terrified that the snake would strike his face or throat from where it was coiled over his groin. He waited, taking the shortest of breaths, trying not to move, though he was starving for air. He realized it probably crawled up there to stay warm during the night, as he tried to think what to do. Coming daylight began to reveal the shapes around him. Moss slowly lifted his head high enough to see down the length of the bivouac bag. The snake, with a girth as thick as his forearm, was coiled two feet away, staring at him.
He slid his forearms slowly up to his shoulders. If he felt the snake move he froze and waited. Once he could reach the zippers he began undoing them, on one side, then the other, trying to keep his pelvis as level and still as possible. When they were undone enough to throw up a block with the upper half of the bivouac bag, he took a deep breath and made his move. The thump of the rattler striking at the thick insulated flap sounded like a fighter’s jab hitting a heavy bag. Moss scrambled up out of the jumble of material and sprinted a half-dozen meters away. He looked back and saw the big rattler slither off in the opposite direction, disappearing into the sagebrush. He rekindled the fire and stood warming himself, breathing in the sharp scent of mesquite, aware that his quivering stomach and the shaking in his hands had little to do with the cold.
As the sun edged above the horizon to the northeast, he noticed something unusual: A dozen or more saguaro cacti stood in a line – much too straight a line to be natural – and they were spaced evenly apart. He walked to the nearest one and began to grin. It wasn't a cactus at all, but a ventilator made to look like one. It had to be one of the ventilators for the underground office complex of The Mescalero Project.
Moss ran back to the pickup and grabbed the building plans to see where the entrance was in relation to the ventilators. It would be just about where the sandy knoll was. He hurried over to it and worked his way up the loose, sloughing sand to the top, where something caught his attention. He knelt down, brushing and sweeping the sand away with his hands, exposing what he guessed was the corner of a roof. It had to be the roof of the stairwell to the complex. Grinning more broadly, as he turned to climb down off the knoll, he spotted a flash of light to the northeast. He squinted, looking in that direction. There, hardly visible, its crystal surface camouflaged by fifty years of sand dust buildup, was the dome, hidden in a box canyon that ran north and south, only the southern tip of the biosphere evident. If he hadn’t been standing there just then to catch the reflected sunlight, he would not have noticed it. With renewed enthusiasm, he headed back to the pickup to secure the camp and grab something to eat, anxious to get started excavating the door to the stairwell.
He ate quickly and as soon as he finished and had taken a long drink from his canteen, he grabbed his shovel and went back over to the knoll. He shoveled all morning, in the stifling heat, cursing the blisters blossoming in the palms of his hands.
By the time the sun was directly overhead, the doorway was uncovered enough to try the latch. It was locked and the solid steel door was too much to pry open with any tools he had, but he saw that it opened outward. So, in the middle of the afternoon, with all wheel drive set on the pickup and a chain hooked to the door handle, Moss put the pickup in gear and wrenched the door open. Then, he grabbed the prism lantern and the calcion torch he’d bought, locked the rest of his gear in the pickup, and stepped across the threshold. The feeling of butterflies in his belly was identical to the day he began his first archaeological dig his junior year in undergraduate school.
He set the beam of the torch to broad array and started down the stairs. It was wonderfully cool as he descended. Cobwebs hung thick from the ceiling, like dirty lace, swaying with his every move. He wouldn't have been able to see his hand just inches from his face without the panoramic illuminating flood of the torch in the thick darkness of the chamber.
At the bottom of the stairwell to his right was the door to the offices, and to his great relief it wasn't locked. He crossed the threshold cautiously. The first, most obvious thing was the musty odor. He set the lantern on a desk covered in a layer of dust and lit it, scanning the room quickly in the brilliant light. Monitor screens at the work stations stared back at him blankly.
Torch in hand, he moved around the room. At one point, he glanced down and noticed the tracks he was leaving in the dust. He hadn’t considered this before and wondered, then walked back to the door and shined his torch out into the tunnel. No prints but his. This put him more at ease. He resumed his exploration of the room rummaging through desk drawers, flipping through documents and manuals. It was clear the computer system monitored and managed the security and life support in the complex, and he was impressed by the sophistication of the electronic technology back in the ‘20s.
At the back corner of the room, to the left, a door opened into a restroom equipped with an archaic crematic commode like the ones he remembered using in grade school. He needed to piss and set the torch down on the sink. When he had finished, he pushed the flush button and the drum in the bottom of the toilet made a half rotation enclosing the fluid inside, and he heard the incinerator ignite. A moment later the drum turned open again, empty and dry, ready for the next use. He turned on a faucet in the sink. It still worked, though the water ran black. He left it running to see if it would clear. As he moved about, he kept thinking he had missed something, overlooked something obvious, but in his excitement he sloughed it off.
At the opposite side of the room a hallway led to a door marked: WardenSamuel Smalley. The door complained with unnerving squeals as Moss pushed it open. Right then, what had been gnawing at him came clear: The toilet could not have worked unless there was electrical power. He quickly aimed his torch at the wall near the door and found a light switch, pressed it, and the lights came on. He had mistakenly assumed all along that there would be no power at Mescalero after all these years.
He glanced around the room. There had been a fire, and it was deliberate, all the file and desk drawers open; stacks of papers and data storage wafers in a heap on the floor in varying stages of incineration. Moss was certain many of his questions would be answered examining those files or what was left of them, but that could wait. His primary goal was to get into the biosphere. Someone might still be alive.
Before leaving, Moss examined the electronics panel adjacent to the desk. It was disconnected. He plugged it in and the panel lit up like the Ferris wheel at a carnival. The lights flickered on and off as though the panel was experiencing an electronic orgasm, then stabilized, and a sultry female voice spoke, identifying herself as Primary. Moss gave his name and asked her for a report on the status of the facility’s life support and security. Primary stated that she did not recognize his voice and could not comply without a corneal verification. Moss smiled, knowing he would be denied but enjoying the encounter anyway, and complied, first blowing the dust off the scanner, then pressing his eye against the sensor lens. A few seconds passed, and as he expected, Primary explained that she could not provide him with that information as he was not on the approved access list.
He was eager to get to the dome. Any further attempts to gain entry to the computer would have to wait. As he stepped out of the office and started back out to the main office area, he noticed a black stain on the tile floor that trailed out into the hall. He guessed that whoever lit the fire spilled some of the fuel used to start it. Out in the main office he turned the lights on and shut the prism lantern off. He went back to the sink in the restroom and shut off the faucet, the water running clear now, then went to the entrance to the offices and stepped over the threshold, back into the blackness of the tunnel.
He found the switch for the tunnel lights and pressed it, but they did not come on. And he discovered that the power cells on the three electrocarts plugged in just beyond the stairwell were dead, too. There was no power in the tunnel. He traced the conduit from the light switch to a junction box that routed power out to the biosphere. The fuses were missing, and the high voltage wires leading from the junction box to the biosphere had been cut. He went back into the office to get the prism lantern, then started along the tunnel. The question of why the power to the biosphere had been cut faded in his growing excitement as he walked through the dark toward the dome.
The tunnel was constructed of ten foot diameter sections of reinforced aggregate culvert. A steel grating had been set three feet above the base of the tube, for a flat surface wide enough for an electrocart to travel on. Groundwater seeping from the seams trickled beneath the grating. The echoes of Moss's steps against the grating and the water dripping, interrupted each other as he made his way along the tunnel. Each time a cobweb broke across his face in the darkness behind the torchlight, his skin crawled.
The blueprints had indicated that the bulkhead into the dome consisted of two great doors resembling the vault doors in financial depositories, the space between them being a spectral light-cleansing chamber. When he got to the outer door he was surprised to find it wasn't locked. The manual locking mechanism moved freely in and out. But when he tried to open it, it would not budge. He switched the beam on the torch to narrow focus mode so he could inspect the seam of the huge steel door, thinking it might just be corroded. Instead, he found that the door had been sealed with a prelleniumiodide weld.
Moss cursed under his breath, slapping the door with the palm of his hand. Another delay. This was the only way into the dome. Cutting the seal with a laser wand was no problem, he’d learned how to use one of them before he was twelve on the farm. But he was going to need a couple of canisters of prellenium iodide to do it, and that meant a five hour drive back to Felicity, the closest town. Then, when he got back, he'd have to lug everything down two flights of stairs and the half-mile up the tunnel. That meant the best part of another day before he could actually enter the biosphere.
He set his torch down to turn the prism lantern on, when all at once he yelped and jumped backwards, tripping over himself, and falling to the grating. The light beam, slicing through the blackness, revealed vacant eye sockets above a gaping, grinning jaw. Moss scrambled to his feet quelling the childish impulse to run. The hair on his neck bristled as he groped for the lantern and lit it. Light filled the tunnel and he now saw a second skeleton, lying next to an electrocart. He backed up to the wall opposite the great bulkhead door and leaned against it, shaking, staring at the scene, trying to collect himself.
When the initial shock of the scene passed, Moss relaxed somewhat and began trying to piece together what had happened there. The skeleton he had first seen was face down with the hose and laser wand of a welding unit beneath it. The one next to the electrocart lay on its back. A few inches away from its right hand was an automatic pistol. Looking closer, he saw that a good deal of the back of the skull was missing. It was clear enough to him, one had killed the other and then himself, and the one face down was the one who had welded the bulkhead door shut. The clothing offered little help, having rotted almost entirely away. He pulled on the hose of the laser wand, slipping it out from under the skeleton, to see if the canisters had any prellenium iodide left, but they were spent.
Reluctant to drive to Felicity but seeing no way around it, he picked up the calcion torch, shut off the prism lantern, and started back down the tunnel.