The frozen wasteland steeped in the pale gray darkness of the morning. The suffocated sky struggled through the clouds and dotted the blanket of overcast, hardly even blue as the sun climbed slowly above the horizon. The snow that drowned the landscape was less poetic in this darkness; there were no glistening specks of glitter or shining seas of white. Instead it was a mirror, reflecting the gloom above. A pair of heavy steel doors was buried within, freshly cleared of their camouflage by the leather glove of the figure standing above them. As below was so much like above, the doors were like a passageway back down to Earth from atop the clouds. They could be mistaken for a path back home for a wandering soul who'd become trapped above the haze.
The scene was ritualistic. Four shadowed phantoms gathered around a doorway to nowhere, staves at the ready. Not a whisper broke their concentration. Even the wind collapsed under the gravity of the moment. But the clouds began to glow pink as the sunrise threatened to shatter whatever cover was offered by the shade. One of the entities spoke out to nobody, communing with their god.
"Watchdog Actual," he called out into the empty space. "This is Alice One confirming visual on entrance and awaiting further instruction, over." Static fizzed through the helmets of the congregation that held ever-vigilant. They stood solid and clad in black. Bits and baubles dangled from every hook and loop and holster, heavy packs pulled tight against their backs. Their rifles pointed toward the portal, stocks set firmly into shoulders, their sights dancing tiny red dots across the dull metal whose polish had been worn away by the elements long ago. A commanding voice cut through the radio silence. The omnipotent, infallible voice of She that they called Watchdog.
"Confirmed, Alice One," the voice acknowledged. Her tone was one of business, and of confidence. Hints of sincerity betrayed her, however, as she gave her orders. "Get ready to camp out, boys," she said with a rare amount of jest. "Area of Operation is an older project, designed by some paranoid nationalists during the Cold War. It's nothing but a maze of stairs and offices in there. We're still waiting to receive paper blueprints from the EPA. It might take a bit more time, and moving through the bunker without them would prove quite the challenge. Keep eyes on the doors and buckle down while we get a hold of those plans. Understood?"
"Understood," in unison, a sacred hymn.
"Watchdog, over and out."
Nobody wanted to be the first to lower their weapon. There was a strange mystery surrounding this particular mission, a marked lack of information. Safeties were off during the entire trek across the snowy fields, weapons always live. Some were anxious that the fog would erupt into a thunderstorm of muzzle flash at any moment. Others weren't convinced, but were prepared to be wrong.
Finally, one soldier let his rifle slump lazily across his chest, the strap snapping taut against his shoulder. The others followed suit with a bit more apprehension, locking their triggers and clicking off their lasers. The leading man's little red dot still bobbed around the snow alongside him as he walked away from the bunker doors.
Another tagged along behind him, treading slowly and kicking over little tufts of snow as he went. "So…" he started awkwardly, "How long are we going to be out here?" Breaking the silence felt unnatural; they'd been walking since sundown the night before. Any sound but the shuffling of gear and the crunching of boots on snow felt surreal after such a long, quiet journey.
Alice One chimed in from down on one knee while he rummaged through his bag. "As long as it takes," he sighed, procuring a bundle of hand warmers and a ruggedized tablet. He followed the group over to the circle they'd formed, passing the warmers to each member of his squad. Two of them sat comfortably close, while the third distanced himself some to leave room for their commanding officer. "We look like a group of Boy Scouts sitting around a campfire," he said jokingly as he took his seat. There was only an awkward chuckle in response.
The group looked to him for guidance, their faces painted with as much discomfort and exhaustion as he felt but couldn't show. The feeling of so many eyes on him was still new, and still made him anxious. They clearly wanted more than petty reassurance and fake answers, but he didn't have any more to give. He spoke up as the group crushed the warmers between their hands and shook them a bit, welcoming what little heat the small bags could offer.
"Let's go over the mission again." A deep exhale from the team signaled their reluctance.
"Again?" groaned one of the soldiers.
"I know, I know. But we need to be clear about what we're doing here today." He clicked the tablet awake, the white light illuminating the tired features of his face. His olive skin was smooth, uninterrupted by wrinkles or scars. His nose was wide, his cheeks round and his eyes glowing softly with the screen. His looks matched his age, unlike the others in the group who'd been turned ragged prematurely by their profession. He was too obviously the youngest of the bunch. The runt of the litter. And he still threw me in the mix and put me in charge, he often thought, both thanking and damning his predecessor.
Alice One began reading verbatim from the tablet, careful not to deviate from the phrasing or intended tone of the dry statement. "Twelve hours ago, high priority research site Bunker 14 lost all contact with the Department of Defense. Four agents, to be dubbed Alice Team, will be deployed to surveil the bunker buried within the Alaskan tundra. This group will consist of:
Trevor Lin, technician, callsign Alice Four,
Anthony Campbell, field medic, callsign Alice Three,
Ethan Fletcher, second in command, callsign Alice Two,
and William Rosa, acting squad leader, callsign Alice One."
Rosa continued: "Under guidance and order of Watchdog and crew, Alice Team will reach and enter Bunker Fourteen. They will be allowed no more than twelve hours upon entry to gather information and report back to Watchdog."
Campbell piped up, having forgotten this particular detail of the briefing. "Wait, twelve hours?" he asked in disbelief. "They want us to spend twelve hours buried underground? I think I'd rather spend twelve hours freezing to death up here." He shivered against the breeze. The sun had breached the horizon, pushing the massive bank of clouds aside and casting orange beams through the long shadows of a distant treeline. The morning light did very little to warm the soldiers.
Fletcher turned to the medic close beside him, shaking his head. He still had his rifle live and strung across his chest, ready at a moment's notice. "No more than twelve, Campbell. With luck, we can get it done in two and get right back out of that pit." He smirked, adding on, "It'd be helpful if you'd act a little less yellow."
Campbell had just started his snap back when their commanding officer cleared his throat, demanding their attention. He finally went off script, laying the gist of their mission out flat. "We need to get a situation report to Watchdog within twelve hours. They've lost hardwired communication and surveillance from inside the bunker. So it's up to us to tell them whether it's a problem we can fix, or if they need to send in the cavalry."
The principle of the mission set a foreboding tone that weighed heavy in the hearts and stomachs of the crew through their entire journey, from the less-than-luxurious flight into Umiat all the way through their eight hour westward trek. Campbell finally posed the question, "Say we go into the bunker. And say it's… Bad." He swallowed, the cold air drying his throat. "How are we supposed to get back out to get this info to Watchdog?"
Fletcher answered by brandishing his rifle, looking off into the distance through the sights. "We've got these for a reason. You know how to use this, right?"
"Isn't this a biological research lab?" Campbell continued. "What, we're going to burst in and gun down a bunch of botanists?"
"You saw their last transmission," said Lin, the technician. His tone was grave, matter-of-fact. "You saw the look on that guy's face. There's at least one pissed off scientist in there who's ripping cameras off of walls. If he comes at us, we're just going to have to put these to use."
Campbell shuddered. Being the newest to the squad, he wasn't accustomed to the nonchalant nature with which these three accomplished their missions. Running triage in a warzone came with its own set of horrors, but walking right in to face them was a whole different story.
Fletcher beside him grabbed his attention with a soft elbow to the side. "We're gonna get it done," he said softly. "For now, we get to freeze our asses off out here." The sun was a good distance above the horizon, the deceptively warm orange light flowing across the snow and setting it ablaze.
Rosa stood, surveying the emptiness around them. "Not hard to establish a perimeter around here." The nearest cover was the sparse dashed line of dead trees a mile to their east, even the thickest of which would never hide a threat. "We're going to sleep in shifts, keeping eyes on that door. I'll take first watch and wake you all if I hear from Watchdog."
"Thank God." Campbell pulled his bag from his back and laid it down. The rest followed suit, shifting to lie stiffly on the thickly-packed snow, using their bags as pillows. Their thick outfits would keep them warm enough along with the sunrise. There was no comfort to be found, but it was any amount of rest that the squadron craved, comfort be damned. Rosa remained seated upright, shifting to keep his eyes on the bunker doors.
He sat for some time with nothing but the swelling wind to keep him company. It blew through the vast expanse uninterrupted, unaccompanied by anything like rustling leaves or the haunted wailing of open windows. There was no smell but that of his own, a mix of cold sweat and rubber and plastic. His gear was all brand new. It hadn't been broken in and reeked of packaging and manufacturing and storage. Once those familiar smells faded to the back of his mind, unused information, there was nothing.
There was nothing to see but an endless sea of burning orange, nothing to touch but handfuls of hard-packed snow that crumbled apart in his grip, and nothing to do but stare at those weathered steel doors stuck strangely in the ground like the entrance to a mythical land just waiting to be discovered. Those doors that seemed to waver and change in the sunlight. The ones that grabbed Rosa's focus and held on tight, even as the rest of the world began to fade to black.