She put the binder back in her briefcase. “You are aware of the ArcLight probe and the Petrova line, I assume.”
“I’d be a pretty lame science teacher if I wasn’t.”
“Do you think those dots are alive?” she asked.
“I don’t know—they could just be dust bouncing around in magnetic fields. I guess we’ll find out when ArcLight gets back to Earth. That’s coming up, right? Just a few weeks from now?”
“It returns on the twenty-third,” she said. “Roscosmos will recover it from low-Earth orbit with a dedicated Soyuz mission.”
I nodded. “Then we’ll know soon enough. The most brilliant minds in the world will look at them and find out what they’re about. Who’s going to do that? Do you know?”
“You,” she said. “You’re going to do it.”
I stared blankly.
She waved her hand in front of my face. “Hello?”
“You want me to look at the dots?” I said.
“The whole world put you in charge of solving this problem, and you came directly to a junior high school science teacher?”
I turned and walked out the door. “You’re lying, insane, or a combination of the two. I have to get going now.”
“This is not optional,” she said to my back.
“Seems optional to me!” I waved goodbye.
Yeah. It wasn’t optional.
When I got back to my apartment, before I even got to my front door, four well-dressed men surrounded me. They showed me their FBI badges and hustled me into one of three black SUVs parked in the complex parking lot. After a twenty-minute drive where they refused to answer any of my questions or even speak to me at all, they parked and showed me into a generic-looking business-park building.
My feet barely touched the ground as they led me down an empty hallway with unmarked doors every 30 feet or so. Finally, they opened a set of double doors at the end of the hall and gently nudged me inside.
Unlike the rest of the abandoned building, this room was full of furniture and shiny, high-tech devices. It was the most well-stocked biology lab I’d ever seen. And right in the middle of it all was Eva Stratt.
“Hello, Dr. Grace,” she said. “This is your new lab.”
The FBI agents closed the doors behind me, leaving Stratt and me alone in the lab. I rubbed my shoulder where they had manhandled me a little too hard.
I looked at the door behind me. “So…when you say ‘a certain amount of authority’…”
“I have all of the authority.”
“You have an accent. Are you even from America?”
“I’m Dutch. I was an administrator at ESA. But that doesn’t matter. Now I’m in charge of this. There is no time for slow, international committees. The sun is dying. We need a solution. It’s my job to find it.”
She pulled up a lab stool and sat down. “These ‘dots’ are probably a life-form. The exponential progression of solar dimming is consistent with the exponential population growth of a typical life-form.”
“You think they’re…eating the sun?”
“They’re eating its energy output at least,” she said.
“Okay, that’s—well, terrifying. But regardless: What the heck do you want from me?”
“The ArcLight probe is bringing the samples back to Earth. Some of them might still be alive. I want you to examine them and find out what you can.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that earlier,” I said. “But I have to believe there are more qualified people to do this than just me.”
“Scientists all over the world will be looking at them, but I want you to be the first.”
“It lives on or near the surface of the sun. Does that sound like a water-based life-form to you?”
She was right. Water simply can’t exist at those temperatures. After about 3,000 degrees Celsius, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms can’t stay bound to each other anymore. The surface of the sun was 5,500 degrees Celsius.
She continued. “The field of speculative extraterrestrial biology is small—only five hundred or so people in the world. And everyone I talk to—from Oxford professors to Tokyo University researchers—seems to agree that you could have led it if you hadn’t suddenly left.”
“Gosh,” I said. “I didn’t leave on good terms. I’m surprised they said such nice stuff about me.”
“Everyone understands the gravity of the situation. There’s no time for old grudges. But for what it’s worth, you’ll be able to show everyone you were right. You don’t need water for life. Surely that must be something you want.”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean…yeah. But not like this.”
She hopped off her stool and headed to the door. “It is what it is. Be here on the twenty-third at seven p.m. I’ll have the sample for you.”
“Wha—” I said. “It’ll be in Russia, won’t it?”
“I told Roscosmos to land their Soyuz in Saskatchewan. The Royal Canadian Air Force will recover the sample and bring it directly here to San Francisco via fighter jet. The U.S. will allow the Canadians use of the airspace.”
“Soyuz capsules are launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is at a high latitude. The safest landing locations are at that same latitude. Saskatchewan is the closest large, flat area to San Francisco that meets all the requirements.”
I held up my hand. “Wait. The Russians, Canadians, and Americans all just do whatever you tell them?”
“Yes. Without question.”
“Are you joshing me with all this?!”
“Get accommodated with your new lab, Dr. Grace. I have other things to deal with.”
She walked out the door without another word.
* * *
“Yes!” I pump my fist.
I jump to my feet and climb the ladder to the lab. Once there, I climb that ladder and grab hold of the Mystery Hatch.
Just like last time, as soon as I touch the handle, the computer says, “To unlock hatch, state your name.”
“Ryland Grace,” I say with a smug smile. “Dr. Ryland Grace.”