I’m aboard the Hail Mary.
Not sure what to do with that information.
But that’s not all the crest has to tell me. Inside the blue band, there’s a black circle with weird symbols inside: a yellow circle with a dot in the middle, a blue circle with a white cross, and a smaller yellow circle with a lowercase t. No idea what any of that is supposed to mean. Around the edge of the black area it says: “姚,” “ИЛЮХИНА,” and “GRACE.”
I’m “Grace,” so those other two must be the names of the mummies in the bunks downstairs. A Chinese person and a Russian person. The memory of them is almost at the surface, but I can’t quite pull it up. I think some internal defense mechanism is suppressing it. When I remember them, it’s going to hurt, so my brain refuses to remember them. Maybe. I don’t know—I’m a science teacher, not a trauma psychologist.
I wipe my eyes clear. Maybe I won’t push too hard for that memory just yet.
I have an hour to kill. I let my mind wander to see what else I can remember. It’s getting easier and easier.
* * *
“I’m not one hundred percent comfortable with all this,” I said. My voice was muffled by the full hazmat suit I wore. My breath fogged up the clear vinyl face-window thingy.
“You’ll be fine,” said Stratt’s voice over the intercom. She watched from the other side of double-paned, very thick glass.
They’d made a few upgrades to the lab. Oh, the equipment was all the same, but now the entire room was air-sealed. The walls were lined with thick plastic sheets, all held together with some kind of special tape. I saw CDC logos everywhere. Quarantine protocols. Not at all comforting.
The only entry now was through a big plastic airlock. And they made me put on the hazmat suit before going in. An air line led to my suit from a spool in the ceiling.
All the top-of-the-line equipment was ready for whatever I wanted to do. I’d never seen a lab so well stocked. And in the middle was a wheeled cart holding a cylindrical container. Stenciled writing on the cylinder read образец. Not deeply useful.
Stratt wasn’t alone in the observation room. About twenty people in military uniforms stood with her, all looking on with interest. There were definitely some Americans, some Russians, a few Chinese officers, plus many more unique uniforms I didn’t even recognize. A large international group. None of them said a word, and by some silent agreement, they all stayed a few feet behind Stratt.
I grabbed the air hose with my gloved hand and gestured to Stratt with it. “Is this really necessary?”
She pressed the intercom button. “There’s a very good chance the sample in that cylinder is an alien life-form. We’re not taking any chances.”
“Wait…you’re not taking any chances. But I am!”
“It’s not like that.”
“How is it not like that?”
She paused. “Okay, it’s exactly like that.”
I walked to the cylinder. “Did everyone else have to go through all this?”
She looked at the military people and they shrugged at her. “What do you mean by ‘everyone else’?”
“You know,” I said. “The people who transferred it to this container.”
“That’s the sample container from the capsule. It’s three centimeters of lead surrounding a shell of centimeter-thick steel. It’s been sealed since it left Venus. It has fourteen latches you’ll need to open to get to the sample itself.”
I looked at the cylinder, back to her, back to the cylinder, and back to her. “This is some bull-puckey.”
“Look at the bright side,” she said. “You’ll be forever known as the man who made first contact with extraterrestrial life.”
“If it even is life,” I mumbled.
I got the fourteen latches open with some effort. Those things were tight. I vaguely wondered about how the ArcLight probe closed them in the first place. Must have been some kind of cool actuated system.
The inside wasn’t impressive. I didn’t expect it to be. Just a small, clear, plastic ball that appeared to be empty. The mysterious dots were microscopic and there weren’t very many of them.
“No radiation detected,” Stratt said through the intercom.
I shot a glance over at her. She watched her tablet intensely.
I took a good long look at the ball. “Is this under vacuum?”
“No,” she said. “It’s full of argon gas at one atmosphere of pressure. The dots have been moving around the whole time the probe was returning from Venus. So it looks like the argon doesn’t affect them.”
I looked all around the lab. “There’s no glove box here. I can’t just expose unknown samples to normal air.”
“The entire room is full of argon,” she said. “Make sure you don’t kink your air line or rip your suit. If you breathe argon—”
“I’ll suffocate and won’t even know it’s happening. Yeah, okay.”
I took the ball to a tray and carefully twisted it until it came apart in two halves. I placed one half in a sealed plastic container and mopped the other half with a dry cotton swab. I scraped the swab against a slide and took it to a microscope.
I thought they’d be harder to find, but there they were. Dozens of little black dots. And they were indeed wriggling around.
“You recording all this?”
“From thirty-six different angles,” she said.
“Sample consists of many round objects,” I said. “Almost no variance in size—each appears to be approximately ten microns in diameter…”
I adjusted the focus and tried various intensities of backlighting. “Samples are opaque…I can’t see inside, even at the highest available light setting….”
“Are they alive?” Stratt asked.
I glared at her. “I can’t just tell that at a glance. What do you expect to happen here?”
“I want you to find out if they’re alive. And if so, find out how they work.”
“That’s a tall order.”
“Why? Biologists worked out how bacteria works. Just do the same thing they did.”
“That took thousands of scientists two centuries to work out!”
“Well…do it faster than that.”
“Tell you what”—I pointed back to the microscope—“I’m going to get back to work now. I’ll tell you anything I work out when I work it out. Until then, you can all enjoy some quiet study time.”