Some of you may have seen this on the SpecFicNZ website, but I’ll post it here over the next two Saturdays. This story won the 2016 Au Contraire Short Story contest.
Three scientists sat in a meeting room on a drilling rig in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They were hunched over the chemical analysis of the latest core sample.
“This must be what broke Bryant’s drill ‒ the stuff that has stymied everyone else,” remarked Kaitlyn.
“But what is it?” asked Emily.
“Cooled magma. What else could it be?” said Rolland.
“Well, if it’s magma, then we’ve been completely wrong about what magma is,” said Kaitlyn. “Look at this.” She pushed the paper toward Emily. “What do you make of those numbers? Go from this week’s first sample to the most recent one.”
Emily, the team’s biologist, read aloud. “One, seven, twelve, twenty-three ‒ yes, we’d expect carbon to go up as we got closer to the mantle ‒ forty-two, seventy… two thousand nine hundred and thirty. This must be a mistake. There can’t possibly be that much carbon in those rocks.”
“It’s not a mistake. I ran the sample twice. Do you think we’re hitting living organisms again?”
Emily’s brow furrowed. “We haven’t seen life in our samples for over two kilometres.” Her eyes widened. “If these are microbes, they’re like nothing we’ve seen before. I’ll run the sample again, to separate the organic carbon from the carbonate. If it’s organic…” she left the sentence hanging, but her eyes gleamed with excitement.
“Looks like you’ve got something to do again, Emily,” said Rolland. “No more complaining that we’re beyond the zone where life can exist. Could be a paper in Nature here.”
The prospect of life this far down in the earth’s crust was exciting, and not just from a scientific point of view. The team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution needed a breakthrough to keep their funding going. They’d been drilling for over a year and still hadn’t reached their goal ‒ the Earth’s mantle. Their rivals, from the Chinese Academy of Science, were drilling in the South Pacific. Rolland’s attempt was only funded because the Foundation for American Leadership decided America had to get there first ‒ an Earth Race instead of a Space Race. His funding was contingent on his team being the winner of this race. If the Chinese reached the mantle first, Rolland’s money would be pulled from under him, and years of work would go unfinished.
Rolland climbed to the top of the Russian oil rig they had outfitted for research. The observation platform terrified most visitors to the rig ‒ forty three metres above the churning waves, the rusted metal grating underfoot and flimsy railing didn’t inspire confidence. Rolland loved it. It cleared his mind and calmed his nerves to stand on the platform with the wind flapping his jacket and whipping through his hair.
And it was the only place on the rig with decent cell phone reception.
His first call was to his wife. “Have you heard from the girls this week?” He always tried to steer the conversation away from work. He got enough of work, living it twenty-four hours a day on the rig. He could count on his wife to fill their conversations with the latest news of their daughters, now both at college.
“I suppose you haven’t heard about the earthquakes yet,” she said.
“What’s happened?” He couldn’t keep the fear out of his voice, but whether fear for his daughters’ safety or for his research was greater, he didn’t know.
“The girls are fine,” began his wife. Rolland released the breath he was holding, and knew the fear had all been for his children. The dread he now felt, though, was for his research.
“The first was centred off the Carolina coastline. We barely felt it here. Maren’s apartment building collapsed, but she was at class, so she’s okay. They cancelled classes for a week until an engineer assesses the classroom buildings. She’s home now.”
“That was the first?”
His wife took a deep breath. “The second hit New York City. We felt that one ‒ magnitude six point four.”
“Six point four! And Jess?” Jess was at design school in New York.
“She’s fine. She’s still there, but the city is devastated. The military is organising evacuations for those who want to leave and have places to go outside the city. She’s trying to get a seat on one of those flights.”
“I’m fine. Maren has been a big help. Especially now that the protesters are camped outside the door.”
“They’re at the house?”
“Well, after the third quake—”
“It struck well out to sea, and no one was hurt. But… Roll… they’re blaming this all on you.” Her voice was strained.
Rolland struggled to calm himself. He knew the public exposure had been necessary to secure his funding, but a vocal segment of the public had decided that since they didn’t understand his work, it was evil. How could those yahoos think his little hole in the floor of the Indian Ocean thirteen thousand kilometres away was causing earthquakes in the North Atlantic? That was just it ‒ they didn’t think. They were witch hunters who only wanted someone to persecute. And now they were persecuting his family, who deserved none of this.
He reigned in his anger. His wife didn’t need to listen to a rant. No doubt she’d performed her own when the protesters showed up.
“Have you talked to the Institute? Call Billie ‒ she should be able to pull some strings, have the protesters removed by the police ‒ she’s good at things like that.”
“Hon, the Institute is besieged, too.”
“Aw, fuck. Honey. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I think we’re just days away from finishing the drill. I’ll be home by the end of the month. Call the Institute and see what they can do about the protesters. I’ll give Billie an earful, too. Pay whatever it takes to get Jess home. I’ll be there as soon as I can. This will all blow over.”
His second call, to James Markham, director of Woods Hole, was even less cheerful.
“Rolland. I was hoping you would call. We have a situation.”
“I know, the protesters—”
“I don’t give a damn about the protesters. It’s Chao I’m worried about.”
Dr. Chao Kwan, the lead scientist of the Chinese team.
“What’s he up to?”
“The more important question is, what’s he down to? China Newsday just reported he’s reached six kilometres.”
“Six… but has he hit mantle? I know where he’s drilling, and he’s going to have to go a lot further than us to reach the mantle. We’re almost there. Today’s core sample was way off the charts for carbon. Emily is reanalysing it now to see exactly what’s there. We’ll be sending some samples back for DNA testing. If we’ve found life this deep in the crust, it won’t matter what the Foundation does with their funding.”
“If you’ve found life down there, so has Chao. We need that paper written and published. Now. Never mind sending samples here for testing. I’m sending you the equipment to analyse them yourself. It’ll be there in…” James paused and Rolland heard keys tapping on his computer. “…three days. I want to see the papers flying out of there within a week. We can’t let ourselves be scooped on this one. We need to be first in Nature or Science.”
Rolland stood for a while on the observation platform after hanging up. Three earthquakes on the east coast. There was no way his drilling was responsible for it, but until both his daughters were safe at home, he was more worried about that than about Chao.
And the protesters on his doorstep… that, he felt responsible for. He didn’t advertise his home address, but anyone could have found it ‒ he didn’t hide it. Didn’t think he had to. Now he wished he’d been more careful.
He sighed. There was nothing he could do except finish this drill as quickly he could and get home.
He headed down to the drilling deck to talk to the crew. Maybe they could drill round the clock if they worked in alternate shifts.
When Rolland walked into the lab hours later, Emily was bent over the microscope. She straightened up at the sound of his footsteps.
“My eyes are bugging out,” she said, rubbing her face.
“No surprise. You’ve been at it for ages. Got anything?”
“The carbon is organic ‒ amino acids. But they’re just floating around in the slurry. There are no cells, no structures of any kind. I’ll send samples back to the lab for—”
“James is sending the equipment for DNA analysis. Chao’s team is at six kilometres. We need to find something and publish it, fast.”
“Well, I’ve got the data on the tardigrades we found at 1.7 kilometres. I’m already writing that up.”
“No. It’s got to be something from the lowest sample. We’ve got to beat Chao to this ‒ he’s likely to make it to the mantle before we do.”
Noise on the drilling rig rose to nerve-wracking levels as the Russian drilling crew doubled their efforts. For once, Rolland was thankful for their military-style precision and respect for authority ‒ he only had to suggest they needed to increase their speed.
“Of course, Sir. How fast, Sir?”
Maybe they’d beat Chao to the mantle after all. He smiled at the thought that the Foundation for American Leadership didn’t know he was drilling from a Russian rig with a Russian crew. American ingenuity was one thing, but for this sort of thing, there was nothing better than a good old Communist regime, even the remnants of one.
To be Continued…