Saturday Stories: To the Centre of the Earth, part 2

1-bluemarble_westcontinued from last week

The DNA sequencer arrived on a supply helicopter, along with forty kilos of potatoes, a case of frozen chicken, and two dozen cabbages. Rolland sighed when he saw the cabbage ‒ the Russian drilling crew was great, but the cook didn’t have much imagination, and Rolland was sick of cabbage soup. First thing he’d do when he got home was take his wife to that fancy new Italian restaurant, Mario’s, and order everything on the menu.

Emily wasted no time getting the equipment set up and running. Three hours later, she called Rolland and Kaitlyn to the lab. “There’s no DNA there,” she said.

“There has to be,” countered Rolland. “What else could be making all these amino acids except a living organism?”

“I don’t know, but there’s no DNA in those samples. Kaitlyn, you’re the chemist ‒ could these be produced by any non-biological process?”

“Theoretically, yes. But all those reactions require water ‒ lots of it, to produce this concentration of protein.” She frowned. “And all the processes we know of require near anaerobic conditions. The increase in carbon dioxide in these samples says to me there’s just too much oxygen down here.”

“Amino acids, carbon dioxide… It’s got to be life. So where’s the DNA?”

“Let’s draw another sample. There has to be something there.”

#

“We’ve reached 5.8 kilometres, Sir. I think we’re in, Sir.” Vanya, the drilling foreman had climbed to the observation platform, where Rolland was trying, unsuccessfully, to phone his wife.

“We’re through the brittle rock?”

“Yes, Sir. We’ve hit something… soft.”

“Magma!” whispered Rolland. “The mantle. Has Kaitlyn taken the core samples?”

“She’s down there now.”

“Excellent.” Rolland slapped the foreman on the back and smiled. “Hold at 5.8 kilometres and get ready to lower the observation pod.” The foreman suppressed a salute, then started down the ladder to the drilling deck.

“Vanya!” Rolland called. The foreman stopped and looked up. “Congratulations! You’re the first guy to drill to the centre of the earth.” Vanya responded with a rare smile, nodded his acknowledgement, and returned to his work.

It wasn’t really the centre of the earth, but it was the first drill to hit the mantle ‒ if they were lucky, and Chao’s team hadn’t made it there yet. Rolland clattered down the metal steps to the operations centre.

This day had been a long time in the making. The first plans were laid out in 1957, and people had been trying ‒ and failing ‒ to drill through the earth’s crust to the mantle ever since. Rolland had gotten involved in 2020, when a tanking global economy made research funds all but impossible to get.

But in 2040, global warming defied all the models. There was a sudden spike in sea temperature and atmospheric carbon. Human-induced changes had brought the earth to a tipping point. Something was happening deep within the earth that was speeding up climate change beyond even the worst-case scenarios. The daily news showed chunks of the Antarctic ice shelf calving off. Small Pacific Island nations were negotiating their wholesale evacuation to mainland neighbours. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what was going on inside the earth.

Still, it hadn’t been easy to secure the nine hundred million dollars they’d needed for this project. Nine hundred million dollars could build a lot of sea walls.

#

“It’s not magma, whatever it is,” said Kaitlyn.

They’d been poring over the chemical analysis of the first sample from the mantle. Kaitlyn and Emily were seated at the table in the lab. Rolland was pacing.

“Amino acids, carbon dioxide, water? It’s…” Emily’s voice trailed off.

“It’s what?” prompted Rolland.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I recognise this chemical signature. I used to work with this stuff as a lab tech for Merck.”

“So, what is it?” Rolland stopped pacing and turned toward his colleagues.

Emily looked up with bewildered eyes. “It’s albumen ‒ egg white.”

The rig shuddered.

“What the hell!” cried Rolland as he steadied himself against a cabinet.

They scurried out of the lab and up to the drilling deck, where the crew was swarming like ants. Barking an order in Russian to one of his crew, Vanya strode over to Rolland

“What’s going on?” asked Rolland.

“Earthquake, Sir. We’re attempting to withdraw the drill.”

The rig shuddered again, and a cry went up from the drilling crew.

Eto slomano! Eto slomano!

Vanya turned and ran, leaving Rolland, Emily and Kaitlyn gripping the deck rails.

#

Rolland was on the observation platform, shouting into the phone above the racket on the drilling deck below.

“We’ve reached the mantle. There’s been an earthquake, and the drill is broken. We’re trying to salvage one more sample.”

“There have been earthquakes all over the globe. We’re pulling you all out,” said James tersely.

“But, we’re not responsible for the—”

“I know that! But now is not the time to be in the middle of the ocean drilling into the earth’s crust. I’m organising a flight out. Be ready to go. Bring all your data!”

“What about Chao?”

“Chao and his team are dead. Their ship sank yesterday. Freak wave or something.”

“Shit,” muttered Rolland. “Okay, we’ll be ready.”

His wife didn’t answer her phone. He left a message on her voicemail.

#

They packed the bare essentials for their evacuation ‒ if they were going by chopper, they wouldn’t be able to take much.

“Do we just sit around and wait?” asked Kaitlyn. “When are they coming for us?”

Rolland shrugged. “I suppose it depends on how hard Sri Lanka was hit by the quakes, doesn’t it?” Sri Lanka was their supply point and nearest landfall. “I doubt we’d be high priority if they had a natural disaster on their hands.”

“Well, I can’t just sit around,” said Emily. “I’m going to run another PCR on the last sample ‒ see if I can’t scare up any DNA.”

“Good idea. Kaitlyn, let’s go check with Vanya ‒ maybe we can squeeze one more sample out.”

“It would be great if we could deploy the observation pod, too, even if we only get a few hours of data before we have to go,” added Kaitlyn.

#

Three days later, no helicopter had arrived for Rolland and his crew, but they’d managed to extract another core sample, thanks to Vanya’s clever but, “very foolish… dangerous” hack of the broken drill.

Everyone else had gone to their bunks for the night, but nervous energy kept Rolland, Kaitlyn and Emily in the lab.

It was oddly quiet on the rig, now that the drill was still. Rolland’s chair creaked as he shifted. The sound of Kaitlyn’s fingers tapping on her keyboard filled the room.

Emily sighed loudly and leaned back in her chair.

“This DNA matches nothing.”

“It’s not archaea?” asked Kaitlyn. “That’s the most logical, isn’t it?”

“It’s not archaea.”

“What about tardigrades? Those things can survive anywhere.”

“Nope. Seriously, if it wasn’t for the fact I can sequence it, I’d say it’s not even DNA.”

“Do you think the conditions in the mantle have damaged it?”

“If it were damaged, I shouldn’t be getting these long sequences. It’s just not—”

“Guys,” interrupted Rolland. “I think you need to see this.”

Kaitlyn and Emily gathered around Rolland’s computer screen.

“I was analysing the sonar data from the observation pod. It’s completed about half its field of vision. Look at this, and tell me what you see.”

The women were silent for several long minutes as they stared at the screen. Rolland didn’t dare look at their faces. He almost didn’t want to know.

Finally Emily whispered, “It’s a head. The head of a… a…”

“What is that animal?” finished Kaitlyn.

Rolland let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding.

“You see it, too.”

“But, if that’s half the field of vision, then that thing must…”

“Fill the entire earth. Yes.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Think about it, Kaitlyn. Brittle outer layer, egg albumen, DNA we can’t match,” said Emily.

A tremor shook the rig.

Rolland looked at Emily and Kaitlyn. Their faces mirrored his own shock.

“We’re not going to make it home, are we?”

 

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