Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
Modern day: January 13—8 months ago
The wind howled and assaulted the command trailer with snow that sounded more like sleet against the steel siding. What little Hollis Richards could see through the frost fractals on the window roiled with flakes that shifted direction with each violent gust. The Cessna ski plane that brought him here from McMurdo Station was somewhere out there beyond the veritable armada of red Kress transport vehicles and Delta heavy haulers, each of them the size of a Winnebago with wheels as tall as a full-grown man. The single-prop plane had barely reached the camp before being overtaken by the storm, which the pilot had tried to use as an excuse not to fly. At least until Richards made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. There was no way that he was going to wait so much as a single minute longer.
It had taken four days, operating around the clock, for the hot-water drill to bore through two miles of solid ice to reach a lake roughly the size of the Puget Sound, which had been sealed off from the outside world for an estimated quarter of a million years. They only had another twelve hours before the hole closed on them again, so they didn’t have a second to waste. They needed to evaluate all of the water samples and sediment cores before they lost the ability to replenish them. It wasn’t the cost that made the logistics of the operation so prohibitive. The problem was transporting tens of thousands of gallons of purified water across an entire continent during what passed for summer in Antarctica. They couldn’t just fire antifreeze into the ice cap and risk contaminating the entire site, like the Russians did with Lake Vostok.
Richards pulled up a chair beside Dr. Max Friden, who worked his magic on the scanning electron microscope and made a blurry image appear on the monitor between them. The microbiologist tweaked the focus until the magnified sample of the sediment became clear. The contrast appeared in shades of gray and at first reminded Richards of the surface of the moon.
“Tell me you see something,” Richards said. His voice positively trembled with excitement.
“If there’s anything here, I’ll find it.”
The microscope crept slowly across the slide.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” Friden said.
Richards leaned closer to the monitor, but nothing jumped out at him.
“Right there.” Friden tapped the screen with his index finger. “Give me a second. Let me see if I can . . . zoom . . . in . . .” The image momentarily blurred before resolving once more. “There.”
Richards leaned onto his elbows and stared at what looked like a gob of spit stuck to the bark of a birch tree.
“Pretty freaking amazing, right?” Friden said.
“What is it?”
“That, my friend, is the execution of the bonus clause in my contract.” The microbiologist leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head. “What you’re looking at is a bacterium. A living, breathing microscopic creature. Well, it really isn’t, either. We killed it when we prepared the slide and it’s a single- celled organism, so it can’t really breathe, but you get the gist.”
“No one knows exactly how many species of bacteria there are, but our best estimate suggests a minimum of 36,000 . . .”
Richards smiled patiently. He might have been the spitting image of his father, from his piercing blue eyes to his thick white hair and goatee, but fortunately that was all he’d inherited from his old man. He could thank his mother—God rest her soul—for his temperament.
Friden pushed his glasses higher on his slender nose. The thick lenses magnified his brown eyes.
“I don’t know,” the microbiologist said. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it before.”
Richards beamed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Now find me something I can work with.”
Richards’s handheld transceiver crackled. He snatched it from the edge of the desk and already had one arm in his jacket when he spoke into it.
“Talk to me.”
“We have eyes,” the man on the other end of the connection said.
Richards’s heart leapt into his throat, rendering him momentarily speechless.
“Don’t go any farther until I get there.”
He popped the seal on the door and clattered down the steps into the accumulation. The raging wind battered him sideways. He pulled up his fur-fringed hood, lowered his head, and staggered blindly toward the adjacent big red trailer, which didn’t appear from the blowing snow until it was within arm’s reach. The door opened as he ascended the icy stairs.
“You’ve got to see this,” Will Connor said, and practically dragged him into the cabin. The former Navy SEAL was more than his personal assistant. He was his right-hand man, his bodyguard, and, most important, the only person in the world he trusted implicitly. The truth was he was also the closest thing Richards had to a friend.
The entire trailer was filled with monitors and electronic components fed by an external gas generator, which made the floor vibrate and provided a constant background thrum. The interior smelled of stale coffee, body odor, and an earthy dampness that brought to mind memories of the root cellar at his childhood home in Kansas, even the most fleeting memories of which required swift and forceful repression.
Connor pulled back a chair at the console for Richards, who sat beside a man he’d met only briefly two years ago, when his team of geologists first identified the topographical features suggesting the presence of a large body of water beneath the polar ice cap and he’d only just opened negotiations with the government of Norway for the land lease. Ron Dreger was the lead driller for the team from Advanced Mining Solutions, the company responsible for the feats of engineering that had brought Richards to the bottom of the Earth and the brink of realizing his lifelong dream.
The monitor above him featured a circular image of a white tube that darkened to blue at the very end.
“What you’re looking at is the view from the fiber-optic camera two miles beneath our feet,” Dreger said. He toggled some keys on his laptop, using only three fingers as he was missing the tips of his ring and pinkie fingers, and the camera advanced toward the bottom. The shaft was already considerably narrower than when the hot-water drill broke through, accelerated by a surprise flume of water that fired upward as a result of the sudden change in pressure, which had inhaled fluid from the surrounding network of subsurface rivers and lakes they were only now discovering.
The lead driller turned to face Richards with an enormous grin on his heavily bearded face, like a Viking preparing to pillage.
“Are you ready?”
Richards stared at the monitor and released a long, slow exhalation.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”
The camera passed through the orifice and into a vast cavernous space, the ring of lights around the lens creating little more than a halo of illumination. The water had receded, leaving behind icicles hanging like stalactites from the vaulted ice dome. There was no way of estimating size or depth. There was only up, down, and the unfathomable darkness in between.
“Should I keep going?” Dreger asked.
Richards nodded, and the camera slowly approached the surface of the lake, which remained in a liquid state due to a combination of geothermal heat rising from beneath the mantle, insulation from the polar extremes by two vertical miles of ice, and the pressure formed by the marriage of the two. The image became fluid. When the aperture rectified, it revealed cloudy brown-ish water through which whitish blebs and air bubbles shivered toward the surface. A greenish shape took form from the depths, gaining focus as the camera neared. The rocky bed was covered with a layer of slimy sediment, from which tendrils of sludge wavered. It looked like the surface of some distant planet, which was exactly what Richards hoped it was.
There were countless theories regarding the origin of life on earth, but the one that truly resonated with him was called lithopanspermia and involved the seeding of the planet by microbes hitchhiking through space on comets and asteroids, whether having survived on debris ejected from a collapsing planet or by the deliberate usage of a meteorite to plant life on a suitable world by some higher intelligence. Fossilized bacteria of extraterrestrial origin were found on a meteorite recovered from this very continent less than twenty years ago, but it wasn’t until living samples were collected from Lake Vostok that Richards realized what he needed to do.
Ever since that fateful night sixty years ago, when he’d run into the wheat fields to escape the sound of his father raining blows upon his sobbing mother, he’d known mankind wasn’t alone in the universe. He remembered every detail with complete clarity, for it was that single moment in time that altered the course of his life. He recalled staring up into the sky and begging for God to answer his prayers, to take his mother and him from that horrible place. Only rather than a vision of the Almighty, he saw a triangle formed by three pinpricks of light hovering overhead. He’d initially thought they were part of a constellation he hadn’t seen before until they sped off without a sound and vanished against the distant horizon.
He’d been looking for them ever since.
“What’s that over there?” Connor asked.
“Where?” Dreger said.
Connor leaned over Richards’s shoulder and tapped the left side of the screen. The driller typed commands into his laptop, and the camera turned in that direction.
“A little higher.”
The change in angle was disorienting at first, at least until Richards saw what had caught Connor’s eye.
“What in the name of God is that?”