The Year’s Best Science Fiction #18, picked up for relaxation from the Rochambeau Library, kept me awake instead.
Of the reams of science fiction I’ve read, why does this story stick in my memory? Perhaps because I read it in the wee and empty hours. And because my reading was interrupted by a haunting minor tune that came from my bookcase.
I crept out of bed and found a cheap Chinese electronic organizer that someone had given me years ago. A factory worker on the other side of the world programmed the device, and randomly, on the last of its batteries, it piped out its song.
Coincidence? Well, yeah. But it was scary.
I already had goosebumps fromA Colder War by Charles Stross…
The sub’s hatch is visible now, bobbing along the top of the water: the lieutenant is suddenly active. “Jones! Civatti! Stake it out, left and centre!” The crane is already swinging the huge lifting hook over the sub, waiting to bring it aboard. “I want eyeballs on the portholes before you crack this thing!” It’s the tenth run—seventh manned—through the eye of the needle on the lake bed, the drowned structure so like an ancient temple, and Roger has a bad feeling about it. We can’t get away with this forever, he reasons. Sooner or later . . .
The sub comes out of the water like a gigantic yellow bath toy, a cyborg whale designed by a god with a sense of humour. It takes tense minutes to winch it in and manoeuvre it safely onto the platform. Marines take up position, shining torches in through two of the portholes that bulge myopically from the smooth curve of the sub’s nose. Up on top someone is talking into a handset plugged into the stubby conning tower; the hatch locking wheel begins to turn.
“Gorman, sir,” It’s the lieutenant. In the light of the sodium floods everything looks sallow and washed-out; the soldier’s face is the colour of damp cardboard, slack with relief.
Roger waits while the submariner—Gorman—clambers unsteadily down from the top deck. He’s a tall, emaciated-looking man, wearing a red thermal suit three sizes too big for him: salt-and-pepper stubble textures his jaw with sandpaper. Right now, he looks like a cholera victim; sallow skin, smell of acrid ketones as his body eats its own protein reserves, a more revolting miasma hovering over him. There’s a slim aluminium briefcase chained to his left wrist, a bracelet of bruises darkening the skin above it. Roger steps forward.
“Sir?” Gorman straightens up for a moment: almost a shadow of military attention. He’s unable to sustain it. “We made the pickup. Here’s the QA sample; the rest is down below. You have the unlocking code?” he asks wearily.
Jourgensen nods. “One. Five. Eight. One. Two. Two. Nine.”
Gorman slowly dials it into a combination lock on the briefcase, lets it fall open and unthreads the chain from his wrist. Floodlights glisten on polythene bags stuffed with white powder, five kilos of high-grade heroin from the hills of Afghanistan; there’s another quarter of a ton packed in boxes in the crew compartment. The lieutenant inspects it, closes the case and passes it to Jourgensen. “Delivery successful, sir.” From the ruins on the high plateau of the Taklamakan desert to American territory in Antarctica, by way of a detour through gates linking alien worlds: gates that nobody knows how to create or destroy except the Predecessors—and they aren’t talking.
“What’s it like through there?” Roger demands, shoulders tense. “What did you see?”
Up on top, Suslowicz is sitting in the sub’s hatch, half slumping against the crane’s attachment post. There’s obviously something very wrong with him. Gorman shakes his head and looks away: the wan light makes the razor-sharp creases on his face stand out, like the crackled and shattered surface of a Jovian moon. Crow’s feet. Wrinkles. Signs of age. Hair the colour of moonlight. “It took so long,” he says, almost complaining. Sinks to his knees. “All that time we’ve been gone . . . ” He leans against the side of the sub, a pale shadow, aged beyond his years. “The sun was so bright. And our radiation detectors. Must have been a solar flare or something.” He doubles over and retches at the edge of the platform.
Roger looks at him for a long, thoughtful minute: Gorman is twenty-five and a fixer for Big Black, early history in the Green Berets. He was in rude good health two days ago, when he set off through the gate to make the pick-up. Roger glances at the lieutenant. “I’d better go and tell the colonel,” he says. A pause. “Get these two back to Recovery and see they’re looked after. I don’t expect we’ll be sending any more crews through Victor-Tango for a while.”
He turns and walks towards the lift shaft, hands clasped behind his back to keep them from shaking. Behind him, alien moonlight glimmers across the floor of Lake Vostok, three miles and untold light years from home.
Or read the news. Scientists have drilled deep into Lake Vostok and found thousands of gene sequences…
“We knew that there was something down there,” said Dr. Rogers, in a phone interview.
In his team’s most recent experiment, the results of which are published in PLOS ONE, Rogers and colleagues analyzed two ice core sections drilled from different sections of the lake, one from the southwestern region, which is about 10,000 years old, and one from the deeper mid basin, which is about 5,000 years old.
Scientists found 3,507 unique gene sequences – a stunning number for Lake Vostok – in about 500 milliliters of water taken from the ice cores. About 90 percent of the sequences came from the older, southwestern region, which is shallower and thought to be friendlier to life. The researchers were then able to make taxonomic classifications for about half of those sequences using the public gene bank.
Two scary possibilities present themselves. One is that we will awaken the Old Ones who sleep beneath Lake Vostok dreaming of revenge on the teeming life that has usurped their planet.
The other, and more likely, is that ancient and delicate extremophiles are even now succumbing to yellow staph and blue mold, injected in a stream of Russian diesel fuel, working its way inexorably through Vostok and its interconnected lakes.