Chapter 6

March 23rd, 2078

Excavation Grid 12

13:48 UTC

Spotlights shone into eternal shadows cast by eternal light, washing out the arid gray hulk with harsh, unwavering brilliance. Above the land without darkness, a copper mesh canopy sparkled in the glare, propped some two hundred feet off the rock by spindly poles and gauzy wire.

Without warning – except to those that had planned it – a grid of silent flashes erupted across the surface, rippling in precise rhythm from side to side, then top to bottom, in the section under the mesh. Unleashed by the soundless blast, a wave of boulders, pebbles, and grit raced into the vacuum. Fifty feet from the thin mesh hemming the avalanche in, the entire crest stopped dead, as though hitting an invisible wall. The tons of material bobbled indecisively for a few moments as they lost their momentum. Then, like a class of kindergarteners, the rocks obediently pushed and tumbled their way sideways toward a yawning scoop sticking below the mesh.

Floating high above, the worker who'd pressed the detonation button whistled. "And it's just like that... Always 'pressive."

His partner nodded. "Yeah... Ya know, I flunked physics once 'cause I couldn't figure out that damn right-hand rule." He held out his right hand so it lined up with the scene below them and bent his fingers awkwardly into a sideways pistol shape, fighting against the cling of his pressure suit. His index pointed in the direction of the massive current surging through the copper wires; his other three lesser fingers straggled into the shape of the magnetic field the current was creating; and his thumb, forming a right angle with his index finger, followed the path of the bobbling rocks. "Christ. This makes it look so simple. If they'd taught all my courses with explosions, I might've even gotten through high school."

He tapped the temples of his helmet, which activated a high-power binocular system in the faceplate of his spacesuit. As the dust cleared, he could see the results of their handiwork. The strip-mine charges had shattered an even layer off the outside of the hulk, along the crystallization lines, giving them a relatively level shelf on which to plant another grid of blasting caps. A discoloration in the uniform gray caught his eye. He zoomed in to maximum resolution. After studying the spot for a moment, he tapped his friend on the shoulder and pointed.

"Hey. Check out that black splotchy patch."

"Um... OK." He paused as he looked at it. "Huh. Weird. What is it?"

"I dunno. Looks like somebody spray-painted on some plants."

"That's probably the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

"Hey, you asked me."

"Think we should tell the shift manager?"

"Why not?"

"We'd have to stop the shift while one of those science pansies gets called in."

"Yeah, well, I've gotta swap out my piss bag at some point."

"Okay. Stop. Remind me never to ask you anything ever again." He keyed an outside channel with his throat mike. "Hey, Boss...? Yeah. I think we found something the Geek Squad might want to see."

January 12th, 2079

Washington D.C.

7:38 AM

The hot blast of a passing express churned the chill air settling upon the Blue Line platform of L'Enfant Plaza.

Trisha Barnes glanced up as the slipstream rattled the top edge of her expandable e-paper, and she shivered under her worn down coat as she tucked her elbows closer to her body. The subway's aging, 2020's-era HVAC system was temperamental on the best of days, and the cash-strapped Metro Transit Authority appeared allergic to proper maintenance.

And this week they're having a chest cold like the rest of us, Trisha thought irritably, looking up at motionless strips of plastic streamer dangling from a ceiling vent. A thread of water began trickling out the vent from some busted water pipe deep in the guts of the vaulted ceiling. She glared at the puddle growing on the platform tile, and then distracted herself from it with a wave of a hand over her e-paper. The two-foot-by-two-foot screen obligingly shifted from entertainment to what passed for news.

Damn city. The voice inside her head spoke louder to cover up the splattering leak. Damn, damn city. Darrell's bonus – and later workmen's comp – from the Unobtanium salvage project had been enough to get him and his fiancée through community college. He'd used his degree to co-found an orbital salvage company – "garbage men in spaaaaaccce," as he liked to call it. She'd been picked up as an accountant by a consulting firm; the higher-ups were pricing out a scheme to save the District from its bygone swamp days as sea levels rose. Their plans drew from the levee and pump system protecting Manhattan and its subway system, which itself was based off lessons learned from the third drowning of New Orleans. She didn't care either way – she was simply a spreadsheet monkey – but the firm had paid for her transfer to DC.

Which proved to be a mixed blessing. A raging, changing climate fought on the front lines of hot and cold, choosing the gap between the 35th and 40th parallels as its battleground. DC scorched under 110-degree averages during the summer and dug out after brutal flash blizzards in the winter.

Trisha shivered again. At least down South I'm used to the heat. She grinned slightly at herself. Well, south of here, at least. Funny how fast your perspective changes...

Another express roared past, and she pinched the tips of the OLED sheet to keep it from shaking. When she loosened her hands again and leaned back, she discovered a small, blinking icon hopping in the upper right-hand corner of her screen. The appearance of the red box, containing an urgent black exclamation point inside, was itself unusual. Like everyone else she knew, Trisha had configured her e-paper to give her strictly the information she knew she already wanted, in a format she knew she liked. She peeked over the edge of her subscription and saw a similar icon blinking on the paper of her half-asleep neighbor. This confirmed it as a mass breaking news bulletin, and it overrode users' pre-selected filter preferences (a sports fan was loath to receive breaking news about a pop star's crack cocaine binge, for instance). Glancing up, she even saw the icon flashing on a TV about twenty yards down the tunnel.

Her curiosity finally aroused, she poked a finger at the icon. She frowned, annoyed, as it blossomed into an error message and directed her toward the nearest public TV set, complete with a small map and GPS walking instructions. Whoever had bought the news story had also purchased a license to broadcast the information strictly over their preferred distribution network – and if that network was a television, for God's sake, then it meant one of the Big Five dinosaurs had paid an enormous sum for the privilege.

Trisha checked the time, saw that she had another twenty minutes until her connection arrived, and stood up. She gave the free end of her paper a short tug to release the catch of the holding cylinder on the other end, and the sheet flapped back into the baton. She nudged the end of the screen with her thumb out of habit to make sure it was all the way in, then telescoped the entire two-foot tube between her palms until it reached its six-inch travel length and dropped it into her purse.

The walk was short, and she was early; the mass-broadcast blinker and the station's logo had yet to disappear. She stuck her hands into her pockets through the loop of the purse strap and rocked back and forth slightly at the knees to bring back circulation. Several other people straggled over until they formed a small group, maybe a dozen in total, clustered in a ragged semicircle before the screen. Bits and pieces of conversation floated around in the quiet between trains.

"...Yeah, I saw the blurb on my cell phone and had some time to kill."

"Screwy that they've still got a TV down here, huh?"

"What do you think it is?"

"Financial crash?"

"Terrorist attack?"

"One of the Bigelow complexes lost thrusters and is crashing toward Earth with thousands aboard? …What? What? It could happen…"

"What's your connection?"

"Silver Line. Tyson's Corner."

"Huh. I'm heading toward Dulles…"

"Hey, look, shh…"

The screensaver had faded, and the face of a prettied young woman filled the screen, looking slightly unsure of herself. Trisha guessed she was as unused to addressing a mass audience as the audience was to tuning in.

A spiffy hologram of a spinning, suspended Unobtanium chunk came into being beside her, which seemed to give her confidence. She straighten her shoulders and leaned toward the audience, eyes narrowing just slightly as she read off the teleprompter.

"Hello. For those viewers just tuning in, this is FOX-Warner News, bringing you an exclusive breaking news announcement, free of charge for your benefit. Scientists of the International Astronomical Union and NASA's Astrobiology Institute announced today from the NASA Ames Research Center that carbon char traces discovered last year on the orbiting mass of Unobtainium are, in fact, of organic origin."

Beside her, a bullet point list digitally floated into position. The first point read, "Alien Life Found."

The announcer continued. "Carbon black can be created through a number of processes that do not involve life, but extensive tests proved these particular markings to be plant char, baked and flash-seared onto the rock by some impressively fiery event." The newscast replaced the unobtanium hologram with a picture of the char, clearly showing the fernlike silhouettes. "Furthermore, these markings are fresh, at least on a geologic time scale – they were created less than two and a half million years ago, likely indicating ongoing processes in the parent system, Alpha Centauri. In contrast, most leading scientists generally agree that the planet Mars, in our own solar system, once harbored life, but lost it completely more than one and a half billion years ago, and that the height of Martian life did not evolve beyond small multicell organisms and slow-growing aquatic plants such as algae."

She paused, her eyebrows betraying her awe at the time-scale. The blonde was unused to such scientific jargon, but she read the teleprompter well.

"In light of such an historic find, the pace of work on the Daedalus probe, now in its third year of construction, may accelerate significantly. Currently slated for completion in 2088, the probe is designed to reach the Alpha Centauri system within forty years and conduct an extensive examination of the system for concentrations of Unobtanium." The plant char was replaced with a digital recreation of the one-third complete spacecraft, with bits and pieces floating around in CGI. "Daedalus has been on the books ever since the Unobtanium's home system was identified, but this most recent discovery has now elevated it far beyond a. mere. geological. survey." She spoke with hard pauses between her final words, attempting to imitate the closing gravitas of anchors of old. "And now for further discussion, we turn to our panel of experts…"

The camera followed her and her tight dress through the studio to a raised, bean-shaped table, slick with glass and chrome, half-surrounded by pundits in military uniform, lab coats, pressed black suits, and other television shorthand, for the comfort of the viewer. Heels clacking, the newscaster stopped next to the first expert, a middle-aged scientist with a terrific salt-and-pepper mustache seated at the far left end of the table.

"First in the discussion is NASA xeno-geologist Dr. Richard Banngkoff. Doctor…?"

"Ah! Thank you, Melissa. Glad to see all the cameras still work so early in the morning. Now, the most exciting thing about all of this is the position of the findings. The ones that a few workmen turned up several months ago – now, those were interesting, but they were buried under several layers of igneous rock, which placed them at least at the 500 myo – m-y-o – that's short for million-years-ago - marker. But when we started looking at the rest of the surface, at the parts they hadn't blown up yet, we found it dotted with bits and pieces of plant char in the craters. This rock was at one point covered with plants, and through some unknown cataclysmic process they were flash-fixed onto the surface. Most of the char was stripped off and worn away, but we still found it in the sheltered divots."

"Fascinating." The anchor turned to the second white-coated attendee, seated to the geologist's left. "Now, you, sir, are a leading scientist at the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center…"

The man standing next to Trisha frowned and crossed his arms. "That's it? They hyped it all up with a mass bulletin, and it turns out to be some sciency thingy? Whatever..." He hiked his coat a little tighter around his throat and walked off down the tunnel. Half of the group expressed similar sentiments and broke away. The other half clung to their positions out of inertia or interest. Trish partially shared the departed crowd's lean; she wasn't a card-holding geek. Never had been, and proud of it. But she was, in a way, chained to the thing through occupation and fate, and felt she owed the whole subject at least passing knowledge.

She managed to hang on until the policy-speak from the suited gentlemen made her head hurt and the words ran together into gibberish. She pawed at the elasticized cuff of her coat to reveal her watch. Her eyes widened and she turned quickly toward the tracks. As she watched, the headlights of her train plunged out of the darkness and the sleek line of cars coasted to a stop before the platform.

The carriages were nearly full. She crammed into the nearest and wiggled toward a window, better to see the ride home. Ducking her head slightly, she saw the TV still going. The man who had suggested the Bigelow hotel crash and a fluctuating handful of others still grouped before the newscast, drinking it in.

The Metro car lurched, air brakes hissed, and the floating chunk of Unobtanium now hovering on the distant television screen vanished as the tunnel wall swallowed the light.

To be continued.