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Saturday, 15 November 2014

'A Gigantic Leap' - part 2 of 2


Soyuz - Wikipedia commons
 
 
A GIGANTIC LEAP

Part 2 of 2

 
Nik Morton

 
Continued from yesterday…

*

‘Pure science fiction hokum,’ pronounced Tomich, the bacteriologist. ‘This sample exhibits several characteristics of bacteria, but it actually closely resembles the mitochondria.’

            ‘Really?’ Nessa said. ‘The powerhouse for life?’

            ‘So we believe.’ His arms were exceedingly long and he flapped them about quite a bit. Even as a student I was surprised he never dislodged any experimental apparatus. ‘But I’d need to do RNA and DNA tests before I could give you any reasonable answer.’

            The mitochondria are believed to be descended from free-living bacteria. I was intrigued. ‘Could this be an earlier version of life on earth?’

            Tomich shook his bald head. ‘You’re running before you can walk with this, Kolya. It’s highly unlikely that the samples we have here came from space. There has to be some other more prosaic explanation. Good God, man, they can’t have come from your father’s tomb! That would make them over three decades old!’ Tomich used to follow the Orthodox religion but something in his past turned him into an unbeliever; but he still liked to invoke his abandoned deity from time to time.

            ‘Maybe they’ve lain dormant,’ suggested Nessa. ‘And something has triggered them into life.’

            ‘Oh, right,’ Tomich scoffed. ‘Switched them on, right?’

            ‘Some plants wait seventeen years or longer to flower,’ I said in defence of Nessa. ‘Just depends on the infrequent rains. When the time is right, they blossom in the desert.’

            ‘Let me remind you, we’re not dealing with a plant here. It’s a primitive life-form, if you like, but not a plant.’

            ‘DNA could be the switch... Will you do the RNA and DNA tests?’ I asked.

            Tomich nodded. ‘It might take a week or so. Everywhere is busy-busy.’ More wild arm gestures. ‘They’re all trying to discover genetic wonders to patent and make them trillions.’

            ‘Well, there’s no urgency, is there?’ I said. Words I might regret. ‘All we’re talking about is an unsightly discolouration of my father’s tomb, after all.’

            ‘So far,’ added my daughter.

*

Two days later, I was drawn and fractious because I couldn’t sleep. I sat up in bed, sweat soaking my pyjamas. Moscow was not known for its heat-waves. But it wasn’t the climate, it was me. I was overheating like a nuclear reactor. My brief sleeping moments were besieged by images of my father’s tomb overgrown with morning glory while my mother’s grave was being consumed from within by horrendous white slugs. I woke up as the grave caved in and I found it was me in there, spluttering and fighting the downpour of soil and engorged slugs.

            Nessa stood at the bedroom door. She was fully dressed, carrying a rucksack. ‘We should check grandmother’s grave,’ she said.

            A shiver went down my spine and my head cleared. ‘Yes,’ I said, pushing the bedclothes back and swinging my legs round, toes fumbling for slippers. ‘Give me ten minutes.’

            I actually took eight. And within ten minutes we were in Nessa’s rusty old black Volga, motoring through the night towards the cemetery.

            The black wrought-iron gates were locked. Was that to keep vandals out or the dead in? I could never understand the logic of desecrating a grave. Were the idiots against the religion, whatever it was, or simply afraid of death?

            I was a bit too old for climbing cemetery gates that shook under my weight. Unfit and out of breath, my legs wobbling. Just to shame me, I reckon, Nessa made short work of it and then encouraged me from below on the other side.

            Finally, straining for breath and sure I’d strained a shoulder muscle, I landed by her side. With a hint of bravado, I wiped my hands together and said, ‘Onward, dear daughter.’ She gave me an odd look which made me feel quite small and stupid.

            Fortunately, this part of the cemetery was well lit by the street lamps outside the tall iron rails.

            Like everything else, the cemetery was neglected. Which meant that the wild flowers and weeds were thriving. Every grave we passed, the flowers of remembrance in the vases were in full bloom.

            I found my mother’s grave without any trouble, even though I hadn’t visited it for five years. Her photograph was faded, the glass cracked, the brass frame discoloured green. There was a slight hollow in the soil immediately in front of the black marble headstone which contained a quotation from the Byelorussian poet Kupala, ‘Walk the corpses who can’t die’, which mother specifically selected when she knew the end was near. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but as long as Nessa and I live, mother lives within us.

            I felt a chill breeze. It must have caught my eyes, they were streaming. I gripped Nessa’s hand. ‘This is too big for us,’ I said, turning away.

*

It took a week to arrange suitable high-level interviews, even with Nessa’s networking connections. Which, in retrospect, was good going, really. In the meantime, we noticed that my mother’s handkerchief on the mantel-shelf was discoloured too. At least the seal seemed to be holding.

            I decided to send a fax to Ray Stern in Oregon. I’d worked with him on a number of projects and I thought that he might be interested in the phenomenon. In fact he said he was fascinated and so I sent him the handkerchief, amply protected, via DHL. I also warned him to take every precaution.

            By now, Tomich had his results, which helped us corroborate our fears. On our way to Samarskaja Street, which is overlooked by the Olympic sports stadium, I leafed through Tomich’s report. It made troubling reading. Likened to a pathogen but ... doesn’t seem to inflict damage or pain. Indeed, it seems to be symbiotic... Creating additional neural pathways...

            The building was in the Stalin drab style and the elevators didn’t work. We were both out of breath by the time we got to the fifth floor. The hammered glass door was embossed with Dimitry Konstantin Andreev, OiC, IA(O). I was about to knock when the door opened. Andreev was expecting us.

            ‘Please, come in,’ he said in a deep bass voice. His forehead was corrugated with worry lines. Perhaps he had plenty to worry about. Once we were in the ante-room and the door was closed, he shook our hands. Not even an urbane Russian would risk shaking hands on the threshold for risk of offending Domovoi, the unlucky house spirit.

            Andreev was in charge of Internal Affairs (Other). I had never known about the organisation’s existence but, I was surprised to learn, Nessa had. It came into being in 1925, primarily to study the site of the 1908 Tunguska event, but it soon became the repository of all unexplained phenomena in the USSR. Since the heady days of the 1960s, when funding was generous, the organisation now relied on contributions from several fringe groups and internet contributors.

            I honestly thought we were wasting our time. ‘Shouldn’t the military be told?’ I said. ‘And the medical academies?’

            Lifting up the telephone, Andreev said, ‘Be my guest. They won’t listen, though, as they’re not conditioned to handle bad news. Chernobyl was an aberration. We’re a very secretive lot, we Russians.’

            I leaned forward. ‘If my father’s tomb and my mother’s grave are affected, how many more are actual hosts to this stuff?’

            ‘Stuff?’ echoed Andreev.

            ‘Technical term,’ Nessa said, shrugging. I wasn’t amused.

            Andreev sighed. ‘Since Nessa told me about it a few days back, I sent out a couple of investigators. Good people.’ His forehead creased, the lines deepening. ‘The man who gave your father CPR died two years ago. His grave site is showing similar symptoms.’

            I didn’t like where this was leading. Not one bit.

            ‘Does this symbiosis or whatever only affect the dead?’ Nessa asked.

            ‘I somehow doubt it.’ Andreev studied me, his dark brown eyes quite piercing. ‘How do you feel, in yourself?’

            My heart sank as I realised the truth. If my mother was affected, then I probably was too. ‘You’re right. I need a medical check-up at once!’

            ‘And Nessa,’ Andreev said.

            ‘Yes, of course.’

            ‘It so happens I have some people standing by in a medical centre.’ He stood up abruptly. ‘Shall we go?’

*

They were thorough, I’ll give them that. It took several days. I slept badly, waking with the horrible suffocating conviction that my body was clogged with the insidious growth, whatever it was, smothering me; Nessa’s rationalisation, that the growth was only evident when the hosts were dead, did little to calm my sleep patterns. Those days were a blur of scanners, blood tests, x-rays, ECGs and cardiograms; the list seemed endless.

            More than once I remember a medic expressing surprise at the results. I don’t know when, but at some point all the medical staff involved in the tests started wearing protective suits and Nessa and I were isolated. At least they kept us together. It was obvious that both Nessa and I were now considered different. Other.

            At about the same time I was handed an email from Ray in the States. The handkerchief contained a fledgling organism that was growing at an exponential rate; the plastic container had burst under its pressure to expand. I immediately authorised the exchange of results between his laboratory and our medical facility.

            Inevitably, anti-terrorist surveillance uncovered our email traffic and within a matter of days we were absorbed into the military machine. If they could determine a combat use for the symbiont, then that would be useful. Fortunately, they left our resident medical team to continue with the tests, while they ‘supervised’. I heard later that a similar response had overtaken Ray’s facility. Land of the Free, indeed!

            Everyone agreed that Nessa and I were hosts to a symbiont that had so closely integrated itself into our systems that there seemed no possibility of its removal. Yet we felt nothing untoward. ‘Not even a tickle,’ as Nessa said.

            It was too early to determine what kind of symbiont we harboured. As far as I was concerned, the symbiosis was not mutually beneficial as I felt that I hadn’t changed. If the organism had been dormant within us for so long, what had triggered it? And when? It seemed likely that it woke up, for want of a better term, on June 30 this year, on the anniversary of my father’s death, and since then I had experienced no change in my health or personality. I was still me. That was encouraging. It meant that my symbiont probably wasn’t parasitic. That left several other kinds, though. Mutual, where we both benefited from the association; commensal, where one benefited while the other was unaffected; amensal, where one was disadvantaged by the association while the other was unaffected; neutral, where both organisms would be unaffected; and competitive, where both of us would be harmed by the relationship. It was too early to call.

            ‘You know,’ Nessa said in one of our quieter moments, ‘recent studies say that symbiosis is a major driving force behind evolution.’

            ‘You’re saying we’re the next stage of evolution?’

            She shrugged. That action had always irritated me. Now I was furious. ‘Is that all you can do, shrug?’

            ‘Father, we’re experiencing no ill effects. Where’s the harm?’ She shrugged again. ‘We carry viruses and thousands of bugs around with us every day. It isn’t the end of the world as we know it, you know?’

            ‘But there’s no Wellsian microbe solution to this. From what we’ve learned so far, we’re stuck with our unwelcome little guests.’

            ‘Let’s wait and see,’ she counselled. Sometimes she was wiser than all my years.

 *

Now, we are all aliens. Without exception. By the time that the symbiont was detected, it was too late. It waited thirty-nine years to reveal itself. Not that it counted time like us. Perhaps a decade might be a fleeting moment in its scheme of things. It had spread around the world in those thirty-nine years, lying dormant.

            Waiting for what?

            We Russians are very sensitive to the idea of fate. And we got part of our answer only a few months later.

            A joint Russian-American moon mission encountered serious trouble two days into its mission encircling our beautiful satellite where a crater is named after my father and his comrades.

            Loss of oxygen and pressure meant the entire crew would die. But they didn’t. Because they had ‘evolved’ – some extraordinary property of the symbionts within them made it possible for them to survive.

            The investigation into the Soyuz 11 crew’s asphyxiation pointed to a valve that was jolted open as the descent module separated from the service module. The jolt was beyond the normal tolerances on this occasion because both explosive bolts that separated the service and descent modules fired simultaneously instead of sequentially. The valve was intended to equalise pressure inside the capsule in the final moments before landing but instead leached the cosmonauts’ air into space, barely fifteen minutes before touchdown.

            A serious design flaw was that the valve was sited under their couches. My father’s friend Patsayev must have attempted to block or shut off the valve manually because his hands were terribly bruised. He lost consciousness before he could accomplish the awkward task.

            It is too early to know yet, but it is probable that either the polluted atmosphere they found in Salyut 1 was contaminated with the dormant spores of the symbiont; or the leaking valve not only expressed air into space, it also allowed ingress of the symbiont.

            Whatever the cause, I feel that my father and his comrades did not die in vain. They made it possible for mankind to take a truly gigantic step. In a sense, June 30 is the anniversary of our rebirth.

            Space is not the final frontier, after all. It is only the beginning in our evolution.

 

K. Volkov, Moscow, October 30, 2010

* * *
Author’s dedication and declaration

‘A Gigantic Leap’ is dedicated to those brave souls who gave their lives in the tragic accident of June 30, 1971. The story is a work of fiction and, while it hinges on a real event, all the characters depicted are figments of my imagination and bear no resemblance to any person, living or dead. There’s no significance in the fact that my birthday is on June 30. Nik Morton

 
Previously published in Midnight Street, 2009.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

 
If you enjoyed this short story, you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.

 

 

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