By Tony Noland
"Sir, you may keep your glasses, but I'll need you to turn out your pockets, please. Your Blackberry, wristwatch and other personal effects will be returned to you upon your exit from the lab."
Captain Grossman paused before complying. He looked at the staff sergeant behind the desk, an unusually senior NCO to be manning a guard post. Grossman had already come through two security checkpoints upstairs, each with a metal detector. He glanced at the two cameras on the anteroom's ceiling, then at the corporal with the M-16 who stood by the second door.
Carlov, the scientist who was acting as Grossman's escort said, "It's standard security, Captain. With cameras and recorders being built into just about everything these days, we don't allow any outside artifacts in the lab."
Grossman's eyebrow twitched upwards at the word 'artifacts', but said, "I understand, Doctor. Sorry, Sergeant, I was just considering your security measures for this entrance. Or at least the ones I can see." He began to place his belongings on the table.
"Of course, sir," the sergeant said. "If I could also please have your pen, sir? Thank you. Sir, your answers to the following questions will be recorded. Please state your name and rank."
He spoke clearly and without hesitation. "Grossman, David K. Captain, United States Army."
"Captain Grossman, failure to comply with security protocols for this facility may result in loss of rank, salary, medical benefits and retirement benefits, or other penalties specified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, up to and including imprisonment and/or execution. Captain Grossman, with the exception of rank insignia, have you removed and surrendered all non-clothing items from your person?"
"Thank you, sir. Captain Grossman, are you carrying any devices, objects or other means, electronic or non-electronic, by which information, electronic or non-electronic, could be gathered and/or recorded?"
"I am not."
"Thank you, sir." The sergeant collected Grossman's items and put them into a large manila envelope. She sealed the envelope and had him print and sign his name across the flap. She looked up at one of the cameras and said, "Captain Grossman and Doctor Carlov are ready to enter the hallway."
The second door made a deep, metallic clunking sound, then opened slowly. The corporal stepped aside to let them enter, his eyes tracking the two man as they passed through. Grossman was surprised to see that the door did not lead to another room, but to a long, featureless hallway that sloped downward. The sound of the door closing behind them reverberated off the tile and painted concrete, adding to the echoing sounds of their steps.
After a moment, Grossman said, "Doctor, how much farther is the actual lab? I'm anxious to see the object for myself."
Doctor Carlov said, "I think this containment hallway is the last security hurdle before we reach to door to the lab complex."
"You think? Don't you know?"
The scientist pursed his lips and his face reddened slightly. "I haven't been in the actual lab to see it. Dr. Cheung is the lead scientist on this project, and he's been quite adamant about minimizing the personnel authorized to go in. I'm cleared to discuss it, and to try to make sense of it, but I'm not cleared to see it for myself. I'm hopeful that since I was sent to collect you up at the front desk, that they'll let me in as an errand boy where they wouldn't let me in as a materials scientist. I have to say, it's very frustrating to try to conduct research when I can't even see what I'm working on."
"Yes, I imagine it must be," said Grossman.
"I've been analyzing the data from the gamma spectrometers and the atomic force microscopes. The technicians are able to run the machine operations protocols just as I told them to, so the data is of reasonable quality. Obviously it would be better if I in there were doing it myself, but that can't be helped, I suppose. When we need fresh pictures or want to change the experimental setups, we tell them what we want and they send out the resulting data."
"How many people are on your team, Doctor?"
"I'm one of a couple of dozen scientists working on this. Materials scientists, chemists, linguists, cryptographers, even a microbiologist, although he's not been very busy. Ah, I guess I should clarify that it's not exactly my team, per se, although I am among the most experienced members. There are also a few representatives of the military who work with us." His tone suggested that he did not appreciate their assistance.
Grossman seemed not to notice the implied slight. He said, "Microbiologist? Recovering anything seems like a stretch, although I suppose viral particles may still be viable. The briefing I got said that this was quite old. Ancient, even."
"Ancient? Oh, my yes. Yes, the object is in fact 2.25 billion years old." Carlov sounded smug at knowing the exact figure. He saw that Grossman registered no reaction to his pronouncement. A slightly petulant, lecturing note came into his voice. "The elemental slugs hidden under the gold weren't hard to find once we started X-raying. The mild background radioactivity gave them away. We were able to determine the age of the object precisely by comparing the isotopic profiles of the different slugs. It was a simple matter to back-calculate to determine when they were put in place."
"Very good, Doctor," said Grossman. "I'm happy to see that the data is firming up nicely. The most recent information I had was between 2 and 3.5 billion. I understand some of the last hopes of the linguists died with the preliminary figures. What does this new figure suggest for the origins and purpose of the object? Those are the central questions, after all. What new insights have you gained?"
Carlov did not respond immediately. "Well..." he said after a long pause, "whoever built this thing installed a rather clever sort of clock for us to work with. The short-half life elements plus the more slowly decaying ones means that the clock would give a reasonably accurate reading of elapsed time from construction for any stretch of time from a few weeks to around eight billion years. That implies that althought they wanted us to understand it, they must not have had any clear idea of when it would be found and studied. It can be viewed as a message in a bottle, as it were. Except..." Carlov's voice trailed off.
The men walked on in silence. The increased precision of knowing exactly how old it was did not materially change the fundamental impossibility of the object. No one knew where it could have come from, or even how it could exist at all. Carlov shrugged as they approached at a featureless steel door at the end of the long hallway. The two men looked at the screen set flush into the wall next to the doorway.
After a pause, a man's voice came from the speaker beneath the screen. "Please stand clear of the door." With a noise like an approaching elevator, the door rose in its frame, leaving the doorway clear.
The voice said, "Thank you, Doctor Carlov, you may return to your duties. Captain Grossman, please step forward." Grossman did so without looking to see how Carlov was taking the dismissal. He was three measured steps into the room when the door began to descend behind him. He turned in time to meet Carlov's scowl before the scientist was cut off from view. The heavy blast door settled into its slot and was silent. Grossman turned again, facing the conventional door to his right. It opened and a short, thin Asian man stepped in to smile and offer his hand.
"Captain Grossman," the man said, "how very nice to see you. Do please come this way. The lab is right through here. Or would you prefer a cup of coffee first?"
"Thank you, Dr. Cheung, perhaps later. I'm quite anxious to reach the lab. The reports I've read have given me a fascinating picture of what we're dealing with. Frankly, all philosophical concerns aside, it's my job to determine if there are grounds for us to regard this as a threat." He held up a hand as the scientist began to object. "I know, Doctor, I know. The object seems completely inactive, and there doesn't appear to be any sort of mechanism present. Still, there are some key people in D.C. who are already worried about advanced technologies that we wouldn't necessarily be able to recognize AS technologies. A tightly nested collection of nanotech devices would be almost indistinguishable from a solid block of silicon, even if created with our own level of capabilities. The threat would only become evident when they activate. Some of the wilder threat possibilities make that look pedestrian. If the worry over these potential threats is needless, then I'd like to get at the truth of the matter and put those people at ease. I'll be able to make a better judgment when I see the object."
Cheung nodded, but did not respond. Grossman was not surprised. He had read the strenuously worded memo Cheung had written to object to this oversight visit. Grossman did not share Cheung's opinion that a hands-on site visit would serve no purpose. In Grossman's experience, that was the only way a proper inspection could be conducted. Summary reports, teleconferences and e.mails were all well and good, but there was nothing like the white glove treatment to find out what was really going on. Even granted the extraordinary nature of the object, progress in understadning it had been slow, and Grossman had been tasked with finding out why.
"By the way, Doctor," said Grossman, as they moved through the outer labs, "your associate Dr. Carlov seemed like an odd choice for a tour guide. It seems like rubbing his nose in his lack of clearance would cause you some grief."
The scientist smiled. "Only temporarily. Alexei is a clever scientist, but he's a pain in the neck because he won't recognize the need for compartmentalization. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to invite him in to give his status update to you personally, and to do it here in the lab. That should take care of his grousing. He'll go back to his own lab rather over-puffed, but he'll work twice as hard at earning another look at the object. It should also inspire the rest of his team to burn a little more midnight oil, too."
Cheung led them to a door adorned with two laser-printed pictures - one of the Rosetta Stone, and one of a set of glyphs arranged in a grid. Grossman glanced at the picture of the Stone, then peered more closely at the glyphs. He turned to Cheung and said, "Linear A? I'm surprised at your lack of faith, Doctor."
"Not lack of faith, Captain. Just a reminder of the importance of luck in any endeavor such as this. The Rosetta Stone was instantly comprehensible, and gave us the key to almost everything we know about the Egyptians. In contrast, it took more than fifty years to decipher the Linear B alphabet, and Linear A is still a mystery to us after more than a hundred years."
"We've got a lot more text to work with here than they did in either of those cases. Each of the seven spirals has at a distinct set of least a hundred thousand characters. That's seven different languages to work on."
"Very true, but the Crete and Egypt of the ancient world were on Earth, and populated by humans. That forces some fundamental commonalities in the frame of reference which we don't necessarily have here." He opened the door and ushered Grossman in.
The room was chilly and brightly lit. On a large table in the middle was a metallic hemisphere, almost 27 cm in diameter. The body was a grayish metal, pitted and scratched, but unadorned. The flat surface was flawless, gleaming gold, ornately etched. A complex scrollwork covered the periphery. A ring of six circles were arranged in an evenly spacing around a central circle, slightly larger than the outer six.
As Grossman approached the object, each of the circles shimmered very slightly with a rainbow iridescence. He stopped, then slowly moved his head back and forth, observing the effect.
“The effect is a lot more striking in person than it is in the videos,” he said.
Cheung nodded. “The diamond coating is almost six millimeters thick. The etched lines of text in each of the spirals are only 9 microns high. Between the diffraction grating effect of the etchings and the prismatic effect of the diamond, it is rather eye-catching.
“Actually,” he continued, “that’s an important clue. It’s unlikely that such an effect was an unintended byproduct of the object’s construction. Aside from being, well, beautiful, an observer who understands anything about optics would find this object fascinating. Therefore, any culture, of almost any stage of scientific development, would have held onto this object for future generations to admire and eventually study. Moreover, the rainbow effect also tells us that they used approximately the same wavelengths of light to see that we do. So, they orbited a star similar to our own. That, coupled with the chemistry of the gold-chromium alloy used in the decorative scrollwork suggests water-based, oxygen breathing organisms."
Grossman did not respond. He was staring at the object.