Project Vostok had been laid on ice, so to speak. When the scientists working on it realised they lacked the technology and the budget, they had admitted defeat and given up. That was ten years ago now.
Dr. Yuko Akai crossed out some things on her charts as she looked through the thick glass behind which swam several dolphins. She sighed. There wasn’t much left to learn about these creatures anymore. She longed to be out in the field again, studying sea-animals from inside submarines, going far down and visiting this alien territory where swam creatures no human had seen before. She was educated at Tokyo University and the University of Queensland, a doctor in Marine Biology, but her particular type of research was receiving little attention these days. Everyone was worrying about global warming and stem cell research and cloning and human genetics. Nobody cared what was on the bottom of the sea anymore. She was afraid that she was the only one who had taken The Abyss seriously.
“Yuko,” had her friend Amanda said to her the evening before, “haven’t we discovered everything there is to discover under the sea by now?”
Yuko disagreed. There were still trenches, deep holes, dark parts of the oceans where no one had been. She wanted to be there. And there was still Lake Vostok. The underground lake had not been touched in millions of years. Yuko often wondered what might live in the dark, high oxygen concentration, high-pressure environment deep beneath the ice. For fear of contaminating the untouched underground lake with anti-frost liquids and bacteria from above, they had stopped drilling, but while the project had been underway Yuko had followed every step from afar, despite having been no more than a teenager at the time. Her greatest wish was to work on the project herself, but that was apparently not to happen.
She left the dolphins and headed to her office, where she changed her clothes and pulled on her coat. It was cold in Hokkaido this time of year. She put the chart in her desk drawer, vowing to enter it into the computer system the next day, and left the aquarium.
Her home was temporarily a small studio flat. It had a bathroom with a shower, but no bathtub, though luckily it wasn’t far to the nearest bathhouse, and they had reasonable prices. The room itself was messy. It had a corner kitchen, which was hardly ever used, since buying some instant ramen or a bento box on the way home was simpler than cooking for herself, and the kotatsu was cluttered with research papers and two laptops. On the wall hung a few satellite photos of Lake Vostok, and several newspaper clippings about new findings and ideas. There was no bed; she rolled out a futon when she wanted to sleep.
“This is no way for a lady to live…” Yuko muttered, reminding herself a bit too much of her mother. She turned on the water boiler and rummaged through the cupboards for a clean cup, intent on making herself some instant coffee. Her cat, a tabby little thing named Cat, rubbed up against her leg. She glanced at the bowls by the bathroom door. “You have food, Cat,” she said.
She sat down on the tatami mat by the kotatsu and brought one of the laptops (an ancient Apple) out of sleep-mode, scratching Cat behind the ear absentmindedly. She was twenty-seven years old, a doctor in Marine Biology, but she had no boyfriend and no life. What was it all for? She absent-mindedly entered her e-mail and found in her inbox an e-mail from an address she did not recognise. She opened it.
Dear Dr. Akai,
After a long break, Project Vostok is back on track. As we have received recommendations due to your most excellent skills within the field of marine biology and your keen interest in the project, we henceforth welcome you to the Vostok conference in Brisbane, Australia on February the 3rd this year. Should you choose to attend, all travel expenses will be paid, including your stay in LA. The conference will begin at 9:00 am, followed by dinner at 5:00 pm.
We most sincerely hope that you will consider our offer.
Prof. Dimitri Ivanov & The Vostok Team.
Yuko stared at the screen in awe. Could this be true? Was the project really back on? And she was invited to join. Slowly the realisation hit her, and a grin began spreading across her features.
Grabbing hold of a very surprised Cat and hugging her close, she made a loud squeal and lay back on the tatami mat. Cat hissed and escaped her grasp.
Yuko picked up the phone and dialled Amanda’s number. Amanda was half Japanese, half English, and she and Yuko had been friends since childhood. Amanda had taught her English already in preschool, which had led to her near-flawless accent, a rarity in Japan.
“Hello, Amanda? Yeah… I just got an e-mail. The project is back on! I’ve been invited to join! Yeah, isn’t it brilliant? No, silly! I’m going to Australia!”
The auditorium was more packed than she had expected. It seemed like there were many people who were interested in this project; far more so than Yuko would have thought. Most of them were far older than she was; though she spotted a few younger faces among them, none were as young as she. Just as she was pondering this, she felt someone blow in her ear and jumped in her seat. Turning her head sharply she found herself face to face with a pair of hazel eyes, an insolent grin and an unshaven chin.
“Hello, there, Yuko,” said David McCrimmon in his Scottish drawl and jumped clean over the seat row to plop down in the seat next to her.
“You!” said Yuko indignantly. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, just hanging about, you know… Chatting with the scholars and all that. Reliving the wild days of my youth… how about you?”
“I’m here for the science. Nothing a lay-about like you would possibly understand… I wonder at them even letting you in here with that stubble. Where’s your tie? And your shirt is stained!”
“Whoa, lassie! If I wanted that kind of abuse I’d call my mother!” David replied in mock indignance, ever a twinkle in his eye. “Such a harsh tongue for such a pretty mouth, love. Perhaps I’ll need to speak to the professor about that attitude of yours…”
“Professor Ivanov?” said Yuko quickly. “You know Professor Ivanov?”
“Doctor McCrimmon,” said a voice next to them. “You’re up.”
“Ah, that’s me,” said David with a self-satisfied smirk. “And yes, I know Professor Ivanov. Why do you think you’re here in the first place?”
Yuko looked on completely dumbstruck as he swaggered off towards the front of the auditorium. Leaning nonchalantly on the frame of the podium, he spoke into the microphone.
“If I may have your attention for a moment, ladies and gentlemen.” The room fell silent. “Thank you. Some practical information before we begin. We have a lot to cover today, so we will only have time for a couple of short breaks before dinner. To make things as uncomplicated as possible, the university administration has asked me to inform you that the lavatories are on the ground floor by the entrance and that coffee and soft drink machines can be found in the first floor lobby. With that out of the way, and without further ado, I wish to welcome to the podium the man who has made all this possible, Professor Dimitri Ivanov!”
To polite applause, a slightly hunched old man with a long grey beard stepped onto the podium and shook David’s hand. Then he stepped up to the microphone and spoke in a deep and calm voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the professor began, “let me begin by welcoming you to this project! Some of the most prominent scientists within their respective fields are gathered in this room today. It has been nearly twenty years, but we have finally arrived. With the Cryobot test-type finally completed, we can now go where we have wished to go since we discovered the existence of Lake Vostok; we can finally get to the bottom of this matter, no pun intended. Could somebody get the lights and turn on the projector, please?”
The room became dark. Up on the screen behind the professor appeared a CGI model, a spherical shape made of metal.
“Thank you. This is the Cryobot. It is roughly 40 centimetres in diameter and made of titanium. Using only heat, thus remaining sterile, it melts its way down through the ice, unspooling a long communications and power cable. It takes enough time to allow the ice above it to freeze, so that we can avoid potential contamination and water pressure disasters.
“Once the Cryobot breaks the surface, it releases a smaller entity, called the Hydrobot, which will go off to explore and look for life. If we find anything, well…” He made an artistic pause. “Ladies and gentlemen, if the Hydrobot finds significant traces of life, we may be facing a trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa in a very near future.”
A collective gasp passed through the auditorium. Whatever the crowd of eager scientists had expected, this had not been it. Yuko, however, was glowering at the unshaved Dr. McCrimmon who had once again stepped into her life. She didn’t like it one bit.