Story 17 - Aquarius in Ice.
The satellite station was a giant A-frame building erected on a steel frame basement that served both as a garage and as a storage area. The single communal bedroom of the station was located on the top
floor. Below it were the labs and the kitchen. It would have been a grandiose
place had we been on a ski holliday.
"Get yourselves ready for two nights of camping out," said the woman of our science team who called herself Leslie. She had told us earlier that she preferred to have an American name. It was customary for someone in her position to hide her real name. She showed us the book that contained the supply lists.
"This is what you need for two days," she said, "and that's where you'll find it." She showed us the map in the book and hurried off to do her own chores. The map covered the entire house. Every part of it was indexed
and referred to in the attached lists. "You have 20 minutes," said Leslie, "we have to get the project finished while the weather holds."
The station was equipped with two snow cats, both painted brilliantly white. They weren't just industrial versions of the Skidoo. They were bigger, faster, powered by a large diesel engine. Nor were they riding on tracks. They were riding on eight balloon tires that allowed the giant vehicle to travel faster and ride more smoothly over the terrain. Our first excursion was to collect the cargo we had hidden, which we took back to the A-frame. After that, we were off with both vehicles, Anton in one, I in the other.
The irony was that we had to drive slowly in spite of our haste, so as not to raise too much of a cloud of snow behind us. Only the tire tracks remained a problem. We hoped that they would be shallow enough not to be noticed.
If only we had some raking equipment to drag behind us.
In this cautious fashion it took us almost an hour to get to our first planned stop, which the science team called "Check Point One."
The two people of our science team ventured outside in plastic coveralls and changed a filter paper that had been mounted inside the engine's air-intake funnel. The filter was immediately examined in an electron microscope that was built into the vehicles. Afterwards the sample was sealed into a bottle that was labeled with the location and time. Then we were off again.
The same ritual was observed every hour. Later, snow samples were collected as well, and twigs from the surrounding trees, whenever there were any. The team worked with plastic gloves and plastic hoods, and breathed through filtered masks. The scene looked
more and more like an episode unfolding from a science fiction movie.
The plastic gloves and masks were discarded after use, into a container mounted
outside the air cleansing chamber of the snow cats. The team also took samples of dead animals, whenever we came upon any.
We stopped for dinner briefly, that night, right after it became dark again. Up to this point nothing unusual had been detected. The bio team stated that this didn't mean anything since wind dispersal could have cleared away whatever there might have been, or the snow had covered whatever there was.
Driving after dinner in the dark, without headlights, was riskier. We also ran the risk that the heat of the engine exhaust could be detected from space. None of us knew for certain what the limits were of the space watch system. We only knew that we had to take all possible precautions.
We had stopped ten times during this first part
of the run. Around midnight, we slept for a few hours in our seats that could be made to lean back in a low angle. After that, long before dawn, the journey continued.
By all appearances, it soon seemed as if the biological danger was becoming more acute,
and also the ever-present danger that we might be detected under the clear,
cloudless, sunlit sky. The biological danger, though, appeared to be more acute.
Our science and biology experts were no longer breathing just through thick
filters mounted on their masks, as they had done earlier, but were breathing oxygen enriched air from pressurized
tanks, like scuba divers. Later on, they also doubled up on their disposable, plastic body suits. They told us that they had detected some traces of a rare virus that they couldn't identify, that could be natural, but most likely wasn't. They also remained in the decontamination chamber twice as long as before.