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Lina looks up from fiddling with Zale’s life support. “What?”
“The chronostasis fluid. How are you studying it?”
“The fluorescent element is really easy to concentrate. I just don’t know enough molecular chemistry to get a better idea of what it is.”
“Did you look at it under a microscope?”
“I don’t know how to use an electron mic – ”
“No, a normal microscope.”
“Um. No? You can’t see molecules under a light microscope, that’s not – ”
I don’t hear the end of her sentence, because I’m already running off to find an engineer. Captain Sands is the first one I run into. “Captain! I think I might have some idea of what Rynn-Hatson did, but I need an engineer’s help to check.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
I have the captain expose a chronostasis fluid supply line leading to some of the pods in CR5 (all of the supply lines are easily accessible, in case they need to be maintained or repaired), and withdraw about a quarter cup of chronostasis fluid for me. Then, we find an occupied chronostasis pod where the computer reports a ten per cent revival chance and manually trigger a chronostasis fluid replacement cycle. Captain Sands very carefully exposes an outlet line, draws some chronostasis fluid that had been inside the pod a few seconds ago, and hands it to me. “What do you need this for?” he asks.
“I just want to have a look at it,” I shrug. I take both samples to Laboratory Ring 2 and prepare some microscope slides.
As expected, the first sample – liquid recently recondensed and not yet pumped into chronostasis pods – is fairly clean. There’s pretty much nothing there but fluid. The second – that which came out of a chronostasis pod – is less so. There’s a lot of random debris lying around, dead cells and whatever; I’m not interested in those. I pan around the slide, looking for something moving.
The little box that Rynn-Hatson had added to the front of the condensers can’t still be adding luminescent chemicals to the chronostasis pods. The volumes simply don’t make sense. And there’s no way for them to add the chemicals upon installation and then have the chemicals stick around for years and years; the cleaning process is too thorough. But what if Rynn-Hatson had added something to the pods, via the condenser, that would make the chronostasis pods themselves keep producing the luminescent chemical? It wouldn’t involve doctoring the pods, it wouldn’t involve any marvels of engineering. We’d had machines that could make more of themselves and pump out various chemicals for millions of years.
We called them life.
Lina had mentioned that the frequency of the luminescence was similar to a fluorescent tag used in genetic engineering. After confirming that Tal’s cells hadn’t been engineered to express the tag, we’d kind of dismissed that similarity – maybe if either of us had been genetic engineers or laboratory biologists, we wouldn’t have. Maybe we would’ve immediately considered the possibility that it was a GE fluorescence tag; it just wasn’t a tag for engineered human cells.
It doesn’t take me long to find what I’m looking for. There are all kinds of microorganisms in the fluid, as one would expect – not as many as one would find in the seawater I’m used to looking at, but enough. Chronostasis fluid isn’t a particularly inviting environment for any single-celled organism; it lacks the nutrients they need and is deliberately slightly toxic, not enough to really hurt a comatose human but certainly enough to inhibit bacterial growth. Still, there’s always a few hardy survivors in any complex ecosystem. But I see one species motoring about, pushing their way easily through the fluid with their long flagellae, that are far more numerous than anything else in the sample. If Rynn-Hatson added bacteria, they’d be ones engineered to live in chronostasis fluid. They’d probably be these ones.
I know what frequencies of light Lina used for her fluorescence analyses. I set up a darkbox designed to accommodate a microscope, put in Lina’s frequencies, and take a picture.
As expected, my little bacteria glow like tiny blue stars. Lina had to use sensitive equipment to search for faint signals, since she was working with the degraded remains of long-dead bacteria, but mine are fresh and alive and full of presumably complete and functional luminescent proteins, and glow much brighter.
For completeness, I scan the clean sample in the darkbox, too. It shows up nothing.
I can’t help but grin. This is all making sense. Rynn-Hatson added microbial incubators to the ends of the condensers in CR1 and 5, so that the liquid flowing from the condensers would pick up the engineered bacteria within and carry them to the chronostasis pods. They wouldn’t be found during routine maintenance, because while it’s easy to pry up some floor inside the chronostasis rings and check on the lines, checking the outside equipment is far more labour-intensive and dangerous and not likely to be done unless there’s a problem. That’s probably why he attached them out there. Little bits of the microbial colonies were picked up by the fluid and moved into the tanks, probably for several chronostasis fluid changing cycles. The little incubators would eventually be flushed clean, but by then, the bacteria, engineered to survive in this exact environment, would be established inside the chronostasis pods, with bacteria clinging to the tubes and the occupant during fluid change cycles, ready to populate the new fluid. It’s not that different to how Arboreans inoculate their salt filtration pools. And why? Why infect the chronostasis pods with these mystery bacteria, and what does it have to do with the AI’s brain hijacking abilities?
I have no idea whatsoever.
Whelp, when in doubt, keep gathering data and hope that a critical mass of data will make everything make sense. That’s how science works, right? (I’m not a scientist.) The fluorescent bacteria are so overwhelmingly dominant in the sample that there seems little point in isolating them, so I just prepare the entire sample tube for PCR. (With the computer’s help. Apart from analysing the air filter bacteria last year, I haven’t used these machines since I was a kid.) Then I go find Lina again.
She looks up from the medbay terminal. “Yes, Aspen?”
“How do you feel about helping me with the fun and exciting task of DNA analysis in about four hours?”
“I’m doing the fun and exciting task of DNA analysis right now. By the way, is it alright if I harvest some moderately invasive tissue samples from you later? For DNA analysis.”
“Incredibly ominous since you already have my DNA on file, but sure. What am I for if not to provide moderately invasive tissue samples for mad science?”
“Please, give me some credit. I am merely reverse-engineering someone else’s mad science. Whose DNA do you need me to analyse and why?”
“Just some bacteria.”
Lina frowns. “That’s really not my speciality. I mean, none of this is my speciality, but at least I’m somewhat familiar with parts of human DNA from cancer marker screening. Bacteria are a whole new lake of shrimp.”
“DNA is DNA, right?”
“It really isn’t. I suspect you have a lot more experience analysis microbial DNA than I do.”
“But it’s not even close to anything I’m qualified for.”
“That seems to be the status quo for most of us on the ship. What do you need to know about these bacteria, anyway?”
I grin. “I want to know why Richard Rynn-Hatson had a bunch of genetically engineered bacteria tagged with a fluorescent protein and dumped them in the fluid lines in CR5 to breed in the chronostasis pods.”
Lina looks up sharply from the terminal. “You couldn’t lead with all that?”
“Well, I need the analysis to – ”
“What are they doing in there? How were they engineered? Like, specifically?”
“I don’t know yet, the PCR takes four hours. But it explains the fluorescent protein, doesn’t it? We assumed that it was for engineering the pod occupants, and then kind of shrugged it off when it wasn’t showing up in their cells. But it’s not genetically engineering them! It’s a tag to show that the bacteria was carrying the gene, I guess?”
“Is that… normal? I’ve never heard of fluorescence being used like that.”
“No idea, but the point is, the bacteria are fluorescent, for whatever reason. The stuff you’ve been analysing is the dregs from dead ones. They’re not for genetic engineering, but I have no idea what they are for.”
“They’re not necessarily not for genetic engineering. All we know is that they don’t insert the specific fluorescence-tagged gene. You don’t have to tag a gene to insert it; most aren’t, in humans, or we’d all glow. Here; come and look at this.” She waves me over to the terminal. It’s full of strings of nonsense words and abbreviations that mean nothing to me. “So I’ve run Tal, Adin, Tinera and Zale’s DNA from multiple body tissues.”
I nod. Our four people who came from CR1 or CR5. Not counting those in the freezer. “I have no idea how to read this.”
“I ran tissues from several parts of the body in parallel to check for tampering. There are a few different ways to genetically engineer someone who’s already been born and all of them are messier than working with a blastocyst. Getting a new gene into a cell is easy; getting a new gene into every single cell in a thick slab of living meat is pretty much impossible. Most of the editing I work with in oncology doesn’t even try to be that thorough, there’s no point, but even the most thorough gene editing methods aren’t completely thorough. By running comparisons between old, deep tissue and new, exposed tissue, you can usually tell if somebody’s been born with a gene they have or not. So I ran several of Tal’s tissues against each other for comparison, and found only the usual noise of copying errors. No differences. Got the same with the others.”
“So they haven’t been engineered against their will.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I ran their DNA against their DNA on file, and there’s a clear change. All the new samples show two new genesets not present in their files. I ran it against the gene database and it’s not any known geneset, either.”
“So, either a quarter of crew were born with two mystery genesets, squirrelled away in chronostasis rings 1 and 5, and had their DNA files edited before launch – absurdly unlikely – or the inhabitants of rings 1 and 5 were subjected to some form of genetic engineering I’m not familiar with, that’s extremely thorough.”
“That sounds a lot more likely. Science marches on and all that.”
“So what do the genes do?”
“I’d rather discuss that directly with them. It’s their bodies. But I think it’s incredibly unlikely that your mystery bacteria are the transfer vector.”
“You look uncertain.”
“Yeah, it… doesn’t make sense for a microbe in chronostasis fluid to be able to engineer cells in the bone or deep muscle tissues. Just, physically. There’s no way to get in there without causing massive, fatal infections.”
“Maybe the PCR will tell us something.”
“This is why you want my tissue samples? To confirm it’s a ring 1 and 5 thing?”
“Yes; I’ll run everyone’s, for completeness. Can you imagine if we went ahead with just the CR1 and 5 samples, assuming this gene was related to that, and in a few years it turned out everyone on the ship had been engineered?”
“Yeah, let’s avoid that.”
Lina’s tissue sampling process is somewhat painful and involves being cut and scraped in places I’d rather not have medical implements in, so we get it out of the way while I’m waiting for the PCR and I take some painkillers before starting the DNA analysis process (which involves the highly technical task of taking some little plastic tubes of DNA out of one computer-controlled machine and putting them into another computer-controlled machine). Then I wait.
The results of this analysis will surely tell us some incredibly useful information.
I hope there’s someone on the crew who can understand it.
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