'Rubin made a mistake that night,' Li said insistently. 'He had no right to hit you. Our surveillance systems are here for your safety. We kept the military side of the mission secret because we didn't want to unsettle the rest of the team and distract you from your work.'
While the others finished setting up camp, he was the first to disappear into the honey-pot, as the Inuit nicknamed it. The guides detached the skidoos from the sleds and proposed a race. Anawak was shown how to manoeuvre one, and soon they were shooting past each other on the shimmering ice. Anawak's heart lightened. He loved being there.
Suddenly he realised that he was trying to distract himself. His hyperactivity was an attempt to ward off thought, like whistling in the dark. His hand hovered beside the ignition as he gazed towards the city. A damp mist was hanging over Trondheim, blurring its contours. Even his house on the other side of the street seemed flatter than usual. It looked almost like a painting.
'Once you're safely in the suit, we'll hook you up to the air system and fill your overall with dehumidified, tempered air. The charcoal filter supplies it under positive pressure. That's important, since it stops air entering in the event of a leak. Any surplus air exits via the exhaust valve. You can regulate the supply yourself, but that shouldn't be necessary. OK? How do you feel?'
The symbiosis meant the sulphur bacteria also lived off methane, although they never got a taste of it. Most methane was found in the oxygen-free sediment, and sulphur bacteria needed oxygen to survive. Archaea didn't. They broke down methane without oxygen, and could carry on doing so several kilometres beneath the seabed. Scientists estimated that archaea converted 855 million tonnes of marine methane each year, which probably benefited the climate: broken-down methane couldn't escape into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. In that respect, archaea were a kind of environmental task-force.
Crowe smiled. 'They're not supposed to. They're the continents a hundred and eighty million years ago. Just one big land mass – Pangaea, the supercontinent. The lines probably correspond to the magnetic field back then.'
Huge lumps of jelly were floating in the tank, beginning to glow again. But what interested the three biologists wasn't so much the jelly as the cloud. The two and a half tonnes of organic matter that Li's men had scooped up from the well deck included large quantities of dissociated jelly. Now big clumps of aggregated matter and countless individual amoebas filled the tank, while a robot flitted among them, armed with an array of sensors that monitored the chemical composition of the water and transmitted the data to the screens on the desk. The skirt of the robot was lined with tubes that, at the push of a button, could be extended into the water, opened, closed and returned to the rosette. The entire contraption was scarcely bigger than the Spherobot. It was robust, yet manoeuvrable.
He glanced at the top page of his print-out. He'd written a detailed introduction. Now, after three hours' sleep, it suddenly struck him as impenetrably complicated. He'd been satisfied with it in the early hours of the morning, when he was almost too exhausted to think, but now…
'That's what I expected. It's a typically human way of seeing things. If various offshoots of a genus die out, we tend to assume that the surviving offshoot is the central branch. Why? Well, because – for the moment, at any rate – it's still there. But what if it's just an unimportant side branch that's managed to survive a little longer than the rest? Humans are the only remaining bud on an evolutionary branch that once flourished. We're the leftovers from a biological development whose other offshoots withered and died, the last survivors of an experiment named Homo. Homo Australopithecus : extinct. Homo habilis : extinct. Homo sapiens neanderthalensis : extinct. Homo sapiens sapiens : still extant. We may have mastered the Earth for the moment, but evolutionary parvenus shouldn't confuse ascendancy with inherent superiority or long-term survival. We could disappear from this planet faster than we'd like to think.'
'Well, they can kiss my ass.' The operator tilted the telescope's mirror by another fraction of a degree. 'Don't you get it, Mike? It's going to take forever. This whole thing sucks. They always want everything yesterday, and this time they're going to have to wait. Thanks to that shitty little boat, we'll be searching the whole damn ocean.'
But what kind of disease would affect different species? The attacks had been carried out by humpbacks, orcas and grey whales. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that a grey had overturned his Zodiac.
'There'd be no means of ensuring which way up the camera would land. In any case, I'd like to see the whale. I want to be able to watch it, and that's only possible if the camera is further away and not mounted on top of it.'
Twenty minutes later he was steering through a group of tiny islands and out on to the silvery-black open sea. The waves rolled in sluggishly, separated by long intervals. He eased off the throttle, and as the coast disappeared, he gazed into the morning light, trying not to succumb to the pessimism that had lately become a habit. Whales had been sighted and not just residents: the humpbacks were migrants, on their way from California or Hawaii.
Oliviera looked at the others. 'So here's why we need to be afraid. The yrr use basic means to run a complex system of selection. If a yrr-amoeba is healthy and has a fully functioning pair of receptors, the pheromone triggers aggregation. But if that amoeba lacks a special receptor, the pheromone takes its deadly toll. The point is, a species that works like this has a very different perspective on death. Death in yrr society is vital. It would never occur to the yrr to spare a defective yrr-cell. To them it would seem absurd – stupid, even. It's imperative for them to destroy the threat to their own evolution. Whenever the collective is threatened, the yrr respond with the logic of death. It's no good pleading for mercy or expecting compassion. The logic of death doesn't make exceptions, and it's not about brutality. Such thoughts are alien to the yrr and, as such, they'll never understand why they should spare us – given that we're a concrete threat.'