PANDORA'S BOX (Con't)

Julia Robertson, the Chief of Exobiology watched her monitor closely. She was intently scrutinizing her sensor display of three of the Martian sample capsules returning aboard Pegasus. The capsules had shown minute fluctuations in internal temperature and traces of vibration. Nothing to be alarmed about, however she couldn't keep from wondering what new elements were in the rock samples Merv had gathered from the cave on Mars. Perhaps, she thought, it was just the moisture from the ice crystals in the Martian cave inside the capsules expanding and contracting, as they were subjected to the extremes of heat and cold, on the journey back. After all, the cargo hold was continuously rotated through solar light and darkness, still…

After reaching the docking port at the International Space Station, the crew spent several hours transferring the Martian samples, supplies and scientists to the shuttle Rendezvous, before boarding themselves.

Col Bradshaw brought Rendezvous to a perfect landing amid the applause, cheers and congratulations from the Mission Control staff. As the spacecraft slowed to a stop, Jim watched the approach of the usual emergency and support vehicles racing towards them. After a year in weightlessness, he felt strangely weak and it took quite an effort just to stand. After several attempts he managed, with Vladimir and Bill, to make his way to the hatch and get it opened. He knew they would feel weak on their return to gravity even though they had spent many hours each day doing aerobics and exercises to keep fit. As they stood supporting each other in the hatchway, smiling and waving, all he could think about was a hot shower, a hamburger and to sleep for 48 hours on a real pillow, in a real bed.

Chapter 3. Pandora's Box is Opened
Thursday, June 21, 2029
The world was still elated three days later with the success of the Mars mission when two separate articles appeared in the back pages of USA Today: San Francisco (AP)- Ames Research Center Vandalized Vandals broke into the Exobiology Laboratory of NASA's Ames Research Center overnight and damaged several pieces of equipment. Staff and police are attempting to determine if any items are missing. Paris (Reuters)- U.S. Transport Plane Crashes in France A U.S. Transport plane crashed today in a sparsely populated area of France enroute to Paris. There are no reports of survivors. The plane carried a crew of three.

Although these incidents seemed to have no bearing on each other, within days it would be discovered that there was one very important connection, Pandora's box. Julia arrived around 9:30 am at the lab in the Ames Research Center, where she worked as the Chief of Exobiology, to begin taking inventory of the damages and supervise the cleanup from the break-in the night before. It had been a hectic night after she received the call from security around one A.M. notifying her that there had been a break-in at her lab. She spent the next three hours with the police while they questioned her and the security staff as to what was in the lab and the value of the equipment damage for their report. There did not appear to be anything missing and since she didn't have any narcotics or money in the lab it appeared to be a case of vandalism. Several fingerprints were lifted from the door and a claw hammer found on the floor was taken away as evidence.

As Julia surveyed the damage, she suddenly remembered the Martian sample container that had been placed in the isolation chamber. The chamber glass had been smashed but with relief she saw the container was still there. 'How could I have overlooked this last night?' she thought to herself, 'of all the items in the lab, this was the most valuable and I didn't even think of it!' As she gingerly reached through the broken glass to retrieve the sample container she noticed something that brought her heart into her mouth. The security seal had been broken. What if the contents were missing or worse still, their integrity compromised? She hastily removed the container and took it to the one workbench that was relatively clean. She set the container on end and carefully unscrewed the cap. Setting the cap on the workbench she cautiously peered into the container. Julia gasped sharply and jumped back as if hit by a bullet. She stood there unmoving, wide eyed with shock, then quickly slammed the cap back on the container and screwed it down tightly. The cleanup would have to wait. This was far more important, she thought, as she ran to her desk, stumbling over broken glass and lab equipment.

Professor Mark Stapleton received Julia's call at 3:36 p.m., Washington time. He had just finished a meeting with the Chairman of Entomological Studies and Disease Control in Washington on the never ending problem of West Nile Virus, and was heading to thecafeteria for a quick coffee when his cell phone began vibrating in his vest. The call stopped him in his tracks.

"You found what?.. where?… Do they know who was responsible?… Get your security posted on the door right away… don't let the container out of your sight! I'll get the National Security Agency to send some agents from San Francisco over to see you right away… I want you and that container on the first military jet available to meet me here in Washington… Just sit tight, I'll make all the arrangements!" He quickly disconnected the call and punched in the number of the Director of the NSA. Spinning on his heel he began heading for the underground parking lot. Julia was nervously pacing back and forth with the container grasped tightly in her trembling arms when the first security guard arrived and took up post outside her lab door. He was big, broad shouldered and very muscular. Obviously a jock, she thought, …probably on steroids too! Her thoughts quickly changed to the matter at hand and began racing wildly. Was this …thing, alive? Was it dangerous? What is it? Then it hit her…this was the sample from the Martian cave and there were two more containers somewhere! Julia was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn't see the shadowy blur until it was too late. With a sound like the beating of a dozen hummingbirds wings the blur emerged from the corner of the room and darted directly to the side of the guard's neck. He let out a high piercing shriek, and before he could grasp his neck, had dropped to the floor convulsing wildly. The blur darted quickly away from the guard's neck and disappeared down the hallway. The last thing Julia saw was a tiny stream of blood spurting from the guards' jugular, and then she crumpled like a rag doll to the ground, still tightly clutching the container. Her last thought before the darkness swept in over her eyes was, "Oh My God! …There are two!"