35. Drug Sniffers

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Now that he was running the on-site chem-lab, it was time-wastingly inefficient for Johnny to make in-person visits to the Bridge. The lab was a designated biohazard zone, which meant that upon leaving he was required to remove his outer clothes and pass through a decontamination chamber, a process that would have to be repeated upon his return. Nevertheless, he persisted in coming by at least a couple times a day. Mason suspected this was less for practical reasons than just to feel part of the home team.

"There you are, Johnny," Major Zeus was on the Bridge when Johnny arrived. "Do you know a Scottie Ermacher? I have him on hold."

Johnny paused as if to scan an internal databank. "I never hear of that name before."

"He's from Axolotl, one of the labs we sent the original bio-samples to. He asked to speak with you personally. I'll put him up on the jumbo." Major Zeus aimed his phone at the arc of overhead monitors. Nothing happened. "Crap. How does this pairing thing work again?"

Mason went over and gave him a hand, swiping through settings until he found what he was looking for. "All set. Just press one of those numbers there to pick your screen." With great reluctance, he handed back the phone.

The face that appeared on-screen was freckled, red-headed and buzzing with nervous energy. Mid-twenties maybe? "Dr. Xu-Mein?" he said.

"This is me, here." Johnny raised his hand in a pointless gesture. The video was one-way only.

The man glanced around, finally fixed his gaze on a point in the middle distance. "I can't tell you how pleased I am to meet you," he gushed. "I'm Scottie Ermacher. I read your book on cosmic diaspora and it was a real turning point for me. I would like to say it launched my career, but I'm still working out that part. NASA and SpaceX aren't hiring geneticists yet, but I'm sure they'll need some when they eventually get to Mars and find indigenous bacteria clogging up their water purifiers."

"Maybe you get straight to the point of the subject," Johnny said, unusually curt. "We are in a big hurry now, hear you have important news for us."

"Yes, sorry. I get a bit carried away sometimes. Anyway, one of the other lab guys heard about this cyber-bug the Chinese were making a big fuss about and we were debating whether it could really be alive or not. And then I remembered we had this black-dot contract—that's what we call the restricted government ones—sitting in a folder. No one wanted to touch it. They were treating it like it was weaponized anthrax. So I put two and two together and realized maybe what we had here was a little bit of its soft tissue. Am I right?"

Johnny nodded, forgetting that Scottie couldn't see him.

"Dr. Xu-Mein, you there?" Scottie said.

"Yes, I hear you. Go on, tell more."

Scottie began to pick up steam. "So I looked over the results of the first run and saw that they were garbage. Naturally, the techs assumed the DNA was all fouled up, but I wondered if maybe the sequencers might not be the problem. They're like those drug sniffer dogs at airports. A canine's nose can distinguish millions of scents like what hand lotion you used or the cough drop in your pocket. But they've been trained to only bark when they sniff out certain drugs like heroin. Modern sequencers are a lot like that. They only register a few specific molecules out of the countless number that are possible. So if there was something unique about this thing's DNA, the software would just spit it out as invalid.

"We still had one of the first generation Baryon sequencers lying around, and I thought, 'No way it can't do this.' So I isolated a new batch of DNA and ran it through. I used a diagnostics function to send the raw data to a print file. It just looked like some crazy bar codes at first. I haven't looked at spectroscopic readouts since Chem 101, and I had to order some books to get the hang of it. I ran up a bit of a credit card bill to get them over-nighted to me, but what the heck, right? I figured this could be my telomere moment." What followed was a rather lengthy description of DNA molecular configurations that went way over Mason's head. "And it worked! I mapped out the spectroscopic signatures!" Scottie concluded.

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