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24

Michael Tolland felt himself beaming empathetically as Rachel Sexton gaped in silence at the fossilized meteorite in her hand. The refined beauty of the woman’s face now seemed to dissolve into the expression of innocent wonder‑a young girl who had just seen Santa Claus for the first time.

I know just how you feel, he thought.

Tolland had been struck the same way only forty‑eight hours ago. He too had been stunned into silence. Even now, the scientific and philosophical implications of the meteorite astounded him, forcing him to rethink everything he had ever believed about nature.

Tolland’s oceanographic discoveries included several previously unknown deepwater species, and yet this “space bug” was another level of breakthrough altogether. Despite Hollywood’s propensity for casting extraterrestrials as little green men, astrobiologists and science buffs all agreed that given the sheer numbers and adaptability of earth’s insects, extraterrestrial life would in all probability be buglike if it were ever discovered.

Insects were members of the phylum arthropoda‑creatures having hard outer skeletons and jointed legs. With over 1.25 million known species and an estimated five hundred thousand still to be classified, earth’s “bugs” outnumbered all of the other animals combined. They made up 95 percent of all the planet’s species and an astounding 40 percent of the planet’s biomass.

It was not so much the bugs’ abundance that impressed as it was their resilience. From the Antarctic ice beetle to Death Valley’s sun scorpion, bugs happily inhabited deadly ranges in temperature, dryness, and even pressure. They also had mastered exposure to the most deadly force known in the universe‑radiation. Following a nuclear test in 1945, air force officers had donned radiation suits and examined ground zero, only to discover cockroaches and ants happily carrying on as if nothing had happened. Astronomers realized that an arthropod’s protective exoskeleton made it a perfectly viable candidate to inhabit the countless radiation‑saturated planets where nothing else could live.

It appeared the astrobiologists had been right, Tolland thought. ET is a bug.

Rachel’s legs felt weak beneath her. “I can’t . . . believe it,” she said, turning the fossil in her hands. “I never thought . . .”

“Give it some time to sink in,” Tolland said, grinning. “Took me twenty‑four hours to get my feet back under me.”

“I see we have a newcomer,” said an uncharacteristically tall Asian man, walking over to join them.

Corky and Tolland seemed to deflate instantly with the man’s arrival. Apparently the moment of magic had been shattered.

“Dr. Wailee Ming,” the man said, introducing himself. “Chairman of paleontology at UCLA.”

The man carried himself with the pompous rigidity of renaissance aristocracy, continuously stroking the out‑of‑place bow tie that he wore beneath his knee‑length camel‑hair coat. Wailee Ming was apparently not one to let a remote setting come in the way of his prim appearance.

“I’m Rachel Sexton.” Her hand was still trembling as she shook Ming’s smooth palm. Ming was obviously another of the President’s civilian recruits.

“It would be my pleasure, Ms. Sexton,” the paleontologist said, “to tell you anything you want to know about these fossils.”

“And plenty you don’t want to know,” Corky grumbled.

Ming fingered his bow tie. “My paleontologic specialty is extinct Arthropoda and Mygalomorphae. Obviously the most impressive characteristic of this organism is‑”

“—is that it’s from another friggin’ planet!” Corky interjected.

Ming scowled and cleared his throat. “The most impressive characteristic of this organism is that it fits perfectly into our Darwinian system of terrestrial taxonomy and classification.”

Rachel glanced up. They can classify this thing? “You mean kingdom, phylum, species, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly,” Ming said. “This species, if found on earth, would be classified as the order Isopoda and would fall into a class with about two thousand species of lice.”

“Lice?” she said. “But it’s huge.”

“Taxonomy is not size specific. House cats and tigers are related. Classification is about physiology. This species is clearly a louse: It has a flattened body, seven pairs of legs, and a reproductive pouch identical in structure to wood lice, pill bugs, beach hoppers, sow bugs, and gribbles. The other fossils clearly reveal more specialized‑”

“Other fossils?”

Ming glanced at Corky and Tolland. “She doesn’t know?”

Tolland shook his head.

Ming’s face brightened instantly. “Ms. Sexton, you haven’t heard the good part yet.”

“There are more fossils,” Corky interjected, clearly trying to steal Ming’s thunder. “Lots more.” Corky scurried over to a large manila envelope and retrieved a folded sheet of oversized paper. He spread it out on the desk in front of Rachel. “After we drilled some cores, we dropped an x‑ray camera down. This is a graphic rendering of the cross section.”

Rachel looked at the x‑ray printout on the table, and immediately had to sit down. The three‑dimensional cross section of the meteorite was packed with dozens of these bugs.

“Paleolithic records,” Ming said, “are usually found in heavy concentrations. Often times, mud slides trap organisms en masse, covering nests or entire communities.”

Corky grinned. “We think the collection in the meteorite represents a nest.” He pointed to one of the bugs on the printout. “And there’s mommy.”

Rachel looked at the specimen in question, and her jaw dropped. The bug looked to be about two feet long.

“Big‑ass louse, eh?” Corky said.

Rachel nodded, dumbstruck, as she pictured lice the size of bread loaves wandering around on some distant planet.

“On earth,” Ming said, “our bugs stay relatively small because gravity keeps them in check. They can’t grow larger than their exoskeletons can support. However, on a planet with diminished gravity, insects could evolve to much greater dimensions.”

“Imagine swatting mosquitoes the size of condors,” Corky joked, taking the core sample from Rachel and slipping it into his pocket.

Ming scowled. “You had better not be stealing that!”

“Relax,” Corky said. “We’ve got eight tons more where this came from.”

Rachel’s analytical mind churned through the data before her. “But how can life from space be so similar to life on earth? I mean, you’re saying this bug fits in our Darwinian classification?”

“Perfectly,” Corky said. “And believe it or not, a lot of astronomers have predicted that extraterrestrial life would be very similar to life on earth.”

“But why?” she demanded. “This species came from an entirely different environment.”

“Panspermia.” Corky smiled broadly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Panspermia is the theory that life was seeded here from another planet.”

Rachel stood up. “You’re losing me.”

Corky turned to Tolland. “Mike, you’re the primordial seas guy.”

Tolland looked happy to take over. “Earth was once a lifeless planet, Rachel. Then suddenly, as if overnight, life exploded. Many biologists think the explosion of life was the magical result of an ideal mixture of elements in the primordial seas. But we’ve never been able to reproduce that in a lab, so religious scholars have seized that failure as proof of God, meaning life could not exist unless God touched the primordial seas and infused them with life.”

“But we astronomers,” Corky declared, “came up with another explanation for the overnight explosion of life on earth.”

“Panspermia,” Rachel said, now understanding what they were talking about. She had heard the panspermia theory before but didn’t know its name. “The theory that a meteorite splashed into the primordial soup, bringing the first seeds of microbial life to earth.”

“Bingo,” Corky said. “Where they percolated and sprang to life.”

“And if that’s true,” Rachel said, “then the underlying ancestry of earth’s life‑forms and extraterrestrial life‑forms would be identical.”

“Double bingo.”

Panspermia, Rachel thought, still barely able to grasp the implications. “So, not only does this fossil confirm that life exists elsewhere in the universe, but it practically proves panspermia . . . that life on earth was seeded from elsewhere in the universe.”

“Triple bingo.” Corky flashed her an enthusiastic nod. “Technically, we may all be extraterrestrials.” He put his fingers over his head like two antennas, crossed his eyes, and wagged his tongue like some kind of insect.

Tolland looked at Rachel with a pathetic grin. “And this guy’s the pinnacle of our evolution.”