webbing from a spinneret, and ran straight up along the path of the cryobot’s descent from beneath the first stage on the surface.

At Nedra’s command, the circular heating plate at the lower pole of the cryobot receded about a quarter-inch into the sphere, then slid away to expose an iris diaphragm.

‘Equalizing tube pressure,’ Nedra announced.

A series of pressure-relief valves slowly opened to allow a flow of water from the lake to gradually enter the cylindrical chamber behind the diaphragm. Once the air inside the chamber had been evacuated and the water pressure inside made equal with that of the surrounding lake, the valves closed.

‘The tube is flooded and equalized,’ Nedra noted.

Collins switched on the monitor in front of him and gripped the joystick controls. ‘Launch the fish.’

The rings of the iris diaphragm rotated to create an eight-inch aperture at the base of the cylindrical chamber. A blast of compressed air shot the two-foot-long, torpedo-shaped hydrobot through the slush into the dark water below.

Once the hydrobot was safely away, three telescoping masts extended out from the bottom of the cryobot. A pre-programmed series of transmissions verified that communications between Ice Pick’s second and third stage had been established.

‘Hydrobot is in the water,’ Nedra said. ‘She’s all yours.’

The graphical display of gauges and bar graphs on Collins’s monitor became colorfully active as the stream of real-time data began flowing in from the hydrobot.

‘All systems are up and running,’ Collins announced. ‘I’m switching on lights and camera and powering up the propulsion system.’

Halogen lights in the bow of the hydrobot illuminated the crystal-clear water as it slipped downward toward the distant lake bottom. The hydrobot’s descent slowed, then halted as the screw propeller in its tail dug into the frigid water, spinning in reverse to counteract gravity. A trio of maneuvering thrusters clustered around the hydrobot’s center of mass pivoted in response to Collins’s command and slowly rotated it like a baton.

‘Signal strength is good. The hydrobot’s responding to guidance commands,’ Collins said, the image on his screen spinning wildly.

‘Do you have to do that every time we launch?’ Nedra asked, clinching her eyes shut as she rubbed her temples. ‘You know it makes me dizzy.’

Collins brought the hydrobot to a level stop. ‘Plotting course to the next search area.’

The bow of the hydrobot dipped down and Collins piloted the submersible in a gentle sloping descent toward the bottom. Other than a few gently drifting particles, the water in the upper reaches of Lake Vostok was crystal clear – there was no wind, currents, or tide to stir things up. Through the first three hundred feet of its journey downward, the hydrobot recorded only minor temperature fluctuations in frigid water.

‘I think I see something,’ Collins announced as the hydrobot entered the search area. The clear water characteristic of the upper lake was giving way to a gray-black haze. ‘Visibility is dropping.’

Nedra looked over her husband’s shoulder. ‘Where’s the bottom?’

‘Fathometer reads about seventy-five feet of water beneath the fish. This is deeper than the surrounding area. May be a rift in the bottom. The haze looks a lot heavier than before. I think we found a smoker.’ Collins slowed the hydrobot’s descent as it reached the haze. ‘Temperature is rising, pushing into the fifties.’

‘Let’s hold here and take another water sample.’

A clear rigid pipette extended out from the bow of the hydrobot into the water, the submersible’s camera relaying the action to the station above. Inside the hydrobot, a pump drew some water into a sterile sample capsule. After the capsule was filled and sealed, the sampling system purged its lines and withdrew the pipette.

‘Damn, I wish we had that lab kit on board. It’d be nice to know if we found anything alive down there.’

‘You’ll just have to wait. We’ll know within a couple of weeks after we get home.’

When the sampling was complete, Collins resumed the descent. Sixteen feet down, the water in front of the camera cleared considerably. The hydrobot’s lights grazed the underside of the thick silty cloud suspended over the lake bottom. Particles glinted as they fell through the powerful beam of white light.

‘I’m going to maintain about thirty feet off the bottom while we take a look around,’ Collins said. ‘Water temp is now in the mid-seventies.’

‘It looks like we’re inside a snow globe.’

‘Only that’s volcanic ash, not white glitter.’

Collins moved the hydrobot forward slowly as they scanned the image of the silty bottom for any sign that life existed inside this remote, alien realm.

‘Water temp is moving up,’ Collins said. ‘There just has to be a vent close by.’

‘If you do find one, just make sure you don’t get too close or you’ll fry the electronics,’ Nedra cautioned.

‘I know what I’m doing,’ Collins snapped.

He brought the hydrobot to a stop and began turning it in a slow horizontal sweep to the right. Forty-three degrees right of his previous heading, he spotted a plume of particles billowing out of a lumpy black mass of rock that jutted up from the lake bottom like a broken fang. The ash gray landscape surrounding the smoker was mottled with patches of white.

‘Is that what I think it is?’ Nedra asked.

Collins swallowed hard, his throat suddenly feeling very tight and dry. He pushed the hydrobot forward, gliding cautiously toward the nearest field of iridescent white. As he closed the distance, details began to emerge from the indistinct mass – long, thin strands of filaments. Collins brought the hydrobot to a stop just a foot above the edge of the spaghetti-like mass. The gentle turning of the hydrobot’s maneuvering thrusters disturbed the water, rippling through the filaments like a breeze through a wheat field. Small, transparent creatures similar to jellyfish darted out of the hydrobot’s light.

‘I don’t think you need that lab kit now,’ Nedra said.

Collins’s eyes were transfixed on the digital image. ‘Send a message to the Jet Propulsion Lab: Lake Vostok is alive. ’

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