James fiddled with the fingers of his hazmat suit, feeling the thick rubber standing between his flesh and the world outside. The suit was bright orange, the visor flat and emotionless. The clean room was brightly lit and draped in sheets of white plastic. Very bland, though he supposed aesthetics were not strictly the point.
Underneath the plastic was living sandstone, the bowels of Eridu's hill. The complex had been blasted out by robotic workers even before the first shuttles had landed. By the time anyone was around to stumble upon it, the subterranean chambers had been nicely hidden behind facade of storm shelters. Graceful.
A quite sonata played in the recessed of his mind, echoing in a haunting but pleasant fashion. It helped to soothe his frayed nerves.
James, like everyone else on this godforsaken rock, was not adjusting well to the heightened gravity or the unnatural day-night cycle. He was drowsy, tired, barely able to stand at all. He was in no shape to be doing work. But here he was.
The work, at least for today, would be simple. Just setting up the sample, making sure it was properly sealed in, and watching it. Tomorrow would be the first of the tests. James made the music louder.
A woman, dressed in a bright blue hazmat suit, appeared in his visor. Wordlessly, she motioned for him to get up and follow. She moved to the back of the room, where a large airlock stood imposingly, gleaming in the artificial light. The triangular standard of the Exonavis Corporation was printed in the center of the airlock, looking as menacing and cold as it possibly could. As if by command, it began to open, swinging inward and revealing nothing but shadow.
James followed the woman in as the lights came on, revealing a thick containment vessel in the center of the room. It was empty. Surrounding it was an army of monitors and probes. The vents of an emergency incineration mechanism pockmarked the walls and ceiling. All this sat behind a darkened pane of glass.
James shuffled over to a nearby monitor and entered a code into the keypad. The monitor flashed at him and began spewing data feeds. Air pressure, temperature, composition and a hundred other numbers began to pour out, all of them meaningless, at least for the time being. In the corner of the screen was a video feed, showing the inside of the containment vessel. It was empty.
The sample was carried in by a robot. The containment apparatus opened to accept it, swinging agape like a jaw. Once its job was done, the robot retreated back from where it came to be destroyed.
The sample was unassuming, just a tiny brown rock, its edges jagged from when it was first collected, so many years ago. A few black growths were scattered across the surface. They could have easily been mineral impurities, shadows, maybe just soot.
The woman spoke for the first time. "You ready to get this thing started?"
"No," he chuckled, "but I'm going to do it anyway."
The containment vessel sealed shut, then began welding the seams. It looked like an egg, James thought. Most likely to keep it from cracking if the roof collapsed.
"Has it ever struck you how over the top this all is?" said the woman. "I mean, there's so many safeguards you'd think this thing was the end of the world."
"I think that's precisely the point."
"How do you figure?"
"From what I've heard, what we have before us is the apocalypse in a jar."