Research Center for Applied Nuclear Physics, Dubna, Russia

Khamid used the robotic hands to thread the snake-like camera into the tear in the cylinder’s skin. The illumination from the ring of light surrounding its miniature lens was nothing compared to the glowing object inside, which pulsed like a miniature heartbeat.

Perspiration gathered on his forehead, and he was conscious of Millinov breathing heavily beside him. He tried to ignore the other’s presence and concentrate on the strange small glowing thing instead.

He stared at the video screen; the cylinder itself was hidden behind many feet of lead shielding. They were taking no chances now. The effects of brief exposure to the contents of the device appeared to be negligible, perhaps even beneficial — it had seemed to act like some sort of energizer on the body. But after just a few minutes lesions crusted and dried, and spread quickly until every bit of moisture had been leeched from the body — not just from the cells of the flesh, but right down at the molecular level. They were, in effect, super freeze-dried.

Over twenty men and women, who had first been involved in opening the device, were now just bagged contents in a containment freezer awaiting transport to the abandoned Kyshtym mines. They, like the thousands of other radioactive, biological or chemical mistakes made over the decades by brilliant Soviet scientific and military minds, would be hidden below the surface in a labyrinth that rivaled a vast city, beneath miles of dark, cold stone.

Khamid paused over the pulsing, luminescent disk, noting that the silver dollar-sized object seemed to be floating inside the cylinder rather than wired or welded into place. He brought one of the robotic hands around and grasped it, tugging gently — nothing happened. Whatever held the thing in place was not going to give up its prize so easily. He needed to use the other hand. He angled the camera lens around before wedging it into position, ignoring the other contents or mechanisms within the cylinder — primarily several dozen globes, like silken softballs. He expected these would be analyzed at a later date.

Using both of the robotic hands, and a significant amount of pressure, he managed to free the small disk. He lifted it — it was light, and beautifully made. Khamid compressed his lips in concentration as he maneuvered the object out of the cylinder and into the isolation chamber’s stronger light.

He carefully drew the robotic arms back from the cylinder and into the work area in the front of the chamber — a long steel bench with cutting equipment, probes and a myriad of testing devices was awaiting their glowing subject. He set the object down and amplified the image. Under magnification, markings could be made out on its surface — writing perhaps, but none that he had ever encountered, or anyone else, he guessed.

He lifted one of his tools — a diamond drill — and tried to take a scraping. After several minutes, the only damage was to the drill tip — the disk remained unmarked. Whatever had made the symbols upon its surface must have been an extraordinary cutting tool, unlike anything known.

Millinov bumped Khamid’s shoulder as he crowded in even closer, causing him to jerk one of the robotic arms. Khamid closed his eyes and held his breath for a second. He exhaled slowly and then lifted his gaze from the disk to the larger casing. They now believed the refrigerator-sized primary device had been some sort of probe, perhaps knocked off course by a meteor or just fallen out of a prehistoric geosynchronous orbit. Amazingly, when it was found it had still been active… at least until he had decoupled the disk from its internal housing. As soon as Khamid lifted the disk free, the low hum emitted by the object stopped, and its extremely cold internal temperature began to rise.

The humming sound had been run through the Lomonosov’s exascale supercomputer, and the closest association it could make was with a drone of bees that had located a source of pollen. Whether or not the thing had still been sending signals could not yet be determined. If it was a probe, it was either lost or forgotten. But the power source contained in the disk was still fully functioning a thousand centuries later. If it could be understood and harnessed, its value was immeasurable.

Khamid maneuvered the robotic pincer-like fingers and turned the disk over. From beside him Millinov murmured, ‘Easy, easy, Dr. Khamid. This is the president’s most important and precious object — he called it his “glorious future”.’

Khamid winced at the man’s oniony breath and could almost hear his old heart beating excitedly in his chest. But his own hands were steady — a greater purpose had already unfolded in his mind.

‘What do you think it is?’ Millinov still spoke in hushed tones, as if in the presence of a holy relic.

Khamid laid it on the small pressure pad, and together they watched as the figures climbed at only a nano-scale. The thing had nearly no mass, but all the measuring devices — radiation, entropy, voltage — indicated power of massive proportion. Strangely, the thermometer’s reading was negligible, as was the electrolytic sensor’s — the matter, whatever it was, was cool, and extremely dry. The thing seemed to absorb both heat and moisture and store energy in an unknown form.

Khamid snorted softly. ‘What do I think it is? I think, for want of a better term, it’s a battery.’

‘A battery! You young scientists have no imagination — look at the power output, Denichen. A battery, perhaps. But what a battery! It is smaller than the most powerful enriched isotope, but with the energy of an entire reactor. This tiny thing could power a city.’

Khamid nodded and played along with the scientist’s enthusiasm. ‘Perhaps a hundred cities, and it’s already been burning for a thousand centuries. This energy device is from a technology far in advance of our own. Inform the president immediately — he’ll want to see this himself. Perhaps we can run a test for him.’

‘Yes, yes of course, a test. We can do that.’ Millinov, although the senior scientist, nodded vigorously, perhaps delighted at the opportunity to bring good news to his leader at last. He scurried from the room.

Khamid waited for him to go, and then used the pincers to grasp the object once more and place it in a purpose-built, squat, lead canister. The inch-thick casing was also molded into a thermal ceramic coat — it would be damned heavy, and lead didn’t fully attenuate all types of radiation, but it would hopefully provide him with enough shielding… and enough time. He looked over his shoulder.

‘Yes, run to your master, Dr. Millinov — and when you get back, I won’t be here. Explain that to your dear Little Wolf.’

He used the robotic claws to place the lid onto the plate-like canister, and then twist it into a locked position. He then passed the canister through a series of airlocks leading to the laboratory. He stuffed it into a backpack, grunting as he slung it over his shoulder. At the door he turned briefly; the containment room was in muted light, with most of the illumination coming from the myriad sensors and data displays. The only one that caught his eye was the thermal monitor of the cylinder — it had already climbed to room temperature.

Khamid turned back to the door and opened it a crack, checking the corridor. He only needed to dash a hundred paces to the service elevator that would take him down to the car park. He often went home for lunch, so passing through security at this time of day would not be unusual. He gambled on Millinov taking his time with Volkov, as usual, wanting to drag out his brilliant accomplishments for as long as he could. By the time the scientist returned, Khamid would be miles away. He adjusted the crushing weight on his back.

This is for my family, he thought as he darted from the door, running hunched over to the elevator.

In the few seconds after he was gone, the temperature went up another few degrees, and a bead of moisture appeared on one of the globes within the strange, coffin-like object.


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