"So, what do you really think about this ... situation?" Jennifer Ribisi asked, after they both sat down at a table in a restaurant in downtown Silver Spring. She was in her mid-thirties, dressed in cream-colored business suits that showed off her well-toned body and olive skin.
"What do you mean?" Major Hansen raised his eyes from the menu with a noncommittal smile on his clean-shaven face. His back was perfectly straight.
"I saw the look on your face when the Colonel was giving his presentation," she shrugged. "You seemed to disagree with his assessment of the situation."
The major hesitated. "I flew there, once with the Australians and couple of times with our own pilots. I saw some interesting things. I have a gut feeling --- but it's only a feeling --- that they might be intelligent."
"Intelligent?! Like us?" Jennifer leaned inward and whispered breathlessly. It was a proper surprise. "My boss and a few other people in the office don't even buy the theory that the red jellyfish is extraterrestrial. They believe it's merely a previously unidentified species or some kind of a mutant."
"And you disagree with them?" The major asked.
"You can't argue with the biochemical analysis," she said. Her eyes fell admiringly on the major's salt-and-pepper hair in the fetching military cut. "Thanks to the samples you brought back." The bodies of the red jellyfish lacked the most basic building blocks of all living beings on earth --- amino acids, nucleic acids, or carbohydrates. Instead, they seemed to be build primarily on nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, with only a few carbon molecules thrown in the middle.
The major smiled modestly, "The samples were really collected by my unit."
"And you were just supervising," she teased.
The waiter came over and took the orders. Jennifer continued to sip her wine while stealing glances at the middle-aged marine. "Why do you think they are intelligent?" She asked.
"I don't know, just a feeling." He shrugged. "For example, how did they get here if they are extraterrestrial?"
"Most people I know believe it was a meteor."
"But we have no evidence whether it was a meteor or a space craft?"
That was true. Many meteors enter the atmosphere every day, most falling in the ocean, and a space craft could have easily slipped through undetected. NOAA consulted NASA on the record of recently fallen meteors, but the latter found nothing out of the ordinary in their scant data.
Their food arrived. Jennifer reached her fork over and picked up a piece of broccoli floret from the major's plate, and put it in her mouth. "Just curious," she winked at him, her face flushed a little with the wine. She chewed slowly, "Hmm, delicious."
The major promptly received the signal. His fingers brushed her other hand resting on the white table cloth.
After the dinner, they went to her apartment in the city and made love. He tried to maintain his cool, but Jennifer got the impression that he had not been with a woman for quite a while and was very grateful to her. This restraint touched her for some reason. She kissed him, sincerely, after they were done.
"There was something strange," the major's voice broke the darkness in the cramped bedroom. "A couple of the kids got sick after they came back with the samples."
"Oh? From what?" Jennifer stared at the ceiling, her head resting in the crook between his should and arm.
"Cholera," he said. "But there was no cholera outbreak whatsoever within a thousand miles of the base. In fact, I don't know if there has ever been a cholera outbreak in the past hundred years in the entire Australia."
"So what became of them?"
"Both were promptly hydrated and given antibiotics. They recovered soon enough, but it was a pretty big scare."
Both fell silent. After a while, Jennifer spoke up: "Are you sure it was cholera?"
"Yes, the doctor on the base was pretty sure it was typical cholera. It was not some alien disease." The major's tone suggested that the same thought had occurred to him. "Maybe we should have saved their stool samples and conducted DNA analysis on the bug."
"Is that why you think they are intelligent?" She asked.
"No, there was something else," said the major. "They moved. When our aircraft got closer, they swam away with astonishing speed and unity."
"Wouldn't fish do the same? Perhaps they saw the shadow cast by the aircraft or heard its noise."
"Maybe, but we sent a boat out there and they fled quickly as well. And then we sent a robot fish to follow them, but it stopped sending electronic signals as soon as it reached the jellyfish bloom. First we thought it malfunctioned and sent a couple more, but the same thing consistently happened. We never recovered any of them."
"Also, when I saw the swarm ... I don't know, but it left a deep impression on me," the major's voice took on a slightly strained tone. "I had never seen anything so large, swelling up and down with the wave, almost like a giant creature breathing and writhing. Yet it moved so fast, so swift, like lightening."
"Who would have thought a marine is so poetic," Jennifer said. She rolled out of the creaking bed, went to the kitchen, filled two glasses of water from the tap, and came back into the tiny bedroom. The light from the kitchen outlined her curvy nude body. The major sat up and touched her skin. "I should probably go back to the hotel," he said. "Gotta get the dirty shirts to the cleaner."
She chuckled. "God forbid you are seen in anything less than a spotless starched shirt." As he put clothes on his surprisingly youthful body, she looked up and asked, "Will I see you again?"
"I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon, back to Tasmania." He shrugged into his uniform. "If you stay on this project, I'll probably be back soon to give you a report about the whole ... situation."
Jennifer stayed on the project. In fact, half of the NOAA staff, along with a steady flow of people from NASA and other agencies continued to join the project to deal with the growing SITUATION.