“So what did he do?”
Lokken paused and her lip wobbled a bit. She steeled herself and pressed on. “He got a replica generator—one of the ones we use for ground testing. He modified the feed pump and IR lights to force that crazy edge case to happen. He wanted to activate an entire nanogram of Astrophage at once and see how it damaged the generator.”
“Wait,” I said. “One nanogram isn’t enough to blow up a building. At worst it could melt a little bit of metal.”
“Yeah,” said Lokken. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So you know how we store tiny quantities of Astrophage, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “In little plastic containers suspended in propylene glycol.”
She nodded. “When DuBois requisitioned one nanogram of Astrophage from the research center’s quartermaster, they gave him one milligram by mistake. And since the containers are the same and the quantities are so small, he and Shapiro had no way of knowing.”
“Oh God.” I rubbed my eyes. “That’s literally a million times the heat-energy release than they were expecting. It vaporized the building and everyone in it. God.”
Stratt shuffled her papers. “The simple truth is this: We just don’t have the procedures or experience to manage Astrophage safely. If you asked for a firecracker and someone gave you a truck full of plastic explosive, you’d know something was wrong. But the difference between a nanogram and a milligram? Humans just can’t tell.”
We were all silent for a moment. She was right. We’d been playing around with Hiroshima-bomb levels of energy like it was nothing. In any other scenario it would have been madness. But we didn’t have a choice.
“So are we going to delay the launch?” I asked.
“No, we’ve talked it over and we all agree: We can’t delay the Hail Mary’s departure. It’s assembled, tested, fueled, and ready to go.”
“It is the orbit,” Dimitri said. “It is in tight orbit at 51.6 degrees’ inclination so Cape Canaveral and Baikonur can get at it easy. But is also in shallow orbit which is decaying. If it does not set out within next three weeks, we have to send entire mission up just to re-boost it to higher orbit.”
“The Hail Mary will leave on schedule,” said Stratt. “Five days from now. The crew will have two days of preflight checks, so that means the Soyuz has to launch in three days.”
“Okay,” I said. “What about the science expert? I’m sure we have hundreds of volunteers all over the world. We can give the selectee a crash course in the science they’ll need to know—”
“The decision’s been made,” Stratt said. “Really, the decision made itself. There’s no time to train a specialist in everything they need to know. There’s just too much information and research to learn. Even the most brilliant scientists wouldn’t be able to glean all of it in just three days. And remember, only about one in seven thousand people have the gene combination to be coma-resistant.”
Right around then I got a sinking feeling. “I think I see where this is going.”
“As I’m sure you know by now, your tests came up positive. You are that one in seven thousand.”
“Welcome to crew!” Ilyukhina said.
“Wait, wait. No.” I shook my head. “This is insane. Sure, I’m up to speed on Astrophage, but I don’t know anything about being an astronaut.”
“We will train you as we go.” Yáo spoke quietly, but with confidence. “And we will do the hard tasks. You will be utilized only for science.”
“I just mean…come on! There has to be someone else!” I looked to Stratt. “What about Yáo’s backup? Or Ilyukhina’s?”
“They’re not biologists,” said Stratt. “They’re incredibly skilled people with a nose-to-tail expertise on the Hail Mary, its operations, and how to repair damage. But we can’t train someone in all the cellular biology they need to know in the time we have. It would be like asking the world’s best structural engineer to do brain surgery. It’s just not their field.”
“What about other candidates on the list? The ones that didn’t make the original cut?”
“There’s no one as qualified as you. Frankly, we’re lucky—lucky beyond our wildest dreams—that you happen to be coma-resistant. Do you think I kept you on the project for so long because I needed a junior high schoolteacher around?”
“Oh…” I said.
“You know how the ship works,” Stratt continued. “You know the science behind Astrophage. You know how to use an EVA suit and all the specialized gear. You’ve been present for every major scientific or strategic discussion we’ve had about the ship and its mission—I made sure of it. You have the genes we need, so I made damn sure you had the skills we need. God knows I didn’t want it to come to this, but here we are. You’ve been the tertiary science specialist all along.”
“N-No, that can’t be right,” I said. “There’s got to be other people. Much more talented scientists. And, you know, people who actually want to go. You must have made a list, right? Who’s the next candidate after me?”
Stratt picked up a piece of paper in front of her. “Andrea Cáceres, a distillery worker from Paraguay. She’s coma-resistant, and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in cellular biology. And she volunteered for the mission back during the first call for astronauts.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “Let’s give her a call.”
“But you’ve had years of direct training. You know the ship and the mission inside and out. And you’re a world-leading expert on Astrophage. We’d only have a few days to get Cáceres up to speed. You know how I operate, Dr. Grace. More than anyone else. I want to give Hail Mary every possible advantage. And right now, that’s you.”
I looked down at the table. “But I…I don’t want to die….”
“Nobody does,” said Stratt.
“It must be your decision,” said Yáo. “I will not have someone on my crew who is there against their will. You must come of your own volition. And if you refuse, we will bring in Ms. Cáceres and do our best to train her up. But I urge you to say yes. Billions of lives are on the line. Our lives matter little when compared against such tragedy.”
I put my head in my hands. The tears started to come. Why did this have to happen to me? “Can I think about it?”
“Yes,” Stratt said. “But not for very long. If you say no, we have to get Cáceres here in a hurry. I want your answer by five p.m. tonight.”