I hear Rocky’s carapace clunk to the ground in his bulb. A sign of deep depression.
We’re both quiet for a time; Rocky slumped in his bulb and me with my face buried in my hands.
Finally, I hear a scrape. It’s Rocky pulling his carapace off the floor. “We work more,” he says. “We no give up. We work hard. We are brave.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I’m not the right guy for this job. I’m a last-second replacement because the actually qualified people blew up. But I’m here. I may not have all the answers, but I’m here. I must have volunteered, believing at the time that it was a suicide mission. Doesn’t help Earth, but it’s something.
* * *
Stratt’s trailer was twice the size of mine. Privileges of rank, I suppose. Though to be fair, she needed the space. She sat at a large table covered in papers. I could see at least six different languages in four different alphabets on the paperwork before her, but she didn’t seem to have a problem with any of them.
A Russian soldier stood in one corner of the room. Not exactly at attention, but not relaxed either. There was a chair next to him, but he’d apparently elected to stand.
“Hello, Dr. Grace,” Stratt said without looking up. She pointed to the soldier. “That’s Private Meknikov. Even though we know the explosion was an accident, the Russians aren’t taking any chances.”
I looked to the soldier. “So he’s here to make sure imaginary terrorists don’t kill you?”
“Something like that.” She looked up. “So. It’s five o’clock. Have you made your decision? Are you going to be the Hail Mary’s science specialist?”
I sat opposite her. I couldn’t meet her gaze. “No.”
She scowled at me. “I see.”
“It’s…you know…the kids. I should stay here for the kids.” I squirmed in my seat. “Even if the Hail Mary finds the answer, we’re going to have almost thirty years of misery.”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“And, um, well, I’m a teacher. I should teach. We need to raise a strong, solid generation of survivors. Right now we’re soft. You, me, the whole Western world. We’re the result of growing up in unprecedented comfort and stability. It’s the kids of today that’ll have to make the world of tomorrow work. And they’re going to inherit a mess. I can really do a lot more by preparing kids for the world that’s to come. I should stay here on Earth where I’m needed.”
“On Earth,” she repeated. “Where you’re needed.”
“As opposed to on the Hail Mary, where you could be instrumental in solving the entire problem because you’re completely trained for the task.”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “I mean. It’s a little like that. But look, I’m no good on a crew. I’m not some intrepid explorer.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. She clenched her fist and looked to the side for a moment. Then back to me with a burning gaze I’d never seen before. “Dr. Grace. You’re a coward and you’re full of shit.”
“If you really cared so much about the children, you’d get on that ship without hesitation. You could save billions of them from the apocalypse instead of preparing hundreds of them for it.”
I shook my head. “It’s not about that—”
“Do you think I don’t know you, Dr. Grace?!” she yelled. “You’re a coward and you always have been. You abandoned a promising scientific career because people didn’t like a paper you wrote. You retreated to the safety of children who worship you for being the cool teacher. You don’t have a romantic partner in your life because that would mean you might suffer heartbreak. You avoid risk like the plague.”
I stood up. “Okay, it’s true! I’m afraid! I don’t want to die! I worked my ass off on this project and I deserve to live! I’m not going, and that’s final! Get the next person on the list—that Paraguayan chemist. She wants to go!”
She slammed her fist on the table. “I don’t care who wants to go. I care who’s most qualified! Dr. Grace, I’m sorry, but you are going on that mission. I know you’re afraid. I know you don’t want to die. But you’re going.”
“You’re out of your darn mind. I’m leaving now.” I turned to the door.
“Meknikov!” she shouted.
The soldier deftly stepped between me and the door.
I turned back to her. “You have got to be kidding.”
“It would have been easier if you’d just said yes.”
“What’s your plan?” I jerked a thumb at the soldier. “Hold me at gunpoint for four years during the trip?”
“You’ll be in a coma during the trip.”
I tried to dart past Meknikov, but he stopped me with arms of iron. He wasn’t rough about it. He was just monumentally stronger than I was. He held me by the shoulders and faced me toward Stratt.
“This is crazy!” I yelled. “Yáo will never go for this! He specifically said he doesn’t want anyone on his ship against their will!”
“Yeah, that was a curveball. He is annoyingly honorable,” Stratt said.
She picked up a checklist that she’d written in Dutch. “First, you’re to be held in a cell for the next few days until the launch. You’ll have no communication with anyone. Right before launch, you’ll be given a very strong sedative to knock you out and we’ll load you into the Soyuz.”
“Don’t you think Yáo will be a little suspicious about that?”
“I’ll explain to Commander Yáo and Specialist Ilyukhina that, due to limited astronaut training, you were worried that you’d panic during the launch so you elected to be unconscious for it. Once aboard the Hail Mary, Yáo and Ilyukhina will secure you into your medical bed and start your coma procedure. They’ll take care of all the pre-launch prep from there. You’ll wake up at Tau Ceti.”
The first seeds of panic started to grow. This lunacy might actually work. “No! You can’t do that! I won’t do it! This is insane!”
She rubbed her eyes. “Believe it or not, Dr. Grace, I kind of like you. I don’t respect you very much, but I do think you’re a fundamentally good man.”
“Easy for you to say when you’re not the one being murdered! You’re murdering me!” Tears rolled down my face. “I don’t want to die! Don’t send me off to die! Please!”