Project Hail Mary

Page 25

A navy man came forward and gestured for me to follow him. I don’t think anyone spoke English, but I got the general idea. He led me to a door in the tower structure and we went inside. We wound through passageways, stairwells, and rooms I didn’t even understand the purpose of. All the while, Chinese sailors watched me with curiosity.

Finally, he stopped at a door with Chinese characters on it. He opened the door and pointed inside. I walked in and he slammed the door behind me. So much for my guide.

I think it was an officer’s conference room. At least, that was my assumption based on the big table with fifteen people sitting at it. They all turned their heads to look up at me. Some were white, some were black, some were Asian. Some wore lab coats. Others wore suits.

Stratt, of course, sat at the head of the table. “Dr. Grace. How was your trip?”

“How was my trip?” I said. “I got dragged across the gosh-darned world without any notice—”

She held up her hand. “It was just a pleasantry, Dr. Grace. I don’t actually care how your trip was.” She stood and addressed the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Dr. Ryland Grace from the United States. He figured out how to breed Astrophage.”

Gasps came from around the table. One man shot to his feet and spoke with a thick German accent. “Are you serious? Stratt, warum haben sie—?”

“Nur Englisch,” Stratt interrupted.

“Why are we only hearing of this now?” the German demanded.

“I wanted to confirm it first. While Dr. Grace was en route, I had technicians pack up his lab. They collected four live Astrophage from his lab. I only left him three.”

An elderly man in a lab coat spoke Japanese in a calm, soothing voice. Next to him, a younger Japanese man in a charcoal suit translated. “Dr. Matsuka would like to respectfully request a detailed description of the process.”

Stratt stepped aside and gestured to her chair. “Doctor, have a seat and lay it out for us.”

“Hold on,” I said. “Who are these people? Why am I on a Chinese aircraft carrier? And have you ever heard of Skype?!”

“This is an international body of high-level scientists and political operatives that I have assembled to spearhead Project Hail Mary.”

“What’s that?”

“That would take a while to explain. Everyone here is eager to hear about your Astrophage findings. Let’s start with that.”

I shuffled to the front of the room and sat awkwardly at the head of the table. All eyes turned to me.

So I told them. I told them all about the wooden closet experiments. I explained all my tests, what I did for each one, and how I did them. Then I explained my conclusions: I told them my hypothesis about the Astrophage life-cycle, how it works, and why. There were a few questions from the assembled scientists and politicos, but mostly they just listened and took notes. Several had translators whispering in their ear during the process.

“So…yeah,” I said. “That’s pretty much everything. I mean—it’s not rigorously tested yet but it seems pretty simple.”

German Guy raised his hand. “Would it be possible to breed Astrophage on a large scale?”

Everyone leaned forward a little. Apparently this was a pretty important question and it was on everyone’s mind. I was taken aback by the sudden intensity of the room.

Even Stratt seemed unusually interested. “Well?” she said. “Please answer Minister Voigt.”

“Sure,” I said. “I mean…why not?”

“How would you do it?” asked Stratt.

“I guess I’d make a big elbow-shaped ceramic pipe and fill it with carbon dioxide. Make one end of it as hot as you can get it and have a bright light there. Wrap a magnetic coil around it to simulate the magnetic field of the sun. Put an IR light emitter at the other end of the elbow and have it emit light at 4.26 and 18.31 microns. Make the inside of the pipe as black as you can. That should do it.”

“How does that ‘do it’?” she said.

I shrugged. “The Astrophage will gather energy at the ‘sun’ side and when they’re ready to breed, they’ll follow that magnetic field to the pipe’s elbow. They’ll see the IR light at the other end and head toward it. Seeing that light and being exposed to carbon dioxide makes them breed. Then the parent and daughter cells will go back to the sun side. Simple enough.”

A political-looking man raised his hand and spoke with some kind of African accent. “How much Astrophage could be made this way? How fast is the process?”

“It would have a doubling time,” I said. “Like algae or bacteria. I don’t know how long it is, but considering the sun is getting dim it must be pretty quick.”

A woman in a lab coat had been on her phone. She set it down, then spoke with a thick Chinese accent. “Our scientists have reproduced your results.”

Minister Voigt scowled at her. “How did you even know his process? He just told us!”

“Spies, presumably,” said Stratt.

The German huffed. “How dare you circumvent us with—”

“Shush,” said Stratt. “We’re past all that. Ms. Xi, do you have any additional information to share?”

“Yes,” she said. “We estimate the doubling time to be just over eight days, under optimal conditions.”

“What does that mean?” the African diplomat said. “How much can we make?”

“Well.” I launched my phone’s calculator app and tapped a few buttons. “If you started with the one hundred and fifty Astrophage we have, and bred them for a year, at the end of it you’d have…about 173,000 kilograms of Astrophage.”

“And would this Astrophage be at maximum energy density? Would it all be ready to reproduce?”

“So you want…I guess you’d call it ‘enriched’ Astrophage?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s a perfect word for it. We want Astrophage that is holding as much energy as it can.”

“Uh…I guess that could be arranged,” I said. “First, breed up the number of Astrophage you want, then expose them to lots of heat energy but don’t let them see any carbon dioxide spectral lines. They’ll collect energy and just sort of sit there waiting until they can see somewhere to get CO2.”

“What if we needed two million kilograms of enriched Astrophage?” said the diplomat.

“It’s doubling every eight days,” I said. “Two million kilos would be another four doublings or so. So, one month longer.”

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