Project Hail Mary

Page 31

“It’s not just about them getting along. Each crew member would spend the whole trip knowing that they’re going to die in a few years. And that the few rooms on that ship are the only world they will know for the rest of their short lives. The psychiatrists I’ve talked to say that crushing depression is likely. And suicide is a real risk.”

“Yeah, that is some rough psychology,” I said. “But what else can we do?”

She picked up a stapled sheaf of papers and slid it toward me. I picked it up and read the title: “A Study of Long-Term Primate and Human Coma Patients and Detrimental Aftereffects—Srisuk et al.”

“Okay. What am I looking at here?”

“That’s a study by a failed company in Thailand.” She swirled the gin in her glass. “Their idea was to put cancer patients into induced comas for their chemotherapy treatments. The patient gets the chemo, but doesn’t have to be awake to suffer through the process. Wake them up when the cancer goes into remission. Or when it’s no longer treatable and it’s time for hospice. Either way, they skip a lot of misery.”

“That…sounds like a great idea,” I said.

She nodded. “It would be, if it wasn’t so lethal. Turns out the human body just isn’t supposed to be in a coma for a long time. Chemo lasts months, and often needs additional rounds after that. They tried various means for medically induced comas on primates, and the primates either died during the coma or came out of it with mush for brains.”

“So why are we talking about it?”

“Because they did more studies—this time on historical human coma patient data. They looked at humans who had come through long comas relatively unscathed and tried to see what they had in common. They found it.”

Old Russian space-agency documents were a mystery to me, but scientific papers were my forte for a long time. I flipped through the paper and skimmed to the findings. “Gene markers?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “They found a collection of genes that give a human ‘coma resistance.’ That’s what they’re calling it. The sequences are in what scientists used to think was junk DNA. But apparently it’s something we evolved a long time ago for some unknown reason and still lurks in some people’s genetic code.”

“Are they sure these genes cause coma resistance?” I said. “They correlate, but do they cause it?”

“Yes, they’re sure. The genes are found in lower primates too. Whatever it is, it goes way back in the evolutionary tree. There’s speculation it might go all the way back to our aquatic ancestors that used to hibernate. In any event, they ran tests on primates with those genes and they survived long comas with no side effects. Every single one of them.”

“Okay. I see where you’re going with this.” I put the paper down. “Do DNA tests on all applicants, and use only the people who have those coma-resistance genes. During the trip, put the crew in comas. They don’t have to experience four years of getting on each other’s nerves or introspection about their deaths.”

She raised her glass to me. “It gets better. Having the crew in comas makes the food situation much easier. Powdered, nutritionally balanced slurry pumped right into their stomachs. No need for a thousand kilograms of diverse meals. Just powder and a self-contained water-recycling system.”

I smiled. “This seems like a dream come true. Like suspended animation in sci-fi novels. Why are you drinking and stressed-out?”

“There are a couple of catches,” she said. “First off, we’d have to develop a completely automated monitoring and action system to take care of the coma patients. If it broke down, everyone would die. There’s more to it than just monitoring vitals and pushing the right drugs through an IV. It would have to physically move and clean the patients, deal with bedsores, diagnose and treat secondary issues like inflammation and infection around the various IV and probe entry points. Stuff like that.”

“Okay, but that seems like something the global medical community could work out for us,” I said. “Use your Stratt magic to boss them around or something.”

She took another sip. “That’s not the main problem. The main problem is this: On average, only one in every seven thousand humans has that genetic sequence.”

I sat back in my chair. “Whoa.”

“Yeah. We wouldn’t be able to send the most qualified people. We’d be sending the seven-thousandth most qualified people.”

“Three-thousand-five-hundredth most qualified people on average,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Still,” I said. “One seven-thousandth of the world’s population is a million people. Think of it that way. You’d have a pool of one million people to look through for candidates. All you need are three.”

“Six,” she said. “We need a primary crew and a backup crew. Can’t have the mission fail because some guy gets hit by a car crossing the street the day before launch.”

“Okay, then six.”

“Yeah. Six people of astronaut caliber, who have the scientific skills necessary to work out what’s going on with Astrophage at Tau Ceti, and who are willing to go on a suicide mission.”

“Out of a population of a million,” I said. “A million.”

She fell silent and took another sip of gin.

I cleared my throat. “So you either take your chances with picking the best possible candidates and maybe they kill each other, or you take your chances on yet-to-be-developed medical technology to automatically care for a lower tier of talent.”

“More or less. Either way, it’s a terrible risk. It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

“Good thing you already made up your mind, then,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Sure,” I said. “You just wanted someone to tell you what you already know. If you leave the crew awake, there’s nothing you can do about the psychosis risk. But we’ve got years to perfect the automated-coma-bed technology.”

She scowled a bit but didn’t speak.

I softened my voice. “Besides. We’re already asking these people to die. We shouldn’t ask them to suffer emotional torment for four years too. Science and morality both give the same answer here, and you know it.”

She nodded, almost imperceptibly. Then, she downed the rest of her gin. “All right. You can go.” She slid her laptop over and began typing.

I left without another word. She had her stuff to deal with and I had mine.

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