Project Hail Mary

Page 38

I open and close my hands a few times. They don’t hurt anymore, but the memory of the pain lingers.

“Where’d the heat come from?” I mumbled.

The cylinder was out in space for a good forty minutes. Over that time it should have radiated heat via blackbody radiation. It should be cold, not hot. I’m about 1 AU from Tau Ceti, and Tau Ceti has half the luminosity of the sun. So I don’t think the Taulight could have heated the cylinder up much. Definitely not more than blackbody radiation would cool it down.

So either it has a heater inside or it was extremely hot when it started its trip. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. It’s not very heavy, so it’s probably thin. If there’s no internal heat source, it’ll cool off very fast in the air here.

The room still smells like ammonia. Yuck.

I float down to the lab. I don’t know where to begin. So many things I want to do. Maybe I should start by just identifying the material the cylinder is made of? Something harmless to the Blip-A’s crew might be incredibly toxic to me and neither of us would know it.

Maybe I should check for radiation.

I drift down to the lab table and put out a hand to steady myself. I’m getting better at the zero-g thing. I think I remember seeing an astronaut documentary saying some people handle it fine, while others really struggle. Looks like I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’m using “lucky” loosely here. I’m on a suicide mission. So…yeah.

The lab is a mystery. It has been for a while. It’s clearly set up with the idea that there’ll be gravity. It has tables, chairs, test-tube trays, et cetera. There’s none of the usual stuff you would expect to see in a weightless environment. No Velcro on the walls, no computer screens at all angles. No efficient use of space. Everything assumes there will be a “floor.”

The ship can accelerate just fine. For a good long time too. It had me at 1.5 g’s for probably a few years. But they can’t expect me to just leave the engines on and fly in circles to keep gravity in the lab, right?

I look around at each piece of lab equipment and try to relax my mind. There has to be a reason for this. And it’s in my memory somewhere. The trick is to think about what I want to know, but not stress about it too much. It’s like falling asleep. You can’t really do it if you concentrate on it too hard.

So many top-of-the-line pieces of equipment. I let my mind wander as I scan across them all….

By the time we reached Geneva, I’d completely lost track of what day it was.

The computer models for the Astrophage breeder weren’t lining up with the real-world performance. Though I had managed to breed up almost six grams of Astrophage so far. When all was said and done, the aircraft carrier’s reactor just couldn’t generate enough heat to speed up the reaction any further. Stratt kept vaguely saying they were going to provide a heat source capable of keeping up, but nothing had come of it yet.

I typed away on my computer even as the luxury private jet came to a halt at the gate. Stratt had to nudge me to make me stop working at all.

Three hours later, we waited in a conference room.

Always a conference room. My life was a collection of conference rooms these days. This one was nicer than most, at least. With fancy wood paneling and a stylish mahogany table. It was really something.

Stratt and I didn’t talk. I worked on heat-transfer-rate coefficients while she typed away on her laptop doing gosh-knows-what. We spent enough time together as it was.

Finally, a dour-looking woman entered the room and sat across from Stratt.

“Thank you for seeing me, Ms. Stratt,” she said with a Norwegian accent.

“No need to thank me, Dr. Lokken,” she said. “I’m here against my will.”

I looked up from my laptop. “You are? I thought you scheduled this.”

She didn’t take her eyes off the Norwegian. “I scheduled it because I had six different world leaders on the phone at the same time nagging me to do it. I finally relented.”

“And you are…?” Lokken asked me.

“Ryland Grace.”

She actually backed away. “The Ryland Grace? Author of ‘An Analysis of Water-Based Assumptions and Recalibration of Expectations for Evolutionary Models’?”

“Yeah, got a problem with that?” I said.

Stratt half smiled at me. “You’re famous.”

“Infamous,” said Lokken. “His childish paper was a slap in the face to the entire scientific community. This man works for you? Absurd. All his assumptions about alien life were proven wrong.”

I scowled. “Hey. My claim is life doesn’t need water to evolve. Just because we found some life that does use water, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

“Of course it does. Two life-forms independently evolved to require water—”

“Independently?!” I snorted. “Are you out of your mind? Do you honestly think something as complicated as mitochondria would evolve the same way twice? This is obviously a panspermia event.”

She waved off my statement as if it were an annoying insect. “Astrophage mitochondria is very different from Earth mitochondria. They clearly evolved separately.”

“They’re ninety-eight percent identical!”

“Ahem,” said Stratt. “I don’t really get what you’re fighting about, but can we—”

I pointed at Lokken. “This idiot thinks Astrophage evolved independently, but it’s obvious Astrophage and Earth life are related!”

“That’s fascinating, but—”

Lokken slapped the table. “How could a common ancestor have gotten across interstellar space?”

“The same way Astrophage does it!”

She leaned toward me. “Then why haven’t we seen interstellar life all along?”

I leaned toward her. “No idea. Maybe it was a fluke.”

“How do you explain the differences in mitochondria?”

“Four billion years of divergent evolution.”

“Stop,” Stratt said calmly. “I don’t know what this is…some sort of science-related pissing contest? That’s not what we’re here for. Dr. Grace, Dr. Lokken, please sit down.”

I plopped into my seat and folded my arms. Lokken sat as well.

Stratt fiddled with a pen. “Dr. Lokken, you’ve been hassling governments to hassle me. Over and over. Day in and day out. I know you want to be involved in Project Hail Mary, but I won’t make it a huge international mess. We don’t have time for the politicking and kingdom-building that always happens on big projects.”

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