Project Hail Mary

Page 61

He sighed. “Seven people. All dead in an instant. At least they didn’t suffer. Much. Someone had to pay. The victims were all New Zealanders, and so am I. So the government came after me. It was a farce of a trial.”

“And the embezzlement?” I said.

He nodded. “Yeah, that came up in the trial too. But I would have gotten away with it if the project had been successful. I’m not to blame here. I mean, yeah, stealing money, okay, I’m guilty of that. But I didn’t kill those people. Not through negligence or any other means.”

“Where were you when the accident happened?” Stratt said.

He paused.

“Where were you?” she repeated.

“I was in Monaco. On a vacation.”

“You’d been there for three months on that vacation. Gambling away your embezzled money.”

“I…have a gambling problem,” he said. “I admit that. I mean, it was gambling debt that made me embezzle in the first place. It’s a sickness.”

“And what if you had been doing your job instead of going on a bender for three months? What if you’d been there the day the accident happened? Would the accident still have happened?”

His expression was answer enough.

“Okay,” Stratt said. “Now we’re past the excuses and bullshit. You’re not going to convince me you’re an innocent scapegoat. And now you know that. So let’s move on: Tell me about blackpanels.”

“Yeah, okay.” He composed himself. “I’ve spent my whole life in the energy sector, so obviously Astrophage is really interesting to me. A storage medium like that—man, if it weren’t for what it’s doing to the sun, it would be the greatest stroke of luck for humanity in history.”

He shifted in his seat. “Nuclear reactors, coal plants, solar thermal plants…in the end they all do the same thing: Use heat to boil water, use the steam to drive a turbine. But with Astrophage, we don’t need any of that crap. It turns heat directly into stored energy. And it doesn’t even need a big heat differential. Just anything above 96.415 degrees.”

“We know that,” I said. “I’ve been using a nuclear reactor’s heat to breed up Astrophage for the last several months.”

“What’d you get? Maybe a few grams? My idea can get you a thousand kilograms per day. In a few years you’ll have enough for the whole Hail Mary mission. It’ll take you longer than that to build the ship anyway.”

“All right, you have my attention,” I said. Of course, Stratt hadn’t told me anything about whatever “blackpanel” was.

“Get a square of metal foil. Pretty much any metal will do. Anodize it until it’s black. Don’t paint it—anodize it. Put clear glass over it and leave a one-centimeter gap between the glass and the foil. Seal the edges with brick, foam, or some other good insulator. Then set it out in the sun.”

“Okay, what good will that do?”

“The black foil will absorb sunlight and get hot. The glass will insulate it from outside air—any heat loss has to pass through the glass, and that’s slow. It’ll reach an equilibrium temperature well over one hundred degrees Celsius.”

I nod. “And at that temperature you can enrich Astrophage.”


“But it would be ridiculously slow,” I said. “If you had a one-square-meter box and ideal weather conditions…say, one thousand watts per square meter of solar energy…”

“It’s about half a microgram per day,” he said. “Give or take.”

“That’s a far cry from ‘a thousand kilograms’ per day.”

He smiled. “It’s just a matter of how many square meters you make of it.”

“You’d need two trillion square meters to get a thousand kilograms per day.”

“The Sahara Desert is nine trillion square meters.”

My jaw dropped open.

“That went by fast,” said Stratt. “Explain.”

“Well,” I said. “He wants to pave a chunk of the Sahara Desert with blackpanels. Like…a quarter of the entire Sahara Desert!”

“It’d be the biggest thing ever made by humanity,” he said. “It’d be starkly visible from space.”

I glared at him. “And it would destroy the ecology of Africa and probably Europe.”

“Not as much as the coming ice age will.”

Stratt held up her hand. “Dr. Grace. Would it work?”

I fidgeted. “Well, I mean…it’s a sound concept. But I don’t know if it’s even possible to implement. This isn’t like making a building or a road. We’re talking about literally trillions of these things.”

Redell leaned in. “That’s why I designed the blackpanels to be made entirely out of foil, glass, and ceramics. All materials we have plenty of here on Earth.”

“Wait,” I said. “How do the Astrophage breed in this scenario? Your blackpanels will enrich them, sure, and they’ll be breed-ready. But there are a bunch of steps they need to go through when they breed.”

“Oh, I know.” He smirked. “We’ll have a static magnet in there to give them a magnetic field to follow—they need that to kick off their migration response. Then we’ll have a small IR filter on one part of the glass. It’ll only let the CO2 IR spectral signature wavelengths through. The Astrophage will go there to breed. Then, after dividing, they’ll head toward the glass because that’s the direction of the sun. We’ll have a small pinhole somewhere in the side of the panel for air exchange with the outside. It’ll be slow enough that it doesn’t cool down the panel, but fast enough to replenish the CO2 used by Astrophage while breeding.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. He’d thought it all through.

“Well?” said Stratt.

“As a breeder system it’s horrible,” I said. “Way less efficient and far lower yield than my system on the carrier’s reactor. But he didn’t design it for efficiency. He designed it for scalability.”

“That’s right,” he said. He pointed to Stratt. “I hear you have godlike authority over pretty much the whole world right now.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” she said.

“Not much of one, though,” I said.

Redell continued. “Can you get China to orient their industrial base around making blackpanels? Not just them but pretty much every industrial nation on Earth? That’s what it would take.”

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