She pursed her lips. After a moment, she said, “Yes.”
“And can you tell the goddamned corrupt government officials in North Africa to stay out of the way?”
“That part will be easy,” she said. “When this is all over, those governments will keep the blackpanels. They’ll be the industrial-energy powerhouse of the world.”
“See, there we go,” he said. “Save the world and permanently lift Africa out of poverty while we’re at it. Of course, this is all just a theory. I have to develop the blackpanel and make sure we can mass-produce it. I’d need to be in a lab instead of prison.”
Stratt mulled it over. Then she stood.
“Okay. You’re with us.”
He pumped his fist.
* * *
I wake up in my bed, which is mounted to the tunnel wall. That first night was a kludge with duct tape. Since then, I learned that epoxy glue works well on xenonite, so I was able to attach a couple of anchor points and mount the mattress properly.
I sleep in the tunnel every night now. Rocky insists. And, once every eighty-six hours or so, Rocky sleeps in the tunnel and wants me to watch. Well, he’s only slept three times so far, so my data on his waking period is a bit sparse. But he’s been kind of consistent on it.
I stretch out my arms and yawn.
“Good Morning,” Rocky says.
It’s pitch-dark. I turn on the lamp mounted next to the bed.
Rocky has an entire workshop set up on his side of the tunnel. He’s always making modifications or repairs to something or other. Seems like his ship is constantly in need of repair. Right this moment he holds an oblong metal device with two of his hands and uses another two to poke at the innards with needle-like tools. The remaining hand grasps a handle on the wall.
“Mornin’,” I say. “I’m going to eat. I’ll be back.”
Rocky waves absently. “Eat.”
I float down to the dormitory for my morning ritual. I eat a prepackaged breakfast (scrambled eggs with pork sausage) and a bag of hot coffee.
It’s been a few days since I last cleaned up, and I can smell my own body odor. Not a good sign. So I sponge off at the sponge-bath station and get a clean jumpsuit. All this technology and I haven’t seen any means of cleaning clothing. So I’ve taken to soaking it in water and putting it in the lab freezer for a while. Kills off all the germs, and those are what cause the smell. Fresh, not-clean clothes.
I pull the jumpsuit on. I’ve decided today is the day. After a week of honing our language skills, Rocky and I are ready to start having real conversations. I can even understand him without having to look at the translation about a third of the time now.
I float back to the tunnel, sipping the last of my coffee.
Okay. Finally I think we have the words needed for this discussion. Here goes.
I clear my throat. “Rocky. I am here because Astrophage makes Sol sick but doesn’t make Tau Ceti sick. Are you here for the same reason?”
Rocky puts the device and his tools on his bandoleer and climbs along the support rails to the divider. Good. He understands this is a serious conversation.
“Yes. No understand why Tau not sick but Eridani is sick. If Astrophage no leave Eridani, my people die.”
“Same!” I say. “Same same same! If Astrophage continues to infect Sol, all the humans will die.”
“Good. Same. You and me will save Eridani and Sol.”
“Yes yes yes!”
“Why did other humans on you ship die, question?” Rocky asks.
Oh. So we’re going to talk about that?
I rub the back of my head. “We, uh…we slept all the way here. Not a normal sleep. A special sleep. A dangerous sleep, but necessary. My crewmates died, but I didn’t. Random luck.”
“Bad,” he says.
“Bad. Why did the other Eridians die?”
“I not know. Everyone get sick. Then everyone die.” His voice quavers. “I not sick. I not know why.”
“Bad,” I say with a sigh. “What kind of sick?”
He thinks for a moment. “I need word. Small life. Single thing. Like Astrophage. Eridian body made of many many of these.”
“Cell,” I say. “My body is many many cells also.”
He says the Eridian word for “cell,” and I add the tones to my ever-growing dictionary.
“Cell,” he says. “My crew have problem with cells. Many many cells die. Not infection. Not injury. No reason. But not me. Never me. Why, question? I not know.”
Each individual cell in the affected Eridians died? That sounds horrible. It also sounds like radiation sickness. How am I going to describe that? I shouldn’t have to. If they’re a spacefaring people, they should already understand radiation. We don’t have a word for it between us yet, though. Let’s work on that.
“I need a word: fast-moving hydrogen atoms. Very very fast.”
“No. Faster than that. Very very very fast.”
He wiggles his carapace. He’s confused.
I try another approach. “Space has very very very fast hydrogen atoms. They move almost the speed of light. They were created by stars long long long ago.”
“No. No mass in space. Space is empty.”
Oh boy. “No, that’s wrong. There are hydrogen atoms in space. Very very fast hydrogen atoms.”
“You didn’t know that?”
I stare in shock.
How can a civilization develop space travel without ever discovering radiation?
* * *
“Dr. Grace,” she said.
“Dr. Lokken,” I said.
We sat across from each other at a small steel table. It was a tiny room, but spacious by aircraft-carrier standards. I didn’t quite understand its original purpose and its name was written in Chinese characters. But I think it was a place for the navigator to look at charts…?
“Thank you for making time to see me,” she said.
“Not a problem.”
As a rule, we tried to avoid each other. Our relationship had matured from “annoyed with each other” to “very annoyed with each other.” I was as much a part of the problem as she was. But we got off on the wrong foot all those months ago back in Geneva and never really improved.