“Wait.” He holds up a claw. “How much Astrophage you ship need for return to Earth, question?”
“Uh…just over two million kilograms,” I say.
“I can give,” he says.
I sit up in my chair. “What?!”
“I can give. I have extra. Can give that much and still have plenty for my return to Erid. You can have.”
My heart skips a beat. “Seriously?! It’s a lot of fuel! Let me repeat it: two million kilograms. Two times ten to the sixth power!”
“Yes. I have much Astrophage. My ship was more efficient than planned on trip here. You can have two million kilograms.”
I fall back into my seat. I pant. I almost hyperventilate. My eyes well up. “Oh my God…”
I wipe away tears.
“You are okay, question?”
“Yes!” I sob. “Yes, I’m okay. Thank you! Thank you thank you!”
“I am happy. You no die. Let’s save planets!”
I break down, crying tears of joy. I’m going to live!
* * *
Half the Chinese crew stood on the flight deck. Some were actually doing their jobs, but most were there to catch a look at humanity’s saviors. The whole science team was there as well. The same set of usual suspects we had at our weekly status meetings. Stratt, me, Dimitri, Lokken, and our latest science addition, Dr. Lamai. Oh, and no science team would be complete without a gambling-addicted swindler, so Bob Redell was there too.
To be fair, Bob had done his job well. He had managed the Sahara Astrophage Farm magnificently. It’s rare to find a scientist who is also a good administrator. It was no easy task, but the farm was generating Astrophage at the levels he’d promised.
The helicopter came in low and slow, then landed perfectly on the helipad. A ground crew rushed up to secure it. The rotors remained spinning and the cargo door opened.
Three people walked out, each dressed in blue jumpsuits, each bearing their country’s flag on the shoulder. A Chinese man, a Russian woman, and an American man.
The ground crew ushered them to a safe distance, and the chopper took off again. Moments later, a second helicopter landed. Just like the first, this helicopter carried three astronauts. In this case, a Russian man, a Russian woman, and an American woman.
These six would be the prime and backup crews for the Hail Mary. Either of the helicopters could easily have carried all six astronauts, but Stratt had a very strict rule: Under no circumstances could any crewmember and their backup share a plane, helicopter, or car. Each position was specialized and would require years of specific training. We wouldn’t want one car crash to ruin humanity’s chances of survival.
The candidate pool wasn’t deep. There just weren’t many coma-resistant people out there who had “the right stuff” and were willing to go on a suicide mission.
Still, even with the reduced pool, the winnowing and selection process had been long, brutal, and filled with endless politicking by every government involved. Stratt stayed firm and insisted on only the best candidates, but some concessions had to be made.
“Women,” I said.
“Yes,” Stratt grumbled.
“Despite your guidelines.”
“No, it isn’t.” She frowned. “I got overruled by the Americans and Russians on it.”
I folded my arms. “I never would have thought a woman would be so sexist against women.”
“It’s not sexism. It’s realism.” She righted a strand of hair that had blown into her face. “My guidelines were that all candidates must be heterosexual men.”
“Why not all heterosexual women?”
“The vast majority of scientists and trained astronaut candidates are men. It’s the world we live in. Don’t like it? Encourage your female students to get into STEM. I’m not here to enact social equality. I’m here to do whatever’s necessary to save humanity.”
“Still seems sexist.”
“Call it what you like. There’s no room on this mission for sexual tension. What happens if there’s some kind of romantic entanglement? Or dispute? People kill for less.”
I looked across the deck to the candidates. Captain Yang welcomed them aboard. He took special interest in his countryman—the two were all smiles and handshakes.
“You didn’t want a Chinese guy either. You thought their space program was still too young. But I hear you picked him to be the prime crew commander.”
“He’s the most qualified. So he’s the commander.”
“Maybe the Russians and Americans over there are qualified too. Maybe the people literally saving the world will keep it professional. Maybe cutting off literally half of the talent pool because you’re afraid astronauts can’t keep it in their pants isn’t a good idea.”
“We’ll have to hope so. The Russian woman—Ilyukhina—is on the prime crew as well. She’s a materials expert and by far the best candidate for the task. The science expert is Martin DuBois—the American man. Two men and one woman. Recipe for disaster.”
I put my hand to my chest in mock surprise. “Goodness me! DuBois appears to be black! I’m surprised you allowed it! Aren’t you afraid he’ll ruin the mission with talk of rap music and basketball?”
“Oh, shut up,” she said.
We watched the astronauts get surrounded by deck crew. They were absolutely starstruck—especially with Yáo.
“DuBois has three doctorates—physics, chemistry, and biology.” Stratt pointed to the American woman. “Over there is Annie Shapiro. She invented a new kind of DNA splicing that’s now called the Shapiro method.”
“Seriously?” I said. “The Annie Shapiro? She invented three entire enzymes from scratch to splice DNA using—”
“Yes, yes. Very smart lady.”
“She did it for her PhD thesis. Her thesis. Do you know how many people are on track for a Nobel Prize from research they did in grad school? Not many, I can tell you that much. And she’s your second choice for the science expert?”
“She’s the most talented DNA splicing specialist alive. But DuBois has strength in a huge variety of fields, and that’s more important. We don’t know what they’re going to encounter out there. We need someone with a broad knowledge base.”