“Amazing people,” I said. “Best of the best.”
“I’m glad you’re impressed. Because you’ll be training DuBois and Shapiro.”
“Me?” I asked. “I don’t know how to train astronauts!”
“NASA and Roscosmos will teach them the astronaut stuff,” she said. “You’re going to teach them science stuff.”
“Are you kidding? They’re way smarter than me. What would I teach them?”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Stratt. “You’re the world’s leading expert on Astrophage biology. You’re going to impart every single thing you know about it to both of them. Here comes the prime crew.”
Yáo, Ilyukhina, and DuBois walked over to Stratt.
Yáo bowed. He spoke with a very slight accent, but otherwise perfect English. “Ms. Stratt. It is an honor to finally meet you. Please accept my deepest gratitude for selecting me as the commander for this critical mission.”
“Nice to meet you too,” she said. “You were the most qualified. No thanks required.”
“Hello!” Ilyukhina lunged forward and hugged Stratt. “I’m here to die for Earth! Pretty awesome, yes?!”
I leaned to Dimitri. “Are all Russians crazy?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “It is the only way to be Russian and happy at the same time.”
DuBois shook Stratt’s hand and spoke so softly as to be almost inaudible. “Ms. Stratt. Thank you for this opportunity. I won’t let you down.”
I and the other science leads all shook hands with the three astronauts. It was a disorganized affair, more like a cocktail mixer than a formal meeting.
In the middle of it all, DuBois turned to me. “I believe you’re Ryland Grace?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s an honor to meet you. What you’re doing is just…I can’t even comprehend the sacrifice you’re making. Or should I not talk about it? I don’t know. Maybe we don’t talk about it?”
He smiled. “It’s on my mind quite often. We don’t have to avoid the subject. Besides, you and I are birds of a feather, it would seem.”
I shrugged. “I guess so. I mean, you’re way more advanced than I am, but I do love cellular biology.”
“Well, yes, that too,” he said. “But I was talking about coma resistance. I hear you have the coma-resistance markers, just like me and the rest of the crew.”
He raised his eyebrow. “They didn’t tell you?”
“No!” I shot a look over to Stratt. She was busy talking to Embezzler Bob and Commander Yáo. “First I’m hearing of it.”
“That’s odd,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t she tell me?”
“You’re asking the wrong person, Dr. Grace. But my guess is they only told Stratt and she only told people who needed to know.”
“It’s my DNA,” I grumbled. “Someone should have told me.”
DuBois deftly changed the subject. “In any event: I am looking forward to learning all about the Astrophage life-cycle. Dr. Shapiro—my counterpart on the backup crew—is also very excited. We shall be a classroom of two, I suppose. Do you have any experience teaching?”
“Actually, yes,” I said. “A lot.”
* * *
I’m all smiles. It’s been three days since I found out I won’t die and I’m still all smiles.
Well, actually, I could still easily die. The trip home is long and dangerous. Just because I survived my coma on the way here, that doesn’t mean I’ll survive it on the way home. Maybe I can stay awake and just eat the feeding-tube slurry when my normal food runs out? I can do four years all alone, right? We were in comas to keep from killing one another. But solitary confinement is a whole different set of psychological damage. I should read up on it.
But not now. Right now I have to save Earth. My own survival is a problem for later. But it’s a problem, not a hopeless guarantee of death.
The light on the Centrifuge screen blinks green.
“Gravity at full,” I say with a smile.
We were back in zero g for a short time, but now I have the centrifuge going again. I had to “spin down” because I needed to use the engines. We can’t have centrifugal gravity and propulsion at the same time. Just imagine firing up the spin drives while the ship is in two pieces connected by a hundred meters of cable. It’s not a pleasant thought.
During the decades (gasp!) that Rocky’s been here, he surveyed the system very well. He gave me all the information he’d accumulated. He cataloged six planets, noted their size, mass, positions, orbital characteristics, and general atmospheric makeup. He didn’t have to travel around to do it. He just did astronomical observations from the Blip-A. Turns out Eridians are as curious about things as humans are.
And it’s a good thing too. This isn’t Star Trek. I can’t just flip on a scanner and get all that information about a star system. It took Rocky months of observations to get things at this level of detail.
And more important, Rocky knows all about the local Petrova line. As expected, it goes to one specific planet—probably the one that has the most carbon dioxide. In this case, it’s the third planet from the star, “Tau Ceti e.” At least, that’s what Earth calls it.
So that’ll be our first stop.
Sure, we could fly the Hail Mary through any part of the Petrova line and get some Astrophage that way. But we’d only intersect the line for a few seconds. A solar system is not a static thing. We have to keep moving at least fast enough to maintain orbit around the star.
But Tau Ceti e is a nice, big planet in the widest part of the Petrova line. We can park the Hail Mary in orbit and be immersed in local Astrophage for half of every orbit. And we can stay there as long as we want, getting as much data as we need to about the Astrophage here and the dynamics of the Petrova line itself.
So we’re on our way to the mysterious planet.
I can’t just ask Mr. Sulu to plot a course. I spent two days doing math, checking my work, and rechecking my work before I figured out the exact angle and thrust to apply.
Sure, I have 20,000 kilograms of Astrophage left. And yes, that’s quite a lot of fuel considering I can get 1.5 g’s by spending 6 grams per second. And yes, Rocky’s ship apparently has scads of Astrophage (I still don’t understand how he has so much extra fuel). But I’m conserving fuel anyway.