Dozens of people crowded into the room and watched the TV feed on the wall-mounted monitor. By silent agreement, the crew got to sit on the couch. The crew got all possible perks and privileges. They were sacrificing their lives for humanity. The least we could do was give them the best seats.
“And we’re just minutes away from lift-off,” said the BBC reporter. We could have watched American news, Chinese news, Russian news, it would have all been the same. The long shot of Baikonur Cosmodrome interspersed with shots of the huge launch vehicle on the pad.
The reporter stood in the observation room overlooking Moscow’s Mission Control Center. “Today’s launch is the ninth in a total of sixteen total launches for Project Hail Mary, but it is arguably the most important one. This payload contains the cockpit, lab, and dormitory modules. Astronauts on ISS are ready to receive the modules and will spend the next two weeks positioning them on the Hail Mary’s frame, which was built over the last several expeditions…”
Ilyukhina raised her vodka. “Do not fuck up my house, Roscosmos bastards!”
“Aren’t they your friends?” I asked.
“They can be both!” She bellowed with laughter.
The countdown came on-screen. Less than a minute to go.
Yáo leaned forward and peered intently. It must have been hard—a military man of action forced to passively watch something so important play out.
DuBois saw Yáo’s expression. “I’m certain the launch will go well, Commander Yáo.”
“Mm,” said Yáo.
“Thirty seconds to launch,” said Ilyukhina. “I cannot wait that long.” She downed her vodka and immediately poured herself another glass.
The assembled scientists pressed forward a bit as the countdown continued. I found myself pinned against the back of the couch. But I was too focused on the screen to care.
DuBois craned his neck to look back at me. “Will Ms. Stratt not be joining us?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “She doesn’t care about fun stuff like launches. She’s probably going over spreadsheets in her office or something.”
He nodded. “Then it’s fortunate that we have you here. To represent her, in a way.”
“Me? Represent her? How did you get that idea?”
Ilyukhina spun her head to face me. “You are number two, no? You are first officer of Project Hail Mary?”
“What? No! I’m just one of the scientists. Like all these guys.” I gestured to the men and women behind me.
Ilyukhina and DuBois looked at each other and then back to me. “You honestly think this?” she said.
Bob Redell spoke up behind me. “You’re not like the rest of us, Grace.”
I shrugged at him. “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“The point is,” DuBois said, “you are, somehow, special to Ms. Stratt. I had assumed you two were engaged in sexual congress.”
My mouth fell agape. “Wha—what?! Are you out of your mind?! No! No way!”
“Huh,” said Ilyukhina. “Perhaps you should be? She is uptight. She could use good roll in hay.”
“Oh my God. Is that what people think?” I turned to face the scientists. Most of them averted their eyes. “Nothing like that is going on! And I’m not her number two! I’m just a scientist—drafted into this project like the rest of you!”
Yáo turned around and stared at me for a moment. The room fell silent. He didn’t speak much, so when he did, people paid attention.
“You are the number two,” he said. Then he turned back to the screen.
The BBC announcer counted the last few seconds along with the on-screen timer. “Three…two…one…and we have lift-off!”
Flames and smoke surrounded the rocket on-screen, and it rose skyward. Slow at first, then picking up more and more speed.
Ilyukhina held her glass up for a few seconds and finally burst into cheers. “Tower is clear! Launch is good!” She gulped her vodka.
“It’s only a hundred feet off the ground,” I said. “Maybe wait till it reaches orbit?”
DuBois sipped his wine. “Astronauts celebrate when the tower is clear.”
Without a word, Yáo took a sip of his beer.
* * *
“Why. Doesn’t. This. Work?!” I hit my forehead with both palms at each word.
I flop into the lab chair, deflated.
Rocky watches from his tunnel above. “No predator, question?”
“No predator.” I sigh.
The experiment is simple enough. It’s a glass bulb full of Adrian’s air. The air didn’t actually come from Adrian, but the proportions of gases are based on the spectrograph of its atmosphere. The pressure is very low—one-tenth atmosphere, like the upper atmosphere of Adrian must be.
Also inside the bulb is our collected Adrian life-forms and some fresh Astrophage. I hoped that providing a bunch of nice, juicy Astrophage would make the predator population spike and I could isolate it from the sample once it was the dominant cell type present.
“You are certain, question?”
I check my makeshift heat-energy indicator. It’s just a thermocouple with part of it sticking in ice water and part of it attached to the bulb. Heat energy is provided by Astrophage and consumed by the ice. The resulting temperature of the thermocouple tells me how much total heat energy the Astrophage is giving off. If the temperature goes down, it means the Astrophage population went down. But that’s not happening.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I say. “No change in Astrophage population.”
“Maybe temperature of bulb no good. Too hot. Adrian upper atmosphere is probably much colder than you room temperature.”
I shake my head. “Adrian air temperature shouldn’t matter. The predator has to be able to handle Astrophage temperature.”
“Ah. Yes. You are right.”
“Maybe the predator theory is wrong,” I say.
He clicks across the tunnel to the far side of the lab. He paces when he thinks. Interesting that humans and Eridians would both have that behavior. “Predators is only explanation. Maybe predators no live in Petrova line. Maybe predators live further down in atmosphere.”
I perk up. “Maybe.”
I look over to the lab monitor. I have it showing the external camera view of Adrian. Not for any scientific reason—just because it looks cool. Right this moment we’re about to cross the terminator into the day side of the planet. The light of orbital dawn glows along an arc.