Project Hail Mary

Page 98

“Computer: coffee!”

After a minute, the arms hand me a cup of java.

“Hey,” I say, sipping my coffee. “How come you and I hear the same sounds?”

He keeps working on the armatures inside his device. “Useful trait. Both evolve. Not surprising.”

“Yeah, but why the same frequencies? Why don’t you hear much higher frequencies than I can? Or much lower?”

“I do hear much higher frequency and much lower frequency.”

Didn’t know that. But I should have figured that was the case. It’s an Eridian’s primary sensory input. Of course he’ll have a wider range than I do. That still leaves one unanswered question, though.

“Okay, but why is there overlap? Why don’t you and I hear completely different frequency ranges?”

He puts the tool in one of his hands down, which leaves two hands still plugging away on his device. With the newly free hand, he scrapes his workbench. “You hear this, question?”


“That is sound of predator approaching you. That is sound of prey running away. Sound of object touching object very important. Evolve to hear.”

“Ah! Yes.”

It’s obvious now that he points it out. Voices, instruments, birdcalls, whatever—they can all be wildly different sounds. But the sound of objects colliding isn’t going to have much variance from planet to planet. If I bang two rocks together on Earth, they’re going to make the same noise as if I bang them together on Erid. So we’re all selected-for by being able to hear it.

“Better question,” he says. “Why we think same speed, question?”

I shift over to lie on my side. “We don’t think at the same speed. You do math way faster than I can. And you can remember things perfectly. Humans can’t do that. Eridians are smarter.”

He grabs a new tool with his free hand and gets back to tinkering. “Math is not thinking. Math is procedure. Memory is not thinking. Memory is storage. Thinking is thinking. Problem, solution. You and me think same speed. Why, question?”


I ponder it for a while. It’s a really good question. How come Rocky isn’t a thousand times smarter than me? Or a thousand times dumber?

“Well…I have a theory for why we’re about the same intelligence. Maybe.”


“Intelligence evolves to gives us an advantage over the other animals on our planet. But evolution is lazy. Once a problem is solved, the trait stops evolving. So you and me, we’re both just intelligent enough to be smarter than our planet’s other animals.”

“We are much much smarter than animals.”

“We’re as smart as evolution made us. So we’re the minimum intelligence needed to ensure we can dominate our planets.”

He thinks it over. “I accept this. Still not explain why Earth intelligence evolve same level as Erid intelligence.”

“Our intelligence is based on the animals’ intelligences. So what is animal intelligence based on? How smart do animals have to be?”

“Smart enough to identify threat or prey in time to act.”

“Yes, exactly!” I say. “But how long is that time? How long does an animal have to react? How long will the threat or prey take to kill the animal or escape? I think it’s based on gravity.”

“Gravity, question?” He sets the device down entirely. I’ve got his undivided attention.

“Yeah! Think about it. Gravity is what determines how fast an animal can run. Higher gravity, more time spent in contact with the ground. Faster movement. I think animal intelligence, ultimately, has to be faster than gravity.”

“Interesting theory,” Rocky says. “But Erid have double Earth gravity. You and I same intelligence.”

I sit up on my bed. “I bet our gravities are so close to the same, astronomically, that the intelligence needed is almost the same. If we met a creature from a planet with one one-hundredth of Earth’s gravity, I bet it would seem pretty stupid to us.”

“Possible,” he says. He gets back to work on his gadget. “Another similarity: You and me both willing to die for our people. Why, question? Evolution hate death.”

“It’s good for the species,” I say. “A self-sacrifice instinct makes the species as a whole more likely to continue.”

“Not all Eridians willing to die for others.”

I chuckle. “Not all humans either.”

“You and me are good people,” Rocky says.

“Yeah.” I smile. “I suppose we are.”


* * *


Nine days until launch.

I paced around my room. It was pretty bare, but I didn’t mind. The portable unit was a small mobile home complete with a kitchenette. Better than most people got. The Russians had their hands full erecting dozens of temporary shelters a few miles from Baikonur Cosmodrome. But then, I guess we all had our hands full lately.

Anyway, I’d barely used my bed since we’d arrived. There just always seemed to be some new issue or problem. Nothing major. Just…issues.

The Hail Mary was complete. Over 2 million kilograms of spacecraft and fuel in a nice, stable orbit—four times the mass of the International Space Station, and put together in one-twentieth the time. The press used to keep track of the total cost, but around the $10 trillion mark, they gave up. It just didn’t matter. It wasn’t about efficient use of resources anymore. It was Earth versus Astrophage, and no price was too high.

ESA astronauts had been on the ship for the past few weeks, putting it through its paces. The test crew reported about five hundred problems that we’d been mopping up for the past few weeks. None of them were showstoppers.

This was happening. The Hail Mary was going to launch in nine days.

I sat at the table that served as my desk and shuffled through papers. I signed off on some and set others aside for Stratt to look at tomorrow. How did I end up an administrator? We all had to accept changes to our lives, I guess. If this was my part to play, then so be it.

I set the papers down and looked out the window. The Kazakhstani steppes were flat and featureless. People generally don’t build launch facilities next to anything important. For obvious reasons.

I missed my kids.

Dozens of them. Hundreds, really, over the course of a school year.

They didn’t swear at me or wake me up in the middle of the night. Their squabbles were usually resolved within a few minutes, either by a teacher-enforced handshake or detention. And, somewhat selfish, but here it is: They looked up to me. I missed being that respected.

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