Project Hail Mary

Page 12

A small click from the hatch is the only response I get. After all the meditation and introspection I did to find out my own name, I wish there’d been something more exciting. Confetti, maybe.

I grab the handle and twist. It turns. My domain is about to grow by at least one new room. I push the hatch upward. Unlike the connector between the bedroom and the lab, this hatch slides to the side. This next room is pretty small, so I guess there wasn’t room for the hatch to swing in. And that next room is…um…?

LED lights flick on. The room is round, like the other two, but it’s not a cylinder. The walls taper inward toward the ceiling. It’s a truncated cone.

I’ve spent the last few days without much information to go on. Now information assaults me from every direction. Every surface is covered with computer monitors and touchscreens. The sheer number of blinking lights and colors is staggering. Some screens have rows of numbers, others have diagrams, and others just look black.

On the edge of the conical walls is another hatch. This one is less mysterious, though. It has the word AIRLOCK stenciled across the top, and the hatch itself has a round window in it. Through the window I can see a tiny chamber—just big enough for one person—with a spacesuit inside. The far wall has another hatch. Yup. That’s an airlock.

And in the center of everything is a chair. It’s perfectly positioned to be able to reach all screens and touch panels easily.

I climb the rest of the way into the room and settle into the chair. It’s comfortable, kind of a bucket seat.

“Pilot detected,” the computer says. “Angular anomaly.”

Pilot. Okay.

“Where is the anomaly?” I ask.

“Angular anomaly.”

HAL 9000 this computer is not. I look around at the many screens for a clue. The chair swivels easily, which is nice in this 360-degree computer pit. I spot one screen with a blinking red border. I lean in to get a better look.






Well. That means nothing to me. Except “kps.” That might mean “kilometers per second.”

Above the text is a picture of the sun. It’s jiggling around slightly. Maybe it’s a video? Like a live feed? Or is that just my imagination? On a hunch, I touch the screen with two fingers and drag them apart.

Sure enough, the image zooms in. Just like using a smartphone. There are a couple of sunspots on the left side of the image. I zoom in on those until they fill the screen. The image remains amazingly clear. It’s either an extremely high-resolution photo or an extremely high-resolution solar telescope.

I estimate the cluster of sunspots is about 1 percent the width of the disc. Pretty normal for sunspots. That means I’m now looking at half a degree of the sun’s circumference (very rough math here). The sun rotates about once per twenty-five days (science teachers know this sort of thing). So it should take an hour for the spots to move off the screen. I’ll check back later and see if they have. If so, it’s a live image. If not, it’s a picture.

Hmm…11,872 kilometers per second.

Velocity is relative. It doesn’t make any sense unless you are comparing two objects. A car on the freeway might be going 70 miles per hour compared to the ground, but compared to the car next to it, it’s moving almost 0. So what is that “measured velocity” measuring the velocity of? I think I know.

I’m in a spaceship, right? I have to be. So that value is probably my velocity. But compared to what? Judging by the big ol’ picture of the sun over the text, I’m guessing it’s the sun. So I’m going 11,872 kilometers per second with respect to the sun.

I catch a flicker from the text below. Did something change?






Those numbers are different! They both went down by one. Oh wow. Hang on. I pull the stopwatch from my toga (the best ancient Greek philosophers always carried stopwatches in their togas). Then I stare at the screen for what seems like an eternity. Just before I’m about to give up, the numbers both drop by one again. I start the timer.

This time, I’m ready for how long the wait will be. Again, it seems interminable, but I stand firm. Finally, the numbers both drop again and I stop the timer.

Sixty-six seconds.

“Measured velocity” is going down by one every sixty-six seconds. Some quick math tells me that’s an acceleration of…15 meters per second per second. That’s the same “gravity” acceleration I worked out earlier.

The force I’m feeling isn’t gravity. And it’s not a centrifuge. I’m in a spaceship that is constantly accelerating in a line. Well, actually it’s decelerating—the values are going down.

And that velocity…it’s a lot of velocity. Yes, it’s going down, but wow! To reach Earth orbit you only need to go 8 kps. I’m going over 11,000. That’s faster than anything in the solar system. Anything that fast will escape the sun’s gravity and go flying off into interstellar space.

The readout doesn’t have anything to indicate what direction I’m going. Just a relative velocity. So now my question is: Am I barreling toward the sun, or away from it?

It’s almost academic. I’m either on a collision course with the sun or on my way out to deep space with no hope of returning. Or, I might be headed in the sun’s general direction, but not on a collision course. If that’s the case, I’ll miss the sun…and then fly off into deep space with no hope of returning.

Well, if the image of the sun is real-time, then the sunspot will get larger or smaller on-screen as I travel. So I just have to wait until I know if it’s real-time. That’ll take about an hour. I start the stopwatch.

I acquaint myself with the million other screens in the little room. Most of them have something to say, but one of them just shows an image of a circular crest. I think it’s probably an idle screen or something. If I touch it, that computer will wake up. But that idle screen might be the most informative thing in here.

It’s a mission crest. I’ve seen enough NASA documentaries to know one when I see one. The circular crest has an outer ring of blue with white text. The text reads HAIL MARY across the top and EARTH across the bottom. The name and “port of call” for this vessel.

I didn’t think the ship came from somewhere other than Earth, but okay. Anyway, I guess I finally know the name of this ship I’m on.

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