Project Hail Mary

Page 15

“Yeah,” I said. “This isn’t Vulcans dropping by to say hi. This is…space algae.”

“An invasive species. Like cane toads in Australia.”

“Good analogy.” I nodded. “And the population is growing. Fast. The more of them there are, the more solar energy gets consumed.”

She pinched her chin. “What would you call an organism that exists on a diet of stars?”

I struggled to remember my Greek and Latin root words. “I think you’d call it ‘Astrophage.’ ”

“Astrophage,” she said. She typed it into her tablet. “Okay. Get back to work. Find out how they breed.”


* * *



The word alone makes all my muscles clinch up. A chilling terror that hits like a lead weight.

That’s the name. The thing that threatens all life on Earth. Astrophage.

I glance at the monitor with my zoomed-in image of the sun. The sunspots have moved noticeably. Okay, it’s a real-time image. Good to know.

Waaaaait…I don’t think they’re moving at the right speed. I check the stopwatch. I was only daydreaming for ten minutes or so. The sunspots should have moved a fraction of a degree. But they’re halfway off the screen. Way more than they should have moved.

I pull the tape measure from my toga. I zoom out the image and actually measure the widths of the sun and sunspot cluster on the screen. No more rough estimates. I want real math here.

The solar disc is 27 centimeters on-screen and the sunspots are 3 millimeters. And they moved half their width (1.5 millimeters) in ten minutes. Actually, it was 517 seconds, according to my stopwatch. I scribble some math on my arm.

At this resolution, they’re moving 1 millimeter every 344.66 seconds. To cross the entire 27 centimeters it would take (scribble, scribble) just over 93,000 seconds. So it’ll take that long for the cluster to cross the near side of the sun. It’ll take twice that long to get all the way around. So 186,000 seconds. That’s a little over two days.

Over ten times faster than the rotation should be.

This star I’m looking at…it’s not the sun.

I’m in a different solar system.


I think it’s time I took a long gosh-darned look at these screens!

How am I in another solar system?! That doesn’t even make sense! What star is that, anyway?! Oh my God, I am so going to die!

I hyperventilate for a while.

I remember what I tell my students: If you’re upset, take a deep breath, let it out, and count to ten. It dramatically reduced the number of tantrums in my classroom.

I take a breath. “One…two…thr—this isn’t working! I’m going to die!”

I hold my head in my hands. “Oh God. Where the heck am I?”

I scour the monitors for anything I can make sense of. There’s no lack of information—there’s too much. Each screen has a handy label on the top. “Life Support,” “Airlock Status,” “Engines,” “Robotics,” “Astrophage,” “Generators,” “Centrifuge”—wait a minute. Astrophage?

I check the Astrophage panel closely.




Far more interesting than those numbers is the diagram below them. It shows what I assume is the Hail Mary. My first real overview of what this ship looks like.

The top of the ship is a cylinder with a nose cone at the front. That’s a rocket shape if ever I saw one. Judging by the tapered, conical walls of the control room, this must be the very front of the ship. Beneath me is the lab. On the diagram that room is labeled “Lab.” Below that is the room I woke up in.

The one with my dead friends.

I sniffle and wipe away a tear. No time for that right now. I put it out of my head and keep looking at the diagram. That room is named “Dormitory.” Okay, so this whole diagram lines up with my experiences. And it’s nice to know the official names of things. Underneath the dormitory is a much shorter room, maybe about 1 meter high, named “Storage.” Aha! There must be a panel in the floor that I missed. I make a mental note to check that out later.

But there’s more. A lot more. Under the storage area, there’s an area labeled “Cable Faring.” No idea what that is or why it exists. Beneath that, the ship fans out and there appear to be three cylinders the same width as my little area. They’re all side by side. My guess is they assembled this ship in space and the largest diameter they could launch was about 4 meters.

The trio of cylinders—I’d estimate they’re 75 percent of the total ship’s volume—are labeled “Fuel.”

The fuel area is broken up into nine subcylinders. I tap one of them out of curiosity, and it brings up a screen for that one fuel bay. It says ASTROPHAGE: 0.000 KG. It also has a button labeled “Jettison.”

Well, I’m not sure why I’m here or what these things are all about, but I definitely don’t want to hit any button labeled Jettison.

It’s probably not as dramatic as it seems. These are fuel tanks. If the fuel has been spent, the ship can ditch the tank to reduce its mass and make the remaining fuel last longer. It’s the same reason rockets lifting off from Earth have multiple stages.

Interesting that the ship didn’t automatically eject them as they became empty. I dismiss the window and return to the main ship map.

Under each of those large fuel zones is a trapezoidal area labeled “Spin Drive.” I’ve never heard that term before, but since it’s in the back of the ship and has the word “drive” in its name, I assume it’s the propulsion system.

Spin drive…spin drive…I close my eyes and try to think about it….


* * *


Nothing happens. I can’t call up memories at will. I’m not quite there yet.

I peer at the diagram more closely. Why is there 20,000 kilograms of Astrophage on this ship? I’ve got a strong suspicion. It’s the fuel.

And why not? Astrophage can propel itself with light and has absurd energy-storage capability. It’s had God-knows-how-many billion years of evolution to get good at it. Just like a horse is more energy efficient than a truck, Astrophage is more energy efficient than a spaceship.

Okay, that explains why there’s a buttload of Astrophage on the ship. It’s fuel. But why put a diagram of the ship on this screen? That’s like putting a blueprint of a car on its gas gauge.

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