She paused and spoke a little more softly. “I get it. You spent your whole life trying to prove that life doesn’t require water. Then, unbelievably, you get some actual extraterrestrial life and it turns out to need water. That’s rough. Shake it off and get back to your life. I’ve got it from here.”
“I’m still a microbiologist who spent his career working up theoretical models for alien life. I’m a useful resource with a skill set almost no one else has.”
“Dr. Grace, I don’t have the luxury of leaving samples here just to stroke your bruised ego.”
“Ego?! This isn’t about my ego! It’s about my children!”
“You don’t have children.”
“Yes, I do! Dozens of them. They come to my class every day. And they’re all going to end up in a Mad Max nightmare world if we don’t solve this problem. Yeah, I was wrong about the water. I don’t care about that. I care about those kids. So give me some gosh-darned Astrophage!”
She stepped back and pursed her lips. She looked to the side, thinking it over. Then she turned back to me. “Three. You can have three Astrophage.”
I unclenched my muscles. “Okay.” I breathed a little. I didn’t realize how tense I’d been. “Okay. Three. I can work with that.”
She typed on her tablet. “I’ll keep this lab open. It’s all yours. Come back in a few hours and my guys will be gone.”
I was already halfway into a containment suit. “I’m getting back to work now. Tell your guys to stay out of my way.”
She glared at me but didn’t say anything further.
* * *
I have to do this for my kids.
I mean…they’re not my kids. But they’re my kids.
I look at the screens arrayed before me. I need to think about this.
My memory is spotty. Seems reliable enough, but incomplete. Instead of waiting for an epiphany where I remember everything, what can I work out right now?
Earth is in trouble. The sun is infected with Astrophage. I’m in a spaceship in another solar system. This ship wasn’t easy to build and it had an international crew. We’re talking about an interstellar mission—something that should be impossible with our technology. Okay, so humanity put a lot of time and effort into this mission, and Astrophage was the missing link that enabled it.
There’s only one explanation: There’s a solution to the Astrophage problem here. Or a potential solution. Something promising enough to dedicate a huge amount of resources.
I scour the screens for more info. Mostly they seem to be the kinds of things you’d expect on a spaceship. Life support, navigation, that sort of thing. One screen is labeled “Beetles.” The next screen over says—
Okay, I don’t know if it has anything to do with anything, but I need to find out if there are a bunch of beetles on this ship. That’s the sort of thing a guy needs to know.
The screen is broken into four quadrants, each one showing nearly the same thing. A little schematic and a bunch of text information. The schematics each show a bulbous, oblong shape with a pointed head and a trapezoid on the back. If you tilt your head just right and squint, I suppose it kind of looks like a beetle. Each beetle also has a name up top: “John,” “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo.”
Yeah, I get it. I’m not laughing, but I get it.
I arbitrarily pick one beetle, John, and give it a good look.
John is no insect. I’m pretty sure he’s a spaceship. The trapezoid in the rear is labeled “Spin Drive,” and the entire bulbous part is labeled “Fuel.” The little head has a “Computer” label and a “Radio” label.
I look a little closer. The Fuel info box says ASTROPHAGE: 120KG—TEMP: 96.415°c. The Computer box says LAST MEMORY CHECK: 3 DAYS AGO. 5 TB FUNCTIONING CORRECTLY. And the Radio info just says STATUS: 100%.
It’s an unmanned probe. Something small, I guess. The entire mass of the fuel is just 120 kilograms. That’s not a lot. But a little Astrophage goes a long way. There aren’t any scientific instruments labeled. What’s the point of an unmanned ship with nothing on board?
Wait…what if the 5 terabytes of storage is the point of the ship?
A realization dawns on me.
“Oh. Shucks,” I say.
I’m out in space. I’m in another star system. I don’t know how much Astrophage it took to get here, but it was probably a lot. Sending a ship to another star probably took an absurd amount of fuel. Sending that ship to another star and bringing it back would take ten times as much fuel.
I check the Astrophage panel to refresh my memory.
REMAINING: 20,862 KG
CONSUMPTION RATE: 6.043 G/S
The consumption rate was 6.045 grams per second before. So it’s gone down a little bit. And the fuel amount went down too. Basically, as the fuel gets consumed, the total mass of the ship goes down, so it needs less fuel per second to maintain the constant acceleration. Okay, that all makes sense.
I have no idea what the Hail Mary’s mass is, but to be able to shove it along at 1.5 g’s of acceleration on a few grams of fuel per second…Astrophage is amazing stuff.
Anyway, I don’t know exactly how the consumption rate will change over time (I mean, I could work it out, but it’s complicated). So for now I’ll just approximate it to 6 grams per second. How long will that fuel last?
It’s nice to have a jumpsuit on. It’s got pockets for all sorts of knickknacks. I still haven’t found a calculator, so I do the math with a pen and paper. Grand total, I’ll run out of fuel in about forty days.
I don’t know what star that is, but it’s not the sun. And there’s just no way to get from any other star to Earth with just forty days of accelerating at 1.5 g’s. It probably took years to get here from Earth—which might be why I was in a coma. Interesting.
Anyway, all this can only mean one thing: The Hail Mary isn’t going home. This is a one-way ticket. And I’m pretty sure these beetles are how I’m supposed to send information back to Earth.
There’s no way I have a radio transmitter powerful enough to broadcast several light-years. I don’t know if that would even be possible to build. So instead, I have these little “beetle” ships with 5 terabytes of information each. They’ll fly back to Earth and broadcast their data. There’s four of them for redundancy. I’m probably supposed to put copies of my findings in each one and send them all home. If at least one survives the journey, Earth is saved.