A woman leaned forward on the table, her fingers steepled. “We might just have a chance.” She had an American accent.
“An outside chance,” said Voigt.
“There is hope,” said the Japanese translator—presumably speaking for Dr. Matsuka.
“We need to talk amongst ourselves,” said Stratt. “Go get some rest. The sailor outside will show you to a bunk.”
“But I want to know about Project Hail Mary!”
“Oh, you will. Believe me.”
* * *
I slept for fourteen hours.
Aircraft carriers are awesome in many ways, but they aren’t five-star hotels. The Chinese had given me a clean, comfy cot in an officer’s bunkroom. I had no complaints. I could have slept on the flight deck I was so tired.
I felt something weird on my forehead when I woke up. I reached up and it was a Post-it note. Someone put a Post-it on my head while I slept. I pulled it off and read it:
Clean clothes and toiletries in the duffel under your bunk. Show this note to any sailor when you’ve cleaned up: 请带我去甲板7的官员会议室
“She is such a pain in my butt…” I mumbled.
I stumbled out of my cot. A few officers gave me passing glances but otherwise ignored me. I found the duffel and, as promised, there were clothes and dental-hygiene stuff and soap. I glanced around the bunkroom and saw through a doorway into a locker room.
I used the bathroom (or “head” I guess, because I was on a ship). Then I took a shower with three other guys. I dried off and put on the jumpsuit onesie Stratt had left me. It was bright yellow, had Chinese writing along the back, and a big red stripe down the left leg of the pants. My guess was to make sure everyone knew I was a foreign civilian and not allowed in certain places.
I flagged down a passing sailor and showed him the note. He nodded and gestured for me to follow. He led me through a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, until we arrived back at the room I’d been in the previous day.
I stepped in to see Stratt and some of her…teammates? A subset of the previous day’s gang. Just Minister Voigt, the Chinese scientist—I think her name was Xi—and a guy in a Russian military uniform. The Russian had been there the previous day but hadn’t said anything. They all looked deep in concentration and the table was littered with paper. They mumbled to one another here and there. I didn’t know the exact relationships going on, but Stratt was definitely at the head of the table.
She looked up as I entered.
“Ah. Dr. Grace. You look refreshed.” She gestured to her left. “There’s food on the credenza.”
And there was! Rice, steamed buns, deep-fried dough sticks, and an urn of coffee. I rushed over and helped myself. I was hungry as heck.
I sat at the conference table with a full plate and cup of coffee.
“So,” I said with a mouth full of rice. “You gonna tell me why we’re on a Chinese aircraft carrier?”
“I needed an aircraft carrier. The Chinese gave me one. Well, they lent it to me.”
I slurped my coffee. “There was a time when something like that would surprise me. But…you know…not anymore.”
“Commercial air travel takes too long and is prone to delays,” she said. “Military aircraft work on whatever schedule they want and travel supersonically. I need to be able to get experts from anywhere on Earth in the same room with no delays.”
“Ms. Stratt can be extremely persuasive,” said Minister Voigt.
I shoveled more food into my mouth. “Blame whoever gave her all that authority,” I said.
Voigt chuckled. “I was part of that decision, actually. I am Germany’s minister of foreign affairs. The equivalent of your country’s secretary of state.”
I paused my chewing. “Wow,” I managed to say. I gulped down the mouthful. “You’re the most high-ranking person I’ve ever met.”
“No, I’m not.” He pointed to Stratt.
She put a piece of paper in front of me. “This is what led to the Hail Mary Project.”
“You’re showing him?” Voigt said. “Now? Without getting him a clearance—”
Stratt put her hand on my shoulder. “Dr. Ryland Grace, I hereby grant you top-secret clearance to all information pertaining to Project Hail Mary.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Voigt said. “There are processes and background checks to—”
“No time,” Stratt said. “No time for any of that stuff. That’s why you put me in charge. Speed.”
She turned toward me and tapped the paper: “These are readings from amateur astronomers all over the world. They show something very important.”
The page had columns of numbers. I noticed the column titles: “Alpha Centauri,” “Sirius,” “Luyten 726-8,” and so on.
“Stars?” I said. “These are all stars in our local cluster. And wait—did you say amateur astronomers? If you can tell the German minister of foreign affairs what to do, why don’t you have professional astronomers working for you?”
“I do,” Stratt said. “But this is historical data collected over the past several years. Professional astronomers don’t study local stars. They look at faraway things. It’s the amateurs who log data on local stuff. Like train spotters. Hobbyists in their backyards. Some of them with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.”
I picked up the paper. “Okay, so what am I looking at?”
“Luminosity readings. Normalized across thousands of amateur-generated data sets and corrected for known weather and visibility conditions. Supercomputers were involved. The point is this: Our sun is not the only star that’s getting dimmer.”
“Really?” I said. “Ohhh! That makes perfect sense! Astrophage can travel at 0.92 times the speed of light. If it can go dormant and stay alive long enough, it could infect nearby stars. It spores! Just like mold! It spreads from star to star.”
“That’s our theory, yes,” said Stratt. “This data goes back decades. It’s not deeply reliable but the trends are there. The NSA back-calculated that—”
“Wait. NSA? The U.S. National Security Agency?”
“They have some of the best supercomputers in the world. I needed their supercomputers and engineers to try all kinds of scenarios and propagation models for how Astrophage could get around in the galaxy. Back to the point: These local stars have been dimming for decades. And the rate of dimming increases exponentially—just like we’re seeing with the sun.”