“That’s…! Dimitri, I want to hang out with you. Like—can we hang out? I’ll buy you a beer. Or vodka. Or anything. I bet there’s an officers’ club on this boat, right?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“Glad you’re making friends,” said Stratt. “But you’ve got a lot of work to do before you start hitting the bars.”
“Me? What do I have to do?”
“You need to design and create an Astrophage-breeding facility.”
I blinked. Then I shot to my feet. “You’re going to make an Astrophage-powered ship!”
They all nodded.
“Holy cow! It’s the most efficient rocket fuel ever! How much would we need to—oh. Two million kilograms, right? That’s why you wanted to know how long it would take to make that much?”
“Yes,” said Xi. “For a one hundred thousand kilogram ship, we would need two million kilograms of Astrophage to get it to Tau Ceti. And, thanks to you, we now know how to activate the Astrophage and make it generate thrust at will.”
I sat back down, pulled out my phone, and launched the calculator app. “This would take, like…a lot of energy. Like, more energy than the world has. It would be around ten to the twenty-third Joules. The largest nuclear reactor on Earth makes about eight gigawatts. It would take that reactor two million years to create that much energy.”
“We have ideas for finding the energy,” said Stratt. “Your job is to make the breeder. Start small and get a prototype going.”
“Okay, sure,” I said. “But I didn’t exactly love the ‘militaries of the world’ grand tour on the way here. Can I take a passenger jet home? Coach is fine.”
“You are home,” said Stratt. “The flight hangar is empty. Just tell me what you need—including staff—and I’ll make it happen.”
I looked at the others in the conference room. Xi, Voigt, and Dimitri all nodded. Yes, this was real. No, Stratt wasn’t kidding.
“Why?!” I demanded. “Why the heck can’t you just be normal, Stratt?! If you want fast military transport, well, okay, but why not just work at an air base or something sane people would do?!”
“Because we’ll be experimenting with a bunch of Astrophage once we breed it up. And if we accidentally activate even a couple of kilograms of that stuff, the resulting explosion will be bigger than the largest nuclear bomb ever made.”
“Tsar Bomba,” said Dimitri. “Made by my country. Fifty megatons. Boom.”
Stratt continued. “So we’d rather be out in the middle of the ocean where we won’t eradicate any cities.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And as we get more and more Astrophage, we’ll go further and further out to sea. Anyway. Head down to the hangar deck. I have carpenters building accommodations and offices as we speak. Pick some you like and lay claim.”
“This is our life now,” said Dimitri. “Welcome.”
Okay, if I’m going to die, it’s going to have meaning. I’m going to figure out what can be done to stop Astrophage. And then I’ll send my answers off to Earth. And then…I’ll die. There are lots of avenues for painless suicide here—from overdosing on meds to reducing the oxygen until I fall asleep and die.
I eat a delicious tube of “Day 4—Meal 2.” I think it’s beef-flavored. The food is getting chunkier now. There are actually some solids in there. I think I’m chewing on a little cube of carrot. It’s nice to feel some texture in the food for a change.
“More water!” I say.
The NannyBot (as I’ve come to call it) quickly takes my plastic cup away and replaces it with a full one. It’s funny. Three days ago those ceiling-mounted arms were a mechanical monster that haunted me. Now they’re just…there. Part of life.
I’ve found the dormitory to be a good place for thinking. Now that the dead bodies are gone, anyway. The lab doesn’t have anywhere comfortable to relax. The control room has a nice chair, but it’s cramped and has blinking lights everywhere. But the dormitory has my nice, comfortable bed I can lie back on while I think about what to do next. Plus, the bedroom is where all the food comes from.
I remembered a lot over the past couple of days. Looks like Project Hail Mary was a success, because here I am, in another star system. Tau Ceti, I assume. It makes sense that I’d mistake it for the sun. Tau Ceti is very similar to the sun as stars go. Same spectral type, color, and so on.
And I know why I’m here! Not just in vague terms like “Oh hey, the world’s ending. Make that not happen.” But very specifically: Find out why Tau Ceti wasn’t affected by Astrophage.
Easy to say. Hard to do. Hopefully I remember more details later.
A million questions run through my mind. Some of the most important are:
How do I scour an entire solar system for information about Astrophage?
What am I supposed to do? Throw some of my Astrophage fuel at Tau Ceti to see what happens?
How do I steer this ship anyway?
If I do find useful information, how do I tell Earth about it? I think that’s what the beetles are for, but how do I upload data to them? How do I aim them? How do I launch them?
Why would I, of all people, be part of this mission? Yes, I worked out a bunch of stuff about Astrophage, but so what? I’m a lab coat, not an astronaut. It’s not like they sent Wernher von Braun into space. Surely there were more qualified people.
I decide to start small. First I have to work out what this ship can do and how to control it. They put the crew in comas. They must have known it might mess with our minds. There has to be an instruction manual somewhere.
“Flight manual,” I say out loud.
“Ship information can be found in the control room,” says the NannyBot.
“Ship information can be found in the control room.”
“No. Where in the control room can ship information be found?”
“Ship information can be found in the control room.”
“You kind of suck,” I say.
I make my way up to the control room and take a good long look at every screen. I spend an hour in there cataloging what each area seems to say, and make guesses as to what the functions are. What I’m really looking for is something like “Information” or “Here to save humanity? Press this button to learn more!”