A yellow line runs almost directly into the system from off-screen. It bends toward the star somewhere between the third and fourth planets and into a circle. There’s a yellow triangle on the line, way far away from the four planets. Pretty sure that’s me. And the yellow line is my course. Above the map is the text:
TIME TO ENGINE CUTOFF: 0005:20:39:06
The final digit decrements once per second. Okay, I learned a couple of things here. First off, I have about five days left (closer to six) before the engine cuts off. Second off, the readout has four digits for days. That means this journey took at least one thousand days. Over three years. Well, it takes light twelve years to make this trip, so it should take me a long time too.
Oh, right. Relativity.
I have no idea how much time it took. Or, rather, I have no idea how much time I experienced. When you get going near the speed of light, you experience time dilation. More time will have gone by on Earth than I have experienced since I left Earth.
Relativity is weird.
Time is of the essence here. And unfortunately, while I slept, Earth experienced at least thirteen years. And even if I find a solution to the Astrophage problem right now, it would take at least thirteen years for that information to get back to Earth. So that means there’ll be an absolute minimum of twenty-six years of Astrophage misery on Earth. I can only hope they are coming up with ways to deal with it. Or at least ameliorate the damage. I mean, they wouldn’t have sent the Hail Mary out at all if they didn’t think they could survive at least twenty-six years, right?
In any event, the trip took at least three years (from my point of view). Is that why we were put in comas? Was there a problem with us just being awake for the duration?
I only notice the tears when the first of them drops off my face. That decision to put us in comas killed two close friends of mine. They’re gone. I don’t remember a single moment with either of them, but the feeling of loss is overwhelming. I’ll be joining them soon. There’s no way home. I’ll die out here too. But unlike them, I’ll die alone.
I wipe my eyes and try to think of other things. My whole species is at stake here.
Judging by the path on the map, the ship will automatically put me in a stable orbit around Tau Ceti, between the third and fourth planets. If I had to guess, I would say that’s probably 1 AU. The distance that Earth is from the sun. A nice, safe distance from the star. A slow orbit that takes about a year to complete. Probably longer, because Tau Ceti is smaller than the sun, so it probably has less mass. Less mass means less gravity and a slower orbital period at a given distance.
Okay, I have five days to kill until engine cutoff. Rather than mess around with stuff, I’ll just wait it out. Once the engines are off, I’ll fire up the Petrovascope and see what’s out there. Until then, I’ll try to learn as much about the ship as I can.
I’ll do just about anything right now to keep from thinking about Yáo and Ilyukhina.
* * *
Technically the carrier was named the People’s Liberation Army Navy Gansu. Why their navy has “Army” in its name I’ll never know. Regardless, people stopped calling it that and started calling it Stratt’s Vat. Despite objections from the sailors aboard, the name stuck. We wandered around the South China Sea, never getting too close to land.
I’d spent a blissful week doing nothing but science.
No meetings. No distractions. Just experimentation and engineering. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to get immersed in a task.
My first breeder prototype had demonstrated another successful run. It wasn’t much to look at—mostly a 30-foot-long metal pipe with a bunch of ugly control equipment welded on here and there. But it did the trick. It could only generate a few micrograms of Astrophage per hour, but the concept was solid.
I had a staff of twelve people—engineers from all over the world. A couple of Mongolian brothers were my best engineers. When I got a call from Stratt to meet her in the conference room, I left them in charge.
I found her alone in the meeting room. The table was strewn with papers and charts, like always. Graphs and diagrams adorned all the walls—some new, some old.
Stratt sat at one end of the long table, with a bottle of Dutch gin and a lowball glass. I’d never seen her drink before.
“You wanted to see me?” I said.
She looked up. Her eyes had bags. She hadn’t slept. “Yeah. Have a seat.”
I sat in the chair next to her. “You look terrible. What’s going on?”
“I have to make a decision. And it’s not easy.”
“How can I help?”
She offered me the gin. I shook my head. She topped off her own glass. “The Hail Mary is going to have a very small crew compartment—about 125 cubic meters.”
I cocked my head. “That’s actually kind of big as spaceships go, right?”
She wiggled her hand back and forth. “Big for a capsule like Soyuz or Orion. But tiny for a space station. It’s about one-tenth as big as the International Space Station’s crew compartment.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem”—she picked up a manila folder and dropped it in front of me—“is that the crew will kill each other.”
“Huh?” I opened the folder. Inside were lots of typewritten pages. Actually, they were scans of typed pages. Some were in English, some in Russian. “What is all this?”
“During the Space Race, the Soviets briefly set their sights on Mars. They figured if they put people on Mars, the U.S. moon landing would be trivial in comparison.”
I closed the folder. The Cyrillic writing was nonsense to me. But my guess was Stratt could read it. She always seemed to know whatever language was being used.
She rested her chin on her hands. “Getting to Mars with 1970s technology would mean using a Hohmann transfer trajectory, which means the crew would have to spend just over eight months aboard a ship. So the Soviets tested out what happens when you put people together in a cramped, isolated environment for several months.”
“After seventy-one days, the men inside were getting in fistfights every day. They stopped the experiment on day ninety-four because one of the subjects tried to stab another one to death with broken glass.”
“How big will the crew be for the mission?”
“The current plan is three,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “So you’re worried what happens when we send three astronauts on a four-year trip in a 125-cubic-meter compartment?”