Project Hail Mary

Page 33

I look around the control room and nothing seems right. Nothing changed, but now there’s no down. I still feel sick to my stomach. I grab my collar in case I need to puke again but it isn’t necessary. I hold it in.

The feeling of warm vomit squishing between my chest and jumpsuit is disgusting. I need to change.

I aim myself at the hatchway leading to the lab and kick off the bulkhead behind me. I float down and into the lab. The whole room is cluttered with random floating debris. I left things out on the table when I cataloged them. Now all that stuff is wandering around freely, wafted along by currents from the life-support air vents.

“Dummy,” I say to myself. I really should have seen that coming.

I continue onward to the bedroom. Not surprisingly, it’s also got junk floating everywhere. I opened most of the bins in the storage area to see what was inside. Now the bins and their contents drift to and fro.

“Clean me!” I say to the arms.

The arms don’t do anything.

I strip down and use the jumpsuit to wipe gross stuff from my body. I found the sponge-bath zone a few days ago—just a sink with sponges that comes out of the wall. No room for a shower, I guess. Anyway, I clean up with that stuff.

I’m not sure what to do with the gross, dirty stuff.

“Laundry?” I say.

The arms reach down and take the dirty jumpsuit from my hands. A panel in the ceiling opens and they put it in there somewhere. What happens when that fills up? No idea.

I find a replacement jumpsuit in the flotsam and put it on. Putting on clothes in zero g is interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s harder, but it’s different. I do manage to get the new jumpsuit on. It’s a little tight. I check the name patch. It says 姚. It’s one of Yáo’s jumpsuits. Well, it’s not too tight. And I don’t want to bounce around the bedroom all day looking for one of mine. I’ll organize it all later.

For now, I’m too excited to see what’s out there. I mean, come on! I’m the first human to explore another star system! And I’m here!

I launch off the floor toward the hatchway…and miss. I crash into the ceiling. At least I get my arms up in time to protect my face. I bounce off the ceiling and back to the floor.

“Ow,” I mumble. I try again, this time a little more slowly, and I’m successful. I coast up through the lab, and into the control room. Getting around sure is a lot easier when there’s no gravity. I still feel queasy but I have to admit: This is pretty fun.

I pull myself into the pilot’s chair and strap myself in to keep from floating away.

The Navigation screen reads PRIMARY TRANSIT COMPLETE. The Spin Drive screen says THRUST: 0. But most important, the Petrovascope screen says READY.

I rub my hands together, then reach for the screen. The interface is simple enough. The corner has an icon that is a toggle switch with two states: “Visible” and “Petrova.” It’s currently set to “Visible.” The rest of the screen shows a visible-light view from the ship. Seems like an ordinary camera. I poke at the screen and quickly realize I can pan, zoom in or out, rotate, and so on.

All I see is stars in the distance. I guess I should pan around until I find Tau Ceti. I swipe my finger left, left, left…just generally trying to see where the star is. I don’t have a frame of reference to work with. Every few left swipes I throw in a down swipe. Just to cover all angles over time. I do finally find Tau Ceti, but it doesn’t look like it should.

A few days ago, when I looked at it with the helioscope, it looked like any other star. But now it’s a solid black circle with a hazy ring of light around it. I realize why immediately.

The Petrovascope is a pretty sensitive piece of equipment. It’s fine-tuned to spot even the smallest amounts of the Petrova wavelength. A star will give off absolutely obscene amounts of light at all wavelengths. It’d be like staring at the sun with binoculars. The equipment has to protect itself from the star. It probably has a physical metal plate that it keeps between its sensors and the star at all times. So I’m looking at the back of that plate.

Good design.

I reach up to the toggle switch. This is it. If there’s no Petrova line here, I don’t know what to do. I mean, I’ll try to figure out something. But I’ll be kind of lost.

I flip the toggle.

The stars disappear. The hazy ring surrounding Tau Ceti remains. That’s to be expected. It’s the star’s corona, which will be emitting plenty of light, so some of it’s bound to be the Petrova wavelength.

I search the image desperately. Nothing at first, but then I see it. A beautiful dark-red arch coming out of the bottom-left portion of Tau Ceti.

I clap my hands. “Yes!”

The shape is unmistakable. It’s a Petrova line! Tau Ceti has a Petrova line! I do a wiggly little dance in my chair. It’s not easy in zero g but I give it my all. Now we’re getting somewhere!

There are so many experiments I’ll need to do, I don’t even know where to begin. I should see where the line leads, for starters. One of the planets, obviously, but which one and what’s interesting about it? And I should get a sample of local Astrophage to see if it’s the same as what we have back on Earth. I could do that by flying into the Petrova line itself and then scraping the dust off the hull with an EVA.

I could spend a week just writing up a list of experiments I want to do!

I spot a flash on the screen. Just a quick blip of light.

“What’s that?” I say. “Another clue?”

The flash happens again. I pan and zoom in on that portion of space. It’s nowhere near the Petrova line or Tau Ceti. Maybe a reflection from a planet or asteroid?

I can see how that might happen. A highly reflective asteroid could be bouncing enough light from Tau Ceti around that I see it on the Petrovascope, but it’s intermittent, so maybe it’s an irregular shape that’s rotating and—

The flash becomes a solid light source. It’s just…“on” now. Nonstop.

I peer at the screen. “What…what’s going on here?…”

The light source becomes brighter. Not instantly. Just gradually over time. I watch for a minute. It seems to get brighter faster now.

Is it an object headed toward me?

An instant hypothesis pops into my mind: Maybe Astrophage are somehow attracted to other Astrophage? Maybe some subset of them saw the flare from my engines, which would be the wavelength they use, and they headed toward me. Maybe this is how they find the main migration group? So this could be a clump of Astrophage headed my way, thinking I can lead them to the planet with the carbon dioxide?

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