Project Hail Mary

Page 42

I count thirty-one whiskers, each with its little sphere at the end. While counting, I spot something special. There’s one whisker sticking up from the exact center of the disc, but unlike the others, it’s not connected to a sphere. I squint to get a good look.

Instead of a single sphere, it’s two spheres of different sizes and an arc—okay, I see. It’s a very small replica of the Petrova-line model on the other half of the doohickey. Maybe one-twentieth the scale.

And that little Petrova-line model has an even thinner whisker connecting it to another sphere at the tip of a different whisker. No, not quite a sphere. It’s another Petrova-line model. I scour the rest of the doohickey for any more of them, but I don’t see any. Just the one in the middle and the one off to the side.

“Wait a minute…waaaaait a minute…”

I pull out the drawer that has the lab computer panel in it. Time to make use of that virtually infinite reference material. I find a huge spreadsheet with the information I need, bring it into Excel (Stratt loves well-tested, off-the-shelf products), and do a bunch of operations on it. Soon, I have the data plot I wanted. And it matches.

Stars. The little spheres on the end of the whiskers are stars. Of course they are. What else would have a Petrova line?

But they’re not just any old stars. These are specific stars. They’re all in the correct relative positions to one another, with Tau Ceti right in the center. The map’s point of view is kind of odd. To make the spheres match my data plot of star locations, I have to hold the doohickey at a 30-degree angle and kind of rotate it around a bit.

But of course, all of Earth’s data is based on Earth’s orbital plane being the reference point. People from a different planet would have a different coordinate system. But no matter how you look at it, the end result is the same: The doohickey is a map of the local stars.

Then I’m suddenly very interested in that little filament connecting the center sphere (Tau Ceti) to another sphere. I check the corresponding star in my catalog: It’s called 40 Eridani. But I bet the crew of the Blip-A call it home.

That’s the message. “We’re from the 40 Eridani system. And now we’re here at Tau Ceti.”

But there’s even more to it than that. They’re also saying “40 Eridani has a Petrova line, just like Tau Ceti.”

I stop to let that sink in.

“Are you in the same boat?!” I say.

Of course they are! Astrophage is getting at all the local stars. These people are from a planet orbiting 40 Eridani, and 40 Eridani is infected just like Earth’s sun! They have some pretty good science going on, so they did the same thing we did. Make a ship, and go to Tau Ceti to see why it’s not dying!

“Holy cow!” I say.

Yes, I’m jumping to a conclusion there. Maybe they harvest Astrophage from their Petrova line and consider it a boon. Maybe they invented Astrophage. Maybe they just think Petrova lines are pretty. There are a bunch of different things this could mean. But the most likely, in my admittedly biased opinion, is that they’re here to find a solution.


Actual aliens.

Aliens from the 40 Eridani system. So I guess that makes them Eridanians? Hard to say, even harder to remember. Eridans? No. How about Eridians? Sounds kind of like “iridium,” which is one of the cooler-sounding elements on the periodic table. Yeah, I’m going to call them Eridians.

And I think it’s pretty obvious how I should respond.

I thoroughly searched the lab a few days ago. There’s an electronics kit in one of the drawers. The trick is remembering which one.

I don’t remember, of course. It takes me a while of searching and not-quite swearing while I do, but I eventually find it.

I don’t have any xenonite (that’s what I’m calling this weird alien compound, and no one can stop me). But I do have solder and a soldering iron. I break off a little piece of solder, melt one end, and stick it to the Tau Ceti sphere. It sticks pretty well, which is a relief. You never know with xenonite.

I check, double-check, and triple-check to make sure I correctly identify which one of the little stars in the model is Sol (Earth’s sun). I solder the other side of the wire to Sol.

I search the lab until I find some hard paraffin. With some poking, open flames, and mild swearing, I’m able to make a really poor approximation of the Petrova-line icon they sent me. I smush it onto Sol in the model. It looks all right. At least, good enough that they should get the idea.

I take a look. The sleek, thin lines of the xenonite whiskers are ruined by my crooked, blob-ended solder addition and crappy wax model. It’s like someone added a crayon drawing into the corner of a Da Vinci, but it will have to do.

I try to screw the top and bottom of the doohickey back together. They refuse to mate. I try again. It still doesn’t work. I remember that Eridians use left-handed threading in their screws. So I do what, to me, is an unscrewing motion. The two pieces connect perfectly.

Time to throw it back to them. Politely.

Except I can’t. Not with the ship spinning around like this. If I tried to step out of the airlock, I’d go flying off into space.

I grab the doohickey and climb up to the control room. I strap myself into the chair and order the ship to spin down.

Like last time, I feel the room tilt, though this time it tilts the other way. And again, I know it’s not actually tilting, it’s my perception of the lateral acceleration being applied, but whatever.

I feel the gravity decrease and the tilt of the room reduce until I’m back in zero g again. This time there’s no disorientation. I guess my lizard brain has made its peace with the fact that gravity comes and goes. The operation ends with a final “clunk” as the reoriented crew compartment seats into the rear half of the ship.

I get back in the EVA suit, grab the doohickey, and head out into space once again. I don’t need to work my way across the hull with tethers this time. I just clip my tether in the airlock.

The Blip-A has stopped spinning—probably did it when the Hail Mary stopped. And it’s still 217 meters away.

I don’t have to be Joe Montana to make this pass. I just need to set the doohickey in motion toward the Blip-A. It’s over a hundred meters across. I should be able to hit it.

I give the doohickey a shove. It floats away from me at a reasonable speed. Maybe 2 meters per second—roughly a jogging pace. This is communication of a sort too. I’m telling my new friends that I can handle slightly faster deliveries.

The doohickey floats off toward the Eridian ship and I head back into mine.

“Okay, guys,” I say. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend. If Astrophage is your enemy, I’m your friend.”

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