Project Hail Mary

Page 91

“Thrust continues,” Rocky quavers.

I can’t reply. I can’t get any sound out at all.

I know the fuel bay I jettisoned was in the affected area. There must be more than one breached bay. No time for subtlety. In a few seconds the force will be too strong for me to reach the screen at all. If there’s a second breached bay, it’ll be adjacent to the bay I just ditched. But there are two adjacent bays. I pick one at random. Fifty-fifty shot. With herculean effort, I tap its icon, the Jettison button, and confirm.

A jolt rocks the ship and I’m thrown around like a rag doll. In my ever-darkening peripheral vision I see Rocky curled up into a ball, bouncing against the walls, leaving silver blood splatters wherever he hits.

If anything, the force is worse than before. But wait…now it’s the other direction.

Instead of being pulled back into my seat, I’m now being pulled away from it, my body pressing into the restraints.

The Centrifuge screen, of all things, comes to the foreground. EXCESSIVE CENTRIFUGAL FORCE WARNING, it blinks.

“Nnnng,” I say. I meant to say Oh God, but I can’t breathe anymore.

All that fuel blasting out into space…it didn’t politely leave along the ship’s long axis. It blew out at an angle, spinning us like a top. And the exploding fuel bays probably made things even worse.

Well, I stopped the fuel leak, at least. There are no new thrust vectors acting on the ship. Now I just have to deal with the spin. I manage to get a breath in. The centrifugal force is less than the uncontrolled thrust force, but it’s still monumental. But hey, at least it pulls my arms toward the screen instead of away from it.

If I can get the spin drives back online, maybe I can cancel the—

My seat finally gives out. I hear the pops as the anchor points shear off. I fall forward, into the screen, still strapped to the metal seat, which crushes me from behind.

The chair probably doesn’t weigh much in normal gravity. Maybe 20 kilograms. But with this much centripetal force, it’s like having a cement block on my back. I can’t breathe.

This is it. The weight of the chair is so much I can’t inflate my lungs. I get dizzy.

Mechanical suffocation, it’s called. It’s how boa constrictors kill their prey. What an odd thing to think as my last thought.

Sorry, Earth, I think. There. Much better last thought.

My lungs, now full of carbon dioxide, panic. But the adrenaline rush doesn’t give me the strength I need to escape. It just keeps me awake so I can experience death in more detail.

Thanks, adrenal glands.

The groaning of the ship has stopped. I guess anything that was going to break has broken and all that’s left is stuff that can handle the stress.

My eyes water. They sting. Why? Am I crying? I have personally failed my entire species and they’re all going to die because of it. It’s a good reason to cry. But this isn’t emotional. It’s pain. My nose hurts too. And not from physical pressure or anything. Something burns at my nasal passages from the inside.

Something probably broke open in the lab. Some nasty chemical. Just as well I can’t breathe. I probably wouldn’t like the smell.

Then, out of nowhere, I can breathe again! I don’t know how or why, but I gasp and wheeze in my newfound freedom. I immediately fall into a violent coughing fit. Ammonia. Ammonia everywhere. It’s overpowering. My lungs scream and my eyes water over. Then there’s a new smell.


I roll around to see Rocky hovering over me. Not in his compartment. He’s in the control room!

He has slashed my restraints and pulled the chair free. He shoves it to the side.

He stands over me, wobbling. I can feel the heat radiating from his body just inches away. Smoke billows out of the radiator slits atop his carapace.

His knees buckle and he collapses onto the screen next to me, destroying it. The LCD unit blacks out and the plastic bezel melts.

I see a trail of smoke leading up the tunnel to the lab and beyond.

“Rocky! What have you done!”

The crazy bastard must have used the large airlock in the dormitory! He came into my partition to save me. And he’ll die because of it!

He shivers and folds his legs under himself.

“Save…Earth…Save…Erid…” he quavers. Then he slumps down.

“Rocky!” I grab his carapace without thinking. It’s like putting my hands on a burner. I jerk away. “Rocky…no…”

But he is motionless.

Rocky’s body heats up the whole room.

I can barely move, the force of the centrifuge is so great.

“Nnnn!” I groan, pushing myself up off the cracked monitor. I drag myself across the shards to the next monitor over. I try not to lift too much of my body up at a time—I have to save my strength.

I slide my finger onto the monitor from the edge and tap the screen-select buttons at the bottom. I’ve got one chance at this.

I remember the navigation controls. The manual-control section has a button to zero out all rotation. That’s mighty tempting right now, but I can’t risk it. The fuel bay is wide open, I’ve jettisoned a couple of pods, and I have no idea what other damage may have been done. The last thing I want to do is fire up any spin drives—even the little ones that do attitude control.

I bring up the Centrifuge screen. It blinks red and white, still angry about the excessive tumble the ship is undergoing. With effort, I dismiss the warning, then enter into manual mode. There are a bunch of “hey, don’t do this” kind of dialogs, but I dismiss them all. Soon I have direct control over the cable spools. I set them spinning at max speed.

The room spins and tilts in weird ways. My inner ears and my eyes are not enjoying the discrepancy. I know it’s because the two halves of the ship are separating and that has nasty effects on the forces I feel here in the control room. But logic doesn’t do any good in this situation. I turn my head and vomit on the wall.

After a few seconds, the force reduces dramatically. Much more manageable now. Less than 1 g, actually. All thanks to the magic of centrifuge math.

The force you feel in a centrifuge is inverse to the square of the radius. By spooling out the cables, I made the radius go from 20 meters (half the length of the ship) to 75 meters (distance from the control room to the center of mass with full cable extension). I don’t know how much force I was dealing with before, but now it’s one-fourteenth as much as it was.

I’m still pinned against the monitor, though not nearly as hard. I estimate about half a g. I can breathe again.

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