My kids would have a rough time even if the mission worked. It would take thirteen years for the Hail Mary to get to Tau Ceti, and (presuming the crew found an answer to our problems) another thirteen years for the beetles to get back to us. That’s over a quarter century before we would even know what to do. My kids wouldn’t be kids anymore when it was over.
“Onward,” I mumbled, and grabbed the next problem report. Why was it on paper instead of just an email? Because Russians do things a certain way and it’s easier to work with them than to complain about it.
The report was from the ESA crew about anomalies in Slurry Pump Fourteen of the medical feeding transport system. Pump Fourteen was only part of the tertiary system and it was still 95 percent effective. But there was no reason to put up with that. We still had 83 kilograms of unclaimed launch mass. I made a note to include a spare slurry pump—it was only 250 grams. The crew could install it before leaving orbit.
I set the paper aside and saw a brief flash out my window. Probably a jeep driving on the dirt road that led to the temporary shelters. I got headlights through my window from time to time. I ignored it.
The next paper in my stack was all about potential ballast issues. The Hail Mary kept its center of mass along its long axis by pumping Astrophage around as needed. But we still wanted to keep things as balanced as possible anyway. The ESA crew had rearranged several supply bags in the storage compartment to more adequately balance—
The window shattered as a deafening explosion shook the room. Glass shards nicked my face as a shockwave knocked me clean out of my chair.
After that: silence.
And then: sirens in the distance.
I got to my knees, and then to my feet. I opened and closed my mouth a few times to pop my ears.
I stumbled to the door and opened it. The first thing I noticed was that the small triplet of steps that once led to my door were several feet away. Then I saw the freshly disturbed earth between the steps and my door and I understood what happened.
The steps are anchored into the ground with four-by-fours sunk deep like fence posts. My portable has no such support.
My whole house moved and the stairs stayed put.
“Grace?! Are you okay?!” It was Stratt’s voice. Her portable was next to mine.
“Yeah!” I say. “What the heck was that?!”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Hang on.”
Shortly after, I saw the bobbing of a flashlight. She came to me, wearing a bathrobe and boots. She was already on her walkie-talkie. “Eto Stratt. Chto sluchylos’?” she demanded.
“Vzryv v issledovatel’skom tsentre,” came the reply.
“The research center blew up,” she said.
Baikonur was a launch facility, but they did have some research buildings. They weren’t laboratories. They were more like classrooms. Astronauts generally spent a week before launch at Baikonur, and they usually wanted to study and prepare right up to launch day.
“Oh God,” I said. “Who was there? Who was there?!”
She pulled a wad of papers from her robe pocket. “Hang on, hang on…” She rifled through the papers, throwing each to the ground as she moved on to the next. I knew what they were at a glance—I’d been seeing them every day for a year. Schedule charts. Showing where everyone was and what they were doing at all times.
She stopped when she reached the page she was looking for. She actually gasped. “DuBois and Shapiro. They’re scheduled to be there doing some Astrophage experiments.”
I put my hands on my head. “No! No, please no! The research center is five kilometers away. If the blast did this much damage to us here—”
“I know, I know!” She flicked on her walkie-talkie again. “Prime crew—I need your locations. Call them in.”
“Yáo here,” came the first reply. “In my bunk.”
“Ilyukhina here. At officers’ bar. What was that explosion?”
Stratt and I waited for the response we hoped would come.
“DuBois,” she said. “DuBois! Check in!”
“Shapiro. Dr. Annie Shapiro. Check in!”
She took a deep breath and let it out. She clicked the walkie-talkie on one more time. “Stratt to transport—I need a jeep to take me to Ground Control.”
“Copy,” came the reply.
The next few hours were, frankly, chaos. The entire base was put on lockdown for a while and everyone’s ID was checked. For all we knew, some doomsday cult wanted to sabotage the mission. But nothing turned up amiss.
Stratt, Dimitri, and I sat in the bunker. Why were we in a bunker? The Russians were taking no chances. It didn’t look like a terrorist attack, but they were securing the critical personnel just in case. Yáo and Ilyukhina were off in some other bunker. The other science leads were in other bunkers as well. Spread everyone out so there’s no single place to attack that would be effective. There was a grim logic to it. Baikonur was built during the Cold War, after all.
“The research buildings are a crater,” said Stratt. “And there’s still no sign of DuBois or Shapiro. Or the fourteen other staff that worked there.”
She pulled up pictures on her phone and showed them to us.
The photos told a story of utter destruction. The area was lit up with powerful floodlights the Russians had set up and the place was swarming with rescue personnel. Though there was nothing for them to do.
Virtually nothing was left. No debris, limited wreckage. Stratt swiped through photo after photo. Some were close-ups of the ground. Round, shiny beads dotted the area. “What’s up with the beads?” she said.
“Metal condensate,” Dimitri said. “It means metals were vaporized, then condensed like raindrops.”
“Jesus,” she said.
I sighed. “There’s only one thing in those labs that could create enough heat to vaporize metal: Astrophage.”
“I agree,” said Dimitri. “But Astrophage does not just ‘explode.’ How could this happen?”
Stratt looked at her wrinkled schedule pages. “According to this, DuBois wanted more experience with Astrophage-powered electrical generators. Shapiro was there to observe and assist.”
“That makes no sense,” I said. “Those generators use a tiny, tiny bit of Astrophage to make electricity. Nowhere near enough to blow up a building.”
She put her phone down. “We’ve lost our primary and secondary science specialists.”