Project Hail Mary

Page 126

I’m still not 100 percent awake. I wipe my eyes and take another look.

It’s still clear.

Taumoeba got to the slide. It got out of the breeder farm!

I spin to the Taumoeba alarm on the lab table. It’s not beeping, but I run over to get a visual. The Astrophage slide in it is still black.

I take a deep breath and let it out.

“Okay…” I say.

I return to the quarantine zone and check the other farms. Every single one of them has a clear slide. The farms are leaking. All of them are leaking. The mini-farms are fine. They’re sitting on the lab table right next to the Taumoeba alarm.

I rub the back of my neck.

I’ve found the problem, but I don’t understand it. Taumoeba are getting out of the farms. But how? If there was a crack in the xenonite, the overpressure of nitrogen would’ve gotten inside and killed everything. All ten farms have happy, healthy Taumoeba populations. So what gives?

I climb down to the dormitory and have breakfast. I stare at the xenonite wall that once housed Rocky’s workshop. The wall is still there, but with a hole cut in it where I’d requested. I’m using the area mainly for storage.

I chew on a breakfast burrito, trying to ignore the fact that I’m one meal closer to coma slurry. I stare at the hole. I imagine I’m a Taumoeba. I’m millions of times larger than a nitrogen atom. But I can get through a hole the nitrogen atom can’t. How? And where did the hole come from?

I’m starting to get a bad feeling. A suspicion, really.

What if Taumoeba can, for lack of a better description, work their way around the molecules of xenonite? What if there’s no hole at all?

We tend to think of solid materials as magical barriers. But at the molecular scale they’re not. They’re strands of molecules or lattices of atoms or both. When you get down to the teeny, tiny realm, solid objects are more like thick jungles than brick walls.

I can work my way through a jungle, no problem. I may have to climb over bushes, weave around trees, and duck under branches, but I can make it.

Imagine a thousand tennis-ball launchers at the edge of that jungle aimed in random directions. How deep into the jungle will the tennis balls get? Most of them won’t get past the first few trees. Some may get lucky bounces and go a little deeper in. Fewer still may get multiple lucky bounces. But pretty soon, even the luckiest tennis ball runs out of energy.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any tennis balls 50 feet into that jungle. Now, let’s say it’s a mile wide. I can make it to the other side, but there’s just no chance a tennis ball can.

That’s the difference between Taumoeba and nitrogen. The nitrogen is just moving in a line and bouncing off stuff like a tennis ball. It’s inert. But Taumoeba is like me. It has stimulus-response capabilities. It senses its environment and takes directed action based on that sensory input. We already know it can find Astrophage and move toward it. It definitely has senses. But nitrogen atoms are ruled by entropy. They won’t “exert effort” to do anything. I can walk uphill. But a tennis ball can only roll so far before it rolls back down.

That all seems really weird. How could Taumoeba, from the planet Adrian, know how to carefully navigate its way through xenonite, a technological invention from the planet Erid? It does not make sense.

Life-forms don’t evolve traits for no reason. Taumoeba lives in the upper atmosphere. Why would it develop the ability to work its way through dense molecular structures? What evolutionary reason could there be to—

I drop my burrito.

I know the answer. I don’t want to admit it to myself. But I know the answer.


* * *


I go back to the lab and perform a nerve-wracking experiment. The experiment itself isn’t nerve-wracking. I’m just worried that the results will be what I expect.

I still have Rocky’s AstroTorch. It’s the only thing on the ship that can get hot enough to dissociate xenonite. There’s plenty of xenonite to be had throughout the ship, thanks to Rocky’s tunnel system. I cut into the dormitory divider wall. I can only cut a little bit at a time, then I have to wait for life support to cool things back down. The AstroTorch makes a lot of heat.

In the end, I have four rough circles, each a couple of inches across.

Yes, inches. When I’m stressed out, I revert to imperial units. It’s hard to be an American, okay?

I take them up to the lab and put together an experiment.

I smear some Astrophage on one of the circles and put another circle on top of it. Astrophage sandwich. Delicious, but only if you can get through the xenonite “bread.” I epoxy the two halves together. I make another identical sandwich.

And then I make another two similar sandwiches, but instead of xenonite, I use ordinary plastic discs that I cut from some mill stock.

Okay. Four hermetically sealed Astrophage samples—two with xenonite discs, two with plastic discs, all four of them sealed with epoxy.

I get two clear, sealable containers and set them up on the lab table. I put a xenonite sandwich and a plastic sandwich in each container.

In the sample cabinet, I have a few metal vials full of natural Taumoeba. The original stuff from Adrian, not the Taumoeba-82.5 version. I set the vial in one of the containers, open it up, and quickly seal the experiment. This is a very dangerous road to go down, but at least I know how to contain a Taumoeba outbreak if it happens. As long as I have nitrogen I’m okay.

I go to Breeder Tank One in the quarantine zone. I use a syringe to get the Taumoeba-infected air from the bin, then immediately flood the bin with nitrogen. I tape over the hole made by the syringe.

Back to the lab table, I close up the other container and use the syringe to inject the Taumoeba-82.5 in. Again, I seal that hole with tape.

I rest my chin in my hands and peer into the two boxes. “Okay, you sneaky little punks. Let’s see what you can do…”

It takes a couple of hours, but I finally see results. They’re exactly what I expected and the opposite of what I’d hoped.

I shake my head. “Dang it.”

The xenonite-covered Astrophage in the Taumoeba-82.5 experiment is gone. The plastic-covered Astrophage remains unchanged. Meanwhile in the other experiment, both Astrophage samples are unharmed.

What that means: The “control” samples (the plastic discs) prove Taumoeba can’t get through epoxy or plastic. But the xenonite samples tell a different story. Taumoeba-82.5 can work its way through xenonite, but natural Taumoeba can’t.

“I’m so stupid!” I smack myself on the head.

I thought I was oh so clever. All that time in the breeder tanks. Generation after generation of Taumoeba. I used evolution to my advantage, right? I made Taumoeba with nitrogen resistance! I’m so awesome! Let me know when I can pick up my Nobel Prize!

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