Project Hail Mary

Page 14

I spent the next six hours doing incremental tests. Over that time, the military people wandered out, eventually leaving only Stratt by herself. I had to admire her patience. She sat in the back of the observation room and worked on her tablet, sometimes looking up to see what I was doing.

She perked up as I cycled my way through the airlock and into the observation room. “Got something?” she asked.

I unzipped the suit and stepped out of it. “Yeah, a full bladder.”

She typed on her tablet. “I hadn’t accounted for that. I’ll get a bathroom installed inside the quarantine area tonight. It’ll have to be a chemical toilet. We can’t have plumbing going in and out.”

“Fine, whatever,” I said. I hustled off to the facilities to do my business.

When I returned, Stratt had pulled a small table and two chairs to the center of the observation room. She sat in one of the chairs and gestured to the other. “Have a seat.”

“I’m in the middle of—”

“Have a seat.”

I took a seat. She had a commanding presence, that’s for sure. Something about her tone of voice or her general confidence level, maybe? One way or another, when she spoke you just kind of assumed you should do what she said.

“What have you found so far?” she asked.

“It’s only been one afternoon,” I said.

“I didn’t ask how long it’s been. I asked what you’ve found out so far.”

I scratched my head. After hours in that suit, I was sweaty and presumably smelled bad. “It’s…weird. I don’t know what those dots are made of. And I’d really like to know.”

“Is there some equipment you need that you don’t have?” she asked.

“No, no. There’s everything a guy could hope for in there. It just…doesn’t work on these dots.” I settled back into the chair. I’d been on my feet most of the day and it was nice to relax for a moment. “First thing I tried was the x-ray spectrometer. It sends x-rays into a sample, making it emit photons and you can tell from the wavelengths of the photons what elements are present.”

“And what did that tell you?”

“Nothing. As far as I can tell, these dots just absorb x-rays. The x-rays go in and they never come out. Nothing comes out. That’s very odd. I can’t think of anything that does that.”

“Okay.” She took some notes on her tablet. “What else can you tell me?”

“Next I tried gas chromatography. That’s where you vaporize the sample and then identify the elements or compounds in the resulting gas. That didn’t work either.”

“Why not?”

I threw up my hands. “Because the darn things just won’t vaporize. That led me down a rabbit hole of burners, ovens, and crucible furnaces that turned up nothing. The dots are unaffected at temperatures up to two thousand degrees Celsius. Nothing.”

“And that’s odd?”

“It’s crazy odd,” I said. “But these things live on the sun. At least some of the time. So I guess having a high resistance to heat makes sense.”

“They live on the sun?” she said. “So they’re a life-form?”

“I’m pretty sure they are, yeah.”


“Well, they move around. It’s plainly visible through the microscope. That alone doesn’t prove they’re alive—inert stuff moves all the time from static charge or magnetic fields or whatever. But there is something else I noticed. Something weird. And it made the pieces fall into place.”


“I put a few dots under a vacuum and ran a spectrograph. Just a simple test to see if they emit light. And they do, of course. They give off infrared light at the 25.984 micron wavelength. That’s the Petrova frequency—the light that makes the Petrova line. I expected that. But then I noticed they only emit light when they’re moving. And boy, do they emit a lot of it. I mean, not a lot from our point of view, but for a tiny single-celled organism it’s a ton.”

“And how is that relevant?”

“I did some back-of-the napkin math. And I’m pretty sure that light is how they move around.”

Stratt raised an eyebrow. “I don’t follow.”

“Believe it or not, light has momentum,” I said. “It exerts a force. If you were out in space and you turned on a flashlight, you’d get a teeny, tiny amount of thrust from it.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Now you do. And a teeny-tiny thrust on a teeny-tiny mass can be an effective form of propulsion. I measured the dots’ average mass at about twenty picograms. That took a long time, by the way, but that lab equipment is awesome. Anyway, the movement I see is consistent with the momentum of the emitted light.”

She set her tablet down. I had, apparently, accomplished the rare feat of getting her undivided attention. “Is that something that happens in nature?”

I shook my head. “No way. Nothing in nature has that kind of energy storage. You don’t understand how much energy these dots are emitting. It’s like…getting to the scales of mass conversion. E = mc2 kind of stuff. These tiny dots have more energy stored up in them than remotely makes sense.”

“Well,” she said. “They did just come from the sun. And the sun is losing energy.”

“Yeah. That’s why I think it’s a life-form,” I said. “It consumes energy, stores it in some way we don’t understand, then uses it for propulsion. That’s not a simple physical or chemical process. That’s complex and directed. Something that must have evolved.”

“So the Petrova line is…tiny little rocket flares?”

“Probably. And I bet we’re only seeing a small percentage of the total light coming off that area. They use it to propel themselves to Venus or to the sun. Or both. I don’t know. Point is, the light will go away from their direction of travel. Earth isn’t in that line, so we only see the light that reflects off nearby space dust.”

“Why do they go to Venus?” she asked. “And how do they reproduce?”

“Good questions. Ones I don’t have answers for. But if they’re single-celled stimulus/response organisms, they probably reproduce through mitosis.” I paused. “That’s when the cell splits in half to become two new cells—”

“Yes, I know that much, thank you.” She looked to the ceiling. “People always assumed our first contact with alien life—if any existed—would be little green men in UFOs. We never considered the idea of a simple, unintelligent species.”

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