Project Hail Mary

Page 16

Interestingly, the diagram doesn’t really care about the rooms. It doesn’t even show what’s inside them—just a label for each one and that’s it. However, the diagram is very focused on the hull and the rear part of the ship.

I see red pipes leading from the fuel areas to the spin drives. Probably how fuel gets to the engines. But I also see the pipes all along the hull of the ship. And they cut across the Cable Faring area. So the Astrophage fuel is mostly in the fuel tank, but also kept in a shell all around the hull.

Why do that?

Oh, and there are temperature readings all over the place. I guess temperature is important because the readings are every few meters along the hull. And every single one of them reads 96.415°c.

Hey, I know that temperature. I know that exact temperature! What do I know it from? Come on, brain…come on…


* * *


96.415°c, read the display.

“Huh,” I said.

“What is it?” Stratt said immediately.

It was my second day in the lab. Stratt still insisted I be the only person to look at Astrophage—at least for the time being. She dropped her tablet on the table and came to the observation-room window. “Something new?”

“Kind of. The ambient temperature of an Astrophage is 96.415 degrees Celsius.”

“That’s pretty hot, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, almost the boiling point of water,” I said. “For anything living on Earth it would be deadly. But for a thing that’s comfortable near the sun, who knows?”

“So what’s significant about it?”

“I can’t get them hotter or colder.” I pointed to the experiment I’d set up in the fume hood. “I put some Astrophage in ice-cold water for an hour. When I pulled them out, they were 96.415 degrees Celsius. Then I put some in a lab furnace at one thousand degrees. Again, after I pulled them out: 96.415 degrees.”

Stratt paced next to the window. “Maybe they have extremely good insulation?”

“I thought of that, so I did another experiment. I took an extremely small droplet of water and put a few Astrophage in it. After a few hours, the whole droplet was 96.415 degrees. The Astrophage heated up the water, so that means heat energy can move out of it.”

“What conclusion can you draw?” she asked.

I tried to scratch my head, but the vinyl suit got in the way. “Well, we know they have a huge amount of energy stored inside. I’m guessing they use it to maintain body temperature. Same way you and I do.”

“A warm-blooded microorganism?” she said.

I shrugged. “Looks that way. Hey, how much longer am I going to be the only person working on this?”

“Until you stop discovering new stuff.”

“One guy alone in a lab? That’s not how science works,” I said. “There should be hundreds of people all over the world working on this.”

“You’re not alone in that thought,” she said. “I’ve had three different heads of state call me today.”

“Then let other scientists in on it!”


“Why not?”

She looked away for a moment, then back through the window at me. “Astrophage is an alien microbe. What if it can infect humans? What if it’s deadly? What if hazmat suits and neoprene gloves aren’t enough protection?”

I gasped. “Wait a minute! Am I a guinea pig? I’m a guinea pig!”

“No, it’s not like that,” she said.

I stared at her.

She stared at me.

I stared at her.

“Okay, it’s exactly like that,” she said.

“Dang it!” I said. “That’s just not cool!”

“Don’t be dramatic,” she said. “I’m just playing it safe. Imagine what would happen if I sent Astrophage to the most brilliant minds on the planet and it killed them all. In an instant we’d lose the very people we need the most right now. I can’t risk it.”

I scowled. “This isn’t some cheesy movie, Stratt. Pathogens evolve slowly over time to attack specific hosts. Astrophage has never even been on Earth before. There’s just no way it can ‘infect’ humans. Besides, it’s been a couple of days and I’m not dead. So send it out to the real scientists.”

“You are a real scientist. And you’re making progress as fast as anyone else would. There’s no point in me risking other lives while you’re getting it done on your own.”

“Are you kidding?” I said. “With a couple hundred minds working on this, we’d make a lot more progress on—”

“Also, most deadly diseases have a minimum of least three days of incubation time.”

“Ah, there it is.”

She walked back to her table and picked up her tablet. “The rest of the world will have their turn in time. But for now it’s just you. At least tell me what the hell those things are made of. Then we can talk about giving it to other scientists.”

She resumed reading her tablet. The conversation was over. And she’d ended it by laying down what my students would call a “sick burn.” Despite my best efforts, I still had no idea what the heck Astrophage was made of.

They were opaque to every wavelength of light I threw at them. Visible, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, microwaves…I even put a few Astrophage in a radiation-containment vessel and exposed it to the gamma rays emitted by Cesium-137 (this lab has everything). I called it the “Bruce Banner Test.” Felt good about that name. Anyway, even gamma couldn’t penetrate the little bastards. Which is like shooting a .50-caliber round at a sheet of paper and having it bounce off. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I sulked back to the microscope. The little dots hung out on the slide where they’d been for hours. This was my control set. The ones I hadn’t battered with various light sources. “Maybe I’m overthinking this…” I muttered.

I poked around the lab supplies until I found what I needed: nanosyringes. They were rare and expensive, but the lab had them. Basically, they were teeny, tiny needles. Small enough and sharp enough to be used for poking microorganisms. You could pull mitochondria out of a living cell with one of those babies.

Back to the microscope. “Okay, you little reprobates. You’re radiation-proof, I’ll grant you that. But how about I stab you in the face?”

Normally a nanosyringe would be controlled by finely tuned equipment. But I just wanted some stabby time and didn’t care about the tool’s integrity. I grabbed the collet (where it would normally mount to the control machinery) and brought the needle into view in the microscope. They’re called nanosyringes, but they’re actually about 50 nanometers wide. Still, the needle was tiny compared to the hulking 10-micron Astrophage—only about one two-thousandth the width.

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