Project Hail Mary

Page 17

I poked an Astrophage with the needle and what happened next was nothing I could have expected.

First off, the needle penetrated. No doubt on that front. For all its resistance to light and heat, apparently, Astrophage was no better at dealing with sharp things than any other cell.

The instant I poked a hole in it, the whole cell became translucent. No longer a featureless black dot, but a cell with organelles and everything else a microbiologist like me wants to see. Just like that. It was like flicking a switch.

And then it died. The ruptured cell wall simply gave up the ghost and completely unraveled. The Astrophage went from being a cohesive roundish object to a slowly widening puddle with no outer boundary. I grabbed a normal needle from a nearby shelf and sucked up the goop.

“Yes!” I said. “I killed one!”

“Good for you,” Stratt said without looking up from her tablet. “First human to kill an alien. Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.”

“Okay, I know you’re trying to be funny, but that Predator died by deliberately setting off a bomb. The first human to actually kill a Predator was Michael Harrigan—played by Danny Glover—in Predator 2.”

She stared at me through the window for a moment, then shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Point is, I can finally find out what Astrophage is made of!”

“Really?” She set the tablet down. “Killing it did the trick?”

“I think so. It’s not black anymore. Light is getting through. Whatever weird effect was blocking it isn’t anymore.”

“How did you do it? What killed it?”

“I penetrated the outer cell membrane with a nanosyringe.”

“You poked it with a stick?”

“No!” I said. “Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”

“It took you two days to think of poking it with a stick.”

“You…be quiet.”

I took the needle to the spectroscope and ejected the Astrophage goop onto the platform. Then I sealed the chamber and fired up the analysis. I bounced from one foot to the other like a little kid while I waited for the results.

Stratt craned her neck to watch me. “So what’s this you’re doing now?”

“It’s the atomic-emission spectroscope,” I said. “I told you about it earlier—it sends x-rays into a sample to excite the atoms, then watches the wavelengths that come back. Didn’t work at all when I tried it on the live Astrophage, but now that the magic light-stopping properties are gone, things should work like normal.”

The machine beeped.

“All right! Here we go! Time to find out what chemicals are in a life-form that doesn’t use water!” I read the LCD screen. It showed all the peaks and the elements they represented. I stared at the screen silently.

“Well?” Stratt said. “Well?!”

“Um. There’s carbon and nitrogen…but the vast majority of the sample is hydrogen and oxygen.” I sighed and plopped down in the chair next to the machine. “The ratio of hydrogen to oxygen is two to one.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What does that mean?”

“It’s water. Astrophage is mostly water.”

Her mouth fell open. “How? How can something that exists on the surface of the sun have water?”

I shrugged. “Probably because it maintains its internal temperature at 96.415 degrees Celsius no matter what’s going on outside.”

“What does this all mean?” she asked.

I put my head in my hands. “It means every scientific paper I ever wrote is wrong.”


* * *


Well. That’s a kick in the pants.

But I wasn’t happy in that lab anyway. And they must have brought in smarter people than me, because here I am: at another star in a ship powered by Astrophage.

So why am I the one out here? All I did was prove that my lifelong belief was wrong.

I guess I’ll remember that part later. For now, I want to know what star that is. And why we built a ship to bring people here.

All important things, to be sure. But right now, there’s a whole area of the ship that I haven’t explored yet.


Maybe I can find something other than a makeshift toga to wear.

I climb down the ladder to the lab, and then farther downward into the dormitory.

My friends are still there. Still dead. I try not to look at them.

I scan the floor for any hint of an access panel. Nothing. So I get down on my hands and knees and crawl around. Finally, I spot it—a very thin seam marking a square directly under my male crewmate’s bunk. I can’t even wedge my fingernail into the seam it’s so thin.

There were all manner of tools in the lab. I’m sure there’s a flathead screwdriver I could use to pry this open. Or…

“Hey computer! Open this access panel.”

“Specify aperture to open.”

I point to the panel. “This. This thing. Open it.”

“Specify aperture to open.”

“Uh…open aperture to supply room.”

“Unsealing supply room,” says the computer.

There’s a click and the panel raises a couple of inches. A rubber gasket around the seam gets torn apart in the process. I couldn’t see it when the panel was closed, things were that tight. I’m glad I didn’t try to pry it open. It would have been a pain in the butt.

I pull the remnants of the seal off the panel and the panel becomes loose in the opening. I jiggle it a bit before figuring out I have to rotate it. Once I rotate it 90 degrees it detaches and I set it aside. I poke my head into the room below and see a bunch of soft-sided white cubes. I guess that makes sense. Packing stuff in soft containers lets you cram more things into the room.

Just as the diagram in the control room said, the storage area is about a meter high. And completely full of those soft containers. I would have to remove a bunch just to get in there—if I wanted to get in there. I guess I’ll have to eventually. It looks a bit claustrophobic, to be honest. Like the crawlspace under a house.

I grab the nearest package and pull it up through the opening.

The package is held together by Velcro straps. I pull them apart and the container unfolds like a Chinese takeout box. Inside are a bunch of uniforms.

Jackpot! Though not really a coincidence. Whoever packed this probably did it with careful planning. And they knew the crew would want uniforms as soon as they woke up. So they’re in the first bag. There are at least a dozen uniforms in the package. They’re each in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. I open one at random.

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