Project Hail Mary

Page 2

Soon, I’m sitting on my butt tube. Not the most comfortable sensation, but when is a tube up your butt ever comfortable?

I have a better view of things now. This is no ordinary hospital room. The walls look plastic and the whole room is round. Stark-white light comes from ceiling-mounted LED lights.

There are two more hammock-like beds mounted to the walls, each with their own patient. We are arranged in a triangle and the roof-mounted Arms of Harassment are in the center of the ceiling. I guess they take care of all three of us. I can’t see much of my compatriots—they’ve sunken into their bedding like I had.

There’s no door. Just a ladder on the wall leading to…a hatch? It’s round and has a wheel-handle in the center. Yeah, it’s got to be some kind of hatch. Like on a submarine. Maybe the three of us have a contagious disease? Maybe this is an airtight quarantine room? There are small vents here and there on the wall and I feel a little airflow. It could be a controlled environment.

I slide one leg off over the edge of my bed, which makes it wobble. The robot arms rush toward me. I flinch, but they stop short and hover nearby. I think they’re ready to grab me if I fall.

“Full-body motion detected,” the computer says. “What’s your name?”

“Pfft, seriously?” I ask.

“Incorrect. Attempt number two: What’s your name?”

I open my mouth to answer.


“Incorrect. Attempt number three: What’s your name?”

Only now does it occur to me: I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I do. I don’t remember anything at all.

“Um,” I say.


A wave of fatigue grips me. It’s kind of pleasant, actually. The computer must have sedated me through the IV line.

“…waaaait…” I mumble.

The robot arms lay me gently back down to the bed.


* * *


I wake up again. One of the robot arms is on my face. What is it doing?!

I shudder, more shocked than anything else. The arm retracts back to its home in the ceiling. I feel my face for damage. One side has stubble and the other is smooth.

“You were shaving me?”

“Consciousness detected,” the computer says. “What’s your name?”

“I still don’t know that.”

“Incorrect. Attempt number two: What’s your name?”

I’m Caucasian, I’m male, and I speak English. Let’s play the odds. “J–John?”

“Incorrect. Attempt number three: What’s your name?”

I pull the IV out of my arm. “Bite me.”

“Incorrect.” The robot arms reach for me. I roll off the bed, which is a mistake. The other tubes are still connected.

The butt tube comes right out. Doesn’t even hurt. The still-inflated catheter yanks right out of my penis. And that does hurt. It’s like peeing a golf ball.

I scream and writhe on the floor.

“Physical distress,” says the computer. The arms give chase. I crawl along the floor to escape. I get under one of the other beds. The arms stop short, but they don’t give up. They wait. They’re run by a computer. It’s not like they’ll run out of patience.

I let my head fall back and gasp for breath. After a while, the pain subsides and I wipe tears from my eyes.

I have no idea what’s going on here.

“Hey!” I call out. “One of you, wake up!”

“What’s your name?” the computer asks.

“One of you humans, wake up, please.”

“Incorrect,” the computer says.

My crotch hurts so bad I have to laugh. It’s just so absurd. Plus, the endorphins are kicking in and making me giddy. I look back at the catheter by my bunk. I shake my head in awe. That thing went through my urethra. Wow.

And it did some damage on the way out. A little streak of blood sits on the ground. It’s just a thin red line of—


* * *


I sipped my coffee, popped the last fragment of toast into my mouth, and signaled the waitress for my check. I could have saved money by eating breakfast at home instead of going to a diner every morning. Probably would have been a good idea, considering my meager salary. But I hate cooking and I love eggs and bacon.

The waitress nodded and walked over to the cash register to ring me up. But another customer came in to be seated right that moment.

I checked my watch. Just past seven a.m. No rush. I liked to get in to work by seven-twenty so I could have time to prep for the day. But I didn’t actually need to be there until eight.

I pulled out my phone and checked my email.

TO: Astronomy Curiosities [email protected]

 FROM: (Irina Petrova, PhD) [email protected]

 SUBJECT: The Thin Red Line


I frowned at the screen. I thought I’d unsubscribed from that list. I left that life a long time ago. It didn’t get a lot of volume, and what it did get, if memory served, was usually pretty interesting. Just a bunch of astronomers, astrophysicists, and other domain experts chatting about anything that struck them as odd.

I glanced at the waitress—the customers had a bunch of questions about the menu. Probably asking if Sally’s Diner served gluten-free vegan grass clippings or something. The good people of San Francisco could be trying at times.

With nothing better to do, I read the email.

Hello, professionals. My name is Doctor Irina Petrova and I work at the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

 I am writing to you to ask for help.

 For the past two years, I have been working on a theory related to infrared emissions from nebulae. As a result, I have made detailed observations in a few specific IR bands of light. And I have found something odd—not in any nebula, but here in our own solar system.

 There is a very faint, but detectable line in the solar system that emits infrared light at the 25.984 micron wavelength. It seems to be solely that wavelength with no variance.

 Attached are Excel spreadsheets with my data. I have also provided a few renders of the data as a 3-D model.

 You will see on the model that the line is a lopsided arc that rises straight up from the sun’s North Pole for 37 million kilometers. From there, it angles sharply down and away from the sun, toward Venus. After the arc’s apex, the cloud widens like a funnel. At Venus, the arc’s cross-section is as wide as the planet itself.

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