Project Hail Mary

Page 23

The “goggles” were just the LCD output screen of my IR camera with a bunch of tape around them. I pressed them to my face and added more tape. Then more and more and more. I’m sure I looked ridiculous. But whatever.

I fired up the camera and looked around the lab. Plenty of heat signatures. The walls were still warm from sunlight earlier that day, everything electrical had a glow, and my body shined like a beacon. I adjusted the frequency range to look for much hotter things. Specifically, things over 90 degrees Celsius.

I crawled into my makeshift microscope closet and looked at the light box I’d used for the CO2 spectral emission.

Astrophage are only 10 microns across. No chance I’d see something so small with the camera (or with my eyes, for that matter). But my little aliens are very hot, and they stay hot. So, if they’re not moving, they will have spent the last six hours or so slowly heating up their surroundings. That was the hope.

It panned out. I immediately saw a circle of light on one of the plastic light filters.

“Oh thank God,” I gasped.

It was very faint but it was there. The spot was about 3 millimeters across and grew fainter and colder away from the center. The little fella had been heating up the plastic for hours. I scanned back and forth across the two plastic squares. I quickly found a second spot.

My experiment worked way better than I expected. They saw what they thought was Venus and beelined for it. When they hit the light filters, they couldn’t go any farther. They probably kept pushing until I turned off the light.

Anyway, if I could just confirm that all three Astrophage were present, I could bag the filters, then spend however long I needed to find and harvest the boys from them with a microscope and pipette.

And there it was. The third Astrophage.

“The gang’s all here!” I said. I reached into my pocket for a sample bag and got ready to very carefully pull the filter off the light box. That’s when I saw the fourth Astrophage.

Just…minding its own business. A fourth cell. It was right in the same general cluster as the first three, on the filters.


I’d been staring at these guys for a week. There’s no way I would have missed one. There could only be one explanation: One of the Astrophage divided. I’d accidentally made the Astrophage reproduce.

I stared at that fourth spot of light for a full minute, taking in the magnitude of what had just happened. Breeding Astrophage meant we would have an unlimited supply for study. Kill them, poke them, take them apart, do whatever we wanted. This was a game changer.

“Hello, Shemp,” I said.


* * *


I spent the next two days obsessively studying this new behavior. I didn’t even go home—I just slept in the lab.

Steve the army guy brought me breakfast. Great guy.

I should have shared all my findings with the rest of the science community, but I wanted to be sure. Peer review may have fallen by the wayside, but at least I could self-review. Better than nothing.

The first thing that bothered me: CO2 spectral emissions are 4.26 and 18.31 microns. But Astrophage are only 10 microns across, so it couldn’t really interact with light that had a larger wavelength. How could it even see the 18.31 micron band?

I repeated my earlier spectral experiment with just the 18.31 micron filter and got a result I didn’t expect. Strange things happened.

First off, two of the Astrophage whipped over to the filter. They saw the light and went right for it. But how? It should be impossible for Astrophage to interact with a wavelength that big. I mean…literally impossible!

Light is a funny thing. Its wavelength defines what it can and can’t interact with. Anything smaller than the wavelength is functionally nonexistent to that photon. That’s why there’s a mesh over the window of a microwave. The holes in the mesh are too small for microwaves to pass through. But visible light, with a much shorter wavelength, can go through freely. So you get to watch your food cook without melting your face off.

Astrophage is smaller than 18.31 microns but somehow still absorbs light at that frequency. How?

But that’s not even the strangest thing that happened. Yes, two of them took off for the filter, but the other two stayed put. They didn’t seem to care. They just hung out on the slide. Maybe they didn’t interact with the larger wavelength?

So I did one more experiment. I shined the 4.26 micron light at them again. And I got the same results. The same two went right for the filter as before, and the other two just didn’t care.

And there it was. I couldn’t be 100 percent certain, but I was pretty sure I’d just discovered the whole Astrophage life-cycle. It clicked in my mind like puzzle pieces finally fitting together.

The two holdouts didn’t want to go to Venus anymore. They wanted to go back to the sun. Why? Because one of them just divided and created the other.

Astrophage hang out on the surface of the sun gathering energy via heat. They store it internally in some way no one understands. Then, when they have enough, they migrate to Venus to breed, using that stored energy to fly through space using infrared light as a propellant. Lots of species migrate to breed. Why would Astrophage be any different?

The Aussies already worked out that the inside of Astrophage wasn’t much different from Earth life. It needed carbon and oxygen to make the complex proteins required for DNA, mitochondria, and all the other fun stuff found in cells. There’s plenty of hydrogen on the sun. But the other elements just aren’t present. So Astrophage migrates to the nearest supply of carbon dioxide: Venus.

First, it follows magnetic field lines and goes straight away from the sun’s North Pole. It has to do that, or the light from the sun would be too blinding to find Venus. And going straight up from the pole means the Astrophage will have a full view of Venus’s entire orbital path—no portion of it occluded by the sun.

Ah, and that’s why Astrophage is so inconsistent on reacting to magnetic fields. It only cares about them at the very beginning of its journey and at no other time.

Then it looks for Venus’s massive carbon dioxide spectral signature. Well, not really “looks for.” It’s probably more a simple stimulus-response thing initiated by the 4.26 and 18.31 micron light bands. Anyway, once it “sees” Venus, it goes straight to it. The path it takes—straight away from the solar pole, then sharply turning toward Venus—that’s the Petrova line.

Our heroic Astrophage reaches the upper atmosphere of Venus, collects the CO2 it needs, and can finally reproduce. After that, both parent and child return to the sun and the cycle begins anew.

It’s simple, really. Get energy, get resources, and make copies. It’s the same thing all life on Earth does.

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