Project Hail Mary

Page 24

And that was why two of my little Stooges didn’t walk toward the light.

So how does Astrophage find the sun? My guess: Look for the extremely bright thing and head that way.

I separated Moe and Shemp (the sun-seekers) from Larry and Curly (the Venus-seekers). I put Larry and Curly on a different slide and put it in a light-sealed sample container. Then I set up an experiment in the dark closet for Moe and Shemp. This time, I put a bright incandescent bulb in there and turned it on. I expected them to head right toward it, but no dice. They didn’t budge. Probably not bright enough.

I went to a photography store downtown (San Francisco has a lot of photography enthusiasts) and bought the largest, brightest, most powerful flash I could find. I replaced the lightbulb with the flash and did the experiment again.

Moe and Shemp took the bait!

I had to sit down and take a breath. I should have taken a nap—I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. But this was too exciting. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Stratt’s number. She answered halfway through the first ring.

“Dr. Grace,” she said. “Find something?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I figured out how Astrophage reproduce and managed to make it happen.”

Silence for a second. “You successfully bred Astrophage?”


“Nondestructively?” she asked.

“I had three cells. I now have four. They’re all alive and well.”

Silence for another second. “Stay there.”

She hung up.

“Huh,” I said. I put the phone back in my lab coat. “Guess she’s on her way.”

Steve the army guy burst into the lab. “Dr. Grace?!”

“Wha…uh, yeah?”

“Please come with me.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me just get my Astrophage samples put away—”

“There are lab techs on the way to deal with all that. You have to come with me now.”



* * *


The next twelve hours were…unique.

Steve the army guy drove me to a high school football field where a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter had already landed. Without words, they hustled me into the chopper and up we went into the sky. I tried not to look down.

The chopper took me to Travis Air Force Base, about 60 miles north of the city. Did the marines often land at air force bases? I don’t know much about the military, but that seemed odd. It also seemed a bit extreme to send in the marines just to keep me from driving through a couple of hours of traffic, but okay.

There was a jeep waiting for me on the tarmac where the helicopter landed, with an air force guy standing next to it. He introduced himself, I swear he did, but I don’t remember his name.

He drove me across the tarmac to a waiting jet. No, not a passenger jet. And not a Learjet or anything like that. This was a fighter jet. I don’t know what kind. Like I said, I don’t know military stuff.

My guide hustled me up a ladder and into the seat behind the pilot. He gave me a pill and a little paper cup of water. “Take this.”

“What is it?”

“It’ll keep you from puking all over our nice, clean cockpit.”


I swallowed the pill.

“And it’ll help you sleep.”


Away he went, and the ground crew pulled away the ladder. The pilot didn’t say a word to me. Ten minutes later, we took off like a bat out of hell. I’d never felt acceleration like that in my life. The pill did its job. I definitely would have puked.

“Where are we going?” I asked through the headset.

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not allowed to speak to you.”

“This is going to be a boring trip, then.”

“They usually are,” he said.

I don’t know exactly when I fell asleep but it was within minutes of taking off. Thirty-six hours of mad science plus whatever was in that pill put me right into dreamland regardless of the ridiculous jet-engine noise surrounding me.

I awoke in darkness to a jolt. We’d landed.

“Welcome to Hawaii, sir,” said the pilot.

“Hawaii? Why am I in Hawaii?”

“I wasn’t given that information.”

The jet taxied onto some side runway or whatever and a ground crew brought a ladder. I hadn’t gotten halfway down the ladder yet when I heard “Dr. Grace? This way, please!”

It was a man in a U.S. Navy uniform.

“Where the hell am I?!” I demanded.

“Naval Station Pearl Harbor,” said the officer. “But not for long. Please follow me.”

“Sure. Why not?”

They put me in another jet with another non-talkative pilot. The only difference was that this time it was a navy jet instead of an air force jet.

We flew for a long time. I lost track of the hours. Keeping track was meaningless anyway. I didn’t know how long we’d be in the air. Finally, I kid you not, we landed on an honest-to-God aircraft carrier.

Next thing I knew, I was on the flight deck looking like an idiot. They gave me earmuffs and a coat and shuffled me over to a helipad. A navy chopper was waiting for me.

“Will this trip…end? Like…ever?!” I asked.

They ignored me and got me strapped in. The chopper took off immediately. This time, the flight wasn’t nearly so long. Just an hour or so.

“This should be interesting,” said the pilot. It was the only thing he’d said the whole flight.

We descended and the landing gear deployed. Below us was another aircraft carrier. I squinted at it. Something looked different. What was it…oh, right. It had a big Chinese flag flying over it.

“Is that a Chinese aircraft carrier?!” I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Are we, a U.S. Navy helicopter, going to land on that Chinese aircraft carrier?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I see.”

We landed on the carrier’s helipad and a bunch of Chinese Navy guys watched us with interest. There would be no post-flight servicing of this chopper. My pilot leered through the windows at them and they leered right back.

As soon as I stepped out, he took off again. I was in China’s hands now.

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