Project Hail Mary

Page 48

The alien’s claw—er…I’ll call it a hand. That’s less scary. The alien’s hand has three triangular fingers, each one with articulation points. Knuckles, I guess. They can close up into a raindrop shape or widen out to a sort of three-legged starfish.

The skin is weird. It looks like brownish-black rock. It’s irregular and bumpy, like someone carved the hand out of granite and hasn’t gotten around to smoothing it out yet. Natural armor, maybe? Like a turtle shell but less organized?

There’s an arm too. I can barely see it from this angle, no matter how hard I stupidly press my face into the Hot Wall of Pain. But there’s definitely an arm leading away from the hand. I mean, there’d have to be, right? Not just a magic floating hand.

I can’t take the pain anymore. I pull my head away. I feel my face. It’s pretty raw, but there aren’t any blisters.


The alien is tapping the clear hex with a finger. So I flick it with my finger three times.

It taps the hex again, three times. So I tap again as well.

Then comes something creepy. The cla—hand—retreats and returns with an object and holds it against the clear hexagon. Whatever it is, it’s small. I let myself drift closer to the wall for a better look. The heat warms my face.

The object is xenonite, of course. It’s about a half-inch high and finely detailed. It looks like a doll. But it has an oversized head and really thick arms and legs—


It’s me. It’s a teeny, tiny Russian Orlan-MKS2 EVA suit. That’s all they’ve seen of me so far.

Another hand shows up. Hey, I have two hands, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they do too. The second hand holds a model of the Hail Mary. It looks to be at the same scale as the figurine of me. The hands then push the little me into the little Hail Mary’s airlock.

Pretty clear. It’s saying, Go back into your ship.

I give a thumbs-up. The alien releases Mini-Me and the Hail Mary model to float away. Then it contorts a hand into something resembling a thumbs-up. It’s just two fingers curled into a ball with the third pointed up. At least it’s not the middle one that’s pointed up.

I return to the Hail Mary and close the airlock door behind me.

I pant and wheeze with excitement. I can’t believe that just happened.

That’s an alien. I just saw an alien. Not just an alien ship. An alien being. I mean—just his claw—er…hand. But yeah.

Well, I say “his hand,” but maybe it’s her hand. Or some other pronoun I don’t have a word for. They might have seventeen biological sexes, for all I know. Or none. No one ever talks about the really hard parts of first contact with intelligent alien life: pronouns. I’m going to go with “he” for now, because it just seems rude to call a thinking being “it.”

Also, until I hear otherwise, his name is Rocky.


* * *


Okay, now what? Rocky told me to go back into my ship. So I did.

I feel kind of stupid. There’s a whole bunch of science I should be doing, right?

I peek through the airlock porthole. My lamps are still taped to the walls in the tunnel and I can see there have been some…changes.

The hex wall is gone. Just plain gone. I can see all the way to the Blip-A’s hull. And there’s a hull robot attached to it reaching out and doing stuff with its little robot hands.

And yeah, its hands look like Rocky’s hands, broadly speaking. Three fingers. About the same size as Rocky’s hands. Probably controlled with a Nintendo Power Glove kind of thing inside the ship.

Man, I’m old.

The robot takes a particular interest in my lamps. Heck, I’d take an interest too. Those are alien artifacts with alien technology. Sure, they’re just lights, but they’re alien lights to my Eridian friends over there. Probably the most exciting scientific find of their history. The robot arm puts them in a little cubby on the Blip-A hull and a latch closes. I bet those are going to be the most heavily studied lamps in the history of lamps.

I’m glad they got to have that moment of discovery and all, but they took my light source away. I can hear the occasional clunk but it’s pitch-dark in there.

That’s interesting in and of itself. I’m not an alien from 40 Eridani, but if I were working with a remote-controlled robot, I’d have a camera on it somewhere and a light source to see what I was doing. But they don’t need that. They don’t need light.

Well, hold on. Their visible spectrum might be completely different from ours. Humans only see a tiny fraction of all the wavelengths of light out there. We evolved to see the wavelengths that are most plentiful on Earth. Maybe Eridians evolved to see different wavelengths. The room could be well illuminated with infrared or ultraviolet light and I wouldn’t see a thing.

Hmm. A robot. Why a robot? They had a living being there a few minutes ago—my boy Rocky. Why replace him with a robot?


They probably took all the air out of the tunnel. They have a sample of my hull—they know it’s made of aluminum and roughly how thick it is. Maybe they aren’t sure if my ship can handle outside pressure. Or maybe their atmosphere reacts badly with aluminum.

So they keep the tunnel a vacuum, which means they have to do work with a robot.

I feel like Sherlock Holmes. All I saw was “nothing,” and I drew a bunch of conclusions! Conclusions that are wildly speculative and with nothing to prove them, but conclusions!

I could get another lamp—the lab has a few more. I could shine it in there to see what Robo-Rocky is doing. But I’ll know soon enough. And I don’t want to be in some other part of the ship if something interesting happens.

Just as I’m thinking that, something interesting happens.


No, that’s not creepy at all. Being in a spaceship twelve light-years from home and having someone knock on the door is totally normal.

Okay, now I need another lamp. I pinball down to the lab to grab another one, then back up to the control room. I cycle the airlock without bothering to put on the EVA suit. I turn the manual vent valves on both doors of the airlock to repressurize the tunnel. It works just like I expect. There’s still a good seal out there.

I open the outer door and float in, lamp in hand.

The hex wall is gone—it’s been replaced by a solid wall of clear material. And on the other side of that wall is Rocky.

He’s a spider. A big-assed spider.

I turn to flee. But my rational brain takes over.

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