Project Hail Mary

Page 49

“Easy…easy…they’re friendly,” I say to myself. I turn back and take in the scene.

Rocky is smaller than a human. He’s about the size of a Labrador. He has five legs radiating out from a central carapace-looking thing. The carapace, which is roughly a pentagon, is 18 inches across and half as thick. I don’t see eyes or a face anywhere.

Each leg has a joint in the middle—I’ll call it an elbow. Each leg (or should I say arm?) ends in a hand. So he’s got five hands. Each hand has those triangular fingers I got a good look at last time. Looks like all five hands are the same. I don’t see any “front” or “back” to him. He appears to be pentagonally symmetrical.

He wears clothing. The legs are bare, showing the rocklike skin, but there’s cloth on the carapace. Sort of like a shirt with five armholes. I don’t know what the shirt is made of but it looks thicker than typical human clothing. It’s a dull greenish-brown, and inconsistently shaded.

The top of the shirt has a large open hole. Like where the neck goes on a human’s T-shirt. That hole is smaller than the carapace. So he must have to put that shirt on by pulling it downward and sliding the arms through their respective holes. Again, like a human’s shirt.

But there’s no neck or head to go through that hole on top. Just a hard-looking rocky pentagon that sticks up a little bit from the crusty skin.

On his side of the tunnel, he has handles and latticework on the walls. He casually hangs on to a couple of bars with two of his hands. I guess when you have five hands, zero g isn’t that big a deal. Just allocate a hand or two for keeping in one place and use the other three to do stuff.

For me, the tunnel is kind of small. But for him it’s absolutely spacious.

He waves to me with a free arm. He knows one human greeting and by golly he plans to use it.

I wave back. He waves again. I shake my head. No more waving.

He pivots his “shoulders” to rotate his carapace back and forth. He “shook his head” inasmuch as he could. I wonder how we’re going to break out of this game of “Eridian See Eridian Do,” but he takes care of that for me.

He taps the clear wall three times with a finger, then keeps the finger extended. Is he…pointing?

I follow the line and wow, there’s stuff in the tunnel with me! They left me a present!

I can be forgiven for not noticing. Seeing an alien kind of distracted me from the small collection of objects on the tunnel wall.

“All right,” I say. “Let’s see what you left me.”

“♩♫♪♪♫,” says Rocky.

My jaw drops. Yes, I’m in zero g. It still drops.

There was no pronunciation or inflection of the sounds. Just notes. Like whale song. Except not quite like whale song, because there were several at once. Whale chords, I guess. And he was responding to me. That means he can hear too.

And notably, the sounds were in my range of hearing. Some of the notes were low, some of them high. But definitely audible. That alone is amazing when I think about it. He’s from a different planet, and totally different evolutionary line, but we ended up with compatible sound ranges.

On top of all that, he decided my noises warranted a response.

“You have a language!” I say. “How do you have a language?! You don’t have a mouth!”

“♫♫♩,” Rocky explains.

Thinking rationally, you can’t make spaceships without a civilization and you can’t have civilization without being able to communicate. So of course they have language. It’s interesting that communication is done with sound, like humans do. Coincidence? Maybe not. Maybe that’s just the easiest way to evolve that trait.

“♪.” Rocky points to the objects they left me.

“Right, right,” I say. The whole language thing is way more interesting to me, and I’d rather explore that. But for now, Rocky wants to know what I think of his presents.

I float over to the objects. They’re attached to the wall with my own tape.

The objects are a pair of spheres. Each one has a raised image embossed on it. One has the Hail Mary and the other has the Blip-A.

I pull the Hail Mary ball off the tape. It’s not warm. In fact, the tunnel isn’t warm anymore. Interesting. Maybe they noticed I like things cooler and they did something to make it more comfortable for me.

There’s a rattle from inside the ball. I shake it and listen. More rattling.

I find a seam. I rotate the top and bottom of the ball against each other and sure enough, they rotate. Left-handed screw, of course.

I look to Rocky for approval. He has no face and thus no facial expressions. He just floats there, watching me. Well, not watching…no eyes. Actually, wait. How does he know what I’m doing? He clearly knows—he waved and stuff. He must have eyes somewhere. I probably just don’t recognize them.

I turn my attention back to the sphere. I pull the two halves apart and inside is…a bunch more little spheres.

I sigh. This raises more questions than it answers.

The little beads float out and drift across my field of view. They’re not individual items. They’re connected to one another by little strings. Like a complicated necklace. I spread it out as best I can.

They look like—for lack of a better term—beaded handcuffs. Two circles of threaded beads connected to each other by a little bridge of thread. Each circle has eight beads on it. The connecting thread has none. This seems very deliberate. But I have no idea what it means.

Maybe the other ball—the one with the Blip-A picture on it—will shed more light. I let the handcuffs float and pull the Blip-A ball off the wall. I shake it and hear lots of rattling from inside. I unscrew the two halves and another set of beads comes out.

Unlike the handcuffs, there’s only one ring in this construction. And it has seven beads, not eight. Also, it has three connector strings sticking out of the circle and leading to a single bead each. Kind of like a necklace with some ornamentation hanging off of it.

There’s more stuff inside. I shake the model and another necklace floats out. I take a look and it’s identical to the one I just inspected. I keep shaking and more and more necklaces come out. Each one the same. I collect them all and stuff them in my pockets.

“This reminds me of something…” I thump my forehead. “What does this remind me of…?”

Rocky taps his carapace with a claw. I know he’s just mimicking my movements but it feels like he’s saying, Think, dummy!

What would I tell my students at a time like this?

Why did I suddenly think of my students? I got an image of my classroom. A flash of memory. I’m holding a model of a molecule and explaining—

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