Project Hail Mary

Page 50

“Molecules!” I grab the handcuffs and hold them out to Rocky. “These are molecules! You’re trying to tell me something about chemistry!”


But wait. These are some weird molecules. They make no sense. I look at the handcuffs. Nothing forms a molecule like this. Eight atoms on one side, eight on the other, and connected by…what? Nothing? The connector string isn’t even coming off a bead. It’s just teeing off strings from the two circles.

“Atoms!” I say. “The beads are protons. So the circles of beads are atoms. And the little connectors are chemical bonds!”

“Okay, if that’s the case…” I hold up the handcuffs and count everything again. “Then this is two atoms, each with eight protons, connected to each other. Element number eight is oxygen. Two oxygens. O2! And it was in the Hail Mary ball.”

I hold it toward Rocky. “You clever fellow, this is my atmosphere!”

I grab the other set of beads. “So your atmosphere is…seven protons connected to three individual atoms with one proton each. A nitrogen attached to three hydrogens. Ammonia! Of course it’s ammonia! You breathe ammonia!”

That explains the pervasive smell on all of the little presents they left me. Residual traces of their air.

My smile fades. “Yikes. You breathe ammonia?”

I count all the little ammonia necklaces they gave me. I only got one O2 molecule, but he gave me twenty-nine ammonias.

I think about it for a moment.

“Oh,” I say. “I get it. I see what you’re saying.”

I look to my alien counterpart. “You have twenty-nine times as much atmosphere as I do.”

Wow. Two things come immediately to mind: First, Eridians live in immense pressure. Like—similar to being a thousand feet deep in the ocean back on Earth. Secondly, xenonite is some amazing stuff. I don’t know how thick that wall is—half an inch, maybe? Less? But it’s holding back a relative pressure of 28 atmospheres. All while being a big, un-reinforced flat panel (the absolute worst way to make a pressure vessel). Heck, their whole ship is made of big flat panels. The tensile strength of that stuff must be off the charts. No wonder I couldn’t bend or break the things they sent earlier.

We don’t have remotely compatible environments. I’d die in seconds if I were on his side of the tunnel. And my guess is he wouldn’t do well in one twenty-ninth his normal atmospheric pressure and with no ammonia at all.

Okay, not a problem. We have sound and we can pantomime. That’s a good start for communication.

I take a moment to let this all sink in. This is amazing stuff. I have an alien buddy here, and we’re chatting! I can barely contain myself! The problem is—I haven’t contained myself. Fatigue washes over me so hard I can barely concentrate. It’s been two days since I slept. There’s just always been something monumental going on. I can’t just stay up forever. I need to sleep.

I hold up a finger. The “hang on a sec” motion. Hopefully he remembers it from last time. He holds up a finger on one of his hands to match.

I rush back into the ship and careen down to the lab. There’s an analog clock on the wall. Because every lab needs an analog clock. It takes some doing, but I pull it off the wall and put it under my arm. I also grab a dry-erase marker from the workstation.

Back I go, through the control room and into the Tunnel of Aliens. Rocky is still there. He seems to perk up when I return. How could I know that? I don’t know. He just kind of repositioned himself and seems more attentive.

I show him the clock. I spin the time-set dial in the back. I just want him to see how the hands move around. He makes a circular motion with a hand. He gets it!

I set the clock to 12:00. Then I use the dry-erase marker to draw a long line from the center toward the twelve and a short line from the center to the two. I’d rather sleep a solid eight hours, but I don’t want to keep Rocky waiting too long. I’ll settle for a two-hour nap. “I’ll come back when the clock matches this,” I say. As if that would help him understand.

“♩♪♫.” He makes a gesture. He reaches forward with two of his hands and grabs…nothing. And then he pulls the nothing toward him.


He taps the wall and points to the clock, then repeats the gesture. Does he want the clock to be closer to the wall?

I push the clock closer. This seems to excite him. He makes the gesture more rapidly. I move it further forward. The clock is almost touching the wall now. He does the gesture one more time, but this time a little slower.

At this point, I have no idea what he wants. So I just push the clock up against the wall. It’s touching now. He raises his hands and kind of shakes them. Alien jazz hands. Is that a good thing?

Okay, I hope he understands I’ll be back in two hours. I turn to leave but immediately hear tap-tap-tap.

“Whaaat?” I say.

“♪♪♫♪,” he says, pointing to the clock. It drifted a little bit away from the wall. He doesn’t like that.

“Um, okay,” I say. I pull a loop of tape off the wall, unloop it, and rip it in half. I use the two halves to tape the left and right sides of the clock to the clear wall.

Rocky gives me the jazz hands signal again. I think it means “yes” or “I approve of this.” Like nodding.

I turn to leave again, but tap-tap-tap!

I spin around once more. “Dude, I just want a darn nap!”

He holds up a finger. Using my own sign language against me. Now I have to wait! I guess that’s fair. I hold up my finger to acknowledge it.

He opens a circular door leading into his ship. It’s the right size for an Eridian—I would have a hard time squeezing through if that ever became a plan. He disappears inside, leaving the door open. I’d love to know what’s beyond the door, but I can’t see anything. It’s pitch-black in there.

Hmm. Interesting. It is completely dark in his ship. That door probably leads to an airlock. But even an airlock would have some lights in it, wouldn’t it?

Rocky didn’t have any problem getting around. But I know he can see—he responds to my gestures. This lends strength to my earlier theory about Eridian vision: I think they see a different part of the spectrum than humans do. Maybe they see entirely in infrared or entirely in ultraviolet. That airlock might be perfectly lit up as far as Rocky’s concerned and I can’t see a thing. Conversely, my lights are completely useless to him.

I wonder if we have any wavelengths in common. Maybe red (the color with the lowest wavelength that humans can see) is “♪♫♩,” the highest wavelength they can see. Or something. Might be worth looking into. I should bring a rainbow of lights in and find out if he can—oh, he’s back.

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