Project Hail Mary

Page 9

“What the fuck?!” came a voice in the background. Several flight controllers gasped.

The reporter snickered. “High spirits here at JPL. We are coming to you live, so we apologize for any—”

“Oh my God!” said Browne.

On the main screen, more images came through. One after another. All nearly the same.


The reporter looked at the images on-screen. “Are those particles…moving?”

The images, playing in succession, showed the black dots deforming and shifting around within their environment.

The reporter cleared her throat and delivered what many would call the understatement of the century: “They look a little like microbes, wouldn’t you say?”

“Telemetry!” Dr. Browne called out. “Any shimmy in the probe?”

“Already checked,” said someone. “No shimmy.”

“Is there a consistent direction of travel?” he asked. “Something that could be explained by an external force? Magnetic, maybe? Static electricity?”

The room fell silent.

“Anyone?!” said Browne.

I dropped my fork right into my spaghetti.

Is this actually alien life? Am I really that lucky?! To be alive when humanity first discovers extraterrestrial life?!

Wow! I mean—the Petrova problem is still terrifying but…wow! Aliens! This could be aliens! I couldn’t wait to talk about this with the kids tomorrow—


* * *


“Angular anomaly,” the computer says.

“Darn it!” I say. “I was almost there! I almost remembered myself!”

“Angular anomaly,” the computer repeats.

I unfold myself and get to my feet. In my limited interactions with it, the computer seems to have some understanding of what I say. Like Siri or Alexa. So I’ll talk to it like I’d talk to one of them.

“Computer, what is an angular anomaly?”

“Angular anomaly: an object or body designated as critical is not at the expected location angle by at least 0.01 radians.”

“What body is anomalous?”

“Angular anomaly.”

Not much help. I’m on a ship, so it must be a navigational issue. That can’t be good. How would I even steer this thing? I don’t see anything resembling spaceship controls—not that I really know what those look like. But all I’ve discovered so far is a “coma room” and a lab.

That other hatch in the lab—the one that leads farther up—that must be important. This is like being in a video game. Explore the area until you find a locked door, then look for the key. But instead of searching bookshelves and garbage cans, I have to search my mind. Because the “key” is my own name.

The computer’s not being unreasonable. If I can’t remember my own name, I probably shouldn’t be allowed into delicate areas of the ship.

I climb onto my bunk and lie on my back. I keep a wary eye on the robot arms above, but they don’t move. I guess the computer is satisfied that I’m self-sufficient for now.

I close my eyes and focus on that flash of memory. I can see bits and pieces of it in my mind. Like looking at an old photo that’s been damaged.

I’m in my house…no…apartment. I have an apartment. It’s tidy, but small. There’s a picture of the San Francisco skyline on one wall. Not useful. I already know I lived in San Francisco.

There’s a Lean Cuisine microwave meal on the coffee table in front of me. Spaghetti. The heat still hasn’t equalized yet, so there are pockets of nearly frozen noodles next to tongue-melting plasma. But I’m taking bites anyway. I must be hungry.

I’m watching NASA on TV; I see all that stuff from my previous flash of memory. My first thought is…I’m elated! Could it be extraterrestrial life? I can’t wait to tell the kids!

I have kids? This is a single man’s apartment with a single man eating a single man’s meal. I don’t see anything feminine at all. There’s nothing to suggest a woman in my life. Am I divorced? Gay? Either way, there’s no sign that children live here. No toys, no pictures of kids on the wall or mantel, nothing. And the place is way too clean. Kids make a mess of everything. Especially when they start chewing gum. They all go through a gum phase—at least, a lot of them do—and they leave it everywhere.

How do I know that?

I like kids. Huh. Just a feeling. But I like them. They’re cool. They’re fun to hang out with.

So I’m a single man in my thirties, who lives alone in a small apartment, I don’t have any kids, but I like kids a lot. I don’t like where this is going…

A teacher! I’m a schoolteacher! I remember it now!

Oh, thank God. I’m a teacher.

“All right,” I said, looking at the clock. “We have one minute until the bell. You know what that means!”

“Lightning round!” yelled my students.

Life had changed surprisingly little since the announcement about the Petrova line.

The situation was dire and deadly, but it was also the norm. Londoners during the Blitz in World War II went about their day as normal, with the understanding that occasionally buildings get blown up. However desperate things were, someone still had to deliver milk. And if Mrs. McCreedy’s house got bombed in the night, well, you crossed it off the delivery list.

So it was that with the apocalypse looming—possibly caused by an alien life-form—I stood in front of a bunch of kids and taught them basic science. Because what’s the point of even having a world if you’re not going to pass it on to the next generation?

The kids sat in neat rows of desks, facing the front. Pretty standard stuff. But the rest of the room was like a mad scientist’s lab. I’d spent years perfecting the look. I had a Jacob’s ladder in one corner (I kept it unplugged so the kids didn’t kill themselves). Along another wall was a bookshelf full of specimen jars of animal parts in formaldehyde. One of the jars was just spaghetti and a boiled egg. The kids speculated on that one a lot.

And gracing the center of the ceiling was my pride and joy—a huge mobile that was a model of the solar system. Jupiter was the size of a basketball, while wee Mercury was as small as a marble.

It had taken me years to cultivate a rep as the “cool” teacher. Kids are smarter than most people think. And they can tell when a teacher actually cares about them as opposed to when they’re just going through the motions. Anyway, it was time for the lightning round!

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