“This is nightmare,” said Dimitri.
“Dr. Grace. I want a short list of possible replacements.”
I stared with my mouth agape. “Are you made of stone or something?! Our friends just died!”
“Yes, and everyone else will die, too, if we don’t make this mission happen. We have nine days to find a replacement science specialist.”
I well up. “DuBois…Shapiro…” I snuffled and wiped my eyes. “They’re dead. They’re dead…oh God…”
Stratt slapped me. “Snap out of it!”
“Cry later! Mission first! You still have that list of coma-resistant candidates from last year? Start looking through it. We need a new science specialist. And we need them now!”
* * *
“Gathering sample now…” I say.
Rocky watches me from his tunnel in the lab ceiling. His device works just as it should. The clear xenonite box has a couple of valves and pumps that let me control the inside environment. The vacuum chamber is inside with its lid open. The box even has climate control, keeping the inside temperature a chilly minus 51 degrees Celsius.
Rocky admonished me for leaving the sample at (human) room temperature for so long. He had a lot to say on that subject, actually. We had to add “reckless,” “idiot,” “foolish,” and “irresponsible” to our shared vocabulary just so he could fully express his opinion on the matter.
There was another word he threw around a lot, but he declined to tell me what it meant.
Three days off the painkillers and I’m a lot smarter than I was. At least he understands that much—I wasn’t just some stupid human. I was a human with enhanced stupidity.
Rocky refused to give me the box I’m using until I slept three times without using the drugs. My arm hurts so bad right now, but he’s got a point.
Rocky healed a fair bit in that time too. I have no idea what’s going on inside his body. He looks the same as ever, but he’s moving around much better than before. Not full-speed, though. Neither am I. We’re the walking wounded, honestly.
By agreement, we’ve kept the gravity at one-half g.
I open and close the claws in the box a few times. “Look at me. I’m an Eridian now.”
“Yes. Very Eridian. Hurry and get sample.”
“You’re no fun.” I grab the cotton swab and bring it to a waiting glass slide. I rub it across the slide, leaving a noticeable smear, then return it to the vacuum chamber. I seal up the chamber, put the slide in a little clear xenonite container, and seal the box.
“Okay. That should do it.” I turn the valves to let my air in, then open the box from above. The slide is safe in its xenonite container. The galaxy’s smallest little spaceship. At least, from the point of view of any Adrian life that may be present.
I walk to the microscope station.
Rocky follows along in the tunnel above. “You certain you can see light so small, question?”
“Yes. Old technology. Very old.” I put the container on the tray and adjust the lenses. The xenonite is plenty clear enough for the microscope to see through.
“Okay, Adrian, what do you have for me?” I put my face to the eyepieces.
The most obvious thing is the Astrophage. As usual, they’re jet-black, absorbing all light. That’s expected. I adjust the backlight and focus. And I see microbes everywhere.
One of my favorite experiments with the kids is to have them look at a drop of water. A drop of water, preferably one from a puddle outside, will be swarming with life. It always goes over well, except for the occasional kid who then refuses to drink water for a while.
“Lots of life in here,” I say. “Different kinds.”
Of course there would be. Any planet that has life will have it everywhere. That’s my theory, at least. Evolution is extremely good at filling every nook in the ecosystem.
Right now I’m looking at hundreds of unique life-forms, never before seen by humans. Each one an alien race. I can’t help but smile. Still, I have work to do.
I pan around until I find a nice clump of Astrophage. If there’s a predator to be had, it’ll be where the Astrophage is. Otherwise it’d be a pretty bad predator.
I flick on the microscope’s internal camera. The image appears on a little LCD screen. I adjust the screen and set it recording.
“This could take time,” I say. “Need to see interaction between—whoa!”
I shove my face back to the microscope to get a better look. It only took seconds before the Astrophage fell under attack. Am I incredibly lucky, or is this life-form just that aggressive?
Rocky skittered back and forth above me. “What, question? What happen, question?”
The monster lurches toward the clump of Astrophage. It’s an amorphous blob, like an amoeba. It presses itself against its much-smaller prey and begins to envelop the entire clump of them by oozing around both sides.
The Astrophage wriggle. They know something is wrong. They try to escape but it’s too late. They can only sputter a short distance before they stop. Normally, Astrophage can accelerate to near light speed in seconds, but these can’t. Maybe a chemical excretion by the monster that disables them somehow?
The encirclement completes, and the Astrophage are surrounded. A few seconds later, the Astrophage become cell-like in appearance. No longer featureless black, their organelles and membranes are starkly visible in the microscope’s light. They have lost their ability to absorb heat and light energy.
“Got it!” I say. “I found the predator! It ate Astrophage right in front of me!”
“Found!” Rocky cheers. “Isolate.”
“Yes, I’ll isolate it!” I say.
“Happy happy happy!” he says. “Now you name.”
I grab a nano-pipette from the supply. “I don’t follow.”
“Earth culture. You find. You name. What is name of predator, question?”
“Oh,” I say. I’m not feeling creative at the moment. This is too exciting to take my attention away from. It’s an amoeba from Tau Ceti. “Taumoeba, I guess.”
Taumoeba. The savior of Earth and Erid.
* * *
I should have a bolo tie. Maybe a cowboy hat. Because I’m a rancher now. And I’m running about 50 million head of Taumoeba on my ranch.