“The computer has all that information! I can’t remember all that!”
“Human brain useless!”
“Oh, shut up!”
I climb down the ladder to the lab. The emergency lighting is on in here too. Rocky follows along in his tunnel.
I reach down, grab my tool bag, and continue onward to the next ladder. He continues following me.
“Where you go, question?”
“The storage area. It’s the only place I haven’t completely searched. And it’s the very bottom of the crew compartment. If the generator is accessible to the crew, that’s where it’ll be.”
Once in the dormitory, I crawl into the storage space. My arm hurts. I climb around to inspect the bulkhead with the fuel bay. My arm hurts more.
At this point, my arm just always hurts, so I try to ignore it. But no more painkillers. They just make me too stupid. I lie back in the storage compartment and let the pain subside a bit. There must be access panels in here, right? I can’t remember the exact layout of the ship, but critical equipment is probably inside the pressurized area. For this very reason. Right?
How do I find it, though? I’d need x-ray vision to know where—oh, hey!
“Rocky! Are there any doors in here?”
He is silent for a moment. He taps on the wall a few times. “Six small doors.”
“Six?! Ugh. Tell me where the first one is.” I put my hand on the compartment ceiling.
“Move hand toward your feet and left…”
I follow his directions to the first door. Man, they’re hard to see. The emergency lighting in the dormitory is meager to start with, and the small amount getting into the compartment is dismal.
The panel is secured with a simple flat-head screw that controls a latch. I turn it with a stub screwdriver from my toolkit. The panel swings open to reveal a pipe with a valve on it. The label reads PRIMARY OXYGEN SHUTOFF. Definitely don’t want to mess with that. I close the cabinet.
One by one, he leads me to each door and I check what’s behind it. I know he can sonar-sense the shapes behind the doors but that’s no good. I’d rather just look at what’s there than have him describe what he senses in our limited shared language.
Behind the fourth door, I find it.
It’s a lot smaller than I expect it to be. The whole cubby is about 1 cubic foot. The generator itself is in an irregularly shaped black casing and I only know it’s a generator because it’s labeled as such. I see two thick pipes with shutoff valves on them, as well as several fairly normal-looking electrical wires.
“Found it,” I say.
“Good,” comes Rocky’s voice from the dormitory. “Take out and give to me.”
“I want to look at it first.”
“You bad at this. I fix.”
“The generator might not survive your environment!”
“Mmm,” he grumbles.
“If I can’t fix it, you can talk me through it.”
The two pipes with shutoff valves must be the Astrophage supply lines. I look a little deeper into the cubby and find labels. One is “fuel” and the other is “waste.” Clear enough.
I use a wrench to unscrew the hose bib on the “waste” line. As soon as it comes loose, a dark liquid drips out. Not much—just what was between the shutoff valve and my end of the hose. It must be whatever fluid we use to carry away dead Astrophage. I got some on my hand—it feels slimy. Maybe it’s oil. It’s a good idea, actually. Any liquid will do, oil is lighter than water, and it won’t corrode the pipes.
Next I unscrew the “fuel” line. It, too, sloshes brown liquid out. But this time, it smells awful.
I wince and bury my face in my arm. “Ugh! God!”
“What is problem, question?” Rocky calls out from below.
“The fuel smells bad,” I say. Eridians don’t have a sense of smell. But while it took a long time to explain sight to Rocky, smell was easy. Because Eridians do have a sense of taste. When you get down to it, smell is just tasting at range.
“Is natural smell or chemical smell, question?”
I take another halting sniff. “Smells like rotted food. Astrophage doesn’t normally smell bad. It doesn’t normally have an odor at all.”
“Astrophage is alive. Maybe Astrophage can rot.”
“Astrophage can’t rot,” I say. “How could it rot—OH NO! OH GOD NO!”
I wipe my hand across the foul-smelling gunk, then wriggle out of the compartment. Then, keeping my gunky hand in the air and not touching anything, I climb up the ladder to the lab.
Rocky clatters along in his tunnel. “What is wrong, question?”
“No, no, no, no…” I say with a squeak at the end. My heart is about to beat right out of my throat. I think I’m going to puke.
I smear some gunk onto a glass slide and shove the slide into the microscope. There’s no power for the backlight, so I grab a flashlight from the drawer and shine it at the plate. It’ll have to do.
I look through the eyepieces and my worst fears are realized. “Oh God.”
“What is problem, question?!” Rocky’s voice is a full octave higher than normal.
I grab my head with both hands, smearing foul gunk on myself but I don’t even care. “Taumoeba. There are Taumoeba in the generator.”
“They damage generator, question?” Rocky says. “Give me generator. I fix.”
“The generator isn’t broken,” I say. “If there are Taumoeba in the generator, it means there are Taumoeba in the fuel supply. Taumoeba ate all the Astrophage. We have no power because we have no fuel.”
Rocky raises his carapace so fast he clunks it against the roof of his tunnel. “How Taumoeba get into fuel, question?!”
“There are Taumoeba in my lab. I didn’t keep them sealed off. I didn’t think to. Some probably got loose. The ship has a bunch of cracks, holes, and leaks ever since we almost died at Adrian. Some small hole in a fuel line somewhere must have let Taumoeba in. It only takes one.”
“Bad! Bad bad bad!”
I start to hyperventilate. “We’re dead in space. We’re stuck here forever.”
“Not forever,” Rocky says.
I perk up. “No?”
“No. Orbit decay soon. Then we die.”