John comes out pretty easily. The probe is bigger than I remember—almost the size of a suitcase. Of course, everything seems bigger when you’re holding it on an EVA with awkward gloves.
Ol’ John weighs a lot too. I don’t know if I could even lift it in Earth’s gravity. I tie it off to the backup tether, then reach in to get Paul.
* * *
Rocky can work fast when he needs to. And he needs to.
We’re in a questionable orbit around Adrian. Now that the computers and guidance systems are all back online, I can see the orbit. It’s not pretty. Our orbit is still highly elliptical, and the closest part of it is way too close to the planet.
Every ninety minutes, we touch the tippy-tippy-top of the atmosphere. It’s barely an atmosphere at that altitude. Just a few confused air molecules bouncing around. But it’s enough to slow us down just a teeny, tiny bit. That slowdown makes us dip a little deeper into the atmosphere on the next pass. You can see where this is going.
We scrape the atmosphere every ninety minutes. And I honestly don’t know how many times we can get away with it. For some reason, the computer doesn’t have models for “oddly elliptical orbits around the planet Adrian.”
So yeah. Rocky is in a hurry.
It takes him just two hours to disassemble Paul and understand most of how he works. This was no easy task—before we passed Paul into Rocky’s area of the ship, we had to make a special “cooling box.” The beetles have plastic parts inside that would melt in Rocky’s air. A big lump of Astrophage took care of that. Astrophage may be too hot for humans to touch, but it’s cool enough that plastic won’t melt, and of course it has no problem absorbing the extra heat and keeping things at 96 degrees Celsius.
Paul has a lot of electronics and circuitry inside. Rocky doesn’t follow that too well—Eridian electronics isn’t nearly so advanced as Earth’s. They haven’t invented the transistor yet, let alone IC chips. Working with Rocky is like having the world’s best engineer from 1950 on the ship with me.
Seems odd that a species could invent interstellar travel before inventing the transistor, but hey, Earth invented nuclear power, television, and even did several space launches before the transistor.
An hour later, he’s bypassed all the computer controls. He doesn’t need to understand them to bypass them—it’s just a matter of knowing what wires to directly apply voltage to. He jerry-rigged the spin drive to be activated by an audio-driven remote control. Pretty much everywhere humans use radio for short-range digital communication, Eridians use sound.
He repeats the process for Ringo and John. This time it’s much faster, because there’s no research effort. That leaves George unmodified. The little beetles don’t have much thrust, so the more of them we use the better, but I have to draw a line somewhere. I want to keep one safely in reserve, unmodified, ready to fulfill its original mission.
Thanks to Rocky, I might just survive this suicide mission, but there are no guarantees. The Hail Mary is in bad shape, to say the least. Several fuel tanks are gone, there’s damage and leaks all over the place. There are Taumoeba sneaking around waiting to eat whatever replacement fuel Rocky gives me. I can count at least a hundred ways the trip home might fail. So, before I set out, I’m going to send George on his way with all my findings and some Taumoeba aboard. I would much rather have kept two in reserve, but we need three beetles to be able to vector the thrust so we can angle the ship whatever direction we need.
Rocky passes the three modified beetles through the dormitory airlock to my side.
“You mount on hull,” he says. “Aim forty-five degrees out away from centerline of ship.”
“Understand.” I sigh. Another EVA on a spinning ship. Yay.
But what else can I do? We can’t zero the rotation without thrust.
I do the EVA. The only hard part is getting to the right place. The airlock is near the nose, and I need to mount the beetles on the rear section. And the ship is currently divided into two halves connected by nothing but five cables. But the designers of the Hail Mary thought of this. There are loops all along the cables that you can attach a tether to.
I’m getting better at the extremely odd skill set of EVAs in non-zero gravity. And unlike my death dance on the nose of the ship, the rear has lots of handles. Mounting the beetles is easy enough. I attach them to handles on the hull to immobilize them while Rocky’s xenonite glue sets and makes a permanent bond.
In the end, I have John, Paul, and Ringo evenly spaced in a ring around the hull, each one angled so their engine points 45 degrees away from the long axis of the ship.
“Beetles set,” I say into my radio. “Inspecting damaged area.”
“Good,” Rocky replies.
I make my way to the spot that was ruined by the fuel-tank rupture. There isn’t much to see—I jettisoned the bad tanks at the time. A rectangle of missing hull plates shows an opening where the tanks once were. The area surrounding the hole tells a tale of trauma. Black scorch marks mar the otherwise shiny hull plates. There’s clear and obvious warping on two of the neighboring panels.
“Some panels are bent. Some have burn marks. Not too bad.”
“Burn marks are odd, don’t you think? Why burn marks?”
“Yeah, but no oxygen. This is space. How did it burn?”
“Theory: Many Astrophage in tanks. Some probably dead. Dead Astrophage have water. Dead Astrophage not immune to heat. Water and much much heat become hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen and heat and hull becomes burn marks.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Good theory.”
I get back across the space rope bridge that is the cabling, then inside the airlock without incident. Rocky waits for me in his ceiling bulb in the control room.
“All is well, question?”
“Yes,” I say. “Controls for John, Paul, and Ringo are good?”
He holds identical control boxes in three of his hands. Each has a wire leading to a wall-mounted speaker/microphone attached to the hull. He taps a readout box with a fourth hand. “Communication established. All beetles function and ready.”
I strap myself into the command chair. This next bit is going to be uncomfortable.
We put the beetles at 45-degree angles from the ship centerline so we can use them to angle the ship as needed. It also lets us control the ship’s rotation. But we can only use the beetles when the ship is in one piece. So first I have to pull the halves together.
Conservation of rotational inertia being what it is, that means the ship is going to spin really fast. In fact, it’ll spin exactly as fast as it was when Rocky had to save me last time. We haven’t gained or lost any inertia in that time.