I bring up the Centrifuge panel on the main control screen. Well, it’s just above the original main screen. That main screen got wrecked in the Adrian adventure. But this one’s good enough.
“You are ready?”
“The g-forces will be strong,” I say. “Easy for you, but hard for me. I might fall unconscious.”
“Unhealthy for human, question?” There’s a hint of quaver at the end.
“A little unhealthy. If I pass out, don’t worry. Just get the ship stable. I’ll wake when we stop spinning.”
“Understand.” Rocky holds the three controls at the ready.
“Okay, here goes.” I put the centrifuge into manual mode and bypass three warning dialogs. First, I rotate the crew compartment 180 degrees. Just like last time, I take it slow. But unlike last time, I have everything battened down. So as the world turns around and gravity changes directions, the lab and dormitory aren’t thrown into disarray.
Now I feel half a g pushing me toward the control panels. The nose is facing away from the rest of the ship again. I order all four spools to spool in without regard to ship rotation rate. The icons on the ship show the contraction as ordered and the force of my body into the restraints increases.
After just ten seconds, the forces are at 6 g’s and I can barely breathe. I gasp and squirm.
“You are not healthy!” Rocky squeaks. “Undo this. We make new plan.”
I can’t speak, so I shake my head. I feel the skin of my face stretch away from my cheeks. I must look like a monster right now. The periphery of my vision fades to black. This must be the tunnel vision I’ve heard about. It’s a good name.
The tunnel gets dimmer and dimmer until eventually it’s all black.
I wake up moments later. At least, I think it’s moments later. My arms float freely and only my restraints keep me from drifting out of my chair.
“Grace! You are okay, question?”
“Uh.” I rub my eyes. My vision’s blurry and I’m still groggy. “Yeah. Status?”
“Rotation rate is zero,” he says. “Beetles hard to control. Correction: Beetles easy to control. Ship powered by beetles hard to control.”
“You got it done, though. Good job.”
I release my restraints and stretch out. Nothing seems to be broken or wounded other than my burned arm from before. It actually feels great to be back in zero g. I’m achy everywhere as a rule. Lots of physical labor and I’m still recovering from injuries. Getting that pesky gravity out of the way puts less stress on my body.
I cycle through screens on the monitor. “All systems are okay. At least, nothing’s damaged further than before.”
“Good. What is next action, question?”
“Now I do math. A whole lot of math. I have to calculate the thrust duration and angle to get us back to your ship using the beetles as engines.”
I came to the meeting on time. At least, I thought I did. The email said 12:30. But when I got there, everyone was already seated. And silent. And they were all staring at me.
For the time being, we had a media blackout about the accident. The whole world was watching this project—their only hope for salvation. The last thing we needed was for people to know the primary and backup science specialists were dead. Say what you will about the Russians, they know how to keep a secret. All of Baikonur was on lockdown.
The meeting room, a simple trailer the Russians had supplied, had a great view of the launch pad. I could see the Soyuz through the window. Old technology, to be sure, but easily the most reliable launch system ever made.
Stratt and I hadn’t spoken since the night of the explosion. She suddenly had to head up an ad-hoc disaster inquiry. It couldn’t wait until later—if the accident was caused by some procedure or equipment that was going to be on the mission, we needed to know. I wanted to be involved but she wouldn’t let me. Someone had to keep dealing with various minor Hail Mary issues being reported by the ESA team.
Stratt stared right at me. Dimitri fiddled with some papers—probably a design for a spin-drive improvement. Dr. Lokken, the fiery Norwegian who designed the centrifuge, drummed her fingers on the table. Dr. Lamai wore her lab coat as always. Her team had perfected a fully automated medical robot and she’d probably be in line for a Nobel Prize someday. If Earth lived that long. Even Steve Hatch, the crazy Canadian who invented the beetle probes, was present. He, at least, didn’t look awkward. He just typed away on a calculator. He didn’t have papers in front of him. Just the calculator.
Also present were Commander Yáo and Engineer Ilyukhina. Yáo looked dour as ever, and Ilyukhina had no drink in her hand.
“Am I late?” I asked.
“No, you’re just in time,” Stratt said. “Have a seat.”
I sat in the only empty chair.
“We think we know what happened at the research center,” Stratt began. “The whole building is gone, but all their records were electronic and stored on a server that handles all of Baikonur. Fortunately, that server is in the Ground Control Building. Also, DuBois—being DuBois—kept meticulous notes.”
She pulled out a paper. “According to his digital diary, his plan for yesterday was to test an extremely rare failure case that could happen in an Astrophage-powered generator.”
Ilyukhina shook her head. “Should have been me testing this. I am responsible for ship maintenance. DuBois should have asked me.”
“What was he testing, exactly?” I asked.
Lokken cleared her throat. “One month ago, JAXA discovered a possible failure state for the generator. It uses Astrophage to make heat, which in turn powers a small turbine with state-change material. Old, reliable technology. It runs on a tiny amount of Astrophage—just twenty individual cells at a time.”
“That seems pretty safe,” I said.
“It is. But if the moderator system on the generator’s pump fails, and there’s an unusually dense clump of Astrophage in the fuel line right at that moment, up to one nanogram of Astrophage could be put into the reaction chamber.”
“What would that do?”
“Nothing. Because the generator also controls the amount of IR light shined on the Astrophage. If the chamber temperature gets too high, the IR lights turn off to let Astrophage calm down. Safe backup system. But there is a possible edge case, extremely unlikely, that a short in this system could make the IR lights turn on at full power and bypass the temperature safety interlock entirely. DuBois wanted to test this very, very unlikely scenario.”