I stood and shuffled out of the room. I don’t think I even said goodbye. It’s a dark and depressing feeling to have all your closest colleagues get together and decide you should die.
I checked my watch—12:38 p.m. I had four and a half hours to decide.
* * *
The spin drives of the Hail Mary are incredibly overpowered for its current mass. When we left Earth, the ship weighed 2.1 million kilograms—most of it being fuel. Now the ship only weighs 120,000 kilograms. About one-twentieth its departure weight.
Thanks to the Hail Mary’s relatively low mass, the scrappy little beetles are able to collectively give me 1.5 g’s of thrust. Except that the ship wasn’t designed to have a bunch of thrust coming in at 45-degree-angle force pushing arbitrary EVA handles on the hull. If we fire up the beetles at full power, they’ll just rip free of the handles and ride off into the Tauset.
Rocky was mindful of that when he zeroed out our rotation. Now we have that under control and I can do EVAs in zero g like God intended. I 3-D print a model of the Hail Mary’s internal skeleton and give it to Rocky for his perusal. In under an hour, he not only has a solution but has fabricated the xenonite struts to implement it.
So I do another EVA. I add the xenonite supports to the beetles. For once, everything goes according to plan. Rocky assures me that the ship can now handle full thrust from the beetles and I don’t doubt him for a second. The guy knows engineering.
I type in a bunch of calculations into a complicated Excel spreadsheet that’s probably got errors in it somewhere. It takes me six hours to put together. I finally come up with what I think is the right answer. At least, it should put us close enough that we can see the Blip-A. Then we can fine-tune our vectors from there.
“Ready?” I say from the pilot seat.
“Ready,” Rocky says in his bulb. He holds the three control boxes in his hands.
“Okay…John and Paul to 4.5 percent.”
“John and Paul, 4.5 percent, confirmed,” he says.
Sure, Rocky could have made controls for me to use, but this is better. I have to watch the screen closely and pay attention to our vectors. Best to have someone give their full attention to the beetles. Besides, Rocky’s a ship’s engineer. Who better to run our makeshift engines?
“John and Paul to zero. Ringo to 1.1 percent,” I say.
“John and Paul zero. Ringo 1.1.”
We make numerous tweaks to the thrust vectors bit by bit to angle the ship roughly the direction I want. We finally achieve what I hope is the right direction.
“Here goes nothing,” I say. “All ahead full!”
“John, Paul, Ringo 100 percent.”
I’m thrown back into my seat as the ship lurches forward, with 1.5 g’s of gravity taking over as we accelerate in a straight line (maybe) toward the Blip-A (hopefully).
“Maintain thrust for three hours,” I say.
“Three hours. I watch engines. You relax.”
“Thanks, but no time for rest. Want to use gravity while I can.”
“I stay here. Tell me how experiments go.”
I’m shooting for another eleven-day transfer. It takes 130 kilograms of fuel to make that happen—about a quarter of what the beetles have aboard (if you include George, who is sitting on the lab table full of Astrophage). That should give us enough left over to correct whatever idiotic mistakes I made in my trajectory math.
We’ll get up to cruising speed in three hours, then we’ll coast for most of eleven days. I don’t want to deal with spinning up or spinning down the centrifuge. Yes, it can be done—Rocky proved it when he zeroed us out before. But it was a delicate process with lots of guessing and opportunities for spinning out of control. Or worse—getting the cables tangled up.
So, for the next three hours I have 1.5 g’s to work with. After that it’ll be zero g for a while. Time to hit the lab.
I climb down the ladder. My arm hurts. But less than it has. I’ve been changing the bandages every day—or rather, Dr. Lamai’s medical marvel machine has been doing it. There’s definitely scarring all over the skin. I’m going to have an ugly arm and shoulder for the rest of my life. But I think the deeper layers of skin must have survived. If they hadn’t, I probably would have died of gangrene by now. Or Lamai’s machine would have amputated my arm when I wasn’t looking.
It’s been a while since I had to deal with1.5 g’s. My legs don’t approve. But I’m used to this sort of complaint at this point.
I walk to the main lab table, where the Taumoeba experiments are still in progress. Every part of them is firmly mounted to the table. Just in case we have more unexpected adventures in acceleration. Of course, it’s not like I’m short on Taumoeba. I have a bunch of them where my fuel used to be.
I check the Venus experiment first. The cooling mechanism whirs slightly, keeping the inside temperature correct for Venus’s extreme upper atmosphere. I originally intended to let the Taumoeba in there incubate for only an hour, but then the lights went off and we had other priorities. So now it’s been four days. If nothing else, they’ve had plenty of time to do their thing.
I gulp. This is an important moment. The small glass slide inside had a one-cell-thick layer of Astrophage. If the Taumoeba are alive and dining on Astrophage, light will be able to get through. The more light I see through that slide, the fewer Astrophage are still alive on it.
I steel myself, take a deep breath, and look inside.
My breathing becomes unsteady. I fish a flashlight out of my pocket and shine it from behind. No light gets through at all. My heart sinks.
I sidestep over to the Threeworld Taumoeba experiment. I take a look at the slide in there and see the same thing. Completely black.
Taumoeba can’t survive Venus or Threeworld’s environment. Or, at the very least, they aren’t eating. The pit of my stomach feels like it’s going to melt.
So close! We were so close! We have the answer right here! Taumoeba! A natural predator to the thing that’s ruining our worlds! And it’s hearty too. It can survive and thrive in my fuel tanks, obviously. But not in Venus or Threeworld’s air. Why the heck not?!
“What you see, question?” Rocky asks.
“Failure,” I say. “Both experiments. The Taumoeba are all dead.”
I hear Rocky punch the wall. “Anger!”
“All this work! All of it for nothing. Nothing!” I slam my fist to the table. “I gave up so much for this! I sacrificed so much!”