She looked pained. “I don’t like this any more than you do, Dr. Grace. If it’s any consolation, you’ll be hailed as a hero. If Earth survives this, there’ll be statues of you all over the place.”
“I won’t do it!” I choked on bile. “I’ll sabotage the mission! You kill me?! Fine! I’ll kill your mission! I’ll scuttle the ship!”
She shook her head. “No, you won’t. That’s a bluff. Like I said, you’re fundamentally a good man. When you wake up, you’ll be good and angry. I’m sure Yáo and Ilyukhina will be pretty mad about what I did to you too. But in the end, you three will be out there and you’ll do your job. Because humanity depends on it. I’m ninety-nine percent sure you’ll do the right thing.”
“Try me!” I screamed. “Go on! Try me! See what happens!”
“But I can’t rely on ninety-nine percent, can I?” She glanced at her paper again. “I always assumed the American CIA would have the best interrogation drugs. But did you know it’s actually the French? It’s true. Their DGSE has perfected a drug that causes retrograde amnesia that lasts for long periods of time. Not just hours or days, but weeks. They used it during various anti-terror operations. It can be handy for a suspect to forget he was ever interrogated.”
I stared at her in horror. My throat hurt from yelling.
“Your med bed will give you a nice dose of it before you wake up. You and your crewmates will just assume it’s a side effect of the coma. Yáo and Ilyukhina will explain the mission to you and you’ll roll right into getting to work. The French assure me the drug doesn’t erase trained skills, language, or anything like that. By the time your amnesia wears off, you guys might have already sent the beetles back. And if not, my guess is you’ll be too far invested in the project to give up.”
She nodded to Meknikov. He dragged me out the door and frog-walked me down the path.
I craned my neck back toward the door and screamed, “You can’t do this!”
“Just think of the kids, Grace,” she said from the doorway. “All those kids you’ll be saving. Think of them.”
I see how it is.
I’m not some intrepid explorer who nobly sacrificed his life to save Earth. I’m a terrified man who had to be literally dragged kicking and screaming onto the mission.
I’m a coward.
All that came to me in a flash. I sit on the stool and stare at the lab table. I went from nearly hysterical to…this. This is worse. I’m numb.
I’m a coward.
I’ve known for a while that I’m not the best hope for saving mankind. I’m just a guy with the genes to survive a coma. I made my peace with that a while ago.
But I didn’t know I was a coward.
I remember the emotions. I remember that feeling of panic. I remember it all now. Sheer, unadulterated terror. Not for Earth or humanity or the children. For myself. Utter panic.
“God damn you, Stratt,” I mumble.
What ticks me off the most is that she was right. Her plan worked perfectly. I got my memory back, and now I’m so committed to the mission I’m still going to give it my all. Plus, come on, of course I was going to give it my all. What else would I do? Let 7 billion people die to spite Stratt?
At some point, Rocky came through his tunnel to the lab. I don’t know how long he’s been there. He didn’t have to come—he could “see” everything going on from the control room with his sonar sense. Still, there he is.
“You are very sad,” he says.
“I am sad also. But we not be sad for long. You are scientist. I am engineer. Together we solve.”
I throw up my arms in frustration. “How?!”
He clicked along the tunnel to the closest point above me. “Taumoeba eat all your fuel. Therefore Taumoeba survive and breed in fuel-tank environment.”
“Most life no can live outside its air. I die if not in Erid air. You die if not in Earth air. But Taumoeba survive when not in Adrian air. Taumoeba stronger than Erid life—stronger than Earth life.”
I crane my neck to look up at him. “True. And Astrophage are also pretty tough. They can live in vacuum and on the surface of stars.”
He tapped two claws together. “Yes yes. Astrophage and Taumoeba from same biosphere. Probably evolve from common ancestor. Adrian life is very strong.”
I sit up. “Yeah. Okay.”
“You have idea already. Not question. I know you. You have idea already. Tell idea.”
I sigh. “Well…Venus, Threeworld, and Adrian all have a bunch of carbon dioxide. The Astrophage breeding zone in all three is where pressure is 0.02 atmospheres. So maybe I’ll start with a chamber full of pure carbon dioxide at 0.02 atmospheres and see if Taumoeba survives that. Then add in more gases one at a time to see what the problem is.”
“Understand,” says Rocky.
I get to my feet and dust off my jumpsuit. “I need you to make me a test chamber. Clear xenonite with valves so I can let air in and out. Also, I need to be able to set temperature to minus 100 degrees Celsius, minus 50 degrees Celsius, or minus 82 degrees Celsius.”
I could use my own equipment, but why not take advantage of superior material and craftsmanship?
“Yes yes. I make now. We are team. We fix this. No be sad.” He skitters down the tunnel toward the dormitory.
I check my watch. “The main thrust ends in thirty-four minutes. After that’s done, let’s use the beetles to put ourselves in centrifuge mode.”
Rocky pauses. “Dangerous.”
“Yeah, I know. But we need gravity for the lab and I don’t want to wait eleven days. I want to make good use of time.”
“Beetles arranged for thrust, not rotation.”
It’s true. Our propulsion right now is, to say the least, rudimentary. We don’t have servos or gimbals to vector our thrust. We’re like a sixteenth-century nautical ship, but we’re using beetles for sails. Actually, scratch that. The nautical ship could at least control the angle of their sails. We’re more like a paddlewheel boat with a broken rudder.
It’s not all bad, though. We have some slight attitude control by deciding how much each engine thrusts. It’s how Rocky zeroed out our rotation before. “It’s worth the risk.”
He skitters back up the tunnel to face me. “Ship will rotate off-axis. No can unspool centrifuge cables. Would tangle.”