I really want it to be worth it. It’s an alien freakin’ spaceship! I want to see the inside! But yeah. Got to save humanity and stuff. That’s the priority.
I check the fuel bays. Any live Taumoeba will have found the Astrophage and snacked on it. So if the Astrophage is still there, the bay is sterile.
Long story short: Two of the seven bays weren’t sterile.
“Hey, Rocky!” I yell from the control room.
He’s aboard the Blip-A somewhere, but I know he can hear me. He can always hear me.
After a few seconds, the radio crackles to life. “What, question?”
“Two fuel bays still have Taumoeba.”
“Understand. Not good. But not bad. Other five are clean, question?”
I steady myself with a handhold in the control room. It’s easy to float off when you’re concentrating on conversation. “Yeah, the other five seem good.”
“How Taumoeba in bad two bays survive, question?”
“I probably didn’t clean them well enough. Some gunk remained and shielded live Taumoeba from the nitrogen. That’s my guess.”
“I’m going back into those two, scraping them down some more, and I’ll sterilize them again. I’ll leave the other five sealed for now.”
“Good plan. Do not forget to purge fuel lines.”
With all the tanks infected, it’s safe to assume the fuel lines (currently sealed off) will also be infected. “Yes. They’ll be easier than the tanks. I just need to blow high-pressure nitrogen through them. It’ll clean out the chunks and sterilize the rest. Then I’ll test them the same as the fuel bays.”
“Good good.” He says. “What is status of breeder tanks, question?”
“Still making good progress. We’re up to Taumoeba-62 now.”
“Someday we find out why nitrogen was problem.”
“Yeah, but that’s for other scientists. We just need Taumoeba-80.”
“Yes. Taumoeba-80. Maybe Taumoeba-86. Safety.”
When you think in base six, arbitrarily adding six to things is normal.
“Agreed,” I say.
I enter the airlock and climb into the Orlan EVA suit. I grab the AstroTorch and attach it to my tool belt. I turn on the helmet radio and say, “Beginning EVA.”
“Understand. Radio if problem. Can help with my ship hull robot if you need.”
“I shouldn’t need it, but I’ll let you know.”
I seal the door behind me and start the airlock cycle.
* * *
“Screw it,” I say. I press the final confirmation button to jettison Fuel Bay Five.
The pyros pop and the empty tank floats off into the nothingness of space.
No amount of scrubbing, cleaning, nitrogen-purging, or anything else could get the Taumoeba out of Fuel Bay Five. No matter what I did, they survived and chowed down on the test Astrophage I put in afterward.
At a certain point, you just have to let go.
I cross my arms and slump into my pilot’s seat. There’s no gravity to properly slump with, so I have to make a conscious effort to push myself into the seat. I’m pouting, darn it, and I intend to do it right. I’m missing a total of three of my original nine fuel bays. Two from our adventure over Adrian, and another one just now. That’s about 666,000 kilograms of fuel storage I no longer have.
Do I have enough fuel to get home? Sure. Any amount of fuel that can make me escape Tau Ceti’s gravity is enough to eventually get home. I could get home with just a few kilograms of Astrophage if I didn’t mind waiting a million years.
It’s not about getting there. It’s about how long it’ll take.
I do a ton of math and I get answers I don’t like.
The trip from Earth to Tau Ceti took three years and nine months. And it was done by accelerating constantly at 1.5 g’s the entire time—which is what Dr. Lamai decided was the maximum sustained g-force a human should be exposed to for almost four years. Earth experienced something like thirteen years during that time, but time dilation worked in our favor for the crew.
If I do the long trip home with just 1.33 million kilograms of fuel (which is all my remaining tanks can hold), the most efficient course is a constant acceleration of 0.9 g’s. I’d be going slower, which means less time dilation, which means I experience more time. All told, I’ll experience five and a half years on that trip.
So what? It’s only an extra year and a half. What’s the big deal?
I don’t have that much food.
This was a suicide mission. They gave us food to last several months, and that’s about it. I’ve been working my way through the food stores at a reasonable rate, but then I’ll have to rely on coma slurry. It won’t taste good but it’s nutritionally balanced, at least.
But again, this was a suicide mission. They didn’t give us enough coma slurry to get home either. The only reason I have any at all is because Commander Yáo and Specialist Ilyukhina died en route.
All told, I have three months of real food left and about forty months’ worth of coma slurry. That works out to be just barely enough food to survive the trip home with full fuel and a bit to spare. But nowhere near enough to last the five and a half years of a slower trip.
Rocky’s food is useless to me. I’ve tested it over and over. It’s chock-full of heavy metals ranging from “toxic” to “highly toxic.” There are useful proteins and sugars in there that my biology would love to make use of, but there’s just no way to sort out the poison from the food.
And there’s nothing here for me to grow. All my food is freeze-dried or dehydrated. No viable seeds or plants or anything. I can eat what I have and that’s it.
Rocky clicks along his tunnel to the control-room bulb. He goes in and out of the Blip-A so often now I often don’t know what ship he’s on.
“You make angry sound. Why, question?”
“I’m missing a third of my fuel bays. The trip home will take more time than I have food.”
“How long since last sleep, question?”
“Huh? I’m talking about fuel here! Stay focused!”
“Grumpy. Angry. Stupid. How long since last sleep, question?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve been working on the breeder tanks and fuel bays…I forget when I last slept.”