He tapped two gloved claws together. They made a muffled sound instead of the usual click that comes along with the dismissive gesture. “Not forever. We save planets. Then we have Astrophage technology. Visit each other.”
I give a wry grin. “Can we do all that within fifty Earth years?”
“Probably not. Why so fast, question?”
“I only have fifty years or so left to live. Humans don’t”—I hiccup—“don’t live long, remember?”
“Oh.” He’s quiet for a moment. “So we enjoy remaining time together, then go save planets. Then we are heroes!”
“Yeah!” I straighten up. I’m a little dizzy now. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and I’m hitting this vodka harder than I should. “We’re the moss imporn’t people in the gal’xy! We’re awesome!”
He grabs a nearby wrench and raises it in one of his hands. “To us!”
I raise the vodka. “To ush!”
* * *
“Well. This is it,” I say from my side of the connector.
“Yes,” says Rocky on his side. His voice is low, despite his attempts to keep it high.
The Hail Mary is all fueled up: 2.2 million kilograms of Astrophage. A full 200,000 kilograms more than she left Earth with. Rocky’s replacement tanks were, of course, more efficient and had more volume than my originals.
I rub the back of my neck. “I assume our people will meet up again. I know humans will want to learn all about Erid.”
“Yes,” he says. “Thank you for laptop. Centuries of human technology all for our scientists to learn about. You have given greatest gift in history of my people.”
“You tested it in that life-support system you built for it, right?”
“Yes. That is stupid question.” He grips a handle on his side to keep in place.
Rocky had removed his direct connecting tunnel and resealed the Hail Mary’s hull. He put the airlock-to-airlock connector in place to finish packing up.
At my request, he left the xenonite walls and tunnels in the Hail Mary in place, but with a few meter-wide holes in them here and there so I can use the space. The more xenonite Earth scientists have to study the better, I figure.
The ship still smells a little like ammonia. I guess even xenonite isn’t completely immune to gas permeation. It’ll probably smell that way for a while.
“And your farms?” I say. “You double-checked them all?”
“Yes. Six redundant Taumoeba-82.5 colonies, each in separate tanks with separate life-support systems. Each with Threeworld simulated atmosphere. Your farms are functioning, question?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Well, it’s just my ten breeder tanks. But now I have them all set up with Venus’s atmosphere. Oh, and thanks for the mini-farms, by the way. I’ll install them in the beetles during my trip. I won’t have much else to do.”
He glances at a notepad. “These numbers you gave me. You are certain these are the times for me to turn around and the times for me to reach Erid, question? They are so soon. So fast.”
“Yeah, that’s time dilation for you. Weird stuff. But those are the correct values. I checked them four times. You’ll reach Erid in under three Earth years.”
“But Earth is almost same distance from Tau Ceti, and you will take four years, question?”
“I’ll experience four years, yes. Three years and nine months. Because time won’t be as compressed for me as it is for you.”
“You have explained before, but again…why, question?”
“Your ship accelerates faster than mine. You’ll be moving closer to the speed of light.”
He wiggles his carapace. “So complicated.”
I point toward his ship. “All the information about relativity is in the laptop. Have your scientists take a look.”
“Yes. They will be very pleased.”
“Not when they find out about quantum physics. Then they’ll be really annoyed.”
I laugh. “Don’t worry about it.”
We’re both quiet for a while.
“I guess this is it,” I say.
“It is time,” he says. “We go save homeworlds now.”
“You face is leaking.”
I wipe my eyes. “Human thing. Don’t worry about it.”
“Understand.” He pushes himself along to his airlock door. He opens it and pauses there. “Goodbye, friend Grace.”
I wave meekly. “Goodbye, friend Rocky.”
He disappears into his ship and closes the airlock door behind him. I return to the Hail Mary. After a few minutes, the Blip-A’s hull robot detaches the tunnel.
We fly our ships nearly parallel but with a few degrees’ difference in course. This ensures neither of us vaporizes the other with the back blast from our Astrophage engines. Once we have a few thousand kilometers of separation, we can aim in any direction we want.
Hours later, I sit in the cockpit with my spin drives offline. I just want one last look. I watch the point of IR light with the Petrovascope. That’s Rocky, headed back to Erid.
“Godspeed, buddy,” I say.
I set course for Earth and fire up the spin drives.
I’m going home.
I sat in my cell, staring at the wall.
It wasn’t a dingy jail cell or anything. If anything, it looked kind of like a college dorm room. Painted brick walls, desk, chair, bed, en-suite bathroom, et cetera. But the door was steel and the windows were barred. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Why did the Baikonur launch facility have a jail cell handy? I don’t know. Ask the Russians.
That launch would be today. Soon, some muscular guards would come through that door along with a doctor. He’d inject me with something and that’d be the last time I’d see Earth.
Almost on cue, I heard the clink of the door being unlocked. A braver person might have seen that as an opportunity. Charge the door and maybe get past the guards. But I’d given up hope of escape long ago. What would I do? Run into the Kazakhstani desert and take my chances?
The door opened and Stratt walked in. The guards closed the door behind her.
“Hey,” she said.
I glared at her from my bunk.