Project Hail Mary

Page 124

I always wish Rocky were here.

“Nitrogen,” I say.

I don’t know how the Taumoeba got out, but I need them dead. Taumoeba-82.5 can handle 8.25 percent nitrogen at 0.02 atmospheres. Maybe a little higher. But it definitely can’t handle 100 percent nitrogen at the crew compartment’s 0.33 atmospheres. That works out to be two hundred times its lethal dose of nitrogen.

I float to the breaker box and shut off everything related to life support. Immediately, the emergency alarm sounds and red lights turn on. I kick across the control room to the emergency system’s breaker box and shut those all off as well.

The master alarm is annoying, so I silence it on the main interface panel.

I fly down to the lab and throw open my gas cylinder supply cupboard. I have about 10 kilograms of nitrogen gas in a single canister. Again, I owe my life to DuBois’s preferred method of suicide.

I don’t remember all the details about the life-support system, but I know it has manual overpressure valves. The ship simply will not allow more than 0.33 atmospheres. If all else fails (which it will, because I shut the emergency systems down), it’ll vent excess pressure into space.

I can’t just release the nitrogen and hope for the best. I want to get rid of the existing oxygen first. I’m through messing around with this stuff. I want 100 percent nitrogen in here. I want to make this ship so utterly toxic to Taumoeba that it has no chance of survival. Even if it’s hiding under some goop somewhere—I want the nitrogen to suffuse through it. Nitrogen everywhere. Everywhere!

I grab the nitrogen cylinder, kick off the floor, and float back up to the control room. I throw open the airlock inner door and get into the Orlan suit faster than I ever have in the past. I boot everything up and don’t even bother with the self-check. No time.

I leave the inner airlock door open and turn the manual emergency valve on the outer door. The ship’s air hisses away into space. The primary and emergency life-support systems are powered down. They are unable to replace the lost gas.

Now I wait.


* * *


It takes a surprisingly long time for a ship to lose all its air. In movies, if there’s a little breach everyone dies immediately. Or the muscular hero guy plugs the hole with his biceps or something. But in real life, air just doesn’t move that fast.

The emergency valve on the airlock is 4 centimeters across. Seems like a pretty big hole to have in your spaceship, right?

It took twenty minutes for the ship’s air pressure to drop to 10 percent of its original value. And it’s dropping very slowly now. I think it’s a logarithmic function. So in the middle of this emergency, I just have to stand here with my tank in my hand.

“Okay. Ten percent is close enough,” I say. I close the airlock emergency valve to reseal the ship. Then I open the nitrogen tank.

So now, instead of listening to a hiss from the airlock, I listen to a hiss from the nitrogen tank.

Not much difference there.

Again. It’s a bit of a wait. But not as long this time. Probably because the pressure inside that nitrogen tank was a lot higher than the pressure in the ship. Whatever. Point is, in short order the ship is back to 0.33 atmospheres of pressure. But it’s almost entirely nitrogen.

Funny thing—I’d be perfectly comfortable if I took this EVA suit off. I’d breathe without any problems. Right up until I died. There’s nowhere near enough oxygen for me to survive.

I want that nitrogen to permeate everything it can. I want it to get into every crevice. Wherever Taumoeba are lurking, I want them found and killed. Go forth, my N2 minions, and cause destruction!

I head down to the lab and check out the BOCOA. I left in such a hurry I forgot to seal the vat. Fortunately, Astrophage is gunky stuff. Surface tension and inertia kept it inside. I close the lid and bring it up to the airlock. I jettison the whole thing.

I probably could have saved the surviving Astrophage in the vat. I could have bubbled nitrogen through the sludge to make sure it gets at all the little Taumoeba lurking inside. But why take the chance? I have over 2 million kilograms of Astrophage. There’s no point in risking the whole mission just to save a few hundred.

I wait three hours. Then I flick the breakers back on. After a period of initial panic, the life-support system gets the air back to normal thanks to the ship’s copious oxygen reserves.

I have to isolate every source of Taumoeba on this ship. Preferably before the life-support system finishes pumping out the nitrogen. Why not do it before getting back to normal air? Because it’ll be a lot easier and faster without wearing the EVA suit. I need my hands to do this, not my hands inside bulky gloves.

I climb out of the Orlan and fly down to the lab, the nitrogen cylinder in hand.

First up: the breeder farms.

I put each of the ten farms in large plastic bins. I install a little valve on each bin (epoxy can do anything), and pump in nitrogen. If any of the farms have a leak, the nitrogen will get in and kill everything. Any farm that’s behaving properly—keeping airtight—won’t have any problems.

The bins are airtight to begin with, but I seal them with duct tape anyway, and I deliberately overpressurize them by just a little bit. The sides and tops bulge out. Now if any of the farms leak, it’ll be visually apparent because the bulging will disappear.

Next up: the beetles and their mini-farms.

John and Paul already have their mini-farms installed. I put them in isolation bins just like I did with the breeder farms. I was working on Ringo when the poop hit the fan, so that mini-farm and the one intended for George are still uninstalled. I put the pair together in another isolation bin.

I tape everything to the walls. I don’t want any of the bins to float around. They might bump into something sharp.

The lab is a shambles. I was halfway through disassembling Ringo when I shut off the spin drives. Tools, beetle parts, and all manner of other junk floats around the room. I’ll have to clean all that up without the aid of gravity before I can even take a break.

“Well, this sucks,” I mumble.

It’s been three days since the Great Taumoeba Escape. I’ve taken no chances.

I manually shut off all the fuel bays—completely segregating each one from the fuel system. Then, one tank at a time, I opened it, collected an Astrophage sample from the line, and checked it in the microscope for Taumoeba contamination.

Thankfully, all nine tanks passed the test. I brought the spin drives back online and I’m cruising along at 1.5 g’s again.

I cobble together a “Taumoeba alarm” to alert me if this happens again. I should have done that in the first place, but hindsight is 20/20.

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