Yes, I made a strain of Taumoeba that could survive nitrogen. But evolution doesn’t care what I want. And it doesn’t do just one thing at a time. I bred up a bunch of Taumoeba that evolved to survive…in xenonite breeder tanks.
Sure, it has nitrogen resistance. But evolution has a sneaky way of working on a problem from every angle. So not only did they gain resistance to nitrogen, they figured out how to hide from nitrogen by sneaking into the xenonite itself! Why wouldn’t they?
Xenonite is a complicated chain of proteins and chemicals I have no hope of understanding. But I guess Taumoeba has a way to worm its way in. There’s a nitrogen apocalypse going on in the breeder farm. If you can get into the xenonite walls deep enough that the nitrogen can’t reach, you get to survive!
Taumoeba can’t get through ordinary plastic. It can’t get through epoxy resin. It can’t get through glass. It can’t get through metal. I’m not even sure if it could get through a ziplock bag. But thanks to me, Taumoeba-82.5 can get through xenonite.
I took a life-form I knew nothing about and used technology I didn’t understand to modify it. Of course there were unintended consequences. It was stupidly arrogant of me to assume I could predict everything.
I take a deep breath and let it out.
Okay, this isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. This Taumoeba can permeate xenonite. No problem. I’ll store it in something else. It’s still nitrogen-resistant. It doesn’t need xenonite to survive. I tested it thoroughly in my glass lab equipment back when we first isolated the strain. It’ll still do its thing on Venus and Threeworld. Everything’s fine.
I glance back at the breeder farms.
Yeah. Fine. I’ll make a big farm out of metal. It’s not hard. I have a mill and all the raw materials I need. And God knows I have time to spare. I’ll salvage the operational equipment from a farm Rocky made. Only the casing is xenonite. Everything else is metals and stuff. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I just need to put it on a different car.
“Yeah,” I reassure myself. “Yeah, this is okay.”
I just need to make a box that can maintain a Venusian atmosphere. All of the hard stuff is already done, thanks to Rocky.
I feel a sudden surge of nausea. I have to sit on the floor and put my head between my legs. Rocky has the same strain of Taumoeba aboard his ship. It’s stored in xenonite farms like mine.
All critical bulkheads of his ship, including the fuel tanks, are made of xenonite. There’s nothing standing between his Taumoeba and his fuel.
I made the new Taumoeba farm. Sheet aluminum and some basic milling on the CNC mill. It wasn’t a problem.
Rocky’s ship is the problem.
I’ve been watching his engine flare every day for the past month. Now it’s gone.
I float in the control room. The spin drives are off, and the Petrovascope is set to maximum sensitivity. There’s some random Petrova-wavelength light coming from Tau Ceti itself, as always. And even that’s dim. The star, almost as bright as Earth’s sun, now just looks like a fatter-than-usual dot in the night sky.
But aside from that…nothing. I’m way too far away to detect the Tau Ceti–Adrian Petrova line and the Blip-A is nowhere to be seen.
And I know right where it should be. Down to the milli-arc-second. And from here, its engines should be lighting up my scope….
I ran the numbers again and again. Though I’d already proven my formulae correct by daily observations of his progress. Now there’s nothing. No blip from the Blip-A.
He’s derelict out there. His Taumoeba escaped their enclosure and wormed their way into his fuel bays. From there, they ate everything. Millions of kilograms of Astrophage gone in a matter of days.
He’s smart, so he surely has the fuel compartmentalized. But those compartments are made of xenonite, right? Yeah.
If the ship were damaged, he’d fix it. There’s nothing Rocky can’t fix. And he works fast. Five arms whipping around, often doing unrelated things. He could be dealing with a massive Taumoeba infection, but how long would that take? He has plenty of nitrogen. He can harvest as much as he wants from his ammonia atmosphere. Let’s assume he did that as soon as he noticed the contagion.
How long would it take him to get things back online?
Not this long.
Whatever may have happened, if the Blip-A could be fixed, he would have fixed it by now. The only explanation for it still being dead in space is that it has no fuel. He wasn’t able to stop the Taumoeba in time.
I put my head in my hands.
I can go home. I really can. I can return and spend the rest of my life a hero. Statues, parades, et cetera. And I’ll be in a new world order where all energy problems are solved. Cheap, easy, renewable energy everywhere thanks to Astrophage. I can track down Stratt and tell her to shove it.
But then Rocky dies. And more important, Rocky’s people die. Billions of them.
I’m this close. I just need to survive four years. Yeah, it’ll be eating nasty coma slurry but I’ll be alive.
My annoying logical mind points out the other option: Launch the beetles—all four of them. Each with their own Taumoeba mini-farm and a USB stick full of data and findings. Earth scientists will take it from there.
Then turn the Hail Mary around, find Rocky, and take him home to Erid.
One problem: It means I die.
I have enough food to survive the trip to Earth. Or I have enough to survive the trip to Erid. But even if the Eridians refuel the Hail Mary right away, there won’t be enough food for me to survive the trip back to Earth from Erid. I’ll have only a few months of food left at that point.
I can’t grow anything. I don’t have any viable seeds or living plant matter. I can’t eat Eridian food. Too many heavy metals and other major toxins.
So that’s what I’m left with. Option 1: Go home a hero and save all of humanity. Option 2: Go to Erid, save an alien species, and starve to death shortly after.
I pull on my hair.
I sob into my hands. It’s cathartic and exhausting.
All I see when I close my eyes is Rocky’s dumb carapace and his little arms always fidgeting with something.
* * *
It’s been six weeks since I made my decision. It wasn’t easy, but I’m sticking with it.
I have the spin drives off for my daily ritual. I bring up the Petrovascope and look out into space. I see nothing at all.