“Sorry, Rocky,” I say.
Then I spot a tiny speck of Petrova light. I zoom in and search that area. A total of four little dots, barely visible, are on the monitor.
“I know you’d love a beetle to take apart, but I couldn’t spare one.”
The beetles, with much smaller spin drives, won’t be visible for much longer. Especially with them zooming off toward Earth and me headed almost the opposite direction toward the Blip-A.
The Astrophage coils in the mini-farms will protect the Taumoeba from radiation, and I did thorough tests to make sure both the farms and the life inside could handle the massive acceleration that beetles use. They’ll be back at Earth in a couple of years from their point of view. About thirteen years, from Earth’s time frame.
I bring the spin drives back online and continue on course.
Finding a spaceship “somewhere just outside the Tau Ceti system” is no small task. Imagine being given a rowboat and told to find a toothpick “somewhere in the ocean.” It’s like that, but nowhere near as easy.
I know his course and I know he followed it. But I don’t know when his engines conked out. I only checked up on him once a day. Right now, I’m smack-dab in the center of my “best guess” for his position and I’ve matched my best guess on his velocity. But that’s only the beginning. I have a heck of a search ahead of me.
I wish I had tracked him more often. Because I don’t know the exact time his engines died, the margin of error on my guess is about 20 million kilometers. That’s about one-eighth the distance between the Earth and the sun. It’s a distance so large it takes light a full minute to traverse it. That’s the best I can do with the information I have.
Frankly, I’m lucky the error margin is so small. If the Taumoeba had escaped a month later, it would have been exponentially worse. And all this is going on at the edge of the Tau Ceti system. Barely the beginning of the trip. The distance between Tau Ceti and Earth is over four thousand times the width of the entire Tau Ceti system.
Space is big. It’s…so, so big.
So yeah. I’m extremely lucky to have only 20 million kilometers to search.
“Hmm,” I mumble.
This far away from Tau Ceti, his ship won’t be reflecting much Taulight. There’s no chance I’d spot the Blip-A with my telescope.
Side note: I’m going to die.
“Stop,” I say. Whenever I think about my impending death, I think about Rocky instead. He must have a sense of hopelessness right now. I’m coming, buddy.
I’m sure he’s sad, but he’s also not one to mope for long. He’ll be working on a solution. What would he do? His whole species is on the line and he doesn’t know I’m coming. He wouldn’t just kill himself, right? He’d do anything he could think of, even if it would have only a tiny percent chance of success.
Okay. I’m Rocky. My ship is dead. Maybe I rescued some Astrophage. The Taumoeba can’t have gotten all of it, right? So I have some. Can I make my own beetle? Something to send back to Erid?
I shake my head. That would require a guidance system. Computer stuff. Way beyond Eridian science. That’s why they had a crew of twenty-three on a massive ship in the first place. Besides, it’s been a month and a half. If he were going to build a little ship, he’d be done by now and I would have seen its engine flare. Rocky moves fast.
Okay. No beetle. But he’s got energy. Life support. Food enough to last him a long, long time (original crew of twenty-three, and it was always intended to be a round-trip voyage).
“Radio?” I say.
Maybe he’ll make a radio signal. Something powerful enough to be heard on Erid. Just a small chance of detection, but something. Eridians have a long life-span. Waiting a decade or so for rescue wouldn’t be that big a deal. Well, not on the life-or-death scale. If you asked me a few years ago I’d say it’s not possible to send a radio signal ten light-years. But this is Rocky we’re talking about, and he might have some rescued Astrophage to power whatever he creates.
It doesn’t have to contain information. It just needs to be noticed.
But…no. There’s just no way. Some back-of-the napkin math tells me that even with Earth’s radio technology (which is better than Erid’s), the strength of that signal at Erid would be way less than background noise.
Rocky will know that too. So there’s no point.
I wish I had better radar. Mine is good for a few thousand kilometers. Obviously that’s nowhere near good enough. Rocky could probably whip something up if he were here. It’s a little paradoxical, but I wish Rocky were here to help me save Rocky.
“Better radar…” I mumble.
Well, I have plenty of power. I have a radar system. Maybe I can work something out.
But you can’t just add power to the emitter and expect things to go well. I’ll burn it out for sure. How can I turn Astrophage energy into radio waves?
I shoot up from my pilot’s seat. “Duh!”
I have everything I need for the best radar ever! To heck with my built-in radar system, with its measly emitter and sensors. I have spin drives and a Petrovascope! I can throw 900 terawatts of IR light out the back of my ship and see if any of it bounces back with the Petrovascope—an instrument carefully designed to detect even the smallest amounts of that exact frequency of light!
I can’t have the Petrovascope and engines on at the same time. But that’s okay! Rocky is up to a light-minute away!
I work up a search grid. It’s pretty simple. I’m smack-dab in the middle of my guesstimate on Rocky’s location. So I have to search all directions.
Easy enough. I fire up the spin drives. I take manual control, which, as usual, requires me to say “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” and “override” to a bunch of warning dialogs.
I throw the throttle to full and turn hard to port with the yaw controls. The force shoves me back into the seat and to the side. This is the astronavigational equivalent of doing donuts in the 7-Eleven parking lot.
I keep it tight—it takes me thirty seconds to do one full rotation. I’m roughly back where I started. Probably a few dozen kilometers off but whatever. I cut the engines.
Now I watch the Petrovascope. It’s not omnidirectional, but it can cover a good 90-degree arc of space at a time. I slowly pan across space in the same direction I’d shined the engines and at the same rate. It’s not perfect; I could get the timing wrong. If Rocky is very close or very far away this won’t work. But this is just my first try.