Then I spot a weird, jagged protuberance on the hull a few meters away. An antenna, maybe? It’s too far to reach with my hands, but maybe I can get it with the tether.
I’m drifting away from the hull at a slow but steady rate and I don’t have a jetpack. It’s now or never.
I tie a quick slipknot in the tether and throw it at the antenna.
And, I’ll be gosh darned, I nailed it! I just wrangled an alien spaceship. I pull the loop tight. For a second, I worry it might break the antenna off, but then I see the blotchy tan texture. The antenna (if that’s what it is) is made of xenonite. It’s not going anywhere.
I pull myself along the tether to the hull. This time, with the antenna and tether to aid me, I manage to grab hold of a nearby robot rail.
“Whew,” I say.
I take a moment to catch my breath. Now to put Rocky’s hearing to the test.
I pull the biggest wrench I have from my tool belt. I rear back and smack the hull. Hard.
I smack it over and over. Clank! Clank! Clank! I hear the sound through my own EVA suit. If he’s alive in there, that’ll get his attention.
I push one end of the wrench against the hull and crouch down to bring my helmet in contact with the other end. I stretch my neck out in the helmet and push my chin against the faceplate.
“Rocky!” I yell as loud as I can. “I don’t know if you can hear me! But I’m here, buddy! I’m on your hull!”
I wait a few seconds. “I have my EVA suit radio on! Same frequency as always! Say something! Let me know you’re okay!”
I turn up my radio volume. All I hear is static.
A crackle. My ears perk up.
“Yes!” I’ve never been so happy to hear a few musical notes! “Yeah, buddy! It’s me!”
“You are here, question?!” his voice is so high-pitched I can barely understand him. But I understand Eridian pretty well now.
“Yes! I’m here!”
“You are…” he squeaks. “You…” he squeaks again. “You are here!”
“Yes! Set up the airlock tunnel!”
“Warning! Taumoeba-82.5 is—”
“I know! I know. It can get through xenonite. That’s why I’m here. I knew you’d be in trouble.”
“You save me!”
“Yes. I caught the Taumoeba in time. I still have fuel. Set up the tunnel. I’m taking you to Erid.”
“You save me and you save Erid!” he squeaks.
“Set up the darn tunnel!”
“Get back in you ship! Unless you want to look at tunnel from outside!”
* * *
I wait eagerly by the airlock door, trying to watch the action play out through the little window. It’s all happened before—Rocky attaching the airlock-to-airlock tunnel with the hull robot. But this time it was a little more challenging. I had to maneuver the Hail Mary into position because the Blip-A can’t move at all. Still, we got it done.
A final clank, then a hiss. I know that sound!
I float into the airlock and check through the outer window. The tunnel is in place. He kept it all this time. Why not? It’s an artifact from his species’ first contact with alien life. I’d keep it too!
I turn the emergency relief valve. Air from my ship fills my half of the tunnel. Once it equalizes, I throw open the door and fly in.
Rocky waits for me on the other side. His clothes are a mess. Covered in the all-too-familiar gunky Taumoeba residue. And there are burns all along one side of his jumpsuit and two of his arms are in pretty bad shape. Looks like he had a pretty rough time. But his body language is sheer joy.
He bounces from handhold to handhold.
“I am very very very happy,” he says with a high pitch.
I point to his bad arms. “Are you hurt?!”
“I will heal. Attempted many things to stop Taumoeba infestation. All failed.”
“I succeeded,” I say. “My ship isn’t made of xenonite.”
“What happen, question?”
I sigh. “The Taumoeba evolved to resist nitrogen. But it also evolved to get into xenonite to hide from nitrogen. The side effect is Taumoeba-82.5 can work its way through xenonite over time.”
“Amaze. Now what, question?”
“I still have two million kilograms of Astrophage. Bring your stuff aboard. We’re going to Erid.”
“Happy! Happy happy happy!” He pauses. “Need to make nitrogen wash. Make sure no Taumoeba-82.5 get into Hail Mary.”
“Yes. I have full faith in your abilities. Make a sterilizer.”
He shifts from one set of bars to another. Those burned arms are hurting him, I can tell. “What about Earth, question?”
“I sent the beetles with the mini-farms. Taumoeba-82.5 can’t get through Eridian steel.”
“Good good,” he says. “I make sure my people take good care of you. They will make Astrophage maybe for you to go home!”
“Yeah…” I say. “About that…I’m not going home. The beetles will save Earth. But I won’t ever see it again.”
His joyous bouncing stops. “Why, question?”
“I don’t have enough food. After I take you to Erid, I will die.”
“You…you no can die.” His voice gets low. “I no let you die. We send you home. Erid will be grateful. You save everyone. We do everything to save you.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” I say. “There’s no food. I have enough to last until we get to Erid and then a few months more. Even if your government gave me the Astrophage to go home, I wouldn’t survive the trip.”
“Eat Erid food. We evolve from same life. We use same proteins. Same chemicals. Same sugars. Must work!”
“No, I can’t eat your food, remember?”
“You say is bad for you. We find out.”
I hold up my hands. “It’s not just bad for me. It will kill me. Your whole ecology uses heavy metals all over the place. Most of them are toxic to me. I’d die immediately.”
He trembles. “No. You no can die. You are friend.”