I pull out a hammer and chisel. Not the most elegant way to do this, but I can’t think of anything better. I start by putting one corner of the chisel on the hull and giving it a little tap. There’s a notable dent. It doesn’t take much to get through this outermost layer.
I use the hammer and chisel to separate a 6-inch circle of hull material. There’s a layer of something underneath. I can feel it with the chisel. Probably insulation.
I have to pry the circle out with the chisel. The underlayer holds strong, but then gives way suddenly. The hull sample flies off into space.
I leap off the ship. I get a hand on the circle right before my tether snaps tight. I breathe for a second, thinking about how dumb I am, then pull myself back along the tether to the ship. Looking at the circle it seems like there’s a light, foam substance attached to the underside. Styrofoam, maybe. Probably something more complicated than that.
“I hope you guys watched all that,” I say. “Because I’m not doing it again.”
I throw the hull chunk at the Blip-A.
By doing this right in front of them, they’ll know for sure I’m sending them a sample of the hull. I hope it’s enough for what they want to do. I don’t even know if they wanted it or needed it. They might be looking at their screens right now and saying, “What is this idiot doing? Is he poking a hole in his own ship? Why?”
I stay on the hull and watch as the chunk tumbles in the Taulight. The multi-armed robot on the Blip-A’s hull slides along its rails for the reception. Once positioned, it waits for the hull chunk to arrive and makes a perfect catch.
And then, I swear to God, it waves at me! One of its little arms waves at me!
I wave back.
It waves again.
Okay, this could go on all day. I head back toward the airlock.
Your move, guys.
* * *
Their move is taking a long time and I’m getting bored.
Wow. I’m sitting here in a spaceship in the Tau Ceti system waiting for the intelligent aliens I just met to continue our conversation…and I’m bored. Human beings have a remarkable ability to accept the abnormal and make it normal.
I look through the controls of the Radar panel to see what other features it has. After some digging through preference dialogs, I find what I’m looking for: the proximity-warning parameters. Currently set to 100 kilometers. Fairly reasonable. You would expect things to be millions of kilometers away. Tens of thousands at the very least. So if some rock is within 100 kilometers of you, that’s a major problem.
I change the setting to 0.26 kilometers. I worry it’ll reject the setting as too low, but it doesn’t.
I stretch my back and float out of the pilot seat. The Blip-A is 271 meters away. If they get closer than 260 meters, or if they send another present that gets within that range, the proximity alert will go off. I don’t have to sit here and stare at the screen anymore. The control room will blare a warning when the Blip-A does anything interesting.
I float down to the dormitory.
“Food,” I say.
The arms pull a box out of their little stash in the ceiling and stick it to my bunk. Someday I should look around in there and see what’s available. For now I kick off the ceiling and float down to the food. The box, labeled DAY 10—MEAL 1, has a Velcro-like strip on the bottom that helps it stay in place on the bedsheet. I open it up and see a burrito.
Not sure what I expected, but okay. Burrito it is.
Turns out it’s a room-temperature burrito. Beans, cheese, some red sauce…all pretty tasty, really. But room temperature. Either the crew doesn’t get hot meals around here or the machine doesn’t trust a recent coma patient not to burn himself on hot food. Probably the latter.
I float up to the lab and put the burrito in the sample furnace. I leave it in there for a few minutes before pulling it out with tongs. The cheese bubbles and a cloud of steam slowly emanates out in all directions.
I leave the burrito to float in the air and cool.
I snicker. If I really wanted a hot burrito, I’d turn on the spin drives, do an EVA, and hold the burrito in the light emitted from it. That’d get it hot really quick. As in: It would get vaporized along with my arm and whatever else was in the blast range, because—
* * *
“Welcome to Little Russia!” said Dimitri. He gave a theatrical wave at the aircraft carrier’s lower hangar deck. The whole space had been repurposed into a bunch of labs full of high-tech equipment. Dozens of lab-coated scientists toiled away at their tasks, occasionally speaking Russian to one another. Dimitri’s Denizens, we called them.
We probably put more effort into naming stuff than we should have.
I clutched my little sample container like Scrooge with a bag of coins. “I’m not happy with this.”
“Oh, hush,” said Stratt.
“I’ve only made eight grams of Astrophage so far, and I’m supposed to just give away two grams of it? Two grams may not seem like much, but it’s ninety-five billion Astrophage cells.”
“It is for a good cause, my friend!” said Dimitri. “I promise you will like it. Come, come!”
He led Stratt and me through to the main lab. The center was dominated by a huge cylindrical vacuum chamber. The chamber was open and three technicians mounted something to a table inside.
Dimitri said something in Russian to them. They said something back. He said some other thing and pointed to me. They smiled and made happy Russian sounds.
Then Stratt said something stern in Russian.
“Sorry,” said Dimitri. “English only for now, my friends! For the American!”
“Hello, American!” said one of the technicians. “I am speak of English for you! You have fuel?”
I gripped my sample container tighter. “I have some fuel….”
Stratt looked at me the way I look at stubborn students in my class. “Hand it over, Dr. Grace.”
“You know, my breeder doubles Astrophage population over time, right? Taking away two grams now is like taking away four grams next month.”
She pulled the container out of my hands and handed it to Dimitri.
He held the small metal vial up and admired it. “This is a good day. I have looked forward to this day. Dr. Grace, please let me show you my spin drive!”
He gestured for me to follow and bounced up the stairs into the vacuum chamber. The technicians exited one at a time to make room for us.