“Actually, we do have that,” Stratt said.
Lamai poked me in the arm. I looked away. I get a little queasy when I see my blood squirting into a tube. “What do you mean, we have that?”
“We’ve already had tens of thousands of volunteers. All with the complete understanding that it’s a one-way trip.”
“Wow,” I said. “How many of them are insane or suicidal?”
“Probably a lot. But there are hundreds of experienced astronauts on the list too. Astronauts are brave people, willing to risk their life for science. Many of them are willing to give their life for humanity. I admire them.”
“Hundreds,” I say. “Not thousands. We’ll be lucky if even one of those astronauts qualifies.”
“We’re already counting on a lot of luck,” said Stratt. “May as well hope for some more.”
* * *
Shortly after college, my girlfriend Linda moved in with me. The relationship only lasted eight months beyond that and was a total disaster. But that’s not relevant right now.
When she moved in, I was shocked by the sheer volume of random junk she felt necessary to bring into our small apartment. Box after box of stuff she had accumulated over decades of never throwing anything out.
Linda was absolutely Spartan compared to Rocky.
He’s brought in so much crap we don’t have places to store it all.
Almost the entire dormitory is full of duffel-bag things made of a canvas-like material. They are random muddy colors. When visual aesthetic doesn’t matter, you just get whatever colors the manufacturing process makes. I don’t even know what’s in all of them. He doesn’t explain. Every time I think we might be done, he brings more bags in.
Well, I say “he” brings them in, but it’s me. He hangs out in his ball, magnetically attached to the wall, while I do all the work. Again, this is very reminiscent of Linda.
“This is a lot of things,” I say.
“Yes yes,” he says. “I need these things.”
“A lot of things.”
“Yes yes. Understand. Things in tunnel is last things.”
“Okay,” I grumble. I float back to the tunnel and grab the last few soft boxes. I maneuver them through the cockpit and lab down to the dormitory. I find a spot to cram them. There’s very little space left. I vaguely wonder how much mass we just added to my ship.
I manage to keep the area near my bunk clear. And there’s a spot on the floor that Rocky picked out as his sleeping locale. The rest of the room is a mad tangle of soft boxes taped to each other, the wall, the other bunks, and anything else that would keep them from floating loose.
“Are we done?”
“Yes. Now detach tunnel.”
I groan. “You made the tunnel. You detach it.”
“How I detach tunnel, question? Me inside ball.”
“Well, how do I do it? I don’t understand xenonite.”
He made a turning motion with two of his arms. “Rotate tunnel.”
“Okay, okay.” I grab my EVA suit. “I’ll do it. Jerk.”
“No understand last word.”
“Not important.” I climb into the suit and close the rear flap.
* * *
Rocky is surprisingly adept at doing things with a couple of magnets from inside a ball.
Each of his duffels has a metal pad on it. He’s able to climb along the pile and rearrange it as needed. Occasionally, a bag he’s using for purchase comes loose and he floats off. When that happens, he calls me and I put him back.
I hang on to my bunk and watch him do his thing. “Okay, step one. Astrophage sampling.”
“Yes yes.” He holds two hands in front of him and moves one around the other. “Planet move around Tau. Astrophage go there from Tau. Same at Eridani. Astrophage make more Astrophage with carbon dioxide there.”
“Yes,” I say. “Did you get a sample?”
“No. My ship had device for this. But device broke.”
“You couldn’t fix it?”
“Device not malfunction. Device broke. Fell off ship during trip. Device gone.”
“Oh! Wow. Why did it break off?”
He wiggles his carapace. “Not know. Many things break. My people make ship very hurry. No time to make sure all things work good.”
Deadline-induced quality issues: a problem all over the galaxy.
“I tried to make replacement. Failed. Tried. Failed. Tried. Failed. I put ship in path of Astrophage. Maybe some get stuck on hull. But robot on hull no can find any. Astrophage very small.”
His carapace slumps down. His elbows are above the level of his breathing holes. Sometimes he dips his carapace when sad, but I’ve never seen him dip it this far.
His voice drops an octave. “Fail fail fail. I am repair Eridian. I not science Eridian. Smart smart smart science Eridians died.”
“Hey…don’t think of it like that…” I say.
“Uh…” I pull myself over to his pile of bags. “You’re alive. And you’re here. And you haven’t given up.”
But his voice remains low. “I try so many times. Fail so many times. Not good at science.”
“I am,” I say. “I’m a science human. You’re good at making and fixing things. Together we’ll figure this out.”
He raises his carapace a bit. “Yes. Together. You have device to sample Astrophage, question?”
The External Collection Unit. I remember it from my first day in the control room. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but that’s got to be it. “Yes. I have a device for this.”
“Relief! I try so long. So many times. Fail.” He’s quiet for a moment. “Much time here. Much time alone.”
“How long were you here alone?”
He pauses. “Need new words.”
I pull my laptop off the wall. We run into new words every day, but they’re happening fewer and fewer times per day. That’s something.
I launch the frequency analyzer and bring up my dictionary spreadsheet. “Ready.”
“Seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-six seconds is ♩♫♩♪♪. Erid rotate one circle in one ♩♫♩♪♪.”