I zero in on Adrian and give it another go. The closer we get, the more reflected light we’ll get, and maybe it’ll be enough for the spectrometer to tell me what Adrian’s atmosphere is made of.
“It worked!” I say.
“Worked, question?!” Rocky says, a full octave higher than normal. He scampers up his tunnels to the control-room bulb. “What is Adrian air, question?”
I read the results off the screen. “Looks like it’s…91 percent carbon dioxide, 7 percent methane, 1 percent argon, and the rest are trace gases. It’s a pretty thick atmosphere too. Those are all clear gases, but I can’t see the planet’s surface.”
“Normally you can see surface of planet from space, question?”
“If the atmosphere lets light through, yes.”
“Human eyes are amazing organ. Jealous.”
“Well, not amazing enough. I can’t see Adrian’s surface. When air gets really thick, it stops letting light through. Anyway, that’s not important. The methane—that’s weird.”
“Methane doesn’t last. It breaks apart very fast in sunlight. So how is methane present?”
“Geology creates methane. Carbon dioxide plus minerals plus water plus heat makes methane.”
“Yes. Possible,” I say. “But there’s a lot of methane. Eight percent of a very thick atmosphere. Can geology make that much?”
“You have different theory, question?”
I rub the back of my neck. “No. Not really. It is odd, though.”
“Discrepancy is science. You think about discrepancy. Make theory. You is science human.”
“Yes. I’ll think about it.”
“How long until orbit, question?”
I switch to the Navigation console. We’re right on course, and the orbital-insertion burn is scheduled for twenty-two hours from now. “Just under one day,” I say.
“Excitement,” he says. “Then we sample Astrophage at Adrian. You ship sampler working well, question?”
“Yes,” I say, with no way to know if I’m telling the truth. There’s no reason for Rocky to know I only vaguely understand the operation of my own ship.
I flip through the science instruments until I land on the controls for the External Collection Unit. I look at the diagram on the screen. It’s simple enough. The sampler is a rectangular box. When activated, it will pivot up to be perpendicular to the hull. Then, doors on both sides of the rectangle will open up. Inside, there’s a bunch of sticky resin—ready to catch anything that flies in.
That’s it. Flypaper. Fancy space flypaper, but just flypaper.
“After collection, how sample enter ship, question?”
Simple doesn’t mean convenient. As far as I can tell, there’s no automated system to do anything with the sample. “I have to go get it.”
“Humans are amaze. You leave ship.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Eridians never bothered to invent spacesuits. Why would they? Space is devoid of sensory input to them. It would be like a human with scuba gear diving into an ocean of black paint. There’s just no reason to do it. Eridians use hull robots for EVA work. The Hail Mary doesn’t have one of those, so any EVA work has to be done by me.
“Amaze is wrong word,” he says. “Amaze is compliment. Better word is ♫♪♫♪.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It is when person not act normal. Danger to self.”
“Ah,” I say, adding the new chord into my language database. “Crazy. My word for that is ‘crazy.’ ”
“Crazy. Humans are crazy.”
* * *
“Gosh darn it!” I said.
“Language!” came the voice over the radio. “Seriously, though, what happened?”
The sample vial fell gently away from my hand to the bottom of the pool. It took several seconds to fall 3 feet but, wearing this EVA suit at the bottom of the world’s largest swimming pool, I had no chance of reaching out to grab it.
“I dropped vial number three.”
“Okay,” said Forrester. “That’s three vials so far. We’re going to have to work on the clamper tool.”
“Might not be the tool. Might just be me.”
The tool in my awkwardly gloved hand was far from perfect, but still pretty ingenious. It turned the clumsy pawing of an EVA suit glove into fine manipulation at the other end. All I had to do was squeeze a trigger with my index finger and the clamp constricted by 2 millimeters. If I squeezed a different trigger with my middle finger, it would rotate up to 90 degrees clockwise. My ring and pinkie fingers made it tilt forward up to 90 degrees.
“Stand by, I’m checking the video,” said Forrester.
NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center was a marvel of engineering in itself. The gigantic swimming pool was large enough to fit a full-size replica of the International Space Station inside. They used it to train astronauts on zero-g maneuvering while in EVA suits.
After countless meetings (that I was unfortunately forced to attend), the microbiology community convinced Stratt the mission needed custom-designed tools. She agreed, on the condition that none of them be mission-critical. She was resolute on having all the important stuff be off-the-shelf products with millions of hours of consumer testing.
And, being her little science lapdog, it fell to me to test out the IVME kit.
IVME was an acronym that stood for four words God never intended to be together: “in vacuo microbiology equipment.” Astrophage lives in space. We could study them on Earth in our atmosphere all we wanted, but we wouldn’t get the full picture of how they worked until we studied them in vacuum and in zero g. The crew of the Hail Mary would need these tools.
I stood in one corner of the NBL, the imposing figure of ISS behind me. Two scuba divers floated nearby, ready to rescue me in the event of an emergency.
NASA had sunk a metal lab table into the pool for me. The biggest problem wasn’t making equipment that worked in vacuum—though they did have to completely redesign pipettes because there’s no suction force in space. The problem was the ham-fisted EVA gloves the user had to wear. Astrophage may like vacuum, but human bodies certainly don’t.