“Hope.” Yes, hope. That’s all we have at this point. Hope that the ship doesn’t wreck itself before we get into a stable orbit.
The next several minutes are the tensest of my life. And, if I may say so, I’ve had some pretty tense moments these past few weeks. The hull continues to make horrible noises, but we’re not dead, so I guess it didn’t breach. Finally, after what seems like a whole lot more than ten minutes, our velocity is enough to stay in orbit.
“Velocity good. Stopping engines.” I slide the spin-drive power sliders to zero. I let my head fall back to the headrest in relief. Now we can take our time and figure out what went wrong. No need to use the engines to…
My head fell back into the headrest. It fell back into the headrest.
I hold my arms out in front of me, then relax them. They fall down and to the left.
“Gravity still here,” says Rocky, echoing my own observations.
I check the Nav console. Our velocity is good. We’re in a stable orbit around Adrian. Well, actually it’s ugly as heck—the apogee is 2,000 kilometers farther from the planet than perigee. But it’s an orbit, darn it. And it’s stable.
I check the Spin Drive panel again. All three drives are at zero. No thrust at all. I delve into the diagnostics screen and confirm that each of the 1,009 revolver triangles spread throughout the three drives is stationary. They are.
I let my arm fall again. It does the same strange movement. Down and to the left.
Rocky does a similar motion with one of his arms. “Adrian gravity, question?”
“No. We’re in orbit.” I scratch my head.
“Spin drive, question?”
“No. It’s offline. There’s zero thrust.”
I let my arm fall again. This time it hits the armrest of the seat.
“Ow!” I shake my hand. That really hurt.
I let it fall again as an experiment. It fell faster this time. That’s why it hurt.
Rocky pulls several tools from his jumpsuit bandolier and drops them one at a time. “Gravity increasing.”
“This doesn’t make any sense!” I say.
I check the Nav panel again. Our speed has increased considerably since I last looked. “Our velocity is increasing!”
“Engines on. Only explanation.”
“Can’t be. The spin drives are off. There’s nothing to accelerate us!”
“Force increasing,” he says.
“Yes,” I say. I’m having trouble breathing now. Whatever we’re at, it’s much higher than a g or two. Things are getting out of hand.
With all my strength, I reach to the screen and cycle through panels. Navigation, Petrovascope, External View, Life Support…each one seems completely normal. Until I reach “Structure.”
I’d never paid a lot of attention to the Structure panel. It’s just a gray outline of the ship. But now, for the first time, it has something to say.
There’s an irregular red blotch on the port fuel tank. Is that a hull breach? It could be. The fuel tanks are outside the pressure vessel. They could have a huge hole in them and we wouldn’t lose air.
“There’s a hole in the ship…” I say. I struggle to switch back to the external cameras.
Rocky watches my screen with his camera and texture pad. He’s doing fine—no problems at all from the tremendous forces.
I angle the cameras around to look at the affected hull.
And there it is. A massive hole in the port side of the ship. It must be 20 meters long and half as wide. The edges of the hole tell the tale—the hull melted.
It was the blowback from Adrian’s atmosphere. Not a physical explosion, but pure, unadulterated infrared light reflected off the air. The ship tried to warn me that the hull got too hot. I should have listened.
I thought the hull couldn’t melt. It was cooled by Astrophage! But of course it can melt. Even if Astrophage is a perfect heat absorber (and it may be), the heat has to conduct through the metal before it can be absorbed. If the outer layer of the hull reaches its melting point faster than the heat can transmit through the thickness of the hull, the Astrophage can’t do anything about it.
“Confirmed. Hull breach. Port fuel tank.”
“Why thrust, question?”
It all comes together. “Oh crap! The Astrophage in the fuel bay! It’s exposed to space! That means it can see Adrian! My fuel is migrating to Adrian to breed!”
“Bad bad bad!”
That’s where the thrust is from. Trillions and trillions of horny little Astrophages, all ready to breed. And then, all at once, they see Adrian. Not just a source of carbon dioxide, but their ancestral homeland. The planet they evolved over billions of years to seek out.
As each new sheet of Astrophage rushes out of the ship and toward Adrian, the next layer of Astrophage gets exposed. The ship is being pushed along by the IR thrust from the departing Astrophage. Fortunately, the rest of the Astrophage behind them are present to absorb the energy. But in absorbing that energy they absorb the momentum.
It’s far from a perfect system. It’s a chaotic, sputtering explosion. Any second now, this could degenerate into a much larger and less directed plume of IR and we’ll be vaporized. I have to make this stop.
I can jettison fuel bays! I saw that feature on my first day in the control room! Where the heck was it…?
It takes all the strength I have to lift my arm to the screen, but I manage to bring up the Astrophage panel. It shows a map of the ship and the fuel-bay area is broken up into nine rectangles. I don’t have time to cross-reference these rectangles to the part of the bad hull. I grunt, force my arm forward, and tap one that I think is in the right place.
“Throwing…away…bad…fuel bay…” I say through clenched teeth.
“Yes yes yes!” Rocky says, cheering me on.
The Fuel Pod screen pops up: ASTROPHAGE 112.079 KG. Next to that, a button labeled “Jettison.” I punch it. A confirmation dialog pops up. I confirm.
A sudden jerk of acceleration hurls me to the side. Even Rocky is unable to hold position. He slams into the side of his bulb but quickly rights himself and clamps onto his handholds with all five hands.
The hull groans louder than before. The acceleration has not stopped and my vision grows foggy. The pilot’s seat begins to bend. I’m about to black out, so we’re probably at 6 g or more.