Project Hail Mary

Page 94

There’s about a gram in there, included in the supplies for testing purposes. I can always get more if I need it. All I have to do is cut any of the Astrophage-based coolant lines in the hull. But there’s no need for that right now.

The sample is an oily sludge at the bottom of the vial. I open the vial and scoop it up with a cotton swab. (That gram of Astrophage has 100 trillion Joules of energy. Best not to think about it.)

I smear the Astrophage along the inner wall of the vacuum chamber and drop the cotton swab in next to the sample probe.

I pump all the air out of the vacuum chamber.

The chemistry supplies include several small cylinders of gases. Thankfully, steel cylinders are tough, so they survived the game of cosmic pinball we just went through. I add gases into the vacuum chamber, one at a time, through the infeed valve. I want to replicate Adrian’s atmosphere. I pump in carbon dioxide, methane, and even argon. I don’t imagine the argon will matter—it’s a noble gas, so it shouldn’t react with stuff. But that’s what I used to think about xenon, and that turned out to be wrong.

I don’t have any way to chill the air in there to minus 50 degrees, so I’ll just have to hope whatever the life inside can handle Earth room temperature.

I hear a click just as I finish putting the argon in. It’s the sampler. Just as Rocky designed them to do, the little valves opened when the outside pressure matched the pressure at the Astrophage breeding altitude on Adrian. Good old Rocky. Best engineer I’ve ever met.

Okay. I’ve made the sample as safe as I can. The air composition and pressure is as close to its native environment as I could get it, and there’s plenty of Astrophage to eat. If there are any microscopic predators in there, they should be in good shape.

I wipe my brow with my bandaged arm, and immediately regret it. I wince in pain.

“How hard is it, Ryland?!” I seethe to myself. “Stop using your burned-up arm!”

I climb back down the ladder to the dormitory.

“Computer: painkillers.”

The arms reach up and hand me a paper cup with two pills in it and a cup of water. I take the pills without even checking what they are.

I look back at my friend and try to come up with a plan….


* * *


It’s been over a day since I shoved Rocky in that airlock and he still hasn’t moved. But I haven’t been wasting my time. I’ve been mad sciencing some inventions in the lab. This kind of gadget creation is really Rocky’s forte, but I give it my best.

I thought about lots of different approaches. But in the end, I think I should let Rocky’s body heal itself as much as possible. I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to operate on a human, let alone an Eridian. His body should know what to do. I just have to let it.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to do nothing at all, though. I have a guess as to what’s going on. And if I’m wrong, my idea for treatment won’t hurt him.

Right now, there’s a bunch of soot and other combustion by-product crap in his radiator organ. So it probably doesn’t work well. If he’s alive at all, it’ll take his body a long time to clear that out. Maybe too long.

So maybe I can help?

I hold the box in my hand. It’s enclosed on five of six sides with the remaining side open. The walls are 4-inch-thick steel. It took me all day to repair the mill and get it working again, but once I did, milling up this box was a breeze.

Inside is a high-powered air pump. Simple as that. I can shoot high-pressure air really hard. I tested it out in the lab and it blew a hole in a 1-millimeter-thick sheet of aluminum from a foot away. It really works. I wish I could claim I’m a genius who made this all from scratch, but the reality is I only made the box. The pump is repurposed from a high-pressure tank.

Also in the box is a battery, a camera, some stepper motors, and a drill. I’ll need all of these things for my plan to work.

I’ve cleaned up the lab, somewhat. Most of the equipment is ruined, but some might be fixable. I cross to the other side of the table, where I have another experiment.

I have a little chip of xenonite—some chaff left over from when we made two hundred thousand chain links. I used a generous application of epoxy to glue it to the tip of a roughed-up drill bit. It’s been setting for over an hour. Should be done.

I pick up the bit and the xenonite comes with it. I use all my strength to try to pull them apart. I can’t.

I nod and smile. This might work.

I do a few more tests with the box. My remote control for the motors works well enough. It’s not true remote control. It’s a bank of switches attached to a plastic container lid. I have wires from the switches going through a tiny hole in the steel, which is in turn filled up with resin. I can turn the power on or off to any of the components in there. That’s my “remote control.” I can only hope the motors don’t have a problem with high heat or ammonia.

I bring everything to the dormitory and prep the epoxy. I stir it together and apply it generously to the edges of the steel box’s open side. I press the box to the airlock wall and hold it in place. Then I just stand there for ten minutes, holding the box in place. I could have taped it to the wall or something while the epoxy set, but I need a really good seal and I don’t want to take any chances. Human hands are better clamps than any tool I might have in the lab.

I gingerly release the box and wait for it to fall. It doesn’t. I poke it a couple of times and it seems pretty solid.

It’s five-minute epoxy, but I’ll give it an hour to fully set.

I return to the lab. I may as well, right? Let’s see what my little alien terrarium is up to.

Nothing much, as it happens. I don’t know what I expected. Little flying saucers whizzing around in the chamber, maybe?

But the cylinder looks exactly like it did before. The sampler sits where I left it. The smear of Astrophage is unchanged. The cotton swab is…


I hunker down and take a seat. I squint into the chamber. The cotton swab has changed. Just a little bit. It’s…fluffier.

Sweet! Maybe there’s something on there I could get a look at. I just need to get it under a microscope to—


The realization dawns on me. I don’t have any way to extract samples. I just plain overlooked that part.

“Dummy!” I smack my forehead.

I rub my eyes. Between the pain from my burns and the dopiness from the painkillers, it’s hard to concentrate. And I’m tired. One thing I learned back in my graduate school days: When you’re stupid tired, accept that you’re stupid tired. Don’t try to solve things right then. I have a sealed container that I need to get into eventually. I’ll figure out how later.

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