Project Hail Mary

Page 95

I pull out my tablet and take photos of the container. Science rule number 1: If something is changing unexpectedly, document it.

Just to be more scientific, I point a webcam at the experiment and set up the computer to take a time-lapse at one frame per second. If anything is happening slowly, I want to know.

I head back to the control room. Where the heck are we?

Some work with the Nav console and I learn we’re still in orbit. It’s stable-ish. This orbit will probably decay over time. No rush, though.

I check all the ship’s systems and do as many diagnostics as I can. The ship did pretty well, despite not being remotely designed to handle this situation.

The two fuel bays I jettisoned aren’t around anymore, but the other seven look to be in good shape. There are cracks in the hull here and there, according to the diagnostics test. But they all seem to be internal. Nothing facing outside, which is good. I don’t want my Astrophage to see Adrian again.

One of the micro-breaches is highlighted in red. I take a closer look. The breach’s location has the computer in a tizzy. It’s in the bulkhead between the fuel area and the edge of the pressure vessel. I can see the concern.

The bulkhead sits between the storage bay below the dormitory and Fuel Bay 4. I go take a look.

Rocky still hasn’t moved. No surprise there. My steel box remains where I put it. I could probably use it now, but I’m resolved to wait the full hour.

I open up the storage panels and pull a bunch of boxes out. I climb into the storage area with a flashlight and toolkit. It’s cramped—barely 3 feet tall. I have to crawl around in there for a good twenty minutes before I finally find the breach. I only spot it because there’s a small frosty buildup around the edges. Air escaping into a vacuum gets really cold really fast. In fact, that ice probably helped slow the leak.

Not that it mattered. The leak is so small it would take weeks to be a problem. And the ship probably has a bunch of spare air in tanks anyway. Still, there’s no reason to just let it leak. I apply a generous helping of epoxy on a small metal patch and seal the breach. I have to hold it for considerably more than five minutes before it sets. Epoxy takes a long time to set when it’s cold, and the bulkhead is below freezing at that spot thanks to the leak. I considered getting a heat gun from the lab but…that’s a lot of work. I just hold the patch for longer. It takes about fifteen minutes.

I climb back down and wince the whole time. My arm hurts nonstop now. It’s a constant sting. It’s been less than an hour, but the painkillers aren’t doing the job anymore.

“Computer! Painkillers!”

“Additional dose available in three hours and four minutes.”

I frown. “Computer: What is the current time?”

“Seven-fifteen p.m., Moscow Standard Time.”

“Computer: Set time to eleven p.m. Moscow Standard Time.”

“Clock set complete.”

“Computer: painkillers.”

The arms hand me a package of pills and a bag of water. I gobble them down. What a stupid system. Astronauts trusted to save the world but not to monitor their painkiller doses? Stupid.

Okay. It’s been long enough. I turn my attention back to the box.

First I’ll need to drill a hole in the xenonite. And that’s where all hell will break loose if things go bad. The general idea here is for the drill inside the box to put a hole in the xenonite and for the box to contain the pressure that rushes in. But you never know. The box might not be held on tight enough.

I wear a medical breathing mask and eye protection. If there’s going to be a jet of superheated, high-pressure ammonia in this room, I need to not die from it.

Earlier I filed down a metal rod to be sort of a spike. The full radius is a little bigger than the drill bit I have readied in the steel box. I hold the spike and hammer at the ready. If the pressure blows the box off, I’ll hammer the spike into the hole and hope it plugs the gap.

Of course, the pressure might not blow the box off entirely. It might just spurt out around the edges of the glue joint. If that happens, I’ll have to smack the box with the hammer until it comes off, then drive in the spike.

Yes, it’s ridiculously dangerous. But I just don’t know if Rocky will survive without help. Maybe I’m being emotional instead of rational. But so what?

I clench the hammer and spike. Then I activate the drill.

It takes so long for that drill to get through the xenonite, I actually calm down out of boredom. It’s only 1 centimeter, but it’s like trying to grind down diamond. I’m lucky the drill bit is hard enough to do anything at all. The camera feed from inside shows slow and steady progress. Instead of drilling like wood or metal, this is more like glass. It breaks off in chips and chunks.

Finally, the bit breaches to the other side. It is immediately launched back into the box and bent sideways by the pressure. There’s a whump as Eridian air rushes into the little box. I squint my eyes. Then, after a few seconds, I open them again.

If the box was going to blow off, it would have done so right then. My seal held. For now anyway. I breathe a sigh of relief.

But I don’t take the mask or goggles off. You never know when the seal might give out.

I check the camera screen. This will take careful aim, so I was very clever in making sure a camera could—

The camera feed is dead.

A pain in my wrist takes over and I pull it away.

Ah. Yeah. Webcams aren’t designed to work at 210 degrees Celsius and 29 atmospheres. And my solid steel box, well, it’s solid steel. Steel is an excellent heat conductor. I can’t even touch it now it’s so hot.

I’m still stupid. First the Adrian sample container, and now this. I want to sleep, but Rocky is more important. At least being stupid isn’t permanent. I’ll press on. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m too stupid to take that into consideration.

Okay, the camera is dead. I can’t see into the box. But I can still see Rocky in the airlock because the xenonite is clear. I’ll have to work with what I’ve got here.

I fire up the high-pressure pump. It still works—at least, it’s making noise. It should be shooting a very high-pressure jet of air in Rocky’s direction. At 29 atmospheres, air acts almost like water. You can really knock stuff around with it. But ammonia is clear. So I have no idea where it’s going.

I adjust the angle of the jet with the servo controls. Are they working? I have no idea. The pump is too loud for me to hear if the servos are doing anything. I sweep left and right, inching down and up in a pattern.

Finally, I spot something. One of the levers in the airlock wiggles a bit. I zero in on it. It gets pushed back several inches.

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