I keep the thruster on, and let the ship rotate on its yaw axis as I watch the Petrovascope. Now I have a flashlight. The rotation rate of the ship increases faster and faster. I can’t have that. So I activate the starboard-side yaw thruster as well. The computer complains up a storm. There’s no sensible reason to tell the ship to rotate clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. I ignore the warnings.
I do a full revolution and see nothing. Okay. Nothing new. I do a 5-degree pitch adjustment and try again.
On my sixth go-around—at 25 degrees from the Adrian ecliptic, I spot the contact. Still too far away to make out any detail. But it’s a flash of light in response to my yaw thruster. I flick the thruster on and off a few times to gauge the response time. It’s nearly instant—I’d say less than a quarter second. I’m within 75,000 kilometers.
I point toward the contact and fire up the drives. This time I won’t go barreling in willy-nilly. I’ll stop every 20,000 kilometers or so and take another reading.
I smile. It’s working.
Now I just have to hope I haven’t been chasing an asteroid all day.
* * *
With careful flying and repeated measurements, I finally have the object on radar!
It’s right there on the screen. “BLIP-A.”
“Oh, right,” I say. I forgot that’s how it got its name.
I’m 4,000 kilometers away—the very edge of radar range. I bring up the telescope view, but I can’t see anything, even at the highest magnification. The telescope was made for finding celestial bodies hundreds or thousands of kilometers across, not a spaceship a few hundred meters long.
I creep closer. The object’s velocity with respect to Tau Ceti is about right for Rocky’s ship. Roughly the speed he would have gotten to around the time his engines died.
I could take a bunch of readings and do math to work out its course, but I have an easier plan.
I thrust for a few minutes here, a few minutes there, slowing down and speeding up until I match the object’s velocity. It’s still 4,000 kilometers away, but now the relative velocity to me is almost zero. Why do this? Because the Hail Mary is very good at telling me about its own course.
I bring up the Nav console and tell it to calculate my current orbit. After some stargazing and calculation, the computer tells me exactly what I wanted to hear: The Hail Mary is on a hyperbolic trajectory. That means I’m not in orbit at all. I’m on an escape vector, leaving Tau Ceti’s gravity influence entirely.
And that means the object I’m tracking is also on an escape vector. You know what objects in a solar system don’t do? They don’t escape the star’s gravity. Anything going fast enough to escape did so billions of years ago. Whatever this is, it’s no normal asteroid.
“Yes yes yes yes…” I say. I kick the spin drives on and head toward the contact. “I’m comin’, buddy. Hold tight.”
When I’m within 500 kilometers, I finally get some resolution on the object. All I see is a highly pixelated triangle. It’s four times as long as it is wide. It’s not much information, but it’s enough. It’s the Blip-A. I know the profile well.
I have a bag of Ilyukhina’s vodka handy for just such an occasion. I take a sip from the zip-straw. I cough and wheeze. Dang, she liked her liquor rough.
* * *
Rocky’s ship sits 50 meters off my starboard side. I came up really carefully—I don’t want to cross an entire solar system just to accidentally vaporize him with my engines. I’ve matched velocities to within a few centimeters per second.
It’s been almost three months since we parted. From the outside, the Blip-A looks the same as it always has. But something is definitely wrong.
I’ve tried everything to communicate. Radio. Flashes of spin-drive light. Nothing gets a response.
I get a sinking feeling. What if Rocky’s dead? He was all alone in there. What if all heck broke loose while he was in a sleep cycle? Eridians don’t wake up until their bodies are ready. What if the life-support system went offline while he was asleep and he just…never woke up?
What if he died of radiation sickness? All that Astrophage that was protecting him from radiation turned into methane and Taumoeba. Eridians are very susceptible to radiation. It might have happened so fast he didn’t have a chance to react.
I shake my head.
No. He’s Rocky. He’s smart. He’d have backup plans. A separate life-support system that he sleeps in, I bet. And he’d account for radiation—it killed his entire crew.
But why no response?
He can’t see. He doesn’t have windows. He’d have to actively look outside with the Blip-A’s sensory equipment to know I’m there at all. Why would he do that? He thinks he’s hopelessly derelict in space.
I climb into the Orlan for what seems like the millionth time and cycle through the airlock. I have a nice long tether anchored to the airlock interior itself.
I look out into the vast nothingness before me. I can’t see the Blip-A. Tau Ceti is too far away to light things up. I only know where the ship is because it blocks the background stars. I’m just…out in space and a big chunk of it has no pinpricks of light.
There’s no good way to do this. I’m just going to have to take a guess. I kick off the Hail Mary’s hull as hard as I can, aiming for the Blip-A. It’s a big ship. I just have to hit any part of it. And hey, if I miss, the tether will bounce me back in the galaxy’s first interstellar bungee jump.
I float across space. The blackness ahead of me grows. More and more stars disappear until I see nothing. I don’t even have a sense of movement. I know logically I must have the same velocity as when I kicked off my ship. But there’s nothing to prove it.
Then, I spot a faint blotchy tan glow ahead. I’m finally close enough to the Blip-A that my helmet lights are illuminating part of it. It gets brighter and brighter. I can see the hull more clearly now.
It’s go time. I have just seconds to find something to grab on to. I know his hull has rails all over the place for that robot to get around. I’m hoping I’ll be close enough to one to grab.
I spot a rail dead ahead. I reach out.
I hit the Blip-A much harder than an EVA suit should. I shouldn’t have kicked off the Hail Mary with so much gusto. I scrabble at the hull, grabbing for anything. My plan to grab a rail failed miserably, I got a hand on one but just couldn’t keep a grip. I bounce and start drifting away. The tether gets tangled up behind and around me. It’ll be a long climb back to my ship for another try.