Project Hail Mary

Page 36

The cylinder moves slowly toward me. It has a slight rotation, end-over-end. Not perfect, but still a very smooth release.

I check the Radar panel. The Blip-A is at velocity zero. And there’s a “Blip-B” screen now. It shows the much smaller cylinder approaching at 8.6 centimeters per second.

Interesting. That’s the exact same velocity I moved the Hail Mary a moment ago while flashing the engine to say hi. That can’t be a coincidence. They want me to have that cylinder, and they want to deliver it to me at a velocity they know I’m comfortable working with.

“Very considerate of you…” I say.

These are smart aliens.

I have to assume friendly intent at this point. I mean, they’re going out of their way to say hi and be accommodating. Besides, if there is hostile intent, what would I do about it? Die. That’s what I’d do. I’m a scientist, not Buck Rogers.

Well, I mean, I guess I could point the spin drives at their ship, fire them up to full, which would vaporize—you know what? I’m just not going to think along those lines right now.

Some quick math tells me the cylinder will take over forty minutes to reach me. I have that long to get in an EVA suit, go outside, and position myself on the hull for humanity’s first touchdown-pass reception with an alien quarterback.

I learned a lot about the airlock when I was giving my crewmates a burial in space and—

Ilyukhina would have loved this moment. She would have been absolutely bouncing around the cabin with excitement. Yáo would have been stoic and steady, but he would have cracked a smile when he thought we weren’t looking.

The tears ruin my vision. Lacking gravity, they coat my eyes. It’s like trying to see underwater. I wipe them off and fling them across the control room. They splatter onto the opposite wall. I don’t have time for this. I have an alien thingy to catch.

I unhook the belt on the chair and float over to the airlock. My mind is awhirl with ideas and questions. And I’m jumping to wild, unfounded conclusions left and right. Maybe this intelligent alien species invented Astrophage. Maybe they genetically engineered it specifically to “grow” spaceship fuel. The ultimate in solar power. Maybe once I explain what’s happening to Earth, they’ll have a solution.

Or maybe they’ll board my ship and lay eggs in my brain. You can never be sure.

I open the inner airlock door and pull out the EVA suit. So, do I have any idea how to get into this thing? Or how to safely use it?

I disable the chrysalis-lock of the Orlan-MKS2 EVA suit and open the rear hatch. I activate main power by flicking a switch on the belt. The suit boots up almost immediately and the status panel attached to the chest component reads ALL SYSTEMS FUNCTIONAL—what the heck? I know everything that’s going on in here.

We were probably trained on this thing extensively. I know it the same way I know physics. It’s there in my mind, but I don’t remember learning it.

The Russian-made suit is a single-pressure vessel. Unlike American models where you put the top and bottom on, then a bunch of complex stuff for the helmet and gloves, the Orlan series is basically a onesie with a hatch in the back. You step into it, close the hatch, and you’re done. It’s like an insect molting in reverse.

I open the back and wriggle into the suit. Zero g is a real boon here. I don’t have to fight with the suit nearly as much as I normally would. Weird. I know this is easier than other times I’ve done it, but don’t remember any other times I’ve done it. I think I have brain damage from that coma.

I’m functional enough for now. I press on.

I get my arms and legs into their respective holes. The jumpsuit is uncomfortable in the Orlan. I’m supposed to be wearing a special undergarment. I even know what it looks like, but it’s just for temperature regulation and bio-monitoring. I don’t have time to find it in the storage area. I have a date with a cylinder.

Now in the suit, I push steadily against the airlock wall with my legs to push the open rear flap to the wall. Once it gets to within a few inches (centimeters, I should say. This is Russian-made after all), a light turns green on the chest-mounted status panel. I reach up to the panel with my thickly gloved hand and press the Autoseal button.

The suit ratchets the opening closed with a series of loud clicks. With a final “clunk” the outer seal locks into place. My status board reads green and I have seven hours of life support available. Internal pressure is 400 hectopascals—about 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. That’s normal for spacesuits.

The whole process took only five minutes. I’m ready to go outside.

Interesting. I didn’t have to go through a decompression step. On space stations back home, astronauts have to spend hours in an airlock slowly acclimating to the low pressure needed for the EVA suit before they can go out. I don’t have that problem. Apparently, the entire Hail Mary is at that 40 percent pressure.

Good design. The only reason space stations around Earth have a full atmosphere of pressure is in case the astronauts have to abort and return to Earth in a hurry. But for the Hail Mary crew…where would we go? May as well use the low pressure all the time. Makes things easier on the hull and lets you do rapid EVAs.

I take a deep breath and let it out. A soft whir comes from somewhere behind me and cool air flows along my back and shoulders. Air conditioning. It feels nice.

I grab a handhold and spin myself around. I pull the inner airlock door closed and then rotate the primary lever to begin the cycling sequence. A pump fires up. It’s louder than I would have thought. It sounds like an idling motorcycle. I keep my hand on the lever. Pushing it back to the original position will cancel the cycle and repressurize. If I see even a hint of a red light on my suit panel, I’m going to throw that lever so fast it’ll make my head spin.

After a minute, the pump grows quieter. Then quieter still. It’s probably as loud as it ever was. But with the air leaving the chamber, there’s no way for the noise to get to me other than through my feet touching the Velcro pads on the floor.

Finally, the pump stops. I’m in total silence aside from the fans inside the suit. The airlock controls show that the pressure inside is zero, and a yellow light turns green. I’m clear to open the outer door.

I grab the hatch crank, then hesitate.

“What am I doing?” I say.

Is this really a good idea? I want that cylinder so badly I’m just plowing ahead without any sort of plan. Is this worth risking my life over?

Yes. Unequivocally.

Okay, but is it worth risking the lives of everyone on Earth over? Because if I mess up and die out there, then the whole Hail Mary Project will have been in vain.


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