Project Hail Mary

Page 37

Yes. It’s still worth it. I don’t know what these aliens are like, what they want, or what they’re planning to say. But they will have information. Any information, even stuff I’d rather not know, is better than none.

I spin the handle and open the door. The empty blackness of space lies beyond. The light of Tau Ceti glistens off the door. I peek my head out and see Tau Ceti with my own eyes. At this distance, it’s a little less bright than the sun as seen from Earth.

I double-check my tether to make darn sure I’m attached, then I step out into space.


* * *


I’m good at this.

I must have practiced a lot. Maybe in a neutral-buoyancy tank or something. But it comes as second nature to me.

I exit the airlock and clamp one of my tethers to a rail on the outside hull. Always have two tethers. And always have at least one attached. That way you’re never at risk of floating away from the ship. The Orlan-MKS2 is possibly the best EVA suit ever made, but it doesn’t have a SAFER unit like NASA’s EMU suit. At least with a SAFER unit you have minimal thrust capability to return to the ship if you fall adrift.

All that information floods into my mind at once. I guess I’ve put a lot of time and thought into spacesuits. Maybe I’m our crew’s EVA specialist? I don’t know.

I flip up the sun visor and peer toward the Blip-A. I wish I could glean some special insight by seeing it in person, but it’s pretty far away. The Hail Mary’s telescope gave me a much better view. Still, there’s something…unique about staring directly at an alien spacecraft.

I catch a glint of the cylinder. Every now and then the flat ends of the gently tumbling cylinder reflect Taulight.

I’ve decided “Taulight” is a word, by the way. Light from Tau Ceti. It’s not “sunlight.” Tau Ceti isn’t the sun. So…Taulight.

I still have a good twenty minutes before the cylinder reaches the ship. I watch it for a while to guess where it’ll hit. It’d be nice to have a crewmate inside at the radar station.

It’d be nice to have a crewmate at all.

After five minutes, I have a good bead on the cylinder. It’s headed for roughly the center of the ship. It’s as good a place as any for aliens to aim for.

I make my way across the hull. The Hail Mary is pretty big. My little pressurized area is only half its length and the back half flares out to be three times as wide. Most of that will be empty now, I guess. It used to be full of Astrophage for my one-way trip here.

The hull is crisscrossed with rails and latch points for EVA tethering. Tether by tether, rail by rail, I make my way toward the center of the ship.

I have to step over a thick ring. It circles the crew compartment area of the ship. It’s a good 2 feet thick. I don’t know what it is, but it must be pretty heavy. Mass is everything when it comes to spaceship design, so it must be important. I’ll speculate about that later.

I continue along, one hull latch point at a time, until I’m roughly in the center of the hull. The cylinder creeps closer. I adjust my position a tad to keep up with it. After an excruciatingly long wait, it’s almost within reach.

I wait. No need to get greedy. If I paw at it too early, I might knock it off course and into space. I’d have no way of recovering it. I don’t want to look dumb in front of the aliens.

Because they’re surely watching me right now. Probably counting my limbs, noting my size, figuring out what part they should eat first, whatever.

I let the cylinder get closer and closer. It’s moving less than 1 mile per hour. Not exactly a bullet pass.

Now that it’s so close, I can estimate its size. It’s not big at all. About the size and shape of a coffee can. It’s a dull gray color with splotches of slightly darker gray randomly here and there. Similar to the Blip-A’s hull, kind of. Different color but same blotchiness. Maybe it’s a stylistic thing. Random splotches are “in” this season or something.

The cylinder floats into my arms and I grab it with both hands.

It has less mass than I expected. It’s probably hollow. It’s a container. There’s something inside they want me to see.

I hold the cylinder under one arm and use the other to deal with tethers. I hurry back to the airlock. It’s a stupid thing to do. There’s no reason to hurry and it literally endangers my life. One slip-up and I’d be off in space. But I just can’t wait.

I get back into the ship, cycle the airlock, and float into the control room with my prize in hand. I open the Orlan suit, already thinking about what tests I’ll run on the cylinder. I have a whole lab to work with!

The smell hits me immediately. I gasp and cough. The cylinder is bad!

No, not bad. But it smells bad. I can barely breathe. The chemical smell is familiar. What is it? Cat pee?

Ammonia. It’s ammonia.

“Okay,” I wheeze. “Okay. Think.”

My gut instinct is to close the suit again. But that would just trap me in a small volume with the ammonia that’s already in here. Better to let the cylinder air out in the larger volume of the ship.

Ammonia isn’t toxic—at least, not in small quantities. And the fact that I can still breathe at all tells me it’s a small quantity. If it weren’t, my lungs would have caustic burns and I’d be unconscious or dead now.

As it is, there’s just a bad smell. I can handle a bad smell.

I climb out the back of the suit while the cylinder floats in the middle of the console room. Now that it’s not a shock anymore, I can handle the ammonia. It’s no worse than using a bunch of Windex in a small room. Unpleasant but not dangerous.

I grab the cylinder—and it’s hot as heck!

I yelp and pull my hands away. I blow on them for a moment and check for burns. It wasn’t too bad. Not stovetop hot. But hot.

Grabbing it with my bare hands was stupid. Flawed logic. I assumed that since I’d been holding it earlier it was okay to do now. But earlier I had very thick spacesuit gloves protecting my hands.

“You’ve been a bad alien cylinder,” I say to it. “You need a time-out.”

I pull my arm into my sleeve and wrap my hand in the cuff. I use my now-protected knuckles to nudge the cylinder into the airlock. Once it’s in, I close the door.

I’ll let it be for now. It’ll cool down to ambient air temperature eventually. And while it does, I don’t want it floating randomly around my ship. I don’t think there’s anything in the airlock that can get hurt by some heat.

How hot was it?

Well, I had both hands on it (like an idiot) for a fraction of a second. My own reaction time was enough to keep me from getting burned. So it’s probably less than 100 degrees Celsius.

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