* * *
I watch the Telescope screen. Occasionally I look away. Sometimes I play Klondike solitaire on the Nav panel. But I never go more than a few seconds without checking the telescope. A thick pair of gloves, harvested from the lab earlier, tries to float away. I grab them and wedge them behind the pilot’s seat.
It’s been two hours and my alien friends haven’t had anything to say. Are they waiting for me to say something else? I just told them what star I was from. It’s their turn to say something, right?
Do they even have a concept of taking turns? Or is that a purely human thing?
What if Eridians have a life-span of 2 million years and waiting a century to reply is considered polite?
How am I going to get rid of this red 7 on the rightmost pile? I don’t have any black 8s in my deck and—
I spin to the Telescope screen so fast my legs float out into the middle of the control room. There’s another cylinder coming my way. I guess the many-armed hull-robot thing threw it just a moment ago. I check the Radar screen. Blip-B is plugging along at over a meter per second. I only have a few minutes to suit up!
I get back into the EVA suit and cycle the airlock. Once I open the outer door, I spot the cylinder tumbling end-over-end. Might be the same one as before, might be new. And this time, it’s headed straight for the airlock. I guess they saw that’s where I exited and reentered the ship and decided to make things easier for me.
Very considerate of them.
They’re accurate too. A minute later, the cylinder floats right through the center of the open hatchway. I catch it. I wave to the Blip-A and close the hatch. They probably don’t know what a wave is, but I felt compelled to do it.
I return to the control room and wriggle out of the EVA suit, leaving the cylinder to float near the airlock. The ammonia smell is powerful, but this time I’m ready for it.
I put the thick lab gloves on and grab the cylinder. Even through the fireproof gloves, I can feel the warmth. I know I should wait for it to cool down but I don’t want to.
It looks the same as before. I unscrew it the same left-handed way. This time, there’s no star map. Instead, it’s a model. What am I looking at here?
A single post from the base holds up an irregular shape. No, two irregular shapes connected by a tube. Hey, wait. One of the shapes is the Hail Mary. Oh, and the other one is the Blip-A.
The models have no detail or texture. But they’re good enough for me to recognize what they represent, so they did their job. The Hail Mary is only 3 inches long, while the Blip-A is closer to 8 inches. Man, that ship is huge.
And that tube connecting them? It connects to the Hail Mary’s airlock and leads to the center of the Blip-A’s diamond-shaped segment. The tunnel is just wide enough to cover my airlock door.
They want to meet.
I let the model float in the middle of the room. The xenonite is nearly indestructible, so I don’t need to worry about it bumping into anything.
Is this a good idea? I have a planet to save. As awesome as it is to meet up with intelligent aliens, is this risk worth it?
The Eridians clearly understand Astrophage. At least well enough to make engines out of it. And—I think—they’re trying to tell me they’re here for the same reason I am. They might have information I don’t know. They might even have the solution I’m looking for. And they seem friendly enough.
But this is the interstellar equivalent of a stranger offering me candy. I want the candy (information), but I don’t know the stranger.
What’s my alternative? Ignore them?
I could carry on with my mission as if I never saw them at all. They’re probably as spooked to see me as I am to see them. They might continue trying to talk, but they wouldn’t get hostile, I don’t think.
Or would they? I have no way of knowing.
No, this is a no-brainer. I’ve got to at least have a conversation with them. If they have any information about Astrophage at all, no matter how minor, I have to talk to them. It’s a risk, yes, but this whole mission is a risk.
Okay. So what would I do if I were them?
I’m an Eridian. I want to build a tunnel that connects to the weird human ship. But I don’t know what the human ship’s material is made of. How can I guarantee any kind of attachment or seal? My xenonite knowledge is beyond dispute, but how do I connect it to “humanium” or whatever that ship is made of? I’ve sent the human xenonite models. So he knows what I have. But I still don’t know what he has.
They’ll need a sample of my hull. And they’ll need to know it’s a sample of my hull.
“Right,” I say to no one.
I don’t know if this is a good idea or a terrible idea. But I’m going to knock a chunk of my hull off.
I grab a set of EVA tools. They live in the lab in Drawer 17E. I found them a while ago. They’re on a tool belt that can clip onto the EVA suit and everything. Stratt and the gang made sure we had all the equipment we would need for hull repairs if needed. Normally it would be Ilyukhina’s job to fix stuff, but she’s gone.
Huh. Random memory. Ilyukhina was our engineer—our fix-it gal. Okay. Well, now it’s me.
I get back in the EVA suit, and back outside. Again. Bouncing in and out is getting kind of annoying. I hope this tunnel thing works.
I make my way along the hull, one tether adjustment at a time. And I get to thinking…
What good is a tunnel, exactly? I doubt we have compatible environments. We can’t just connect the ships with a tunnel and shake hands. I think there’s a lot of ammonia over there.
And then there’s the temperature. Those cylinders are hot when I get them.
Some back-of-the-napkin math tells me that first cylinder they sent should have lost 100 degrees Celsius or more during that forty-minute trip (depending on what temperature it started at). And it was still hot when I got it. So it was really hot when it left their ship. Like…way higher than the boiling point of water.
I try not to speculate too wildly, but come on. I’m a scientist and these are aliens. I’m going to speculate.
Do Eridians live in an environment hotter than the boiling point of water? If so, it proves I was right! The goldilocks zone is bull-puckey! You don’t need liquid water for life!
I should be more focused on the “first contact with intelligent aliens” thing or the “save all of humanity” thing, but gosh darn it, I can spend a moment to be happy about being right when everyone said I was wrong!
I finally reach a spot of hull that seems right for the job. I’m aft of the entire pressurized portion of the ship, well past the part where it widens out. If I’m right, I’m standing on a big empty tank that used to be full of Astrophage. If I breach the hull here, it shouldn’t matter.