Project Hail Mary

Page 88

“Good!” I say.

“Good good,” he says. “Spool Eighteen away…air density increase…”

With the external cameras offline, I can’t see any of what’s going on. But Rocky’s readings are right in line with our plan. Right now, the chain is unfurling as it falls. Our angled engines keep us in the sky, but nothing keeps the chain from falling straight down.

“Spool Twenty away. All spools released. Air density of sampler is almost Astrophage breeding ground level…”

I watch Rocky with bated breath.

“Sampler has closed! Seal is airtight, heater is on! Success success success!”

“Success!” I yell.

It’s working! It’s actually working! We have a sample of Adrian air from the Astrophage breeding zone! If there are any predators, they have to be there, right? I hope so.

“Step two now.” I sigh. This is not going to be fun.

I unhitch my restraints and climb out of the chair. Adrian’s 1.4 g’s of gravity pulls me down at a 30-degree angle. The whole room feels tilted because, actually, it is tilted. This isn’t engine thrust I’m feeling. It’s gravity.

One point four g’s isn’t too bad. Everything’s a bit harder, but not unreasonably so. I climb into the Orlan EVA suit. This is going to be difficult, to say the least. I have to go outside and do an EVA while completely under the effects of gravity.

Needless to say, absolutely no part of the EVA suit, the airlock, or my training was remotely designed for this possibility. Who would have thought I would have to tromp around on the ship in full gravity? More than full, in fact?

Yet however much gravity there may be, there’s still no air. Worst of all worlds. But there’s no other way. I have to get the sample.

Right now, the sampler hangs at the end of a 10-kilometer chain, which is just dangling in the air. There’s no easy way for us to get it back to the ship.

When planning this all out, my first thought was to thrust away from the planet, then collect the sampler when we’re back to zero g. Problem is, there’s literally no way to do that without vaporizing the sampler. Any path I try to take to get the ship out of Adrian’s gravity—or even into a stable orbit—will mean using the spin drives. They’d push the ship along, which would make the chain and sample lag behind us and into the IR blast behind the ship. And then the sampler, everything in it, and the chain all become individual, very hot atoms.

The next idea I had was to make a huge spool that could winch up the chain. But Rocky informed me he’d never be able to make a spool big enough and strong enough to bring up the entire 10-kilometer length.

Rocky had a pretty clever thought: The sampler could climb the chain when it was done. But after some experimenting he ditched the idea. He said the risks just weren’t worth it.

So we have…this other plan.

I grab a special winch Rocky designed and attach it to my suit’s tool belt.

“Be careful,” says Rocky. “You are friend now.”

“Thanks,” I say. “You are friend also.”


I cycle the airlock and look outside.


* * *


This is a strange experience. Space is black. The planet is majestic below me. Everything looks like it should when in orbit. But there’s gravity.

A red glow from the planet peeks out around the edges of the Hail Mary. I’m no dope—I oriented the ship to make sure it would shield me from the deadly heat bouncing up off the atmosphere.

The airlock door is “up.” I have to pull myself—and a hundred pounds of gear—up and through that opening. And I have to do it in 1.4 g.

It takes me a full five minutes. I grunt. I say a bunch of not-really-profane things, but I get it done. Soon I’m standing on top of my ship. One misstep and I’ll fall to my death. I wouldn’t have to wait long for it either. As soon as I fell below the ship, the engines would punch my ticket.

I attach a tether to the handrail at my feet. Will a zero-g tether save me if I fall? It’s not mountain-climbing gear. It wasn’t made for this. Better than nothing, I guess.

I walk along the hull toward the chain anchor point. It’s a large xenonite square that Rocky made. He explained in great detail how to adhere it to the hull. Looks like it did the job just fine. The chain is still attached.

I reach it and get down on my hands and knees. The gravity is absolutely brutal in this EVA suit. No part of this is how things are supposed to be.

I hook my (possibly worthless) tether to the nearest handrail and pull the winch from my tool belt.

The chain hangs away at a 30-degree angle and disappears into the planet below. It just goes so far away it’s too thin for me to perceive after a kilometer or so. But I know from Rocky’s readings it’s the full 10 kilometers down, with a sample container full of potential salvation for two entire planets full of people.

I wedge the winch between the chain and the anchor plate. The chain doesn’t budge—not even a millimeter. But that was expected. There’s just no way human muscle could move something that heavy.

I hook the winch to the anchor plate. The casing of the winch is xenonite, so the xenonite-to-xenonite connection should have plenty of strength for what comes next.

I smack the winch a couple of times just to make sure it’s properly seated. It is.

Then I press the activation button.

A gear pops out from the center of the winch, one cog catching a chain link through the center. The gear turns and drags the chain into the internal workings of the winch. Inside, it rotates the link 180 degrees, then slides it across its neighbor to release it.

When we made the chain, we did it with “trap” links that can connect without us having to seal each one. It’s extremely unlikely that random movement would separate the links. But the winch is deliberately designed to do just that.

Once the link is freed, the winch ejects it out the side and repeats the process for the next link.

“The winch works,” I say through my radio.

“Happy,” comes Rocky’s voice.

It’s simple, straightforward, elegant, and solves all the problems. The winch is powerful enough to lift the chain. It separates the links and lets them fall into the planet below. Having a long length of chain dangling down next to the one we’re pulling up would be a disaster. Imagine earbud wires getting tangled, then multiply that by 10 kilometers.

No, each link will take its own path to oblivion below and the rising chain will be unaffected.

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