The outer hatch slowly slid open. It was a weird feeling; such a large and heavy weight of metal ought to have made a lot of noise, but the only sensation Dann felt was a slight vibration transmitted through the deck and into his feet through his magnetized boots. Just one of the many oddities of operating in a vacuum; he hoped he didn’t have to get too used to it.
Light flooded the airlock as the doors opened; even as far out as they were from the center of the solar system, so much farther than Earth was from its sun, there was no problem seeing. He waited until the doors were fully open, then took his first awkward steps out towards the hull of the ship.
He was seized by a sudden crushing disorientation and terror as he left the airlock and immediately lost all sense of direction at the edge. There was nothing but stars in front of him, and more stars beneath his feet. He had to stop in his tracks and close his eyes, just focus on his breathing. They’re counting on me, he reminded himself. I have to get to that AI unit. I have to.
He got his suit gloves into as good a grip on the inside of the airlock as he could manage, and knelt down, awkwardly lowering his foot to try and let the magnets get a grip on the hull. How do real astronauts do this? he found himself wondering. He thought back to space walks he’d seen and archival footage he’d watched as a kid. They were tethered, I guess, he thought, wishing he could be. That lead to thoughts of just how easy it would be to accidentally lose his footing and simply float away, helpless and hopeless until his air ran out.
He fought down nausea again, and thumbed his com unit. “Jenny? These suits aren’t networked in any way are they?”
“What? Networked? No, why?”
“Just making sure. I’d hate for it to shut off the mag boots on me. There’s only so long I can hold my breath,” he said, trying to hide the nervousness in his voice.
“No, no chance of that! The worst you might have to face would be EV bots.”
“Say again? It almost sounded like you said—”
“Extra vehicular bots, yes,” Rose cut in from her radio. “Long-duration space flight carries risks of collision with dust and debris that can damage or even pierce the hull. I can operate externally of course, albeit with difficulty, and we have several purpose-built bots available to repair minor damage.”
“Right. Nobody thought I should know this before I came out here?” he grumbled.
“We’ve got other things to worry about, Dann,” Jackson called weakly, through Jenny’s pickup. The sounds of fighting reached him from the distance. More maintenance bots. Gunshots ran out. He swallowed, closed his eyes, and clanged the sole of his magboot against the outer hull, then levered his body perpendicular to where he’d stood in the airlock.
He let out his breath in relief and brought his other foot out. He felt much better with solid ground under his feet again; the view was spectacular, once he was in a frame of mind to appreciate it. Before he could stand and goggle at it for too long though, the sound of gunfire got him moving again. He started forward along the hull, heading for the underside of the bridge.
“When can we expect EV bots, Rose?”
“Unknown. If the hijacker is unaware that we’re outside, it won’t send anything after us. I believe we’ve escaped attention so far, but we’ll have to be careful. There are no sensors that could pick us up out here, but we can easily make sound inside the ship that would tip it off. Our best chance is to go slowly and very carefully.”
“Right,” Dann said. Since that was generally in line with his personal goal of not floating off the ship for all eternity, he couldn’t argue. “Got it. And when we reach it? Won’t it know we’re removing it from the hull?”
Dann spotted Rose on the hull, a little ahead of him and on the other side of the ship, just crossing up over the artificial horizon of the hull curvature. She was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know if it will know or not.”
“What’s your best guess?” It was a long way to the front of the ship, made longer by their need to move so slowly. Dann conservatively estimated it as at least a three hour trip, each way. Thankfully the suit was equipped with food and water, and to deal with waste.
They angled themselves to join up along the center line of the ship. “We must assume it has some sort of external sensors. Without them it would have been unlikely to successfully attach to the ship years ago. What kind of sensors they are, whether they’re sensitive enough to detect us, whether it could tell that it’s being physically moved to a different part of the ship … these we can’t know. Due to the size of the device, I think it’s likely that it has the minimum sensory equipment necessary to carry out its mission according to the parameters known at the time—that all aboard the ship were in cryo-sleep and would be killed without resistance.”
“So we’re relying on the laziness and/or frugality of the designers.” He smirked. “That’s usually a safe enough bet, I suppose.”
Rose smiled at him. She wore no suit, of course; it was a disconcerting sight. “I wouldn’t say ‘relying.’ It would certainly make our task easier, and I believe it is the most likely scenario.”
Dann nodded inside his helmet. He kept his eyes on where he was stepping, and together they moved as quickly as they could while staying quiet. The optics of the helmet were good enough to let him focus on their goal. The small cylinder bobbed as he moved, but barely seemed to get any larger. It was going to be a long haul.