Sia was jolted awake by the ringing of something against the hull. There shouldn’t be any debris or asteroids in this region, but there it was again. It was...rhythmic?
She sat the pilot’s seat up in time to see a figure in a vac suit slapping their hand against the forward window. A rub of her eyes and shake of her head convinced her that she was awake, and this was real. “I’m opening the airlock.” She hoped they were in firm enough contact with the hull to hear her amplified voice vibrate through the hull and their own suit.
The airlock showed as open, but the figure stayed at the forward window. Sia pointed toward the starboard side and motioned “come in.”
Once the figure had entered the airlock and the outer door was sealed, she ran a full re-pressurization and decontamination cycle. As atmosphere built up in the airlock, she opened the intercom. “Hang tight, need to run a decon, as my medical kit is limited and I’m not in any position to deal with hazardous materials.”
The figure nodded and gave a thumbs-up gesture. The suit was bulky, old-fashioned, of the sort that went out of use at least two hundred years earlier.
“You need help to get out of that suit?”
The figure shook its hand in a “no” gesture. The helmet attachment and dark faceplate made any head movements invisible to anyone outside the suit. After turning to face away from the inner airlock door, the figure twisted the helmet and lifted it off. From the back, all Sia could make out was the black of the internal suit, as the type that would be worn with one of the antique vac suits.
The gloves were next to come off, followed by the slim, feminine figure shimmying out of the main body of the bulky suit as gracefully as possible in zero gee. As the figure turned around to face the inner door, Sia was struck by how the woman’s face looked too perfect, too symmetrical, without blemish.
Once the decon procedure completed, she opened the inner door. “I’m Sia. Who the hell are you and how did you get out here?”
“I go by the name Eva.”
“Doesn’t tell me how you got here.”
“I was doing repairs on the research vessel Amadou, researching the remains of a nearly-extinct black hole.” Eva’s expression was unchanging. “We were in a stable orbit, and I was repairing one of the external sensors when were struck by an in-falling asteroid, approximately four kilograms, but traveling fast. It knocked me off the ship and deflected the ship’s orbit toward the black hole.”
“That was a long time ago. You mean to tell me you’ve been drifting for two hundred years?”
“The Amadou was pulled into the event horizon. I watched it rip itself apart as it reached an area where the gravitational gradient was too steep to withstand. I, however, was pushed into a slingshot. When I saw your ship, I used the suit’s thrusters to put me on an intercept, then did everything I could to slow down to match your speed. If I hadn’t caught on, I’d be far beyond you by now.”
Sia shook her head. “Now you’re saying you were moving faster the Sprinter in nothing but a vac suit from the pre-super-c era?” She leaned in close and looked at Eva’s face. “If you didn’t look so fake, I might not believe you. But you’re an old android, aren’t you?”
“I am a custom-built, extra-vehicular assistant…thus Eva.”
“So why the vac suit?”
“Mostly to maintain temperature. Too warm and my circuitry may malfunction, too cold and my joints become immobile. Thus, the suit with a nuclear battery, similar to the one I operate on.”
“It’s a good thing you aren’t human,” Sia said. “I’ve only got enough oxygen and food for one.”
“What is your mission?” Eva asked.
Sia laughed. “It’s not a mission, so much as a challenge. I’m doing a solo, sub-light trip, timed from Earth to Neptune, using only an initial, twenty-minute burst of one quarter gee thrust from high earth orbit, followed by slingshot maneuvers and steering thrusters only. I was trying to beat the record, and I believe I would have.”
“What is our current location and speed?”
“A little more than four hundred kilometers per second, and less than ten hours from my final slingshot maneuver, around Saturn.”
“What is the record?”
“One hundred twenty-two days, four hours, eleven minutes, and nine seconds.”
“And your estimated completion time?”
“Ninety-three days, give or take.”
Eva squatted in a position where she could hold herself against the hull in the null gravity. “Why do you say ‘would have’ when it seems you are still on track to beat the record?”
“The record is for solo travel, without AI assistance. The addition of a passenger, or an AI, invalidates it.”
“You calculated all the maneuvers yourself?”
“I did.” Sia grunted and pulled a tablet out from beneath the pilot’s chair. “Now I have to recalculate the last slingshot for the added mass. What is your mass, anyway?”
“One hundred-eighteen point eight six kilograms, including the suit. Sixty-four of that is the suit. If you need it can be jettisoned.”
“No way. That thing is an antique, worth a lot of credits. I was going to charge you that for passage. Now hush while I work this out.”
After two hours of revision, Sia had her new flight plan in place and keyed into the navigation. She leaned the pilot’s chair back with a sigh. “All set.”
“Would it be more advantageous to you if I were to suit up and step back out?”
Sia gawped at the android clinging to the wall. “Are you nuts?! Why would you even suggest that?”
“If I were to download my data to your systems, my mission could still be completed.”
“And you what? Drift until your battery runs out of power or you slam into a piece of rock?” Sia closed her eyes. “I’m not sending out to die just to set a record.”
“But I wouldn’t really be dying, since I’m not alive.”
Sia shook her head hard, her hair coming out from under her collar to float around her face. “No. That’s not happening. Just because you don’t think you’re alive, doesn’t mean I want to eject you like junk.”
“Perhaps the limited scope of my intelligence would allow them to make an exception in your case.”
Sia pulled the tablet back out from beneath her seat and showed it to Eva. “Can you calculate the terms shown here?”
“Then you’re not too limited to invalidate my run,” Sia said, “but now I have an excuse to try again next year.”
“Wasn’t this trip planned based on certain orbital efficiencies? And won’t those alignments be off when you try again?”
“Yes, and yes. But,” she said, smiling, “that just makes it more of a challenge.”