Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 1

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  For John Robert “Bob” Stahl

  5 June 1952–19 December 2013

  “What if…”


  Title Page

  Copyright Notice


  1. Cent: Tell him about breaking the guy’s jaw—he’ll like that

  2. Millie: Tell him to stay longer next time

  3. Cent: He keeps saying that

  4. Davy: You don’t drop your weapon

  5. Cent: Fainted? I don’t faint

  6. Millie: I should pay you

  7. Cent: —while I’m making my own

  8. Davy: I’d say we’ve outstayed our welcome

  9. Cent: Testing

  10. Davy: GPS

  11. Cent: 624

  12. Davy: Satphone

  13. Millie: Not Fair

  14. Cent: More Prep

  15. Davy: Hunt at the Gym

  16. Cent: Good enough for Yuri

  17. Samantha: Poker Face

  18. Cent: K4K Plan

  19. Cent: How do you DO that?

  20. Davy: Guilty Thoughts

  21. Cent: What the HELL do I call you?

  22. Cent: You should include some Chuck Berry

  23. Cent: 2100 Kilometers

  24. Cent: Going Viral

  25. Cent: Avtoruchka

  26. Millie: Less Secrecy

  27. Cent: Safety Check

  28. Davy: Rumblings

  29. Cent: Yes, maxime asperum

  30. Cent: 4,800 Joules

  31. Millie: Alarm

  32. Cent: Soot and Ashes

  33. Davy: Columns On the Board

  34. Cent: If You Build It …

  35. Cent: You can’t fall

  36. Cent: I’m kind of a mushroom myself

  37. Cent: Live From Kirsten Station

  38. Millie: Do you know where Cent is?

  39. Cent: Oubliette

  40. Davy: Trap

  41. Cent: Nothing

  42. Cent: The List


  Books by Steven Gould

  About the Author

  Copyright page


  Cent: Tell him about breaking the guy’s jaw—he’ll like that

  I was breathing pure oxygen through a full face mask and the rest of my body was covered in heavily insulated hooded coveralls, gloves, and boots. The electronic thermometer strapped around my right sleeve read forty-five degrees below zero. The aviation GPS strapped to my left arm read forty-five thousand feet above sea level. I was three miles higher than Everest.

  The curvature of the earth was pronounced, and though the sun was out, the sky was only blue at the horizon, fading to deep blue and then black overhead.

  There were stars.

  The air was thin.

  I was dropping.

  I reached two hundred miles per hour within seconds, but I didn’t want to go down yet. I jumped back to forty-five thousand feet and loitered, falling and returning, never letting myself fall more than a few seconds. But then the mask fogged, then frosted, and I felt a stinging on my wrist and a wave of dizziness.

  I jumped away, appearing twenty-five thousand feet lower, in warmer and thicker air. I let myself fall, working my jaw vigorously to equalize the pressure in my inner ears.

  Jumping directly back to ground level would probably have burst my eardrums.

  With the air pulling at my clothes and shrieking past my helmet, I watched the GPS’s altimeter reading flash down through the numbers. When it blurred past ten thousand feet, I took a deep breath and jumped home to the cabin in the Yukon.

  * * *

  “Looks like frostbite,” Mom said two days later.

  I had a half-inch blister on the back of my right wrist and it was turning dark brown. “Will I lose my arm?”

  Mom laughed. “I don’t think so. What were you doing?”

  I shrugged. “Stuff.”

  She stopped laughing. Mom could smell evasion at a hundred yards. “Antarctica?”

  I thought about agreeing—it was winter down there, after all. “No, I was only nine miles away from the pit.”

  “West Texas? It has to be in the nineties there, if not warmer.”

  I pointed my finger up.

  She looked at the ceiling, puzzled, then her mouth formed an “o” shape. “Nine miles. Straight up?”

  “Well, nine miles above sea level.”

  Mom’s mouth worked for a bit before she managed. “I trust you bundled up. Oxygen, too?”

  “And I didn’t talk to strangers.”

  She was not amused.

  “How are your ears?”

  “Fine. I jumped up and down in stages. Deep breaths. No embolisms. No bends.”

  Her eyes widened. “I didn’t realize bends was an issue. I thought the bends were a diving thing.”

  Me and my big mouth.

  “Uh, it can happen when you go to altitude.”

  She waved her hand in a “go on” sort of way.

  “Nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream when you drop the pressure faster than it can be offloaded by the lungs. So, yeah, it happens when you scuba dive deep, absorbing lots of nitrogen, and then come up too fast. But it can also happen by ascending to high altitude with normal nitrogen in your bloodstream.”

  “How do you prevent it?”

  “I prebreathe pure oxygen down on the ground, for forty-five minutes. It flushes out the nitrogen so it doesn’t form bubbles. No decompression sickness.”

  I rubbed the skin around the blister. “But what I really need is a pressure suit.”

  “Like a spacesuit?”


  Very like a spacesuit.

  * * *

  Dad showed up in my bedroom doorway before dinner.

  “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

  Someone (I’m looking at you, Mom) had clearly told him about the bit of frostbite on my wrist.

  I raised my eyebrows.

  He held up his hands and exhaled. After two breaths he said, “Starting over.” He paused a beat. “What are you trying to accomplish?”

  I hadn’t talked about it, mainly because I knew Dad would wig out. But least he was making an effort. “For starters, LEO.”

  “Low Earth orbit.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I was afraid of that.” He sounded more resigned than anything.

  I stared hard at his face and said, “You can’t say it’s an unworthy goal.”

  He looked away, avoiding my eyes.

  He was the one who’d jump me into the tall grass on the dunes, Cape Canaveral, at about T-minus-five minutes back when the shuttles were still operational. The night launches were my favorite.

  His homeschool physics lessons used spacecraft velocities and accelerations. History work included manned space travel, and we worked the 1967 outer-space treaty into politics and law.

  He helped me build and fire model rockets into the sky.

  He sighed again. “I’d never say that,” Dad agreed. “I just want you to not die.”

  Lately I wasn’t as concerned with that.

  It even had its attraction.

  * * *

  It had only been one-and-a-half ye
ars, but both of us had changed.

  I was a bit taller, a bit wider in the hips and chest, and it looked like I’d seen my last outbreak of acne vulgaris. I was more experienced. I was far less confident.

  New Prospect, on the other hand, was the same size, but it wore natty fall colors. The aspens above town were a glorious gold, and along the streets the maples and oaks and elms ranged from red to yellow. The raking had started and bags waited at the sidewalk’s edge for the city compost pickup. I’d seen the town decked out before, but that was austere winter white, or the crusty grays of snow waiting too long for more snow or melting weather.

  Main Street, though, hadn’t changed enough to be strange. It was full of memories, and when I saw the coffee shop the whole thing blurred out of focus and ran down my cheeks.

  I had to take a moment.

  The barista was new, not one from my time, and she served me with a friendly, yet impersonal, smile. I kept the hood of my sweatshirt forward, shadowing my face. The place was half full. It was Saturday afternoon, and though some of the patrons were young, they looked more like they went to the community college rather than Beckwourth High. I didn’t recognize any of them until I went up the stairs to the mezzanine.

  I nearly jumped away.

  When the lemon gets squeezed it’s hard on the lemon.

  Instead I went to the table and pulled out my old chair and sat across from her.

  She’d been reading and her face, when she looked up, went from irritation, to wide-eyed surprise, then, dammit, tears.

  I leaned forward and put my hand over hers. “Shhhhh.”

  Tara had also changed. When I’d first seen her, she bordered on anorexic, but the last time I saw her she was putting on healthy weight. Now she looked scary thin again, but it could be a growing spurt. She was taller than I remembered. At least she no longer hid herself beneath layers. She’s Diné on her mother’s side and Hispanic on her dad’s, though she never talked about him other than to say he was well out of her life.

  It was so good to see her.

  “Sorry, Cent,” she said after a moment.

  I gestured toward the window with my free hand. “I just did the same thing on the sidewalk. I know why I did it. Why did you?”

  It set her off again.

  “Should you even be here?” she managed after a while.

  I shrugged. “I missed the place.”

  “Where are you going to school now?”

  I grimaced. “Back to homeschooling. Sort of. Most of what I’m doing lately has been online, or I’ll audit a college course if the class size is big enough. I don’t register. How are you doing at Beckwourth?”

  She shrugged. “Coasting. I’m taking marketing design and women’s studies at NPCC. That’s where my real effort is.” She tapped the book.

  I read the chapter heading upside down, “The Social Construction of Gender.”

  “And Jade?”

  “She’s at Smith. Two thousand miles away.”

  I nodded. I’d heard that from Joe. “You guys still, uh, together?”

  The corners of her mouth hooked down. “As together as we can be from that distance.” She shook her head. “We text, we talk, we vid-chat on computer. We do homework together.” She glanced at her phone, lying on the table. “My phone would’ve beeped six times already if she weren’t in class. Her parents are taking her to Europe over Christmas break. I think her mother is doing it deliberately, so Jade will have less time with me.”


  She shook her head violently. “I’m probably just me being paranoid. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, you know? Jade swears that they’re okay with us. Or at least they’re resigned. But she’s not coming home for Thanksgiving. They could afford it, but her mom arranged for her to spend the break with some East Coast relatives—distant relatives. I won’t see Jade until the third week in January.”


  “Enough about my shit,” Tara said. “Are you seeing anybody?”

  I had to look away. I felt the same expression on my face that I’d seen on hers. Then I told her what I hadn’t even told my parents. “I was. No longer.”

  “Oh,” she said, quietly. “Sorry.” Then she quoted me, from the first day I’d met her: “So I’m unsocialized and very likely to say the wrong thing. Just want you to know I was raised in a box, right? I’m not trying to be mean—I’m just stupid that way.”

  It worked. I smiled. “I know. Muy estúpido.”

  She hit me. “You want to talk about it?”

  I shook my head. “A little too fresh, you know?”

  She nodded. “Oh, yeah. I know.” She gave me a moment, sipping at her drink. “So, are you going to be around? Or is this just a quick check-in, with you disappearing for another year or two?”

  I hadn’t thought about it. Mostly I just wanted to see the place. It was probably the breakup. It brought back memories of all those places where things had started, but I realized how good it was to see her.

  “I missed you guys. I’d like to keep in contact, without being stupid. Remember what happened to you and Jade when you hung out with me before?”

  “You didn’t do that.”

  “Yeah, but if you hadn’t been hanging with me—”

  “I wish you could hang out with both of us. It would mean Jade and I were in the same place.”

  “Ah. Well, right.” I said. “Maybe I can help with that.”

  * * *

  I can’t jump to someplace I’ve never been. The exception is jumping to a place I can see from where I am: to the other side of a windowed door; to a ledge up a cliff; to the other side of persons facing me. I’ve jumped as far as a half mile using binoculars to pick my destination.

  But I’d never been to Northampton, Massachusetts, where Smith College was. The closest I’d been was New York City or Boston. I could’ve jumped to one of those cities and taken a train or a bus. Or I could’ve flown into Bradley International near Hartford, Connecticut, but going into airports was something we avoided unless there was no choice.

  I stepped out from between two trees against a wrought iron fence in Washington Square. I was overwarm even though the insulated overall I wore was off my shoulders, the arms tied around my waist and its hood was hanging down over my butt. It was only slightly cool here. People walked by in light jackets or pullovers. The leaves were starting to turn here, too, but it was the beginning of the change, with many trees still green and very few fallen leaves.

  The sun had set twenty minutes before, but the sky was still lit, and, of course, it was New York City, so it never really got dark. One way or another, barring power outages, it would stay brightly lit until sunrise.

  And that would never do for my next trick.

  I caught a half-full, uptown A train at the West 4th Street station, and rode standing, a grip on the vertical stanchion near the door. I put my earphones in and pretended to listen to music, but, as usual, when I’m en público, I people watch, and the earphones make them think I’m not listening.

  A man, olive-skinned, light, trimmed beard, early thirties, well dressed in slacks, silk shirt, and a leather jacket, stepped up to me. He gestured at his own ears and said loudly, “Watcha listenin’ to?” He grabbed the same stanchion I was using, brushing against my hand.

  I shifted my hand up the pole and leaned back. He was in my space. The subway car wasn’t that full.

  He grinned and repeated himself, increasing the volume.

  I sighed and took one earphone out. “Pardon?”

  “Whatcha listenin’ to?”

  “An audio book.”

  He raised his eyebrows, prepared, I guess, to have opinions about music, but thrown by literature.

  “Oh? What book?”

  I looked around. There was an empty seat at the other end of the car between two big black guys, but they were sitting with their legs apart and their knees nearly touched, despite the empty seat between them.

  “Must be a good boo
k, yeah?”

  I said, “Yes.”

  “What’s it called?”


  “Huh. What’s it about?”

  “It’s about someone who wants to be left alone.”

  I put the earphone back in my ear.

  He frowned, and then deliberately slid his hand up the stanchion. At the same time he swung around it, his free hand coming up behind me.

  I let go and stepped away. “Hands to yourself!” I shouted. He flinched and the other passengers looked up.

  “What the fuck are you talking about, girl?” he said.

  “Get away from me!” I kept the volume up.

  Mom told me that. When someone is acting inappropriately, don’t normalize it. Make it clear to everyone that you are not okay with the behavior. I’d seen her demonstrate it, once, when she and I were shopping in Tokyo. A man grabbed for her breast on the train. We’d had a long talk about it.

  The asshole held his hands up, palm outward, and said, “You’re crazy, bitch.”

  I walked around him and went down the other end of the car, standing by the two black guys. He followed, muttering angrily. I wasn’t worried about him. Worst-case scenario, I would just jump away, but he creeped me out.

  The bigger of the two black men stood up and said, “Have a seat,” then stepped suddenly past me, blocking my friend with the boundary issues.

  I sank down into hard plastic seat, watching, fascinated.

  No words were exchanged, but the man in the silk and leather backpedaled, two quick steps, before he turned away and went back to the other end of the car.

  The black man turned around and grabbed the stanchion. “You okay?” he said.

  I nodded. “Thanks.”

  He reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. After going through a few menu choices he showed a photo to me. “My daughter. She’s at Columbia. On my way up to visit her.”

  Oh. “Sophomore?” I said, smiling.

  “Freshman. Engineering.”

  She was tall, like him, probably a year older than me. “Isn’t it, like, really hard to get into Columbia?”

  He nodded. The paternal pride was practically oozing out of his pores.

  “She must be very smart.”

  I wasn’t looking at the asshole directly, but I saw when he exited the car at Times Square.