Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 10

  “What? Has that happened?”

  “It’s been tried. It has happened to … others.” I looked at him. “Uh, by the way, Cory, I know you agreed not to talk about this thing I do, but you should also know that if people find out that you’re working with me, they might try to use you to get to me.”

  “What do you mean, ‘use?’”

  “My dad has a saying: When you squeeze a lemon, it’s hard on the lemon. Interrogation. Hostage. That sort of ‘use.’ So, keeping quiet about me is good for both of us.”

  He was quiet for a moment. “I see that, I guess. What happens when I want to show NASA a fully working suit that’s been tested in orbit?”

  It was my turn to be quiet for a moment. Finally I said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

  “We have to get to orbit, first.”


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

  Once she realized that Millie was serious about the “no expense spared” thing, Seeana kept adding items to the facilities list. Then new items would remind Millie of other things and she would add items, then bring the new list to Davy.

  “Get these, please.”

  Davy sighed and recruited Cent to help him shop.

  “Oxygen? No problem. I’ve got just the place.”

  Millie said, “We’ll need a small portable unit for when we transfer her. We’re three thousand feet higher than Wichita, too. She may need to go with a nose/mouth mask instead of a cannula.”

  Cent said. “We’ll get a few four-double-M tanks and get them recharged, two at a time.”

  “How big is a double-M?” Millie asked.

  Cent held her hand flat next to her hip to how show tall they were. “Thirty-four hundred liters. About forty pounds. I’ll also get extra regulators, cannula, and plenty of tubing. Do you want to consider a concentrator?”

  Davy said, “What’s that?”

  Millie answered. “Plugs in. Produces oxygen from regular air. Well, produces ninety percent O2, up to about five liters per minute. We should probably consider it for the long run.”

  Davy said, “But with tank backups, right? In case the unit fails, or we lose power?”

  “Oh, yes.”

  While Cent dealt with oxygen, Davy hit general medical-supply stores for other equipment and expendables, ranging from bedpans to a suction pump with reservoirs, and monitors for blood oxygenation, pulse, blood glucose, and respiration.

  Millie went over the equipment with Seeana. They kept adding things to the list, but, two days before Millie’s mother was due to get her surgical staples removed, even Millie had to admit, “We’re ready, I guess.”

  Davy said, “No. We need one more thing.”

  * * *

  “What is it?” Cent asked.

  Davy had put it on the top shelf of the master-bedroom closet and mounted the siren on the wall. It looked halfway between a laptop and a piece of lab equipment.

  “Broad spectrum radio-frequency detector. Four kilohertz to eight gigahertz. That’s why it has the three different antennas.” He was standing on a stool to reach the screw-down terminals on the siren. He left one wire hanging, unconnected.

  “Turn off your phone.”

  Cent fished her phone from her jeans pocket and powered it down. “You know we killed the cellular on this.”

  “Yeah, but you still have Bluetooth, WiFi, and GPS, right?”

  “GPS doesn’t transmit, does it?”

  “Yeah, you’re right. I’m more worried about GPS trackers: devices that actively transmit their location. However, any signal detectable can be tracked so I don’t want anything going out from here.”

  “You worried about Seeana?”

  “Not especially. Or the health aids. But someone else could plant a tracker on any of them, you know?” Davy hit the power switch and watch it go through its boot-up process, then went through a few menu choices. The device began beeping.

  “Huh. Something at two thousand four hundred twenty-two megahertz. Oh. Two point four gigahertz. Go see if your mom is on her computer.”

  Cent walked out onto the landing. She stuck her head back in the room. “Yep. You want her to turn off WiFi?”

  Davy shook his head. “Nope. If she has to remember to turn the WiFi back off every time she returns from downloading her e-mail we’ll end up with a load of false alarms. The software lets me set allowed ranges.” He thumbed through the manual. “If I block out twenty-four to twenty-five hundred megahertz, it won’t alarm for WiFi or Bluetooth.” He flipped a page. “I don’t think we’re using the five point six gigahertz stuff.”

  “Don’t forget the walkie-talkies.”

  “Crap. Okay allowing four hundred sixty to four hundred seventy megahertz.”

  * * *

  By the time all the medical equipment had been set up, Davy was pulling his hair out.

  “How many things have transmitters built into them?”

  Millie didn’t even look up from her book. “Rhetorical question, right?”

  Davy went back to Singapore and purchased a portable radio-frequency scanner he could walk around with to identify the offending monitors.

  By the end of the day he had set the scanner in the closet to allow some specific frequencies in the fifty-two-hundred-megahertz range as well, but at least the thing stopped beeping.

  He hooked up the siren. When he brought in a working cell phone and then a working shortwave radio, both borrowed for the test, the alarm went off in less than two seconds.

  Millie asked, “Now are we ready?”

  Davy said, “I have no idea.”

  “Does this mean you can’t think of anything else, either?”


  Millie nodded sharply. “Tomorrow, then.”

  * * *

  While the gravimeters that the Daarkon group used could detect the gravity of a small child from a few meters, Davy was confident that they really couldn’t tell the difference between a jumper appearing and a passing truck from more than a few hundred yards, gravitational attraction being subject to the inverse square law.

  Still, to be sure, they arrived at different times and used normal transport to approach the retirement village. Millie took a taxi, Cent took a bicycle, and Davy took the bus. They each wore a radio and earplug microphones.

  Cent had never been to the intensive-care side of the facility. Once, dressed as a Girl Scout, she’d sold cookies on the assisted-living side, to cover a visit to her grandmother, but that was before she’d learned to jump, and she had no practical memory of the place.

  All three of them had gone over the floor plan the night before, and Cent studied pictures from the facility’s website.

  None of them wore disguises but they came in at different times. Millie signed in to visit her old friend, Agnes Merriwether. While she distracted the receptionist, Cent cut quickly past and into the dining room. Davy went to his unit in the neighboring self-storage facility to access Samantha’s room via the hidden camera.

  By the time Davy had them on screen, Samantha was dressed in her own flannel nightgown—not the open-backed patient gowns the facility provided. Seeana had prepped for the move, under the guise of an extensive sponge bath. She’d removed the Foley catheter, the saline drip, and moved the oxygen tube for Samantha’s cannula from the room’s wall feed to the small portable composite tank that Cent had provided.

  Davy spoke into his radio. “Status?”

  Cent’s voice came over the radio, “On station.”

  Millie’s followed, “On station.”

  Davy thumbed the transmit button, “Copy both. Ditto.”

  Davy waited, watching the screen intently. Seeana would signal readiness by leaving the room, ostensibly for a bedpan.

  The two paramedics pushing the gurney into the room were not part of the agenda.

  Coincidence, or had Millie’s entrance triggered something?

  He turned up the sound in time to hear Seeana say, “—
don’t have any record of a move order.” She turned to Samantha. “You didn’t request this, right?” She looked hard at the paramedics. “She’s her own guardian.”

  The first paramedic stepped closer to Seeana, ostensibly to show her something on a clipboard, but screening the second who reached under the gurney’s disposable bedding.

  Davy didn’t wait for the man’s hand to emerge.

  He thumbed transmit—“Eyes open!”—and jumped.

  He appeared in midair, three feet off the ground, his knee rising sharply into the man’s jaw.

  There was no time for the man to react. His mouth clicked shut and his head flew back, and a black submachine gun clattered across the floor.

  Davy jumped eight feet to the side and watched the other paramedic’s foot travel through the space he’d just vacated. Davy was going to take him when the man suddenly spasmed and dropped to the floor. Davy saw the wires then and jumped again, to another corner of the room.

  For a second Davy thought that they’d been firing at him and hit the paramedic by mistake, but the man standing in the doorway was making no attempt to raise the Taser.

  It was Hunt, the CIA agent, dressed as a doctor again. He wasn’t even looking into the room, but swiveling his head to scan both directions of the hallway before he looked back at Davy.

  Seeana had run to Samantha’s side and was watching them both, eyes wide.

  Davy pointed at the paramedics. “Not yours?”

  Hunt shook his head. “And probably not alone, either. There’s a lot more visitors here than—shit!” He stepped into the room as a bullet slammed into the metal door frame, chest high. He dropped the Taser to the floor and snaked an automatic out from under his white jacket. “You going to take her, do it! You should get the nurse out of here, too.”

  Davy pointed at Seeana and then at the bathroom.

  Seeana shook her head, emphatically. “Not until Sam is safe.”

  Hunt dropped to a crouch and leaned his head out the door, and then jerked it back as another shot sounded in the hallway.

  Then there was the sound of a heavy impact and an explosive exhalation of breath, and a loud crash segueing into a jarring cacophony of breaking plates and bouncing silverware. An automatic pistol bounced past the doorway and rattled on down the hall.

  Hunt looked again. “Huh.” He stood up and leaned cautiously out the door again before stepping out into the hall.

  Davy followed.

  A multidrawered meal-dispensing cart lay on its side, several drawers open and trays and food scattered. A man lay groaning against it.

  Hunt said, “He was thirty feet up the hallway a second ago.”

  Davy’s lips twitched. He touched the transmit button on his radio. “Status.”

  Cent’s voice came back. “Sore shoulder.”

  Millie voice: “There’s movement in the parking lot.”

  “Copy that. Cent, keep watch. Millie, come here.”

  Millie appeared by the bed, then jerked as she saw Hunt.

  “Not a hostile!” Davy said quickly.

  Hunt’s eyes went wide. He slowly and carefully put his gun back in its clip-on holster, and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, watching intently.

  Millie raised her eyebrows at Davy.

  “Later,” he said. “You ready, Samantha?”

  Samantha’s voice was reedy, but she said, “I’d say we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

  Seeana moved the portable oxygen tank onto Samantha’s lap and then helped her fold her arms over it. She locked eyes with Davy. “Gently. No jerks, right?”

  Davy nodded and slid his arms carefully under Samantha’s back legs, lifting carefully. Seeana supported Samantha’s head until she could lean it against Davy’s shoulder.

  “Okay, Samantha?”

  The reedy whisper was loud in his ear. “Yes.”

  Davy looked at Millie, who wasn’t taking her eyes off of Hunt. “You got Seeana?”

  Millie nodded.

  There was another crashing sound from the hallway and Hunt looked out again. He reached back into his jacket, but then jerked back in the room as a body flashed past the door at head height. From the sound, the body hit something on the way down, too.

  Cent’s voice sounded in Davy’s ear. “There’s more coming.”

  Davy thumbed his transmit button. “It’s okay. We’re done here.”

  Millie tilted her head at Hunt and said to Davy, “Do we need to get him clear?”

  Hunt was moving toward the downed paramedics, limping slightly. “No thanks,” he said. “I’d like a chance at these guys.” He pointed at the two paramedics. “And their friends.”

  “Daarkon Group, you think?” Davy said.

  Millie jumped to the other side of the bed, behind Seeana. “Not now!”

  “Right.” Davy jumped directly to Cent’s old room, beside the newly installed hospital bed, in the Yukon. He waited until Millie appeared with Seeana, and then, with Seeana supporting her head, he gently lay Samantha down.

  Cent stuck her head in the door a minute later, rubbing vigorously at her right shoulder.

  Samantha stared out the window, a view down a mountain valley, draped with snow and framed by evergreens. She looked from Millie, to Davy, to Seeana, and her eyes finally came to rest on Cent. Her eyes moistened.

  Millie had to hand Samantha a tissue, and then kept one for herself.

  “Well,” Samantha blew her nose, then flipped her hand over, pointing at the window. “This is nice.”


  Cent: Testing

  “Where were you?” Cory asked.

  I rubbed my shoulder and said, “Had to help my grandmother move.”

  “Pull something?”

  “Or pushed it. I’m okay. Let’s get to it.”

  I spent next two hours in the suit.

  We tested the feed valve first, simply by breathing. Just by breathing, I bound up oxygen into CO2 which was then absorbed by the soda lime, causing the pressure in the helmet to slowly drop. When it hit the trip point, 4.85 psi, the valve let in O2 from the high-pressure tank, closing again at 4.9 psi. Rinse, repeat.

  We also tested it by bumping the purge valve, dropping the pressure far more abruptly. Again, it quickly adjusted and I made sure to hold my mouth open during these tests, letting my ears and lungs equalize as needed.

  We shut the valve on the main oxygen tank and switched on the backup emergency oxygen. The backup feed valve worked identically to the main feed valve.

  “I wish I had a chamber! We need to see how the purge valve works when exterior pressure drops!” Cory raised his voice to be heard through the helmet.

  I pitched my voice up, too. “Be right back.”

  I jumped to the springhouse in back of the cabin in the Yukon, at an altitude of forty-five hundred feet above sea level, wiggling my jaw to make sure my ears would equalize. The purge valve worked as expected, venting out the excess pressure (a little over 2 psi) from the helmet, but unlike the hiss I got when opening the purge valve manually, the noise was more of a buzzing, burping sound.

  Usually when I jumped home from sea level, the pop in my ears is immediate, sometimes painful, but this time it happened slowly, buffered by the venting.

  I took a few deep breaths and then jumped back to the lab.

  Cory was clenching the edge of the lab bench, his knuckles white. He let go abruptly and said something, but I couldn’t hear because the feed valve kicked in and was boosting the helmet pressure back up.

  He repeated himself. “Don’t do that!” Then, slightly less emphatically, he said, “Where’d you go?”

  “My house.”


  “It’s at forty-five hundred feet. The purge valve kicked in and stopped. Just like it’s supposed to.”

  His mouth made an “o” shape.

  “Sorry. I’ll discuss it first next time.”

  Now that he knew what I’d done, and the size of the pressure change, he had me do it ten
more times with the main O2 tank, and then ten more times with the backup.

  The purge valve and both feed valves continued to operate as intended. When we quit it was not because I was running out of air, or there was too much CO2, or I was too hot.

  I was too dry.

  Cotton mouth only hinted at it. I had trouble summoning saliva and my tongue felt like it was swelling.

  But the polycarbonate helmet was crystal clear—not a trace of fog.

  As soon as Cory lifted the helmet and I shrugged the harness off, I jumped to the Michigan warehouse and grabbed a case of bottled water from the emergency relief supplies and jumped back, thumping the case onto the lab bench. I didn’t say anything until I’d finished the first bottle.


  “Too much desiccant?” Cory said.

  I shrugged. “Didn’t have breakfast. Came straight to the lab. I’ll need to drink water before heading out.”

  Cory shook his head. “It’s going to be worse in orbit. For long duration EVAs, you’ll need some way to drink. Especially if we’re counting on perspiration for cooling. Dehydration could be serious. We’ll need to rig some sort of hydration bladder with a bite valve in the helmet.”

  I started another bottle of water. “Suits me. But that can wait for the more extended trips. We’re still going tomorrow.”

  * * *

  Mom was washing dishes after supper and Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, talking to her.

  I came quietly in and leaned against the wall by the fridge.

  “—the health aides in Manila.”

  Mom rinsed a plate and stacked it in the drainer. “What did you think? Were they good?”

  Dad looked at me and said, “Seeana liked them. They’re all working in geriatric and they all have excellent English.” He shifted in his chair so he was facing me more directly. “How’s my investment coming?”

  “We’re testing in the morning.”

  A plate broke in the sink and Mom said, “Shit. Excuse me.” She carried three triangular sections of broken plate over to the trash can and dumped them. “Testing, eh? What does that mean?”

  “At altitude.”

  Dad stood up abruptly. “Already? I thought you just funded the project!”