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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 11


  “We have a prototype, but they weren’t able to do human testing before.” I told them about the MCP suit and how I could get into it.

  “So you’re the only person who can wear this suit?” Dad said.

  I looked back and forth between the two of them. “There are three people who could wear it. They’re all standing in this room.”

  Dad got that stubborn look in his eye and I added, “But on men, it squeezes the testicles something fierce.”

  Mom covered her mouth and Dad looked thoughtful.

  “What do you mean by altitude?” Mom asked. Her voice wasn’t as tense as Dad’s, but her posture was.

  “Forty-five thousand feet, for the first trial.” I touched my wrist. “After all, I’ve already been that high. If that works okay, I’m going for the Kármán line.”

  Dad exhaled. “A hundred kilometers.”

  “Yes.” I could hear the exhilaration in my voice.

  Dad stared at the wall. Absently he said, “Space, by anyone’s definition.”

  “Is that where the air stops?” Mom said.

  Dad held his hand out and wiggled it. “Very, very thin air. It’s the height where you have to go so fast to get lift that you exceed orbital velocity. What’s that phrase, Cent? Where aeronautics ends…”

  “Where aeronautics ends and astronautics begins,” I said. “But there’s still air drag. You really couldn’t maintain an orbit there unless you used propulsion to keep your speed up. Better to get higher, above two hundred kilometers.”

  Dad nodded. “Like Sputnik. Or better yet, up around three hundred forty kilometers, like the International Space Station.”

  I could tell from Mom’s expression that she wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm.

  “I’m not going to try for orbital velocities yet. I doubt my GPS is going to survive all the way to a hundred K anyway. Too many of the components aren’t vacuum hardened. But I’m hoping it will last long enough to register my peak altitude.”

  “No way,” Dad said.

  “Because of the vacuum?”

  “It will stop reading at sixty thousand feet.”

  “Why? The GPS satellites are all the way out at twenty thousand kilometers.”

  “The U.S. limits civilian GPS receivers to reporting altitude under sixty thousand feet and speeds under a thousand knots.”

  I wrinkled my forehead. “Why?”

  “So bad guys can’t jury-rig them to control missiles.”

  Oh. Crap. “That’s only eighteen kilometers–barely into the stratosphere.” How would I know when I’d passed the Kármán line? A really good vacuum gauge? Could you even measure thirty-two hundredths pascals?

  “Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s the U.S. government. What about units sold outside the U.S.?”

  “Maybe,” Dad said. Reluctantly he added, “I know someone I could ask. Where are you going to do this?”

  “I thought I’d do it above the pit. Nice empty space and all that. That’s kind of why I’m telling you guys—wanted to know if you’d like to come watch.”

  “Yes.” Mom said firmly. “Seeana can stay with Mother.”

  Dad was still frowning. “Perhaps you should wait until we can get you a GPS that will work in LEO? I mean, you wouldn’t want to go too far by accident.”

  I shook my head vehemently. “We’ll figure something out. If nothing else I can just head for the moon. It’s big and bright and when it looks as big as the earth does, I’ll know I’m in space.”

  Mom looked alarmed.

  Dad said, “Don’t worry—she’s kidding. Cent won’t go out that far until she’s dealt with radiation shielding.”

  He was right. For the time being I was sticking to the protection of the near-Earth magnetosphere.

  Mom said, “What does Joe think?”

  As if I knew. The best defense is a good offense. “You think I need to get my boyfriend’s permission? Really?”

  Mom looked away.

  I said, “I just thought you guys might like to be there. We’re going to set up near the pit in that sandy wash, starting about nine A.M. mountain time.”

  “We?” said Dad.

  “Dr. Matoska. The suit guy.”

  “You’re jumping him there?”

  “Yeah.”

  “What about Joe?” Mom said.

  “I told you. This isn’t Joe’s decision.”

  Mom’s eyes widened but she said mildly, “I meant, is Joe attending your test, too?”

  I felt my ears heat up. “Oh. No. Classes.”

  You’ll have to tell them sometime.

  “We’ll be there,” Mom said.

  “I haven’t told Cory—Dr. Matoska—about you two,” I said. “I’ve implied that there are others who can jump, but…”

  “Do you trust him?” Mom asked.

  I tilted my head to one side. “I trust his self-interest. I don’t think I’d tell him where we live or anything like that. He wants his suit to be tested in space. He’s been very cautious about safety protocols. I would’ve tested last week, with just a tank of oxygen, but he balked.”

  Dad shifted uncomfortably. “He checks out.”

  I frowned. “What do you mean, he ‘checks out’?”

  “I had him screened, with an agency.”

  “Screened.” My voice was flat and I could feel my eyes narrowing.

  Dad waved his hand, “Like a prospective employer. He’s gone from post to post, but usually he’s the one who leaves. He did get involved with a graduating senior at one school and there was a complaint, but it was just after he got his Ph.D. He doesn’t look like one of them.”

  I was wondering if I should be angry or not. It was Dad’s money, after all, that was funding Cory. I guess he had the right to check.

  “So, nine A.M., mountain,” Mom said.

  “Yes.”

  “I’ll tell Seeana.”

  TEN

  Davy: GPS

  Luckily Davy had been there before and even had a video record he could refer to. He sure didn’t want to get there the way he had the first time: three hours of highway travel from Las Vegas followed by four hours of back-wrenching off-road driving.

  The makeshift gantry, two football fields away, was empty, and the only person around was a red-headed man in shorts, a hoodie, and combat boots sitting near the tents at a portable table, with a laptop in front of him.

  The redhead heard Davy’s footsteps and turned, saying, “Did you find—” He froze, blinking. “Where did you come from?” He stood up and looked over at a Jeep Cherokee parked by a set of tents. “Where’s your car?”

  Davy smiled and said, “I’m Davy. Is Wanda Chappell around?”

  “Lou,” the redhead said, tapping his chest. “Wanda and the guys are out looking for the bird.”

  “I see I missed the launch. How’d it go?”

  Lou was still scanning for Davy’s vehicle. “Pretty good at first. Made twenty-eight thousand feet. We got good data the whole flight. The drogue deployed right after apogee. But then the main chute didn’t. Telemetry had it hitting at twenty-one meters per second.”

  Davy translated that in his head. “Uh, forty-six miles per hour? How fast was it going on the way up?”

  “It passed Mach three in the first fifteen seconds. At least the drogue deployed. If the rocket had come in ballistic we would’ve needed shovels and tweezers.”

  There was a flash of light in the distance as a windshield caught the sun. They both turned their heads. Vehicle dust resolved into two trucks cresting the rise about a mile out.

  “Ah. Guess they got it,” said Lou. “How did you get here?”

  “I’m parked around the corner,” Davy said.

  “What corner?”

  “Exactly.”

  The trucks got down onto the flat and picked up speed. They could hear them now.

  “Damn,” said Lou. “They’d be coming a lot slower if the bird was intact.”

  The trucks circled around the tents to park by t
he Jeep, kicking up a cloud of dust that drifted back over the campsite. Lou squawked and ran to shut his laptop. “Idiots!”

  Davy held his breath and squinted, trying to keep the fine grit out of his eyes and lungs. But the breeze blew it past quickly. When he opened his eyes again, men were getting out of the truck cabs and clustering around the bed of the longest pickup.

  A thin black woman with close-cropped hair got out of the passenger side of the first truck. She was cradling a three-foot-long aluminum tube capped with a stainless steel cone. She said, “Lou, sweetie, the electronics bay is okay but the main body is buggered to hell.”

  “Did the main deployment charge go off?” said Lou.

  “No. I don’t know if the TeleMetrum didn’t close the circuit or the e-match failed.”

  “Damn,” said Lou. “Well, don’t take it apart before I check the settings with the wireless link.”

  Davy said, “Did the electronics survive the crash?”

  Wanda’s eyes went wide at the sound of Davy’s voice. “Davy? I didn’t recognize you. It’s been, what, seven years? I’m used to seeing both of you. I think that’s what really threw me. How is your daughter?”

  Lou said, “Wanda, I have no idea how he got here. It’s like he came out of thin air.”

  Wanda laughed. “Exactly. And when he leaves, he’ll go back into it.” She turned back to Davy, “You working on another rocket? Your daughter still likes things that go high?”

  “Something like that.”

  Wanda handed the aluminum section to Lou. “Here, baby. See what you can figure out.”

  Lou glared at Davy, then turned around and walked back to the table, grumbling.

  Wanda shrugged. “I could tell him the truth but it would make him even more grumpy. Do you need something? Cause I could sure use the income. I’m going to have to do a complete rebuild of the main body and it wasn’t in the budget.”

  “I do. Need a GPS that’s not restricted by ITAR.”

  Wanda’s brows went up. “What’s getting you, the speed limit or the altitude?”

  “Both.”

  “Ambitious. What sort of range do you need on the telemetry? You get too far above sixty thousand feet and we may have to go with a separate transmitter.”

  “I don’t need any telemetry. I do need a display.” He touched his forearm. “And some kind of strap.”

  Wanda looked around. The men had unloaded the body of the rocket, a mostly intact tube that bent sharply above the fins. She said, “Let’s walk.” She headed out toward the gantry. When she was well away from the others she said, “You’re talking about a person being above sixty thousand feet, aren’t you?”

  Davy grimaced. “Not my idea, but yeah.”

  “Knowing you, it’s not a government deal, right? Do you need some crew for this shot?”

  “Not exactly, though we may need some operations help eventually.”

  “This isn’t something that a normal person can do, is it.” It wasn’t a question.

  “Lots of people go into space. The count’s over five hundred now, isn’t it?”

  “Over six hundred. But something tells me you aren’t doing it the usual way. You never gave me a clue this was possible back when you were doing those hobby rockets with your daughter.”

  Davy smiled weakly. “I didn’t know it was. Still don’t know, really. Would kinda prefer to not know.”

  Wanda tilted her head and squinted at him. “Not you, then. Your daughter?”

  Davy looked away. After a moment he said, “She’s done forty-five thousand feet. And that was before she had a suit.”

  “Damn!” said Wanda.

  “Damn it all to hell,” said Davy. “Can you help me?”

  “Oh, yeah. What should the display handle? I mean, in altitude and speed.”

  Davy pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t even want to think about the speeds much less say them. “I think we’re safe topping out the range at fifty.”

  “Fifty miles?”

  He pinched harder. “Fifty kilometers per second. Altitude better read all the way out to the Navstar satellites. Might as well make the readouts kilometers all around except for longitude and latitude.”

  Wanda’s eyes got bigger. “I like a girl with ambitions. To be honest, I don’t know how GPS functions when you get out past the satellites. It’ll definitely work in low Earth orbit, though. When do you need it?”

  “Tomorrow. Nine A.M.”

  She blinked. “Left it a bit late, didn’t you?”

  “The suit wasn’t supposed to be ready this soon. It’s happening with or without the GPS and I’d really rather it was with.”

  “Vacuum?”

  He nodded.

  She winced. “I can’t do a vacuum-hardened display by tomorrow. To be honest, I’m not sure I can do a vacuum-hardened display from off-the-shelf components in any time frame.” She licked her lips. “We could put it in pressure housing, though. How much are you willing to pay?”

  He looked back toward the tents and jerked his chin at the mangled rocket body. “How much to retool?”

  Wanda grinned. “Now you’re talking. Pricey part is the phenolic/graphite nozzle, but I’m going to start over on the casing and fins, too. I’ll need to get back to Vegas, though. I know you can arrange that, right?”

  Davy nodded.

  “Let me tell Lou you’re giving me a ride home. He’s gonna be jealous as hell, so make sure your wedding ring shows.”

  “Wanda, are you taking advantage of that young man?”

  She licked her lips lasciviously. “You have no idea.”

  ELEVEN

  Cent: 624

  I was on oxygen and had been for fifty minutes when I arrived at the lab. I was an hour early, wanting to make sure we had everything ready, but Cory had beaten me there. He was printing out lists and proofing them.

  “What’s that?” I asked, speaking loudly to be heard through my mask.

  “What?”

  The demand-regulator mask I was using not only covered my mouth and nose, it was made of moderately dense plastic.

  I pointed at his stack of papers and raised my eyebrows.

  “Procedures,” he said.

  “Oh. Checklists?”

  This time he understood me.

  “Yeah—to make sure we don’t skip steps, even if we’re nervous or bored or tired.” He put the stack in a clipboard.

  I nodded approvingly. “Did you prep the backpack?”

  He shook his head. “Nope.” He held up a list. “We’re going to do it by the numbers.”

  Theoretically we had more than three hours endurance left in the pack and oxygen bottles after yesterday’s tests, but we weren’t going to use it at altitude with anything less than maximum capacity—not this first time. Cory started to hand me the list but I said, “No,” and handed it back. I pointed at my chest. “I’ll do it.”

  Yes, he had a checklist for emptying the backpack, too.

  “Release latches.”

  I unsnapped all three. “Check.”

  “Remove hatch.”

  I pulled and twisted on the end plug until the two O-rings slid past the seal surface and it released with a slight popping sound. “Check.”

  “Remove filter packs.”

  I turned the frame ninety degrees so the open end of the tube faced down and the mesh packages with soda lime, silica gel, and activated charcoal slid out, forming a stack on the bench. “Check.”

  “Dump contents.”

  We had a disposal can set up for these, but the mesh cylinders were tricky to open without destroying them so it was the longest part of the operation. “Check, check, and finally check.”

  I filled them in reverse order: activated charcoal, silica gel, then soda lime, using an electronic postal scale to standardize each load. As soon as I filled each one, they were sealed in ziplock bags. “Check.”

  “Dump batteries.”

  I pulled the alkaline batteries from their holders at bot
h ends of the cylinder, bagged, and dumped them. “Check.”

  “Install fresh batteries.” We’d bought retail packs of six AAs so that the new ones always came from sealed packages. I popped them one by one into their holders, paying careful attention to polarity. “Check.”

  “Test outflow fan.”

  I clicked on the switch for the bottom fan and it whirred to life. I put my fingers in the helmet to feel the airflow up the back of the helmet. “Check.”

  “Turn outflow fan off.”

  “Check.”

  “Test return fan.”

  I turned on the fan in the cylinder’s lid. It whirred to life and the breeze moved across my fingers. “Check.”

  “Turn return fan off.”

  “Check.”

  “Load activated-charcoal filter.”

  I took it from its bag and slid it all the way down into the chamber. “Check.”

  “Load moisture absorbent.”

  I loaded the silica gel pack and slid it in until it touched the charcoal mesh. “Check.”

  “Load CO2 absorbent.”

  I slid the last mesh cylinder in. “Check.”

  “Apply lubricant to the seal surface.”

  I took the tube of silicone grease and put a thin film all the way around the O-ring seal surface of the rebreather cylinder. “Check.”

  “Insert hatch.”

  I eased the plug back into the end. “Check.”

  “Secure latches.”

  I snapped all three shut. “Check.”

  “Document maintenance.”

  I wrote on the cylinder itself with an indelible marker: Batt & filters repl followed by the date and time.

  “Check.”

  The procedure for replacing oxygen was similar, though both used tanks would go back to the medical-supply house for refilling. When I’d made sure the new ones were secure in their clamps, I screwed on their regulators. I opened the valves briefly to read the gauges, confirming their fully charged state, then shut them back down again. I wrote their psi reading, and the time and date right on the tanks themselves.

  “Next, Cory?”

  He handed me a sealed packet with an optical wipe, the kind used for cleaning glasses. “Antifog treatment.”

  I nodded and carefully wiped down the entire interior of the polycarbonate fishbowl. “Check.”