Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 14

  “So it’s a remediation test?” I asked.

  Matapang lit up like a light bulb. “Exactly. None of us want an ablative cascade.”

  I nodded. I certainly didn’t.

  Some of the audience knew what an ablative cascade was, but the rest had to have it explained.

  “The amount of orbital debris has reached a point where a hypervelocity collision has the possibility of creating more debris which in turn causes more collisions, which in turn—” She spread her hands apart, flexing her fingers sharply over and over. “It would put so much debris in LEO that it could render the polar orbitals unusable.”

  When she finished taking questions, I sprang out of my chair and walked briskly up to her, arriving while others were still getting out of their chairs. “Do you have the NORAD Catalog Number for Tinkerbell?”

  She blinked. “Uh, yes, in my phone.” She pulled it out and went through her contacts. “It’s five three four two zero. You want to track it? It’s small but if conditions were right, you might be able to acquire it with binoculars.”

  “Sure,” I said. “Thought I might try and ‘acquire’ it at perigee. Two hundred orbits? How many days will that be?”

  “Two hundred orbits is a wild-ass guess. Small as the cross section is, we’re not getting as much drag at perigee as we expected. Thirteen, fourteen days. Maybe. Plus or minus a week.”

  “Do you have a card?”

  “I think so. Looking for an internship? What’s your major?”

  I shook my head. “Oh, I’m already working on a project, thanks. I don’t have a major yet.”

  “Undeclared, eh?” She dug into the bottom of her satchel. “Ha.” She pulled out a dog-eared business card with the university seal. “Here it is.” She peered at it. “Still current, too, for another three months.”

  I thanked her and made room for the others. Two guys started walking toward me, smiling, one of whom was tall and gangly like Joe. I turned and slipped out the door. As soon as the frame blocked their view of me, I jumped away.

  * * *

  “Gunner” Lee was a guy on eBay selling reproductions of the Apollo moon mission gear, including a reproduction helmet with the Lunar Excursion Visor Assembly for six hundred dollars. He was grumpy in e-mail about my wanting to inspect it before purchase. He was even grumpier when I showed up at his door in a suburb of Fort Worth and turned out to be this teenage girl. He wouldn’t let me in to see the thing until I held up a wad of cash. Even then, he made me put on disposable gloves before handling it.

  I don’t swear much, but I wanted to. “The visor is completely opaque!”

  “It’s a replica,” he said, as if I were an idiot.

  “It’s not replicating the original very well!”

  Gunner held up his hands, thumbs extended like a frame, and peered at the helmet through them. “It looks just like the original!”

  “You said on your entry it was wearable.”

  “It is. You can see through the main helmet. Just don’t close the visor. If you’re not going to buy it, you should pay for wasting my time.”

  For one brief second I considered jumping away with his stupid helmet. Who wasted whose time? It had taken me half a day to get a jump site in Fort Worth and then taxi to Gunner’s house.

  “That would be no.” I handed the useless assembly back to him.

  “If you weren’t serious, you shouldn’t have come out here!”

  I wanted to punch him. I pointed behind him. “How much is that?”

  When he turned his head, I jumped away.

  It was mean of me. He was probably thinking I ducked away and hid in his house. With any luck, Gunner would waste the rest of the day looking for me.

  I was okay with that.

  But I still needed to solve the visor problem.

  * * *

  Motorcycle helmets have visors. Some of those have metallic coatings. But, none of them have the needed geometry.

  Even though it wasn’t the solution, it led to one.

  A plastics factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania made visors for a leading Japanese motorcycle-helmet company, which they shipped all the way to Japan before they came back attached to high-end, full-face, brain-pan impact protectors.

  I went there because of the wide variety of coatings they could produce, including my preferred one, vacuum-deposited gold.

  The technical sales rep took one look at me and said, “I have a call from the Pentagon in two minutes, but perhaps I can get someone less busy to help you.” He waved a hand out the door and said, “Patel, come here!”

  Patel wore a button-down shirt with a loud tie, jeans, and combat boots. “Yes, Dr. Brunson?”

  “Help her,” he said. He shooed both of us out of the office, barely acknowledging my thanks before he shut the door.

  “What you need to know?” asked Patel. He had a Philly accent, where window ends up sounding like “wind-ah” and eagle rhymes with “iggle.”

  I smiled. “I need an optical-quality hemispherical polycarbonate visor externally coated with five hundred angstroms of gold.”

  He shook his head, not in denial but as if to clear it. “Polycarbonate. Hemispherical. Optical. An infrared-filtering gold coating.”

  I nodded.

  He looked back toward the sales rep’s office. “Did you tell Dr. Brunson that?”

  “I didn’t get a chance. He has to talk to the Pentagon.”

  Patel grinned. “Yeah. Security of the nation and all that. He really does talk to the air force. The company is making some visors for helmet-mounted displays, but he doesn’t talk to them as often as he’d like people to think.”

  I was surprised he was speaking so frankly. “Work here long?”

  “Just the semester. I’m on work-study from Drexel. So, what kind of helmet? Flip-up, full-face, off-road?”

  I opened the padded bag I was carrying.

  “Uh, that looks like a—”

  “A fishbowl?”

  “That’s not what I was going to say.”

  I shrugged. “Want to show me the visors?”

  He shook his head. “None of our motorcycle visors are going to fit that. What’s the diameter on that? It looks like a true sphere. Is it symmetrical?”

  I nodded. “Yes, It’s a true sphere with a planar intersection five centimeters from the bottom.” I tapped the mounting flange. “Outside diameter is thirty-three centimeters. We need three- to four-millimeters clearance.”

  “How many visors do you need? We can custom make anything, but if we only make a few, the unit price gets really expensive.”

  “One. Well, maybe three. Spares.”

  He moved to small cubicle against the far wall. “Let me check something.” He sat down at a computer and typed. After a moment he looked over at me and said “How would you feel about five millimeters clearance?”

  I leaned over his shoulder, looked at the picture, and then read the specs. “Wow. That’ll work. That’ll work just fine.”

  * * *

  “Wow,” said Cory. “That’ll work. What is it?”

  “It’s a protective dome for a roof-mounted closed-circuit television camera.”

  I’d put the helmet on the bench and perched the dome atop it like Don Quixote’s Golden Helmet of Mambrino. The camera dome was a perfect half sphere, coming halfway down the helmet, a one-inch flange sticking out all around like a hat brim. When I titled the dome forward, it covered the entire forward face of the helmet.

  “It will need a housing at the back and some sort of pivot, and we’ll need to cut the flange off,” said Cory.

  “We’ll cut the flange mostly off,” I said. “If we leave it intact here—” I held out my forefinger and thumb, spread about eight centimeters apart, at the very front of the helmet. “—I can use that part as a handle to raise and lower it.”

  * * *

  The finished visor assembly was like a hood for the helmet, coming all the way around at the neck where it buckled together near the chin
, but only rising to the top of the helmet at the back and sides. We made it out of two sets of quilted sheets, each a double layer of fire-resistant Nomex/Kevlar cloth stiffened by an interior sheet of heavy aluminum foil. The gold-plated visor slid back between the quilts when stowed, pivoting on two thick aluminum clevis pins which went through grommeted holes in the inner layer of quilting, through drilled holes in the plastic visor, and through more grommets in the outer quilt, where they were secured with locking rings in their cross holes.

  When I pulled the visor forward and down, it pivoted smoothly on the pins, sliding out from between the quilted pieces and down over the face. However, when I tried to raise it, it had a distressing tendency to stick, catching and bunching up the cloth.

  I took the assembly apart and lined the visor pocket, top and bottom, with an additional layer of Teflon-coated cloth. That fixed the sticking issue, both reducing the friction and increasing the hood’s stiffness so it stopped the bunching.

  The Nomex/Kevlar cloth was off-white and it bothered me that it didn’t match the light gray of the MCP suit.

  “Maybe we should we paint the hood gray?”

  “No,” said Cory. “Let’s keep the reflectivity up.”

  “You worried about heat? I thought we didn’t have to worry about that. Perspiration and all that.”

  “Sweating inside the helmet isn’t going to get rid of the heat in there. Purging is the only thing that will and that wastes O2. So let’s do what we can to keep the heat out in the first place.”

  “Got it. What about solar radiation on the suit? Is that going to be a problem?”

  “Possible. We always thought the MCP suit would be used under outer layers, for scuff resistance and micrometeorite protection.” He fingered a scrap of the Nomex/Kevlar cloth. “Do you want to sew an oversuit as well?”

  “Cory, they make Nomex coveralls for industry. We can buy them off the shelf.”

  “Oh. Right.”

  I did end up sewing a Nomex/Kevlar/aluminum quilted cover for the life-support backpack, with openings for the new and old hoses, the main oxygen valve, and the satphone antenna.

  One of the new armored hoses carried water from a plastic bladder in the left side of the new chamber, but setting up the communications side took the most time. We needed multiple insulated conductors through the aluminum walls, a four-conductor port for the headset, and a coaxial port for the exterior antennae. Both of the fittings failed pressure tests, proving, on investigation, not to have been rated for vacuum despite the sales rep’s claims. Cory made some phone calls and then had the appropriate, quite-expensive ceramic-and-metal parts overnighted from South Carolina.

  “Order twice as many as you need,” I said.

  Cory winced. “That’s over a thousand dollars just for the headset connector!”

  “You might need a spare later.”

  “Thank god we only need one antennae through port.”

  While Cory waited on his parts and then repaired the phone housing, I bought some Nomex industrial coveralls in the same off-white as the visor assembly and backpack cover. I removed their collars, and adjusted the neckline to fit closely around the suit neck, just below the helmet flange.

  We did ground tests the next day.

  Okay, the helmet was no smaller than it had been the last time I’d used it, but it sure seemed like it was.

  First of all, there was a lot more stuff inside.

  We went with a full-sized comm headset with over-the-ear earphones because they had the best chance of staying in place without resorting to a Snoopy cap. I could still turn my head side to side, but if I tilted left or right, the earpieces knocked into the polycarbonate dome. Then there was the water-tube bite valve. It came in the back of the helmet and was mounted off to my left side. When I turned my head and dropped my chin it was right there, relatively easy to get into my mouth, but when I was facing forward, it occasionally brushed against the edge of my jaw and if I’d just taken a drink, a drop of water would linger there, like a cold, wet kiss.

  Then there was the visor assembly. It wasn’t inside the helmet but it hung there in my peripheral vision to the left and right, and if I turned my head all the way to one side, half of my field of vision was blocked, like my head was in a hole. Combine that with the constriction from the neck gasket and claustrophobia kicked in big time.

  Fortunately, after ten minutes, I adjusted completely.

  I only saw the satphone when we pulled it out of its pressure chamber to swap out the batteries. It was thick, like the cell phones from when I was a kid. Dad delivered it with an auxiliary external antennae and two high capacity 3.7 amp-hour packs, each capable of 6.5 hours of talk time and forty-two hours of standby.

  We could call any phone on Earth, really, so we purchased an anonymous prepaid cell phone to be our base station. With the satellite handset entombed in its aluminum chamber, I couldn’t dial numbers, but the answer/terminate call button which Cory mounted on the front of the helmet flange would redial the last number called by the phone.

  The satellite phone couldn’t get a signal inside the lab (there were two more stories above us) so I jumped out to the desert, beneath the open sky. After ten seconds I heard the ring tone in my ears and hit the button.


  “Check. Oh, that’s nice and clear. Imagine what it will be like when you’re two hundred kilometers closer to the satellites and there’s no atmosphere in the way.”

  Imagine how clear it will be when I’m among them.

  I didn’t say that out loud.

  Speech on the satphone was clear, but a bit odd. The compression codec they used clipped the voice and about every fifty seconds, when it handed off to another satellite, there was the briefest quarter-second pause.

  I looked up.

  I wanted to go straight to one hundred kilometers again, but not only had I not flushed the nitrogen out of my system, I’d promised Cory we’d test for six hours total. I walked around the wash for a while, flipping the visor up and down, staring at the morning sun through it. It was working quite well down here at the bottom of the atmosphere.

  The water made a huge difference. I didn’t guzzle it, but taking a sip every five minutes made all the difference in the world from the cotton mouth I’d experience before. When we stopped after the first two-hour block, I had to get completely out of the suit and head for the restroom.

  We did that two more times.

  During the third session, I kept my water consumptions light, just moistening the mouth and, at the beginning, purged the helmet completely, exhaled, and did it again. At the end of this two-hour period not only had I purged the nitrogen out of my system, I’d also completed the promised six hours of testing.

  “The call might drop for second, Cory. I’ll call you back.”

  I jumped to ten kilometers, let the helmet purge and my ears pop, then twenty kilometers, and then a hundred.

  Oh, glorious.

  I didn’t try to go sideways, to achieve orbital velocity—that was for tomorrow. Instead, I just let myself fall, looking at the feast below.

  I hit the phone switch. It took a few seconds before I heard ringing and an answer.



  “Where’d you go?” Cory’s voice was clear as a bell.

  “I shifted a hundred klicks. Good signal on my end. You?”

  “Nice and clear. Look, we’re at six hours and ten minutes. I know you haven’t been exerting yourself, so we probably have another six hours of capacity, but let’s call it a day.”

  I pulled the visor forward and down and twisted to look at the sun, a tiny disk, bright but bearable, through the gold coating.

  “Sure, Cory. Be there in a minute.”

  At one hundred kilometers you don’t accelerate at 9.8 meters per second per second. Nearly, but you are one hundred kilometers farther away from Earth’s center of mass than you are at sea level. Gravity’s grip does slack off inversely propo
rtional to the square of the distance. So, call it 97 percent.

  Still, there was no air to slow me and I was headed for the ground at over three hundred kilometers per hour in less than seven seconds.

  It would only get faster.

  I jumped away.


  Davy: Hunt at the Gym

  Davy was leaning against the wall when Hunt came out of the health club. He nearly missed him. The CIA agent had gone in wearing a suit and polished oxfords. Now he was wearing jeans, a T, and running shoes, and carried a largish gym bag.

  He started counting but the man made him before he got to ten. Davy stayed where he was and let Hunt walk to him.

  “I thought it would be here or the sushi place,” Hunt said.

  “Is that why you had them in your wallet? So I’d have a point of contact?”

  “No. I realized you probably saw them when I was writing up my post-mission report.”

  “I’m not seeing the limp.”

  “No. The ankle is maybe ninety-five percent back.”

  “Ah. Not going to apologize. You were going to Tase my wife.”

  Hunt nodded. “And I pointed a gun at your mother-in-law.”

  “An unloaded gun.”

  “You didn’t know that. I’m lucky you didn’t kill me. But you don’t do that, do you?”

  “Tell that to Lawrence Simons.”

  Hunt shook his head. “I’ve read the autopsy. I saw the report on the device they took out of you, too. Did you know they got the one out of Hyacinth Pope intact?”

  Davy blinked. “No. No, I didn’t.” He thought about Agent Martingale of the FBI. “I don’t think the FBI knew that, either.”

  “Right. The NSA classified that. Anyway, I don’t think you were trying for Simons’s death.”

  “Forget about that,” said Davy. “I’ve made my peace. What did the NSA find out from the implant? Did that lead anyplace interesting?”

  “Sort of.” Hunt looked down and scuffed the toe of his shoe on the sidewalk. “The implant started out as a Cyberonics vagal nerve stimulator for the treatment of refractory partial epilepsy, but someone retrofitted a larger case, a larger battery, and added physiological sensors. The programming was changed to allow higher voltage levels based on feedback from the sensors. Debilitating.”