Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 16

  Uh-oh. I tried bluffing. “Then you know how expensive my satphone minutes are.”

  Dad had prepaid four thousand dollars for five thousand units when he purchased the phone, which did take the price down to eighty cents per minute. Still, some people bought smaller chunks that weren’t as discounted, costing over a $1.25 a minute. Our minutes were “global,” supposed to be good almost anywhere, but Dad had added, “We might not be able to use them above North Korea.”

  “Your account minutes are not being deducted for this diagnostic call,” the voice said. “We’re seeing some aberrant behavior from your handset. The call you were just on, was it working all right?”

  My breathing slowed a little. I hadn’t realized it had increased. “Sure, awesome. Though I hung up on my peeps by accident. They’re probably trying to call me right now.”

  I heard him say something to the side, not into the mouthpiece. “What? No, that’s not possible. Check it by footprint.” His voice strengthened. “Oh. Your party, yes, they were. An associate at the Tempe gateway station is talking to them now.”

  “You intercepted their call? That’s kind of creepy.”

  “They wouldn’t have been able to reach you while I was on the line. We just wanted them to know that your handset was still operational.”

  “And why wouldn’t it be?”

  He chuckled. “This will sound a little crazy, but according to our Doppler shift data, the handset is traveling nearly twenty-eight thousand kilometers per hour. We’re trying to find the glitch in our system.”

  Someone spoke to him in the background and I heard, “—not sure it’s a glitch.”

  “Hold please,” he said. The sound went away. I think he muted his mike.

  He was gone long enough that I thought the call had dropped. I was about to hit the disconnect when he came back.

  His voice was accusatory. “Your handset is switching between satellites in completely different orbital planes as often as it switches between units in the same orbit.”

  Well, damn. I stalled for time. “The same orbit?”

  “Our satellites are in polar orbits, in six different orbital planes, thirty degrees apart. If your handset was sitting in one location, the handoff would be between one of the eleven satellites in the same plane, with occasional sideways transfers as the rotation of the earth took the handset under a different plane. During your previous call, your phone was handed off to satellites in a different orbital plane seven times.”

  “Seven? I thought you said there were just six.”

  “Your handset encountered the first plane again on the opposite side of the planet.”

  “Why do you keep saying ‘handset?’”

  “You’ve mounted the handset in some sort of microsat. Those are orbital speeds. You’re linking to it by a separate transceiver, then using our system to check your radio link, yes?”

  Oh. He doesn’t think I’m in space. He thinks the handset is. “I suppose that’s one possibility,” I said.

  I could hear the other person speaking in the background again and Mendez said off to side, “Not possible.” Pause. “Well which is it?”

  I didn’t hear the response.

  He spoke back into the headset. “What is your satellite’s NORAD ID?”

  “We didn’t apply for one.”

  “You don’t apply for an ID. NORAD assigns them on launch! We’ve got a rough plot of your satellite’s orbit and there’s nothing in the Joint Space Operations tracking database that matches.”

  “Perhaps we recently changed orbits?”

  “No, there would’ve been a collision evaluation if a change had been detected. And it would have been. Unless you’ve managed to get your satellite smaller than five centimeters. The nine-five-five-five handset you’re using is fifteen times longer than that.”

  “I knew we should’ve told somebody we were launching.”

  He exhaled sharply. “Right. As if you could launch without detection.”

  Obviously, I could, but I understood his conviction. Peaceful rocket launches look a lot like nonpeaceful ballistic missile launches and there was a lot of technology out there to detect those.

  I could hang up, or I could tell him the truth. “All right, Mr. Mendez, I am using your system for orbit-to-ground communications. My associate—” Dad “—looked through your TOS and didn’t find any restrictions on altitude. Is orbital use a violation of your terms of service?”

  He didn’t say anything for five seconds. Finally, speaking slower than before, he managed, “That’s … incredible. Uh, no it’s not covered in the TOS. I guess they didn’t consider it a possibility. Our Iridium NEXT constellation includes a system to communicate with space-borne assets, but it won’t be completely deployed for four more years. Anyone putting packages in orbit for the U.S. works with the TDRS System in geosynchronous or uses transceivers and ground stations. Why are you using ours?”

  “I would think that would be obvious: So we can communicate from any part of our orbit—no waiting to come around to a ground station. Are we messing up your network by calling from altitude?”

  “Uh, no. Since you’re not transmitting through the atmosphere you have excellent signal strength. But we should probably have a different sort of user agreement. If nothing else, people capable of putting a satellite in orbit can afford premium rates.”

  “Greedy, much?”

  “Just good business. Let me to speak to your boss.”

  “My what?”

  “Your boss—put him on.”


  I looked down at the deep blue of a Pacific striped with low cumulous clouds and calmed myself by thinking, He can’t see what I’m seeing. I loved how the cloud’s shadows trailed across the water to the west as the sun rose. I took two deep breaths before saying, “I can’t do that.”

  “Can’t or won’t? I will shut your handset out of the system.”

  “On what grounds? Who’s violating the terms of service now? You’ve already interrupted today’s mission.”

  “This is not our usual usage,” he said. “It needs to be discussed!”

  Emphatically I said, “I knew we should have gone with Inmarsat or Globalstar. Your network probably won’t work for us anyway when we’re working the high orbitals.”

  “Working the high—? Never mind—let me speak to the person in charge!”

  “You already are.”

  Someone said something to him and he covered the mouthpiece of his handset, but I still heard a muffled, “No additional delay? That’s not possible.” Then, to me, “We’re not seeing a delay on your radio-to-orbit transmission. How are you doing that?”

  “Because I’m with the handset, Mr. Mendez. I’m not sending a separate radio signal to a satellite and using Iridium to check it. I’m using the satphone to communicate with my ground crew.”

  I heard his sharp intake of breath. “This is a manned mission?”

  I gritted my teeth. “This is a womaned mission. Now are you going to get off the line and let me talk to my peeps or not?”

  “That’s not possible,” he said, but the certainty wasn’t there.

  “You keep saying that. I’m not sure it means what you think it means.”

  “You’re in orbit.”

  “Pretty damn sure. At seven point seven two kilometers per second, three hundred fifty-one kilometers above sea level. I’m coming up on the International Date Line. There’s some islands below. Don’t know which ones but they have a lot of ring-shaped barrier reefs. Uh, atolls? Where is the Iridium bird I’m connected to?”

  “Uh,” I heard his head move against his handset. “It’s just south of the Marshall Islands.”

  “That would be it. You wouldn’t believe how the water color changes as it gets shallower. Makes me want to go snorkeling.” I took a sip of water and in a flat voice I said, “Besides talking to my nonexistent boss, what do you want, Mr. Mendez?”

  “Uh, how long are you going to be doing this?”
  “Oh, we’re going to be operating for several years. Or did you mean today? Just this one orbit. We’ll be off the air in another thirty minutes, but depending on our post-mission analysis, I’m deorbiting a satellite tomorrow.”

  I heard a sharp intake of breath.

  “Oh, don’t worry. It’s not one of yours.”

  I disconnected the call.

  My heart was pounding and my stomach felt a little sick. For a second I thought something was wrong with my life support, but I realized it was just reaction. It’s not that I like confrontation. But it doesn’t really scare me since I can always jump away from it if I have to and, I must admit, I tend to be a little impulsive.

  Before Mr. Mendez called back, I hit the headset button to redial our base-station phone.

  “Are you all right, Cent?” Dad’s voice.

  I sighed with relief. “I’m fine, but let’s go with call signs from here on out. I just talked to the most annoying man.” I told them about Mr. Mendez of Iridium Communication’s Satellite Network Operating Center and their very all too accurate conclusions.

  “Yeah. We talked to one of his people. You think they’re listening in?”


  “Call signs, then. Roger that, Baby Bear.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Okay, Papa Bear. I can see the Hawaiian Islands. Coming up on Oahu.”

  Cory’s voice spoke. “I am not going to be Mama Bear.”

  “Roger that, Porridge.”

  Dad laughed.

  Cory said, “I prefer, ‘Capcom.’ What’s your environmental status, Baby Bear?”

  “Can we come up with something besides Baby Bear? But I’m not too hot, not too cold. I guess that makes it ‘just right.’ I’ve drunk enough water that the pressure has dropped—just a trickle when I bite the valve. Doesn’t Capcom stand for ‘Capsule Communicator?’”

  “Used to. Now they translate it as ‘Spacecraft Communicator’ and they use it for everything, including talking to the ISS. ‘Capcom’ is a nice clear word, easy to understand on noisy transmissions.”

  “Roger that, Capcom.”

  * * *

  I passed over the West Coast halfway down the Baja peninsula. It took me fourteen seconds to cross the Sea of Cortez. On this pass, I was going to be well south of the pit, but I wanted an entire orbit, just like Yuri. I waited until I reached my starting longitude, 104 degrees west, before jumping down to ten kilometers for an intermediate pressure adjust, then straight to Cory’s lab.

  “Forget the checklist,” I said loudly, to be heard through the helmet. “Get the satphone turned off. I don’t think it will acquire a signal, but I don’t want them figuring out where we’re based.”

  Cory unclamped that side of the compartment and, rather than power it down, he popped the battery out.

  Then, we did the rest of the checklist by the numbers.

  “Think Iridium will shut you down?” Dad asked when my helmet came off.

  “They can’t shut me down. I don’t know if they’ll turn off the phone. They won’t if they know what’s good for them.”

  Dad frowned? “Threat?”

  “No, though I guess I could start deorbiting their satellites. Or threaten to. Take some close-ups of their birds and send them e-mail: ‘Nice little satellite you have there. Shame if anything happened to it.’”

  Dad smiled briefly but said, “No.”

  “Make that ‘hell, no.’”

  He nodded. “You catch more flies with honey—”

  “I’ve always thought that was disgusting. Dead flies in honey. Yuck. If they cooperate, perhaps I’ll offer advertising.”


  “Well, product endorsement. Put an Iridium patch on my coveralls. Take a few pictures floating in space next to one of their birds. ‘Apex Orbital uses Iridium. You should, too!’”

  “Apex Orbital? Is that what we are?” asked Cory.

  I shook my head. “Apex Orbital is what I am. You’ll need to come up with a company, too. Cause—” I deepened my voice. “—‘Apex Orbital uses Matoska MCP Suits for superior mobility in exoatmospheric environments.’”

  “Suits? There’s just the one.” But he was grinning at the thought.

  “We’ll have to fix that, right?”

  * * *

  When I was completely out of the suit I weighed myself, and Cory measured the remaining water.

  “So, you’re down six hundred six grams. If we assume it was all water loss … heat transfer in a vacuum is six hundred twenty-five heat calories per gram of evaporated water—” He stabbed at a calculator. “—call it three hundred seventy-nine kilocalories of cooling over ninety-four minutes. The at-rest heat production for an average human is fifty-eight watts per square meter” He looked at me, head to toe. “Average human has a surface area of one point eight square meters but you’re on the small side—let’s call it one point five.” More calculator clicks. “That’s eighty-seven watts—seventy-two kilocalories an hour, one hundred eight kilocalories for the whole orbit. Looks like you picked up an extra two hundred seventy-one kilocalories from solar radiation.”

  Dad looked concerned. “Is that dangerous? Would that burn her up?”

  Cory grinned. “No, it’s fine. About the same amount of heat she’d produce from moderate exercise—say walking briskly. I’d say the white overalls are doing their job, so don’t plan on too many endorsements—or at least make sure their patches are highly reflective.”

  I’d carried four film dosimeters into orbit, flat, credit-card-sized pieces of plastic that self-developed when exposed to gamma and X-ray radiation. One was clipped to the outside of the Nomex coveralls, one inside the coveralls, and one we slipped between my base-layer shirt and the MCP suit, just below my right collarbone before we snugged the suit up. (That one left a rectangular outline.) The last one we taped to the inside of the helmet, at the back.

  As expected, the outside, unprotected badge picked up the most, somewhere between twenty and fifty millisieverts, an amount that if accumulated yearly, every year, would increase your chances of getting cancer by 10 percent. Fortunately, the Nomex coveralls alone cut it to under ten millisieverts, and inside the MCP suit it was below five. The dosimeter at the back of the helmet, shielded by the polycarbonate dome and the visor assembly with its four layers of Nomex/Kevlar, two of heavy aluminum foil, and two layers of Teflon-coated cloth, had no reading.

  “I’m sure there was radiation,” said Cory. “Just not an amount within this unit’s sensitivity. This gives us an idea, but these badges were designed for first responders in some kind of radionuclide exposure. Reactor accidents. Spills. What you were exposed to was mostly high-energy particles from solar and cosmic radiation.

  “If you’re going to hang out in orbit for long periods of time I’ll want more shielding. No, forget the ‘if.’ In the radiation belts and the high orbitals you’ll need shielding even for brief exposures.”

  “What do they use for the Constellation suits?”

  “For EVA’s they use a hard torso, but they have all sorts of oversleeve and overleg coverings, depending on the environment. Mostly it’s multilayers of aluminized Mylar with an outer micrometeor protection layer.”

  “I could put on two coveralls.”

  “We’ll see. Sounds like a really good test for the material-science lab here at Stanford. Fortunately, we’re a long way from working outside of LEO.”

  I just smiled.

  When Mom helped me check, we found another pressure hickey, this time on my left ankle. Again, no pain, no external bleeding, just a bluish-red patch between the heel and the ankle bone.

  “I wonder if this will happen every time.”

  Mom said, “You sure it doesn’t hurt?”

  “Painless, I promise.” I thought back to my three months in high school. “If hickeys were life threatening, then there’d be a lot more deaths among teenagers.”

  “True. Come tell Grandmother about your day.”

p; I grinned. “Absolutely.”


  Samantha: Poker Face

  The first three days after Samantha moved to the cabin were rough.

  Samantha’s routine oxygen supplementation in Wichita (elevation 1,299 feet) was three liters per minute through a nasal cannula. After an hour in the Yukon, at forty-five hundred feet, she was in respiratory distress, with oxygenation levels around 85 percent. Seeana put her on a nose-and-mouth mask and upped the flow to nine liters per minute. Her oxygenation levels crept up above ninety, again. When they added IV liquids, she got up to 95 percent.

  “Why is that?” asked Millie.

  Seeana said, “Dry lungs, probably. Too much fluid in the lungs is bad, but not enough also interferes with oxygen uptake. You get this thick, dry mucous which doesn’t clear. We need to keep her hydrated and keep her oxygenated. Her lungs are in pretty good shape, but her diaphragm isn’t working near as hard as it should.”

  Millie sighed. “None of her muscles are.”

  Seeana nodded. “But they could. Her neurologist blames the inactivity from the fractures. He says her type of muscular degenerative disease can be countered with physio, but she’s so brittle it has really interfered with exercise.” Seeana sighed.

  By the end of three days, they had Samantha back on a nasal cannula at four liters per minute oxygen flow, with oxygenation in the low nineties.

  Seeana was cautiously optimistic. “But if we end up with a respiratory infection it could go bad. We need to be prepared to mechanically assist her breathing.”

  “A ventilator?”

  “Not an invasive ventilator. If she’s intubated or tracheal, she’ll need to be in an ICU. I’m not willing to do that in this environment. But there’s noninvasive ventilation with a nose mask or full-face mask.”

  “Like a CPAP machine?”

  “Yes. Or BPAP. Far less chance of ventilator pneumonia. But if we can keep her oxygen levels up, her neurologist and her pulmonologist both felt the harder she works her muscles, the better.”