Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 17

  Samantha improved, but with Seeana’s guidance, Millie purchased a high-end ResMed Stellar 150 noninvasive ventilator.

  “At this rate, we’re going to need a cash infusion,” Davy said. “I wonder where Daarkon keeps its cash.”

  Millie shook her head sharply. “No.”

  “If not them, who?”

  Millie tapped him on the chest. “We don’t have to steal. We have skills. Unique skills. We can earn it.”

  “You want me to work for the NSA again? That didn’t exactly work out for the best.”

  “No, it didn’t. But let’s see what we can come up with, okay? We’ve had offers from the non-governmental relief organizations.” She licked her lower lip and added, “And Cent seems to have some notions, too.”

  * * *

  All three of the health aides were from Metro Manila; Bea and Jeline were from Quezon City, and Tessa from Muntinlupa, in the south.

  “Don’t jump where they can see if you can help it,” Millie told Cent when they were both in Samantha’s room. “We blindfolded them and had them sit in a chair. Your dad jumped the chair without touching them.”

  “What do they think happened?” Cent asked.

  Samantha laughed softly. “Well, once it was clear that I didn’t care what they said or thought, they’ve been speculating up a storm. I’ve heard a dozen suggestions including drugs and airplanes.”

  Millie said, “We paid substantial recruiting fees, which went to their families, and I think they’re okay with things so far. The real test will be when their shifts are up and we take them back for their five days off.”

  “Five days?”

  “Yeah. Ten days on, five days off. All three are here to begin with, for training, but in five days Tessa goes home. She comes back five days after that and Bea goes.”

  “Doesn’t that put, uh, Jeline on for fifteen?”

  “Yes. That’s what they decided. Jeline’s family is trying to buy an additional car for her brothers and she wanted the extra pay.”

  Bea was the tall one, nearly six feet. Jeline and Tessa were the same height as Cent, but Jeline’s face was more angular and Tessa tended to bob her head every time someone spoke to her. Their English was excellent and all three had several years’ experience in geriatric care.

  Their previous employers had required them each to take care of several clients. They considered their current working conditions luxurious, especially after Davy installed a satellite dish to pick up Filipino TV channels.

  Samantha had them set up a card table against the bed and taught them, and Seeana, to play bridge, patiently working through basic contract bidding.

  They, in turn, taught Samantha and Seeana to play Pusoy, a card game where each of four players has to make three ranked five-, five-, and three-card poker hands out of their hand. Players got points based on whose individual front, middle, and back hands they beat, and whose they didn’t.

  Sometimes Samantha was too tired to play, unable to hold up the cards, even with her arms propped on pillows, but she enjoyed watching and she enjoyed the company. They would move the table slightly off to one side and some combination of the health aides, Seeana, Millie, and Cent would play, not just Pusoy, but Texas hold ’em, which Seeana had gotten hooked on from watching televised tournaments.

  The health aides jumped at that and wanted to play for outrageous amounts. Millie provided a massive set of colorful poker chips, but limited the actual money to ten or twenty dollar buy-ins. Big piles of chips changed hands and vehement Tagalog oaths were sworn.

  Cent did a little reading on the subject and, using a decent understanding of statistics and probability, usually finished in the money.

  * * *

  One evening, after the card table had been packed away and Cent ended up alone with her grandmother, she said, “Why do they do that? They bluff or they try to make their hand on the last card no matter what the odds.”

  Samantha chuckled. “Playing it safe is boring. You fold eight times out of ten, right? They’re in it for the narrative, the struggle, the drama. For them, losing big is almost as good as winning big. They do enjoy themselves.”

  “I enjoy myself!” Cent protested.

  “I noticed,” Samantha said, drily. “After you fold, what are you doing?”

  “I’m watching them. I’m watching how they bet, what their faces are doing each time a card flops. Then I’m comparing it to their final hands, if I get to see them. I try and predict which of them really has something and which of them is bluffing, what hands they have, based on the board and how they bet, even when it’s the wrong bet.” She shook her head. “Seeana’s the real challenger. She plays the odds and she knows just how to bet, or how reluctant to act to get them to bet bigger. After that, it’s Tessa. She doesn’t make good choices, but I can never tell when she’s got a great hand or nothing. It’s always that little head nod, good or bad.”

  Samantha nodded. “I noticed. But she’s not the only good bluffer.”

  “What? Seeana? She doesn’t have to bluff. She’s got the goods most of the time.”

  “I was thinking about you, dear.”

  Cent frowned. “Huh. Really? I thought of myself as just playing the odds. Don’t need to bluff.”

  “Not talking about the cards. What’s really going on with your young man, Joe?”

  Cent blinked. “What do you mean?”

  Samantha smiled. “Nice. Just the right amount of confusion. But I’ve been here over a week and all I’ve heard is excuses why he can’t visit at this time. Your mother suspects something, but she’s been more occupied with my stuff—” She waved her fingers, taking in the oxygen tanks, saline stand, and monitors. “—so hasn’t been pushing it. Your father is distracted by your other endeavor.” This time Samantha’s finger pointed straight up, toward space. “I was wondering if that was what they were to you: a distraction.” She frowned. “No, that’s not exactly what I mean. I’m not suggesting you’re doing what you’re doing because of boyfriend problems. But you wouldn’t be the first person to put more energy into a project because you were avoiding pain in another part of your life.”

  Cent’s jaw dropped open and she turned bright red.

  Samantha raised her eyebrows. Have I offended her? “Are you all right?”

  Cent moved her mouth but it took her a minute to get the words out. “It … it just … took me by surprise.”

  Oh. “So, I was … close?”

  Cent turned to take a tissue from one of the bedside tables and blew her nose. “Yes. For values of ‘close’ equaling ‘dead on.’” She shook her head. “No, there’s other stuff, too. A bit of ‘I’ll show him!’”

  Samantha sighed. “So you did break up.”

  Cent threw her hands in the air.

  Samantha hazarded, “Is it complicated?”

  “I found him in bed with someone. I haven’t talked to him since.”

  “Oh. That’s not good.”

  “You think?” Cent said bitterly.

  “Your mother didn’t mention that.”

  “I haven’t told her.”

  “So it’s over? Have you ended it?”

  “As I said, I haven’t talked to Joe, either way.”

  Samantha tilted her head. “Do you want to end it?”

  Cent clenched her fists and said in anguished tones, “I don’t know!”

  Samantha didn’t have the strength to pull Cent closer, but her body language and the motions of her fingers did the trick.

  Cent buried her head in her grandmother’s lap and Samantha’s fingers stroked through the girl’s short hair as she sobbed her heart out.


  Cent: K4K Plan

  As part of our new preflight checklist, I jumped out into the West Texas desert and powered up the satphone. There was a voice-mail indicator on the display.

  I was afraid I knew who left that message.

  The phone rang and I hit the answer button, but I didn’t speak.

p; “Apex One, Comm check,” said Cory’s voice.

  I was wearing the oxygen prebreathe mask, which Cory knew. I hit the keypad number five twice, the arranged reply.

  “Comm check complete. Capcom out.”

  I disconnected. At this point, I was supposed to power the handset down and we wouldn’t turn it on again until I was completely suited up and ready to go. Instead I dialed up the voice mail and listened.

  “Mark Mendez, Iridium Satellite Network Operations Center. Please call me or, if you prefer, e-mail.” He gave a number and an e-mail address.

  I created a contact for him and his number in the satphone directory, adding the e-mail in the notes field. Then I powered the phone down and jumped back to the lab.

  Anyone can go online and get the current speed, position, and orbital parameters of most active satellites and spacecraft. Once I was fully suited, Cory did this for USSPACECOM catalog number 53420, Ms. Matapang’s errant satellite, Tinkerbell. He tapped the screen. “Perigee over the Pacific in ten minutes.”

  I held up my thumb and jumped.

  After a ten-K equalization jump, I hit my circular orbit of the previous day, thinking about the turquoise dots of the Pacific atolls bordered by water shading into deep blue ocean.

  Cory connected within thirty seconds.

  “Apex One, your position?”

  “Capcom, ten degrees, fifty-nine minutes thirty-eight point three four seconds north. One hundred sixty-nine degrees, forty-nine minutes fourteen point six four seconds east. Altitude three hundred forty-five point six two klicks. Velocity seven point seven two kps. Heading fifty-three point six degrees.”

  “Roger that, Apex One. We need you at seventeen degrees north and one hundred seventy-nine degrees west. That’s twelve degrees farther to the east, copy?”

  “Roger that.” I concentrated on the GPS readout, visualizing the numbers that should change and the ones that shouldn’t.

  The call dropped, but I was farther east, and farther north, still at the same speed, heading, and altitude. The phone rang in my ears and I connected.



  Mendez again.

  “This is not a good time.”

  “You skipped a satellite or two there. What are you doing?”

  I gritted my teeth. None of your business. “I can talk to you this afternoon but you have to keep my line clear. We’re working here!”

  “What time?”


  “My time zone?”

  “Eastern, right?” Leesburg, Virginia he’d said the day before.

  “Yes. Do you need my number?”


  I hung up.

  Cory rang in. “Apex One, it went to voice mail!”

  “Sorry, Capcom. What’s my next adjustment?”

  “Drop one hundred klicks altitude. Increase speed to eight kps. Come right to forty-five point five degrees.”

  And so we went on.

  We homed in. Going from adjusting degrees, to minutes, and then finally seconds, with further adjustments to velocity and heading.

  Cory said, “It should be pretty much right there.”

  I scanned the sky behind me, in front of me, above me. “I’m not finding it.” The sun was coming up in front of me with lots of glare, but it should have lit up the target, too.

  Then I saw a wink, a tiny, brilliant flash of bluish white, but it was down, hiding against the ocean.

  “Ah. There’s something down … down and forward.”

  I jumped, keeping the velocity and heading. As I closed the distance, it went from being dot of reflected sunlight to a bluish speck, and, finally, to a slowly spinning rectangular box coated with solar panels on four sides, two antennae on the fifth, and a smaller cylinder and a grappling mechanism on the sixth side. Not counting the antennae, it was about the size of a small carry-on bag.

  Hello, Tinkerbell.

  I jumped within touching distance, but didn’t—touch, that is.

  It had been in orbit for twenty-five days and, unlike sweaty little me, it didn’t have an active cooling system. On the plus side, it had just come out of the earth’s shadow. Still, possible temperatures ranged from well below freezing to hotter than boiling water.

  I took the infrared thermometer out of the Velcroed breast pocket of my Nomex coveralls. It was a cheap unit that I’d picked up at an auto parts store, designed to check engine block, exhaust, and radiator temperatures. We had no idea if it would survive vacuum, but it was cheap and its sensor range was between twice-boiling and forty below. I’d replaced the alkaline batteries with stainless steel-cased lithium ion cells, which were less likely to bulge or leak at low pressure. We didn’t know, though, if there were any electrolytic capacitors in the circuit. Cory said that those had a tendency to pop in a vacuum.

  I pointed it carefully at the satellite and pushed the button. The LCD display came on, but though I twisted it this way and that, I couldn’t read it through the sun visor. I jumped to the far side of the unit, so the sun was at my back, lifted my visor a few inches, and did it again.

  Four degrees below zero Celsius. Good. I put the thermometer away.

  I was wearing Nomex insulated firefighter gloves over the suit. I took hold of the top and bottom edges, trying not to put pressure on the solar cells. I was half expecting this to be a struggle; that it would pull against my grip, suddenly lifting me into a higher orbit.


  Of course it didn’t—I’d matched heading and velocity. If I just hung there, I was already headed out toward an apogee of eleven hundred kilometers, but we didn’t want that.

  “CapCom, Target acquired. Returning to base.”

  * * *

  The instant I appeared in the lab, the solar panels went white with frost.

  “Hope that doesn’t hurt anything,” Cory said.

  I went through the checklist to depressurize the suit on my own while Cory used a Torx screwdriver to open the antennae end of the satellite. By the time I was out of the suit, he was reaching into the interior with a pair of insulated needle-nose pliers.

  “There,” he said. “Batteries disconnected. Hand me that tape.” I looked over his shoulder as he used electrical tape to cover a multipin plug-in terminal on a bank of flat batteries mounted on a circuit board. “Powered down. Not transmitting. Not receiving.”

  Using a soft cloth, Cory carefully wiped beads of water off the solar panels.

  “Maybe we should have waited until it was above freezing?” I said.

  Cory shook his head. “The radiation exposure of this mission was less than fifteen minutes. That’s a good thing.”

  * * *

  Ms. Matapang’s cubical was in the Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building, an older two-story yellow-brick structure on the north side of campus dwarfed by a huge four-story parking garage on its east side.

  I had changed out of the undersuit base layers into jeans, button-down, and a Stanford sweat shirt Joe had given me. I’d located this building before, but not her cubicle. Before I started looking, though, I heard her voice through an open door on the first floor.

  “It had to be a collision! It wasn’t low enough to be atmospheric drag. It was dead on track when it last passed over the multistatic array.”

  “But there’s nothing in the database that even comes close,” said a man’s voice. “Nothing passed closer than eighty-five kilometers in that time frame.”

  The sign by the door said AggieSat Lab. I peered around the edge of the door frame. The room had three rows of tables in the middle, with computers and chairs. More tables lined the walls, some empty, some stacked with other equipment. To one side, two men and three women stood talking.

  The younger of the two men—a student?—said, “Doesn’t have to be in the catalog. A meteorite coming in at interplanetary speeds wouldn’t be. It could be tiny, too.”

  The other man was older with a salt-and-pepper beard, and wore kh
aki slacks and a white dress shirt. “There’s no debris. Something that fast would have smashed it to pieces. Sure, some of the debris would’ve reentered but we would have seen some.”

  I stepped into the room, pulling the rolling suitcase behind me. It clipped the door frame with a thump and all five of them turned toward me.


  I’d been hoping to talk to just her.

  “Hi,” I said.

  The older man said, “Can we help you?”

  “Looking for Ms. Matapang,” I said, gesturing toward her.

  Ms. Matapang narrowed her eyes as she looked at me. “I know you, I think. Where from?”

  “I was at your talk last week, about Tinkerbell. At the Makers Club.”

  She nodded. “That’s right. You were the one asking questions about orbital remediation. Funny you should come in right now. The satellite, uh, left orbit two hours ago.”

  “Yes.” I took a deep breath and added, “I know.”

  I spun the suitcase so it was rolling in front of me and pushed it closer.

  The older man said, “You know? How do you know?” He gestured toward my torso. “Were you tracking our beacon at Stanford?”

  I looked down at my sweatshirt, then shook my head. Easier to show them. I bent down to unzip the suitcase. It was one of Mom’s old bags and the zipper was sticky.

  “This is Dr. Perez,” said Matapang, tilting her head toward the older man.

  The student who’d offered the meteor hypothesis said, “We didn’t get its beacon on the last two orbits and it wasn’t responding to our downlink commands. Dr. Perez had to ask Joint Space Operations to look.”

  I flipped the lid of the suitcase to the side and lifted out the top piece of foam padding.

  They stared.

  “We disconnected the battery,” I said. “Didn’t want to risk a short. And we retracted the antennas because,” I gestured at the bag. “Suitcase.”

  I paused in case one of them wanted to say something but they were still staring. The satellite may have started in this very room, but their minds still had it in orbit or burned to ions in the upper atmosphere. They hadn’t caught up yet.

  “We snagged it just out of eclipse; the exterior was four degrees below freezing. Some frost formed when we got it down, but we wiped off most of the moisture and put a fan on it to dry it. I hope there wasn’t any water damage.”