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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 18


  Instead of speaking, Ms. Matapang took three quick steps forward and dropped to her knees, all her attention on Tinkerbell.

  “It must be the engineering prototype,” said the Dr. Perez, but one of the women lifted her hand and pointed at one of the tables against the wall. I looked—there was another Tinkerbell on a stand, antennae deployed.

  “A replica?” suggested the male student. “The plans were open sourced.”

  Ms. Matapang lifted it, handling it like I had, by the frame at the top and bottom. She hefted it. “It feels right. Put that foam there,” she said, jerking her chin at a clear space on the closest table.

  I stepped over and set the slab of foam down, then backed away, making room. She laid the satellite carefully down on one of its solar cell-covered sides, then leaned to the right and examined the bottom.

  She pointed, and the others came forward, leaning in to look.

  At my expression, she said, “We all signed it, preflight, permanent marker. It’s faded, but the signatures are there.”

  “It could still be a copy,” one of the girls said. “Jamie put a photo of that on his Facebook page.”

  The other girl said, “Not the whole thing. Only the corner with his name.”

  The male student said, “Maybe someone else posted the whole thing. A lot of people took pictures.”

  I went back to the suitcase and knelt to zip it closed.

  Matapang swiveled to watch. “How did you get it?”

  “Well, maybe I made a copy,” I said, with a little smile.

  She wasn’t amused. “That would be impressive, but there’s a micrometeorite impact in the middle of my signature. Besides, I assembled and took that thing apart about twenty times. I recognize tool scratches. How did you get it?”

  I handed her a newly printed card.

  * * *

  APEX ORBITAL

  Green Satellite Insertion and Retrieval

  Packages to 50 kg

  LEO to GEO, Polar to Equatorial

  We deliver!

  [email protected]

  * * *

  She stared, then said, “What does that mean? ‘Green?’”

  “Well, our carbon footprint is pretty low, but besides that, we commit to removing three kilograms of orbital debris for every kilogram we put up.”

  She worked her jaw to say something, but nothing came out.

  “We’re just getting started. No charge for this retrieval. If you’re interested in us putting it back in orbit, say, about eight hundred fifty kilometers up, and attached to a certain Delta second stage, we would be willing to do that, too.”

  “I don’t believe—how much do you charge?”

  “For LEO? That would be our KforK plan. One thousand dollars per kilo.”

  Dr. Perez snorted. “One thousand dollars per kilo? Impossible. That’s less than half the Falcon Heavy price. We were piggybacking and it still cost us eighty K to get this into an orbit lower than we needed!”

  “Expensive,” I said. “I weighed Tinkerbell. Thirteen kilos, right? So, thirteen kilo-bucks. Or, if you’d be interested in barter, it happens we’re in the market for three microsats destined for LEO, MEO, and geosynchronous. Nothing fancy. Solar, battery, repeating audio-message radio beacon somewhere in the five hundred milliwatt range. Don’t need downlink or uplink. One year endurance.”

  Dr. Perez’s eyes kept straying back to Tinkerbell. “I can’t believe one thousand dollars a kilo.”

  I shrugged. “Well, as the card says, we do have a fifty-kilo upper limit. But all our insertions are low-gee. You don’t need to vibrate test, just vacuum and temperature.”

  “Impossible!” Dr. Perez said.

  I nodded, then glanced aside to Ms. Matapang and stage whispered, “We get that a lot.”

  I pointed at Tinkerbell. “Maybe you should download your GPS log. E-mail us if you want to talk.”

  Pulling the suitcase, I turned and walked through the door.

  Dr. Perez walked after me, saying, “Wait a minute, young lady! You still need to explain how you got hold of our—”

  I stepped out of sight, past the door frame, and jumped.

  * * *

  “Mendez.”

  I was sitting in the grass, out among Central Park’s Great Lawn softball fields, far enough away from the surrounding Manhattan buildings so they wouldn’t block the satellite signal.

  “Good afternoon, Mr. Mendez. How’s your day going?”

  “I’ve had better,” he said, somewhat bleakly. He paused. “You’re actually on the ground, aren’t you?”

  “Yes. Sorry to hear your day is sucky. Anything I can do to help?”

  “Give me five hours back.”

  “Five hours?”

  That’s how long I’ve had the air force in my hair. They want to talk with you.”

  Ack. In as light a voice as I could manage, I said, “You guys are really going to run through my phone minutes.”

  A different voice came on. Not deep, but firm. “This is General Lionel Sterling, Air Force Space Command. With whom am I speaking?” I could believe he was a general. He sounded like someone who gave orders all day long.

  For a second I considered disconnecting, but we knew this would happen sooner or later.

  “This is Apex One.”

  “Your call sign? I was hoping for your name.”

  I lay back on the grass and covered my eyes with my forearm. “Have you been bugging my calls, General? I didn’t tell Mr. Mendez that.”

  “I have a recording of your communications from this morning.”

  But not yesterday’s?

  “Did you get a warrant?”

  “The Defense Intelligence Agency did. The FISA court issued it immediately. National security and all that.”

  “National security? How do you figure?”

  “You just took a satellite out of orbit.”

  “I returned it to its owners.” I winced. I hadn’t meant to give him that much. “It seemed better than letting it burn up in another dozen orbits or so.”

  I heard a hand cover the mouthpiece and indistinct words spoken briskly. Orders, I thought. Someone was probably calling Texas A&M right now.

  “Did they arrange this with you?”

  “We did it on spec,” I said. “We’re just starting to grow the business.”

  “What business?”

  I hesitated. It wasn’t like he wasn’t going to hear about it once we started advertising.

  “Apex Orbital. Packages up to fifty kilograms between LEO and GEO, polar to equatorial. Delivery and recovery.” I was going to need a jingle if this kept up.

  “Never heard of you.”

  “Didn’t I say we’ve only just started? And you’ve heard of us now, haven’t you?”

  “I … suppose. Where are you launching from?”

  I licked my lips. Eventually they’d figure out that I wasn’t doing things their way. “We have an equatorial volcano island in the Pacific guarded by genetically engineered crab soldiers.”

  I think he might have actually laughed there but he turned it into a cough. “Really, where?”

  I remained silent.

  He continued. “I should let you know we tracked your orbit the day before yesterday. You flew directly over our multistatic radar fence in Texas and we got a very good read on your orbit, but you deorbited before coming around again.” He paused to let me respond. When I didn’t he said, “We know you’re using some sort of stealth technology because the radar return was tiny, nowhere big enough for a capsule. You must’ve launched in West Texas or New Mexico, but your stealth worked even better on air-traffic radar.”

  I nearly burst out laughing, but managed to control myself. “So you can’t detect our launch—that’s, uh, good. The technology is working much better than we expected.”

  He cleared his throat. “Perhaps. Last week the Tethered Aerostat Radar System at Marfa picked up something odd.”

  I winced. I’d seen that blimp on a cord.
They used it to do low-level radar surveillance of the Mexican border. Marfa was sixty miles north-northeast of the pit. I guess they’d seen me when I did my “launch” for Mom, Dad, and Cory.

  Looked like they weren’t getting my equalization jumps, though, several kilometers above that. Or, if they were, they were discounting the short, isolated blips as noise.

  “What do you want, General?”

  “We need to inspect your facilities and do security clearances on your staff.”

  “Why?”

  “National security concerns. Safety concerns. Last thing we need is more orbital debris up there.”

  “Well, that’s the truest thing you’ve said. We see debris remediation as a growth industry.”

  “Where are your facilities?”

  “We really don’t want any government contracts, General, so no thanks on the offer of an inspection.”

  “How old are you, young lady?”

  Huh. Hadn’t expected that question.

  “Is that pertinent, General?” I paused, torn between discretion and pride. Pride won. “I’m the first teenager to orbit the earth. It’s been nice talking to you.”

  “You need to cooperate with us!” It was not a request. I imagined his junior officers snapping to attention when he used that tone of voice. I nearly sat up, myself.

  “Huh. And here I was thinking that I don’t.”

  The tone of his voice changed, less barking, more conversational. “You really sent up two missions in two days?”

  “What does your data tell you?”

  “Oh, we think you were up there. We just don’t know if you stayed up there both days.”

  “No. Two separate missions. Me, both times. We’ve also been up before, but those missions were suborbital.”

  Now you’re just bragging.

  “We can have Iridium terminate your satphone account.” It was spoken like a suggestion—not quite a threat.

  “I suppose you could. But do you really want to eliminate your best chance of tracking our orbital activity?” I heard him breathe in sharply, but when he didn’t say anything, I added, “The satphone is really convenient, but it’s not essential. It was more of a concession to my ground crew. Bunch of worrywarts.”

  “You clearly don’t know what you’re doing!”

  I got mad, probably because he wasn’t completely wrong.

  “No, you don’t know what I’m doing. That’s what really bothers you.” I took a breath to calm down. “Look, if you really plotted yesterday’s orbit, you’ll know I passed sixty kilometers under the ISS. I seriously considered dropping by, but it was my first orbit and all.”

  “Is that a threat?”

  “God, no. Just wanted to say hi. New to the neighborhood and all that. Believe me, interfering with our space program is the last thing I want.”

  “Our? You’re an American?”

  Mom and Dad were both U.S. citizens, but I was born in Canada. Should be dual citizenship but my birth wasn’t registered anywhere. I didn’t want to get into the details, so I said, “It’s the International Space Station, General. Poneemaetsee?”

  “I do understand, barely. Your accent is awful.”

  “Better than my Chinese. May I please speak with Mr. Mendez?”

  “What? Why?”

  “I want to arrange for some more satphone minutes.”

  “Uh, I doubt that’s his department.”

  “It’s not a normal purchase. I suspect he’ll consider it.”

  He put me on speaker.

  “Hello.”

  “Hi, Mr. Mendez. I was wondering if you would talk to your management for me.”

  “What about?”

  “I’d like to trade services for ongoing minutes.”

  “What kind of services?”

  “To start, I can give you video inspections of your active satellites.”

  “Uh, we get good inspections through the air force. They give us images taken by their—” I heard General Sterling clear his throat meaningfully. “—facilities.”

  “Ah,” I said. “Spy satellites, eh? Taken at orbital speeds from tens or hundreds of kilometers away? I can give you high-definition video taken from two meters—all surfaces. Just one such video should be worth a lifetime of phone minutes.”

  “Uh, if you can do that, can you put more units in orbit?” asked Mendez.

  “Fifty kilos is my upper limit—you want to go modular on your units, we’ll talk. But I can attach deorbiting devices to your nonfunctioning birds. Electrodynamic tethers or solid fuel rocket motors.”

  “You’re kidding, right? I mean, how could you possibly do that?”

  “Look, I tried to get a paper route instead, but the newspapers keep burning up on reentry. Talk to your guys, okay? I’ll send you an inspection sample within the week.”

  General Sterling said, “Wai—” but I hung up.

  * * *

  Joe told me that the palm trees on Stanford’s campus are Canary Island date palms, which he learned at freshman orientation. They can be over thirty meters tall or they can be short, squat things that look like giant pineapples. It was one of these short ones that he was sitting under when I saw him outside of his dorm, Stern Hall. He had a book open and a pad of paper, but he was staring off into the distance, eyes unfocused. Three tall, stereotypically Californian blondes dressed for warmer weather walked past, swaying like something out of a music video.

  I wished I were that tall.

  Joe glanced at them and looked away, back into the distance, and I decided that maybe I was tall enough.

  * * *

  I checked in with Cory and filled him in about General Sterling of the Air Force Space Command. “I’m thinking we might want to move the working equipment out of here.”

  He frowned. “You think they might come here?”

  “They might track the cell we’re using for the ground station. They’ll already have figured out which cell tower it went through. Fortunately there’s probably half a million people in Palo Alto who could’ve connected to that tower. Still, if they start paring targets down by their technical expertise, you might show up in the list. Eventually they’re going to get an image of the suit and, what, maybe two dozen people have published in the last decade on mechanical counterpressure suits? Combine the two and they might come knocking.” I tapped the power supply we used to relax the suit. “I’m gonna need a portable one of these. Doable?”

  Absently, Cory nodded. “Sure. We always planned for it to be part of the suit, anyway. Something with a vacuum safety, of course.” But he wasn’t letting go of the main thread of our conversation. “Are they going to arrest me?”

  God, I hoped not. “What for? You just sold me a suit, that’s all. You’re not responsible for what I do with it, right?”

  “What about my voice on the recorded call?”

  I shrugged. “We’ll see, but I’ve been thinking about that. My dad should probably take that part over. He’s not exactly someone you can arrest. He can also move the base station all over the place, making it harder for them to zero in.”

  Cory looked a little hurt. “But I liked participating.”

  I wanted to hug him, but instead I said, “Oh, you will, Cory. You will.” I pointed at the suit. “First things, first. You need to solve the closure problem. I know two more people who could get into your suit as it is, but it needs to work for everyone, right?”

  He nodded seriously at that. “Yeah. Even if just to get one for myself.” He hesitated. “If I had a suit, am I wrong in thinking you could get me up there?”

  I looked away.

  “What? You couldn’t?”

  “I could. But keep in mind, Cory, you can’t jump away in a second, should something go wrong. If the suit fails and I’m not there to pull you away—”

  He nodded. “Of course. That’s how most of us have to deal with space. Believe me, I know. Why do you think I’m so pushy about redundancy? But you could get me up there? And back?”


  I nodded.

  He exhaled. “We need to get on this then. The applied-mathematics group I’ve been working with has created a computer model of the existing suit that’s working really well. I mean accurate in the behavior we’ve seen and measured. This week we’re running simulations on several anode/cathode flange designs and I ordered enough electro-active polymer for two suits.” He held up crossed fingers. “That’s taken over half your upfront funding. Did you mean it about paying for a suit? Cause, really, you ended up getting that a lot sooner than we both planned.”

  He was right. I promised him funding and that later, I’d also purchase a suit. “That’s fair. Apex Orbital will be an income producer pretty quick.”

  “Okay, then. I need to hire some assistants.”

  I was a little surprised. “Grad students? You ready for them to start writing up your research?”

  He winced. “Just hands, really, when I start wrapping the next suit. Some bright undergrad would be fine.” He frowned. “We’d have to keep them out of the loop on your, uh, operations, I guess.”

  It was like microgravity; my stomach lurched, and my heart felt like it was pounding. There was some nausea, too.

  Cory reached out and grabbed my arm, his face concerned. “You just went white as a sheet! Are you okay?” He steered me over to his office chair and I sank into it. “Do you want me to get you a drink?”

  I waved my hand. “No. It’s okay.” I took several deep breaths.

  Cory reached out with his foot and slid the trashcan closer, trying to be surreptitious about it.

  “I’m not going to puke,” I said. Could I? Should I? “Remember when I said I was out here in Palo Alto a lot?”

  He nodded. “First time we met here? Though of course, you’d actually been in here before me.”

  “Well before you got this position I already had a friend on campus. He’s an engineering freshman—thinking about aerospace or ocean engineering.” I tapped my sternum. “He knows about me.” I took another deep breath.

  “You might give him a try.”

  “O … kay. I’ll need more than just one, though, especially if he’s a freshman. They hit them hard and he won’t be able to work that many hours.”