Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 19

  I nodded. “Okay. I’ve got one or two others. They’re not local, but since they also know about me, transportation is not an issue. But they’ll have to work weekends. Let me see if they’re interested.” I wrote Joe’s e-mail on the lab’s white board. “The Stanford freshman is Joe Trujeque. You can say I recommended him … but don’t tell him I’m actively involved, okay?”

  Cory frowned. “You want me to lie to him?”

  “Ohhhh, just describe the job first and see if he’s interested. If he is, then you can … tell him … I guess.”


  Cent: How do you DO that?

  At 1:30 P.M. I watched Ms. Matapang leave the Astronomy and Space Sciences Engineering building from the top deck of the huge parking garage next door. She walked east along University Drive, crossed with the light at College Main, and continued along Northgate until she reached the Dixie Chicken.

  I didn’t see anyone enter after her. No one had drifted along and loitered outside. It was the end of the lunch rush and most people were heading away, moving back onto campus.

  I found her inside, seated alone at a table for two. I pulled out the chair across from her and sat down. She froze, a burger in her hands, her mouth open to take a bite.

  “Don’t let a fly land in there,” I said.

  She took the bite and began chewing. After a moment she said, “The air force took Tinkerbell away.”

  I tilted my head back and looked at the ceiling. “How am I supposed to put it back in orbit?”

  She shrugged. “They say they’ll bring it back.” She dipped a French fry in ketchup and popped it in her mouth. “After they’ve finished their tests.”

  “What on Earth are they looking for?”

  “Not on Earth. Radiation. Chemical traces.”

  “From being in orbit?”

  “Oh, no. They believe that part. The logs, etcetera. Plus the amount of activated metal radiation jibes for that much time in orbit. They’re looking for physical evidence of your spacecraft—especially the drive.”

  “Huh. What do they expect to find? Fibers from my seat covers?”

  “Well, traces of fuel or oxidizer? Or combustion byproducts of same? One of them mentioned a NERVA drive. They figured that was the only way you could pop into orbit with such short turnaround.”

  “NERVA?” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d read or seen it.

  “Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application.”

  “Oh! The old fission-reactor-heats-up-reaction-mass idea! I guess Tinkerbell might see more radiation if that was what I was using. But that would be crazy! It’s bad enough dealing with orbital radiation as it is. And wouldn’t that be a huge amount of hot exhaust? I’d think that would light up every SBIRS launch-detection satellite on that side of the planet.”

  Matapang, having taken another bite of her burger, could only nod.

  I felt odd asking this, like I was asking another girl what some guy had said about me, but I was curious how they were handling it. “What did the air force say about me?”

  “I don’t know what they’re saying to Dr. Garcia. They certainly weren’t volunteering anything to me about you. For the most part, they just ignored my questions.” She grimaced. “They are treating me as a security risk, despite the fact that I’m a naturalized citizen. Guess they think I’m spying for the good ol’ Republic of the Philippines.” She lifted her beer as she said this. “Dr. Garcia isn’t talking to me, either. I’m thinking my Ph.D. dissertation is about to go down the toilet.”


  “It’s about deorbiting debris with electrostatic tethers. My paper is all math, but the proof was going to be in the pudding, and now the air force took away my pudding and my faculty advisor isn’t answering my calls or e-mails.” She took a healthy slug of her beer. “I don’t normally drink, but today is an exception.”

  “I can still hook a tether to that Delta booster. You have a spare tether or do you want to wait for the air force to return Tinkerbell?”

  She froze in the act of putting her beer down, saying carefully, “I’m not holding my breath, but … we can use the Lost Boy—the engineering prototype. It’s identical to Tinkerbell. We ran all the same tests. It doesn’t have any propellant in it, but if you can get it latched onto the Delta, we should be able to deploy the tether and track the beacon.”

  I nodded. “While I’m at it, I can get you some high-def video of the micrometeorite wear.”

  “Hi-def video? We were going for stills. You need too much bandwidth for video.”

  “Ah, yeah, but I don’t have to worry about bandwidth.”

  She stared at me. “You do this and I’ll move heaven and Earth to make your microsats.”

  I held out my hand.

  She stared at it, then said, “Oh! Certainly.” She shook it twice, firmly, formally. “It’s a deal.”

  I took out my phone and looked at the calendar. “How does tomorrow work for you? About nine A.M.?”

  She blinked. “For what? To pick up Lost Boy?”

  I smiled. “Yes. Make sure it’s booted and charged up. Leave the antenna deployed. Don’t tell anyone, okay? Not until after I’ve picked it up.”

  I could see doubt creeping back into her face. “That’s nine A.M. In the AggieSat Lab?”

  I punched the appointment in, then stood up and nodded firmly. “Nine.”

  I went out the back door, threaded my way between the mostly empty outside tables, and then jumped away from between two SUVs in the tiny parking lot.

  * * *

  There were a lot of suitable cameras, but very few suitable camera cases. We chose a camera designed for sports, capturing up to 120 frames per second at 720 pixels or up to 48 frames per second at 1440 pixel. We bought it with a sixty-four gigabyte storage card and a plastic case good to sixty-nine meters underwater.

  And that was the problem.

  Underwater cases are good for keeping pressure out, not so much for keeping it in. They usually depend on external pressure to push the sealing surfaces together.

  Cory solved it, though, by designing, making, and then installing a set of clamps for the door’s perimeter, providing the external pressure for the seals.

  The next morning, after I went through my nitrogen-purge prebreathe and suited up, I took the case all the way to orbit, a pressure gauge where the camera would normally go. Fifteen minutes later it was still holding at 14.7 psi. I came back down and Dad powered up the camera and switched it to “record,” then sealed it in the case. He handed it to Cory, who positioned it on the bracket attached to my chest harness and snapped it home.

  I twisted my torso left and right, watching the camera track with it. I held up my thumb and forefinger in an okay sign.

  Cory nodded and said loudly, “Looks good!”

  For today’s mission, Dad had a workstation set up in an untenanted office suite in Cincinnati, using the adjoining firm’s WiFi. He stood to the side with our “base station” cell phone in his hand, poised on the balls of his feet.

  When I held up my thumb, he nodded, then vanished.

  * * *

  I appeared in the AggieSat Lab in College Station. Matapang was standing at the door, looking down the hallway. She didn’t see me appear. The computers on the central table had been shifted to one end, clearing a space for the satellite, where it rested across two strips of foam. It looked like Tinkerbell, but when I glanced at the bottom, it only had one signature—Matapang’s.

  I banged my gloved and suited hands together and she jumped, jerking her head around.

  Please don’t faint. Please don’t faint.

  She didn’t, but she did end up sitting on the floor, her mouth open. I walked to the white board and uncapped the marker there. The felt tip was dried out, but it still made faint letters when I wrote, “good 2 go?”

  Her jaw worked, but I didn’t hear anything. To be honest, I don’t think she managed any words.

  I tapped the board
, by my question. She managed a jerky nod. Below, I wrote, “Cell phone call 5-10 min.”

  She wasn’t looking at the board. She was studying my suit, the harness, the connections.

  Typical engineer.

  Again I tapped the board and wrote, “OK?”

  She managed a jerky nod, reached in her pocket, and held up her cell phone.

  I gave her a thumbs up, walked to Lost Boy, and picked it up by the ends.

  She started to climb to her feet, saying something, but I didn’t hear it and I was gone, before she stood all the way up.

  Please don’t faint.

  * * *

  My first stop was the “Yuri” orbit, 350 kilometers over the Marshall Islands, local dawn, headed for Hawaii. The phone rang immediately. I carefully released Lost Boy, letting it float in front of me while I hit the button.

  “Apex One here. Do you read, Capcom?”

  Dad’s voice said, “I read. Do you have the package?”

  “Roger that, Capcom. Let’s do this thing.”

  When I’d rendezvoused with Tinkerbell, we’d done it in stages, adjusting location, velocities, and headings until I’d gotten a visual. This time, Dad gave me the whole set of numbers: longitude, latitude, heading, speed, altitude, and a time. From what I could tell, the Delta second stage was coming over northeastern Russia and headed toward Peru. It was in an orbit several hundred kilometers higher and at a right angle to mine.

  I took hold of Lost Boy and held my wrist so I could see the GPS screen. Dad’s voice counted down to zero and—

  I was much higher, 623 kilometers above sea level. The view of Earth was different, still huge, still gorgeous, but more of a sphere. There was a coast below me and I was headed out to sea, but it took me a moment to realize it was the Sea of Okhotsk and Japan would be south.

  The phone rang. I connected.

  “Apex One.”

  “Capcom. Do you see it?”

  Oh, crap. I’d been looking at the scenery again. I jumped in place, but turned 180 degrees, face out to the black. “Read me the present track, Capcom?”

  He read out the numbers. My altitude and speed and heading were good, but the longitude was off by three seconds. I looked west.

  “Got it, Capcom.”

  It was a lot easier to spot than Tinkerbell had been, but then it was over nineteen feet long and eight feet in diameter. The bell of the AJ-10 rocket motor was dark, a quarter of the overall length sticking down from a clump of pumps and tanks. Everything else—the support trusses, the mating collar for the first stage, and the payload collar—was white, catching the rising sun. I closed on it in a series of short jumps, towing Lost Boy.

  “Capcom, connect to the client, please.”

  Dad used the cell phone’s conference feature to call Ms. Matapang. By arrangement, he didn’t talk. It rang three times before she answered.


  “Hello, Ms. Matapang. This is Apex One. I have your package ready for delivery.”

  “Uh, what does that mean? Are you about to launch?”

  “I’m about to connect Lost Boy to the Delta-K booster. Is there anything special I should know?”

  “Uh. Is this for real? I know you got hold of Tinkerbell, but how can you possibly be at the Delta II second stage?”

  “I’ve got another satellite rendezvous after this. Do you want us to latch it, or not?”

  “Uh, yes! Just shove the jaws onto any of the trusses. Stay away from the pumps though.”


  The booster hung in front of me, scary big, and I felt like a swimmer floating next to a humpback whale. The “jaws” were two projecting rails with a wire across the bottom. When I pushed it onto the truss and the pipe hit the trip wire, two spring hooks sprang across from each rail, capturing the truss redundantly.

  I unsnapped the camera from its mount and while I floated close to Lost Boy and the truss assembly of the Delta-K booster, I held the case out at arm’s length and pointed the lens back toward my sun-visored helmet, then, for good measure, I imaged the GPS readout on my wrist.

  “It’s engaged, Ms. Matapang. Do you want me to release the tether?”

  “Uh, no. It’s not just a test of the tether, but our deploying mechanism, too. If you do it, it won’t be a good test. Uh, I called up the booster’s track—where are you now?”

  “If you called it up, you know where I am.”

  “Humor me?”

  “I just passed over that string of islands that goes north from Hokkaido up to Kamchatka. My altitude is six hundred twenty-three kilometers, heading one hundred sixty-nine degrees, forty-eight to thirty-six north, one hundred fifty-four to thirty-three east. My velocity is seven point six six kps. My camera is on. I was hoping to record the deployment of your tether for you.”

  “Oh.” Dead air for a moment. “The Kuril Islands, right. It’s still hard to take in. When you vanished in the lab … well, I thought I was hallucinating. But I see why Dr. Garcia never caught up with you when you returned Tinkerbell. And that suit, are you—”

  “Stop.” I didn’t want her speculating about the suit and my lack of a spacecraft on a line bugged by the Defense Intelligence Agency. “When can you deploy the tether?”

  “Ten minutes. We’ll be line of sight then.”

  “It will take a lot longer than that before Texas clears horizon!”

  “We’ve got Internet access to a transceiver at the University of Hawaii.”

  “Ah.” That made more sense. “I can chill for ten.”

  “It won’t mess up your next rendezvous?”

  “Not an issue. I’m going to take some video of the booster while I’m waiting. Uh, why didn’t you want me to hook onto any of the pumps?”

  “The leftover fuel is hypergolic.”


  “If the Aerozine 50 fuel touches any of the dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, it will ignite. Makes for simple motors that can be stopped and started, but that’s why they want to deorbit these guys. If the tanks deteriorate, the fuel can explode on its own, creating more debris without having to collide with anything else.”

  “Oh, really?” I eyed the booster, nervously.

  “Really, really,” she said. “So don’t bump it.”

  “Roger that. Apex One out.”

  I disconnected and, as I waited for Dad to call me back, I took video of the booster, giving myself very slight relative velocity down its various sides. On the shadowed side, it was barely visible, lit by reflected earthlight, but I was not at all tempted to wrestle the booster’s dark side around for better-lit shots. As soon as I’d imaged each side and both ends, I backed a hundred meters away, down orbit.

  * * *

  The phone rang.

  “Apex One.”

  “This is General Sterling.”

  I just groaned.

  “You did it again, didn’t you? How many launches is that?”

  “A bit busy! What do you want?”

  “What are you doing?” I guess he realized how inane that sounded because he immediately modified it to, “What operations are you conducting?”

  “You’re the one with the phone tap. You know what I’m doing.”

  “It’s not a live feed. They give me recordings later. The Iridium Network Center texted me you were back in orbit.”

  “Huh.” It sounded like the truth. I giggled.

  “What’s so amusing?” He sounded annoyed.

  “Laughing at myself, General. Not at you.”


  “You have kids, General?”

  He paused, then slowly said, “I do. Grown, now.”

  “How self-centered were they when they were my age?”

  That surprised a laugh out of him.

  “My mom says it’s normal, but when I realized you weren’t spending all your time listening in on my phone calls, I had to laugh at myself. It’s not always about me, is it?”

  “Hmmm. Well, monitoring your, uh, activities is
actually interfering with my regular duties. So, what are you doing over the Pacific?”

  “I just attached a nanosatellite to NORAD two six six two three, the Delta-K booster from the 2000 launch. The Aggies will take it from here, deploying a tether to bring it down over the next few months.”

  I checked the time on the GPS. Eight or nine minutes had passed since talking to Matapang. I was about fifty meters above the booster, maintaining a good camera angle on the attached satellite.

  “We brought their unit in for analysis.”

  “Yes. You did. I put their engineering prototype up.”

  “Oh, really? Dr. Garcia mentioned you offered a launch.”

  “We don’t offer launches. We offer deliveries.”

  He cleared his throat. “Well, Dr. Garcia certainly didn’t report commissioning a delivery.”

  “He didn’t, but if he would answer his grad student’s e-mails, he might be aware of these things.” Enough about Dr. Garcia. “I’m very interested in seeing how this tether works. It’s quite simple for me to add tethers to the multi-ton debris. It’s too big for me to deorbit otherwise. Any of your old birds need retrieving?”

  The general cleared his throat. “Is that a serious offer?”

  “We’re in the biz, remember?”

  “I thought you said you weren’t interested in government contracts?”

  That was right, I had. “Ah. Well, you’re right. But we are committed to remediating three kilos for every kilo we put in orbit. We just put a seventeen-kilo satellite up, so we need to get fifty-one kilos down.”

  “You don’t count the Delta-K booster? What is that, seven tons?”

  “It’s not down yet so, no. I’ll deorbit at least fifty-one kilos today.”

  “Don’t you plan this stuff ahead of time?”

  “Oh, I have a target, just wondered if you had anything you wanted to offer instead.”

  “Surely it matters what orbit it’s in?”

  “Only altitude, really. Promised my ground crew I would stay inside the Van Allen belts, and I’m avoiding the South Atlantic Anomaly. Oops. Excuse me.”

  A hundred meters away, a piece of stainless steel about the size and shape of a two-quart flowerpot kicked off the end of Lost Boy and was moving briskly away, trailing a barely visible silver ribbon. I jumped closer, holding my hands clear of the camera. From only a few meters, the ribbon was more substantial than it had first seemed, composed of multiple strands of aluminum wire, loosely cross woven with Teflon.