Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 21

  Cent asked, “For? …”

  “Well, bombs for one thing.”

  Cory, using a cable tie to connect the tag to an intact electrical lead running between the radiometer and a bus connector, jerked his head up. “Bombs?”

  “Or gas dispensers. Or Tasers. Contact drugs. Poisons.”

  Cory said, “You’re kidding.” He looked from Cent to Davy. “You’re not kidding.”

  Cent shrugged. “I told you we have enemies. We need to move operations away from your lab, for sure. Besides, you have the suits to work on, yeah?”

  Cory stared at her for a moment before he nodded.

  Cent glanced sideways at Davy and then said lightly, “You hear anything about the suit-tech position?”

  Cory answered, “He’s coming in for an interview this afternoon.”

  Cent licked her lips. “Ah. Good.” She glanced at her father and went bright red.

  Davy abruptly stopped thinking about bombs and other satellite-shaped booby traps. “Are you blushing?”

  She raised her eyebrows and pointedly said nothing.

  Cory was looking at her, too. “Is there something I should know, for the interview?”

  Cent shook her head. When Davy kept staring at her she said, “It’s Joe, okay? I asked him to try Joe.”

  Davy nodded slowly. “Oh. Okay. You embarrassed about getting your boyfriend a job? Dreadful partisanship and all that.”

  She shrugged.

  Davy said to Cory, “He’s really smart. I’d give him a reference.”

  Cent pointed at the radiometer. “If you’ve got this, I’ve got some video to edit.”

  Davy nodded and she vanished.

  * * *

  Davy had a jump site for the Broadmoor hotel, a five-star hotel in Colorado Springs where Millie had attended a high-end donor conference on NGO relief work. He liked the restaurants, eighteen of ’em, and had been back often enough that he didn’t have to review the video reminders.

  He took a taxi from The Broadmoor to the Airport Value Inn and Suites and walked six hundred feet over to the Dairy Queen on Peterson Boulevard. He ate a dip cone and scoped out the main gate of the air force base.

  After dark, he returned, appearing in the stand of bristlecone pines to the northwest of the gate and easing the chunk of debris to the pine-needle-covered ground.

  There were two air police on duty at the gatehouse, both inside during lulls in the traffic.

  A car turned, came down the off-ramp of US-24, and merged onto the boulevard. It slowed below the speed limit, and then nearly stopped before pulling up tentatively to the gatehouse. The car window rolled down as the first guard stepped up to the car, then turned her head to say something over her shoulder. The second guard stepped out and began gesturing, pointing back north and then west.

  Davy jumped the piece of debris to the interior of the guard house and eased it down to the floor. He was back in the trees before the guards finished their directions and the car made a U-turn around the gatehouse and headed back up US-24.

  As soon as the guards returned to the gatehouse, they popped back out. One of them did a quick search around the perimeter of the building, and the other walked farther out. He pulled out his flashlight and shone it around, but the mercury lights around the gate area were so bright, it made little difference. The guards met back by the door and conferred, then one stood outside while the other went in and picked up a phone.

  Davy waited until the two air police units pulled up before jumping away.

  Well, at least they didn’t call the bomb squad.

  * * *

  There were four extra people in Samantha’s room and two of them were swearing.

  Davy stuck his head in, alarmed.

  “Can I help?”

  He couldn’t see Samantha’s head and shoulders past Bea, the tall health aid, and Seeana. Jeline was on the other side of the bed and Millie stood next to her, holding Samantha’s hand.

  Millie turned to Davy, her eyes wide, and she shook her head sharply.

  Davy retreated.

  He was staring blankly into the refrigerator when Millie joined him twenty minutes later.

  “Either get something out or shut it,” she said. “You’re as bad as Cent.”

  He blinked, then pushed the door shut and raised his eyebrows.

  “Her oxygenation was down into the eighties. We had to put her on the positive-pressure ventilator, but there was also some dry-mucous issues—some choking. Selena suctioned it out.”

  “Oh.” He pulled her into a hug. “Scary?”

  He felt the catch in her voice, but she continued calmly. “It was scary for me. Seeana took it in stride. Even Mom took it in stride. I’m the one who isn’t used to it.” She buried her face in his neck, then stepped away. “Dammit! We were supposed to be doing physical therapy by now! We can’t improve her muscle tone because of the breathing and we can’t improve her breathing because of the muscle tone.”

  She crossed her arms and her shoulders rolled forward, curling in on herself.

  Davy filled the kettle.

  “Second thoughts?”

  She breathed in sharply through her nose. “Guilty thoughts. Not sure this would be happening if we hadn’t moved her.”

  “You can’t know that,” Davy said.

  Millie just shook her head.

  Davy continued, “What you do know is that she chose to try this. To have some time with you and Cent.”

  Millie blinked back tears. “And you. You always leave out you.”

  Davy shrugged, uncomfortable, as always, with the notion of his extended family. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate them, but he was afraid they might suffer, that his enemies might use Millie’s family to get at him. Ah. I guess more than one of us has guilty thoughts.

  He got down the mugs.


  Cent: What the HELL do I call you?

  Tara designed a logo for Apex Orbital Services and, once she roughed it out, Jade took over, refining it into a sleek and polished graphic. The A in Apex was like mountain peak and an orbital ellipse encircled the entire word, broken only by a satellite icon floating above the E.

  I created an animated version for the videos. Each opened with a thin slice of Earth arcing down across the top of the screen against the black of space. The word Apex part of the logo appeared, white; then the satellite icon popped into existence and orbited the letters, drawing the ellipse all the way around to its final position. To finish, the words “Orbital Services” faded in below, with our e-mail address below that.

  Ms. Matapang’s video showed my approach to the Delta-K booster, the latching of the unit to the truss, and my selfie shot with the GPS readout. I jump-cut to the inspection passes of the Delta-K booster, then to the moment when the tether deployed and unspooled. I particularly liked the last shot, a view from beyond the “flower pot,” with the completely deployed tether curving off to the booster a half kilometer away.

  For good measure, I repeated the logo animation at the end.

  For Mendez at Iridium Communications I put in my approach to Iridium 4, the inspection passes, the close up of the cross-link antenna damage, and finally my selfie. Like the other video, the logo animation started and finished the file.

  I put them both on our Singapore-based web server in their full, high-definition glory, then sent e-mails off to Matapang and Mendez with secure links to the video so they could download them.

  * * *

  I showed Mom and Dad the unedited video on my laptop, seated between them on the big couch downstairs.

  This video started in Cory’s lab and included my visit to the AggieSat Lab to pick up Lost Boy. When I clapped my hands to get Matapang’s attention, her pratfall—dropping to the floor and ending up seated with her back to the door frame—was dead center on the screen.

  “Did she get hurt?” Mom asked.

  “Oh, no,” I said. “Talked to her on the phone five minutes later. She was fine.” I
hope. For all I knew she took the call from the floor. No—she mentioned calling up the track of the Delta-K. Doubt she did that from the floor.

  Once the video moved into space they both leaned closer, watching intently while I narrated. They watched all the way to the end, including the last bit where I strained to lower the suddenly heavy Fengyung debris to the lab floor before opening the camera case and powering down.

  At the end, Mom’s eyes were wide. “That … that is a good camera. Does it really look like that? The earth, the sky?”

  “This is a good camera but in person it’s better … it’s much better.”

  “I’d like to see that someday.”

  “Mom, you could see it tomorrow.”

  Mom smiled. “Not just yet. Grandmother needs—well, I need to be with your grandmother.”

  I pointed at the screen. “Do you think she’d like to see this?” I said.

  Mom and Dad exchanged glances and their faces set.

  “Is she all right?” I said.

  Mom held her hand out, rocked it side to side. “We had to put her on a ventilator. I’m hoping we can take her off of it soon. At the very least, we’re hoping she can go off of it when she’s awake. I’m sure she’d love to see that—” Mom gestured at my computer. “—but you might have to break it down into shorter sections. She gets … tired easily.”

  “Oh,” I said.

  I was feeling odd. I’d just gotten comfortable with Grandmother. I mean, she should’ve been a major part of my life, but she hadn’t been. And I was kind of pissed about that. Was she going to die?

  My stomach felt funny and my heart seemed to be racing. I didn’t want her to die.

  Dad was looking at both of us. “Hey, we all have ups and downs. It will be all right.” He was trying to sound assured, and I was glad he was making the effort, but it wasn’t really working for me.

  Mom said, “Yes.”

  I don’t think it was working for her, either.

  * * *

  I took my laptop up the stairs. Seeana was just leaving Grandmother’s room. I waited at the first landing and said, “How is she?”

  Seeana searched my eyes, looking, I think for my need. Did I want to be reassured or did I want the truth? I don’t know what she found in my eyes but she said, “A little better. We’ve got her off the ventilator for now, and she’s … maintaining. Oxygenation is right on the borderline, but we’ve got her fluids up and she’s eating some soup.” She watched my face then added, “I don’t know what the long term prognosis is. Uh, prognosis means—”

  I held up my hand. “Got it. Thanks.”

  Jeline was on duty, sitting off to the side, at the card table, playing solitaire. I smiled at her as I came in. “What is this, your fourteenth day?”

  Jeline nodded. “Yes. Going home tomorrow. And so ready.” She grinned.

  Grandmother was propped up slightly, which, with her bowed back, brought her head nearly upright. An insulated mug sat on an over-bed tray and she was using an accordion straw to sip. She was wearing the oxygen cannula and the oximeter sensor was clipped to her ear. I glanced at the readout and had to step to one side to read 90.2. The instrument had been twisted so that it was facing Samantha.

  She smiled as she saw me stretch my neck to the side. “I insisted,” she said in her whisper-like voice. “They like to put things back behind the patient, so they can read them, and the patient can’t. I guess they’re afraid I’ll work myself into a tizzy.”

  I took one of the chairs from the card table and carried it around to the other side. “A tizzy sounds like an old automobile.”

  She snorted. “Like a Tin Lizzy? That’s what they called the Model-T. What do you have there?” She gestured at my computer.

  “Home movies,” I said, and moved my eyes sideways toward Jeline.

  Grandmother twitched her forefinger up and held it pointed toward the ceiling. She raised her eyebrows.

  I nodded.

  She looked over at Jeline. “Why don’t you go have dinner? Cent needs to consult with me about her love life.”

  Jeline frowned. “You have a love life? How come you get a love life?” She stood up and came over to the bed, running her eyes over the instruments, the saline drip, and the oxygen feed. She looked at Samantha’s face, then nodded. “Okay.” She turned to me. “If any of the alarms go off, we’ll hear it on the repeaters, but you can hit the call button, too.” She pointed at it, where it was clipped the blanket, close to Grandmother’s hand, then left.

  I was blushing. “Love life?”

  She winked at me.

  I showed her the shortest video, the Iridium inspection, and she wanted more. So I queued the unedited video to just after hitting orbit, and, contrary to Mom’s expectations, Grandmother stayed awake for the entire film. I was getting better at narration, too, but at the end, she said, “How come there’s no sound from the video?”

  This wasn’t entirely true. There were points where I brushed against the case with my arms or when I was holding it out at arm’s length to take the self-portraits that there was noise from the contact.

  “Vacuum, Grandmother. Sound does—”

  “Don’t be silly—I was complaining about Star Wars and sound in space since before you were born. But Millie said you talk to your Dad on the phone, and some other people, right? Why aren’t we hearing those?”

  “Microphone is in the camera case. I’m in my helmet.” I held my hands out. “Vacuum between.”

  “Hmmph. There should be a way. Thing I always liked best about the NASA channel was listening in on control room-to-mission chatter.”

  That was a really good idea. If I was taking inspection videos I could talk about the stuff I was seeing. I bet there was some sort of wireless microphone that would work with the camera. “I’ll see what I can do.”

  “You need to take more footage of you. And maybe with your visor up, so we can see your face.”

  “Seems a little, uh, egotistical.”

  “Aren’t you trying to make some money at this?”

  “Uh, yes.”

  “It’s all about the branding. I liked your logo but it’s missing something.”

  Oh, yeah. Back when she was working, Grandmother had been in advertising. I sat up. “What’s that?”

  “You. Now I know you’ve got a lot going for you. You can put stuff up there cheaper, but that’s not quite enough. You want everybody talking about you. I mean, you’re not replacing SpaceX with their capacity … what can they lift?”

  “Sixty tons to LEO in the Falcon Heavy.”

  “Right. What is your limit?”

  “Well, we picked fifty kilos. I might be able to do more, but I’m pretty sure we can do that.”

  “Right. But you have other advantages. The big boys plan their launches months or years in advance, right? You can be up in minutes.”

  I shook my head. “Not minutes. I need a couple of hours to flush the nitrogen out of my system. But, yeah. I can move stuff on pretty short notice.”

  “You need to sell that. If a customer wants to put something up he needs to schedule it with you. He wants to put something up now you should charge a premium.”

  “Or to get something down on short notice?”

  “Right. But that’s operations and pricing—not so much my thing. My thing is branding and for that, we’ve got you: teenage girl in a spacesuit. Space Girl.”

  I mimed sticking my finger down my throat.

  Grandmother chuckled.

  “You need to take a bunch of footage of yourself. You’re not just selling stuff to orbit, you’re selling bragging rights. ‘Yeah, our satellite was put up by Space Girl.’”

  “Not Space Girl! Apex Orbital Services! Besides, I can’t exactly take a camera operator up with me. Not yet. We only have the one suit.”

  Grandmother’s eyes widened when I said that. “Maybe you can’t, but you can do something with the camera. I have faith in you.

  “Burn me a copy of your movi
e, okay? And bring me your logo designer. I want to talk to them.”

  To: [email protected]

  From: [email protected]

  Subject: cubesat specs


  We are working on your cubesat design, but have questions about launch configuration. Are you limited to actual cubesat dimensions? If high acceleration and high vibration are not a factor we can quickly create units using off-the-shelf components, especially if you are good with larger than 10 × 10 × 10 cm and greater than 1.33 kilo.

  You didn’t mention station keeping or attitude control capabilities—need them?

  Please contact me.

  Roberta Matapang


  Texas A&M University

  ps. What the HELL do I call you?

  pps. The Delta-K Booster is already 11 kilometers lower in orbit than pre-tether. Cool beans, right? I defended my dissertation yesterday.

  * * *

  To: [email protected]

  From: [email protected]

  Subject: Fengyun 1C


  Your ‘package’ was delayed. Perhaps you could call first next time. I would’ve been more than happy to take delivery personally. The Air Police commander is not happy with me as I cannot give him the background.

  I am impressed, though, that you brought it back rather than let it burn up in the atmosphere.

  We’ve told NASA that this particular piece will not be bothering them again. They think WE disposed of it which is embarrassing since I could neither confirm nor deny. I will pass on their sincere thanks to =you=, instead.

  Please reconsider my offer to inspect your facilities. We could definitely send some business your way.

  Brig. Lionel Sterling


  ps. What the HELL do I call you?

  * * *

  To: [email protected]

  From: [email protected]

  Subject: re: cubesat specs

  Dear DOCTOR Matapang,

  Congratulations on the Ph.D.!

  Correct. Vibration and acceleration not a factor. It can be as big as you like, dimensionally, as long as you keep it under 50 kilos. I would prefer under 25 kilos.