Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 23

  Dad nodded.

  “What’s the drill?”

  He turned to the side, facing east. “The first thing you want to do is to look at yourself. Not with a mirror, mind you.” He jumped to a spot five feet in front of him but appeared facing west, looking to where he’d just been standing. Then he jumped back to his first spot, facing east. “Back and forth, like that, but faster.” He jumped again and again, very little pause between the jumps—and then, just like that, he was in both places at once. His voice, distorted oddly, said, “I am looking at myself.”

  I could see through him. Through both of him. The backgrounds were distorted, too. The Dad on my left had a boulder behind him at the edge of the wash. The Dad on my right had a creosote bush in the background, but when I looked through them, the backgrounds had merged, a mixture of bush and rock, no matter which “Dad” I look at.

  “You can move the ends,” he said, and suddenly the right hand figure was ten feet further away. And then it vanished.

  At first I thought he’d just stopped doing it, but I realized I could still see through his other image and that the background had changed, darkened. His voice was quieter but I still understood him when he said, “I’m in the warehouse.” Then one side of his figure brightened so much, I blinked and looked away for a second. I heard surf and he raised his voice to say, “The beach, in Queensland.” A warm wind pushed through my hair.

  And then he really stopped twinning and was back, solid, present, blinking. “It was bright there—full sun.”

  His voice was normal again. I could no longer hear the surf and the breeze had died.

  “Any questions?”

  I’d seen it before, a long time ago, before I could jump, but I found it weirder, for some reason, than I had as a child. “When you do the water thing, is there anything different you do?”

  He shook his head. “No. It’s just like the air. You felt the air, right?”

  I nodded.

  “There was wind on the beach but what you felt was from the air pressure difference. Sea level versus? …”

  “At three thousand seven hundred fifty,” I said, remembering launch day. “About 2 psi difference.”

  He nodded. “If you’re venting to orbit, you could be pushing it out at fourteen point seven, eh?”

  I nodded. “I wouldn’t vent air to orbit, though. Into a container, maybe.”

  “You could fill up a balloon pretty darn quick. That could be interesting.” He rubbed his chin. “The first time I did this, I was exhausted, but after I got the hang of it, it didn’t seem any more difficult than any other jumping. How about you? When you started adding velocity?”

  I shook my head. “In atmo, if I do it long enough I get exhausted just being buffeted by the wind.” I pointed up. “The orbital stuff, though—not so much.” I had an odd thought. “Did you want me to teach you how to do the velocity thing?”

  Dad smiled. “I’ll give you credit, Centipede. You beat me there. But no, you don’t need to show me. For instance—”

  He left the ground too fast for me to track. I had to jerk my head back to see him, a rapidly shrinking dot against the gray clouds above. Then the dot blinked out and he was back at my side.

  He fingered his shirt. “Oops.” Two buttons still held his shirt closed but the others were gone. “Your mom will be annoyed. Let that be a lesson to me.”

  “Somebody’s been practicing,” I said.

  “I do have one more trick,” he said. “Something I haven’t even shown your mother. If you figure out the twinning thing, I’ll show you.”

  “What?” I asked. “I might never figure out the twinning thing.”

  “Consider it an incentive.” He vanished.

  * * *

  It took me over an hour before my first success, and it shocked me right back out of it. I saw myself, all right, but it was wrong. Besides the transparency and the merging backgrounds (I was seeing through myself twice), I didn’t look properly like me. The Stanford sweatshirt I was wearing actually said Stanford, not brofnatS. My hair was parted on the wrong side and my face just didn’t look right.

  So, weird, that.

  It took me another half hour to get it back and hold it. Other than my own image, the landscape was a mess as my visual cortex tried to make sense of two different slices of desert, combining it in ways that didn’t make sense.

  I had to stop, nauseated, and breathe heavily until my stomach settled.

  I kicked at the ground, sending coarse sand flying. Except for some very early effects when I started “plummeting” I didn’t get nauseated in orbit. Felt unfair to feel it now.

  I jumped to the Eyrie.

  Dad had installed blackout-quality drapes so he could sleep there when his clock was set to different parts of the planet. I liked light so I kept the curtains open. There aren’t privacy issues—to see in, you’d have to climb two hundred feet up to the ledge or be clinging to the far wall of the canyon.

  I went from window to window drawing the drapes, taking the interior to dark shadows. When I turned off the kitchen light the darkness was profound.

  I waited, breathing slowly, until the nausea was completely gone, then jumped back to the bright wash, to the dark Eyrie, to the bright wash, faster and faster, and then it clicked.

  I could look at myself, but the sunlit desert completely washed out the dark interior of the Eyrie and I only had one landscape to contend with. The only parts of the Eyrie I saw were where light from the wash shone through me, lighting the floor around my feet.

  I shivered, suddenly cold, and my concentration dropped. I was back in the Eyrie, in the dark. When I turned to switch the light back on, I felt sand grate between my shoes and the stone floor. Examined in the light, you could see where I stood, my footprints defined by a border of coarse sand.

  I guess water and air isn’t the only thing that could flow through the me-shaped hole. I shivered again. The Eyrie was cold today. I’d been sleeping here, but that usually involved dropping my jeans and crawling under flannel sheets, a quilt, and a down comforter. In the morning, I’d grab my clean clothes and jump to the Yukon for a shower.

  I eyed the woodstove, but didn’t really want to go through the motions of starting a fire.

  Back in the Yukon, the snows buried the first story of the house most years. When extra-heavy snowfall threatened to bury the second floor, too, Dad melted it away by twinning to a hot place at low altitude. I pulled back one of the curtains and opened the window six inches.

  It wasn’t much warmer outside, but I knew someplace that was. It was over ninety degrees Fahrenheit in Perth, Western Australia, and it was still morning. I found a sheltered spot in a back alley, hidden from traffic and pedestrians, and twinned to the Eyrie.

  I’d like to say that it happened immediately but it took me several fits and starts before I held both spots continuously.

  I was trying for ten minutes but dropped to my knees as my watch display passed six. I was in the Eyrie and though the floor under my knee was still cold, the chill of the air was gone. There was condensation on the walls. Right. It had been humid in Perth.

  After one attempt to stand, I climbed up onto the bed and flopped onto my back. I thought about taking off my shoes and fell asleep instead.

  To: [email protected]

  From: [email protected]

  Subject: Discussion

  Need to talk in person about your stuff. Could you meet me where we made our deal, tomorrow, at the same time of day?


  She hadn’t named the Dixie Chicken. Dr. Matapang clearly thought someone else was reading her e-mails and, probably, watching her movements.


  I shot off an affirmative. I was hoping she was imagining things, but if she was right, I hoped it was just the DIA and not Daddy’s old friends.

  I arrived ten minutes early, coming in through the veranda entrance in the back, and took a seat in dark corner. I ordered a Coke and waited, the Coke u
ntouched. If she was being tracked, I had no intention of drinking anything here.

  That’s how they caught Dad.

  At 1:30 a young woman in a denim jacket and khaki pants walked through the front door. She looked around and then took a manila envelope out of her shoulder bag and began walking through the room, holding it so anyone could read the letters APEX ORBITAL writ large upon it.

  I raised my hand when she neared me, watching her warily.

  She blinked and said, “I’m supposed to ask if you know who this came from.”

  “Roberta?” I said.

  She nodded and handed it to me. “Right.”

  “Is Roberta okay?” I asked.

  “Was when she gave me this. Roberta said, ‘The note explains all.’” She jabbed her finger toward the envelope. “I’m not supposed to linger.”

  I nodded. “Well, thanks.”

  She turned around and left. I bent down behind the table, as if to tie my shoes, and jumped away.

  * * *

  The handwritten note said:

  Hey Space Girl,

  They’re definitely watching me. This note is being delivered by my landlady’s daughter.

  I had one of the students put the first unit on the roof of the lab. It’s in a cardboard box next to the elevator stack.

  I’m eating lunch over in Bryan at the same time this is being delivered to you in hopes they will be following me. Instructions are in the box, but let me know (via e-mail) if you have any questions. I have the parts for the other two if this one satisfies.


  I could look down on the space-engineering building from the top level of the massive parking garage next door. The cardboard box sat in the shade, up against the north side of the elevator shack.

  It could be a trap. There could be guys waiting inside the roof-access door. It could be booby-trapped. For one brief second I considered getting Dad, but that thought didn’t last long.

  With Dad involved it might take all day to get the thing off the roof. Or worse. I could practically hear him saying, “Not worth the risk.”

  Well, it wasn’t his satellite.

  I jumped to the roof and crouched by the box.

  The top wasn’t taped and one of the flaps fluttered in a breeze. I flipped it back gently. When nothing went boom or emitted scary hissing noises, I flipped the rest of the flaps open. All I could see was gray foam, but when I peeled back one corner, I could see a rectangular section of solar cells and aluminum framing.

  Well, it looked like it was the real deal.

  I replaced the foam, closed the box, and jumped it to the sandy wash in West Texas. I set it down gently and jumped a hundred feet away.

  When it hadn’t exploded after five minutes, I hit the cabin for Dad’s portable radio-frequency sweeper. I started from a hundred feet away and walked slowly toward it, but there was no RF from the box, nothing active.

  You might ask why I didn’t sweep the box back on that rooftop? I could justify by saying there would be so much radio-frequency stuff happening on campus, it would’ve been meaningless. That it was isolated from local radio out here.

  The truth was I didn’t think about it.

  I jumped it to the Eyrie and unpacked it carefully, still not convinced it wouldn’t explode. The sheet of instructions said:

  The OBC, transmitter, EPS, and batteries are all COTS. The solar cells are space-qualified triple-junction cells. Aluminum frame and pop rivets from Home Depot. I was going to get all fancy with the extendible mast but then one of our undergrads saw these snap-together fiberglass tent poles at REI. The mast needed to be nonconductive or it will generate electrodynamic drag like the tether you attached for us.

  There is an elastic cord down the center of the pole and simply unbundling the section should cause it to self-assemble. Manually check that the sockets are fully engaged, though, as the elastic will degrade rapidly from temperature swings and outgassing of plasticizer into the vacuum.

  The counterweight is hollow and half filled with steel shot to dampen oscillations from deployment or thermal perturbation.

  Lot of acronyms. I had to go look them up online. COTS had several meanings, including “Commercial Orbital Transfer Systems” but the one that clearly pertained here was “Commercial Off-the-Shelf,” meaning that they were components not purpose-built for the satellite. OBC turned out to be “On Board Computer” and EPS was “Electrical Power System.”

  To add your audio message, connect a computer to the USB port and the onboard nonvolatile flash will mount as an external drive. Put an .mp3 or .wav file in the root directory and the radio will transmit it on continuous loop. Make it 5 minutes long and it will loop every 5 minutes. Make it 90 minutes long and it will loop every 90. There’s 4 gigabytes of storage so you have substantial message-length flexibility. If there is more than one .wav or .mp3 file in the root, the system will play them in turn, in name-sort order, before looping.

  Currently there is a 60-second test.wav file in the root directory comprised of 59 seconds of silence and a 1-second 400 hertz tone. You can delete it or leave it in place as part of your broadcast set.

  The batteries are currently charged and the OBC will boot on master power ON and begin broadcasting at 145.990 MHz as soon as the Power On Self-Test is complete.

  Let me know when it’s up and we’ll monitor.

  “You should include some Chuck Berry,” said Grandmother.

  Tara stared at her, appalled and worried. Both Grandmother and I started laughing but that stopped pretty quickly when Grandmother started wheezing.

  “Calm down there, girl!” said Seeana, a worried look her face. She cranked the oxygen regulator up, increasing the flow.

  I’d brought Tara to Grandmother to discuss branding issues, but we’d segued into planning the audio message for AOS-Sat One pretty quickly.

  Grandmother’s wheezing stopped after a few more breaths and she closed her eyes for a minute. “Sorry, Tara, your face was just so funny. You must’ve thought I’d gone all senile on you.”

  Tara shook her head and said, “Of course not.”

  This nearly set Grandmother off again, but she held it to a chuckle. She looked at me and said, “She’s a very polite liar.”

  Tara grinned. “Okay, who is Chuck Berry?”

  My computer was open before me and I flipped over to my music app. The opening guitar riff from “Johnny B. Goode” screamed out of my speakers.

  Even before Chuck Berry began singing, Tara said, “Oh. I know that song.” I stopped the music after the first verse and she added, “But why do you want that on the recording?”

  “Tradition,” said Grandmother.

  I was the one whose father used the space program for history lessons. I filled Tara in. “It was sent out on a gold-plated record on Voyager 1 and 2 that included greetings in different languages and various kinds of music. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was one of the samples.”

  Grandmother nodded. “What do we have so far?”

  Tara read the draft. “Greetings from AOS-Sat One! AOS-Sat One was fabricated by Texas A&M University’s AggieSat Lab and placed in orbit by Apex Orbital Services: providing orbital insertion and recovery for spacecraft up to fifty kilograms in mass, placed in Low, Medium, and High Earth Orbits. Apex Orbital services, the home of—”

  I interrupted her. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to include that part!”

  She ignored me, continuing with, “—the home of Space Girl. For prices and endorsement opportunities, visit our website at apexorbital dot com. Apex Orbital—we deliver!”

  Grandmother flipped over a piece of paper on her bedspread. It was Tara’s new design, a five line squiggle of a space-helmeted figure, clearly female but not obnoxiously so. She was pulling the satellite in the Apex Orbital logo as if it were a suitcase. “We didn’t agree,” Grandmother said. “You disagreed. Everybody else likes it.”

  I rolled my eyes.

  Tara said, “You may know loads about orb
its, but you don’t know nuthin’ about advertising.” She bounced her eyebrows up and down. “Space. Girl.”

  I looked at Grandmother and said, “There’s never a snowball around when you need one.”

  Grandmother said, “How many different messages could we fit on there?”

  “Hundreds, why?”

  “It just might be nice to vary the message. The order, the emphasis. It could get very boring, the same message over and over, even if we do play ‘Johnny B. Goode’ between every spot.”

  “I don’t mind boring. What’s important is that it comes from orbit.”

  Tara said, “Put the new logos on the site tonight, Space Girl.”

  I told Grandmother, “I’m going to drop her into a snowbank on the way home.”

  “I wish you’d let me edit the web page directly,” said Tara. “It’s frustrating having to run the iterations through you.”

  I winced. “I can give you access, but not from your computer and definitely not from this country. Not unless you want all the three-letter guys camped on your doorstep.”

  Tara said, “Three letter guys?”

  Grandmother said, “NSA, DIA, CIA, and the ETC.”

  “ETC?” I said.

  “Etcetera,” Grandmother said.

  “Ha.” We hadn’t mentioned the DoD and General Sterling of the Air Force Space Command. I added, “ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN.”

  Tara laughed but then sobered, looking sideways at me. “We should get Joe to do some of the recording. He has that great baritone. Remember when he narrated that piece for the snowboard club?”

  I looked away.

  Of course I remembered. It was a YouTube compilation of epic snowboard crashes, mostly starring my old slalom partner, Carl. Joe did the voice-over epic-movie-trailer style. “One man doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, but he can run into a hill. OF. SNOW.” It was the juxtaposition of Carl’s spectacular crashes with the voice-over that made it fall-over funny, but of course now it just made me want to cry.

  When I looked back, Tara had a concerned expression on her face.