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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 26

He led us through their assembly bay and into the attached warehouse.

  The first thing Joe and I saw was a half-inflated, sixty-foot-long puffer fish hanging from the rafters. I froze, looking up at it. “Wow.”

  He glanced at me and then up. “Yeah. Cool, huh? We made it for the triple-F, but they went bankrupt before we got more than the deposit.”

  I stared at it. It had obviously been designed to depict a puffer in its fully inflated defensive mode. Fully inflated, it would be nearly spherical with a white bottom and a mottled brown top. It had the distinctive spines projecting out everywhere but the face. “Triple-F?”

  “Fukushima Fugu Festival. You know, where they eat the fish?”

  I nodded. “Oh, yeah. Fugu sashimi. Expensive yet poison.”

  He chuckled. “That’s right. A few people die every year. I understand the trick is to get a tiny bit of the poison. Just enough so your lips go numb.”

  I shook my head. “Not for me, thanks. But that—” I pointed up. “—is beautiful.”

  “We’re trying to interest the Macy’s parade people but they prefer to commission their own sponsored balloons.” He started walking again. “Ah, over there.” He threaded his way through rows of stacked boxes and rolls of fabric to a pallet rack against the wall. He pointed to the fourth row up.

  “That pallet. I’ll go get the steps.”

  I was tempted to jump up to the shelf, but that would have freaked him out. He went down to the corner of the room and started pushing a large rolling set of steep stairs, about fifteen feet tall, with a railing on one side only. Joe helped him guide it into place, and Mr. Papadopolis threw a lever, causing the wheels to lift up, dropping it onto sturdy, nonskid feet.

  When we got to the small platform at the top, the pallet was chest high on me but came up to his stomach. He slapped a bundle of silver fabric about the size of a rolled-up sleeping bag. “Here’s the first test sphere. Four yards in diameter.” He pointed up at the ceiling. “For the helium test it bobbed around the rafters for four weeks. We were going to wait until it lost buoyancy but gave up finally and had to haul it down for the scuff tests.”

  I fingered the cloth. I could make out the texture of the weave but it was through a coating or coatings. “How were the scuff tests done?”

  “We pumped it up to twenty psi with an air compressor and played soccer with it.”

  “Soccer? It was, what, over twice as high as you?”

  “Well, maybe it was more like uh, polo. We used golf carts to push it. It was fun until a northwester came up. It bounced over the fence and took off for Racine. Fortunately it caught in some woods before it crossed I-94.” He shook his head smiling. “Hell of a scuff test, though.”

  “It didn’t get punctured or ripped?”

  “Nope, it was still holding at twenty-one psi.”

  “I thought you pumped it to twenty.”

  “It was spring. Sun came out from behind the clouds.” He held his hands out, fingers spread, suggesting a ball shape. “You see when the air heats—”

  “Boyle’s law, we know,” I said quickly before he could mansplain it to me. I tapped a bundle on the same pallet, the same color but nearly twice as big around. “Are these all the same material?”

  He nodded, tapping and speaking in turn. “Four yards, ten yards, twelve yards. After hockey season we’re starting on a lifting body.”

  “Would you sell these?”

  “What, all of them?”

  “The small one to start. If it works out, then the others.”

  “Have to talk to my sales manager to cost it out.” He eyed me doubtfully. “If you’ve got the resources.”

  “Right. I don’t expect to pay a huge amount, though. They’re used, right?”

  “They’re unique.”

  “Well, give me your card and I’ll call you midweek to see what your manager said.”

  Rather than go out into the icy wind again, I jumped Joe to the alley behind Krakatoa from the stairwell.

  He checked his watch. He was gnawing on his lip again.

  Against my better judgment I said, “You aren’t twelve hundred miles from home, you know.” I was still poised to jump away.

  Joe looked at me and his eyes teared up. That, alone, made me want to run screaming.

  “I’m sorry.” He was staring down at my feet. “I … I betrayed you. I violated your trust. I know an apology is nothing against the hurt I caused you, but I need to say this because the words just keep circling through my head over and over and over, all day and all night. I wish it had never happened. I wish I hadn’t been so stupid, so weak, so … afraid.”

  He looked at me and, dammit, a tear spilled down his cheek.

  I opened my mouth but I couldn’t say anything.

  He nodded slightly. “There. That was it. I’ve been trying to get that out—just that. The early versions were all begging and asking and totally wrong. I’ve deleted them and burned them and flushed them. I don’t need a response. I don’t expect one.” He turned on heel and as he walked away, I heard his last words echo off the wall of the alley.

  “I don’t deserve one.”

  TWENTY-FOUR

  Cent: Going Viral

  I knew the commercial-satellite community would take notice as soon as AOS-Sat One made it into the space command tracking catalog, but I wasn’t expecting the rabid subset of amateur radio hobbyists who tracked satellites. And I didn’t count on them directing everybody on the Internet to our website, specifically to Tara’s new video spot: thirty seconds of me and the universe and every satellite and piece of debris I’d recorded, finishing with my nausea-inducing spin cross-fading into the Space Girl logo.

  The video went viral over twelve hours and our hosting service crashed hard at hour fifteen. At first they thought it was a denial-of-service attack, but when they saw it was legitimate traffic, they offered me five years of high-bandwidth service if they could manage ads on our sidebar. Tara said, “Hell, no,” and took over the e-mail negotiations.

  In the end, they got an ad for their hosting service on our home page and the site got its own dedicated server on the main backbone.

  “I’ll manage the advertising,” said Tara. “Last thing we want to do is to cheapen our brand with a bunch of erectile dysfunction ads. I’m thinking Iridium Communications and Merrell apparel.”

  The [email protected] inbox choked on incoming fan mail, interview requests, and business inquiries, and our hosting service had to upgrade that.

  Twenty-four hours later the video started showing up on network news. Grandmother recorded as much of the coverage as possible.

  Dad was not pleased.

  I told him, “You knew we had to go public to grow the business. What did you want me to do? Start a lemonade stand?”

  He scowled at me. “At least your visor is down in all those clips.”

  Our site crashed again and our service replaced the dedicated server with a server cluster.

  I gave up on keeping Tara off the site. Someone had to deal with the e-mail, but I didn’t give her access until we’d set up two offshore virtual private network accounts with advanced encryption.

  She VPN-ed into the Norway account and, from there, VPN-ed into the Singapore account. Only then did she touch the hosting service to download e-mail and update the site.

  Journalists were not just sending us e-mails.

  USSPACECOM’s press office said, “We have no comment on that.”

  Iridium Communications did confirm that the image on the video was their Iridium 4 commsat and that they had received the full inspection video referred to therein. They did not mention that my orbit-to-ground communications were via their network.

  A junior member of the House Armed Services Committee announced his intention to call for an investigative hearing on this threat to national security. The chairman said drily, “I wish the representative from Florida good luck with that.”

  * * *

  Roberta appeared on CNN, intro
duced by the interviewer as Dr. Matapang of Texas A&M University. The titles beneath her face said, Dr. Roberta Matapang, Satellite Designer, Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering.

  “Who is Space Girl?”

  Roberta raised her eyebrows. “I believe that is the call sign of Apex Orbital Services’ CEA.”

  “CEA?”

  “Chief executive astronaut.”

  The interviewer did a double take. “Oh. But what’s her name? Her nationality?”

  “American? Don’t know for sure.”

  “But you have met her?”

  “Yes. Three times. Once when she delivered our failed Tinkerbell research satellite after recovering it from orbit. A lunch meeting to arrange the delivery of our Lost Boy unit into orbit. And when she picked up Lost Boy prior to that mission.”

  “What does she look like?”

  “A young woman. American? Canadian? Very intelligent. Direct. I like her very much.”

  “Are you in communication with her now?”

  Matapang looked from the interviewer to the camera and winked. “Depends on whether or not she is watching, doesn’t it?” She looked back at the interviewer. “I’ve talked to her by phone twice, during missions. Other than that, we exchange e-mails.”

  “During missions? What does that mean?”

  “She was in orbit, both times.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Well, she was delivering satellites to orbit both times.”

  They split the screen and put up a still taken from our video, a full frame of AOS-Sat One, but before I moved into the frame. “Was one of them this satellite? Made by your lab at Texas A&M University?”

  Roberta held up her hands. “Assembled, rather.” She talked about the various parts and functions of the satellite, spending most of the time discussing the fiberglass mast while a clip of it self-assembling ran in the foreground. “I was the primary designer and fabricator but I was ably assisted by Ritchie Winodgrodzki and Amber Cosby.”

  “Are they other faculty at the Texas A&M?”

  “Undergraduate students, but I have high expectations.”

  “So … tent poles?”

  Matapang grinned. “Yes, tent poles.”

  The interviewer leaned forward, face serious. “You’ve heard the arguments about this being a hoax, the product of computer special effects. The fact that there were no detected launches that corresponded to these orbits.”

  Robert grinned. “Of course.”

  “What to do you have to say to that?”

  “Nothing.”

  “What? You’re not going to argue it’s not a hoax?”

  “Your producers don’t think it’s a hoax. I’m on your show because dozens of amateur satellite trackers reported the bird’s existence. CNN flew me to Atlanta because millions of people have watched the video and found it compelling. But for me, the best reason you’re taking this seriously is that the U.S. Space Command issued AOS-Sat One a catalog number and is issuing tracking statuses on it, just as it does every other spacecraft around the planet.

  “Talk to them if you think it’s a hoax.”

  “But how did it get there?”

  “No idea. If you find out, I would love to know.”

  * * *

  The newly famous (notorious) firm of Apex Orbital Services offered every university in North America the chance to orbit their microsats (anything up to twenty-five kilos) at the low, low price of one thousand dollars per kilo, with a thousand dollar minimum.

  We did not require vibration or temperature testing, but for this low, low price we would be releasing them in low, low orbits where atmospheric drag would deorbit them within three months.

  We weren’t expecting the number of takers.

  “Three hundred and fifty-five satellites?” I said.

  “That’s just the ones who’ve paid so far,” said Tara.

  “Three hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars?” I was having trouble wrapping my head around it.

  “Oh, no, girlfriend. It’s over half a million so far, though our Singapore credit-card handler is taking three percent. Over half of them are one-cube units under a kilo, but we’ve got a lot of three-cube units and a surprising number of units over ten kilos.”

  Cory said, “I think you can blame Matapang.”

  “What does Roberta have to do with anything?”

  Cory grinned. “She open sourced the plans for AOS-Sat One. You said it yourself back when we were arguing about soda lime versus lithium hydroxide: So many decisions are made because of weight constraints. When you put things up your way, you don’t have to account for acceleration and the high cost of extra weight.

  “I’d say a lot of these units were heavily modified in the last two weeks when they realized they didn’t have to fit all their stuff in a standard cubesat deployer or follow all the red tape in ‘91-710.’”

  “What’s that?”

  “‘USSPACECOM Manual 91-710: Range Safety User Requirements.’ It has seven volumes. Not to say that most of these didn’t jump through all the hoops. Most of these are standard cubesats that were on launch waiting lists for years or were rejected for not doing important enough research. Some are probably practice units, the functional engineering prototypes created to test a design before making the approved one.

  “At our launch rates, it’s okay if they don’t survive first contact with space. It’s a reasonable risk.”

  Tara said, “At least thirty of these had their launch fees paid for by Kickstarter campaigns.”

  “Great,” I said. “Now we’re taking lunch money.”

  The other caveat for our customers was that they had to deliver their units to our designated agents at Denver International Airport inside security. In other words, they all had to go through TSA X-ray and explosives sniffing before we saw them.

  It was Joe’s idea. Cory told him about Dad’s worry that they could use a satellite as a way to attack us. Cory thought it was very clever. Tara did to. So did Dad.

  Okay. It was clever.

  It eliminated a few units that were using propellants like hydrazine or used explosive bolts for deployment. If they used cold nitrogen-gas propellants they had to arrive empty with instructions for charging. Electric propulsion units that used arcs to generate plasmas that were in turn accelerated by electromagnetic fields made it through. Most of the satellites, though, didn’t use propulsion, just attitude control using gyroscopes or a passive gravity gradient like AOS-Sat’s mast, or magnetorquer rods to interact with the ambient magnetosphere. The TSA had no problem with these.

  We hooked up the clients with college students flying home for the holidays through Denver. Dad took delivery and put them in a storage vault rented for the purpose, 650 feet under the prairie near Hutchinson, Kansas.

  Dad said, “It was a salt mine. Now it’s a document-storage facility. After all, these satellites are designed to be tracked, and rather than worry if we got all the power off—well, unless they’re sending messages with neutrinos, nothing is going to get through.”

  I said, “That works for me.”

  * * *

  I made a deal with General Sterling: We’d give him a list of the day’s deliveries ahead of time and USSPACECOM would do a COLA evaluation (Collision Avoidance on Launch) to avoid creating more debris.

  We put the first set up on New Year’s Day.

  I hadn’t planned on asking Joe for help but when I showed up to pick up Tara, he was there, waiting with her. It was easier to jump him to the lab than to talk to him—to tell him I didn’t want his help.

  Especially when I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted.

  Dad jumped Cory into the vault with a folding table. Tara and Joe ran the checklist on the suit and I prebreathed oxygen.

  Deep underground, Cory carefully connected batteries or threw switches. When I was fully suited up, Dad met me in a field in Oklahoma holding a plastic milk crate with eight activated cubesats nestled in duct tape and foam pockets.


  A piece of duct tape stuck to the outside of the crate said, Polar Set: 1340 UT, 7.895 kps, 205 k Alt., 87° Inc., 190 west, 0 north.

  I managed this orbit immediately, still near the Marshall Islands but lower and headed almost due north. I only had to do one tweak to smooth out some eccentricity before I released them, one at a time, pushing them gently away in different directions.

  Cory had said, “You can probably just dump the whole crate since any change in velocity will move them into slightly diverging orbits, but let’s keep them from banging into each other.”

  I tried to report the deployment to General Sterling, but when I called, someone else answered his phone.

  “General Sterling’s office, Captain Soldt, speaking.”

  “Uh, is the general available?”

  “He’s on an urgent call. If this is Space … Apex Orbital, he asked me to receive your information and request that you hold for him.”

  “O … kay. The first eight are deployed, parameters as agreed.”

  Soldt said, “Ah. I see it on the list. The polar orbits?”

  “Right. Still no problem? It’s not too late to retrieve them.”

  “Uh. I believe the track is good. Wow. Sorry, I’m just a bit amazed you’re calling from orbit.”

  “Is there any problem with doing the next ten, the set that’s scheduled for fourteen-forty Zulu?”

  “I don’t think—ah, the general’s available, now.”

  Sterling came on. “Are you in orbit?”

  “Yes, General. How was your Christmas?”

  “Lovely thanks, but never mind that. I have an urgent situation with the International Space Station.”

  I blinked. “Debris?”

  “No. A medical emergency. Flight Engineer Mikhail Grebenchekov presented with acute lower-back pain last night. Ultrasound imaging revealed a ten centimeter-diameter abdominal aortic aneurism below his kidneys with evidence of bleeding into the abdomen. He needs emergency surgery right now and it is the consensus of the mission flight surgeons that reentry deceleration in either the Dragon capsule or the Soyuz will rupture the aneurism.”

  My heart was suddenly very loud in my ears. “Are you asking for my help?”