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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 28


  It was loud in the helmet.

  I hope it looked good on TV.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  Cent: Avtoruchka

  I made a satphone call from the roof of Stanford Hospital two hours later. I wasn’t exactly revealing anything if they tracked the location. They knew I’d been here, after all.

  “Sterling.”

  “Any news on Grebenchekov?”

  “Yes—good news.”

  I took a deep breath. Relief, I guess. I was surprised; I wasn’t aware of how tense I’d felt until then.

  Sterling continued. “The aneurism was as big as a grapefruit with a dime-sized hole on one side. Fortunately the pressure from the ballooning vessel pressed that opening against the wall of the abdomen so it was seeping, rather than gushing.

  “They clamped and did an aortic resection with a Dacron graft, restoring blood flow to the legs in under ten minutes. They took another twenty minutes to close him back up but the urgency was gone, at that point.

  “The surgical team confirmed that a high-G reentry would’ve been fatal. Or, for that matter, even just waiting a few hours. You definitely saved his life.”

  I felt my ears get red. “Well, then, uh, good on you, General. You’re the one who thought of asking.”

  “I could ask all day. It wouldn’t make me capable of the mission. Thanks. That’s unofficial, but I’m working on getting permission to formally thank you on behalf of U.S. Space Command. What can I do unofficially to show my appreciation?”

  I thought about it. “Could you expedite the decision about Iridium Communications? They said they were waiting for DoD permission before they could negotiate a deal to compensate us for our video inspections.”

  General Sterling clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

  “I’ll see what I can do.”

  * * *

  Okay, I knew I’d get a lecture from Dad, but I guess I wasn’t expecting one from Joe. That didn’t mean I was going to put up with it.

  “So what was I supposed to do, let him die?”

  “Why did you take off your helmet? That flight engineer has already tweeted two pictures of you from the ISS!”

  Dad had left the “ground station” cell with Tara because it couldn’t reach out of the underground storage vault any more than the satellite transmitters could, so I hadn’t been able to call him and I still hadn’t connected.

  “Which flight engineer? Except for Commander Elliott, they’re all flight engineers.”

  Joe looked at his phone. “Uh, Nagata.”

  “Show me,” I said.

  I hadn’t even seen her holding a camera, but the first picture she’d posted was of me floating outside the cupola (sun visor still down). Compared to the standard NASA EMU suit, I looked sylphlike, almost a dancer in a unitard.

  “I don’t see what you’re complaining about.”

  He swiped to the next picture and stabbed his finger at it.

  That picture was inside the U.S. Lab with me and Rassmussen shaking hands over Grebenchekov, Commander Elliott in the foreground. My short hair was standing up in a way I didn’t remember at all and zero G changed the shape of my face, too. My skin color was definitely better than Grebenchekov’s.

  No helmet. Face in three-quarter profile.

  “That is so cool,” said Tara.

  Joe scowled.

  I bit my lip. “I understand, Joe. You’re worried that they’ll connect me to you and you’ll get the heat.”

  “Fuck no! I was worried about you! But while you’re on the subject, what about Tara? What about Jade? You’re telling me this won’t have repercussions?”

  Ouch. Maybe he had a point, there. I locked eyes with Tara.

  She shrugged. “They might connect you with you, I suppose. I mean, you, Space Girl, with you, Cent-that-lived-in-New-Prospect-for-a-while. But I doubt it will lead to Joe. I wasn’t aware you guys were still dating until after you weren’t anymore.”

  Joe looked away.

  Dad jumped into the lab with Cory.

  “Where were you? We’ve had the next set of satellites ready for the last forty-five minutes.”

  “Sorry. You never took me down into the vault so I couldn’t jump there to tell you.”

  “Tell me? Tell me what?” He blinked, finally noticing I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. “You’re not in the suit. Are you all right?”

  “Fine, yes.”

  Tara said, “Everyone is fine, including Flight Engineer Grebenchekov.”

  Cory said, “Who is Grebenchekov?”

  All three of us started talking at once, Tara excited, me matter-of-fact, and Joe angry. I shut up and let the two of them tag team it, but I got ready to defend myself.

  When he’d got the whole story, Dad said, “You saved his life?”

  I nodded.

  He walked up to me and put his arms around me. “I’m very proud of you.”

  Tears are so much easier to deal with in gravity, especially if you have someone else’s shirt to wipe them on.

  Then Dad held me at arm’s length and shook me halfheartedly by my shoulders. “But the photos! Why’d you take off your helmet?” He shook me again, but the corner of his mouth kept twitching up. When he let go, he glanced sideways at the others and then back at me.

  I sighed. “Lemons. Yes. I know.”

  He shut his mouth, but he mimed crushing something in his hand, the other hand cupped below to catch the squeezings.

  I spread my hands and changed the subject. “We’re behind schedule. We should double up on the remaining satellite insertions.”

  Tara said, “We’ve got e-mail reports from all of this morning’s bird’s owners. All are transmitting. One of them had trouble uploading commands, but that seems to be a software problem.”

  “Maybe I can go retrieve that one later and let them fix it?” I said.

  Tara glared at me. “No more freebies! If they want to pay for retrieval, fine, and they’ll need to pay for relaunching, too!”

  I held up my hands. “Yes, ma’am!”

  Cory said, “Tara’s right. Even at your rates, they need to take responsibility for shoddy work.”

  I nodded. “Right. I have my own projects, after all.”

  Cory frowned. “The new suits?”

  I shook my head. “No. My space station.”

  * * *

  Okay, I thought the first wave of press response after AOS-Sat One went live and the first video went viral was crazy.

  SPACE GIRL SAVES ISS COSMONAUT.

  EMERGENCY MEDICAL EVACUATION ON INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

  FORGET 911: SPACE GIRL TO THE RESCUE

  IS IT A BIRD, A PLANE, AN AMBULANCE?

  And, inevitably, to prove it’s never what a girl can do, it’s how she looks:

  SPACE GIRL IS HAWT!

  During a scheduled in-flight video interview with the Associated Press, Commander Elliott and Flight Engineer Rasmussen were asked about my actions. Rasmussen said, “I’ve been asked not to discuss this pending the formulation of NASA’s official response.” She looked away from the camera and when she looked back water was accumulating in her eyes in that annoying zero-G way. She flicked the water away from her face with a finger and said, “I’m grateful as hell.”

  Commander Elliott added, “The entire crew is grateful. We are overjoyed that Misha is safe and out of danger.”

  NASA and the hospital kept press away from Grebenchekov, but when the first officials from Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency) arrived, they brought representatives from the Russian press with them.

  “I love kosmos devushka!” Grebenchekov said. “She speaks very good Russian!”

  Ha. Take that, General Sterling.

  * * *

  The vast majority of our new customers in the university microsat promotion did not need specific orbits. They did need enough inclination to reach the latitudes of their tracking facilities. The universities (and three high schools) were distributed from Miami to
Fairbanks. Most of the exceptions had already been taken care of in the first set of polar-orbit launches.

  Confident now in the precision of our deliveries, USSPACECOM approved a faster insertion rate. “It would simplify things if you distributed the rest of these short-lived units in the same orbital plane,” General Sterling said. “It would make the COLA evaluations for our launches simpler.”

  I was talking to him via the base-station cell phone, sitting on the roof of “Gunner” Lee’s house in Ft. Worth. As much trouble as it took to get that jump site, I figured I might as well use it, and I didn’t really care if they tracked the call there.

  “Ooh. Our own orbit! Some of the tracking stations are moderately north. We’d need to match the fifty-degrees inclination of our previous nonpolar deployment. Would that work?”

  “Yes. Can you handle two-line orbital sets yet?”

  I grimaced. “We’ve got the CelesTrak software running ground side. It’s just not as intuitive to me as lat-long ground track with altitude, or even uncoded Keplerian elements.”

  He groaned. “This is no—”

  “—way to run a space program? We’re working on improving our space-side hardware. My girls are seeing if we can work out a deal to test MiGHO.”

  “MiGHO? Why do I get all my space news from a seventeen-year-old girl?”

  “Oh, surely you have heard of it? Multi-System GPS for High Orbits?”

  Sterling growled. “The one I heard about was in a classified briefing. Perhaps you’re talking about something different.”

  I raised my eyebrows. “I’m talking about the German project with the ESA? Uses side-lobe transmissions from all the GPS systems—U.S. Navstar, EU Galileo, Russian GLONASS, and Chinese Compass navsats—to get position and velocity fix as far out as lunar orbit?”

  “Hmph. We’re flying it on a DoD mission two years from now. How did you find out about it?”

  “I don’t know about your briefing, but it’s not exactly a secret. The company generated several academic papers and they sounded very interested when we queried.” My turn. “Who told you I was seventeen?”

  He paused. “Well, you mentioned it to Flight Engineer Rasmussen … Ms. Rice. Or is it Ms. Harrison-Rice?”

  Oh, fuck. “I didn’t mention that.”

  “Once they saw the news stills and video from your delivery of Flight Engineer Grebenchekov, it was a matter of minutes before the NSA delivered a file to the DIA. I got a heavily redacted version, but it includes you and your parents.”

  I almost hung up. “And does that change anything?”

  “Well, it sort of clears up why we haven’t seen your launches. And it helps that you’re not foreign nationals. There had been some fears expressed that you would start removing some of our orbital intelligence assets.”

  I remembered what I’d said to Dad back when space command first “discovered” me. I repeated it: “Nice little spy sat you have there, shame if anything were to happen to it?”

  “Yes. Like that. I suggest you don’t repeat that.”

  “You don’t have to worry about me.” I’ll play nice if you guys will.

  “From what I can see, you would be putting these birds into orbit regardless of our approval. Better for us to insure they go into safe orbits, so we’re cooperating … for now. But my boss flew to Washington to discuss the matter with … well, with people. It’s all way above my pay grade.”

  Sterling’s boss was the head of U.S. Space Command. He reported to the air force chief of staff. I didn’t want to think about who was in that meeting.

  Sterling cleared his throat. “I will say that it is a good thing your identity became known in conjunction with your medevac of Grebenchekov. Saving his life, plus your remediation of the Fengyun 1C debris, has earned you substantial good will from some parties. We’ll just have to see, Ms. Rice.”

  “It’s Cent.”

  He hummed. “Yes. That was in the file, too, but I didn’t want to presume.

  “We’ll just have to see, Cent.”

  * * *

  Over the next three days we put 108 satellites into what we were calling the Apex Standard Low Earth Orbit. At 205 kilometers altitude, the circumference of the orbital track was over forty-one thousand kilometers. Evenly distributed, that was one of those tiny cubesats every 115 kilometers.

  I also made one quick trip to the ISS, prearranged through General Sterling. He patched me through to Johnson who patched me to the station.

  Commander Elliott said, “The package is on the RMS above the Terrace.”

  The “Terrace” was the Exposed Facility outside of Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module. A small air lock with a sliding table allowed the crew to move experiments from inside the station to outside, where the RMS—the Remote Manipulator System, a Japanese-built arm not unlike the larger Canadarm—moved the experiments in or out of one of the many slots on the Terrace.

  The “package” in this case, was a small foil envelope.

  Flight Engineer Rasmussen was looking out the right-side window on the end of the Kibo module.

  When I had my hand on the foil envelope, she turned back to the RMS operator station and opened the jaws of the manipulator, releasing the envelope. I tucked it into one of the large coveralls pockets on my leg and made sure the Velcro was closed.

  Then I held up my package and pointed at the manipulator. She turned her head and said something. Commander Elliott floated up to the left-hand window and I heard his voice. “What is that?”

  “That” was an eight-quart aluminum pressure cooker that Cory had modified by replacing the automatic pressure release with a manual valve. It also had a simple pressure gauge, currently showing the internal pressure was 14.6 psi higher than the vacuum outside.

  “I’ve got five pounds of seedless grapes, five pounds of Honeycrisp apples, and five pounds of navel oranges. You haven’t had a supply flight in six weeks, right?”

  I saw Rasmussen lick her lips and the jaws of the manipulator closed firmly on the pressure cooker’s handle.

  There’s always enough food on the ISS, but fresh fruit only lasts a week or two after resupply flights.

  Commander Elliott said, “Fruit? Really?”

  “There’s also two pounds of my mom’s Christmas fudge.”

  Elliott turned his head. “Flight Engineer Rasmussen! We have an urgent experiment to recover. The Kibo air lock is still unpressurized, yes?”

  I heard Rasmussen’s voice come distantly through Elliott’s mike. “Affirmative.”

  “Open that outer door and extend the sliding table. We need to get that puppy on board!”

  “I’ll come get my container later,” I said. “Any messages for Misha?”

  Through the window I saw Rasmussen reach her hand out for the headset that Elliott wore. He gave it to her.

  Her voice came over the link. “Choose a date.”

  I repeated it back to her. “That’s the message?”

  “Yes. By the way, the crew already liked you because you helped Misha. When they see the fruit, there may be a few marriage proposals.”

  “Aren’t they all married?”

  “And your point would be?”

  I laughed. “Tis the season,” I said.

  And jumped.

  * * *

  I ended up jumping past the Roscosmos people and hospital security. Nobody recognized me. I was wearing my Stanford sweatshirt over jeans and a T-shirt.

  Grebenchekov was in a hospital bed but, I was relieved to see, he wasn’t even on an IV. He wore regular pajamas, not a hospital gown.

  The other man in the room was talking at—not to—Grebenchekov in rapid-fire Russian, while Grebenchekov stared impassively at the ceiling. When he saw me, the man switched to English and said abruptly, “You are in wrong room.”

  I ignored him. “Privet, Misha. I brought your ochki.”

  It took Grenbenchekov a moment—I wasn’t wearing a space suit, after all. “Kosmos devushka?”

  I hand
ed him the foil envelope.

  He dumped the contents onto the bedspread. The eyeglasses were round lensed, with a slider on the nose bridge that allowed the wearer to adjust the focus of a secondary lens as needed. NASA had been flying them for several years because zero G altered eyesight significantly in some astronauts over the course of a single mission. Misha was one of these. “Ah. Slava bogu! Come here and let me kiss you.”

  The other man said, “This is Space Girl? Surely you’re joking?”

  “No kissing,” I said to Grebenchekov. “What would Kate say? She sent a message, by the way.”

  The other man started out irritated but now he sounded angry. “Is she talking about your American mistress? They spoke of this at the training center. What would your wife say?”

  Grebenchekov looked furious and I became acutely aware that he’d had major surgery just three days before. “Sergei, time for you to walk out of room before someone throws you out window.”

  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone actually sneer before but I’d have to say that’s what Sergei did. “You don’t get rid of me so easy, Misha. Even without the surgery, you have been five months in space! You can’t push me around like you did in—”

  Sergei’s chair toppled over onto the grass of the Campus Oval, a good mile away from the hospital. He did an awkward back roll and ended with his legs flopped over his head. I didn’t help him up, or wait for him to struggle upright, or even pause to talk.

  Back in the hospital room, I returned the chair to its place in the corner and lowered it to the floor.

  Grebenchekov was sitting up and had twisted around, one leg out of bed. I held my hand out in a “wait” gesture and he sank back onto his pillows.

  “I don’t like Sergei,” I said. “He isn’t very nice.”

  Grenenchekov’s face went from angry to an explosive laugh which was cut short. He clutched at his side and exhaled through pursed lips. In a quieter voice he said, “It’s like you know him for years.”

  I lifted his leg back onto the bed and resettled the sheet and blanket.

  “Sergei has always wanted to go into space. Did you put him in space?” Grebenchekov looked hopeful.

  “Nyet. Who is he?”

  “He’s … avtoruchka. Aieee. Sorry. I should not say that in front of you.”