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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 29


  I had no idea what that meant.

  Grebenchekov continued. “Sergei was in cosmonaut training with me, but he washed out so he became a … a pencil pusher. Also—the woman he wanted? She married me.”

  My eyes widened.

  “She died five years ago. Cancer. My dear Nadya—ah, she was wonderful, but she would’ve screamed to see Sergei still grieving over another man’s wife. And if she saw me still in mourning? Well, she would’ve slapped me upside the head.”

  He took the glasses off and ground the heels of his palms into his eyes “Ah, devushka, Sergei flew all this way … he couldn’t wait to tell me … I will never go into space again.”

  I was beginning to see the merit of putting the man in orbit. “I’m sorry.”

  Grebenchekov, took a moment, polishing the lenses of the eyeglasses with a corner of his bed sheet. “What is the message from my Kate?”

  I bit my lip. “Can I ask what her marriage situation is?” Rasmussen had told me she had a grown daughter after all.

  “Divorced ten years.”

  I breathed out, relieved. Now I wanted to go find Sergei and take him much farther. What an asshole. “Kate said to tell you, ‘Choose a date.’”

  Grebenchekov’s eyes lit up. “Ah—well, at least that’s settled.” He smiled. “She would not marry me until we were both off the flight rosters.”

  “I’m sorry I did not take Sergei farther away. He is only a few kilometers that way.” I pointed. “I could take him to Australia but the weather is far too nice there.”

  “Are you sure you aren’t Russian?”

  “Bol’shoye spasibo. When do you leave here?”

  “They want to transfer me back to Zvezdny Gorodok in two weeks.” He looked at me and said, “That is—”

  “Star City. The training center.” I tapped my chest. “Huge fan.”

  “I always understood I would come back to Earth one day and never return to space, but … I had forty-five more days!”

  I patted his arm. “Can Sergei hurt you? I mean, any more than he has?”

  Grebenchekov shook his head. “Nyet. Just now I am heroic cosmonaut snatched from brink of death. He is avtoruchka.”

  “Okay, that’s the second time you used that word.”

  He looked guilty. “It means … pen. Like—” He held up his hand and twitched his thumb like he was clicking a ballpoint pen. “But—” He looked around, as if he expected someone to overhear him. “—it also means—” He frowned, clearly searching his memory. Finally Grebenchekov said, “I don’t know American word. The British say ‘wanker.’”

  I covered my face and started laughing. “That works! That totally works.”

  * * *

  You know, a lot of things don’t turn out like you thought they would.

  It was time for Tara to go to Paris, to meet up with Jade and her parents for the last ten days of their trip. I’d arranged to bring Tara to the Gare du Nord, by the Ludmilla Tchérina sculpture at the head of the stairs on the Eurostar platform.

  We were early and I waited with Tara to make sure she connected with Jade. It’s the busiest train station in Europe and there was plenty to watch. Also, while we waited, Tara told me the plot of The Red Shoes because Ludmilla Tchérina was in it.

  “I thought she was a sculptor.”

  “And a ballerina, and a painter, and an actress.”

  “Wow.”

  Someone cleared her throat and I turned. Jade was there. Also her Dad. And her mother, Dr. Chilton, who held in her hands the Guardian newspaper. Guess who was on the front page, pulling a helmet from her head while cradling a Russian cosmonaut?

  “Why, hello, Dr. Chilton. Mr. Chilton,” I said. When they didn’t say anything right away, I said, “Enjoying Europe?”

  Dr. Chilton said, “The thing I’ve always liked about you, Cent, is that you are exquisitely polite, even when you’re putting my child’s life in danger.”

  I looked at Jade. She was frozen, not looking at me, but at Tara.

  Tara was frowning, looking from Jade to Mr. Chilton, to Dr. Chilton, and back to Jade.

  Mr. Chilton was looking at Tara, then back Jade—not me.

  Jade’s mother was trying to glare at me, but she also kept shifting her gaze to Tara.

  Tara shook her head, sad. “It’s not about you, Cent. No matter what she’s saying.” She looked at Jade. “Is it?”

  Jade opened her mouth to speak and her mother said, “Remember what we agreed on!”

  Jade looked at the people streaming by. “Is this really the place to talk about this?”

  Her father nodded. “I think Jade’s right. We should find someplace quiet.”

  “No!” said Dr. Chilton. “We agreed.”

  Mr. Chilton said, “Not exactly, Misty. You just kept talking and we got tired.”

  Jade looked up at her dad, surprised. “I thought you were on her side.”

  “Honey,” Mr. Chilton said. “We both want what’s best for you. There’s just some disagreement about what that entails.”

  Tara walked forward, stepping up beside Jade. In a harsh whisper she said, “I thought we were beyond this.”

  Jade sighed. “So did I.” She put her arms around Tara and hugged her.

  Dr. Chilton’s face twisted and she stepped forward, her arms reaching out.

  I jumped.

  I didn’t have to grab anybody. I was just instantly there, standing between Dr. Chilton and Tara. Dr. Chilton jerked back, gasping.

  Mr. Chilton, wide-eyed, took his wife’s arm to steady her. “Misty?”

  “She’s taking our daughter! They’re both taking our daughter!”

  As I said, sometime things don’t turn out at all like you were expecting. This was not the European holiday I’d signed up for. I stepped away, returning to the railing and putting my back to it.

  Mr. Chilton was whispering urgently to his wife. I only heard a snatch during a momentary lull of the station’s noise: “—but you might drive her—”

  Jade was watching her parents intently, not letting go of Tara’s arm.

  “Rough trip?” I asked quietly.

  Jade shuddered. “Not at first. But then as it got closer to the time when Tara was going to join us, Mom really had a … a relapse.”

  “Was it the publicity?” I gestured toward the Guardian, now being twisted and untwisted in Dr. Chilton’s hands.

  “No. Dad and I had almost got her reasonable—back to where I thought the trip would still be a good thing. But once she saw the picture, all her arguments came back, but now with you being the justification.”

  I looked back at her parents. Dr. Chilton was not calming down. In fact she was crying, harsh sobs and gesturing sharply toward us.

  I looked at Jade, who was watching her mom with an almost detached air.

  “You okay?” I asked. I would’ve been freaking out.

  She rolled her eyes. “I was a wreck the first time, but there comes a point when it’s just annoying, not heartrending.”

  I wasn’t annoyed. I was acutely uncomfortable. “So what’s the plan—leave Tara with you? Take her away? I mean, I’m not staying, so if you need something, this is the time to ask.”

  Jade turned to Tara and whispered fiercely, “Don’t you dare leave me alone with her. Either we both stay or we both go. Your call.”

  Tara studied the skylights running down the peak of the station’s roof. When she looked back down, she said, “Leave us in Paris—but get us away from this. Maybe she’ll calm down.”

  Jade looked doubtful about the last phrase, but she said, “Please. Away from here anyway.”

  “Île de la Cité?” I suggested.

  Tara’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes. Notre-Dame.” She’d never been to Paris but she’d been reading up.

  Jade nodded. “Yes. And it’s close to our hotel.”

  “Cent sandwich,” I said and they reached around me to hug each other, squeezing me in the middle like, well, like a lemon.

  He
r mother noticed, opened her mouth to say something, but I jumped.

  * * *

  It had just stopped raining and you could see the Rose Window reflected in the wet pavement in front of “our lady,” Notre-Dame Cathedral. By the time Tara had taken several pictures we were all calmer. Jade sent her father a text saying that she and Tara were going back to Jade’s room at the Hotel Melia Le Colbert.

  As we walked over the Seine on the Pont au Double, Jade offered to teach Tara the “French tongue” and bobbed her eyebrows suggestively.

  Tara said, “I think I taught you.”

  Jade to Tara: “Repeat after me, ‘I am space girl: Je suis fille de l’espace.’”

  Tara said “Je suis fille de Spartacus.”

  Jade laughed and said, “Je suis Spartacus.”

  And I said louder, “No! Je suis Spartacus.”

  And then a policeman, crossing from the Left Bank roared out, “JE suis Spartacus!” He touched his hat and walked on, without missing a step.

  There was no talking after that. There was only laughing and holding onto the stone rail of the bridge to keep from falling over.

  After the scene we’d fled at the Gare du Nord I certainly didn’t expect that by the time I left Jade and Tara. A lot of things don’t turn out like you expect them to.

  TWENTY-SIX

  Millie: Less Secrecy

  Millie was curled up in the corner of the couch with her hands wrapped around a cup of tea, enjoying its warmth and the warmth of the fireplace, when Davy came in, frowning.

  She tensed, unreasonably annoyed. She’d just finished brewing the tea and building the fire and it was the first time she’d been off her feet the entire morning. She watched him from the corner of her eye.

  Davy flopped down onto the other end of the couch and stuffed his hands into his jean pockets, his head back against the cushion, staring fixedly at the upper reaches of the fieldstone fireplace.

  “We’re blown.”

  She nodded and sipped her tea.

  “You knew?”

  “We had the TV on in Mother’s room.”

  Davy winced. “So, you saw the interview with Cent’s biology teacher?”

  “Yes. I loved his first line. ‘I always knew she’d go far.’ But they also made the connection all the way back to your adventures with hijackers before we were married, and there was a picture of me from New Prospect that one of my old family-practice clients identified. That led them to Mom and the ‘Shots Fired and Multiple Arrests at Wichita Nursing Home’ story.”

  Davy winced. “I saw the hijacking stuff but not the Wichita part.”

  “Well, it was inevitable.”

  “You’re awfully calm about it.”

  Millie sipped her tea. “What’s changed? Do we have to behave differently? More important, does this mean anything’s changed upstairs? I mean, besides the talk I just had with Seeana, Bea, Jeline, and Tessa?”

  Davy grimaced. “What did you say to them?”

  “I gave them the opportunity to resign. But that if they felt they could keep our secret, we would give them a bonus at the end of employment equal to their total salaries. I mean, Cent’s making money now, right?”

  Davy nodded. “That was smart. The longer they work, the more money they get, but only if they maintain confidentiality to the, uh, end.” He glanced at Millie, frowning.

  Millie sighed. “Yeah. The ‘end.’”

  “How is Sam?”

  “This morning was rough. We had to put her on the ventilator twice, but she’s off it again. She managed to eat lunch and she’s actually sleeping. When she’s having trouble breathing, she doesn’t rest at all.”

  “Hmmm?”

  “She said that everything gets very simple. Her whole world narrows down to the next breath, all her concentration, all her effort. And she has this overwhelming feeling—fear—that if she doesn’t give it all her attention, it will just stop.” She bowed her head. “That’s got to be just awful.”

  Davy opened his mouth but ended up just shaking his head. He slid his arm around her shoulders.

  Millie leaned into him. “So, I am calm about the publicity thing. It’s not my most pressing concern. And maybe this is a good thing.”

  “I don’t see how.”

  “Remember when the NSA was tracking me and Mom? When my brother took them to court?”

  “Yeah. It didn’t stop them from snatching you and your roommate a week later.”

  “But they backed down. I think what we need is more publicity, not less. What would the press do with a story about Daarkon Group’s real activities? What if we went public about all the disaster-relief aid we’ve provided in the last twenty years?” She put her cup down on the coffee table with a thump. “Maybe what we need is less secrecy, not more.”

  Davy’s jaw jutted forward.

  Before he said anything, Millie added, “Don’t worry. I won’t start sending out press releases.” She jerked her thumb toward the upstairs landing. “Right now, all my energy is focused up there.”

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  Cent: Safety Check

  With Jade and Tara in Europe, I tried to do the rest of the satellite launches using just Dad and Cory, but Cory bailed on me.

  “I’ve got to prep for the suit wrap, remember? We only have so much time before their semesters start and Joe, Tara, and Jade become unavailable. Then there’s the other thing.”

  Dad and Cory exchanged glances and I nodded. “Right. Clearing out the suit and supplies.” We didn’t think it would be long before Cory’s lab (and involvement) would be public knowledge. The plan was to move the operational supplies and the suit somewhere less accessible.

  I looked at Dad and said, “Well, I guess you and I can do the sat prep while I prebreathe, then you could be ground crew.”

  Dad shook his head. “Don’t you need a safety check for suit prep and donning? Use Joe. Then he can continue to prep the birds while I act as Capcom.”

  I felt my face twist and Dad looked at me, concerned. “That’s a sour look. Why doesn’t that work? Is Joe not available?”

  Was he? That was the question, and not in the way Dad meant.

  “Okay. I’ll see if he’s free.”

  * * *

  Dad took me to the interior of the vault, 650 feet under the Kansas prairie.

  “This is it?”

  Fluorescents lit an ordinary ten-by-eighteen-foot room, Sheetrock walls, concrete floor, metal rafters supporting a corrugated metal roof. There was a garage-style fiberglass door at one end with a folding table set up in front of it as a temporary work space. Heavy steel file-box shelves lined the remaining three walls.

  “It’s a big open cavern. These units are like warehouses built across the floor.” He pointed at a set of eight boxes on one end of the right-hand shelf. “Those are the records I started with.” He gestured at the rest of the room. “But we’re paying for future capacity and not to have our boxes mixed with other customers’.”

  The rest of the shelves contained specialty boxes, many of them custom cases. A third of them were empty, but the rest held the satellites I still needed to launch.

  “How did you get the jump site?” I asked. “Do they let nonemployees down here?”

  Dad said, “If you’re spending enough, you get an escort down here when you’re storing your stuff. Do you have this?”

  I inhaled the cool, dry air and got whiffs of minerals and cardboard. I jumped away to the Eyrie, then back again. “Yeah. Got it.”

  Dad opened one of the cases and tapped a sheet of paper on top of the satellite. “Here’s the prelaunch procedure. Every bird has one.” He pointed at a tank of nitrogen in the corner. “There are some that need to have their cold-gas thrusters charged—I’ll show Joe how to set the regulator and do the connections.”

  “Oh? So you have to have a penis to do that?”

  Dad’s mouth dropped open and I felt my face go hot.

  He blinked and said, “Well, where did that come from
?”

  I stammered, “I’m just saying that I could charge the nitrogen reservoirs, too.”

  “Well, yes, I know you could. But I thought since Joe can’t put satellites in orbit, he might handle the sat prep while you’re taking care of that little chore. Did you think I was saying you were incapable of handling this?”

  “Sorry, Daddy. I … it’s not you.”

  “Joe? Does he say you can’t do this kind of thing?”

  I shrugged. “He doesn’t say it. It’s the college thing.”

  Dad winced. “He holds that over you?”

  I waved my hands side to side, palm out.

  “Or are you holding that over you?” he asked. “I’m sorry the high school thing didn’t work out. I’d have said you probably could still do college somewhere right up until Space Girl’s face became the international symbol for OMG and WTF.”

  I had to laugh at that.

  “I know about missing college. I always wanted to do that. Know what else I always wanted to do?”

  I shook my head.

  “I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He stepped closer and put his arms around me. “I know about a lot of kids who go to college. I only know one who has her own space program.”

  I leaned into him and wiped my cheeks on his fleece.

  Dad rested his chin on my head. “If I were Joe, I’d be jealous of you.”

  * * *

  I started prebreathing oxygen after breakfast and, during the next two hours, I moved the suit and supplies to the vault, organizing everything in checklist order.

  Halfway through this Dad showed up and started doing satellite prep, turning on power switches, connecting batteries, charging nitrogen reservoirs.

  I picked up Joe from behind Krakatoa and brought him straight to the vault.

  Dad had his hands full but nodded. I pushed the clipboard into Joe’s hands and he blinked, then cleared his throat and said, “Right. Procedure one-A, air processing unit. Step one, release latches on rebreather chamber—”

  We’d done it enough times now that we had suit prep down to twenty minutes even with the rigorous double-checking every step that Joe was insisting on.