Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 30

  “I just don’t want to be the one to fuck this up,” he said. “I fuck up, you have to live with the consequences.”

  Or die with them, I thought, but I didn’t voice this. “I’m good with being careful,” I said, my voice muffled by the prebreath mask.

  Joe snorted. “Could have fooled me.”

  Dad laughed, I think, though his face was still when I turned to glare at him.

  Joe went down to the next item on his list. “Okay, go hit the bathroom.” It was on the list, the last step before squeezing into the suit.

  I jumped to the cabin for that step, checking in with Mom. This wasn’t on the checklist, but she considered it a critical part of the process—knowing when I was about to go up.

  “And don’t forget to check in after, too!”

  Back in the vault Joe relaxed the suit and I pulled off the fleece and sweat pants that I wore over my undersuit base layers. He made a show of turning away but he was watching out of the corner of his eyes.

  I jumped into the suit. Through the oxygen mask I said, “There, you can stop pretending not to look.”

  He dialed down on the rheostat, shrinking up the suit. “Got news for you, girl. Without the coveralls, the suit is just as, uh, contour faithful as your long underwear is.” He handed me the neck gasket.

  I held my breath while I forced my head through it. And I mean “forced.” Cory compares it to being born. Once it was snug around my neck, I snapped its collar ring into the inner seal on the helmet flange and Joe doubled-checked that it was fully engaged. We’d only got it wrong, once, back during testing, and that became immediately obvious the second we tried to pressurize the helmet and air rushed past my collarbone.

  Fully dressed—coveralls, boots, gloves, helmet, backpack—I turned to Dad.

  Dad looked at his watch and then back at me.

  I shrugged. We were done early. When you don’t make small talk, you go through the checklist at a pretty good clip.

  Dad opened his mouth to say something, but then shut it again, pointing at his ear and then at the door to the vault. The last thing we wanted was for one of the storage-facility employees to hear someone speaking loudly in one of these units.

  He turned to the laptop perched on one of the empty shelves and clicked through some options, then wrote a line on a piece of cardboard, handed it to Joe, and pointed at the screen.

  Joe leaned forward and read from the screen, then the cardboard, then back to the screen again. He held up his thumb, and gave the cardboard back to Dad who stuck it in the top of the milk crate sitting on the folding table.

  I stepped closer. The box held ten cubesats, and a chart of coordinates with times of insertion corresponding to the “empty” parts of our orbit. The first one on the schedule wasn’t for another thirty minutes, but the scrap of cardboard had an insertion point scheduled for four minutes from now.

  I held up my thumb and jumped.

  * * *

  I no longer had to look at the GPS to reach my standard “Yuri” orbit over the Marshall Islands, which was good, since in the vault my GPS wasn’t getting any signal. I had to float above the Pacific for thirty seconds before the unit acquired enough satellites for a fix. Once it was working, I counted down to the insertion time and shifted to the new coordinates.

  Got it in one try. That is, within the limits of error for my instruments and the CelesTrak software.

  I tossed the cubesats in different directions to keep them from clipping each other. We probably didn’t need to be too picky. The circumference of our orbit was 41,318 kilometers. If you laid out the 345 satellites end-to-end across their longest deployed dimensions, they would measure less than a hundred meters—a tenth of a kilometer. Distributed evenly in that orbit, each one could have a 120 kilometers of elbow room.

  And, of course, this didn’t count the inevitable drift as I added slight differences of velocity when I deployed them, or how atmospheric drag affected the units with different cross sections differently, or how the actual shape of the earth (not really a sphere, you know) caused perturbations in the orbits.

  My phone was set to dial USSPACECOM but not, this time, to General Sterling. Technical Sergeant Agatha Mertens was now our official liaison into the U.S. Space Command satellite catalog. She answered on the first ring.

  “Good morning, Agatha. Apex Orbital here.” I felt funny calling her by her first name but she’d insisted.

  “Good morning, Cent. What do you have for me?”

  “I have sats five three seven three two thru five three seven four one deployed. Mean anomaly at thirteen hundred Zulu today is fifteen point eight degrees.” Since we were using the same orbital plane for all these nonpolar satellites, the only information they needed was where in the orbit the satellites were at what time. They already had the names of the satellites, transmitting frequencies, and operators.

  “I copy fifteen point eight degrees at thirteen hundred Zulu. Sats seven hundred thirty-two through seven hundred forty-one. Ten sats in all.”


  “The list says those are all one-unit cubesats.”

  “You got it.”

  “Uh, the list here says you’re putting up some more today.”


  “It says seventy-five more.”

  “At least. Need to finish by Friday and I’ve got two hundred thirty-five more to go.”

  “Affirmative. I take it you’ll be calling me back shortly?”

  “Roger that, Agatha. Cent out.”

  * * *

  We deployed 127 before we quit for the day.

  Dad tried to do the Capcom thing for a while, but it just slowed things down and I convinced him that it would be a better use of time if he helped Joe prep satellites.

  It got so that I could move directly into the new orbit before the GPS had lock and I would just adjust the mean anomaly as a secondary jump. After lunch, as a test, I rendezvoused with one of the earlier deployment points—that is, to its current location—and was able to eyeball seven of the ten birds I’d dropped off there a few hours before.

  By the end of the day, Joe was ready to get out of there. “It doesn’t look like a cavern,” he said, “but it feels like one.”

  Even though it was only 6 P.M. local time when I jumped him to the alleyway behind Krakatoa, it was full dark.

  “Jeeze. It was barely light when you picked me up, too.” He raised his hand to wave goodbye.

  I’d seen the sun today. I’d seen it rise and set several times, but he’d been down in the vault.

  I wanted to say, Do you want to see the sun? I could jump him to Queensland where it was three in the afternoon and summer to boot.

  “See you tomorrow,” I said.

  * * *

  We launched all the remaining satellites the next day.

  It was another long day in the vault for Joe, but Dad and he got into a rhythm on the preps and they easily kept ahead of me as I inserted sats into our orbit. It got to the point where I was spending as much time on the phone with Tech Sergeant Mertens as I spent deploying the birds.

  “The tracking guys tell me you’re getting a little clumpy around thirty-seven degrees mean anomaly,” she told me.

  “Define clumpy, please.”

  “You’ve got seventeen of your birds in a cluster one hundred fifty klicks long. It was the third set from yesterday and the twelfth set from today.”

  “That doesn’t sound very clumpy to me. That’s almost nine klicks per satellite.”

  “Just clumpy by comparison to the rest of the orbit. FYI and all that.”

  “Right-oh. We’ll avoid that section of the orbit. What is that, less than a third of a percent?”

  Sergeant Mertens laughed. “Something like that.”

  At the end of the day she reported, “Yesterday’s one hundred twenty-seven was a record. Today’s two hundred twenty obviously beat it. You took operational spacecraft in low Earth orbit from six hundred seventy-two to one thousand tw
enty-seven in less than a week.”

  “Nothing succeeds like excess. Most of them will reenter in the next three months. None of them should last past six. Your guys told us that.”

  “Not complaining. Just saying. Any more going up this week?”

  “Coming down. I’m deorbiting at least fifteen hundred kilos of debris this afternoon.”

  “Oh, yeah. You do the three-to-one thing? Three kilos down for every one up?”


  “What are you taking down? Do you have a target yet?”

  “Yes and no. We’re going to do some experimentation to figure out the upper limit of m … our capacity. We’ll let you know as soon as we do.”

  “Well, don’t drop anything on Denver. We just finished paying off the house.”

  “You name is Lottie Williams, is it?” I said.

  Sergeant Mertens said, “Not following you.”

  “She’s the only human who’s ever been hit by reentering orbital debris. Tiny piece of a Delta second stage that bounced off her shoulder.”

  “The only human that’s been hit by orbital debris so far. Keep away from Denver.”

  * * *

  “I didn’t realize you were bringing us here,” Joe said. He’d been on this remote beach before. We’d surfed there, and swam, and we hadn’t always worn swimming suits.

  I just spread my hands and pointed at the rising sun. It was early morning here in Queensland. I was still on oxygen for the planned afternoon operations and I used the mask as an excuse not to talk.

  Joe took off his shoes and socks and shirt and lay on the sand until Dad arrived with a bag of fish tacos from San Diego.

  Eating while dealing with an oxygen mask kept my side of the conversation nonexistent. Dad and Joe discussed the different choices the cubesat clients had taken in how they powered up.

  “I understand the problem,” Joe said. “They had to consider multiday holds on the launch pad with no sun hitting their panels, so they had to come up with remote procedures or a process that was initiated by the acceleration of the launch or being kicked out of the deployer. But jeeze, I prefer the guys who gave us a simple on switch or a cable to plug in.”

  Dad nodded. “I wonder how many previous satellites failed, though, because their batteries were depleted before their panels saw the sun.”

  Joe sucked on his lip and said, “There’s awful waste in the way they do it.”

  He glanced at me as he said it. I raised my eyebrows and bobbed my head in encouragement.

  He went on, “Power, attitude control, and communication are all duplicated on most of these birds. A few of them need to do stuff that requires autonomous motion, but most of them are either doing some of kind of Earth-pointing science or measuring various aspects of the LEO environment.”

  He drew a rectangle in the sand.

  “If we put up a frame of some kind with a shared high-bandwidth radio—preferably some sort of beamed Ethernet—plus a robust power system…” He drew a dish antenna and added two sets of solar panels off each end. “And we added a mast, like the one on AOS-Sat, for attitude control.” He drew a mast with a counterweight down below. “You could hang all sorts of experiments from it, changing them out as needed. You could do a six-by-eight grid of connectors allowing us to fly as many as forty-eight experiments.”

  “The control circuitry for that would be very complicated,” Dad said.

  Joe shook his head. “Doesn’t have to be. Each experiment would still be its own computer. The hosting frame would be providing power and a network connection into a space qualified router connected to the main radio. Each experiment would end up with its own IP address and the researchers could communicate with their project’s cpu over the Internet, removing their need for a ground station.”

  Dad looked at me and I nodded. It made sense. I took a deep breath and lowered the mask to say, “If we used locking multipin connectors like the ones we used for the headset through ports, they could be the package’s electrical and physical connection to the frame. Once in place, they don’t have any.”

  I stuck the mask back on.

  Dad said, “I remember Cory screamed at the price of those.”

  Joe said, “Those connectors have to hold pressure between the inside of the helmet and vacuum. We don’t need to worry about that for this, since neither the network or power circuits in our frame, or the circuits in the client’s package, will be pressurized. We could run—” He started counting on his fingers. “—twelve pin connectors? That would give us ground, twelve, five, and three point three volts, and then eight connectors for the Ethernet. Or we could just run four and handle the network with wireless.”

  I shook my head and held up the ten fingers, then two.

  Joe nodded. “Yeah. Makes it simpler. Some of the experiments might incorporate radio sensing and we wouldn’t want to interfere with those. Also, fewer circuits to get messed up by radiation. You could get that lady from Texas A&M to design it.”

  Dad said, “Roberta Matapang?”

  I nodded but lowered the oxygen mask and said, “You should take a run at the design first, then you can work with Roberta to refine it. But it’s your idea, so—” I shrugged and took another hit from the mask.

  He got that deer in the headlights look and I added, “It’ll look good on your resume.”

  “I didn’t think it was safe for me to admit I had anything to do with Apex Orbital.”

  “Have you been watching the news?” Dad said. He looked sideways at me. “I’m not sure it’s avoidable at this point. Maybe if you cut off all connection.”

  Joe said, “Not going to happen.” He looked at me. “At least not from my side.”

  I studied the sky.

  Dad sighed.

  * * *

  Payload Assist Module version D was a Delta third stage intended to raise a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit fifteen years before. I say “intended” because the solid fuel which comprised most of its mass failed to ignite.

  They were able to save the mission by jettisoning the PAM and using the satellite’s hydrazine station-keeping thrusters to slowly move the bird into its intended orbit over the next two months. It killed a few years off the satellite’s operational lifetime, but was better than a complete write-off.

  The PAM-D tumbled along in a highly elliptical orbit with a perigee of only 187 kilometers out to an apogee of 6,743. Normally a perigee that low would degrade the orbit pretty quickly, but with the unburned fuel it was quite dense for debris so it punched through faint bits of atmosphere on its closest approach. Current estimates were that it would take another twenty years or so to deorbit.

  It wasn’t that large—a bit over two meters long, but it weighed over twenty-one hundred kilos and I had serious doubts about my ability to move it, but it was in free fall and I decided it was worth a try.

  I intercepted it as it passed above Santiago, Chile, moving east-southeast toward the Argentina Pampas. It was headed into perigee, still four hundred kilometers above the surface but destined for a low point of 187. It was slowly tumbling, taking the large rocket nozzle in and out of shadow, so I thought it was cool enough that I could grab it without bursting into flame.

  Well, unless the solid-rocket motor finally ignited fifteen years late.

  I decided not to even think about it. I looked at my GPS readout. I only wanted to change one parameter, but the size of the motor still daunted me—like a midsized car. I could push one of those on Earth, easily, if it were in neutral. In micro-G, if I had something to push against, I could easily move it.

  Wouldn’t know if I didn’t try.

  The altitude readout dropped 140 kilometers—400 to 260—and the Andes, already in sharp relief by the low sun, became more spectacular. Instead of heading down into a perigee of 187 kilometers and whipping around the earth, the current trajectory would take the module down to forty-seven kilometers, through the mesosphere and into the upper stratosphere.
/>  I pushed off the bell and killed my vertical speed. The module seemed to shoot down toward the earth, but I was still matching its progress across South America. It quickly became too small for me to see but then it reappeared, a glowing bright speck. Then, as it began ablating material, a sharp streak across the Pampas.

  The flare as the aluminum/ammonium perchlorate fuel exploded over the Atlantic coast was probably visible as far away as Buenos Aires and southern Uruguay.

  * * *

  That night when I checked my e-mail there was an emergency message from Tara. I was scheduled to pick her up in three days, in Amsterdam, but she was emphatic. “Need you NOW.” Fortunately she and Jade were someplace I’d actually been.

  The new dam across le Couesnon rivière and the replacement of the old causeway with a bridge had done much to scour away the sediment from around the base of Mont Saint-Michel. The hill town was still dressed in its crown of medieval and Gothic architecture, but now it climbed out of the sea instead of the mudflats, an island once more.

  I remembered the old parking lot along both sides of the causeway, crowded and noisy and stinking of exhaust, with buses parked almost to the old walls themselves. Now only pedestrians and public transport trolleys moved across the new bridge, which curved across the water on thin pilings. All of the tourist cars and busses were at the new car park, inland, two and a half kilometers away.

  I met Tara and Jade in the tiny reception area of their hotel, La Mère Poulard, on the Mont itself—seven in the morning for them, eleven at night, for me.

  I looked around for Dr. and Mr. Chilton and Jade said, “Dad took her to Saint-Malo for the day to see the aquarium and the chateau and the Palais de Justice. He really did it as a favor to us.”

  They offered to buy me the famous wood-fired omelet in the restaurant but added that it was astonishingly expensive.

  “Ate a late supper,” I said. “I’m good. Hope you’ve been enjoying the sights. Your e-mail made it sound like things are … difficult.”

  Tara shrugged. “Harder on Jade. Mr. Chilton is being good, but her mom…”

  Jade made a sour face. “We want you to get us out of here. Today.”

  There were several people in the lobby, coming and going. I jerked my head toward the door and la Grande-Rue.