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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 31


  Fortunately it was still early for the tourists because the “Grand Street” is more of a walkway, a narrow, bricked path overshadowed by shops and hotels and cafes, all shoehorned into buildings older than America. Later in the day it would be too crowded for privacy.

  We headed away from the Porte de l’Avancée and I stopped between the hotel and the town hall, where the stairway let us see the abbey crowning the top of the hill.

  “Both of you?” I asked. It was never the plan for me to bring Jade back from Europe—just Tara.

  Jade nodded emphatically. “Both of us.”

  “Do they know?”

  “Dad will not be surprised. I’ll text him once we’re back in New Prospect.”

  “Uh, what will Tara’s mom say?”

  Tara and Jade exchanged glances. Tara said, “She’s been calling. Turns out I probably shouldn’t have used the Diné message.”

  I raised my eyebrows. “Was that bad? Did someone think that was cultural appropriation?”

  Tara shook her head. “If anyone is upset, I haven’t heard it. The Diné I have heard from are pleased the language got so much exposure. The problem is that, along with your photos, it led the press to someone you know who is part Diné. The reporters started calling my mother.”

  “Damn.” I looked at Jade. “Uh, what about you?”

  She shrugged. “We’ve been in Europe.”

  Tara glared at her and Jade added, “All right. There were some messages left on the home voice mail. You know what’s really annoying?”

  “From everything I’ve heard so far, you’ve both set a really high bar for annoying. I’m kind of afraid to find out.”

  “This is still my mom. She likes that I’m associated with an international celebrity. She thinks I can leverage the publicity to tremendous job prospects and a great future. So I should be really careful about the sort of relationships I have. Because, you know, press.”

  I winced. “I don’t suppose you pointed out that Tara is equally associated with Apex?”

  Tara sighed.

  Jade sounded positively bitter. “She’s fine with diversity in the workplace. Just not in the family.”

  “What about Joe?”

  They both looked at me, eyebrows raised. Tara said, “Isn’t that your family’s issue?”

  “Not that! Has Joe’s name been coming up in the news? Has the press been after him and his family?”

  Jade spread her hands. “Uh, not that I know.”

  Tara bit her lip.

  I grabbed her arm. “What?”

  “I probably shouldn’t have used him for all the voice-over work. They were asking my mom about him, too.”

  He hadn’t mentioned that to me.

  I turned to the nearest wall, closed my eyes, and leaned my forehead against the cold, damp stone.

  “Cent?” said Jade.

  “Let’s go get your suitcases.”

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  Davy: Rumblings

  Davy jumped into the backseat of Hunt’s Toyota, on the passenger side, so his face would be visible in the rearview mirror. Fortunately, Hunt had hadn’t put the car in gear yet, but he did spill his coffee.

  “It’s too early for this shit.”

  “Sorry. How’s the ankle?”

  “It’s back. One hundred percent. How’s the space business?”

  Davy sighed. “Well. It’s going well. A little more public than I’d like.”

  Hunt nodded. “Yeah. I was surprised you allowed it.”

  “You had a photo of a girl in your wallet.”

  Hunt’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah?”

  “Daughter?”

  Hunt nodded.

  “Doesn’t live with you?”

  “Divorce. I have her some holidays. Usually a month in the summer.”

  “How old?”

  “Seventeen.”

  “Does she do everything you tell her?”

  Hunt chuckled. “Okay, I got it. Though with mine, it’s more like posting stuff on Facebook she shouldn’t—not visiting the International Space Station.”

  Davy looked away. “I have a choice of helping her or being excluded, but I’ve learned not to give orders that are going to be ignored or, worse, reacted against. Your daughter probably has a choice about how involved you are in her life.”

  Hunt nodded seriously. “Yes.”

  “Then you know. I just wanted to check in on Daarkon. Wondering if they are reacting.”

  “Well, Apex Orbital Services probably got their attention but instead of monitoring Daarkon as much as I should, I’ve been spending most of my time sitting in meetings.”

  “About what? Or is that classified?”

  “I’m sure it is, but you know more about it than I do. We’re evaluating the national-security implications of a private company with the ability to put hardware in orbit and, especially, remove hardware from orbit. Forget NASA—it’s the NRO that’s having fits about you guys.”

  Davy blinked. “I don’t know that one.”

  “National Reconnaissance Office.”

  “Ah. The spy sat guys. They worried about the competition?”

  Hunt shook his head. “No. Half of them are afraid you will start deorbiting their working assets and the other half wants to use Apex Orbital to put up specialty birds on short notice, to deal with developing situations. They were less worried when your daughter seemed to be limited to fifty kilograms, but the thing she deorbited two days ago weighed forty-two times that and I ended up in a whole other set of meetings as a result.”

  “We aren’t interested in messing with your satellites. We might be interested in the short-term, specialty-satellite delivery gig, if we can figure out safeguards. The paranoid side of the NRO might use such a mission to take us out.”

  Hunt clucked his tongue. “Who’s paranoid?”

  “Paranoid with a reason. So, nothing from Daarkon?”

  “Not nothing. We got some intercepts on messages to Stroller and Associates, but they’re code words. There seems to be some activity there. Lots of personnel returning from overseas assignments but very few departing.”

  “Nothing from or to the Retreat?’”

  “No.”

  “Damn. I don’t even know what continent it’s on.”

  Hunt put the car in gear. “When Gilead surfaced for his daughter’s wedding, there wasn’t any sign of him leaving or entering the country. Even private jets have to go through passport control. Doesn’t mean he didn’t, but there wasn’t really a good reason for him to evade border control and a penalty for getting caught evading it. I’m pretty sure we’re talking U.S., and probably continental U.S. at that.”

  Davy sighed. “That’s something.”

  TWENTY-NINE

  Cent: Yes, maxime asperum

  When Cory heard that Tara and Jade were back three days early, he said, “Oh! Can they start this afternoon? I was really worried about getting everything done before they had to start classes.”

  “Jet lag, Cory. Be reasonable. But they are all prepared to start tomorrow. Are you really ready?”

  He looked at his office ceiling and his eyes blinked rapidly. “Um, yes. I will be.”

  “Then that still puts you three days ahead of schedule. What time, tomorrow?”

  “Nine sharp.”

  “I’ll get them here. Did you and Tara come to an agreement about the name? I want a patch for the coveralls.”

  Cory spread his hands. “An agreement? No. But I did capitulate.”

  I allowed myself a small smile. “Well, Matoska Mechanical Counter Pressure Spacesuits was a pretty big mouthful.”

  “I said I capitulated. Space Activity Systems will be fine. The original Paul Webb design was called a Space Activity Suit anyway. I’ve got a lawyer working on the incorporation.”

  “What about the patent lawyer?”

  “That application was filed last year. By the way, I had lunch with Dr. Seck.”

  I shook my head. “Where did I hear that
name?”

  “Joe mentioned her. She’s the material-sciences professor who was funded for her work on hydrogen-rich polymeric nanocomposites for radiation shielding.”

  “Right! How’d that go?”

  “When I heard how good her results were, I told her I had an application for a full-body underlayer radiation garment and she said she had some thoughts in that direction, but her primary interest was spacecraft shielding that didn’t require flex.”

  “Disappointing, though I suppose we could do rigid torso panels and helmet pieces.”

  Cory licked his lips nervously. “I told her if she’d reconsider the flexible application we could test her work in situ.”

  I just stared at him.

  “I said it in confidence.”

  “Did you at least have her sign a nondisclosure agreement?”

  He shook his head. “I figured with your publicity it was going to break soon enough.”

  “Dad won’t like it, but you’re right. Your connection will probably break soon. The intelligence guys may have already cracked it. Did she bite?”

  “I think so. Besides testing the undergarment, I said I just might possibly be able to place a test package with interior and exterior dosimeters in a circumlunar free-return orbit.”

  “Circumlunar!”

  “I think you reached the velocities needed for that on your very first orbit. We’d have to retrieve the package, too.”

  “Oh. Of course. What was it that Tara said? No more freebies?”

  Cory shrugged. “This isn’t exactly a freebie. With good radiation shielding, who knows where we can go.”

  We? Ah, well, there was that.

  “Okay, Cory. I wouldn’t mention it to Dad just yet. Also, start thinking what you’re going to do when the press starts camping outside your apartment.”

  He laughed. “I’m not worried about that. I’m not Space Girl.”

  “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have my own ideas about radiation shielding, too.”

  “Yes?”

  “I’m thinking three feet of water.”

  He laughed. “That would do it, all right, but do you know how much water weighs?”

  “Depends on the temperature, but call it eight and a third pounds per gallon.”

  “And you’re just going to jump into orbit with three feet of water around you? We’re talking about several cubic yards at sixteen hundred pounds per yard.”

  I shook my head again. “You’re still thinking like NASA, Cory.” I wasn’t going to mention twinning just yet. “What happens if I get the suit wet?”

  Cory blinked. “Uh, how wet? What kind of wet?”

  “Fresh water, immersed.”

  “Why?”

  “Three feet of radiation shielding.”

  “You’re serious about that? We could work in the high orbitals with that!”

  I nodded.

  “Well, the suit itself is exposed to moisture all the time: your sweat. Immersing shouldn’t be a problem for the suit. I wouldn’t expose the suit to vacuum after that, though, until it was dry.”

  “Why?”

  “You want to freeze to death? When you sweat it cools you down, but then the pores shut down when they’re cool enough. If the suit were soaked in water, it would flash to vapor carrying a lot of heat away from your skin. Probably full-body frostbite at the very least.”

  Well that didn’t sound very pleasant. “Let’s say I wasn’t in a vacuum at the end of the process. Would it ruin any of the equipment?”

  He stared blankly at the ceiling. “I wouldn’t want to immerse the portable power supply in water. It wasn’t designed for that, but if you left it off the suit it would be okay. I think the satphone antenna would be okay. We could use some silicon sealant on the exterior headset connectors, but if it were fresh water, I’m not sure we’d have a problem even if we didn’t. But we’d want to make sure it was well dried after.

  “But you’re not going to immerse yourself in the water as shielding. That isn’t very—”

  “No. It’s just during transfer that the suit would be exposed to water.” I twisted my outspread fingers around an invisible sphere. “Water in an outer compartment.”

  “An outer compartment made of what? You going to haul up a pressurized module in fifty-kilo pieces and assemble it in orbit?”

  “I’ll get back to you on that.”

  * * *

  Joe was followed from his house but it was openly: three marked news trucks and two unmarked cars.

  I guess they did make the connection.

  I was waiting upstairs at Krakatoa and he ran up the stairs, ignoring the barista. I jumped him away to the vault before the first reporter made it through the door of the coffee shop.

  I was prebreathing oxygen, which didn’t make conversation easy, but I took the mouthpiece off long enough to say, “Why didn’t you tell me the press were onto you?”

  He looked down and said something inaudible.

  I wanted to whack him. “What?”

  “I didn’t want to give you another reason to keep me away!”

  It wasn’t quite a shout but it was loud and I flinched. I took a few more breaths before I said, “Okay. I understand that. How are your parents taking it?”

  “Mostly relieved. It explained some things for them—like how I got a surf tan in the middle of winter and swimming trunks in the laundry that were wet with saltwater. Also, where I’ve been spending my days the last two weeks.”

  “What about the press?”

  He grimaced. “Mom bought an answering machine so they can screen their calls. Dad posted no-trespassing signs and called the sheriff’s office when the reporters started straying across the lawn.

  “My brother keeps saying he’s willing to be bribed. He goes out to the sidewalk to talk, but he’s just messin’ with them. He doesn’t know anything that isn’t already out there and he has to go back to school, too.”

  “Any sign of interest from parties who aren’t the press?”

  He shook his head. “No.”

  I raised my eyebrows skeptically.

  “I know,” Joe said. “I won’t necessarily see them coming, but I’ve been looking.”

  I could keep him safe by having him stay at the Eyrie.

  I had a reaction to that thought that had nothing to do with any danger to Joe.

  I motioned to the checklist and we moved on to the suit prep.

  * * *

  I’d purchased several reusable ice bags, the kind you see pressed to characters’ heads in countless old movies because they were in a fight or had a hangover. These were made of rubberized cloth with a gasketed aluminum screw top.

  We filled the first one completely with tap water so it looked more like a ball, and Joe cranked down on the lid extra hard before patting its exterior dry.

  The rest of the experimental equipment was my chest-mounted video camera, an ice pick in a wooden sheath, and a thick-bladed hunting knife in a leather sheath.

  “Ready?” he shouted, to be heard through the helmet. I held my thumb up and jumped to my standard “Yuri” orbit, 350 kilometers above the Marshall Islands.

  The whole central Pacific was socked in by a tropical storm and I had to stare for a moment before tearing my eyes away from the cloud patterns.

  I felt the sides of my test bag. It had been taut below but now it was drum tight. I’d half expected it to leak around the aluminum lid or explode, but it was holding fine, so far.

  I gripped the lid firmly in my left hand and stabbed the ice pick into the opposite side. When I pulled the pick back out, water drops, vapor, and tiny ice crystals fountained from the hole and, as I’d hoped, stopped almost immediately.

  I pushed at a nonpierced area of the bag and felt it flex. When I pressed against the area under the hole, I felt a stiffness in the immediate area. It was hard to feel the exact dimensions through the suit and gloves, but the stiff area was between the size of a nickel and a quarter.

  I
stabbed the bag nine more times with the ice pick, careful to get the entire process on camera. In each case, the leaks stopped within seconds.

  Just like my own sweat, the evaporating water cooled down the region by the hole. My sweat glands stopped producing moisture when the temperature dropped to a comfortable level. The fountaining “pore” in the bag only stopped when it became blocked by a nice plug of ice.

  I slipped the ice pick back into its wooden sheath and retrieved the hunting knife. The ice pick was an eighth of an inch at its thickest, but the holes it punched were less because of the stretch of the rubberized cloth. The hunting knife’s cross section was half again as thick and three quarters of an inch from back of blade to cutting edge.

  When I stabbed the bag with it, the resulting gash spread open like lips of a mouth opening to say “oh,” and the jet of ice crystals fountained out without stopping. I felt the bag vibrate as more and more of the water within boiled. The outgassing jet spread into a broad cone shape and the bag actually pushed against my arm, pivoting my body on my long axis. As we spun, the spreading cloud became a spiral of brilliantly lit crystals.

  I waited it out, careful to keep the jet pointed away from any part of the suit. When the jet finally stopped, the bag was less than an eighth of its original size and solid as a rock.

  The bag dropped to the table in the vault with a thunk that I could hear even through the helmet, and vapor immediately formed around it.

  Joe pointed my cheap automotive infrared thermometer on it and showed me the readout: minus twelve degrees Fahrenheit.

  “Yeah,” I said, speaking loud through the helmet. “Small holes sealed. Big hole didn’t.”

  “Right,” said Joe, handing me the next ball-shaped bag. “Try this.”

  I took seven more ice bags into orbit.

  All of the ice bags contained tap water, but now they also had various additives. We tried chopped cellulose, cotton, wool, fiberglass, superabsorbent polyacrylamide beads, and various synthetic fibers.

  “We have a winner,” I said, later, helmet off.

  The best mixture featured chopped bamboo fiber mixed with longer lengths of a wool-like synthetic fiber that entangled with itself and the bamboo. The combination rapidly formed a mesh across the punctures, freezing from the edges and building across the gap, forming a fiber-reinforced ice patch even when I sawed a hole three inches long through the cloth.