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History & Fiction
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Mystery & Detective
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Exo: A Novel
Exo A Novel 34
In orbit, I set the camera up on its “tripod,” pointed obliquely at the center of the sphere on its fully lit side. It was cross lit by earthlight with a stretch of black space in the background.
I backed off thirty feet, put the gun’s stock to my shoulder, and fired.
I didn’t get to see the impact. The off-center thrust of the rifle spun me around. By the time I stopped the spin and returned to the sphere, the new leak was plugged, though there was a cloud of dispersing ice crystals in the vicinity.
* * *
I broke down the camera stand and returned the rifle to Dad, who was sitting in the warehouse in Michigan, standing by with our base-station cell phone, just in case I needed to check things from orbit.
“Did it work?” he asked, loudly.
I gave him the thumbs up. He looked at the rifle and said, “I’m going to leave it in the Eyrie until we’re sure you don’t need it again. All right?”
“Okay.” He looked down at his laptop. “Your target just passed four hundred twenty-two kilometers over Vancouver Island, headed east.” He gave me the rest of the coordinates and speeds. I gave him another thumbs up and, picturing a very particular location, jumped.
The helmet purge didn’t activate like it normally did in orbit. And I wasn’t having to flip my visor down in the harsh glare of direct sunlight.
I was floating in the middle of the Tranquility node, International Space Station.
I thought it was possible but trying it without the suit on had seemed a bit risky. I shut off my oxygen, purged the helmet, and popped it off. Good old noisy ISS.
I was unstrapping my life-support backpack when Rasmussen and Nagata floated into the node from Unity. Rasmussen was dressed in workout clothes. Nagata carried a DSLR camera with a huge telephoto lens. Rasmussen was talking but it was hard to hear her over the whine of the ventilation fans.
“Hey,” I said about the time they noticed me.
Their eyes went wide and Rasmussen grinned. “If I knew you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake.”
Nagata brought her camera up automatically but then looked down at the telephoto lens. She shook her head. “Too close. Could you back up about six hundred feet?”
I hooked the helmet and backpack into the bungee cords of the treadmill behind me, then looked at Rasmussen. “Oh—sorry. Are you about to use that?”
She dismissed my apology with the wave of her hand. “Later. Right now we’ve got a visitor.”
“Why didn’t the depressurization alarm go off?” asked Nagata.
“Well,” I said. “I came, uh, directly.”
Nagata blinked. “Directly. You mean from ground side? Say, California?”
“Ground side. Not California, though. I was about five hundred feet above sea level so air pressure was probably pretty close.”
“Why’d you wear the suit, then?” asked Rasmussen.
“Well, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Last thing I wanted to do is end up in my shirtsleeves three meters that way.” I pointed at the closest bulkhead.
Nagata said, “I’ll tell Commander Elliott you’re here.”
Rasmussen put her hand on Nagata’s arm. “Wait a minute, Alis. I want to talk to her about Misha. She could solve it.”
Nagata blinked. “Kate, uh, the director would completely flip—”
“Maybe it would be better,” said Rasmussen, “if you didn’t know about this conversation.”
Nagata exhaled through pursed lips, then said, “What conversation?” She turned to enter the observation cupola. “What visitor?” To no one in particular she said, “There are no activities scheduled for Leonardo today.”
Kate gestured at my helmet and backpack. “Better not leave that in sight.”
I raised my eyebrows. “O … kay.” I unhooked the straps and followed her into the Unity module and she motioned me down, toward Earth, into the Leonardo PMM. Even with all the bags and storage racks, it felt huge, more than twice the volume, at least, of my twelve-foot sphere.
Rasmussen looked both directions and followed me, then pulled me sideways into a gap behind a large, lumpy, white storage bag, automatically hooking her foot under a cargo strap.
“What’s going on, Flight Engineer?”
She grimaced. “It’s Kate. And they tell us your name is Millicent? Millie?”
My turn to wince. “Just Cent. Named for my mom and she goes by Millie.”
I was drifting back toward the open middle of the module and Kate snagged my coveralls sleeve to pull me back. “It’s Misha—Flight Engineer Grebenchekov.”
“Complications from his surgery? He looked great when I dropped his glasses off.”
“Complications from politics. He’s in D.C. I understand you met his, uh, associate, Sergei.”
I nodded. “The wanker? Yes. Did I get Misha in trouble with my little … pest-control procedure?”
“Well, I nearly busted a gut laughing when I heard about it.” She shrugged. “Hard to say how much of it was that, how much of it was Sergei and Misha’s history, and how much of it was Misha’s insisting on a formal announcement of our engagement.”
“But Misha is well?”
“Physically? Yes. He requested taking convalescence in the U.S., using that time and accumulated leave so he can be there when my Dragon capsule lands in a month. Between Sergei and some conservatives in Russia, permission was refused. He was ordered back to Moscow and the orders didn’t come from Roscosmos, but somebody in the parliament. Misha refused and the Russian ambassador was told to confine him to the residence. It’s an epic FUBAR situation.”
Kate blushed. “Military acronym. You’re seventeen?”
“Well, you’ve heard the word, I’m sure. Fucked up beyond all recognition.”
I laughed. “That’s very useful! What can I do to help?”
“It would be good if you could get him out of the residence so they can’t hustle him onto an Aeroflot flight. He doesn’t need the stress right now, postsurgery and all. It’s bad enough he’s still in postmission recovery, too.”
“Will they even let me see him?”
She rocked her hand back and forth. “They said he was too ill to meet with NASA’s interagency relations lead, but the ambassador is one of Putin’s old cronies and he has that same publicity lust. I bet Space Girl could get access if there was a photo op with the press.”
“Gotcha. I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
Tara liked the idea but then, she’s a romantic. She made the call to the networks first and, once she had them on board, she conferenced the embassy’s press office in.
When she was done she said, “Worked like a charm. Since the networks have committed, the ambassador will give us fifteen minutes in the late afternoon in front of the residence.” Tara laughed. “The optimum timing to make the five o’clock news.”
I’d prepped so I could show up my way, appearing a hundred feet above the street and dropping to a clear space inside the wrought iron fence. It was overcast and dark already.
The D.C. cops were keeping the press from crowding the fence or blocking Twenty-fifth Street NW, but when I dropped from the sky in my highly visible white coveralls, the camera strobes lit up the street like lightning.
I stood up fully and waved to the press, ignoring the shouted questions.
Embassy security, spaced ten feet back from the fence, closed in on me and I turned toward them, smiling. When it looked like they weren’t going to stop short of grabbing me, I jumped past them to the landing at the head of the stairs, where a microphone had been set up on a stretch of red carpet.
The ambassador, bracketed by two large men in suits and trailed by Grebenchekov in his Russian Air Force uniform, was just emerging from the residence. The two security men practically threw themselves between me and the ambassador, bu
t he said something abrupt and they stopped, hands inside their jackets.
I stood still and tried to look harmless. I was a full head shorter than any of them, even Grebenchekov, the shortest.
Grebenchekov, who’d been frowning, smiled when he saw me. The ambassador took one look at his face, then stepped forward past the security men and held out his hand, timing it so we met directly before the microphone. “Space Girl, I am very glad to meet you!” His English was good, only lightly accented, and the PA made it audible to all.
He gestured to the embassy security people at the fence. They opened the gate and allowed the press to push in as far as the bottom of the steps.
I shook the ambassador’s hand and said “Moye udovol’stviye” and his smile increased. I held my hand out to Grebenchekov but he used it to pull me into a hug, followed by air kisses on both sides of my head.
“And you clearly know Colonel Grebenchekov,” the ambassador continued. “We are pleased to welcome Kosmos Devushka—Space Girl—and to have this opportunity to thank her for her recent rescue mission.”
I ended up sandwiched between the two of them, and the ambassador motioned at the microphone. Luckily, Tara and Grandmother prepped me for this, too.
“Apex Orbital Services was delighted to be of service during the recent emergency. We hope to be of further service to the Russian Federal Space Agency.” I reached out and pulled the Apex Orbital Service patch off its shoulder Velcro. “I’d like to present this patch, which I was wearing during Misha’s medical evacuation, to Ambassador Pimenov.”
The ambassador and I did the standard graduation-photo pose, right hand’s shaking, left hand passing the object, faces turned to the cameras.
“And I would like to present this patch,” I ripped off the Space Girl patch from the opposite shoulder, “to Flight Engineer Grebenchekov, as a memento of that event.” It wasn’t the one I’d worn then. That one went to the BlimpWerks’s receptionist for her daughter. When I held the patch out to Grebenchekov, I was careful to tilt it so that he could read what I had written on the back.
Standby for liftoff.
He blinked, then we did the pose. He leaned forward to speak into the microphone. “I owe great debt to Space Girl. When she rescue me, it was launch of lifetime friendship.”
Ah, he got it.
The ambassador looked at his watch and said, “We can take a few questions.” He gestured to one of the reporters.
“Is it true that you go into orbit without a spacecraft, Space Girl? And, if so, how?”
“Yes it’s true. As to how … I think happy thoughts.”
The other reporters laughed but the reporter opened his mouth to pursue my nonanswer. The ambassador cut him off, though, calling a different reporter by name.
“Colonel Grebenchekov, when are you marrying Flight Surgeon Kate Rasmussen?”
Grebenchekov licked his lips and then said, “We are still working on the details.” The ambassador cleared his throat and Grebenchekov added, “No further comment.”
The ambassador flicked his finger to another reporter, who said promptly, “What kind of services does Apex Orbital perform and which of them are you offering to Roscosmos, Space Girl?”
The ambassador looked at me, eyebrows raised and apparently quite interested.
I said, “Besides our recent medevac from the ISS, Apex has delivered over three hundred satellites into orbit in the last month alone. We have also removed over twenty-four hundred kilograms of orbital debris and have done preliminary orbital tests on habitat-construction techniques for our own permanent facility in orbit.”
“Is that to be a manned facility?”
I rolled my eyes. “It will be a human-occupied facility. I guess we’ll let some of the boys in, if they behave.”
More laughter, especially from the women reporters.
“In any case, we hope to offer both NASA and Roscomsos astronaut and cosmonaut transfers to and from orbit.” I put my arm around Grebenchekov’s waist, glanced at my watch, and said, “Beginning … now.”
* * *
I was a little worried about Grebenchekov, especially when he started crying.
“Are you all right?”
He blinked and shook his head to toss the tears away. “It was the microgravity. I never thought I’d feel it again.”
We were floating in the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module. I heard someone shouting, “Misha! MISHA!”
Kate Rasmussen shot past the opening to Leonardo, looking in, then snagged the doorway stopping herself. With a shriek, she launched herself into the module. Misha gave a low, intense, “Ha!” and met her halfway.
I was afraid they would collide painfully, but they clearly had it down, grabbing each other in a way that absorbed most of their motion and turning the rest into a spinning hug followed by a truly heroic kiss.
When they’d backed off to stare hungrily at each other, I asked, “How did you know?” I hadn’t told her what I was going to do since I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’d just committed to getting him away from the residence.
She said, “I was watching the press conference. You said it. Then you did it.” She blinked tears away.
She tugged at Misha’s collar. “What is this crap, Colonel?” They both laughed.
It was less than a minute before the entire crew was in there and Misha looked like he was accreting. Even Commander Elliott was grinning like a fool, though he was the first to break away and confront me.
“Did you okay this with the ISS flight director?”
“Are you going to take him back down?”
“Later. When she goes. It’s probably still not a great idea for him to pull five Gs, so I’ll get him down gently.”
He pursed his lips. “They’re probably going to want you to take him back down now.”
“Aren’t you shorthanded without him?”
“He should be convalescing.”
“He’s had fifteen days. And surely the micro-G will help. In any case, it will be good science. Postsurgical recovery in a microgravitation environment.”
Elliott shook his head.
“How was the fudge?” I asked.
He laughed. “Are you reminding me that you’re benevolent?”
I grinned. “Face it. I’m handy. Remember how he got to the surgical team in the first place. If he has a relapse I will come back.”
I was back in two days, but not for medical reasons. I offered to bring a justice of the peace, but Navy Captain and Spacecraft Commander Ken Elliott said there was plenty of precedent—he presided over the ceremony. Flight Surgeon Kate Rasmussen gave herself away. Flight Engineer Alis Nagata was matron of honor, Flight Engineer Oleg Astakhov was best man, and I brought the flowers, which I floated down the aisle.
First flower girl in space.
An estimated seven million people watched the live stream. A lot more caught it on the news.
Grebenchekov said, “Now let them try to separate us.”
The radio-frequency alarm went off in Millie’s closet in the middle of the night. Davy sat bolt upright next to her with a gasp. She pulled the pillow over her head, but felt the mattress rebound as Davy jumped away.
She sat up. Davy was standing in the walk-in closet, looking at the upper shelf, his face lit by a screen. “Four hundred six megahertz. Huh.” He grabbed the portable sweeper, powered it up, and vanished.
“You could turn off the alarm!” Millie blinked. Something is transmitting from inside the house?
She got up and pulled on her robe, shuffled her feet into her sheepskin slippers.
She didn’t know how to shut off the alarm. It was intentionally loud enough to be heard all over the house, though the door to the bedroom was closed and also, she hoped, the door to Sam’s room across the hall. She pushed the closet door shut, which helped and, rather than open the bedroom door, jumped across to Sam?
It wasn’t Seeana’s shift but she was in the room by Sam’s bed, helping Jeline do something with the Resmed positive pressure ventilator.
Sam wasn’t using the Resmed—she was awake, using an oral-nasal oxygen mask. This was better than having to use the positive pressure ventilator, but not as good as her baseline—supplementary oxygen through a nasal cannula.
Though the ideal would be to get her off all supplementary oxygen.
The door to Sam’s room was open and Millie could hear the high-pitched tone of the radio-frequency alarm even through the closet and bedroom door. When she pushed Sam’s door shut she could still faintly hear the alarm.
She went back to the bedside and took Sam’s hand. “How are you feeling?”
Sam rolled her eyes and weakly tapped her collar bone. “Same-oh, same-oh.” She pointed at the oximeter readout which read 91.2.
Millie nodded. If it dropped much lower they would have to put her back on the Resmed.
Seeana said, “What’s that noise?”
“One of Davy’s gadgets.”
If there was an illicit transmitter in the cabin, somebody brought it. She didn’t distrust Seeana or any of the health staff, but it couldn’t have gotten here by itself. “He’s trying to fix it.”
The door opened suddenly and Davy was there, holding the portable sweeper. Millie laid Sam’s hand down on the bed and patted it, then went to him, raising her eyebrows.
He said quietly, “I thought it would be in their quarters but it’s up here.” His face was blank, utterly blank, and the only times Millie had seen him like that were moments of extreme danger.
“Could it be some of the medical equipment?”
Davy’s eyes were shifting between Seeana and Jeline. He took a step forward and lifted the sweeper, swinging it from side to side. He stepped forward and now the sweeps took in the bed end of the room, where most of the equipment was.