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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 37


  Mom said, “She’s not exactly safe down here. Up there she could fly. Well float, but become truly mobile instead of pinned to the mattress like … like an insect mounted for display!”

  It was odd, but I’d done the most pertinent research and I hadn’t even been aware it applied to Grandmother.

  “Microgravity actually encourages osteoporosis,” I said.

  “Sure.” Mom said, “We’re not trying to cure the osteoporosis. We’re trying to ease the pulmonary distress and allow nonimpact exercise.”

  I felt I should make the whole case. “Yes, but the bone loss does other things. The calcium ends up in the bloodstream and can cause other problems. Renal stress and kidney stones.”

  Seeana nodded. “Perhaps, but the Fosamax she’s been taking has really dropped her blood calcium levels and she could take potassium citrate supplements to reduce the chance of stones.”

  “There’s other negative effects of microgravity,” I said. “Nearly everyone throws up initially. The otoliths float up and start banging off of parts of your inner ear that they would normally only hit if you were lying on your side or upside down or flat on your back. Your brain compensates after a few days but vomiting is a pretty common result of the vertigo. Also from the fluid moving into your upper body. Your head gets puffy and your sinuses feel stuffed up and your body senses there’s too much liquid and it tries to get rid of it—sometimes by vomiting. You definitely pee a lot the first two days.”

  “Is this fluid dangerous?”

  “Well, it’s not pleasant. The longest time I’ve spent in orbit was ninety minutes and I could feel it. On the other hand, I’ve never stayed up the forty-eight hours or so where things start adjusting.”

  “Have you thrown up?” Davy asked. “You never mentioned being space sick.”

  “I came all the way back to Earth more than once for nausea-related reasons but I’ve apparently been up enough that my brain no longer interprets the vestibular input as being caused by some toxin that needs to be removed from my stomach ASAP.”

  “Are the fluids in the head dangerous for someone as old as Mother?”

  I raised my hands and shrugged. “The closest thing we have is John Glenn’s flight on STS-95 back in ’98. He was older than grandmother, seventy-seven then, but he was in excellent health.

  “I do know that there was some question about whether higher intercranial pressure could increase the chance of strokes or retinal bleeding, but it’s never really been tested. You don’t spend that kind of money sending people up who might not survive it.”

  Dad said, “We could get her into a really good hospital. We can afford it. They’re not going to order a drone missile strike on Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic.”

  “Maybe not, but she would still be a hostage—a target. Someone could still do something in one of those settings, like the awful tracking device they put in her hip.”

  “We need to get that out,” said Davy.

  Seeana said, “We need to get her healthy. The last surgery nearly killed her. I don’t know if putting her in orbit will help, but I do know this underground storeroom of yours is pretty bad. I’m worried about the ventilation down here. It was designed to hold records, not people.”

  “Don’t you think you should at least ask a doctor?” said Dad.

  “No.”

  We all looked down, shocked. I don’t think any of us realized Grandmother was awake, much less listening. Her voice was weak but she’d pulled the oxygen mask off to be heard.

  “Mother? How much of that did you hear?”

  “Enough.”

  “But you said no?”

  “I said no to asking a doctor. They don’t know if it will help but they’d be crazy to say yes. What a malpractice suit. So don’t ask them. Just do it.”

  “You want to?”

  “Of course I want to, even if it doesn’t help.” She looked at Dad, “Even if it’s an insane idea and kills me dead.” She took two deep breaths with the mask back on before adding, “I want a chance to be Space Girl, too.”

  THIRTY-THREE

  Davy: Columns On the Board

  It was taglamig, the cool dry season in the Philippines, though both the “cool” and “dry” were relative since the temperature and the humidity were both in the seventies. One of Tessa’s younger brothers answered the door of her parents’ house next to Muntinlupa City Technical Institute, where her father taught.

  Tessa was right behind him, shrugging into a light jacket. “Coming, Mr. Davy. Go on, Ferdy.”

  Behind Tessa, a man walked into the hallway as the boy retreated back into the house. He was Tessa’s height but stout, with gray temples and bifocal glasses “Tessa?”

  She turned around, an exasperated expression on her face. “Ama!” She sighed loudly, then gestured to Davy. “Mr. Davy, this is my father, Professor Adolfo Lapena. He has been wanting to meet you. Ama, this is my employer, Mr. David.”

  “David Rice,” Davy said, and shook the man’s hand.

  Tessa looked embarrassed. “We can go now!”

  Davy raised his eyebrows. “Ah. We are in a bit of a hurry but did you have a concern, sir?”

  Professor Lapena was studying Davy’s face. “You are paying my daughter more than I make as a senior faculty member at my technical college.”

  “Oh?” Great. The man thought his daughter was doing something immoral or illegal to make so much money. Davy supposed that he was taking her in and out of the country illegally, but he didn’t see how to reassure the man. “Don’t you trust your daughter?”

  Tessa flashed an expression at Davy that told him this was how she was seeing this.

  Professor Lapena said, “I am told you have a daughter. You can understand, then, that I want to make sure my daughter is not being taken advantage of.”

  Dammit. “It’s because we’ve asked her not to divulge certain things about her employment, yes? Is that what worries you?”

  The man nodded.

  Davy turned to Tessa. “You definitely earned the bonus. I can go ask Jeline or Bea if this is causing you trouble at home.”

  Tessa’s eyes went wide. “No! You asked me. Ama should have more faith in me!”

  I don’t have time for this. He turned to Professor Lapena and said, “She is employed as an experienced geriatric-health aid to care for my mother-in-law.” He turned back to Tessa. “Have we ever asked you to do anything that isn’t part of that job?”

  Tessa shook her head vigorously. “No!”

  Davy looked back at Professor Lapena and raised his eyebrows, then jumped past him, into the house. The man staggered as Davy vanished from his field of view but Davy didn’t have to catch him, though he’d been ready to. Now he said, “We have secrets, though, that your daughter has been asked to keep.”

  This time he did have to steady Tessa’s father to keep him from falling.

  “Easy there. We’re going now.”

  “How did you do that? Wait. Your daughter—she’s the one in the news?”

  Tessa looked at Davy and said, “Well?”

  Davy nodded at her.

  “Yes, Ama. I take care of Space Girl’s grandmother. Okay? We’re going now.”

  * * *

  Davy jumped Millie to Cory’s lab since she’d never been there, and she went back for Seeana. Cory led them all down the hall to a departmental conference room, where Cent was waiting for them.

  “Been here before?” Davy asked her.

  “Oh, yeah. When we brought Joe, Jade, and Tara into the suit-assembly gig, we had our first scheduling meeting here.” She looked down at her watch and blinked. “That was only a month ago.”

  Cory said, “Are you guys sure about this?”

  Millie said, “Yes.”

  Cent said, “Come on, Cory. We’re not going through this again.” She looked over at Davy, who’d raised his eyebrows. “Just play back our discussion of five hours ago and you’ve already heard all this. Just different speakers.”

 
; Davy said, “We have a much better chance with your help, Cory, but with or without, we’re proceeding.”

  Cory sighed and turned to the white board. “Right. Cent is in charge of getting our—” He wrote STRUCTURE: CENT at the far-left top of the board. “—in orbit and assembled. Which consists of—?” He looked at Cent.

  Cent held up a hand and began ticking things off on her fingers. “The inner and outer sphere, the view-port assembly, the gas-pressure purge, the cooling exhaust, the DC power conduits, and the bundled coaxial-antennas feed. All of these have already been delivered to BlimpWerks or are expected within the next two days. Once assembled in orbit, we need to add the initial atmosphere and three hundred twenty-one tons of water/fiber shielding.”

  Cory listed each of them as separate items below the heading.

  “Right. Orbit, as discussed?” He started a new column.

  “Yeah,” said Cent. “We want to be away from the worst of the debris, in the so-called ‘safe’ radiation zone between the two Van Allen belts.” She looked down at a sheet paper. “As circular as we can get it, ten thousand three hundred ninety-three kilometers altitude or an orbital radius of sixteen thousand seven hundred seventy-one kilometers. That’s as close to a period of six hours as we are likely to get—four orbits a day and enough out to be stable for decades.”

  Cory wrote the details down under the heading ORBIT. “You know that the radiation zone fluctuates wildly, right?

  Cent nodded. “Three feet of water, remember?”

  Cory nodded back. “Inclination?”

  “What did you decide about the need for time in eclipse?” Cent asked.

  “It’s going to be hard to say. The albedo on that fabric is quite high and the thermal mass of the water is going to stabilize things considerably, but really, it comes down to how much heat we generate internally. We don’t absolutely need the shading since we’ve got other ways to dump heat. It’s really more about ground track than anything.”

  “Right, then. Fifty-one degrees, like the ISS. That will take our ground track as high as Canada and down to the edge of Antarctica.”

  “Okay.” He started a new heading. LIFE SUPPORT: CORY. “We’re scaling up our suit life support which means—” He began writing down components in the column: CO2 absorption, moisture absorption, oxygen storage and release, pressure purge and controls, ventilation, cooling.

  Davy said, “Power?”

  Cory started a new column headed by POWER. Underneath it he wrote, PV panels, batteries, charge controllers, inverters, lights, breakers. “We’re still going with off-the-shelf equipment?”

  “Long as we can handle the fire danger. Pure oxygen and all. Add fire extinguishers and emergency self-contained breathing apparatus. And lots of training.”

  “Smoke detectors?” asked Millie.

  “A full suite of atmospheric monitors,” said Cory, scribbling away. “O2 and CO2 levels, pressure, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke and particulate detectors, temperature—air and water. Oh—radiation monitors. We should be good even with a solar storm, but we should be checking inside and out and know when to stay away from the view port.”

  Cory looked dismayed about the growing number of things listed under life support, then moved all of the sensors into a separate column labeled ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING.

  “I’ll take a run at that,” said Davy. “I know some people who excel at that sort of thing.”

  Cory looked relieved and added Davy’s name to the heading.

  The next column heading simply said, TOILET. He turned back and said, “I understand you’ve discussed this?”

  Davy, Cent, and Seeana looked at Millie.

  “Everybody wears diapers?” Millie said.

  “No,” said Cent. “And it would be best if we didn’t have to ferry people back and forth for restroom breaks. Shift start and end will be difficult enough.”

  Millie raised her hand. “Okay. Put me down for that. I’ll work on it. I’ve been reading Mary Roach’s book. We’ll need to replicate the negative-pressure ventilated units on the ISS but ours will be less complicated. We don’t need to recycle the urine and we don’t have to wait for resupply missions to transport accumulated feces.”

  Cory went back to the LIFE SUPPORT column and added: Odor-absorption: activated charcoal. HEPA filtration. He said, “We can look into the Apollo-type fecal-collection bags for the short run. Adhesive, stuck to your bum. Really unpleasant and messy.”

  Millie sighed. “So I hear. Not the NASA holy grail of ‘good separation.’”

  Almost desperately, Davy said, “Comms?”

  Cory grinned and started a new column: COMMS. Underneath it he wrote Iridium Sat phone? Imarsat or Globalstar phone and Internet data, and suit2suit vhf radio. We’re not sure about whether the Iridium phones will work at that altitude but Inmarsat and Globalstar should.” He looked around. “Okay, what’s the most critical? What can wait the longest?”

  Cent said, “Most critical: life support. As important as the structure itself. Proceed in parallel.”

  Davy said, “What about power?”

  Cent shook her head. “Power generation can wait. We can ferry charged battery packs up until the panels and charge controllers are on line.”

  “What kind of batteries?” asked Davy.

  Cory said, “I would prefer lithium iron phosphate. Orientation doesn’t matter, and they’re energy dense, especially when you compare them to lead acid. While they’re not as energy dense as lithium ion, they’re safer. More thermally and chemically stable—don’t heat up as much during recharging and they last longer: two thousand recharge cycles versus one thousand to fifteen hundred for lithium ion.” He spread his hands. “But they are pricey.”

  “But safer?” asked Millie.

  “Yes.”

  Millie said, “Cost is not a factor. Not for safety.”

  Cory nodded.

  Cent said, “We might get them donated, anyway, for an endorsement.”

  Cory waved his hand at her acknowledging the point. “We’ll want explosion-proof switched connector harnesses to avoid sparks. We want to test all the electrical systems in pure-oxygen environments, and we definitely want to keep the humidity low to prevent water condensing in electrical devices.”

  “But not too dry, please,” said Seeana. “If you could keep it above forty percent relative humidity, please, for lung health.”

  Cory blinked. “Okay. In the suit we just pulled most of the moisture out and let Cent hydrate by mouth. We didn’t have an intermediate target—no active sensing.”

  “Can’t we just use an off-the-shelf dehumidifier?” asked Millie.

  “They depend on gravity to collect the condensate,” Cory said. “I’m confident we can pull the water out of the air. It’s turning the process on and off that’s the problem. The unit on the ISS uses a centrifuge and is quite complex.”

  “Split the airflow,” Cent said.

  Cory scratched his chin. “Gotcha. Switch it back and forth. I can figure that one out.”

  Millie looked at her watch. “Right. We’ll need some of the medical equipment replaced that we lost in the missile attack—mostly monitors. And we’ll need an infusion pump with enough volume to handle fluid replacement, not just drug administration, but I’ll work with Seeana on that. Seeana and I need to get back to our future resident. Any other questions for us?”

  Cent was staring at the board, sucking at her upper lip, looking a bit overwhelmed.

  Cory laughed “Your own space program, you said? NASA employs over seventeen thousand people.” He turned back to Millie. “No questions for now but there will be.”

  * * *

  Davy picked up Hunt from D.C. and started the briefing while they both looked down on the destroyed cabin. When Hunt’s shivers became constant and his lips were positively blue, Davy jumped him to a baking-hot lava flow in the middle of the tiny islet off the Costa Rica coast.

  Now Davy was overdressed, so he took a moment to shed
some layers in the Eyrie while Hunt lay down on one of the smoother stretches of lava, soaking up the heat.

  “Better?” Davy said when he returned to the island in the only pair of jeans he now owned.

  Hunt was sitting up. “Yeah.”

  Davy led Hunt over to a cliff top overlooking the tiny cove where he’d left the “person of interest.”

  “Head down, okay?” he said. “He had some sort of automatic when I dropped him here.”

  Hunt peeked carefully over the edge, then ducked back. “Well, that’s interesting.”

  “What? He didn’t off himself, did he? He was okay fifteen minutes ago.”

  Before Davy stuck his head over, Hunt shook his head. “Not that. I recognize him.”

  Davy raised his eyebrows.

  Hunt said, “Your daughter—I presume it was your daughter—launched Mr. Doe thirty feet down the hallway outside your mother-in-law’s room in Wichita.”

  “I thought those guys were all still in jail.”

  “Oddly enough, so did I. There haven’t been any reports of releases or escapes. Mr. Doe there never gave his name, and there was no match on his picture, fingerprints, or DNA, but that didn’t stop the judge from sentencing him.”

  “Substitution?”

  “Maybe. Daarkon Group could afford to pay someone to do the time for his weapons charges.”

  “I was going to question him, but because of his employer’s missile, we’re scrambling to come up with new facilities. Do you guys want him?”

  Hunt nodded. “Sure. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what kind of strings get pulled when the Kansas Department of Corrections ends up with two prisoners when they should just have one. But that’s dessert. Let me have him in D.C. for a few days, first.”

  “Good. Where would you like him delivered?”

  THIRTY-FOUR

  Cent: If You Build It …

  We didn’t tell USSPACECOM what we were putting 10,393 kilometers above the surface of the earth, but they did confirm that their computer projections showed remarkably little chance of collisions or orbital perturbation in the long term.