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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 39


  “Uh, both.”

  “The semimajor axis is sixteen thousand seven hundred seventy-one kilometers. Varies about ninety klicks between apoapsis and periapsis. Ten thousand three hundred ninety-three kilometers above sea level.”

  He was holding his fist at arm’s length and using it to measure the earth’s disk from edge to edge. “Forty-five degrees?”

  “Just under. Forty-four point seven degrees. Call it ninety full moons. The first time I did the calculations I was three degrees low.”

  He tilted his head up to look across the view port at me. His hand darted to his mouth and he began breathing rapidly through his nose. After twenty seconds, he said, “You weren’t kidding about sudden head movements.”

  “No.” I eyed the bag he was holding. In the astronaut corps they make the “emitter” clean up any “emissions,” which is fair, but I pictured vomit splattering against the view port and almost had to use the spare bag I’d tucked in my back pocket.

  “Why were your calculations off?”

  Thank god for distractions. “Turns out the earth is not a flat disk. If it were, the edge we’d see would be farther away than the tangential edges of the sphere we’re actually seeing. When you’re this close, it makes a difference.”

  “I wouldn’t call over six thousand miles close.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t want to walk it, but we’re less than the earth’s diameter from the surface.” I edged clockwise around the frame, moving closer to him. “Sometime I’ll show it to you from two hundred kilometers. That’s a whole different treat.”

  “Why didn’t you put the habitat down there?”

  “Not safe.”

  “Oh? Orbital debris? Or atmospheric drag?”

  “That. And intentional efforts.” I didn’t want the mood shattered but I hadn’t told him what happened to the cabin, yet. “Hold still.”

  I eased up behind him and put my arms around his chest, resting my chin on his shoulder so I could look past his head down through the port. I pressed my body against his.

  He covered my hands with his and groaned. “Oh, girl.” We started to drift away from the view port and he grabbed the frame again.

  “Shhh. No head movements.” I took a deep breath. “Remember when I texted you—told you to keep your eyes open?”

  “Yes. Have those guys come back to New Prospect?”

  “Not that we know. But … they destroyed our home—the cabin.”

  His body spasmed and he jerked his head around to look at my face, and then he had to curl up and use the bag.

  I backed off and let him get on with it, breathing through my mouth. I kept an eye out for “escapees,” but he captured it all and the paper towels did a good job of keeping it in the bag.

  Once he sealed the mess inside, I pulled him away from the smell and opened the other bag to get an unsoiled section of paper towel to wipe his mouth. Then I gave him the unused bag, still open, still ready.

  “Good capture,” I told him. “You were definitely going to clean it up if you got the window.”

  His color was already bad, but when I said that he spread the mouth of the bag and moved it closer to his head. He kept it together, though, taking two careful breaths before saying. “Everyone’s okay? Your parents? Your grandmother?”

  “Yes.” Remembering that distractions are good, I told him about the missile and the drone and the embedded tracker and finally about our plans for Grandmother.

  “Christ! Why didn’t you tell me this two days ago?”

  I gestured expansively, indicating the sphere around us. “Busy, you know?”

  “I could’ve been helping Cory with the life support!”

  “You will, Joe.” I hugged him, front to front this time. “He’s going to need help both down there and up here, installing it. Experienced help.”

  He almost shook his head, but stopped himself in time. “Ha. Some experience,” he said bitterly. He wasn’t letting go of me, though.

  “More experience than Cory has.”

  Joe’s mouth dropped open. “He hasn’t been up here yet?”

  “No.” I kissed his cheek. “Only me. You’re the first.”

  This time the tears came with sobs and incoherent apologies and we both had to use paper towels on our eyes.

  “I want to kiss you a little more seriously,” I said. “But there’s no way I’m going to do that until you’ve rinsed your mouth out. And if I don’t get you back, your mom is going to be sure that you’re dead.”

  He held up his hand. “And I want to kiss you but … are we back? You’ve forgiven me?”

  “The short answer is yes.”

  “And the long answer?”

  “The long answer is there’s too much shit happening in my life right now for me to give you the long answer.”

  “Why now?”

  “Because there’s too much shit happening in my life right now. I need you.”

  Returning to gravity settled Joe’s stomach immediately and he was able to stand without falling over after a few moments. I let him take the used bag outside to the trash. When I left him, the goodnight kiss was delightful and he tasted divine.

  Ms. Trujeque’s was right—peppermint tea was great.

  THIRTY-FIVE

  Cent: You can’t fall

  I replaced the air in the station before I brought up any more visitors, twinning between the lower end of the station (next to the view port) to a snow-covered stretch of ground next to another “station,” the upper Pikes Peak Cog Railway station, fourteen thousand feet above sea level. I only held it a few seconds, but my ears hurt from the sudden pop.

  I should’ve worn my spacesuit.

  When I untwinned, the air in the station was full of fog.

  Oops.

  To avoid as rapid a change when I repressurized, I twinned from lower altitudes, working down two thousand feet at a time. The water droplets disappeared almost immediately, reabsorbed as the pressure increased. I adjusted the view port so it directly faced Earth again and went for my next visitors.

  * * *

  Next was Dad, of course.

  He was the one who introduced me to the ideas, the one who made me turn my attention to space in the first place.

  He didn’t jerk or yell when we appeared in the middle of the sphere, but I know he’d experimented with skydiving in the past, so the sensation wasn’t alien.

  I’d given him and Mom the same lecture I’d given Joe about sudden head movements. I’d advised them to jump to move around the volume, something Joe couldn’t do.

  Dad popped around, feeling the inner hull, pushing off and drifting through the middle, then he settled by the view port, his mouth open and his eyes wet. I handed him a handkerchief.

  So far, we were a hundred percent on deeply emotional initial reactions to being in space. At least this time I was prepared for it.

  I went back for Mom.

  She did yell.

  The first time Mom ever jumped, she’d been falling off a cliff. It was a wonder she didn’t flinch away, but she didn’t. She breathed out and her muscles untensed and she held her head still.

  “It’s huge,” she said.

  “Like an empty house. We’ll see how it feels after we move in.” I pointed down at Dad and the window. “You should see the view.”

  I gave them ten minutes while I floated nearby with a small battery-operated fan, pushing the air (and to a lesser degree, myself) around to keep our exhaled CO2 from accumulating around us.

  Then I asked, “Can you guys test if you can jump back to the Eyrie?”

  Mom said, “Surely you mean the vault?”

  “No. I want you to go straight to sitting on the bed. Your balance will be off. You certainly don’t want to fall over on Grandmother.”

  “No,” she agreed. “We don’t want that.”

  Mom vanished. Then Dad.

  I looked at the stack of makeshift emesis bags in my hand, relieved. I was really glad I didn’t have to clean up a
nything. More important, my parents’ ability to jump back to ground side meant I could depend on them to evacuate others in an emergency, a big load off of my mind.

  And then Mom was back.

  I blinked, surprised.

  When I jumped into Kristen Station or the Leonardo pressurized module of the ISS, I’d been looking up the orbital parameters and using the GPS as part of my destination visualization. In the ten minutes Mom had been looking through the view port, Kristen Station had moved almost three thousand kilometers. Even during the five seconds she’d been gone, it had moved almost twenty-five kilometers.

  “How did you do that?” I sounded accusatory, and I softened my voice. “Jump back, I mean.”

  Mom said, “Shouldn’t I have? There’s a certain smell—I think it’s from the coating on this fabric,” she said, tapping on the inner hull. “That’s what I was concentrating on, anyway.”

  I didn’t know what to say. Finally I went with, “That’s good.” I certainly didn’t want to go into all the reasons she shouldn’t be able to. “You can help ferry people and supplies up.”

  “Of course.” she nodded. “You were right, by the way. I was really dizzy for a moment there when I got down. Your father should have listened. He arrived standing and fell right over.”

  “Is he okay? He didn’t throw up on the bed?”

  She vanished. I checked my watch, staring at the seconds. A full minute went by and I thought, maybe it was a fluke, when she appeared again, frowning.

  “Is Dad all right?”

  She waved a hand. “He’s grumpy. He said I shouldn’t be able to jump back here and we had an argument about it. And since he knows one couldn’t possibly jump here without the precise orbital parameters, he can’t.”

  I laughed. “Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

  Mom snorted. “Someone should tell him that it’s impossible to jump from Canada to Texas, too.”

  “I’m going to go get Cory. Since you can, would you go get Mr. Grumpy Pants? Cory will have some specifications and questions about sensors and monitors.”

  Mom grinned. “I would be delighted.”

  * * *

  Cory brought a measuring tape as well as five different kinds of Velcro and three different kinds of closed-loop hooks all with adhesive mounting pads. Down on the ground he’d been all business, talking about what he needed to find out on this trip. He thought he was all in ready-to-get-things-done mode, so when he spent several minutes at the view port tearing up, it caught him by surprise.

  “Handkerchief?”

  He accepted it silently.

  When he did get back to his to-do list he said, “Your Ms. Wilde at BlimpWerks said that all of these adhesives are safe for the fabric and its coating, but she’s not sure which ones will stick best or stink the least.”

  So we got down to finding out.

  First thing Velcroed to the wall was the zippered nylon-mesh bag holding my emesis kit.

  (Take one forty-count box of gallon-sized ziplock bags and five rolls of extra-absorbent paper towels. Assemble four towels each into each ziplock for forty space-sickness bags. Use the one-plus roll of leftover paper towels, an extra-large container of unscented, hypoallergenic baby wipes, and an extra-large container of medical sanitizing wipes for additional cleanup. To keep from adding to the mess, include one twenty-count package of odor-blocking disposable face masks.)

  All of the adhesives seemed to stick with equal vigor, but one of the hook’s pads had an odor which caused both Cory and then Dad to snatch for, and use, their barf bags.

  (Most important thing to know about space-sickness bags? Keep them within reach at all times.)

  We promptly disqualified that brand.

  “To be fair,” said Cory, “if we had the ventilation running and the activated-charcoal filters going, we might not have cared.”

  “It’s still off the list,” I said. “We need the hooks to anchor the ventilation system. If it makes us throw up while we’re installing it, it’s not doing its job.”

  * * *

  And on the second day I said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

  And Joe said, “Ha, ha.”

  If the view port was pointed in the right direction, you could get a lot of light through from earthlight and a huge amount from the sun, but until we had some form of attitude control, we couldn’t count on it.

  The first three batteries brought into the station were attached to three superbright LED work lights. We moved them around, sticking adhesive Velcro patches to the fabric of the inner hull wherever we needed them, but most of the time the lights sat on the “equator” equispaced 120 degrees apart and swiveled ninety degrees “up,” away from the view port. This lit the “upper” surface of the inner hull and flooded the entire volume with soft, indirect light.

  Once we had light, I put on my space suit and we took the pressure down to 2 psi, then brought it back to 10 psi (about ten thousand feet on Earth) using straight O2, a process which required me to ferry forty size-H oxygen tanks up, one at a time, empty them into the volume, and return them to the medical-gas supplier.

  Next came the QDLS (quick and dirty life support) system, strictly for dealing with CO2 and oxygen.

  Cory took a plastic thirty-gallon barrel and mounted a sixteen-inch, twelve-volt car radiator fan in a hole cut out of the bottom. Using the removable top as a mounting bracket, he created a cylindrical mesh basket to hold soda lime pellets that took up most of the interior. The unit stood on three spread wooden legs, ending in circular pads anchored to the inner hull by, you guessed it, Velcro. A three hundred-amp-hour lithium iron phosphate battery strapped to the cylinder and a simple explosion-proof switch (no spark) completed the unit.

  The fan blew air straight out, a column of air that hit the opposite wall and circulated back along the inner hull to be sucked back in the other end of the barrel.

  To replace depleted oxygen, we had two MM-sized oxygen tanks yoked together with a settable automatic valve to kick the ambient pressure back up to 10 psi when the excess CO2 was pulled out of the air.

  Cory floated throughout the volume, spot-checking with a portable CO2 detector. There were areas in the volume where the levels rose above our targeted five hundred parts per million, but most of the interior was fine. Cory wanted to perfect it but I said, “That’s the job of our permanent installation. If necessary, I’ll refresh the atmosphere, but this is good enough for construction. When?”

  Cory stared off into the distance before saying, “The machine shop should be done with the last of the access hatches this afternoon. We can do our trial assembly and test tomorrow. If that works out, we can install it two days from now.”

  It took four days.

  There were six attempts to assemble it. The first three times, design and machining errors turned up. The fourth trial was the first time all the parts fit. The fifth one included a three-hour electrical-and-mechanical test run, and the last one was the rehearsal for orbit.

  Mom and I ferried the sections up in the order they were needed and no faster. Cory, Dad, and Joe assembled them. Everything did fit, but microgravity added wrinkles, easing some tasks, complicating others. When I wasn’t ferrying assemblies I was chasing fasteners and tools drifting away at precisely the wrong time.

  Joe named it “the stack,” which made sense, since it was stacked sections of three-foot-diameter tubular aluminum ventilation duct covered in open-cell acoustic insulation. Assembled, it stretched from high noon (the “top” of the sphere, directly opposite the view port) to four feet short of the view port frame.

  The air entered the stack at the bottom, just above the view port, through a washable blanket filter designed to catch crumbs and particulates and parts and anything else not tied down. Just behind the blanket, it passed through a disposable HEPA filter capturing particles down to .3 microns.

  Next it hit the first of the cartridges, as we called them, pretty much like the cartridges in t
he suit’s pack, only these were three feet across instead of three inches.

  First up was the soda lime cartridge, holding an entire forty-four-pound keg of CO2 absorbent. Its access hatch had a transparent port so you could examine the color of the absorbent, important because we were using soda lime with ethyl violet, which changed color from off-white (low carbonic acid: fresh) to purple (high carbonic acid: depleted.)

  Then the air took one of two paths through the desiccant section: the empty passage or the passage with a mesh half cylinder filled with silica gel. A solenoid-activated flap diverted the return air through the desiccant when the relative humidity rose above 60 percent and bypassed it when it was below 40 percent.

  After moisture control, we came to odor control: two cylindrical cartridges filled with activated charcoal, with a combined length of four feet.

  After odor control, came temperature.

  Our initial calculations showed that we probably wouldn’t need to heat the interior, but we probably would have to cool it.

  The three-foot-thick layer of water shielding came in at sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, all 321 tons of it, and the Mylar outer layer of our outer hull was reflecting a lot of the sun’s heat away. However, vacuum is a great insulator. Heat can radiate away, but not very fast. Water is famous for cooling systems, but not in free fall. Without a gravitational gradient, one of water’s most effective mechanisms for heat transfer, convection, doesn’t work, since expanding water and contracting water don’t rise and sink relative to each other. This left conduction, and water is seventy times less conductive than carbon steel. State changes of water, though, are good for heat transfer, even in free fall.

  The cooling section of the stack held a heat exchanger, twenty meters of two-centimeter-inside-diameter stainless steel tubing spiraling through aluminum fins. It ran from a thermostatically controlled valve connected to a 250-gallon bank of water bladders, to the coolant exhaust, a pipe that led through both hulls and opened into open space.

  When the thermostat in the return air vent went above seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, the valve opened a three-millimeter hole and vacuum sucked water from the water bladder into the heat exchanger. The water boiled and flashed to vapor, rapidly cooling the stainless pipe, which in turn cooled the air rushing past it. When the air reaching the air intake dropped below seventy degrees, the valve closed.