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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 4


  “It’s not the first time Dr. Hannum has tried. Why do you think I was fired? I refused to collaborate on my research or give him a byline on my last paper.”

  “That’s slander! Your contract wasn’t renewed for performance reasons, Matoska.”

  “Slander, that’s the spoken one, right? Have you seen the standby lists for my six-thirty seminars? Have you seen my students’ surveys? Who’s slandering now? You were all glowing compliments when you were trying to worm your way onto my last paper. What was that about fast-tracking a tenured position?”

  “You’re delusional,” Hannum said, blushing.

  Deputy Chief Mendez intervened. “We’ll padlock the door then and put an evidence seal on it. It’s Tuesday. You have three business days to come to an agreement with the university or to get an injunction. If we don’t hear anything by Monday, we’ll unseal it.”

  Dr. Hannum’s eyes narrowed and his face went still and I knew that Dr. Matoska was right. Dr. Hannum was after the prototype. I didn’t know if Matoska was legally in the right or if Hannum was but I didn’t really care.

  Because I was after it, too.

  Dr. Hannum noticed me peering around the corner. “What do you want?” It wasn’t a question, really. More of a “Get out of my business!” sort of growl.

  “I’m waiting for Dr. Matoska,” I said.

  “He’s not with the university anymore!”

  I raised my eyebrows.

  “He’s right, I’m afraid,” said Matoska, turning around for the first time. He was pale, with a mustache and a soul patch, but he hadn’t shaved the rest of his face recently. He had the weirdest eyes—one was light hazel and the other one was dark brown.

  I stared, unable to help myself.

  “What did you need?” he asked. He was frowning now, not recognizing me. Not surprising—we’d never seen each other before.

  “I can wait,” I said. “Sounds like you’re in the middle of it.”

  Hannum said, “I told you, he’s not with the university anymore!”

  With my face still on Dr. Matoska’s mismatched eyes, I said quietly, “He keeps saying that.”

  Dr. Matoska snorted.

  I turned back to Dr. Hannum. “I’m not with the university either.”

  “Then what do you want?” he snapped.

  I put a puzzled expression on my face. “Nothing from you.”

  Matoska’s lips twitched up.

  Hannum’s mouth worked like a fish out of water, but before he came up with something to say I added, “I’ll just wait in your office, then, Dr. Matoska,” and retreated around the corner.

  Back in Matoska’s office I put the cap back on the scotch bottle and moved it out of sight, behind one of the boxes.

  Matoska came back ten minutes later, a profoundly irritated look on his face. He glanced at the desktop and then at me.

  “I drank it,” I said.

  At his look of alarm, I said. “Kidding. Put it out of sight. Didn’t know if the university police would be coming back with you.” I moved the box aside, to show him.

  “Ah. Good thought. Who are you?”

  “I’m Cent,” I said. “I’m here about the MCP suit.”

  Matoska stared at me. “Since you’re not with the university, you’re not trying to get into one of my seminars. Are you from MIT? Did Dava Newman send you over?”

  I shook my head. My research had led me to Dr. Newman as well, but I didn’t think she’d be able to help me soon enough. They were painstakingly working through the problems, but Matoska was closest to a working prototype.

  “So what’s your interest?”

  I wanted to pull back the sleeve of my sweatshirt and show him the scab from my frostbite. I wanted to say, I got this at forty-five thousand feet.

  I didn’t think he’d believe me.

  “I represent an investor.”

  He rolled his eyes. “You know, kid, this is not at all a good day to waste my time.”

  Kid.

  I shouldn’t have been offended. I’m only seventeen. Still, when I took the legal-sized manila envelope out of my shoulder bag, I flipped it out, to land on the desk in front of him, a lot harder than necessary. It was over a half inch thick, after all, and it hit the desktop with a resounding thwap.

  He stared at it.

  “What’s this?”

  “Funding.”

  He tore open the flap and stared at the bundled cash. “Are those hundreds?”

  I nodded. “Ten bundles. One hundred notes each. Ten K a bundle.” I let him do the rest of the math.

  “A hundred thousand dollars?”

  “Ayup.”

  Matoska opened his mouth to say something, but it took him a while before he managed, “What do you expect for it?”

  “Continued development. Later, we want a working suit.” I tilted my hand toward the money. “For more money, of course. This is for research.”

  He blinked like an owl, I swear.

  “Do you have a draft agreement for me to look at? Do you expect rights to the IP?”

  “IP?”

  “Intellectual property. Patents etcetera.”

  “Oh.” I shook my head. “It’s a grant, not a loan. Your work is your work. Just spend it wisely.”

  “On my rent?”

  “You can’t do research without a place to live, Doc. I realize you just lost your job. If you have to use some of it to cover living costs, that seems reasonable.”

  He blinked. “This isn’t drug money, is it?”

  “No laundering going on here, Doctor Matoska. Or should that be Professor Matoska?” I hoped there was no laundering going on. It was from Dad after all.

  “Call me Cory.” He was still staring at the cash. “I’ll need a hell of a lot more money than this if I don’t get my prototype out of the lab.”

  “So, Dr. Hannum really is after it?”

  “You heard that?”

  “Pretty much,” I said.

  “He was courting me pretty hard but I finally ran out of maybes on Monday. I got the termination notice Tuesday.”

  “Where in the lab is the suit?”

  “It’s in the corner, on a stand, with the life-model pressure sensor.”

  I must’ve looked confused because he said, “The life model is like a mannequin, inside the spacesuit. There are two USB plugs coming out of the neck, one that powers the sensor multiplexor, and one for data. There’s also a power supply hooked to the suit. I need to get that back from the bastards, too.”

  “Okay,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

  “What?”

  “Later. But before your friend Hannum does.”

  He looked alarmed at that. “You don’t think—”

  I shrugged. “If everything else you said about him is true—”

  He turned back toward the door.

  I said, quickly, “I know you did that video inventory, but does he know what’s in your lab?”

  He paused and shook his head. “No. Kept him out of there.”

  “Then let me take care of it,” I said. “I have resources.”

  He gestured at my shoulder bag. “Unless you have a law firm in your bag, too, I don’t see what you can do.”

  I said, “I think that—” I jerked my chin toward the money. “—earns a little trust. Besides, you get jailed by the campus police, you won’t even be able to finish clearing out your office. Where you moving this stuff, anyway?”

  He frowned and took a step back, turning to look at the boxes and piles. “I was going to rent a storage locker. I’m pretty sure I can secure another teaching position PDQ, but I don’t have room for this stuff at my place—it’s an efficiency.”

  “Hmmm. I can help there, too. You finish packing the boxes and I’ll get them moved to secure storage.”

  “I’m supposed to be out by six,” he said, doubtfully.

  I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and converted to the local time zone in my head. “Ah. Half past one. Not a pro
blem.”

  He looked relieved. “That would be great.”

  I killed an hour and a half helping him pack, though we ran out of boxes before we ran out of books. I sent him off for more and checked the lab.

  A freshly mounted padlock hasp had been attached to the metal door frame and door with tamper-proof screws. In addition to the security padlock in the hasp, a holographic sticker labeled evidence seal had been affixed across the gap between door and frame.

  I looked through the wire-reinforced glass of the door’s rectangular window. It was dark inside and I was blocking most of the light from the hallway. I pressed my cell phone to the glass and turned on the flashlight app.

  That gave me enough light. I heard footsteps from around the corner and jumped inside, the flashlight still on.

  The prototype was at the end of a heavy steel workbench, looking spookily like a man. Well, a headless man. The suit was light gray, with a rough-woven texture, leading up to a stainless steel neck flange. The two USB wires Matoska, uh, Cory had mentioned emerged from the headless neck, but the free ends were coiled loosely on the workbench, unconnected to anything. There was a plug just below the neck flange with a thick cable running over to a power supply which, in turn, was plugged into the wall.

  I unplugged the power supply from both ends and wrapped the cables around it, then jumped it to the warehouse in Michigan. I came back for the suit, lifting it from the two curved brackets that supported it under each armpit. Whatever the mannequin—the life-model pressure sensor—was made of, it was nearly as heavy as a person. I jumped it to the warehouse and lowered it carefully to the concrete floor.

  I went back for the stand and that was when I heard the scraping. I held the cell phone against my side, to block the light. There was a shadow over the door window but it wasn’t someone looking in. I slid closer and saw, just outside the door, a stepladder and somebody’s feet on a step at my eye level.

  I looked up, through the glass. It was Dr. Hannum and he was pushing a suspended ceiling panel up. I looked at the ceiling above me. Enough light was coming in so that I could see this ceiling was suspended, too.

  I stepped back to the stand and jumped it to Michigan, then returned to the lab. Hannum’s feet were higher up the ladder but the noise from the ceiling didn’t seem any louder. I would’ve thought that an engineering lab would have firewalls above for safety, to keep fire or fumes from spreading.

  Then I heard a clanking noise and hinges squealing. Perhaps a firewall above, but with an inspection door through it?

  I jumped outside, to the other side of the ladder, and activated the camera function on my cell.

  Dr. Hannum was perched on the top two steps of the ladder, his upper body in the suspended ceiling and leaning to one side.

  “Dr. Hannum,” I called loudly.

  He flinched and one of his feet came off the ladder. His arm punched down through the adjacent ceiling panel, showering chunks of fiberglass and cellulose to the floor. He flailed and barely avoided falling the rest of the way down, hanging suspended by his other arm as his foot groped for the ladder.

  I watched, interested, as instead of falling, he managed to get his foot back to a step and his weight shifted back over the ladder. He twisted his head to look down at me and the flash, as I took the picture, froze him, wide-eyed, shocked.

  I examined the image on the phone. “Ah, good. It’s got your face and the university police seal. Have a nice day!”

  I turned and walked around the corner.

  “Wait!” he yelled, but then there was the sound of a crash as the ladder went over and something heavy fell. I kept going.

  I locked Cory’s office door from inside, turned off the light, and spent five minutes jumping all the packed boxes to the warehouse.

  As I returned from one of these jumps, I saw Dr. Hannum pause in the hallway and glance through the darkened window. I knew from experience how hard it was to see anything if the room was dark, so I just froze. If he unlocked the door, I’d leave.

  Hannum shook his head and kept going. I stepped to the door to watch, then grinned. He was definitely limping.

  By the time Cory returned with the last few boxes, I had the lights back on and the door open. He froze in the doorway, looking at the empty floor space.

  “I guess your guys came.”

  “I took care of the suit,” I said. “Just in time, too.” I showed him the picture I’d taken on the phone of Hannum up the ladder.

  His fists bunched. “That son of a bitch. I’m going to—”

  “He didn’t get it. I already had it by then. And he fell off the ladder right after I took that picture. He was limping the last time I saw him.”

  Cory stared at his fists and then exhaled, letting his fingers unclench. “How did you get the suit? Did you go over the wall like him?”

  I shook my head. “I’m not an amateur. Look, I’ll bet if you send this picture to Hannum, he’ll renounce any claim to the rest of your equipment. Or you could send it directly to Deputy Chief Mendez.”

  The corners of Cory’s mouth twitched up. “Where is the suit?” He looked around the office.

  “I thought it best if it got off campus as soon as possible.” I didn’t add that it was also out of state.

  “Oh. You had the guys take it when they took the boxes?”

  “The same people, yeah.” Person. “What sort of facilities do you need, to continue your work?” I was wondering if I’d need to set him up with a workshop and if the Michigan warehouse would be suitable.

  “Depends. At some point I’ll need a walk-in vacuum chamber—I’m betting we can get access to the eleven-foot chamber at Johnson Space Center. Or if I end up on the West Coast, Lockheed Martin has a great chamber in Sunnyvale. Here, we rigged a cylindrical chamber for our earlier tests, with a mating flange for the helmet collar, but the department repurposed it later for some vacuum-deposition tests.”

  He grinned, suddenly. “But while I was out I got a callback from one of my previous coauthors. He offered me a lecture post for the spring semester with immediate access to research facilities since I have—” He pointed at me. “—current funding.”

  “Oh. Great! Where?”

  “Stanford.”

  My stomach clenched and I nearly jumped away.

  Joe was at Stanford.

  Well, at least I wouldn’t need a new jump site.

  * * *

  My cell phone doesn’t.

  What I mean is, we completely killed its cellular radio when we rooted it. It can’t connect to any cell towers. This is deliberate.

  It will connect to WiFi hotspots, though, but every time it does, it uses a different Media Access Control address for the wireless Ethernet adaptor. My phone stores a block of four thousand MAC addresses harvested from obsolete and decommissioned equipment, and ranging from phones to computers to tablets to routers. Last time I checked, I’d used about half the list. The program is set to cycle through them again when it reaches the end, but I suspect I will break or lose the phone by then.

  I also did the regular security things, like using encrypted browsing and changing accounts regularly, but mostly I depended on looking like a different machine every time I connected to the net from wildly varying WiFi hotspots.

  When Joe first left for college, we used e-mail, instant messaging, voice over IP, and computer videoconferencing to talk during the week, and we saw each other on the weekends, usually with me taking him someplace.

  When I found him in bed, with her, I’d screamed and jumped away, ending up sobbing in the reading nook under my bed.

  I hadn’t done that in a while.

  An hour later, I connected to my e-mail account and found three e-mails.

  The short version is that one of Joe’s study partners had been dumped by her boyfriend. Beers and a shoulder to cry on had turned comforting into something more. It was the only time and he was so sorry and could I ever forgive him?

  I sent a one-word message,
No, and deleted the e-mail, instant messaging, and telephony accounts that we’d used. If he sent any other e-mails, they bounced.

  Okay, when he sent them. I know he sent others. I read some of them off of his computer, while he was in class.

  Stalker much?

  Stalker.

  I watched Joe for the better part of a month, several times a day, usually through binoculars. I looked through his stuff when I knew he and his roommate had class. I even thought about putting a remote camera on his shelf, hidden in a book.

  Yeah, I know. Mega creepy.

  I didn’t put a camera in his bookshelf. I stopped visiting his room, though at first it was only because his roommate skipped class one day and nearly caught me.

  Then I just felt embarrassed.

  If some guy was entering my bedroom when I wasn’t there, how chill would I be with it? It took me another week to apply the same logic to my following him around campus.

  Either go to him and make up, or leave him alone.

  And I was too afraid to go to him.

  I stopped jumping to campus.

  Exactly two weeks later, Dr. Cory Matoska tells me he’s got a post at Stanford.

  Perfect.

  I connected to a coffeehouse WiFi hotspot in the Mission District of San Francisco and used an Internet telephony program to call Cory’s cell phone a few hours after his scheduled arrival on the Stanford campus.

  “How was your trip?”

  “Uh, Cent? The number shows up as blocked.”

  “Using Skype. Don’t have a dedicated number. You still have my e-mail, right?” I’d set up an account just for him and he’d sent me his new office and lab info as soon as he received it from Stanford.

  “Oh, yeah—it’s on my laptop. The trip was okay. Did the drive in three days. But I took your advice and had the movers do the packing. Talk about stress relief.”

  “How’s your lab?”

  “Great! Thanks for having the stuff delivered. Though there was some weird mix-up there. They’ve lost all record of receiving the shipment. No one even knows who unlocked the lab for the movers. They’re really embarrassed about it.”

  Oops. Maybe I should’ve waited to deliver it until after Cory had received the keys.

  “It’s all there, right? Nothing broken, nothing missing?”