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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 40


  Since the cooling module didn’t require ready access to the heat exchanger, our bank of five water bladders, each eight inches in diameter by almost four feet long, were bundled around the stack at that point, along with our oxygen bank, twelve size-H cylinders holding almost eighty-three thousand liters of O2.

  After the cooling module, the air finally hit the fans, or more specifically, the fans sucked the air through all those other modules. Two inline counter-rotating eight-bladed props ran off separate permanent magnet motors and separate batteries (for redundancy), six feet from the very top of the stack, providing five hundred cubic feet per minute of airflow, with an option to bump it up to nine hundred, if we were willing to put up with the noise.

  The fact that they counterrotated caused more turbulence and a bit more noise, but it canceled any tendency for the motors and props to impart rotational energy into the structure itself

  The last four feet of the stack had the outlet vents, sixteen directional ports aimed tangentially, shooting out streams of air in a spiral that spun the station’s entire volume of air around the stack like a slow, thick-waisted tornado, leaving no part of the interior in still or stagnant air.

  The stack was anchored to the station at the top end with a circle of closed steel rings attached to the fabric with adhesive patches. Four bright-colored ropes ran from the intake end to similar rings mounted around the view port frame.

  This would’ve been enough to secure the unit if it hadn’t become immediately clear during its assembly that the stack was jostled in several directions by people kicking off, gently colliding, and pulling along the unit. We added twelve more ropes: four at the equator, running out like X and Y axes to the stack’s Z axis, and at four each at the thirty-fifth parallels north and south, vertically in line with the others, but running perpendicular to the surface of the sphere.

  Cory, still in his weight-saving mode, had suggested parachute cord, which was structurally sufficient, but I said, “Thick enough to grab comfortably and neon bright so people see it.”

  “Ah. Yes.” He doubled the size of the attachment patches and doubled up on their number, too. “I hadn’t quite thought about them as pathways and handrails.” Two days later we added two ropes running down the length of the stack as well.

  Since we were buying rope, I hung three fifty-meter-long pieces of white sheathed, Kevlar-reinforced climbing line from the mooring rings fastened around the outside equator of the station and clamped the ends of all three to the handle of a 103-pound kettle bell, a piece of exercise equipment.

  Like the AggieSat Lab’s conductive tether, this “fell” down the local gradient and put tension on the three ropes toward Earth. Unlike the other tether, ours was not conductive, so it didn’t interact with the magnetic field and slow our orbit, but it did keep the view port pointed consistently at Earth. Since the kettle bell’s inner orbit sought a faster path around the earth, there was a tilt so the kettle bell didn’t even hang in our view of Earth, but off to the side.

  Dad’s rocketry friend, Wanda, in return for expenses and the promise of an hour in the habitat within the next month, built an entire suite of sensors that reported their states wirelessly (Bluetooth 3) to multiple laptops (for redundancy). When acceptable parameters were exceeded, the computers sounded appropriate alarms through attached speakers, ranging from quiet beeps for maintenance reminders to screeching Klaxons for life-threatening events.

  We monitored air pressure, since that would be the first indicator of a leak, using four of Wanda’s remote sensors and one stand-alone unit with its own siren.

  There were six CO2 sensors reporting parts per million: four of them spread through the volume and one each in the stack before and after the absorbent.

  Four O2 sensors reported overall oxygen percentage (98.9 percent). Six sensors reported air temperature: four in the volume, and one each in the stack before and after the heat exchanger.

  Two humidity sensors sat in the stack, in front and behind the desiccant module.

  There were four sets of sensors in between the inner and outer hulls, reporting water temperatures at six inches, eighteen inches, and thirty inches from the outer skin.

  Six accelerometers glued to the inner hull measured shock waves traveling through the water, either because an occupant kicked off the interior (a low-amplitude blip on the graph from one or two sensors) or a micrometeorite slammed into the exterior (a sharp spike detected on multiple sensors within microseconds of each other).

  Two smoke and two carbon monoxide sensors sat just inside the air intake, as did off-the-shelf, battery-operated models with their own alarms.

  We had yet to start on our own power generation. I rotated alternate banks of batteries down to the Michigan warehouse for charging every other day. We had two separate battery compartments, gasketted airtight chests mounted at the equator, which also reported draw rates and voltage states through Wanda’s sensors.

  We had three radiation sensors, one outside, one in the view-port cylinder, and one inside, out of direct line with the window.

  We had fire extinguishers and emergency self-contained air units and fiberglass fire blankets.

  Seeana, Tessa, Bea, and Jeline had spent sixteen hours on ground-side training, working on microgravity emergency and medical procedures, but there’s only so much you can simulate in gravity.

  We moved the sessions to orbit.

  Bea washed out. She was psychologically unable to detach microgravity’s feeling of falling from impending death, going into adrenaline-fueled panic attacks. She tried multiple times, once with a sedative, and, finally, begged to be excused.

  But Seeana, Tessa, and Jeline spent eight hours in Kristen Station practicing procedures: injections, vacuuming aspirated fluids, and intravenous fluid administration with the infusion pump, using each other as test subjects. They also got really good at emesis cleanup, but that wasn’t simulation.

  Though Mom was the most fervent proponent of this project, she was also the one with the most concerns and worries, but even she finally ran out of questions.

  “Let’s do it.”

  * * *

  “This might be the last bath I ever take,” Grandmother said.

  I’d brought the portable bathtub into the vault and ferried several five-gallon buckets of hot water from the Michigan warehouse.

  Mom, washing Grandmother’s hair, said in a carefully neutral tone, “What do you mean?”

  “The gravity thing. How would you, up there?”

  “We can bring you down here if you get too stinky,” Mom said.

  “Perhaps. But I’ve been putting up with just sponge baths for a while.”

  Grandmother got the good drugs, a scopolamine prophylactic dermal patch for motion sickness, and Seeana had promethazine standing by. The drug made Grandmother a bit woozy, but she understood about not moving her head.

  She wore an adult diaper and her cotton flannel nightgown with warm socks and we tucked her into bed for travel.

  Not my mattress. We’d made our own NASA-type sleeping gear, taking a tropical-weight hooded sleeping bag, putting armholes at the shoulders, and sewing Velcroed anchor straps top and bottom, to “hang” it.

  Dad had selected five progressively higher altitude locations, all indoors, to transition Grandmother to the air pressure of Kristen Station. He’d made the run four times as a rehearsal.

  “Shortly after I start, they are going to get location information, so I’m not going to linger at any of these stops longer than it takes Sam’s ears to clear.”

  “Understood,” said Mom. She was adjusting an oronasal mask on Grandmother’s face. Dad already had the small, connected oxygen tank in a bag slung over his shoulder. Mom zipped up the sleeping bag and helped Davy lift Grandmother, only stepping back when Grandmother’s head was leaning on Dad’s shoulder. “Ready?” Mom asked.

  “See you in space,” said Grandmother.

  She and Dad vanished.

  Mom and I looked at e
ach other and jumped.

  Jeline and Tessa were at the view port and Seeana was checking over her medical supplies and equipment in “sick bay,” a section of the inner hull halfway between the equator and the view port. Small items were stored in zippered bags and large items were by themselves, all Velcroed to the wall.

  Over the last week the amount of fuzzy-loop Velcro patches and strips had proliferated across the inner hull like some odd fungus, growing in squares, circles, and lines.

  Seeana turned her body (not her head) to look at us, raising her eyebrows.

  “Any minute,” I said.

  Jeline and Tessa heard and pushed off the view port frame, floating up to us along the stack.

  We waited, an expectant pause that was too short to say anything, yet an eternity to endure, and then … Dad and Grandmother appeared above us, next to one of the stack’s equatorial anchor ropes.

  Grandmother didn’t yell, but I saw her body twitch, that involuntary reflex, like dreaming you’re falling and jerking awake in reaction. Dad left one arm under her and put the other across her waist, giving her some sense of support.

  Mom jumped to their side, her eyes anxious. I pulled myself up, pushing from rope to rope, hoping we weren’t going to have another Bea-type reaction.

  When I could see Grandmother’s face, I relaxed. Her eyes were big, but she wasn’t panicked. She was looking around, moving only her eyes. “It’s bigger than I pictured,” she said. “And boy, that breeze on my face feels good after all that time in the ground.”

  In the ground. I hadn’t thought about the vault as a metaphor for burial. I certainly knew what she meant about still air, though. The ventilation in the vault was passive and it had gotten pretty stuffy before Dad started doing some daily atmosphere exchanges by twinning to the tropics.

  Mom said, “First things first—let’s get rid of that.” She pulled the strap from behind Grandmother’s hair and lifted the oronasal mask off.

  Grandmother looked a little alarmed as the mask came off.

  Mom handed it to Davy, who tucked it into the bag with the oxygen tank. He pushed it down toward Jeline, who snagged the bag out of the air and shut the regulator off, then passed it on to Tessa, who went to put it with the medical supplies.

  In the time she’d lived with us, I don’t think I’d ever seen Grandmother without some sort of oxygen feed on—a nasal cannula at the very least. She took a breath, then another and the corners of her mouth twitched up. “It’s easy. It’s … enough.”

  Seeana floated up next to us, a ghastly smile on her face.

  I said, “Are you all right, Seeana?”

  She dropped the pretend smile. “Sorry. I tilted my head up too fast. I’ll be okay in a minute.” She said to Grandmother, “Get your arms out of that bag, Sam.”

  Grandmother threaded her right hand out of the bag’s armhole and stared at her fingers. “I haven’t lifted my hand that high in months,” she said.

  “You’re not lifting it now,” said Seeana. She clipped a small portable oximeter to the end of Grandmother’s index finger. Her eyebrows went up as she looked at the readout.

  Mom twisted to see and laughed out loud. “Ninety-seven, and you only just arrived.”

  Grandmother freed her other hand, and was holding both of them out, moving them up, higher than her head, then down, almost to her waist. I wondered if she’d noticed that Dad was no longer holding on to her.

  Seeana reached up to her own neckline and unclipped something from the cloth of her scrubs. She leaned in and reached over to the side of Grandmother’s head. “Here—just like a clip-on earring.”

  “What’s this?” Grandmother asked feeling the centimeter-wide piece of plastic clipped to her earlobe.

  “Wireless oximeter. There’s no point in taking you off oxygen tubes if you have to trail wires around, too.”

  Grandmother licked her lips. “I can go anywhere in here?”

  Mom and Dad nodded.

  “I’d like to look out that window.”

  Dad reached toward one of the sleeping bag straps and Mom smacked his hand. He pulled it back, shaking it and glaring at Mom.

  Mom ignored him and said, “That’s an excellent idea, Mom. Go do that.”

  Seeana’s smile came back, only this time it was genuine. “Yeah, that’s right. You go, girl.”

  Dad made a silent “ah” shape with his mouth and he pushed off the rope, drifting back, followed almost immediately by Seeana and Mom.

  Grandmother’s eyes got really big and then twitched down, looking at the empty space under her, suddenly aware that no one held her—that no one was supporting her.

  “Here, Grandmother.” I held out my hand and, when she gripped my fingers, I moved them to the closest rope.

  She reached out with her free hand and tentatively felt the texture of the sheathed line, smooth, almost silky, then closed her fingers around it.

  I pulled my arm back from her other hand, and she resisted, gripping my fingers harder. I stopped, waited.

  With a firming of her mouth, she released my fingers and took hold of the rope.

  I smiled and said, “It’s just for common convenience, but we consider the view port is down. That lighted end is up. You can’t fall and it takes very little force to move you anywhere you want to go.”

  THIRTY-SIX

  Cent: I’m kind of a mushroom myself

  “The surgeon died in a car accident about eight hours after the missile took out your residence in Canada, but I expect the more relevant event was when you snatched Mr. Doe and the drone crashed.”

  Hunt and Davy were in Maclean, Virginia, sitting in the back of Hunt’s favorite sushi restaurant. Davy had ordered tea but wasn’t touching it.

  He’d made that mistake in the past.

  “Not an accident?”

  “No witnesses. The car hit a light pole at high speed but there were impact marks on the driver’s side where another vehicle forced it off the road.”

  “They wouldn’t have killed him if he didn’t know something.”

  “Or somebody. We talked to the anesthesiologist and the scrub nurse. The surgeon told them that the device was an experimental electrical bone-growth stimulator.”

  Davy gritted his teeth. “Electrical, anyway.”

  “Is it still transmitting?”

  “Not currently, but it could be back in sleep mode, waiting for a triggering transmission. Not that that would do them any good.”

  Hunt laughed lightly. “I suspect that moving her into orbit was the last thing they expected you to do.”

  Davy nodded. And that had a positive benefit. But there was still a smoking ruin where their home of twenty years stood. “What’s the story on the drone?”

  “It was a Predator. It wasn’t one of ours.”

  Davy looked very skeptical. “Not one of the CIA’s?”

  “Not one of the U.S.’s. It was one of several MQ-1s sold to Italy. It reportedly went down in the Adriatic Basin west of Montenegro, twelve hundred meters deep.”

  “And here it is scattered across a Canadian hillside.”

  “Tell me about it. The DoD is, to say the least, livid. That unit has U.S. technical advisors.”

  “So it was one of yours?”

  “There was U.S. personnel around. Investigation ongoing. Diverted or stolen.”

  Davy remained stone-faced. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t black ops of some kind.” He relaxed a little. “Okay. I don’t believe it was you guys for lots of reasons. But just so you know? If I find a reason to change my mind, you guys are going to start losing orbital assets right and left.”

  Hunt jerked his chin sideways, neither denying nor affirming. “Predators are operated long range through a Ku-band satellite link and I’ve been told that this bird wasn’t using our … orbital assets.” He paused. “Now, I’m kind of a mushroom myself,” meaning he was kept in the dark and fed bullshit, “but if true, this means they were using the C-band line-of-sight data link which is limite
d to one hundred fifty nautical miles.”

  Davy frowned. “That would reach into Alaska, barely, but it was in the mountains—line of sight would’ve been interrupted from a ground station. If it wasn’t being controlled by satellite, it had to be controlled locally.”

  Hunt shook his head. “You have one other possibility: an airborne asset controlling it from a distance. It would have to be high, but it could be almost out to one hundred fifty miles if it were high enough.”

  “But the drone loitered overnight!”

  “It could do that on automatic. The human pilots and their aircraft could’ve spent hours on the ground, then gone back up when the helicopter you disabled reached the area.”

  “Seems like an awful stretch. Why are you bothering?”

  “Because we found that aircraft.”

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  Cent: Live From Kirsten Station

  Jade and Tara were furious with me. Tara said, “We would never have gone off to the beach if you’d told us you were doing this!”

  Turns out being furious makes you move your head a lot. Tara got most of her ejecta into the bag, but Jade blasted her emesis sack right out of her hands with just the sort of results you might imagine.

  Thank god for Tessa. She was there with the clean-up kit in seconds. I got another emesis bag into Jade’s hands, then Tessa and I donned odor-blocking disposable masks and chased globules down with wads of paper towels.

  This is the sort of thing that really stops a conversation, but ten minutes later, at the upper end of the sphere, we resumed it.

  Quietly (Grandmother was napping) Jade said, “Have you posted any video? There wasn’t a hint of this on the news when I was scanning the channels in St. Martin.”

  “Not yet. We’ve had other priorities. We’re still a construction zone, you know.”

  “Yeah, but this is huge. Your grandmother is living in space. She’s the only one, right?”