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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 41


  “Technically. The rest of us are commuters so far.”

  Jade said, “I’m surprised you aren’t up here all the time!”

  I looked at her, eyebrows raised, and she blushed. “They say you get over it in a week!”

  “You haven’t tried our microgravity toilet. Some things work better down there.” To be fair, we had the pee part working pretty good. The other system still had problems but at least I could jump the entire unit down to Earth and steam clean it when necessary.

  Tara, turning a little more pale, said, “But you should definitely let us do an interview with your resident. Not only is it historic, it’s the best way to reward our sponsors and to get more.”

  “Okay. We’ll talk about it.”

  * * *

  We did. Dad hated the idea, Mom was neutral. I was iffy, myself, but when Grandmother was all for it, I chimed in on the pro side.

  Tara skipped an entire week of class to set up the interview.

  All the networks were interested, but when they discovered it wouldn’t be one of those remote interviews, where the interviewee was talking from space and the reporter ground side, they went crazy. Millions were offered for an exclusive, which was reasonable, given that the Russians charged over twenty-five million to send a space tourist up.

  We said no.

  After all the back-and-forth we agreed to one reporter to be selected from the different networks by lottery after the candidates had passed microgravity testing in a commercial parabolic aircraft. We would broadcast live through satellite link in equipment provided by the network pool, and we would keep the equipment after.

  The only thing any of the networks fought us on was that we specified it be a woman reporter.

  Dad didn’t trust them, of course. Before he allowed the equipment in the station, he had it examined carefully by Wanda and her friends.

  It turned out to be an unmodified off-the-shelf, high-end mobile-reporting setup that used satphone technology to provide live HD video and stereo audio from anywhere in the world. It had the added advantage of functioning as a satphone, letting a news anchor ask questions, studio to frontline.

  A thirty-second clip of our equipment test ran on most networks.

  “Space Girl here. Welcome to Apex Orbital Services Kristen Station, currently—” Pivot to viewport. “—ten thousand three hundred eighty-three kilometers over the Gulf of Aiden. Please join Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Connie del Olmo when she tours this new facility and interviews the people who live and work here, this Saturday evening, ten P.M. Eastern, seven P.M. Pacific.” Cut to exterior shot provided by me, and the chorus of Wilson Pickett’s version of “Mustang Sally.”

  Pulitzer Prize or not, Dad was sure they might use this to get at us. However, since he was trying to keep his face unknown, he gritted his teeth and agreed I should be the one to get Ms. del Olmo at her home station, WETA-TV in Arlington, Virginia.

  It was a good thing Dad didn’t go—he would’ve have had a fit. Though they promised not to publicize the “launch” before the fact, they’d asked permission to tape it. People must’ve been telling their families because almost half the forty or so people in the courtyard between WNET’s two building were too young to work there.

  Most of them were looking up, including Ms. del Olmo, probably expecting the sort of arrival I’d done at the Russian embassy.

  Instead I walked up the few stairs from the South Quincy Street sidewalk and threaded my way through the crowd. Since I was wearing my Nomex coveralls with all the patches, old and new, the crowd parted after my first “Pardon me.” I should’ve jumped directly to her side because out came pictures, autograph books and pens, handshakes, and cameras accompanied by desperate pleas: “Could I just take one quick picture with you?”

  Oh, god.

  It didn’t take that long and at least I was prepared for the girls who pushed forward for a handshake or a picture or just to look with large eyes.

  I’d taken our entire store of Space Girl patches and put them in a bin up in Kristen Station. They’d been up there for over ten days so I could say, each time I took one from the cargo pocket on my leg to give to another girl, “This patch has traveled over four million kilometers through space. What will you do?”

  I thought Ms. del Olmo would be irritated at the delay but she was grinning when I finally got up to her. Then I realized the cameras were live and probably had been as I made my way through the small crowd.

  She shook my hand firmly. “Call me Connie. I mean it. It’s the only thing I’ll answer to.”

  She wore a blue NASA flight suit, not new, with her name on it and a patch for the Journalist in Space program on the shoulder. I gestured toward it and she said, “When I was younger. I was one of forty on the final list before the program got scratched when … when it got scratched.” Her smile faltered.

  “When Columbia broke up over Texas.”

  “Yes.” She looked at her feet. “Miles O’Brien was picked, though he didn’t get to go either. We all got flight suits.”

  “So you’d done the vomit comet before? That must’ve given you an advantage.”

  “Hey! Who’s conducting this interview?”

  One of the crew laughed.

  I said, “Are you ready?”

  “I am. What do I—”

  * * *

  “—do?”

  Tara was already pointing the camera and she got Connie’s whole-body spasm as we appeared. I released Connie but held on to her arm until I was sure she’d adjusted.

  “Not … much, apparently.” Connie lifted her wrist to look at her watch. “We go live in four minutes.” She was blinking rapidly. For a moment I thought she was disoriented but I caught on.

  “Handkerchief?”

  Jade and Tara had declared themselves our AV crew. Jade pulled herself across on one of the stack’s guide ropes and said, “Here’s your mic.” She placed it in the air in front of Connie and carefully let go so it hung there, barely drifting, no rotation. (I knew for a fact that she’d practiced that for over thirty minutes.)

  Connie looked at Jade, bemused. “Thanks—” She looked at the embroidered name on the white Nomex coveralls. “—Jade.”

  The handheld wireless mic had come with what Tara told me was a “flag”—a box that fit over the body of the microphone so you could put a decal for station ID on each of its faces. Jade created an abbreviated Apex Orbital Services logo for it, AOS, where the ‘O’ was a tilted ellipse, like an orbit. Connie stared at it as it floated in front of her, then grabbed it like a lifeline.

  With the mic her hand, her whole posture changed. “Right. Who’s on the line with New York? Is my feed live?”

  Tara, also in Apex coveralls, lifted her hand and pointed at the headset she wore. “Ready at the networks.” She held up her thumb. “Video and audio feed are A-okay.”

  Connie looked at Tara, then Jade, then very slowly tilted her head forward, looking down to take in the lower half of the volume. She said, “Who are all these people? Scratch that. Where are we starting?”

  * * *

  “From ten thousand kilometers above the surface of the earth, I’m Connie del Olmo reporting live from Apex Orbital Services Kristen Station!”

  I’m sure most of you saw the tour and interviews. Our sponsors certainly let us know that they did, which is why I added all those patches at the last minute, especially the green 3MedO2 for Tri-City Medical Oxygen. (Not only were they providing our oxygen, they’d forgiven me for “borrowing” two tanks after hours the night the cabin was destroyed.)

  You didn’t see Dad or Jeline, who decided not to become a public figure, in the show. Cory and I decided we would create a separate event later, specifically about Matoska Counter-Pressure Spacesuits.

  But didn’t Grandmother look great?

  She wore that elegant chiffon puff-sleeved blouse in off-white, black bootcut slacks, and black slipper socks. Because of microgravity she was still carrying some extra fluid in
her upper body, puffing her face slightly and reducing wrinkles. “And my jowls don’t sag!” she’d said to Seeana while doing her makeup.

  “This is my grandmother, Samantha Harrison. She’s our permanent resident.” I was eager to get Connie pointed at someone else. The woman was very nice and all, but after five minutes of having the microphone pushed toward me, I was ready to jump over to the ISS until she was done.

  Okay, it was me, being tongue-tied.

  Connie looked quite a bit younger beside Grandmother, but Grandmother looked more graceful, more at ease floating in midair. Fifteen days of practice will do that.

  “I understand you’re the reason this is all here?”

  Grandmother smiled. “Well, I’m the reason it’s here now. They were already planning it, for later, but my medical issues made it more urgent.”

  “Tell us about that.”

  “I was bedridden on Earth, on oxygen full time, often on a positive-pressure respirator. Besides severe osteoporosis—I’ve broken both hips—I have neuromuscular issues that interfere with my breathing and, especially after my last hip fracture, make it hard to do physical therapy.”

  “You certainly aren’t on a respirator now,” Connie noted.

  Grandmother took a deep breath, spreading the fingers of her hands as she did so. “Indeed. We’re breathing ninety-eight percent oxygen at ten psi and I’m not pinned to a bed.” She leaned closer to Connie and said conspiratorially, “Gravity sucks. Up here, I’m free as a bird.”

  I was in the frame for most of the show but I stayed in the background as much as I could and handed off questions to the others.

  Connie asked about food and Grandmother said, “No, we aren’t cooking yet. We keep fruits, bags of nuts, granola, tortillas, peanut butter, and honey, but meals are all takeout—or more specifically, brought up.”

  “Is that food prepared especially for zero gravity?”

  “No, though I’m eating spicier food than usual up here,” Grandmother said. “We had take-out Mexican food for supper. Enchiladas in red sauce, with rice, refritos, and lettuce-and-tomato garnish. It came in the restaurant’s clamshell box, but because Millie—have you met my daughter yet? Anyway, she gave the rice, beans, and garnish a quick stir before bringing it up. It all stuck together and to the container. To a spoon,” she smacked her lips, “it was good.”

  Mom said, “It sure was.”

  “This is my mother, Millie Harrison-Rice.”

  Connie said, “Quite the resemblance, there, Space Mom.”

  Mom rolled her eyes. “It was only a matter of time. Now that the words ‘Space Mom’ have been uttered, let’s never do it again. I’m Millie, thanks.”

  We floated down to the food-and-utensil section and Mom said, “Even a fast-food burger works all right if it’s in a paper wrapper—though Tessa here had an inflamed eye for a day and a half after an unplanned collision with a French fry.”

  I said, “Tessa Orcullo is one of our mission medical specialists.”

  Tessa shook hands. “I used to like French fries.”

  Connie asked, “Ouch. Any foods that don’t work?”

  Tessa said, “Some forms of food. I had a black pepper-inhalation incident that was pretty nasty. We like spicy foods up here and I thought it would be okay to open one of the paper packets that came up with some takeout.” She glanced over at Mom and grinned. “Now ‘Space Mom’ has banned all particulate spices.”

  Millie groaned.

  Connie said, “I don’t think I could live without some salt and pepper.”

  Seeana said, “Food is either seasoned down there, or suspended in liquid up here.”

  I said, “Seeana Walker, supervising mission medical specialist.”

  She shook hands with Connie. “From Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Mom!”

  Connie laughed. “In liquid?”

  Seeana plucked a clear squeeze bottle from a mesh pocket. “Hold out your finger.” She squeezed a tiny drop onto Connie’s finger, where it clung.

  Connie touched it to her tongue. “Salty.”

  “Yep. Really salty water. Don’t overdo it. We’ve got hot sauce in packets, too.”

  I handed Connie a water bag—a liter plastic bladder with a screw top from which emerged a drinking tube. We were trying several, from bladder canteens designed for backpacking to disposable bags of water intended for survival kits. This was our favorite so far, washable and refillable. “Need a drink?”

  She had a sip and then we did the obligatory water globule floating in air, and she bit it out of the air. The scene was spoiled slightly when she got part of it down the wrong pipe, but she recovered quickly.

  Mom showed Connie a Japanese bento-style lunch tray with individual snap-on covers for each section. “Sometimes we actually do cook down there and sometimes the meals come in leaky containers so we use these.”

  Connie said, “Soup?”

  “If it’s not chunky, these work.” Mom tapped Connie’s water bag. “If it’s thick, like stew or chili con carne it works fine in one of these,” she tapped the bento tray. “Surface tension and surface wetting forces hold fairly well.

  “You can actually use a bowl to hold liquids, but mostly drinks come in bags. Hot drinks in insulated bags. And we bring up bulk water in this.” She tapped a ten-gallon collapsible bladder with a squeeze-bulb hand pump attached. “We can fill small bags or use it for washing.”

  Connie took another sip and put the bag out in midair, but it almost immediately headed “south” with the ventilation breeze.

  “Where’s it going?”

  “Where everything goes,” said Joe.

  “Joe Trujeque, Mission life-support specialist—our Stanford University engineering intern,” I said. He glared at me and I stuck out my tongue, but not on camera. I’d made up the titles that afternoon but I hadn’t told Joe. “Tara Bochinclonny, behind the camera, is our marketing and public relations director. Jade handles some of our communications graphic design and is our Smith College intern.” I’d suggested adding “Beckwourth High School intern” to Tara’s title but she’d said she would kill me if I did.

  Joe led Connie down to the intake end of the stack where we were able to find a French fry, a pea, and several smaller pieces of less identifiable food sitting on the outer blanket filter, along with a collection of hair in various colors and shapes.

  “Most of it ends up here, which is good, ’cause you don’t want it in your lungs. We swap this out daily.”

  While he talked, I demonstrated, taking off the nylon strap that cinched the filter to the stack’s end and rolling the blanket inward, from the edges, enveloping the debris and exposing the HEPA filter underneath.

  While I stuffed it in one of our laundry bins, a Rubbermaid container with a snap lid, Joe got out another blanket filter. “The blanket filters go to the laundry for cleaning, but we haven’t decided yet how often we’re replacing the HEPA filter.” He tapped it. “Probably once a month.”

  Joe led the way up the stack, identifying each module and answering questions.

  “Cent takes the desiccant and activated-charcoal cartridges outside so the moisture and stinky volatiles evaporate off in the vacuum.”

  Connie asked, “Do you process the carbon dioxide absorbent that way, too?”

  “No. We just replace it, something we can do because our cost to station is so low.” He looked at me.

  I said, “Eventually I’d like to replace this section with an amine or zeolite swing-bed system so we can regenerate our absorbent and do away with disposable.”

  “What about oxygen?”

  “Like so much of our stuff, it’s takeout. We bring it.” I tapped the 3MedO2 patch on my coveralls, then pointed up the stack where the tanks clustered around the heat exchanger. “Our total bank provides over a hundred person days of oxygen, but rather than let it run low, I swap out two of those big guys every other day.”

  “Same thing for power,” said Joe. “We are—well—Cent is, transferring batteri
es ground side every other day for charging.”

  “Busy girl,” said Connie.

  “For now. When we add solar, I won’t have to. Then we’ll investigate oxygen-generation methods using electrolysis. We’ve got quite a bit of water up here, after all.”

  Connie frowned and looked back down toward our “kitchen.” “Those little bags?”

  Joe laughed and pointed, shifting his finger as he spoke. “There, there, there, there, and there. Everywhere but at the window, you’re looking at a wall of water three feet thick. Three hundred twenty-one tons of it.”

  “For drinking?”

  “Heck, no. For radiation shielding,” said Joe. “For micrometeorite armor. And for thermal mass. It’s why this station is even possible and you aren’t receiving any more radiation in here than you would in a typical airliner.”

  “You know,” said Connie. “I quite like three feet of water.”

  We did five minutes at the view port and then Tara stuck the camera to a patch of Velcro and all eight of us gathered, floating behind Connie as she said, “From ten thousand kilometers above the earth, this has been Connie del Olmo from Apex Orbital Services Kristen Station.”

  * * *

  Our Singapore server cluster crashed again, but we’d warned them about the show and they were able to swing extra capacity in fairly quickly.

  Coverage was mixed.

  We were dilettantes and amateurs. We were insane space squatters. We were bold pioneers. The whole thing was the biggest hoax since the moon landings. Space Girl’s Space Mom is hawt and Space Granny wasn’t so bad either.

  There were thousands of inquiries about moving all variety of invalid relatives into our facility. There were hundreds more decrying our privileged ability to move one invalid relative into space.

  There were a substantial number of people willing to pay fantastically large sums for relatively short visits.

  “Omigod,” Tara said. “This could be a much more lucrative sideline than the satellites.”

  “Who cleans up after them?”

  “For this kind of money? I will!”

  “Greedy.”

  “Charge that much money, give three quarters of it to charity and it’s still a lot of money.”