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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 5


  “Seems to be. Flexed the suit. Worked fine.”

  “Flexed? You bent it?”

  “Oh, no. I just charged the EAP fibers and relaxed it.”

  “EAP?”

  “Electroactive polymers. I thought you’d read my papers. That you knew how the suit worked.” He sounded annoyed.

  “Ah. I know it contracts when the power is off. That’s the reason it doesn’t have to be customized, right? We chose you because you were the first to achieve thirty kilopascals over a nonuniform surface without having to customize it for different people.”

  His voice sounded calmer when he said, “That’s right. It’s really quite dramatic. I could show you when you’re in the Bay area.”

  “I’m local now,” I said. “Are you in your office?”

  “No. Unpacking. I scored a temporary faculty apartment in Stanford West. A petroleum-engineering professor is off doing an extended sabbatical in Abu Dhabi, research and teaching. Perfect timing. But I could bicycle to the lab in ten minutes.”

  “Is that convenient?”

  “Well, if you give me half an hour.”

  “Yeah, could do that.”

  “Do you need directions?”

  I’d been there already but I said, “The Durand Building right? Material sciences. Aeronautics and astronautics?”

  “Yes.”

  “See you there, then.”

  * * *

  I jumped directly to Cory’s lab because, other than Joe’s dorm room over in Stern Hall, it was the jump site freshest in my memory for Stanford. The lights were off and the door was closed, but unlike his previous lab, it wasn’t tucked away in the corner of the basement. High northern windows lit the room and the adjoining office, which made both rooms much less claustrophobic than his previous digs, though they were about the same size. He’d already organized things, and the boxes I’d stacked here four days before were gone.

  I let myself out the locked door into the hall and waited, sitting on a bench. I could hear people walking through the halls in other parts of the building but this little stretch was quiet. I could see down the hall and through another window. In the far distance was Hoover Tower and I remembered time spent with Joe on the observation deck when it was open and when it was closed.

  I had to look away to keep from crying.

  Cory came up the hall, still wearing his bicycle helmet. Velcro straps bound his khaki slacks at the ankles. He nodded at me. “You must’ve been close. When you said you’re local, does that mean you live here in Palo Alto?”

  “No, but I’ve been out here a lot.” The absolute truth.

  “Well, if you can afford to fund me, you can afford the travel, I guess.”

  As he unlocked the door I said, “Travel is the smallest budget line item we have.”

  He uncinched the straps from his pants cuffs and put them in his helmet, tucking it into an empty spot on an otherwise full bookshelf. He ran his fingers across the spines of several books as he moved to the connecting door to the lab. “It was weird. Didn’t feel right with these in the boxes.”

  I followed him.

  The stand and suit were at the end of the room, their cables leading to the bench. This time the USB connections rising out of the headless neck were connected to a laptop computer and the heavier cable below the suit’s helmet flange was connected to the power supply, as it was when I first saw it.

  “So, electroactive polymers,” said Cory. He handed me a piece of what looked like dark gray insulated wire, about six inches long. “This one is an ionic EAP. Pull it tight.”

  I held it between my thumbs and forefingers and pulled it straight. It wasn’t at all stretchy.

  Cory took a pair of leads from a smaller power supply on the bench and clipped each one to the ends of the gray piece where they stuck out past my fingers. “Hold it tight,” he said, and flipped a switch on the power supply.

  The gray piece suddenly thickened and was three inches shorter, drawing my hands together despite my best efforts to pull it back to its original length.

  “Huh!” I said. “Muscular!”

  “Yeah. In fact, that’s one of the biggest applications under development. Artificial muscles for prosthetic limbs and actuators for small robots and drones.” He turned it off and it relaxed, allowing me to stretch it back out to its previous length. “The molecules fold under current, pulling in on themselves. Now try this one.”

  He handed me a different length of what looked like a fuzzy cord, also six inches and, while I held it, he shifted the alligator clips from the gray rubbery piece to this one. “Give that a tug.”

  When I pulled hard on this piece it stretched out. I managed to pull it out to about eight inches but it retracted to six inches as soon as I relaxed. “This one has some elasticity. Is that what the suit is made of? It’s pulling pretty hard now. I hate to think what it would do when you put the pressure on.”

  He smiled. “Keep some tension on it.”

  I did and he threw the switch.

  It didn’t bunch up or pull together. It relaxed. I was now holding a piece of thinner smooth cord nearly fifteen inches long.

  “The ECP core of this one relaxes its molecular structure under current and folds back up when we remove current. We could’ve gone the other way, but we decided pretty quick that you wanted a power failure to enable, not disable, the suit.”

  For a moment I pictured my arm, the place where I’d had the frostbite, suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to vacuum. “That would be … bad.”

  He nodded. “Mind you, we’re not talking about exploding limbs etcetera. Our skin is tougher than that, but you would get swelling and tissue damage. You know why the target is thirty kilopascals don’t you?”

  “One third an atmosphere. Twenty-nine thousand feet above sea level. Mount Everest.”

  He looked pleased. “Right. Your skin can handle that easily enough.”

  “Yes,” I said, rubbing my wrist through my shirt. “Up to forty-five thousand feet, though that’s pushing it.”

  He nodded and flipped open the laptop on the bench. The screen lit up as it came out of sleep mode. A chart of numbers appeared, with labels like Anterior Torso 4, Right Leg 23, and Left Foot 16. Above it were three larger numbers labeled Max, Min, and Avg. They were 31,250, 30,700, and 30,986. “It’s in pascals.” He reached over to the suit and dug his thumb into the chest. Immediately the max went up to 31,540 and the average crept up slightly, too.

  “These are measured by strain gauges in the surface of the life-model pressure sensor. When we change out the underlying gel packs for different-sized life models, we get comparable results.”

  He reached out and turned a knob on the heavy-duty power supply connected to the suit. The suit shifted on the stand, going from a sleek, smooth surface, tightly covering the structure beneath, to suddenly looking like ill-fitting and wrinkled coveralls three sizes too big. Only the neck flange seemed the same as before, though the fabric of the suit now seemed to bunch together where it met the stainless steel.

  Cory let me look at the suit for a moment, my mouth open, before he directed my attention to the laptop screen. Across the top of the screen read Max: 320 Min: 0 and Avg. 11. “Those maxes are from the armpit sensors, probably, where it’s resting on the stand.”

  I took a fold of the suit between my hands. It felt like midweight canvas, flexible, nowhere near as taut and rough as it had felt before.

  “I’m impressed, Doctor Matoska. How does the suit feel on an actual human?”

  He cleared his throat. “We’ve only done partials, but it’s okay. Full range of mobility with only a little effort and good vacuum protection.”

  “Oh? But not a full suit yet?”

  He opened his mouth but then closed it without saying anything. He turned to the suit power supply and slowly turned the knob, reducing the power to the suit gradually. This was just as magical as watching the suit expand. The suit shrank down, like it was alive, until it seemed to merge with
the life-model pressure sensor inside. The average pascals climbed to 30,827 with a max of 31,602 and a min of 29,985.

  Dr. Matoska said, “I blew through most of my previous grant and wasted over fifty thousand dollars of EAP fibers trying to solve the issue of a reclosable entry.” He looked a bit shamefaced. “I was lucky the first time. It’s a topology issue. All the tensioning fibers have to go from the anode—” He touched the front half of the suit, right below the flange. “—to the cathode.” He tapped the back.

  I stepped around the suit. Except for the rigid flange at the neck, it was seamless. No zippers, no buttons, no clamps.

  “I tried to incorporate a pressure closure with the fibers looping through anchor islets, we got wildly varying pressure distribution, areas completely out of balance. A human would have gotten dangerous hematomas in some parts, and overpressures in others that would constrict circulation dangerously.

  “Next I tried to put the anode around the closure and the cathode at the helmet flange. It threw everything off. I tried a secondary waist flange, splitting the suit into two separate electrical systems. That was closer but we couldn’t get good pressures in the waist region. I tried an oversized helmet flange, big enough for a flexible adult to worm through, but the pressure distribution around the neck and shoulders was way off and we couldn’t maintain the neck seal necessary to pressurize the helmet.”

  I tried to hide my disappointment. “So what’s the next step?”

  “A great deal of computer modeling,” he said. “I’ve met with a multidisciplinary team here. They’ve got some applied mathematicians and guys from material sciences. I’m thinking we go back to the original design but we make the anode and cathode ring disassemble—” He held his hands together, touching at finger tips and thumbs in a circle, then spread them apart. “—instead of being permanently locked into the neck flange as they are now. Then the wearer can put the suit on, then bring the anode and cathode together and latch them to the helmet flange once he pulls it over his head.”

  Automatically I said, “Or her.”

  “Huh?”

  “Or over her head.”

  He looked at me oddly. “Why did you say that?”

  I’d said it because I needed the suit, but I answered, “We have men and women in space, Cory.”

  “We do. That’s one advantage of this suit type, after all. It handles wide hips and narrow waists without any trouble.” He cleared his throat and added, “But I was wondering if you’d heard about the testicle issue.”

  I blushed. “Excuse me?” For a second I wondered if he was turning into my Central Park stalker.

  “I told you about the suit prototype that had the waist flange, right?”

  I nodded.

  “While it wasn’t giving us good pressures around the waist, we thought it was giving us consistent enough pressure everywhere else on the life model to do some human-comfort trials. First we tried the upper body by itself and then we tried the lower body by itself, on one of my grad students.

  “Turns out the testicles don’t like thirty kilopascals of pressure, no matter how uniform.” He winced. “I tried it, too. We semisolved the pinching with variations on an athletic cup and some gel padding, but it wasn’t perfect. But when we had some undergrad females try the lower half, they didn’t need any padding or structural support. They reported no discomfort.”

  I raised my eyebrows. It wasn’t something I’d considered before. “The advantage of internal reproductive organs, I guess. What about breasts?”

  He shook his head. “Not a problem, even with the one woman who wore a D cup. She wore an athletic bra and we went slow on the tensioning, making sure the pressure was uniform with no pinched flesh. She said it was the best support she’d ever had. Of course we didn’t have it on that long.”

  “Why?”

  “Breathing. We didn’t have the suit in a vacuum and they weren’t breathing pressurized air, so the suit squeezes in on the lungs. It’s possible, but it’s tiring. Once we solve the closure issues, we can do extended-period comfort tests by pressurizing the helmet above ambient.”

  I looked down the neck. “How do you resize the mannequin in this guy? You tried the suit with a large range of body sizes, right?” I was pretty sure that was in his paper.

  He nodded. “The life-model sensor is modular.” He tapped the protruding neck. “The neck is part of the central torso which goes all the way down to the crotch, then there’s a right and left torso. The arms and legs are all one piece each. Each piece fits through the neck flange. We simulated several different body types, achieving thirty kilopascals from six foot four, two hundred and twenty pounds, all the way down to five foot even, ninety-five pounds.”

  I nodded. I was five three, myself.

  I looked around the lab, “Where are your other life-model parts?”

  “That was some of the equipment in my old lab.”

  “Oh. How did that work out?”

  “I took all your advice. I sent the picture to the campus police, to university legal, and to Hannum.” Cory grinned. “I don’t think the legal department is happy with Dr. Hannum. The faculty senate is rather upset, too, about my termination midsemester. I’ve agreed not to sue and they are paying my next two months’ salary. And, not only did they unseal the lab, they paid for shipping my equipment out here.”

  “Poor Dr. Hannum.”

  “Well, the bastard has tenure, so it’s not like he’ll get fired, but I suspect they might stick him with the department chairmanship an extra year or two.”

  “An extra year? That’s a punishment?”

  “You’ll understand later, when you start teaching in grad school.”

  It was my turn to stare. That was not exactly a direction I’d ever seen my life going. Flattering, though. I don’t think he realized how young I was.

  I turned back to the suit. “If you could get a human into this suit would it protect him in a vacuum? Do you have a working helmet?”

  “I have a helmet. Weren’t you listening, though? I’d have to chop a person up to get him inside. No grown human I’ve ever seen will fit through this flange. Maybe some three-year-olds.”

  I nodded. “I understand, but let’s just say if? Could it go into space?”

  He shrugged. “Well, at least to vacuum testing. That’s why this is so frustrating.” He brought his index finger to his thumb until they were almost touching. “We’re that close.”

  I nodded slowly.

  I knew a human who could get into that suit.

  I knew three of them.

  FOUR

  Davy: You don’t drop your weapon

  Davy thought of himself as a timid person.

  He was a person who could jump away at the slightest confrontation and often did. He still thought of himself as the young teenager cringing in his bedroom when his alcoholic father came home.

  He was not feeling timid, now, though. He suspected it had to do with losing his mother to violence. He wasn’t willing to lose anyone else. The “doctor” from the nursing facility had pointed a gun at his mother-in-law and a Taser at his wife.

  Davy didn’t drop him fifty feet into the water of the pit—something he had been doing for thirty years. He wanted access to the man’s cell-phone history and, if he had any documents, Davy didn’t want to risk them becoming illegible.

  But he did drop him into the pit—from fifteen feet above the island, into a stand of thorny mesquite scrub. The man pitched forward, flailing his arms to try and get his feet under him before he hit, but he only partially succeeded, slamming down through the brush. His breath left him with a heavy grunt and the Taser flew fifteen feet. He still clutched the automatic, though.

  Davy snatched the Taser and jumped to the rim above.

  The man wasn’t dead. Davy could see his arms were twitching but suspected he hadn’t managed to inhale yet. He was considering going back down to jump-start the man’s breathing when he heard a wheezing intake echo off the walls of
the pit. After several more wheezing breaths, the man managed to sit upright, pulling away from the thorns that snagged his jacket. He started to stand, but his left leg gave way when he tried to put weight on it.

  His next attempt went better, using his arms and good leg, he staggered upright. After a few more labored breaths he limped out of the brush to a stretch of bare sand near the water’s edge. He carried the gun pointed at the sky, one hand bracing the other, his elbows pulled tight into his sides. His head swiveled back and forth, looking over the island, then the walls of the pit, and then finally up toward the rim and the blue sky.

  Davy aimed the Taser before jumping, appearing six feet behind him, his hand already squeezing the trigger. Two red laser-aiming dots appeared on the man’s back and then the Taser bucked. Two wires shot out, sticking into the man’s jacket four inches apart. His back arched and his arms spasmed. His legs didn’t collapse as much as kick out, and he landed heavily on his back. Again, his breath left him.

  Davy took the gun and two spare ammo clips, the wallet, the phone, and three spare Taser cartridges from the man’s rear pocket. He found a pair of handcuffs tucked in the man’s belt and there was a capped hypodermic in the breast pocket of his jacket.

  Davy jumped away to the Yukon, to the cabin, and set his looted material on the kitchen table. He popped the battery out of the phone. He’d never been able to get a GPS receiver to work in the cabin—metal roof—but there was no point in taking chances.

  The gun felt odd, unbalanced. He hit the clip release, but nothing came out. He turned it over and looked up the frame. There was no magazine in the weapon. He worked the slide in case there was a round in the chamber, but no round ejected. He pointed at the exterior log wall and pulled the trigger. Click.

  He wanted to go through everything, but first things first. He left it all on the kitchen table.

  When Davy returned to the pit he carried a broad-spectrum radio-frequency detector with an antenna probe at the end of a cable. He also had a handheld metal detector hanging from a belt loop.

  The man was breathing again, but even more labored than after his drop. His eyes were half open, but Davy didn’t think he had control of his muscles yet. Still, he stood well back while he swept with the radio-frequency wand.