Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 8

  “Sure.” I pulled the sheepskin boots off. “Let’s see if the connector still works.”

  Despite Cory’s worries, the power cable snapped back on and he cranked up the voltage.

  The suit let go of me in a way that was more unsettling than when it had tightened. It was like a bra strap breaking or a wet suit ripping or snaps coming open. It made my skin crawl.

  As soon as the suit stopped expanding I said, “Hold onto the helmet flange, please.”

  “Huh? Oh!” He’d slowly relaxed over the course of the hour, excited to finally see the full suit working on a human, but now that he realized what I was about to do, his posture was wary again and his eyes wide. He took hold of the flange on both sides of my neck and then he was holding the empty suit.

  I pulled up my left shirt sleeve and examined the lines imprinted into my skin by the cuff seam and the end of the sleeve. “Wow. You weren’t kidding.” It didn’t hurt, and when I rubbed it vigorously with my thumb, it began to fade.

  Cory hung the suit on the rack. He was breathing a little fast and I didn’t think it was the weight of the suit. He turned back to the bench and turned the power down.

  Again, I was surprised at how small the suit became.

  He crossed his arms and said, “Are you going to tell me what’s happening yet?”

  “You mean that thing I do? Sit back down,” I said.

  “You’re afraid I’ll faint again?” He felt the back of his head and winced. “Maybe you have a point.” He moved to the chair.

  I put my boots back on. “We call it jumping.”


  Mentally I groaned. “Well, I do.”

  “How many of you are there?”

  I shook my head. “Need-to-know, Cory. Need-to-know. Anyway, I can jump to anyplace I’ve been that I can remember well enough, or to anyplace I can easily see.” I walked slowly toward him while I was talking. “For instance—” I looked back, to the end of the lab beyond the suit stand, and then jumped there.

  He flinched and I was glad I hadn’t followed my first impulse, which was to jump from farther away to right in front of him.

  “How do you do that?”

  I shook my head again. “Need-to-know, Cory. I can tell you a few things, though. There currently doesn’t seem to be a limit on how far I can go.”

  I jumped away to the Yukon and in the walkway behind our cabin, scooped up a double handful of snow, then jumped back to the office and slapped it into his hand.

  Yeah, he flinched big time, dropping the snow on the linoleum between his feet.

  I kept talking. “That was from the Arctic Circle. I routinely jump all over the planet and, here’s the important thing, I jump from higher to lower latitudes and vice versa with no problem.”

  He was still staring down at the small pile of snow on the floor. “I’m not getting you.”

  Well, it was new to him. I was sure he’d get the implications in a minute.

  “Watch.” I used the lab stool to climb up and stand on the workbench. Yes, I could’ve jumped up there, but I wanted the point to be crystal clear.

  I stepped off and dropped to the floor, but before I touched, I jumped back to the far end of the room, standing perfectly still.

  Cory flinched again, but then his eyes widened. “You didn’t carry the momentum of the drop!”

  He blinked again, multiple times, and I couldn’t help thinking of the owl again.

  “And when you change latitude, you’re not carrying any velocity with you?”

  “Bingo, Cory. What’s your conclusion?”

  “You’re matching velocities.”

  “And this means? …”

  “You’re changing velocities.”

  “Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said. “Watch this.” I jumped in place but ended up facing the opposite direction. I slowly turned around and raised my eyebrows.

  He was doing the owl thing again. “That looked so weird. You changed orientation, right?”

  “Right, but mostly I wanted to show you I could jump to the same location but still change things. Watch carefully.”

  I jumped in place adding just under twenty feet a second straight up. I held my body still, making sure he saw that I hadn’t leapt up using my legs. The ceiling was a good twelve feet up and I slapped it with my palm at the apex of the jump, then dropped back down again. Before I hit, I killed all my downward velocity, landing whisper quiet on the floor.

  “What did I change, Cory?”

  He wasn’t blinking this time, but his mouth hung open. “Velocity,” he said.

  “I knew you were the bright one.” I walked up to him and peeled back the cuff of my right sleeve, showing him the half-inch circle of scab where the blackened blister had been. “See this? It’s a bit of frostbite. I got it at forty-five thousand feet.”

  If I thought I’d had his full attention before, I was mistaken. The intensity of his gaze as he lifted his eyes from my wrist to my face was scary.

  “I want to go higher.” I pointed my finger at the ceiling.

  “I want to go a lot higher.”


  Millie: I should pay you

  “Oh. My. God.” Davy left his mouth open after the last syllable, slowly shaking his head.

  Millie frowned. “Does she check out? Seeana’s not one of them is she?”

  “Oh, no. Like your mother said, she earns the median salary but she’s paying off a lot of debt—two different boyfriends maxed out her credit cards. Unfortunately, it wasn’t behind her back, they just didn’t pay her back as promised. That’s the main reason she lives with her mom.

  “The last ‘check’ I did was to listen at the window. Her mother never stops talking even when Seeana isn’t in the room. If she is with her, then it’s ‘pity you aren’t more pretty’ and ‘too bad you have such rotten luck with men’ and ‘I don’t know why you take after your father instead of my side of the family.’”

  He covered his ears.

  “We need to get her out of there.”

  * * *

  “Most of the time I’m wearing earbuds and listening to audiobooks on my phone.” Seeana leaned closer, cupping her hand around her coffee. “I tell Mom that it’s because I’m on call for my job and have to be ready to take calls. It’s not like I turn it up so loud I can’t hear her—more to give myself something else to focus on.”

  She hadn’t seemed surprised that Davy overheard her mother. “These autumn days, people leave their windows open until late. Mrs. Lee in the next unit complained to Mother that she couldn’t hear her television over Mother’s constant chatter. Mother’s still talking, but they aren’t.” She gestured toward Millie. “So, you had questions about home care?”

  That’s what Millie had told her when she’d arranged the meeting.

  “Yes. If you were going to take care of Samantha in a home environment, what sort of resources—staff and equipment—would you need?”

  “You thinking of putting her back in her apartment? Cause that would be much more expensive than where she is, since the staff is shared.”

  “No. Our home.”

  “Even more expensive. You’d need a health-aid worker full time, during the day, regular nurse visits, and you would have to respond at night.”

  “We were thinking three health aids, with you as supervisor. Unless you want four. Three shifts and some juggling for days off. I’d be around, usually, as well.”

  Seeana blinked. “You don’t need a full-time nurse for one patient.”

  “We’re remote. Staff need to live on-site. We’d be offering you ten thousand a month.”

  “Ma’am, the average staff nurse rate here in Wichita is sixty-five thousand dollars a year. I mean, really well-paying positions might get up into the eighties, but nobody pays one hundred twenty thousand dollars.”

  “My mother wants you.”

  “Ma’am, you’re offering me a place to live away from my mother? I should pay you! How far away?”
/>  Millie licked her lips. “How do you feel about … snow?”

  * * *

  So the first jump is always a shock. Millie left Seeana lying on the couch before the great fireplace and went back to the kitchen for a damp cloth and a glass of water.

  Seeana hadn’t fainted, but her knees had given way and she needed a moment.

  Millie was returning when she heard Seeana give a gasping half scream. She rounded the pillar and saw Cent standing by the fireplace, looking like she wanted to scream, too, one hand up to her throat.

  “This is Seeana, Cent. She helps take care of Grandmother in Wichita. We’re hoping she’ll continue to do so here.”

  Cent dropped her hand and breathed out. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. Glad to meet you.”

  Seeana was sitting up, perched on the edge of the couch. She slowly settled back, leaning into the cushions. “Nice to meet you.” She said, but it was tentative. “How many of you are there?”

  Millie stepped forward and set the glass on the coffee table. “This is my daughter. The only other person living here is my husband, Davy.” She offered the warm, damp cloth to Seeana. “Feeling any better?”

  Less tentatively, Seeana said, “Yes.” She sipped from the water. “Oh, nice water. That from your fridge?”

  Cent said, “From the tap, from our spring.”

  From the couch, Seeana could see the view across the valley to the firs framed in white on the far side. She took another swallow of water. “Cold as melted snow,” she said.

  She stood up carefully. “Let’s see this place of yours.”


  Cent:—while I’m making my own

  I found Dad at the cabin, pulling up the carpet in my old room. He’d piled most of it in the middle of the room and was prying up the carpet anchors at the edges of the room.

  “I thought Mom was going to do that.”

  Dad twisted around to look me. “Did she say that?”

  “Uh, she said, ‘I’ve got this.’”

  He laughed. “See?”

  “Yeah. I see. Do you have a jump site in Salt Lake City?”

  He jammed the pry bar under another section of the anchor strip and pried up. Half of it levered up and then snapped further down, where the nails still stubbornly gripped the floor. “Shit! Uh, I’ve got a site in Washington Square Park.”

  “That’s New York City, Daddy.”

  “And Salt Lake City. The old city-county building is there. The jump site is across the street from The Leonardo. Remember?”

  I shook my head. “Doesn’t ring any bells. What’s The Leonardo?”

  “That downtown museum—art, science, technology? We went there for the “Mummies of the World” exhibit?”

  “Oh. Yeah, I remember that. When I was fourteen. I didn’t realize that was in Salt Lake City.”

  “Why do you need to go to Salt Lake?”

  I deployed my first-level response, a true but uninformative answer. “Doing a favor for a friend of Joe’s.” Technically true. Tara and Jade knew Joe. “Could you pop me over there so I can acquire it?”

  Dad closed his eyes and pursed his lips. “Yeah—I think so.” He threw the broken section of wood into the middle of the room with the piled carpet and stood up, gesturing to me to come closer.

  He put his arms around me and then we were standing on brown grass, an icy wind swirling dead leaves past our ankles. The trees immediately around us were mostly bare, and I could see the blocky modern museum across the street, as well as a much older castlelike building in the middle of the park. Dad pointed to a huge building on the opposite side of the park from the museum—modern, yet with Greek columns. “I think that’s the state supreme court. This good enough?”

  I kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Daddy.”

  He smiled, then said, “What’s the favor?”

  I hated lying but I hated arguing with him about “security” issues even more. Out came the prepared lie. “A local specialty. Kid’s homesick. Joe won’t tell him how he got it.”

  He made a “go on” gesture with his hand.

  “Fry sauce.”

  “Oh, that. Why doesn’t he just mix mayo and ketchup?”

  I shrugged. “Says it’s not the same. Has to be from this one chain—Arctic Circle.”

  “Weird.” He looked at his watch. “You good? I need to finish pulling the carpet so your Mom and Seeana can refinish the floor.”

  “Yeah, thanks.”

  He vanished.

  I considered going back for a jacket but decided the hoodie I was wearing would be enough. Before long, though, I regretted the choice. There weren’t any cabs cruising the streets so I asked a woman walking a dog. “Yeah. Your best bet would be to walk up to the Marriott City Center.” She pointed north. “Like three blocks that way. There’ll be cabs there.”

  I was chilled by the time I got there and, before taking a cab, I went inside, found a restroom, and jumped home for my wool coat.

  Seventeen minutes and twenty-five dollars later, the cab dropped me curbside at Terminal Two, Salt Lake City International Airport. I kept my hood up and my face down and picked an alcove behind the Starbucks at baggage claim five. There was a camera, but it was blocked by a sign directing people to ground transport.

  Good enough.

  * * *

  The helmet was a polycarbonate fishbowl, a true sphere, sitting on a metal collar with through fittings which in turn terminated in a flange and seal.

  “It was tested to hard vacuum,” Cory said.

  “With a person in it?”

  Cory tapped the fishbowl, “It did some time in the eleven-foot chamber at Johnson, on an experimental suit. It was an attempt to make a disposable suit—cheap enough to use once and discard. The suit design didn’t work out, but the helmet never failed.”

  “How do you test it without a suit? And what do you mean by hard vacuum?”

  “Hard vacuum is all over the place in the literature, but when I use it, I mean fractions of a pascal—the thermosphere and above.

  “We test solitary helmets two different ways. One is to put them on a test stand and pressurize them to ten atmospheres. That’s effectively the difference between one atmosphere inside and a vacuum outside. The other method is in a vacuum—in a chamber on a sealed test flange—one atmosphere inside, vacuum outside. We did both on this.”

  “And it passed?”

  “To one atmosphere.” He jabbed his thumb toward the suit stand at the end of the bench. “We only need a third of that four-point-nine psi, for the MCP suit.”

  “Where’s your life support?”

  He tilted his head. “Pardon?”

  “What are your test subjects going to breathe?”

  “Oh. You run an O2 line, on a pressure regulator set to four point nine psi, and absorb the CO2 with soda lime or lithium hydroxide in the helmet. We could just purge the CO2 but that would contaminate the vacuum.”

  “Contaminate? A bit of oxygen and CO2 is going to contaminate your pristine vacuum?”

  “Contaminate as in ‘pressurize.’ The vacuum pumps are good, but you purge the helmet and you probably raise the pressure several pascals, and it will take a bit of time to pump it back down. You want consistent vacuum for the tests.”

  “Could you run the O2 from a tank, instead?”

  “It was run from a tank.”

  “I mean a tank on the suit.”

  “Oh, sure, no difference.”

  “And could you run that in space?”

  “Just a tank and some absorbent?” He frowned. “You’d want something more robust than that, with backups. That’s not my area of research, really. Just needed them able to breathe for my tests. But spaceworthy life support? Well, NASA has already done thousands of hours of EVA—they’ve got it wired.”

  He wasn’t getting my point. “When will NASA test your suit in orbit, Cory?”

  And when will NASA give me a spacesuit?

  He frowned. “The design ne
eds to be proven. It has to be tested in chambers and refined. I’ve got to solve the closure problem.”

  “I see,” I said. “You want to contribute to the space program. You’ve got the long view. You’re thinking about a push to Mars within the next twenty years.”

  “Well, yeah.”

  I leaned in and locked eyes with him, causing him to lean back, a bit alarmed.

  “Cory, you give me a working helmet and an hour of breathable air and I’ll test your suit in orbit this week.”

  His eyes widened and he licked his lips.

  I said, “I’m fine with advancing the state of technology for NASA and every other space program, but I’m not waiting to buy a ticket. The difference between you and me is that you’re depending on their space program—” I pointed at him and then jerked my thumb back at myself. “—while I’m making my own.

  “You want to come along?”

  * * *

  The weekend had gone well for Tara and Jade, though Jade didn’t want Tara to go back. They were more clingy than they’d been on Friday, if that was possible.

  “Decide,” I said. “Tara’s mom is probably passing through Provo, now. When she gets to the airport and Tara doesn’t show, I’m not the one who’s going to call her. Pretty sure you’ll get some interesting calls from both sets of parents.”

  Jade rolled her eyes and reluctantly let go of Tara.

  I made Tara buy me a hot chocolate at the baggage-claim Starbucks at Salt Lake City International and hung around while she checked in with her mom by phone.

  “Hey, Mom. I’m here … yeah, not for another hour, but the flight got in early to Chicago and they had an earlier flight just leaving and overbooking issues on my scheduled flight so they asked if I’d switch. No problem. I have a book. Just let me know when you’re about to get here and I’ll be curbside.”

  She stuck her tongue out at me and disconnected.

  “I could’ve stayed with Jade another forty-five minutes!”

  “Your mom could’ve been early, too. You guys decide about Europe?”

  “She’s going to try and sell it to her parents. You can really get me to Paris?”

  “Mais oui, enfant. A lot easier than it was to get you here.”