A novel of technology, terrorism, and hope
"Bova proves himself equal to the task of showing how adversity can temper character in unforeseen ways." The New York Times on Venus
"Hard-charging… Bova keeps the pages turning." -Publishers Weekly on The Rock Rats
Bova gets better and better, combining plausible science with increasingly complex fiction.
Bova proves himself equal to the task of showing how adversity can temper character in unforeseen ways.
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By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
"California in sight."
Test pilot Hannah Aarons saw the coastline as a low dark smudge stretching across the curving horizon far, far below. Beyond the cockpit's thick quartz windshield she could see that the sky along that horizon was bright with a new morning coming up, shading into a deep violet and finally, overhead, into the black of infinite space.
The spaceplane arrowed across the sky at Mach 16 and crossed the California coast at an altitude of 197,000 feet, precisely on course. Through the visor of her pressure suit's helmet, Aarons saw that the plane's titanium nose was beginning to glow as it bit into the wispy atmosphere, heading for the landing field at Matagorda Island on the gulf coast of Texas. She began to hear the thin whistle of rarified air rushing across her cockpit.
"On the tick, Hannah," she heard the flight controller's voice in her helmet earphones. "Pitch-up maneuver in thirty seconds."
"Copy pitch-up in thirty," she answered.
The horizon dipped out of sight as the spaceplane's nose came up slightly. All she could see now was the black void of space high above. She concentrated on the display screens of her control panel. The digital readout of the Mach meter began to click down: 16, 15.5, 15. ... The shoulder straps of her harness cutting into her by the g force, Hannah heard her breath coming out harsh, labored. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the leading edge of the plane's stubby wings turning a sullen deep ruby. In seconds they'd be cherry red, she knew.
Suddenly the plane pitched downward so hard Hannah banged her nose painfully against her helmet visor. Her neck would have snapped if she weren't in the protective harness. She gasped with sudden shock. The air outside her cockpit canopy began to howl, throwing streamers of orange fire at her.
"Pitch-down excursion!" she yelled into her helmet mike as she pulled at the T-shaped control yoke at her left hand. Her arms, even supported in their protective cradles, felt as if they weighed ten tons apiece. The plane was shaking so badly her vision blurred. The controls seemed locked; she couldn't budge them.
"Servos overridden," she said, her voice rising. Through the fiery glow outside her cockpit she could see the ground far, far below. It was rushing up to meet her. Stay calm, she told herself. Stay calm!
"Going to wire," she called, thumbing the button that activated the plane's backup fly-by-wire controls.
"No response!" The plane continued its screaming dive, yawing back and forth like a tumbling leaf, thumping her painfully against the sides of the narrow cockpit.
"Punch out!" came the controller's voice, loud and frantic. "Hannah, get your butt out of there!"
The plane was spinning wildly now, slamming her around in her seat as it corkscrewed back and forth in its frenzied plunge toward the ground. She could taste blood in her mouth. The inflatable bladder of her g suit was squeezing her guts like toothpaste in a tube.
"Hannah!" A different voice. "This is Tenny. Punch out of there. Now!"
She nodded inside the helmet. She couldn't think of what else to do. No other options. This bird's a goner. It took a tremendous effort to inch her right hand along its cradle to the fire-engine red panic button. Just as she painfully flicked up its protective cover the plane's left wing ripped away with a horrible wrenching sound, flipping the plane upside down.
Hannah's arm snapped at the wrist. White-hot pain shot all the way up to her shoulder. She was still trying to push the eject button when the spaceplane broke into half a dozen blazing pieces and fell to earth in smoky meteor trails, scattering wreckage over several hundred square miles of flat, scrubby west Texas.CHAPTER 2
MATAGORDA ISLAND, TEXAS
Dan Randolph stood at the broad window of his office, staring grimly at the hangar floor below. A pair of technicians was bringing in a twisted bit of wreckage from the truck parked outside in the hot summer sunshine, carrying it as tenderly as if it were the body of a fallen comrade. Part of the wing, it looked like, although it was so blackened and deformed that it was tough to be sure.
The sleek outline of the spaceplane's original shape was laid out across the hangar floor in heavy white tape. As the chunks of wreckage came in from the field, the technicians and crash investigators from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board laid them out in their proper places.
"Once they get all the pieces in place," Dan muttered, "they'll start the autopsy."
Saito Yamagata stood beside Randolph, his hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed in sympathy.
"Might as well do an autopsy on me, too," said Dan. "I'm as good as dead."
"Daniel, you are much too young to be so bitter," said Yamagata.
Dan Randolph gave his former boss a sour look. "I've earned the right," he said.
Yamagata forced a smile. No matter what, he almost always smiled. Founder and head of a young but vigorously growing Japanese aerospace corporation, Yamagata had much to smile about. He wore a Savile Row three-piece suit of sky blue, with a tiny pin in the jacket's lapel: a flying crane, the family emblem. His dark hair, combed straight back from his broad forehead, was just beginning to show a touch of gray at the temples. He was the tallest member of his family within living memory, at five-eleven, more than an inch taller than Randolph. Once Yamagata had been as slim as a samurai's blade, but the recent years of living well had begun to round out his belly and soften the lines of his face. His eyes, though, were still probing, penetrating, shrewd.
Dan was in his shirtsleeves, and they were rolled up above his elbows. A solidly built middleweight, he had a pugnacious look to him, in part because his nose had been broken a few years earlier in a brawl with a trio of Japanese workmen. When he smiled, though, women found his rough-hewn face handsome, and he could be charming when he had to be. He felt far from charming now. His gray eyes, which had often sparkled as if he were secretly amused at the world's follies, were sad now, bleak, almost defeated.
The spaceplane had been his dream; he had bet everything he had on it, everything he could beg or borrow. His company, Astro Manufacturing Corporation, was going to show the world how private enterprise could make money in space. Now that dream lay twisted and broken on the hangar floor below.
Dan saw a small, slight figure off in the far corner of the hangar: Gerry Adair, the company's backup pilot, slim and spare; from this distance he looked like a sandy-haired, freckle-faced kid. Adair was staring silently at the wreckage being deposited on the floor. He had often clowned around with Hannah Aarons; she had been the serious one, he the exuberant, playful joker. He wasn't clowning now. He simply stood there like a forlorn teenager as the technicians brought in the blackened, twisted pieces of what had been a machine he might have piloted.
Dan turned away from the window. "Today is Astro Corporation's fifth anniversary, Sai. Probably its last, too."
The office was cluttered with papers and reports that were piled high on Randolph's massively grotesque old Victorian black walnut desk. Even through the thick, double-paned window they could feel the deep, heavy vibration of the overhead crane as it lugged the blackened remains of the spaceplane's cockpit section across the hangar to the team of technicians waiting to set it into its proper place in the outline on the floor.
As he stood beside Randolph, Yamagata laid a hand gently on the younger man's shoulder and said, "Dan, if you allow me to buy you out, you can continue to run the company."
Randolph grimaced. "Into the ground."
"You need capital. I'm offering — "
"Sai, we both know that if I let you buy me out, within a year I'll be out on the street, no matter how reluctant you'd be to can me. A company like Astro can't have two masters. You know that, and I know you know it."
Yamagata's smile turned slightly down. "You are probably right," he admitted. "But you must do something, Dan. Wasn't it one of your own presidents who said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going?"
"Yeah, to where the going's easier," Randolph muttered.
Yamagata shook his head. "You have great assets, Daniel. The power satellite is nearly finished, isn't it? That could be worth several billions by itself."
"If it works."
"You know it will work. The Yamagata demonstration model works, doesn't it?"
Randolph nodded reluctantly. He had helped to build the Japanese power satellite, working as an employee of Yamagata. Then he had used the demonstration satellite's success to win backers for his own start-up company, Astro Manufacturing Corporation. Yamagata had been angered, but as soon as he heard about the accident he had flown in from Tokyo. To offer his help, he told Randolph. To scoop up the competition at a distressed price, Dan thought.
"Your company wouldn't be the first to encounter difficulties because its founder was too optimistic, too much in love with his own dreams."
"Dreams? I don't have any dreams. I'm a hard-headed businessman," Randolph growled. "Not a good businessman, maybe, but I'm no starry-eyed dreamer."
Yamagata looked at this American whom he had known for almost ten years. "Aren't you?" he asked.
"No," Dan snapped. "The spaceplane is an important part of the picture. If we don't have cheap and reliable access to orbit, the power satellite isn't much more than a big, fat, white elephant in the sky."
"White elephant?" Yamagata looked puzzled for a moment, but before Randolph could explain, he said, "Ah, yes, a useless extravagance"
"You've got it, Sai."
"So you intend to continue with the spaceplane?"
"If I can."
Yamagata hesitated a heartbeat, then said, "I can provide you with enough capital to last for another three years, even at your current level of losses."
"No thanks, Sai. I'll be double-dipped in sheep shit before I let you or anybody else get their hands on my company."
With a theatrical sigh, Yamagata said, "You are a stubborn man, Daniel."
Randolph touched his crooked nose. "You noticed that?"
The office door swung open and Randolph's executive assistant stuck her head in.
She started to say, "Joe Tenny's here. Mrs. Aarons's funeral is set for — "
Tenny barreled past her, a short, stocky, scowling man in an open-neck shirt and a tight-fitting, silver-gray blazer over a pair of new blue jeans. "Time to get to Hannah's funeral, boss," he said, in his abrupt, no-nonsense manner. "I'll drive."CHAPTER 3
Asim al-Bashir sat calmly with his hands folded over his middle as the others around the table gleefully congratulated themselves. Fools! he thought. But he kept a carefully noncommittal expression on his round, dark-bearded face.
They called themselves The Nine. No poetic names for them, no declarations of bravery or daring. Merely The Nine. They worked in secret, planned in secret, even celebrated their victories in secret.
Here in this squalid hotel conference room that smelled of pungent cinnamon and rancid cooking oil from the kitchen down the hall, most of the others wore their tribal robes, including their Sudanese host, who sat at the end of the table muffled in a white djellaba and turban. Here in the crumbling capital city of backwater Sudan they were comfortably safe from the prying eyes and hired assassins of the West. At least, they thought so. Al-Bashir was dressed in a Western business suit, although he disdained to wear a tie.
"We have stopped the American," said the tall, bearded Saudi, his eyes glittering happily. "His dreams are smashed into as many pieces as his so-called spaceplane."
"But they don't realize that we are responsible for the crash," said the deeply black Sudanese. "They believe it was an accident."
"So much the better," the Saudi replied. "Let the unbelievers think so. We have no desire to draw attention to ourselves."
The others murmured agreement.
The Iraqi exile, once a general and still dressing in an olive-green military uniform, was the nominal chairman of this group. They met rarely, furtively. It was not wise for all of them to be together for very long. Despite all their precautions, despite all their successes, the Yankees and their lapdogs still had a powerful arsenal to use against them.
"The purpose of this meeting," the general said, his deep, rich voice loud enough to quiet the others around the table, "is to decide where to strike next."
"Randolph is done," said the Egyptian, who had masterminded the sabotage of the spaceplane. "Astro Manufacturing Corporation will be in receivership within three months. Perhaps sooner."
Al-Bashir raised a hand in protest. "We may be congratulating ourselves too soon."
"What do you mean?" the Saudi demanded, his lean, hawk-nosed face darkening with displeasure.
"Randolph is a resourceful man," said al-Bashir.
"What of it? His project is crippled now," the Egyptian countered, his round bald head slightly sheened with perspiration despite the fans that turned lazily overhead. "Randolph is finished, I tell you."
"Perhaps," al-Bashir conceded mildly.
The general, sitting up at the head of the table, asked with narrowed eyes, "What is troubling you, my brother?"
My brother? al-Bashir thought disdainfully. These zealots and religious fanatics are no brothers of mine. Yet he kept his contempt hidden. I must convince these maniacs of the seriousness of the situation, he told himself.
He pushed his chair back and got to his feet. All eyes were on him, the room was completely silent now.
Excerpted from Powersat by Ben Bova. Copyright © 2006 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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