3 APRIL 2010/IN ORBIT, 200 MILES ABOVE EARTH
The first shots were silent.
No incendiary blast of explosives. No bombs exploding over a battlefield. No dramatic flash of a nuclear fireball to signal the onset of high-tech combat. Only a silent, single burst of electrons.
High above the Earth, drifting noiselessly in the black deep freeze of orbital space, a multimillion-dollar satellite simply died, a casualty of tiny but critical electronic circuits that failed when bombarded by a surge of electrons, exceeding the microprocessors’ design tolerances. There was a brief protest of overload, a signal, then silence.
The spacecraft’s final, automatic “Mayday” call—a short-burst scream that something was amiss in orbit—consisted of an innocuous stream of digital ones and zeros. Beamed to a ground station hundreds of miles below, that critical few-millisecond transmission of encrypted, coded blips would mean nothing to a casual observer. But it was the only clue that trained spacecraft engineer-detectives would receive. In its last electronic gasp, the satellite had done its part. Now its human creators would decipher the mystery, assigning meaning to brief, terminal spikes in receiver temperature measurements and power supply output voltages and currents. Nothing new there. Engineers and technicians had done that before, hunched over computer terminals in windowless rooms scattered across the U.S. mainland.
But this time, it would be several days before those on the ground could decode the subtle, sinister messages of those last digi-words from EarthView-4 and relay their chilling conclusions: the first shots of World War III had been fired.
4 APRIL 2010/STRATEGIC COMMAND HQ/OMAHA, NEBRASKA
United States Air Force General Howard Aster frowned, yet nodded. “Continue your briefing, colonel. We’ll get into the ‘hows’ and ‘maybes’ later.” Interruptions from the civilians scattered around the room irritated him, and he was anxious to get back on track. He had been dreading this precise moment for months, the time when his recurring space nightmare would become hard reality.
As commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, Aster occupied a high-backed leather swivel chair at the head of a long, carrier-deck–like table lined by his uniformed military staff, several gray-haired vice presidents from three commercial satellite companies, a squat and very round National Security Council representative, and J. D. Hart, a NASA technical troubleshooter. Behind them, lining the walls of a large STRATCOM headquarters conference room, sat and stood a multitude of lower ranking officers and civilians. An odd mix of people and skills, Aster thought as he scanned the crowd.
One of only a handful of four-star generals designated America’s “Combatant Commanders,” the Air Force officer wielded considerable power within the U.S. military’s chain of command. Today, though, he was simply an aging former fighter pilot trying to understand jargon tossed about by an ad hoc group of staff officers, consultants, and corporate executives assembled to assess what was quickly turning into a technological nightmare. At least that’s what Aster hoped it was. Because if what was happening hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface was not just a collection of random events, but something engineered by intelligent design, Aster knew he’d soon find himself in a world of shit.
At the opposite end of the table, Army Colonel Jim Androsin, a tall, thin, ramrod-straight officer, stood beside a big-screen, high-definition display that dominated an entire wall. He leaned over the long table, tapped the keys of a notebook computer, and the huge screen displayed a computer graphic of multiple satellites drifting above a crescent of blue-marble Earth.
“To recap the situation, sir,” Androsin continued, “three Trans-America Satellite Company—TransAmSat, if you will—spacecraft have experienced technical problems over the past month, and a fourth had a similar anomaly early this year. TAS-5, a comsat, is the latest casualty. It appears to have a faulty battery that will force the company to shut off several transponders about one hour every day for a month during the spring and again in the fall.”
“Why’s that?” Aster interjected.
“Those are the solar transitions, general,” responded Jack Molinero, a conspicuously well-fed TransAmSat vice president in a poorly fitting pin-striped suit and food-stained tie. His taut white shirt flowed over his belt as he slumped in a chair trying to compose his thoughts. The tired-looking company vice-president ran TAS operations. And, today, Jack was obviously not a happy man.
“In essence,” he said, “there won’t be enough sunlight hitting the solar arrays each day to keep our remaining good battery charged up through the night portion of each orbit. So, we off-load the power system by selectively shutting down some of the least-critical transponders. We intentionally ‘brown-out’ the satellite.”
Aster barely nodded his thanks and motioned with an eyebrow for Androsin to continue. Although he had been on the job as STRATCOM chief for a little over a year, the general was still getting up to speed on the finer points of this space business. As a fighter pilot, he had spent his entire career below 50,000 feet. Space, so-called Information Operations, and missile defense were new games for him—and for a lot of other people in this room, too, he realized, glancing at the faces turned toward the colonel. Back in the early 2000s, STRATCOM had been reconstituted, absorbing the old U.S. Space Command, and was subsequently assigned a host of additional responsibilities. On top of its traditional nuclear-deterrence role, the command’s bulging portfolio had been a handful for his predecessors, a fact he appreciated more each day.
Although rumors claimed that Aster had been in the running for the Air Force’s vice chief of staff slot, the service’s top general had asked him to take over as the nation’s number-one, four-star “space warrior.” Obviously, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already given his approval, or the USAF chief would never have offered him the job. Aster had jumped at the joint-command opportunity, preferring to remain close to front-line operations and as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. Two previous tours in the Pentagon had bred a strong dislike for things political, and it showed, despite attempts to conceal it. Because he knew it showed, he finally stopped trying to play the game. He was a warrior, not a politician.
Evidently, he hadn’t irritated too many on Capitol Hill, though. After several meetings with the Joint Chiefs chairman, the secretary of defense, a slew of congressional staffers, and even the president himself, Aster’s confirmation had breezed through the Senate without a hitch. The Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman’s only proviso had been that Aster remain in the critical STRATCOM job a full four years. That was the same as pointedly telling him: “You’ll retire in the job. This is the end of your military career.” That was acceptable, though, because he was now on the cut