Tango Midnight

Tango Midnight

by Michael Cassutt

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It's 2005, and the world has changed. International terrorists have released a genetically modified disease, called X-Pox, on the world. There is no greater challenge to medicine than finding a cure. Biochem billionaire Tad Mikleszewski (called TM by nearly everyone) is a "space junkie" who has been the primary investor backing the Spacelifter project, a

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It's 2005, and the world has changed. International terrorists have released a genetically modified disease, called X-Pox, on the world. There is no greater challenge to medicine than finding a cure. Biochem billionaire Tad Mikleszewski (called TM by nearly everyone) is a "space junkie" who has been the primary investor backing the Spacelifter project, a private attempt to build a single-stage to orbit vehicle. But Spacelifter's crucial test firing has failed, and TM is going to pull the plug. He has a better idea for getting himself into space....he'll buy research time on the International Space Station, to work on a cure for X-Pox. The Russians will sell him a seat on the Soyuz taxi vehicle for a mere $30 million.

But the equipment in the Harmony Laboratory module was salvaged from old Russian military labs, and perhaps TM's skills are a little bit out of date. A tiny leak - a small hole in the seal of the isolation box where TM is manipulating the X-Pox pathogen, and Harmony is contaminated by the disease that kills within three weeks.

Now it's a race against time, to rescue the crew and decontaminate the Space Station. NASA has a shuttle a month from launch, and if Astronaut Kelly Gessner can be retrained in decontamination procedures they can push that up two weeks. The Russians have a third Soyuz due off the assembly line, but Astronaut Mark Koskinen, NASA's chief of staff at Star City doesn't think they'll make it in time. But whether Russian or American, someone is going to have to get up there, and fast.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This thoroughly readable near-future space thriller takes place in 2006, with Space Station Alpha a going concern and the Chinese sending men into space. Billionaire Tad Mikleszewski has failed in efforts to launch a privately owned space booster, but he is determined to get into orbit, even if it means paying the Russians for a ride on one of their rockets. Meanwhile, American astronaut Kelly Gessner is preparing for a shuttle voyage, actress Rachel Dunne will be doing shots for her next film aboard Alpha and Kelly's ex-lover Mark Koskinen is riding herd on Westerners at the Russian Star City space center. All of this takes place as a biowar plague known as X-Pox rages, and preparations for the launch are disrupted by weather, illness, sexual chemistry, politics, bureaucracy and Russian muggers. Once in space, Tad (aka Tango Midnight) sets up camp in an Alpha module, where he intends to develop an X-Pox antidote. An accident releases the deadly virus, trapping Tad in the module, and Mark is recruited to save him via a complex docking maneuver. The book is stronger on technical detail ("BAACC will put Shenzhou-Harmony in a minus-Z orientation") and pacing than on characterization, and the climax seems rushed, but it will satisfy space fans with a taste for thrillers, or thriller fans with a taste for space. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Space historian Cassutt's third procedural (Missing Man, 1998, etc.) turns on a deadly microorganism getting loose in a space module. (It should remind Tess Gerritsen fans of the organism called Chimera floating about her space station in Gravity.) In 2006, various accidents, explosions, and losses of funds have led to a sponsored and combined US-USSR mission on Space Station Alpha (now in its sixth year), with one wealthy passenger paying zillions to carry out scientific tests in the commercially funded Russian module. Also along are star Rachel Dunne, playing astronaut Terry Drake; her film crew, to shoot footage for a MosFilm/DreamWorks space yarn called Recoil; and her companion, Russian cosmonaut Igor Gritsov. By this time, the planet has become plagued with X-Pox, a killer virus that slays far more people than AIDS and has spread unabated. Dr. Tadeusz Mikleszewski, the multimillionaire head of Pyrite, whose initials TM give him the nickname "Tango Midnight" ("Tango," for short) leads the medical experiments aboard the Russian Harmony module docked with Alpha. Striving to synthesize in microgravity a working vaccine for X-Pox, Tango is working with deadly bugs in a glovebox when the box overheats and-hisss!-some of the bugs escape. The Harmony module and the bugs are doubly sealed off at once, but, self-imprisoned on Harmony, Tango is locked into a fatal Midnight. Of course, he may yet find the real deal, a vaccine. All this is set up with a density of acronymic detail and mass of secondary characters that only readers on booster herbs (Gingko biloba, not cannabis) will retain. Also on hand is astronaut Mark Koskinen, whose four years working with the commercial Spacelifter craftended when it exploded on the launch pad. He's reuniting with his lost love, fellow astronaut Kelly Gessner, with whom, not surprisingly, he will have a life-saving rendezvous in space. NASA politics and preparation in depth for the commercial launching add realism. A struggle, but rewarding.

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Tuesday was the day of the dead.
Not the upcoming Mexican holiday celebrated at Halloween with special relish here in southern New Mexico. To Mark Koskinen, that would have been fine, an occasion for bad costumes and excessive candy consumption.
No, this Tuesday in October had real death looming over it. First there had been the report on KTEP that the number of X-Pox fatalities in the United States had reached 100,000. A city four times the size of Las Cruces--gone! God only knew how many others were sick, and would die.
And that was just the U.S. The figure for the Middle East, where X-Pox had first been launched, was much higher.
Reports like that always made Mark nervous. He actually put on rubber gloves to take out the trash, one of a series of ultimately pointless but nevertheless reassuring actions he was taking lately.
Then, as a further waste of time, he sat down at his computer to update his X-Pox map: the New England states (with the exception of Maine) colored red, for their advanced level of contamination. The West Coast, including California, was the same, and rates of infection in the Phoenix and Tucson areas were now pink. (The contagion had entered the United States with returning naval personnel and was now spreading inland.)
He had long since given up on charting the disease in Asia, Africa, and Europe: too depressing. Not that it mattered. Before he could close the file, the phone rang: his mother in Iowa. They barely exchanged greetings when he said, "How bad is he?" Meaning his father.
"Oh, they found something else," she said, meaning the doctor had found another tumor, though she had never uttered that word in Mark's hearing.
Mark felt his heart rate rise, his breathing quicken, his voice thicken. "Jesus," he said, even though the misuse of the Lord's name would upset his mother even more. "What are they saying?"
"Oh, you know," she said, sighing so she wouldn't break down. "They just didn't get it all during the last operation. They want another round of chemo…" She trailed off.
Mark could picture her, at the telephone in the kitchen. "Where's Dad?" He hadn't seen his father in four months, partly because of continuing disasters at work, partly because he could just not face a trip like the last one, when Dad was midway through the first round of chemo. With the loss of forty pounds he couldn't spare, along with the rest of his hair, he had looked like a victim off famine.
"He's resting," she said. There was no obvious hesitation between the two words, but Mark was attuned enough to his mother's peculiar syntax to hear it, and make the translation: he doesn't want to talk. "You must be on your way to work," she said, offering him a chance to end the conversation.
"The place won't fall apart if I'm five minutes late."
Here came his mother's well-known dismissive sigh. "I need to call Johanna," she said, naming Mark's younger sister.
"Say hi for me, then," Mark said. "I'll call Dad tonight."
Dazed at the growing certainty that his father would not be alive a year from now, Mark grabbed his backpack. One last look around the increasingly lonely condo and its rental furniture reminded him how much he disliked his life.
* * *
The offices of Harriman Industries/Pyrite Group's X-39 Spacelifter project occupied two floors of a beige brick building at White Sands Missile Range. Until Harriman, reeling from the dot bomb sell-off, had been forced to allow Pyrite to buy in, the project had occupied two additional buildings as well as a test stand on the range itself. Pyrite's mysterious management had cut the staff by two-thirds and returned two buildings and the test stand to White Sands.
The move had struck Mark as foolish, since it forced the program to lease the test stand at premium rates, and to fight for time on the range schedule. The whole rationale behind the X-39 was to demonstrate a radical new hybrid rocket that would serve as a prototype for a successor to NASA's troubled Space Shuttle. No hybrid, no project.
But there was no arguing with Pyrite. This morning, for example, the hybrid motor was scheduled for a sixty-second run at 80 percent power--the most demanding test so far, and one that could easily have taken place a week or ten days earlier. But the test stand had been preempted by some spooky DARPA activity, and as of last night there was some doubt the instruments would be recalibrated in time for use by Spacelifter.
Which was another reason Mark felt no guilt about arriving twenty minutes later than usual, pulling his battered Explorer into the lot at ten to eight. His presence wasn't strictly required for the test, anyway. His title--director of flight operations--and background--NASA astronaut on leave from the agency--meant that he was responsible for the development of mission control, tracking and communications, and even such mundane items as FAA certification for the vehicle.
In reality, he had spent most of the past five years making presentations to groups of potential investors. "Nothing like having a real-live astronaut talking to them about the future of spaceflight," Lanny Consoldane, Mark's immediate boss, said frequently. Mark appreciated the power of his position, and enjoyed the presentations, but he cringed whenever Consoldane suggested he wear his NASA flight suit, complete with its STS-100 mission patch. Since his annual birthday trip for a medical checkup last June, he had only visited the Johnson Space Center once. He wasn't current on the T-38 jets flown weekly by members of the astronaut corps; he wasn't in line for a future flight assignment, especially with the backlog in Shuttle launches after the Columbia disaster and the immense knot of unflown astronauts waiting for their first ride to orbit. The only indication that he was still considered an astronaut was that his official on-line biography called him "current," though on "management" status.
This morning Mark entered the office to find the latest in a series of temporary receptionists behind the desk. This young woman was a Latina, dark-eyed, a bit overweight, named Lupe. Mark introduced himself, learned that he had no messages, then headed for Consoldane's office.
He found him facing out the window, which looked east to the launch and test sites. Rumpled, bearded, and overweight, the X-39 program director was as far from agile as a human being could get. Mark had seen him drop a PalmPilot and walk away rather than try to pick it up. Yet this morning his feet were up on a cabinet and he was leaning back in his chair. "Five minutes," Consoldane said, in what passed for "good morning."
Mark sat down and glanced at the television monitor to the right of Consoldane's desk. It showed a fixed monochrome view of the hybrid's nozzle and pump structure. Wisps of cold steam rose from the piping. Consoldane had his back to the screen. "Is it that the Tularosa Basin is particularly lovely this morning," Mark said, "or that you can't bear to watch the test?"
Consoldane lowered his feet and turned to face Mark and the screen. "What do you think?"
"Three minutes," said the muted voice from the television.
Mark liked Consoldane; they had worked well together for almost four years without ever becoming friends. This was partly because Mark spent his first two years on X-39 taking every opportunity to go back to Houston, and partly due to Consoldane's utter lack of social life: no family, no friends, no dates. He was a celibate monk of spaceflight, a John the Baptist of the doctrine of single-stage-to-orbit vehicles.
And he was two minutes away from seeing his messiah rise from the dead.
"When do we flight-test?" Mark said, anxious to fill the silence with a human voice.
"We can put the motor on the airplane in six weeks." That was one of Consoldane's charming habits, referring to a prototype spacecraft as an "airplane." "We could make a hop in six months."
"And then go for a follow-on?" The X-39 was officially the X-39A; X programs were ideally designed in stages. You flew the A model until it broke, built a better B model, then repeated the process with a C or D model.
"The money's out there. We just have to get folks to give it to us."
"Thirty seconds." That was the voice from the control room at the test stand. "Motor is enabled."
Now even Mark found it difficult to talk, or even sit. He had noticed this quirk of his own while watching Shuttle launches--especially after he had experienced one of his own. It was as if sitting down equaled being confined, and being confined meant being unable to deal with problems. He was on his feet, leaning on the edge of Consoldane's desk, as the control voice counted down every five seconds to "ignition."
A jet of pale flame shot out of the nozzle base. The whole structure started to vibrate, shedding flakes of frozen condensate that vanished in the brutal heat of the exhaust.
"Plus five. All indications are good."
"Come on!" Consoldane said, leaning forward, as if the addition of his considerable bulk would help the test.
"Plus ten--" The test conductor paused. Mark sensed the problem before he saw it: on the screen, the engine began to vibrate with a frequency that just didn't look right.
A fuel line rattled off, and a second later the whole screen went white.
The test conductor uttered a single word: "Shit."
A dull shock jolted the building, like an earthquake lasting a fraction of a second.
To the east, in that beautifully craggy desert landscape, a single column of smoke arose.
* * *
Mark spent the next four hours driving back and forth to the test stand, including one trip with an army lieutenant colonel from the White Sands facilities squadron. "Boy," he said, "you guys really screwed up my stand," a statement that was as uncalled-for as it was true. Mark felt like punching him, but the heat and emotions of the day left him without energy.
From the outside, the test building appeared to be undamaged, except for some scorching on one side, where the ruptured line had spewed flaming fuel. The inside was another matter, however: it was not just burned, but its walls were scored with metal and glass fragments of the motor and the test instruments.
No one on the X-39 test team was injured, since the test had been remotely controlled from a building a hundred yards away. But to Mark's eyes the five engineers seemed wounded.
Then there was Consoldane himself, who had first taken the disaster calmly, riding to the test stand with Mark and plunging into the preliminary investigation of what went wrong. He was even polite to the sour-faced army lieutenant colonel, and proclaimed that while the damage to the test stand was significant, the cause of the rocket failure seemed to be easily fixable.
By early afternoon, however, after Mark had returned the obligatory phone calls from the local newspaper and radio about the "setback," and while he was watching KDPC's news team preparing for a stand-up in front of the Harriman/Pyrite building, Consoldane entered his office and closed the door. "We're done," he said, looking flushed and less healthy than usual.
"Done with what?"
"The program. That was the end of it."
"Come on, Lanny! We had a test failure! Every rocket program in history has had the same. You were just saying it wouldn't take much to fix it."
"It won't. That is, it wouldn't, if we had any money." He held out his hands, as if looking for answers--or cash--and finding neither. "Pyrite's pulling the plug, effective immediately."
"Doesn't that violate their contract?" Mark was sufficiently informed about the program's shaky finances to know how much cash Pyrite had committed, and for how long. They were nowhere near the breaking point.
"Yes. And they invited me to take them to court." Consoldane forced a smile. "Know any powerful attorneys who'd like to take on a losing cause for a contingency fee?"
Mark closed his eyes. "Did they say why? I thought their owner wanted to get into the space business."
"Oh, he's apparently found some other place to spend his money. That's why he wants to, uh, redirect the cash he was putting into the X-39."
"The anonymous owner. Have you ever met this guy?"
"Once, in a big crowd. I'm not sure I got the name. He was impressive, driven." Consoldane blinked. "The kind of man who is no stranger to litigation. So, my friend, if I were you--"
There was a knock on Consoldane's open door--Lupe, the temp. "Phone call for…you," she said, turning to Mark, obviously having forgotten his name.
"If it's another reporter, forget it--"
"All she gave was her name. Kelly Gessner. Do you need the number?"
Mark realized he had jumped to his feet. "I know the number."
Lupe ducked out as Consoldane grunted. "Astronaut Kelly Gessner. Calling to gloat, do you suppose?"
"That's not like her." Mark knew he sounded unconvincing. "What advice were you going to give me, Lanny?"
"Get out of Dodge, my friend."

Copyright © 2003 by St. Croix Productions, Inc.

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Meet the Author

Michael Cassutt is noted for his writing about the space program -- not only articles in magazines such as Space World, but a massive biographical encyclopedia, Who's Who in Space. Cassutt is the author of two previous mystery thrillers set within the space program, Missing Man and Red Moon. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Michael Cassutt is noted for his writing about the space program -- not only articles in magazines such as Space World, but a massive biographical encyclopedia, Who's Who in Space. Cassutt is the author of two previous mystery thrillers set within the space program, Missing Man and Red Moon. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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