Critical Mass: A Novel

Critical Mass: A Novel

by Daniel Suarez
Critical Mass: A Novel

Critical Mass: A Novel

by Daniel Suarez


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In New York Times bestselling author Daniel Suarez's latest space-tech thriller, a group of pioneering astropreneurs must overcome never-before-attempted engineering challenges to rescue colleagues stranded at a distant asteroid—kicking off a new space race in which Earth's climate crisis could well hang in the balance.
When unforeseen circumstances during an innovativeand unsanctionedcommercial asteroid-mining mission leave two crew members stranded, those who make it back must engineer a rescue, all while navigating a shifting web of global political alliances and renewed Cold War tensions. With Earth governments consumed by the ravages of climate change and unable to take the risks necessary to make rapid progress in space, the crew must build their own nextgen spacecraft capable of mounting a rescue in time for the asteroid's next swing by Earth.
In the process they'll need to establish the first spin-gravity station in deep space, the first orbiting solar power satellite and refinery, and historic infrastructure on the moon's surfaceall of which could alleviate a deepening ecological, political, and economic crisis back on Earth, and prove that space-based industry is not only profitable, but possibly humanity's best hope for a livable, peaceful future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593183632
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2023
Series: A Delta-v Novel , #2
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 150,035
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Daniel Suarez is a New York Times bestselling author, TEDGlobal speaker, and former systems analyst. His unique brand of high-tech fiction explores the causes and impacts of rapid technological change. The author of seven novels, his latest, Critical Mass (second in the Delta-v series), is a realistic space-tech adventure depicting humanity's transition from a climate-imperiled, Earthbound civilization to one that utilizes resources and energy from space to secure a promising, sustainable future.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


July 14, 2038

Erika Lisowski sat in a deserted waiting area on sublevel 2B of the FBI's gleaming new headquarters in Washington, DC. Before long, a dour woman at a built-in reception desk motioned to her, and Lisowski stood to approach.

The woman pointed to a grid of numbered cubbyhole shelves installed in the wall. "Place all electronic devices on your person in any open box and note the number."

Lisowski realized she was about to enter a SCIF-a sensitive compartmented information facility. No electronics permitted, and that meant the place would be shielded against radio signals as well. Such facilities were common enough in DC, but not in Lisowski's work as a NASA economist. It confirmed that whatever was about to be discussed was not meant to be seen or heard beyond these walls. That was telling.

Lisowski powered down her phone and stowed it in one of the cubbyholes, taking a chit for the box number. She then followed the receptionist's pointed finger to a suited man standing next to a closed door. He held up a scanning wand. "Arms out at your sides, please."

She did as instructed, and he waved the device across her body. Then he scanned and inspected her purse.

Finished, he opened the door and said, "They're waiting inside for you."

She entered, and the door closed immediately behind her. There was a modest-sized conference room with an American flag draped on a pole in the corner. In the center was a long table occupied on one side by a dozen solemn men and women in suits and one or two in military uniform. They resembled a row of judges. None of them wore identification, and there were no name tags on the table in front of them. Two female agents stood to either side of Lisowski, and one pulled out the lone chair opposite the officials.

It appeared she would be on her own-a situation to which she'd grown accustomed. Lisowski placed her purse on the floor and sat down.

Directly across from her, a prim and pinched-faced man in a freshly pressed charcoal gray suit flipped through a thick file. He looked up and stared intensely into her eyes. "Dr. Lisowski, do you know why you've been called here today?"

She spoke calmly. "I do not."

"This is a classified disciplinary hearing, convened to assess whether your conduct warrants immediate termination from NASA."

She processed this news. "I see. Then why are we at FBI headquarters and not at NASA?"

"Because if this panel concludes termination is warranted, you will be arrested and charged with espionage under Title 18 of the federal criminal code."

So that was the game plan. Intimidation. A poor choice. One that suggested desperation.

"What's extraordinary is that you thought your activities would not be discovered."

"What 'activities'?" She scanned the faces of the other officials. Who among them was the real person in charge here? She suspected not the one talking to her.

He continued. "We have irrefutable evidence of your involvement in numerous breaches of NASA's code of ethical conduct, not to mention federal law. You face not only dismissal from NASA and forfeiture of your pension, but also decades in federal prison. Do you understand the gravity of your situation?"

"I understand." Lisowski let a beat pass. "But then, if your plan was to arrest me, you would have. So why don't we cut the bullshit and get to the real discussion?"

Her interlocutor was taken aback and took to rearranging his papers.

One of the men in uniform chuckled slightly to himself.

A woman on the panel spoke up. "Okay, Erika-let's all cut the bullshit. Three months ago a small asteroid burned up above Europe, illuminating the night sky over millions of people. You may have seen videos of it on the Internet."

Lisowski said nothing.

"Well, it wasn't an asteroid, and it didn't burn up. It was an unidentified spacecraft inbound from beyond the Moon at over 65,000 miles per hour, performing a controlled aerobraking maneuver-no easy feat. Two days later that same spacecraft came around again and circularized into low Earth orbit-before issuing a mayday call. Its crew said they were a lifeboat from the Luxembourg-flagged asteroid mining ship Konstantin. Have you ever heard of such a spacecraft-the Konstantin?"

Lisowski contemplated the question. "I know that Nathan Joyce-"

"The tech billionaire."

"Yes. Joyce planned to build an asteroid mining vessel, but the news said it was all a scam. Just a Ponzi scheme to dig himself out of debt."

The woman stared hard at Lisowski. "And conveniently Mr. Joyce committed suicide before he could be arrested for embezzlement and tax evasion."

"I don't expect it was convenient for Mr. Joyce."

"And yet, you know that's not the entire truth."

Lisowski remained silent.

The woman continued. "The Chinese rescued the lifeboat's crew in low Earth orbit. One of the three occupants was a former taikonaut-son of one of the richest men in China-an industrialist who is also a high-ranking Communist Party member. The CCP confiscated the spacecraft in LEO, claiming right of salvage. Imagery and spectral analysis suggest the ship's aerodynamic skin was crafted from a seamless piece of cobalt steel-estimated to be more than 50 tons in mass. That's some lifeboat. And there's no record of any such craft launching from Earth."

A man on the panel said, "We have reason to believe that the Chinese are behind this crewed deep space mission-and that it is somehow linked to you and the late Nathan Joyce."

Lisowski laughed bitterly. "This is so predictable."

"You find this amusing?"

"No. I find it pathetic. That lifeboat was not built by China-which is no doubt why they seized it. In fact, it wasn't built on Earth at all. It was built in deep space by the crew that flew it."

"Then you admit you were aware of the existence of this spacecraft?"


"And what do you know about the asteroid mining ship Konstantin?"

Lisowski took a deep breath. She had carried this secret for so long now-years-but secrecy was no longer possible. Here goes. "I advised Nathan Joyce to build the Konstantin-a 346-ton spin-gravity asteroid mining vessel-in lunar orbit back in 2032. Very much as his publicly released blueprint depicted it."

Several of the panelists eagerly began taking notes.

"But it wasn't a proposed spacecraft; he actually built it. In pieces. Secretly. The Konstantin departed lunar orbit on an unsanctioned asteroid mining mission on December 13, 2033, with a commercial crew of eight-and to this day remains in the vicinity of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. More importantly, its crew has already returned thousands of tons of refined water ice, iron, nickel, cobalt, ammonia, nitrogen, and silica toward cislunar space-resources, in fact, equal in mass to more than half of everything humanity has ever launched into orbit. But then, I suspect these resources are the real reason I was called here today." She studied the panelists' faces for any tells.

"Why did you not alert your superiors to the existence of Joyce's illicit spacecraft?"

Lisowski remained stone-faced. "Nathan himself announced it publicly everywhere he went. His videos are all over the Internet."

"What I mean is: Why did you not alert your superiors that Joyce was actually building the spacecraft-and with funding from questionable sources?"

"Because if I had, then it wouldn't have happened."

"Who else within NASA or the US government was aware of the Konstantin's construction in lunar orbit?"

Lisowski shrugged. "I have no idea. I can only speak for myself."

Her interviewer did not seem satisfied with this answer. "You had no other help or accomplices?"

Another man on the panel said, "You've already confessed to criminal conspiracy."

Lisowski recalled her grandfather gazing at the stars in his backyard-his dreams for humanity thwarted decades ago. She resolved not to back down. "It's 2038, and we're only just now establishing a permanent presence on the Moon. Meanwhile, climate change is tearing apart civilization-it won't wait for us to get our shit together. Humanity is half a century behind where we should be."

A couple members of the panel nodded in agreement. She took mental note of them.

One of the other panelists said, "Your little space mission resulted in the deaths of at least three-and possibly five-of the crew, not to mention the embezzlement of twenty-four billion dollars."

Lisowski turned on the panelist. "Our 'little space mission' accomplished a thousand firsts and has greatly accelerated human progress in space. As for the funding, I wasn't consulted by Nathan on how he raised the money. But over half of it was embezzled from dictators, criminal organizations, and corporate tax evaders, and to my mind put to more productive use."

"You say these miners accomplished firsts. Where is the hard data returned from this mission?"

Lisowski was pleased by this shift in the conversation. So they wanted things from her. She still had leverage. "I have in my possession all the scientific, telemetry, and physiological data from the expedition. Daily medical records from the ship's flight surgeon-a treasure trove of data on human survival in deep space, particularly regarding GCRs, radiation shielding, and spin-gravity research. Obviously, this data must be shared with the scientific community."

Several of the panelists scribbled this down, too.

Her first interviewer was not appeased. "These were unethical and unlawful human experiments."

"The crew of the Konstantin was well aware of the risks they were taking. We don't prevent climbers from risking their necks on mountains here on Earth. So why are we preventing them from climbing mountains out in space? No taxpayer money was lost on this expedition. These were private individuals from several nations-so it hardly constitutes a geostrategic threat."

"You don't get to decide that."

The pinched-faced man slid a piece of paper across the table to her. "Dr. Lisowski, the Justice Department is prepared to offer immunity from prosecution-providing you cooperate with investigators and reveal everything you know about the Konstantin spacecraft, its crew, how it was financed, and the people who built it-as well as detailed information on the resources returned to lunar orbit. Providing that you hold back nothing from us, you can still avoid prison."

Lisowski raised an eyebrow. "Immunity from prosecution. How very generous of you." She pulled the piece of paper toward her and studied it. "And here I am without an attorney."

"This isn't a negotiation."

The woman said, "You will, of course, be demoted-down from GS-15 Step 5 to GS-14 Step 1-from an executive to a program manager, and because you abused your authority, you will report to the new program executive for emerging space. Likewise, the existence of the resources returned by the asteroid miners as well as the existence of the Konstantin itself has been classified on national security grounds-a secrecy you will maintain or be in breach of this agreement."

Lisowski perused the document. "So the government is building yet another cylinder of excellence and locking this up."

The woman added, "Sign that document, Erika, and you can put your legal and professional troubles behind you. Start to rebuild your career."

Lisowski looked up. "Why not ask for my resignation?"

"There are many within NASA who respect your family's Apollo lineage. No one wants to tarnish your family's or the agency's good name."

"Then I'll give you the answer my grandfather would have . . ." She slid the paper back. "Go to hell. I will never sign this."

There was a tense silence.

An older man at the end of the table, who had yet to speak, said, "You will accept the demotion and keep your knowledge of the Konstantin secret or face dismissal, arrest, and prosecution. In case you hadn't noticed, we are in a geopolitical and astropolitical struggle against a rival power."

Lisowski turned to him. She didn't recognize the man-but neither did she recognize anyone else here. Defense? Intelligence? Executive branch? It was impossible to know. But he was clearly the one in charge. "You brought me here because you don't want 5,000 tons of strategic resources in deep space to fall into the hands of the Chinese."

The man shot back, "We brought you here, Dr. Lisowski, because your extracurricular activities have gone far enough-and we both know it's 11,000 tons that the Konstantin has returned, not 5,000."

She tried not to blink.

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