Orbital Decay

Orbital Decay

by Allen Steele
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Orbital Decay by Allen Steele

Winner of the Locus Award: Space-station workers discover a shocking global surveillance plot in this novel from “the master of science-fiction intrigue” (The Washington Post).

Popeye Hooker knows that space isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A former fisherman who takes a job building low orbital stations to escape a failed relationship, he finds that in space, construction work is still a grind. And when they aren’t building the space stations that will usher humanity into the stars, Sam Sloane and the rest of the beamjacks get high, blast the Grateful Dead, and stare through telescopes at the world they left behind. But life in orbit is about to get much more interesting.
Nestled among the life support equipment that keeps them alive and the entertainment systems that keep them happy, the beamjacks find something astonishing. Turns out, their home isn’t just a space station—it’s a giant antenna designed to spy on every inhabitant of Earth. It’s the greatest privacy invasion ever perpetrated, and the beamjacks won’t stand for it.
They may not be pioneers, but these roughnecks are about to become revolutionaries.
Timely—and with Orwellian undertones, Allen Steele’s debut won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Perfect for fans of Robert Heinlein, Robert J. Sawyer, and Greg Bear, Orbital Decay blends fantasy and science fiction with a prescient attention paid to the dangers of government surveillance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480439924
Publisher: Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 324
Sales rank: 42,157
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Before becoming a science fiction writer, Allen Steele was a journalist for newspapers and magazines in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Missouri, and his home state of Tennessee. But science fiction was his first love, so he eventually ditched journalism and began producing that which had made him decide to become a writer in the first place.

Since then, Steele has published eighteen novels and nearly one hundred short stories. His work has received numerous accolades, including three Hugo Awards, and has been translated worldwide, mainly into languages he can’t read. He serves on the board of advisors for the Space Frontier Foundation and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He also belongs to Sigma, a group of science fiction writers who frequently serve as unpaid consultants on matters regarding technology and security.

Allen Steele is a lifelong space buff, and this interest has not only influenced his writing, it has taken him to some interesting places. He has witnessed numerous space shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center and has flown NASA’s shuttle cockpit simulator at the Johnson Space Center. In 2001, he testified before the US House of Representatives in hearings regarding the future of space exploration. He would like very much to go into orbit, and hopes that one day he’ll be able to afford to do so.

Steele lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, Linda, and a continual procession of adopted dogs. He collects vintage science fiction books and magazines, spacecraft model kits, and dreams. 

Read an Excerpt

Orbital Decay

By Allen Steele


Copyright © 1989 Allen M. Steele
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-3992-4



The days began the same way after a while: adventure made mediocre through repetition, the vastness of space a stale background against which their tedious lives were played.

A dozen men floated in the narrow cylindrical compartment, all facing in the same direction like automatons waiting to be activated. Even in weightlessness their aluminum space armor and enormous MMU backpacks seemed to hang on them like heavy burdens; they slouched under their packs, their shoulders bent, their helmeted heads hanging low, their hands moving slowly as they replenished their oxygen tanks from hoses dangling from the wall. The compartment was filled with the sound of hissing air and the thin crackle of suit radios being tested, of muttered comments and complaints and the clink of tools nestling together in the cargo pockets of their overgarments. Behind them a technician, wearing a T-shirt with a rock band's name stenciled on the front, floated from man to man, checking suit joint seals, turning intake valves they couldn't reach, rescuing runaway gloves and power tools from midair. There were no windows. CRT screens overhead displayed job assignments for the day, and TV monitors showed scenes inside the construction shack's main bay and outside, where the work was going on. No one paid attention to the monitors; everyone knew what it looked like out there and didn't want to be reminded.

They were all in there on that shift. Virgin Bruce, singing an old Grateful Dead song, his raucous laughter ringing through the whiteroom. Mike Webb, smiling at Bruce's jokes, trying for the umpteenth time to get the suiting procedure right, always having to get Julian, the technician, to help him. Al Hernandez, moving efficiently, telling another interminable story about his family in Miami, his brother in the FBI, his son who wanted to join the Marines, his wife who kept asking when he was coming home (everyone, hearing these things, nodding, silently asking, what's new, Al?). Hank Luton, who would be in the command center and not have to wear a suit for the next four hours, bugging everyone about little details—a joint in one section that needed to be rewelded, a bend in a truss which meant the beam had to be replaced, all the stuff the computers had picked up since the last shift—and being rewarded with surly grunts and mumbled apologies. And the rest of the handful of space grunts who called themselves beamjacks—because it sounded like "lumberjack"—who for some reason were thought of as pioneers instead of everyday Joes trying to make it through another dogass day.

One by one, they managed to make it out of the whiteroom, through the hatch at the end of the compartment into the next inflated plastic cylinder, moving in a ragged single file toward the airlock. Now and then someone had to go back because a suit sensor detected a slow leak or a weak battery. The airlock was a big metal chamber which they were herded into by another technician. When he sealed the hatch they stood for another few minutes, their feet gripped to the floor by magnetic overshoes, everything colored candy-apple red by the fluorescents in the ceiling. No sound now, except the whisper of air inside one's helmet and conversations overlapping in the comlink, received through their snoopy helmets' earphones.

The opposite hatch of the airlock slid open, and Vulcan Station's main construction bay lay before them like an airless basketball court, paper-thin aluminum walls offering scant protection from the void. They shuffled out onto the deck, some heading for the beam-builders, some for the construction pods docked nearby, some for the hatch leading outside the shack.

Those who went outside, one by one, gripped their MMUs' hand controls, pushing them forward and letting the little jets push them away from Vulcan. Once this had been exciting; now it was just the first part of the job, getting out to the powersat. It lay before them like a vast metal grid, a flat rectangle bigger than the towns some of them had been born in, larger than anything that had ever been built on Earth. They floated away from Vulcan, little white stick-men against the overwhelming darkness, the shack's blue and red lights outlining them as silhouettes. Earth was a blue, white, and green crescent beyond the powersat. They tried not to look at it, because it never did any good; if you thought about it too much, you got depressed, like Popeye. Just do your job; punch the clock and hope you make it through the shift alive.

Once or twice a week, when he had a few minutes to spare at the end of his lunch break, the beamjack the others called Pop-eye would float down to Meteorology for a look at Earth.

Not that it was impossible to see Earth any time he wished; he saw the planet every time he went on shift. From 22,300 miles away, it was an inescapable part of life, always there, always to be there. It was something no one could ever forget.

Yet sometimes Popeye Hooker did find himself forgetting. There came times—while on the job, while lying awake in his bunk, while climbing into his suit for another work shift—when he tried to recall what standing on real ground was like, how fresh air tasted, and found himself unable to remember.

Sometimes he could not remember Laura's face. Part of him didn't want to remember what she looked like, and it might have been for the better if he could not; yet Popeye had to remember Laura, for reasons he could not comprehend. It was those instances when her face disappeared from his mind's eye which scared him the worst.

So, when he could, he would head for the weather station to borrow a few minutes on the big optical telescope. Once or twice a week, although if he could have, he would have visited Meteorology every day. But his being allowed to use the telescope at all was a personal favor extended by the bogus meteorologists and he didn't want to risk overstaying his welcome.

The weather station was at the south polar end of Olympus Station's hub. To reach it from the rim, Hooker had to leave the four adjacent modules comprising the mess deck and walk down the catwalk until he reached the gangway leading down into the western terminus. On this particular day he had fifteen minutes before the beginning of his second shift, so he had to hurry. Hooker grabbed one of the two ladders in the terminus and began to climb up through the overhead hatch into the western spoke.

As he ascended, he passed fluorescent light fixtures, fire control stations and color-coded service panels set in the cool, curving metal walls. Along the inside of the spoke were taped-up notices of one kind or another: the announcement of the Saturday movie in the rec room, reminders of deadlines for filing W-2 forms and absentee voter registration, announcements for union meetings, and ever present "Think—Safety First!" signs. The second ladder ran directly behind him; another crewman passed him, heading down to the torus, his soles clanging on the ladder rungs, echoing in the utilitarian cool.

Soft music from an occasional speaker set in the walls accompanied his journey to the hub, the Muzak that was piped through Skycan. Hooker gritted his teeth as, for perhaps the tenth time that day—he had lost count, if he had ever kept it—he heard "If I Had A Hammer" segueing into a syrupy version of "Yesterday." Elevator music for a place that didn't have elevators; it was another sign of his lapsed mental condition that he couldn't laugh at this irony.

By the time he had climbed halfway up the spoke, most of the one-third normal gravity experienced on the rim of the station was gone, and he was not climbing the ladder so much as pulling himself forward. "Down" as a direction became meaningless; the spoke's shaft took a horizontal rather than a vertical perspective. By the time Hooker reached the hatch leading into the hub he was clinging lightly to the ladder, experiencing zero gee. It was a sign of how long he had been on Skycan—how long, too, he had trouble recalling—that he became almost instantly acclimated, with only the slightest feeling of queasiness.

The spoke ended at the entrance to the hub, in a central passageway running perpendicular to the rim. Another hatch opposite to the one he emerged from led to the east spoke leading back down to the other half of the torus. In one direction, the passageway led to Command/Communications and the airlocks. In the other, toward the south pole, were Power Control and Meteorology. The soft hiss of air from the vents was drowned out by "Yesterday," reverberating off the metal walls.

By the time he reached the weather station at the end of the hub, passing the yellow radioactivity warning signs on the hatches leading into Power Control, the Muzak had segued into "Close To You" and Hooker was feeling closer to the edge than before. The hatch at the end of the corridor was marked "METEOROLOGY—Authorized Personnel Only." Popeye grasped a handrail and pressed the button on the intercom by the hatch and waited, trying to shut out the saccharine violins and chorus. Impending insanity was soundtracked by the Carpenters; there had to be better ways to lose one's mind.

The intercom crackled and he heard the voice of one of the bogus meteorologists. This one called himself Dave, but no one knew their real names. "Yeah? Whoizzit?"

"Claude Hooker," Popeye said. "Hey, is the telescope free now? For a few minutes?"

The intercom was silent for a moment. Popeye imagined Dave consulting with the other two men in the crowded compartment beyond the hatch. Popeye's out there. Wants to use the telescope. Any incoming transmissions? He hoped things were quiet in Cuba and Nicaragua today.

The intercom crackled again. "Yeah, okay, Popeye, for a few minutes. Give us a chance to straighten up in here first, okay?"

Hooker nodded, forgetting that Dave could not see him. The "straighten up" line was a tired old shuck. In microgravity there was no place for carelessly misplaced items; a compartment in Skycan's hub always had to be kept shipshape. Dave and his companions were doubtless putting away long-range telephotos of Soviet silos and submarine bays and troop movements, transcripts of messages from Washington and Langley and Cheyenne Mountain.

In a sense, the three men in the weather station did serve as meteorologists. If asked, they could confidently explain current weather patterns in the Western Hemisphere, tell a listener a high pressure system hanging over the American Midwest was causing St. Louis to feel like an anteroom of Hell or why a front coming in from the Pacific was dumping rain over northern California and Oregon.

But everyone in Olympus Station's hundred-person complement, except for the occasional greenhorn who happened to ask why the three meteorologists generally kept to themselves, knew that Dave and his companions Bob and John were National Security Agency analysts. They were weathermen of the world's geopolitical climate, rather than the natural. Their meteorologist roles were rather weak covers for their spending long hours in a compartment crammed with telescopes and radio equipment.

Their cover story had never been very solid. The phony weathermen knew that the rest of the crew knew their real purpose aboard Skycan, and the crew knew that they knew that as well. No one made an issue of it, though, or at least as long as little favors were extended by the NSA spooks. Sometimes it was getting them to transmit, via their private communications downlink, birthday and Christmas greetings to friends and relatives on Earth, or allowing a homesick space hardhat a few minutes at one of the few optical telescopes aboard, and the only one kept fixed on the planet.

For the NSA weathermen the little favors could be written off as good public relations and a guarantee that no wise-aleck beamjack would stop by their table at mess and loudly inquire about how every little thing was in Havana today.

The hatch opened from the inside, held open by Dave, his feet held to the carpet by his Velcro-soled sneakers. He stepped aside as Hooker gently pushed himself into the weather station. The other two guys—John and Bob, or whatever their names were that week—were seated before consoles, ostensibly studying photos of a storm front gathering over the West Indies; there were no photos or computer printouts anywhere in sight. The three of them looked almost like brothers who had all gone to Yale, down to their cleanshaven faces, closely cropped hair, and neatly pressed uniform coveralls, which almost no one else bothered to wear or had modified by cutting off the sleeves or sewing on various unofficial patches. The weathermen were so clean-cut, in fact, that whenever Skycorp's front office in Huntsville sent a request for publicity photos to illustrate press releases, the snapshots sent back were usually of Dave and John and Bob at work in their neat little compartment, dressed in their neat little uniforms, with a caption like "Olympus Station scientists at work uncovering the secrets of the universe." Everyone else aboard Skycan looked like the Three Stooges.

The weather station was a hemispherical bulge at the end of Olympus' hub, which was kept permanently pointed toward Earth. Half of the dome was windowed with thick Plexiglas, permitting the best view of Earth available on the space station. Arrayed around the window were various consoles and screens, the largest of which was the TV screen belonging to the telescope.

The telescope itself was a smaller version of the big space telescope in orbit near Skycan, which was used by the astrophysics lab. It was positioned outside the dome on a yoke and was operated by a joystick on the console below the TV screen, which turned the box-shaped instrument in the direction desired. Whatever was captured in the telescope's three-inch lens was transmitted to the TV screen inside the dome.

Hooker attached his own Velcro slippers to the carpet and walked to the bucket seat in front of the telescope console. As he sat down and strapped himself in, Dave bent over next to him and put his fingers on the console's touchpad controls.

"What'll it be today, Popeye?" he asked pleasantly. "There's clear skies over the Rockies.... I got a really stunning view of the Great Divide this morning. Can you believe there's still some snow up there? Bob managed to see a whale pod swimming off the coast of Nova Scotia a little while ago, too."

"Gulf of Mexico," Hooker replied. "Off the coast of Florida. Panama City area, northern part of the state."

"Kinda overcast over Florida today, Popeye," Bob said.

"He's right," Dave said. "There might be a hurricane developing in the Caribbean. We've been keeping an eye on it for the past couple of days."

"You'll have to make it short," said John, the gruffest of the trio. "We have to track the thing, y'know."

Hooker wondered if they were watching the hurricane or the movements of Soviet subs near the Dominican Republic. Besides, it was early summer down there, not exactly hurricane season yet. But there was no sense in irritating the bogus meteorologists with those notions. He noticed that the Muzak had not penetrated the sanctum of the weather station. Apparently John, Dave, and Bob, with their exalted government status, had escaped Cap'n Wallace's means of improving crew efficiency and morale.

"Try it anyway, please," Hooker prodded. "I won't stay long."

Dave shrugged and tapped instructions into the telescope's range finder.

Watching the TV screen, Hooker saw the Earth leap toward him, the thousands of miles peeling away as if he were sitting on an accelerating rocket hurtling down the gravity well. He stopped four hundred miles above the ground. Patchy clouds filled the screen, indistinct at first but becoming more defined as Dave adjusted the focus. Through breaks in the shroud he could see brown and green edged by sapphire blue. Dave checked a computer simulation on a smaller screen beside them.

"We're over Louisiana right now," he told Popeye. He sniffed the cool, conditioned air. "Mmm-mmmmh! Can't you just smell that Cajun cooking!" he said theatrically, trying to imitate a deep southern drawl with his New England accent.

"Never could stand coon-ass country myself," Bob said from his console across the compartment. "The girls are nice, but some of those redneck types there ..."

"Hang on, Popeye," Dave said, noticing the beamjack's restless fidgeting. "Lemme just recalibrate the ..." His fingers danced across the glowing keys as he watched the computer simulation. "Ah, there we go."

The screen blurred as the scene shifted to the right and closed in, tracking across the southern tier of states as it simultaneously zoomed in. Earth spiraled around, 22,300 miles away; from this part of Olympus it looked as if the planet were constantly in a slow tailspin. The telescope's computer corrected this illusion caused by Skycan's own revolution, giving observers a steady picture of the surface that didn't induce vertigo.

"We're in luck," Dave said. "Found a break in the cloud cover. We're somewhere over the Gulf near northern Florida. We want to ...?"

"Yeah, let me handle it."


Excerpted from Orbital Decay by Allen Steele. Copyright © 1989 Allen M. Steele. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part One: A Hard Day in the Clarke Orbit,
1. Homesick,
2. Ear Test,
3. The Wheel,
4. Virgin Bruce,
5. Tall Tales,
6. Hooker Remembers (A Night on the Town),
7. Getting Some Sun,
8. The Whiteroom,
9. Zulu Tango Approach,
10. An Inch Away from Eternity,
11. Huntsville,
Part Two: Welcome to the Club,
12. Milk Run,
13. Hooker Remembers (Where Did She Go?),
14. Welcome to the Club,
15. Profiles in Weirdness,
16. Seeds of Dessent,
Part Three: High Up There,
17. Space,
18. Virgin Bruce's Tale,
19. Hearing Aid,
20. Popeye Goes to Heaven,
21. Strange Tales of Space,
22. Ear Ache,
Part Four: 300-Mile Fade-away,
23. The Weirdo Summit,
24. Labor Day,
25. Freedom Rendezvous,
26. Captain Crunch,
27. Snafu,
28. Orbital Decay,
About the Author,

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Orbital Decay (Near-Space Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ToryMichaels More than 1 year ago
Wowee. Those are my thoughts. Let me add two disclaimers before I go into a discussion of why this book was great for me. First – I did not finish it (more on that below). Second – This was originally published in like 1989, so this is a reprint. Now, as to my “not finished” status. I’m still reviewing it and still giving it a 4-star rating even though I haven’t as-yet finished it. This is a very dense book, and it definitely doesn’t read like a book written in today’s publishing market which demands fast-pace, remaining in only a couple of points-of-view, and/or ever-ratcheting tension. It’s utterly worth it because of the primary topic involved, and because the story was just that good. Unfortunately, I read very quickly and this book won’t let me do that because it’s so detailed and so many things are thrown in the mix. As it indicates, the beamjacks are about to discover that the NSA has launched a super-secret spying program. Sound familiar anyone? Yup, you got it. As far as the topic, it absolutely could have been written today, but unlike the modern NSA scandal which involved using the internet to spy, the NSA uses a satelitte and space station to perform its spying. Having been writting when it was, the Cold War was still a very real issue and there are tensions with Russia/the Soviet Union mentioned. Mr. Steele indicated that we occupied space by 2016 (when the book is set), and while we technically do, it’s not anywhere near the extent imagined in Orbital Decay. Still, it’s very eerie that he hit on the spying issue, given what came out earlier this year when Snowden released the NSA records. I like so much of this book, I just wish I had time to finish it. I’m definitely keeping it on my Kindle because it deserves to be finished. Unfortunately, my schedule just got ramped up, so I just can’t devote enough time to properly finish this book. But don’t let my failure scare you off. Absolutely get this book, read it, love it. Just don’t expect it to be a fast read. I don’t think it can, or should, be. (And, as to why it’s a four-star instead of a 5, given how much I liked what I did read, there’s simply too many POV switches. I honestly am marking it down because there are simply too many instances, and too many telegraphing of what’s going to happen – you know, he’ll say something like…Popeye had no clue that doing X would literally save his life only a few minutes later.) So, thanks to the publisher and NetGalley!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago