The Fall by R.J. Pineiro is a sci-fi thriller where a man jumps from the outermost reaches of the atmosphere and disappears, landing on Earth five years in the future, a future where he's already dead (available July 28, 2015).
Jack Taylor has always been an adrenaline junkie. As a federal contractor, he does dangerous jobs for the government that fall out of the realm of the SEALS and the Marines. And this next job is right up his alley. Jack has been assigned to test an orbital jump and if it works, the United States government will have a new strategy against enemy countries.
Despite Jack's soaring career, his personal life is in shambles. He and his wife Angela are both workaholics and are on the verge of getting a divorce. But the night before his jump, Jack and Angela begin to rekindle their romance and their relationship holds promise for repair. Then comes the day of Jack's big jump. He doesn't burn up like some predicted—instead, he hits the speed of sound and disappears.
Jack wakes up in an alternate universe. One where he died during a mission five years earlier and where Angela is still madly in love with him. But in this world, his boss, Pete, has turned to the dark side, is working against him, and the government is now on his tail. Jack must return to his own world but the only way for him to do that is to perform another orbital jump. This time is more difficult though—no one wants to see him go.
A Worthy Cause
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause. —Theodore Roosevelt
What goes up must come down, thought Jack Taylor as his gloved hands gripped the handles framing the oval-shaped exit hatch of his windowless capsule.
He loved the adrenaline rush, riding atop the booster that had shot him off the Florida peninsula like a cannonball, giving him the gut-wrenching, suborbital ride of a lifetime for the past few minutes.
And that was the easy part.
The stereoscopic image painted on his helmet’s polymer faceplate, slaved to the external cameras, displayed the rocket booster’s fall to Earth as he rapidly decelerated while approaching the apogee of his programmed sixty-two-mile ballistic flight, skimming the Kármán Line, the official threshold where space began above sea level.
But Jack was far more engrossed in the splendor and magnificence projecting beyond the spinning booster as it vanished in the vast carpet of mountains and plains dotted with dozens of lakes and meandering rivers stained with vivid hues of orange, red, and yellow-gold by the looming sun’s wan light.
He flew temporarily weightless now, as his ballistic flight reached its zenith high above glaring mirrors of infinite shapes and sizes surrounded by forests, agricultural crops, mountain ranges, cities, and grids of roads and highways—all framed by endless coastal plains, by the eastern seaboard projecting far north into the darkening curvature of Planet Earth and the stars beyond.
The soft whirr of his suit’s environmental control and life support system broke the silence of space, the dead calm that Jack enjoyed as much as the cold and wonderfully refreshing pure air sprayed gently inside his helmet from the suit’s liquid oxygen supply.
The familiar aromas of plastic and sweat filled his nostrils as Jack inhaled deeply, his gaze gravitating to the west. Tropical storm Claudette, which had moved up his launch schedule, gathered strength over the warm Gulf of Mexico, bright flashes of cloud-to-cloud lightning trembling across hundreds of miles as it twisted its way north.
“Stay the fuck away,” he mumbled, glaring at Claudette’s swirling clouds.
“Phoenix, KSC, we didn’t quite copy that. Say again.”
Shit. “Ah, nothing, KSC. Just enjoying the view,” he replied to Pete Flaherty, his boss and longtime friend, who was acting as capsule communicator, or CapCom, for this mission down at Kennedy Space Center.
Jack heard a slight pause, probably Pete trying not to laugh, followed by a lively, “Copy that. Sixty seconds to Kármán.”
“Roger,” Jack replied, scanning the myriad displays projected all around the periphery of his helmet, marveling at his wife, Angela, the genius behind this amazing piece of hardware that he hoped would bring his ass down through sixty miles of hell in one piece to a smooth touchdown in a designated grassy field northeast of Orlando.
The Orbital Space Suit, nearly six years in the making, had his wife’s ingenuity written all over it, from the amazing helmet displays, to the retina-controlled systems, integrated stability jets in the gloves and boots, a closed-loop oxygen system to eliminate the need for large tanks, and multiple of layers of titanium, Nomex, nylon, Mylar, and graphite to keep the intense heat from reaching the sensitive inner layers—all packaged in an incredibly light and flexible one-piece jumpsuit. The OSS just flowed. It was elegant, clean, and highly intuitive, minimizing the time it would take the wearer to grow familiar. Plus Angela had designed it with full modularization so it could be mass-produced for a new generation of American fighting forces.
And all courtesy of the slice of the DOD’s extensive budget that Pete had managed to channel to this project.
“Thirty seconds to Kármán.”
“Roger, KSC. All good up here,” Jack said, glancing at the video projecting a vast void below him, feeling the reassuring mild stiffness of pressurized oxygen inside the suit.
Trapped inside this tiny pod hurtling at more than five thousand miles per hour to reach an altitude two and a half times as high as the well-advertised jump by “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner a few years earlier, Jack couldn’t help but wonder if he had gone just a bit too far this time. This was not one of the relatively easier jumps from the Stratosphere that Baumgartner and USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger before him had accomplished. Jack was at the official edge of space, deep in the unforgiving thermosphere, about to reach the exact height where Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7 back in 1961, marking America’s entry into the space race with that historic fifteen-minute suborbital flight.
Yeah, but Shepard stayed inside the capsule, Jack.
He shook the thought away while tightening his grip on the handles, becoming hyperaware that everything sounded right. Inside his suit, sound was a primary sense, and Jack’s trained ears listened to the whirring pumps not only feeding oxygen into the suit but also dumping exhaled carbon dioxide to keep his blood oxygenation at the proper level. Their constant—and reassuring—humming mixed with the occasional sound of nylon creaking as he inched closer to the exit hatch.
Just a walk in the park, he thought, remembering his prior job as a federal contractor for the U.S. government, testing gear and tactics before they became plans of record for SEAL teams, Army Rangers, and other elite fighting forces. The assignments had taken Jack from desert sands to icy mountain peaks, from the depths of the ocean to stormy heavens while pushing prototype equipment to the breaking point. From the latest skydiving rigs to leading-edge underwater gadgets, rappeling equipment, and every conceivable type of weapon, Jack was the Pentagon’s leading test warrior, wringing out the kinks of prototype hardware and tactics for the benefit of America’s fighting forces.
And this assignment was just another stepping stone in Jack’s uniquely dangerous career. Pete had wasted no time signing him up for the elite Project Phoenix.
NASA hoped to breathe new life into its dying operations by proving to the Department of Defense the immense value of space jumps. If NASA perfected orbital jumps, the Department of Defense could have soldiers jumping from so high up that the enemies of the United States would never detect them in time. And this suborbital flight was the first step in the process. Angela was already finalizing the computer design of a suit that would allow a true orbital jump directly from the International Space Station—an assignment that Pete was already hard at work lobbying to fund.
But first, Jack had to succeed today.
Everything depends on it, he thought, activating the suit’s BIST—Built-in Self Test—an algorithm developed by Angela to have the suit’s master computer system test every module of the OSS, displaying the results in Jack’s faceplate as well as in one of the large monitors in Mission Control. His primary concern was damage by the Gs he had endured during the ascent phase.
“All systems in the green, Phoenix,” reported Pete from the Cape.
“Roger,” Jack replied.
The press, which was under the impression that NASA was simply testing an early prototype suit designed to help astronauts abandon the International Space Station in case of emergency, was certainly having one hell of a field day with his latest stunt. From passing out and failing to open his chute to breaking up when hitting the speed of sound, or—Jack’s favorite—his eyeballs and heart exploding while burning up in the atmosphere, the pundits were going crazy with their—
“Ten seconds to Kármán, Phoenix. OSS looking good.”
Focus, Jack, he thought, scanning the telemetry displayed on his visor, confirming that the OSS—the single-most compact and complex piece of equipment ever made by NASA—was fully functional, making this mission a go.
“Five seconds … All systems nominal.”
His tactile gloves clutching the handles flanking the exit hatch, his power boots pressed hard against the Velcro floor pads, Jack watched a single bead of sweat momentarily floating right in front of his eyes before the suit’s recirculating system sucked it away.
“Three … two … one … Kármán.”
Point of no return. Jack took a deep breath as he watched, completely devoid of sound, the oval-shaped hatch blasting into space courtesy of a dozen explosive bolts in a pyrotechnic display of oranges and reds that ironically matched the myriad hues from the tunnel-like image of Earth beyond the pod’s large opening.
Right up to Kármán, Jack had the ability to abort the mission and use the capsule’s heat shields to return to Earth safely, just as Shepard had done decades before. NASA had built the pod as Plan B in case of a suit malfunction during the ascent phase. But just as Cortez burned the ships when conquering the New World to force his troops inland, NASA had also technically just burned Jack’s ship. There was now no other way down but to jump.
“Well, good thing the suit’s holding up,” he said, before thinking, Thank you, Angie.
“Roger, Phoenix. All looks good down here as well … hold on.”
Jack dropped his gaze at Pete’s last two words.
“Phoenix, this is General Hastings.”
Really, dude? Right now?
The Pentagon had decided to place the entire operation—just twelve damned hours before the jump—under the direct command of General George Hastings, a senior member of the DOD overseeing committee who had never set foot at the Cape before. Jack had nearly lost it when he’d arrived at Kennedy Space Center last night to find an entourage of dark SUVs packed with a small army of soldiers and a couple of scientists from Los Alamos. Then an hour later, as NASA technicians were going through the process of getting him inside the multiple modules and layers of the OSS, Hastings made his appearance and had gone straight into a discussion about changing the descent profile, in direct conflict with Angela’s instructions. A heated exchange followed between Hastings, Jack, and Angela.
No offense, General, but she’s got the MIT Ph.D., not you, Jack had finally told him, prompting the general to storm out of the suit-up room to call the Pentagon. But in spite of clashing personalities, there was simply too much at stake, and there was no one else skilled enough—and perhaps crazy enough—to make this jump. So after a ten-minute conference call between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff, Hastings, and Pete, it was decided that the jump would go on as planned but with the reprogrammed descent profile requested by Hastings, and that Pete would find a way to keep Jack on a leash.
“General?” Jack finally said.
“Jack, you must accept the reprogrammed Alpha-B profile when you reenter the atmosphere. It is critical that…”
Jack tuned the general out while watching the Earth below him, leaning forward into the abyss, freeing his boots from the Velcro straps on the floor while still holding on to the exit handles, trying to listen to his suit rather than to Hastings. His mind focused on the job ahead, letting the general continue to rattle off the same garbage he had spewed back in the suit-up room.
This is the precise reason why so many well-planned military operations turn to shit, General.
But Jack held his tongue, trusting his wife, deciding to accept whatever descent profile appeared in his display.
Instead, he gazed at the nearly surreal view beyond the capsule as he waited for the timer to start the jump countdown sequence. It was one thing to view the world painted on his faceplate display by exterior cameras. It was an entirely different animal to actually see it from this altitude with his own eyes. No camera could capture the incredible depth and colors of planet Earth as he swung forward as much as he could while still holding on to the handles, projecting half of his body beyond the opening, milking the moment for as long as he could.
Even Claudette looked amazing from this altitude, its angered clouds alive with pulsating lightning resembling balls of light arcing across its twisting mass, trembling wildly in a rainbow of colors contrasting sharply with the bluish hues of the Gulf of Mexico as it slowly turned east towards the middle of the Florida peninsula.
Although seldom easily impressed, Jack took it all in, enjoying his very own fireworks show, filling his lungs, savoring the moment before his jump window opened, listening to his suit, to the droning pumps keeping the OSS’s internal temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, to the light beeps made by the master computer system as it ran yet another diagnostic, and even to the sound of his own breathing as he became nearly hypnotized by the view.
Somewhere in the background, Hastings was still talking, still dispensing orders.
Jack continued to ignore him, his eyes scanning his faceplate displays, confirming proper operation of all his systems, before returning to the cloud-to-cloud lightning, framed by the ocean and the Florida peninsula. Beyond it a sea of stars outlined Earth’s delicate curvature, countless points glittering against the darkness of space.
A green numeral 20, projected in the middle of his faceplate, disrupted his cosmic sightseeing.
Lock and load time, he thought.
As the timer turned red and began the critical twenty-second countdown before the jump window closed, Jack remembered Alan Shepard in Freedom 7, recalled what later became known as Shepard’s Prayer in the aviator’s community thanks to the movie The Right Stuff.
“Dear God, please don’t let me fuck up,” he said, interrupting Hastings’s monologue.
Then Jack lowered the heat shield over his visor and jumped into the abyss.
* * *
“He’d better know what in the fuck he’s doing, Flaherty!” hissed George Hastings, the oversized Army general, while standing next to Pete at the CapCom station in the relatively modest Mission Control Room, occupying the second floor of an old space shuttle–era building recently refurbished for Project Phoenix in Launch Complex 39. In this windowless room, eighteen mission specialists sitting in three rows of six monitored every aspect of the launch. If successful, the next Pentagon grant would allow Pete to expand this Mission Control Room, add a second one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and add an OSS Launch Module to the International Space Station, where America could house its first platoon of orbital jumpers ready to be deployed to any location on the globe.
“I thought you were going to keep him on a leash, dammit!” the general snarled before stepping back and crossing his massive arms while looking at the large displays monopolizing the entire front of the room.
Dr. Angela Taylor, sitting at the far end of the last row, shook her head while sipping her third energy drink in two hours, finishing it, and tossing it over her head and directly into a waste basket just five feet from the growling general with the blazing orange hair and freckles. The can banged loudly against the other two she had previously deposited in the same trash can.
That’s another three-pointer, Grumpy.
Angela felt his stare on her as she loudly popped the lid of a fourth drink while glancing at her short fingernails, painted black to match her lipstick, before shifting her gaze between Jack’s vitals, the descent profile display, and the suit’s hundreds of internal monitors—telemetry that was broadcast through two passing satellites and one in geosynchronous orbit right above the jump as backup. In addition, the pod’s final task was to shoot off in a parallel descent path to Jack’s while providing them with high-resolution imagery for the first few minutes of the jump, before it burned up on reentry at around mile thirty. Then the cameras aboard a dozen high-altitude balloons parked along his planned route would pick up his epic fall right up to his final chute deployment, when ground cameras and several spotting helicopters would be waiting to record the final descent.
Everyone in that room—with the exception of Hastings and his annoying crew—had a specific task to handle, from managing the capsule’s trajectory and tracking satellites, to the incoming weather system, the high-altitude balloons, distance to all other orbiting objects, and even working real-time with central Florida’s air traffic controllers to create a twenty-mile-wide temporary flight restriction around Jack’s planned descent path, also known as the “pipe.”
On top of all that, the Air Force had a dozen fighter jets hauling high-frequency transmitters meant to keep all birds away from the pipe. The stakes were high, and the last thing NASA and the Pentagon needed was for Jack to hit a chunk of space debris or a damned seagull on his way down. But even the finest rocket-scientist minds couldn’t anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong with a project of this complexity, and that very, very small—but still very, very real—probability of something going wrong kept Angela’s heart rate high and her throat dry.
Come home to me, Jack, she thought, feeling immense pressure building up in her chest, just to realize she had stopped breathing.
Slowly inhaling through her nostrils and exhaling through her mouth, Angela took a sip of her drink and tried to control her growing heart rate, for a moment feeling ashamed that Jack’s was actually lower than hers. But then again, Jack had always been in superb physical shape, which over the years meant that Angela also got in shape to keep up with him, from long runs, mountain climbing, and ocean kayaking to becoming his official self-defense training partner at home, an activity that typically ended in the bedroom. In return, Angela taught Jack to ride Triumph motorcycles and even got him to get a tattoo to match hers.
She grinned, glancing at the burning Triumph Bonneville T140 flanked by American and British flags on her right forearm, half covered by her lab coat.
The knowledge that Jack had one just like it up there somehow helped her steady her breathing.
You are some smooth operator, she thought, amazed that he could calm her down even from outer space.
But just as Jack could calm her down, he could also really push her buttons, bringing out the worst in her.
Their relationship hadn’t been easy the past two years, with Jack signing up for every high-adrenaline military mission while she developed space suits for NASA.
What happened to us? she pondered as the countdown sequence ticked down in the upper left corner of her display. The glimmer in his brown eyes last night, as they shared homemade pasta while reviewing the various phases of his descent and last-minute adjustments to his space suit, had reawakened long-dormant feelings in Angela.
But you came along, you little fucker, she thought, glaring at Claudette in one of the large screens at the front of the room, remembering the cell phone vibrating on the dinner table, Pete informing them that an incoming weather system had moved up the jump. A car was already on the way to get them both to the Cape.
Angela sighed, recalling the feelings rekindled during their interrupted dinner—feelings long absent in their busy lives.
Two damn years, Jack, she thought, frowning. That’s how long it had been since they’d really connected, since the fire of their initial years of marriage was quenched by the realities of their almost separate lives, driving a deep wedge between them, resulting in Jack sleeping more often on the couch than in their bedroom.
But there had been something there last night, a spark of years past, and a part of Angela was hoping to pick up where they had left off.
But first you need to do this jump, she thought, as Jack separated from the pod and instantly assumed the planned initial descent profile, opening his arms and legs as if he were flying, stretching the titanium alloy webbing from his waist to his elbows and in between his thighs. The idea, which had earned her another patent, came to Angela by watching sugar gliders jump from tree to tree.
“Phoenix, KSC. Jump plus five seconds. Looking good. All systems nominal. Pod ignition started. Ten seconds to drone deployment,” Pete said while sitting back down at his station in the middle row as General Hastings stepped aside to confer with the pair of Los Alamos physicists he had brought down with him along with a dozen military personnel, which he called his “security detail.”
“Roger that. Phoenix’s good up here.”
Hastings said something to his head of security, Captain Riggs, a steroids-enhanced brute who had come close to attacking Jack after last night’s heated exchange with Hastings.
My money would have been on Jack, she thought with a grin, taking a sip while sizing up Riggs, who looked as if he ate rocks in his morning cereal. The man was certainly solid, with tight muscles visibly pressing against his dark uniform.
In fact, he looks too perfect, she thought, with his closely cropped blond hair, hard-edged features, and very fair skin—certainly a fine specimen of Aryan descent. And interestingly enough, all of Hastings’s men had that look. Some had dark hair. One was Asian. Another black. But they all looked as if they were grown in the same place, like little toy soldiers, seldom making eye contact, and not one of them ever looked in her direction.
Maybe they’re gay, she thought.
Or maybe the good general cuts off their balls like they used to do in the old days.
Riggs saluted the general, did a perfect about-face, and proceeded to direct his team of eunuchs to cover all entrances to Mission Control before approaching NASA’s press coordinator in the back of the room.
She exhaled slowly, reminding herself that the brass was footing the bill. But if NASA could pull this off, perhaps Hastings, his pit bulls, and his pair of gurus would crawl back to whatever shithole they had come out of and let the real pros continue to drive this program.
She gave the Alamo scientists a furtive glance while biting her lower lip. The male one was in his sixties, bald, and a bit hunched over, with round glasses perched at the edge of his thin nose. The female was much younger, perhaps in her forties, rail thin, with ash-blond hair, light-colored eyes behind thick glasses, and a pasty complexion that suggested she probably didn’t get outside much.
Maybe Hastings is doing her, she thought with another grin, finishing off her drink and executing another perfectly loud three-pointer.
She had never seen either one of them before last night, when she caught them in the suit-up room with their noses deep in the electronic guts of her baby, the product of nearly six years of painful design and redesign. Jack had to literally restrain her when Angela had instinctively reverted to her biker upbringing, turning into a junkyard dog about to mangle the visiting physicists, who scrambled out of the room.
She hoped she wouldn’t see them ever again after today.
Angela had no clue yet, why there was a need for a pair of tablet-armed nerds sticking their noses in her project and scrubbing through the OSS computer network but she intended to find out. An alarm in the back of her head told her that the Pentagon brass didn’t pull last-minute stunts like this one without a powerful motive.
But the cyber-sword cuts both ways, she thought with a slight grin. The same VIP accounts that allowed the Los Alamos scientists to connect their tablets into the OSS network had allowed Angela to load up a nice little virus into their portable devices, creating back doors that should give her access to their networks.
You get to see mine but I also get to see yours.
As soon as this jump was over, she would find out who they were and why they wanted to modify Jack’s descent profile during the reentry phase from Alpha-G to Alpha-B.
She had gone over the data and it didn’t make any sense. Alpha-B would increase the angle of descent by two degrees, keeping Jack supersonic for fifteen more seconds than planned, which could potentially set him off course by as much as three miles from his designated touchdown site northeast of Orlando. The Alpha adjustments, from A to K, were created to compensate for the winds aloft during reentry and keep the jumper on a mission-specified vertical track. Part of Project Phoenix’s deliverables was touchdown accuracy to within ten feet of the intended target.
In the end, NASA had caved and agreed to program Hastings’s Alpha-B descent profile. But just before the launch, Angela had used her secret back door into the OSS descent control algorithms to reprogram it back to Alpha-G while still keeping all systems reporting that they were set for Alpha-B.
It’s my husband you’re fucking with, General, not one of your eunuchs, she thought, glad that she had listened to the hacker in her and programmed multiple back doors into every system in the OSS network.
“Jump plus ten. Pod burn complete.”
Pete looked over to Angela and gave her a reassuring thumbs-up. His soft features contrasted sharply with a pair of blue eyes gleaming with bold intelligence under a full head of dark hair.
He turned back toward his monitor. Pete’s dark skin had the handsome damage of countless weekends sailing or skydiving with Jack. Those two went back to high school in New Jersey. Although Pete was captain of the chess team while Jack led the football team, they developed a deep friendship. Then Pete got an academic scholarship to Stanford’s prestigious School of Engineering while Jack played football for Rutgers before joining the Navy, where he eventually screened for BUD/S, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training at Coronado. That led him straight to SEAL Team 3, followed by five years of missions in the Middle East’s hottest spots and another two years with SEAL Team 4 in South America. When a mission in Colombia went south due to faulty combat gear, Jack signed up to test prototype military equipment for the Pentagon, feeling that he could best serve his country by working out the kinks in high-tech weaponry and gadgets before they became plans of record for America’s fighting forces. Pete, on the other hand, accepted a contract with the Pentagon to develop America’s next generation of weaponry, which led him to NASA and Project Phoenix, where he wasted no time in recruiting Jack.
Angela watched the ends of her lips curve up on her reflection on the flat-screen monitor, remembering the first time she laid eyes on the clean-cut Jack Taylor, rapidly deciding he was definitely not her type. Angela had grown up among the tough biker crowd that hung around her father’s motorcycle shop in Cocoa Beach. The former SEAL, albeit ruggedly handsome and quite free-spirited, didn’t trigger any feelings in her. And besides, she was too damn busy developing the OSS to give Jack’s advances any serious thought. But somewhere along the way, he had turned her around, and before she knew it they were married.
Angela forced those thoughts aside while focusing on the data displayed on her monitor, confirming proper functionality of all systems. Everything was as it should be, including her secretly reprogrammed descent profile.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, seeking comfort by remembering Jack’s final words just before he’d left the suit-up room. Beaming with confidence, he’d looked her in the eye and gave her the same damn line he’d always given her before going on a mission: Relax, honey. I’ll be right back.
She took a deep breath, glancing around the room, trying very hard to keep it together while her husband dropped out of the sky like a fucking meteor.
Come home to me, Jack. Please come home.
* * *
Jack plummeted to Earth, at least according to the altimeter reading next to the mission timer. One mile down and sixty-one to go, but all he felt was a serene sense of floating in space as outside temperatures read 100 degrees Kelvin or about minus-280 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pretty damn cold, he thought, reaching almost five hundred miles per hour before the drone deployed. It wasn’t really a parachute but more of a small winglike appendage to increase stability for a cleaner entry into the speed of sound.
Jack kept his profile steady now as he approached six hundred miles per hour, the mission timer shifting to red, which indicated he was almost supersonic.
“Seven hundred miles per hour and fifty-eight miles high, Phoenix. Looking good.”
Jack was about to reply but felt a slight buffeting that couldn’t be due to air molecules. He was way too far up for any of that.
“KSC, Phoenix, there’s a slight—” Jack stopped. The buffeting vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
“Congratulations, Phoenix. You are Mach one point oh and climbing.”
Well, I’ll be damned. He had just punched through the sound barrier with little fanfare.
“Roger that. Phoenix is supersonic,” Jack replied, limbs still stretched, keeping the tension in the stability webbing as he shot past eight hundred miles per hour at mile fifty-six.
The stars slowly dimmed as a violet halo-like glow extended radially around him.
But he ignored it as Mach two came and went, as he dropped below the thermosphere and into the ionosphere while the suit kept him completely isolated from the harsh environment.
One minute and fifty-three miles to go, he thought, enjoying a deep breath of pure cold oxygen while reading the mission timer as his speed continued to climb due to a lack of an atmosphere. And that also meant no sound since there were no air molecules to carry sound waves.
Jack breathed in the refreshing air again, listening to the pumps while watching the rapidly expanding Earth almost as if he were in some sort of silent video game.
Systems remained in the green, the multiple layers of the OSS and its insulating gels holding his body temperature at a nominal 96.7 degrees Fahrenheit as he accelerated beyond the fastest fighter jet. The violet halo intensified, enveloping him in its dazzling glow.
“KSC, Phoenix. You guys see that purple haze around me?”
“Ah, negative, Phoenix. The pod’s camera shows you bright and clear. Looking good through Mach three.”
Jack decided to let that go, focusing on his instruments, staring at one of the many retina-controlled icons on his faceplate display and blinking once, releasing the titanium-alloy winglet while getting the OSS ready to fire his boot and glove jets to increase his angle of descent as prescribed by what he hoped would be the Alpha-G profile that Angela had preprogrammed in the suit’s directional algorithms, preparing him to reenter the atmosphere and get bombarded by the air molecules that would slow down his descent, in the process creating an air pocket in front of him that would heat the air to incandescence.
But to reenter the atmosphere safely, Jack had to transition from his current skydiver attitude to a near-vertical profile to create the smallest possible cross-section to the incoming compression wave of thermal deceleration. Angela had designed his oversized helmet—which reminded Jack of the elongated head from one of those old Alien movies—and extra-wide shoulder pads as the suit’s primary ablative shields, designed to take the brunt of the direct reentry heating.
Following engineering principles that dated back to the 1950s showing that the greater the drag, the lower the heat load on the object reentering the atmosphere, Angela had designed the OSS’s helmet and shoulder sections to be blunt rather than aerodynamic. In doing so, air molecules wouldn’t be able to get out of the way fast enough, acting as an air cushion to push the heated shockwave layer forward and away from him. Since most of the hot gases would no longer be in direct contact with Jack’s suit, the heat energy would stay in the shocked gas and simply move around the OSS to later dissipate into the atmosphere above him.
Jack’s primary job was to keep all of his mass hidden behind these critical blunt shields made of the same reinforced carbon-carbon material previously used for the nose of the space shuttle and designed for temperatures above 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of his suit’s outer shell, like the chest and waist plates, were fabricated from the coated L-9000 silica ceramics used in the space shuttle’s belly, while his limbs were shielded with layers of flexible insulation blankets used by the space shuttle for temperatures below 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jack frowned, unable to avoid thinking about the tragic fate of Space Shuttle Columbia burning up during the very unforgiving reentry phase back in 2003 due to damage to its thermal protection system under one wing during the launch phase, exposing its inner skin to the blazing inferno. Hot gases had breached the wing structure through a hole in the TPS, leading to the rapid disintegration of the shuttle.
If his outer shell cracked due to the reentry stress, the OSS would be breached, just like Columbia, with disastrous results.
“KSC, Phoenix. Jets firing,” he reported, listening to the bursts and confirming readings on his faceplate display as he slowly shifted from a horizontal pose to near vertical, tucking his arms against the built-in recess points on the sides of his suit while closing his legs and engaging the magnetic locking mechanisms to keep his limbs from shifting during reentry.
Jack quickly assumed a bulletlike profile behind his blunt shields, getting a green icon confirming achievement of the Alpha-G angle.
I guess Angie won, thought Jack. He blinked and accepted the descent profile.
“Phoenix, KSC. Copy that. Mach three point two and holding. Forty-six miles high.”
That’s almost 2,500 miles per hour, he thought, realizing that he had broken every record in the books for the fastest speed without a spacecraft. He could only hope that would be the only thing he broke today, as he plummeted into the stratosphere like a silent meteor.
But the peaceful fall didn’t last long the moment air molecules began their attack, slow at first, just a few pings against his armored shields, before rapidly increasing their intensity, pounding him like invisible bullets, like millions of shotgun pellets striking the protective layers on his helmet and shoulder pads. The noise reminded Jack of being trapped inside an RV on a rock-climbing trip in Arizona with Pete eons ago during a massive hail storm. The pounding was deafening.
“Phoenix, KSC, TDRSS in fifteen seconds.”
Jack grimaced, barely hearing his friend. “Copy that!” he shouted through the noise.
Jack stared at an icon in the shape of a satellite on the upper right side of his helmet display and blinked once, engaging the tracking and data relay satellite system. Created during the space shuttle era to solve the dreaded reentry communications blackout caused by ionized air from the compressing atmosphere around the decelerating vehicle, TDRSS allowed the shuttle to maintain communications by relay with a tracking and data relay satellite through a hole in the ionized air at the tail of the craft created by the shuttle’s shape. Angela had basically accomplished the same thing at a much smaller scale, incorporating the relevant shuttle contours into the shape of the Orbital Space Suit to punch a similar hole through the ionized envelope and keep tabs of her husband’s whereabouts all the way to the ground.
Jack activated the stiffeners around his neck, anchoring the long helmet to the frame of his suit as he felt the G-forces accumulating, as the building pressure on his upper body intensified, as the shockwave compressed the stress-absorbing materials of the suit’s titanium and carbon fiber skeleton. But contrary to popular belief, shock-layer heating wasn’t caused primarily by direct air friction but by the heating of air molecules within the increasing compression wave.
Jack focused on the graphics of his first ablative shield, which provided protection on two levels. The outer surface began to char, melt, and sublime in the rising heat, while the remaining ablation material underwent pyrolysis, an irreversible thermochemical decomposition at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen, expelling the product gases and keeping all layers beneath it quite cool.
Jack watched as the blunt ablation shields worked their chemical magic, lifting the hot gases away from the shield’s outer wall, creating a cooler boundary layer as he dove into a wall of fire that always remained a quarter of an inch away from him, before washing away in the slipstream, caressing the sides of his suit’s flexible insulation material.
But the thermal shields could do little about the noise, which continued climbing to an ear-piercing crescendo as the atmosphere put up a fight.
Jack tightened his jaw muscles as his near-vertical mass continued to punch through the resisting thin air, turning the sky around him into a blinding, incandescent white stained with that weird violet haze that now started to pulsate in stroboscopic waves.
Jesus Christ, he thought, as the G-meter read 8.5 and continued to climb.
He increased the pressure of the suit’s gel to counter it, to force more blood to his head, to fight the growing light-headedness, receiving visual confirmation through the faceplate display and feeling the squeeze action on his legs.
“Phoenix, KSC. Looking good at forty-three miles high.”
Jack tried to respond but the arresting pressure on his chest prevented him from articulating a single word, though he could still read the displays, could still see the firestorm rapidly consuming his first ablation layer.
Forty-two miles high now.
Outside temperature a dash over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jack narrowed his eyes as he scanned the telemetry, blinking once at the okay icon that Angela had incorporated into the helmet display for precisely this kind of situation.
“Phoenix, KSC. We read you’re okay. Looking good at forty-one miles. Eject first heat shield.”
The compression wave slowing him down chemically blasted away at his thermal protection system, reducing his first micro honeycomb ablation layer to ten percent in fifty seconds. He focused his eyes on an icon, blinked, and the spent layer of reinforced carbon-carbon on his helmet and shoulder pads jettisoned off with a burst of compressed helium, vanishing in the scorching slipstream, exposing the second ablation shield.
“Phoenix, KSC. First shield is off.”
Jack blinked okay while mustering savage control to focus on his deceleration stats.
Thirty-nine miles high.
Temperature soaring to 1,100 degrees.
G-meter at 10.2.
The laws of physics were certainly at work as his speed plummeted, turning vertical velocity into the charring furnace that chipped away at his new set of shields.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only changed, he recalled Angela telling him as he struggled to stay focused, to keep his mind frosty. But despite his forced concentration, thoughts slowly gravitated to the periphery of his consciousness.
Jack fought vehemently for control, to remain awake, refusing to let the autopilot take charge of this mission.
He jammed the suit’s gel pressure control into the red, feeling the compression against his legs where swelling bladders fought to deliver precious blood to the capillaries lacing his brain.
Just hold on a little longer.
Thirty-four miles high.
Temperature 1,150 degrees.
G-meter at 10.9.
Shields at forty percent.
The forces pummeling his body were approaching the G-suit design, threatening to breach his physical limits, pushing him to the brink of his endurance through a dazzling violet halo that increased in intensity as he continued to fall, plunging at a maddening speed.
“Phoenix, KSC, pod video terminated. We’re picking you up on the balloons now. All systems nominal.”
Nominal my ass, he thought, nearly paralyzed now, unable to even blink the okay icon.
“Thirty miles high, Phoenix. Switching to feet.”
The same forces that had smoked that four-ton titanium and silica capsule were starting to put a serious dent in Angela’s masterpiece.
Altitude 150,000 feet.
Temperature almost at 1,200 degrees.
G-meter at 11.6.
Ablation shields at ten percent.
The blinding violet light swallowed his thoughts, his mind, engulfing his very core as Jack started to lose consciousness, but he managed one final reading of his instruments, somehow managing to blast off his scorched second set of reinforced carbon-carbon shields in a burst of helium while hoping—praying—that his third and last set of thermal protection would see him through this.
Altitude 130,000 feet.
Temperature 1,180 degrees.
G-meter at 11.6.
Ablation shields at ninety-eight percent.
The Earth and cosmos seemed to swap places somewhere in a remote corner of his mind.
Jack tried to regain focus. He couldn’t be tumbling, not now, with soaring temperatures and while still supersonic as he careened down to Earth like a blazing comet right through the altitude where Felix Baumgartner had jumped in 2012.
Confused, disoriented, his mind rapidly becoming as dark as the space above him, Jack reached deep into his reserves and pushed his body to perform one final task, staring at the autopilot icon and blinking once as atmospheric forces overwhelmed him.
But just as he dropped below 120,000 feet—just as the G-meter displayed 12.0, outside temperature reading 1200 degrees, and the Mach meter reported 1.2, the heat, the pressure, the blinding glare and deafening noise all faded away, and Jack felt engulfed by the most amazing, comforting, and warm violet haze.
His display began to flash that last set of readings in bright red to the rhythm of the vibrating light that had engulfed him.
TEMPERATURE 1200 DEGREES
ALTITUDE 120,000 FEET
What … is … happening?
The violet haze enveloped him, infusing him with warmth while propelling him through a labyrinth of colors. Dazzling. Blinding.
“Phoenix, KSC, how do you copy?”
Pete’s voice suddenly seemed distant, echoing lightly inside his helmet.
Jack found the okay icon and blinked on it.
“Phoenix … how … copy?”
Wondering why they couldn’t get his response, Jack blinked on the icon again as he fought for control in this surreal world, where up and down had no meaning, no significance.
“Phoenix … copy…”
He tumbled over and over again, unable to restore his descent profile, unable to use his suit’s thrusters to arrest the spin while his display continued flashing the same readings.
TEMPERATURE 1200 DEGREES
ALTITUDE 120,000 FEET
But that was impossible.
Jack could sense his rapid fall, could feel the vertical drop in his gut.
Pete’s voice was a mere whisper now as Jack continued to drop out of the heavens while he scanned his displays, searching past the stubborn telemetry, finding his emergency icon, the one Angela had incorporated in this design in case of extreme disorientation.
He blinked on it, trying to activate the emergency gyro to recover from his uncontrollable fall while signaling to Pete that he was in trouble.
But he got no reply from KSC as he plunged into what looked like a storm, alive with sheet lightning.
And then it hit him.
Did I … drift … to the … storm?
Realizing he was dropping right on top of Claudette, Jack closed his eyes a second before impacting the pulsating bolts of lightning, thunder crashing around him as he felt immense pressure against his chest, his head.
Unable to breathe from the force squeezing his pressure suit, Jack struck what felt like a layer of gel, stretching under his downward momentum, arresting his fall like a tri-dimensional bungee cord while the pressure peaked.
Colors exploded in his mind as the membrane crushing him trembled and extended like a soft trampoline, forks of lightning gleaming under the stress before bursting as he finally punched through.
And in the same instance, his telemetry stopped flashing red, returning to normal.
TEMPERATURE 350 DEGREES
ALTITUDE 108,000 FEET
What the … fuck … just happened?
Confused, still disoriented, on the edge of blacking out, Jack tried to figure out how he could have dropped that much that fast, but the sunlight …
He placed a gloved hand against his faceplate as blinding sunlight gleamed around him, clouds and blue skies magically replacing the storm.
But how … is that … possible?
He closed his eyes, momentarily drifting away, before shivering back into consciousness, his eyes blinking to remain awake, focusing on the telemetry.
TEMPERATURE 185 DEGREES
ALTITUDE 65,000 FEET
Feeling nauseous, light-headed, Jack tried to speak, to call out to the Cape, but his body had been pushed beyond endurance as his thoughts gravitated to the periphery of his mind, and he faded away again, only to force himself back into consciousness, if only to read his telemetry one more time.
TEMPERATURE 167 DEGREES
ALTITUDE 32,000 FEET
Then somewhere in this state of semiconsciousness, Jack felt the autopilot deploying the main canopy, snapping and tugging as it blossomed above him, breaking his fall, jerking him skyways.
And that was the final straw, the final shove that propelled him over the edge as Jack heard the suit automatically venting into the atmosphere the moment it reached ten thousand feet, but he could control nothing—could say nothing. The wild ride had paralyzed him, like the frozen icons on his faceplate display.
But the autopilot is still operational, he thought, dizzy, disoriented, his mind blurring before everything turned black.
* * *
Angela’s vision tunneled to the middle of her flat-screen display, which no longer showed her husband descending through the ionosphere.
“Phoenix, KSC, how do you copy?” asked Pete Flaherty for the tenth time in his best attempt at a controlled voice.
Silence. Nothing. Just like the clear image of the ionosphere captured by the high-resolution cameras.
“Phoenix, KSC, how do you copy?” he repeated.
“Phoenix, how do you copy?”
A few seconds later, Jack’s vital signs via the TDRSS link flat-lined with a chilling high-pitch alarm that froze Angela’s fingers to her keyboard.
This is impossi—
“Could someone tell me what the hell is going on?” Pete continued while General Hastings stood behind him but remained eerily calm, exchanging whispers with the two Alamo gurus consulting their tablets. Captain Riggs stood behind him stoically, skin glistening like a marble statue, hands behind his back while his men guarded the doors in similar military style.
“Are the cameras malfunctioning?” Pete shouted.
“Negative, sir,” replied a woman two rows ahead of Angela. “Just ran diagnostics on the video equipment. All balloons report nominal readings.”
“Confirming loss of vitals,” reported the flight surgeon, a middle-aged man to Pete’s right.
“Looks like a major malfunction,” replied the descent controller sitting next to the flight surgeon.
“Concur,” replied the TDRSS controller in the front row. “We have a mishap.”
Jack, what the hell? Angela thought, tuning out Mission Control as her fingers miraculously began to move again, almost on muscle memory, pulling back the replay from the closest high-altitude balloon, showing Jack in perfect vertical pose, diving through 120,000 feet one instant and gone the next. He had just expelled the second set of heat shields before engaging the autopilot, an action that told her he had been right on the edge of succumbing to the pressure and heat.
But then again, the G-meter was pegged at twelve. This prototype version of the OSS was designed to keep the wearer conscious up to eleven Gs. Beyond that, it was up to the jumper’s physical resistance. Jack had tested well up to thirteen Gs in simulated drops, but when you compounded the stress factors of the real thing, Angela wasn’t that surprised that he hadn’t reached the simulation level.
But that didn’t explain why he had vanished. The OSS’s autopilot was designed to take him down the rest of the way, and again, the imagery showed him in a perfect reentry profile well within the suit’s design specs.
While Hastings continued his eerily calm observation of the flurry of activity in Mission Control with Pete at the helm going through various equipment checks while trying to make contact with Jack, Angela rewound the high-resolution video on her screen again and advanced it frame by frame, watching the ablation layer jettison in a puff of compressed helium, followed by dozens of frames showing Jack descending through the ionosphere, shields glowing.
Before simply vanishing.
She stared at the last two frames in disbelief.
That’s … impossible.
From one frame to the next, Jack was gone. He didn’t burn up in the atmosphere. He didn’t lose control and enter a potentially deadly supersonic tumble, like Felix Baumgartner did during his jump. And the OSS certainly didn’t fail. Had the latter been the case, the frame-by-frame would have shown Jack turning into a fireball before dissolving into thin air.
Jack had just disappeared. There had been no fireball, no explosion, no breakup, no reentry burn-up like Space Shuttle Columbia.
Angela felt pressure on her wrist and realized that General Hastings had just grabbed her and was slowly but quite firmly lifting her light frame from her seat with incredible ease. His massive freckled hand covered her wrist and almost half of the Triumph tattoo on her forearm.
“Hey! Let me go!”
“Where is it, Dr. Taylor?” he asked in a low and calm voice, nearly whispering, eyes narrowed beneath his thick orange eyebrows. “Where is my damned suit?”
Angela burned him with her stare. “Your suit, General? You want to know what happened to your damned suit?” she hissed, turning her wrist and pulling back to break his hold, just like Jack had taught her.
The red-haired general blinked.
Before he could react, Angela took a step back, turned sideways to him, and got ready to kick him in the balls if he got near her again. “Fuck the suit, General. What about my husband?”
Hastings leered at her as the Alamo scientists approached them. Everyone in Mission Control was silent and looking in their direction.
But all Angela could notice was how the two gurus also didn’t seem alarmed, almost as if they had expected this. The man readjusted the glasses on his nose while speaking in a low voice to the woman fingering her tablet computer.
What the hell’s going on?
The woman then nodded at Hastings, who returned the nod before signaling to Captain Riggs, who came over along with two of his men.
Paranoia triggered alarms through her system as the military detail converged around them and drew their sidearms.
Pete materialized from somewhere and jumped in between Angela and Hastings’s posse.
“Whoa! This is NASA, folks!” he proclaimed, arms in front, palms opened as he faced Hastings and the wrong end of three shiny black pistols, which Angela recognized as 9mm Sig Sauers Model P229, similar to one of Jack’s. “We’re scientists. Let’s put the weapons away now.”
“Wrong, Flaherty,” said Hastings with a composure that only fueled Angela’s rising state of anxiety. “This is a national-security-level military operation that happens to be supported by NASA. I’m in command, and I need you to manage this mess in here while I have a little private chat with the doctor. Then you and I are going to figure out how to handle the press downstairs before calling Washington. Until then, Riggs will see to it that no one in here talks to anyone.”
“General, guns were not in the deal.”
“That’s right, Flaherty. The deal was Descent Profile Alpha-B.” He looked over to his gurus and added, “My people tell me that this little lady here took it upon herself to hack into the mainframe and reprogram the descent back to Alpha-G while making us all believe it was still an Alpha-B jump. Isn’t that right, Dr. Taylor?”
Angela just stared back.
“That’s what I thought,” Hastings continued. “So, Flaherty, from now on, we do it my way and under the supervision of myscientists.” Turning to Angela, Hastings added, “See, Dr. Taylor, I may not have a Ph.D. but I own plenty of them.”
“Fine, General,” replied Pete, “but none of this changes the fact that we have a big problem to solve, and I need my complete staff of experts to do it, including Dr. Taylor. She designed the suit, remember?”
“Who’s stopping you from solving the problem?” said Hastings, nodding to Riggs, who promptly holstered his sidearm. His two wingmen did the same. Raising his light-colored brows at Pete, Hastings added, “There. Happy? Now, why don’t you put all of those engineering degrees of yours to good use and go do your fucking job while I go do mine. And I need Dr. Taylor for five minutes.”
Pete blushed as he hesitated. Angela gently nudged him aside before removing her lab coat, revealing a black AC/DC T-shirt. “It’s okay. I don’t mind having a word in private with the general. Why don’t you go find out what happened to my husband … and the OSS. Start with the video feed. It doesn’t make sense. There was no reentry burn-up or visible suit malfunction. Jack just vanished.”
Hands on his waist, Pete took a deep breath, looked at Angela as she reached for the black leather jacket on the back of her chair, then at Hastings and his guards. Slowly nodding, Pete backed away.
“Okay, people,” he announced to the onlookers while pointing back at the monitors. “The problem is that way. Back to your stations and let’s walk through the telemetry.”
“Shall we, Dr. Taylor?” Hastings said as he started for the door that led to the stairs going up to the private offices on the third floor.
“Just three things, General,” she said while donning her riding jacket before pocketing her mini tablet computer and her smartphone.
Hastings stopped in mid-stride and turned to face her, dropping his gaze at the skull and bike patches on her jacket. “Only three, Doctor?” he finally said.
“First, don’t touch me again,” she said, running a hand through her short hair. “Second, don’t touch me again. And third, don’t ever, ever fucking touch me again.”
The general took a deep breath, freckles dancing on his pulsating high cheekbones while he stared down at her before exhaling heavily. “Fine, Doctor. Now, shall we?”
Hastings led the way with a reluctant Angela in tow, followed by the ever-present Riggs. The general used the VIP master key card that Pete had given him the night before to get through the thick door, leaving behind the controlled chaos inside Mission Control. The trio proceeded in silence up the concrete steps under the grayish glow of fluorescents, reaching the third-floor landing, where he used the key again to gain access to a square foyer lined with offices, including Pete’s, Angela’s, Jack’s, and also the visiting VIP office, which Hastings had the honor of occupying since last night.
The general tapped his key against the reader by the door, disengaging the magnetic locks, and went straight for the chair behind the empty desk by the large windows offering an unimpressive view of the parking lot. Large framed and signed prints from old shuttle missions covered the other walls. He pointed to the chair across from him.
Angela took her seat and looked over her right shoulder at Riggs standing at attention behind her, eyes straight ahead.
“Where did you find this guy, anyway?” she said. “Steroids-R-Us?”
“So, Dr. Taylor,” Hastings began without making eye contact, crossing his legs and glancing at his wristwatch. “Tell me why you chose to commit an act of computer terrorism against the United States of America.”
Angela just glared at him.
“See, Doctor,” Hastings continued, still not looking her in the eye but at the tips of his manicured fingers. “Last time I checked, treason carries an automatic death sentence.”
Angela also crossed her legs and began to play with her black fingernails, which she was proud to notice didn’t look nearly as manicured as his. “General, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Hastings kept his gaze down as he said, “You reprogrammed the descent algorithm against my direct order. That is treason.”
The hacker in Angela couldn’t think of a way that even the Alamo gurus could have traced the change back to her, so she decided to stand her ground. “I still have no clue what you’re talking about, but tell me, why the interest in Alpha-B, General?”
Hastings’s eyes finally gravitated to her. “That is classified.”
Not for long, she thought, glad that she had loaded up those viruses into their tablets.
“I not only have top secret security clearance, General, but I’m also read-in for Project Phoenix. There is nothing you can’t share with me about this program,” she replied, referring to the sensitive compartmented information clearance—commonly referred to simply as “read-in”—she held as lead scientist in the OSS project.
“Well, you may be read-in for Phoenix, but you’re not cleared for this, Doctor. And since this is the United States military, I don’t need to explain anything to a civilian employee. You work for me and you didn’t do what you were clearly directed to do.”
“This is a highly scientific program, General. In fact, it is probably the most scientific program of our times, and in the scientific world, data trumps everything, even the opinions of people with higher pay grades than mine,” she replied. “From my data-drivenpoint of view, Alpha-B would have placed Jack at least two miles off the planned target, and dangerously close to the outside of the safety pipe. Not only would he have missed the target, but he could have struck a bird or another foreign object. I just don’t get why you would insist on a descent profile that would had added unnecessary risk to the mission.”
“If your Alpha-G profile was so data-driven, Doctor, then tell me, why did the mission fail?”
Angela frowned. “I don’t know yet, but I do know it had nothing to do with Alpha-G. It was still the best descent profile.”
“So you do acknowledge changing it without my authorization.”
“No, I’m trying to tell you that what happened had nothing to do with Alpha-G or Alpha-B, or any of the other descent profile options for this jump. The telemetry strongly suggests that this was not a descent-profile-triggered event, and we need to figure out what happened. My husband vanished into thin air. There was no reentry burn-up. The OSS didn’t fail. We need time to dig through the telemetry and piece together what happened, where he went.”
Hastings shook his head. “Where he went? Doctor, I hate to break this to you, but your husband’s gone.” He made a fist before stretching his fingers. “Poof! Gone. Dead. And you are responsible. You’re not going to get out of this one so easily. You disobeyed a direct order in a military mission, resulting in disaster. You committed treason, Dr. Taylor, and I will see that you pay for it. And you’re not even a first-time offender. With your prior, you’re definitely getting the death penalty.”
“Really, Doctor?” Hastings grinned while slowly shaking his head. “Does the name Anonymous ring a bell?”
She glared at him for a moment.
Angela had been raised by her father, Miguel “Mickey” Valle, a hardcore motorcycle mechanic and first-generation Cuban American, after her mother died during child labor. But disaster struck again when she was fourteen. Mickey Valle had lost his battle with lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking, and shortly afterward Angela had gone rogue, joining Anonymous, a group of hackers dating back to 2003, where she quickly became one of their best “Black Hat Hackers.” Within a year, Angela made the mistake of hacking into the FBI for bragging rights, got caught, and was offered a deal: work for the Bureau at an undisclosed cybercrime facility in Orlando for room and board until finishing high school, or go to a Florida juvenile detention facility.
Some choice, she thought, remembering how she had reluctantly gone for the former, becoming a “Gray Hat Hacker” for Uncle Sam, helping the Bureau fight cybercrime during nights and weekends while finishing high school, and returning to her dad’s old bike shop on the day of her high school graduation. Her dad’s partner and his fellow mechanics, who had taken over the business and had pretty much adopted her, pooled their funds to send her to FIT in nearby Melbourne, where she got her degree in computer engineering before her grades earned her a scholarship to MIT.
“I was fourteen, General, and I paid for it. In return, my record got cleared, purged. And the FBI assured me that event would be locked away forever.”
“Do you think I don’t have access to everything? Besides, you know what they say, Doctor?”
Angela didn’t reply. She was angry at herself for letting this asshole get to her.
Hastings continued. “Once a hacker, always a hacker. You can’t help it. It’s who you are. You committed a criminal act at fourteen and you have now graduated to high treason at forty. I’m taking you down.”
“In that case, General, I know my rights. I want my lawyer.”
“Terrorists have no rights,” he retorted. “You sabotaged a military mission. Plain and simple. You destroyed highly classified and valuable American military technology, setting us back years—not to mention the murder of a highly skilled and unique military contractor.”
“Is that what you’re calling Jack now? Last night he was a dog on a leash.”
“I should have Riggs shoot you right now for gross insubordination, and I would be well within my rights as leader of this Pentagon-sanctioned military operation.”
“Then do it, General,” she said, calling his bluff. “Have your oversized eunuch put a bullet in my brain.”
Hastings slowly leaned forward, looked over Angela’s head, and nodded slightly.
She surprised herself at how at ease she felt when hearing Riggs draw his weapon and press the barrel against the back of her head. Perhaps that was one of the benefits of growing up among rough bikers at her father’s shop and the local bars.
Angela and Hastings locked eyes.
“Nice knowing you, General,” she said in a steady voice that also surprised her. “And best of luck finding your fucking suit or designing the orbital version,” she added without breaking her stare, referring to the next generation suit that Angela was starting to design to jump from the International Space Station. “Most of the key details of building it are locked in the little brain that you’re about to splatter all over this office.”
For the second time since Jack vanished, Hastings blinked, leaned back, and waved a hand at Riggs, who put the gun away.
“Now, General, do you have any important questions for me, or can I get back to trying to figure out what happened to my husband?”
Hastings rubbed his eyes and exhaled heavily. “Doctor, I don’t seem to be getting through to you. There are very, very technically valid reasons that I couldn’t share with you—and still can’t—that justified the change in descent profiles. The mere fact that I was sent down here the evening before the launch with a pair of federal scientists should have been enough to accept the change. But instead of getting with the program, you chose to sabotage a military operation and caused this mess.”
Hastings stood and added, “I’m going to consult with my guys and then I’ll be back, and I can promise you that our next chat won’t be nearly as pleasant.” He looked at Riggs. “Keep one of your men outside this door. No one comes in or out without my permission.”
“Yes, sir,” Riggs replied, following Hastings out the door and locking it from the outside with the card.
Alone, Angela took a deep breath while staring at the gray metal door, wondering how the hell things had gone so bad so fast.
Jack, where are you? she pondered, going through what little information she had, trying to find an explanation for his disappearance right in clear sight of a high-resolution camera.
And what’s Hastings’s problem anyway? Treason for changing the descent profile back to the original plan, which was backed by carefully collected and analyzed data?
It didn’t make sense. Hastings and his Los Alamos friends hadn’t provided her with any technical explanation for the change. She did what she did because all of her data told her this was the safest descent profile for this version of the OSS. Alpha-G was the smoothest of reentries, one that guaranteed Jack would remain within reasonable velocities and in the middle of the planned pipe down to the target area northeast of Orlando. Alpha-B would have kept him supersonic for longer, putting the OSS through more stress than she would had liked, and Jack would have missed the target by nearly two miles.
On top of all that, Hastings’s approach was in direct conflict with NASA’s crawl-walk-run philosophy.
Alpha-G was a “crawl” in the learning process. Alpha-B certainly fell deep in the “walk” territory.
And again, with no technical explanation.
But something had gone terribly wrong, and the reality of the situation started to inject doubt in her self-confidence, making her question her actions. What if she really had screwed up? What if Hastings and his experts knew something she didn’t and had valid technical reasons to back up their request for a different descent profile—reasons they just simply couldn’t share with her due to valid security reasons?
Did I blow this?
Did I just kill my husband?
She bit her lower lip as she stood and crossed her arms, staring at the walls, feeling trapped, and not looking forward to the next round with Hastings, especially if he was right.
I need to get out of here.
I need time to think.
Slowly, Angela’s gaze shifted to the large windows behind the desk.
Copyright © 2015 R.J. Pineiro.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
R.J. Pineiro is a 27-year veteran of the computer industry, where he held various positions at Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., retiring in 2011. He is the author of many internationally acclaimed novels including Shutdown, Firewall, Cyberterror, and Havoc, as well as the millennium thrillers, 01-01-00 and Y2K. He makes his home in central Texas, where he lives with his wife, Lory Anne, and his son, Cameron.>