Fatal Orbit: Excerpt

Fatal Orbit





12:10 PM



Li Ch’ien swore he would remain calm, but the angry giant beneath him had awakened and nothing in his ten years as a fighter pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had prepared him for the controlled release of so much power.


Li occupied the center seat of the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft with Captains Shi and Yung at his sides. He was the senior man aboard and commander of the mission, but his rank and the honor of leading China’s third manned flight into space did little to stanch the flow of adrenaline that was pumping into his bloodstream by the liter.


The three yuhangyuans—space travelers—sat facing upward toward their destination, their bodies cocooned in bulky, multilayered spacesuits. Puddles of sweat were already forming at the back of Li’s head and along his spine and he hoped the moisture wouldn’t affect the medical sensors adhered to his body. The muscles of his face ached, his jaw tightly clenched to prevent his teeth from shattering. The vibration from the main engines was that intense.

Despite Li’s confidence in the proven reliability of the Chinese spacecraft, the destruction of the U.S. shuttle Columbia just months earlier suddenly surfaced among the thoughts racing through his brain. Wary of the bad luck it might bring, Li began humming a song from his childhood in an attempt to banish the recent disaster from his mind.

Until they reached orbit, the yuhangyuans were merely passengers, a position despised by any man who truly considered himself a pilot.

What was that phrase? Li thought, trying to recall the euphemism employed by the first American astronauts: Spam in a can.


Li held his breath, excitement heightening his senses. Beneath him, over one million pounds of thrust thundered from the eight YF-20B engines clustered around the base of the rocket. In China’s relentless drive to place men in orbit, the towering Chang Zheng-2F rocket had proved to be as reliable as America’s legendary Saturn V.

Following the successful flight of the unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-3, President Jiang Zemin bestowed a more poetic name on the vehicle that bore his nation’s hopes and ambitions: Shenjian, Divine Arrow. The rocket had fulfilled its promise when it placed China’s first man into orbit aboard Shenzhou-5.

Like an archer’s fingers straining at a taut bowstring, the restraining bolts securing the rocket to the pad released and the Divine Arrow beneath Li and his comrades leaped toward the heavens.

* * * * *



9:11 PM


“The Chinese launch is confirmed, just made it inside the midday window,” Owen Moug announced as he cradled the phone.

C. J. Skye nodded, but kept her eyes on the cinema display of her Power Mac G5. The launch of Shenzhou-7 had originated in Gansu Province, far inside China’s desert interior, from a place whose name translates into English as Liquor Springs. The window was an opening in the halo of debris—both natural and man-made—that populated the lower orbital arena surrounding the planet. Launching without a clear window was as risky as merging onto a freeway blindfolded.

Skye studied the image displayed on the screen before her, a graphical depiction of the Earth as seen from space looking down at the northern Pacific. Leaning back, she watched as two arcing lines flew over the rendered globe. The first line, in yellow, sprang from a point in central China and sped on a southwesterly course. It had already passed over Taiwan—doubtless as much a political statement as a requirement of physics—and was fast approaching the Philippines. A dot at the leading end marked the current location of Shenzhou-7.

Another dot, a bright red one at the end of the second line, marked the position of an object already in orbit, circling the Earth’s poles. Skye estimated her satellite was about one thousand miles west of San Francisco, racing due south. She mentally extrapolated the two paths and predicted the Chinese spacecraft would be in range somewhere over French Polynesia.

From behind her desk, Skye sat pensively watching the monitor. The desk was the largest piece of furniture in her office, a massive assemblage of hand-carved wood that had belonged to her father, and to his father before him. She called the desk the “Titanic,” not only for its size, but as a reminder of the devastation her playboy father had wrought during the years he sat behind it as the captain of Skye Industries.

Skye’s grandfather—the first C. J. Skye—started out as a young man with a small tool-and-die company. Over the course of five decades, he built a global corporation with interests in shipping, aviation, aerospace, energy, mining, defense, and electronics and amassed one of the world’s great fortunes. At its zenith, the sheer size and reach of Skye Industries drew a mixture of fear and envy from competitors and a disproportionate share of antitrust interest from the federal government. The founder of the Skye dynasty had often joked that were it not for him, at least a third of the corporate attorneys in America would starve.

The son turned out to be a pale echo of his illustrious father. When Charlie Skye finally took his place behind the imposing desk, he had inherited a vibrant corporate empire that he knew little about and cared for even less. Rumor had it that Charlie had enjoyed the pleasures of many women atop his father’s island of mahogany, including the starlet second wife who bore C. J. It was even possible that she had even been conceived on its inlaid surface—Charlie Skye had drunkenly hinted as much on more than one occasion. Beyond the rumors, C. J. knew for a fact that for twenty years her father systematically looted Skye Industries, and when the authorities finally came for him, Charlie Skye ate a bullet at his desk rather than face prison.

“Having second thoughts?” Moug asked. He stood beside the desk, studying both the monitor and his employer.

“About what?”

“This time, there’s three men up there.”

Skye glanced over at her vice president of Defensive Systems. “And you’re wondering if I might not be man enough for the job?”

“I never said that, C. J.”

“That’s the kind of crap I’ve been getting all my life.”

“And you use it to your full advantage,” Moug countered.

Like those of many other captains of industry, C. J. Skye’s office carried the trappings of both personal and professional glory. Models of Skye satellites and launchers were displayed with photographs of rockets thundering heavenward and politicians currying favor with the industrialist. In a place of honor stood Moug’s favorite part of the collection, a model of Stormy Skye, the racing yacht that had reclaimed the America’s Cup from Switzerland.

The ship had the sleek lines of a thoroughbred, an object sculpted to fly through wind and water. Skye not only had financed the winning entry, but had captained the ship through one of the closest and most fiercely fought series of races ever held. What made the victory by this underdog historic was that Stormy Skye had won with an all-woman crew.

A hint of a smile warmed Skye’s lips. Moug was right; she’d used every advantage in her arsenal to build a profitable enterprise from the one small piece of her grandfather’s empire that she’d been able to salvage after the fall. The rest of Skye Industries corporate carcass had been butchered and sold off piecemeal to satisfy creditors and shareholders after the true extent of Good Time Charlie’s financial chicanery came to light.

“If the Chinese want to play in the big leagues and take lucrative payloads away from me,” Skye said, “then they’ll have to learn to accept defeat as well as victory in their great leap forward.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Moug concurred.

* * * * *



Though shown in red on the monitor in Skye’s office, the killer satellite, now several hundred miles north of the equator, was actually black. The angular planes and matte finish of its composite hull exemplified the latest advances in stealth technology. Its shape had purpose—the spacecraft was a weapon, a long slender spear tip of chiseled obsidian in space.

A computer onboard the black satellite continuously analyzed the rising arc of Shenzhou-7’s fiery ascent toward the heavens. It compared the real-time data to a mathematical profile it held in memory, looking for the perfect time to strike.

* * * * *



Li could barely move his limbs as three g’s of acceleration pressed him against the back of his seat. The separation of the escape tower—which fortunately went unused—the four strap-on boosters, and the rocket’s first stage all transpired without incident. And as the second stage continued to push them higher toward space, those first discarded remnants rained down on sparsely populated regions of Inner Mongolia and Shaaxi Province.

Through the porthole, Li watched as the clear blue sky faded into blackness and the brightest of the stars became visible. Then the thunder stopped. Nearly five minutes after igniting, the second-stage engine exhausted the last of its hypergolic fuel and shut down. Li’s ears rang in the silence.

“Go for second-stage separation,” a voice announced over Li’s headset, the first he had heard in almost ten minutes.

Back in China, mission controllers prepared to jettison the last of the rocket that had hurtled them into space.

* * * * *



Skye’s attention was now fixed on the lower right corner of her monitor, where a clock counted off the elapsed time from launch. It read T plus nine minutes, twelve seconds.

“Are you familiar with the legend of Wan Hu?” Skye asked.

Moug thought for a moment. “Can’t say I am.”

Skye didn’t respond, her attention fixed on the monitor.

* * * * *



As it tracked Shenzhou-7, Skye’s killer satellite detected a sudden loss of acceleration. Its onboard computer compared this change to the mathematical profile stored in its memory by Skye herself, and in a millisecond found the match. This event triggered a cascade of commands from the computer, instructions reflecting a change in posture from target acquisition to attack.

A cluster of spinning gyros fine-tuned the killer satellite’s orientation relative to its prey. Near the middle of the long slender craft, tiny clouds of deuterium, helium, and nitrogen trifluoride swirled together inside a mirrored cylindrical chamber, combining into fluorine gas. With the addition of hydrogen, the gaseous brew ignited and the controlled burn released a flood of energized photons.

The chamber, an optical resonator, amplified the barrage of particles and, like the barrel of a rifle, channeled them into a single beam of coherent light. The beam then pulsed through a complex optical assembly in the pointed end of the craft, where it was enlarged and focused on a target over a thousand miles distant.

Like a child with a magnifying glass, the spacecraft’s optics condensed the full power of the laser into a silver-dollar-sized spot on the surface of Shenzhou-7. The spacecraft’s thin aluminum skin vaporized instantly and the beam stabbed into the vital innards of the service module.

The spherical tank containing the crew’s oxygen supply ruptured when pierced by the intense beam of light, its cryogenically liquefied contents immediately phase-changed into an excited gaseous state exerting a pressure thousands of times greater than the tank could bear. Metallic shards from the tank ripped through the fragile craft’s guidance and propulsion systems, setting off a series of secondary blasts that coincided with the firing of the explosive bolts to release the rocket’s second stage.

The explosions rocked the crew of Shenzhou-7 violently, plunging them into darkness, their ship powerless and spinning wildly out of control. Instinctively, Li and his men attempted to switch over to emergency systems, so familiar with their craft they could perform those tasks by memory, but there was nothing to be done.

Shenzhou-7 had been dealt a mortal blow by a weapon that hurled lightning from the heavens: Zeus-1.

* * * * *



Seated in an old chair out in front of his weathered home, Salvador Delmar took a long pull on a bottle of rum and smacked his lips. The night was cool and clear, but still very pleasant considering the impending arrival of winter at this latitude.

Looking up, his eyes roamed aimlessly across the vivid field of stars. A fisherman, Delmar had spent much of his life in solitude, lost in his thoughts. The southern sky was full of familiar constellations, patterns of light in the darkness that told stories or served as guides to himself and his ancestors.

Delmar spotted the faint streak of light and, thinking it an artifact of a stray bit of moisture in his eye brought on by the cold, blinked to clear it away. The streak remained and grew brighter, expanding into several fiery lines against the starry background. Shooting stars.

Delmar shuddered at the sight of the luminous streaks, almost recoiling in his chair. Until recently, he had been like most people who thrilled at the sight of celestial fireworks. Then, on a cool night in March 2001, he had the misfortune of being too close when chunks of a falling star crashed into the sea.

To this day, the memories still haunt Salvador Delmar’s dreams.

* * * * *



As Shenzhou-7 fell to Earth, Skye walked over to her office minibar and retrieved a mineral water from the small refrigerator.

“You want one?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Moug replied.

Skye drank straight from the plastic bottle—pragmatism was one of the things Moug admired most about her. She was tall for a woman, able to look the six-foot Moug right in the eye, and solidly built. Her idea of a power suit was a white cotton shirt, twill pants, and a pair of Top Siders. Skye’s shoulder-length brown hair, now heavily flecked with gray, fell into the hands of her personal hairdresser only for the occasional trim. Makeup, if used at all, appeared sparingly. The same went for jewelry, no doubt because of an aversion to her mother’s taste for extravagant baubles. Skye’s favorite pieces were a pair of simple diamond stud earrings and a diamond pendant. Both had been gifts from her grandparents. Despite being a child of affluence, C. J. Skye had cultivated a strong work ethic and a taste for simplicity.

“So what about this Wan Hu?” Moug asked.

“According to legend, he was a sixth-century Chinese poet and inventor who dreamed of touching the heavens. Using the highest technology of his day, Wan attached forty-seven rockets to a chair and strapped himself in for the ride.”

“Did he make it?”

Skye smiled. “On launch, Wan, the chair, and the rockets disappeared in a burst of fire and smoke, and were never seen again.”

Moug glanced down at Skye’s monitor. The yellow line denoting the path of Shenzhou-7 stopped over the eastern Pacific. “Looks like Wan Hu is getting some company.”

“They shouldn’t have undercut my bid on the Asian satellite radio project. Now, if the Chinese react as I expect, their space program will be stalled for a few years while they try to determine what went wrong.”

“Leaving our field with one less competitor. On a similar note, I got word today that one of ZetaComm’s new satellites is going up in two months.”

“Who’s handling the launch?”

“NASA,” Moug replied. “It’s going up on the shuttle Liberty.”

Excerpted from Bird of Prey by Tom Grace. Copyright © 2004 by The Kilkenny Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.