NASA—you have a problem.
In this high-tech action adventure from Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason, terrorists seize control of the Kennedy Space Center and hold the shuttle Atlantis and its crew hostage on the launchpad. But astronaut "Iceberg" Friese, grounded from the mission because of a broken foot, is determined to slip through the swamps and rocket facilities around Cape Canaveral and pull the plug on the terrorists. With their years of experience in the field, Anderson and Beason have packed Ignition with insider information to create an extremely plausible, action-packed thriller.
Arianespace Launch Center
Kourou, French Guiana
The thick humidity was a magnifying glass, amplifying the sun's heat in the coastal jungles of French Guiana. Just north of the small town of Kourou, security patrols locked gates and inspected chain-link fences in preparation for the launch of an Ariane 44L rocket, flagship of the European Space Agency.
On roads freshly bulldozed through the South American jungle, khaki-uniformed guards patrolled the swampy lowlands of the Guiana Space Center. One guard stopped to light a cigarette. Though armed, the guards were complacent—unaware of the sabotage team deep in the complex.
The Ariane countdown continued.
Mr. Phillips sat on the springy seat of his camouflaged jeep and raised binoculars to his eyes, carefully adjusting the focus. He wore an immaculate white suit and tie, despite the jungle heat. His movements were spare and meticulous, as if he planned each step down to the bending of a finger joint. He studied the towering launch vehicle on ELA-2, the pad for all Ariane 4 rockets.
Impressive construction, he thought. Very impressive. Mr. Phillips pressed a snow white handkerchief to his forehead to absorb the perspiration that glistened there, and tucked a strand of his dark hair back into place. If he didn't pay attention to the small details, then the larger ones would defeat him.
The heat was oppressive, unlike the cool dampness in Connecticut where he'd spent much of his first life. He buried the momentary discomfort, moving past it as he had with so many other obstacles before.
Beside him in the Jeep, an eager young man with sunburned skin and a mop of coppery hair swatted an insect. "Damn bugs," he said, then slapped the same spot on his arm again and again, though the insect was most certainly dead. "After this humidity, Florida's going to seem like paradise. Definitely."
Mr. Phillips gave him a wry smile. "One mission at a time, Rusty. Please stop your fidgeting—you're ruining my focus." Even Florida had miserable humidity, but again, the discomfort would only be temporary.
He studied the rocket's contours as if it were a desirable woman. A tall spire with a bulbous rounded head, the unmanned 44L resembled a shining white lance with four smaller rockets strapped around its base.
Unfortunately, this particular rocket wouldn't make it to orbit, not today—not ever.
In front of him, leaning against the hood of the camouflaged Jeep, stood Jacques, his hair so blond he looked almost albino, though his skin had achieved a golden tan. In one hand he held the detonator, a box no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Jacques had always been good with explosives.
Mr. Phillips pulled out his pocketwatch and studied the hour. Patience, he told himself. He straightened his tie, then reached into his pocket for a breath mint.
Mr. Phillips heard a rustling sound from the left and glanced up to see a khaki-clad security guard trudging out of the jungle from one of the narrow access roads. The guard, whose bronzed skin and long black hair showed his Amerindian descent, held his rifle loosely; mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes.
Taken completely by surprise, the guard stopped, as he saw the short, formally dressed man sitting with his companions in a Jeep. Mr. Phillips's mouth drew tight at the guard's utterly dumbfounded expression.
The guard brought up his rifle and swept it around. "Halte! Ques-ce que vous faites-la? Je vais vous arrete!" he barked in French. The entire restricted area had supposedly been swept clean of bystanders.
Mr. Phillips turned away from the intruder in annoyance. It had been hard enough slipping inside the secure area—first the bribe, then the unpleasant disposal of the official who had given them entrance. He disliked this additional inconvenience… but Mr. Phillips had allowed for such contingencies in his planning.
Jacques tucked the detonator into his pocket. Pretending to surrender, he lifted his hands above his head and translated. "He wants to know what we're doing here, Monsieur Phillips. His accent is very bad. He is placing us under arrest."
Mr. Phillips raised his eyebrows. "Oh, he is?"
Silent as a cobra, fluid as a deer, a lithe blond woman slipped out of the underbrush behind the guard. From her waistband she slipped out a thin stiletto so sharp and pointed it might have been an icepick.
She moved without hesitation, crossing the ten meters without a sound. The guard stopped, as if he suddenly heard something—then the woman struck, jamming the stiletto into the base of his back. Without a word, she rammed it up his spinal column all the way to the hilt, as if trying to dig crab meat out of a shell.
The guard twitched and jiggled like a pithed frog. His fingers slipped from the trigger guard, and he dropped his rifle. The muscular blond woman jerked her wrist, and the stiletto slipped back out with a wet pop. The guard fell to the muddy ground as if unplugged.
"Thank you, Yvette," Mr. Phillips said. "Your timing, as usual, is impeccable." Nonchalant, she wiped the blood from her blade on the wide, glossy leaf of a rubber plant and glided the stiletto back into her belt.
Rusty paid no attention to the encounter, still staring toward the white rocket on the launchpad. "We should've just had Mory use one of his Stinger missiles, like we did in China. We could be back on the beach by now, having a swim. Definitely." He gave a short, high laugh.
Mr. Phillips spoke to him like a patient father. Unlike the other members of the team, Rusty was not a professional, and Mr. Phillips had to cut him some slack. "Different goals, Rusty. We proved in China that we can slip into a highly restricted area. Here, we must demonstrate that we can plant an explosive surreptitiously and detonate it at our convenience."
"But why not blow it up now, while the rocket's still on the pad? Why wait until it launches?" Rusty swatted at another bug.
Mr. Phillips shook his head. "By waiting, we control the situation. Much greater impact… much more exhilarating."
"Yeah, sure," Rusty said, obviously not understanding the nuances—but then, the redhead wasn't paid to think. "I just want to hear the kaboom."
As blond as Jacques, Yvette strode on her long legs over to meet him by the Jeep. Two sets of water-blue eyes, the color of ice melting in the heat, locked together. The pair spoke quietly in French; Yvette ran a hand up and down Jacques's arm. They then kissed each other long and hard, oblivious to the rest of the team. Breathing quickly, their mouths opened as they deepened the kiss with lingering tongues. Jacques let his fingers drift in a tightening circle around the swell of her right breast.
Mr. Phillips clapped his hands. "Time enough for that later!"
The two broke apart, glazed with perspiration and breathing shallowly.
"Let's keep an eye on the clocks, everybody," Mr. Phillips said. "Less than a minute to go."
O O O
The Toucan VIP Observation Site at the Kourou launch facility was designed to accommodate important dignitaries, but Colonel Adam "Iceberg" Friese didn't see it as anything more than a set of bleachers shaded by a canvas awning. Dust, humidity, and glaring sun made sitting on the aluminum bleachers almost unbearable.
It didn't matter to him, though—he had been through far greater hardships as an astronaut. Now, he was more interested in seeing the spectacular launch of the Ariane 44L.
But what made him far more uncomfortable than the heat or the rustic conditions was the petite woman sitting next to him—a powerhouse inside a pretty, trim exterior. Her short brown-gold hair, though tinged with perspiration in the thick humidity, was still styled just-so, her makeup perfect. In his memories of her, she rarely wore makeup. Now she looked every bit the administrator, working her way up the professional ladder.
"At least you're managing to keep a smile on your face, Iceberg," Nicole Hunter said quietly out of the corner of her mouth.
"I'm here representing my fellow astronauts," he answered, his voice cold. Like an iceberg. She herself had been one of those astronauts, and a Naval aviator, to boot—until her recent change of heart. "It's my obligation as a professional."
"Yeah, we're both such professionals." She wore a colorful but conservative cotton blouse and skirt, panty hose that must have been hot as hell in the tropics—with earrings and a delicate gold necklace, for God's sake.
In the years he had known her, even in their most intimate moments, Iceberg had never thought of buying her jewelry. That had never been "Panther's" style.
No, he pictured her in sweats, jogging with him for their morning workout… or dressed in an astronaut jumpsuit in the simulators at Johnson Space Center, her dark eyes squinting at the controls, mechanically reacting as problem after problem was tossed at her in the sims. She and Iceberg had been the best: part of a team, confident of being selected for a shuttle mission… soon. It had been enough of a shock when she had resigned her Navy commission to become a civilian astronaut.
But then Nicole had changed her mind and gone "VFR direct"—visual flight rules—into NASA management, returning from a six-month special MBA program, and at Harvard, of all places! A new golden girl on a fast track to become Launch Director for an upcoming flight. And Iceberg had been picked to command the shuttle crew without her.
A staticky announcement in garbled French came over bullhorns mounted on towers near the bleachers. Iceberg couldn't understand a word of it, but he could watch the blinking numbers of the countdown clock as well as anyone. Not long now.
He fidgeted on the uncomfortable bleacher, sweating in his suit, but vowing not to let it show. At least he wasn't in his Air Force uniform; that would have been even hotter. And if Nicole could manage to look nice under these circumstances, he could do the same.
He ached when he looked at her, though he usually masked his deeper feelings. He just couldn't understand her copping out to join the desk jockeys instead of hanging in there, doing the real work for the real glory. Of course, neither of them had ever been very good at compromising. It wasn't in the blood.
From the Toucan Observation Site, Iceberg could make out launchpad ELA-2. The Ariane rocket stood beside an enclosed gantry, a rectangular wafer shimmering in the heat. The facilities displayed the European Space Agency's logo, a blue circle design with bold lower-case letters, esa.
In the nearby seats, well-dressed guests waited, shading their eyes and staring east into the morning sun. Some were local politicians, others celebrities, and most looked bored in the sticky equatorial heat.
In the mountains above the coastal lowlands, the locals had set up encampments, bringing fruit and picnic lunches to watch the launch. Iceberg had heard it was a common pastime around the Guiana Space Center.
The clock ticked down. Tension built in the air. On the bleachers, observers squirmed as if they could somehow improve their view.
"Sure wish something would happen," Iceberg muttered.
"Patience has never been one of your strong points," Nicole said.
O O O
The walkie-talkie at Mr. Phillips's waist crackled. He grabbed it in annoyance; the entire team had been instructed to observe strict radio silence, despite the encryption routines the team had developed.
Mory's voice burst out, distorted from the descrambling routines. "We're blown, Mr. Phillips!" he said. "Some guard spotted me and Cueball. He tore out of here in his Jeep before we could kill him. I don't know if he's radioed for help yet."
"Bother," Mr. Phillips said. "Less than thirty seconds to go." A momentary inconvenience.
Another voice came over the radio, laced with an Australian accent. "Duncan here, Mr. Phillips. Not to worry—I got him. He's about to drive over the… dotted… line."
Muffled by the jungle underbrush, a small landmine exploded with a crrump.
Mr. Phillips squeezed the "talk" button. "Excellent work, Duncan." The other man acknowledged the compliment with two quick clicks on the speaker.
"Ten seconds left. I hope they don't go into a launch hold." He turned toward Jacques, who stood caressing the detonator box, Yvette beside him. "Be prepared to detonate if the countdown stops. Otherwise, let's sit back and enjoy the show."
In front of him, a pair of sapphire blue butterflies flitted, oblivious to the monumental event about to take place. The air was as tense as a held breath.
On launchpad ELA-2, the countdown reached zero.
Four Viking 5 first-stage core engines lit off simultaneously in the center of the Ariane 44L; at the same time, four additional strap-on Viking 6 booster rockets fired. Flames and white exhaust belched in a great fan across the launchpad. Clouds of smoke rolled away from the concrete apron, enveloping the rocket.
Finally, loud alarms began to blare far from the launch site, faded by distance and overwhelmed by the blast-off roar. Mr. Phillips heard a warbling siren, but the Guiana Space Center was so large he and his team would have plenty of time.
The white lance of the unmanned 44L rose into the air on a pillar of fire, clearing the top of its umbilical tower and heaving itself above its own toxic exhaust.
Jacques turned toward him, the detonator box in one hand. "Now, Monsieur Phillips?" Yvette clung to his muscular arm.
Mr. Phillips continued to watch the marvelous rocket, astonished by the technological achievement, the sheer power of the engines. An inverted roman candle, suspended by a glowing ball of white-hot plasma. "Exhilarating," he said.
The rocket climbed higher and higher, picking up speed as it struggled against the chains of gravity.
"Now, Monsieur Phillips?" Jacques asked again, anxious.
"Yes," Mr. Phillips whispered. "Now."
Jacques punched the button to trigger the explosives concealed behind one of the Viking 5 core engines.
As it rose, still gaining speed, the Ariane 44L blossomed into a fireball, followed several seconds later by a thunderclap that bowed the mangroves and jungle underbrush.
With complex emotions Mr. Phillips watched the expanding cloud of debris and smoldering exhaust. A shame to destroy such an engineering marvel.
He stared transfixed for just a few minutes, then shook himself. "A perfect performance. I congratulate you all." He clapped his well-manicured hands. "Quickly now, call the team to the rendezvous point before we're discovered." He drew a deep ecstatic sigh. "So much for practice. Now we start planning for the main event."
O O O
Iceberg bolted to his feet, trying to determine what had just happened. An accident—or something else? He had heard the faint alarms just before launch.
Unable to understand the overlapping French announcements blaring over the public address system, he squinted into the hazy sunlight. Flames and smoke roiled up from the distant explosion. Images of the Challenger disaster raced through his mind.…
The crowd on the VIP bleachers moved about in an uproar. Emergency Jeeps and vehicles tore through the jungle along muddy access roads to penetrate the restricted area.
Iceberg squeezed his hand into a fist. Every instinct, all his training, told him to respond to the crisis. Astronauts were taught to do something, not just sit and let the world pass them by. But he was forced to remain where he was, a mere observer relying on the capabilities of others. The frustration of being reined in, not being able to react, simmered inside him, but he ordered himself to cool down.
This wasn't his show, his mission, or his space program.
He didn't turn to Nicole as he spoke, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep his sarcasm under control. "Now that you're a hot-shot manager, Panther, I suppose you'd never allow something like this to happen on your watch." He opened and closed his fist.
Nicole shook her head, staring fixedly in the direction of the explosion. "Damn straight," she said.