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Burnout: the mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 [MultiFormat]
eBook by Stephanie Osborn

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Burnout is a SF mystery about a Space Shuttle disaster that turns out to be no accident. As the true scope of the disaster is uncovered by the principle investigators, "Crash" Murphy and Dr. Mike Anders, they find themselves running for their lives as friends, lovers and co-workers involved in the investigation perish around them. What happened to the Shuttle? Who is responsible and why? Why is the government calling it an accident? Why is someone willing to kill to keep it a secret? And how big is the conspiracy?

eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2009

5 Reader Ratings:
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"Burnout is a compelling, impossible to put down, first novel in the class of Skylark of Space or "Lifeline." ... It may perhaps be the most realistic view ever published in fiction about what happens behind the scenes at NASA." -- Dr. Jim Woosley, physicist and Heinlein essayist.

"Hard-edged SF that wraps a compelling mystery around 'this is the real thing' space science. Burnout is tight, tense, and gripping -- Osborn tells a damn good story, and tells it well." -- Holly Lisle, author of The Ruby Key: Moon & Sun I.

Chapter 1

Crash Murphy waited patiently, with gentle, light hands on the controls of his craft, scrutinizing his instruments.

"Crash! Break right! We've got a three-ringer, two o'clock on the RHAW gear! SAM-II!!" The voice came from his partner.

"There goes the rattlesnake..." the fighter pilot noted in an absent tone as the harsh buzzing of the radar alert confirmed the warning of incoming missiles.

"Second bandit! Dammit, Crash! Punch it and get the hell outta here!" his Guy In Back urged.

"Shut up, Ham, and lemme work here..." Crash shoved his F-4 into a hard, banking dive to starboard, picking up airspeed. As the SAM-IIs kept tracking him, he neatly forced them into a square corner; they shot straight up at Mach, lost their guidance locks, and self-destructed. "Awright, Ham, we're in the clear."

"Negative! Negative!" the GIB cried. "RHAW is picking up another radar lock at nine o'clock! He's got a belly shot at us, Crash! I got another rattlesnake..."

"I copy rattlesnake, Wizzo," Crash replied, scanning the view outside. "Damn--no joy."

"Where's the rest of the formation?!"

"No joy--they went for the MiGs, remember?"

"Are we tumbleweed?"

"You might say that..."

"Shee-it..." Ham cursed.

Unexpectedly, the Phantom's pilot kicked his craft into a high-g, counter-clockwise barrel roll, punching his 'burners hard.

"Crash--do you have tally?" Ham asked, voice intense.

"Still no joy."

"Then what--"

"You rather sit here an' wait for 'em?" Crash scanned his instruments carefully, checking them against his visuals, as the F-4 pulled high g's in an effort to evade the incoming SAMs.

"Crash, get your smash up! You're losin' it!" Ham cried.

"Copy..." the pilot wrestled with his craft as the SAMs banked. Far too smoothly. "Aw, hell..."

With cold, heartless finality, the computer screen washed red, and two words in bold block letters appeared in the center:


"Shit," Crash said, disgusted.

"C'mon, Murphy," Hamilton Carter clapped the tall, dark-haired, ex-fighter pilot on the back, "try it again. Without the tally-ho visual sighting, you didn't have any way of judging distance. You'll get 'im this time--"

"Emmett Ray," a somewhat younger, red-headed version of Crash leaned through the open window, "ya better get out here an' see about the barbecue before ya go playin' the damn video game again. Some a' your guests are gettin' hungry."

"Jimmy," Crash told his brother as he and Ham headed out the weather-beaten old screen door to the barbecue pit in the back yard of the white limestone ranch house, "how many times I gotta tell you not to call me Emmett? You know I hate it."

A black Labrador frisked up to Crash, tail wagging furiously, and Crash petted the dog affectionately, then pushed the adoring animal away from his chest as it jumped. "Down, Phantom. Down, boy."

"Yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it?" James Robert Murphy grinned at his older brother, challenging him.

"Oh, I'll think of something ... Jim-Bob."

The other guests laughed as Jimmy's face turned the color of his hair. Crash grinned broadly at having scored a point on his brother, then looked around contentedly at the small group gathered to celebrate in his back yard.

Aside from his brother Jimmy and Jimmy's wife Sally, there were Tracy and Bob Wright. Tracy was a younger colleague from Crash's JSC days, and something of a former protégé, a plump, brown-haired, cute woman with an impressive intelligence. Bob was a tall, thin, easygoing engineer who worked for one of the NASA contractors in Houston. Hamilton Carter, his "GIB" on the computer simulator game, was also an old friend from Crash's days as a Shuttle flight director. Carter, an old-timer with the salt-and-pepper hair and hint of crow's feet to prove it, had just been released from console earlier that day, as he had been assigned to the STS-281 flight, due to land later that evening at the Cape. Ham's wife, Elaine, a petite, forty-something brunette, was there as well. Only one person missing, Crash reflected. Oh, well, she'll be here later. He headed for the grill.

Elaine took that moment to ask, "Where did you get a nickname like 'Crash'? You've been Crash for as long as Ham and I've known you..."

Crash looked over his shoulder at Elaine as he checked the meat. "Crash was my call sign in 'Nam."

"Yeah, but ... Crash?! That's a real morale-builder..." she pointed out.

"Yeah." Crash merely grinned.

"Aintcha gonna tell 'em how you got it?" Jimmy ribbed his brother with a mischievous grin. Crash threw him an annoyed look as Jimmy continued, "Emmett Ray was comin' back from a mission in Vietnam, an' when he landed, his brakes failed. So he stopped his F-4 by plowin' through the airstrip latrine." Jimmy smirked. "That's one sure way t' cure constipation."

Hamilton Carter put his hand to his forehead in disbelief. "Shit."

"Pretty much," Crash chuckled, amused at the inadvertent pun.

"T' hear Crash tell it, there were guys runnin' everywhere, an' I mean that in every possible way," Jimmy elaborated further, as his wife elbowed him hard in the ribs.

The back yard exploded in laughter as Crash began removing the slabs of beef to a serving platter, and he shrugged. "What can I say? My fluid line took a hit. In more ways than one," he said with a good-natured grin. "Not to mention my ground crew gave me hell about havin' to clean my bird. It was one really aromatic ... mess. But you know what they say: 'Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.' Soup's on, y'all."

"Nice feast, there, Crash," Sally, Jimmy's tanned, bleached blonde wife, said in admiration, as everyone clustered around the colorful picnic table, covered with a checked oil cloth and loaded full of food, and began helping themselves. "You're the only man I know that can lay on a party like this without a missus. No wonder the women are beatin' your door down."

Crash shrugged with a grin. "Well, Gayle would have been here to help, but she's still on console. I'm expecting her here tomorrow night."

"Aha," Sally grinned. "Now we know the truth. He did have help, I'll bet!"

The group guffawed, as Crash looked sheepish. Sally elbowed her brother-in-law. "That girl had better hang onto you hard, Crash. You're a good man, just like your brother. How much time have we got, Ham?" she continued, turning to Carter.

Carter glanced at his watch as Crash blushed a faint pink. "Deorbit TIG in eight minutes," the Orbit 1 Flight Director remarked. "Atlantis'll be coming by in a little over an hour."

"Good," Crash remarked, scanning the sky to the west, where the sunset painted the heavens in shades of flame and gold. "It'll be solid dark then, so we'll get a real good look at the re-entry."

"Nice timing, celebrating your first novel publication tonight," Ham said around a mouthful of barbecue. "Nighttime re-entry over this part of Texas doesn't happen too often, so you'll get some really special fireworks for your celebration. Congratulations, by the way!"

"Yeah," Crash replied in a garbled tone, likewise occupied. "Thanks!"

"Don't you ever miss it, though?" Tracy Wright queried. "You've been a flight controller since STS-41B, and a good one. You were promoted from GNC to Entry Flight Director before I even moved far enough up through the ranks to become an FAO. You were one of the best ever, too."

"'Uh, Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel,'" Sally remarked, as Crash turned rather red-faced from the praise. "Guys, not all of us are NASA types. Speak English, for once, please."

"Um, let's see..." Tracy mentally replayed her statements, then tried to translate. "FAO: Flight Activities Officer. GNC--"

"Guidance, Navigation, and Control," Crash followed up.

"TIG: Time of Ignition," Ham finished. "That 'bout got it?"

"Yeah," Sally nodded. "I think so. Thanks."

"We'll try to cut back on the techno-babble tonight, Sally, I promise," Crash told her considerately, as the last glowing embers of the sun disappeared behind the horizon. "And to answer the question: Oh, sure I miss it once in awhile, Tracy. But I get more 'n enough of it as a consultant. You have to remember, I was there for the sabotage of Station. I was there for the Mir fire and collision, I was there when the first Tethered flight snagged AND when we lost the reflight ... and I was there for Challenger. Simulations every damn week, pullin' the night shift for three solid weeks during missions ... eventually, it just got old."

"I think the word you're lookin' for is 'burnout,'" Jimmy remarked.

"Mmm ... yeah, that about covers it, I'd say," Crash agreed. "Hey, somebody flip the TV over to NASA Select and let's get ourselves a status."

* * * *

"Nice spread you got here," Bob Wright, Tracy's husband, told Crash a bit later, glancing around the green, gentle rolling hills of the small ranch in the dwindling light while they all ate homemade peach ice cream for dessert. A soft lowing sound came from the upper pasture, as one member of Crash's small herd of cattle expressed itself in the quiet twilight. A sorrel quarterhorse gelding ate hay from the ground in the run-in of the little stable nearby; the crunching sounds he made were soothing, adding to the peaceful ambiance of the evening. "The Brenham area's far enough out from Houston that you don't even get much light pollution, but it's still not an unreasonable drive in to JSC if you don't have to do it every day."

"Yeah," Crash remarked, looking fondly around the little ranch that he called home these days. "I was lucky to get my hands on it. Been all over the world--Southeast Asia, the Mideast, Europe, Russia, Japan, most of the fifty States--but around here is still home. I don't worry too much 'bout the drive in to Houston, either. I do most of my commuting by computer these days."

"That must be nice," Tracy remarked enviously. "Some days, it's all I can do to haul it out in the morning. Especially after a long shift on console. 'Morning' being relative during a mission, anyway."

Crash nodded his vehement agreement. "That's just what I mean. See, there's days now when I get up, saddle up one of the horses, throw my laptop in a saddlebag, and just go. No walls, no phones ringin', no interruptions. Just me, my horse, the outdoors--and the damn laptop, of course." He grinned ruefully and glanced over at the released Flight Director, who was crouched in front of the cable television hookup Crash had strung out to the patio, studying the broadcast from JSC. "How we doin' on time, Ham?"

"Might wanna kill the lights, Crash," Ham replied, concentrating on the telecast.

"Wilco, Flight." Crash grinned again, flipping the outside wall switch. Overhead, the sky was a deep, rich, star-spangled Prussian blue; along the western horizon could be seen the faintest hint of deep teal. "Lessee..." he glanced at the TV, to the ground track Mission Control was displaying on the big front screen, then looked at the night sky, trying to correlate the two. "She oughta show up ... somewhere over in there." He waved a hand heavenward, in a vaguely northwestern direction.

Conversation in the back yard of the ranch house ceased as everyone clustered together in the darkness, searching the west-northwestern sky. The only artificial illumination came from the TV screen, and the NASA Public Affairs Office Commentator could be heard in the background as he delivered general remarks about the landing.

"...and this is a somewhat unusual re-entry pattern over North America, due to the successful efforts to retrieve the multi-million-dollar Next Generation Tethered Satellite, dubbed NexGen or NTS, which was co-manifested on STS-281 with the Mission to Planet Earth payload, Gaia-1. This nighttime landing will make for spectacular observations by residents of California, Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Coastal residents of the Gulf States may also be able to observe..."

"Hey, big brother," Jimmy remarked curiously, "isn't the commander of this flight an old friend of yours?"

"Yup," Crash replied, still scanning the star-strewn, blue-black sky. "Lawrence Jackson. Jet. He and I flew in the same squadron in 'Nam. Been buddies ever since. There's almost nothing we wouldn't do for each other--except give up a slot in the astronaut corps." Crash pulled a wry face.

"Yeah, that's right," Ham Carter remembered. "He beat you out for the slot, didn't he?"

"Uh-huh, he did--only because Jackson comes before Murphy in the alphabet."

"Look! There it is!" Sally exclaimed, pointing into the western sky, and all but jumping up and down. "Crash! Isn't that it?" she urged her brother-in-law.

"Yeah, Sally, I--" Crash did a double take and surveyed the blazing spark as it shot through the black velvet sky, then gave a swift glance at Hamilton Carter. "Ham, have they got a re-entry DTO on this flight?"

"No, Crash--I see it, too," Ham acknowledged, forehead creasing with worry. "Listen ... can I use--"

"Cell phone right here," Crash scooped the instrument off the corner of the picnic table and shoved it into Carter's hands as he looked back up. "Damn, Jet, get it in gear, old buddy!" he exclaimed with increasing concern.

"What's wrong, Crash? What's happening?" Jimmy asked his suddenly worried brother, as the flaming speck, growing larger and larger, flew almost straight overhead. Smaller sparks could now be seen peeling off the main object.

"Dammit! Jet, flare out, man! Shit! Break it out! NOW!!" Crash began shouting into the sky. Tracy, the "fourth team" relief FAO, was frozen, staring upward in shock, and Ham stood stiffly, head tilted back, listening to the cell phone he held to his ear. They all watched dumbly as the white-hot streak shot by overhead and disappeared behind the house, trailing flaming sparks in its wake.

Crash ran around the house to the front, trying to keep the airborne conflagration in view, and the others followed. "Damn, Jimmy, she's comin' in hot," he belatedly answered his little brother. "Jet's not bleeding off velocity in the roll reversals like he's supposed to..." Crash paused, horrified. "Not that it looks like it would do much good, anyway..."

The gathered celebrants watched in stunned disbelief as the fireball plunged toward the southeastern horizon, flickered, and burned out.

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