The Forge of Mars
the national Bestselling novel: The forge of Mars
Bruce Balfour’s novels, which explore such diverse subjects as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, international politics, the future of the Internet, and the future of marketing, have been well-received. The Forge of Mars, a futuristic thriller published by Berkley/Ace in September of 2002, was a national bestseller.
“Balfour expertly speculates on many fronts that make NASA and the Martian environment credible. . . . Tau and his trip to Mars make a good story.” (The Denver Post)
“Strap in and get ready for an exciting ride.” (William C. Dietz)
The Forge of Mars
A NASA team has discovered alien ruins buried in the canyons of Mars, at the site called Vulcan’s Forge. The first man who touched them died. NASA needs to figure out who left them, and what they might mean to Earth exploration.
Tau Wolfsinger is the NASA researcher to do that. Brilliant and intuitive, he’s as much an outsider at the agency as he has been everywhere, all his life. Nobody likes using him, but he’s the best.
What Tau doesn’t know is that the Mars ruins aren’t the first of their kind. The others are in the hands of the Davos Group, a shadowy international organization whose members have been hiding similar artifacts for decades, trying to unlock their secrets. Tau has sworn that his talents will not be put to military use, but dangerous people are watching him now, and they do not intend to be stopped.
The hot rainbow of re‑entry danced across the window, accenting the precise ballet of the computer‑controlled descent, until the shuttle completed its hypersonic banking maneuvers at seventy thousand feet. Then everything went to hell.
Almost an hour earlier, Tau Edison Wolfsinger received the “go for deorbit burn,” then maneuvered the shuttle tail forward to aim its OMS engines in the direction of flight. Orbiting the Earth at 17,490 miles per hour, free of the atmosphere, it took only a gentle pressure on the rotational hand controller to adjust the shuttle’s flight attitude. The computer translated his hand movements to fire the proper combination of six vernier thrusters in the nose and tail sections. In a slow pirouette high above the blue and white planet, the shuttle pitched and rolled to its deorbit attitude.
Even after days in orbit, Tau still thought it odd that the verniers did their job without making a sound. The remaining thirty‑eight primary thrusters, used for translation maneuvers and rapid rotations, announced their activity in a more spectacular fashion. The shuttle would shake and shudder as flashes of flame burst from the nose and tail primaries, accompanied by battle sounds as if cannons and mortars were firing. They sounded like real rockets. Raised on Hollywood holies and sims, Tau considered it wrong for the verniers to fire in silence.
Passing over the eastern coast of Africa at an altitude of 160 miles, he keyed the deorbit‑burn command into the flight computer, initiating the descent to California. Through the cockpit window, only a few pearls of light were visible on the African continent, now shrouded in the blanket of night.
More silence. The G‑meter remained fixed at zero on the dial as if it were painted on the glass. Tau felt his heart beat faster and tried to concentrate on the sound of his breath hissing in and out through his dry nose, more audible now that his helmet was locked down on the suit’s neck ring.
Fifteen seconds later, the OMS engines ignited. The bang reverberated through the ship, rattling Tau’s seat before a gentle deceleration pressed him back into the cushions. The three‑minute burn of the OMS would nudge the G‑meter to 0.1, slowing the shuttle by two hundred miles per hour and using all of the remaining fuel in the main maneuvering system. Facing forward, Tau couldn’t see the bright blasts of exhaust from the OMS engines as they placed him on a new orbital path. With the deorbit burn completed, there would be no turning back from the fiery plunge into the atmosphere thirty minutes later.
Confirming the shutdown of the OMS engines, Tau rocked the hand controller to rotate the shuttle’s nose forward, pitching up at a forty-degree angle of attack to pancake the superinsulated underbody into the brunt of the atmosphere. The chip in his G‑suit talked to the flight computer, then triggered the inflation of the bladders around his calves and thighs, squeezing them tight enough to prevent blood from flowing away from his brain during re‑entry. In final preparation before hitting the atmosphere, Tau dumped the remaining propellant from the forward reaction control system, then switched on the auxiliary power units to give him aerodynamic control over the shuttle’s descent.
When the shuttle hit the atmosphere, seventy‑five miles over the Pacific Ocean at Mach 25, Tau reminded himself to breathe. Air whispered past the exterior, gaining in volume as a faint red glow appeared at the edges of the cockpit windows. No longer floating in the comfortable microgravity that had become normal during the previous week, Tau felt the pressure of 1.7 Gs pressing him hard into his seat. He now weighed 255 pounds—a butterfly transformed into an elephant‑‑‑far more ponderous than his normal weight of 150 on Earth. Beads of sweat on his forehead, held there previously by surface tension, now dripped into his eyes to make him blink.
The glow spread across the cockpit windows, shifting from red to orange to a hot pink as the carbon‑carbon insulation that covered the nose and the leading edges of the delta wings slammed its way through the air molecules with enough force to strip away electrons. Communications with the ground blacked‑out for twelve minutes as an electromagnetic cone formed around the shuttle during the period of maximum heat. His instruments showed the leading edge temperatures reaching 2,490 degrees Fahrenheit as the shuttle dissipated its kinetic energy against the angry atmosphere.
Slowing to fifteen thousand miles an hour, Tau heard the rush of air climbing the scale from a hoarse growl to a thundering roar. More sweat dripped in his eyes, even though logic told him that the heat of re‑entry dissipated against the insulation before it reached the interior of the flight deck. A frightened animal deep in his brain knew that the intense flames burned just a few feet away from his body, threatening to melt the flesh on his bones until his corpse became nothing but ash drifting on the wind.
Still flying faster than sound, Tau watched the horizon line roll to almost vertical. The autopilot began its series of hypersonic banking maneuvers with a left turn. Braking against the atmosphere like a snow skier making sweeping turns to slow his descent down a mountain, the shuttle reversed its bank. Tau watched the horizon swing in the opposite direction as his stomach lurched. He kept his hand on the controller, but he knew the quick‑thinking flight computer, communicating with the microwave landing system in California, could handle the re‑entry far better than he could. The elevons on the wings controlled the pitch and roll while the split rudder on the tail controlled the yaw and acted as a speed brake. Nudging the stick in the wrong direction could put him hundreds of miles off‑course, but it comforted him to have his hand on the controls. For his peace of mind, he needed the illusion of command, along with his faith in technology.
When the right limb of the horizon rolled until it disappeared out the top of the cockpit window, the left limb was hidden by the shuttle’s nose. Tau closed his eyes. The hypersonic “S”‑turns gave him a headache, but the altimeter told him he’d reached seventy thousand feet, so he’d be safe on the ground in a few minutes.
Tau opened his eyes and smiled. The sun peeked over the eastern horizon, filling the sky with a pale light that erased the last traces of glowing pink from the windows.
A red light flashed on the console.
An alarm buzzer went off.
The right wing snapped up faster than the computer could correct for it.
The shuttle flipped over.
Reacting to the change in brightness, the tint of his helmet visor lightened just long enough for him to glimpse the cloud tops rotating far below before a giant hand played ping-pong with his head. The shuttle bucked, spun, bounced, and tumbled, all at the same time. His helmet slammed against the cockpit window as his body jerked from side to side. The instrument displays went dark. He tasted copper in his mouth as he bit his tongue. Ominous booming noises, the drums of doom, reverberated through the hull.
Tau realized he’d soon be dead.
The thought of being dead at twenty‑four chilled his blood. He had too much to do. It wasn’t fair.
The shuttle began to tear itself apart with a horrendous dinosaur scream of tortured metal, alerting the survival computer in his seat. Explosive bolts fired, the overhead panel tore away, and a rocket kicked him in the seat of the pants, ramming him up and out at over one hundred miles per hour.
Straight into the superhot slipstream of the shuttle.
The seat started to burn. The spacesuit thermostat tried to compensate, but the heat passed through the suit as if it wasn’t there. After the initial shock of hitting air that felt as soft as a brick wall, the seat slowed, the crash web detached, and another small charge fired to kick him away from the seat as it danced out of the slipstream. The shuttle dropped away, tearing itself into shrapnel‑sized bits.
Tumbling toward the ground, he glimpsed the burning seat overhead, following him like the angel of death, snagging the parachute shroud lines to set them on fire. In desperation, he hoped the lines wouldn’t burn through before‑‑‑
The chute banged open, a glorious sight, slapping him hard and dislodging the seat from the shroud lines.
Then the burning seat smashed into his helmet, shattering the “shatterproof” bubble, as it shot past him on its flaming journey, racing him toward death on the ground. A demon with a bass drum rattled his ears, but his attention focused on the flames that suddenly erupted around his head. Pure oxygen poured out of his suit, and the hot seat ignited the seal of his neck ring after breaking his helmet. He gasped, trying to choke some air into his lungs through the smoke, drawing the flame closer to his face. The scent of burning meat filled his nostrils.
Confused by conflicting signals from its sensors, the spacesuit shut off the oxygen supply and gave up. The flames subsided. Still dazed from the seat’s impact, Tau peered over the hot neck ring, down past his feet, as the rocky ground raced up to greet him. Too fast.
A glance upward confirmed his suspicion. Two of the smoldering chute lines had burned through, and half the parachute flapped uselessly in the breeze, taunting him, soon to be his death shroud.
He closed his eyes tight, preparing for an impact that would probably kill him. Then everything went black.