Silent Flight: Testing the X-24

x-24-flight

The following is a short story that I wrote as an exercise.  I wanted to explore a few alternate history topics that I found interesting.  One would be the lifting body program of the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  I have a pet timeline that I’m working on which involves the rise of John Glenn as a political figure in the mid 1960’s, his ascent to the Vice Presidency under President Robert Kennedy, and the development of a more modest, lower-cost space shuttle akin to the Dream Chaser, or the HL-20.

For this story, I have purposefully not used the names of any real individuals as I do not wish to speak for those who cannot reply.  I have tweaked certain elements found in David Portree’s “Dreaming a Different Apollo” series.  I have also made a few subtle science-fiction references for those who enjoy an obscure easter egg or two.

In the early 1970’s, engineer Dale Reed proposed flying a modified X-24 or HL-10 into earth orbit and then landing it (see page 140).  Had this flight gone ahead, it could have offered valuable knowledge for the development of the space shuttle, or possibly led development in another direction entirely.

As with any of my writing, my first goal is to tell an interesting story.  The ripple effects of the events described are left as an exercise to the reader.

*             *             *

April 7th, 1974

Orbital Inclination: 50⁰

Altitude: 270 miles

Apollo 35 Mission

Callsign: Shenandoah

Though he’d have never admitted it, Cdr. Scott Keller thought this whole thing was a bit of a stunt.

When it was announced 18 months ago, he’d objected through all the usual channels.  It bordered on ridiculous.  They were going to take his Apollo, an otherwise perfect specimen, and attach a robot arm to the service module.  Then, after a stay of 56 days on the Olympus, his crew would have to perform another rendezvous and an extraction maneuver before returning home short-handed.

He hadn’t been overly impressed with the X-24S when they showed it to him.  “S” for Space-rated, they’d said.  The thing looked like the offspring of an X-15 and a humpback whale.  It was short, squat, bulby and the stubby wings at the back looked like they wouldn’t do a damn bit of good.   They had launched it on a Saturn-IB late last year and there was a rendezvous in low orbit.  The crew of Apollo 33 had done an inspection of its systems.  Their LMP had even taken it for a check ride.  Out a hundred miles from the CSM, and then back again.  The systems had worked beautifully, then, ground control took over.

The X-24’s first reentry was unmanned.  It had sailed down through the atmosphere, protected by a coating that was never part of the original design.  The silver blob had landed at Edwards and was taken straight to R&D.  They pronounced it a successful test and then got her ready to fly again.

Now they wanted to put a man in it.

This was Keller’s problem.  Clearly the bird didn’t need a pilot.  That, in and of itself, was something of a sacrilege.  But now that they’d proven it could fly on its own, they wanted to have an astronaut fly it down from orbit.  The whole theatricality of it was what stunk.  It was barnstorming from 250 miles up.  They were going to have his mission specialist fly this thing back to Edwards, just to prove that it could carry a man down.

Still, there was an old poem about reasons and doing things, and not asking why, and Keller, if nothing else, was a man who followed orders.  As he maneuvered the Shenandoah to a distance of 50 feet from the Saturn-IB, he kept the disdain out of his voice.

“Houston, Shenandoah.  We are holding at a distance of 50 feet, requesting permission to proceed with docking to the X-24. Over.”

A moment later he heard the CAPCOM reply, “Shenandoah, Houston.  You are go for docking.  Recommend you unlock the elbow joint on the ARA to allow for free rotation.

“Roger that Houston,” Keller signaled to his CMP to unlock the joint.  The switch was thrown and he spoke again, “Houston, the ARA elbow is unlocked.  We are proceeding to dock.”

The Apollo Robotic Arm (ARA), much like a human arm, could flex at the wrist and the elbow.  Unlocking the elbow joint allowed it to rotate freely under force, which would absorb the force of grabbing the X-24.  It was a safety measure that Keller had no intention of needing.  He was confident that he could maneuver within range of the arm itself so that there was no relative velocity between the Shenandoah and the X-24.  It would just be a matter of grabbing the other ship with the ARA.

His target was technically a small bar, just in front of the cockpit’s bubble canopy.  It was only 6 inches wide, but that would be enough for the ARA to grasp and pull the spacecraft from the upper stage of the Saturn.

It was a slow push in, but, over the course of the next 10 minutes, a 50 foot distance became a 10 foot distance and the Shenandoah was close enough to the X-24 to be able to see the stitching on the pilot’s seat cushion.  A nifty operation got the ARA attached to the bar and the elbow joint was locked into place.  Then the Shenandoah’s RCS jets gave a small pulse which brought the X-24 out of her cocoon.

Nothing improved Scott Keller’s mood like a successful maneuver.  He was all-smiles as the Saturn’s upper stage floated away.  Even with this silver bathtub stuck on the front of his nice, neat Apollo, he felt a grin wrinkling his face.

With that twang that made his accent nearly impossible to place, he spoke to the man in the right-hand seat, “What do you think Jack?  Ready for a little barnstorming?”

Jack Crichton’s eyes lit up.  He nodded vigorously.  Despite his official title of “science pilot” on this flight, he hadn’t had the chance to do any actual flying.  He’d been waiting for nearly 2 months for this chance and he was raring to go.

“Absolutely skipper.  Just get me over there.  I’m gonna give them a show.”  Crichton had all the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.

Keller nodded, “Good to hear,” he keyed his PTT, “Houston, Shenandoah.  We are clear of the S-IVB, ready for cabin depressurization and Crichton’s transfer over to the X-24.  Requesting permission to proceed.”

Houston gave them the go and 45 minutes later, Jack Crichton emerged from the Shenandoah’s hatch and gingerly crawled along the ARA to the X-24’s cockpit.  Keller and CMP Shraeder watched his safety lines like two referees looking at a goalpost.

Crichton pulled back the bubble window and sunk down into the X-24.  A cockpit that tight is less a seat than a suit.  By the procedure written over a year beforehand, his first priority was to secure the harness around him.  Only then could his two safety lines be unclipped and slowly reeled back to the Shenandoah.

Cdr. Keller dutifully waited for Crichton to go through hatch-closure and power-up procedures before the Shenandoah dogged its hatch.  It took half an hour to complete pressurization in the X-24, but it felt great to take the helmet off.  A round of radio calls went through before the ARA was disengaged and the Shenandoah left Crichton to his fate with his shiny little spaceship.

Crichton used his suit radio to talk to CAPCOM, but as the Shenandoah’s orbit took her farther than 10 miles, it became more difficult to receive.  He plugged his headset into the X-24’s console and used the on-board antenna for the first time.

“Houston, this is the X-24, transmitting through on-board systems.  How do you read me now?”

“Five by five, X-24,” came the callback.

Crichton smirked as he made his next transmission.  “Houston, X-24.  Seeing as ‘ex twenty four’ is a bit of a mouthful, I am requesting a change in call-sign. Over.”

“Copy, X-24.  What did you have in mind?”

“Houston, how about Aurora?”

A moment passed, presumably for someone to give their assent.

“Copy that Aurora.  You are so redesignated.”

Crichton keyed off VOX for a moment and gave a small chuckle.  The whole renaming thing had been pre-arranged months ago.  But NASA’s Press Office knew an opportunity when they saw one.  There was bound to be good coverage on a hot-dog astronaut renaming his silver spaceship before bravely flying it back to a landing in sunny southern California.  It was staged and a little hammy, but it was Buck Rogers writ large and the reporters would eat it up.

He could see Atlantic coastline below him when he engaged the RCS thrusters.  There wasn’t enough fuel or life support to linger in orbit for long.  He made the preparations for the retro burn and checked his attitude control one last time before calling Houston again.

“Houston, Aurora.  I have completed the translation to retro attitude.  Please confirm the alignment and the burn parameters.  Over.”

Aurora, Houston.  We have you right on the money, Jack.  Burn will begin in T-minus 4 minutes, 30 seconds.  Mark.  Main engine setting to 75%.  Burn duration is 45 seconds.  Confirm.”

Jack Crichton triggered the clock at the top of the panel and checked the engine settings for the fourth time.  He’d done this a hundred times in simulators on the ground, which was nothing compared to the final approaches he’d done in the X-24 a year ago.  It had been an intensive training program, but he’d relished the opportunity to spread his wings.

In the minute before retrofire, he contemplated the what-ifs one last time.  He’d considered what might happen if the engine failed.  Truthfully, he wasn’t that concerned.  If there was a complete failure, the Shenandoah should, theoretically be able to come in for another docking and he could return to Earth with Crichton and Shraeder.  No, what was more concerning was the thought of the engine failing during the burn, in which case his entry angle could be off and his new vector may make it impossible for the Shenandoah, or anyone else for that matter, to help him.

The rumble as the engine fired was enough to spook him a bit.  He could hear it through the walls of the spacecraft.  It was louder than he was expecting, but, no one had heard it fire in orbit before.  Still, it was over, as promised, in exactly 45 seconds.  He could recognize the sounds of throttling down as the retrofire completed.  Whatever happened now, he would definitely be coming back to Earth.

He pulled back on the stick and sent the Aurora into a neat little flip that put her into belly-down position.  Knowing what was about to happen, he took a moment to calm himself and enjoy the fading sunlight, enjoy the coming twilight, enjoy the silence and mentally prepare for reentry.

Aurora, Houston.  Your trajectory is good.  We have you at entry interface in 1 minute.  We expect radio blackout and will reacquire you over Hawaii.”

“Copy that Houston.  Hope you’re all paying customers.  This is going to be quite a show.”

The first sign of reentry was a slight vibration.  The ship held steady, but there was the faintest bit of buffeting as the sun came over the horizon.  Crichton grinned as the first streaks of orange, ionized air, came past the cockpit.  It felt like something out of a pulp comic, to be flying a ship, really flying that is, in a ship with wings, through the upper atmosphere.  Outside it looked like he was soaring through a neon tube.  The Aurora’s nose glowed like her namesake.  He admitted that the name selected by the Press Office could not have been a better choice.

The slow static crackle in his ears went away and he felt the ship shudder.  Something seemed wrong.  Instrumentation showed no sign of problems.  He checked the buses and saw no signs of trouble.  Caution and warning lights were all fine, but he was hearing absolutely nothing in his headset.  If not for that, he’d have thought it was just another gust in the upper atmosphere.  The space cowboy bravado faded faster than the glow from the reentry heat.

He looked down and could see the Pacific Ocean laid out like a great blue carpet across the world.  His altitude settings had him right on the money.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  How do you read me now?”

Nothing.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  Do you read over?”

Dead silence.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  Transmitting in the blind.  I am not receiving you at all.  Repeat, I am not receiving.  Switching to auxiliary communications system.”

He reached behind the stick and flipped the toggle to AUX.  Still he heard nothing.  Not even static.

“Houston, this is Aurora, transmitting auxiliary in the blind.  How do you read me now?”

He tapped his ears to try to shake something loose, but there was nothing for it.

Oh, crap.

“Houston, this is Aurora.”  He paused.  By the book, he should declare an emergency, but somehow that felt wrong.  He had no idea if they were reading him on the ground or not, but if they were, this would be a hell of a blow to the program.  He’d spent enough time with this bird to not want her reputation damaged.  Besides, declaring an emergency wouldn’t do him much good either way.  If Houston was reading him, they’d know by now that he was deaf.  If they weren’t, then it wouldn’t matter anyway.

He put as much confidence in his voice as he could muster.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much.  “Houston, Aurora.  Transmitting in the blind.  Entry complete.  Altitude 40,000 ft.  Heading 050.  Proceeding to make the turn.  Will attempt to reacquire signal over Vandenburg.  Projected landing at Edwards in 7 minutes.  Over.”

He could sense the air moving over the Aurora’s curves.  For an aviator, it was about as sexy as this ship could get.  He felt like a flea riding on a dog.  There was some inherent instability to the lifting body design and he couldn’t afford to let the ship roll.  But as long as he maintained attitude, she would fly true.

“Trust the ship, trust the math,” he said aloud as he looked down.  A lot of very smart people had calculated his trajectories and timed out every maneuver down to the second.  So what if he didn’t have Houston talking to him the whole way home.  “You think Lindbergh had 50 guys in white shirts talking to him the whole way?  You’re a pilot, fly the damn plane!”

By the mission plan, he put the Aurora into a slight roll to the right.  Just 10 degrees, enough to let the air catch and pull her into a trajectory that was more East than Northeast.  If he’d timed it right, then he’d be on course for Edwards.

Though it was still far below, he couldn’t yet see anything but open ocean.  The idea of ditching in the ocean didn’t have much appeal.  Last year, he’d asked the engineers, with the X-24’s bathtub shape, about the prospects of it floating.

“Don’t try it,” was the reply.

Technically, he didn’t need Edwards.  This little bumblebee he was flying could, hypothetically, put down on just about any runway.  Worst case scenario, he’d try to find a patch of open desert or empty highway and put her down there.  If he’d turned too far, he wondered about the prospect of landing in Los Angeles.  He clicked his tongue.  The X-24 almost looked like something out of a movie anyway.

He checked his instrumentation again and could see no particular signs of trouble.  It was almost more unnerving that way.  Clearly there was something up with the communications system, but there was nothing to indicate that on the board.

“Houston, Aurora.  Still in the blind.  I have turned through 080 and I am proceeding with landing as scheduled.  Please have everyone standing by down there.”

It was as close to a call for help as he would allow himself.

He almost cheered as saw the California coastline up ahead.  Crichton chided himself, “You found North America.  Good job slick.  It was bound to be there anyways.  Now, where are you?”

The trouble with California coastline is that there’s so much of it, and it looks, for the most part, like the coastline in Mexico and Oregon.  Fortunately, the test flights had prepared him on what to look for.

As Crichton recognized Point Arguello, relief crashed over him like a wave.  He’d managed to fly to basically the point he’d intended to.  His altitude was a little lower than he’d prefer, but it was within a decent margin.

Being over dry land gave him a certain level of security.  He was able to identify Vandenburg Air Force Base and felt like he might manage to pull this off after all.  He still needed to get halfway to Nevada, but technically he was right where he wanted to be.

“Houston in the blind, this is Aurora.  Altitude is at the lower end of the margin.  Be advised, I will not be making a turn for runway 22R at Edwards.  I’m gonna come in straight on the line.”

That was a little bit dicey.  Not doing a sweeping turn for final approach would preserve energy, which translated to altitude, but it would also preserve a lot of speed.  The Aurora would be coming in hot.  It was a judgement call that he was forced to make.  The kind of thing that Mission Control would have loved to weigh in on.

“Houston, Aurora.  I have sighted the field at Edwards.  This will be my last call.”  He instantly regretted the way he’d phrased that; hoping for a moment that no one on the ground had heard him.

It was a stick and rudder operation now.  No wave-offs, no second chances.  Just the air, the ship and the runway.  “So, from terrifying to nerve-wracking.  You got here, now the hard part.  Put her down.”

He came through 2000 feet and checked his airspeed.  He was lower than he wanted and faster than he wanted and, if he’d had any fuel, it would have been the perfect time to pull up, circle the field and make a new approach.

Aurora shimmied a little bit and he felt her try to roll right.  He kicked the rudder and eased the stick and she settled.  This was no time to get into an aeronautical argument.  “Just hold steady.  Almost there.”

His left hand reached for the landing gear controller.  It was a big black pull-bar that was very satisfying to yank towards him and he heard the whirr of the landing gear deploy.

“So far, so good.”

Below him he could see movement on the ground.  There were trucks standing by and he thought he spotted an ambulance, which did nothing to calm his nerves.

The alignment for 22R was good.  He’d practiced this before.  Nose up, kill the velocity a bit.  Nice and easy, let stall tease her right out of the air.

The altimeter unwound slowly, like a cat in a sunbeam.  At 20 feet, he knew he had it made.

SQWUNK!

The rear wheels kissed the runway like a mother sending her child off to college.  His airspeed indicator was still high, but he felt the low rumble of tires on the ground.  The nose gear basically took care of itself.  The Aurora screamed down the runway, like a racecar making for the finish line.

Crichton had a moment to look off to the side.  A pair of T-38’s soared by overhead.  They’d been with him for 50 miles, but he hadn’t really noticed them.  He felt foolish all of a sudden.  He’d been so concentrated on his instruments and the 10 degrees right in front of him that he’d not seen them pull alongside.  He locked the rudder in place and double checked that he had full deployment of flaps.

Aurora was still doing around 60mph as she passed the end of the runway.  It didn’t matter much.  Out here, the “runway” was more agreed upon than built.  It was basically painted onto the desert floor and the sand on either end wasn’t much different from the sand in the middle.

A desert tortoise watched NASA’s latest spacecraft roll past.  It wasn’t impressed.

It took another minute or so for the ship to roll to a stop.  His body relaxed and he realized that most of his muscles had been clenched tight since he was over the Pacific.  The kinetic energy of a straight-shot approach had carried the Aurora for nearly half a mile past the runway.  He made a note to tell the engineers to consider putting in a drag chute for later flights.  Considering she’d gotten him down in one piece, Crichton felt confident that there would be later flights.

*             *             *

A week later, they’d figured out that the issue hadn’t been a fault with the communications system, but rather with his headset.  He’d been transmitting blind, but Houston had gotten every word he’d said.  He’d had a rather large audience listening the whole way down.

While the NASA brass had lauded him for landing a prototype ship with almost no assistance, the NASA Press office did have one complaint: His mike had been hot the whole way down.

In the Astronaut Corps, Jack Crichton became known as the man who found North America.

Lifting Bodies

*             *             *

                I would like to thank David Portree and his Dreaming a Different Apollo series, as well as Paul Drye and his False Steps blog.  Both have been very helpful.

 

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The Junior Senator From The Internet (Page 1)

the-junior-senator-from-the-internetAfter this latest election, we’re all going to be looking for a better option next time.

This is the opening to a longer story.  I’ll have to see how it develops.

*                             *                             *

                Law and programming have a weird common link; they both can suffer drastic changes based on technicalities.

If they hadn’t started the kernel all those years ago, none of it would have been possible.  The foundation of the program existed as far back as the early 1990’s.  That was the only way it was allowed.  After Pompey was granted citizenship, the last line stopping it was the age requirement.  Article I, Section III was very clear that a person had to be at least thirty years of age to run for the Senate.  Pompey was able, itself, to argue that, since its original programming kernel had been written on 12 January 1992, that, in essence, it had been born on that date.

The court accepted that logic, though on a 5-4 vote.  Justice Edwards wrote a scathing dissent and warned of “subjugation by technology.”  Fox called his dissent a shining example of rational thought.  MSNBC said the opposite.  Most people didn’t even pay attention.  The ones who did mostly regarded it as a stunt, or some elaborate advertising prank.

*                             *                             *

                The initial press release was so boring that no press outlets covered it.  It was 2 sentences and there was no way to predict the shockwaves it would eventually cause.

DataDyne is developing an artificial intelligence to aid in legal research and criminal justice.  The Pompey Program will offer assistance to lawyers and law enforcement, much as the WATSON AI has assisted doctors with differential diagnoses.

For the first few years, it was just that simple.  Pompey started out as a novelty for high-end lawyers to impress rich clients.  As the license became cheaper, it became a staple in law offices around the country.  There was a pilot program in Germany and another in Japan.  DataDyne made a small fortune off selling the software license, but the program barely registered on their bottom line after their commercial operating systems.

To this day, no one has ever admitted to planning the ascent.  It’s been generally accepted that it wasn’t planned.  The evolution of artificial intelligences is, almost by definition, nearly impossible for a human brain to completely comprehend.  Suffice it to say that the data gathering protocols worked better than expected.  The program was able to anticipate trends and to glean patterns out of obscure legal documents, court judgements, law enforcement trends… you name it.  Whatever was uploaded into the system, any case that it was used for, it remembered.

The programmers responsible for its development were largely uninvolved when the upgrade was announced.  They had moved on to other projects (in some cases, to other companies) and DataDyne had a policy to keep employees moving so as to avoid internal stagnation.

The upgrade was touted as essentially a writing assistant.  It was mostly unnoticed except within legal circles.  The program was able to write opening and closing statements for cases which had need of them.  There was also a package that would aid an attorney in direct testimony and cross-examination.  It couldn’t yet respond to unexpected answers on the fly, but that ability came soon after.

 

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #7 – Heisenberg In Gotham

Heisenberg In Gotham

I usually try not to blatantly use someone else’s idea.  In this case, it was simply irresistible.

Colin Liotta had a brilliant idea in 2012.  Before the ultimate fate of Walter White was known, Liotta posited that the character could warp into a Nolan-verse version of the classic Batman villain Mr. Freeze.  At first, I was skeptical, but, as Mr. Rogers taught us, things tend to grow in the garden of your mind.

I’ve been impressed with much of Mr. Liotta’s other work.  He has a respect and understanding of the Nolan version of Batman that matches my own.  With my longstanding desire to write something about a John Blake Nightwing and the possibilities implied with the nexus of two great franchises, I thought I’d take a crack at writing a prologue, just to see what develops.

Here I present a work in progress.

Gotham: Frostbite

The gloves were still the strangest part.  Gloves weren’t a common sight in Albuquerque and he’d felt odd having to wear them ever since the accident.  Gloves and long-sleeve shirts, it was the only way he could think of to keep his latest mistake from being noticeable.

That was the real trick.  In New Mexico, there was enough open space and enough distance for a man to not feel like he was constantly being watched, but, the further east he went, the more eyes he felt watching him.  It was nothing more than a feeling, a sense of social claustrophobia.  The southwest had been his home for so long that he’d almost forgotten about the east-coast style of living.

As he drove through St. Louis, he wondered if that paranoia would ever really vanish.  Over the past couple of years, he’d been driven through every emotional state that a man could have, or so he thought.  Many men had known what it was to become famous, fewer had known what it was to be infamous, but lesser still were those who had both built an empire and seen it crumble.

He gassed up at a station outside Indianapolis.  He discreetly pulled up his sleeve.  The blue pigment was halfway to his elbow.  If it continued at this rate, he’d have less than a year before his entire body was saturated.

That would be a problem for another day.

Through Pennsylvania he’d managed to find a bit more calm.  Despite the desperation that he felt, he was quick to remember that things could have been so much worse.  Junior was safely ensconced in a solid California university.  Skyler showed signs of stabilizing, though her prognosis was still not good.  That the threat from Hank had been neutralized still made him cringe.  He lamented the lack of elegance in how that had been handled.  Still, when there are no good options, one had to make do with the best of the bad ones.

Looking beyond all the troubles that he’d left in the west, he was able to focus on the most comforting thing he currently possessed: a plan.

Gotham was still reeling from the chaos that it had experienced in the last decade.  The culmination of the madness had been a neutron bomb exploding only a dozen miles off-shore.  The local populace was still greatly frazzled.  They had begun to climb out from their hiding spaces like every timid mammal does after great events wreck their home.  The first bridge to be fully repaired had been completed only three weeks previously.  The city was going to come back to its former self and Walter knew that a thriving drug trade would be as much a part of the new Gotham as it had been in the old.

What had given him a few million in New Mexico, he hoped to use to greater effect in the new Gotham.  It was going to be an uphill climb, but he had both desperation and experience on his side.  Used in conjunction, he had no doubt that he would be able to do what was necessary.  Skyler’s condition must be dealt with.  Holly would be cared for.  The cost of Junior’s education would never burden him.  These were all absolutes and the solution to all of them was just a matter of money.

Money: that’s what Gotham represented in his mind.  It was a city that had been built on finance, had been blackened by crime and had been shaken through terror.  The perfect recipe for a river of dirty money.  And with the downfall of their celebrated vigilante, he felt nothing but potential as he neared his new home.

He took the black pork pie hat from the passenger seat and put it on.  An emperor shouldn’t enter his city without his crown.  Traffic was terrible at the Tri-Gate Bridge.  He sat in a molasses stream of cars inching their way towards the skyline beyond the water.  To his left he could see the docks.  To the right, the skyscrapers at the heart of the city.  He gazed for a long moment, looking for one in particular.  The fog broke just right and he spotted it: Wayne Tower.  That distinctive W that marked the city like a brand.  He tipped the black hat in a silent salute to the Wayne family.  Their empire had risen and fallen much as his own had.  Though he was determined to see his rise once again.

World War Z – My Story

Image

I was a big fan of the World War Z novel and movie.  I’ve read the book and listened to the audiobook a few times and I really liked the way that Max Brooks combined the oral history with an outlandish plot idea.  I particularly liked the sections near the end which dealt with reclaiming the world and I was taken by the idea of the LaMOEs.  (Last Man on Earth).  I decided I wanted to write “my story” for WWZ.  The whole novel being oral history, I wanted to see if I could emulate the writing and tell an interesting story at the same time.  Not sure if I succeeded or not.

For those that haven’t read the book, the text in bold is supposed to be that of the chronicler Max Brooks and the text in regular font is the oral history of whomever he’s interviewing.  I’ve tried to match his formatting wherever possible.

Before going further, let me state that I don’t own World War Z in any way and do not claim any rights for any of the related works or artworks on this post.

This story is fiction.

Camp Lejune, North Carolina

               [The military barracks at Camp Lejune were home to some of America’s finest warriors.  After the reclamation it became the setting for some of the war crimes trials.  Brandon Nichols certainly doesn’t seem like a terrorist.  He has the look of a computer nerd.  I’m told he was once heavyset but the man who appears before me is gaunt and ragged, as though he hasn’t eaten or slept in days.  He’s surrounded by drawings and diagrams but the bars that separate us make it clear that he won’t be building anything for quite a while.]

I wasn’t a survivalist.  I had seen those guys on TV.  It always seemed weird to me.  They were planning for some big apocalypse that seemed sure never to come.  I laughed like everyone else did.  I figured if aliens came down here, or robots rose up against us, it’d just be my day to die.

I guess when it comes down to brass tacks, we all want to live.

Charlotte was a madhouse.  When Cornwallis came through here during the Revolution, he called the place a hornet’s nest.  That’s why we named the basketball team.  Anyway, he was right on because watching a million people try to either get out through the airport, or head for the hills created one of the greatest clusterfucks in the history of man.

Come to think of it, I’m sure it was just as bad in plenty of other places.

When the reports started coming in from Wilmington, I had the sense that it was going to slip away fast.  Within a couple of days we’d heard that the government was retreating beyond the Rockies and that’s when the panic set in.  My first thought was to get Brittany out.

She always fought me on this sort of thing.  I’m sure she saw me as overprotective and there may have been some truth to that.  My dad was a cop, so I tend to see threats whether they are there or not.  I calculated that trying to get from the North Carolina piedmont to the Rocky Mountains was simply not feasible with all this going on.  The main roads would have been filled with Zekes or desperate people, which is really just as dangerous.  So, figuring that air was our only option, I headed for the airport.  Not Charlotte-Douglas mind you, but a much smaller strip outside of town.  Mostly used by rich executives and race teams.

My background is aerospace engineering, but that doesn’t mean I know how to fly.  I could design you a decent aircraft, but I never got my pilot’s license.  I did have an old college roommate who had two things that I needed: a hero complex, and access to a Cessna.  One of the last times my cell phone worked was in a call to him asking him to fly Brittany as far west as he could manage.  A C172 theoretically can go over 1000 miles, so I thought, with some luck, they could reach a military base in the Midwest and maybe hop from there to the quarantine zone.  It was wishful thinking, but I figured if I could get Brit away from the east coast, she’d be safer.

I never was planning on getting out that way.  I knew that the plane would stand a better chance of getting off with only one passenger, and, at that time, I wasn’t exactly light on my feet.  I really just wanted her to survive, so I slipped her a sleeping pill on our way to the airstrip (it’s the only time in my life I managed to put anything over on her) and by the time she woke up, she was a few thousand feet over the Tennessee foothills.  I had put a note in her pocket saying everything that needed to be said.  I always figured love was valuing someone else more than yourself so I figured that was the best I could do for her.

I watched the plane take off, figuring that I’d never see her again and I sat in the car for a while thinking That’s fine.  This is how it should be.  I sat there and smiled, thinking I’d done all I could to save my fiancé and now I could go and meet whatever fate had in store for me without flinching.  It was a beautiful ending to the story.

Of course, the problem was that my story was just beginning.

Not knowing what else to do I headed back to my home in Mooresville.  It’s a small town, not much in the way of population or attractions.  I did have to roar past some Zekes in the backwoods roads that led home, but once I reached the town, most of it was deserted.  It was eerie.  Just days ago there had been more than 20,000 people within a few miles of my apartment, but now I saw almost no one.  There was the occasional man or woman peeking out from behind a boarded up window, but no one on the street and certainly nothing you could call organized.  Once I got back to my place, I took a quick inventory.  I had a couple of swords from when I used to collect them, a supply of food that may last a month if I could stretch it, and almost nothing by way of defenses.  I wasn’t even on a high floor.  The windows to my apartment wouldn’t keep anything out that wanted to get in.  It was obvious that if I wanted to live, this wasn’t the place to do it.

Mooresville did have a few things that made it unique and all of them were absolutely necessary for our survival.  The town had a Lowe’s home improvement store that just happened to be within a hundred yards of a grocery store.  There was a Wal-mart up the street and about a dozen fast food places within a mile of that street.  The other trick, and this is the one that was simultaneously the best and worst part was the power plant.

What do you mean?

The power plant was nuclear.  I have no idea how a nuclear plant works, but I know that whoever was the last one out when the panic hit left the reactor in some sort of stand-by mode or something because for the most part, we had electricity.  The problem was, we had no way of knowing if the plant was dangerous or if we were going to suddenly hear alarm bells going off one day.  If the alarms had gone off, every Zeke within 25 miles would be heading right for us, and it would also be a sign that we were going to be irradiated.  It was debatable whether you’d rather go out from radiation sickness or a Zeke bite.  Essentially that plant was a time bomb that could go off any minute.

How did you establish the camp?

 

I had figured the home improvement place would be a decent spot to stock up on supplies.  When I got there of course I found several other people had the same idea.  I was hoping to get a team together, a band of folks who could work together so that when things got bad, we’d have support amongst ourselves.  Fortunately I wasn’t the only one with thoughts along those lines.

Within our group of about twenty or so we had three who were carrying shotguns.  For the first few days, they were our only line of defense against the Zekes.  We didn’t see many in those early days but those guys protected us while we got the initial defenses in place.

I was the first to float the idea of using the grocery store as a base.  It had a decent amount of supplies left in the back, though the main storefront had been ransacked and looted pretty good by then.  We still had gas in our cars, so we spent a day ferrying supplies to the grocery store.  From there we boarded up the windows, secured the doors and basically tried to make the place as zombie proof as possible.  My engineering background came in handy a bit and people kept looking to me, but I tried to explain that I was an aerospace guy and that I didn’t know much about construction or weaponry.

Once the main bits were up, we mostly settled into a pattern.  We had a few on watch at all times.  We sent a couple of scouting parties to the stores and restaurants around to raid their kitchens and grab whatever was left.  Food and weapons were the priority.  We also came across a few other people now and then and we had a rule that anyone we discovered could join us if they wanted to.  I think we only ever found about six or eight folks and of those, only three joined us.

One girl had the bright idea to use the roof of the grocery as a place to grow food.  The garden section of the Lowe’s came in handy for that.

During the day, our biggest problem was usually boredom.  We didn’t go outside much and we couldn’t afford to make a lot of noise lest Zeke hear us, so we basically sheltered in place.  Nighttime wasn’t that much better, but we did tend to go on the roof for an hour or two at sunset.  We’d check the plants, see if our ham radio would get any new signals and talk for a while amongst ourselves.

It was actually kind of a nice atmosphere.  I’ve heard of survivor complexes where people turned on each other or went to war against the next town over, but it wasn’t like that for us.  We were just a band of strangers, but when we looked out the window, we knew that the only way to survive was together.  There wasn’t much stealing or fighting.  A moderate amount, sure, but everyone seemed to be able to offer something, so there wasn’t much in the way of complaints about this person or that.  The rationing was probably the worst of it.  Nothing will make people more irritable than an empty stomach.

I’d heard about the Bielski’s in World War Two protecting fellow Jews in Belorussia and the way they took care of their own.  Whenever I could, I’d put myself in their shoes and wonder how they coped.  Really, all things considered, it could have been much worse.

For the first couple of years we were like a miniature commune farm.  We grew our own food, stocked up for the winter and tried to make our defenses as best we could.  We kept quiet and hidden whenever possible, but there were times where we had to fight.

Sometime during the third summer is when the power plant alarm finally went off.

It started an hour or so before sunrise.  You could hear it blaring like a dinner bell to any Zeke in earshot.  North Carolina hadn’t heard anything louder than a birdcall in years, but we had a rock concert going off not ten miles from our camp.  It didn’t matter that there wasn’t anyone physically at the plant, just the sound was enough to perk up the ears of every Zeke around, and then of course, they all made calls to the others.

The plan was to keep quiet and keep calm, but that didn’t work out.  We had a guy who was scared of the rads that the plant would be spitting out.  Seeing him run away did wonders for our popularity with the undead.   I never did figure out if he got away clean or not.  Never saw him again either way.  I kinda hope he made it, even if he did turn our store into Zombies-R-Us for a while.

The horde came down on us slowly over the course of a few days.  I had designed plenty of traps and obstacles and between that and the guys on the roof firing, we held out pretty well.  When the ammo was gone, we took up station and fought with melee weapons.

Shovels, knives, even those swords I collected came in handy.  It was brutal and we lost about half our folks to bites or infected cuts.  By the time it was over we had a pile about 3 foot tall outside the storefront.  The fires lasted eight days.  When the fires died, so did the alarms.  It was like the universe was calling a timeout.  That was easily the worst week of my life.

We kept looking for signs of rad poisoning, but no one felt any different, so we kind of just let it go after a while.  If it hadn’t killed you yet, there wasn’t much you could do.  More and more I think we just got very lucky.

About a year after the alarms is when I got the idea to build the probes.

I built rovers in college.  Well, me and people more talented than I am.  I was part of teams of really smart guys.  At any rate, I knew the basic engineering necessary for the programming and construction, and it turned out we had a fair amount of spare parts to scrabble together.

Where did you find robot parts in the aftermath of the swarms?

It’s all about using what you have on hand.  The Native Americans could do fifty-seven things with a Buffalo hide before they finished with it.  The toy store was actually a lot of help.  They had some RC cars gathering dust and that gave me a chassis and wheels right there.  After that it’s just a matter of power and control.

It took about a year of gathering and trial and error but I cobbled together 3 probes out of old parts.  Each one had a power pack and a camera with a transmitter.  The idea was that we’d drive them out as far as we could, scout for Zekes or try to establish radio contact with other survivors.  As far as we knew, we were the last on Earth.  Some of us actually believed that.  I held out hope that there was still an organized government fighting for us, but I was never sure either way until the end.

The probes weren’t exactly marvels of precision or beauty, but they basically did what we needed them to do.  We sent two out on Highway 77, one going north, one south.  The radios never picked up anything (I think that was more due to my wiring than a lack of a signal), but we did manage to find a cluster of Zekes outside Huntersville.

The southbound probe, Kim,

I look at him questioningly.

They all had girl’s names.  It’s a tradition.

Kim was the one we sent south and it found that nest of Zekes.  I figured they’d ignore it as it wasn’t flesh, but I didn’t think about the fact that it made noise.  The clicks and whirrs of machinery will get a Zeke’s attention just as good as a scream.  Kim was surrounded and got to where I couldn’t get it to move.  When the battery died after a day or so, I let it go as a lost cause.

One of the other guys in camp had the idea to put explosives on the others.  He said that if we’d put them on Kim, we could have taken out plenty of Zekes once it got surrounded.  The idea didn’t sound bad to me, and we had some dynamite left over from the construction supplies section.  Originally we were going to use it for the alarm attack, but no one knew how powerful it was so we left it alone.

On a rover far away though, we figured it wouldn’t be a danger to us and we’d get to kill Zekes without having them in our face.

The last rover I had, Natalie, we sent it west one morning to check for signs of life or death.  We’d done it dozens of times before.  We’d drive out as far as half our batteries would let us, turn on the radio, take a look around and drive back before dark.

This time we saw signs of movement along the roads and eventually we figured out that we were looking at an organized force.  It was what we’d been hoping to see for years.  There were about eight of us left by that point and we hugged and kissed and danced like we’d just found buried treasure.

We didn’t have a way of talking to the troops, but they had noticed the probe.  We could see them gathering around the cameras.  There was a map which showed the store where we were living and we saw some guy, couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, run with the map back the way they’d come.  I guess he was showing it to his commanding officer or something.

A few minutes later the feed went to static.  I thought one of the soldiers must have accidentally broken the radio transmitter or something.  It didn’t occur to me that there was any real problem because we finally were about to get the rescue we’d been dreaming of.

When they came the next morning they moved like a SWAT team.  We were surrounded and had guns pointed at our heads very quickly.  There were shouts and I got hit on the back of the head with what I assume was a rifle butt.

When I woke up I was in those plastic wristcuffs that they use and they had me locked in a van.

I never will know what caused the explosion.  I know that I didn’t hit the trigger.  None of us could have, we were away from the laptop and so excited just to be discovered.  We would never have hurt anyone coming to rescue us.  If I had to guess, I’d say the probe got hit with radio interference.  I hadn’t hardened it against interference because we were trying to pick up any signals we could.  No one believes me, but I swear we would never have tried to attack anyone coming to get us.

Pardons were extended to the places where people had “seceded.”  That’s a laugh.  We never “seceded” from anything.  I wasn’t trying to form my own country out of a supermarket.  I would have taken the help of anyone who offered, but I was still in America and I’ll always be an American.  The army didn’t see it that way though.  In their mind we had just attacked them with a bomb and we were a threat to their reclamation of the east coast.

If I had ever thought anyone would be hurt by my designs, I’d never have built them; much less put them in the field.

Still, as a “terrorist” [he scoffs] I was sentenced to fifteen years for the explosion.  Looking back, that was more than reasonable from their perspective.  They had every right to hang me or shoot me on sight.  I spoke for the few folks at the store who had toughed it out with me and I made it clear to anyone who would listen that they had nothing to do with the probes.  I wanted it all put on me.  It was my design and I’m responsible for anything that happens as a result.

It’s not all prison bars and moldy bread in here though.  The military offered me preferential treatment if I’d work for them on new systems.  It’s let me use my skills to help.  That’s about all I can hope for.