Copyright © Peter Cawdron 2015
All rights reserved.
The right of Peter Cawdron to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
First published in The Z Chronicles (2015)
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental
Cover art: Copyright ESA/NASA
Jackson is an astronaut conducting a test run of an interstellar craft in deep space. When he returns home, there’s no one to greet him. Earth has fallen silent. Now he must decide—stay in orbit, watching a dead planet roll slowly by beneath his windows, or land on Earth and fight for life?
STARS PEPPER THE INKY BLACK DARKNESS. Little more than an inch of reinforced clear plexiglass surrounded by insulated sheet metal separates Jackson from the cold, empty vacuum of space.
“Hi Honey, I’m home,” he says, his fingers resting on a computer screen, touching lightly at a pale blue dot in the electronic distance.
Physically, Earth is still too distant to be resolved by the human eye. Besides, with both the engines and the shielding on the Phaethon facing in the direction of travel, there are no windows facing Earth. This is the closest Jackson will get to seeing Earth until the Phaethon passes the Moon.
Phaethon, Faith on, Fave on, Rave on—on any given day Jackson pronounces the name of his spacecraft half a dozen different ways depending on how tired he is and how lazy his tongue feels. He isn’t supposed to talk to himself. Mission psychologists say it isn’t healthy, but fuck ’em. They aren’t the ones strapping themselves to a spacecraft powered by a daisy chain of thermonuclear explosions. They aren’t the ones risking their lives to test the viability of interstellar travel.
Fame? Is that really his motivation? His wife said he was selfish during the divorce, but she was hardly an impartial observer. She said he never cared about anyone and never could. Part of him hates to think she might be right. No. Curiosity, exploration—this is what drives him on. Of course he cares about others. He’s human, not a machine.
“Houston. This is Phaethon. Do you copy?”
That there’s no reply isn’t too alarming. At best, he’s still seven or eight light seconds away from Earth, which means an instant reply would take over fifteen seconds to reach him.
At the speed the Phaethon has been traveling over the past two months, the spacecraft has produced a ridiculous amount of radiation as everything from fine specks of dust down to individual atoms adrift in interplanetary space collided with the shields.
Named after the mythical son of Helios, the mighty Sun and giver of light, Phaethon has propelled itself up to 97% of the speed of light relative to Earth. Between the glowing outer shield and the electromagnetic pulses produced by the engine, communication with Earth won’t be possible until the Phaethon ’s speed drops below 5%. Jackson should be right on the cusp of reestablishing comms, but there is no reply.
“ Houston. You should have seen her. She was beautiful. She did everything that was asked of her. Not more than a 2% deviation from the flight path. Outbound arc north was nominal, as was the southern return.
“We had a few tremors at the halfway point while orienting for the decel burn. For a while there, I was a little worried the engines wouldn’t align with the shields and I’d sail off into space like Major Tom, but the old girl didn’t let me down.
“Oh, and hey, onboard tracking detected another fourteen trans-neptunian dwarf planets. Yes, you heard that right, fourteen of the suckers, and that’s just what we could observe from the fringe of the Oort Cloud. The largest is slightly smaller than Pluto, but what a beauty. In the UV, she shines like an opal.”
Jackson runs his hands over his face, cleaning out the grit in his eyes as he says, “For the record, I don’t recommend 1.4G constant acceleration. It’s okay at first, but after vacillating between that and zero-gee over dozens of alignment burns, I feel like shit. I cannot wait to get back to a constant one gee.”
His mind wanders. If someone could see him—if there was some cosmic eye watching him, what a sight they would behold. Rather than floating around like the Apollo astronauts or those in the Shuttle or onboard the Orion, Jackson is stuck to the wall. For him, the leading face of the spacecraft feels like a floor, but that’s the illusion of deceleration.
“I want pizza and beer,” he says, wondering if Houston can hear him, hoping someone down there is taking notes. “Seriously, pizza and beer. Nothing fancy. Just a pepperoni pizza and some cheap, nasty beer. Hell, it could be warm for all I care. And football. I have got to sit my ass on a couch and mindlessly watch men charging at each other like mountain goats. Hey, who’s looking likely to reach the Super Bowl this year?”
Silence is the only reply, but Jackson doesn’t care.
“Okay, Houston. I’m entering a sleep phase. Wake me on approach, will yah? Goddamn decel is screwing with my vision. Eyeballs must be deformed by pressure or something. Hell, I can concentrate and push through it, but I’d rather not bring on another migraine. I’m going to get some sleep. You get that pizza and beer ready, you hear?”
Jackson rests his headset on the command console and dims the lights in the cramped confines of the Phaethon.
“Two months here, almost four months back there,” he mumbles to himself as he climbs into his sleeping bag and curls up on the pseudo floor of the craft. “That relativity shit does my head in.” He laughs, adding, “Better goddamn well pay me for four!”
He is asleep within seconds. His worn, tired body shuts down his mind.
An eerie blue light shines in through the windows of the Phaethon.
Jackson squints, wondering how long he slept. He’s surprised by the light. For him, it seems as though just a few seconds have passed, not the almost ten hours displayed on the inflight clock. After months of darkness, the brilliance outside is baffling. He tries to get up only to find there is no up. He’s floating weightless in free fall. There is nothing to push off to get up as he’s drifting almost a foot from the floor.
Spasms electrify his body. In that split second, it is as though he’s in a dream, falling from a cliff. His body shakes, wanting to wake him before he hits the rocks below, only in space there is no escape from free fall. Instead of waking to find the comfort of his bed holding him firm, he wakes violently to the nightmare of falling forever down an endless rabbit hole. It takes a couple of seconds for his mind to reorient itself and embrace the weightless experience without fear.
Wriggling with the floppy sleeping bag, Jackson works his legs out of the bag, somersaulting slowly around the cabin of the Phaethon.
“Good morning, Houston,” he says, picking up his wireless headpiece and slipping it over his ear. “Looks like a beautiful day down there.”
There’s no reply, but Jackson doesn’t care. He’s excited to see the emerald greens and azure blues of the Bahamas so calm and serene beneath his window. Fluffy white clouds dot the sky hundreds of miles below him.
“I know you get this all the time from us astro-nuts, and I know it’s kinda cruel pointing it out, but damn, you haven’t seen Earth until you’ve seen her from orbit!”
The sleeping bag drifts lazily beside him. He bundles it up, scrunching it into a ball and stuffing it into a cupboard, loving the way that action slowly pushes him away from the wall. Free fall is a lot like swimming, only without any resistance from the water.
Jackson is expecting mission control to begin talking to him about reentry, but Houston is silent. As exciting as it is to be home, he’s going to miss space. Like most astronauts, Jackson spent his first few days feeling seasick. NASA likes to call it space sick, but for Jackson, motion sickness in free fall felt all too similar to a deep sea fishing expedition he once did off the Florida Keys. He could have died on that boat and he wouldn’t have cared as long as he could stop vomiting and dry-heaving. Once he acclimatized to space though, free fall was like living on a perpetual roller coaster ride.
He loves the gut wrenching feeling of weightlessness.
“Free fall,” he says, distracting himself and feeling as giddy as a child at the sight of Earth rushing by so close below. “It’s like playing in the ball pit at McDonalds. You must know, you’ll never get us kiddies to leave of our own accord. It’s just too much fun.”
Still there’s no reply.
The Phaethon has automatically brought Jackson into a slightly elliptical orbit roughly five hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. Although his formal title is pilot, Jackson understands the reality of the mission. He’s a guinea pig. He’s along for the ride. NASA humors him with a handful of tasks and objectives on the way, but for the most part, he’s an observer. He’s trained in how to repair critical systems, but the term ‘repair’ is a misnomer. Swapping parts is something a robot could do. Jackson’s on board so the brains at NASA can evaluate how well his body copes traveling at almost the speed of light, but he doesn’t care. It’s his name in the history books, not theirs.
Dozens of contingency plans have been preprogrammed into the Phaethon covering every possible emergency. Flying the Phaethon is like choosing menu items at a restaurant. All the hard work has been done by someone else. Jackson follows his training and starts bringing up the various options for reentry on his computer terminal. There’s no internet connection, but that’s not surprising as it tends to be flaky at the best of times.
The silence is unnerving, but Jackson shrugs it off.
“What’s the plan? Do we have confirmation of a recovery ship in the Pacific drop zone?
“What’s the weather like down there? I’m picturing clear skies over Waikiki… Please don’t tell me I need to come down in the Atlantic.”
He pauses. This time, rather than waiting a few seconds to avoid talking over the top of mission control, Jackson waits a full minute.
“Ah, mission control. Are you receiving me?”
Instinctively, he looks out the window, watching as Texas drifts by beneath him. Towns and cities are visible as little more than grey smudges on an otherwise sandy colored desert. Pockets of forest dot the landscape. Farms are scattered like patchwork quilts, with multicolored squares breaking up the harsh, barren landscape.
“Houston, why am I in a retrograde orbit?”
He laughs, adding, “What? You guys didn’t think I had enough to deal with up here? You decided I should play dodgeball with space junk?”
The silence is eerie and unnerving.
“Okay, Houston. Assuming it’s not April 1st, I’m activating a dead comms protocol. Switching to auxiliary systems. Outbound transmission looks good. Inbound looks fine, but if you’re transmitting, I’m not reading you.”
Jackson busies himself, checking technical manuals, and not noticing as the Continental U.S. slides silently beneath him and his tiny craft.
Dark clouds hide the West Coast as the Phaethon races across the vast, lonely Pacific. Night falls abruptly somewhere over the ocean. With each orbit taking over ninety minutes, he knows he’ll be back over Texas well before the sun sets on the Lone Star state, having passed through a night and a day in a surreal hour and a half.
“I hope you can hear this,” Jackson says, unscrewing a panel on the bulkhead as he drifts helplessly within the Phaethon. “I know you can hear this. I know you’re doing everything you can to reestablish comms, but I’ve got to tell you, this is freaking me out a little. So close but so far, you know.”
He’s chatty. After two months, he might have become somewhat introverted, but Jackson finds solace in talking, even if he’s talking to an empty ship and a silent radio.
“Professionalism, right? Keep your cool. Solutions present themselves to a calm mind. The anxious miss the obvious. Well, all that advice seems a little patronizing when you’ve got an entire planet set firmly beneath your feet. When you find yourself hurtling around Earth faster than Superman and his proverbial speeding bullet, reality is a little different. Little things can freak you out.”
Screws float carelessly beside Jackson as he pulls a panel away beneath the main flight controls. With a flashlight between his teeth and a computer tablet in one hand, he begins checking fuses. Although he’s floating upside down relative to the seat on the command deck, he feels as though he’s climbed up inside a simulator. Memories of his training come flooding back.
“Okay,” he says, letting the flashlight drift from his lips now he’s had a good look at the wiring. “Dead comms, let’s do this by the book. Fuses—check. Main bus switch—check. Auxiliary bypass—check. Redundant back up—check. Circuit board—check. There’s no sign of any discoloration, no burnt smell, nothing. But, hell, who knows what’s going on inside those circuits. They could have been slowly roasting over the past few months and I’d never know it.”
Frustrated, he slips the cover back on and screws the panel in place.
“I’m going to check the radio in the reentry pod.”
As he drifts past the window, Jackson gets a glimpse of the dark Earth below. A typhoon is forming out at sea, with brilliant white clouds spiraling in toward a tight, tiny center. In the distance, the coast of Asia is visible in the moonlight.
“Huh,” he says to himself, wondering why there are no lights. Although Jackson isn’t sure which part of Asia he’s flying toward, he’s aware Asia is the most densely populated landmass on Earth. But with electrical infrastructure from the last century, blackouts are probably common during the storm season.
Jackson moves hand over hand through the Phaethon, making his way to the reentry pod.
It takes a few minutes to power up the pod. Backlit controls glow in green and red.
“Houston, I’m broadcasting on the emergency band, using the reentry pod. Do you read me? Over.”
By now, he figures he must be somewhere over the Middle East. There should be relay stations or satellites automatically routing his signal around Earth and into the control room in Houston.
“For good measure, I’m activating the emergency beacon. Just trying to make some noise up here and get some attention. Banging pots and pans, as it were. Don’t freak out on me now. I’m doing a good enough job of that myself.”
He turns up the radio.
Static hisses in the air.
“Great,” he says sarcastically. “I can pick up the remnants of the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, but I can’t get a message from five hundred miles away.”
Jackson fiddles with the settings on the radio, setting the tuner to search through the kilohertz and the megahertz bands used by commercial radio.
“Can I at least get me some Country and Western? At this point, I’ll settle for a foreign language service.”
The radio fails to lock on to a signal so he returns it to the NASA broadcast band and settles for static.
Back in the cabin of the Phaethon, Jackson watches as the Mediterranean slides quietly beneath his spacecraft. Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Malta, and the familiar shape of Italy are visible through spotted cloud cover.
The south of France and the Spanish peninsula are dark as dawn breaks over Europe.
“I don’t get it,” he says, slipping his headset over his ear and hoping he’s talking to someone on Earth. “What’s happening down there? Houston, what the hell is going on?”
For the first time, Jackson considers the possibility his radio is working fine. Even if no one is listening down on Earth, he knows his flight recorder will retain voice and data metrics. Whatever happens, someday someone will examine the black box so he is deliberate, documenting his thinking, reasoning, and subsequent actions.
“Okay. I have no knowledge of what has happened on Earth other than that the planet is quiet in both radio and the visible light spectrum. The lack of light pollution might be a boon for astronomers, but it’s probably not that desirable for the rest of the population.
“I’m trying to stay objective and not stress about family and friends, but it seems some kind of global calamity has occurred? Maybe? Has something taken out all the electronics? Solar storm?
“What could do that? Nuclear war? What would the remnants of a nuclear blast look like from space?”
The Atlantic slips by beneath him.
“Approaching the U.S. East Coast, I can see long, thin tendrils of smoke from fires, but that could be anything. An explosion at a chemical plant, a forest fire.”
Talking himself through the details he can see helps him to remain objective.
“I have enough oxygen and water to stay up here almost indefinitely, but food is going to become an issue within about a week.”
Jackson doesn’t like where this is leading.
“I can’t stay up here forever,” he says. “I’d rather not be forced down. I’d rather come down on my own terms, so I’ve got a week to figure out what the hell I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it.”
Steeling himself, he speaks clearly for the benefit of the flight recorder.
“This isn’t suicide. This is about survival. If you can’t bring me down in a controlled manner, I’m going to have to figure that out for myself.”
The Phaethon passes over Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. Jackson looks for the wake of boats on the water, but clouds obscure the sea.
“I am shifting my search to commercial and private radio channels in an effort to contact someone, anyone.”
Using his computer, Jackson conducts a burst transmission across the major frequencies.
“This is Captain Dan Jackson of the U.S. Phaethon. Is anyone receiving? Over.”
Jackson uses a computer macro to record his outbound transmission and sets it to repeat every two minutes. It takes a bit of savvy, but he figures out how to lock on to any reply and switch exclusively to that frequency. There’s no response.
Dejected, Jackson sips on a bottle of water.
It doesn’t take long for the monotonous repetition of, “This is Captain Dan Jackson,” to become a point of despair.
Jackson stares out the window as he crosses the coastline. Somewhere down there is his home—just north of Corpus Christi. He’s sad.
Static flares and the crackle of a young voice asks, “Hello? Is there someone there?”
Jackson feels his heart race.
He grabs at the console, pulling his weightless body closer to the controls and yells. It’s as though close proximity and the strength of his voice are somehow going to make his transmission clearer.
“Hey! This is Captain Daniel Jackson. Who am I speaking to?”
His heart pounds in his chest. The voice coming through on the radio is weak, breaking up and crackling in reply.
“This is Hazel.”
“Hazel,” Jackson says. “Oh, I am so glad to hear your voice.”
“Can you help me?” Hazel asks. “My daddy said I should get help over the radio.”
Jackson feels his stomach churn.
“How old are you, Hazel?” he asks.
“Seven. I need help. Can you help me? Please? I’m scared. I’m really scared.”
Jackson wants to swear aloud, but he holds himself back. Just when he thought there was hope, his lifeline with Earth is in the hands of a child. He ignores her plea for help.
“Where is your dad? Can you put him on the radio?”
There’s no reply and Jackson panics, wondering if he’s said something to upset the young girl, or if he’s moved out of range. His heart thumps in his throat.
“Hazel? Hazel, are you still there?”
“Where are you?”
“In the police station.”
“Which police station?” Jackson asks.
The silence is painful.
“I can’t help you, if you can’t tell me where you are,” Jackson says, appealing to the young girl.
“Pasadena,” comes in a soft reply.
“Pasadena? Out in California?”
“In Texas,” Hazel says and Jackson gets excited.
“Texas? I know where you are, Hazel! You’re in the southern suburbs of Houston, right?”
There’s no answer.
“Listen carefully, Hazel. I’m an astronaut. I’m above you right now, somewhere up in the wild blue yonder beyond the clouds. I’m soaring high overhead, do you understand?”
Still, there’s no response.
“I can’t talk to you for long. I’m moving too fast. I’m going to sail over the horizon. Hazel? Can you still hear me?”
Jackson slows himself down. He’s rushing. The poor girl is scared. She’s asking for help. He needs information, but he’s got to be considerate of her distress. Hazel’s silence isn’t helping. He’s not sure if she’s agreeing with him and nodding, not knowing he can’t see her, or if she’s too freaked out to talk. She knows how to use a radio. She must have been using one for a while. Hazel and her father must have made contact with others over the radio or she wouldn’t be using it now.
“Hazel?” Jackson says, slowing his speech.
That one word sounds so sweet. Just to be in contact with someone gives him hope.
“Hazel. I want to help you, but I need help too. Is there a police officer down there? Or your mom? Or another adult? Can I speak to them?”
Jackson pulls at a railing beside the window, dragging himself closer and peering out at the brilliant splashes of ochre and the sandy brown colors breaking up the Texan wilderness. The coast slips away. Already, the radio signal is breaking up. He has seconds, not minutes.
“They’re monsters!” she yells. “Don’t you get it? They’re all monsters! They lied. They said they’d never leave me, but they did. And now there’s just me. I’m the only one here.”
“Where is your dad?” Jackson asks, feeling frustrated and repeating himself., but Hazel sounds confused.
“My dad? We were separated when they attacked. I need to find my dad.”
“Attacked? Attacked by who?” Jackson asks, panic rattling his voice. “What happened down there?”
“I’ve got to go. I can hear them. They’re coming. They’re coming for me!”
“Hazel,” Jackson yells within his empty spaceship.
Hazel screams. She must have locked the transmit button because Jackson hears the microphone being dropped. Furniture is knocked over. Someone scrambles away, bumping into a chair, causing it to scrape across the ground. There’s yelling, screaming, growling, and groaning.
“Hazel,” Jackson yells again.
The radio signal breaks up as the Phaethon moves out of range, sailing on at five miles a second, several hundred miles above Earth.
“Noooo!” Jackson cries, slapping his hand against the window and peering back at Texas. The gulf coastline disappears over the horizon. “Goddamn it, no!”
Jackson doesn’t understand what’s happening on Earth, but what was a vague, general crisis is suddenly personal.
“I’m coming, Hazel. Hold on. I’m coming for you!”
Static dominates the radio waves.
“Hold on, Hazel,” Jackson repeats, feeling helpless, knowing she can’t hear him. With the radio conversation over, the automated scanning routine kicks in again, racing through thousands of frequencies, but there’s no one else down there listening. No one that can talk back to him and explain what has happened.
Jackson brings up a map of Houston on his computer. As it seems no one is alive down there, one solitary voice is enough to stir something deep within him. Self-preservation is suddenly subordinate to the survival of humanity as a whole.
“What are you doing?” he asks himself. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you dumb fuck!”
He zooms in on southern Houston, looking for the Pasadena police station.
“This is stupid,” he says, berating himself. “You can’t come down over land.”
His finger runs over three airports on the outskirts of Pasadena: La Porte, William P. Hobby, and Ellington Air Force Base. Lots of clear land. Nice, long, flat runways.
“What else can I do?” he asks himself. “Sit up here waiting for a call that will never come? And then what? Splash down in the Pacific and paddle like crazy?”
On the map, it all looks so simple. There are no houses, no buildings, and no topographical markings, making the land beyond the various airports look flat. For Jackson, the deception holds a certain appeal, helping him to justify the lunacy of his plan. If there was anyone listening at mission control in Houston, they would say he’s crazy, and they’d be right, but it’s Houston. Jackson’s been to Houston enough times to know the lay of the land. If there’s anywhere to come down, it might as well be somewhere he knows. If mission control won’t talk to him, he’ll go and talk to them.
“I-45 cuts right through there,” he says in one breath, followed by, “You can’t be serious. Your landing ellipse is at least eight miles in length and a mile or two wide, depending on winds. You could hit goddamn power lines, skyscrapers, trees.
“No. There are three airports in the area. It’s going to be wide and open, allowing for approaches from both directions. Nothing above two stories. No high power lines.”
His finger picks out several parks and a golf course on the map.
“You can’t do this,” his rational mind says. “Touchdown speed is 30 miles an hour. You’ll break your stupid back!”
No sooner has he spoken than he grabs his toolkit and unscrews a panel on the bulkhead beside the reentry pod.
“I’m not leaving her,” he says softly, knowing his voice is being picked up by the flight recorder. “I don’t know what the fuck has happened on Earth, but there’s at least one survivor. Hazel’s alive. I can’t pretend I never spoke to her. Criticize me if you want, but I can’t live with myself if I don’t try something. I can’t turn my back on the only person I can reach down there… I can’t abandon a child.”
The aluminum panel drifts to one side, turning freely through the air as abandoned screws somersault slowly around the cabin.
“I’m not crazy.”
Jackson pulls at the thermal foam lining the inside of his spaceship, tearing out a long sheet and cutting it off with a box knife. He leaves the foam floating beside him as he pulls off another two panels and tears at more foam.
“I’m coming down sooner or later. Why delay the inevitable? And why risk drowning? I can do this. Get down in one piece. Figure out what’s happened.”
In the back of his mind, one word leaves him unsettled.
What did she mean?
What awaits on Earth?
And yet the rational part of his mind wonders, am I unduly panicked? Have I taken things too far?
Jackson doubts himself. But doubts are good. Doubts reveal detailed thinking. He tries to distract himself with the details of returning to Earth.
“Gotta get a move on,” he mumbles to himself. “Retro-burn will be somewhere over the Indian Ocean. If I’m going to make it down in this orbit, I’ll have to hustle.”
What the hell are the air traffic controllers at Ellington going to make of a reentry vehicle coming down on three massive parachutes, landing in the middle of a restricted military base? If he’s got this wrong, he’s going to be on the evening news for months to come as the astronaut who freaked because of a simple radio outage.
Jackson doesn’t expect a reply. That none is forthcoming is almost a relief.
Sweat beads on his forehead as he works with the foam, anchoring his feet beneath a railing so he can get some leverage. He stuffs both sheets of foam into his sleeping bag and drags it into the cramped confines of the reentry pod.
“You’re a goddamn idiot. A fool,” he says, loosening the straps on his couch and laying the stuffed sleeping bag on the seat.
“Duct tape,” he mutters, giving both himself and whoever may one day listen to the flight recorder a running commentary of his actions. “Don’t leave Earth without a Texan toolkit-in-one.”
Jackson uses the tape to fasten the sleeping bag to the couch, ensuring the padding covers the headrest, torso and hip area, but not bothering with the lower legs.
“This is either the dumbest idea in history or the stupidest. I’m struggling to figure out which.
“Who put a goddam redneck Texan on this mission anyway? Hah. What else did you expect?”
Jackson laughs as he programs the coordinates for reentry into the onboard computer, centering the landing ellipse on Ellington Air Force base.
“With a little luck,” he says, knowing his comment is a gross understatement.
Static hisses around him.
“I’m coming, Hazel,” he says softly for no one other than himself.
Back in the main cabin of the Phaethon, Jackson suits up, slipping into his day-glow orange recovery suit and white helmet. He programs the Phaethon to move into a higher orbit some fifteen hundred miles above Earth roughly an hour after he departs. As far as he’s concerned, five trillion dollars worth of space hardware deserves more than a deteriorating orbit, the damage to the internal insulation notwithstanding.
Outside the Phaethon, night has fallen yet again. He’s approaching a darkened China or perhaps South East Asia, hurtling around Earth at a breakneck speed.
“Goodbye, old girl,” he says, slipping into the reentry pod and taking one last look at his home for the past two months. He closes the hatch with care, feeling an emotional attachment to the Phaethon as he silently bids her Godspeed.
As crazy as his plan is, Jackson feels positive about reentry. To be doing something rather than waiting is a psychological relief if nothing else. He straps himself into a reclined flight seat.
“Hang in there, Hazel,” he says, finishing his prep before punching the release. A soft shudder announces the separation of the pod. One spacecraft has become two.
“I’m christening her the Odyssey,” he says somewhat proudly before settling into his professional routine.
“Okay, Houston. We have separation. All systems online. Radar is good. Fuel cells good. I’m heating the chutes. De-orbit burn and heat shield alignment are preprogrammed. All metrics are nominal. Switching to internal oxygen.”
Jackson closes his visor, feeling the clip catch—a tacit confirmation of his training routines. He turns a valve on the side of his suit. Oxygen flows into his suit as a contingency against any loss of cabin pressure during reentry.
“Houston, I am good to go. Repeat. Good to go.”
There’s no answer, but Jackson barely notices. He’s too busy checking the subsystems and double checking the landing sequence.
“It would be really nice to get a weather report on the target area,” he says. “Based on previous passes, I’m assuming light cloud cover and a gentle south-westerly this time of year.”
The reentry pod is barely larger than the old Gemini capsules, intended only for transit or emergency. Comfort isn’t a consideration in space flight.
The capsule turns slowly and Earth comes into view through the tiny, triangular windows.
“Not much of a view,” he says. “Heavy cloud cover over the sea. Darkened land mass to the north.”
His thick, gloved hands work with a variety of toggle switches.
“Initiating pitch for reentry alignment. I’ll see you on the ground soon enough.”
Jackson is surprisingly calm. Most of his reentries have been conducted in the Orion series with crews of anywhere from three to six astronauts, but the principle is the same in the Odyssey. The Orion is a Cadillac, while the Odyssey is the celestial equivalent of a scooter.
Slowly, the reentry pod tumbles backwards in response to a soft burst from the forward thrusters. Another burst causes the pod to pause with Jackson facing backwards.
“Nav computer has recommended a slight course correction. Rolling to align the shield accordingly.”
This is the point of no return.
“Houston. This is Odyssey.”
He pauses, watching the readout on his digital display.
“We are GO for reentry burn.”
Those were supposed to be the words spoken by mission control, but Jackson utters them out of habit.
Rockets fire, and Jackson feels himself sinking into his padded seat.
A gentle rumble passes through the Odyssey as the spacecraft begins slowing, dropping deeper into the thin, outer layer of the atmosphere.
Day breaks outside his capsule as Africa passes by beneath him, followed by the Atlantic. The view is mesmerizing. From here on out, there’s nothing to do but enjoy the ride.
Looking out the window, he can see a blue ocean and white clouds drifting by.
“I’ve got a great view of Miami coming up overhead. Nice day to be at the beach.”
Jackson isn’t distracted, though. As much as he’s loving the view, he keeps an eye on his instruments.
“Picking up some hull ionization. Angle of entry is good.”
A slight shimmy grips the Odyssey, and Jackson tightens his five-point harness, pulling himself hard against the insulation padding his seat. He breathes deeply. From here on out, there is nothing to do but enjoy the ride.
That thought brings a smile to his face, and he shakes his head at his own stupidity.
Strands of plasma flicker past the windows like streamers. Fine glowing ribbons of fire dance against the dark sky.
Some of the astronaut corps hate reentry as there’s a sense of inevitability and helplessness about the procedure, but not Jackson. The laws of physics test the engineering prowess of humanity in a fiery display of raw power.
For Jackson, there are worse ways of dying in space than being flash boiled at 7800 Kelvin, a temperature hotter than the surface of the Sun. The tiniest crack in his heat shield and plasma will cut through the Odyssey like a chainsaw. Death will come in nanoseconds, but that doesn’t bother him.
The superheated plasma building up in front of the shield begins buffeting the Odyssey, causing the craft to shake as though it were about to spin out of control, but the weighted center of gravity ensures the pod remains aligned like a cork bobbing in the ocean. For all the talk of rocket science, reentry requires no more math than throwing a rock into a pond.
Jackson watches both the altimeter and his speed plummet. Slowly, the flames subside and the darkness of space softens, becoming a radiant light blue—a terrestrial welcome home.
“We’re pulling six gees,” he says, as his cheeks sag under the intense deceleration. “Slightly more than expected. Adjusting the glide angle to compensate.”
In response to his deft touch, the capsule rotates slightly, catching the atmosphere at a different angle and changing the rate of fall.
After almost a minute, the capsule jerks to one side.
“Drogue chute deployed,” he says, not that anyone cares.
Jackson knows what’s coming next. He’s careful to position his head and arms so they’re not touching any metal or likely to be flung into the console when the three vast primary parachutes deploy.
Thirty seconds later, the capsule is yanked violently into the sky. In reality, he’s still falling, plummeting to the Earth, but the sensation of rapid deceleration in that moment gives him the illusion of being dragged upwards for a split second. His seatbelt bites into his shoulders, holding him firmly in place.
“Main chutes deployed.”
Jackson is jerked to one side in his seat as the parachutes unravel, unfurling over almost ten seconds.
“External camera confirms three canopies. Looking good at 25,000 feet, Houston. I’ve got to say, it’s nice to be home. Not sure what the welcoming committee is going to be like, but for now, it’s a smooth ride.”
Smooth by his standards. Most normal, everyday people would be terrified by the sense of helplessness in an orbital descent, but for Jackson, a few bumps along the way keeps things interesting.
Jackson tries to sound confident. In reality, he’s nervous as hell, but not about the flight or the landing. He’s worried about what he’s going to find when he opens the hatch.
As the minutes pass, Jackson busies himself looking at the projected landing zone. The lower he descends, the smaller the landing ellipse becomes, slowly zeroing in on a region north of Ellington Air Force Base.
“Yeah, this isn’t looking good, Houston. There’s a few housing developments down there. Looks like I’m about to drop in on someone for dinner.
“Depending on the wind at ground level, I may come down on the edge of a residential area near what appears to be a football stadium.”
Still there’s no reply.
“Houston, if this doesn’t get some attention from someone down there on the ground, I’m not sure what will. There’s got to be someone alive down there other than a seven year old girl, right?
“Houston? Do you read me?”
Jackson brings up the Pasadena Police Department on the map and looks at the distance. Drifting north is good, bringing him closer to the station.
“I’m using the chute camera to survey the ground,” he says, working with a joystick to control the onboard computer and shift the gaze of the camera tasked with monitoring the parachutes. The camera view swivels, pointing down to one side. The leading edge of the Odyssey takes up almost a third of the screen. Jackson adjusts the orientation of the camera so only a thin sliver of his craft runs down one side of the screen, giving him a bird’s eye view of his descent.
“Passing through 10,000 feet. I can see houses, cars, trucks, but nothing’s moving down there.”
Jackson shuts off his internal oxygen and opens the faceplate on his helmet.
As he descends lower, he notes, “There’s a few fires down there. Smoke is billowing north by northeast.”
For almost a minute, he watches details on the ground slowly come into view in mesmerizing clarity.
“Coming down to two thousand feet. I got a glimpse of the stadium a moment ago as the Odyssey drifted to one side. The stadium is west of me. The playing field looks cultivated? Are there gardens in there? Plowed rows? I’m not sure what I’m seeing, Houston. At a guess, it must be five or six in the afternoon down there. I’m catching long shadows on the ground, so I could be mistaken.”
“A thousand feet. I’ve got a good view of the ground now. There are people wandering in the streets. I can see cars and buses, but they’re not moving. There are lots of people! Hundreds, maybe thousands of them out on the streets watching the Odyssey descend.
“I can see the headlines now: Astronaut freaks out and lands in suburbs—a single faulty fuse on his radio and he junks a multimillion dollar spacecraft in a backyard swimming pool.
“I’ve got to tell you, Houston. I’m feeling pretty damn stupid right about now.”
Jackson stiffens in his seat, waiting for the inevitable thud that will mark his landing.
“Two hundred feet… a hundred feet… I’m drifting. Have visibility of a mall, a parking lot, a main road. There are so many people. They’re running toward the Odyssey. Get them back! Tell them to stay back!”
The Odyssey swings wildly to one side.
“I’ve clipped a tree. No, a street light.”
The Odyssey thunders down on top of a vehicle, crushing metal and breaking glass. Even within the confines of his reentry capsule, Jackson can hear metal twisting and breaking beneath two and a half tons of spacecraft returning from orbit.
Jackson is thrown violently to one side. His body jerks, fighting against his seat restraints and the extra padding on his couch.
“Houston, I’m down. Odyssey is down. Over.”
The Odyssey doesn’t come to a complete stop. The parachutes drag the spacecraft a few feet across the crumpled metal. On the monitor, Jackson catches a glimpse of crushed bodies lying in the street, but the capsule twists beneath the parachutes and the image shifts to a shot of a radiant sunset.
“Oh dear God. I think I’ve hit someone! What the hell are they doing out there? Get them away, Houston. Get everyone away from the capsule.”
The capsule comes to a rest at an angle, making it difficult to unbuckle. Jackson climbs out of his seat. His muscles complain at the exertion of moving under gravity, but he forces himself on. He grabs his emergency survival kit including a first aid pouch.
A bloody hand reaches up from below the capsule and slaps at the glass on the hatch. Dark fingermarks streak the glass as the hand falls away.
“Houston, we’re going to need paramedics. I’m okay, but there’s at least six or seven injured people out there. I’ll help as much as I can, but I’ve only got a one major trauma kit. This is Odyssey signing off.”
Jackson unlocks the hatch, pulling at a lever that causes the hatch to swing in and to one side. Almost immediately, he’s overwhelmed by the stench of rotten meat in the stifling humidity outside. He steps forward, his legs feeling unsteady.
Hands reach up from below, grabbing at the hatch. Dozens of people are clamoring to get into the Odyssey, which is confusing.
Standing in the hatchway, Jackson gets his first good look outside. The Odyssey has come down on the back of a bus, crushing the rear roof. A large crowd has gathered, numbering in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. They’re all trying to get on top of the bus. And it is then, Jackson realizes what has happened on Earth.
“Houston?” Jackson mumbles into the microphone on his helmet even though he’s disconnected from the comms unit. No one can hear him. No one ever could.
The zombies immediately below the capsule tear at each other, clambering to reach him and pull him into the horde. Their hands grab at the shattered frame of the bus and slap at the bottom of the heat shield on the Odyssey.
He’s surrounded by a sea of arms grasping at the air, pressing to get closer. There’s nowhere to run to. No escape.
Mindless groans fill the air along with snarling. Teeth snap at the breeze. Jackson starts to back into the capsule, but there’s nothing there for him. There’s no hiding from these monsters. To retreat is to wait to be overrun. Already, several zombies have climbed on top of the bus. They’re on the far side of the Odyssey, but not for long.
A dark shadow blocks the setting sun.
The last of the three massive parachutes that slowed his descent drifts slowly to the ground, landing some thirty feet away and blanketing the zombies to his right. Jackson realizes this is his only chance. He slings the survival pack over his shoulder and runs down the length of the bus. The edge of the parachute flutters as it drapes over hundreds of zombies tearing at the fabric. There’s still a mass of zombies between him and the collapsed canopy, but he doesn’t hesitate.
Jackson doesn’t slow his pace. He thunders along the roof of the bus with his boots slamming on the thin sheet metal. Bloody hands reach up on all sides, beckoning to him. A ghostly wail calls out as the sunlight fades.
He launches himself off the roof of the bus, still pumping his legs, and lands heavily on the shoulder of a rabid zombie.
Jackson falls face first into the horde, sinking into the sea of undead animated corpses.
Hands grab at him, tearing at his clothes. Teeth bite into his day-glow orange flight suit, but no sooner has he hit the concrete than he’s up again, pushing through the press of zombies.
“Goddamn it,” he yells, reaching with his arms and pushing zombies aside as he wrenches himself free and runs through the crowd.
He reaches the parachute and launches himself up and on top of the thick material, scrambling on his hands and knees over the undulating mass of zombies trapped beneath the parachute. He tries to run but it’s impossible, and he finds himself peg-legging through the horde as though he was running through waist deep snow. Several zombies follow him, but they can’t make headway, snarling and growling as they flop around on the vast parachute.
Jackson is breathing hard, pushing off of trapped zombies with his gloved hands. He lifts his knees high as he runs, trying to get on top of the swell. It feels as though he’s sprinting up a steep mountain. His heart is going to explode, but he forces himself on.
The zombies thin out and Jackson finds he can pick his way through the last of them as he bounds over the parachute. His boots are like lead weights strapped to his feet.
As he clears the flapping edge of the chute, he looks back and sees dozens of zombies swarming over the bus, fighting with each other to see who will climb into the Odyssey. They’re like a pack of wild dogs fighting over a bone.
Jackson jogs on, but he’s exhausted. He stops by a sapling tree on the edge of a small park. He has to. He can’t keep running. His heart feels as though it is about to explode out of his chest. His lungs scream for oxygen. It’s all he can do to not to collapse. He leans forward, resting his hands on his knees and sucking in air.
With his head down, his helmet blocks his peripheral vision. He wrestles with the locking ring around his neck and pulls the helmet off, holding it by the collar.
“Should have stayed up there,” he manages between breaths. “Should have died in orbit.”
A dog growls, snarling behind him, and he turns to see an overweight middle-aged man in an immaculate pinstriped business suit staggering toward him. At first, Jackson is confused. He could have sworn he heard a dog. The banker bares his rotten teeth and the realization that his clean white shirt and paisley blue tie are meaningless becomes all too clear.
“Hey, Mr. Space Man,” a voice calls out. “Over here!”
A woman waves at him from an alley, not daring to expose herself to the horde but trying to get his attention.
Jackson jogs over. His lungs hurt.
Another zombie lunges at him. Jackson swings his helmet, hurling it at the monster’s head as though it were a discus but keeping a firm grip on the chin guard. The back of the helmet connects with the zombie’s jaw, sending the creature tumbling backwards to the ground. In that split second, Jackson learns something. His helmet gives him both added reach and leverage, making it an effective weapon. He runs on, not looking back at the zombie writhing in a pool of blood on the ground.
The woman in the alley cuts a slight figure. She’s wearing a tank top and jeans. Her arms are gaunt, bordering on anorexic. Long dark strands of matted hair hide her face.
Jackson slows his jog as he reaches her. He starts to say something when she slams him into an open door and he finds himself sprawled out on the floor of a department store. The door slams and locks behind him.
He again tries to say something when a hand grips his mouth.
“Shhh,” the woman says, pointing as a zombie ambles past the glass window toward the alley. She whispers, “Smell, sound, sight—in that order.”
The zombie disappears around the corner and Jackson can hear it bumping into the fire door, trying to follow them into the store.
“This way,” the woman whispers.
She runs through the store as graceful and silent as a cat, barely making any noise as she springs over fallen clothes racks and scattered dresses. Jackson follows her, running on the balls of his feet to reduce the noise from his boots.
“Wait,” he calls out in a whisper, but the woman disappears into the shadows. She leaves by the rear of the building. Jackson follows her out into a back street. Glass breaks somewhere behind him. The zombies have busted into the store. Out on the narrow back street, the woman pauses beside the alley, looking down at the door they passed through moments before. A small band of zombies pound on the metal door. Beyond them, one of the parachutes from the Odyssey lies draped over a tree.
“Always against the flow,” she says, darting across the alleyway. Jackson follows her. “They go this way, you go that way. Yes. That’s the way to go every time. Every time. Yes?”
“Yes,” he replies, trying to keep up as she runs on.
Her speech is as erratic as her motion.
“You were spam in a can—man,” she says as she stops behind a strip mall. “Oh, they were looking for a good feasting. They thought you were a gift from the gods. They saw those red and white candy-striped parachutes and thought they were lollipops. You’re crazy, man. Crazy! They say, I’m crazy, but not me. You, man. You’re the crazy one.”
She leads him up an external staircase to a rooftop, chatting incessantly.
“You’re a madman. What made you come down here? You should have stayed up there. You’re insane. Certifiable. I mean, like straightjacket and leg restraints insane, you know?”
And Jackson gets a glimpse of who’s insane. He nods as she leads him onto an open rooftop connected to various other buildings by a waist-high walls. A sleeping bag lies crumpled in one corner. Flies buzz around empty cans piled up against an air vent, but Jackson can see why she lives up here. She can range over almost an entire block on the connected rooftops. There must be dozens of entry and exit points, and they’re all highly visible.
Several severed zombie heads sit skewered on poles mounted by the edge of the building. Their eyes follow him as their teeth grind.
“Oh, you like my little darlings? My scarecrows?”
“What? You think I’m too petite to handle an ax? I haven’t survived this long by being Ms. Congeniality.”
And she laughs, but her laugh is unsettling.
“What’s your name?” Jackson asks, trying to shift the subject. He swings his pack off his back, wanting to rest a little.
“Jennifer. And what do they call you? Mr. Buzz Lightyear?”
Jackson fakes a smile. “Dan.”
“So what have ya got for us, Dan?” she asks, gesturing toward his backpack.
“Ah, it’s a survival kit,” he replies, feeling uneasy about the reference to ‘us.’
“You got ray guns?”
“No,” Jackson says. “No ray guns.”
Not that anyone sane would need to be assured of such a thing.
“Just water purification tablets, a flare gun, first aid kit, thermal blanket, matches, things like that.”
“Can I see?”
See? In Jackson’s mind, anything Jennifer sees is going to become a point of contention so he ignores her, saying, “I’m looking for someone. A young girl. Hazel. She’s trapped in the local police station.”
“Hazel’s dead,” Jennifer snaps, never taking her eyes off his backpack. She twists her head to one side, intensely curious about his pack with its NASA logo displayed proudly on the side.
The sun is setting. He’s running out of time. From the rooftop, he gets his bearings. Knowing the sun is to the west, he faces north looking at the sprawling suburb before him. The stadium is behind him and to his right. Mentally, he triangulates his location against his memory of the map on the Phaethon, and figures he’s no more than two blocks away from the police station.
“I have to go,” he says.
“So you’re a knight in shining armor, is that it? You think you’ll last out there? You won’t last five minutes in prison clothing. They’ll see you coming a mile away.”
It takes Jackson a moment to realize what she’s referring to, but his flight suit does look like something from the county jail. He loosens the locking cuff on his gloves and strips down to his t-shirt and shorts.
As he changes out of his flight suit, he asks, “What happened here?”
His boots are bulky, but given all the broken glass he’s seen on the streets, Jackson doesn’t want to go barefoot so he puts them back on and fastens them tight.
“It’s the Book of Revelation, man. Judgement has been cast. We have been weighed and found wanting. It’s the apocalypse. The end of the world. Hell has been emptied of her demons. The devil has come to Earth.”
“But how did it happen?” he asks.
“Who knows?” she asks, “Does it matter?”
“It matters,” Jackson replies, rummaging around in his pack and pulling out a protein bar. He tosses the bar to Jennifer and she tears it open, stuffing it in her mouth in one go. He tucks the flare gun into the small of his back and picks up his helmet. It might not be as effective as a baseball bat or a machete, but it will crush a skull.
“Come with me,” he says.
“Oh, no,” Jennifer replies with her mouth full. She waves her finger at him, saying, “You’re crazy.”
Jackson says, “You should come.”
She shakes her head as though she’s a dog shaking itself dry. Her matted hair whips around her face and he gets the message.
With the sun dipping behind the distant buildings and shadows burying the land, Jackson starts jogging across the rooftops, climbing over the low separating walls.
“Scent, sound, sight,” Jennifer calls out after him. “Remember!”
He doesn’t turn back, but not because he’s rude. She’s wrong about Hazel. He spoke to Hazel not more than two hours ago. But two hours is an eternity in the zombie apocalypse. Jackson buries that thought.
He’s not thinking straight. As an astronaut, he’s mission focused. The mission is everything. The mission demands precision, dedication. He has to find her. There are no other considerations.
At the end of the block, Jackson climbs down a fire escape and drops the last few feet to the ground. No sooner have his boots touched the concrete than a growl comes from the shadows.
Jackson jogs down a broad avenue, staying in the middle of the road. He’s running into a breeze which gives him a slight advantage as his scent trails behind him, allowing him to run past unsuspecting zombies before they realize he’s there. They snarl and growl as he passes by, but he’s able to give them a wide berth. Behind him, though, a swarm of zombies builds, following in his scent wake.
“Hang on, Hazel,” he says between breaths. “I’m coming.”
Although he kept up an aerobic exercise regime on the Phaethon, nothing could condition him for the jarring blow of each thud of his boots against the concrete street. His knees are sore, but he keeps going.
The police station looks like the Alamo. Cars and trucks have been rolled over on their sides to form barricades. Zombies hang twitching from razor wire stretched over the hood of a burned out SWAT van. The tires have been shot out, lowering the truck’s profile, but that hasn’t stopped zombies from crawling beneath the chassis. Dead legs stick out onto the road.
Bullet holes pockmark the vehicles. Black scorch marks stretch up above the windows in the police station, testifying of an inferno inside. It’s a war zone.
Jackson doesn’t have long to weigh his options. He needs to get in and out of the station quickly as he’s got his own party in tow.
A zombie staggers up to him wearing a police uniform. Jackson doesn’t hesitate, swinging with his helmet and connecting with the undead officer on the side of the head and sending him tumbling to the road.
Bodies lie in the street. Some of them are still moving, crawling slowly forward. One of the police cars has been dragged out of place, allowing Jackson to jog through and up the steps of the police station.
“Hazel!” he yells, stepping through the broken front doors.
Glass crunches under his boots.
An overturned desk has crushed a police officer. Even in death, the officer’s right hand grips a semi-automatic Glock.
Jackson puts down his helmet. He reaches out slowly, peeling the gun from a cold, dead hand only to have the hand suddenly grab at his wrist. He springs backwards, almost dropping the gun. The zombie growls, trying to pull itself out from beneath the desk.
Jackson retrieves a flashlight from a side-pouch on his backpack. He shines the light on the rabid zombie and steadies his aim. A single shot rings out and the side of the zombie’s head explodes.
In the stunned silence following the crack of gunfire, Jackson hears the police station slowly coming to life.
“Not smart,” he whispers, recalling the Jennifer’s warning about scent, sound, and sight. He picks up a few spare magazines lying on the floor. They’re different weights. He keeps the heaviest two magazines, hoping they’re full as he stuffs them in his pocket.
A door creaks.
Feet pound along a hallway upstairs.
In the basement, there’s the banging of steel bars, someone’s shaking a cell door, but are they undead or alive?
Glass crunches underfoot, but Jackson isn’t moving. He turns and sees the outline of a police officer wearing riot gear. A deep snarl tells him the officer is not here to help, and Jackson fires again, aiming for the head. Blood, brains and bone explode from the back of the zombie’s head and he collapses in a heap.
“Not good,” he says, knowing how ill-prepared he is and realizing that if trained professionals could be overrun when they had strength of numbers on their side, he doesn’t stand a chance alone.
Goosebumps rise on his skin, but he’s come too far to back down. Although the decisions he makes over the next few minutes could be the death of him, he cannot flee. Hazel is here somewhere. He can still hear her cries over the radio and the terror in her voice. Something deep inside him will not allow him to run for his life like a coward, and so he creeps forward.
His flashlight is pathetic, having been designed for map reading, not exploring a burned out police station. Smoke drifts from the glowing embers of a doorframe. Shell casings lie scattered on the floor.
Life was simple with an entire planet swinging by beneath his feet every ninety minutes. Oh, what he’d give to be in free fall. His heart sinks at the realization he’ll never leave Earth again. The police station is a tomb, a desecrated crypt. One that may bury him.
Jackson steps into the darkness.
“Hazel?” he whispers, climbing an interior staircase, stepping over bodies, praying they don’t move. His boots squelch in fresh blood on the landing. Slowly, he turns up the next flight of stairs, expecting a zombie to burst from the shadows at any moment.
The body of a woman lies jammed in the doorway at the top of the stairs, allowing moonlight to enter the stairwell. Flies swarm around him. The smell of putrefying flesh is nauseating.
Glass shatters somewhere in the darkness.
Wood splinters and breaks.
Zombies rage on the floor below, overturning furniture and smashing windows, but they haven’t followed him into the stairwell.
Jackson steps over the dead woman and out into a darkened hallway. His flashlight dances between her outstretched arms, looking for the faintest telltale twitch. Behind him, a growl announces a zombie creeping into the stairwell.
He’s about to drag the body of the woman out of the doorway to close the fire door and buy himself some time when he sees a young child standing in front of a window at the end of the hall. Her slight frame is silhouetted against the dark sky.
The child growls, and his blood runs cold.
He drops the arms of the dead woman, and turns to face Hazel. His flashlight flickers across the young girl’s face.
Dark eyes stare back. Blood drips from her mouth.
Hazel runs at him, lowering her head and charging through the darkness.
Zombies pound up the stairs, swarming from below, but Jackson cannot take his eyes off Hazel. He raises his gun, aiming squarely at her forehead, but he cannot bring himself to fire. His finger squeezes the trigger, but he cannot pull it tight. He can’t bring enough pressure to bear on the slender steel trigger to release the firing pin. If this is all that’s left of humanity, Jackson cannot go on. It’s no wonder Jennifer’s crazy. Is there any other way to survive in the apocalypse? His hands tremble. His knees begin to buckle.
Hazel snarls, baring her teeth as she runs at him, more animal than human.
Zombies crash into the wall of the stairwell, pushing and shoving each other in their mad desire to savor his flesh.
The cover of an air conditioning duct collapses on top of Hazel, knocking her over. She tumbles to the slick floor as a head appears in the duct, crying, “Quick! In here.”
Jackson’s eyes cast up.
“Hazel?” he yells as a young girl in the vent reaches out a hand for him, beckoning for him to follow.
The young zombie on the ground is dazed, trying to figure out what has happened. Jackson runs and jumps, grabbing at the edge of the duct. He tosses the gun and flashlight into the vent as a zombie grabs at his legs, pulling him backwards. Jackson fights, kicking with his boots as his hands slip on the slick sides of the duct. He shoves his boots against the chest of the zombie and lashes out, pushing himself up into the vent.
Below him, zombies snarl. Hands reach for the duct, but Jackson scrambles into the confined space. He’s so big he barely fits. He grabs his flashlight and looks back, shining the light on young Hazel. Her face is filthy, but she smiles.
“Keep going,” she says. “It’s steep ahead, but this vent leads to the roof. We’ll be safe on the roof.”
Jackson wriggles out of his backpack, giving himself a bit more room in the duct. He tucks the gun beneath his belt and holds the flashlight between his teeth, pushing his backpack ahead of him as he works his way through the duct. The stainless steel within the vent flexes with each motion, making an almighty racket. The zombies hear them, but they cannot reach them.
“You came,” Hazel says, following behind him. “I can’t believe you actually came for me.”
“I told you I would,” Jackson replies, reaching a vertical section of ducting and making his way toward the roof.
“You’re crazy,” Hazel says.
“You’re the second person that’s told me that.”
Looking through a vent cover, Jackson catches a glimpse of a radio in an adjacent room. A row of car batteries line one wall. A zombie ambles through the door sniffing at the air. He continues on toward the roof.
“I saw you,” Hazel says in a soft voice, but one full of excitement. “I saw your spaceship and the parachutes. I think everyone saw you.”
“I think everyone did,” he agrees, removing an outer grate cover and pulling himself on to the roof of the police station.
Jackson is exhausted. He sits with his back against the low stone wall surrounding the roof, watching as Hazel climbs out of the duct. No sooner have her feet hit the ground than she bolts over to him and throws her arms around his neck.
“Hey,” he says, patting her back. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
She sits next to him, saying, “You’re so silly coming here alone.”
She won’t let go of him, and wraps her arm beneath his, which brings a smile to his face. It’s been a long time since Jackson spent time with anyone, and already she’s melting his heart.
“Some might say crazy,” he says, and she smiles. “Are you hungry?”
Hazel nods. He hands her a protein bar from his pack.
“What now?” she asks, still leaning up against him in the cool evening air. “Can we fly away in your spaceship?”
Jackson laughs, saying, “Oh, I wish we could.”
He points at a dull glow on the horizon, saying, “You see that?”
“The football field?”
“Yes,” he replies. “I got a glimpse in there on the way down. There are people there. Survivors like you and me. If your dad’s alive, that’s where he’ll be. Tomorrow, we’ll go there and look for him.”
“Tomorrow,” she says, snuggling up to him for warmth, and Jackson realizes what he’s been missing after so long in space.
For the first time, Jackson feels as though home is somewhere other than being lost in free fall.
“Tomorrow,” Jackson repeats, putting his arm around her.
Hazel’s story continues in .
Zombie stories are about people. They ask the question, how do we survive in the most vicious of circumstances? Will zombies bring out the best or the worst in us?
When ordinary, everyday decisions can spiral out of control and end in death, how do we respond? Do we give up on our humanity? Or do we decide humanity is the only thing worth fighting for? Free Fall explores the social connections that make us human in the apocalypse.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you’ll love my zombie novel . Hazel’s journey continues as a teenager struggling to deal with life in the zombie apocalypse.
My thanks to Samuel Peralta and Ellen Campbell for their work on The Z Chronicles. It’s a privilege to work with them and so many other great authors on this unique anthology.
Thanks also to Ben Honey, NASA flight controller for the International Space Station, for a few pointers on the reentry process.
Thank you for supporting independent science fiction.
_Peter Cawdron is an independent science fiction writer from Brisbane, Australia. _
You can find him on and . if you’d like to hear about new releases.
Please take the time to leave a review of this story online.
Thank you for supporting independent science fiction. You might enjoy the following novels also written by Peter Cawdron.
Hazel is a regular teenager growing up in an irregular world overrun with zombies. She likes music, perfume, freshly baked muffins, and playing her Xbox—everything that no longer exists in the apocalypse.
Raised in the safety of a commune, Hazel rarely sees Zee anymore, except on those occasions when the soldiers demonstrate the importance of a headshot to the kids.
To her horror, circumstances beyond her control lead her outside the barbed wire fence and into a zombie-infested town.
“Five, Four, Three, Two—count your shots, Haze,” she says to herself, firing at the oncoming zombie horde. “Don’t forget to reload.”
A 1950s hospital. Temporary amnesia. A naked man running through Central Park yelling something about alien space tentacles. Tinfoil, duct tape, and bananas. These are the ingredients for a spectacular romp through a world you never thought possible as aliens reach out and make contact with Earth.
The crew of the Copernicus is sent to investigate Bestla, one of the remote moons of Saturn. Bestla has always been an oddball, orbiting Saturn in the wrong direction and at a distance of fifteen million miles, so far away that Saturn appears smaller than Earth’s moon in the night sky. Bestla hides a secret. When mapped by an unmanned probe, Bestla awakes and begins transmitting a message, only it’s a message no one wants to hear: “I want to live and die for you, Satan.”
Shadows is fan fiction set in Hugh Howey’s Wool universe as part of the Kindle Worlds Silo Saga.
Life within the silos follows a well-worn pattern passed down through the generations from master to apprentice, caster to shadow. “Don’t ask! Don’t think! Don’t question! Just stay in the shadows.” But not everyone is content to follow the past.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five: [_The Children’s Crusade _]explored the fictional life of Billy Pilgrim as he stumbled through the real world devastation of Dresden during World War II. Children’s Crusade picks up the story of Billy Pilgrim on the planet of Tralfamadore as Billy and his partner Montana Wildhack struggle to accept life in an alien zoo.
The Man Who Remembered Today[_ i_]s a novella originally appearing in From the Indie Side anthology, highlighting independent science fiction writers from around the world. You can pick up this story as a stand-alone novella or get twelve distinctly unique stories by purchasing From the Indie Side.
Kareem wakes with a headache. A bloody bandage wrapped around his head tells him this isn’t just another day in the Big Apple. The problem is, he can’t remember what happened to him. He can’t recall anything from yesterday. The only memories he has are from events that are about to unfold today, and today is no ordinary day.
Anomaly examines the prospect of an alien intelligence discovering life on Earth.
Humanity’s first contact with an alien intelligence is far more radical than anyone has ever dared imagine. The technological gulf between humanity and the alien species is measured in terms of millions of years. The only way to communicate is by using science, but not everyone is so patient with the arrival of an alien spacecraft outside the gates of the United Nations in New York.
The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
How do you solve a murder when the victim comes back to life with no memory of recent events?
In the twenty-second century, America struggles to rebuild after the second civil war. Democracy has been suspended while the reconstruction effort lifts the country out of the ruins of conflict. America’s fate lies in the hands of a genetically engineered soldier with the ability to move through time.
[_The Road to Hell _]deals with a futuristic world and the advent of limited time travel. It explores social issues such as the nature of trust and the conflict between loyalty and honesty.
Monsters is a dystopian novel exploring the importance of reading. Monsters is set against the backdrop of the collapse of civilization.
The fallout from a passing comet contains a biological pathogen, not a virus or a living organism, just a collection of amino acids. But these cause animals to revert to the age of the megafauna, when monsters roamed Earth.
Bruce Dobson is a reader. With the fall of civilization, reading has become outlawed. Superstitions prevail, and readers are persecuted like the witches and wizards of old. Bruce and his son James seek to overturn the prejudices of their day and restore the scientific knowledge central to their survival, but monsters lurk in the dark.
Twenty years ago, a UFO crashed into the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula. The only survivor was a young English-speaking child, captured by the North Koreans. Two decades later, a physics student watches his girlfriend disappear before his eyes, abducted from the streets of New York by what appears to be the same UFO.
Feedback will carry you from the desolate, windswept coastline of North Korea to the bustling streets of New York and on into the depths of space as you journey to the outer edge of our solar system looking for answers.
Galactic Exploration is a compilation of four closely related science fiction stories following the exploration of the Milky Way by the spaceships Serengeti, Savannah, and The Rift Valley. These three generational starships are piloted by clones and form part of the ongoing search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. With the Serengeti heading out above the plane of the Milky Way, the Savannah exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy, and The Rift Valley investigating possible alien signals within the galactic core, this story examines the Rare Earth Hypothesis from a number of different angles.
This volume contains the novellas Serengeti, Trixie and Me, Savannah, and War.
Xenophobia examines the impact of first contact on the Third World.
Dr. Elizabeth Bower works at a field hospital in Malawi as a civil war smolders around her. With an alien spacecraft in orbit around Earth, the US withdraws its troops to deal with the growing unrest in America. Dr. Bower refuses to abandon her hospital. A troop of US Rangers accompanies Dr. Bower as she attempts to get her staff and patients to safety. Isolated and alone, cut off from contact with the West, they watch as the world descends into chaos with alien contact.
Little Green Men is a tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, hailing back to classic science fiction stories of the 1950s.
The crew of the Dei Gratia set down on a frozen planet and are attacked by little green men. Chief Science Officer David Michaels struggles with the impossible situation unfolding around him as the crew members are murdered one by one. With the engines offline and power fading, he races against time to understand this mysterious threat and escape the planet alive.
How do you hide state secrets when teenage hacktivists have as much quantum computing power as the government? Alexander Hopkins is about to find out on what should have been an uneventful red-eye flight from Russia. Nothing is what it seems in this heart-pounding short-story from international best selling author Peter Cawdron.
Hello World is a short story set in the same fictional universe as Alien Space Tentacle Porn.
Professor Franco Corelli has noticed something unusual. The twitter account @QuestionsLots is harvesting hundreds of millions of tweets each day, but never posting anything. Outwardly, this account only follows one other twitter account—@RealScientists, but in reality it is trawling every post ever made by anyone on this planet. Could it be that @QuestionsLots is not from Earth?
In addition to these stand-alone stories, Peter Cawdron has short stories appearing in:
The Mars Endeavour colony is the first step in humanity’s long walk out of Africa and into the stars. The colony is heavily dependent on resupply from Earth. Where possible, colonists use 3D printing and locally grown food, but they still rely on Earth for complex medicines and electronics. The colonists are prepared for every eventuality but one. What happens on Mars when nuclear war breaks out on Earth?
Seven years after the invasion of the grubs, 110 million Americans have been displaced by the war, with over 50 million dead. Ashley Kelly was crippled by a cluster bomb. While the world crumbled, she spent seven years learning to walk again, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to lie down for anyone, terrestrial or extraterrestrial.