Strung out in a single line, the six survivors rode their bikes quietly. Talking was fairly limited, except for the groaning from climbing some of the larger hills. This was their first day on the road together, having spent an extra day at the bike shop to allow Rick’s head wound to heal further. They started out at first light, and had as an overall plan to ride until 1pm or so, and then the first place they came across which had water and a decent place to set up camp, is where they would stay the night.
Knife was on point, and had about a hundred foot lead on the others. Raising her hand, the group immediately stopped, dismounted and with their weapons at the ready, moved off to the side of the road in a defensive position.
Rick made his way to her, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, it’s a test.” She said.
Walking back to the others, “We did very well on this one…this was the last practice.” He said, as the other drills didn’t go nearly as smooth. “Knife, the next area you see that has water, lets stop there.”
Back on the bikes, they moved off. Within a half hour they were setting up camp along a stream. Today Christine and Brenda filtered water, Knife and Glen built a fire and began dinner. Paul and Rick scouted the area.
Walking back to the road and over to the top of a nearby hill, which overlooked the areas farmland, Paul scanned the area with his binoculars. It was as peaceful and serene as any day in the past. “Nice view.” Paul said.
“Yeah it sure is.” Rick said and continued, “What did you think about today? I mean, our travel and all of that.”
“I think it went fine, the first couple dismounts were messed up, but other than that, it went well.”
“Do you think that we’re stopping too early?”
“When you first said how you wanted to move, I thought that 1 or 2 pm would be too early, but now that we’re stopped, I think it was about the right amount of time.” Paul commented, stretching his leg muscles. “Glen said we’ve gone seventeen miles.”
“Slow and safe…I don’t care how long it takes to get there, just as long as we all make it in one piece.”
The two sat, savoring the heat of the early afternoon, and the blue skies.
“You know what I just realized?” Rick said.
“I haven’t heard any birds.”
“Yeah, pretty sad…I haven’t seen any sign of deer or any other animals.” Paul lamented.
“On a positive note, I haven’t been bitten by any mosquitoes either.” Rick smiled. “Let’s head back, I think we’re pretty secure here.”
Back into camp, Rick took over tending the simmering food while Knife and Glen set up their tents. Paul helped Christine and Brenda with the water. It was a smooth transition from moving out to settling down for the evening. Knife and Glen came back to take over the food, while Rick decided to wash some clothes, while they could still dry.
The stream was ice cold. He didn’t linger while washing his body and a few articles of clothing. Setting up his shelter, and then hanging the clothes, Rick sat down and relaxed. Knife came over and sat next to him.
“If you…um, feel like it…you can come over to my tent tonight.” She said suggestively, her intent clear.
Rick, eyes widened and caught off guard, exhaled audibly, “Thanks for the offer…I’m not ready for anything like that right now.”
“Ok, but if you change your mind…you’ll know where to find me.” She said casually, then left, walking over to Glen and slapping him on the butt. The two began joking around with each other.
Rick shook his head, hoping that was all there would be to it, as he certainly didn’t want to be in the midst of a ‘personal conflict’. Brenda and Christine walked by. Brenda stopped and knelt down, after witnessing the previous conversation. “Let’s change that dressing.” She said, touching the soggy bandage. It took her a few minutes to find the first aid supplies in Rick’s bag and then return. Rick peeled off the bandage, wishing he had a mirror to see how it looked.
“This looks pretty good…I don’t see any infection.” She said, the clinical nurse showing through.
“So, I don’t look like Frankenstein?”
“Nope, looks like someone with extraordinary skill…the hands of a real professional sutured you up.” She said sarcastically, and then smiled.
“Yeah…Frankenstein.” He laughed.
“So…um, what did Knife want?” Brenda asked cautiously.
“What do you think she wanted?” He replied.
Brenda paused. “She’s such a slut.” She said angrily. “You’re not going to…”
“Of course not…she’s a messed up woman. Maybe one day she’ll find what she thinks is missing in her life.” Rick said philosophically.
Brenda grunted and then left.
Dinner was served and finished, cookware was cleaned and water boiled, then cooled. It was like watching time lapse photography as the clouds rolled in and the showers began, and stopped after an hour. The evening sky was crystal clear as billions of stars stretched from horizon to horizon.
Rick tossed and turned, trying to find that right spot to get comfortable. Finally, sleep came after he mentally gave up thinking about what lay ahead.
Dawn broke and coffee and breakfast cooked. Water jugs filled and camp disassembled, they were back on the road.
Within the first hour Christine, who was on point, raised her hand and the group dismounted.
“What do you see Christine?” Rick asked as Paul came over and slid down next to his wife.
“There’s a roadblock ahead, and they have a sign.” She said, handing Rick, Paul’s binoculars.
Rick raised his glasses and peered through the optics. “You’re kidding me.” He said angrily, handing the binoculars to Paul.
Paul read the sign on the roadblock, The large red lettered plywood placard stated, ‘No Niggers, No Jewz , No Queers.’ “Great…that’s just what we need.” Paul said disgustedly.
“This is some shit. After all this country has gone through…those assholes live.” Rick stated.
“What do you want to do?” Paul said, fingering his FAL.
Rick thought about the satisfaction he would get from killing those creeps. He then weighed the consequences of having one of his team getting hurt, or worse, in the process. “Glen, how can we work around this?”
Glen studied his map, “We can backtrack about three miles, and then take the road around Pretty Boy Reservoir. It will add at least a day.”
“Alright, let’s go around the Reservoir.”
“You don’t want to…” Paul started to object.
“I don’t want to lose anyone Paul. I hate it as much as you do, but right now…”
“Ok, I’m cool with it.” He said, decision made and accepted.
The group turned around and started to add another day to their travel. The two lane asphalt road around Pretty Boy Reservoir was crooked, hilly and scenic. Veering away from the reservoir and towards a small grouping of country homes, the group stopped at Glen’s hand signal.
Rick scurried to Glen. “There’s another roadblock.” Glen said.
“This is getting old. “Rick said, looking through the binoculars. A familiar olive and black Maryland State Police vehicle blocked the road completely.
Paul came over, Rick handed him the binoculars. “What do you want to do?” Paul asked.
“Well, we have to go through. “He said, looking at Glen who confirmed this was the only way around. “I want you and Knife to go over to that tree line.” He pointed to the edge of a clearing about a hundred yards from the roadblock. “I’ll go down and if there is going to be any ‘issues’, I’ll drop my red bandana.” He said to Paul, who passed the information to Knife, they immediately left.
Rick slung the Garand around his shoulder, and walked down the hill towards the roadblock, his hands empty and in front.
“Police! Hold it right there!” The now familiar order barked. “Keep your hands where we can see them!” Two State Police, their handguns drawn and leveled at Rick came out from behind the vehicle and approached. “Get on your knees!”
Rick stood, hands held out to his sides. “No.” He said calmly.
“Get on your knees or we’ll shoot you!” They screamed.
“If I get on my knees, you’ll both be dead before you take another step.” He replied to the officers, now confused at his comment. “I have two of my shooters in that tree line, your heads are in their sights right now.” Rick said, standing still. “Now, do you want to talk like men, or would you like to continue with this game?”
The pair stood rock still, the body language of their uniformed muscular bulks questioning their being targeted.
“It’s hard for you isn’t it?” Rick said, trying to divert the conversation.
“What do you mean?” The man on the right replied, trying to look intimidating, with his shaved head and wrap-around sunglasses.
“People carrying weapons…you better get used to it.”
“You were ordered to turn those in.” The large black officer on the left replied.
“No one ordered me to do any such thing, and even if they did, I wouldn’t.” Rick stated flatly, and then added, “I don’t buy into the, ‘For the Greater Good,’ or ‘In the Best Interest of Public Safety’ argument, any longer.” He then finished with, “You’re a prime example of that.”
“What do you mean?” The white hulk asked.
“You are Public Officers…supposedly, serving the public…and yet, here you are, hiding behind your police car, blocking a public road.”
The men said nothing.
“Look, people really need your help right now. You’re not doing anyone, any good here.”
The two slowly holstered their weapons.
Rick turned to the tree line and motioned for Paul and Knife to come out. He then waved to the others waiting at the top of the hill to come down. Turning back to the officers, “My name is Rick Martin.” He said extending his hand.
“Johanssen.” Said the white man, “Brice” replied the black officer, extending and shaking Ricks hand.
“You say that folks need our help?” Johanssen asked.
“Hell yeah they do. You can start in Bel Air. There’s a guy who runs a bike shop…his name is Will, tell him you spoke with me.” Rick paused, “When you leave, don’t make a right turn at the main road…there’s another roadblock about two or three miles up…they have a sign which says, ‘No Niggers, No Jews or Queers.’ It’s pretty obvious that they are ignorant…hell, they couldn’t even spell Jews correctly.”
The black officer opened and closed his eyes in mental anguish. “I thought we were through with all of that shit.”
“Yeah, me too…I guess not. Welcome to the new, old world.” Rick said, as the others started to arrive on the bikes.
The two officers put their patrol car in neutral and pushed it off the road just enough so that everyone could get through.
The group left the pair behind, and continued around the reservoir, stopping at a particularly scenic cove for the evening.
* * * * *
The white stubby winged trainer blistered the skies over eastern Nevada. Captain Mark O’Donnell flew the NASA aircraft at 42,000 feet on a westerly heading, towards Groom Lake. Taking a deep breath, he shut off both engines and began his fourth un-powered descent towards the five mile long runway.
Standing outside of Hangar Three, General Richard Reavey and Ray Williams, craned their necks skyward looking for the white T-38 jet. “Captain O’Donnell’s training is progressing very well.” The General said. “How are the engineers coming along with the Remora?”
“They say that everything should be ready for a space shot this evening.” Ray commented, then spotting and pointing to the tiny white shape gliding towards the runway.
“Good, then let’s get BlackStar and the Remora ready.”
Ray nodded. “Yes Sir.” He replied quietly.
“Is there something wrong?” The General questioned.
Ray silently shook his head. “I don’t know Sir…something doesn’t seem right. I can’t put my finger on it.”
General Reavey looked at his assistant. “Ray, I’ve known you for what, two years now? And I trust your judgment, if you think something’s not right, we’ll cancel the test.”
“No, Captain O’Donnell needs the experience. BlackStar and Remora are both fine…aww, just forget I said anything.”
The two went their separate ways, the General to the bases ongoing projects and Ray to the BlackStar hangar.
That evening, BlackStar and Remora were both fueled, with Captain O’Donnell in his white bulky space suit, strapped into the cockpit. The gold tinted canopy closed and locked, as the engineers moved Remora beneath BlackStar. The hydraulic lifts raised the craft into its locking position. BlackStar and Remora were now one craft.
Waiting for the acknowledgement from Security that the skies were clear of satellites, they moved BlackStar onto the huge elevator. Word came down that everything was clear, slowly the elevator raised, reaching the outside runway. External starting units were attached to the four huge engines beneath the BlackStar and started. One of the many modifications to BlackStar was the removal of the six older General Electric engines. Those motors were which were replaced with four of the engines which were the same type that powered the SR-71 spy plane. The thrust on the new powerplants remained about the same, but the added space allowed for a conformal belly to be installed, accommodating the Remora.
Captain O’Donnell, nestled in his cockpit, was blind to the outside world. The only extra-vehicular link was with the pilot of BlackStar, who kept him informed of the process. The four huge Pratt and Whitney engines hummed loudly, just a few feet from his head. Mark could feel the craft taxiing, as he checked and double checked his instrumentation.
BlackStar paused at the end of the runway, then started rolling slowly…the pilot pushed the throttles to the firewall, igniting the afterburners with a very loud ’WHOOMP.’ Captain O’Donnell smiled as the g-forces shoved him back into his seat. BlackStar picked up speed quickly, and lifted off. The altimeter showed them progressing through 35,000 feet and climbing rapidly. Upon reaching the ultra-thin air at 50,000 feet, the pilot leveled off and increased speed to Mach 3, then climbed to the launch altitude of 90,000 feet.
“Captain, we will release in five-four-three-two-one.” The pilot said, keeping the BlackStar straight and level as Remora separated and dropped away from its host.
Mark turned on the igniter switch and slowly pushed the throttle forward. The rocket ignited with a boom, moving the craft forward. Once underway and the systems checked, Mark advanced the throttle. Remora blasted forward, its pilot smiled broadly at the unbelievable acceleration. Pulling the stick back, hydrazine jets which controlled the crafts lateral and vertical movements, pushed its nose towards the black star-studded space ahead. Remora shot out of Earths atmosphere.
Outside in the cool Nevada desert evening, General Reavey and Ray watched the BlackStar launch.
“Still concerned Ray?” General Reavey asked.
“It won’t work.” Ray replied.
“What won’t work?”
“The attack on NOAA-18.” Ray said, pronouncing ‘NOAA’ as ‘Noah’.
General Reavey looked at his associate. “I think you’re wrong. The systems check out, and Captain O’Donnell is more than capable of taking out that satellite.”
Ray shrugged his shoulders, “We’ll see.”
“Would you like to put some money on it?” General Reavey said confidently, as he only bet on what he considered a sure thing.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you a dollar.” Ray said smiling.
Captain O’Donnell selected the targeting program on Remoras main display. The system was programmed to show the exact orbit and location of NOAA-18, slightly over one thousand miles to his stern and at an altitude of 530 miles, if he was reading the computer correctly. Mark decided that a top-down attack would be his best bet, as this was what he was used to flying with the Harrier, however, the incredible speeds of space travel and warfare were well outside of the 600 mile per hour Jump Jet.
NOAA-18 was traveling at approximately 17,000 miles per hour. Mark advanced the throttle, climbing to 531 miles altitude and increasing his forward velocity to 16,500 miles per hour, and then backed off the throttle, drifting and waiting.
“This bird really boogies.” He said out loud to himself, as there was strict radio silence between him and Groom Lake.
The blue ball of earth slowly turned as he traversed from north to south, heading down over the South Atlantic Ocean and Antarctica. Marks display showed 18 closing in, and slightly to his right. Making a minor adjustment to the starboard, he pointed the nose down. Unlike flying in atmosphere, a nose down attitude without power would mean that he was flying horizontally, nose down. He was ready to pounce.
“You’re toast baby.” He said confidently.
NOAA-18 slid beneath Remora, moving quickly ahead. Mark advanced the throttle and Remora leaped towards 18.
“Oh shit.” He exclaimed, as he forgot to open the cargo bay and bring the Rail Gun to a firing position. He corrected that mistake, the bay opened and Rail Gun was brought to bear.
NOAA-18 was very difficult to see against the black of earth’s night. Mark turned on the night vision panel, which was a large version of the personal night vision goggles worn by the military. The phosphor green screen showed the large, antennae studded, can shape NOAA-18, its huge solar panel array extended.
The closing speed of Remora and 18 was too great, he started to pass beneath the target. Mark brought the nose up slightly to fire a short burst. Pressing his trigger…nothing. A quick check and found everything was functioning, as it should. The nose skewed up above 18, Mark corrected with downward pressure and fired again as the gun sight traveled through the gold colored can’s body. Unlike on earth and firing the Harriers weapons, there was no indication of the Rail Guns firing in the soundless void of space.
Bumping the throttle and passing ahead of 18, Mark tried something he could never do on earth, moving the crafts rudder, he turned around 180°, and flew backwards. 18 grew smaller on the night vision screen as Marks forward inertia carried him away from his target. Without thinking of the consequence, Mark bumped the throttle again, trying to close the distance. 18 immediately grew in size, then blisteringly fast, shot beneath him, with a closing speed that was far greater than he had considered. NOAA-18 went by close, too close for comfort. Mark gasped audibly as they nearly collided. The weather satellite continued on its journey…extending the distance between them, until off his targeting screen.
Mark was frustrated, sweating profusely. Unable to scratch his head or wipe the perspiration off his face due to the globed space helmet, he did the only thing he could, screaming, “Shit!”
The distance of 18 and his fuel situation dictated another try, on another day. The systems computer was programmed to bring him to Groom Lake from anywhere in orbit. Pressing the ‘Go Home’ button, he admitted defeat on this mission. The computer calculated and processed an automated descent; he was now above the Antarctic, heading north over western South America and a landing within the hour.
Remora glided through earth’s atmosphere, settling down on the dry lake bed with a puff of dust as the wheels chirped. Met by a tow vehicle, the pilot in his smoking hot craft were brought onto the raised elevator platform. The elevator descended, leaving no trace of its existence to the terrestrial world above. The tug pushed Remora to the decontamination area, and bio-suited technicians hosed off the craft, especially the rocket exhaust, making sure they removed any remaining residue of the highly toxic boron based fuel.
Remora now sat in the hangar, sidled next to her big sister BlackStar. Technicians opened the canopy, unbuckling Captain O’Donnell, as Ray stood off to the side. Once the pilot exited the cockpit and had his helmet off, Ray approached. “Good flight Captain.” He said, holding the helmet as Mark started removing the white space suit suit, revealing a sweat soaked tan flight jumper beneath.
“I wouldn’t say it went that great.” Captain O’Donnell replied.
General Reavey entered the hangar, knowing full well that NOAA-18 was still operational. He said nothing.
“I don’t know…” Ray started to say, then visually checked the pilot, “…it seems to me that you have all of your limbs intact and Remora’s in one piece. That’s a good flight.” He finished.
“Yeah, well I had some problems.” He said, dejectedly.
“Ok, let me guess…the closing rates were too great, right?” Ray stated.
Mark stopped his disrobing, looking at Ray. “Yes.”
“It was also very difficult bringing your weapon on target, right?” He added.
“That’s an understatement.”
“Did you try to fire on 18 flying backwards?”
“Yes...and…” He stared to explain, Ray cut him off.
“At least you had the presence of mind to avoid being on the same horizontal plane as 18 when you hit the throttle. If you were on the same flight path, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, would we?”
Mark exhaled audibly. “You know, I don’t get rattled too easily…but when I bumped the throttle and 18 blew by me, I was completely caught off guard.” He added, “How did you know?”
Ray turned to the General, “General, Captain O’Donnell did everything correct. It’s not his fault, it’s the system.”
One of the engineers standing off to the side objected, “The systems fine, everything checked out…there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with this system…it’s just the wrong system.” Ray countered.
General Reavey looked at Ray. “Continue.”
“Captain O’Donnell has to bring Remora on a direct firing line to hit the target…in space, and at those speeds, that’s damn tough to do.” He paused and continued, “Down on Level Four, is the ‘Have Gel’ project.”
General Reavey’s eyes widened, he understood exactly what Ray was talking about. “Why didn’t you say something earlier Ray?”
“I didn’t fully understand the issues until BlackStar was ready to fly.”
“What’s ‘Have Gel’?” Captain O’Donnell asked.
“’Have Gel’ isn’t the solution, it’s the AH-64 Apache helicopter that ‘Have Gel’ is built around.” Ray stated. Directing towards the engineers, “Wilson, you and your guys go down to Level Four and tell those Lockheed guys that we need the Helmet Mounted Sighting System and the gun mount from the Apache. Then install that system on Remora.”
General Reavey acknowledged Rays order to the engineers and smiled.
“There’s another issue with the Rail Gun…I don’t know if it’s firing and if it I, how fast it’s cycling.” Captain O’Donnell said.
“Wilson, what is the firing rate set on the Rail Gun?” Ray asked the lead engineer.
“We set it at eight hundred rounds per minute, which is the rate of most machine guns.” The engineer stated.
“That would be fine if we had a few thousand rounds to work with, but we only have forty five….change the firing rate to thirty rounds per minute.” Ray ordered. Turning to Captain O’Donnell, “With the Helmet Mounted Sighting System, all you have to do is to look at the target and fire, the Rail Gun will shoot exactly where you look.” He said smiling at the solution. “I’m afraid that when you fired the first rounds at NOAA-18, you went through the entire magazine.”
“Excellent…Is there something we can do give me some indication of when it fires?”
“Wilson, you play video games, right?” Ray asked the Lead Engineer.
“Do you think that you could make Remora’s joy stick vibrate when the Captain fires a round, like your video games?”
Wilson immediately understood. “Absolutely.”
“How’s that for ‘improvise, adapt and overcome?’ Come on Captain, let’s get some chow. Mrs. Martinez is making Huevos Rancheros this morning…trust me, they are the best. After breakfast, I’ll show you the library on Level Two…we have a complete set of manuals on the Apaches weapons systems.” Ray said and turned to leave.
General Reavey and Captain O’Donnell stood together. “Sir, is he a Marine?” Mark asked the General quietly.
The General looked at the Captain. “Ray? No…he’s a knife maker.” He said smiling to the surprised Captain.