First Chapter of Operation Homecoming.


Operation: Homecoming

 

This is a tale ripped from the blood splattered pages regarding adventures from

Chronicles of the Undead literary universe.

Created and scribed by

William Bebb

 

 

It is dedicated entirely to those very wonderful people who've read my other novels and told me to get my (oftentimes somewhat entertaining) literary butt in gear.

 

 

A brief preface

An admission of guilt seems in order. When I began my literary endeavors I'd mispronounce the word preface because I was ignorant. I'd tell my my friends to read my PRE-FACE which sounded like two words. Ah, well, I'm a tale spinner and thus ignorance flows from me like falsehoods from a politician's mouth.

 


 

Chapter One

Happy Landings


Half the time darkness covered the earth like a thick impenetrable burial shroud. For uncounted millennium this particular phenomena was not remarkable. But over the last few centuries, as the planet spun on its axis and night fell, the periods of darkness gradually became less absolute. Pinpricks of dim light appeared where mankind lived, slowly evolved, and rapidly grew in numbers. With the passage of time (roughly a million completed rotations later) the earth typically appeared much brighter when dusk's curtain fell.

Even a few pinpricks of light shined in remote places where very few humans lived. Viewed from high above the planet, the black of night was contained nearly completely to its vast oceans.

In previous years, wherever mankind congregated in huge numbers, wherever lives began and went on for a time before eventually ending, the vast majority of land sparkled like precious diamonds arrayed upon black silk. It seemed the darkness of night was vanquished forever, and the brightness would only continue to grow with the passage of time.

Alas, this was not to be.

Only five hundred and forty eight completed rotations of the earth ago the lights began winking out. Some places raged and struggled against the darkness for weeks, others months, but inevitably night's shadowy shroud reclaimed all but a precious few sparks.

 

At night on some orbital trajectories, roughly eighteen months after the lights began fading away, the sole living person aboard the International Space Station paused to look down and the blackness appeared complete. And yet, if patient and observant she sometimes spotted occasional tiny dim flickers of light that suggested humans still survived. Those lights were few in number. As time passed they seemed to be snuffed out more frequently as the world continued spinning.

Ultimately, the last living crew member aboard the ISS realized the planet she called home was nearly dead... or perhaps undead.

 

 

Technologically complex machinery pushed scrubbed and purified air throughout a maze-like warren of vents. Standing in front of the largest air return, inside the main crew compartment designated Galileo; she felt her long hair gently fluttering in the artificial breeze. With her eyes closed the air current was almost enough to feel like a real breeze. Sometimes when she tried very hard to focus it was possible to imagine the impossible. She was no longer marooned inside a very expensive and complex scientific chunk of metal orbiting earth at 17,437 miles per hour at an altitude of 215.3 miles.

By focusing her imagination she could almost feel grains of sand under her feet.

The beach was quiet and deserted. It was peaceful. The incoming waves lazily rolled up the sand then receded into the ocean with a soft sigh. Her heart ached to once more listen to the authentic crashing of breaking waves. Her sense of smell desired the tantalizing aroma of the ocean, tropical flowers, and perhaps even a delicious pig being roasted at a conveniently nearby luau. She yearned to hear people, friendly living people, while listening to soothing traditional Hawaiian tunes.

A faint rhythmic squealing noise became more noticeable as the artificial breeze slowed then stopped. If she knew how to repair the complex air purifier and recirculation system she'd have long ago lubricated the squeaky fans, but maintenance hadn't been why she'd been invited to work aboard the ISS. The other crew members undoubtedly knew how to fix it, but they were either gone or much too undead to care about such things. Soon the squealing fan noise faded then died, as did the purifying cycle, when the excess carbon dioxide buildup had been scrubbed from the air.

She kept her eyes tightly shut and struggled to retain the beach in her mind. It was a hopeless battle. Soon (much too soon) reality mercilessly banished her sweet fantasy.

The background noises caused by various mechanical and electronic devices grew more noticeable as they continued softly chirping, ticking, clicking, chugging, and quite often beeping. They'd been making their various technological noises all along, but while the air purifiers blew through the network of vents they couldn't be heard, especially when standing before the main air return.

One sound was more erratic and infrequent when it came to her attention. It was a noise that began many months earlier. She turned toward the securely shut airlock hatch and watched as Commander Pavel Tolstoy whacked his helmeted head against the view-port.

Tolstoy's face appeared almost no different than it had a week after he died. His helmet's interior battery powered LED lighting was dark (just as it had been for months) but the space station's lighting made it easy enough to view the commander's face. His skin appeared tight and his lips were drawn back, exposing his unnaturally large looking gums and teeth. The sealed helmet and his EMU, Extravehicular Mobility Unit, suit had robbed the decomposition process of the air necessary to allow nature to fully take its course. But that's not to suggest he could be mistaken as being alive.

No, he was not a living man and yet neither was Pavel Tolstoy precisely dead. He'd become a gross parody of the living, just as billions of human beings on the planet's surface were. Although, in comparison to those reanimated corpses mindlessly meandering across the ground and despite having been undead for over six months, Commander Tolstoy did indeed appear to be in remarkably good condition.

 

 

There were a series of chimes that repeated for several seconds before a computerized voice came through wall mounted speakers.

“Attention. Attention. An incoming communication has been detected. Please respond within sixty seconds. No response will automatically shuttle this message to archive for later review. Caution. Archive is 93% full. Please delete older files. Automatic file deletion will remove data based on priority and date received if necessary. There are now forty five seconds to respond.”

She grunted and launched herself across the cabin. Zero gravity made this easy and quick. She came to a stop by grabbing a support bar mounted above communications console. After lightly tapping the computer's touch screen and entering her code, she spoke into the microphone. “This is Ming Yeow. ISS communications, go ahead.”

There was the customary delay of several seconds, and a bit of static, before a familiar and comforting voice answered. “Howdy, Miss 'Meow'. How's life treating ya'll up there in the final frontier this morning?”

Ming smiled a bit before answering. “Hello, Louis. It's Ming Yeow, not 'Meow', as you well know. As for life up here, it's the same as usual except for my fast approaching departure time. I've packed my bag and checked the parachute rig probably at least fifty times over the last week. According to calculations that I've run through the on-board computer, if everything works correctly, and there are no glitches, I should be making landfall somewhere within fifty miles of Douglas Wyoming around 3AM tomorrow. Everything still peaceful around Cheyenne?”

“Yep, we still get folks moseying in every once in a while. A wagon-train of school buses from Chattanooga Tennessee rolled in a few days back. There were close to three hundred folks, mostly kids, on board. Well, I say kids but in reality mostly they were teens and twenty somethings. They looked fairly beat to shit all things considered. There were a good number that were skinny as rails but still they're a nice addition.”

 

Ming's dark-green eyes focused on the speaker's plastic grill as she tried not to feel jealous or regretful. It had been entirely her own decision that left her stranded and all alone (except for Commander Tolstoy) for the last seven months. She never told anyone but sometimes spoke to Pavel when the solitary life became too much. In spite on this, it simply wasn't the same as having someone to really talk with and usually made her feel more depressed afterward.

After almost a minute of no one speaking, Louis said, “Listen up, little lady, I know you're probably scared. At least I'd be more nervous than a cat in a retirement home full of drooling geezers in rocking chairs. But we've confirmed your computer simulations down here. I know that we've gone over this before; more times than I can guess, but you need to think positive. Once you ignite the retro-rockets over China, the station will descend as you cross the Pacific. As the ISS computers confirm the trajectory vectors and your location to be over California, you will be low enough to exit the airlock and make your jump.” There were a few moments of static before he continued. “Yeow? You alright? Everyone knows you can do this.”

Ming nodded and asked, “How are my odds running?”

“I thought you didn't approve of gambling,” Louis said with a small chuckle. There was a sound of paper being rattled as he lifted a notepad and a moment later he continued. “Well, odds are even that you make landfall within fifty miles of Douglas. We've already sent some folks out there to pick you up. The town of Douglas has been deserted for months. There's no stinkers, troublemakers, or anyone else around. So no matter where you land in that neck of the woods you'll be fine as frog's hair.”

“Okay, what about the under or overshoot odds?”

“If you jump too soon and wind up... Somewhere out west, the odds go higher but you won't jump the gun. I know you, Meow. You're one cool cat.”

Ming swallowed hard and tried to sound cheerful as she asked, “and if I overshoot?”

There was a very long pause before Louis said, “for each hundred miles past Douglas the odds increase to a maximum of 100 to 1. But that won't happen, Ming. Trust me; you're too smart to do that. Plus, the computer simulations we've run down here give the operation a 73% success probability.”

Ming grunted doubtfully then said, “That's strange, Louis. According to my calculations I've only got a 37% success probability. Maybe those computers you've scrounged up aren't quite as accurate as those aboard this hundred billion dollar international space station. You sure you didn't accidentally transpose the three and seven?”

“Ming, if anyone can pull this harebrained scheme off it's you. But just for argument's sake, I'll play the devil's advocate. The absolute worst case scenario is something gets royally screwed up, the ISS blows up during re-entry, and you're incinerated. Is that really worse than starving to death up there all alone?”

Ming felt her stomach rumbling the moment he mentioned starving. Since the rest of the crew took the escape pod she'd been on a very low calorie diet and dropped almost thirty pounds of weight. Losing thirty pounds might not seem like much but since she'd only weighed a hundred and ten when they left, it was quite literally becoming a matter of life and death. “Louis, you better butcher a couple of hogs and throw one heck of a barbecue when I get there.”

“No problem, Meow. The herds are growing even faster than Cheyenne's population. We've got enough buffalo to film a dozen John Wayne movies, plus a surprisingly good cow and pig population. I'm also happy to report that a passel of folks have been working on your homecoming hoedown... or hootenanny if you prefer that term. The big chief has even scrounged up one of them Mexican Merry-Archie Bands to play at your homecoming bash. The world owes you big time, Ming. Without your discovery that the radiation from that interstellar storm was dropping, as it began leaving the solar system, well, a lot of people were wondering why go on at all. You've given folks something that's been in short supply for a long time; HOPE. I'm not sure if anyone around here knows how to build or carve a statue but if anyone deserves one it's you, little buckaroo.”

“Louis, we're about to be out of communications range. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate... everything. I'm going to give it one hell of a try and think positive. But if... if something goes wrong... I'll-” Ming managed to say before feeling too choked up to speak and then found herself crying.

“Ming, don't you fret about a thing. There are thousands of folks down here praying for you, myself included. We'll see each other tomorrow morning after touch down then it's time to get your feedbag on. You will make it, trust me,” Louis' voice started out sounding worried and strained but grew more confident as he spoke then static and nothing else came through the speaker.

 

 

Ming consulted her watch. There were fourteen hours until it was time to go home, as either a hero or a small amount of ashes. She warmed several remaining packets of food that weren't stowed in her luggage then tried to swallow the largest repast she'd had in months. It wasn't easy to savor what she considered to be most likely her last meal. This wasn't simply because she could soon be dead. Mostly it was due to what types of food remained on-board. Despite both of her parents emigrating from China to the United States of America, and their repeated attempts to share their preferences for seafood with her, she never liked it. Ming, who was born in the United States, grew up with a preference for pizza, steak, hamburgers, and beer. Her choice of diet embarrassed both parents, but it was the only thing they ever complained about.

After spreading pureed anchovies over a few saltine crackers, she added dabs of Tabasco sauce and managed to eat them. She was surprised it didn't taste as bad as she'd feared then moved on to a selection of yet more seafood, all of which had a toothpaste-like consistency. The last container held a special treat that she'd many times been tempted to eat during her solitary months spent in orbit. She peeled back the plastic seal and brought the small container up to her nose. Inhaling deeply the rapturous aroma of cheesecake topped with strawberries, Ming sighed and smiled before ferociously devouring her dessert. It took about eight seconds.

 

After dinner she floated across the cabin and confirmed that the computer's auto pilot program had finished reorienting the space station.

Technically, there is no up or down in space but most people tend to think there is. Even most of those who worked aboard the International Space Station referred to different sections as being up or down in relation to where they happened to be. This was based on the way the different compartments were added and connected, piece by piece, over many years. The solar panel arrays weren't really connected to the top of the station, since there wasn't actually a top or bottom. However, since it would have been pointlessly problematic having the station's shadow fall across the panels, the ISS was oriented so they were usually in line with the sun... or simply on 'top' of the facility.

The arrangement of thrusters used to orient the station were puny things that required a great deal of time and fuel to achieve even the smallest degree of movement. Ming confirmed that the thruster tanks were nearly empty, which was no surprise considering they'd recently finished rotating the entire ISS 180 degrees along its axis. According to her calculations there was just enough fuel remaining to initiate Operation Homecoming.

The array of solar panels was now closer to and facing earth, which would cause an observer to think the station was on 'top'. Ming checked that the system of batteries were sufficiently charged before starting the roll-over operation. The station's electronics could operate for another forty-eight hours before powering down. This wasn't a concern because in approximately thirteen hours she would begin the operation. Despite Louis having come up with the rather optimistic title Operation Homecoming, Ming secretly called it Operation Falling Star. This wasn't a romantic idea but a more realistic one, to her mind, since she knew the odds were impossibly long that the ISS wouldn't simply disintegrate upon re-entry.

The computer diagnostics and simulations showed her that the heavy-lift rocket engines were now aimed toward space. If the solar panel array could be thought of as the station's 'top' the heavy-lift engines were definitely on the 'bottom'... or had been until recently. The heavy-lift rocket engines were designed and intended to occasionally push the station into higher orbit but now were in position to do the exact opposite.

Ming tapped the touch screen for several minutes and disengaged all the various redundant systems that were designed specifically to keep the space station from being plunged into the atmosphere. “I bet if the guys who dreamed up and built this thing knew what I was doing they'd have a major shit-fit,” Ming muttered with a small mischievous grin. She spent another ninety minutes confirming everything was ready for re-entry then yawned and checked her watch.

“It's time for a nap. It's going to get very busy in twelve hours,” Ming said then started heading for the bunkhouse. The compartment everyone called the bunkhouse (especially Louis) was officially designated the Copernicus Cabin, but no one on board ever called it that. She heard the tapping of Pavel whacking his helmeted head against the airlock hatch and briefly considered visiting him. No, I need to sleep. I don't need to talk to that thing. Whatever made Pavel Tolstoy a man is not in that suit. It's just a corpse, a very active annoying corpse, she thought gruffly, as if trying to convince herself of something she already should have accepted.

 

The bunkhouse was very nearly silent and completely dark. She'd used black electricians tape to cover those lights that couldn't be shut off, or that she couldn't find a way to turn off. There was a low hiss of air being pumped through ducts, but other than that it was the quietest compartment. Although if an emergency happened while Ming slept the computer would signal an alarm klaxon that should wake her.

She snuggled into her 'body-bag'. It was officially designated a sleeping berth bag by the engineers, but Ming thought the cocoon-like sack appeared more like something corpses were placed inside of. It never bothered her slumber to crawl inside it... although with so much on her mind, she felt restless and unable to fall asleep. She forced her eyes shut and tried to focus on something peaceful. It didn't work. Several times, on the brink of unconsciousness Ming found herself jerking awake.

 

It felt as if her imagination was galloping like a wild startled filly across a prairie, as Louis might have said. She smiled weakly at the thought of herself being a horse, maybe even Louis', but gradually the fears crept back.

The list of worries on her mind was not small. The biggest fear was the one she'd had since things went wrong over a year earlier. Once it became clear and undeniable that people were NOT simply running mad and killing everyone but that reanimated corpses of people were responsible she'd hoped to wake up from what seemed like the longest nightmare in history. Ming never liked horror movies or scary books. She always tried to have an optimistic outlook for the future and humanity. It was the unquestionable fact that the world had turned into the stuff of nightmares that was the principle reason she'd stayed behind when the rest of the crew abandoned the station. As the others prepared to leave Ming spun a reasonable and logical tale why she wasn't joining them.

“If I stay here I can keep gathering data on the phenomenon. Some of the systems have crashed because of the electromagnetic properties from the radiation but most are still functioning. If I went back with you we'd be blind down there. Up here at least I can continue measuring the effects and hopefully find out if... or rather when the phenomena will move out of range.”

Ultimately, it was her decision to make although the crew did repeatedly point out the most obvious problem. There was only one Russian built Soyuz crew recovery vehicle docked at the station. Ming would be stranded and doomed to eventually die because the possibility of any further space launches was nonexistent. She wasn't swayed by this obvious fact. The only problem with her decision to stay was the stubborn Commander Pavel Tolstoy. He spoke to her privately as the crew prepared to leave.

“I too shall stay,” he said with a confident smile.

“I don't need your help to run things. You have a family, a wife and kids, and they are your responsibility. Plus, if you stay the food won't last as long,” Ming explained, sincerely wishing he'd just leave. He wasn't a bad man. She just wanted to be alone.

“Ming, even if you weren't staying I would not leave my post. I've spent much of my life aboard this station and won't abandon it now. Besides, my wife and children were in Saint Petersburg. The devastation there was complete. They are dead... or worse.”

Ming knew that but still wished he'd go. She tried to convince him there was a chance they'd left the city before the nuclear blast. He only shook his head and smiled sadly while touching a small silver cross hanging from a thin chain around his neck. It didn't appear like most Christian crosses. It had three cross sections and the bottom one was at an angle. “They have gone on to their reward. I know this to be so. Never doubt this, and have no fear. You will not be alone here.”

 

After the crew left for earth Ming and Tolstoy worked to continue gathering data for almost two weeks before the accident. For months the particles of cosmic dust that had been on the forefront of the unprecedented interstellar phenomena had fallen to almost nonexistent levels. But without any warning the particulate matter returned, only in much larger micrometeorite sizes. They struck the station with enough force that it sounded as if a dump-truck of gravel were raining down. Before long multiple delicate pieces of equipment mounted outside the station were destroyed or not functioning, and Tolstoy swore in Russian as he donned his Extravehicular Suit. She argued it was suicidal to go outside even while helping him suit up.

“You worry too much,” he said confidently before entering the airlock. He insisted it was critical to secure the delicate scanners outside the station before they were all destroyed but did agree to wait for a lull in the meteoroid storm. After a quarter of an hour passed, Ming reported the striking sounds against the hull had slowed and almost stopped.

Tolstoy began the egress procedure. The pumps started removing the atmosphere inside the airlock when a meteoroid, roughly the size of a typical household refrigerator, struck the exterior hatch. It was not a fast moving object but because of its mass it still hit with enough force to damage the outer hatch. Tolstoy was uninjured, managed to exit the airlock and started to say something about the hatch then said, “Forget it, it's not important,” before continuing with his plan as if such things were a common occurrence.

Ming stayed in communication with him and repeatedly tried to convince him it was too dangerous.

“It appears the station is badly in need of a paint job and perhaps some bodywork,” he joked while continuing to secure and repair equipment. He reported the solar panels looked like Swiss cheese. Forty-five minutes later he completed his repairs and finished adjusting the sensors. When Ming asked how much air the suit had left he only chuckled.

“What's so funny?”

“Actually, very little is humorous all things considered. There is no way back inside for me. The airlock's outer hatch has a hole ripped in it the size of a scythe.”

“Roddenberry! Use the Roddenberry Compartment's airlock!” Ming shouted.

“Please, do not be yelling in my ears. I can hear you quite well. Unfortunately I can also see equally well, and what is left of the Roddenberry section looks much like a rather large crushed soda can. You are lucky, Ming. If it had been Galileo, where you are now, that was hit you would be... very not alive... and quite flat. It seems another meteoroid destroyed Roddenberry. On the bright side, I believe you will soon have your wish to be alone granted.”

“Pavel, you jerk, don't give up. At least try and fix the airlock hatch.”

There was a drawn out aggravated sigh before he agreed to try. It was a fool's errand, both of them knew this but he did his best. While working on the hatch he explained that he'd rerouted the power cables so the electricity would no longer be sent to destroyed sections. He assured her there would be enough power for the rest of the undamaged station. She stayed by the airlock's inner hatch and attempted to comfort him as his suit's oxygen supply ran out. Even to herself, the words she spoke felt hollow. Especially when she went against her personal belief about religion and said, “You'll soon be with your family again... in heaven.”

“You are very kind to say such a thing that we both know you do not believe in. You are stubborn and skeptical but also too smart to be an agnostic forever. I do appreciate the words you said, even with no belief in them, and hope someday you do believe.” A rapid, strident, electronic, chirping tone came through the headset as the suit's indicator warned of the exhausted oxygen supply. He muttered in Russian then muted the annoying sound. There was a calmness and surety in his voice as he said, “Ming... do not fear or fret about me. This is truly not the end of Commander Pavel Tolstoy. I am a gentleman and have always kept my word. I will not allow myself to come back from the dead as some kind of monstrosity. This... I pledge and s-swear to you,” were his final whispered and very sleepy sounding words.

They turned out to be untrue and that didn't surprise her.

When he died inside the airlock Ming was close to crying, felt her eyes watering up in fact, but even before the first teardrop could fall Pavel grunted. It was a brief sound and yet told her quite a bit. The grunt held a mixture of emotions. Predominantly it sounded angry, much like a snarling dog. There quickly followed a whining and whimpering that suggested uncertainty, confusion and perhaps (though she wasn't certain) even a degree of fear.

Ming took several seconds before working up the courage needed to peer through the inner hatch's view-port. The outer hatch was mostly shut with the futile repair job remaining unfinished. Pavel was facing the outer hatch, and as his suit floated, both the arms and legs waved slowly around. To Ming it appeared almost graceful. The helmet bumped against the ceiling then Pavel's body slowly spun until his face was visible through the transparent visor. His eyes darted rapidly as he peered around the small chamber. There was absolutely no comprehension in his face, only a snarling confusion. The tears finally came and tiny round droplets of water drifted up and floated across the compartment.

She moaned, “Oh, Pavel. I'm so sorry.”

The communication link was still active and Pavel, or more accurately the thing that once was Pavel, heard her voice. He snarled, reached out, and energetically gyrated but found no one to seize inside the empty airlock. The suit spun lazily around on its axis despite all of Pavel's exertion.

Ming felt stupid even as she asked, “Pavel? Can you understand anything that I'm saying?”

When his face was once more visible to her she watched his confused expression become one of anger as his eyes spotted her through the inner hatch view-port. A series of nonsensical grunts followed as his arms reached out toward her. When he continued to spin around, unable to approach her, she shut off the communication link and wept.

 

 

There's a whole world waiting for me and most of the inhabitants are just like Pavel, she thought morosely while trying to fall asleep. It was frustrating because it was a phenomenon Ming knew all too well. Whenever something big or worrisome was on her mind and she knew she needed sleep it never came.

Running through a long list of mental checklists regarding her departure, Ming considered each item a sort of sheep leaping over a fence and fervently hoped sleep would come.

 

 

The klaxon awoke her. Her thoughts were muddled as she tried making sense out of what was happening. In a matter of seconds Ming managed to extricate herself from the 'body bag'. She turned on the nearest computer screen and soon had the alarm silenced. After reading the message inside a large flashing red box on the screen, Ming shouted a choice selection of her father's favorite Chinese profanities.

An inexplicable computer glitch, which she had no time to investigate, caused the heavy-lift rocket engines to fire early... Very early.

Ming hurried from the bunkhouse into the Galileo compartment and quickly started climbing inside her EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) suit. The improvised parachute backpack was securely stitched to the EVA suit's back harness with a supposedly fire-resistant type of parachute cord. She heard the computer announcing through the speakers.

“Attention! All crew members are advised to make their way to the nearest escape capsules. Altitude Warning! Outer hull temperature has exceeded maximum tolerance! Attention! All personnel should now abandon ship!”

 

Abandon ship? I've never heard anyone or even the computer refer to the ISS as a ship before, Ming wondered while hurrying to finish getting her gear and EVA suit ready. She glanced at her wrist mounted miniature computer screen. Crap, we already flew past Hawaii. This thing's going to be over California anytime now, she realized then hurried to the airlock hatch. Through the porthole she saw Commander Tolstoy standing beside the outer hatch. The undead man appeared to be staring at the long red and yellow flames and trails of sparks visible beyond the severely damaged and partly open outer hatch.

Ming quickly double checked that the parachute rip cord was in place; her fire resistant luggage was sealed and secured to the suit's front harness. The luggage once had been a test chamber for experiments and was designed to withstand extremely high temperatures. Her laptop computer, food, and all other emergency supplies were stored securely inside it.

She glanced at the primary computer screen. According to the trajectory map and the flashing red dot moving across it, which indicated the ISS location, the station was already well over the state of California. Even through her sealed helmet, Ming heard a deep heavy groaning of metal that went on while she unlocked the inner door of the airlock. The groaning grew louder until a combination of crunching and scraping noises were followed by a massive shuddering.

It's breaking up! She realized while shoving Pavel out of her way then peered through the airlock's mostly open outer hatch. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of blindingly bright contrails made by flames and sparks extended far behind the rapidly descending station.

 

She failed to notice Pavel moving up behind her.

Ming took a deep breath and was gearing up to leap through the outer hatchway when something grabbed her. Her grip on the outer hatch was lost as she felt herself being spun around.

Pavel was face-to-face with her. Through both of their helmet visors his eyes appeared cunning or perhaps even demonic as the flames outside were reflected in them.

It was disconcerting because over the last few months his eyes always appeared to be a dull grayish color. In spite of the flames dancing in his eyes, she didn't consider him a threat as much as a nuisance. Ming reached up and grabbed onto a bulkhead support bar and pulled herself toward the partly open outer hatch. As she reached for the handle, to pull herself through, there was a shadowy blur cast on the bulkhead followed by a flash of confused intense agony.

Pavel swung a long titanium wrench at her as if it were a club. The end that smashed against Ming's wrist obliterated the microcomputer that was secured there in a brief flash of sparks. He lifted the wrench up again as Ming pulled back her injured wrist and swiveled toward him.

The material of her EVA suit hadn't ripped, it was designed to be extremely durable, but the pain in her wrist didn't fade. Her eyes met Pavel's while she reached for the hatch with her uninjured arm. She was afraid the wrench had broken her other wrist but even this fear was less than the one caused by meeting Pavel's gaze.

His eyes were intently staring at her and the corners of his mouth were upturned, giving the undead astronaut an impossibly huge Cheshire-Cat style grin.

“Pavel, stop it! It's me, Ming!” She yelled even as he swung the wrench at her head.

There was an intense jarring sensation accompanied by a painfully loud cracking sound inside her helmet. The noise reminded her of nutcrackers busting open walnuts. A tiny, white, hairline-fissure appeared at the top of her transparent faceplate then it quickly grew longer and branched out like a spider web before her disbelieving eyes. No, it just can't be. It will hold together. It has to, she thought.

The flashing yellow warning lights on the bulkheads gave the airlock a decidedly dance club appearance. But there was only the sound of her own rapid heavy breathing coupled with loud klaxon alarms and a tortured metallic squealing that signaled that the station was being ripped apart.

Ming backed toward the open outer hatch, unwilling to even momentarily turn her back on Pavel again. The undead man lifted the wrench and swung it. Or rather, he tried to but the tool's tip became entangled in a cargo net secured to a bulkhead.

Ming took that as her cue and called out, “Geronimo,” while leaping backward through the airlock. She felt her body tumbling through open space and shouted, “I'm going to make it!”

The words were barely spoken before her body was slammed into and pinned against one of the station's support beams. It didn't hurt anywhere as much as she imagined such a thing might.

From her location, nearly fifty feet away the open hatch, the capsules she could see were nothing more than glowing blobs of flame trailing behind plumes of smoke and bits of burning debris.

The feeling of helplessness was becoming absolute even as she kept trying to work loose from the beam. Ming swore every profanity she could think of in both English and Chinese but that did nothing to help. There was no one that could hear her, let alone be of any assistance.

Or was that true?

She heard a brief crackle of static over her helmet's headphones then a single, gravelly sounding, whispered, word was uttered: “Comrade.”

Ming stared at the open hatch and watched as Pavel, standing at the threshold, threw the wrench at her.

The glittering tool spun end-over-end directly at her. From Ming's perspective it appeared to be approaching in extremely slow motion.

 

Her mind whirled in equal parts confusion, terror, and disbelief. The odds were incalculable that the tool could be thrown with such precision at such a distance and that it could possibly hit her. Ming's mind roared, “NO!” right up to the moment of impact. She watched the already damaged visor shatter then felt countless stabbing shards from the helmet's protective cover slicing into her screaming face.

Somehow there was no pain, only a complete blackness and Pavel's undead whisper of, “Welcome to the dead.”

 

Ming opened her eyes and spent several moments wondering how she could do it if she were actually dead then instant realization hit her like a bucket of ice water.

“A damn nightmare? Really?” she asked then touched her sweaty face with both hands as though uncertain if she were truly okay and awake.

“Oh, that's nowhere near being fair. It's not enough that I'm probably going to die soon enough anyway, but now my subconscious is ganging up on me too. Well, screw it. I'm getting up,” she growled in great anger. It was an aimless fury with nothing to unleash it on.

 

After leaving the bunkhouse and checking the navigation computer, Ming took a long steadying breath and whispered, “Gather around, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages. Its show time, folks.”

The computer's automated sequence countdown indicated she had another thirty-two minutes before the heavy-lift rockets would begin firing. Ming switched off the alarm she'd set to wake her at the thirty minute mark then started gearing up.

After slipping on the EVA suit and double-checking everything was in order, that every seal and connection was perfect, she spent several minutes inspecting the helmet. There were no cracks, dings, or even the tiniest of blemishes on it.

The computer's maddeningly calm synthesized voice announced,

“Attention, all personnel. T-minus fifteen minutes until the firing sequence commences.”

Ming held the helmet and crossed over to one of the compartment's small portholes.

Darkness enveloped the planet below. No lights, or even a hint of them, shined on the surface.

She sighed and couldn't help wondering, do I really expect this harebrained scheme to have a chance in hell of working? Or is this just the most expensive and elaborate way ever devised to commit suicide? There are a lot of other much easier ways to kill myself.

Ming eventually spotted a brief bright flicker in a remote valley. According to the navigation computer screen it was somewhere near the border between China and Nepal.

She listened to the computerized countdown without leaving the porthole until it reached the one minute mark then lifted the helmet, slid it over her head, locked it in place, and waited.

 

 

Unlike her dream version, Pavel was obviously not a threat. He was barely on board in point of fact. Ming guessed that as the station entered the atmosphere the rush of wind must have blown Pavel's body around inside the damaged airlock until his legs became stuck in what remained of the outer hatch. His arms waved sluggishly as the gloved hands quested for something to seize. Because he was face down on the floor, Ming realized she could pass by without him noticing.

After double checking that her EVA suit and helmet were properly working she paused to take a last look at the compartment. Red and yellow lights flashed so rapidly it reminded her of discos and dance clubs, which brought back memories of the nightmare. She shook her head and embraced the idea of dancing at a club. Ming didn't even consciously realize she was humming the tune to the Bee Gee's disco era anthem: STAYIN' ALIVE. Most of the computer screens were black; the few that remained functioning displayed the same two flashing words: ABANDON SHIP.

She ignored the message and tapped the screen. Nearly all systems were offline, according to the computer. She tapped the navigation map icon and a digital hourglass appeared along with the unhelpful words- please wait. 

After several moments an image of the earth filled the screen. The western coast of the United States materialized with the flashing red dot indicating her location. The dot was rapidly approaching the California coastline. The numeric distance indicators were blank with brief flashes of the words CALCULATING, Please Wait. Ming doubted the computer, GPS, and communications equipment would ever be able to give her an accurate report and instead focused on the map. The red dot was already somewhere over the city of Los Angeles and continuing gradually toward the north east. Ming grunted in disgust as the computer screen flashed a dark blue color then went to black. A moment later the klaxon alarms and emergency lights died as well. There was an increasing shudder and vibration in the airlock.

She noticed the wisps of smoke quickly beginning to thicken and nodded while whispering. “Approximate distance between L.A. and Cheyenne is a thousand miles, so-” Ming estimated a variety of variables including the station's speed, air resistance, and the last altitude indication and guessed, “it's about time to shove off.”

 

If she jumped too soon there was a risk of landing in Nevada, Utah, or maybe Idaho. None of those states conditions were known by her friends in Wyoming. Cheyenne itself had only recently been brought back to a bastion of relative safety. The undead never grew to huge numbers there for many reasons. One of the biggest factors was that the population was miniscule in comparison to major cities throughout the country. Just as important (unlike places where it was virtually illegal for citizens to own firearms) Wyoming residents were some of the best armed and skilled shooters around. As a result, while places with high populations and strict gun controls were very quickly overrun and the ranks of undead ballooned; Wyoming never experienced much of the nightmare.

 

Ming finished her silent count to three hundred while expecting, at any moment, that the airlock would burst into flames. At three hundred she leaped through the thick smoke that made visibility nil. She tumbled through the wind and kept her eyes shut for several seconds. Upon opening her eyes there was much confusion when she saw nothing but a dark grayness beyond her helmet's faceplate.

Her body felt achy and unaccountably tired as she reached up and rubbed a hand across the visor. Streaks of a soot-free view appeared and it took another moment for Ming to orient her free-falling body. She wiped away the smoky grime from the minicomputer secured to her wrist. The small screen was blank and she suspected the heat inside the burning ISS had either damaged or destroyed it.

“Shit,” was the only word that seemed appropriate and so she said it.

After grudgingly accepting that there was no simple way to track her position, velocity, altitude, or trajectory, Ming looked around. A dome of bright to dim pinpricks of light shined above. Trails of smoke of various thicknesses blotted some of the distant stars. Though she never really developed an overwhelming appreciation for poetry, Ming found herself trying to recall a poem she'd written as a teenager. But even as the free fall continued and she spoke aloud, her mind was formulating and running through a list of options. “Icarus dared to fly and someday so will I embrace the endless sky. His father warned him not to venture too high lest he surely die. Hubris brought him low but I will… hmmmm, aw crap what am I doing?” Ming berated herself, shook her head, and tried to focus. “Poetry? What the hell am I doing? Think Ming... think.”

 

The increasingly turbulent wind made moving her body difficult. There was a long-shot option though it was untested and would put a sizable increased drain on her EVA suit's battery system. Her hands felt heavy and clumsy as she tried to activate the helmet's minicomputer. If it worked there was a slim chance an experimental program created and uploaded by Louis and some of the engineers on earth could help.

The faceplate edges glowed and the typical readings appeared: Air supply, battery charge, suit integrity, and communications were in their respective locations. Everything appeared good. She spoke clearly. “Activate Road Warrior GPS.”

A flickering box materialized in the center of the faceplate. Inside it the word: LOADING appeared. When the word faded a moment later a computerized voice, that spoke a bit quickly said, “Ready.”

Ming saw herself plummeting toward what looked like a huge dark blanket of cotton and realized she was soon going to enter a cloud bank. She repeatedly yelled, “Shit!” while thinking, There's no way! I can't be only two miles from the ground already. Clouds don't usually form over two miles up. I can't be that low.

Numerical coordinates appeared in the GPS program box. The numbers changed so rapidly that Ming couldn't wrap her mind around what they meant. She knew the coordinates where she wanted to make landfall by heart- LATITUDE: 42.840393 LONGITUDE: -104.665762. But the GPS screen's numbers were way off on the longitude.

Ming did some quick calculations and realized as the clouds swallowed her there was no time to do anything but yank the parachute release and hope for the best. She had a couple of moment’s difficulty grabbing a hold of and yanking the ripcord. The banner rushed out of the backpack and almost immediately she felt a series of simultaneous sharp painful jolts as the cords snapped tight. Looking up she could make out nothing. Ming flicked on the exterior helmet spot lights and could see a few cords fading in and out of view beyond her water speckled faceplate.

“Display my altitude.” Ming said while struggling not to panic. The GPS program calmly asked, “Metric or imperial?” Ming silently cursed, gritted her teeth, and said, “Imperial.” The program box on her faceplate now showed the Longitude, Latitude, and, Altitude. The first two numbers were changing much slower and the last one was decreasing.

She noted as it changed from 9,000 and checked the digital clock. When the number 8,000 appeared she realized 80 seconds had elapsed. Most people parachute down at a thousand feet per minute, so I'm not dropping too fast. That's good, right? She thought hopefully.

The Latitude numbers looked relatively correct but all that meant was she hadn't gone too far north or south. As she glanced between the dropping altitude and Longitude Ming was having a difficult time mentally calculating how far she'd overshot. If it were a few miles, maybe several dozen, perhaps a hundred at most, she was certain everything would be okay.

She was having a hard time focusing on how far east she'd already overshot mostly because her attention was on the time and her altitude. If her math was correct there wouldn't be any danger of hitting the ground too hard or fast.

Because Ming was a mission specialist aboard the station, and her expected stay was to have only been a few months, she'd gone through an abbreviated training course which hadn't included parachuting. In spite of being off course and about to touch down on a planet where the undead outnumbered the living by an astoundingly high number, Ming wasn't anywhere as worried or scared as she'd been aboard the station. It wasn't precisely euphoria that Ming was feeling, just a very calm and peaceful sense that somehow everything would be alright.

 

 

The improvised parachute caused a wide, slow, swinging sensation that felt as if she were being rocked to sleep. Ming snorted groggily and wished there were some way she could pinch herself. Time itself seemed to slow down as she struggled to focus on the altitude but the decreasing numbers only caused her to feel even more sleepy and lethargic.

She desperately didn't want to pass out. Wherever her landing might be she knew being asleep would only lead to a greater chance of some undead monstrosity wandering over to take a bite.

Of course the ghouls are only a part of the equation. There are probably still enough crazy people down there who might make being eaten seem preferable. Why are humans so stupid? She thought and fought off sleep by considering her life.

At the age of fourteen she graduated from the prestigious Lakeshore Academy in Massachusetts. The school's student body consisted only of hand-picked, highly gifted, intellectual children from around the world. After Lakeshore she was offered a tempting variety of scholarships by universities from nearly every corner of the planet. In part, because both her parents taught and worked in research that crossed multiple fields of science Ming eventually chose to study where they worked the Massachusetts Institute of Advanced Theoretical Technology. At the age of nineteen Ming had earned multiple Masters Degrees in advance theoretical physics, astronomy, computer, with a double entry in engineering.

Both of her parents were surprised and tried to talk Ming out of accepting an offer that came from a large corporation that worked to design and build the next generation of aviation technologies. Ming ignored her parent’s objections because she knew the corporation provided a multitude of devices for NASA and other space programs. Within three years she was the chief of her own department codenamed Icarus Incarnate. Her team of researchers and technicians pioneered new processes to quadruple the effectiveness, range, and classification of deep space radiation. Three years prior to its projected arrival upon earth it was Icarus Incarnate that discovered, pinpointed, and successfully tracked the course of the interstellar phenomenon. Some of her team christened the approaching oddity as Ming's Massive Mystery Miasma, which was later shortened to 4M.

The approaching phenomena was projected to enter the solar system and reach Earth within two years. Federal grants were lavished on her department totaling several billions of dollars over the next twenty-four months. Icarus Incarnate took the lead role in developing a plethora of newer more powerful computer simulations, scanners, and many classified types of equipment to study the approaching interstellar event. Much of the new equipment was sent to the ISS to gather as much information as possible regarding 4M.

There were problems troubleshooting the equipment once it was installed.

Ming never dared hope her childhood dream of going into space could come true but it did. No one knew her systems better and she got her wish to boldly go where very few had gone before. Within a week of arriving aboard the ISS as a mission specialist Ming had nearly all the new equipment and computer systems properly adjusted and soon massive amounts of data was being gathered and analyzed by scientists around the earth.

Six months before 4M was estimated to reach Earth she managed to plot the event's dimensions. While there was no way to accurately measure its length, the approaching event was estimated to be massive enough to eventually fill the entire solar system. In spite of immensity few researchers found much reason to be alarmed by the event. According to data gathered by the detectors, scanners, radiation sensors, and computer simulations there seemed nothing to fear.

Throughout the event an assortment of radiation types, most of which were well known, were detected in varying intensities. Because the radiations were so spread out and diffused it was believed there would be nearly zero health threat.

Ming Yeow was cautiously hopeful that would be the case. She agreed the levels of known radiation types were low, but the newly discovered types scattered throughout the event caused her to repeatedly suggest that some sort of bunkers or civil defense fallout shelters be built. Government officials had taken the suggestion under advisement, officially. Unofficially it was considered to be an alarmist attitude, and no bunkers were constructed.

When M4 engulfed Earth the exotic dust molecules combined with cosmic rays rained through the atmosphere and the sight was generally considered magically beautiful by most people. It appeared like a combination of Northern Lights and the most immense fireworks show imaginable. Multicolored shooting stars twinkled as they fell; a shower of mostly gold and green sparks filled the sky both day and night for the first few days before slowly tapering off. Both on Earth and aboard the ISS Geiger counters and a host of other radiation detecting devices indicated there was no discernible negative health risks. The levels were simply considered too low.

Many skeptical folks around the world doubted the assurances even before the event arrived. They stockpiled food, water, medicine, and weapons just in case. Better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it, was their unspoken philosophy.

The vast majority of humanity thought the skeptics were being silly and merely enjoyed watching the unprecedented interstellar fireworks display.

When the pyrotechnics ended and, even after several days, no one fell ill or died most of the skeptics felt foolish and emerged from their bunkers and shelters. It seemed everyone had been needlessly worried.

Ming refused to calm down as the instruments detected a gradual increase in one of the unknown radiation types. Relieved officials dismissed her concerns but did award her a dubious recognition. The most plentifully accumulating mystery radiation specimen was christened Yeow-Rays.

Ming pestered the ISS physician to take what he considered to be an unwarranted amount of blood specimens from the other astronauts. The amount of Yeow-Rays found in the entire crew, including herself, were approximately a hundred times higher than those on the planet's surface. But the physician repeatedly pointed out that no one was ill.

 

If things had instantly gone bad during the interstellar fireworks, if there had been sickness and death, perhaps the world would have survived. But it was weeks after the event arrived that things changed. At first there were scattered reports from around the world about unexplained cases of mass murder. These disturbing stories went on for days, but at first law-enforcement authorities handled most of them with little trouble. Doctors and medical researchers began trying to make sense of the violent deaths by searching for a viral or bacteria that might be the cause. Their search for a cause was unsuccessful while the number of violent outbreaks multiplied with no common factor.

International travel was stopped as many theorized that perhaps Russia, North Korea, Iran, China, or perhaps even the United States developed and introduced a poison or man-made virus which was responsible. There was no evidence of such a diabolical scheme but the news media rarely known to check facts quickly adopted this idea.

As the number of violent murders and riots grew an already bad situation was made worse in a myriad of man-made ways. Wars were declared, countless missiles were launched, militaries fought, and very quickly civilization fell.

 

It was a decidedly disturbing experience for Ming and the rest of the station's crew to witness the unraveling of civilization. The crew consisted of some of the planet's most intelligent people and yet no one could make sense out of the mindless slaughter. Far too many major cities became desolate radioactive wastelands, others were cast into darkness and chaos as a chain reaction of Electromagnetic Pulses, EMP, devastated much of the world's electrical systems. One of the ISS electrical engineers theorized the EMP events were probably related to scattered reports he'd read about power substations that had been failing. The frequency of outages grew in the weeks following the cosmic fireworks. He shared his belief the accumulated cosmic dust and perhaps even the Yeow-Rays were responsible.

The rest of the crew understood that he was probably right, but as they witnessed the end of the world it hadn't seemed particularly important.

Gradually some places on Earth restored some semblance of sanity and the crew monitored all the communications possible. A television station in Norway broadcast reports and showed hours of videos. Most were a disjointed confusing series of clips showing masses of people running and savagely attacking other folks. Ming stopped watching when a video clip showed a mass of several hundred people overrunning a fenced in school. It appeared as if the video were recorded from a remote controlled drone. There had been troops in what someone identified as German uniforms behind the fence. They were firing at the mass of people charging the fence with some type of rifles that none of the crew could identify. The footage clearly showed people being shot; some so much that they were literally shredded into pieces, but only a tiny percent fell dead. Ming turned away from the horrific images soon after the bloody mob of people began throwing themselves against and through some of the school windows. She saw dozens of young children pouring out of the other side of the building. They ran like sheep but much of the mob of bloody people had circled around the school. Ming heard gasps and crying from those who kept watching. She had her fingers covering her eyes but peeked through as Pavel whispered, “Climb, girl, climb.”

Ming peeked and watched a girl, who couldn't be any more than ten years old, climbing over a tall fence. It was on the opposite side where the mob came through. The drone flew closer and showed the girl's tear covered face and numerous cuts on her hands that she got grabbing the combination razor and barbed wire top. The girl was obviously terrified and in great pain but seemed to somehow hear Pavel's encouragement, “Go, girl, go.”

A few other crew members were holding their breath but everyone watched, even Ming.

The girl tottered at the top of the fence for a moment then leaped into a lake that was on the far side of the fence. She surfaced and began swimming. Ming jumped in surprise as several crew members shouted and cheered.

Many hours of videos followed. Some were almost mundane looking and showed normal looking people getting off buses at what appeared to be a military base. But the vast majority only showed bloody, insane looking, people running in mobs and attacking regular folks that were either fighting or fleeing.

Because the broadcast language was Norwegian, and no one on the crew spoke it, it took quite some time to make any sense out of what was said. Pavel understood enough of the German to pick up a few things that were being said. When other crewmen asked what was being said, Pavel said, “I believe they are saying Ragnarok has come. Demons, the gods, and the dead themselves have arisen to bring about the end... Ragnarok.”

 

Over time a less mythological answer was theorized by the ISS physician. The Yeow-Rays had caused a kind of murder madness in the living. When several crew members asked how someone could be alive after being repeatedly shot, the doctor shrugged and said, “I've overheard the whispers. And though it’s possible that the dead...” he cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable before continuing, “That the dead have somehow... um been mutated by the Yeow-Rays and that they appear to be undead... there's no way to prove it.”

 

 

 She wasn't even aware she was humming an old song that Louis used to sometimes play aboard the station. It was a bit muddled in her memory. Ming couldn't remember the song's title or the singer, yet slowly she half whispered half sang a few snippets of semi-accurately recalled lyrics while drifting down through the darkness. “This is Major Yeow to ground control. The stars looked very different today. Here I am floating in a kind of can. I'm feeling a tiny bit blue and there's nothing I can do.”

It was the oddest sensation, and the last she imagined experiencing, but Ming was smiling and felt totally relaxed as she continued singing. The analytical part of her mind tried to suggest that the initial adrenalin rush caused by leaving the station was gone and a kind of emotional exhaustion was taking over. It made sense to her but she kept singing and watched the decreasing altitude indicator with heavy- sleepy feeling- eyes. A tiny fraction of her logical mind computed the remaining distance and she incorporated the information into the nearly muttered song. “Earth isn't blue... and I'm coming home to you... in just few-” Her eyelids, which had already been nearly shut, closed completely.

 

 

“You had us worried, Meow, now wake up,” Louis said while gently shaking Ming's shoulder.

She opened her eyes and was blinded by the brilliant blue sky and sunlight. After blinking for a few moments and gently rubbing her eyes, she could see Louis kneeling at her side. Just behind him there was a chocolate brown colored horse that was placidly chomping at some tall grass. Beyond the horse there were plains that appeared to stretch out forever.

“Louis?” Ming asked looking back at the man's bushy bearded and mustache covered face.

He slid back the black leather cowboy style Stetson hat and smiled broadly. “Welcome home, Ming. I don't rightly reckon how you did it, but you made landfall only twenty miles from Cheyenne. Got a message over the CB radio from some Indians. They were shepherding one of the buffalo herds and reported spotting your parachute just a while before dawn. You made it, Miss Meow. I knew you could. Easier than falling off a log, right?”

Ming turned her head and took a deep breath. The air smelled earthy, like a newly turned garden at planting time. She sighed and stood up. “I thought somehow I was off course. But... I guess I was wrong.”

“Shucks, ma'am, for a smart little lady like you it was a cinched deal. I never doubted you. Feel up to taking a ride? I brought along a little filly for you, but if need be we can radio for a truck to give you a lift into town.”

Ming actually felt wonderful and began quickly removing the EVA suit. “I rode a horse many times when I went to summer camp. It was a few years back but probably like riding a bike, I guess.”

She finished taking off the last of the suit while watching distant dark spots up in the sky. Are they eagles? She wondered.

“The filly's name is Buttercup. Don't worry, she's a sweetheart,” Louis said taking Ming's hand and leading her to a black horse that had white spots on its legs.

Ming felt giddy and threw caution to wind, saying what she'd wanted to ever since first meeting him aboard the ISS. “Louis, ummm, remember how you always flirted with me and how I always acted like I hated it?” She looked up at the tall cowboy and saw his smile. “I really sort of liked it. And, uh... well-”

Her awkward words ended as his arms encircled her waist and he bent down to kiss her.

The horses continued to chew on the grass as a warm gentle breeze drifted over Louis and Ming. A distant sound of birds and the rustling of tall grass being whipped by the breeze was all she heard.

When the long passionate kiss finally ended Louis grinned and said, “What do you say? I can be your cowboy, and you can be my cowgirl.”

Ming giggled and told him something she'd heard in an old western movie once, “That would suit me right down to the ground.”

 

Louis was helping Ming up on her horse when the sound of approaching hoof beats could be heard. She patted the filly's neck gently and turned toward the noise. A large man was heading their way. The birds that had been distant specks were now casting shadows over Ming as they circled overhead. She looked up and the bright blue sky seemed darker. The birds were huge and Ming tried to sound calm as she asked, “Louis, what kind of birds are they?”

“Just a bunch of buzzards,” he said with a chuckle then added, “They ain't nuthin' to fret over, ma'am, they only eat the dead.”

The sky appeared several shades darker and she felt frantic while looking for the sun.

“Ming, this here's the man who found you. You landed slap dab in the middle of his tribe's reservation. Quit skylarking and say hello to him.”

The sun had been there earlier, she was sure of it. A growing disjointed feeling of confusion made her wish to shut her eyes but she didn't. Ming turned and stared in disbelief. The huge man on the approaching horse appeared bare-chested and had an impossibly enormous head featuring a crimson red face. His teeth were exposed in a friendly, yet creepy, grin that stretched almost literally from ear to ear. The smiling figure wore a headband with a tall red feather sticking up from the back.

The bird calls were mixed with a repetitive chirping that grew more pronounced and louder. Ming blinked her eyes as things appeared fuzzy. She tried to rub them but her hands refused to move.

“Meow, I want you to meet Chief-” Louis started saying but his voice grew softer then went silent while everything swiftly blurred before fading to black.

“No, no, no, Louis!” She shouted and tried to move.

For a moment she merely ached in a general nonspecific way, but the more she tried to move the pain quickly grew worse. The analytical portion of her mind categorized the feeling as if someone were savagely pummeling every inch of her body simultaneously.

 

 

A rapid repetitive electronic chirping sound was the first thing she became aware of, other than the pain. It reminded Ming of her alarm clock. The insistent chirping heralded the beginning of a new day, just as had throughout her life. When she'd been young the alarm made her react like a racehorse at the starting bell. A new day always held the promise of learning new things and the possibility of the unexpected.

Ming's eyes were still closed as she sat up, or at least tried to. It felt as if she were glued in place. Her thoughts were muddled and confused and a headache that reminded her of times when she'd eaten too much ice-cream too fast.

Her eyes crept open slightly and beheld a barely lit grime covered and faded billboard with an image of the red-face Indian from the dream. She shook her head and the shifting helmet spotlights exposed words printed next to the giant grinning face. Some of the words were too faded to decipher but two were clear. Chief Wahoo? What the heck is a Chief Wahoo? Ming wondered in confusion.

Hoping she was dreaming Ming looked up. Her neck ached but above the billboard she beheld a deep dark, nearly black, blue sky with tiny pinpoints of uncountable light-years distant stars. Off to her right, she noted a dark vertical line that stretched dozens of feet into the air. At its apex what appeared to be a big towel flapped weakly.

Ming lifted her arm, though it was unaccountably heavy but after straining with great effort she used her fingers to poke at the helmet's mute button. Her fingers felt clumsy, somehow lethargic, and just like her arm. The chirping ceased the moment her index finger finally discovered the mute button. The computerized 'heads up' display powered on.

The red flashing words OXYGEN RESERVE DEPLETED instantly caught her full attention.

Ming's fingers still felt drunken and mysteriously heavy as she reached for the helmet's emergency release lever. Under normal conditions the lever was never used because it usually caused extensive and very expensive damage to the helmet. As she struggled with the lever, Ming stared at the sky. The dark blue off to the left gradually lightened until on her far right the azure brightness of dawn made the promise of a new day. There was a metallic snap as the helmet seal was broken followed by a slight whoosh as air. She took a deep breath. As her sense of smell worked to categorize the aroma she gagged.

 

After spending nearly two years aboard the space station, with its complex system of air purifiers chugging away, Ming's sense of smell was overwhelmed as she got her first breath of planetary air. She choked, her stomach roiled unhappily, and Ming instantly felt ill. All she could detect was the overwhelmingly pungent aroma of death and decay. It reminded her of roadkill that had been left to rot for many days. Her eyes watered and it took all her willpower not to vomit from the assaulting stench.

With her eyes shut she tried to recall what flowers smelled like. It took a considerable amount of time before she felt less likely to throw up.

Off to her left golden yellow rays glinted off the top third of a silver colored flag pole. The partially torn Stars and Stripes atop the pole fluttered. Though the red, white, and blue colors were faded they still struck her as beautiful. She turned her head and tried to take in her surroundings. Directly ahead of her, several dozen feet away, there was an immense curving wall constructed out of cinder blocks. A huge billboard was attached to the wall. With dawn's light to make it easier to see, Ming stared at the image of the red-face Indian from the dream. The words painted above the grinning Indian's face were faded but after a moment she whispered what they seemed to be. “Chief Wahoo says make sure you lock your cars, and enjoy the game.”

Ming was confused. She never took an interest in sports but through osmosis overheard others occasionally talk about them. The name Chief Wahoo seemed familiar to her but no matter how hard she tried to place a location to the name nothing came to her.

I'm somewhere in Wyoming. I've got to be, she thought while turning to more pressing matters.

When the flag flapped more energetically, she felt her body swing back and forth more dramatically. Even when there was no wind her body swayed but finding a reason for this had been ignored as the stench of death was her initial concern. Every time the wind picked up and her body swung she heard a loud metallic tinging, which considering the helmet was still in place made her suspect the sound was even louder than she thought. She'd managed to break the air seal to breathe but removing it entirely would be much more difficult. The helmet was blocking her from looking up or down. Her muscles ached and she felt inexplicably exhausted while wrestling to remove the helmet. As she worked to take it off a much stronger wind began blowing. Her body swung in much wider pendulum-like arcs.

“Come on, get the hell off my head,” Ming grunted a moment before the helmet was completely unlatched and fell. It took almost three seconds before she heard it loudly clatter against the ground.

Low moans and harder to classify sounds followed. These were accompanied by the noise of her Extra Vehicular Suit being slammed repeatedly into something behind her.

Ming shut her eyes and focused on not panicking. A strong temptation to scream was building inside her.

"It would be highly illogical to do that," she heard Spock's calm cool voice saying. It made her smile to imagine his advice and it was undoubtedly correct.

The noises gradually became quieter and the illogical (but powerful) need to scream faded as well. Her body ceased swinging and only a moaning chorus of mournful noises could be heard.

She opened her eyes, whispered, “Everything will be fine,” and then looked down.

 

 

The early morning sun was still low on the horizon causing buildings to cast long dark shadows across the massive parking lot. Dozens of vehicles, including several ambulances, a handful of police cars, and a large yellow-lime green firetruck were parked near an archway in built into the massive wall. All the vehicles appeared to be covered with many months of bird droppings and other types of filth. The archway was a quarter of a mile distant and a few stationary and slow moving people were visible in the shadows. They were shuffling and appeared to occasionally reach out and touch the vehicles. No electric lights were switched on. No smoke was in the air. There was no sign of human life.

Ming trembled and slowly looked down.

A few slightly faster moving people in the shadowy parking lot were staggering toward her position. If she didn't know better Ming might have thought them to be drunks, just as the parking lot probably had in times when the living visited here.

The few meandering drunk-like figures were merging with a crowd that had apparently assembled since her arrival. Her analytical mind estimated each parking space might hold twenty people and there were maybe forty spaces around her, which of course didn't account for those in the traffic lanes. So, figure roughly eight hundred, times two or three. Oh, no, she thought then quickly did the math again.

She tilted her head and realized that the parachute must have gotten tangled in a light pole.

Her body was dangling nearly fifty feet above the pavement.

Ming looked up and saw the improvised parachute was indeed draped over the pole's top.

A few dark lines were visible in the material and she noted they were at the locations between her harness parachute cords and stretched to where they joined the material. “It's ripping. The damn wind blowing me all over the place is causing it to tear.” She whispered then even while watching it the dark lines across the material grew longer and there was a ripping sound.

It's just a matter of time. Maybe it won’t fail for another few minutes or perhaps an hour, but it’s an undeniable scientific fact that sooner or later I'm going to fall into a multitude of hungry ghouls. She realized and struggled not to scream in frustration.

The winds coming in from the North gradually dropped from powerful gusts to little more than a slight breeze. With her body no longer being swung about like a sadistic giant's favorite whirlygig Ming tried to remain motionless. It seemed reasonable to theorize that the more she moved the more strain would cause further tearing of the parachute.

As time passed and the sun rose higher she gingerly turned her head this way and that to take in the surroundings and hopefully spot someone (ANYONE) who might be in the mood to rescue her. Without her body clanging into the aluminum light pole, as it had done before the wind died, she watched as the milling undead appeared to gradually lose interest in her and began meandering away.

The vast majority were still congregated near the pole but almost none looked up at her. They looked at the ground, each other, their rotted skin and hands, and sometimes even bits of trash blowing across the parking lot.

Ming hated litterbugs as a rule. But smiled when a few plastic bags were blown by the breeze like urban tumbleweeds across the pavement and many undead ambled after them. After just twenty minutes she estimated only a quarter of the undead group remained near her light pole.

More trash bags tumble by please or maybe a few loud birds flapping through, that's all I need to at least have a chance, she thought.

 

Ming could make out more details regarding the vehicles by the archway in the wall. The firetruck was as dirty and hard to clearly see as the rest but she could make out lettering along its side. It was gold colored and fairly large but after reading it, she shook her head and rubbed her eyes. She looked again and the words CLEVELAND OHIO were plain to see.

She swiveled around and glared at the cartoon-style drawing of Chief Wahoo again and whispered, “No way. There's no frigging way. I can't be in Cleveland. It's just another nightmare. It's got to be.”

Ming shut her eyes and hoped to soon awaken.

 

 

The stench of corpses wasn't as pronounced, or perhaps she'd gotten more-or-less used to the stink, but there was another smell. It reminded her of farms and freshly tilled dirt, of crops being grown. She opened her eyes again.

Ming looked left and right but (except for loitering and meandering corpses) everything was deserted.

There were muted clinking noises, as if coming from far away. When the breeze slowed the clinks and tinks were easier to hear, plus she dared hope that the indistinct murmurs could be voices. BUT WHERE ARE THEY!? Ming wondered and again fought down the strong temptation to yell for help.

She stared in annoyance at the grinning Chief Wahoo painting; specifically it’s friendly looking eyes, and then looked up higher. The wall was approximately the same height as her pole, or more specifically where she was dangling on the pole. The sun was high enough that its light shone into the baseball stadium. She could see row upon row of empty seats, a few darkened private boxes, and a scoreboard. But two other things were visible. The first was easier to discern, the second took longer. Propped against three rows of the seats were several door-size shiny panels that appeared remarkably clean compared to everything else. Connected to each panel there were electrical cords. Solar panels? Ming wondered.

She watched as the sunlight struck them. It was blinding. She looked at the second mystery she'd noted. There were long, uniform, rows of tall green plants in both the out and infield and they had absolutely no business being there. Corn? How could corn grow here?

There was a brief electronic whine that echoed across the parking lot before loudspeakers inside the stadium began playing music.

The sound of drums could be heard for several seconds before a woman's voice sang, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming-”

Ming watched the corpses wandering toward the stadium walls as the song continued. After several seconds more of the U.S. National Anthem playing her gaze turned back toward the flag. She wasn't aware she was crying until the song reached its end. Ming could see people moving about inside the stadium and she wiped her eyes. They were carrying tools and pushing wheel barrows.

She took a deep breath and was preparing to yell for help when a sudden and very loud continuous tearing sound of the parachute caused her to scream, There was no time to think of anything else to yell. “Parking lot! HELP!”

 ***


The complete novel will be released by April 12, 2018.



https://www.amazon.com/Operation-Homecoming-Chronicles-William-Bebb-ebook/dp/B078YWF19H/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1516978527&sr=1-1


 







 
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The first novel that started a worldwide following can be found here.

 
 
 
 
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I've been worried about some readers. My biggest concern is for their welfare and I hate the idea that some might be feeling badly. Three of my novels thus far are FREE. Valley of Death Zombie Trailer Park, Zombies & Other Unpleasant Things, and The Tiniest Invaders Book 1: Coexistence.
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