World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War Page 23


I was a Raptor driver, the FA-22. It was, hands down, the best air superiority platform ever built. It could outfly and outfight God and all his angels. It was a monument to American technical prowess…and in this war, that prowess counted for shit.


That must have been frustrating.


Frustrating? Do you know what it feels like to suddenly be told that the one goal you’ve worked toward your whole life, that you’ve sacrificed and suffered for, that’s pushed you beyond limits you never knew you had is now considered “strategically invalid”?


Would you say this was a common feeling?


Let me put it this way; the Russian army wasn’t the only service to be decimated by their own government. The Armed Forces Reconstruction Act basically neutered the air force. Some DeStRes “experts” had determined that our resource-to-kill ratio, our RKR, was the most lopsided of all the branches.


Could you give me some example?


How about the JSOW, the Joint Standoff Weapon? It was a gravity bomb, guided by GPS and Inertial Nav, that could be released from as far as forty miles away. The baseline version carried one hundred and forty BLU-97B submunitions, and each bomblet carried a shaped charge against armored targets, a fragmented case against infantry, and a zirconium ring to set the entire kill zone ablaze. It had been considered a triumph, until Yonkers. 1 Now we were told that the price of one JSOW kit—the materials, manpower, time, and energy, not to mention the fuel and ground maintenance needed for the delivery aircraft—could pay for a platoon of infantry pukes who could smoke a thousand times as many Gs. Not enough bang for our buck, like so many of our former crown jewels. They went through us like an industrial laser. The B-2 Spirits, gone; the B-1 Lancers, gone; even the old BUFFs, the B-52 Big Ugly Fat Fellows, gone. Throw in the Eagles, the Falcons, the Tomcats, Hornets, JSFs, and Raptors, and you have more combat aircraft lost to the stroke of a pen than to all the SAMs, Flak, and enemy fighters in history. 2 At least the assets weren’t scrapped, thank God, just mothballed in warehouses or that big desert graveyard at AMARC. 3 “Long-term investment,” they called it. That’s the one thing you can always depend on; as we’re fighting one war, we’re always preparing for the next one. Our airlift capacity, at least the organization, was almost left intact.


Almost?


The Globemasters had to go, so did anything else powered by a “gas guzzling” jet. That left us with prop-powered aircraft. I went from flying the closest thing to an X-Wing fighter, to the next best thing to a U-Haul.


Was that the main mission of the air force?


Airborne resupply was our primary objective, the only one that really counted anymore.


[She points to a yellowed map on the wall.]


The base commander let me keep it, after what happened to me.


[The map is of the wartime continental United States. All land west of the Rockies is shadowed a light gray. Amongst this gray are a variety of colored circles.]


Islands in the Sea of Zack. Green denotes active military facilities. Some of them had been converted into refugee centers. Some were still contributing to the war effort. Some were well defended but had no strategic impact.


The Red Zones were labeled “Offensively Viable”: factories, mines, power plants. The army’d left custodial teams during the big pullback. Their job was to guard and maintain these facilities for a time when, if, we could add them to the overall war effort. The Blue Zones were civilian areas where people had managed to make a stand, carve out a little piece of real estate, and figure some way to live within its boundaries. All these zones were in need of resupply and that’s what the “Continental Airlift” was all about.


It was a massive operation, not just in terms of aircraft and fuel, but organization as well. Remaining in contact with all these islands, processing their demands, coordinating with DeStRes, then trying to procure and prioritize all the materiel for each drop made it the statistically largest undertaking in air force history.


We tried to stay away from consumables, things like food and medicine that required regular deliveries. These were classified as DDs, dependency drops, and they got a backseat to SSDs, self-sustaining drops, like tools, spare parts, and tools to make spare parts. “They don’t need fish,” Sinclair used to say, “they need fishing poles.” Still, every autumn, we dropped a lot of fish, and wheat, and salt, and dried vegetables and baby formula…Winters were hard. Remember how long they used to be? Helping people to help themselves is great in theory, but you still gotta keep ’em alive.


Sometimes you had to drop in people, specialists like doctors or engineers, people with the kind of training you just can’t get from a how-to manual. The Blue Zones got a lot of Special Forces instructors, not only to teach them how better to defend themselves, but to prepare them for the day they might have to go on the offensive. I have a lot of respect for those guys. Most of them knew it was for the duration; a lot of the Blue Zones didn’t have airstrips, so they had to parachute in without any hope of pickup. Not all those Blue Zones remained secure. Some were eventually overrun. The people we dropped in knew the risks they were taking. A lotta heart, all of them.


That goes for the pilots as well.


Hey, I’m not minimizing our risks at all. Every day we had to fly over hundreds, in some cases thousands, of miles of infested territory. That’s why we had Purple Zones. [She refers to the last color on the map. The purple circles are few and far between.] We set these up as refuel and repair facilities. A lot of the aircraft didn’t have the range to reach remote drop zones on the East Coast if in-flight refueling assets weren’t available. They helped reduce the number of ships and crews lost en route. They brought our fleet survivability up to 92 percent. Unfortunately, I was part of the other eight.


I’ll never be sure what exactly brought us down: mechanical malfunction or metal fatigue combined with weather. It might have been the contents of our payload, mislabeled or mishandled. That happened a lot more than anyone wanted to think about. Sometimes if hazardous materials weren’t packaged properly, or, God forbid, some shit-for-brains QC inspector let his people assemble their detonators before crating them for travel…that happened to a buddy of mine, just a routine flight from Palmdale to Vandenberg, not even across an infested area. Two hundred Type 38 detonators, all fully assembled with their power cells accidentally running, all set to blow on the same freq as our radio.


[She snaps her fingers.]


That could have been us. We were on a hop from Phoenix to the Blue Zone outside Tallahassee, Florida. It was late October, almost full winter back then. Honolulu was trying to squeeze out just a few more drops before the weather socked us in till March. It was our ninth haul that week. We were all on “tweeks,” these little blue stims that kept you going without hampering your reflexes or judgment. I guess they worked well enough, but they made me have to piss my kidneys out every twenty minutes. My crew, the “guys,” used to give me a lot of grief, you know, girls always having to go. I know they weren’t really putting the hate on, but I still tried to hold it as long as I could.


After two hours of banging around in some seriously heavy turbulence, I finally broke down and turned the stick over to my copilot. I’d just zipped up when suddenly there was this massive jolt like God had just drop-kicked our tail…and suddenly our nose was dipping. The head on our C-130 wasn’t even really a toilet, just a portable chempot with a heavy, plastic shower curtain. That’s probably what ended up saving my life. If I’d been trapped in a real compartment, maybe knocked out or unable to reach the latch…Suddenly there was this screech, this overpowering blast of high-pressure air and I was sucked out right through the rear of the aircraft, right past where the tail should have been.


I was spiraling, out of control. I could just make out my ship, this gray mass shrinking and smoking on its way down. I straightened myself out, hit my chute. I was still in a daze, my head swimming, trying to catch my breath. I fumbled for my radio and started hollering for my crew to punch out. I didn’t get an answer. All I could see was one other chute, the only other one that made it out.


That was the worst moment, right there, just hanging helplessly. I could see the other chute, above and north of me by about three and a half clicks. I looked for the others. I tried my radio again, but wasn’t able to get a signal. I figured it had been damaged during my “exit.” I tried to get my bearings, somewhere over southern Louisiana, a swampy wilderness that seemed to have no end. I wasn’t sure exactly, my brain was still misfiring. At least I had sense enough to check the bare essentials. I could move my legs, my arms, I wasn’t in pain or bleeding externally. I checked to make sure my survival kit was intact, still strapped to my thigh, and that my weapon, my Meg, 4 was still jamming me in the ribs.


Did the air force prepare you for situations like these?


We all had to pass the Willow Creek Escape and Evade program in the Klamath Mountains in California. It even had a few real Gs in there with us, tagged and tracked and placed at specific marks to give us the “real feel.” It’s a lot like what they teach you in the civilian manual: movement, stealth, how to take out Zack before he can howl your position. We all “made it,” lived, I mean, although a couple of pilots washed out on a Section Eight. I guess they just couldn’t hack the real feel. That never bothered me, being alone in hostile territory. That was standard operating procedure for me.


Always?


You wanna talk about being alone in a hostile environment, try my four years at Colorado Springs.


But there were other women…


Other cadets, other competitors who happen to have the same genitalia. Trust me, when the pressure kicked in, sisterhood punched out. No, it was me, only me. Self-contained, self-reliant, and always, unquestionably self-assured. That’s the only thing that got me through four years of Academy hell, and it was the only thing I could count on as I hit the mud in the middle of G country.


I unclasped my chute—they teach you not to waste time concealing it—and headed in the direction of the other chute. It took me a couple hours, splashing through this cold slime that numbed everything below my knees. I wasn’t thinking clearly, my head was still spinning. No excuse, I know, but that’s why I didn’t notice that the birds had suddenly beat it in the opposite direction. I did hear the scream though, faint and far away. I could see the chute tangled in the trees. I started running, another no-no, making all that noise without stopping to listen for Zack. I couldn’t see anything, just all these naked gray branches until they were right on top of me. If it wasn’t for Rollins, my copilot, I’m sure I’da been a goner.


I found him dangling from his harness, dead, twitching. His flight suit had been torn open 5 and his entrails were hanging…draped over five of them as they fed in this cloud of red-brown water. One of them had managed to get its neck entangled in a section of small intestine. Every time it moved it would jerk Rollins, ringing him like a fucking bell. They didn’t notice me at all. Close enough to touch and they didn’t even look.


At least I had the brains to snap on my suppressor. I didn’t have to waste a whole clip, another fuckup. I was so angry I almost started kicking their corpses. I was so ashamed, so blinded by self-hate…


Self-hate?


I screwed the pooch! My ship, my crew…


But it was an accident. It wasn’t your fault.


How do you know that? You weren’t there. Shit, I wasn’t even there. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t doing my job. I was squatting over a bucket like a goddamn girl!


I found myself burning up, mentally. Fucking weakling, I told myself, fucking loser. I started to spiral, not just hating myself, but hating myself for hating myself. Does that make any sense? I’m sure I might have just stayed there, shaking and helpless and waiting for Zack.


But then my radio started squawking. “Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there? Anyone punch outta that wreck?” It was a woman’s voice, clearly civilian by her language and tone.


I answered immediately, identified myself, and demanded that she respond in kind. She told me she was a skywatcher, and her handle was “Mets Fan,” or just “Mets” for short. The Skywatch system was this ad hoc network of isolated ham radio operators. They were supposed to report on downed aircrews and do what they could to help with their rescue. It wasn’t the most efficient system, mainly because there were so few, but it looked like today was my lucky day. She told me that she had seen the smoke and falling wreckage of my Herc’ and even though she was probably less than a day’s walk from my position, her cabin was heavily surrounded. Before I could say anything she told me not to worry, that she’d already reported my position to search and rescue, and the best thing to do was to get to open ground where I could rendezvous for pickup.


I reached for my GPS but it had been torn from my suit when I was sucked out of my ship. I had a backup survival map, but it was so big, so unspecific, and my hump took me over so many states that it was practically just a map of the U.S.…my head was still clouded with anger and doubt. I told her I didn’t know my position, didn’t know where to go…


She laughed. “You mean you’ve never made this run before? You don’t have every inch of it committed to memory? You didn’t see where you were as you were hanging by the silk?” She was so sure of me, trying to get me to think instead of just spoon-feeding me the answers. I realized that I did know this area well, that I had flown over it at least twenty times in the last three months, and that I had to be somewhere in the Atchafalaya basin. “Think,” she told me, “what did you see from your chute? Were there any rivers, any roads?” At first, all I could remember were the trees, the endless gray landscape with no distinguishable features, and then gradually, as my brain cleared, I remembered seeing both rivers and a road. I checked on the map and realized that directly north of me was the I-10 freeway. Mets told me that was the best place for an S&R pickup. She told me it shouldn’t take any longer than a day or two at best if I got a move on and stopped burning daylight.

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