Autopilot of the Damned
This short story was written in 2005
I'm not much for flying, but the Altris Specialized System Design Integration Conference (ASS-DIC for short) was being held in L.A., and that was just too damn far from Chicago for me to drive. There, at ASS-DIC, my colleagues anxiously awaited me and my new bio-feedback skull-harness to amaze and inspire them. So I sat on the tarmac, my prototype harness on my head, staring at my laptop which was perched on the rediculously tiny seat-back tray; I waited for the tired looking pilot-man to direct us to shut down our electronic devices and get ready for take-off. Some people call me a geek, and I guess from their point of view it might be so. But I prefer hacker, albeit a paranoid and obsessive hacker. So in the brief run-up to take-off I donned my skull harness and used bio-feedback mind commands to load our flight path up on my Microsoft Flight Simulator. Hey, why not? I just want to know where I am, and how things are going, and if our pilot is competent and...well....I soon had the flight setup on the screen and the scenario ready to execute the moment I thought, “go.” Nothing left for me to do until take-off, so I sat up and craned my neck to look around the over-crowded jetliner I would be sharing with several hundred anonymous fellow citizens for the next 6 hours. I was only one or two rows behind the first class section and had a pretty good view of the front of the cabin.
The plane was still boarding, and among the normal and dreary mid-lifers, college pukes, kids and elderly making their way to their itty bitty seats I noticed a cute little girl being wheeled onto the plane, nurse in tow with IV drip and monitors tethered to her tiny frame.
"Poor kid,” I thought, “I wonder what's wrong with her and why she's flying to LA.”
I didn't have much time to consider this, however, as I was being spoken to by a thin, balding, bronze-skinned, professional-looking man who was carrying a slim metal attache case.
“Excuse me, sir,” he began in a heavy Indian accent, “but I believe I sit next to you. 12C is my seat, I must tell you.”
I hurriedly closed my laptop, leaving the scenario up and ready. I stood, scooting as far back as I could to allow my apparent seat-mate to squeeze past me on the way to his flotation device—I mean, seat. After he sat, and I had repositioned my laptop, I turned to the curry-scented man and made some idle chit-chat.
I offered my hand, “My name is Peter Bucephalus. And yours?”
“Nehleash Chaudry, and I am pleased to be meeting you.” we shook hands. We continued our talk and I learned that Nehleash is a neurosurgeon on his way to Los Angeles to assume a post with UCLA as a research fellow. He specialized in neuro-electronic prosthetics. Essentially, he worked on mind controlled false limbs. I then told him about my job and, in response to his quizzical stare, allowed him to examine my laptop and prototype headgear. He seemed suitably impressed with the new skull input harness, which he stated was very similar in design to some of the control systems he'd been working with; and he politely agreed that using Microsoft Flight Simulator to follow our actual flight path on my laptop was...kinda cool.
Hours passed; take off went without a hitch, and we'd already eaten our peanuts, had lunch, and drank our colas—Diet Coke for me, and Squirt for Nehleash. Squirt? Who'd of thunk? Anyway, I idly noted our current position as calculated by my laptop's flight simulator and then settled down just a tiny bit deeper into the decidedly uninviting chair. I reclined the seat its maximum one or two degrees and tried to lean my head back, futilely attempting to get more comfortable in that flying sardine can. Suddenly I heard excited voices coming from the front of the cabin.
“You will all sit still in ze seats!” he yelled with a thick French accent, “If you try anything I kill YOU and whoever is sitting next to you as well! Your choice, bourgeois pigs! We are flying to freedom! We are flying to Quebec! Viv la Quebec!”
Marxist Quebecers? On an American flight from Chicago to LA? In any case, a man with a gun stood at the front of the plane, one arm wrapped around the neck of a flight attendant while the other pointed the barrel of his pistol at her head. Cries of panic rose from the cabin around us. Confusion was threatening to take control, when another man emerged from the cock-pit with the entire flight crew at gun-point. Nehleash and I watched in fearful silence as the copilot and navigator were marched into the forward bathroom by this second hijacker, muttering French curses at the unfortunate crew. The first hijacker let go of the flight attendant and stepped back, training his gun first at the Pilot, who remained outside the bathroom, and then at the flight attendant, who had slumped to the floor sobbing something about overtime pay. The second one, after making sure that the flight crew was secured inside the john, performed the unlikely feat of producing a welding torch from his fanny pack and proceeded to weld the bathroom door shut.
Then, the sick little girl, who had been watching events unfold with a wide, unbelieving stare, suddenly cried out in pain and clutched her chest.
“Tasha!” cried her nurse, bending over the wheelchair and its frail occupant, “not another heart attack! Not now!”
The hijacker with the gun, turning momentarily to look at the stricken child and her attendant, was immediately jumped upon by the pilot, who was effectively taking advantage of the distraction. Quickly wresting the pistol from the terrorist, the pilot raised the gun and two quick shots rang out; renewed screams filled the cabin as both the hijackers slumped, lifeless, to the cabin floor. A pool of blood began to spread from the two dead Canadians.
The pilot, raising his hand above his head, attempted to calm the situation, announcing in a firm but urgent voice, “Everyone, please calm down. The situation is under control.” there was a smattering of applause from those capable of applause considering the terrible events they had just witnessed, and from the hapless flight attendant there was continued sobbing about work conditions and long hours. The nurse had her young ward on the floor and was frantically administering CPR while sniffling back tears of anxiety. Nehleash leaned close to me so that I might hear him above the din and asked,
"So, friend, please be telling me where your computer says we might be?"
Tearing my eyes away from the pilot, who was now pulling at the sealed bathroom door while his frightened crew mates pounded loudly from the inside, I scanned my laptop screen. According to Microsoft we were likely passing over LA, and further, according to its estimation, we were probably getting a bit low on fuel. I hurriedly explained the readings to Nehleash, who responded with a muted, “Oh, my gosh!”
Seconds later an anguished cry rose over the clamor of the chaotic cabin, “She's dead! Oh, Tasha, why?!?” It was the nurse, laying her head upon the unfortunate little girl and weeping uncontrollably. The pilot, startled by the scream, slipped and let go of the bathroom door he had been unsuccessfully wrenching at. He fell back and, with a sickening crack, struck the back of his skull upon the bulkhead opposite the restroom. He flopped unceremoniously face first on the floor making nary a whimper.
“That man is dead, I would bet my professional reputation upon it this day, I tell you,” whispered Nehleash urgently. The stewardess quit her self-pitying blubbering and crawled to the motionless form of our apparently dead captain; she futilely rolled him over and began shouting in his face, “Paul! Paul! Wake up! Paul, we need someone to fly the plane!” From inside the bathroom one of the two remaining crewmen called out,
“Christie, what happened to Paul?” and “Let us out of here!”
Christie the attendant had just reached the same conclusion that Nehleash had come upon just moments before and leaned against the bathroom door heavily.
“Oh my god.....he's dead. Rich, Paul is dead.”
“Dead?!?” came the reply from the bathroom, “but with us in here, who's going to land the plane?” The men in the bathroom began pounding on the door with renewed vigor, but the dead Canadian had done far too good a job with his impromptu spot welding and the door, accurately proclaiming itself “occupied,” remained firmly shut.
At this point, I looked at Nehleash, and he at I. Perhaps we were soul mates in some previous life, because we both spoke at once.
“I have an idea!” a momentary pause and then,
“You go first.” I said,
“No, my friend, YOU go first. I insist.” came the reply.
“Well,” I began, “maybe I can hook my laptop up to the controls and have it fly us in and land the plane! But....no, that won't work. Someone or something needs to use the yoke and pedals to fly us in. This is an older jet, and it doesn't fly by computer control,” I spoke with certainty, having researched the plane prior to boarding so as to make my Microsoft simulation accurate, “If only I had a robot. I have programs for that.”
Nehleash nodded hurriedly, “Now for my idea, Peter. Bring your laptop and that skull harness of yours and come with me.” With some urgency, he nudged me out of my seat, and, grabbing his attache case, pushed me down the aisle. I barely had time to grab my laptop and skull harness as he had asked.
We quickly approached the four dead people and two crying women at the front of the plane. Nehleash kneeled down next to the very dead Tasha and pulled me down to join him.
“This will be the best candidate, I think. She is small, so your laptop will be more likely to produce enough current to provide adequate stimulation.” with that, Nehleash grabbed my skull harness and began pushing it onto the dead little girl's head. The nurse, sitting up and seeing this began protesting,
“What are you doing? She...she's dead....are you a doctor?” she almost begged Nehleash with her eyes to give her some kind of hope.
“Peter, make sure she does not interfere.” With that, Nehleash opened his attache case and removed a tightly rolled piece of black cloth. He lay it upon the cabin floor and unrolled it, exposing a wide array of hair-thin needles and some small tools that looked for all the world like fancy needle-nose pliers. To the nurse he said, “I am a doctor, ma'am. Please stand back and let me work.”
“Uh....ok..,” she began, but consternation soon registered on her face and she yelled, “HEY!”
Nehleash had begun inserting the needles through my prototype skull harness deep into the skull of the dead little girl. I put my hand on the nurse's shoulder reassuringly, although I was none to certain myself. Nehleash spoke over his shoulder distractedly,
“You should load up the program you were going to use to fly the plane, Peter. Quickly now!”
I rushed to comply, slowed by the fact that I had to use the keyboard instead of the harness, but soon had Microsoft Flight Simulator and my robotics control software loaded. Moments later, I had linked the two together with a small middleware program. As soon as the middleware began passing data from the flight simulator to the robotics control software, Tasha's arms stuck straight up from her little body where it lay, and her legs mimed operating pedals.
The stewardess screamed again, and backed up against the far wall of the cabin. Demands to know what was going on issued from the still sealed toilette and the nurse fainted, leaving me with one less thing to worry about as I gently let her down onto the floor next to the dead pilot.
“Quickly, Peter,” yelled Nehleash as he scooped the now wriggling undead girl up into his arms, “Carry that laptop, and make sure the cables don't get stretched. The harness is not very secure, I think.” I obediently followed close behind into the cabin and watched as Tasha was placed into the pilot seat, her lifeless little fingers wrapped around the flight yoke and her dead feet upon the control pedals.
“Now, tell your Flight Simulator to land us in LA!”
Finally understanding what it was we were about, I squatted next to the little girl and tapped at my keyboard madly. I loaded the scenario, consulted the dials and readouts of the real plane to make sure they matched the simulation, and gave the command to bring us in...to LA. Nehleash was saying something into the radio, but I was concentrating on the jerky movements of the very dead Tasha, and I have no idea what he said. As only the walking dead can, our zombie pilot turned our plane around, her lifeless legs pumping the pedals, her rapidly cooling arms expertly operating the yoke.
Within an hour, a 13 year old girl named Tasha, landed the jetliner safely on the tarmac at LAX, to the cheers of the passengers, and to the confusion of the men in the bathroom. Nehleash and I hugged, the nurse cried, and the flight attendant woke up and began screaming again. Tasha said nothing.