White Knight

A Tale Of Alternate History.

Everything was in motion at once. The vibration came from the fuel pumps below kicking into life, sending the rocket's lifeblood in motion. Those pumps would have to help the engines to produce enough thrust to get the twenty-one ton vehicle in motion.

The technical matters weren't important to Stephen Callahan at that moment. Sitting atop the rocket, he merely looked up at the control panel. Watching as things built to a terminal moment, he watched the light that would indicated that the engine had ignited successfully with one thought running through his head.

Dear God, I hope it works.

Callahan planted his feet firmly into position and braced himself for what he sensed was coming. He had gone through these moments countless times during training to the point that he knew down to the second when things would happen. All he had to do was-

His train of thought was derailed by what felt a giant's invisible hand shoving him against his seat He pressed a button on the left side of his seat just under his index finger. The movie camera mounted up against a nearby window whirred into life but the noise was lost on Callahan, unable to hear it through his sealed pressure suit or over the voice in his right ear. The view it took of Cape Breton Island would not be seen until he came home.

“Lift-off!” The voice of Alan Turner was firm, reassuring even. “God speed White Knight!”

Callahan allowed himself a smile even as he felt the pressure increase against his chest. The light was green and he was in flight. He was on his way to becoming the first man in space.

#

Two miles away and in his shirtsleeves, Alan Turner imagined the smile on Callahan's face. He wanted to smile himself but years of self-restraint told him not to. That and his own disappointment for not being on top of it himself.

Turner glanced at the fuzzy black and white picture displayed on the TV screen next to his console. A team of technicians from the CBC had traveled over from the mainland and spent weeks setting up cameras and wiring to allow those in the control centre to see the Galahad rocket in flight. Watching the sixty foot tall rifle bullet shaped rocket with the Maple Leaf and Union Jack painted on its side being carried into the air on a sliver of flame, he felt grateful to them.

“The clock is running.” Callahan's calm voice came pouring into Turner's ear. Remembering his role as flight communicator, Turner blinked and turned his attention to his console before replying.

“Understood. We're reading you loud and clear.”

Turner's blue eyes returned to the television screen, showing the rocket rising ever higher into an apparently gray and dull sky. He knew better than that, remembering the vivid blue sky he had seen just hours before. He wondered if the color film camera outside would be able to capture the sight better than the CBC's cameras could.

“How is thrust?”

Turner recognized from the rolled “r” the firm but amenable tones of Sir Richard Cross coming through his headset. He imagined the six foot tall scientist, the man who in six years had taken this from a British Interplanetary Society proposal to a functioning reality, looking out across the control room with his intelligent brown eyes. Maybe even smoking his pipe if the mood took him.

Cross was doing neither at that moment. With his short hair roughed up by the headphones he was wearing, his attention was focused on his own television. As he waited on the answer to his question, his head turned and his cheeks seemed to hollow. His gaze settled on the clock that had begun ticking at the moment the engine had ignited and which now sat at the twenty-five second mark.

“Thrust is good.” Shaffer, the young man at the console reading off the data coming in from the rocket, finally replied. Cross gave an unseen nod and his thanks. All the engine had to do was keep burning for another eighty-five seconds.

#

Callahan glanced up at the G-meter on the control panel.

“G-force is at 2.7,” he reported. The force of more than two and a half times normal gravity pressed against him wasn't knew. He had done worse both in the centrifuge in Ottawa and in the jets he had flown at Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment in Bedford. Like everything involved with this flight, it was the context that made everything different.

“Understood, G-force is at 2.7.” Turner's voice came in, comforting as always. Callahan allowed himself to remember their first meeting at Bedford. They'd gone young pilots straight off front line duty during the war-

Suddenly the comparatively smooth journey up until now became harder. Callahan felt his head being bounced around and then came the soft impact of his head against the inside of his helmet. It wasn't enough to cause injury, more discomfort than anything else, but it was the suddenness of it that surprised him.

A moment later and he realized it wasn't just him in motion. The control panel in front of him wasn't as easy to read as it had gone a moment before. He squinted his eyes but to no avail. The panel had become a total blur.

#

Turner had turned his attention once more to the television. The rocket was quickly disappearing out of the range of the TV cameras, the long wispy like flame from the engine being more visible than the rocket itself.

“Starting to get some buffeting.” The pilot's voice came over the headset in an almost tortuous tone. Turner's eyes widened and he pressed the transmit button.

“Is the buffeting severe?” He regretted the question almost as soon as he asked it, noting a moment too late that it was an obvious thing to ask. He waited for a response, hoping to hear something reassuring.

“Ask him what his G-force rate is.” Cross commanded from his position at the back of the room. He turned his attention over to the only man in the room not at a console and gave him a concerned look. “Is something wrong with your rocket?”

The short man standing until then to one side hurriedly walked over to the console watching over the rocket in flight. He slid in beside Shaffer and read over the data, a curious expression on his middle-aged face. His lips moved silently as he read off what he was reading to himself. Finally, he turned towards Cross.

“The booster is going faster than we planned for it to.” The man replied in English that betrayed his German origins. Cross stared at him.

“By how much?”

“Enough that he might be pulling five g.”

“Five.” Cross stated the number, rather than asking it in disbelief. The flight plan had called for a mere three and a half at most with five not having been planned for. “Turner, get him to confirm that.”

Turner pressed the transmit button hard. “White Knight, what is your current g force reading?” The only reply that Turner received was static.

“Ballinger,” Cross said from behind his console. “Is Callahan still conscious?”

Behind the medical console, the sole native Canadian in the room read over the data on the console in front of him. He checked the heart rate and other factors then pressed the button to turn on the headset mic.

“Heart rate's up but he is conscious, sir.”

“Turner, try hard.” Cross requested. Turner sighed and did as asked.

“White Knight, this is control. What is your current g-force reading?”

#

Inside his capsule, Callahan found himself straining to give a reply. It wasn't just because the panel was a complete blur. He had experienced heavier g's during his training in the event of such a scenario but training is exactly that: practice. Being in the real thing is another matter entirely.

Yet that training had other uses. He couldn't read the clock like g-meter on the control panel but he could the position its hands were in. He thought back to all the times he had spent looking at it in the simulators. It was enough for him to give Turner, Cross, and whoever else wanted it an answer.

“Five.” He finally said shakily. He repeated it, feeling his teeth shake against each other. He knew the instant he gave it that it meant that something was wrong.

No wonder I feel like I'm being thrown around like paint in a tin.

#

“Confirm, five g's.” Turner replied. He turned in his chair, gazing for the first time across the room towards Cross. Cross, in turn, was focused on the engineer standing by one of the consoles.

“Neumaier,” Cross said simply but expectantly. The German merely stared at the console. He said not a word until Cross repeated his name.

“He's approaching Max Q.” The sentence settled on the room. Max Q, that point of pressure where the combined forces of flight and ascent put the Galahad up against one last challenge. A thousand pounds of pressure for every square foot of the rocket was baring down against it, threatening to tear it apart in mid-air.

Cross nodded softly. Every second that passed was another one in which the Galahad rocket and the White Knight capsule atop it with Callahan inside it might be shredded like confetti. He considered the options and the data available to him. He turned to the German who had spent the last three years turning his former vengeance weapon for Hitler into a spaceship for the Angle-Canadian Rocket Establishment.

“Will it hold up?” He inquired with the simplicity he might have used asking what the meat of the day was in the canteen. Neumaier checked over the data once again, seemingly lost in thought and lips moving wordlessly. Cross grew impatient and opened his lips to speak when the German cut him off.

“It will but we must end the engine burn early.” Cross was about to ask why but Neumaier seemed to sense it, quickly adding an epilogue to his previous statement. “Unless you want him 200 kilometers further out in the Atlantic.”

Cross raised an eyebrow and nodded, conceding the point. “How soon until engine cut off?”

“I suggest we forego the additional burn time entirely.”

“I agree,” added Shaffer. Cross considered the implications. The flight plan, from the moment it had been presented in '46, had called for a 110 second full burn followed by an additional reduced burn for an extra thirty-eight seconds. If that it was either giving up that or sending Callahan somewhere further out into the Atlantic, the choice was clear.

“Turner, tell Callahan to forego the extra burn and commit to separation at that mark instead.”

“Yes sir.” Turner shifted towards the console and relayed the instruction up to the capsule.

#

Callahan almost considered asking for the instruction to be repeated. Between the extra g's and the buffeting, it was the one instruction he hadn't wanted to receive. He could scarcely lift his head, let alone try to reach out and press a button on the panel. That wasn't even taking into account that he could barely read the clock keeping track of elapsed time since launch.

He thought better of asking. Admitting that he couldn't reach the switch would be understandable given he was facing far more than expected. It was still admitting weakness. The thought brought forth a memory from Bermuda, the recovery and sea survival training courses for the final candidates, the sight of poor Andrews going straight to the bottom of a pool wearing scuba gear because he didn't know how to swim. The memory, the embarrassment on the man's face, was enough to make Callahan decide that he would be damned if he would do so now.

He blinked at the clock, now approaching the ninety second mark. Callahan blinked not once but twice, wondering if the whole thing had just been his eyes acting up. Only then did he register that the panel wasn't a blur.

“Control, things have gotten smoother up here.”

#

“He's crossed Max Q.” Neumaier reported just a moment before Callahan's message was received. Cross was in the act of replying but his words had been drowned out by word from the capsule. An audible exhale was heard in relief. Cross himself took a deep breath and returned his attention to the task in hand.

“Tell Callahan that he's got about fifteen seconds before he's going to have to do the override.”

#

The override required Callahan to act quickly. First he had to press the red override button which sat next to a series of indicators for major portions of the flight. He would have to hit it about three seconds before the reduced burn was set to begin and then flip the switch to separate the capsule from the rocket.

Callahan's dark eyes focused on the clock. He reached out with his right hand, his fingers poised over the red button. So far in the flight he had found no reason to press the switch and, with so many unknowns with this endeavour, he only hoped it worked the way it did during training. He took a few calming breaths as the clock ticked inextricably into the future.

At 107 seconds into the flight, he pressed the red button. The indicator light for “Reduced Engine Thrust” turned red instead of the customary green. That job done, Callahan used his right thumb to flip the switch for the next stage in the flight.

There was a series of loud clangs that erupted from behind his head. Out of instinct, he tried to turn and look in the immediate seconds before training took over. It was the sound of three small separation rockets igniting at the base of the capsule. There was some expectation of extra g's being pulled as the capsule was pulled away but Callahan noticed nothing of the sort. Instead he merely noticed a new green light on the panel lighting up as the modified V-2 began its fall to Earth.

“White Knight is free!” He let out in exultation, forgetting for the briefest of moments that the mic inside his helmet was still broadcasting. By the time he realized it, the message had already reached Cape Breton and was being broadcast across Canada and the world.

“Understood White Knight. You are free to navigate.”

'Navigate' was more of a euphemism than anything else. At a little more than six minutes into its flight, White Knight would reach the apogee of its flight and begin the long fall home. What capsule and the man inside had time to do was fire the hydrogen peroxide jets that would help the capsule pitch and roll into the right attitude for reentry.

Callahan became aware of a new sensation as he reached out for the control stick that would allow him to take manual control over the capsule during those few minutes. He had felt just moments earlier like the weight of an elephant had sat down on top of him. Now, he felt as though he could unbuckle the straps holding him into his seat and fly.

As if to confirm the hypothesis, he noticed something floating up into his vision. Realizing it was a small bolt, either that had come lose or was a spare accidentally left behind inside the capsule, he extended his right arm out towards it. Gripping the bolt between his thumb and index finger, he gave it a slight twist with his finger and let it go. He allowed himself a chuckle as it danced to the music of the spheres.

“Something funny up there, White Knight?” Turner's voice came through bemused over the headset. Callahan let out a heartier laugh.

“Oh just a loose bolt in the capsule. Might want to tell the Avro boys to make sure they don't miss anything important next time.”

Callahan thought he heard a laugh come through his headphones but wasn't sure.

“We'll pass the message along.” Turner replied in a way that could only have been delivered with a smile. “What is the view like up there?”

Callahan was silent. With his attention focused on the new experience of weightlessness and the dancing bolt, he had neglected the view port to his right. He leaned forward against the straps, turning his head as he did so. His mouth opened but nothing audible came out.

At the very top of the window was the black of space, a darkness that even with his experience of night flying he had never seen before. Filling the window was blue and green with a view of Canada's Atlantic coast line, stretching down towards the United States. His attention though was focused on the island just north of Nova Scotia, a seemingly unimportant spec of green from which he had left the Earth.

Callahan had a moment of quiet to himself. He was 185 kilometers high, traveling higher and faster than anyone had traveled before, laying eyes on such a vista. He understood the jealousies of his fellow pilots, the snide remarks they and the press made that he had only gotten picked because he had was born in Britain but raised in Canada. For this moment, he didn't care. He had made it here all the same.

“White Knight, how's the view?” Turner repeated. Callahan shook his head inside his helmet.

“The view is magnificent,” he reported. “I can even see Cape Breton from here.”

“Excellent news. In the meantime, we recommend you complete the attitude adjustment for reentry.”

“Wilco.”

Callahan turned his attention to the stick. With slow, deliberate movements lasting maybe a second apiece, he gently pushed the stick to the left. He gazed out the window and saw his view changing as the capsule rotated. It was important to aim the capsule properly or else he would be burnt to a cinder on his way through the atmosphere.

I can imagine the boys on the Ark Royal trying to pick up my ashes.

“Capsule is oriented,” he reported a few moments later. Callahan turned his attention to the control panel and on the g-meter. He was amazed at the lack of sensation, the lack of speed he was experiencing. He knew that was about to change.

The g-meter suddenly spiked. In an instant it seemed to hit the halfway point between zero and one, the cue that he was starting to hit the atmosphere. He was on his way home.

“G-meter has spiked.” He reported, his voice sounding strangely strained. He glanced at the meter and realized why. It had spiked to three and then six within a matter of moments. Remembering his centrifuge training, he tightened his body to force out another more tortured report. “Now at six.”

#

For the second time, g-forces were raising concerns in the control centre. Everyone was listening to the increasingly torturous sounds coming through their headsets with concern. Turner rotated in his chair towards Cross who had already turned his attention to Ballinger.

“Heart rate is up again but nothing he hasn't experienced in training.”

Cross gave his thanks for the report and noticed Turner looking at him from the far end of the room. The Englishman gave a worried nod to the pilot. Both men, and all those assembled in the room, were now just bystanders to history as the man they had sent aloft was now coming home.

If the heat shield did its job.

#

Unlike launch, Callahan felt no vibration. What he felt was the force of gravity up against him, the price he had to pay for ever so briefly breaking the bonds of the world below. Now he was flying with his back towards the North Atlantic.

Callahan tried to take his mind off the pressure and the awareness that there was nothing he could do if anything went wrong at this point in the flight by remembering some of the things he had heard in training. Like the fact that behind him it was nearly twice as hot as the surface of the sun at that exact moment. Not exactly a comforting thought but that was the curse of knowledge: once you know something, it's near impossible to forget.

From the window came a soft glow, like that of the dawn breaking through a window in the early morning. Callahan tried to turn, a futile gesture he knew he as he was attempting it. Giving up that effort, he instead turned his head and saw the sight for himself. He knew what it was, of course. The same heat producing ionized gas as he tore through the atmosphere. There was a terrifying beauty to it, to all of this.

Then the view changed. A cool, gray light flooded the capsule and Callahan had blinked in an attempt to get his eyes to adjust. It was as though day had given way to night and then to day again all in the space of less than a quarter of an hour.

“Do you read, White Knight?” Turner's voice came through the headset. Callahan let took a couple of deep breaths before replying.

“I read you.”

“Ark Royal's radar has you passing 48,000 feet.”

Callahan looked up at the altimeter’s racing set of numbers.

“Confirmed, passing forty. Preparing drague chute for deployment at twenty-one.”

There was a loud pop from behind the control panel. It was actually a few feet above it, a mortar firing out the drague chute. Callahan couldn't see it directly but a reflection of the parachute appeared in the side window. Further confirmation was given by the sudden jerk that seemed to swing the capsule around.

“Drague deployed!” A few seconds later, the indicators on the panel marked Main Parachute turned green. “Main chute has deployed.”

“Understood and the Ark Royal reports they have visual on you. We'll be handing you over to them presently.”

“Thank you for the ride.” Callahan said with a smile. His headset came on again and he thought he heard the sound akin to an excited party coming through it.

“Well done, White Knight. See you at home.”

With that, Turner signed off. Callahan sat there, him and the capsule swinging like a pendulum in the sky. He waited for the heat-shield to pop lose and the impact bag to deploy, cushioning his impact into the Atlantic below. Then it was a wait for a Royal Navy chopper to pick him up and bring him to the carrier.

What Callahan wanted at that moment wasn't that or the feeling of his feet being on dry land again. He wasn't even awaiting the accolades, the inevitable visit to the Parliaments, Buckingham Palace and the like. He merely wanted to do it all again.

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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