Saturday, January 13, 2007

Just 'cause - Chapter 1

Inside the MC-130's cargo hold, the murmur of the turboprops was almost deafening, and the constant shuddering wasn't very comfy, either. Mark felt gravity tug on his stomach as the plane climbed again until, finally, it seemed to settle into level flight above the local weather. He was tempted to throw up, but he held back - the full-face mask he'd been wearing for what seemed like forever wouldn't allow him to dispose of his breakfast in a civilized manner. Like Rowena next to him, he was strapped into a very tight array of gear - thermosuit, jump boots, life support, parachute rig and equipment carrier -, and the neoprene was tightening around his junk. He took another breath from the bottle next to him - pure, medical-grade oxygen.

All of that was made infinitely worse because Molly Hendricks unsnapped her safety harness and walked through the cargo hatch, wearing a decidedly less constricting variety of breathing mask over a loose, comfy BDU.

"You fellers okay?" she asked; Mark gave her the finger. "Well, you're still conscious..."
"Fuck you, Hendricks," he replied, hearing himself as a tinny voice over the radio. "I'm never booking Air Force again."
"You needed a lift to Southeast Columbia...think Aeroflot flies here? We can't even land here, technically..."
"Technically?" Rowena asked.
"We buzz the airfield, deploy supplies via LDACD - we throw out a big-ass drag chute that pulls the cargo pallet from the bay, gravity does the rest. Our military advisers need food, too. You guys - well, I can't throw you out there, the Colombian Army doesn't like it when we deploy troops without notice."
"We're not troops."
"No, you're illegal combatants."
"And that means?" Mark asked, fiddling with the knife sheath on his thigh.
"Every last one of our guys in this country is here with the express permission of the legal government of Columbia. If they see anyone leave a US plane unannounced - or we drop off the radar by landing somewhere else on the way -, they'll assume we're supplying FARC. I don't have to tell you that this would be a bad fucking day for Uncle Sam. Now, how many of our contestants today know how to do a HA/LO jump?"

Neither Rowena nor Mark raised their hands.

"Any skydiving?"

Rowena raised her hand to half-height; Mark didn't react. Molly tried to rub her temples, prodded against her mask and let out a sigh.

"Unhook the seat belts. I'll check your gear again, then I'll get the hell out. You two grab onto the handrails until we open the rear cargo hatch. And I mean hold on, the slipstream sucks out everything that's loose. Once it's open, watch out for the signal light over there. It'll be red. Once it starts blinking, you walk towards the hatch and get off your prayers. When it turns green, you jump."
"Question," Mark said. "How do we hold on to the oxygen bottle in free fall?"
"Good question! You don't, you're wearing your jump bottle already. Now that we're over the target area, I'll switch you from pre-breather to your proper supply in a minute. When I do this, hold your goddamn breath. I'm serious. Breath. Hold. You. Got that?"
"Yes," Rowena said. "Yes Ma'am," Mark added.
"God help me, if you fuck this up and get shuteye via hypoxia out there, I'll personally grab your body from the crater and dump it into a pen of hungry pigs. Do not even think about breathing while I switch you."

Mark and Rowena nodded, almost in unison.

"Now, the taxpayer has seen fit to provide you with some hi-tech gear that'll make the actual jump easier on you. Your mask comes with a built-in AR display - it shows important stuff over what you see so you know where you are and how fast you're going. Primary nav is GPS, backed up by inertial - this thing will guide you to where you need to go. You can steer by spreading your arms and legs - carefully. There's also an altimeter in your display, so you don't need to look at your arm or anything. Do not, under any circumstances, deploy the chute while the altimeter shows red - you will be spotted on radar."
"So when do we open?" Rowena asked.
"It goes green at 1000 feet, give or take a couple. By the way, when the altimeter turns yellow, spread out. You have to brake as much as you can before you deploy."
"So the chute doesn't rip?"
"Oh, the chute can take it. It's just that if you don't, chances are you'll be fast enough that there's about two seconds of reaction time between deployment altitude and cratering, plus the decel will be a real bitch."

Mark reconsidered throwing up.

"But don't worry, girls, we've got you covered. Your suits come standard with an AAD, which makes sure that you don't fuck it up and turn the HA/LO into a HA/NO. It'll bust out the emergency chute at 800 if you haven't pulled the line by then. Of course, the spare will make for a hard landing - you'll probably survive it, but the maneuverability is shit and you'll miss the target, so being asleep means you get to hike. Questions?"
"Here," Mark said, raising his arm again. "What's wrong with the people who do this for fun?"
"Hell if I know, Simmons. I just chuck them off my plane, the rest is their business. Scared?"
"...I don't like heights."
"I'm sure your dumb luck will see you through," Molly said. "I got out okay from my first drop. Besides, it's a rite of passage. Who's gonna take you seriously as a secret agent if you've never done covert insertion?"
"She's got a point there," Rowena added.
"Well then. What the fuck are we sitting around here for?" Mark said with fake bravado. "Hook us up, woman!"
"As you command..."

True to form, Mark and Rowena held their breaths while Molly switched them to their jump bottles. As of that moment, they were living in a self-contained environment, breathing pure oxygen, packed in a full-body temperature regulation suit and weighed down with their weapon load. With a final wink, Molly left the cargo bay for greener pastures, and Mark noted an ominous switch in the lighting soon thereafter.

“I think we should...” Rowena began, but then there were the klaxons and the lights, this time in red, as the rear cargo hatch shuddered open and groaned in defiance, ripped from its aerodynamically optimized position for some...some cheap mid-air stunt. With a sudden jerk, Mark’s hand shot out for the handrail before his body realized that it should be blown towards the pressure differential ahead; air rushed past their heads and their displays came live, flickering into existence like invisible elves constantly painting the all-important numbers onto the landscape.

The signal started blinking. Mark and Rowena shuffled towards the hatch, intent on not losing their footing, but it actually wasn’t that bad now that the pressure within the bay matched the ambience's - it was horribly loud at first, but then it settled down, and Mark suspected that the masks had the same sort of active noise-cancelling gizmos as he liked to use.

“Any last words?” Rowena came in again, and it was strange to see her stand right next to him and yet hear her only via radio.
“...nobody lives forever.”

The red light died, and then it all turned green.

Salva nos,” Mark mumbled, then took the plunge - literally. Within the second, he was in free fall, air rushing past him as gravity reasserted itself. His stomach didn’t like it, but he kept it down and folded his arms and legs together, diving for maximum speed. The navigational system painted a big fat target onto the clouds below; he stretched out his right arm a bit to correct the course. Rowena was a mere arrow at the side of his display, but he couldn’t look at her now - the jump took all of his focus. He watched the altimeter count down, giving him a speed estimate of almost 400 feet per second. He pierced the cloud cover and saw lots of green below; his altimeter hesitated for a bit, then went yellow, and he spread his arms and legs. It felt like being jerked up by strings as the increased air resistance slowed his fall, but he was still headed downwards very, very fast.

250 feet per second.

The altimeter was edging in on 2000 feet when Mark decided to prepare for the chute; he pulled his right arm in and struggled to readjust his left one to compensate, going slightly off course. Then it all happened quickly, everything turned green and he pulled the cord. However bad the airbraking was, this was worse; there was a tremendous shock through his body, as if every bone had gotten a free vote whether to stay in the confederation or become an independent body. Luckily for Mark, there were no secessionists; the shoulder straps of the parachute harness settled into position, and then he was jerked into a vertical position. Below him, the arrow of the target tracking system turned into a diamond; Mark finally looked down and spotted a long train rolling through the countryside below.

Bingo, he thought, then let go of the canopy controls and reached for his right arm. With a touch, the contraption on it snapped to life - there he was on his first parachute drop and already up to shenigans that would make even seasoned paratroopers take a step back and furrow their brows. The device sent a shock through his arm when he triggered it, but the recoil was too late to throw off his aim; the harpoon dove towards the train, trailing a wake of disturbed air behind its fins, and found purchase in a boxcar after punching through the roof. Now, the most difficult phase of the drop began; Mark had to slow his glide to keep behind the harpoon's impact point while also reeling himself in; he snapped the harpoon gun's cable into a carabiner on his chest harness, freeing his arm to steer the canopy. It was all guts, no technique as he yanked it almost to a temporary standstill; the winch's motor engaged and pulled him downwards, while he had to fight twice as hard to keep on track against both the normal wind and the added pull from the train.

It was a very, very long minute, but finally Mark was almost on top of the train; he pulled the chute's quick-release, disconnecting his harness from the canopy, and plunged onto the boxcar. A bit of trivia: boxcars are not built in the geometric shape of a box - they are, at best, box-like in build, the chief differences being the inclusion of sliding doors (something Mark didn't care about) and the rounded roof - which Mark did care about, because he had mistimed his drop and slid off said roof, plunging down the side of the car until the harpoon brought him to a stop. The ordeal had knocked the wind out of him; with a painful grunt, he moved his legs and swung over to the car, pulling his limbs in just in time to avoid a signpost next to the tracks. After a few deep breaths, he shuffled towards the rear of the car until he was on safer ground, then began stripping the drop equipment from his body; he unhooked the oxygen supply bottle and dumped it, reducing his mask to full-face protection, then switched on the CCD camera embedded in the mask just over his forehead. It wasn't as good as regular night vision goggles, since it was just a high quality version of a camcorder's "night" mode, capturing and displaying near-visible infrared, but it did make the darkness somewhat more manageable. Mark hauled himself back up onto the car's roof and checked the display again. Rowena's locator signal came in from a few cars ahead; apparently, she'd had more luck with her landing approach. Mark was understandably reluctant to follow her, but finally unhooked the winch cable from his harness and crawled forward. The cars he passed were stocked with soldiers, but he moved carefully and avoided making noise well enough to slip past them.

After a few minutes, Mark finally dropped down onto a flatbed car in the middle of the train; Rowena was already sitting there, seeking cover from the air rushing past behind a large object under a tarp.

"Who the hell are these guys?" Rowena said - well, radioed -; Mark stole a glance under the tarp.
"They're just, you know, guys. With big fucking missiles. Missiles they want to sell here."
"Do you know what they are?"
"Not my area of expertise, but these look big. ICBM-big."

Rowena swallowed, hard. Mark cracked a humorless grin behind the mask.

"Can you say 'nuclear terrorism'?"

1 comment:

Valentina said...

Awesome. =D
How have I not read this?