Zero-sum

MH-53 FlaresThe air smoothed out and the helicopter stopped rattling once we leveled out over the water. The cabin was cold and smelled like grease and fresh paint. I tightened up in the seat, trying to stay warm, and kept my eyes gaze clear of the two SEALs who stared unflinchingly in my direction, arms eternally folded, like wax figures in a combat museum.

The were no windows in the cabin, and the light wasn’t good. Only a small, flickering yellow lamp near the tail, and some ambient light from the cockpit which was hidden behind a wall of corrugated metal. Outside, I imagined Alexander Island slipping away, the bowl-shaped valley and the splintery peaks of the surrounding mountains giving way to patches of icebergs and the cold, Southern ocean.

The officer had said the orders were to take me to the Nimitz, whatever that was. The only “Nimitz” I could remember from my history classes was Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. And if they were going to name something after a five star admiral, it would probably be a carrier.

How high were we flying? Six thousand feet? Fifteen? I was getting hungry again. Really hungry. Whatever I had kept down from the protein bar Evans gave me was long gone. I asked the soldiers for something and they just glared at me. Assholes.

I closed my eyes and imagined the helicopter flying through a high, thin deck of alto-cumulus. I looked down, far below, to the barren Atlantic as it yawned into the horizon. If what the officer said was true, Spegg was down there somewhere. Probably still cuffed or chained to some iron crossbeam in the belly of a sunken Russian ship. For some reason I couldn’t believe that he was dead. Could he breathe underwater? I felt my heart pick up. Being away from him made me feel unsafe and nervous.

I jumped at a sudden pop in the cabin. A shaft of golden light exploded sideways, just above the shoulder of one of the SEALs. He slumped forward against his harness, blood spilling out of his chest. Above my head and to my left, another ray of sun streamed in through a basketball sized exit wound in the bulkhead.

“McHale’s down!” The other soldier screamed.

“We’re taking fire,” the pilot calmly announced over a speaker. “Dispensing countermeasures.” A dull red light flicked on above our heads and the helicopter banked hard, throwing me against the back of the chair. McHale’s blood oozed in my direction. There was a mechanical noise somewhere underneath the craft—a thunk, and a whoosh—like a dozen bottle rockets. Flares. I clenched my jaw shut and leaned forward, trying to minimize the space I occupied. Then there was another pop, and a second pair of yellow beams appeared forward of the cabin, followed by a clattering and whirring from the port side engine. Smoke spilled in.

“Hang on!” The remaining soldier screamed at me, unbuckling his harness.

“What are you doing?!” I yelled back.

“Preparing for evac!”

Outside something exploded. Another volley of flares whooshed out from beneath the dragon. The helicopter banked hard to the right. The solder held on to some piping above his head and unhooked a parachute from the wall. He strapped it on quickly and staggered over as the cabin filled with smoke.

“If you do everything I tell you, you might survive this,” he barked over the clattering engine.

I frowned. His usage of “you” instead of “we” was a little disconcerting. But there was another pop, this time somewhere near the tail, and I quickly dismissed it. “Why aren’t we shooting back?!”

The SEAL rapidly keyed my handcuffs and tossed them away. “Sea Dragons are heavy lifters,” he said. “No armament packages on board.” Great.

He unbuckled my harness. There was a sudden bright light, and a severe jolt, and the world immediately went silent. The cockpit became a gaping maw of shredded metal and fire. Beyond that, the open Atlantic. The Dragon wrenched forward. I watched as one of the rotor blades went spinning ahead and vanished into the clouds. I was sliding. I threw my hands back, grasping for anything to hold onto. Bits of wire and fabric slipped through my fingers. Conduit and sturdy pipes slid by, just out of reach. I kicked my legs, fruitlessly. I drifted past a brown placard with white letters that read “RESERVOIR”, a flaming instrument panel, and part of a black vinyl chair.

I lurched for the chair, snared it, and suddenly both the chair and I slid out of the mouth of the dragon, and into the rushing wind.

MH-53E