I was in a free fall. The air rushed past me, tossing me like a rag doll. I watched in horror as smoke poured out of the Dragon’s cockpit above me. The rotor shrieked, grinding against its housing, the blades wrenched off by the explosion. I still had the leather chair, and I dug my fingers into it, hugging it, as if it would somehow protect me. I spun wildly, the wind boxing my ears and jabbing me in the face.
As I tumbled, the ocean rolled past. On the horizon I noticed dozens of distant ships. Explosions peppered the sky, leaving ebony smudges in their wake. Thin columns of black smoke rose into the air, then blew sideways in the wind. I pulled my face close to the chair to block the wind. It cut through my clothes and my flesh, and I shivered and screamed. I rolled around and around: ships, ocean, sky, Dragon, ships, ocean, sky, Dragon.
Something else caught my eye. It appeared suddenly, as if it had just popped into existence. First I saw the nose as it approached, and an instant later it roared past. Our killer. It was gray, sleek and stealthy, and had twin tail fins—marked with a red star. A crushing roar filled my ears as the sound of the jet engines caught up with it. The pilot pitched the fighter upward, straight up, white contrails roiling behind.
He rocked his wings at me. I squeezed the chair between my legs and stubbornly gave him the finger.
The jet slowed, and there was a flash from the cockpit. The bastard was taking pictures. He took a few more, and flattened out when he was satisfied. His jets fired, and just like that, he was gone. Just a tiny, receding dot, thundering toward the cluster of ships on the horizon. I screamed, but the rushing wind stole my voice.
I imagined the pilot and his buddies laughing at the photos of the poor bastard he shot down, clinging to his seat as he fell to his death. I cursed and released my grip. The wind caught the chair and ripped it away.
The ocean was closing in. Wind-blown white caps and sharp, knife-like waves readied to swallow my life. Random bits of my life flashed before my eyes. A sunny day in Kansas. My family taking pictures of my brother and me in front of the painted fire hydrants on the American bi-centennial. Rebecca, my first girlfriend in high-school. The first time I saw the Perseids at the Lake of the Ozarks. My college Astronomy teacher lecturing passionately about the life cycles of stars. Einstein staring back at me from the top of the foothills.
The howling wind was deafening. I tried to stretch out, hoping to eek out out another second or two of life, but nothing could change the inevitable. A horrible sorrow welled up in my heart and the wind sucked away my tears. I'd done nothing with my life.
The impact was sudden and devastating. I bent in half as something struck me from behind. At first I thought it was the chair, or a piece of the helicopter. Then I felt two arms encircle me and an added weight to my back. The arms gripped tight and I realized that I had been caught by another diver. I heard his voice against the wind.
I turned my head. The SEAL from the Dragon grinned and locked his legs around mine.
“Oh my God! How did you—”
“No time to chat!” He screamed into my ear. The soldier buckled a strap around my chest. “Hang on!”
I yelped as the strap yanked my stomach into my throat. The parachute deployed—flapping in the wind—as my eyes rolled back into my head and rainbows danced on my eyeballs….
I don’t think I was out for long. Thirty, forty seconds, maybe. I heard myself groaning as my senses slowly returned. And then the soldier’s voice.
I shook my head and opened my wind-battered eyes.
“Robertson?” The soldier tapped his hand on my chest. “You with me? Robertson, you OK, buddy?”
We were floating. The parachute rippled calmly in the wind.
“I don’t believe it,” I said after I had caught my breath.
“Alright,” he said with a chuckle. “Thought I lost you there.”
“Jesus Christ” I groaned. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“Same place you came from!” He laughed. “Did you see that pompous bastard back there?” He said.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “Jack-ass.”
“Goddamn Ruskies. Who’da thought, huh?”
“I took a few shots at him with my Sig on the way down,” he chuckled.
I laughed at that.
“I’m Jake, by the way.” The soldier tapped his hand on my chest and offered it to me. It was covered in blood.
“Oh God, you’re bleeding,” I said.
“Yaw. Took some flak back there. It happens.”
I shook his hand gently. His blood streamed over my knuckles. “It looks bad, Jake. Really bad.”
“Maybe. We’ll see when we get in the raft,” he said. “Check it out!” Jake gestured to our right. In the distance pieces of the Dragon were collapsing into the sea. What was left of the main compartment sailed through the sky, thick, black smoke spewing in its wake. When it hit the waves, it exploded into a shower of fractured metal, and quickly vanished under the surface.
“Don’t see that every day,” I mumbled.
“No, not every day,” Jake replied, smiling. “Alright, Robertson. Here it comes!”
I looked down. The ocean roared. Swells of massive waves clashed and rippled inches below our dangling feet. I closed my eyes and filled my lungs.