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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 4
AKA Critical Failure
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 3.5 - AKA Trench Coat Tussle)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 5 - AKA Sh*t Happens)
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I plunge into a freezing cold free fall. The wind rips through my clothes as I plummet through layers of fluffy white clouds. I’m flailing, frantically trying to make sense of the endlessly spinning sky. I don’t even realize I’m screaming until Eric’s voice escapes the speaker in my helmet.
“Julie, shut up! I’m trying to concentrate.” I squirm around, searching so I can adequately glare at this jerk.
Aha! I make out Eric’s poised figure falling below me, slightly to the left. He’s fast approaching another falling object—Greyson (AKA Blondie). How the hell did he get down there so fast, while I’m still wind-milling up here like one of those floppy car dealership balloon guys?
Eric slams into Greyson’s back, wrapping his arms as far around the giant’s torso as they’ll go. Greyson turns around to face Eric, and the motion sends the two men spinning through the air.
“Not so fast,” Eric says, struggling with his grip on Greyson’s giant forearms. He grabs hold of the greasy blond ponytail whipping him in the face instead. Greyson roars in response to Eric’s enthusiastic tug, and the distraction gives Eric a moment to shove something into one of Greyson’s rapidly flailing trench coat pockets.
“Hey!” Greyson says. At least I assume that’s what he says when he slaps Eric’s hand away and grabs him by the neck. Eric knees him in the groin. With that, a skydiving match of fisticuffs breaks out and the two men start throwing punches mid-air. I can hear Eric grunt in my ear as Greyson swings his hefty fist and misses.
“Nice aim, clueless,” says Eric. “Oh shit.” He probably just noticed Greyson’s bloody eye. Eric takes advantage of Greyson’s blindness and effortlessly snatches the silver square from the giant man’s clenched fist.
“What did the idiot say when he lost The McGuffin?” Hot Guy pulls Greyson up close to his helmet, delivering the punch line right to his face. “Eye have no idea.” I can hear Eric’s self-satisfied grin as he laughs and pushes off from Greyson’s body. Eric spreads his arms and legs wide, creating distance between himself and the behemoth.
Some fifty feet above, I’m still spinning and watching it all unfold, my stomach clueless as to which way is the right way to throw up. To my left, the plane heads straight for the mountains. It seems to move in slow motion, it’s elegant white body gliding through the air, tilted almost entirely to the side now. I almost forget I’m free-falling, mesmerized by the sight of it heading for the mountains. I have to squint as the plane passes the sun. In a matter of seconds, the giant vehicle crashes into the edge of the mountain, nose first in a massive explosion of fire, black smoke, and metallic debris.
I scream again.
“Stop yelling!” Eric flips his body around, so he’s facing me from below. He’s too far away for me to see his expression, but I’m sure he’s smirking. “And what the hell are you doing?” he asks, probably referring to my squirming like an insect.
“I don’t know!” I yell.
He grunts at my piercing voice. “Just put your arms and legs out like this.”
I do as he does, creating as much surface area for my body as possible. The spinning immediately slows. I let out a high-pitched squeal.
“Great. Now watch out for Greyson.” He points below us, to my right. Greyson’s trench coat whips around behind him, but his body is unaffected by the wind. He’s like a giant boulder plummeting through the sky.
Just then, Greyson turns around and BAM! A bullet ricochets off Eric’s metallic backpack strap, flying off somewhere behind us.
“Ugh, this guy.” Eric flips back around and pulls something out of his inner pocket. “The baboon really thinks I’d let him get away with The McGuffin.” He laughs wickedly. Click.
As soon as Eric presses the button on his handheld device, an aggressive explosion of orange flames ignites from Greyson’s trench coat pocket, engulfing his entire body. He turns into a ball of fire and gracefully passes behind a mountaintop, out of view.
I jerk my head away. The slight movement sends me spinning.
I shoot my extremities back out in the “flying squirrel” position. That’s better. Okay, no panicking.
Just when I start to get the hang of this “free-falling” thing, Eric says, “Prepare to deploy your chute.”
A hot surge courses through my veins. I frantically search the metallic backpack for a button or zipper or something. “How?” Pretty sure my voice comes out higher than if I’d just sucked the helium out of an entire birthday balloon.
“It’s a Smart Chute,” he says as if that explains things.
“What the heck does that mean?” I ask, letting out a whimper of fear.
He sighs. “Just say, ‘engage automatic deployment’ and sit tight,” he says. “The suit will deploy for you automatically, once we reach the right altitude.”
Sit tight? Does he think we’re just hangin’ out in a waiting room somewhere? I clear my throat and say the simple command as if I’m speaking to Tony Stark’s techno assistant J.A.R.V.I.S. A moment later, a smooth female voice speaks into the helmet. “Automatic deployment engaged.”
“Here it comes. Brace yourself,” Eric says.
Below, a silver cloud explodes from the back of Eric’s figure. The parachute POOFs into shape, catching him gracefully in the air. Now he’s falling at half my speed. I continue zooming forward.
“Reaching deployment altitude,” the helmet lady says.
My screen suddenly lights up with green letters and numbers. It’s some kind of algorithm factoring my altitude, speed, GPS location, and some other calculations I don’t recognize.
“Ten, nine, eight…” the voice counts down. My heart races. Teeth clenched, hands clenched, butt clenched, I’m ready for the impact of the chute. “Two, one… deploy.”
A moment of silence. I hear nothing but the rush of wind past my helmet, the digital ticking of the altimeter, and the racing beat of my heart.
PING! Something small and incredibly forceful lodges itself into the back of my chute pack.
“Critical failure. Critical failure…” the calm voice chants.
Damn it! Greyson’s bullet.
An emergency alarm rings through the helmet. The green calculations turn red, and a giant “CRITICAL FAILURE” warning flashes across my screen, totally blocking my vision.
I scream, naturally.
“Would you stop scream—”
Just then, my body rips through Eric’s parachute. I smack right into him, and together we tumble through the air, drawing closer and closer to the mountains and the desert floor.
“Damn it!” he yells. We squirm against each other, trying to pull apart from the ropes entangling us. “Stop moving, you’re making it worse!”
“I can’t see anything!” I yell.
“Critical failure,” the voice continues.
We both struggle against each other. Eric pushes me away. I spin through the air, farther from him, unable to control myself. I curl into the fetal position.
If I landed in a pool right now, it’d be one hell of a cannonball.
“Keep your arms out!” he yells, but I can’t quite hear him over the warnings in my helmet. I’m falling way faster than him now. “You’re gaining too much speed,” he says. I put my arms out, but it does nothing. So much for the flying squirrel. We’re fast approaching the sharp mountaintops.
“Shit,” says Eric.
He presses a button on his chest, releasing his ropes. Then he puts his arms and legs by his side, turning himself into a human torpedo. He zooms through the air, right past me. Once he’s a few feet below, he flips around and puts his arms out, catching the wind. He slams into me, face to face.
“What should I do?” My voice is all over the place.
He ignores me, searches my body for something, his hands patting me down like a T.S.A. agent. He pats my butt.
“Hey!” I say.
He rolls his eyes. “There you are.” He grabs something on the back of my chute. I can’t see what he’s doing back there. He pulls the dagger from his boot and starts sawing away at something.
“Critical failure, critical failure,” the voice continues.
Yes, I know! It’s quite clear we’re going to crash in a matter of seconds. “Hurry!” I urge, though I’ve no idea what Eric is doing.
“Got it.” He puts the dagger back and wraps his arms and legs around me. Then he stares into my eyes. “Hold on.”
I wrap myself around him as best I can, interlacing my hands behind his cold metal pack. The mountains fly toward us, like a giant, teeth-cracking Toblerone. There’s no way we’ll make it. I hold my breath. Eric punches a button on my pack—
The parachute immediately escapes into the air, trailing wildly behind us. Half a second later, it catches in the wind.
Eric’s body pulls against mine, but we manage to keep our grips. The chute slows our descent for a moment, just long enough for us to share a look of hope. Could this possibly work? Are we going to get out of this insane situation alive?
The heartbreaking sound of a metal CREAK sucks the breath from my lungs. Our combined weight is too much. The parachute completely rips away from us, and with it our fleeting pipe dream of survival, sending us to our deaths.
Eric and I free fall for another few seconds, then BAM! We smash into the mountain. Our grips break, and we tumble down the rocky slope at high speed toward an empty ravine. Dirt and pebbles fly in my face. All my layers of clothing bunch up behind me, leaving my bare back totally exposed. I skid over sharp rocks, desert cacti, and dry, pointy shrubs. One sharp object after another sends shooting pain through my body. The world is sky and earth, pain and…goddamn what is with these cacti?
If I somehow survive this, I’ll be bruised for life.
I can’t see Eric anywhere, but maybe that’s because the damn “Critical Failure” badge is still flashing across my helmet. Give it a rest, helmet lady! Just then, my head smacks into a rock, cracking the entire screen into a million spider-webbed pieces, silencing the helmet lady for good.
I dig my heels into the ground in an attempt to slow my fall. My feet catch on something jutting out the side of the mountain, jolting me into the air.
A second later, the mountain smacks into me hard. I tumble some more until my flailing body crashes into another out-of-control human body—Eric.
We spill over one another until, finally, we hit rock bottom.
I fall hard on top of Eric. The inertia smacks my giant helmet into his unprotected chin (his helmet must have come off in the fall) with an audible THWACK. We lie there, motionless, our bodies bent in unnatural angles sprawled across the sharp, rocky ground. Dust clouds form above us as small rocks trickle down the mountainside.
We lie like that for a while, staring at the sun and listening to the pebbles trickle down the mountainside like crumbs. After all that commotion, the quiet of the desert feels eerily calm. It’s actually kind of peaceful for a moment. Until Eric wheezes back to life.
The sound of him gulping down air makes me jolt with surprise, sending electrifying pain to every square millimeter of my body, and reminding me that, yes, I am unfortunately still alive.
Eric groans angrily and pushes me aside. I roll onto my back, gasping for breath just as he did. I wonder if I’ll ever walk again. Can I move my toes? I mentally send a signal to my extremities. None of them budge. I hope I’m not completely paralyzed.
“Jesus Christ,” says Eric. He sits up, moves his shoulders around. Stretches his neck. I watch in bewilderment as he jumps to his feet, full of energy and seemingly unharmed, save for the part of his lip where I smacked him with my helmet.
Yep, that’s gonna leave a nice little bruise.
Meanwhile, every move I make sends increasingly painful lightning bolts through my body. It’s like my nerves are awakening with each breath, telling me whatever just happened should have left me dead. Yes, I know, I tell my limbs. I wince with every inhale, gingerly pulling my heavy helmet off. My thick brown hair is matted to my head with sweat. I suck in the fresh air, fueling my bruised limbs through the motions of standing up.
As soon as I straighten out my spine, nausea and heat flashes and the shakes all come back at once for one final blow. I double over and vomit.
There goes my breakfast bar.
Eric checks his pockets and pulls out a small silver square, the one Greyson had stolen on the plane. It glitters in the sunlight. He admires it for a moment with a sigh of relief, then puts it back.
“Follow me, Julie,” he says, then turns on his heel and heads further down the ravine, as if he knows exactly where he’s going. As if everything that just happened was no big deal.
“Excuse me.” I wipe my mouth with my sleeve. “What the hell just happened?” He doesn’t answer. “Uh, hello?” I watch slack-jawed as he completely ignores me, walking confidently into the middle of nowhere.
“Did you hear me?” It occurs to me that maybe he actually didn’t hear me. Perhaps he’s in shock. I hustle to his side, sidestepping around the fallen rocks, and tug at his sleeve.
He whirls around with electric eyes and a snarl more gnarly than a stray dog. “How could I not? You haven’t shut up this entire time.”
“What is wrong with you?” He gives me a disgusted look. It floods me with so much hatred that I slap him. I know it’s a good slap because the sound echoes through the desert.
He grabs my wrist, pulling me into his personal bubble.
“The question is, Julie, what’s wrong with you?” His breath smells minty fresh. “Every single unfortunate turn of events that led us here could have been avoided if it weren’t for you.”
I gawk at him. He’s seriously blaming me. “You mean how you shot the pilots, killed those passengers, and crashed the plane?”
“I didn’t shoot the pilots,” he corrects me.
“Oh, excuse me,” I say. “Who the hell are you?”
He shakes his head. “You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“You know what? You’re absolutely right. Why don’t you explain it to me?”
“I can’t do that. Just be quiet and follow me.” He drags me after him, marching forward through the dusty, rocky ravine. The sun blares down on us. I whip my head around, squinting into the distance in search of any familiar landmarks to get my bearings. Where the hell are we headed? All I see are mountains, mountains, and more mountains. A small orange lizard scurries behind the shade of a nearby pile of rocks, then pokes its head back out to watch the unusual action unfolding in his front yard. I glance at him, telepathically asking if he knows where we’re heading. His bulging eyes stare back at me as if to say, “Hell if I know.”
That does it.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on!” I rip my hand from his grasp and plant my foot in the ground. The motion sends a breath-catching sharp pain through my hip.
“Listen,” he says. “It’s my job to take you to headquarters. Once we’re there, all our questions will be answered, and you might even get to return to your normal, boring life. Either you willingly come with me, or I make you.”
Hmm… follow this crazy kidnapper to some creepy underground lair where who knows what will happen to my body? No, thank you. I shake my head.
“No,” I say. Eric's eyes narrow.
“You think I care if you die out here?” he says. “I’m just following orders.”
“Orders? From your creepy ring leader?” I say. The mention of any nearby ring leaders has panic building in my stomach. “Then I guess you’ll just have to fail your mission.”
His eye twitches. Clearly, he doesn’t like the sound of that.
“Highly unlikely,” he says. Then he straightens up. “You want me to leave you out here to die of dehydration? That’s fine with me. I’ll be doing the entire agency a favor.”
And with that, he stomps away, leaving me in the dust cloud that follows.
Well, that took an unexpected turn. I look around once more. The mountains tower above us. They seemed so scary when I was falling toward them to my death, but now, in the pinkish glow of the setting sun, they look like a Bob Ross painting. It’s peaceful, but I know once the sun sets, it’ll be a different story.
I’m suddenly hyper-aware of the dryness in my mouth, and my lack of survival skills.
“Wait,” I call after him. He turns around with a smug look on his face.
Whoever this “Eric Shaw” guy is, he’s really pissing me off.
“Well?” he calls, fifteen feet away from me.
“I’ll go with you, but only if you answer my questions first.”
He considers this for a moment. “You get one question.”
Ugh. Fine. I nod in agreement.
“What do you want to know, Julie?” he asks.
“That! Right there,” I say, pointing my finger at him. “How do you know who I am?”
“That’s classified,” he states, matter-of-fact.
“Seriously? That’s your answer,” I say. He shrugs. “What are you, a spy?” I’m only half-joking.
He says nothing. Then I consider all the signs.
The Tom Cruise looks, the cocky attitude, the hand-to-hand combat, and cheesy one-liners…
“Oh my God, you’re an asshole!”
“Close, but no cigar,” he says, proving my point. “Let’s go.” He steps toward me.
“No way!” I turn around. “I take it back. You’re insane.” I dart the other direction down the ravine. Pebbles rush forward, threatening to take my feet out from under me.
Not a good idea.
Eric bolts after me. He reaches my side in two seconds. A firm pair of hands grab me by the waist and hoists me over his shoulder.
I kick and scream, right in his ear. He covers it with his free hand.
“Give it a rest,” he grumbles. “There’s no one else out here.”
That’s probably true. I scream louder, just to defy him.
“Agh!” He drops me on the ground and reaches into his inner jacket. He’s going to shoot me, I know it.
He pulls out a small black box.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He opens the box to reveal a mini syringe. Just the sight of it makes me woozy. He notices this, of course, and lifts the needle into the fading light of the sunset, showing off its green-tinted clear liquid.
“What is that?” My voice cracks as I scuttle backward.
“This is a drug that will knock you out immediately after injection,” he says.
I struggle to stay upright. Blurriness creeps in from the corners of my eyes. Of all the unfortunate moments for my Vasovagal Syncope to kick in. I gulp. “Now, wait just a second—” I say.
“I’m not the bad guy, Julie. Remember that.” He squeezes the handle, squirting the liquid out the end of the needle. He steps closer, his hand on my shoulder.
The thought of the needle penetrating my skin makes my entire body turn to Jell-O. My muscles begin spasming randomly like someone connected an electrical current to only my right bicep and my left butt cheek.
He brings the syringe right up to my inner elbow, pushing his thumb into my arm to wrangle my erratically pumping vein into place. He pierces my skin with the needle and I struggle to remain conscious against the mental image of that greenish liquid rushing into my venous pathways, reaching closer to my heart with each pump of blood…
Oh, screw it.
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