Element

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TWENTY-NINE

The next morning, they flew to Moscow. Coming down through the cloud deck on their final approach, John admired the skyscrapers. In the distance, he saw a cluster of onion domes.

“Is that the Kremlin?” he asked.

Viktor didn’t inflect as he replied, “Yes.”

Landing without incident, they sought their connection gate. They were getting on an Aeroflot for the second half of their trip. Sheremetyevo International was pleasant, with all the technological whiz bang typical of an international airport. Rows of computer screens displayed arrivals and departures. TV’s hanging from the ceiling displayed the news. Across the terminal, the blue LED’s of a portable device charger beckoned with their flashes.

Gathering in a cluster around the gate to their next flight, which would be very long, they sat down in the chairs and looked out the windows. A few of them wanted food and dragged the others with them, even though most of them weren’t hungry. Forty-five minutes after they had initially landed, a gray red and blue jet rolled to a halt in front of their gate and twenty minutes after that, boarding began. They were airborne again half an hour after that.

As they flew, John looked down on the green country and sporadic cities. Russian territory was vast. He’d never really appreciated it, even on a map. About halfway through the flight, responding to John’s inquiry about safety, Viktor made a comment about a recent Aeroflot crash in which the pilot had had alcohol in his bloodstream. He assured him, though, that they hadn’t had any crashes for the last two years. Nevertheless, it ruined the rest of the flight for John. By the time they landed at Yemelyanovo International Airport, he was more than happy to be back on the ground. Waiting for Viktor to get out of his way, he looked out the window and spotted a MiG-31 coming in for a landing. John had never seen a Russian fighter in real life before. Twin stabilizers jutting up behind it, it looked like a thoroughly Russian killing machine.

Some space opened up in the isle and Viktor got out, making room for John, who took his backpack down from the overhead rack. Once they got off the plane, they walked through the airport, yawning. Hailing taxis outside, they set their bags in the cars’ trunks and drove to their hotel in Krasnoyarsk, seventeen miles to the southeast. Standing in the lobby, they showed the man at the desk their passports and he congratulated them on making their first trips to Russia. Nodding tiredly, they went up to their rooms and collapsed.

The next morning, they got up early. Despite the time change, they’d managed to snag a nearly full night’s rest by sleeping early. They still felt exhausted but there was no helping it. Time was precious. Unpacking his duffel bag, John went about organizing his things better. Viktor had the television on and was listening to the news. A little while later, he got up from his bed and joined Cory on the fifth floor balcony, wrapping his arm around her. John stopped to watch them. Viktor leaned over and pressed his head to hers. It was always a little surreal to see Viktor showing her affection. He was always such a dick the rest of the time. John cast his eyes down and resumed what he was doing. When he was finished, he went out to join them. Leaning against the railing, he followed their gazes out into the hazy morning sky. It was in the fifties. Used to French climate, in the absence of any physical exertion to generate heat, his shell felt insufficient.

All around him, the buildings were dark. Despite the limited light, he thought they looked pretty nice. Down below, there were clothing stores and a bank, in a plaza, and across an intersection from them, he saw some kind of restaurant. The streets were largely unoccupied but he saw a bicycle glide by, red tail light flashing.

Behind them, about a mile away, was the Yenisei River. John wanted to snap a few pictures of it before he left. When they were finished with their shenanigans, there might be time for that. What are you doing here, John? his mind asked. Saving the world, he answered, to his own surprise. Some college kids go on internships. I go to Russia and stop supervillains. He smirked at that wearily and went back into the hotel room.

Sitting on his bed, John took off his Vostok watch and put it in a safe place in his backpack. He found his digital watch and put it on instead. As he was adjusting the strap, Erika walked in and stood over him, looking down. He looked up at her and blinked. She looked away and went to the window, arms folded.

He leaned on his knees. Random things clicked and clinked behind him but he didn’t bother seeing what they were. Sitting there, he suddenly became aware of a building shortness of breath. A few anxious seconds passed, and then he recognized what was happening. He closed his eyes and told himself it was a panic attack. He hadn’t had one in a while. When he was younger, in high school, he’d gotten them more often. It was always alarming at first, but luckily, he had come to learn a trick to deal with them. Forcing himself to slow his breathing, he closed his eyes and imagined he was back on the Charles, 2k looming. Focused on the feeling of an oar catching. After about a minute, the feeling subsided. He opened his eyes.

When they were done preparing their gear, they went outside, around the back of the hotel, where a group of cars was waiting for them. They were new Ladas. There wasn’t a logo on them but John knew who they were. Or at least, he hoped he did. If not, he’d find out in about twenty seconds.

The trunks popped open. After setting her backpack inside one of them, Katie opened a door and climbed inside. She had told them they could trust these people. Her source was certain. John hoped to God she was right. This was so Goddamned stupid. Josh got into the car next. John hesitated and then got in after him. At least they were riding together. Out of all of them, he definitely trusted Josh the most. Katie was in the front seat next to the driver. She shook her hand. When the back seat was full, the driver looked at them in her rear view mirror.

“Blackbody Six. It’s an honor.”

“We’re honored as well,” Katie said. “My name…”

“Doesn’t matter,” the girl said. Katie smiled.

“Of course.” The cars started off.

They had decided ahead of time, they would refer to each other by nicknames. John was Klondike. Josh was Cobra. André, who was next to him, was Crypto.” John actually rather liked them. When they made it back, if they made it back, if the cars didn’t blow up or something, he’d make it a point to try to remember them.

Squirming under his seatbelt, John took a heavy multitool out of his jacket and put it in his cargo pants. Outside, water drizzled down on the windows. The dark blue sky had vanished, replaced by grey clouds. As they drove down moist streets, the headlights and turn signals of passing cars were blurred by lines of water on the windows. On the windshield, tiny beads of water accumulated every few seconds, lensing light and creating an opaque fog.

Crossing the Yenisei River, they drove out of the city on a highway, grass on either side, heading west for forty minutes and then south for an hour and ten. Nothing was familiar. The drizzle ceased. As time passed, the environment outside got more hilly. The highway narrowed and gained altitude. John looked at Josh who looked at him. A moment later, he looked to the right to glance at André. The twenty year old was looking straight ahead. Shifting in his seat, John looked forward as well. The hills were becoming much taller. Well no, they weren’t hills anymore. They were clearly mountains.

“Really high,” Katie said.

“Da,” their driver said. The car turned off the route they were on and went onto a dirt road. This they continued on for thirty minutes. The road wound back and forth and was rocky. Little stones pinged against the bottom of the car. The suspension damped out most of the irregularities but they still bounced up and down in their seats. John and Josh looked at each other again, helplessly. John looked at Katie. Much to his surprise, he saw her swallow. He had almost never seen her do that before. That alone made him terrified enough to close his hands into fists. He was like that for several moments. And then, out of nowhere, Josh put his hand on his hand. John didn’t look up. But he did gradually unclench his fist, and let Josh’s hand interlock with his.

They pulled into the entrance of a road and made a u-turn. Then they braked. “We let you out here,” the driver said. “We meet you in exactly ten hours. If you are not at rendezvous, we wait ten minutes, then we leave. If we leave, we do not come back. You understand?” They nodded. “Good luck.” The gang got out of the cars and the cars drove off almost immediately, rocks churning noisily as they drove down the road. The eight of them looked at each other. Never had they looked so uncertain as they did right now. The silence was overpowering. Holding a map and a compass, Katie consulted with Viktor and Cory. Unfortunately, the Green Peace people hadn’t reconned the way they’d hoped. They had refused to venture closer. So the gang didn’t know what kind of barriers, natural or otherwise, lay ahead on the road. All they had to go on were the Google Earth images. They had anticipated this, however. Checking their lat and lon on a GPS, Katie and Viktor used that to locate their place on the map. Once they were comfortable with where they were, and knew what direction they needed to go in, Cory held a compass up and took a bearing. Doing it twice, just for redundancy, she folded the compass up and put it into her jacket pocket.

“This way,” she said. She started walking towards a slope. Reluctantly, the others moved to follow. The mountains were warm and covered with pines. As they hiked ever higher, the mountain wasn’t heinously steep but it was slow going. John took off his cap and exhaled as the rocks got steeper. Below them, the landscape fell farther and farther away. Two and a half hours later, the features on the ground below had lost all depth. They had emerged from the trees and were standing on bare rock and gravel.

John peered down and wiped the sweat from his brow. He wondered how much farther it was. He had ignored the discomfort up to this point, but he was getting tired. Taking advantage of a break in walking, he wiggled his toes. He had hiking socks on but he was still pretty sure he had a blister. Katie took out a little electronic gadget and read the numbers on the monochrome LCD screen. She pocketed it and resumed hiking up the mountain.

About half an hour later, they saw the summit. It was above some boulders. They took these slowly, Brian lagging behind. But they maintained a consistent pace and twenty minutes hence, they reached the top. Standing on the summit, they caught their breaths and peered down. At a factory far below. All around it, large rocks were positioned like sentries. Enclosed within these rocks was a barbed wire fence that was crossed by the dirt road they had been dropped off on. Where diesel powered machines had been applied, there were sharp edges in the face of the mountain.

Hunched down behind some rocks, they spied on the site with binoculars and snapped photographs. The size of the complex was staggering. Adjacent to the main building was a grid of wide, white storage tanks. Pipes leading from these consolidated into a broad conduit that disappeared into the side of the building. A web of catwalks linked the tanks and the building as well. Erected behind the building, on the far left, two massive, tapering chimneys towered overhead. They had to be at least a thousand feet tall. An unidentified fog billowed out of these in two diagonal streams. Smaller chimneys sprouted here and there from the roof. Beyond the storage tanks were four evaporation ponds and about a quarter mile from this cluster of structures were two blue, spectacularly large flotation tanks. On the other side of the flotation tanks was a building maybe six stories tall beside which another tall chimney towered. Examining it for several moments, Katie guessed that it was likely a power plant. John rubbed his forehead. It was clear they’d vastly underestimated the size of this complex.

Katie turned to the others. “I think what we’re interested in is the building with the two highest stacks. This should be high enough.” They looked at her tiredly. One of them offered an upturned thumb. She looked back through her binoculars. “I don’t see any people. Hmm. The center section with the lower roof is covered with shit. I don’t like the idea of trying to land there. And I don’t want to land on the ground where they might have cameras. Which means… the best spot is the highest section of roof. It’s nice and long. The only thing is I don’t know what kind of turbulence will be coming off those stacks. And we’ll have to cut right sharply to line up for a landing. You think you’re up to that, Viktor?” Viktor looked away for several seconds. Slowly, he turned back to her and nodded. “You sure? No love lost.” He hesitated and then nodded again. “All right. Then let’s get to work.”

Going behind some rocks, she got down on one knee and took off her backpack. Turning her head away from a cold wind, she opened the top flap and removed a helmet and then a folded white rectangle, which she gave to Cory. Viktor removed a rectangle from his own bag and gave it to Brian. Next, Katie took out a blue rectangle with a yellow handle attached to it and laid it by her feet, folding the cords leading to it carefully so that they did not knot. Stopping to watch Viktor set his own rectangle and cord down, she waited until his cord was properly folded, then unzipped her backpack, turning it inside out to reveal a harness. Viktor did the same with his own backpack.

At the same time, two groups of three people began to unfold the two white rectangles, revealing a pair of enormous white fabric wings. Now the tricky part. Katie attached a strap from her harness via carabiner to a similar strap on the blue rectangle and slid the cord and blue rectangle into a slot on her harness. With that done, she began the complex task of closing up the slot on the harness. This last step took her about ten minutes. She went extra slow because she didn’t want to make a mistake. When she was finally done, she turned to face the nearest wing which the others had weighed down with rocks because of the wind. There were a series of cords connected to the underside that converged toward a set of risers that linked to carabiners. Moving deliberately, she attached these to her harness.

When she had done that, she went over to Viktor and got his blue rectangle installed and his bag closed up. She let him hook up his wing but watched to make sure he did it right. At last, the others watched as they climbed into their harnesses and clipped themselves in.

The plan was simple. They didn’t have any hope of getting into the factory from the ground. As expected, there were fences all around it. So there was just one way to get inside. From above. They didn’t have an aircraft. So they were going to do the next best thing. Paraglide. The mechanics were simple enough. Get very high. Run. Take to air. Pray to God. Viktor claimed to have some practice with it. And Katie, apparently, was an expert at just about everything. So together, they were going to fly there, get inside, and photograph the inside of the place. It was a weekend, so hopefully, not many people would be there.

Standing beside Katie, wing behind him, Viktor looked at her. “It’s windy.” Katie tilted her head but didn’t say anything. He frowned. The mountain would afford them about thirty feet to pick up some speed and get airborne. If for some reason they weren’t able to… Well they just hoped that didn’t happen. If it did, the others were there to identify the bodies.

“Okay, ready?” Katie asked.

“Ready,” Viktor said. It was the first time John had ever thought he’d heard him hesitate.

“Hold on a second, let’s wait for this wind to die down. You go first; as soon as you’re airborne I’ll follow.”

John inched over to Brian. “Is it safe to do this with the wind blowing like this?”

“Nope.”

“Just checking.”

“On ten.”

“On ten.”

“Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One!” Viktor coughed and sprinted forward. The others released the corners of his wing and it instantly filled with air.

“Do it,” John said. “Do it…” Viktor reached the edge of the summit -John winced- and glided off the mountain. An eddy immediately caught him and he circled back towards the mountain, almost out of sight. For a millisecond, they thought he’d impacted it. But then they saw the white rectangle again, farther down, drifting away from the mountainside, towards the chimneys in the distance.

“Son of a bitch,” Brian said. Katie hunched down and sprinted forward. The others let go of her wing and it rose rapidly in a gust of wind. Fighting its drag, she reached the edge of the summit and took to the air.

“YEAH!” Cory yelled. Erika whistled.

“Okay, Viktor, nice and easy,” they heard on the radio. Already, the wings were far away.

Nine hundred meters above the ground, wing vibrating noisily in the windstream, Viktor’s eyes were wide and he had to clear his head to keep from freaking out. A crosswind took him left and he compensated with a turn, not losing any altitude in the process, by virtue of the strong wind. Looking up and over his shoulder, he tried to see Katie, who was seventy or so meters behind him, but when he did, he started to turn. She told him to keep his eyes straight and corrected her own sideways drift. A second later, the wind died down, instantly making control easier. All right.

Six hundred meters. They were descending fast. They would have to flare when they reached the roof to keep from running off the top of it. Four hundred fifty. More wind now. Stronger than before. He tugged on his right brake. Three hundred fifty meters. Damn close. The wind pushed him up. He tried to brake slightly. Shit, they were going to overshoot. Shit. Shit! The two large chimneys grew in his view, impossibly tall. Okay. Okay. He formed a plan.

“Aim left of the stacks! Circle them!” Katie yelled, confirming his thoughts. Okay, twenty seconds till intercept. He breathed slowly. Fifteen seconds. Breathing was getting harder. Ten seconds. Five seconds. And… “TURN!” He pulled his right brake hard. WHOOSH! With the sound of rustling canvas, he arced right, around the back of the left chimney. Keeping the tension on, he circled behind the second one.

Above and behind him, Katie did much the same thing. He was having more luck, though. Something caught her descending wing and hauled her up. Shit. She braked but had to let up to avoid swinging too close to the nearest chimney. Suddenly, a stronger wind gust struck them both. Viktor was lower though and benefited from some ground effects. Circling one more time around the chimneys, he set up for a landing on the roof.

Katie’s wing was refusing to fall. She suspected it had something to do with the hot air coming out of the chimneys. As she circled closer, she found herself drifting towards them. SHIT! Climbing over the top of one, she skirted the edge of its exhaust column. Thinking fast, she held her breath, saving her life. Looking down, she saw that its inside was a giant, yawning maw. The heat over her body was suffocating. Squinting, she pulled her left brake hard, snapping her left and cutting her lift down on that side. She dropped out of the exhaust column. Letting up on the brake, she exhaled as her circling radius expanded.

But then an eddy caught her again, and just a fraction of a second after she managed to see Viktor land on the roof, her wing caught on the side of the chimney and wrapped around it, sending her into a dangling tumble, legs shooting out from under her and pointing out towards the horizon. She swung back. BAM! Her back smacked against the brick cylinder, the impact softened by the foam in her harness.

She screamed and hung there, a solid thousand feet above the ground. The terror came immediately. She started hyperventilating. Her vision fogged. No. No. The thoughts were whimpers. She fought hard to focus them. The next logical action is to slow your breath. Do it now. Hopelessly, she initiated a breathing exercise to try to calm herself down. It barely worked.

“Katie!” she heard in her headset. She didn’t reply. But it jogged her out of her fog. She tensed up and moved her eyes around. She had to look at her surroundings fast, before her wing melted. She looked above her. The wing was partially caught on a catwalk going around the very top of the chimney. She looked to her left. Just at the edge of her visibility was a ladder. Maybe if she swung over? She was having trouble collecting herself. She started swinging her legs. She swung right, she swung left, she swung right, she swung left. As she did, she swung to the side more and more.

Come on… Come on… She half expected the wing to give way at any moment. She felt her swinging radius grow a few inches. Come on! She swung harder, her brain at last fully caught up. She went into survival mode. Two-hundred thousand years worth of emergency programming now came online. She looked down but only for an instant. The adrenaline was shutting out her blinding height.

She swung harder. She was actually getting close. She felt herself slide a little more. She swung even harder. Ten feet. “COME ON!” She swung as hard as she could. Seven feet. Again! She slid. Again! She slid. “AHH!” She slid. Her hands closed around the ladder. GOTCHA!

She was now sideways, and gripping the metal rungs with her hands. Something pulled her back. “SHIT!” She held on as tightly as she could. Her brain quickly evaluated the situation. She was being lifted off the ladder. Pulled back by… she looked over her shoulder, and saw the wing billowing and moving to the side. OH SHIT! She was wrenched off the ladder, arms clawing at it, and sent swinging again. She hit her head on the chimney and cried out.

Gritting her teeth, she looked at the ladder and started swinging again. She was pulled back again. Overhead, something synthetic fluttered, like a bag caught on a fan. She looked at the ladder again. And realized she probably wouldn’t get to it…

This brought a disturbing calm to her and she stopped swinging. Okay. Okay. She knew she had to adjust her attitude now. Time for plan B. Fingers sweating under her gloves, she looked at the carabiners holding up her harness. Shaking, her fingers slowly converged around them. Unthreaded the sleeves. Squeezing the gates open, she felt the loops that hung from the carabiners. Another wave of shortness of breath struck her and she made herself breathe calmly once again. She could have looked at the altimeter on her arm. But she didn’t want to know what it said. It was irrelevant now.

In that adrenaline stretched eternity all she could do was smile faintly. Suck in deeply. And then, eyes unblinking, she turned towards the mountains, pressed her feet on the chimney, pulled up on the carabiners. And released her harness.

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