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THIRTY

She freefell. Tumbled once before managing to right herself. She pulled the rip chord on her parachute. WHOOSH! It inflated above her. Her legs shot out beneath her. Immediately, the reserve chute slowed her down, while her body strained against her harness, restrained by specially engineered covalent bonds. Slower than freefall but still pretty quickly, she descended. She braced herself and touched down hard on the highest part of the roof.

When her feet met metal, she let herself roll forward and tumbled. The painful moment seemed to last for an eternity and for an instant, she didn’t care if there were any cameras. She didn’t care if anyone saw her. She didn’t give a damn if her mission succeeded. She was just glad to be alive. Lying there, Viktor’s hands suddenly cradling her, she felt fire radiate through her stomach, right arm, and knees. Felt it heighten reality. Slow time. But despite that, she focused on the pain. Didn’t fight it. Knew it would fade. Slowly, the pain did begin to abate, and as it did, she pushed herself up so she was on her skinned hands and knees, eyes down. Gradually, reluctantly, she looked up. Viktor was holding out two pills.

“Aspirin?” he asked.

Wearing ski masks, they accessed the second floor of the facility via a catwalk. Blocking their entrance was a locked door. Viktor took out a lock pick set and crouched down. Knees still in pain, Katie kept watch. It took him five cortisol-filled minutes to pick it. When the door opened, they were confronted by a catwalk overlooking silver tanks and pipes. It was loud inside. And warm. Katie took out a tiny, blue digital camera and held it up, doing her best to hold it steady as they walked down the catwalk, Katie limping. It got steadily louder. Before long, the catwalk came to an end and sprouted two arms to the right and left. About two meters beyond the railing was the flat side of some kind of machine. Viktor held his hand out. The machine radiated tremendous heat. He drew his hand back. Out of view, to the left, something squeaked noisily.

Katie indicated to the right and started in that direction. Consulting a model of the outside of the building in her head, she knew she wanted to go left, in the direction of the two enormous chimneys. That was where they would find what they were looking for.

The path threaded through a cluster of vertical pipes. No sign of people. They looked down through the catwalk. Where was everybody? Another three-way junction. She turned left. They had only gone about ten feet when Viktor grabbed her arm, startling her. He pointed through the floor. It took her a second but then she saw him. Wearing blue coveralls, the man was inspecting a control panel. In his left hand was a toolbox. Katie gestured with her finger and they walked over him rapidly. He looked down at his toolbox and opened it. They walked rapidly to what they judged was a safe distance and then slowed down to ease the pain in Katie’s knees.

The catwalk stretched on for hundreds of feet, taking them in between, around and sometimes over an incomprehensible ganglion of pipes, ductwork and noisy machinery. Katie hoped her sense of direction was worth a damn. Ducking beneath a low-hanging pipe, they approached more silver tanks. As they drew closer, the path ended with a stairway leading down. They took it to the ground level, the steps sending sharp pains through Katie’s knees. There was a path that wound around the tanks. They followed it, and as they emerged on the other side of them, Katie and Viktor saw that they were approaching a new area. They walked underneath some cable trunking and then suddenly, the space opened up, the ceiling soaring over them, four stories overhead.

This new area consisted of one long corridor, perhaps four hundred feet wide and maybe a quarter of a kilometer long. This massive room was occupied by enormous tanks of flourine that were connected to human-sized pipes. These pipes linked the tanks to a pair of bulbous vessels three stories tall. From the tops of these, wide metal conduits emerged, snaking left and out of view. On the other side of the vessels were tubes leading from other large tanks. More pipes entered the room from the right, connecting the fluorine tanks to another part of the facility. There was a walkway that went all the way down the length of the room and partway down was a staircase up and a staircase down to the base of the room. They reasoned they’d be less visible below and took the staircase down.

They began to walk lengthwise down the room. As they did, Katie video recorded. The place hummed with demonic intensity. The only thing missing was a score by John Barry. Taking the facility in, in a three hundred sixty degree arc, Viktor leaned against a railing and looked at Katie. Under her ski mask, she was sweating bullets. The area by the bulb shaped vessels radiated intense heat. When they drew nearer to it, it became almost intolerably hot. Soon, her clothes became soaked.

Coming upon some caution signs, they aimed the camera at these, a second before they heard a loud metallic banging. They turned their heads. As quickly as it began, the banging stopped. Keeping the camera rolling, they continued on, a little faster now. Up above, they spotted an office of some kind. Close to it was a metal staircase. She was about to gesture to it when someone came into view. Instinctively, she threw herself against the wall, pulling Viktor by his jacket sleeve. Her heart beat with trepidation. Any second, she knew, the person up above might come down the stairs. They appeared to be heading in that direction too. Bodies still pressed to the wall, they waited. Breathed hard.

The man came into view again. He was close to the stairs now. He paused. Katie held her breath. The adrenaline made it hard to focus. The man vanished again. She leaned away from the wall, peered up. Still couldn’t see him. Was he still up there, just out of view? Had he walked away? The absence of information was maddening. She looked down the way they had come, looked back up again. Nothing. They continued to stand there for thirty seconds, and then grabbing Viktor’s sleeve again, Katie started moving once more.

They stuck closer to the wall now, looking up frequently. But they couldn’t see the man. Katie wished she had a weapon. Something to give her a sense of security. She was sure Viktor did as well. Suddenly, his attention was drawn to the left. They had come across a safety sign for dichlorodifluoromethane. He pointed and told her what it said. She centered the camera on it. Jackpot. That was their smoking gun. There could be no question what was going on here now.

She resumed walking. They covered most of the remainder of the room in ten minutes. Close to the end, they went up a flight of stairs to ground level and saw a door beside a closed loading dock. Pausing a few moments, they pushed the door open and peeked out. Nobody was visible. They looked towards the fence. There was a security booth with no one in it. They knew there were cameras here somewhere though. Katie looked up. Sure enough, there was one directly above them. She quickly took in the fences. Barbed wire. The security booth had a revolving door though. So they might be able to just walk right out. The only problem was the booth was seventy meters away. Would they make it? No choice but to find out.

Keeping their masks on, they broke into a run for the gate. Reaching the metal revolving door thirty seconds later, Viktor leaned on it as Katie checked their six o’clock. It clicked as it turned one hundred eighty degrees. Viktor was out. Katie leaned on it as well and emerged beside him. They saw the road. It was on the other side of a parking lot. They ran again, towards the road, slower this time on account of Katie’s knees. Weaving between cars, they half expected to hear an alarm. If it came, how would they react, Viktor wondered.

They reached an SUV on the far end of the rows of cars and crouched behind it. Both of them were winded. The next step was to get around a bend in the road. It was seventy meters away. Katie pointed to it and then held up three fingers. Then two. Then one. They ran. Jumped over cobble-sized talus. Little pebbles shot away from their feet, traveled along shallow arcs. Every step was now agony for Katie. She rapidly slowed down. Viktor noticed her lagging and slowed down too. The bend grew closer. Closer. Until they were mere feet away. And then they were behind it, Viktor immediately sinking to his knees to catch his breath. He pulled his mask off.

“Do you think they saw us?”

“I don’t know,” Katie said. She removed her mask too. Coughing, she clicked her radio. “We’re outside the fence and on our way to the rendezvous point.”

There was a pause. “Acknowledged,” Erika said, in her ear. Katie looked around the bend, at the chimneys. The wing was gone. Blown off.

“Let’s get out’ve here,” Katie said. Straining to get back up, Viktor nodded. There was a little brook ahead and to the right. Katie evaluated it for a second and then turned towards it. Hopping into the groove it followed, they walked along it. In time, the brook widened and deepened. Meanwhile, the banks of the stream got taller and steeper, until they had no choice but to ford it with their feet underwater, sending lightning up their ankles. An hour after they had first started, Katie checked her compass and GPS. She keyed her radio.

“Team two, what’s your status?” There was no reply. No line of sight. They kept walking. Twenty minutes later, they heard a rumbling. They crouched down behind the stream bank. Peered over the edge. The rumbling intensified. There came the sound of pebbles being tossed aside. Her heart throbbed in her chest. A vehicle came around a corner. She dropped entirely beneath the edge of the bank. Heard it come within twenty meters. There was more rumbling, what sounded like a second vehicle. And then a third. She heard the purr of an engine. The purr abruptly intensified and then gradually got softer. The rumbling diminished. She peeked her head up again. She saw the back of a black SUV, a cloud of dust suspended behind it. The vehicle disappeared from view. In two minutes, the sound had faded away.

“Let’s go,” Viktor said. He moved away. She turned to follow. An hour and a half past. The road wound on and on and on, and the stream with it. They tried the other team at fifteen minute intervals but never received a reply. Head down, knees hurting, and ever vigilant, Katie tried not to imagine what walking like this for days would be like. The road turned left, away from the stream. Grimacing, she left the cover of the stream bank. They didn’t bother hugging the rocks on the side of the road. There was no point; no cover anywhere. Fifteen more minutes passed. And then they came to the rendezvous point. The gang was sitting there, waiting for them, half obscured by bushes. She let out a loud sigh of relief.

“HOLY SHIT, KATIE!” Cory yelled. “I THOUGHT YOU WERE A GONER!” Katie beamed but gestured for Cory to keep her voice down. She looked at them. Her team. They looked at her. Her clothes were scuffed and streaked, as were Viktor’s.

There was a noise and they cast a wary glance at the road, in case they needed to hide. Quickly, the folly of this was apparent to all of them. Where would they hide? Up the mountainside? No, it was up to random chance now. With no other option, they just hunkered down for the next several hours. As the minutes ticked by, there were no sirens. No thumping of helicopter blades. No squeals from aircraft turbines. Only the wind.

Waiting there, John and Erika leaned on each other and rubbed heads. Viktor was holding Cory. Katie was leaning on a rock, but alert. André and Josh were lying on the rocky dirt. Brian chewed a blade of grass. At last, a pair of cars came into view and cautiously drew to a stop by the path. The team had hunched down as soon as they heard them, and that made it difficult to see the vehicles clearly. But they could see that there were no lights on top. Still, fear overcame them and nobody moved, their heartbeats rising even as they saw headlights flashing. Katie stood up, towering over them. John looked at a belt loop on the side of her pants. He half expected her to be cut down by gunfire. She wasn’t. She stayed standing. And turned to the rest of them.

“Lets go, guys,” she said. John had never been so petrified in his entire life to hear those words. Rising out of the bushes warily like a squad of concealed commandos, they gathered around the cars. They recognized the drivers as the same ones that had brought them here before. The trunks popped. Slipping their backpacks off, the team put their bags inside. Then they climbed inside the cars. Registering the optimistic tone of the slamming doors, they finally let their muscles relax. This was when they realized just how tired they really were. Erika rested her head on John’s shoulder. He looked down and put his hand on her arm. The driver looked back at them and smiled faintly, making a u-turn. Mission accomplished.
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