“Ten minutes out!” went the shout through the cabin of the Starlifter transport.
Along with the men sitting on either side of him Nick stood up under the burden of his gear, then folded his seat up against the wall and clipped the static line from his chute to the anchor cable running down the length of the cabin.
The jump doors opened, and cold air swept through the aircraft.
The jumpmaster gave the order to check their static lines, and the lines of the men in front of them. Nick made sure they were all right, then checked his equipment, assured himself that his helmet straps and bootlaces were secure and sounded off in his turn that everything was all right.
The green light over the door blinked on.
“Go!” the jumpmaster called, and one by one the men in front of him went out through the door, Nick following the man ahead of him into a night lit by green tracers, then dropping, dropping, dropping –
Nick felt like he was being sucked down a drain, the way he always did when a bad dream came to an abrupt end, and he opened his eyes to find himself blinking in white light.
“You’re up,” somebody said.
“Hey.” The speaker was in the bed next to his – Jan, visible with the curtain dividing the room on their side pulled back. Gabe was sitting in a chair nearby.
They were the only people in the room, which had four beds, two of them empty. The smell of cleaning solution was heavy in his nostrils.
Nick sat up in his bed. That made him hurt horribly, particularly the left side of his body when he put weight on that arm in adjusting his position. He looked down and saw the bandages plastering that shoulder, which was also covered by the sling into which they had put his arm. Feeling something similar on his thigh he lifted his bed sheet with his good arm and looked underneath it to see that his thigh was bandaged in the same way.
Images of woods, a chase, passed through his mind; stealing a Russian infantry fighting vehicle and shooting at a Hind helicopter; bits of a different dream than his jump from the plane. Then he realized it wasn’t a dream at all, it was what he’d actually been trying to do. But he couldn’t remember how it had turned out?
“Where am I? What happened?”
“Rezene,” Gabe said.
He remembered the place name vaguely. “Latvia? How the fuck did I get here? I was in –” He wasn’t exactly sure where he’d been before that.
“You took off with the package,” Gabe said, “ended up in southern Estonia, just over the border with the ellipton and two bullets in you. The Russians were still looking for you when we got to you.”
Nick remembered that he’d been shot in the thigh. He still didn’t know how he’d hurt his shoulder.
“How long have I been out?” he asked.
“Just a day.”
“The ellipton?” he asked.
“Safe. On its way back home.”
“That’s good. What happened to you, Jan?”
“I’ve suffered worse, and in worse places,” Jan said. “Believe me.”
“He was shot, but the flak jacket absorbed most of the bullet’s energy,” Gabe explained. “Cracked a rib. Had us panicked for a bit, though, but the doctor set it, and he should be cleared to go any time now.”
“What about everybody else?”
“Everyone who walked away from the crash is still alive, though it’s just the three of us here now. Rod and Dane left a while ago.
“Getting this room took some doing, but money talks here.
“Anyway, I’ll let them know you’re awake.”
Gabriel walked out, returned with an attractive thirtyish woman in a white coat. In broken English she explained to him the medical details of what had happened, the bullets he’d caught in his right thigh and left shoulder. The latter was more serious, the bullet having torn his rotator cuff and done some nerve damage as it passed through his body. He would have limited use of his left arm for months, but assuming a proper course of physical therapy he would make a complete recovery well before the year was out.
They checked out of the hospital, and Gabe drove them to Riga. At the city’s international airport they booked three widely separated seats aboard the first flight out.
Nick called Kate to let her know he was coming back. He told her as much of what had happened as he could without revealing company secrets and legally actionable crimes over the phone, which wasn’t very much. He said he’d been in an accident, told her about the nature of the damage: the torn rotator cuff, the nerve damage in his arm, the opening up of his femoral artery.
She took it well, all things considered; didn’t freak out the way he’d worried she might, but he guessed there would be a long talk after he returned, especially when she saw his injuries up close. She’d been a nurse in America’s murder capital for a good decade now, and was only too familiar with what a bullet wound looked like.
Nick supposed he would be able to continue in the job after his recovery, though he wasn’t sure he would choose to. When Kate had said this job was too good an opportunity to pass up, she hadn’t pictured him coming back to her shot full of holes like this, and he hadn’t had to see her reaction to anything worse than the one minor injury he’d had in a training accident back in the Rangers, fifteen years before.
He certainly hadn’t expected to do what he’d done either. The attack on the air base, the flight out of the country, they still felt like a dream even now, after his head had cleared.
Nick wasn’t sure he could do it all over again if he had to, and a very big part of him hoped that he’d never be put to that test. It wasn’t all of him, but still a big enough part that Nick started to think a more settled life might not be the worst thing in the world.
Still, he’d made a lot of commitments based on the income this job would provide them. Nothing so self-indulgent as buying a dream home, but Kate was already looking at university course lists. He couldn’t disappoint her after all this. Besides, he knew this had been a once-in-a-lifetime mission, that he was unlikely to get into anything so dramatic again. He decided that things would be all right.