There was nothing beneath Ashley’s feet now as her forward momentum carried her away from the building, across that wide street Thorn’s headquarters faced, and gravity accelerated her freefalling body toward earth at thirty-two feet a second; as the wind tore the night-vision goggles from her head to fall down, down, down away from her; as, feeling as if her stomach had leaped up into her chest, she pulled the cord releasing the chute in the backpack that she’d been wearing as a back-up in case the glider failed. For a very long instant she dreaded that nothing would happen, but then she felt and heard the chute bursting out of the pack, the fabric filling as it caught the air and the sensation of the chute snapping her upright.
Ashley looked up, up at the black rectangle over her head now, and up at the window out of which she’d jumped, through which she could see into that brightly lit office. Standing in the hole was the man whose fingers she’d felt on her shoulder, she was certain of it, pale, shaken, like he’d just narrowly avoided going out through that hole himself. The other guards were standing right up against it, too, watching her. One of them seemed to be going for his gun, but the chute was already fast sweeping her out of the range of his weapon, all their weapons.
But not out of the range of their eyes, eyes she was sure continued to track her as she moved down the street. Some of them were moving away from the window, maybe out of the office, while another got out something he held to his face, a walkie-talkie maybe, or a cell phone. Maybe they were headed downstairs, to waiting vehicles in which they would continue the pursuit. A pursuit that might not be futile given how conspicuous she was up here, how slowly she was moving.
She had to have a safe place in which to set down. Ashley’s first thought was of the park, of the open greens on which she could land, and the trees through which she could lose a pursuer. And Ashley’s chute afforded her some scope for maneuver. But with a parachute range was a function of height, every turn exacted a price in altitude, and there would definitely be turns given all the obstacles in her way. The buildings didn’t seem like features on a computer chip the way they had when she was gliding above them. Now they seemed like mountains, the more so with every passing second as she went down, down, down at the rate of a floor a second, putting still more of those roofs above her, more of those mountain-like walls in her way . . .
And she was stuck relying on a mental map of the city she’d never intended to use this way, while judging the distances involved as she moved swiftly through three dimensions at night, with the darkness distorting some vistas, and innumerable points of artificial illumination distorting others. Still, she had to try, and she saw her chance in a gap between two buildings on the block across from the Thorn headquarters.
It was not a perfectly clear path, a third, shorter skyscraper facing the other side of the block presenting a possible obstruction, but she had no time to waste waiting for other options to appear. So she pulled the parachute’s left toggle down hard to turn into that gap, shifting her course deftly enough but speeding her fall more than she’d planned. The roof of that middle building she’d expected to safely clear rose up in front of her as she swept toward it, and then up at her as she swept over it, the building’s parapet mere feet below her as the chute carried her over its far end, and into the next avenue.
Right across the way, coming up fast was the dome-crowned Maxell Insurance building, the glass-walled upper floors of which shone like obsidian.
Ashley turned right again, hard, then harder when the chute didn’t seem to respond quickly enough to keep her from colliding with the tower. What had seemed overwhelmingly fast felt impossibly slow now as she watched the chute slowly rotate above her, rotate her away from the building, worrying that she wouldn’t quite make it, that she’d impact and knock the wind out of her chute and drop into freefall again, this time all the way down, or that it would snag and leave her hanging there, or . . .
But just short of slamming into that black glass she found herself facing down the street, moving down the street beneath the freely floating chute above her.
Time returned to its earlier frantic flow, the windows on either side of her now seeming to stream past horizontally and vertically. And Ashley realized now that her hasty, desperate plan wouldn’t work, too much altitude, too much range, already gone, and her already scarce options fast running out as the man-made mountain pass grew more and more imposing. Still, the combination of the turn, and her loss of height, and those same buildings that seemed such frustrating obstacles put her out of the line of sight of Northrop’s offices. Perhaps that would make it harder for them to keep tracking her.
In the meantime, she continued sweeping down that street, the buildings starting to seem like rockets shooting skyward, the people and cars that had seemed so small down there continually getting bigger; and the electric currents she had seen from above resolving into single electrons, single street lamps and the headlights of cars making their way through those streets.
Ashley noticed among those cars a big black vehicle that was moving very slowly, letting one car after another pass it, almost as if the driver was trying to keep behind her. She pulled the left toggle down again, just enough to get her around the street corner coming up, so that now she found herself being carried toward the neon lights and flashing screens of Times Square.
Below, the car turned with her, and she had the sinking feeling that it really was following her. She felt naked and vulnerable now, a small, wounded bird spotted by a pack of jackals as it struggled to stay aloft just a little bit longer . . .
Ashley thought not of landing on the roof of a building, a place where Northrop’s people would have a hard time getting in, where she might be able to lie low until she got the chance to give them the slip. Ashley scanned the surrounding roofs, looking for one low enough, clear enough, near enough for her to turn over it safely, but nothing of the kind was within reach. She admitted to herself that there was no hope of outrunning her pursuers, no place to hide from them. All she could do was to continue hanging out of their reach for as long as she possibly could, which she knew wouldn’t be very long. She was just a hundred and fifty feet up now, which gave her another ten, fifteen seconds before she touched the ground and had to deal with them one way or the other.
Momentarily the nearness of that crowded, luminous square seemed like a possible salvation; conspicuous as she’d seem landing there, the people, the lights, the noise were all potential cover, the presence of so many other people inhibiting. But as she continued to drop, as she got a better sense of the distances involved, it became clearer to her that she was going to set down a block away at best. Still, being so close to the square meant that she wouldn’t be coming down in some dead empty street. Below her there was a fair amount of foot traffic, vehicular traffic. Nothing to physically stop Northrop and his people from carrying on the chase, but at least there would be witnesses.
As she got lower, closer to the vehicle, she recognized it as exactly the kind of Mercedes Northrop drove. For all she knew, he was inside it himself, determined to be in at what he intended to be the end of the chase—
The light poles shot up past her, like the rooftops before them. There was just enough time for her to brace her body for the landing before she felt herself snapping to a stop. Ashley looked up to see the chute hanging just above her head like a collapsed tent from a street lamp, and down to see that she was dangling several feet above the ground as that black Mercedes closed in.