Broderick surveyed his airmen's brushed-metal chronograph wristwatch. Four twenty-seven and thirty-six seconds. He tapped the toe of his black paratrooper boot impatiently. The tapping clanged on the studded metal floor of the hangar. Only one last jumper to screen. Then, the workday finished and he could go home. The clanging from his tapping to echoed around the corrugated tin walls of the large hangar. Not that hangar one forty-three was any larger than any of the other SSA hangars; they were all identical. The sound would have echoed in any of them.
Four twenty-seven and fifty-seven seconds, Broderick noted. He stood in front of the rigid metal strip bench, clipboard in hand, ready for the moment the jumper appeared. The bench was all the way at one end of the hangar, but Broderick did not wander around. A waiting and official member of the SSA should be the first thing the jumper saw upon arrival.
Broderick shifted in the straps of his canvas jumpsuit, a bit stiff from standing in his 'authority' pose. His pack felt heavier the longer he waited, making him want to roll his shoulders. He refrained, however. It was more important to be sure that the right impression was conveyed. Four twenty-nine and seventeen seconds. He had already processed fourteen jumpers that day. The next would be number fifteen. Broderick processed fifteen jumpers during every workday, all SSA officers did. Each screening was allocated thirty minutes by regulation. A half-hour each day for mandated breaks and an hour for scheduled lunch came up to a full nine-hour shift. Broderick frowned. His chronograph wristwatch read four thirty-one and sixteen seconds. That meant a daredevil jumper. If the jumper pulled his cord at exactly six thousand feet, he would have arrived at exactly four thirty. Over cautious ones pulled before six thousand, worried they'd do it too late and get hurt, and arrived early. Daredevils pushed opening their chute to the last moment, trying to get just a few more seconds of free-fall time, waiting as long as they could stomach, risking hitting the ground too fast, before panic set in and they pulled.
Joe Kreller; twenty-six; financial analyst; red hair, Broderick read off the sheet attached to his clip board. He knew the type. The jumper was quite a bit younger than Broderick. That red hair was probably a full head, not like Broderick's thinned wispy brown remenants. He imagined the slick young professional whooping one last weekend warrior yell before going for his chute.
Broderick readied himself, even though he was already ready. The jumper was a daredevil, but he'd pull eventually. A couple of seconds at most. There were different types of jumpers, but each type was predictable. This one too.
Of course, the jumper technically wouldn't pull his chute. Not quite. SSA procedure stated that jumpers were to be stopped immediately prior to actual parachute deployment- just as they were about to pull. There had been incidents before implementation of that rule. Quite a mess, parachute all over the hangar, repacking required before the next jumper could be processed. However, things weren't done in that fashion anymore; this one would not have pulled.
Sure enough, at four thirty-one and fifty-five seconds, Broderick saw the air shimmer on the bench, indicating a transport in progress. He stood up even straighter. Rigid, appropriate for an officer.
Suddenly the jumper was there, sitting on the bench where the air shimmer had indicated. And suddenly, or at least it seemed that way to Broderick, the jumper was a woman. A woman with startlingly red hair, appropriate as Broderick was startled, tied back in a bouncy pony tail. Red like he remembered Samantha's hair being before she left. Apparently Joe must have been a nickname for Josephine or some such thing and the paperwork failed to note it. The jumper's eyes were wide and shocky, her moment of realization immanent.
"Ta da!" Broderick threw open his arms, recovering himself as fast as he could from his surprise, holding carefully onto the clipboard. The jumper flinched back and almost fell backwards over the bench.
The 'ta da' wasn't strictly part of procedure, not exactly. Broderick came up with it on his own, though he kept meaning to suggest official SSA adoption of the technique. He found the 'ta da' helpful. Jumpers weren't as likely to meltdown at abruptly finding themselves sitting in a hangar when they'd been falling at a hundred miles an hour through nothing the moment before. Perhaps it distracted them from trying to understand what had happened- kept the animal portion of their brains from having to come up with an explanation. Regardless, fewer incidents occurred after he first tried out 'ta da,' so Broderick continued the practice.
The jumper stared at Broderick, her eyes piercingly wild, like Broderick might be a snake coiled to attack. Her long fingers gripped the edge of the bench tightly, as if they were the only things holding her securely there. Not so different from all the other jumpers.
"What the—" "Miss Jo Kreller," Broderick snapped, cutting off the jumper as soon as she spoke. Broderick always did that was well. However, that was part of procedure. The irritation from interruption was supposed to make jumpers forget the oddity of their situation, make things seem more normal.
"Where the hell—" "Are you or are you not Jo Kreller?" Broderick demanded, interrupting the jumper again. He didn't even have to listen for her to start talking again before he performed the mandated second interruption. Anymore, Broderick just found himself interrupting right at the correct spot by reflex.
"Yes! Now where the hell am I?" The jumper threw up threw up her arms as she yelled. Then she grabbed the bench again swiftly, her eyes darting nervously.
Broderick let the jumper finish this time. It was okay. The SSA procedure manual required two interruptions. Once the requirement was fulfilled, the SSA officer performing inspection was allowed to provide requested explanations. Broderick flipped close the metal cover on the clipboard.
"You are in hangar one forty-three of SSA facility Alpha," he informed her with a pleased smile. "As a jumper, you have been detained for a routine screening. Nothing out of the ordinary. If you cooperate and check out, then we should have you falling again shortly."
"Skydiving Security Administration. We're a sub-department of Homeland Security. Like the Transportation Security Administration, but for skydiving. We're separate since jumping isn't really transportation."
Broderick smiled again, like he remembered smiling at Samantha while waiting for her to finish ranting about how they never did anything more interesting than hang out and watch television. A friendly disposition on the part of SSA officers, once authority was established, encouraged compliance- at least according to the manual. Broderick was concerned, though. The jumper twitched a good deal, looking around like a mouse caught in the middle of an kitchen floor when the light just came on.
"But…I was just mid-air! How did I get here?"
Broderick forced himself to keep the smile. "Jumpers are detained mid-jump to ensure that they might not have accepted explosives or other unauthorized cargo after deplaning," he patiently recited the scripted explanation. "Such cargo could be obtained from another jumper or some such mid-air source. Besides, if inspections were performed pre-takeoff, then jumpers from planes that snuck across the border would still be a risk. Thus, policy requires detainment must occur during descent."
"Explosives!" The jumper sputtered. "But HOW did I get here?"
The smile went a little tight-lipped despite Broderick's best efforts. "The acquisition process specifics are sensitive information," he replied. "Don't you worry, though. We can do it. You're here, aren't you?"
Broderick bluffed. Not that the technology of the acquisition process wasn't sensitive information, it was. However, procedure allowed SSA officers to provide redacted step-throughs when asked. Allowed, not required. Acquisition specifics were the job of the grunts down in tech as far as Broderick was concerned. SSA officers had more important tasks to handle.
"How haven't I heard about this before?" The jumper raised one gracefully plucked eyebrow, hard as that was to see under the helmet. "Something like this should be all over the news."
Broderick crossed his arms, clipboard still in one hand. "Well, inspections aren't exactly the highlight of you guys's trips, are they? Probably not what you'd want to gush about to the other guys back on the ground. Besides, it doesn't make the stupid hobby seem quite so death defying if somebody could snatch you up safely at any time. I guess your jumper friends don't want anyone to think about that."
Broderick paused, waiting for the jumper to shoot something back. They usually did when their 'sport' was slighted. That was fine, again: procedure. For when jumpers started dragging out inspections with unnecessary questions.
"So," Broderick continued, "once we get you processed you can get back to all that." He smiled again, hoping it wasn't coming off as a sneer. Samantha had sometimes taken his smile as a sneer.
"Fine." The jumper scowled. "What do you want?"
"Identity verification. I've already completed the visual evaluation of your person for explosives and other terrorist devices. You're clean on that front. Once we verify your identity you can proceed with your jump."
"Proceed?" The jumper raised both eyebrows that time, but less shocked than mocking. Too mocking to remind Broderick of a mouse anymore. Much more like Samantha towards the end. "How am I going to do that since I'm already on the ground?"
Broderick sighed, rolling his eyes to emphasize the idiocy of the question. "Once inspection is complete, I will clear you for continuing and open the hangar door." He gestured with the clipboard at the far end of the hanger. "Exiting through the opening will drop you approximately one thousand feet above your point of detainment acquisition. To continue your falling from there you simply have to fall."
The jumper stared at the end of the hangar for a moment. Then she looked back at Broderick. "Okay, so how do you check who I am? Body scan or something?"
Broderick tapped the toe of his black paratrooper boot again. The echoing of the hollow clang on the studded metal floor was satisfying. It eased the irritation a bit.
"We start with your ID."
The jumper started unbuckling the clasps of her curve-hugging spandex skydiving suit to get at her pants pocket inside. "Sure. What would you have done if I hadn't had it with me? Not like I thought I was exactly going to need it."
Broderick snatched the jumper's ID irritably from her outstretched hand. "We would proceed as necessary until we could verify you," he snapped. "Fingerprints, DNA, whatever we had to do. Otherwise," he gestured again, "that hangar door doesn't open."
The jumper folded her arms but didn't say anything more, a classic Samantha move.
Holding the ID up so he could see the photo and the jumper at the same time, Broderick compared. Well, he pretended to. He knew right away that it was the jumpers real ID; he'd read the her chart. She was a young woman out for a thrill, not a conspirator. Still, jumpers got difficult if officers didn't stick to the script.
Broderick looked a little longer. "Right," he muttered, nodding his head once decisively. Then he walked over to steel panel on the corrugated sheet metal wall. He banged on it with a fist and it slid open with a grinding noise. Not enough to see what was on the other side—just open a crack. Broderick inserted the ID and the steel panel slammed shut.
"I know it's a pain," he told the jumper.
Procedure stated SSA officers were to attempt 'buddying' up to jumpers while IDs were authenticated and identities were cross-referenced in the federal databases. A substantial amount of time could be required for that portion of the process and jumpers had a tendency to get agitated when not kept mentally busy by an at least perceived sympathetic interest- someone to commiserate with. Studies showed.
"No one likes the hassle, but it's the price of safety. Prevents the terrorists from dropping down on us from the skies on big old parachutes with dynamite strapped to their chests."
Broderick turned around to face the jumper, add a little face-to-face to the 'buddying,' but she just sagged on the bench with her pretty helmeted head held in her hands. That signaled trouble. It wasn't the reaction of camraderic commiseration against bureaucracy that was intended by the conveyed appearance of sympathetic interest. Broderick frowned.
"Hey," he reassured her, "it won't be long now. Believe me, I want to get this over with as much as you. I need to get home to catch a season finale. I've waited all year to see it."
"You guys ruin it! You just ruin the whole thing," the jumper moaned. Her head was still down.
"Ruin?" Broderick checked his chronograph wristwatch. Four fifty-two and thirty-four seconds. The wristwatch also contained a device fro transferring problem jumpers to containment cells. All he had to do was push.
"This is the freest thing possible and you cut it up and contain it into useless little pieces!" The jumper's head shot up and she waved her hands all around, but not violently so Broderick took his thumb off the button. "What's the point of it now? There isn't one if you're going to do all this to it!"
"Come on," Broderick countered, actually feeling sympathy for once. This was what almost word for word what Samantha had said in that last argument. "It isn't that bad. You still get to do your falling. Even some extra because we dump you higher up than where we grabbed you. All you have to do is sit and wait a little in the middle. It's still the same."
"The same? Are you crazy?" The jumper's eyes blared passionately at Broderick. "When you're up there like that, careening at the ground with nothing to stop you, everything past and future rips away! Adrenaline leaps on you and you can't conceive of anything other than the specific, overwhelming present. Pure fear on a body level! For once in your stinking life you're completely alive. Alive and only in the moment. Nothing else is real at that point."
The jumper's head fell back into her hands. Broderick was too stunned to respond.
"And this smashes that all to pieces." The jumper shook her head limply. "It sucks the life right out. No different than waiting in line at the bank."
Broderick swallowed. She even sounded like Samantha.
"Not like you don't know," the jumper waved a hand feebly at Broderick without looking at him. "I'm sure you've felt how different it is now."
Broderick stared. "Um…I haven't actually ever jumped. It wasn't required for the job."
The jumper's head shot up again, her crystal-blue eyes as wide as the hangar. "What? But…the get-up, the parachute…"
Broderick fingered the straps of his pack where they crisscrossed over the front of his canvas jumpsuit. "It's just a safety precaution. All SSA officers wear them, in case we get sucked out when the hangar door opens."
"Unbelievable," the jumper muttered. Her jaw hung slack. "No wonder you can do this. You just have no idea what you're doing."
"I mean," Broderick stammered, "it's not like I don't know how. I know all about it; SSA officers pass a jump course. Just in case. We just don't have to actually do a jump."
The jumper shook her head. "No one who knew would have anything to do with this. Not the slightest thing."
Broderick tried to think of a retort. Something to come back with. He couldn't think of anything, though. He hadn't been able to when Samantha walked out either.
The steel panel clanged open again. Broderick flinched. He'd forgotten all about it. The jumper's ID stuck out the opening made by the open panel. Broderick walked over and grabbed the ID. He handed it back to the jumper without looking at her. Then Broderick flipped open the clipboard and scribbled something unimportant.
"You check out," he tried to say enthusiastically, like it should make the jumper happy. He knew it wouldn't, though. "You can be on your way." He walked over and hit a large red button on the wall. The button clicked in and a siren wailed through the hangar. At the other end, the steel door swung outward, slowly. Sunlight shot in.
"Go on," Broderick ordered, trying to still sound authoritative even though he no longer felt it. "Go finish your jump."
"Whatever," the jumper muttered, not getting up off the bench.
"You might as well go out that way." Broderick pointed at the raising hangar door. "You won't like the other way out of here."
The jumper shrugged and got to her feet, shuffling toward the open door. Broderick followed.
When the jumper got to the edge, she looked out. Broderick looked too, seeing the empty space below the lip of the hangar floor. Far below, the ground was tiny- partitioned into mowed flat squares in various shades of green and brown stretching out endlessly. Probably farmland, Kansas or something like that.
The jumper looked at Broderick and Broderick looked back at her. It seemed like the jumper was about to say something, but then she shrugged and just walked off the edge. Not jumped, just sort of stepped out. She drifted under the lip as she fell, causing Broderick to lose sight of her.
"You still got your jump," Broderick mumbled to no one. He stared at all that flat ground way down below. The hangar door began the slow process of swinging closed. A voice whispered to Broderick as he stood at the edge, the jumper's voice, or perhaps Samantha's, that SSA officers were the only ones who could get around screening for jumps. An officer could sneak out after a jumper cleared and everyone would think freak winds sucked him out. An accident. There wouldn't even be a reprimand, much less an arrest. It was the only chance anyone had to go for real.
Broderick's knees buckled, a reflex shiver shooting through his body as he imagined the physical sensation of jumping before the door closed, and he gripped the corrugated sheet metal wall. No, that sort of thing wasn't for him. That's what he'd told Samantha, though they hadn't been talking about skydiving then. He just wanted to get home and watch some TV.
But then, almost like a flinch, Broderick's body leapt forward. The jump he'd never made with Samantha. Forward out into the open air, past the confines of the hangar, out over the green and brown patchwork ground somewhere way down below.