Songs of Warm Dystopia
Trevor G Magnusson
Satire grows some teeth.
Three souls, lost in very different ways, navigate a world where corporations make the rules and vertical integration is the norm. Their stories intersect with devastating consequences.
· Tucker Trent works for Corder Synergy, a company specialising in corporate mashups. Adventure suicide clubs for the terminally ill? Check. Quit smoking centres run by Big Tobacco? Check. HIV-positive African orphans as the latest must-have fashion accessory for celebrities and the upwardly mobile? Check. Inevitably he will face a crisis of conscience, as he sinks ever deeper into a Faustian pact. Just how far is he willing to go?
· Miranda Tonkin’s life is looking up. Her Daddy’s law firm has just launched PLEx, a stock exchange for class action lawsuits, as well as a ‘frequent plaintiff’ loyalty program. She drives a Dreadnought (a hybrid SUV, think Prius meets Hummer) and dines out at Two of Seven, a restaurant where the pre-dinner pleasantries involve colonic irrigation. Then a one night stand sets off a tragic chain of events resulting in the very public death of a young disabled girl. One thing is certain – she’s going to need a good publicist.
· Skye Arbeiter has finally escaped from an abusive relationship and started a new job at a respite care centre for disabled children. After one of her charges is killed by the stupid city SUV of a young lawyer, she is thrust into the public eye and discovers she has something called ‘traction’. Capitalising on this, her employer sends her to Africa to groom photogenic HIV-positive African orphans for adoption back home. But when demand starts to exceed supply she discovers an awful secret.
Redemption? Maybe for some, but only in tiny doses.
© Copyright 2013 Trevor G Magnusson
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Chapter 1 also appears below.
This was nothing like bungee jumping.
Tucker Trent glanced around the Skyvan’s austere cabin. A plain bench ran along one side, there was some webbing on the walls and two rows of handholds hung from the ceiling. It was all straight lines and angles, not a curve in sight. If you took a small shipping container, bolted a stubby wing with two turboprop engines across the top you’d be pretty close to the Skyvan. Through one of the small windows opposite him Tucker could see the underside of the right wing and half of the propeller’s translucent disk, a shadow against the pure blue sky.
Twelve jumpers, around half the rated maximum. Full capacity would be interesting. There was plenty of space, but everyone was starting to pack in toward the rear, preparing for a tight coordinated drop.
Standing just ahead of the ramp formed by the closed tailgate was jumpmaster Ryan Mace. Lean and hard but showing his years, he’d be seeing everyone out and jumping last. His designer camo jumpsuit featured the Exit Strategy logo at the chest, just like the other four instructors. Each of them sported a severe buzz-cut, and everyone in the plane had tactical headsets with throat mics.
– Hard as. Can you say “Action figure?”
First in line was Chiron Levy, veteran of over seven hundred jumps, and man of the moment. Apart from the pilot, he wore the only non-camo suit on the plane. It was jet black. The hairpiece was long gone and his smooth head was covered by a Biggles-style leather helmet. His frame had a drawn, attenuated look and Tucker imagined that when the tailgate was raised he might be sucked out of the aircraft like a feather. But there was a hard gleam in his eye, grim but excited, and it silenced all doubts.
– Must be pumped to the eyeballs, and not just adrenalin, thought Tucker.
– Chiron Levy, mentor, friend and the luckiest break I ever got.
Next to Chiron was Ashleigh Gabriel, Chiron’s partner of ten years. His face was a mask of terror held in check by something worse. Elfin features and a compact frame, he too appeared ephemeral and fragile. He was clasping hands with Chiron and harnessed tightly to his tandem master (Rod?), the locus of two very different but intimate connections. Tucker noticed Rod glance down at their entwined hands, then away. He didn’t appear uncomfortable, but he didn’t seem to know where to look either.
Ashleigh was no stranger to skydiving, with around fifty jumps to his name. But today it would be strictly tandem.
– What must he be going through?
Chiron’s brother Cael was next, and the family resemblance was obvious. Take Chiron, fatten him up and add a few years and they could be twins. Tucker had met Cael a few times, and he seemed likeable. But he didn’t have Chiron’s spark, the quiet anarchy and subtle, subversive wit.
Two of Chiron’s clubmates were standing against the far wall. Tucker wasn’t sure of their names, they’d been introduced as Icehead and the Streak. They were pretty hardcore with plenty of airtime between them, and not a lot of it in the company of novices.
Tucker was a little forward of the jumpmaster, sitting awkwardly on the edge of the bench. His own instructor (Geoff someone-or-other) was spooned up nice and tight behind.
Standing across from Tucker was Elias Corder, founder and CEO of Corder Synergy. The boss, equal parts intimidating and engaging. The man was a coiled spring of energy, a look of fierce enthusiasm in his eyes. Time had sculpted his face, but he carried it well. This was a man with an appetite for life.
Corder caught Tucker’s eye. “You wouldn’t miss this for the world, would you Trent?” His voice sounded thin in Tucker’s earpiece. But he needn’t have said anything, his eyes were beaming the message to anyone who looked.
“No, but I’d happily postpone it a few decades.”
“Indeed, wouldn’t we all.”
Tucker glanced at the roof-mounted LCD screen behind the cockpit. It showed altitude, airspeed, heading and temperature. They were approaching 12,000 feet and it was getting cold outside. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt cold.
Tucker recalled a younger age, a boy with a familiar but foreign-sounding name standing on a platform looking down. A thick braided elastic cable hung from his ankles, bound tightly together with a towel and secured with straps. It snaked over the edge, looped down and then up again, foreshortened by the alarming perspective.
There was terror, and it was unlike anything he had felt before. His mind, with its quiet and deliberate internal dialogue, shattered into two dozen or so blabbering imbeciles. Like a bus full of ill-disciplined children, each desperately demanding that he do as they say. Or a cage of panicked monkeys, shrieking and hammering away at the inside of his head.
Then in a momentary lull, one lone voice:
– Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? If you die, you die.
And all hell breaks loose again for what feels like forever, but is probably less than five seconds. And then the still point, the moment of clarity.
– Shut, the fuck, up.
– Just do it.
Days later he would make the Nike connection. But right now it’s a blinding light from within, pure and untouched by commerce.
So he just did it.
Sure, the initial fall brought on such a sensory overload that normal processing failed for a few seconds. And then when the stretched cord flung him up again and he felt the sickening impotence of zero-g at the top of the arc, the cacophony briefly returned and he gave it voice in an involuntary cry.
Then they wheeled the trolley platform across, straddling the swimming pool so they could lower him down onto it. And it was time to buy the video (cassette!) and join his peers, assuming the required degree of detached bravado.
Some of the people who climbed up the stairs of that tower did not have what it took, and were faced with the long walk down again. The walk of shame.
He was not one of them.
But that was not the message he took with him down the years.
It was those three words, ‘just do it’, and the way the rabble of monkeys or preschoolers or frothing madhouse inmates evaporated.
This was nothing like bungee jumping.
The elevation was much greater this time and somehow this made the fear more remote. The ground was so far away and the danger seemed abstract, his mind discounting any risks not flagged as immediate.
And there were many other layers of emotion woven through his mind.
– Chiron Levy, mentor, friend and the luckiest break I ever got.
Ryan Mace cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, we’ll be above the drop zone in 60 seconds. Goggles down please, the pilot is about to raise the tailgate.” He paused until everyone had finished, then thumbed a control on his wrist and said something to Chiron. The two-band comms system meant that no one else could hear.
– As if we need to.
Chiron Levy nodded, turned and gave Ashleigh a quick kiss, then leant past him and did some sort of crossed forearm salute thing with his brother. Something from when they were kids. He turned and looked back at Tucker.
“Ciao,” mouthed Tucker, and Chiron smiled.
A fissure of light appeared along the floor next to the assembled group. The tailgate slowly swung up to the ceiling, transforming the space inside the plane from cozy and protected to alarmingly open. There was floor, then nothing. If the pilot were to pitch the nose up, everyone would tumble out.
Air gusted into the cabin, buffeting their suits and hair. Chiron’s body convulsed in a series of shallow coughs. They subsided and he paused and looked back. He drew a small cylindrical gadget from his pocket and looked down at it. There was a single LED, a trigger-style switch and an elastic strap. He slipped his palm into it then stepped forward and lowered himself on the floor, legs dangling over the edge.
This marked the start of pre-jump maneuvering. The aim was to minimize the delay between jumpers exiting the aircraft, and increase the chance of a successful formation in the limited freefall time. Exit Strategy was one of the very few skydiving operations willing to consider building a formation involving tandem jumpers. The obvious concern was that the drogue chutes might become entangled. They’d solved this by using a shorter line with an engineered break point. It was strong enough to slow the descent velocity of a tandem pair to that of a single jumper. But in the event of a tangle, it was designed to snap cleanly as soon as one of the pairs deployed their main chute.
Ashleigh and his tandem master joined Chiron on the edge of the floor, the instructor moving as though he couldn’t feel Ashleigh’s weight at all. Cael Levy was heavier and a little more coordination was required. But this team was practiced and professional, and they were soon in position.
Without warning Icehead and the Streak casually stepped outside, but instead of dropping away they arrested their fall and hung from the horizontal floater bar mounted just below the edge. Corder and his instructor moved in from behind and sat next to Cael, in the space where the two hardcore jumpers had been.
Tucker’s attention drifted from the assembled first row to the void and horizon gaping beyond them, filling his field of vision.
– Steady now, keep a grip
– No, make that… let go?
– Just do it.
Mace looked at the group and gestured. “Good to go.”
Chiron glanced at the small cylinder in his hand and squeezed the switch. Then he tumbled forward and out of Tucker’s sight, followed almost immediately by Ashleigh and the rest of the first row. The two floaters probably dropped at the same time, but Tucker didn’t notice them. Things were starting to happen all at once. He felt Geoff lifting and pushing him and as he reached up to steady himself Ryan Mace seized his arm and pulled him forward. There was the sickening lurch, a rush into emptiness.
The first few seconds didn’t make much sense. Some twisting, then the noise.
Geoff tucked his arms and legs in to reduce air resistance. They’d gone through all of this during prep. The first tandem jumpers would deploy their drogue chutes almost immediately to slow their descent. Tucker had dropped a few seconds later, and Geoff delayed opening his a little while, spending more time in faster freefall.
Chiron, Ryan Mace and the two hardcore jumpers weren’t using drogues at all, as they weighed much less than a tandem pair. Indeed Chiron, due to his weight loss even had some lead bars sewn inside his suit. The jumpmaster was last to drop, but he would go head down to increase his fall speed and catch up with the rest of the group.
Tucker noticed the scattered figures approaching, the tiny drogue chutes of the pairs trailing upward. As he drew closer he felt a soft tugging sensation, his own drogue opening, and their descent speeds were matched. Geoff grasped Tucker’s wrists and nudged his legs, adjusting them into position. The group was starting to move together, coalescing into the target snowflake configuration under the precise guidance of the tandem masters.
Tucker started to pay attention to the voices in his earpiece, faint and dry through the wind’s roar. The whole group was quite close together now, although he could not see much behind or above him. The goal was to form a circle, with Chiron in the middle and everyone else linked around him. There was very little time in which to achieve this. A drop from 12,000 feet gave 45 seconds of freefall, and just getting close enough to start ate up a significant chunk of that.
According to Exit Strategy’s promo DVD, they hit formation around sixty percent of the time.
They were moving together but Chiron, conspicuous in this black suit was more at the edge than in the centre. Almost near enough to jostle…
Icehead and the Streak came in and attached themselves to Chiron, levering him towards Tucker. Tucker felt someone catch the fabric of his right sleeve from above. He turned and saw Corder’s face, grabbed his forearm and pulled him into alignment. Feeling his body turn, he noticed his instructor had linked arms with Ashleigh’s.
“Ten, nine, eight …” Mace’s voice rasped in his ear.
Chiron was now almost perfectly positioned, but the circle around him was not complete. Mace was a little high above them, and it appeared that Cael’s tandem master had misjudged the timing and thrown his drogue chute a fraction of a second late. That put the pair two body-lengths below them, a little to one side.
“Seven, six …”
Cael’s instructor extended his arms and legs in an effort to slow his descent. Mace moved in effortlessly and closed the circle.
The instructors and experienced jumpers flexed their knees, the formation dipped slightly, and Ryan Mace and the Streak pushed away tilting a little towards the vertical. Cael’s instructor reached and caught Mace’s right foot. The alignment was out, Mace was pulling in, trying to link up with the Streak again…
And there was a circle again. Well, a not-very-circular, not-very-horizontal circle, with a tail.
– So does this count among the sixty percent that make it?
– Come on, a formation built from a mix of singles and tandems, including some first-timers. Brilliant or what?
Chiron Levy moved one of his arms and flexed a knee, breaking the symmetry of his body. With a deft twist, he rotated until he was facing skywards. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. He was still holding the little cylinder, still pressing the switch. He was smiling.
Tucker disengaged his hands from both Corder and Ashleigh, made a small adjustment to one of the shoulder straps of his harness. The tandem masters had arranged to open their canopies in a tight sequence and Tucker briefly noticed Ashleigh shoot skywards and out of his field of vision, followed a second later by Cael. Then came the violent and sudden physical shock as his own parachute opened and pulled him from freefall into slow controlled descent.
A billowing sail blossomed some distance below him and obscured the figures of Corder and his instructor. It was followed almost immediately by that of Mace, the jumpmaster. A few seconds later Icehead and the Streak opened theirs.
At this moment Tucker became aware that the roaring had been stilled and there was a slight tickling sensation in his right hand.
Chiron alone had not deployed his chute. He had turned to face the sky, and watched as lover, brother, friends and colleagues were pulled in turn from their trajectories. Tucker saw the black figure recede, become a speck still moving against the distant ground.
He gave a small salute.
– So long, Chiron. It’s been…
But he couldn’t put it into words, not even the silent internal voice could come up with anything worthwhile.
Absent-mindedly Tucker looked at his hand and saw a patch of red. There was a cut across the palm, and he was bleeding slowly. He must have been holding onto the shoulder strap as the parachute opened, and cut himself.
Earlier in the day a much larger group of family, friends and colleagues had gathered at Exit Strategy HQ. The premises were located adjacent to a civil aviation aerodrome, amid a scattering of engineering businesses and other light industries. Tucker had driven in from the city, allowing the Boxster to wind up to concert pitch on the short stretch of freeway. He was a little early, and waited in the car park until a few more guests arrived. After Elias Corder’s Mercedes had pulled up he left his car and headed inside.
An imposing commando type greeted them in the foyer, introduced himself as Ryan Mace and ushered them into the main function room. It was large but slightly austere, with beige carpet, a few chairs around the perimeter and a small podium with lectern and microphone at one end. The walls featured some framed maps and aviation diagrams, and a large plasma screen near the front was cycling through images from Chiron’s life.
Two boys holding their baby sister, one gazing at her, the other mugging for the camera.
(Fade to…) some sort of event with traditional clothing – Bar Mitzvah?
(Fade to…) a class photo, must be a private school by the uniform.
(Fade to…) Chiron and Ashleigh at an 80’s party, way too much eye-liner.
(Fade to…) Chiron with Elias Corder and some captains of industry.
Tucker looked at the guests clustered around the room. Chiron was standing at the far end in a small group, with his arm around Ashleigh. He gave a smile and waved Tucker over. Tucker recognized Cael, but not the other two, a slightly older couple.
– Energy levels looking good, Chiron.
“Folks, this is Tucker Trent, my colleague and successor at Corder Synergy. Tucker and I have been working together for, what is it, almost eight years now? Tucker, I don’t believe you’ve met my sister Sylvia and her husband Haskel.”
Tucker shook hands all round, got a two-cheek kiss from the older sister, and gave an arm-’round-the-shoulder hug to Ashleigh. There was a certain tension in the air, nobody seemed to know where to look or what to say. Maybe he could ease the mood.
“I don’t know about ‘successor’ Chiron, for one thing nobody’s going to fill your shoes. Then there’s the matter of Brandon Tyler.”
Chiron laughed, then stifled a cough. “Well that’s the thing about young guns, isn’t it? There’s never just one. But if Elias has any sense it’ll be you, Tucker.” He turned to his family. “See, even today I can’t escape office politics!”
They gave a polite laugh, with the smiles lingering a moment longer.
Over the next few minutes the remaining guests trickled in. Chiron managed to greet everyone, making introductions and small talk as appropriate. But there was not very much mingling, the group was too diverse. Partner, family, friends, colleagues. Fortunately there were canapés and drinks, so everyone had something to do with their hands. Strictly non-alcoholic, as it was critical that all the jumpers be sober. There would be time for alcohol later.
Eventually Ryan Mace mounted the podium and tapped the microphone discreetly. “Friends, this is a special time for all of us, and a difficult time as well. And I include myself and every one of us at Exit Strategy when I say that. Under normal circumstances we remain professionally detached at these engagements, but this time is different.
“Chiron Levy is our friend too, and not just our friend but the reason for our very existence. It was Chiron, with the courageous backing of Corder Synergy, who proposed the enterprise you see before you. We were struggling, uncertain of how much longer we would be able to continue operating. I recall the day Chiron, a longtime member, invited myself and the rest of the team into the Corder Synergy offices.
“The audacity of his vision stunned us. We ran a skydiving adventure club. Chiron’s ideas involved joining together with a funeral parlor, coroner’s agent, estate attorneys, a cemetery franchise, and a specialized legal team to coordinate everything. It was certainly not an idea we could have come up with ourselves. It was also challenging, and not everyone on our team was able to accept it. But from this vision came Exit Strategy.
“Chiron was passionate about whole-of-life planning. He foresaw that many people in this nation would share his views, though the political climate meant that only a brave few would express them publicly. Somehow, through hard work, brilliant strategy and his engaging passion, Chiron found a way to make these ideas work. He battled the unholy alliance of rigid fundamentalism and weak-kneed liberalism, created ways to move past the noisy minority who had held our society paralyzed.”
Mace paused, and continued in a quieter tone. “The idea of Chiron requiring our services some day was not a surprising one. But the fact that this should happen so soon, some thirty years ahead of schedule, that did come as a shock to us. That is why I say that I and everyone on the team here are truly saddened by this turn of events.
Another pause, then in a more upbeat tone: “However, we’re not here to dwell on sadness. The Exit Strategy mission is to celebrate life, choice and empowerment. And I can think of no one who better represents those three ideals than Chiron Levy.”
A round of applause greeted Chiron as he took Mace’s place. He looked around almost shyly and waited for quiet.
“It is indeed an honor to be surrounded by so many of my loved ones and dear friends. If we are defined by the people we have touched and who have touched us, then as I look out at the group gathered here I must count myself a fortunate man.
“Some of you may find this occasion challenging, and I ask your forgiveness for any distress. But I can honestly say that having each and every one of you here at this time gives me such strength and support, that any doubts about the unknown ahead are dispelled.”
Chiron steadied himself on the lectern. “When I look back over my life, I see the joys outnumbering the sorrows, the good times outnumbering the bad. There are very few regrets, and only one worth mentioning now. At the risk of stating the obvious, I wish I had never taken up smoking. Those first few cigarettes were the worst choice I ever made, and I can’t lay the blame at anyone’s feet but my own.
“But enough of that. The format for today is quite simple. This is the last speech you will hear.” He gave a wry smile. “There will be, er, another occasion quite soon in which you will be forced to sit through endless speeches about what an amazing guy I am, or rather was. But today will be more informal. We’ll mingle, we’ll reflect on times shared, we’ll have our chances to say the things we need to say.”
Chiron took a few shallow breaths. “So once again, I am deeply grateful that you have chosen to be here with me at this time. It means a lot, it really does.
“And finally I’d like to thank Ryan Mace and the team at Exit Strategy for taking a perverse little idea of mine and running with it. They’ve excelled themselves, and I’m truly proud of what we’ve created together.”
There was another round of applause as Chiron left the podium, walked over to his family and took Ashleigh’s hand.
Over the next hour or so Chiron moved around the room, sharing a few minutes with each of the guests, one-to-one or in groups of varying size. There were tears, there was laughter, hugs and high-fives.
Tucker was struck by the diversity of those assembled. There were family members, immediate and extended. Colleagues and clients, including some high-fliers from the corporate world. Even a few influential figures from the world of governance. Tucker recognized at least one prominent judge, as well as a couple of legislators. From the social circle there were the usual suspects, pairs of well-dressed men whom Tucker knew on a first-name-only basis. But Chiron’s personal life was much larger than his sexuality, and there were many others – skydiving buddies, university friends, and others whose connection Tucker did not know.
But very few children.
If the group was diverse, so was their social behavior. Some mingled easily, introducing themselves effortlessly to folk they had not met. Others remained within the security of their own groups. Tucker mingled a little, but didn’t feel the need to work the entire room. He had just finished chatting to a couple of Chiron’s high school alumni when Chiron approached.
– What do you say to someone who is planning to plunge into the earth in an hour or so?
“Chiron.” He smiled and shook his head. “You’ve pulled a decent crowd, I can say that. Look around, your whole life is represented here.”
“Yeah, it’s all here. Quite humbling really.”
“Ah… you’re going to have to forgive me if I don’t get this out right. But I just want you to know that you’re the luckiest break I ever got, you know, mentor and friend. And well… thanks. For everything.” Tucker wasn’t prone to tears, but he felt a wave of emotion pass through him and after a pause he put his arms around the gaunt man before him and gave the gentlest of hugs. Cotton wool and matchsticks. He broke away.
Chiron held his eye a moment and gave a one-sided grin. “Tucker, it’s been great – rewarding, fun, productive, and interesting. And I’m really glad you’ve agreed to be jumping with me later on.”
“Hey, it’s an honor, how could I miss it?”
“You’re going to go far in this game Tucker, I know that. A great career, and I’m glad that I was able to share the first few years of it. And I want you to know this: I really do wish you all the best with FreshStyle.”
Tucker drew a breath and lowered his eyes. “Thanks Chiron, I… appreciate it. I don’t know what to say.”
– You’re the luckiest break I ever stabbed in the back?
Chiron frowned in thought and said “No, it’s OK Tucker. FreshStyle could never have flown my way. Elias knew it too. Without your work it would have been shelved. You found a way to make it happen. You did well, kid.”
Chiron surveyed the room. “Now I have a few more folk I need to say a few words to. See you in prep.”
“Go get ‘em.”
There was very little to do but mark time. Tucker felt his socializing mode fading. He was starting to feel wired, a certain tension was building. A tray of canapés was offered and he waved it past. Maybe another drink, his mouth was dry… but no, he couldn’t afford to drink too much. With stress levels like this, his bladder would be on a very short cycle. There would be no toilets in the plane.
At last it was time. Ryan Mace was addressing the gathering again.
“Folks, I’ll keep this brief. The time is upon us. In a moment I will be taking Chiron and his team to prep them for this afternoon’s mission. The bar will begin serving alcoholic beverages shortly thereafter. In about an hour we will walk from the rear of these premises to the aircraft, which will take off as soon as we are aboard. The drop zone is approximately three kilometers northwest of here, and there is a viewing area adjacent to this function room, accessible from the door behind me. Anyone who wishes may use the viewing area, but we do ask that you sign a waiver acknowledging your intention to do so.”
Mace motioned for Chiron to step onto the podium beside him, then turned to face him and saluted.
“Friends, we celebrate the life of Chiron Levy, and bid him farewell!”
This time the applause was thunderous. Tucker pumped his fist in the air, it just felt like the right thing to do.
The briefing room was pure designer military, with rows of white painted desks and spartan metal chairs. There was a table and whiteboard up the front, and more aviation charts and technical drawings on the walls. Next to the table was a raised platform, a formboard surface on a metalwork frame with a step on one side. There were six other Exit Strategy personnel in the room, and two seasoned jumpers whom Chiron knew well.
Mace introduced them to the group. Gavin was the pilot while Bruce, Terry, Geoff and Rod would be tandem masters on the drop, and David would be assisting with the briefing in his capacity as a notary public. Chiron introduced Icehead and the Streak. Tucker figured the reason they spent so much time high above the surface of this planet was that they came from another one.
There were two parts to ‘prep’.
First came the paperwork.
There was an endless stream of waivers, disclaimers and declarations, each requiring multiple signatures, initials, dates and full contact details. Many of them were printed on Gratton Hetherington Tonkin letterhead. Tucker was familiar with them, they were a very progressive firm not averse to pushing the envelope, and Corder Synergy had utilized their services for a number of projects.
Some of the declarations simply required witnessing. Cael Levy was in the desk next to Tucker, and they would swap documents to witness each other’s signatures. However, others required more formal administration and Tucker had to verbally affirm to the notary public the declarations he was signing.
The purpose of the various legal instruments Tucker was endorsing was to indemnify Exit Strategy from any liability for psychological distress he might experience, while at the same time acknowledging Exit Strategy’s denial of intention or foreknowledge of anything that might cause this distress. It didn’t make a lot of sense to Tucker, everybody knew what was going on. But he did appreciate the importance and power of a clever combination of legal wording, precedent and influential friends.
Tucker looked across to where Chiron sat. He had a much bigger pile to get through. Noticing Tucker, he gestured toward the stack, mugged a haggard expression and said “Hoist with his own petard.”
Chiron’s task was to declare that he was of sound mind, had no intention or foreknowledge of an illegal act, and to indemnify Exit Strategy against unspecified damages should any mishap transpire.
There was only one way of subscribing to Exit Strategy’s services. The process could only start if the applicant was certified by a doctor to be in good health. You couldn’t sign up after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, since that might be a result of temporary depression. It was also necessary to make and register an advance directive pursuant to legislation, stating that should you become terminally ill, once your condition deteriorates past a certain point you no longer wish to receive various forms of life-prolonging treatment.
Chiron Levy had made and lodged such an advance directive several years earlier, after helping to establish Exit Strategy. Now he was required to sign an appendix to that declaration, stating that he still held this position on these matters.
Finally he had to declare that he had sufficient skydiving experience to jump without a tandem master. That this happened to be true was of no consequence.
After the paperwork was complete, Ryan Mace handed out the jumpsuits, harnesses and headsets, and they all geared up. After his introduction they watched a short DVD presentation outlining the details of the jump. This was followed by a couple of practice runs jumping from the raised platform while harnessed to their tandem masters. Tucker’s mind was elsewhere, and he had some difficulty paying attention.
There was one point that he found interesting. Chiron’s parachute was equipped with a dead-man’s switch. His pack had an auto-deployment device, and he would hold a small transmitter in his hand on the way down. If he released the switch for any reason the canopy would activate automatically.
Tucker looked down between his feet. The earth was a long way down, and he was suddenly aware that his life was hanging, quite literally, by a couple of straps, some suspension lines and a few square yards of lightweight fabric. The raw, animal fear during the first few moments of freefall was replaced by a new fear, one based on actual thinking.
He looked over to where the tiny black figure lay. It was some distance away, and would be discreetly out of site by the time they landed. He hadn’t watched the actual moment of impact. There are some things that you can never un-see, and he didn’t want an image like that to dominate his memories of Chiron. This whole event was enough just as it was.
– A suitable exclamation mark for the great sentence that was his life.
Already an SUV was heading towards the impact site. It was khaki in color and Tucker could clearly read “Exit Strategy” on the roof. He didn’t envy those inside their job.
The air no longer felt bracing, it was not even cool – as they descended the heat and haze welcomed them back into its embrace. The earth was moving closer, the horizon flattening out and the hills acquiring gentle contours. Tucker saw the landing zone ahead, although they were still quite high and would overshoot it. Icehead and the Streak had deployed their chutes last and landed first, quickly followed by Ryan Mace. Tucker could also see that one of the tandem pairs was already down. Probably Corder, but he couldn’t be sure. He sensed Geoff pulling the control lines, saw the ground tilt and turn beneath him as they executed a lazy half spiral. There were two other parachutes above now, but the ground was coming up fast. Geoff pulled down on both control lines and they leveled out.
“Legs up,” came the reminder a few seconds from touchdown. Tucker complied, leaving his instructor free to control the landing. They made contact, controlled rather than graceful, Geoff taking a couple of hopping steps before they eased into a sitting position.
“Hold still,” said Geoff as the canopy slowly crumpled on the ground, losing its sleek form. Tucker felt the harness disengage and he was a free man again. He got to his feet and extended a hand to Geoff, pulling him to his feet then holding the grip in a handshake.
“Thanks,” he said, then “wow.” He looked down and saw that he’d got some blood on Geoff’s hand. He pointed it out, “Uh sorry, I think I must have cut myself.”
Geoff looked at his hand, “No problem.” He squatted down and wiped it on the dry grass then rose up again, nodding slowly. “Great jump, great jump. Chiron got the ending he wanted, the ending he deserved. You know, I jumped with him quite a few times.”
“So this wasn’t a normal gig, right?”
“Not at all,” said Geoff shaking his head. “Not at all.”
Tucker excused himself and walked over to the other jumpers, awash with conflicting emotions. He felt elated and invincible, an consequence of the jump. But this very euphoria triggered guilt, as part of his mind considered those feelings inappropriate. Then there was the visceral shock that accompanies a close encounter with death in a society that quarantines such events. But Tucker couldn’t feel any sadness or loss. There wasn’t room for it in his overloaded mind. He knew it would come, though. Especially when he returned to work the following week.
He looked around at the other jumpers. Elias Corder was radiating ten times the elation Tucker felt, and none of the guilt. Icehead and the Streak were similarly hyped, high fiving each other and Corder. In contrast Cael Levy appeared calm and inscrutable, the very type specimen of restraint.
– Hasn’t that guy just lost a brother?
But it was Ashleigh Gabriel who drew Tucker’s attention. The conflict Tucker felt was writ large in his face, and more besides. He looked utterly desolate and lost. No one else seemed to be noticing.
– Now there’s a kid who’s got it bad.
Tucker walked straight up to the stricken man and threw his arms around him. He felt Ashleigh’s body crumple and shudder as a wave of silent sobbing passed through him. It felt like a parent comforting a child, although he had never been a parent. After a few moments Ashleigh began to compose himself, and Tucker could feel a semblance of control start to assert itself.
“Thank you Tucker. I’m sorry, I…”
“Don’t be, it’s OK.”
It was then Tucker noticed that Corder had been looking on, and saw a faintly puzzled expression in the older man’s eyes, which gave way to a barely perceptible nod of approval.
– Time was I’d be worrying how gay this looked.
In very little time the instructors and single jumpers had stowed their parachutes. A four wheel drive minibus arrived to carry them back to Exit Strategy premises. The short drive was largely spent in silence, although some of the instructors spoke to each other quietly. Even Icehead and the Streak seemed subdued.
Back at Exit Strategy they were ushered into the briefing room again. Someone brought a first-aid kit and applied some antiseptic and a small adhesive bandage to Tucker’s hand. After they were seated Mace addressed them and explained the remaining formalities.
“Folks, we’re going to need just a few more signatures. Each of us is a witness to the passing of our friend Chiron Levy. The main declaration before you describes what has occurred this afternoon, using a formal phrasing provided by our legal team. Ironically, as it happens, under the coordination of Chiron Levy himself. These accounts, in conjunction with precedent, will allow the Coroner to deliver a finding of death by misadventure, with no culpable parties. And since Chiron has terminated his life insurance policy, there will be no challenge to that finding.
“I can assure you that the declaration contains no falsehoods, although it most certainly is in legalese. And of course I would urge you to read it before signing. As soon as we are done, these documents will be dispatched to the Coroner’s office.”
Tucker started scanning the pages in front of him, but understood very little. He signed on all the lines, noticing again the Gratton Hetherington Tonkin letterhead at the top. When prompted he parroted “I so declare” to David, the notary public.
– Is this surreal, or is it just me?
When it was over, they moved back into the function room. The bar was open now, and Tucker got a beer, something imported. He didn’t feel like mingling anymore, didn’t have anything to say to Chiron’s family or friends. There was nothing the rest of the day could offer that would match what he had been through. The other jumpers seemed to feel the same way, keeping to themselves, nursing a drink or two. He edged over to where Elias Corder was standing, his infectious enthusiasm subdued.
“After the jump, the rest of it seems to drag, doesn’t it Trent?” observed Corder.
“Yes, I suppose it is time for this show to be over,” said Tucker. He paused, then added, “The office is sure going to be a different place next week.”
A little animation twinkled back into Corder’s eyes. “Indeed. For one thing Trent, you and I are going to be working a lot more closely now. That FreshStyle launch of yours is mere days away. Are you ready for the publicity?”
“Sure, Mr Corder.”
Corder gave an approving wink.
As the guests left Ryan Mace thanked each one for attending, spending a little longer with the jumpers. Tucker filed past, and Mace shook his bandaged hand, his grip a little gentler than usual.
“Glad you could take part, Mr Trent.”
“Thanks, I can honestly say it’s like nothing I have ever done in my life.”
Mace offered him a business card and Tucker took it. It was matte black with two bands of camo across the top and bottom. Beneath the Exit Strategy logo were three lines of text:
Ryan Mace, CEO
Do not go gently into that dark night