Above and Beyond
With imperceptible speed the green and blue orb silently rotated within its precarious shroud. Twenty miles above the earth's surface a fragile human might die three unimaginable deaths: wheezing suffocation, blood-solidifying fast-freeze or explosive haemorrhaging of veins and arteries. Yet the world looks oddly vulnerable, the eye able to capture both heaven and earth in one awe-inspiring arc, the tissue of atmosphere fragile and insubstantial set against the enormity of the endless night beyond. Looking out across four continents James Bond paused for breath, thoughts in another more personal place before regaining his composure and turning his attention to the equipment surrounding him.
The suit fitted snugly, Jessop's of Oxford having done a faultless job of body casting. Only the essential reinforced ridges running head to knee down the rear restricted his movement, digging in when flexed. He looked across at the two men with whom he shared the cramped cabin: Cray studied a hard-wired laptop while Foreman continued to peer through the observation window. Despite it being early morning illumination was severely restricted and a perpetual gloom pervaded the interior. A small array of coloured LEDs and a blue backlight on the coms. panel lent a submarine-glow to proceedings setting Cray's features into harsh relief and the rest of the cabin into shades of pitch.
'R-minus four minutes,' the pilot broke in through the earpiece. He needed to focus. Three months of sheer hell and he couldn't help wondering if he had done sufficient training. The old discipline had returned, the physical toughness and the familiar 'high' of stretching to his limits. But mentally: that could only be tested 'live' on operations like this morning. And he couldn't help but wonder as he ran through the format of the procedure at hand if he really had done enough. Trouble was, if the answer was no, he'd not be around to tell the story.
'Okay Commander – get ready,' Foreman's monotone cut across the headphones. You couldn't accuse him of over enthusiasm – they must drill it out of you these days thought Bond grimly. He checked the carbon-fibre fastenings across his chest: three arrow-shaped bolts fashioned in the dark-grey, lightweight material located snugly in three equally robust sockets. He'd tested them under extreme conditions and had no doubt they'd do their job in the next fifteen crucial minutes. It was the contraption on his back that worried him.
'R-minus one-twenty.' It was down to seconds: Cray gave him the thumbs up. Bond focussed his mind on his breathing: deep, full inhalations, slow measured exhalation. His heartbeat drummed slowly in his ears: maintaining that steady rhythm was the key.
'Rendezvous ready'. Again the automaton: no humanity. Was he, Bond, this detached, or was he just noticing it on coming back, he thought? So much had changed while he'd been away - the politics, the people. Even the Service itself – it seemed colder, more clinical; dull. Inside the imposing exterior of that marble building on the Thames he could have been inside an insurance broker's. And here in the field: humourless automatons. Professional, competent, of course; but surely there had been an element of grim enjoyment, the gallows humour that went with the territory and counterbalanced the grim reality of the job? His stopped his mind from wandering. Focus Bond! Again that twinge of uncertainty.
Cray gave a two-handed thumbs-up and it was time. Again Bond found he was unprepared – he ran his hands quickly over the clasps and joints in the familiar seven-point routine he'd practiced over and again in the large, corrugated hangar at Otterburn as the rain pounding an endless barrage outside. He locked the visor, feeling the helmet pressurise. Stretching up he grabbed the handrails and peered briefly through the starboard observation hatch. His mind registered the immense height, the speed, the distance, but not the beauty. Now he felt the satisfying mental 'click' as though some piece of dysfunctional machinery had suddenly righted. Finally he felt the rush of adrenalin and his muscles tensed. Foreman reached across and simultaneously pressed the twin release switches and Bond stepped into the airlock.
'Good luck Commander Bond.' Bond drew another slow, deep breath then switched on the master circuit, oxygen and pressurisation. The warning light panel at the base of his right eyepiece gave five greens. He gave the thumbs up to Foreman. Finally, just as he watched Foreman twist the rear payload door lock he thought he saw a glimmer of a smile pass across the young lieutenant's face – but strangely when it did, it seemed to him not to be friendly after all.
It had been a long time, but Bond was right back where he wanted to be, looking death squarely in the face. He stepped out into the clear, thin air and fell to earth.
Arrowing his body into a dart-shape, arms and legs firmly tucked into his sides, James Bond's body plunged into the aircraft's wake, turbulence ripping its dark shadow from his peripheral vision. Then: a heart-stopping stillness. All sense of movement was gone - earth, sky, space, clouds thousands of feet beneath - all still and unmoving. But for the savage buffeting of the air he could be suspended weightless, but even this was dulled by the insulation provided by his helmet and instead his ears registered his own rhythmic breathing, heart rate increased but steady. The pale blue in-visor display informed him his rate of descent had already exceeded two hundred miles per hour, atmosphere providing limited friction allowing a higher terminal velocity than in free-fall. Three hundred: three-fifty. Arms and legs remained wedged – spreading them now could mean losing a limb. The altimeter showed ninety thousand feet – he'd fallen eleven thousand feet inside half a minute. Five hundred miles per hour. His mind registered the absence of a parachute as a mild concern, offset against the calculations he had to make. Five-twenty, fifty: acceleration dropping. Precision was the key – there was no second chance. He focussed his mind, checked the instruments, the gyroscope informing his position as he made minute course adjustments.
At seventy thousand feet his rate of descent steadied then began to fall as air density increased, slowing his body like a space capsule in re-entry. Immediately he relaxed his frame slightly to offer the air a greater target – he had to be down to three hundred by fifty thousand to begin the equipment test. At fifty-five he was below four hundred but decelerating too slowly. Making a fast decision he slowly spread his arms and legs.
The Jessop DGT II Wing-suit is a military derivative of the so-called 'flying-squirrel' wing-suit favoured by extreme-sports parachutists and BASE-jumping exponents. Invented in the 1930s its early practitioners suffered an understandably poor fatality rate and only with the adoption of modern materials in the 1990s did it reach the commercial market where it is still considered one of the toughest challenges. The standard suit consists of a one-piece parachutist's coverall with three-sections of canvas webbing between the legs and under each arm enabling the wearer to glide while freefalling, slowing descent and offering the possibility of extended horizontal travel. With practice the pilot can perform acrobatics – turning, banking, even looping – and in the process cover an enormous amount of lateral ground as terminal speeds drop from hundreds to tens of miles per hour. Military applications have taken the concept several stages further, a combination of lightweight jet engines and fighter-plane aerodynamics producing spectacular results. The DGT II contained no metal parts, its 'scramjet' engine relying on the massive forward pressure of air forced through a compression funnel being directed via controllable jets to the rear. As a result, it is usefully invisible to even the most sensitive detection equipment, leaving no heat signature. The overall set-up enables the flier to control power with millimetric precision and, performing an incredible range of manoeuvres and achieving speeds in excess of five hundred miles per hour in lateral flight. The potential for clandestine flights into restricted airspace is enormous, as is the risk to the pilot. Aerodynamics precluded the use of a traditional parachute, a lightweight alternative often not deploying reliably. Low altitude results had been euphemistically termed 'mixed'.
Bond knew there was something wrong as soon as he opened his arms. Spreading his 'wings' to a quarter of their full breadth the earth immediately began to spin. Instead of slowing and beginning to level off he found himself in a barrel roll, vision becoming a disorientated kaleidoscope of sky and sun. Frantically he checked the suit and spotted a jagged, three-inch tear in his port side wing. The air was rushing through the rent at what must still be over three hundred miles per hour; a small flap billowed furiously in the air-stream. Mind racing he recalled the mission briefing: there was no 'plan B' – in a real-life simulation, where weight and aerodynamics were key, there was no parachute. He had one objective – make the rendezvous. Failure was not on the options list.
Calculations had been precise – deploy the suit and open the inlet valves effectively starting the engines at fifty-thousand feet, then descend at as shallow an angle as possible – the target being less than twenty degrees - to extend the duration and lateral distance covered during the flight. Simulating real conditions he had no radio contact, and to add incentive at his own insistence the reserve chute was back at base. All he had were the suit, his instruments and a target grid reference showing as an indicator arrow on his visor. The rest was skill. Total duration for the flight was supposed to be twelve minutes; altitude lost: seventy thousand feet; ground distance covered, approximately fifty-eight miles. While the suit was undetectable he was wearing a homer for this test and his flight path would be tracked for later analysis. His chances of a perfect six for technical merit had gone: he could only hope his artistic impression would not be judged by the pattern he made on the ground.
Bond took stock. Stabilisation was the immediate goal. If he switched on the engine he would spin to an untidy oblivion. But he had no means of repair and very little time.
He wrenched at the flap for his chest pocket and withdrew the short Sykes-Fairbairn combat knife from its moulded compartment. Holding out his right arm, webbing taut, he instantly began to spin like a top. He struggled to keep focussed, kept his aching arm rigid, and with his left he reached across to the starboard wing. He span faster. The rubbery structure was tough but he managed to cut just enough; he could always make it bigger if needed. Ensuring he kept the knife clasped firmly in his gloved hand he gently stretched his port wing. His body stabilised: he was still rotating but with some adjustment he was able to control it. Within seconds his brain had factored this into his calculations. Problem one dealt with: now for the second.
The blue digits on his visor gave his total flight duration as two minutes – a minute behind and below schedule. Cursing he was five miles short and one underneath his intended flight path. He would have to fire the engines and run them at higher power than planned, which again they'd not counted on or tested. Reaching across his chest he hit the toggle switch which opening the inlet valves over each shoulder and the sudden thrust of the jets took him by surprise. Building rapidly to fifty per-cent power he formed his body into the carefully practiced full-delta position and turned the hand grip to full power. The wind racing through the twin holes in his wings threatened to dislocate his arms and also meant his rate of descent was greater than planned. The air ripped angrily at his sinews, forcing his limbs against the reinforced wing ribs. The air-speed indicator read two hundred but his rate of descent had dropped dramatically. The suit felt strained - the test data said it would hold up to six hundred but theory wasn't a reliable safety net. He put this thought squarely from his mind and adjusted to the pain shooting up from his limbs - filing it, reducing it to a piece of sensory input.
Bond turned his attention to the digital compass and altimeter in the bottom of the right eyepiece. Five degrees off course; he shifted starboard and decreased his angle of descent. While he retained good control over lateral movement his ability to control vertical pitch was limited. Ten seconds: twenty. He had been told to expect to see the lights of the Rendezvous at five miles giving him approximately sixty seconds to adjust his trajectory. At his increased rate of descent and steeper angle of interception, however, he would be lucky to get thirty - and if he came in too low it would be game over.
No lights – he should be able to see them by now. Had he over-shot? No panic, just observation. His personnel file may be labelled 'unbalanced' but here he was in his element, albeit that element could shortly be the death of him.
A glimmer to port: two green lights, then two more; now a line. Two parallel lines of fairy lights – one green, one red, spread magically out below him, punctuating the thin vaporous clouds and leading him in. He adjusted his course minutely, but the wind caught his starboard wing and he pitched dramatically. He swung his arms out wider, catching the draft fully beneath them and causing a renewed and intense pain to shoot up his arms. His shoulder blades screamed in agony. Use your legs more – that's what he'd been taught: don't let your arms take all the strain. He kicked, kicked again, the action swinging him across and placing him on a direct trajectory for the landing lights which now lay squarely below him. He steadied, drew breath and checked the instruments once more. Airspeed steady at two-fifty; rate of descent still too high – an angle above thirty degrees and he would redecorate the inside of the Hercules a delicate shade of gut and sinew. The aircraft was simply coming up too fast.
He switched down the jets to lose altitude quickly but now risked stalling; he dropped with stomach churning suddenness. Switching them back up almost immediately lifted speed above two-fifty and he was slowly gaining once more. His heartbeat thudded in his ears. Eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching fattened rear-end of the dull-olive coloured Hercules transport aircraft he spread his wings as wide as he could, taking eth full force of the turbulence on his arms. Again a white flare of pain tore through him. Airspeed was rising: two sixty, eighty. He took a second to realise that the buffeting had forced his wrist up against the hand throttle, just enough to throw him off course, making his target speed and angle unattainable. He needed an alternative approach plan fast.
Below he saw the trailing lights – twenty halogen bulbs burning brightly down each side, probably run on standard industrial-strength triple core flex maybe fifty yards in length. He recalled a stunt at a college Christmas party; it was all he had.
Bond kicked up his legs and bowed his head, his body following in a renewed, determined swan dive. Abandoning the digital display he relied on his mental guidance systems: he had to get down behind the plane before he overshot. Again his heartbeat pounded, louder and faster, his breathing still controlled but his body straining. His sub-conscious registered passive enjoyment at the transient sense of living.
His altitude dropped with suicidal eagerness: plummeting three hundred feet in a few seconds, now fully in the Hercules' wake, for the first time he saw the open payload doors. There was a bluish glow: low, so as not to dazzle his approach, the group of specialist aircrew standing in the aircraft's belly reduced to silhouettes. He had seconds: tilting his trajectory to port he flattened to a thirty-degree angle, arms screaming colourful obscenities. He braced and dropped the final fifty feet, grabbing at the trailing line, feeling the line slam hard into his chest. He hit the engine's 'kill' switch, drew in his legs and swung his arms around the flex. The line felt like concrete with limited give against his falling carcase. Pain sliced through Bond's limbs like a machete, but his arms and legs closed obediently around the line. First one then two lights slashed rapidly through his forearms, lightning bolts of pain shooting through each shoulder before the third locked in the crook of his left arm, savagely ripping both suit and skin.
But his momentum propelled him forward and he found himself arching wide beneath the starboard wing. Ahead the grey blurs of the twin Rolls-Royce Allison turbo-props grew menacingly in his visor and he felt their collective thrust, doubting if it would be enough to repel him. But he was damned if he was going to fail now. With his last strength he swung his feet upwards as he approached the wing and managed to clip a fuel tank with one of his boots, enough to check his progress and reverse the swing, the lights billowing back towards the rear of the aircraft like a streamer in its turbulent wake. He caught breath and clung on, hurting. The suit made it near impossible to climb even if he'd had the strength: he had no option but to await rescue.
It took the aircrew a full minute to realise he hadn't perished and to winch him into the broad, flat cargo-bay. As he slid across the floor, body exhausted, he felt the catches being undone on his suit releasing the pressure across his chest and limbs. The rear-door hydraulics whined as his helmet was removed and for the first time he heard the deafening howl of the air torn up in the Hercules' wake and felt the icy fingers of fresh air upon his face.
'Good to have you on board Commander Bond. Nice flight, but you just cost me fifty-quid, sir.' Bond could only stare blankly at the young airman who grinned down at him from beneath a green flight-helmet. 'I bet this lot you wouldn't make it.'
The traffic lights were against him. Hands gripping the wheel tighter than ever, Rob Fletcher glanced once more in his mirror which framed the police car holding station behind him. They'd tailed his white hired Iveco van the two miles from the town centre, rarely dropping back more than two car lengths. Even when he had slowed as much as he dared to allow it to overtake the car had stayed obstinately put. His mind already saw blue flashing lights, his heart racing at every fleeting reflection off cars passing in the darkness. The copper's face was hidden in shadow: in Rob's mind he was already on his radio, reporting in. But he would be too late, the journey was nearly at an end, and if he judged it right he would be able to take the Volvo by surprise just as soon as these bloody lights changed.
Sweat beaded his brow. His watch said eight-ten.
Across the right turning stood two constables, happily chatting in the amber glow of the streetlights about the day's events. Between them stood a flimsy road sign that announced that the road would be 'Closed!' to all traffic on match-days. To his left on the corner stood the imposing red-brick facade of the Trafford public house, a 1920s watering hole of which he had bad memories: on the sole occasion that he, as an opposing football fan had mistakenly visited, sometime in the eighties, he had been singled out for a 'good seeing to' – and indeed still walked with the resultant limp. But today the boot was most definitely on the other foot: his good foot. He knew what he had been instructed to do this afternoon was bad: very bad. There was no way he thought he would have gone to such lengths if it hadn't been for the agency's incredibly persuasive methods. But they had made it clear that what he carried would cause limited damage, just a frightener - and they had devised a cunning get-away route for him to take through Salford Quays, and besides…it'd put the wind up those smug, arrogant Red bastards. Again his hands grasped at the wheel, knuckles whitening, urging gravity to force the electricity down to the green bulb faster.
'Come on!' he roared at a radio advert for a furniture store, veins bulging on his forehead. The quicker this was over the better.
Rob stamped on the accelerator, arms swinging the heavy black wheel sharply to the right, van leaning alarmingly in the opposite direction. It ploughed through the sign and scattered the two chatty coppers and was off down the terraced road before either could regain their footing. Through two more barriers with little more resistance, glancing a burger stall as it went, the van made it to the edge of the forecourt at forty miles per hour. The great, looming shape of the Old Trafford stadium came into view over the houses, smoked glass façade rising eight stories up to the blazing neon sign beneath a hazy Manchester night sky, arrogantly proclaiming this as the object of his, and apparently someone else's, intense hatred.
Changing down as he sped past the reviled 'Megastore', glimpsing the latecomers hurrying across the forecourt grasping their nasty plastic carrier bags, he swung the huge wheel to the left. The nearside wheels glanced the kerb and the van rocked, tyres squealing as he struggled to keep control, but it seemed to know its true course and headed down the service road beneath the immense North Stand. The engine's roar echoed back off the plain, red brickwork beneath twenty-five thousand well-behaved rows of fans.
Park diagonally across the middle, they'd said: it would take the police longer to reach him and let him make an easy getaway across the darkened car park, the canal, then off into the Lowry Shopping Centre. Five minutes and he'd be just another anonymous late-night shopper. No need for him to set the device: that would be done via remote once they knew he was clear. It would make one hell of a mess of the tunnel, maybe bring the ceiling down, cause a lot of chaos – and yes, probably hurt one or two people they had told him, in all honesty. He thought he could handle that – he recalled a saying about omelettes and eggs. Just like he recalled the six weeks in hospital.
Running down from the front of the ground a fluorescent-jacketed policeman led four of his colleagues past the row of idle, venting hot-dog stands and merchandise sellers, sliding to a stand-still when he saw that the van had also come to a halt. A horrific thought exploded in his mind. Reaching for his radio he just had time to report his name and ID followed by 'Oh God no...!' before the first flames erupted from the vehicle. He clearly saw the roof of the van rise silently upwards, pushed by a solid column of blinding white light which did not stop when it reached the tunnel roof. It continued like a mini-volcano up into the stand itself. In tandem his mind noted with interest that all four sides of the van simultaneously jumped outwards, and then a jet of flame shot from where the rear doors had just been and incinerated PC John Glover and his four colleagues instantaneously.
Mrs Joanne Glover identified her husband two days later by dental records.
The death toll rose for five days, from seven hundred to fourteen, then nineteen and finally two thousand four hundred and ninety eight, including six hundred and seven children. Two thousand pounds of high explosive had been cleverly arranged to fire vertically, blowing a hole fifty feet in diameter through three stories of concrete and steel, significantly weakening the structure and causing it to buckle catastrophically. Most of the people had been killed by the collapse but hundreds more perished in the panic which followed. The scenes shown on television were criticised as horrific and voyeuristic, yet the true horrors were never broadcast. Structural engineers said it could not have been better planned: 'expert, insider knowledge' was cited. The country stopped and stared.
Alerts stopped football matches across the UK immediately, but not Europe until two days later simultaneous attacks at Real Madrid's Bernabau stadium (a device detonated on the underground Metro line beneath it) and outside the Stadium Del Alpi in Turin claimed a further eighteen hundred lives.
For seven days no claim was made on the attacks during which time all kinds of theories were put forward involving the obvious and not-so obvious candidates. No link could be found between the perpetrators - all indigenous citizens to the country bearing witness to their crimes, none with terrorist allegiances and no religious commonality. Three seemingly independent yet plainly connected attacks, especially when the bombs were found to be of similar composition.
The statement when it came chilled the bones of all who read it:
'In the first joint venture between our respective organisations and pursuant of our individual aims and objectives three football stadia were targeted in a brave attack on greed, privilege and oppression. The impact these have had illustrates the renewed fervour with which we shall fight, and the increased power we can leverage in the first stage of our newfound Co-operative, heralding the dawn of a new era in our global struggle. A warning: so perish the enemies of freedom and those who for too long have wielded power. Our struggle will not cease; our aims will be achieved. Glory to the fallen.'
The statement, in eight languages, was co-signed by the Basque separatist organisation ETA, the IPFC, an Iraqi freedom fighting group, and the right wing Italian organisation ITALIS.
Around the world, governments shuddered.