A deep voice blared through the speaker overhead: “Secure hover transport doors.” Thirty seconds later, it continued, “Decontamination Chamber One is now fully contained. All personnel in D.C. One, secure hazmat suits and transmit the all-clear to central command.”
“Now for the helmets,” Graham said to Peggy Lee. He then turned and spoke to Charley who sat one row back and across the aisle. “Help Ian here with his helmet and gloves and show him the main features of the suit?”
“Yes, sir,” Charley said.
As Graham turned back to the front of the craft, he could see the pilot snapping his helmet into place. The two escort soldiers sat directly behind the pilot in side-facing, pull-down seats. They too attached their helmets and were now dialing into central command from the keypads on their forearms.
Graham secured Peggy Lee’s helmet, helped her with her gloves and seat belt, and then turned up her suit’s air conditioning. He then sent the all-clear from her suit. He also keyed in a communication line between her helmet and his so that they could speak privately.
The same deep voice from the loudspeaker spoke softly now from small speakers inside the helmets. “Prepare for D.C. One contamination. Doors will open in three, two, one – outer doors opening. Have a safe trip.”
The hover transport vehicle remained still as the doors opened. The pilot tapped in coordinates and flipped on the headlights. Wisps of fog licked the sides of the portal and snaked into the chamber along the ceiling. Graham knew that the thick outside air was warm, but the fog’s dark veil felt cold. Goose bumps crept up his arms. Visibility decreased rapidly as dense fog filled the chamber. The line of lights on the walls glowed faintly through the fog like a string of lanterns. Graham glanced at Peggy Lee. She was watching the pilot completed his run-throughs.
The pilot then pushed on a large central lever, and the main engine, which had been idling quietly, roared to life. The vehicle rose nose first, as its skirt inflated. The fog outside Graham’s window swirled into tight eddies – a panicked stream – and then dissipated quickly, driven back outside by the hover transport’s powerful blowers. The vehicle leveled out, now floating ten inches above the chamber floor.
Graham liked going out to the facilities, but every time he left the relative safety of headquarters, he was reminded of one of the worst days of his life. This time was no different.
It was September 25, 2071, two years after basic training. His platoon was running drills in Wyoming in preparation for deployment to the Alaska border. The Alaskan Rebellion had ended disastrously for America earlier in the year. The U.S. Army was secretly readying its troops to retake control.
Graham was sitting directly behind the pilot of a troop transport helicopter as they crossed the Red Desert region of south-east Wyoming after a long day of field exercises. He watched the pilot and co-pilot attempting to steady the chopper as they sped through an unexpected and ferocious sand storm. They had flown in worse weather, Graham reassured himself. He leaned back in his chair, tried to relax, and watched the dark waves of sand pelting the windscreen. He was hungry and his legs ached from the day’s exercises. He wanted to be in the mess hall, sitting down to a hamburger and some fries.
All of a sudden, a blast of wind ripped the windscreen from the helicopter. One minute it was there, and the next it was gone. The helicopter began to spin uncontrollably. The pilot attempted to regain control, but it was no use. Grit blew through the cabin, filling Graham’s ears, nose, eyes, and mouth instantly. He tried to take a breath, but there was no air to breathe, just sand. He covered his face with his hands as they hurtled through the gritty emptiness, waiting for impact.
Graham could never remember everything that happened next. He just recalled pulling soldiers from the burning wreckage through the raging sand storm. His knee and shoulder screamed for him to stop. But he kept going. He pulled three bloody soldiers from the chopper and was going back for more when it exploded. A massive fire ball lit up the bleak, brown void surrounding the wreckage. Graham struggled back to the guys he had pulled out. As he checked their vital signs, he realized that he had saved one soldier who was still – just barely – alive . . . and two corpses.
Twelve hours later, Graham was the sole survivor. The Army gave him a Bronze Star for his bravery. He didn’t want to accept it, but had no choice.
They say there is no better feeling than saving a life. Graham had his own theory: there is no worse feeling than blowing the opportunity to save lives by stupidly dragging already dead people out of a burning helicopter. Who was still alive in that chopper when it went up in flames? What would those good soldiers be doing now if Graham had pulled them out instead of the dead and dying?
The accident, and other similar accidents, led to a sharp decrease in the use of helicopters, in both the military and civilian sectors. After a wide-scale investigation, including interviews with Graham, the U.S. government concluded that helicopters were no longer a safe form of transportation. Unpredictable rogue winds with speeds of up to 250 mph, like the one that caused Graham’s accident, were becoming more frequent throughout the Rocky Mountains and Mid-West. High and low pressure systems, climatologists said, were clashing with increased ferocity each year, causing violent and deadly wind storms throughout the nation. The military moth-balled its helicopters in 2076, five years after the accident.
After he had healed up, Graham was offered his choice of assignments. He chose a two-year assignment at the water production facilities because it did not require flying or acts of bravery, and he would be helping people in the L.A. Climate Shelter. He had long ago given up on his dream of going to college and becoming a scientist, but a tour at the water production facilities seemed like a step in the right direction.
As the hover transport vehicle pulled away from headquarters and into the dark fog, Graham made a silent wish for a safe trip.