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The Eternal Skydiver
by Lori Spring
Ninety three million miles from the airport where Danny Erhardt was parking his car, something strange was happening. Another solar system had passed a little too close to ours - if you can call a hundred light years close -and our sun was suffering greatly from the near impact. Great masses of churning gasses swirled over its surface and exploded into the atmosphere like a celestial fourth of July exhibition. Dust and solid bits of the sun also broke away and began to orbit.
The effects of the near miss of the solar systems were just beginning to be felt this bright blue Saturday morning. The weather was perfect, but yet there was a feeling in the air, almost like the calm before a storm.
Danny Erhardt was whistling "Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder" as he unloaded his rigs and oxygen gear, and carried them to the packinq area. Other jumpers noted that he seemed even happier than usual - if that was possible. Why shouldn't he be? He had been planning and saving and getting ready for today's jump for a long time!
Thirty grand! A whole new experience up where nothing flies but man, and all those beautiful minutes of free fall awaiting him.
Cracking jokes all the while, and whistling bits of this and that, Danny packed his rig and checked out his protective clothing. He made sure the smoke holder was properly mounted on his boot and the spares handy, and then checked out his oxygen equipment. Though he didn't normally use one, Danny had attached a Sentinel to his reserve. After all, no one in the club had yet jumped from thirty thousand, and who knew what might happen on the way down. The Sentinel was set to open the chute at 500 feet, so it was really a last resort kind of thing and Danny was sure he wouldn't need it. After all, he was healthy as a horse, strong as a bull and had almost 700 jumps in his log. He had never even dumped a reserve. Any trouble he got into, he could always get out of.
His sometime nickname was "Birdrock", affectionately given him by the other jumpers, who found he could work like a bird in the air or go into his own version of the delta and plunge like a rock. He had been in on more hookups and baton passes than anyone else in the Crofton Sky Gods, and had even invented several spectacular group stunts that made the club a favorite at fairs and air shows.
Other Sky Gods were showing the excitement of the day as they prepared for jumps higher than usual. Danny had obtained the services of an excellent pilot and a surplus B-25 military bomber. He was earning back some of its cost by taking a load to seventeen five on his way up, and these people were busily planning what maneuvers they would try in the long free fall.
It wasn't quite the same as an earthquake, and no one else even seemed to notice it, so Danny paid no attention to the tremor he felt in the ground, and chalked it up to nerves. It wasn't like him to get the jitters, but this was a big day and the air was so still and no birds were singing, and it was almost time to go.
The high load was called and those going jostled and joked their way to the plane for pin check and a group picture taken by someone's girlfriend. During the long ride to seventeen-five there was little kidding around, with only occasional jokes being cracked. Many cigarettes were smoked and several comments made about the increasing cold. Presently it was time for the spot and exit. Amid the pell-mell, rush for the open bomb bay and the cries of "I'm John Wayne", "Bonzai " and "Geronimo", Danny felt strangely alone. Now there were only himself, the pilot and his co -pilot.
The climb to thirty grand took forever and Danny couldn't help checking his altimeter repeatedly. It was working beautifully. Of course. It was brand new and had cost a small fortune. Taking big drags on his oxygen, Danny Erhardt tried to quiet the growing uneasiness he felt. Nothing seemed to help, and just as he was about to panic and hang up the whole venture, the pilot signaled jump run. Suddenly calm, and unable to understand his previous agitation, Danny was very business like as he secured his bail out oxygen and his smoke bomb, and prepared to make his spot. Good Lord, the DZ looked small down there. It seemed there was a haze in the air and he knew his spot would probably not be as accurate as he would have liked, but oh well, time to worry about that at ten grand when "dead eye Dan, king of the trackers" would go into action.
Signaling for the cut, Danny took a deep breath and plunged into cold, thin air. And there it was - that wonderful sense of freedom - that feeling of exhilaration - that always tingled through him in freefall. Just to limber up, he did a nine second series in the weak air, and then gave vent to his joy in a string of great galloping back loops across the sky, trailing pink smoke behind. He hoped those below, especially the seventeen -five load, now on the ground, were watching and enjoying his jump as much as he.
He was the last thing on their minds at the moment. Their world was in trouble. BIG trouble.
The sun, still reeling from its near collision with the unknown star, reached its ultimate in destruction at that instant, and split in two. Both halves leaped out of their orbit and started off in different directions, leaving nine planets and assorted moons to tumble and stagger in pursuit of one or the other. The third planet from the destroyed sun gave a life ending lurch and started after the larger of the two halves. Its moon was caught in a strange new gravity and began a plunge that would bury it in the continent of Africa and annihilate one third of what was once called Earth. There was no life any more. Only dust and shambles and some one celled organisms in the puddles where oceans had been.
Having just failed to write his name in pink smoke down the sky, Danny bent to check his altimeter and found to his surprise and pleasure that he was still at 22,000 feet. Time sure went slow up here. He did a few more stunts and fitted another smoke bomb into his boot, going Z to do it. Tiring of barrel rolls and cartwheels, he stabled out and again checked his altimeter. What the devil - it now showed twenty grand. Impossible. A glance at his stop watch assured Danny that his altimeter was badly mistaken. He had been in the air far too long to have fallen only 10,000 feet. Great. Now he'd have to rely on vision alone. Where did he suppose he was. Land still looked awfully hazy and faraway. Maybe he was goofing out for lack of oxygen. He took deep drags of it and found his head and vision no different. His altimeter was very different, however. It now registered 23,000 feet. Going backwards yet. Broootherrr. Something up here was sure going nuts, and Danny wasn't at all sure it was just the altimeter.
The Earth was looking smaller and smaller. But that was insane. Who ever heard of a drop zone running away from a skydiver. Some part of his brain told Danny to relax. Even a nut having hallucinations would hit the ground eventually. Thank God for the Sentinel. It would get him down all right. Just fall stable, take oxygen and wait.
His mind was so busy fighting down his panic that his eyes forgot to look around, and the next time Danny noticed his instruments, the stop watch told him he had been failing almost five minutes and the altimeter needle must have gone around again because it was at 700 feet.
With a heart stopping bolt Danny suddenly realized that he could now look down and see the whole West Coast. Something was definitely bad wrong. The Earth was either moving away from him or he was falling upwards. He couldn't decide which of the two was the most impossible. The only thing he knew for sure was that he was running out of air and breath and that he was very alone.
In a terrible moment of realization he added up the strange weather, the ground tremors and the dust clouds below him, and knew somehow everything was all over and he was doomed. Taking the last gulp from the oxygen bottle he cut it away, and with a strange calm affixed his last smoke flare and went into his special Delta, aiming for a target he knew would not be there.
Hooking a thumb through the ripcord he knew he'd never pull, Danny Erhardt smiled his biggest smile, closed his eyes, and became the eternal skydiver.
From Skydiver Magazine March 1967
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