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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

Earth (The Elements of Fear, Part One)



                At 30,000 feet above sea level, the exit signal lights up, and Garrett, veteran of 102 low-altitude jumps and many hours of classroom training for high-altitudes, disconnects from the plane’s oxygen system, switching over to his own “bailout bottle.”


Because this is Garrett’s first high-altitude jump, he’ll be first to exit the plane. The other skydivers, all with high-altitude experience, will bear the responsibility of steering clear of Garrett, and each other, during freefall; Garrett’s only responsibility is to get himself down safely. At the moment, it seems more than enough to keep him occupied. 


                Garrett stands and shuffles toward the exit door, hesitating a moment as he reaches Victor’s station. Victor is one of the trainers, a skygod who regards any time spent on the ground as an unpleasant but necessary trade-off for the occasional privilege of a few minutes airborne. Victor has painted the word “KHAOS” in large white letters on both sides of his sleek black helmet. Garrett’s face shield hides his disdain.


Khaos, Garrett has explained to them, is the traditional Greek goddess of the air, one of the Protogenoi – the elemental gods who emerged from the creation of the universe. He feels a pang of remorse at having shared his knowledge of the ancient pantheon; Garrett is a professor of the humanities, an academic, and he takes an academic’s approach, cautious and restrained, studious and respectful, to everything he does, especially something as demanding of caution and respect as jumping out of a plane. To him, Victor and the others are cowboys, adrenaline junkies who could just as easily get their kicks by auto racing, free diving in the Pacific, or anything else with a higher than average danger quotient. They might follow the safety rules to the letter, but there was no indication of awe or what Garrett would consider proper respect. His unfortunate characterization of the air as a beautiful woman has led to several crude attempts at humor by his companions – “Off to get nasty with Khaos” is one of the less offensive remarks. 


In another time, another milieu, such comments might be considered a kind of heresy. But Khaos, along with a multitude of other deities, has fallen into obscurity, and it is only a select few – academics, mostly – who still remember her at all. Garrett is not a believer, and is not given to predictions of retribution, especially from ancient and, even he would admit, obsolete goddesses, but he can’t help thinking that his companions’ callous attitudes – hubris, perhaps? – have all the makings of a Greek tragedy. 


Victor’s face shield betrays nothing of his response to Garrett’s stare-down; instead, the mirrored surface merely reflects Garrett’s own heavily-suited image back at him. Victor gives a thumbs-up and sweeps his hand toward the exit – time to go.  


                Garrett gives his seals a final check and exits the plane. In one fluid motion, he launches himself and assumes freefall position, belly-down and spread-eagled. He points his rear end to the sky, creating an inverted V-shape which slows his progress to a leisurely 120 mph. He’s waited a long time for this opportunity, and he is determined to make it last as long as possible.


                The appeal of high-altitude jumping is the longer free fall – two and a half minutes, versus 45 seconds or maybe a minute on a standard jump. For some, the sensation of “flying” and the rush of adrenaline are all the motivation they need. But for Garrett, especially on a clear, nearly cloudless day like this, the motivation is both simple and sublime – a chance to see the earth from farther above than he has ever seen it before. And with no one else in the sky below him, he will have an unspoiled view of this planet, his home.


                He has seen photographs, of course – some showcasing the earth in its totality from space, others simply from higher up in the atmosphere than this excursion has taken him. Even during commercial plane travel, when he would pay any price for a window seat, he has seen the earth laid bare before him.

But never like this.

He sees an aging earth, still beautiful, but everywhere ravaged and reworked. It seems a stark contrast with the air, the goddess Khaos and her pure, pristine beauty. 


                Garrett’s heart thumps less loudly in his chest as his body forgets that it is falling. Reality recedes, and there is only the moment; before and after have faded from consciousness like memories from another life. He closes his eyes and finds paradise – a sort of ecstasy, almost sexual. If he could stay in the sky forever, weightless, he would.


                At one minute after exit, he suddenly panics and opens his eyes – after so many low-altitude jumps, he is conditioned to pull the ripcord relatively quickly, but a quick scan of the ground, far below, assures him that there’s still a long way to go. He checks his altimeter and chokes down his nervousness– 20,000 feet, and everything seems to be in order. He takes a few deep breaths of pure oxygen and tries to relax.


                The sky’s emptiness always amazes him during a dive, at this extreme height even moreso. Birds are nowhere to be found, and the other divers are somewhere above him, out of sight. Remembering the rapidly receding view below, he redirects his attention toward the earth. He notices that his fingers have balled into fists, and makes an effort to extend them. It feels as if he’s preparing to hug the entire world.


                The wind whips around his body – the harsh caress of Khaos. He wonders if Victor and the others have chanced onto an apt metaphor – maybe the best comparison for their relationship with the air is that of a man sneaking off, whenever opportunity permits, for a rendezvous with a forbidden mistress. The interpretation does have a certain romantic appeal, he decides.


                At 5,000 feet, he prepares for the pull. Parting is such sweet sorrow, Khaos my dear...

Bracing himself for the jerk of chute deployment, he tries to freeze the earthview in his mind, and pulls the ripcord.


Nothing happens.


He pulls again – still nothing.


He composes himself, remembering the training. The back-up chute...


…fails to deploy.


His thoughts race in a hundred directions. Khaotic. 


He remembers Victor’s assurances during training: The chance of both chutes failing to deploy is so low it’s not even worth mentioning. He wonders what Victor would say right now.


Bundled stiffly against the extreme cold of high altitude, he cannot maneuver himself to attempt opening the chute manually. At this speed, the pack would probably fly away from him before he could open it anyway. Better to keep trying the ripcords and hope that something catches in time to slow his descent.


Still frantically tugging at the ripcords, he begins to pray to the deities he does not believe exist, to the one god, to the gods of others, and to the gods long forgotten. The gods… and the goddesses.


Garrett is falling, still falling. He knows that he has no hope of survival. The ground rushes up at him, magnifying itself with each passing second.


                Mechanical failure. The odds of such an occurrence amid such relentless training, the checked and triple-checked equipment, is slim but ever-present nonetheless. And Gaia, goddess of the earth, sister of Khaos and faithful lover of mankind—Gaia is old, and patient.               

10, 9, 8….


                Falling, falling, to the waiting embrace of a jealous and vengeful goddess.





Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Earth (The Elements of Fear, Part One)
." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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