Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Dan Simmons: Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds

Dan Simmons


Roger Colvin closed his eyes and the steel bar clamped down across his lap and they began the steep climb. He could hear the rattle of the heavy chain and the creek of steel wheels on steel rails as they clanked up the first hill of the rollercoaster. Someone behind him laughed ner-vously. Terrified of heights, heart pounding painfully against his ribs, Colvin peeked out from between spread fingers. The metal rails and white wooden frame rose steeply ahead of him. Colvin was in the first car. He lowered both hands and tightly gripped the metal restraining bar, feeling the dried sweat of past palms there. Someone giggled in the car behind him. He
turned his head only far enough to peer over the side of the rails. They were very high and still rising. The midway and parking lots grew smaller, individuals growing too tiny to be seen and the crowds becoming mere carpets of color, fading into a larger mosaic of geometries of streets and lights as the entire city became visible, then the entire county. They clanked higher. The sky darkened to a deeper blue. Colvin could see the curve of the earth in the haze-blued distance. He realized that they were far out over the edge of a lake now as he caught the glimmer of light on wavetops miles below through the wooden ties. Colvin closed his eyes as
they briefly passed through the cold breath of a cloud, then snapped them open again as the pitch of chain rumble changed, as the steep gradient less-ened, as they reached the top.
And went over.
There was nothing beyond. The two rails curved out and down and ended in air. Colvin gripped the restraining bar as the car pitched forward and over. He opened his mouth to scream. The fall began.
"Hey, the worst part's over." Colvin opened his eyes to see Bill Montgomery handing him a drink. The sound of the Gulfstream's jet engines was a dull rumble under the gentle hissing of air from the overhead ventilator nozzle. Colvin took the drink, turned down the flow of air, and glanced out the window. Logan International was already out of sight behind them and Colvin could make out Nantasket Beach below, a score of small white triangles of sail in the expanse of bay and ocean beyond. They were still climbing.
"Damn, we're glad you decided to come with us this time, Roger," Montgomery said to Colvin. "It's good hav-ing the whole team together again. Like the old days."
Montgomery smiled. The three other men in the cabin raised their glasses. Colvin played with the calculator in his lap and sipped his vodka. He took a breath and closed his eyes.

Afraid of heights. Always afraid. Six years old and in the barn, tumbling from the
loft, the fall seemingly end-less, time stretching out, the sharp tines of the pitchfork
rising toward him. Landing, wind knocked out of him, cheek and right eye against
the straw, three inches from the steel points of the pitchfork.
"The company's ready to see better days," said Larry Miller. "Two and a half years
of bad press is enough. Be good to see the launch tomorrow. Get things started
again."
"Here, here," said Tom Weiscott. It was not yet noon but Tom had already had too
much to drink.
Colvin opened his eyes and smiled. Counting himself, there were four corporate vice
presidents in the plane. Weiscott was still a Project Manager. Colvin put his cheek to
the window and watched Cape Cod Bay pass below. He guessed their altitude to be
eleven or twelve thousand feet and climbing.
Colvin imagined a building nine miles high. From the carpeted hall of the top floor he
would step into the eleva-tor. The floor of the elevator would be made of glass. The
elevator shaft drops away 4,600 floors beneath him, each floor marked with halogen
lights, the parallel lights draw-ing closer in the nine miles of black air beneath him
until they merged in a blur below.
He looks up in time to see the cable snap, separate. He falls, clutching futilely at the
inside walls of the elevator, walls which have grown as slippery as the clear glass
floor. Lights rush by, but already the concrete floor of the shaft is visible miles
below—a tiny blue concrete square, growing as the elevator car plummets. He
knows that he has almost three minutes to watch that blue square come closer, rise
up to smash him. Colvin screams and the spit-tle floats in the air in front of him,
falling at the same ve-locity, hanging there. The lights rush past. The blue square
grows.
Colvin took a drink, placed the glass in the circle set in the wide arm of his chair, and
tapped away at his cal-culator.
Falling objects in a gravity field follow precise mathe-matical rules, as precise as the
force vectors and burn rates in the shaped charges and solid fuels Colvin had
designed for twenty years, but just as oxygen affects combustion rates, so air
controls the speed of a falling body. Terminal velocity depends upon atmospheric
pressure, mass distri-bution, and surface area as much as upon gravity.
Colvin lowered his eyelids as if to doze and saw what he saw every night when he
pretended to sleep; the bil-lowing white cloud, expanding outward like a time-lapse
film of a slanting, tilting stratocumulus blossoming against a dark blue sky, the
reddish brown interior of nitrogen tetroxide flame, and—just visible below the two
emerging, mindless contrails of the SRBs—the tumbling, fuzzy square of the
forward fuselage, flight deck included. Even the most amplified images had not
shown him the closer details—the intact pressure vessel that was the crew
compartment, scorched on the right side where the runaway SRD had played its
flame upon it, tumbling, falling free, trailing wires and cables and shreds of fuselage
behind it like an umbilical and afterbirth. The earlier images had not shown these
details, but Colvin had seen them, touched them, after the fracturing impact with the
merciless blue sea. There were layers of tiny barnacles growing on the ruptured skin.
Colvin imagined the darkness and cold waiting at the end of that fall; small fish
feeding.
"Roger," said Steve Cahill, "where'd you get your fear of flying?"
Colvin shrugged, finished his vodka. "I don't know." In Viet Nam—not "Nam" or
"in-country"—a place Colvin still wanted to think of as a place rather than a
con-dition, he had flown. Already an expert on shaped charges and propellants,
Colvin was being flown out to Bong Son Valley near the coast to see why a
shipment of standard C-4 plastic explosive was not detonating for an ARVN unit
when the Jesus nut came off their Huey and the helicopter fell, rotorless, 280 feet
into the jungle, tore through almost a hundred feet of thick vegetation, and came to a
stop, upside down, in vines ten feet above the ground. The pilot had been neatly
impaled by a limb that smashed up through the floor of the Huey. The co-pilot's
skull had smashed through the windshield. The gunner was thrown out, breaking his
neck and back, and died the next day. Colvin walked away with a sprained ankle.
Colvin looked down as they crossed Nantucket. He es-timated their altitude at
eighteen thousand feet and climb-ing steadily. Their cruising altitude, he knew, was
to be thirty-two thousand feet. Much lower than forty-six thou-sand, especially
lacking the vertical thrust vector, but so much depended upon surface area.
When Colvin was a boy in the 1950's, he saw a pho-tograph in the "old" National
Enquirer of a woman who had jumped off the Empire State Building and landed on
the roof of a car. Her legs were crossed almost casually at the ankles; there was a
hole in the toe of one of her nylon stockings. The roof of the car was flattened,
folded inward, almost like a large goosedown mattress, molding it-self to the weight
of a sleeping person. The woman's head looked as if it were sunk deep in a soft
pillow.
Colvin tapped at his calculator. A woman stepping off the Empire State Building
would fall for almost fourteen seconds before hitting the street. Someone falling in a
metal box from 46,000 feet would fall for two minutes and forty-five seconds before
hitting the water.
What did she think about? What did they think about?
Most popular songs and rock videos are about three minutes long, thought Colvin.
It is a good length of time; not so long one gets bored, long enough to tell a
complete story.
"We're damned glad you're with us," Bill Montgom-ery said again.
"Goddammit," Bill Montgomery had whispered to Colvin outside the company
teleconference room twenty-seven months earlier, "are you with us or against us on
this?"
A teleconference was much like a seance. The group sat in semi-darkened rooms
hundreds or thousands of miles apart and communed with voices which came from
nowhere.
"Well, that's the weather situation here," came the voice from KSC. "What's it to
be?"
"We've seen your telefaxed stuff," said the voice from Marshall, "but still don't
understand why we should con-sider scrubbing based on an anomaly that small.
You as-sured us that this stuff was so fail-safe that you could kick it around the
block if you wanted to."
Phil McGuire, the chief engineer on Colvin's project team, squirmed in his seat and
spoke too loudly. The four-wire teleconference phones had speakers near each chair
and could pick up the softest tones. "You don't understand, do you?" McGuire
almost shouted. "It's the combination of these cold temperatures and the likelihood
of electrical activity in that cloud layer that causes the problems. In the past five
flights there've been three transient events in the leads that run from SRB linear
shaped charges to the Range Safety command antennas..."
"Transient events," said the voice from KSC, "but within flight certification
parameters?"
"Well ... yes," said McGuire. He sounded close to tears. "But it's within parameters
because we keep signing papers and rewriting the goddamn parameters. We just
don't know why the C-12B shaped range safety charges on the SRBs and ET record
a transient current flow when no enable functions have been transmitted. Roger
thinks maybe the LSC enable leads or the C-12 compound itself can accidentally
allow the static discharge to simulate a command signal ... Oh, hell, tell them,
Roger."
"Mr. Colvin?" came the voice from Marshall.
Colvin cleared his throat. "That's what we've been watching for some time.
Preliminary data suggests that temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit allow the
zinc oxide residue in the C-12B stacks to conduct a false signal ... if there's enough
static discharge ... theoretically..."
"But no solid database on this yet?" said the voice from Marshall.
"No," said Colvin.
"And you did sign the Critically One waiver certifying flight readiness on the last
three flights?"
"Yes," said Colvin.
"Well," said the voice from KSC, "we've heard from the engineers at Beaunet-HCS,
what do you say we have recommendations from management there?"
Bill Montgomery had called a five-minute break and the management team met in the
hall. "Goddammit, Roger, are you with us or against us on this one?"
Colvin had looked away.
"I'm serious," snapped Montgomery. "The LCS divi-sion has brought this company
215 million dollars in profit this year, and your work has been an important part of
that success, Roger. Now you seem ready to flush that away on some goddamn
transient telemetry readings that don't mean anything when compared to the work
we've done as a team. There's a vice-presidency opening in a few months, Roger.
Don't screw your chances by losing your head like that hysteric McGuire."
"Ready?" said the voice from KSC when five minutes had passed.
"Go," said Vice-President Bill Montgomery.
"Go," said Vice-President Larry Miller.
"Go," said Vice-President Steve Cahill.
"Go," said Project Manager Tom Weiscott.
"Go," said Project Manager Roger Colvin.
"Fine," said KSC. "I'll pass along the recommenda-tion. Sorry you gentlemen won't
be here to watch the lift-off tomorrow."
Colvin turned his head as Bill Montgomery called from his side of the cabin, "Hey, I
think I see Long Is-land."
"Bill," said Colvin, "how much did the company make this year on the C-12B
redesign?"
Montgomery took a drink and stretched his legs in the roomy interior of the
Gulfstream. "About four hundred million, I think, Rog. Why?"
"And did the Agency ever seriously consider going to someone else after ... after?"
"Shit," said Tom Weiscott, "where else could they go? We got them by the short
hairs. They thought about it for a few months and then came crawling back. You're
the best designer of shaped range safety devices and solid hypergolics in the
country, Rog."
Colvin nodded, worked with his calculator a minute and closed his eyes.
The steel bar clamped down across his lap and the car he rode in clanked higher and
higher. The air grew thin and cold, the screech of wheel on rail dwindling into a thin
scream as the rollercoaster lumbered above the six mile mark.
In case of loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling.
Please fasten them securely over your mouth and nose and breath normally.
Colvin peeked ahead, up the terrible incline of the rollercoaster, sensing the summit
of the climb and the emptiness beyond.
The tiny air tank-and-mask combinations were called PEAPs—Personal Egress Air
Packs. PEAPs from four of the five crew-members were recovered from the ocean
bottom. All had been activated. Two minutes and forty-five seconds of each
five-minute air supply had been used up.
Colvin watched the summit of the rollercoaster's first hill arrive.
There was a raw metallic noise and a lurch as the rollercoaster went over the top and
off the rails. People in the cars behind Colvin screamed and kept on screaming.
Colvin lurched forward and grabbed the restraining bar as the rollercoaster
plummeted into nine miles of nothingness. He opened his eyes. A single glimpse out
the Gulfstream window told him that the thin lines of shaped charges he had placed
there had removed all of the port wing cleanly, surgically. The tumble rate suggested
that enough of a stub of the starboard wing was left to provide the surface area
needed to keep the terminal velocity a little lower than maximum. Two minutes and
forty-five seconds, plus or minus four seconds.
Colvin reached for his calculator but it had flown free in the cabin, colliding with
hurtling bottles, glasses, cushions, and bodies that had not been securely strapped
in. The screaming was very loud.
Two minutes and forty-five seconds. Time to think of many things. And perhaps,
just perhaps, after two and a half years of no sleep without dreams, perhaps it would
be time enough for a short nap with no dreams at all. Colvin closed his eyes.

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