“There’s no greater force in the universe than gravity.”
"There’s no greater force in the universe than gravity.”
SMSgt (Ret) Bolivaro couldn’t recall where he’d heard it first, but it was something he’d muttered to himself almost daily throughout his career. The sentiment was certainly on his mind again as he lunged for his next hold halfway up the face of Montezuma Tower.
“Beauty fades. Armies come and go. Even God takes a nap every now and then. But gravity will always fuck you. Unless you make NASA, but none of you grunts are smart enough to make NASA.”
That NASA part was his own addition, one he’d started using during his last assignment in Florida as a jump instructor. It had been a good gig: whipping cocky, bright-eyed pararescue recruits into shape, taking them up to 35,000 feet and baptizing them in the prodigious font of almighty gravity. After a long career—twenty-eight years, fourteen deployments, twelve broken bones, seven surgeries, four kids, two divorces, and enough bottles of 800 mg Ibuprofen to fill the cargo hold of an AC-130—Florida was supposed to be the perfect way to ride off into the sunset. The hours were good. The deployment-protected status was a nice perk too, though he’d never say so out loud. But the best part was that he still got to jump.
Nearly thirty years of leaping out of planes and still he’d never found a feeling quite like it. Slicing through the air, feeling the whole universe slip away beneath him. Each jump was the closest he’d ever come to being weightless. There were times, hurtling mindlessly toward the landing zone, he nearly forgot he existed at all.
Bolivaro slid his fingers into a crack in the sandstone and pulled himself up, the arthritis in his shoulder pleading for a normal retirement. His fingers ached, but it felt good. The fixed tug of the harness in his groin was a familiar feeling from his days as a jumper. He looked over his shoulder and scanned the dusty pink horizon. They tell you not to look down, but looking down was what kept Bolivaro going. He peeked between his feet. The ground was an abstraction. The trees looked like shrubs, the few remaining climbers misty diminutions of themselves. He felt his breath, even and unlabored. He reminded himself that there was no greater force in the universe than gravity. He looked up and reached for his next hold.
There had been pressure from above to beef up numbers, to push recruits through the pipeline as quickly as possible. Korea seemed on the verge of boiling over and the Middle East was as precarious as ever. They needed bodies.
It wasn’t anything too egregious, what they were asking. Bolivaro himself had gotten his badge after just a couple dozen jumps back in the day. It had been a common tune trumpeted amongst the old guard that the new kids were being coddled, that their hands were held for too long, that the most lethal airmen had always been those forced to find their own way. Cutting out a handful of training jumps wouldn’t change anything.
It wasn’t hard, after the fact, to pinpoint all the things he should have picked up on. The Accident Investigation Board certainly didn’t struggle to uncover an entire cache of glaring red flags. Neither did they mince words in their formal report at the end of the six-week investigation.
Bolivaro should have recognized the shifting wind patterns. He should have identified the recruits’ lack of experience in those conditions. He should have declared the mission unsafe and called it off.
He wasn’t solely at fault for what happened. The report had given him that much at least. There were plenty of other people and processes that had failed too. But Bolivaro’s “negligent complacency” was a “clear and indisputable” contributor to the mishap.
The sun was setting as he reached the summit. There were clouds in the sky, but it was still clear enough to make out the ridges of Pikes Peak to the west. A cool breeze blew in from the east and all of a sudden Bolivaro was back in the mountains of Kunar Province. He thought about Afghanistan, about all the jumps he did over Europe and Africa and the Middle East, about all the places he’d landed with no record of him having been there. He thought about what would come next, what he could do with his life that would ever measure up to what he’d done before. And then he thought about what it must have felt like: Floating. Giving in to gravity. Forgetting they existed at all.
And then colliding mid-air.
He wondered what they were thinking. If they felt fear. Or surprise. Or if they felt betrayed when their bodies struck the ground. Of course, he knew they didn’t. The AIB concluded that the mid-air collision had rendered them unconscious, that they never woke up again. Still, they must have felt something.
Bolivaro, too, felt something. There were so many things he should have done differently. He would’ve made Chief if he’d focused more on school. He probably could have kept at least one of his marriages intact if he’d spent more time at home. He certainly shouldn’t have ignored the doc by jumping only two weeks after his knee surgery. Even so, he could live with those mistakes. Those two recruits, though? Those kids? He couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Bolivaro peeked down between his feet again. The ground was fading into the night. He took one last look around the withering horizon, then started his descent.
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Andrew MacQuarrie is a reader, a writer, a veteran, and a doctor. Originally from Nova Scotia, he now lives in Los Angeles. MacQuarrie has previously published in The Montreal Review, The Write Launch, Pennsylvania English, and On The Premises. He can be followed on Twitter @haemo_goblin.