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Synopsis

Thermals is a fast paced technothriller following the lead of Interpol Inspector Anselm Gunnar chasing a known terrorist in a future power facility. From underground bunkers to the jetstream ten kilometers above the surface of the planet, this war on terror is heating up.


Chapter 2

Wild Ride

Kamir Sophen, a young man barely out of his teens, was pouring over one of his two great loves when the call came from Mr. Jacob.

“Y…yes Sir?” Kamir swallowed, a little nervously.

“I have a job for you.” Jacob told him.

“Yes Sir.”

“Look through the registers of the Shanty hotels,” Jacob told him, “See if you can find the names of any Interpol officers.”

“Interpol?” The young man asked with a curl of his lip, “Do you think they’re on to us?”

“They are, but I doubt they know what they’re on to just yet.”

Kamir snorted lightly, nodding. “Fat lot of good it will do them.”

“Do not become arrogant, Kamir.” Jacob growled, “Arrogance leads to a great fall… And given your… extra-curricular activities, I do not believe that you need any added risk of falling. Do you?”

Kamir shook his head quickly, “No, Jacob.”

“Good. Do this job, do it quickly.” Jacob ordered, shutting the connection without saying anything more.

Kamir shuddered slightly. There were few things that scared him in the world. He had swam the great barrier reef with the sharks, ran with the bulls in Spain, and even soared so high over the top of the very tower that ruled the sky here at the project, that he had needed a vacuum suit. Mr. Jacob, however, scared him.

Kamir flipped his computer over to another program and quickly entered into the hotel database system, gaining access was child’s play compared to some of the work he’d done for Jacob and Amir and he was happily downloading lists of names, a moment later.

Penetrating the Interpol employee database was more complicated, or would be if it hadn’t already been done some time ago. As it was he simply accessed the old file from his local drives and started a comparison running. Getting the initial hit didn’t take long at all.

“Somer…”

Kamir’s eyes narrowed, he knew a Somer. Now where did he hear that name before?

Of course!

His eyes flared, the poser was on the field even now. He was closer than Jacob thought if he was investigating the Thermies. Too close, if he happened to see and understand the instruments some of the ‘thrill seekers’ were wearing…

Well, there were ways to handle that.

Kamir smiled, the man wanted a ride after all. And they could always use another sample gathering run. If something happened in the meantime? Well, things happened when you were flying ten kilometers in the sky with nothing but a para-pack between you and a long fall.

Walking out on the small airfield Kamir smiled, spreading his arms as he greeted Ron Somer with a warm call. “Ron, my friend!”

Ron Somer turned, smiling as he saw Kamir approaching with arms wide. He reciprocated, and the two men clasped briefly, patting each other on the back, “Hey man, what’s up?”

“I got good news, man. I can get you a flight, if you’re still interested?”

“Really? Hell yes!”

“Really.” Kamir told the eager man. “Today’s your lucky day.”

*****

“You got your gear all checked out?”

“Got it!” Ron nodded eagerly.

Like ninety nine percent of thrill seekers and daredevil times, the ones who lived, Ron was very nearly obsessive-compulsive about the state of the gear he used. It all had to be in perfect working order before he would risk his body on it. Everything he had been loaned and had rented checked out perfectly, so he turned his attention to his local guide, listening carefully to the instructions the expert had to give him.

“Okay,” Kamir told him with a friendly smile. “When you get into the updraft you ride it up until you hit fifteen thousand feet. Got that? Make sure you suck on your oxygen or you’ll pass out, right?”

“Right,” Ron nodded. “I do para-sailing all the time, I know the drill.”

“Okay, good. Now just remember, don’t ride it higher…” Kamir shook his head, “That’s really important. Sometimes the Jetstream will curl down a bit, and if you get into that… you’re going for a long ride. And you’re not geared up for it. K?”

Ron nodded, “Got it.”

“Alright!” Kamir clapped him on the back, “Have fun, my man!”

“I will!”

Ron turned and headed to the plane that Kamir had arranged for him, and the dark faced young man turned to the stuffy looking, dirty blond who walked up behind him. “You get it done?”

“Oh yeah.” The man smirked, holding up a circuit board. “He’ll be ten klicks up before he even has a clue how screwed he is.”

“Nice. Have I ever told you how much I hate cops?”

*****

The drone of the airplane engine created a constant background noise as Ron checked his gear again, and then looked out the side.

They were climbing hard as they circled around the kilometer high tower, the sight of the immense spire taking Ron’s breath away. He’d para-sailed in the Rockies, and free climbed in the Andes, and done a lot of things that were considered crazy but for all the beautiful sights he’d seen while he was living his life, this was one of the most awesome. He watched the high speed tram as it climbed the outside of the tower, taking tourists to the top of the project tower where they could walk around the relatively narrow boardwalk that hugged the lip of the tower’s maw. He’d been there himself a couple days earlier, with his new wife and…

Oops.

Ron blinked, he’d forgotten to tell Adrienne what he was doing.

I’ m a dead man, He groaned, shaking his head as he reached for the portable in his pocket.

No, no, better to wait. There was too much noise here to talk anyway, and he’d have plenty of silence in short order. She knew that he was trying to catch a flight before they had to leave anyway, she’d even been cautiously encouraging.

Ron smiled.

Cautiously encouraging meant that she hadn’t wanted to somehow aggravate the escaped mental patient she felt her new husband had turned into, but it was still cautiously encouraging. He was going to have to get her to come along on some of his jaunts, Ron knew. Thrills were multiplied when they were shared, like all good things in life.

“Almost there!”

The pilot’s yell startled him out of his deep thoughts and refocused his mind on the rush ahead. Ron grinned and raised his fist, “Alright!”

“You sure you want to do this!?” The pilot yelled again, turning in his seat to look back, “It’s a freaky thing for a beginner!”

“I’m sure!” Ron called back, flashing a thumbs up.

“Alright!” The pilot turned back around and gripped the controls again, “Get ready!”

Ron Somer nodded, checking his gear yet again.

The plane came around in a wide, lazy arc, until it was leading right back into the huge tower as the engine buzzed mindlessly in the background.

“Thirty seconds!” The call came a moment later. “Open the door!”

The co-pilot jumped back, then grabbed the door as he roughly pushed past Ron, sliding it open with a jerk. “Get ready!”

Ron moved to the edge of the plane, grabbing onto the doors at either side. Below him the dust of the desert, the tiny buildings of the city, and shimmering glass of the greenhouse crawled impossibly slowly even as the tower itself seemed to rush in his direction.

“Jump!”

Ron threw himself out the door, screaming a joyous war cry as he flipped clear of the plane’s wing, tucked in a graceful half gainer as he spun and turned in the air. He knew that the pilot had said not to get fancy, but Ron loved to flip and roll as he free fell. After a few seconds though he reached up and yanked the chord to his Para-Pack.

The Para-Pack was something of a cross between a para-sail and a para-chute. The airfoil design of the pack was a little more advanced than the chutes of yesteryear, but it was the materials that really made it something else. Lighter and stronger than designers even dreamed of only two decades earlier, the memory plastics knew what shape they were supposed to be and always struggled to return to it when they were set loose.

There was no sudden jerk as the pack deployed, the chords he was hanging by were compressed when in the pack and they absorbed his weight as they let themselves extend to their full length until the sudden snap of the foil above unfolding. In a few seconds, Ron Somer was gliding easily and silently through the wild blue as he grasped the control handles and tugged lightly on them to circle around and line up on his destination.

The Tower.

*****

From the top of the Project tower the view was simply astounding, you could literally see as far as the air would let you in all directions. High powered binoculars, available for rent, would let the visitors see the skyline of Sydney on a spectacularly clear day, though usually the city was obscured by heat shimmers on the horizon.

The Project officials had learned a long time earlier, though, that the view wasn’t the main selling point of the tour.

People loved watching idiots do stupid things, it seemed, so whenever one of the thermies was in the air, which was most of the time despite early efforts to keep them away, there was always a crowd oohing and ahing at the flying men.

This time was no exception as the plane came around and everyone saw the man jump out.

“There he is!”

Someone shouted, completely unnecessarily, and pointed at the figure as he fell in an aerial ballet. It was short lived though, and the gossamer wings of a Para-pack soon appeared in the distance and they could see the man come around toward them.

“He’s really going to go for it!”

The tour guide tried not to roll her eyes, she’d been on this shift for too long to be impressed by the machismo of the Thermies anymore. They were crazy, sure, but it was commonplace to her. In fact, this one was pretty simple actually, with none of the flare most of the show-offs showed.

To the gawkers, though, it was all new and all awesome.

*****

Ron laughed, throwing his head back wildly as he fought a sudden wind shear that tried to shove him off course. It was like the tower had its own defender, determined to only let in those worthy to ride the immense thermals to the sky.

Ron knew wind shear, though, and could compensate as long as they didn’t get much worse.

Ahead of him he could make out people in the observation deck of the tower now, and he imagined he could see them waving and pointing at him. It was too far for that, but he was pretty sure that they would be.

He had been.

Then he was through the shear, swooping over the heads of the onlookers as he crossed the lip of the huge tower and looked down into the maw for the first time.

It was lit inside, and that surprised him for a moment. He’d expected an oppressively dark maw, like a chimney or smokestack, spewing out its heat in anonymity. Not this almost… cheerful blinking of lights as the blades of the turbines endlessly spun within the one hundred meter wide wind tunnel.

Then he suddenly felt jerked in his harness, the Para pack yanking him upwards like a rocket as a flush of warmth suffused him and suddenly, for all the rush and adrenaline he felt this strange sensation of peace and safety.

Do I smell strawberries? Ron blinked the thought away, laughing madly at the strange thought as the warm air rushing upwards caught him and spun him, twirled him, cradled him as he shot upwards in its embrace.

Now I’ll call her, Ron chuckled, letting the thermal take him as he let one hand go of the controls and pulled out his portable.

A simple flip let the folded material of the screen snap into position, and he had his wife’s account on his buddy list so the call when through instantly.

“Ron?” Her voice was uncertain as she looked out of the screen at him. “Is that you?”

“Guess where I am right now!” He yelled, though he probably didn’t have to.

Something about all that extra space seemed to demand that something fill it, even the obnoxious yelling of an adrenaline filled madman.

“How should I… RON!!!”

He laughed as her scream coincided with his flipping the portable upside down and giving her a view of the ground, greenhouse, and tower that was well below him now. He felt like an astronaut on lift off, the world rushing away from him as he climbed for the stars.

“Ron Somer you crazy lunatic!”

Ron was still laughing as he flipped the portable back, “Relax, Adrienne… It’s great! You’ve got to try this!”

“How high up are you!?”

He glanced at his altitude gage and shrugged, “Only a couple kilometers.”

Funny. It felt like he’d been climbing faster than that.

“Are you carrying oxygen!?”

“Of course!” Ron made a show of taking a breath from his mask. “In fact I’ll have to put it on full time in a moment.”

“You put it on now!”

“But then I couldn’t talk to you, Adrienne my love!” He grinned wildly.

“Ronald Somer you put that mask on now or I will be waiting for you when you get down, and need I remind you that I’m licensed to carry a firearm!?”

Ron laughed, but acquiesced and put his mask on. For a few breaths anyway, then he took it off again.

“Ron!”

“Relax, Hon! The tower produces nice warm and oxygen rich air, remember?” He chuckled at the outraged look on her face. “I’m fine.”

Adrienne was visibly calming down now, thankfully. While he found her shock amusing for a short while he didn’t want her worried every time he went skydiving or parasailing, it would make for a very rough marriage.

“How high are you now?”

Ron frowned, but glanced down just the same.

“Twenty five hundred meters.” He told her a moment later.

Then he frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

Ron shook his head, “It’s nothing, Hon… It’s just odd.”

“What’s odd?”

“I could have sworn I was higher than tha…”

The sudden shock of his para-pack foil jerking horizontally cut Ron Somer off, and yanked the portable from his hand as a blast of icy cold ripped through the warm comfort he’d enjoyed till then, and suddenly Ron Somer was like a bubble being tossed through a hurricane and air seemed very difficult to find for his lungs.

*****

Anselm Gunnar was looking over the complaint reports and files of the more colorful of the ‘Thermies’ and was surprised at how much like a movie script some of it read like. “I find it hard to believe that the Tower Project puts up with them.”

“The first Thermies were Project personnel,” Gwen grinned, shrugging. “Later on, there were a couple half-hearted attempts to put a stop to it, but eventually they just gave up. The thermies kind of give the place some character.”

“A lunatic asylum has plenty of character as well. I don’t see the attraction,” Anselm replied wryly.

She laughed, “the tourists love it, love it enough that they get bussed and trucked out here all the time to ride up the tower and watch the thermies ride the plume.”

“More money that way?”

Gwen nodded, “Yeah. The Shanty people don’t hold much love for the tourists, but the Tower seems bent on bringing them in. It’s usually some tower peon that keeps suggesting a larger airfield, something to bring them in by the planeload.”

“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened.”

“Major airlines don’t like to fly near the tower.” Gwen explained, “They even routed a couple flights around us because the heat the tower puts up into the sky messes with the Jetstream a bit. Makes things unpredictable for flyers, so we mostly only get the Bush pilots.”

Anselm grunted.

Like the lunatic fool he’d flown in with.

“Most cargo moves around Australia on the road trains anyway,” She shrugged. “I mean, when you take three or four semi-trailers and link them together under a powerful truck, you can haul a lot of stuff.”

“I’ll bet.” Anselm smiled, about to say something else when a buzzer sounded. “What’s that?”

“Emergency call. Nine-One-One.” She said, frowning as she turned in her seat and tapped a command into her terminal.

A moment later a stricken-looking blonde was yelling out of it, startling them both.

“Please calm down,” Gwen said softly, but firmly. “What is the nature of the emergency?”

“Adrienne!?” Anselm snapped, leaning over the desk. “What happened?”

“Agent Gunnar! Thank God.” Inspector Adrienne Somer said, calming down. “It’s my husband. He went up in the thermals… I think he had an accident.”

Inspector Dougal immediately began making calls through other lines, getting rescue agencies on the alert, but Anselm felt his face go hard as he started to wonder.

Coincidence?

Anselm didn’t believe in the beast.

*****

Winds ripped past him at high speeds, slicing through his clothes and into his skin as Ron Somer forced his hand to steady itself long enough to clamp his oxygen mask into place. He was out from over the tower now, the sudden winds had pushed him to the east at high speed as they sliced through him like knives.

He could feel the bite of cold already numbing his limbs as he danced madly under the tough para-pack foil above him.

He thought he was still accelerating, but it was hard to tell. The ground moved so slow under him, deceptively inching along at a turtles pace even though his terrified mind knew that it was much faster.

He had to be in the Jetstream.

It was the only answer, but it didn’t make any sense.

The Jetstream was ten kilometers up, he had only been around three!

Belatedly he looked down at his altimeter, staring at the readout.

Four thousand meters.

His hand gripped around the plastic of the electronic device, gripping it tightly enough that splinters of pain ran up his fingers as they protested the cold and pressure. The plastic cracked.

There was no way that reading was right.

Once you got more than a few hundred feet above the ground it was nearly impossible to tell how high you were by eye, the distance just completely skewed the mind’s perspective so that a para-sailor simply had to rely on his instruments. If they were badly calibrated, he was in serious trouble, but Ron had checked the calibrations himself before he left. It didn’t make any sense!

Ron let go of the offending device and began to struggle with the controls of his para-foil, wrestling to get it to let some of the air go by. To slow himself, and drop free of the stream of biting cold air he was caught in. If he rose any higher….

Ron shuddered, either from that thought or from the cold. He didn’t know which, and didn’t really think that it mattered either.

*****

The wind was still buffeting him around, but Ron didn’t feel so bad anymore.

A little tired, that was all.

His arms were worn out, he was worn out.

Wasn’t much point fighting the wind anyway, it wasn’t so bad. Soothing, rocking him to sleep. Part of Ron was screaming from deep down, yelling at him to keep fighting, but that wasn’t important enough to listen too now.

He was tired.

At least his arms and legs didn’t hurt anymore.

He smiled slightly.

It was too bad Adrienne wasn’t here.

She’d love the view. It was truly spectacular.

*****

“Rescue Alpha One Niner, this is Inspector Dougal, Tower City PD. Come in.”

Gwen kept her hands on the wheels as she drove, and eyes on the road, letting the hands free communications system worry about getting the signal out. The Eliica’s top end of just over four hundred kilometers an hour was the result of years of research into electric motors and Lithium Ion battery technology, but at that speed it was the batteries that kept them on the road and upright.

Stacked low in the chassis of the electric car the batteries provided an incredibly low center of gravity and excellent stability, even at extremely high speeds. This mattered because Anselm was pretty certain that it wasn’t really intended to be doing this kind of speed over the kind of roads that existed through the desert.

On the computer screen the map showed the GPS signal as it rushed out to the east, angling a little to the north, moving almost as fast as the Eliica and without the constraint of the roads. If it speeded up any more, or even if it just stayed up there for much longer, it would easily outpace them and leave them behind in the literal dust of the Australian desert.

Anselm thought of the various ways you could die in the desert and tried desperately to remember what the range of an Eliica was on a full charge.

“Inspector, this is Rescue Alpha One Niner. Do you have any more information on your lost Thermie?”

“Roger Rescue, he has a GPS transponder.” Gwen replied.

“Well that’s good news isn’t it? Do you have the number?”

“Roger, stand by.” Gwen said, then proceeded to belt off the number. “Confirm receipt Rescue.”

“Rescue confirms.” The man’s voice said, then came back with a whistle. “Hooo boy, he’s really moving. We might have to call ahead and try to get someone from Alice Springs up and looking for him.”

“Be advised, I am on the ground and in pursuit. The thermie is a skilled para-glider, we’re hoping that he’ll be able to get down out of the stream.”

“Watch your juice, Inspector. You don’t want to get caught out here anymore than he wanted to get caught up there.”

“Roger Rescue. Tower City Police, Out.” She ended the call.

Gwen looked down at the displays in front of her, then over at Anselm. “Relax. We’ve got a five hundred mile range on this thing. We’re not getting stranded.”

Anselm nodded tensely, his eyes on the sky.

There was no way he’d see Ron Somer, ten kilometers up, but he couldn’t help but look anyway.

*****

“Gwen…” Anselm spoke softly, but his voice was tense. The incredible speed of the vehicle he was in was trying enough, but the fact that Inspector Dougal insisted on dodging snakes and other animals in the road was downright frightening.

“What is it, Anselm?” She asked with a smirk.

By God, she’s enjoying herself!

Anselm shook the thought clear, formulating his words carefully. “You’ve called for a helicopter, right?”

She nodded.

“So should we be doing this?”

“What do you mean?” She frowned.

“I mean… the helicopter is going to get there first isn’t it?”

“Oh!” She said in sudden understanding, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

He must have looked confused, so she went on.

“About fifty fifty that he gets bounced out of the Jetstream in a few minutes,” She said seriously, “This happens every now and then. And the chopper is coming from a military base to the north, it won’t be here for a half hour at least.”

“Oh.”

“If we stay under him as long as we can,” She went on, “We’ve got a decent chance of spotting him if he bounces out of the stream.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“It could carry him around the planet until it finally decides to spit him out somewhere.” She shrugged, “But that won’t happen. No one ever goes very far.”

“Ok.” Anselm nodded, glad to understand the logic behind the insane rush.

He was also pleased for another reason, or a couple of them actually.

First he wanted to get to Ron Somer as a courtesy to Inspector Somer, and save the man’s life if it were possible, though Anselm wasn’t certain what he could hope to do to manage that. Second, though, was because he had a suspicion that someone had helped Ron Somer along on his accidental trip.

It just didn’t feel right to him that the husband of an Interpol agent would have such an accident the day he arrived to investigate Abdallah Amir.

He wanted to check Somer’s gear, and he wanted to be the first to do so.

*****

Ten kilometers up, fluttering along like a streamer in the wind, the unmoving body of Ronald Somer bounced and jostled in the wind as it was swept along at almost two hundred kilometers an hour. The winds ripped past him, trying to drag him faster, but the flopping of his body and the instability of the uncontrolled air foil above him just fluttered in response.

The Jetstream snaked above the earth, sometimes dropping as low as ten to fifteen kilometers, or climbing as high as twenty five above the surface of the planet. It traveled at speeds up to and exceeding four hundred kilometers an hour as it snaked its way from the west to the east as it circumvented the earth.

Weather systems were often ruled by the intervention of this stream of cold, fast moving air, bringing rains and winds as it interacted with warmer, slower moving pockets.

Now, though, it ruled one man and ruled him utterly as it flung him contemptuously about until finally tiring of his lifeless form and spat him out like a used-up toy.

*****

“Whoa!”

Gwen hit the brakes, bringing the Eliica to a bone jarring halt, “What!?”

“He’s slowed down!” Anselm said, pointing to the map. “You were right, he’s dropped clear…”

“Alright… that makes it easier.” She said, hitting the accelerator again, one eye on the map. “But where is he going to land?”

Anselm couldn’t answer that.

Too many variables popped into his mind. Wind, whether he was alive and conscious or not, the shape of his air foil.

Far too many variables to count.

“Not good.”

“What?” Anselm looked up at Inspector Dougal, catching the stern look on her face. “What’s not good?”

“He’s moving too slow.” She said, “Horizontally at least. I think his air-foil must be shredded.”

“Lovely.” Anselm gritted, “Just lovely.”

“It’ll make catching him easier,” She said after a moment, her voice darkly ironic.

“Yeah, but it’s going to make his landing a real bitch.”

Gwen Dougal just nodded as she tried to mentally plot the likely point where the man was going to come down.

It would be in the desert, certainly. The odds against him coming down out on the road were, well, ludicrous. Unfortunately the Eliica, while a master of the road, was somewhat poorer in sand. She’d take the car out on one of the side roads if she had too, there were a lot of them and the local off-roaders kept them well packed, so she could probably do it.

It would likely score the hell out of the bottom of the patrol car, however.

Gwen sighed, a long and suffering sound. She loved the Eliica, but it was a police vehicle after all. It had its duty, and she had hers.

*****

Kamir grinned widely as he watched the commotion kick up around him, knowing full well what it was all about. The rescue vehicles were being manned, tough off roaders that served dual purposes as toys most of the time and occasionally were pressed into service by community-minded drivers when one of the Thermies got tossed by the Stream.

Normally he’d be part of it, but Kamir didn’t feel like it today.

Better that he not be there when the body came down, he might laugh when he saw it.

That wouldn’t do at all.

*****

“There!” Anselm pointed to the sky, his finger crunching into the windscreen of the Eliica. “I see something.”

Gwen nodded, gritting her teeth as a rock scored what she bet was a deep gouge in the underside of the electric car.

A gas car this low would have been stopped already, caught up on something from beneath, or with half its exhaust scattered a quarter mile behind it. The Ellica had a solid and, previously, smooth bottom that skidded off the occasional object as long as at least a few of its eight tires had some traction.

“Where?” She growled, twisting her head from side to side.

“Just ahead and to the right!”

“Damn!”

“What?”

“There’s no road over there!” She growled, cursing a blue streak. “Not even a dirt track like this one.”

“He’s coming down fast.”

She snarled and twisted the wheel, sending the specially designed road car off-road and into the bush. The ride got even worse from there, the constant harsh grinding from under them practically bringing tears to Inspector Dougal’s eyes as she fought the wheel of the horribly expensive car and tried to keep an eye out for the falling man.

Finally she spotted him ahead and she had to agree with Anselm. He was coming down fast.

Too fast.

The Eliica protested, screeching it’s horror at the treatment it was receiving as she bounced it over a rock in their road, scoring the undercarriage again, but she ignored it and put the pedal to the floor.

They came to a skidding stop a couple minutes later, just as the body dropped from the sky, the ragged and ripped air-foil fluttering behind it like a child’s streamer.

Both officers winced as the body struck the ground feet first and just crumpled into the dust of the desert, the multicolored wreck of memory plastic raining down around it for several seconds later.

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Cleigh Currie

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