|This article, The Onyx Chronicles/The Stumble, was written by Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
"Last chance, trainee! Jump!"
Simon's quivering hands locked around the straps of the backpack the Navy men had given him as his legs buckled and threatened to fall out from beneath him. Before him gaped the open troop bay of the enormous dropship, and beyond that lay an icy blackness that threatened to reach up and swallow Simon whole if he let it get any closer.
It'd been an eternity since the one Navy man had stopped by the orphanage to talk to him. Since then more men in uniforms had made him take a bunch of strange tests before they packed him up on a long space voyage with lots of other smelly, noisy kids just like the ones he'd left behind at the orphanage. Then they'd dropped him and the hundreds of noisy, smelly kids off onto a dark field, where a big man surrounded by other big men had said some things about the Covenant and how they needed to fight them. Simon hadn't really been paying attention; it had been nearly half a day since his last meal, and he was starving.
But now they'd all been herded back onto the dropships--without any food--given these strange backpacks, and now an enormous Navy man was telling him to kill himself.
"Do it, trainee!" the man bellowed over the gusts of cold wind that whipped out from the darkness. They cut into Simon's cheeks and bit at his trembling fingers . "Jump!"
Simon barely heard the man's yelling. All he could see was the blackness in front of him. His entire body had become like stone; he couldn't even think about moving. There was no way he was going into that darkness. If he did, he would never come out.
The navy man snorted in disgust. "Next!" he ordered, waving him back, and Simon loved him for it. Now he could go back to the orphanage, back to those bleak hallways and angry teachers, never again having to face the darkness that was in front of him. He'd rather be thrown back onto the streets, with the dogs and the cops and the days filled with endless hunger, rather than go into the blackness.
He took a faltering step back, not fast enough for the kid behind him and the kid behind him. A rough arm grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him aside.
Simon's leg slipped, just an inch...
Suddenly he was on his knees, hands scrabbling wildly at the metal surface for something, anything to grab onto. But there was nothing. The wind grabbed him and dragged him, backpack and all, out into that dreaded blackness.
The next few seconds stretched on forever, composed of an endless scream that was immediately snatched away by the wind the moment it left his mouth. He screamed and screamed and screamed until he couldn't breathe. There was nothing around him, just the open air and the impenetrable darkness. It was only after he ran out of breath that he remembered the thing that the Navy man had screamed at all of them when he'd given them the backpacks.
Pull the cords.
He couldn't even see those, but he reached up and beat desperately at his shoulders until his numb fingers closed upon a length of what had to be the cord. He grabbed it and pulled with all that remained of his fading strength.
He froze. That's not right. He desperately yanked the cords again and again, jerking his arms up and down as the wind whistled around his plummeting body. And then, after another eternity, something behind him jerked up and away from his body. He felt a massive jolt, then yelped in pain as the backpack tightened around his body and squeezed out what little air he had left.
He must have blacked out then, because the next thing he knew his face was buried in a mound of dirt while the parachute that had saved his life floated down around him like an enormous blanket.
Boots pounded on dirt. Someone tore the chute off him and rolled him over. Stars twinkled overhead in the darkness, or maybe that was just the tears of fear and relief that were streaming from his eyes. Two more Navy men inspected him, their faces small and their voices coming from a long way off.
"Jesus Christ, he's still alive."
"When his chute didn't go, I thought he was a goner. Like that poor girl from the Betas..."
"Must've kept pulling. That's what saved him."
Simon breathed out and looked back up at the stars, now certain that they were the real thing. He was alive, and that was all that mattered. He'd live another day, no matter what these strange men made him do. As long as he could do that, he'd be fine. He'd do anything they wanted if it kept him alive.
Anything at all to survive.