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Rocket Man 5

Rocket Man 5 - Chapter 3: Crash Plain

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Chapter 3: Crash Plain

The strange black mask they had given him had no holes for eyes, nose, or mouth but, it was transparent nonetheless. At least from the inside. Terry stared harder into the mirror trying to see through the black mask. He had been promised that the mask was proof against all forms of technological or mystic attempts to view the wearer. It certainly seemed that the RMF had enough brainy people on hand to invent stuff like this but it seemed just a little "sci-fi" to Terry.

He had already donned the rest of the costume he had been supplied for the testing phase of the tryouts. He was wearing a black bodysuit with a large white letter "J" on the chest and black gloves with some kind of no-slip coating. The suit was made of an uncomfortable but nearly indestructible material known as metaweave. Terry made a mental note to ask for an under layer for the rest of the test period. He had heard of the wondrous material of course, all the fashionable heroes were wearing it this year. According to fellow hero fan chatroom members it was believed to be resistant to penetration by anything less than a .50 caliber bullet. It also could be "programmed" to resist a hero's own powers, although how it does such a thing was beyond the average comic geek.

He looked around at the small room he would occupy for the duration of the testing. Terry wondered if the other candidates had similar rooms. Having been deployed on an aircraft carrier, he had been assigned much smaller quarters in the past.

The knock at the door for which he had been waiting this past hour had finally come. Terry stood, quickly checked the mask in the mirror again, and opened the door.

"Hello Candidate J." said the small man at his door. "My name is George, and I'll be your helper and guide for the test phase."

"Hello George." Terry said extending his hand. if you're gonna be my sidekick why didn't they give you a suit too?" His voice seemed strange because of the voice disguiser on the mask, a small black nickel sized disk situated over the wearer's voice box. So that's what the little button thingy does, he thought.

The look of shock and surprise on George's face was priceless. "Uh, sir I'm not, I mean, uh..."

"Kidding George, just kidding. Lead on." he stepped into the hallway.

"Oh, of course sir." George said too nervously.

He led Terry down a hallway into a maze of corridors. Terry was possessed of an excellent sense of direction, and was quite certain his guide had doubled back on himself at least twice when they stopped for George to check a set of instructions he carried on a clipboard.

"Just a little further." He said in a tone clearly meant to be reassuring.

Terry was in no particular hurry. "If you would like a hand with those instructions, I'm pretty good with maps, see I used to be..."

"No, no please don't tell me anything about your background sir," George pleaded, "I'm not supposed to know anything about you or any other candidate."

"Fair enough," allowed Terry, "but in case you are lost, the room I was just in is right down there." Terry pointed down the hallway to his left.

George looked like he had failed an important task. "I'm sorry sir, George said, "I'm just very nervous about these tests."

"Is this your first time?" Terry asked.

"No sir I was involved with the last tests in '88, both runs."

"Both?" asked Terry, "do you mean two phases or two tests?"

"There were two tests in '88 sir, none of the first group made it." George gave what looked like it was supposed to be a reassuring smile.

Terry decided against asking if there were two tests because no one survived the testing. Poor George already looked like he thought he might not survive the testing himself. He did recall that 1988 was the year without a Rocket Man, something which had never happened before. The long delay between the third and fourth Rocket Man had caused some great deal of speculation that the entire program was a wash. Julie's obvious obsession with finding a good candidate and hitting the ground running could be understood. If there was yet another long pause in the program it could cause the public to lose confidence, and donations would suffer. The generosity of the public had waned dramatically in the twenty months it took to get up and running again in '89.

After some turns not taken before the pair came to a large hangar that housed a sleek looking aircraft that was being loaded with a good deal of equipment by a rear cargo ramp. Terry didn't recognize the type of aircraft as it did not quite match any he had seen before, but it appeared to have been a very modified wide body passenger liner. The engines were strange looking, enough so that he wasn't sure they were even jet engines. He looked around the building noticing that there weren't any hangar doors on any of the walls, looking up he saw that the roof was retractable like some big league stadiums.

Other men dressed as he was with different letters on their chests were standing next to people who must have been their "sidekicks". All of the "men of letters" as Terry considered himself to be, were spaced far enough apart to make it obvious that the distance was intentional. Terry sized up the competition. A man about 5'10" or so but muscled like an Olympic weightlifter was to Terry's left. The human gorilla had the letter K on his suit, over which his arms were crossed. He seemed to be not interested in the least with anyone or anything going on in the busy hanger. Gorilla man stared straight ahead at nothing. "Psyching out his opponents" Terry said to no one in particular. George looked at him curiously but Terry waved by way of explanation.

Candidate I was just the opposite, both because he was looking at everyone and everything, and because he was tall and lanky, Terry doubted he could lift a metal suit, he would need to use the rockets just to walk.

Mr. L was a cool customer his easy stance could only be confused for a lack of preparation to move by someone who was about to get kicked in the face. He was neither tall nor short but well developed enough not to stand out either. "If that guy's not a special forces soldier I'll eat my hat." Terry told George who looked worried to know even guesses about the candidates.

M stood with the patience that spoke of experience waiting. Terry considered there to be a large possibility that this guy was former military too. His impassive stance could only be duplicated after years of training in the hurry up and wait culture of government work.
A crew member made a signal to the helpers who began to lead the candidates on the plane, starting with Mr. K. Terry thought the "K" was for kong.

As the candidates filed onto the aircraft, Julie checked her ever present clipboard for the talking points for the in flight briefing. At least she was pretending to do so. She was actually watching the interaction, or lack thereof, between the candidates and their handlers. She was aware that among the technicians on the flight today would be several Behavior Analysts. The mental and emotional health of all prospective members of the various super-teams was scrutinized closely before any real training would begin. In the case of Rocket Man, they had the additional advantage of choosing the candidate before training would begin.

She looked on as the first candidate, K, boarded the aircraft. Candidate K moved to the bottom of the boarding stair and briskly took the steps three or four at a time. "Type A" personality, Julie thought, Overly aggressive. His name was Matthew Clayton, or "Mad Matt" to his fans. A professional wrestler, race car driver, and adrenaline junkie. This would never be the man to lead the Young Champions, much less the Champions Club. She could, or would, not interfere with this man's chances at qualification. She did not believe there was any need, at any rate, as his lack of caution would be his undoing in Julie's estimation.

Nor would she need to in any way bias the results of Candidate I. His thin frame and clear nervousness marked him as Daniel Harrison, the engineer chosen by the committee members who had trumped Julie's protests. They believed that the complex nature of the new systems would require an operator with a sophisticated understanding of machinery. She was simultaneously angry and sad to be reminded of Travis Winter, the recently departed Rocket Man, himself an engineer and amateur scientist. She had spent many hours trying to explain the workings of the last project to Travis, who although intelligent, was not nearly exceptional enough to understand the technology of the RM4 project. It had been decades ahead of it's time. The RM5 project was probably at least a century ahead of the curve. The intensity of the new equipment coupled with the physical demands placed on the candidates would surely eliminate Harrison from the competition.

Candidate L was Arthur Wenton, a First Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, was a member of the ultra black DEVGRU erroneously known as SEAL Team Six. Although deadly in a fight with more pedestrian weapons, he had never fought at the speed of sound while maintaining ground separation. No need for her intercession here.

Candidate "M" was an entirely different matter. Lt. Col. Geoff West was an Astronaut. He held degrees in psychology and thermodynamics. He was a certified genius (IQ of 158) and a son of a U.S. senator. He was gifted, even talented but not passionate. Col. West was a natural achiever and rarely inspired anyone she had spoken to in the interviews.

Major Grissom on the other hand, had left myriad Marines and classmates in his wake who would cheerfully take a bullet for him. Or so they had indicated to the interviewers. Because she had chosen him for consideration others were sent to speak to the people who he had known. She would have liked to have spoken with them, to find out what he was like from friends and family first hand. She shook herself from her thoughts, it was not like her to be distracted by stray thoughts. It must have been the lingering depression she felt over the failure of the RM4 project.
When all the Candidates were seated she began the briefing. "You were all given a copy of the basic flight control familiarization document?" Seeing nods from the gathered men she continued, "Good, the hand held controls on the mini-packs, and the packs themselves are a temporary stepping stone to the actual armor. Due to the extreme difficulty and expense in manufacturing the armor we will not begin final assembly until the selection is over. The exact method of propulsion is so far a closely held secret so please no questions about how the packs work. They are, for the first time in the history of the program, not rockets. Not in the conventional sense. They are actually an anti-gravity device with a high-energy plasma booster. The power for these devices is provided by a new technology which is extremely compact relative to it's output."
She was being Humble. Truly. The propulsion system, and it's power plant were twin miracles of science. As the fourth generation of meta-intelligent scientists raised in a culture of designers who translated the word "impossible" to mean "tricky" or "difficult" she had no concept of how brilliant she really was. Helga Julieann Von Werner was the smartest human on earth. Her lack of interest in any life outside the RMF had shielded her from the results of others in fields not pertinent to her work. Except, of course, for super villains. She regularly had the handiwork of top madmen to reverse engineer and, because doomsday weapons were seldom made proprietary, she had ample opportunity to conduct experiments using methods and equipment known nowhere else. The RM5 Project was not merely ahead of its time it was centuries ahead of it's time. It was because she sought no accolades other than the appreciation of her father, and her fellow RMF Members, that she had no gauge of accomplishment. Outside the day to day survival of her charge, to delineate success from failure was irrelevant. And fail she had. Travis Winter, hero and friend had stood no chance against Dr. Doomsday. He was a meta-genius with invulnerable skin. The fight was short but brutal. every one of the eighty-six seconds of it would play on a continuous loop before sleep would come to her for months now. She did not consider herself to be as gifted as everyone told her she was.

Terry wished there was a mirror handy. Here he was actually wearing a rocket pack made by the RMF. They said it wasn't a rocket, but he didn't intend to ever let anyone call him Anti-grav-plasma-doohickey Man. Ever.

He tested the resistance on the controls by the habit learned from hard won experience, he similarly did not wish to find out the throttle was loose when it was live. The first to fly was poor skinny "I Guy", as Terry had dubbed him. The ground crew was giving him his final look-see before the fireworks. Or plasma-grav-whatever works. The nervousness of Candidate I was obvious, even with the peek-proof mask the man's body language told Terry of his sheer terror at the prospect of hitting the throttle in his hand. He felt sad for him.

He thought, He's gonna wash out. Right here, right now. Terry's gut reaction was to offer words of encouragement, to calm his fellow candidate down. He resisted the urge. Not to benefit from this man's failure but because there was no room in the armor for someone who needed to be talked into action. If it were a Marine in his care, or a sports teammate he would be compelled to help even a rival, for the good of the team, but here the opposite logic applied. It applied to himself as well, he decided. Putting someone in that suit who was the best possible candidate should be the focus of his life now. Even if it wasn't him. Especially if it wasn't him.

"I, I, I can't" I'm sorry." Said the rail thin man who was now visibly shaking. "It's just, I've seen the take offs that Rocket Man does, or did, and the acceleration, the g-forces, look, I know you did, you've done the math, ... I'm sorry." The man could not look into the faces of anyone there. If he had, he would have seen only sympathy from the faces of those who looked at him.
Terry looked over at Julie who actually looked relieved. Curiouser and curiouser, he thought.
"Well," Julie said, "Let's go to the next Candidate..."

And like that it was over for "I Guy" who was led away by technicians, no explanation was needed for the remaining few what had just happened.

Candidate K was eager nearly to the point of hopping to show he was afraid of nothing. When prepped and cleared for take off he hit the gas a little too enthusiastically, and achieved ground separation at an aggressive rate. He went ballistic.

Terry and the two others winced automatically at the rapid rate of climb. The roar of the power pack was deafening. When the airborne gorilla attempted to transition to level flight, Terry took a look around. It was a desert environment with a red cast to the earth. Probably the uninhabitable portion of southwest, a good place for not running into innocent bystanders. Or anyone else for that matter, except giant mutated animals. And Team Ultra, the super-team who fought them.

The former sites of nuclear testing by the government and mad scientists had activated the meta-gene in creatures at random intervals. Usually with hideous results. Those that survived the transformation developed super-powers or, grew to mammoth sizes, or sometimes very unfortunately, both. Team Ultra fought almost constantly. Out here where there were no strip malls to open, no autographs to sign, they did their job for little or no thanks at all. In fact it was said no few of them were so irradiated they could never be around normal humans again.
After about forty-five minutes of coaching from the practice control center, Kong came in for a landing, not a good one by anyone's standards, except the old naval aviator who had told Terry, "Any landing you walk away from was a good one."

Next was Candidate L. Or, "Mr. I'm not SPECFOR, not me, nosiree Bob," as Terry had assigned him. Deciding to shorten it to just "Bob", Terry watched him lift off with similar enthusiasm, although less wobbling. Not bad, he thought, just a little less power and a little more finesse. Bob's maneuvers were sloppy at best and lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Well at least he didn't put an F-18 into a tobacco field.

Geoff watched as the techs moved to the only other candidate left. At first he thought perhaps this guy was another athlete like Candidate K. He was clearly making jokes to his helper in the hangar before the flight, but became all business when information was being relayed. The Astronaut looked on as Candidate J tested his flight controls for their feel and moved around as he was adjusted and inspected with the practiced calm of one who regularly depended on others to know their jobs at the cost of his own life. A pilot, Geoff concluded. His calm at the prospect of leaving Mother Earth in a backpack spoke of a high degree of confidence in either his abilities, or a faith in the RMF. When given clearance to begin, he very gently cycled the device through its lowest settings, producing no more than a whistling howl from the power plant. Slowly, in stark contrast to the others, he began to levitate turning slowly as he lifted about a foot or two off the ground. When he had achieved control over his lateral movements, he added power carefully and started to ascend at a leisurely pace. When thirty or forty feet ATG he rapidly increased throttle and began ascending, working his way up to a high g climb. Geoff smiled as he noticed the habit of Candidate J to roll onto his side before turning. A tactical aircraft moves better about its lateral axis, using it's elevators, than its vertical axis, using its rudder(s). He had spent enough time in the Air Force to know the type of training this man had received, made obvious by his careful study of the situation. Candidate J was a quick study, a very fast learner. Fighter guys were usually devotees of combat philosophers like Sun Tzu or Col. John Boyd, and literally lived and died by their words. This would be his main competition. He had not thought going into this that it was going to be easy. but the speed with which Candidate J worked his way up to more precise control of the mini-pack was impressive. Perhaps an instructor? Now if only he could get his handler to make a bet on how long it would take Candidate J to mention the phrase "OODA Loop".

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Updated 10-08-2015 at 03:18 PM by Zavaraxis

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