The RA-1 pack lies between us, drab and inert. Time is short. Distance is shorter and shortening by the second. The decrease in both is blindingly fast. But also slow. I will die before I budge, though, and they all know it. Eight harness rings tremble and reflect an unrecognizable collage of clouds, metal, sky, and gear all swirling around stoic faces, concentrated. The Ripstop pack sets off the bright red ripcord, symbolizing both danger and salvation. We can all see it on the floor in our periphery, but no one’s eyes move away from mine.

Burning oil mingled with fear and sweat fills the cabin. These are my brothers, though I feel I barely know them, still. Their eyes search my own, and their eyes my own search right back. Nervous, afraid, and resolute. I have a family and so do they. I can feel my wife’s hair in my face and smell her shampoo mingled with perspiration and the fabric softener on our sheets. My children… My God, my children. I can’t walk through a room without being attacked by joyful little warriors and princesses. Eight blue eyes, truer than blue, to them I am God, and I suck at it. Such sweet battle, tussled hair and hugs-too-hard being the only casualties. So different than this damn joke “war.” My widowed mother who is sick and dying, and her long letters of encouragement and advice on finances and child-rearing I still need. The last $100 Visa card she sent in my rucksack, $43.87 still on it. I checked before the mission this morning. I was going to get a plain cheeseburger and fries when I got back.

Not a man in here doesn’t have the same thoughts, though. A little variation, but different not in substance. Jim’s wife has blond hair, and they don’t have children. But he has an 11 year old 3-legged dog that once saved his life in a bear attack. It still tries to jump on its beloved master when he walks in the door, falling on its face over and over again. His father is losing his mind to Alzheimer’s. Kendrick has no wife, because his died when a log truck ran her off a cliff, and now he and his step-Mom raise his three children; one has Down’s. Paul is his parent’s only son, and has his whole life in front of him, and is too young and hopeful in spite of himself. His bright blue eyes possess the hope of humanity and the corners of his mouth go impossibly close to the corners of his eyes when he sees a friend he hasn’t seen in a while. A scar curves off the left corner, though, where a protester's bottle met its mark during a military parade. He never broke rank.

Every one of us would do the same, but I drew my weapon first. I will not take the last chute, and there is no time for discussion. The rumble of the straining fuselage deafens, even as the engine whines and the rush of wind pounds our eardrums. Words are pointless, even if we could hear them. I will shoot, and they know it. I will not take it. Jim and Paul lose their bacon, eggs, grits and coffee, the g-force in our stomachs is so strong. I will not take it.

Someone counted wrong. It happens. Kendrick bows his head a little in a gesture of gratitude and respect. Then jumps.

“Sam,” Paul begins. My Colt thunders my reply past his left ear. A hole in the fuselage makes no difference now. I back away from it further, buckling myself into the farthest jumpseat. There’s no way I could get it on in time, now. I hold up a peace sign with my left hand. Jim knocks Paul over the head, straps the pack onto him and rolls him to the edge. As he recovers from the stun, Jim rolls him out, praying he’ll fully wake up in time to pull the cord.

He turns to me, and I lower my gun and salute. He salutes back and I don’t see him again. I held the salute the rest of the way.

George Henry Plaster, Lebanon, North Carolina. 2018.

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