Rachel shivered, scooting a couple of inches closer to the fire. Across from her sat the Navy pilot, Lieutenant Commander William Smith who was also pushed as close to the flames as he could get without risking burns. It was dark and a strong wind was blowing out of the north, sighing through the tops of the pine trees surrounding them.
The wind brought the smell of damp and cold, and it cut through the flight suits the pair wore. Rachel guessed the temperature was in the upper 40s at best but the wind-chill was almost certainly in the low 30s. Her toes, fingers and nose were numb and she wished for the hot weather that had nearly killed her in Oklahoma.
The pilot knew they were in Idaho but beyond that he was as lost as she was. There had been five terrifying minutes as he had made every effort to evade a flight of six Russian fighter jets then a klaxon in the cockpit had begun screaming.
“Missile!” He had shouted over the intercom. A moment later the world around Rachel had exploded.
First, the clear canopy over her head had been blasted free from the airframe. An instant later, without warning, her seat rocketed straight up with an ear splitting roar. Only a moment behind the pilot’s seat had also shot out of the doomed jet, trailing a plume of flames and smoke. As they were still accelerating upwards the Russian missile slammed into the rear of their jet, detonating with a force that knocked both of them over onto their backs.
Then she was falling, still strapped to the seat. She had no idea how far they’d dropped, but after what seemed an eternity she heard a flapping in the air over her head and looked up to see a small drogue chute at the end of a long tether. There was a loud thump from her seat and the straps holding her fell away.
Rachel screamed as she started to fall, but as her body separated from the ejection seat the parachute on her back was triggered. The canopy fluttered out above her then a hard jerk took most of her breath as it filled with air and slowed her descent. She still wanted to scream but got her fear under control and looked for the pilot.
After twisting her head around she finally spotted him hanging in the air above and behind her. He was gripping a handle with each hand. A line ran up to the parachute from each and she assumed that allowed him to control his fall. She saw the same handles flapping around on either side of her, but with no idea how to use them decided it was best to leave them alone.
Looking down between her feet she couldn’t begin to estimate how far above the ground she was. It could have been a hundred feet or a thousand. Or much more. She felt a thrill of fear looking at the rugged and unforgiving terrain she was steadily falling towards. Tall peaks were to her right and she was just now coming level with the highest summit. A thick forest blanketed the mountains and there wasn’t a sign of civilization anywhere.
The ground approached faster than she thought it could have. She was now low enough to make out individual tree tops and started to panic at the thought of crashing into one and getting tangled in its branches, left dangling a hundred feet in the air. Thinking she was imagining it at first, Rachel looked up when she heard a faint voice again.
“Pull the toggles to slow down!” It was the pilot, shouting instructions to her.
What the hell were toggles? The handles! It had to be. Rachel grabbed and pulled, surprised how easily they moved. She immediately began to slow, then started to move in a broad spiral. Frightened, she let go of the toggles and the circling stopped but her speed increased dramatically.
Reaching up and pulling on them again she was relieved when her rate of descent slowed, but she started into a slow spiral again. This time she realized that she was pulling one toggle farther than the other and backed off slightly on the one side. The turn stopped as soon as her hands came level with each other.
Watching between her feet, Rachel spotted a small clearing to her left. The wind was from her right, pushing her towards it, but it looked like it would push her too far. Beyond the clearing was a thick stand of trees, then a sheer rock face dropped for what appeared to be hundreds of feet.
Taking a chance, Rachel played with the position of the toggles trying to guide herself to the clearing. It looked small but was growing in size as she fell. Her rate of descent increased as she adjusted.
The spiral started again, the radius of each orbit increasing as she spun faster and faster. As the spin rate increased she started to swing out from beneath the canopy like a pendulum. Her motion tilted the parachute off horizontal, spilling air out and letting her fall faster, which increased her spin speed even more.
“Let go!” The pilot screamed from somewhere above her. Rachel was terrified. With every spin she pulled harder, her brain focused on the only things her hands could grasp.
“Let go or you’re dead!” He screamed out again.
This time his words broke through the fear and she released the toggles like they were burning hot. She continued to spin but immediately the rate began to slow. Her descent also slowed slightly as the parachute came back level and its entire surface filled with air once again. Then she flashed by the tops of some trees.
“Pull hard now!” The pilot screamed.
Rachel pulled hard on the toggles and felt herself begin to slow and turn, then she slammed into the ground only feet from the trunk of a massive pine tree. Her legs went out from under her, unable to absorb the impact, and she fell on her right side. Fortunately she landed on a thick carpet of dead pine needles, which significantly cushioned her impact otherwise she would likely have broken one or both of her legs.
Lying on the ground, panting, Rachel was facing the clearing and watched as the pilot controlled his descent and lightly landed on both feet. Quickly he shrugged out of the parachute and raced over to where she was lying.
“Ma’am, are you hurt?” He asked, skidding to a stop on his knees next to her when he saw her eyes open.
“If you call me ma’am one more time I’m going to kick your ass,” Rachel gasped.
“Yes ma’am,” the pilot grinned, helping her sit up and remove the parachute.
After catching her breath, Rachel stood and looked around. She had come down at the very edge of the clearing, missing the closest tree by mere feet. The sky was cloudy and the wind was gusting, cold air causing her to start shivering.
“What do we do?” She asked the pilot who was busy checking the pistol that had been holstered at his hip.
“We wait,” he said, holstering his weapon. “My wingman made it, or at least I think he did, but either way there’ll be a SAR flight along as soon as it can be organized. So we stay put and wait for rescue.”
While he was talking he led the way back to where he’d discarded his parachute. A small, cushioned pack was attached to a long tether and he picked it up and disconnected the line holding it.
“What do you have in there?” Rachel asked.
“First aid kit, sunblock, water ration, a couple of MREs, a compass, waterproof matches, flare gun and water purification tablets.” He said, looking into the pouch as he spoke.
“No more weapons?” Rachel asked. He just shook his head.
As the day wore on the wind grew stronger and the temperature continued to drop. They talked little, exchanging names and not much more. Neither was in the mood to socialize.
Shortly before the last of the daylight faded, Bill gathered fallen tree branches and piled them in an area that was somewhat sheltered from the biting wind. Rachel stood and began helping. Soon they had a respectable pile and he spent a few minutes clearing pine needles until he had a large spot of bare earth exposed. Stacking twigs and smaller branches, a few of the open spots were filled in with dry pine needles. He was digging through his pack for a match when a bone-chilling howl sounded on the wind.
Both of them leapt to their feet, looking around. Bill already had the pistol in his hand. The howl sounded again, loud in the dark forest, sending gooseflesh creeping up and down Rachel’s entire body. She shifted position until her back was pressed against Bill’s so that together they could watch in all directions.
“Is that what I think it is?” Rachel hissed.
“If you’re thinking wolf, then that’s what I think too.” He answered in a not so steady voice.
“Will they attack humans?” She asked.
“They’ll attack anything except maybe a bear,” he said.
“I’m going to get the fire going,” Rachel said. “You keep an eye out.”
He didn’t say anything and a moment later she struck one of the fat matches and held it to a tuft of pine needles. They were dry and caught easily, Rachel hunching over the small flame to shield it from the wind until the larger sticks and branches began burning.
Once it was crackling away, Rachel reached back into the pouch and pulled out the flare gun. She looked at it a moment to figure it out, then pressed the release lever and broke it open. She could see brass in the chamber and satisfied it was loaded, snapped it closed. Three more flares were in a small plastic case that she stuffed it in her pocket.
“What are you going to do with that?” Bill asked when she stood up and he saw it in her hand.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but…” she was interrupted by another howl, this one sounding like it was no farther away than the far side of the clearing.
Rachel and Bill both faced that direction with their weapon at arm’s length, pointed at where the howl originated. They stood that way for a minute, then Rachel began to worry that while they were distracted they were being stalked from behind. Turning, she started to move so her back was against Bill’s but froze when she saw a pair of yellow eyes watching her from the edge of the forest.
“Oh, fuck,” she breathed as the eyes began approaching.
The fire wasn’t large, what light it cast creating shadows in the forest that danced as the wind fanned the flames. But there was one large shadow that approached slowly, not wavering. The eyes were bright, reflecting the firelight and Rachel didn’t think the animal was more than thirty feet away. It was considerably larger than Dog.
Rachel was shaking with fear, her heart pounding as she tried to steady the flare gun. The eyes were mesmerizing. Unblinking. Focused. A fear as primal and instinctual as any she’d ever experienced washed over her. Forcing herself to hold steady, Rachel aimed and pulled the trigger.
There was a loud pop as the flare was triggered, a burning trail marking its passage through the air as it raced across the open space between her and the wolf. It struck the ground a foot in front of the animal, ricocheting up and impacting its chest as the second stage ignited, exploding into an intense ball of fire.
The wolf yelped, stumbling backwards into the forest, its fur burning from the compounds in the flare. It raced away, screaming like Rachel had never imagined any canine could. She was able to track its progress for a few moments as it disappeared into the night.
“Holy shit,” Bill said softly.
Rachel was shaking but forced herself to open the flare gun, discard the used shell and load in a fresh one. They stood back to back, only taking their attention off the forest long enough to stack more wood on the fire. After close to three hours they hadn’t heard or seen any further sign of the wolves. Shivering from the cold and exhausted after the fear induced adrenaline surge they finally huddled around the fire and tried to stay warm enough to survive the night.