Chapter 1: A Surprise Landing
“Bram! Ready?" I raise my voice above the hum of twin turboprops vibrating the hull.
Bram taps his helmet cam. “We're rolling!"
“One million streaming," Austin confirms.
The green light beams. I swallow down my last bit of nerves, take a deep breath, and begin. “Alright. Ladies and gentlemen, we're live streaming today from 10,000 feet. I am Grant Wells and behind the camera is my companion, Bram Defoe. What you're about to witness is history in the making. Bram and I are sporting our newly developed, high-altitude jet suits. I know it looks like a typical winged jumpsuit, but I promise it's not."
“Bring the camera in," I say, twisting to show the small propulsion tube running down the length of my parachute pack. Bram scans the tube with his camera. “What you are seeing here is a high-powered, cool-air propeller that my team developed. There is one on each side. They are controlled by these."
I extend my arms and hands for the streaming audience. “The red stripes you see running along my grey suit are pressure and motion sensors. We have developed a flight system that allows the tension and motion of my body to steer the suit. And down here," I lift up my foot to show the bottom of my boot, “are some fancy soles that work with the propulsion on my back. Together, they are supposed to give me the power to move at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. We'll see if they do."
“In a moment, my trusty colleague, Austin—wave to the audience—will lower the tailgate of this bad boy and you will sail with us on our maiden voyage. And while you are flying with us, our speed will display in red digits at the top right hand of your screen. If we are successful today, not only will you experience the first high-altitude jet suit, you'll get to see what it looks like for a human being to hit falcon speed."
I pull down my visor and point at Austin, who gives a thumbs up and smacks the red button on the side of the Skyvan. A buzzer screeches in time with the red safety light. I double tap the side of my personally designed helmet, engaging the Bluetooth system so the audience and I can jam the same tune during the jump.
As a raspy voice from the golden era of rock and roll starts to etch out the first lyrics, the light turns green. I look to Bram. He raises his hand and waves it in a circular motion—the go sign. We run and jump with perfect timing. My feet leave the platform with the thud of a kickdrum that breaks in the chorus.
Down, we rush through the clear blue sky at terminal velocity toward the cascading hues of brown, green, and white of the earth below. Bram already knows the timing: fifteen seconds. At fifteen seconds, we will engage our suits. If the suits don't work with the first try, we will give it two more tries. After the third try, we will have to deploy our chutes. And if the suit doesn't work, we will have made a**es of ourselves in front of a million livestreamers.
I look to Bram and hold out a countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
To engage our suits, we thrust our hands down to our sides and flex our fingers. Gut-wrenching g-force halts my downward motion: I go from 120 to 0 in three seconds.
“What a rush!" I hear Bram's voice break past the blaring saxophone solo.
Hovering at 8,000 feet, Bram and I maneuver our bodies until we are facing each other, feet toward the earth. I pause the music. “Damn. I'm glad that worked," I say into the camera. “Now for the real show." Huffing a bit from the excitement, I hype up our second challenge. “If you thought that was a rush, wait until you see what's next. I hope you're ready, 'cuz I'm not. Watch the top right of your screen and you'll see if we can hit our projected speed of 200 miles per hour."
I shift myself into flight position and signal to Bram, then tap the Bluetooth, letting Little Richard send us off into the ether. Passing the speed of terminal velocity within less than five seconds, I can feel the power of the suit shoving my body toward record speed as we navigate through the cold, Alaskan sky.
Twisting, turning, soaring like birds, we take our audience on a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs like nothing any human being has ever felt before. I watch the upper right hand screen of my helmet where I can see our speed displayed. We are at 180 and still climbing. Below, the planned destination, the grassy knoll next to the pack's fishing cabin on the Tanana River, blurs past as we hit 200 miles per hour.
“Keep going! Keep going!" I scream into my helmet radio. I want to see how fast we can really go.
We blow by the endless rows of evergreen firs at a bone shaking 223 miles per hour. “225! 225! You can do it. Come on!" The gauge inches up to 224. “Almost there. Just one more." I grit my teeth. On my visor screen, I watch the red numbers twitch between 4 and 5 until . . . “YES!" I howl as I see 225 hold strong.
Bram's voice comes over the speaker. “That's it. That's all we've got."
Knowing he's right, I u-turn and head back to our cabin.
This time, as we rip past the tree line, coming out over the river next to our cabin, a strange scent excites my nostrils. I halt our forward motion and hover above the rapid flowing whitecaps. I throw my visor back, as does Bram. Without a word, I know he has caught the scent. Trying to keep my composure, not letting our audience know something is amiss, I smile. With the final notes of my chosen jam, I give a respectable closing line. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it is done!"
Bram shuts off the camera. His posture stiffens. In his eyes, I can see that he has caught the same scent and is both worried and excited at the prospect that the scent will bring. “Another shifter," says Bram.
Eyes scanning the banks and tree line, we slowly drift over the shoreline of the Tanana and land in the tall mass of lush sedges situated downriver from our fishing cabin. We strip off our jet suits and underclothes, stuffing them into the cleft of a large rock. Standing naked in the cover of greenery, I nod at Bram.
Bram's high and tight, black hair rapidly lengthens and stretches down his strong, clean-shaven jawline, which begins to shift from the human structure that holds back the primal being lying behind his skin. His defined, light-skinned body is overtaken by a dark, thick coat—the reflection of a moonless night. His figure transforms into a more powerful shape. On all fours, the contrast of my Beta's baby blue eyes against his black coat and bared, white fangs assures me he is ready for the hunt.