Chapter 1: Plane Crash
The black smoke rising from the former jet fighter was the image in the background of the Cable News Channel. Superimposed over the video of the stricken aircraft were crawling information bars on a multitude of subjects ranging from stock prices, to the weather, the crash, fashion reports, celebrity divorces and dire warnings about which foods were thought to cause cancer this week. Terry Grissom was only interested in the plane. His plane. Although the plane belonged to the American taxpayers he had signed for it when it was in better condition than it now appeared on the small TV screen. Being an experienced aviator Terry had no need to look to operate the clumsy device which controlled the television and the hospital bed on which he laid, and could summon a nurse, although it had seemed to be far more effective on the bed and TV than the nurse. Adjusting the volume up to an audible level, Terry could hear the anchorwoman reading the bulleted factoids displayed on the screen.
"The plane was believed to be an F- A- Eighteen Hornet" she pronounced carefully with no certainty in her voice, "like the one pictured here"
The plane which appeared onscreen with the notation "File Video" was in fact an "A" model of the F/A-18 Terry noted seeing the details of the aircraft pictured by the news agency. "Close," he said, "but no cigar."
He wondered if this was in fact a hospital in which he had awakened. Although it had many of the visual clues one expects to see in a hospital, what it lacked seemed to be actual staff members. As he was about to push the button again, the door opened and admitted a delegation of lab-coated people wearing identification badges marked "Visitor" in large red letters. Following the group of four white coated men and one woman was Terry's squadron commander, Hal.
Hal wasted no time getting to the point "Terry I was asked to tell you that these people have whatever authority to ask you to do, whatever it is they came to ask you for, and this comes from on high."
Terry again Considered the group of people, at first he had thought they had been doctors but then he wondered if they might be crash investigators, although he didn't think they could have arrived so quickly, assuming it was still the same day. He looked again at the screen which gave the date as August 18th, 2004 the same day he had took off on a completely routine training mission. "Are you investigating the crash?" he asked no one in particular of the white clad persons.
"No," said the only woman "It's actually much more serious than that."
It hardly seemed likely that these people could be here for anything more serious than the still smoking fifty million dollar plane receiving wall-to-wall coverage on the country's #1 Infoprovider (now in HD). Perhaps he had made a mistake on his taxes? But representatives of the IRS did not wear lab-coats. Did anyone still wear lab-coats except on TV, he wondered.
"We were on our way to meet you anyway before you even took off," Said the Youngish looking woman. "The crash might actually be a helpful diversion if you decide to accept our offer."
"Glad I thought of it then," Terry said rubbing his still sore neck muscles.
The Woman looked at the slightly older looking man to her right and asked, "Can you look at that Herbie?"
The man did step forward and produced a device the size of a paperback book and what looked like a gourd shaped salt shaker from the pockets of his lab coat. "Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?" Herbie requested, as he placed the fat end of the "Salt shaker" on Terry's neck.
Terry complied with as much finger and toe wiggling as possible while continuing to inspect the visitors. The woman giving the orders was no older than He was, which was twenty-nine but the others were all at least in their late thirties or early forties. Then it struck him that there was a passing resemblance to the men of this group. They all had a seriousness to their look which Terry had at first merely attributed to being doctors but he then noticed they had similar features. Currently they all wore the same worried frown. These people were clearly not medical doctors, except "Herbie" perhaps as none of them had achieved the look of professional detachment that MD's pull off so well. They looked downright worried, especially the woman, as if they had as much at stake in the condition of his spine as he did. "Looks like something off of Star Trek." Terry joked. Then he felt a warmth followed by a light vibration. He Looked at Hal, his CO and Friend and saw he too was worried but not just about the possibility of injury. Hal watched the others in the room warily. Terry wondered about what Hal had meant by "on high"
Moving the Warm tingly "Salt shaker" around Terry's neck and shoulders until he was satisfied with the results Herbie pronounced, "No permanent damage but it's gonna smart for a while."
And smart it did. The ejection seat had violently removed Terry from the aircraft as if he had been talking in a theater, or some other inexcusable behavior. He did not remember anything after that but was surprised he had even survived the ejection from the pinwheeling aircraft which had suddenly exploded with no warning in mid flight.
The Visitors all relaxed visibly when the pronouncement was made, the woman in the middle even had apparently been holding her breath. "So to what then, do I owe the pleasure of your visit?" Terry asked the now relieved looking group.
Again they deferred to the woman in the middle who stated, "We came to offer you a job." Pausing briefly for a reaction from Terry that was not yet forthcoming she continued,"If you decide to accept, we have the authority to ask the Colonel here to arrange for you to be honorably yet quietly discharged from your military service. This is how the crash may be useful as a cover." she added.
"It better be one heck of a job then" Terry said seriously.
"Oh it is Major, rest assured that it is the biggest job opening in the world." the woman said with no look of humor or irony on her face at all. "If you will excuse us a moment Colonel..." she asked of Hal who only spared a small supportive look at Terry before quickly exiting the room.
Terry considered carefully what they could be here to propose to him. His career had been stellar so far. He had graduated first in his class from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and accepted a commission in the Marine Corps, turning down an offer to play in the National Football League. He had been an outstanding athlete as well as a gifted scholar. He distinguished himself as an aviator in the six years since then, turning down another offer from officers he had served with in the Iraq War. Some had enough pull to be assured of a recommendation to the Navy's prestigious Blue Angels flight demonstration team. But he had turned down that offer to accept a job as an air combat instructor. He felt the need to work where he could directly help save the lives of his fellow jet-jocks. What could be more important than that, he didn't know, especially if it would involve leaving the service. These folks were clearly from some family run organization as they all had a kind of resemblance. Terry's blood ran cold as it occurred to him what kind of organization was privately run but did important work that needed flying skills.
In the 1920's something amazing had happened to the human race. People had developed super powers. Unfortunately the first recipients of those powers had used them for their own personal gain, usually at the expense of others. And what expense. The city of Madrid, Spain no longer existed, it had been annihilated by a super villain who called himself "El Diablo" or "The Devil." His power was to generate explosions. When the angry citizens of Madrid attacked him he used all of his power and caused the first known atomic explosion on Earth. Other villains held cities for ransom and destroyed anyone or anything that came between them and total domination of their communities. But then in the late days of the 20's heroes started to appear. first normal humans fed up with the super powered menace that plagued their particular town would fight for their neighbors, but the risk to themselves was great if they could not hide their identities. And so the American people demanded an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protected heroes who fought meta-human villains and their minions, robots, and monstrous creations. The Amendment forbid any government agency from attempting to uncover the identity of any person who fought against meta-human threats of all kinds. One of the earliest of these heroes was Rocket Man, who in 1932 began his career as the champion of the common man versus enemies ranging from super scientists to little green men from outer space. It was widely publicized that apart from his metal rocket powered armor, Rocket Man had no actual super powers. An organization known as the Rocket Man Foundation was formed to help finance the necessary expenses to maintain the equipment Rocket Man needed. And the public donated enthusiastically. The public approval polls showed that Rocket Man was about as popular as ice cream and among young boys much more so. One such young boy had been Terry Grissom, who had a prodigious collection of comic books, action figures, and collectibles that vexed his parents with the need for storage space that it consumed.
The most recent Rocket Man, the fourth to earn the title, had recently died. For fifteen years he had fought for the safety of the people of the whole planet. He had lost his life to the invincible seeming Dr. Doomsday, who was still at large. Terry knew what job opening these people were here to fill. "You're from the RMF" Terry stated plainly.
The woman was clearly surprised. "Your accomplishments indicate intelligence Major, but I'm Impressed nonetheless." She smiled broadly.
Now that she was smiling Terry thought she was attractive in a sort of bookish, librarian, sort of way.
"What gave us away" she asked looking triumphantly at her colleagues.
"Well for one. Terry began, "You don't work for the government. Those guys can't wait to pull rank on everybody. If you are looking to get me out of my contract then you must not need it at all." Terry spread his hands with a shrug.
"Well that is true Major, we don't work for any government. And we are here to ask you to consider applying to be tested for the job of RM5."
Terry raised his eyebrows "RM5?" he asked.
"The fifth Rocket Man," the woman said, "its our internal code for the project. All of the armor sets will have a version code starting with RM5 and then a decimal to indicate the modification, and all of the components of the armor itself have a part number beginning with the armor version."
"Oh," said Terry, "I thought for a second there you weren't gonna call the new guy 'Rocket Man', I mean those are big shoes to fill." Terry then thought about how big those shoes were and whether the could be filled by anyone. The pundits on news talk shows had all trotted out "experts" to claim the days of a non-metahuman fighting against super bad guys were over. They all pointed out how the powers of heroes and villains alike had increased since the 30's and today's rampaging nasties were orders of magnitude beyond those fought by the likes of the first Rocket Man. "So the project isn't canceled then?" he said as relieved to hear the news as he would be if he were told the sun would in fact rise tomorrow.
"No, in fact the RM5 program will represent a significant leap forward in the capability of the armor, but will need someone with the instincts of a pilot, and a warrior, great intelligence, toughness, stamina, courage and dedication, in short you Major Grissom are the man we need."
"You said something about tryouts" Terry asked, "There are others in the running?"
"Well, yes." She said "There are, but honestly major there's no one in the running with nearly your qualifications. You've even been a subscription member of the RMF since 1984."
"I was only a 'Junior Rocket Booster' then but yes I have had an allotment to the RMF since I've been drawing a paycheck." I do still have my membership card and secret decoder ring if you want to see it" he said playfully.
"I don't think those will be necessary, but do you really still have them?"
Terry looked at her as if she had asked him a very silly question, "They were very important to me then to be able to help Rocket Man..." He trailed off thinking about how that had been the third Rocket Man he had been supporting then, who had died four years later. It was well known that he was badly injured in a battle with a monster known as "The Omega Beast" and that he died months later from complications from those injuries.
Terry Remembered sitting on the old ugly green couch his mother loved so much and his father endured silently. The news broadcast had began with the headline story, "Rocket Man Dies." Eleven year old Terry sat in his Rocket Man costume. The thought of trick-or-treating far from his mind. He sat as a lead weight staring in disbelief that the hero who had inspired him to want to join the fight himself one day had been just a man after all. Three days later the TV networks carried the memorial service live. It was then, listening to the eulogy given by President Reagan that Terry had decided he would follow in the footsteps of Rocket Man in whatever way life allowed him. Whether it was as a Police Officer or Firefighter or whatever life threw at him, he would give his very best effort to it. He thought about how disrespectful it would be to waste the life earned for him by the sacrifice of so many. He had even had the thought that he might grow up to be Rocket Man himself someday but he usually considered such flights of fancy to be unrealistic.
"The board has lined up four other candidates, but I truly don't think they will be sufficient to the task" The white coated woman stated, as the others nodded in agreement. "The five of us, who are the actual day to day operators of the Control Center believe that you are the obvious choice"
"You are not actually in charge then?" Terry asked suspiciously.
The Woman looked embarrassed "I haven't made Introductions. My name is Dr. Julie Von Werner, I'm the Lead engineer and Project manager. This is Dr. Herbert Von Werner III M.D."
The man extended his hand after shifting the "salt shaker" to his armpit. and adjusting his glasses. "Call me Herbie my grandfather was Herbert." said the smiling doctor, who actually looked proud to meet him.
Julie continued the introductions; "That's Hank on your far right, or Dr. Henry Von Werner Jr., statistics & computers"
Hank gave a two fingered salute and a nod. "Glad to meet 'ya Major" he said.
Pointing to her immediate left she went on, "Dr. Harvey Von Werner is our resident expert on theoretical physics, and crazy ideas that just might work."
The older looking man smiled warningly at Julie but wasted no time moving to Terry's bedside to take his turn shaking hands.
"Finally we have Harold 'Harry' Von Werner II, metallurgist. Harry has had a breakthrough in an alloy which works as a machine at the molecular level."
Harry beamed as if he had just been handed a prestigious award.
"Herbie, Hank, Harvey, Harry and, Julie." He said pointing to each one in turn. "All Von Werner. A family business?"
"Since 1929" Julie said proudly. "The original scientists were brothers, We are three, or in my case, four generations removed from them. There are others on the project who are not Von Werners but enough of the scientists escaped prewar Germany that we still have many of our technical discussions in German."
"You may hear a phrase or two in Hebrew" said Harvey, "Many brilliant Jewish scientists found our program preferable to the Nazis."
"So how did you miss out on an 'H' name?" Terry inquired. "Seems like your cousins all have a theme going on, or is it just a male trait?" The men all looked like they wanted to be elsewhere just then, and Terry caught the vibe that maybe he had asked a more personal question than he should have.
"My name is actually Helga Julianne, but I never answer to it" she said, eying the others in her group warningly.
"You Don't look like a Helga, Julie it is." Terry announced.
"So can We tell your Colonel to get the process started?" Julie asked expectantly.
"How much time do I have to decide?" Terry inquired. He knew the answer was not going to be an interval he would find comfortable when she looked at her watch before answering.
"We have to leave here within the hour, with or without you. Whatever you decide you cannot discuss our offer with anyone."
"And the RMF will disavow that you ever lived" Terry joked. "You don't have one of those flashy things like in the movies that will erase my memory, do you?" Terry grinned widely until he saw the Von Werners looking at each other guiltily.
"Oh", he paused, "wow, I guess this is serious" Terry said soberly. He took a deep breath and wondered what it was that told him there was a reason not to agree without further thought. Perhaps it was because it was a lifelong dream, a childhood fantasy, that he needed to believe he was accepting knowing it was the worlds deadliest job. No one had ever survived being Rocket Man more than twenty-two years, as the second had. The third had debuted on the day Terry had been born and died after only eleven years on the job. Being Rocket Man was a death sentence. Was he only chasing a ride at the fair in the cool shiny suit? The tests, he reasoned, would weed him out if he was not the man for the job. But why waste the time and money of the worlds most important people if he was not entirely confident that he could be the man that the job required? He would not allow himself to accept, simply to pad his already too immense ego. Terry considered how much the assembled team members had already told him about themselves, their community, and their families. As if he had already been one of them. He looked at Herbie who had looked at him with the awe with which Terry would look at the actual Rocket Man. They had grown up in the program and they knew better than anyone what qualities the next to don the suit would need. He considered the grave concern they had shown at the possibility he had suffered a spine injury in the crash. And that is what decided it for him. Their worry was not for a candidate among many, he had seen the look of someone who watched the last best hope slip away, This is the look they had worn.
"I'll do it, but only if the money is really good." Terry said, to the shocked looks of the team. His mischievous grin was met by the laughter of all but Julie who only then caught on that he had been joking about the money.
"This is very Serious Major." Julie semi-scolded
"I know it is" Terry said more solemnly "Yes, then, Yes I will die in your armor" He looked deeply into her eyes then. And saw the pain that was still there from having lost the last Rocket Man. It was the answer she needed. She would need to know that he had no expectation of her design saving his life from any conceivable enemy. Sooner or later his number would be up and he would have to meet that day gladly. Terry glanced over her shoulder at the still running news story of the black pall of oil-smoke rising from a nearby field, and knew he had been spared today, but only for a much scarier ride.