In the summer of 2010, over two years before Felix Baumgartner's name splashed across newspapers and television screens for his supposedly awe-inspiring jump from the stratosphere, I
broke the record for the world's highest skydive. A record that still stands, unofficially.
But for reasons explained below, my feat and my name were both wiped from the annals of history. I have been forced to keep quiet for all these years, to grit my teeth behind sealed lips as others steal the glory that is rightfully mine. Not anymore.
I deserve to have my story heard. Whatever be the consequences.
Ever since I was a child I have been a thrill seeker. Reckless Ronnie
, they called me. The kid who climbs trees, happily accepts dares to swim across frigid lakes, goes sledding down the dangerous incline of the tallest hill near his town, slides down rusted bannisters of stairs on his skateboard - that was me. I didn't do it for the respect or the adoration of my peers, I did it simply because it made me feel alive.
I grew up in a broken home. Lost my mother to cancer when I was 10. Lost my father to the bottle soon after. I had no future. No hopes. No dreams. Nothing except for that one moment where I'd step into the jaws of death, fear coiling like a snake in my stomach. That moment where everything else would fall away, and nothing but the here and now mattered. The risk of death kept me anchored to life, like the trembling glow of a lighthouse in the midst of a dark and turbulent ocean. I lived for those moments.
An adrenaline junkie to the core.
Growing up, I dabbled in numerous activities that sharpened my senses and made my heart race. Rock climbing, paragliding, whitewater rafting, scuba diving, water skiing; I was game for anything that could get my skin tingling. But nothing, and I do mean nothing got me going quite like skydiving.
I was 19 when I did my first solo dive. Saved up money from my job at a local diner to pay for it. I remember it all very well. The roar of the engine of the tiny Cessna, the wind lashing my face and making my lips quiver, the weightless feeling in the pit of my stomach as I plummeted to the ground, the sprawling view beneath me, the parachute tugging me upwards and making me drift in the air, and the way my knees wobbled when I landed. As I lay smiling on the dirt, trying to catch my breath while looking at the cloudless sky I had just dropped through, I knew I had found my calling.
Over the years I developed quite the reputation - a daredevil who was willing to do anything and everything with absolutely no regards for his life. And it was precisely that reputation, and my extensive skydiving experience that caught the attention of the owner of a large multinational corporation, who I shall henceforth only refer to as Damian (not his real name)
. He was rich and bored, his tentacles having spread far and wide, burrowing into the most obscure of ventures, sucking out profit from places no one would even think twice about.
As someone who had conquered the world, he needed a challenge. And he found it in the stratosphere.
The story goes that on a flight back home from a buisness trip to Hong Kong, he got chatting with his assistant over a bottle of Chardonnay. This assistant told him how he once met Joseph Kittinger, a retired USAF officer who until then had held the record for the world's highest skydive. The more Damien heard about Kittinger, the more excited he got. Everything about the project enraptured him, from the use of helium balloons and pressure suits to the complex physics challenges. He had found his next summit to be conquered.
He attacked the project with a passion, almost as soon as the plane touched the tarmac. He had set up a fund for the mission even before he had reached his office and quickly set about gathering a team of scientists to begin working on it. Next step - finding someone to actually make that jump.
It wasn't long before our paths crossed.
Admittedly, I was a bit sceptical about the whole thing. It all seemed too fantastical to be true. Riding a helium balloon to the edge of the atmosphere? Sounded exciting, but nonsensical. Like the plot of a bad sci fi movie. (I wasn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed). But one meeting with Damian at the very same diner I worked at completely changed my perspective. He just had a way of explaining things that made even the most outlandish ideas seem perfectly reasonable. He introduced me to his team right after we finished our meal. It truly is impressive what can be achieved with money. There I was, meeting the top scientists in the country, to try and pull off an insane sounding jump, all because a very rich man was slightly bored.
I am not going to waste your time with the nitty-gritty of the project. Instead, I shall tell you just enough so that you can have atleast a surface level understanding of how this was done. For that shall be enough for the story that I'm trying to tell here today.
The project basically consisted of a teardrop shaped space capsule suspended beneath a gigantic helium balloon. The capsule itself contained an oxygen supply, a communications system, and some altimeters. The plan was that I would ascend to the stratosphere (which is far from the actual 'edge of space' as is widely misreported in Baumgartner's case) in that capsule and jump out wearing a pressure suit, which was nothing but a close-fitting garment with a network of thin inflatable tubes that would squeeze my body to make up for the decrease in atmospheric pressure.
See, the stratosphere is cold—the temperature can reach more than 100 degrees below zero. The air is also about 1,000 times thinner than at sea level, which means that without a pressurized suit, bodily fluids start to boil, creating gas bubbles that lead to mass swelling. If that happened, I would get knocked unconscious in about 10 seconds, and an unceremonious death would soon follow.
Before the jump, it sounded like the most terrifying thing that could possibly happen to me. Oh how wrong I was.
It was the perfect day for a dive. The sun rose over rolling mounds of sand and rock in the distance and thrust up into a mostly clear sky, painting wispy white clouds a dazzling shade of orange. But I was far too stressed to spare the mesmerizing sight anything more than a passing glance as I drove through the desert. I hadn't even eaten much that morning. Tension and excitement were squeezing all the empty space out of my stomach, making my insides churn.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by it all. We had done test jumps before, but we'd never gone that high. And seeing the bustle at mission control at the airport that had been shut down specifically for the mission, (courtesy of Damian), the nervous energy of the scientists, the cramped capsule, the enormous balloon - it all left me a little breathless. It was Damian who calmed me down. Brought over two mugs of piping hot coffee and took me outside. As we sat on two plastic chairs in the sun, drinking in the beauty of the desert, he talked to me about the historical importance of what we were about to achieve that morning. How this jump could prove to be a turning point in space research. But instead of making me even more nervous, the talk calmed me down. Damian just had that quality. Probably why I initially missed the fact that he had his own agenda for doing this. I really should have been more wary of him.
I ate a peanut butter sandwich before starting preparation for the jump. Damian insisted. Not right to make history on an empty stomach, he said.
Everyone at mission control clapped for me as I waddled over to the capsule. The pressure suit was something else. It was like my entire body was in a cast. As much as I was looking forward to the jump, I couldn't wait to get out of that damn suit.
As I climbed into the capsule, swinging the hatch shut behind me, my nerves seemed to settle. The familiarity of the inside of the capsule chased away the fear, and all that was left was an enthusiastic anticipation. This was it. This was what I was born to do. To go where no-one had gone, to do things no-one would dare to do. I was smiling inside my helmet. My radio buzzed with the voice of the scientist leading the project. MC
[Mission Control] - You ready, Ronnie? R
[Ronnie] - Yep. I'm pumped. MC
Awesome. Let's get this show on the road, shall we?
My stomach lurched as I began my ascent. More psychological than because of the actual lift-off. I leaned forward and saw Damian waving at me, his figure getting smaller and smaller by the second.
I began to drift higher, and the landforms seemed to mesh together until it became impossible to clearly differentiate between sandy plains and rocky hills. Whole states appeared and receded. Cities, forests, deserts, rivers - all just became wide swaths of vibrant colours. Just splashes of green, blue and brown everywhere. It was astonishing. For a while. The radio crackled. MC
- Bored yet? R
- Not yet. The view is too spectacular. MC
- It won't hold your attention for long. It's going to take you over two and half hours to get up there. You really should have taken a book with you. R
That would be pointless. Can't turn the pages in this thing.
He was right. It did take me almost two and half hours to get up there. And I did start to get a little weary of the journey. I passed the time by chatting on the radio, humming songs and mentally going over what I needed to do when the balloon reached its maximum altitude. But soon the view outside changed, quickly drawing my attention.
I had reached 70,000 feet, and the sky had darkened. I wasn't exactly in space, but it certainly felt like it. I pressed my helmet against the glass and peered outside. Delicate cloud formations appeared below me. It felt like I was floating above an intricate lace doily. One that gently swirled like a slow moving cyclone.
I continued to climb. At 80,000 feet, the curvature of Earth became visible, its vast rounded edges tinted a blurry shade of blue. If only the flat earthers could see this,
I thought to myself with a grin.
Soon after I crossed 100,000 feet Damian spoke through the radio and congratulated me for going higher than Kittinger.
The balloon continued to ascend, the altimeter ticking off each milestone in my upward journey. Finally, it came to a half. I didn't feel it happen, the stagnation in the reading was the only sign of the balloon's journey coming to an end. I quickly radioed mission control. MC
- … 150,000 feet? Are you sure? R
- Yes. Can't you see it on your end? MC
Wow. Didn't think it would actually happen. R
What's that? Is everything okay? MC
- (static and then Damian's voice)
Yes, Ronnie. Everything is perfectly fine. Are you ready to jump? R
- yeah… yeah. I'm ready. MC
- Great. I'll walk you through the process. Are your suit and chest pack cameras on? R
- Check. I can see the red lights flashing. MC
- Good. Disconnect the oxygen hose. And then pop the hatch open. R
- Roger... Done. MC
- Come out to the exterior step. And watch your head!
I felt my breath catch in my throat as I grabbed on to the bars at the side of the hatch and stood on the exterior step. Almost immediately I was hit with an immense vertigo. Made my head swim. I could see numerous layers of the atmosphere shimmering underneath my feet. The world seemed so far away. Entire regions just reduced to little specks on the ground. My heart hammered against my chest like a beast wanting to break free of its cage. I paused and gently turned my neck to gawk at the moon above me. It was enormous and shone with such intensity I was forced to look away in awe. No time to get distracted, I told myself.
I leaned forward. Exhaled. Let go of the bars and stepped out into the emptiness.
I began falling with astounding ease, even sinking into a swimming pool stimulates the senses more than that. It didn't feel like I was moving at all. Felt more like I was floating in vaccum. Directionless... But soon enough I picked up speed. Heard the deafening rush of air inside my helmet, even though I couldn't feel it on my face. I was going fast. So goddamn fast. I let out a scream full of joy as I continued to plummet towards the earth.
The suit was working well. Wrapped tight around me, potecting me from the insane drop in pressure up there. I spread my arms out, as much as the suit would allow and arched my back. Wouldn't want to spin out of control. That could end in disaster.
I kept on falling, picking up speed like no other man ever had. It was glorious. Every pore in my skin tingled. I wished that feeling would never go away.
But it did. In a horrific manner.
There was a loud boom, because of what I then thought was me breaking the sound barrier. It disoriented me, and my equipment started malfunctioning.
It was the faceplate of my helmet. It began wobbling and rattling around. Shocked the living daylights out of me. I had checked it repeatedly, but there was nothing wrong with it. And yet there it was, threatening to burst out of the helmet. I brought my gloved hands close to my face. To see what was wrong. CRACK.
My stomach dropped. The helmet had cracked, blooming into a terrifying spiderweb of shattered glass. Wind gushed inside, lashing my face, even as I continued to zoom through the sky. It was at once cold, and hot. My cheeks burned. It felt like the very flesh on my skull was being sheared away. I shut my eyes as the wind stabbed at them and my teeth began chattering. I opened my mouth to scream, to radio for help and instantly breathing became almost impossible. My lungs and mouth tried to squeeze in air in spastic gasps. But it was too much all at once.
And then the helmet exploded. The glass flew out - and right into
my face. Razor sharp shards pierced my flesh. Sliced my cheeks, cut my lips, slashed my forehead. Stabbed my eyes. Warm blood flooded down my face as I began screaming in agony.
Yet I continued to fall. And fall and fall and fall. No one was there to hear me. To know what had happened to me. I wasn't going to break any records. Was just going to be ignored as an unfortunate accident. That was the dark thought filling my head when the darkness took me.
I woke up with a startled gasp. Blinked. It was blindingly dark. Was I dreaming? Everything felt so light, like I was resting on a cloud. I tried to lift my head.
I swooned. Shook my head, brought my hands up to my stomach. I was still wearing that suit. But it felt weightless, like all the pressure had been released. Had I been brought down to the ground? Where exactly was I? I turned my neck. Thick darkness everywhere. Why was it so dark? Above me. To my right. To my left. Just darkness everywhere. Even beneath me...
I was still floating. I was still up in the sky. I spun around and looked down, found myself face to face with an impenetrable darkness and bit back a scream. Where the fuck was the earth?
Panic began to set in. So I forced myself to calm down. And think. Think about what had happened, and where I could possibly be. I remembered falling, the faceplate breaking into pieces, the glass stabbing me. I brought my hands up, and touched my face. The glass was gone. How was I still breathing? A horrible thought crossed my mind. Was - was I dead?
It seemed to be the only rational explanation, as insane as that sounded. I was blind. Floating in an endless black void. No wind. No earth. No pressure from my suit. Nothing. What else could it be?
If that's what death was like, it was terrifying. The worst outcome possible. Fiery pits of hell were preferable to this. Floating like this? All alone? Forever? Nothing could possibly be worse. Maybe it was a hallucination. I clung to that hope like a chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.
Time passed by. Seemed like seconds. Days. Years. I couldn't say. But my sanity was beginning to fray. I screamed. I sang. I laughed. I cried. Anything that could end this soul crushing monotony. I waited for something to happen. For something to pierce this darkness and pull me out of it.
And then it happened, after what seemed like decades. I was trembling in fear, the kind of fear that seeps into your bones and wraps around your soul, refusing to ever part with it. I had wet my pants. My tear ducts had run dry. But the terror never let up.
I was in the process of trying to bite my tongue off, to try and end the suffering when I noticed it. Out in the far distance, something shimmered. A single pinprick of light in the inky blackness. I narrowed my eyes. It was pale, almost translucent. And it was moving towards me. How far away was it? I couldn't tell. But it was huge. Bigger than me. Much bigger.
I waited with bated breath as it drew closer. And closer. And closer. It seemed to glow. Bioluminescence? Was that a living creature? How can something be alive
this high up? If I even was still in the stratosphere at all, that is.
It finally got close enough for me to notice what it was. But that only scrambled my brains in confusion. It looked a gigantic squid, its tentacles, bigger than my legs, flailing around maddeningly. As it drew nearer, it spread its tentacles far and wide, revealing it's gaping black hole of a mouth. Primal terror squeezed at my heart.
I didn't want to find out what it was doing. I tried desperately to get away from it. Swung my arms and paddled my legs like I was trying to swim far away from this thing. I didn't even know whether I was moving at all. Maybe I wasn't, or maybe I was too slow. For I soon felt one tentacle wrap around my leg, its many suction cups clamping down painfully.
I screamed. I flailed. I writhed. But it was pointless. I began to be dragged towards this eldritch squid-like monstrosity. My legs turned numb as they entered its mouth. Then my waist. My back. I lost all feeling in the lower half of my body. I was sobbing, red-eyed, snot-nosed as I was swallowed up.
Then I was out cold again.
The next time I woke up, I was back in the capsule once again.
The comforting pressure of the suit on my body calmed my nerves. It was okay. Just a hallucination. Maybe something went wrong with my equipment and the ascent somehow messed with my head. Yeah, that must be it.
I exhaled in relief. MC
- Is everything okay up there, Ronnie? R
- Yeah. Yeah. Perfectly fine. Just preparing to jump. MC
- Great. Now let me walk you through the process…
I froze as my hand reached for the hatch. It was small. Too small. Like a pet door. No way was I going to fit through that. Not in this suit. What? R
I think there's something wrong. MC
- What do you mean? R
- The hatch. It's too fucking small. MC
What are you talking about? R
- It's too small. I can't get out. Help!
Radio static filled the capsule as all contact with mission control was instantly cut off. Fear struck me like a bolt of lightning. I was trapped. Limited oxygen. No food. Suspended over 150,000 feet above the earth. I was going to die.
Why was this thing so small? I pounded on it with gloved fists in frustration.
Wait... What if this wasn't real? What if I was still stuck in that nightmare?
I regretted letting that thought enter my brain, because the very next second, I got my confirmation. My heart skipped a beat as the capsule rattled with a loud thud.
What in the world? Did something crash into the capsule? I bent over towards the tiny hatch, and pressed my helmet against the glass. And waited.
There was a wet squelching sound as something seemed to slither on the metal outside. It couldn't be, I thought. But it was. An enormous tentacle slid over the hatch and I saw dozens of hungry suction cups pulsating and pressing down on the glass.
No. No. No. No. No.
A horrible metallic groan rang out, and the capsule began to crumple. That thing outside was crushing it like a tin can. Metal panels began to contorted, nuts and bolts shot out like bullets, making me wince. A black liquid dripped inside, pooling around my feet. Was that - ink?
And then the capsule exploded. I dropped down through the newly created hole and began falling.
I was falling. Back arched, arms wide, zooming through the sky like a jet.
The world had suddenly come alive with colour around me. Blue sky, white clouds, brown dirt. All splayed out in front me. Swirling, shimmering, delighting my eyes.
The faceplate of my helmet was rattling again. But it was still intact. Thank God. My radio crackled. MC
- Ronnie. Ronnie. Is that you? R
Yes. It's me.
Who else could it be? Tense moments passed in silence as I continued to fall. MC
- Ronnie. You need to release your parachute now. You are getting dangerously low. Do it. NOW.
Was I? How did I get this far, this quickly? I hadn't even noticed.
I pulled on the handle, felt an immediate tug and began drifting towards the ground at a much slower speed. Tears of joy pricked my eyes as I felt the ground coming closer towards me. Home sweet home. I reached for the dial at the side of my suit to depressurize it, so that I could steer the parachute. But it was broken. And thus I drifted off course. For miles.
I wasn't worried about it though. The team would find me. Besides, considering what I had experienced up there, this little inconvenience didn't bother me in the slightest.
The tightness squeezing my chest dissipated the instant I landed. The slight pain that rippled through my knees when my legs connected with the sandy dirt was the most pleasurable sensation I had ever felt. I smiled as I fell down on the ground.
I had no idea what had happened to me up there, if any of it was even real or not. But boy was I glad to be alive.
They found me after about 20 minutes. Plenty of spare oxygen was still left in the tank. Nobody from the team of scientists came to pick me up. In fact, I never saw any of them ever again. Any attempts to do so were immediately and sometimes violently shut down.
The people who actually came for me were private security hired by Damian. Mercenaries. They quickly cut the parachute off, depressurized the suit, helped me get out of it and loaded me into the backseat of the van. And blindfolded me, despite my vehement protests.
When they finally removed the cloth from my face, I saw that we were in the parking lot of a decrepit looking, yet heavily guarded building in the middle of nowhere. I was taken to a small room on the ground floor, where I met Damian and a stern looking middle aged man in a black suit.
They interrogated me. About everything that had happened in the sky, about what I had seen, felt, experienced. Every single bit of it. Afraid, angered and frustrated, I told them everything as well as I remembered, even though they refused to say anything in return. The black void, the tentacled monstrosity, the visions. Everything. They seemed especially interested, and in awe of, the squid-like creature I had encountered. Made me describe it. Repeatedly. After they were satisfied that they had extracted every bit of information they could from me, they let me go.
But not before Damian apologised for the secrecy and strongly
insisted on my silence. Said that it would be in my best interest if I kept quiet. I recognised it for the threat that it was.
I had one last exchange with him before I was escorted out.
"Why?" I asked, exasperated. "Why do all this? What happened to me up there? Why were you so interested in this dive? I don't understand anything."
Damian smiled and shook his head. "I can't tell you that, Ronnie. I know it sucks, but I really can't."
"No." I said. "Please just tell me something. Anything. Or this is going to drive me mad."
He paused, seemed to mull over something in his head. "Okay. I'll tell you one little fact. The time."
"Yes. The time. The jump took you 29 minutes and 16 seconds to complete."
"As per the calculations of our scientists, it shouldn't have taken you more than 15."
I gawped at him.
"See. For over 14 minutes, you had disappeared from this world. Poof. Gone. Like you'd never existed at all. It's amazing, isn't it? Where were you, Ronnie?"
He smiled, patted me on the back and sent me off. M