Private Alexander Huxley sat in the hull of the C-47, jaw clenched and lips twisted into a savage grimace. The weight of his parachute kept him hunched in his seat, and the straps of his harness and weapon case chafed raw swathes into his skin.
The flying tin can he was trapped in dipped, dived, shook, and rattled with the capricious whims of the turbulent weather outside. Sudden bursts of sound heralded the missed shells of unseen Anti-Aircraft guns below. Shrapnel splattered the metal plates of the plane's exterior, a thousand, thousand infernal chimes assaulted Alex's ears and grated his nerves.
He tapped his booted feet against the aircraft's floor in a rapid staccato of nervous energy. His hands gripped and un-gripped the fabric of his pants, the muscles in his hands and forearms bulging with tension.
Alex lifted his head, and his eyes scanned the familiar faces that surrounded him. 28 paratroopers had been crammed into the C-47, like sardines in a can and The Krauts below wanted to crack them open.
Fitzpatrick, a diminutive redhead, seated across from him, had his hands clasped around a set of Rosary Beads. His head tilted upwards towards heaven as he mumbled words in a rapid stream under his breath.
To his right, Wiggins, a scrawny, bespectacled man, sat silently, his face buried in his hands while he rocked back and forth in his seat.
Sergeant Davis, the mountain of muscle and sinew to the left of Alex, sat still as a statue. His great, bulging arms crossed over his barrel chest, eyes closed, breath steady.
"What kind of man can sleep at a time like this?" Alex thought.
A flicker of movement registered in the corner of Alex's right eye. He turned his head towards the source of the motion. A man at the front of the hull, the Jumpmaster, had stood out of his seat, his form illuminated in the bloody red glow of a light above his head.
"10 seconds!" The Jumpmaster called out. "Wake your asses up!"
No sooner had he spoke than a wave of turbulence struck the C-47. The plane's structure rocked and vibrated as if the blows of a titan had throttled it.
The roast chicken and mashed potatoes Alex had gorged on for dinner rose up to the back of his throat and tried to make a second appearance. His hands shot up to his mouth, and his fingers clamped his lips shut. His guts spasmed, but Alex managed to choke the acidic bile back down.
Many of the other men hadn't been so lucky.
Retching filled the cabin as a half-a-dozen paratroopers voided the contents of their stomachs.
Across from Alex, Fitzpatrick doubled over and dropped his rosary beads as a vile stream erupted from his mouth. It painted the front of the man's uniform and reserves parachute and impacted with the floor in a wet splash. Fat drops splattered Alex's boots, and the smell of stomach acid and half-digested food dominated the stale air.
"Sweet Jesus," Fitzpatrick said between dry heaves. "Sorry."
Alex didn't dare open his mouth to respond.
The Jumpmaster's voice rang out, "5 seconds! Everybody on your feet!"
Grunts and curses simultaneously sprang from 28 throats as each man struggled to rise.
Alex found standing to be a Herculean feat. His back was stiff, and his knees ached from the awkward angles they had been forced into during the flight, and the burdens of his parachutes, ruck, and weapons case greatly limited his range of motion.
In desperation, Alex reached up behind him with both hands and gripped one of the thin metal bars that ran the length of the C-47's hull. Then, with a heaving, twisting set of jerks, Alex managed to pull himself to his feet, face reddened, and breathing ragged from the strain.
"Standby!" Roared the Jumpmaster, and he wrenched the plane's side door open.
Solid metal gave way to a nightmare vision.
The air from the cabin was sucked out into the night sky's black void with the wretched shriek of a banshee. Shell bursts and tracer fire, like the eruptions of a hundred volcanoes, filled the air with blossoms of flame and screaming metal. Hell had come to earth.
"Get Ready!" The Jumpmaster bellowed.
Alex's heart hammered in his chest. His knees knocked together, and his hands trembled as he lifted them over his head, one to attach his static line and the other to grasp the golden cross that hung from his neck.
"God Almighty." He thought. "Give me strength."
A firm weight rested on Alex's left shoulder. He turned his head and saw a massive, callused hand.
"Hang in there, son." The strong, calm voice of Sergeant Daniels said behind Alex. "When the green light shines, keep moving forward. Like we trained."
Alex tried to reply as the Sergeant moved his hand away, but the lump in his throat and the cotton in his mouth killed the words. All he could manage was a slow nod. There was nothing he could say.
He shifted his gaze back to the front of the cabin. The red light above the Jumpmaster winked out, and the green one burst into life.
"Greenlight! Go!" Thundered the Jumpmaster, and he waved the first man out the door.
One by one, the shadowed forms of the paratroopers ahead of Alex dissipated into the night air.
"Like lemmings." Alex thought as he took his first hobbled step towards the opening.
Before he could reach the outline of the door, a roar like a thunderclap exploded through the cabin. An awesome wave of force struck Alex from behind, and he was sent sprawling headfirst to the C-47's floor.
Stars flashed in his eyes as he struck the ground, and an intense, sharp whine reverberated through Alex's skull. Clouded thoughts and phantom images muddled his mind, and Alex lost track of where he was and what on earth he was doing.
A small voice managed to worm its way up out of the chaos and bedlam in his head. "I have to stand."
Alex snapped back to reality. He pushed against the floor with weak, shaking hands and willed himself to rise. His body refused to obey.
The plane descended. The screams of a failed engine and panicked men rose up in a raw and bloody cacophony.
"Is this it?" Alex thought.
Something pulled at Alex's back. He was lifted from the floor in a single, tremendous heave.
"Get up, Alex!" Sergeant Daniels screamed, his blood-streaked face illuminated by the burning hole blown through the aircraft's side. "We've got to get the hell out here!"
The Sergeant gave Alex a mighty push and sent him stumbling towards the opening. He caught himself on the frame of the door, and his vision filled with the screaming, black abyss below. He hesitated at the precipice, every muscle and nerve fiber screamed in protest.
"I have to jump." Alex thought.
He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Alex took one long, last step and fell away into the night.