Fiction: Christmas at Outpost Hailstorm

The rest of the command crew was already popping bottles of champagne before the last of the computers could shut down. The each desk was cast in tinsel and decorations, and the cork-board had been repurposed as a collage of the crew’s families, from either back on the mainland or way out past Earth. As more people entered the office, now off the clock and with plastic glasses in hand, they had inadvertently opened the doors to the decks below, letting in the blaring sound of Asgard’s remixed Christmas jingles, namely Axe-Stone’s heavy-metal cover of Jingle Bell Rock. The guitar solo’s highest frequency pierced the sound-poof walls of Mike’s headphones.

Mike was having trouble silencing the music and the commotion around him as he oversaw the last cargo craft to take off.

“JetSet107, taxi to ALPHA DELTA and hold position,” he said.

“Holding at ALPHA DELTA, 107,” they replied.

A cobalt-colored air-space craft, looking more like a stingray than an airplane, drifted away from the dock and hangers, slowly making its way to the runway that shot off into the ocean like a grey pirate’s plank. The catapults were already pulled back and had been for a while. Much of the ground crews were inside and celebrating, now gladly off work for the remaining year. Only a handful remained out there in the increasing winds and surf that grew ever more chaotic.

Mike glanced to the computer beside him. The black and red band of storms was a good half-hour away, and so he mentally patted himself on the back for getting the last of the shipments off the rig before the shit finally hit. It’d be a big one too. They called this place Hailstorm for a reason.

 

Meanwhile, Hank trudged along the tarmac in his TLG – a relatively small mech suit of hydraulic motors and protective shields used for carrying bulk cargo from the aircraft to forklift. The winds and spray across the deck made that walk all the more precarious, for on all sides of him were ocean – ocean that went out for hundreds of miles to the horizon and however many uncharted miles down. One slip into the water in a full metal TLG and there’d be no time to get the suit off before drowning.

The planners had seen fit to put the main logistics hub there in the middle of Asgard’s largest ocean. Saved companies a lot of money, but made working there a bitch.

The hissing of engines, the whine of the catapult, even the whistling of his suit’s hydraulics couldn’t compete with the gale that swept across the sea. With a face full of mist, Hank hoisted the catapults adapters to the craft, then gave the underbelly two good hits with his suit’s forearm hooks.

“Dock, we’re good to go down here,” he said.

“Roger. Come on back.”

He began his awkward hustle back to the loading bays.

 

A sigh passed over Mike as he set down his headphones and got up from his chair. It had been a long shift, and everyone but him was already celebrating down below. Now was the time to grab whatever alcohol was left and settle in for the storm – it’d be a long one.

But as Mike took that first step, he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he had truly heard it, a little crackle of a radio, followed by distant and garbled speech. He looked back to the headphones on the desk, thinking, No, it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

Part of him wanted to forget it and join the party. Surely, he’d earned it. But another part of him, the responsible part, forced him to pick up the headphones and receiver, and wait.

Just as he was about to put them down again, he heard it through the radio, clear as could be.

“Hailstorm, asking for approach tunnel, Korea304.”

Fuckin’ shit, Mike thought. Another goddamn craft… “Sorry Korea304, we’re closed down for the storm. Divert to Titan’s Landing.”

A long pause came over the radio before the pilot spoke again, “Negative, Hailstorm, we have passed diversion window and are entering the atmosphere at approach vector. Please advise on tunnel.”

Mike stood from his desk and looked out the control room’s windows, to the surf and sea outside. Little wisps of white foam were already kissing the ends of the runway. In only a few minutes, the storm surge would be enough to sweep anything off the deck – cargo, people, even the spacecraft itself. What the fuck? He thought. That last one was supposed to be it for the day.

“Korea304, we did not expect another landing today. We are not prepared for you. You need to divert to another city.”

“Understood, Hailstorm, but we are unable to divert. We don’t have enough fuel to boost us to Titan’s Landing.”

“Why? Who’s fuckup was this?” Mike yelled, not intending to say so to the pilots, but didn’t care that he had.

“We are scheduled for T10:30.”

“Earth, Mars, or Asgard Standard?” Mike sighed. “Nevermind. Someone screwed up. You’re not on our register for today. You’re too early.”

“We’re already in atmosphere,” replied the pilot, his voice way too calm for what was going on. They must not have known about the storm.

“Please wait, Korea304,” Mike said, knowing that he didn’t have the luxury of waiting. Outside, things were getting worse. On the weather monitors around him, the yellow bands of the storm had already passed overhead, with the orange ones soon to hit. It would only be a matter of minutes before the bulk reached them.

Mike changed radios to the hanger bays, where the sound of dozens of voices and loud, incomprehensible music hit him. “Guys,” he said over the intercom, but nobody replied. “Guys, listen up!” Still, no one noticed.

So Mike ran the station’s emergency alarm for a few seconds. That killed the voices, but not the music. That fell off just a few seconds later amongst the whispers of the hanger bay. Now that it was silent, Mike said, “Listen guys, we’ve got a fuckup. Another craft is on the way in.” Mike heard gasps and groans, and a few expletives at this. “I know, it’s shitty, but they can’t be diverted and they’re already in atmosphere. We have about ten minutes to get them grounded and secure before we get the shit kicked out of us. Now, we need a volunteer to go out and secure the craft.”

From the silence came one voice. “Hey, Hank is still in the TLG.”

“What!? Fuck that, I’m done. I ain’t goin’ out there.”

“Hank?” Mike said, “Someone has to go out there. There’s bullshit pay in it for ya if you do. I… I know it sucks. It isn’t any of our fault, we just got stuck with it. If those pilots land without an anchor they’re gonna go swimming. Now, you might not give a shit, and that’s okay, but remember that it’ll wipe out the safety bonus for all of it. If you aren’t going to do it for their lives might as well do it for the money.”

“Why me?” he replied.

“Hell, I don’t care who goes out there.” Mike checked the approach of the incoming craft – only 8 minutes out from landing. “Guys,” he said, “they’ll be here in 8 minutes. If you can get another TLG ready by then than do it. Otherwise they’re screwed.”

“God dammit, fine, I’ll do it, but I better get some damn good BS pay for it.”

“I tell you what, Hank, if you succeed I’ll give you my BS pay for this.”

Though Mike got no response, he heard humming of metal joints, then the distinct screech of a hangar door opening, followed by the rushing of wind that silenced everything else. Mike closed the coms to the hangar and reconnected with Korea304. “Korea304 we’re getting the runway ready. Please follow my approach tunnel.”

It was going to take some work to buy them more time. The worst of the storm was estimated to hit them in about ten minutes. That left a two minute window to get the craft grounded and anchored, assuming the estimates were correct. They rarely were.

 

Korea304’s initial burn through the atmosphere had ended, leaving them gliding above the clouds, though still falling fast. The nose of the craft dipped low, far lower than normal approach, dropping the craft like a stone beneath a large, white thunderhead.

At that point, the redesigned approach tunnel wasn’t intended to give them a comfortable ride, or a relatively safe one for that matter, but to make them come in quick to shave off a minute or two. The sleek, gray spacecraft broke through the top of the clouds, heading straight for the ocean. With only a few hundred feet remaining, the craft pulled up and fired its burners for a few seconds, increasing its speed and setting it on a low and level path to the platform.

The ocean rolled violently below the buckling spacecraft. The power of the wind cut off the tips of the waves and sent them into the air as white spray. Though the onboard computer did its best to fight the turbulence, it couldn’t calculate the chaos fast enough. The pilots inside were being tossed around their chairs.

 

Hank walked out from the hanger, onto the deck, and just stood there for a while, watching the storm approach. A veritable wall of clouds, as dark as the ocean blow, extended from the waves all the way to the highest point of the sky. The massive size of the thing could not be conceptualized, and it was approaching, fast.

The wind had grown, each gust carrying with it the spray of ocean. The waves themselves were almost to the deck, and even some of the greater ones now jumped onto the platform.

“This is fucked,” Hank said. On all sides of him was instant death. Even on a perfectly calm day, being tossed from the deck meant higher than Vegas odds of eating it.

 

Back at the command center, Mike compared the estimations of both the storm and the spacecraft. He had bought some time, about forty-five seconds, and hoped it was enough. “Fuel count?” he said to the pilots.

“30 Liters.”

“Engage a two second burn,” he replied. He had just bought another ten seconds. Mike looked out the windows, trying to find the signature blink of the spacecraft’s lights. The storm was too thick to see anything at that point. All the direction would have to be handled virtually.

 

Korea304 glided just a few feet above the waves. It wasn’t the case that the spacecraft had fallen in altitude, but that the waves had risen to meet it. If a particularly strong rogue one came at the wrong place and time, then the space-faring vessel would become a permanent submarine.

From the pilot’s point of view, they were racing a wall of darkness that came at them from the left. Their destination was obscured in that darkness, and they wouldn’t know they had found it until the nav computer set them down on it, or the instant they overshot it.

Suddenly, the reverse thrusters engaged, right on que. From hundreds of miles an hour, the craft slowed just as the faint outline of the platform came into the pilot’s view. It seemed like the craft would fly right into it, until the reverse thrusters intensified, slowly the craft enough to set down on the tip of the landing platform, where a hook caught it and brought it to a stop.

 

Hank had just seen this thing appear nearly out of nothing and make a near perfect landing on the deck. For a moment, he thought that this might just be a piece of cake. Immediately after, Hank swore that the storm could read his thoughts, because just as he figured he might have it easy, the wind grew and the spray of water became a battering of hail.

Each little piece stung him in the face and arms as he lumbered out onto the deck and toward the craft. He couldn’t exactly run to the thing, not on normal days and especially not now. Walking speed was about as fast as he could go.

He cursed appreciatively once he got underneath the spacecraft and started the process of anchoring it to the deck. His hands were cold now, numb too, but they worked enough to open a hatch to the ship’s anchor – a cable of super-strong alloys with a locking hook at the end. Wasting no time, he brought it down and tried to attach it to the deck. Suddenly, the wind picked up and nearly knocked him off balance.

Hank steadied himself in the TLG and, this time, successfully locked the anchor into place. Proud of himself, he thought that was the end of it, but then the creaking of metal came to his ears. The aircraft above him started twitching to the side as the sea air tried to lift it. The anchor cable pulled and twisted, and, though it groaned like it was in pain, it held, for the moment.

“Mike, you there?” Hank said to the radio.

The voice coming back to him was barely audible over the storm. “You got it anchored?”

“Yeah, but what about the pilots?”

“What about them?”

The tinkling sound of hail intensified to a low roar as the pieces turned from pea-sized to golf ball sized. Knowing that it would only get worse, and judging by the stress on the anchor, Hank said, “I don’t think the craft’ll be here when the storm’s over. What’ll we do?”

Hank wasn’t sure if Mike was silently thinking, or if the radio had cut out that moment. The darkest and heaviest part of the storm was only maybe a mile away. There would only be seconds to react. Already, waves were washing up on the platform and the hail had accumulated to about an inch deep. Walking back across that would be hard enough, even worse if Hank waited.

“Alright,” Mike said, “get them out of there and back to base. The longer we wait the harder it’ll be. I’ll tell the pilots; you open the door.”

Hank wasted no time. Even though his hands hurt from the cold and could barely work the latches, he was able to get the door open. The two pilots were already there and lowering the ladder before Hank could step aside.

“Cover your head with your arms,” Hank yelled. “I’m going to try to shield you best I can.” Pea-sized hail hurt like a bitch, but golf ball-sized hail could kill. Hank was mostly safe since the TLG covered his backside. So long as he didn’t stare into the storm he’d probably be alright, but the pilots… “Get real close,” he said to the two.

Even reaching his armored hand out from under the craft was like it getting hit with a dozen baseball bats. It didn’t hurt, at least not most of them, but sure as shit the hail found a gap or two in the armor. Still, Hank kept his cool.

He corralled the pilots between his arms and tried his best to simultaneously protect them and drive them forward at slow pace, all while trying to keep his balance from the ice marbles and waves beneath his feet. Somehow, he was able to do it, step after step across the writhing platform.

All was going well. He thought they’d make it, miraculously, until a piece of hail somehow beat the odds and found a gap between his arms. Hank didn’t really know what had happened, only that he saw one of the pilots fall to the ground.

“Pick him up,” he yelled to the other. And the other tried, but he simply couldn’t lift his friend. Either it was fear, the cold of the storm, or the hail battering him too, but nonetheless he couldn’t.

Hank knew he couldn’t stay out there or call for help, so he grabbed the still-conscious pilot with one arm, bringing him close, while snagging the other’s clothing with the TLG’s hook. Wasting no more time, he shuffled to the hanger doors, slipping once or twice on the two inches of hail beneath him, but still managing to catch his balance.

Just as he reached the door, a wave of water washed over his feet, then surging up to the knees of the TLG. Hank braced himself for a moment and held position as the hail flowed like a river down to the end of the platform. The wave wasn’t enough to push him over, but it would have taken the pilots away he hadn’t been carrying them.

All the other workers lined up at the doors, yelling at him, encouraging him to keep going. Their shouting over the storm was distant at first, but every step brought them closer, made them clear. Hank could see the lights within the hangar, the table and bottles at the other end where would have, and should have, been celebrating.

Only fifteen feet from the doors, a great snap broke the constant roar of the storm. Hank thought he knew what it was, but wouldn’t look back. All the other men at the hanger, they saw it, and started running further inside, confirming what Hank suspected.

The spacecraft had broken free of the anchor and, with the full force of the storm behind it, started sailing down the deck toward them. Less than ten feet from the hanger door, he could hear the scraping of wingtips against tarmac, growing louder. With his left arm, still holding the conscious pilot, Hank tossed him inside. Despite rolling for a few more feet, the pilot scrambled up, seemingly unharmed.

Hank then grabbed the unconscious pilot, dangling from his right arm’s hook, and threw him too into the hangar. With his arms free, Hank tried to run, but as he made that first step something struck him from behind. One moment, he saw the hanger, the next, only water and tarmac. The cold sea flowed around him inside the TLG suit. It rumbled, like he was being dragged against something.

Water continued to flow over and across him. Hail still beat him. And the ground still moved. He expected to meet the all-encompassing cold of the ocean, bringing with it darkness, and numbness, and his inevitable death.

But when that rumbling stopped, along with the hail and the water, there was light. A door shut, silencing the storm. From that silence came the words: “Holy shit, Hank, are you alright?”

He was being lifted to his feet, or rather every man in the hanger helped to push and pull the TLG upright.

“Dude, are you okay?” “Man, that was so sick.” “Hank, you good? You alright?” “Hey, can we get a medic down here?”

Hank didn’t feel like saying anything.

 

Mike watched the space plane fall into the ocean and instantly disappear. Hands shaking, he changed the coms channel to the hanger bay and called out to them, “Hey… Everyone good down there?”

Someone yelled back, amidst the shouts and cheers, “Yeah, we’re fine.”

“How’re the pilots?”

“One’s unconscious, but still breathing. We’re taking them to the clinic now.”

“And Hank?”

“I’m good!”

“Awesome,” Mike replied. “You earned that bonus and then some.” Mike smiled as he closed the coms and set down his headphones, for good this time.

 

*

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2 thoughts on “Fiction: Christmas at Outpost Hailstorm

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