Skies Unbroken – Season Two
Episode Five: Stormrider
Frost crystals dusted the forward windows in fleeting patterns while the hull shivered in the winds. The skies were heavy with moisture and dark, the daylight hours once again more suggestion than any point of fact. A persistent chill crept into the flight deck, amplified by the jouncing, inconsistent ride. With storm fronts and thunderheads emerging from above and below, their viable passages narrowed to a weaving thread through the worst of it all. Kor guided the ship through strange looping currents of air, rattling crosswinds, and frigid bubbles of all-too-brief stillness.
Perhaps with another few rounds of storm riding, Kor thought his ragged edge of nerves and over-awareness of every shudder and shove against the ship could be honed into a functional tool. While he considered his piloting experience comprehensive, one didn’t often specifically practice this sort of flying. The kind where you felt like there was a gun at your back, wielder’s intentions unknown.
Filtered signals output sighed across the flight deck, a gentle white noise speckled with occasional pings from their still-stabilizing buoy network checking in. Their target coordinates chimed ahead of them, the nearest buoy a guiding light in the brooding, icy storm. Only another hour or so of rough flying to cut through this maze of storm systems, ending in a probable (presumed, heard and hopefully seen) calm nearer the buoy and its bonded island.
A distracting wave of static flickered on Kor’s positioning screen, a pulse of disruption centered on the Wink herself. On the fritz, again. He frowned and queued up a mild curse.
“That’s odd,” Chantil said behind him. “Looks like a—”
WHAM. A gigantic hammer blow crashed against the topside of the Wink and Smile. The ship reeled from the blow, listing heavily to starboard, their weight suddenly unbalanced. Metal groaned and ripped aft of the flight deck as whatever hit them rolled off. Kor shook the shock from his head and hauled the ship back in line, all the while listening to the crunch and shatter of smaller impacts hailing down over their heads. Then came the heart-stopping moment of consideration, of the ship absorbing the blow and learning how bad the damage was. Indicators across his console shifted into the red, needles danced wildly, alarms buzzed and beeped.
But the controls never wavered in his hands. Engines intact, tilts spinning. Kor categorized and dismissed the array of concerns and minor emergencies with a firm mental ‘later’.
Outside, massive bergs of ice descended from a dark slate ceiling, a hailstorm with ammunition the size of boulders. The skies ahead flashed as the hail sliced through the beam of the ship’s spotlight. They were suddenly enveloped in a frozen hell.
“Emergency ringing, all ears open and searching,” Nem called out above the din.
Kor’s positioning screen held firm and did its duty, drawing up the largest hailstones, though their presence was as fleeting as frost against the windows. The static wave was a warning, the little screen trying to resolve a sudden, descending scattering of objects. Kor pulled the ship hard to port, where the fewest flickering warning circles appeared.
“Check this nav line,” he ordered.
“Best I can see,” Nem confirmed.
Kor surged the ship ahead with all due haste. Lighter impacts resounded off the hull and their flanks. A few additional hard blows rained down, each sounding like the beginning of the end, but none as severe as the first. The Wink’s propulsion maintained thrust and agility. They weren’t damaged where it counted and that made all the difference. For all the appeal of having these skies to themselves, if they went adrift there would be no one to lend aid.
Then, the frozen fury dwindled to a few scattered pings against the hull. The ship entered another calm patch of skies, the relative silence heavy with unspoken threats. Fouled air flowed through the flight deck, carrying the scent of chemicals and leaking oil. Some kind of line rupture, which would explain system readouts going red on Kor’s end. As their course smoothed, Kor could pick out missing background ship noises, only notable in their absence. An annoying new buzz started up somewhere unseen.
“All hands, sound off,” Kor said, ship-wide. A fiercer chill made itself felt around his legs and against his bare hands. Defenses compromised on that front.
Chantil and Nem each returned a ‘here’ over both of his shoulders.
“I’m alive,” Silja said through the comm, sounding rudely awakened.
“We’re fine down here,” Wilcox reported. “Heat distribution cut out somewhere, Captain. Going to get cold up there. Seeing what else is busted now.”
“Understood.” There were far worse results than a chill. “Will try to find you a smoother line to get around easier.”
“Much appreciated. We will need a set-down-power-down,” Wilcox warned.
“Good thing we’re headed toward one already.” This first island was now a repair and survey stop. Kor rapped his knuckles against the glass of the positioning screen. “I take back half of what I said about you, little friend.”
He could partially diagnose from the pilot’s controls. A quick tap through the jets showed no response from a handful on the top side. Exterior damage up there, doubly noticeable from a slight additional drag, the ship not quite as smooth and nimble against the passing skies.
“How’s our route?”
“Weather’s clearing out for now. Looks like another ring of easier skies,” Chantil said.
“Getting the signals back in line, Cap. I’ll have a fine-tune for you in a few.”
“Good enough for me. Onward, if with a limp.”
* * *
The conditions data bore out, soothing the skies into another extended calm, the prevailing flow of winds now clockwise and southerly. Ahead, the target island sat high and still, though the swiftly moving cloud ceiling and floor made this area appear rough. The Wink and Smile approached the western side, where the isle’s ice-packed main peak presented a cold shoulder to its first visitors in years. Meltwater trails descended into the isle’s lowlands and careened off the edge cliffs to create a vaporous cloak on the landform’s underside.
All in all, the island lay on the right side of gloomy as it emerged from the long storm. With uneven cliff lines riddled by wind-blunting inlets and sheltering hollows, and the first impression of water supplies, there was moderate promise here. While not nearly large enough to be the next great freeport in the Northwest Frontier, perhaps it could become a waystation or small colony, depending on its post-storm climate and the quality of its stone and soil.
“WS-F-001,” Kor declared formally. He wouldn’t presume to give it anything more than a quick serial number. Especially since it might already have a pre-storm name, once they got down the vital details and compared it to the old maps. Whether any such name would stick in the following years wasn’t for him to decide either.
“Buoy signal’s on the south side,” Nem said.
“Bringing us around. Check to see if this is a bottle isle.” A matter of due diligence for any isle, the dice-roll check to see if its caves and canyons were significant rain-catchers. Reservoirs of water, large or small, were of the highest priority in an expanse like Ferron.
“Getting some hollow replies back, yeah. Nothing huge, though.”
The dry, necessary collection of survey details followed. Approximate weight, surface area, height, drift, classification codes for visual mineral composition, wildlife, water supply. The island wore two shades of stone. A weathered brown made up the majority, the edges worn down by unknown years of wind and rain. A mature pre-storm island, scoured of most of whatever lived on it before, though it now wore a patchy coat of moss and other clinging, stubborn plant life. Attached to the southern side, however, was a much rawer, jagged extension of the island, the stone a dark gray, almost black, its formations pointed and unwelcoming. The seam between the two looked like a line of hot glue only recently cooled. A fresh rock from the Churn, colliding with a native. And apparently, trapping one of their buoys between them somewhere.
“It’s got a bit of a drift to it, but the alignment is stable,” Kor concluded. “Good resources, good terrain. Looks like we got a winner.”
“Which was clear from the plant growth alone,” Chantil said. “I’d say right-side-up for the duration of the storm.”
“What’re you thinking, Doc?” asked as he eyed out a landing spot on the southern lowlands near their buoy signal.
“It could harbor a population of something bigger than spores and grasses. Depends on cave and underground system for shelter.”
“So long as it’s not another sleeping hive of giant beetle-things.”
“I cannot rule out that possibility from here, Icomb.”
Kor gave her a short, mirthless laugh. “Well, I can give you a few hours on isle, depending on repairs to the ship and the buoy.”
“That will serve, though I could easily spend a week here,” Chantil said.
Kor landed the Wink on a rock-strewn plain near the buoy signal. Pools of water rippled with gray reflections of the swiftly flowing skies and old ice glinted in the shadows of rocky overhangs. Expanding fields of short grasses partially covered the plain, the growth long enough to twitch in the winds, as if the land itself shivered in the chilled air. The terrain rambled downward from the tableland of the larger established isle toward the collision zone between the two, now merged into one, isles. There, the impact had shredded and partially collapsed the cliff edges, remaking that corner of the isle into a field of spines, the upturned stone like sparsely spread teeth.
“Powering down all systems,” Kor said into the comm. “Wilcox, I’ll check out the topside damage in a minute here.”
“Roger that. I’m going to worm my way up to the interior damage. See you at the breech.”
All went quiet save for the wind against the hull. Kor stood from the pilot console and stretched away the hours. After a moment, the grinding background roar of the upwell storm crept into his hearing.
“Alright, Nem I got you a short hike to the buoy. Doc, you mind rolling your first walk-about into covering her?”
“Certainly,” Chantil replied. She glanced at a meter on the conditions console, then looked at Nem and said, “I’ll meet you outside, Nem. Wear a coat.”
Nem stared out the forward windows at the cold, windswept landscape.
“I hate field work,” she muttered to herself. But she pulled off her headphones and unbuckled all the same.
Kor swung by his cabin for his old flight jacket, already feeling the need while inside the ship, the outside chill fully infiltrating the corridors. The top-side access hatch was off the corridor leading to the flight deck, a short climb through the upper hull of the ship. Kor waited a moment at the base of the ladder, trying to banish various images of horrifying hull damage that he rightly knew couldn’t be the case.
Up top, the first thing he noticed was the wind trying mightily to cut through his coat, a stylish but perhaps insufficient choice. It wasn’t quite freezing, but the high altitude pulled no punches. Then his eyes fell on the crude tear in the Wink’s topside hull about halfway back, a circular dent punctuated by a rip in the metal. An unlucky hit but a fortunate placement. A few feet difference and the hailstone might have damaged the tilt turbine under the starboard-side flare of the ship’s body.
Kor stepped up to the rent in the hull. A section of the outer plating had been ripped off from the winds. It pained him to even see it, but was an understandable result and not as bad as he imagined. A split lip after a fight. He estimated they could cut a new panel from the spares and patch and seal the gap quick and easy. Through the hole he could see a utility access crawlspace. Soon enough, lantern light bobbed through the shadows and Wilcox looked up through the gap at him.
“Tell me good news,” Kor called down at Wilcox. The mechanic pointedly looked around the crawl space, either in genuine assessment or to make him wait that much longer.
“First impression: Not as bad as it sounded at the time,” Wilcox admitted. He reached out of Kor’s sight and yanked on something. Kor winced at the snap of broken machinery.
“A couple ruptures from the impact. Already got a patch on those. Few other things just needed a cooldown and reset. I’ll have to run some new wires in a little bit here, once I see how much of the hull needs either hammering out or a panel swap.”
“She’s dented and a bruised, but the damage isn’t so bad, by my count.”
“Alright. I’ll climb up there in a few, in any case.”
Kor nodded, always willing to defer to an expert second opinion. All the while, he kept checking the horizon with quick sweeps, eyes hard, ears open. The skies were calm, nothing amounting to a threat emerging from the pervasive overcast conditions. Yet a brooding weight hung in the air. Just enough to make you want to get a move on as soon as possible.
“I don’t want to overnight here.” If need be, they could probably find a sufficiently large overhang or sheltering cave for the ship. Kor didn’t worry much about the isle getting flipped over.
“Nah, she’ll fly fine. But I’ll have a better idea soon enough,” Wilcox said, always keeping space to retreat and reassess the timeline of repairs. A true professional. He dug into his bag of gear and held up a roll of measuring tape. Kor gingerly reached around the jagged edge of the tear in the hull and grabbed it.
“Get me some initial measurements, if you would be so kind, Captain.”
Kor straightened and allowed himself a quick survey of the landscape around the Wink and Smile. He watched Nem and Chantil depart from the ship. They walked through a hardy patch of growth with thick, almost wooly curls of dark green, the ground slick from precious, locked-up moisture. Nem picked her way through the grasses with hunched shoulders, bundled up in a rarely-seen winter coat and carrying a communications repair kit in a beat-up case. The elder woman strode slightly ahead with ease, occasionally kneeling to take a closer look at some detail or another in the field.
Back to the task at hand. Kor carefully measured the extent of damage on the hull, both the greater dent from the impact and the section of hull they would need to patch. The color would be off, the replacement panels didn’t have the right pale green hue.
“The first isle and the first scar,” Kor said to himself once he committed the initial measurements to memory. He knocked on the hull twice, maybe for luck, maybe to reassure himself of the ship’s solidity. “Here’s to many of the first and few of the second.”
(End of Episode Five)
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017