Monday, March 24, 2008

WOW, Part 2, Ch. 8

The Ice Pirates

“Now that’s cold!”
Pieter Kistenberg put the book down in his lap and looked out a porthole into Antarctica’s winter darkness. With just a few pages from the war diaries of the vanquished German Sixth Army during the battle of Stalingrad, he was brought back to his usual self. He was three months into a winter-over on the Antarctic continent, and needed a mental tune-up now and again, even if it took reading about the horrors of the German defeat at the hands of the Russian avengers to put things in perspective.
Pieter Kistenberg was an Ice Pirate. Tasked with supporting and maintaining the integrity of OSOM’s meteorological network in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, the Ice Pirates knew that to get the job done required a rhythm of efficiency and camaraderie. The flight engineer always made sure he was personally prepared to meet the challenges of the coming day, and if it took reading about a World War Two battle that made wintering in Antarctica seem like a vacation in Hawai’i, so be it.
A knock on the door and Kistenberg kicked himself out of his bunk, landing cat-like on the floor of his homedome, one of many connected by a latticework of tunnels throughout OSOM’s personnel facility at McMurdo Sound, near the Ross Sea south of New Zealand.
“Permission to enter?” It was his pilot, Rico Candelaria.
“Come on in, Suave.”
Candelaria ducked through the portal with an easy grace. Like Kistenberg, he was in gym-rat shape, and his flight suit looked stretched around his arms and shoulders. He glanced at the title of Kistenberg’s book.
“Ah mein freund, wie gehts mit der Wehrmacht?”
“Sold out by the Austrian corporal. First he prohibits Mannheim from going to the rescue, then he makes Von Paulus a field marshal so he won’t surrender. Truly hell on earth. Makes this place look like Miami!”
Candelaria laughed and replied, “Well, sorry to report the skin diving trip has been cancelled, Pieter.”
“Oh, so we’ll just be lounging poolside again today?”
“Not quite. Damon needs to see us. Sounds like a node mission.”
“Any idea where?”
“Not yet. I only got wind of it a few minutes ago.”
Pieter felt a twinge of anxiety, but then he thought of what real pressure was: waves of tanks firing point blank at a trapped army, commanders in shock putting Lugers to their heads, stacks of corpses that were once comrades, the first steps of a death march to Siberia. He immediately straightened himself and smiled at Suave.
“Sounds like we’re in for a bit of fresh air,” said Kistenberg, grabbing two thick binders and his data pad.
Walking to the briefing room, the two men kept their minds free of any thoughts about what might lay ahead of them. Kistenberg and Candelaria were highly respected members of the Order who knew a thing or two about bravery and brains versus bravado and bullshit. They knew anxiety and stress were enemies best defeated by humor, and so it took them a minute to get through the door thanks to a hilarious “After you, Alphonse” routine.
“No, most excellent flight engineer, you have almost five thousand winter hours, and I a mere forty-two hundred. After you, oh grizzled veteran!”
“But oh pilot without peer, you’ve done touch-and-go medevacs at fifteen stations from Vostok to Cape Horn. After you, oh savior of the skies!”
On and on it went, until finally Candelaria played his trump card.
“But my dear friend, I must insist. Your boot heels are so polished that I’ve brought along my sunglasses so as to not be blinded in following you.”
He smoothly whipped his shades out of his breast pocket and placed them smartly over his eyes.
“After YOU, my dear Alphonse!”
Rico swept open the door and Kistenberg stumbled through, laughing at his pilot’s perfect “Gotcha!” It was pitch black outside, and Candelaria had obviously planned it all by having his shades at the ready, knowing that in the humor and absurdity of their little skit, they were reinforcing a bond that saved lives.
The room was smallish, with five armchairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of an oversize flat panel monitor displaying OSOM’s meteorological network covering Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Kistenberg and Candelaria joined the other three members of their flight crew, plane commander Mark Habeman, navigator Kathleen Drake, and loadmaster Mai Seqgen. Damon Waiya began his briefing.
“As you all know, we have been operating with a compromised data network thanks to Apollo doing the boogaloo in the magnetosphere. We now have experienced an anomaly that has Ray’s utmost attention. Dome Argus went down about thirty minutes ago. The node experienced a catastrophic failure after transmitting highly unusual data indicating an ultra-powerful katabatic event. However, adjacent stations reported no anomalies and continue normal operations.”
“That’s a new one,” said Habeman, “What’s Ray got to say about this?”
“Nothing so far, other than a request for your consideration.”
“Let me guess! With the Alba_Swords ready to launch, he wants all the data he can get, including Dome Argus,” said Kathleen Drake.
“Can’t he make do with what’s still up and running?” said Habeman, glancing at all the green nodes on the display.
“No he can’t,” said Kistenberg, “and for good reason.”
Everyone turned and looked at Pieter.
“I bet he thinks the AWS was destroyed by the first of a series of atmospheric convulsions as predicted by his global warming models. If his model is right, stronger ones are on the way, and they will power up katabatics beyond belief. And they’ll all start up on Dome Argus.”
“Damon, can Ray give us any predictions as to when we can expect the next one? We’ll start working up a flight plan. Are the AWS guys running simulations on a replacement unit?”
“Not yet, but I’m going over there right now. As for when the next one is going to hit, I’m sure Ray is working on it as we speak. I’ll have that information by the time the AWS unit is ready.”
Waiya stood up and headed for the door. Candelaria rolled the trackball under his right hand and a cursor shot across the display. A menu bar presented icons, Candelaria made selections, and overlay graphics appeared one after another: color-coded surface wind arrows, the latest satellite infrared images of cloud densities, and isobaric contours of the interlocking high/low pressure systems spinning around the globe from the Roaring Forties to the South Pole. Another click, and it was all set in motion, running the past forty-eight hours in fast forward. Then the display froze at the precise moment that the node on Dome Argus went from green to yellow.
“Okay Rico, roll it back twelve hours,” said Drake, “bring it up triple and center it on Dome Argus.”
Candelaria was right on it. The screen wiped to black, then filled with the ice white of Antarctica’s most inaccessible region. AWS-81.77 glowed green at dead center.
As the weather data was fed a second time into the program, the changes on Dome Argus were graphically displayed.
It was an eerie sight. A cyclonic isobar pattern appeared around the AWS. It started to rotate, and then spun faster and faster like a toilet flushing into a steep downward spiral. Then the gradients spread out and relaxed into calm. There was nothing on the screen but a black icon that had once been green. It had taken all of twenty seconds.
“Ouch!” said Mai Seqgen, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
“I have,” said a very somber Pieter Kistenberg, “The models Ray generated from Eastern Pacific chubascos off Mexico combined with wind shear models from Tornado Alley in Kansas. You get downdrafts that hit the ground like steamhammers, then spray around in a spiral like a fire hose out-of-control until its direction stabilizes into a single path of power.”
“Well whatever it was,” Candelaria paused, “we’re just guessing until we go on-site and find the AWS.”
“Correction,” said Pieter Kistenberg, “IF we go up there. Flying to Dome Argus means temperature, visibility, fuel, approach, landing, cargo off-load, take-off, and return issues. And if Jerry Phelps and the backup C-130 have to come get us, then we’re all in trouble. Let’s look at it this way.”
He cursored the display into a three-dimensional horizontal view, and scaled it back to show their current location, their headquarters at McMurdo, at sea level on the Ross Sea coast.
“The target is at an altitude of fourteen thousand feet. It is almost a thousand miles away. The sun is above the horizon for only six hours. Available light on the ice will be quite limited unless it’s clear, which it probably won’t be. Landing and ice conditions are unknown. Surrounding weather systems are wildly unstable, and right now it is so cold up there who knows if we wouldn’t just freeze dry on the spot.”
The chief flight engineer looked around the group. There were some smiles at his attempt at humor. There was not a hint of disagreement in any of the faces listening to him intently.
“Approach path can’t be determined until we’re there and check the sasturgi ice patterns, which may be have been erased by the anomaly. We may not be able to land unless it is comparatively quiet and on-ice time must be minimized. Then we’ll probably need to do a jet-assisted take-off to get out of there, with no guarantee that we’ll still not have to burn way too much fuel to gain altitude in the face of,” Kistenberg glanced around the group, “any unusual local breezes.”
Everyone snickered at the Kistenberg’s idea of “local breezes”. It was like referring to a roaring freeway as being little more than a country lane.
“So, can we do it?” asked Mark Habeman, “Will half-an-hour be enough all around?”
The room was quickly filled by the sounds of laptop keystrokes clicking, pencils scratching and binders opening and closing. It looked like five students taking the final exam of their lives. Which in a way, it was. There was no margin for error. Creating an illusion of safety on such a mission would be a mistake that could kill them all.
Each Pirate was deeply involved in calculations, systems cross-checking, levels-of-criticality determinations, and some deep reflection as they leaned back in their chairs from time to time in contemplation. Then a flash of inspiration, and back at it they would go with a flurry of new specs and contingencies.
Nobody noticed when Damon Waiya re-entered the room and handed a slip of paper to Habeman. He glanced at it, and then passed it around the room. The margin of error for Seranen’s projection was plus or minus sixty minutes. That put the mission deep into the safety red zone. Then again, they’d already come to that conclusion from their own calculations ten minutes ago.

Waiya showed no expression in the face of something that he’d never imagined could happen. The Pirates were calling it ‘no-go’.
“Captain Bucher won’t blink,” said Candelaria, “He’ll know that if we could do it, we would. But we can’t. As the saying goes, ‘No way in hell.’”
“Because that’s exactly what we’d be facing if we tried to land at Dome Argus right now,” added Mark Habeman.
“I’d give just about anything to see what happened to that unit,” said Mai Seqgen, “except a life. And I’m sure everyone in OSOM will concur. If the Regatta hangs in the balance based on Ray’s need for data from Dome Argus, then it’s a scrub for the Regatta.”
“To quote one old Pirate motto, ‘I ain’t pushing up a cross in this hellhole’,” said Kistenberg, even as his thoughts ran to the frozen waste of human life at Stalingrad.
“Thanks for being frank, no pun intended,” said Waiya, “I’ll keep the AWS team on task with a replacement. If things change, they’ll be ready.”
“Say, why not do an airdrop? Or use an aerial unit? Deflate the balloon and float it down instead of up?”
“Might work. I’ll get those guys to do some calculations on balloon pressures versus drop rates.”
“What about parachuting them in?”
“Yeah, even better. We can come in low to help ‘em survive impact. Can the AWS guys build a stripped down model that might make it?”
“I’ll find out. Might have problems with transmitter antennas, but let’s see what they can come up with.”
Damon Waiya walked out of the room, followed by the Ice Pirates flight crew. They walked to Waiya’s sparks station through the transit tunnels between the domes. They all crowded in and Waiya sat down to key a terse message to Ray Seranen, who would bounce it immediately to Frank Bucher and the captains of the Alba_Swords.
“81.77 Air drop only. Unit prep time unknown. Confirm.”
Each Pirate tapped out their initials in dots and dashes, giving Ray Seranen the absolute concurrence warranted by the import of their decision. For the first time in OSOM’s history, there was a distinct possibility that the Roaring Forties Regatta might be postponed indefinitely or cancelled outright.
However, nobody gave that a second thought when they considered the significance of the root cause of the situation. If Seranen’s models were correct, a weather event of unimaginable proportions and power was on the horizon, the likes of which the earth had never, ever experienced.


Glen Henning on the proposed LNG terminal:

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