Chapter 5

We're cutting it too damn close, thought Kirk, punching the lever that closed the back ramp, locking out the blast of ice particles sharp as pulverized glass. He had that feeling in the pit of his stomach which his hunger could not mask.

Hardly reassured by the sound of the engines starting up, he shrugged off his jacket and stuffed it with the others in a closet in the small airlock. Then he stepped through into the main cabin. The airlock closed with an asthmatic hiss behind him.

He leaned into the science section, to the left, where Xiao looked up nervously from his consoles.

"Mister Xiao," Kirk said with an encouraging smile, "what mighty fine weather you meteorologists cook up for us!"

The pale-faced young man grinned, then turned beet red when Kirk added, "I think you should strap in, don't you, Chief?"

"Oh-Yes, Captain!"

Kirk's smile lasted most of his passage through the main cabin. His crew was strapping into padded seats along both sides of the windowless cabin, facing each other across a spacious aisle. Kirk put a hand on a shoulder here, made a small joke there, checked seat belts and morale.

Of Chekov he asked if everything was securely stowed away - flying debris could kill a man under the circumstances they had already experienced, and this flight was promising to be even rougher. McCoy he advised to take an anti-emetic, as the Doctor was already looking like he was going to throw up. The Doctor grumbled that for once he would have preferred the transporter.

At the front of the cabin the Captain stowed the smile and turned up his command. He ignored Grale, Reeve and Stack, but nodded at Security Chief Johnson and his team. The ex-miners weren't under arrest or restrained, aside from their seat belts, so Security had better stay on their toes. Kirk had again surrendered a front seat for the seat behind the pilot, from where he could keep an eye on the group.

He had to turn sideways to squeeze through the narrow opening into the cockpit.

"We're a go for take-off," he reported, seating himself behind Davis, who was the better pilot under these kinds of conditions.

"The shuttle's in good shape, Capt'n," said Scott, sitting behind Spock, who was copiloting. "But I doubt it would have held up without docking 'er in one of the hangars. This weather's a real nasty beastie!"

"Now's the moment then, Gentlemen," said Kirk. "Commander Davis, Mister Spock… take us out."

0000000

They rose steadily, through the horizontally driving ice, with nary a shudder. That lasted for about two minutes. Soon they were being shaken in their seats as engines and buffers fought the howling wind.

Spock had to raise his voice to make himself heard. Altitude: five hundred meters! Exiting the surface of the planetary boundary layer!"

Only eighteen and a half more kilometers of troposphere to go, Kirk thought wryly.

But he knew it was the next three kilometers, the rest of the planetary boundary layer, that would be the most turbulent. He watched Davis masterfully anticipate the currents, negotiating by experience, guess work, and integrating Xiao's real-time data, again relayed over the com.

Still, pilot and craft were pushed to their limits. The rattle soon became unbearable, knocking their teeth against each other, shaking up their innards. A violent lurch made Kirk wish they had head straps as well.

"Pre-essure is fa-aling ra-apidly!" came Xiao's voice. "Eighthu-undred and fi-ifty – sevenhundred and twe-enty mi-illibars! My G-God-Ca-aptain!"

Abruptly the shaking stopped. The shrieking of the wind stopped. Kirk gasped.

They hung suspended in a vast, darkened cylinder, bounded on all sides by a black wall of dense, seething cloud.

"Stay in the eye!" Xiao's yelled.

The eye? What eye...

Lightening erupted from the nearest wall and grabbed them, blinding, but eerily silent. Through narrowed eyes, shielded by a hand, Kirk glimpsed the white-hot tendrils licking the window shield. But the craft had been built for this, and only the shifting of the air shook the shuttle, almost gently.

"Spock?" Kirk appealed.

"We have entered into the eye of a hurricane, Captain."

"The whole thing is 900 kilometers across," Xiao supplied, thankfully in a calmer voice, "and it came together in the matter of five minutes! The eye is two kilometers in diameter. Avoid the eye wall, Commander Davis!"

Davis was already steering them toward the middle. The lightening fingers let go of them.

"It's hard to tell how stable the structure is," Xiao continued, "but as long as it lasts the eye should remain calm. I am reading sustained winds of 350 kilometers per hour in the wall."

Kirk leaned forward as much as his straps allowed to look up through the shield. He was expecting to see the stars at the end of the tunnel, but of course it wasn't going to be that easy. The cylinder was capped, up there, by a lid of cloud cover, a nest of lightening. Still, if they could ride this tunnel, maybe Ignis would spit them out without ever taking a bite.

"Can we ride it? Up and out?" he asked.

Davis started taking them up.

"Two-thousand-five-hundred meters!" Spock called out. "Two-thousand-eight-hundred. Three-thousand-"

"-It's collapsing! It's collapsing!" Xiao screamed.

Kirk had rarely seen something so awful. The eye wall – a churning mass of vapor and lightening, pressure and wind, suddenly veered and lurched toward them. Davis fought to pull the shuttle away from it, but it was too late. The wall overtook them in a second and swallowed them up.