by Ruth Draves
Prompt: An approaching hurricane, when there is no safe way or time to evacuate.
Petra’s question hung in the air unanswered. Our eyes were the only movement, as some of us looked down at the mugs we clutched in our hands while others scrutinized the thin aluminum walls of our habitat.
Finally, Tom broke the silence.
“I’d trust this shelter to just about anything NASA dreamed up,” he drawled, “but I don’t think the eggheads back home ever had this particular nightmare.”
I felt the dread move up my throat another inch as the sound of the wind increased went up a notch.
Sankar pointed to the latest satellite images on the screen in front of us. “If the data is to be believed, and there is no reason it shouldn’t, the winds on this beast are likely to top well over 200 kilometers per hour. That is well above a Category Five storm back on Earth.”
“It’s so big,” Malia whispered into her cool coffee.
The Beast, as we had taken to calling the storm, filled the display screen in the conference table in front of us. Sankar has previously explained just how big it was: “Think the entire Continental US,” he had stated grimly when we had first sat down for this briefing.
Petra straightened up. “Can we confirm specs with Mission before we evacuate, Tom?” she said.
Tom, sighed and looked at Petra hard. “With all due respect, Captain, I already checked. This ain’t gonna hold.”
“And the evacuation shelters?” Petra asked.
Tom shook his head. “Maybe, but only if we can get them set up somewhere with some protection. And this terrain’s not very helpful.”
We all shifted in our seats. Petra looked at me. “Options,” she said.
I glanced down at the screen once more, then at my own tablet in front of me. “I’ve checked fuel levels and conditions of the vehicle, which are a go for a liftoff. The orbital habitat is all green lights,” I said.
“Good,” Petra said.
“Not so fast,” I swallowed before I continued. “Winds are already picking up here, and the storm is still at least three days out, if Sankar’s predictions are on.”
Sankar nodded and looked away. I took a breath. “The barometric pressure and winds are the issue. We couldn’t be ready for a take off for at least another eight hours. That’s cutting the pre-flight to a bare minimum. The vehicle was not designed to fly in this kind of weather, even the mild stuff we’re experiencing now. Eight hours from now, if the winds continue to increase and sheer as we’ve seen, I can’t guarantee we could safely take off. And I can’t say if the vehicle would survive the winds when the storm hits. I had Mission check my numbers and they concur,” I said as I handed Petra my tablet.
Petra took my tablet but did not look at it. She was good at making it clear when she trusted us.
“So we can’t leave safely, and not leaving means our one vehicle to get off this rock may get damaged,” Petra sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Malia, options,” she said.
Our geologist gulped and looked up from her cup.
“There is a cave system twenty kilometers from here,’ she said, “But I haven’t had a full chance to map it. And, they appear to be caused by erosion.”
Tom leaned back and squinted. “And that’s significant because?”
Malia suddenly glared at him. “You all have been worried about the winds. You’re forgetting the rains, “ she spat. “Well, I’ve been telling you and Mission the entire time I see weird patterns of erosion -- massive episodes of it, followed by no discernable rainfall or other water events for decades, if not centuries. I’m thinking storms like this," she tapped the screen, “are the norm for this rock.”
“So the caves won’t be safe?” Sankar frowned behind his beard.
Malai shook her head. “I think all of the precipitation on this planet comes at once, with storms like this. Maybe once every hundred years or so. And these storms created all the caves I’ve found in the satellite and radar scans.”
“Are you sure they are caused by erosion?” Sankar asked. “Perhaps they are remnants of an inactive volcanic system.”
Malia bit her lower lip. “I can only go by the data I have, and the data I have says these are not volcanic. If my numbers are right, those caves will be torrents of rushing water when the storm hits. Forget being blown away. We’ll drown first.”
“Is there another cave system within traveling distance that could be volcanic, or maybe on higher ground where we could shelter?” Tom asked.
Malia shook her head. “Only evidence of volcanic caves I’ve found are currently directly under the eye of The Beast.”
“Could we dig into a hillside, or use parts of our habitat to build a stronger shelter?” Sankar asked.
“The local hills are pretty solid, and the drills I have won’t cut fast enough,” Malia looked back down at her mug.
Sankar looked at Tom, who just looked away.
Petra looked at us, one by one. I had never seen panic in the Captain’s eyes before -- not during the meteor shower as we left our home solar system, not during the weird communications blackout with Mission Control. But now, there was a slight tremble under her right eye. Nothing more than a quiver.
A gust of wind rattled the habitat.
“Options?” Petra pleaded.
Word count: 910