They weren't going to wait any longer and, to be honest, she was shocked they had waited this long. The plane itself was just an amorphous shape through the blowing snow, identifiable only by the lights burning on its wings. Helen was in the lead, the fur-lined hood of her parka blowing back so that her hair flapped behind her like a flag. She brought her gloved hands up and crossed them over her head, waving in vain to the pilots as the plane began to taxi. There was no possible way they could have been seen or heard, but Helen shouted for them to wait regardless.
The engines blew a tsunami wave of snow over them as the plane rolled away from the airport. Helen gave up, but Kate kept running. Helen gave up calling to the pilots and instead called Kate. "It's no use! Even if they heard us, they'd be mad to stop now. If they don't take off this instant, they'll be stranded here. Just like we are."
Helen and Kate stood on the runway and watched the black shape of the last plane out of the region rise off the ground. Soon the silhouette was lost against the darkness of the clouds. Kate scooped up a handful of snow, patted it into a ball, and threw it at the retreating plane. Helen patted Kate's shoulder and motioned back toward the airport.
"Come on. We'll take shelter in the airport."
They trudged to the building through the snow that was already up to their ankles. Helen forced the door open and led Kate inside. Calling the building an airport was kind; it was a shack with a counter along the back wall and several chairs scattered through the open area. There were two smaller rooms tacked on to the side of the shack; a bathroom and a small kitchen. The front and back windows were boarded against the storm. Helen took her flashlight from the pocket of her coat and ran the beam over the ceiling. It wouldn't pass any safety inspections, and the wind whistled angrily through cracks wide enough to stick a hand through, but it was all they had.
"If we patch these cracks, this place should keep us safe from the worst of the storm. If we're lucky."
"And if we're us?"
Helen smiled and pulled a chair over to examine one of the largest openings. "Then we'll just have to deal with the problems as they arrive, as usual. Move that box over to block the door... it won't do to have the wind knocking it open every five minutes."
Kate did as she was told, kicking the box into place against the door they had just come through. Helen pulled her goggles down and let them hang around her neck as she climbed onto the chair. She squinted against the wind blowing through the opening. She tried to think of items in their pack that would suffice to cover it and stepped back down. She examined the space determined to make the most of it.
"Well, it's shelter. That's the main thing. We still have our packs and supplies to last us four days. The rations can be stretched to give us an extra day if need be."
Kate didn't like deadlines with an actual death at the far end of them. "Will that be enough?"
"We'll have to hope so. Declan got aboard the plane with the rest of the outpost staff, so he'll send the plane back as soon as he can."
"And unfortunately the only pilot crazy enough to fly in weather like this is trapped here with me."
Helen smiled. "I prefer to think of myself as the only pilot skilled enough. But with ninety years of practice, it's hardly fair to compare me to anyone else." She knelt next to her pack and began to go through it as the walls creaked under another gust of wind. "So we might as well get as comfortable as possible."
"Goodie," Kate said. "Four or five days of you yelling at me."
"Why would I do that?" Helen didn't look up from her rummaging, and her tone implied the question was rhetorical. Kate almost let the matter drop. But spending time trapped with someone holding a grudge was almost as bad as getting yelled at.
"It's my fault we're here."
"Yes. It is." Helen pulled out a tarp and eyed the cracks. "Find some duct tape. You had a roll in your pack." She sighed and stood up. "Now is not the time to assign blame, Kate. Now is the time to band together and keep each other alive. There will be plenty of time for yelling once we're back at the Sanctuary."
Kate smiled and handed over the tape. "Oh, good. There's a reason to get through this in one piece."
Helen sighed. "Kate, you made a decision. It was a bad decision, and now we're both suffering for it. Do you want me to yell at you? Do you want me to take you over my knee? We've more pressing concerns at the moment."
The storm answered her with a frightful howl. The windward side of the airport was slammed hard enough that Kate almost thought it had been hit by a truck. Helen looked up as the corner of the roof gave way. She only had time to put her arms over her head and duck into a defensive position as she was buried by the snow heavy enough to collapse the roof.
Six Hours Earlier,
"Storm won't get here for another nine hours, give or take." Declan breathed into his joined hands and rubbed them together. "We'll be fine if we manage to take off on schedule."
"Shouldn't be a problem," Helen said.
Kate was sitting behind her, looking out the window. Their snowmobile seated four, but the final seat was taken by a bag of their supplies. She was bundled against the cold, dressed like a front-yard Santa with a hat, scarf, thick gloves, thicker jacket, undershirt and a ski mask that she could pull down if necessary. She was still freezing. She hated the cold.
The treads of their machine cut waffle-like patterns through the virgin snow. Kate didn't know what features Helen was using for navigation, but eventually she decided they had arrived. She opened the door and invited a fresh gust of ice and snow into the cabin, and Kate shuddered.
"People actually live out here?"
"Lets you know you're alive!" He smiled over his shoulder at her and they both climbed out to follow Helen across the tundra. Kate wasn't used to being this far north, and half expected to see Santa prepping his reindeer for the big night. She also didn't expect the utter lack of horizon. When she tried to see where land met sky, the only thing she found was a hazy line of gray. Sky and snow were nearly the same color, and the effect only served to make her dizzy. So she focused instead on the things directly in front of her.
If she turned around, she could still see their camp. It looked deceptively close, near enough that her brain told her she could reach it in a few minutes at a brisk jog. In reality it was nearly five miles away and any attempt to reach it on foot would lead to a Kate-sicle. She hated the snow, she hated the ice, and she hated this mission. She tucked her gloved hands under the thick armpits of her coat and tried to stop her teeth from chattering.
Declan brought the drilling supplies and planted it where Helen told him. "Right here!" Helen had to shout to be heard over the wind. Declan dropped the bag and removed the stasis pod. The creature inside stirred, feeling the exterior temperature against the walls of its cell. Kate and Helen drilled a small crater, and Declan removed the acochilidium and guided it into the hole with gloved hands.
"There you are, sluggo. Nice and safe in your new crib." The creature expanded to fill the space, and Helen began covering it with snow. "How long?"
"Five hours, six to be safe." Helen looked to the north. "I don't like the looks of that storm."
Declan shook his head. "Kev and Bly have been up here for months. They say nine hours, you can take it to the bank. We'll come and pick up the little beggar, and its babies, and we'll be out of here 'fore it even dusts our boots."
"I hope you're right." Kate offered Helen a hand to help her up, then brushed the snow from her gloves and bounced in order to keep warm. "So five hours to kill in the middle of nowhere. You always give me the best missions, Doc."
"Cheer up, Kate. I've heard they have Sudoku in the hut." She put a hand on Kate's shoulder and walked with her back to the snowmobile. Declan marked the nest with a shovel and hurried to catch up with the women.
Kate knelt on the pile of snow, shivering as the wind pushed in through the airport's new skylight. Helen had fallen forward, and Kate eased part of the roof off Helen's back. "Remind me to kick Kev and Bly's asses for their shoddy work with this place. Doc? You okay?"
Helen lifted her head and cried out at a sudden pain. "No, I don't... believe I am."
Kate winced and checked Helen for broken bones or obvious wounds. When she touched her right leg, Helen cried out.
"Okay. Well, I guess we can skip icing the wound..."
Helen pushed herself up on her hands, rolling to the left to keep weight off her injured leg. "We have to get out of the weather." She gestured at the two smaller rooms attached to the west wall. "Call it walker's choice."
Kate slid Helen's arm over her shoulder and helped her up. Helen grunted and leaned heavily against Kate's side, limping slowly toward the kitchen. Once they were inside, Kate went back out and retrieved their bags. The kitchen was barely wide enough for Helen to stretch her arms out to either side, but she had to press her palms flat against the wall and the cupboard to make them fit. Helen settled against the wall next to the small mini-fridge and stretched her leg out in front of her. From her vantage point on the floor, she could see the edge of a hot plate and a box of Ramen that would nicely supplement their food reserves.
She grunted, settled into a more comfortable position and watched as Kate returned with the supplies.
"I hope you packed the First Aid kit and not Declan."
"We're about to find out." Kate unzipped her bag and dug through it. "Hey, what do you know? We did luck out." She put the kit on the counter and squeezed between Helen and the wall. There was a shallow cut above Helen's right eyebrow, and Kate carefully cleaned the wound and bandaged it. Helen hissed at the antibacterial but withstood the treatment until Kate moved down to her leg.
"It's all right. Just a bit tender."
Kate used a pair of scissors from the kit to cut open Helen's pants, spreading the flaps aside to examine the injury. She closed her eyes and breathed out. "It's not broken. Hallelujah."
"Thank heaven for small miracles," Helen said.
Kate wrapped the injury and slipped their packs under Helen's foot to keep it elevated. "I think that's all we can do right now. I mean, if I had any idea where to get an ice pack, it would probably help..."
Helen smiled. "This will be fine until we're rescued. Thank you, Kate."
"No problem." She took a blanket from her pack and draped it over Helen's body. She wrapped the other blanket around her shoulders and sat with her back to the cabinet. She stretched her feet out so they crossed in front of Helen's feet at a right angle. "It's only fair, right? It's my fault you're here and got hurt..."
Helen rolled her eyes. "Thought we weren't going to talk about that until we were somewhere a bit more comfortable."
"Well, we're here now. What else do we have to discuss? The weather?"
Helen looked down at her foot and sighed. "All right. You were reckless. You acted without consideration for those around you, and through your actions, put others in danger."
"It was the right thing to do. You said yourself the eggs wouldn't have survived the storm."
"And the Aco would simply have had to wait for another reproductive cycle to profligate the species. It wouldn't have been the end of their species, Kate."
Kate shrugged. "But damn close. No one asked you to follow me. I could have protected the eggs on my own."
"You barely finished in time as it was! If you'd still been out there when the storm hit, you would never have found your way back to shelter. You'd be out there right now, dead and frozen, and we'd be lucky to find your body for a proper burial." Her voice had gotten louder and angrier the more she spoke. "Sometimes I wonder if you even stop to think before you just dive in."
"There's not always time to stop and think. You have to know that after all these years. And, you know, I was fine before you came along. I can take care of myself."
"But I'm still your mother," Helen snapped.
They both stared for a moment. Helen was the first to look away, and Kate shifted uncomfortably. Helen looked down at her hands.
"Ashley... was often rather headstrong." Her voice was soft and apologetic. "Foolhardy. Once she reached a certain age, it was as if she knew better. In everything. Stubborn girl. I'm sorry. I became confused." She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together through her gloves.
Kate shrugged. "I take it as a compliment."
Helen smiled. "Being called foolish and stubborn is a compliment?"
Kate shook her head. "Being compared to a member of your family."
Helen rested her head against the wall. "You remind me of her often, you know. To her, I wasn't the great Helen Magnus. I was simply her mother, and she rebelled against me as often as possible. She could follow orders, but sometimes it was like trying to herd cats. You challenge me. If you believe an order I've given isn't the best course of action, you'll offer me alternatives. I appreciate that."
"Hey. I do what I can." She toyed with the edge of her jacket, bashful of Helen's praise.
Helen looked at her for a long moment. "I think you and Ashley would have been a force to be reckoned with." Kate looked at Helen and raised an eyebrow. "You would have driven me absolutely batty in the process, and most likely you would have constantly butted heads with one another, but you'd have been formidable opponents when you worked together. I'm very pleased to have you on my team."
"Right. Even when I force you out into a blizzard to build a cage around some slug eggs?"
"Especially then. You risked your life and your safety for an Abnormal. The Kate Freelander I met last year would never have done that. No, she'd have been the first aboard that plane. Bringing you onto the team could have been a disastrous choice. You could have become a detriment or, worse, a hazard to the team. I'm glad to say you've proven my faith in you to be completely correct. I may make a commotion when you take needless risks, but I'll always be proud of the risks you're choosing to take."
Kate smiled. "Thanks, Doc."
Helen closed her eyes, and Kate found a more comfortable position. She crossed her legs, tucking her feet under her knees and pulling the blanket up over the back of her head to make a small hut of warmth. Her breath plumed in front of her, and she scanned the kitchen. It was smaller than a lot of walk-in closets she'd seen, but that actually helped them preserve their body heat.
"You know, if the rest of the ceiling caves in..." She looked up at a loud creak, as if she had cursed them to that very fate.
"It would have collapsed by now. We'll be fine."
Kate liked that Helen could lie so easily, so convincingly. It made it easy to push aside irrational fears and focus on the authentic dangers. Dangers like boredom. If it really was days before Declan could arrange for a rescue, she and the Doc would be at each other's throats in no time flat.
"Okay, so. I spy with my little eye, something that is gray."
Helen was asleep when the sound of an engine overcame the whistling winds. Kate gently woke her up, helping her to stand as the buzz of the plane's engines grew louder. When she opened the door to the kitchen, snow poured down over their boots and Helen was forced to pull herself over the drift with Kate's help. The back door of the airport had been blown open during the storm and they stood in the battered frame as they watched the plane come down toward the snow-covered runway. Its tires skidded over the snow, and the passage of the plane blew great waves of the snow away from the tarmac. The plane angled up again, rising into the slate gray sky to make another pass.
"Looks like they found a pilot as crazy as you, Doc. Who do you think it is?"
"Well, since you're here... I have absolutely no idea." When the plane was close enough to see the writing on its side, Helen's smile widened. "Aha. They found someone crazier than both of us put together. See on the wing?"
"A.E.? What is that, American Eagle?"
"Initials, Kate. Prepare yourself... you're about to meet a ghost."
Kate smiled at her and watched as the plane banked and came back down. Helen judged that they would have a clear runway in five or six more passes. She stood on her uninjured leg, leaning against Kate, and waited for their rescuer to finish sweeping the road.
When they returned to the Sanctuary, Helen let the Big Guy examine her leg and received a crutch. He complimented Kate's first-aid work with a grunt and a nod, which she felt was high praise indeed. Helen retired to her office, abandoning the crutch on her couch. She was writing a mission report in one of her journals when Kate knocked on the door. "Hey, boss. You want to yell at me some more?"
Helen smiled. "No, I believe we did enough yelling at the outpost."
"Good. Hank wanted to test out some new stunners. Work out the kinks. So I thought I'd go with him."
Kate started to leave, but then she turned back. "If I ever overstep my bounds, or stand up to you, it's just because... I feel like you're hearing me. You know? I'm used to just following orders, doing what I was hired to do, but here, I feel like you listen. Even if you don't always agree."
"I'm glad you feel that way. I value your input, Kate. I hope you know that."
Kate nodded. "Yeah. I think it's starting to sink in. Well... Hank's waiting."
Helen nodded and Kate started to leave. "Kate? Stay out of trouble."
Kate turned back at the doorway. "Honestly, Doc, what are the odds of that happening?"
She left, and Helen looked down at her journal. She chuckled, shook her head, and muttered, "Not bloody likely." She smiled and started writing again.