They say it never rains in Antarctica, so when it does the people who say it doesn't act like it isn't while everyone else huddles inside staring out at the lumps of volcanic mud that pour down the sides of Ob Hill like blueberries in pancake syrup.
People stay out in herbies, but everyone comes in out of the rain.
Stretch had just come into the hanger, then. There was a leak in the corrugated aluminum and it poured almost frozen water into his clothes. He acted like it wasn't happening. He just stood and stared and that's when Wally picked up the cargo strap.
Rain pounded the roof. In the great steel building it was like a thunderclap that wouldn't end, the soundtrack to a movie that starts to go violent.
This is the part I saw. There was the normally taciturn Wally with his huge scratched eyeglasses heading toward Stretch with the heavy end of a cargo strap swinging from his hand like he was going to unload a massive hurt on the lanky guy. I went back to my coffee presuming I wasn't seeing what I thought I was seeing, and I kept gabbing when Wally started swinging the winch and Stretch started bobbing to keep his jaw intact.
"Amateurs. This is what I'm talking about," Nils said to me, poking me in the eye with his glare. "You come. Circle around the other way. We catch him in the middle."
I headed north around Wally, keeping clear of the swinging brass end by respectable safety margin. Nils kept shaking his head like I was nuts.
Then I got an angle on Wally and started toward him when Nils leg-whipped Stretch and the big man hit the floor. Wally took the in. He flung the light end of the strap to Nils, and between the two of them they had Stretch mummified in a couple of seconds.
"Like--you need to explain this to me," I said to Nils, who sat on the ground next to Stretch's head.
Stretch hadn't said a word. But now I could see that crazy glazed look in his eyes. Like he wasn't blinking and there was way too much white. I'd seen weddell seals captured out on the ice look the same way. All Stretch could do was to stare at the big Norwegian with an expression something between terror and rage.
"You gotta cut this shit out," Nils said. "You almost make me break my finger. I break my finger, I don't fly. I don't fly, nobody's happy here."
Wally went back to his coffee. There was a copy of the Antarctic Sun on the table. He tossed it to Nils.
"Oh, lookit this." Nils held up the paper for us to see. "Annette Rogers is out getting cored -- I mean being drilled -- I mean drilling cores at Lake Vanda."
Stretch started struggling as if his puny meat muscles could break through a strap designed to hold an M1 Abrams in a military transport plane.
"Big dogs eat first," Nils said to Stretch, getting up. Then to me, "Bill, can you slide that block and tackle this way?"
I suspected what Nils had in mind, and the part of me that deals out right and wrong was screaming for me to stop. But when I deployed they told me there was one rule that superceded all others. A helo tech does whatever a pilot wants, when he wants it.
I pulled the big hook over to Nils. It was attached to a thick chain suspended from the steel girders holding up the roof. We used it to lift the helicopters.
Nils slid the hook under a couple of the straps and winched Stretch up a couple a twenty feet or so and let him dangle there.
It was then, at his time of greatest impotence, that Stretch decided to utter his threat. His normally deep voice came out like a squeaky hinge on a hardigg box, barely audible above the rain hammering the roof.
"When I get down from here, I'm going to kill you."
"You're not coming down until you're retro'ed," Nils said.
Raindrops began to bubble their way through unseen gaps in the steel roof. Stretch kicked a little and began to twist to and fro. Every now and then he'd line himself up in the path of the drops. Eventually, his hair was saturated. It hung around his face, a dripping frame.
"Is this about a girl?" I asked Nils, who'd joined Wally and seemed content to ignore both Stretch and me until the storm ended.
Nils looked up, piercing blue eyes like a sled dog's shining from beneath his shaggy light brown hair.
"A woman," he said.
"There are no girls here," Wally added. Probably the first words he'd said all day.
I went back to my coffee and Stretch started writhing. From a distance, it looked like there was a giant cocoon attached to the roof of the helo hanger. When Stretch got loose he had no choice but to become some sort of mutant moth.
"Annette Rogers?" I asked.
Nils and Wally's faces lit up, then softened as if I'd mentioned their mother's Christmas cooking.
"Sweet Annette," Nils said.
"You fucking pig," Stretch said.
"She doesn't love you," Nils shouted to him.
"She doesn't fucking love you. That's for damn sure."
Nils finished his coffee and brought his cup back to his locker. The rain outside intensified.
Nils said, "Bill. I ask you: what more than the smell of a woman who's ready makes a man want to kill the very friends who only days before he'd risk his life for?"
"What do you mean by smell?" I was asking because I wondered if the correct term wasn't "odor," but Nils had inertia. Nobody was coming into the hanger, and nobody was going out, and he was the ranking helo pilot.
Alpha males eat first.
"Sweet sweet Annette. She's chosen me, Stretch. Did you think you could possibly hide her from me?"
Stretch muttered something like, "motherfucker," and kept struggling. What did he think he'd do after the twenty-foot drop?
"She chose me, young man. There's nothing you can do about it and frankly, I expected a lot more from you."
"You fucked her, didn't you?" Stretch hissed. "Son of a bitch. You didn't even have ten minutes. She probably didn't even realize you'd started."
"Sour sour boy," Nils said. "I don't fuck people--Do I, Wally?"
Wally shook his head.
"That's the difference between an amateur and a mature gentleman. I do not fuck. I make love."
Nils paced circles under Stretch like a shark in a circus tank, waiting for the side of beef to be lowered.
"And in ten minutes, dear boy, a proper gentleman can find a way to satisfy a woman in ways beyond what your simple pornographic mind can fathom. This is called experience. Something my little Annette seems to need more of. And do you know my first destination when this storm abates? Seems I'll be flying to Lake Vanda to supply Annette's camp. I may not make it back for a while. They say the storm will intensify."
"Son of a bitch," Stretch said. And then he just screamed until his lungs ran out of air. He had to gasp for his next breath. When he did, some words that sounded like, "I love her," came out.
"What was that?" Nils asked.
"I love her. She loves me. You can't ..."
Nils peered at Stretch and the look on his face went from smug confidence to concern.
In Antarctica, pilots are the life line. That affords them status above everyone else, in all things.
The system hasn't changed since the neanderthal.
"Is that why you told Doc you were going to kill me?" Nils said. "You think you're in love?"
"I love her," Stretch said, his voice cracking.
Nils got a good spot right under the young man so he could see his face.
"You crying? Is that what you're doing?"
"Fuck you," Stretch replied, so softly that in the din of Antarctic rain I wasn't sure he said it at all.
"You don't love her," Nils said. "Do you hear me? Young men think they're in love with any woman they have sex with. It's genetics. You'd better get over it. She likes you because you're like a little zippy bunny rabbit, pop-pop-pop. But I tell you--she doesn't love you."
"Fuck you," Stretch repeated.
"It's too dangerous for the ice," Nils said. "We don't allow it here."
"Fuck you." Stretch's vocabulary had deteriorated to two words.
Then I heard something thumping outside. Wally looked up from a manual. Stretch acted like nothing was happening, but he knew, too.
"Mary?" Nils said to all of us.
We'd thought nothing was flying so the radio had been off. I hit the switch at the last syllable of one of Mary's words.
I picked up the mic. "Thirty-six hotel, helo ops. Mary, what the fuck?" I said.
"What the hell are you guys in a condition one circle jerk there? I've been trying to raise you for ten minutes. I got a medavac. Hypothermia and a head trauma. Pupils equal and dilated. Get Doc. Fast."
I heard the sound of the chain behind me as Nils started lowering Stretch. Wally got on the phone to the hospital.
"We're on it, Mary," I said, into the microphone. The thumping got louder, and then irregular.
"Thirty-six hotel -- helo ops. Mary, we got a ground speed thirty knots at two-seventy. And the rain. There's going to be goddamned icing."
She didn't bother replying to my blithering statement of the obvious. Nils untied Stretch who ran to the door and went outside.
"She going to be able to land in this?" I asked Nils.
"Sure," he said. He rubbed the back of his neck and paced.
"There anything we can do?" I asked. Wally shook his head. Nils stared into space.
I'd never been in this situation. We'd never had rain before. It hit the cold building surfaces, the wires suspended above the dirt roads, and it refroze immediately.
That was happening on the helo. There was no way to avoid it. Mary was out at the lakes and was pinned down by the weather. Someone had got hurt bad. She'd taken the risk. Timed it. Eventually she would crash.
We ran to the pad window and watched Mary struggle with the controls as the bird got heavier and heavier all around her. We held our breaths. The helo jerked from side to side on the vicious winds and Mary's counter control.
Helicopter thirty-six H flew to the pad, and touched down with a thud only slightly more violent than Mary's best landing.
Stretch was the first to the pad. He had the truck.
Mary powered down, and when the blades stopped she jumped from the cockpit and between her and Stretch they got the injured scientist into the truck. Then Stretch sped off to the hospital.
"Weather's a little interesting," Nils said when Mary came through the pad door into the hanger.
She pulled off her helmet and let her hair fall out. Then, with all the nonchalance of someone just back from a stroll to the grocery store for eggs, she unzipped her parka and sat down to log her hours.
Nobody said anything to her.
When she was finished with her paperwork, Mary stood up collected her gloves and walked over to me.
"Bill--" she said in greeting. "And your day is going well, I suppose?"
Nils smirked. Wally went back to reading his paper.
"I need you to help me with something," she said. "I'm a little tired from my flight. I'm going to need help getting stuff in from the supply hut. You free?"
Mary stared into me as if the controls would be a lot simpler to operate than what she'd just been through.
I told her I was free and as I followed her out Nils winked. At first I thought it was for me.
But then Mary winked back at him and slapped me on the ass end of my Carhartts.
"Let's go, sweetie," she said. "And there's no rush. We're already late for dinner."