First Chapter of Falling Star

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This is the first chapter in my very realistic science fiction thriller that was originally written in 1991, following a series of horrific nightmares and published in 2010 when elements of the story started becoming true:

1967: First Encounter

0900 Hours: Monday, March 20, 1967: Somewhere Over the Atlantic Ocean, West of Bermuda

Buffeted by surprisingly gusty winds for a brilliantly clear day, the propeller-driven Lockheed P-3B Orion bumped along just one hundred feet above the turbulent ocean surface.  Creaking squeals of metal rubbing against metal bared the struggle of the aluminum machine; fighting to stay airborne against the unrelenting pounding and shifting forces of nature.

As if the low-pitched groans and twisted squeaks of the anguished metal structure weren’t enough, the harnessed men on the Orion were violently tossed about by the constantly changing winds of March.

Everyone, that is, except the airplane’s young pilot who, while struggling to maintain the Orion on a steady course, anticipated each bump of the Orion as though he were riding a bicycle along a rocky mountain path.  The pilot wore a dress hat, crushed by headphones, in clear violation of rules.  This look was just how Thomas “Buck” Morrow saw himself.  Flight helmets were for sissies and fighter pilots, but then only because of the tight confines of a jet cockpit.

The controls of the airplane jerked and kicked in Lieutenant Commander Morrow’s hands as he constantly monitored his many-gauged instrumentation panel.  The white numbers and pointers on flat black backgrounds jumbled together in a profusion of data points.  He knew he had to fly by the instruments at this altitude since relying on his senses could be fatal, so he checked the gauges relentlessly, particularly the altimeter and the artificial horizon.  All the while he kept a practiced eye on the endless expanse of white-capped, grayish blue water rushing headlong toward him.  Observing him, one could easily be lulled into believing that the pilot was out for a Sunday drive.  His practiced hand kept the course true, even as his gaze swept languorously over the instrument panel.

The pilot’s nickname in the squadron was Buck, short for “Buckeroo”, a name given him by his fellow officers because of his cowboy antics when flying the squadron’s planes.  The squadron’s mechanics in particular cursed Buck behind his back after yet-another aircraft bending mission.  It was their sorry task to clean up and tune the Orions after Buck’s many antics.

Buck’s outwardly calm composure was betrayed only by the steady, methodical chewing of peppermint gum, which would abruptly stop when the Orion hit a particularly rough spot of air.  His young, rugged face remained passive as he maneuvered the plane expertly along its tricky course.  The workhorse Orion was not designed for such low-altitude flying, but that wasn’t Buck’s concern, he was just there to fly the damn thing.

His co-pilot also held on to the controls.  He was older and had been in the Navy longer than his Academy-educated pilot, but Buck was the boss and the boss controlled the plane.

The co-pilot, however, maintained a careful watch on the instrumentation, straying every once in a while to glance at the intensely calm pilot.  He knew that they should not be flying at this low altitude under such gusty conditions, but that wasn’t his call.  He was there as a backup in case his pilot needed help keeping the Orion in the air.

In the compartment immediately behind the pilots, the Orion’s navigator sat strapped tightly into his small seat.  The officer’s ruddy complexion was capped with brown hair, in the crew cut style popular with young flying officers.  Safely anchored to his seat, the navigator hunched over his table plotting the plane’s course and giving corrections to the pilot over the intercom, carefully enunciating each number and direction heading over the hissing and popping sounds of the headset.  Next to the navigator sat a tall, gawky Navy Lieutenant who had been able to jam himself somehow into the small aircraft seat.  As the science officer, Frederick Evans was responsible for data monitoring and instrument maintenance.

The atmosphere inside the Orion was hot, damp, and close.  The overwhelming environment of the cabin was heightened by the intermingled odors of aviation fuel, the heavy pungent aroma of lubricating oils, the sulfurous vapor of rubber hoses, the sharp smell of ozone generated by electronic gear, and the cumulative sweat of its current and long forgotten crews.  More accustomed to the open space of surface ships than the close quarters of this airplane, the science officer worked hard to keep his breakfast down.

He swallowed continually to counter the burning taste in his throat and wished that he hadn’t had that second helping of half-cooked bacon — it hadn’t even been that good, not like how his aunt used to cook it, over a low heat, simmering for a long time.  His efforts to hold back the burning taste in the back of his throat was complicated by his efforts to avoid the nausea that came naturally from the hot, confining, constantly shifting and bouncing environment.  The steady pulsating drone of the Orion’s propellers added to Evan’s disorientation.

The worst aspect of the Orion was the smell, that damn stink of ancient vomit.

Evans was focused on the cluster of cathode ray tubes locked into the gray metal framework, mere inches from his young face.  He methodically followed the multiple green traces as they slowly made their way from left to right.  Both Evans and the navigator were securely strapped to their seats, but the wrenching up and down and the side to side movements of the Orion made it hard to take notes and to adjust the instruments.

“What the — What was that?” blurted Evans as he watched the greenish trace on the magnetometer’s oscilloscope suddenly spike upward from its normal baseline level.  Instinctively, he marked the latitude and longitude on the strip recorder that ran parallel to the oscilloscope trace.

“Captain, can we run that transect over?” said Evans, trying hard to suppress the excitement in his voice.

“What did you see, Fred?” came the low-keyed voice of the young pilot over the scratchy intercom.

“Something odd; really odd.  Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Evans felt his already uneasy stomach violently traumatized as Buck whipped the Orion into a sharp, bronco-busting right bank.  G-forces pinned Evans deep into his seat.  Despite this, he was able to frantically grab an airsickness bag from its cubicle.  In one great heave, Evans made his contribution to the already gamy air of the cabin.  His quickness in grabbing the vomit bag saved the delicate electronic instruments from becoming fouled with the remains of a hasty, ill thought-out breakfast.

Buck was good, perhaps one of the best Navy pilots assigned to oceanographic reconnaissance — he could fly a survey transect so straight you’d think that someone had painted a white line on the ocean surface.  But, like all Navy pilots used to landing on bobbing corks in the ocean, he wasted no time on formalities.

“Too bad that black shoe has a squeamish stomach,” Buck said to no one in particular; chuckling to himself.

“What did you say, Captain?” said the co-pilot.

“Oh, nothing.  Just horsing around.”

“Damn, there it goes again,” murmured Evans, feeling feverish and light-headed, but vastly relieved after his encounter with the vomit bag.

“What’s going on, Fred?  Sure you’re not just looking at some chicks down there?” said Buck, abruptly dipping his left wing as if to get a better look.  Evans felt his stomach burp at the maneuver.

“No, wish it were.  Sorry to disappoint you, Captain.  We just confirmed that something down there is screwing the hell out of my magnetometer.  We just had one hell of a spike in the readings.”  Evans looked over the endless ocean surface, dark grayish-blue water with choppy waves and frothy whitecaps.

“What do you think it was?”

“Don’t know, Captain,” said Evans.  “But could we try that transect again?”

The Orion stayed on site, running and rerunning the same transect until Evans, despite his uneasy stomach, feverish countenance, and burning throat, was satisfied that the magnetic anomaly was really there and that the readings were not just the result of an instrument malfunction.

As the Orion made one final bank and headed back to base, Evans stared at the gray-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean trying to rationally answer the question that burned in his head.  Why would his instruments act up here in the middle of nowhere; over the Hatteras Abyssal Plain, where there should be nothing but background?

1100 Hours: Saturday, March 25, 1967: Classified Location, West of Bermuda

“What the Hell?” blurted Commander Philip Kingsbury, USN, as his cabin was violently shaken.  The papers on his writing desk were scattered across his small cabin, his mug of coffee, black with some sugar, was knocked off the table spilling onto the rug in the cabin.  The captain of the USS John Adams (SSBN-620) had been reading correspondence from fleet headquarters, comfortable that the course his vessel was on was without any surprises.  Kingsbury leapt out of his chair and headed to the door of his cabin.

Kingsbury hurried to the Control Room of the John Adams, a fleet ballistic submarine on a routine, but classified patrol in the Atlantic Ocean.  As he entered the Conn, he saw his Executive Officer or XO, Lieutenant Commander Raymond Greecen in discussion with Ensign Carlton Messinger.  Messinger was visibly shaken, but came to a rigid attention upon seeing the captain.

“Stand at ease, Mr. Messinger.  What happened, Ray?  Did we hit something?”

“Some sort of turbulence, Sir.”

“Here?”  Kingsbury was incredulous.  He knew that the John Adams was in a deep ocean patrol and was traversing a particularly deep basin.

“Who had the Conn?”

“I did, Sir,” answered Messinger.  Kingsbury and Greecen rotated the junior officers during uneventful portions of their patrols so that new officers could get command experience.  This was supposed to be one such portion and Ensign Messinger was in line for his first turn at the “Conn.”  While Greecen watched carefully, Messinger had control of the submarine at the Command Center or “Conn.”

“Give me the details, Mr. Messinger.”

“We were on a level transverse and I had just checked our headings with the navigation officer and was getting a report on trim when the first wave hit.”

“Wave?”

“Yes, Sir.  It started as if we were catching a wave in a sailboat …”

“Mr. Messinger, an 8,250 ton nuclear fleet ballistic submarine is hardly a sailboat.”

“Aye, Sir,” responded Messinger as he snapped to attention again.

“Stand at ease, Carlton.  Just give me the facts.”

“Yes, Sir.  We went into what seemed to be a gentle upward lift, when the full force of the turbulence caught us broadside.  The Adams started rocking back and forth, uncontrollably.”

“Did you run a damage report?”

“Aye, Sir.  All departments reported in.  No injuries, just a lot of shaken nerves.  Some damage to unsecured objects, particularly in the Galley.”

“Any sensor alerts?”

“No, Sir.  We didn’t see it coming.”

Kingsbury anticipated that answer as they were running silent in what seemed to be a clear column of seawater.

“Any passive sonar signals?”

“None, Sir.”

“Did you ping for any other craft?”

“Yes, Sir.  Immediately after the turbulence.  Nothing whatsoever.”

“What do you think, Ray?”

“It felt like the bow wake of a large ship, but our passive sonar gave no warning of any other vessel or any other phenomena, for that matter, in our vicinity.”

“O.K., log it.”

Taking the visibly shaken Messinger aside, Kingsbury said, “Take it easy, son.  These things happen.  You did O.K.”

****

Falling Star is available as an eBook and in Print from Amazon.  If you do not have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle reader app here.

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