by Jack Castle
Copyright © 2015 by Jack Castle
On 5 December 1945, five TBM Avenger bombers embarked on a training mission off the coast of Florida and mysteriously vanished without a trace in the Bermuda Triangle.
A PBY search and rescue plane with thirteen crewmen aboard set out to find the Avengers … and never returned.
TWINKLING STARS PINPRICKED the stark lavender sky and watched like spectators as one of their own arced gracefully across the darkening hemisphere and fell from the heavens.
The U.C.P. deep space transport plummeted from the upper atmosphere on its own decaying path; it slowly and delicately began to glow, its color changing from off-white to rich gold. The glorious blaze expanded into a burning sphere that resembled a shooting star.
Flames and sparks trailed from every engine and wing. Heat-shielding plates flew off the underbelly by the dozens as the space transport began breaking up, a thousand-milelong jet stream of clouds and debris in its wake. The nosecone began to crumple under the onslaught of the burning winds. Unbelievably, the occupants in the cockpit still fought for their survival.
—— o ——
"MWAAP … MWAAP … MWAAP … Crashing! Crashing! Switch to manual!" the crash program’s computer voice announced. After a moment’s pause, it repeated the warning, as if the shuddering cockpit, bleating Klaxon, and flames shooting past the forward windshield weren’t enough.
"Really, no kidding," Mission Commander MacKenzie O’Bryant, ‘Mac’ for short, replied to no one in particular. Behind the navigation console, she struggled to keep the quivering Explorer II from nosing over and pinning her crew beneath the flaming wreckage.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mac saw the young pilot on her right examining the gauges that screamed for his attention. ‘Lt. L. Dalton’ was stenciled over the right breast pocket of his uniform, a Canadian flag patch sewn onto the left shoulder. His expression betrayed his growing disgust as highly unacceptable readings came back on the console before him. "Vertical descent — one hundred and twenty-five thousand. No, wait: one hundred and sixty-five thousand — no, twentyfour thousand."
"Which is it, Leo? Twenty or sixty?" Mac asked. It was a pretty big difference. Mac wore an American flag on the shoulder of her jumpsuit, as if her Southern accent itself wasn’t indicative of her roots.
While she waited for Leo’s reply, the few seconds seeming like hours, Mac cast a quick glance at the monitor displaying their three payload passengers who were located one deck below.
Not surprisingly, the three battle-hardened commandos’ stolid faces were the epitome of calm. Sure, as their bodies were crushed by g-force, their fists clenched to their seats, and their eyes fluttered and rolled back in their heads. But if they had any idea how bad the situation was, as she suspected they did, they should have been screaming. These men were professionals, the best of the best; they knew that they could do nothing to help, so they resigned themselves to their fate and placed their lives in her hands.
Mac wasn’t about to let them down.
"I don’t know. It keeps jumping back and forth between the two; I can’t get a proper altitude reading. First it’s in the twenties and then the sixties," Leo replied, banging on the side of the console. "Wait a minute. There it goes: one hundred and twenty thousand."
But Mac didn’t need an altitude reading to know that the ground was coming up much too fast. Passing through the atmosphere the ship had been engulfed in flames, blocking their view, but now that they had finished dropping through a thin layer of clouds, she saw a landmass, one that looked like a big island or a small continent. It came into view a mere 100,000 feet below them.
Mac frowned at her monitor, touched a button, and pulled back on the control column with even more fervor. If she didn’t get the nose up, the ship would go into a spin, and if that happened at this speed, they would be finished.
Displayed on the monitor was the image of a Korean man sitting at the flight engineer’s station. He announced, "Number two and four anti-gravity generators are still off line." To Leo, he added, "I told you. I told you not to touch it, but you wouldn’t listen." Mocking Leo’s voice, he said, "Why? What’s the worst that could happen?" Nearly hysterical, he replied in his own voice, "Well, we found out didn’t we?"
Mac wasn’t quite sure what had led up to this latest predicament, but it was pretty clear that her flight engineer felt Leo was somehow responsible.
"Hey," Leo shot back, "I didn’t see you doing anything to help."
"Give me an EC pressure reading," Mac shouted to the flight engineer, cutting their argument short.
"EC’s in the pike, five-by-five," Tae called forward. It was the first good news she’d heard in the last six minutes.
Of course, Commander O’Bryant had trained for landing a ship after engines failed following shuttle launch. She had even trained to land a malfunctioning transport in Jupiter’s infamous gravity well. But no training simulation in the known galaxy could have prepared her for landing a crippled space shuttle on a planet that had never been seen before by human eyes. Deep space travel was a breeze; it was atmospheric landings that caused the majority of shuttle pilot fatalities. As if the situation weren’t bad enough, the Explorer II hadn’t been designed to land under Earth-type gravity conditions.
Still miles above the planet, Mac saw a panorama of mountains coming into view below them. The range of white, snowy peaks was cast in pitch-black shadows and graced by a glint of the departing sun. In a way, it was kind of pretty. A nice little spot for their final resting place. No, she couldn’t think like that. She had to remain focused, stay positive.
"I have a visual line of sight," Leo announced.
"I can see that," Mac spat back, her tone tense. She didn’t dare look away from the landmass filling the cockpit windows, as if her will to keep the vessel aloft might waver the moment she looked away.
"Correct course ten degrees up, four minutes right," Leo offered, monitoring the gauges.
Mac complied with his directions and was rewarded with a reduction in the maelstrom of bouncing winds and heavily quivering bulkhead. The ship, her ship, was finally beginning to ease.
"There, that’s a bit better. Try and hold it there if you can," Leo added.
Impossibly, she and her flight crew were pulling it off. She felt her descending ship finally leveling out. There was actually a chance they were going to make it. Barring an extraterrestrial downdraft or some other unpredictable off-world catastrophe. If there was an Order to the Universe, by God, they were going to make it.
But just then, the opposite balance of the universe, the part that some call Chaos, dealt his nasty hand. A panel of circuitry in the molded helm console before Mac sparked several times in quick succession and exploded, enveloping her hands and face in a blazing inferno.
—— o ——
"Oh, geez!" Lt. Leo Dalton didn’t miss a beat and grasped his own set of controls the moment the panel erupted in his mission commander’s face. He risked a glimpse at her. She was slumped in her harness, burn marks on her cheeks and hands. He was unsure whether she was dead or unconscious, but one thing was for sure: it was up to him to land the spacecraft and up to him alone. Oh yeah, and Tae.
The ship suddenly jumped upward, as though in a reverse air pocket, and then resumed its hair-raising descent.
"Did a thruster just fall off?" Leo asked incredulously.
"Yup," Tae replied matter-of-factly. "That’s okay. That one wasn’t working anyway."
"I’m losing hydraulics," Leo yelled back over his shoulder. He saw a yellow tongue of flame burst from the avionics bay and light up the nosecone like the end of a sparkler on Canada Day.
"That’s because everything is on fire," Tae shouted up to him. "That last explosion knocked out another one of the antigravity generators."
"Well, put the fires out," Leo ordered through clenched teeth.
Tae flicked a switch and the WHOOSH of the interior cabin fire extinguishers, which were embedded in the fuselage, doused everything and everyone in thick chemical foam.
"Fires’ out," Tae said dryly.
No hydraulic system meant no flaps and no brakes, but Leo doubted the ship would hold together long enough to reach the surface, let alone land in a manner that required brakes. One problem at a time, Leo, one problem at a time.
"Aw, geez. Terrain’s crap," Leo said, but then he spotted a flat, open area just beyond a wide range of mountains. He maneuvered the crippled ship with what little controls he still had and aimed for the large plateau. "I’m going to try and spiral us in toward that mesa as best I can."
The ship entered its final approach and Leo guided the Explorer II through a crest of mountains, fighting crosswinds and protesting gusts the entire way. Only a miracle prevented a rock wall from ending their glide path in an abrupt and squishy stop.
Sixty seconds before impact, Leo and Tae could just make out trees peppering the snow-coated peaks.
Ten seconds before impact, the trees and mountains parted like the Red Sea before Moses and revealed the large, flat mesa that Leo had seen from over a mile away.
"Flat land, five degrees right!" Tae shouted.
"I see it; I see it," Leo replied grimly. He was so focused on coaxing the helm controls and maneuvering the falling ship in a do-or-die, wheels-up approach that his voice was nearly inaudible.
The last of the trees vanished, and the snow-covered mesa rose quickly up in greeting. "Wheels unresponsive. I’m going to have to put her down on her belly."
"Six hundred feet and dropping," Tae announced as he focused on the altimeter. "Five, four, three, two, here we go!" The hull vibrated and there was a deafening crash as the ship’s metal frame and the planet’s unyielding, jagged surface clapped together in unison: one, two, three times. The windows shattered on impact and blasted the exposed skin of the cockpit’s occupants with frigid air and thousands of tiny shards of glass.
The ship settled down in a heavy power slide through the snow. "Deploy shoots!" Leo shouted.
"Deploying emergency drag shoots," Tae replied. The deployment of the quadruple chutes threw both men forward in their harnesses.
Leo strangled the flight controls, feeling helpless as the ship slid for what seemed like an eternity. In actuality, it was little more than a half mile until the Explorer II finally came to a clumsy, unceremonious stop.
Aside from the sound of Tae purging the last of the fire extinguishers onto the numerous sparking and burning consoles, the only audible sound was the arctic wind rushing through the broken cockpit windshield. At least we’re on the surface.
Leo was the first to say anything, and as it was, he meant it only for himself. "I did it." It was all his trembling lips could manage.
He stared blank-faced out the windshield. A pile of snow was gathering around the windows and spilling inside, but he no longer saw mountains or trees, only open sky. That’s strange, Leo thought. The ship feels level, so I should see something besides open air. Before he could investigate further, a slight groan from Commander O’Bryant drew his attention. He leaned over in his chair and felt the mission commander’s pulse. It was good and strong. She was a little beat up and had some first-degree burns on her face and hands, but it wasn’t anything that bandages and burn cream couldn’t fix.
Despite everything they had just been through, Leo’s thoughts gave way to fancy. Maybe, just maybe, after the commander found out what a spectacular job he did landing this wounded bird and after they got rescued, maybe, just maybe, she’d finally give him the chance he wanted above all else …
But that was as far as Leo’s fantasy went, for Chaos still had an ace up his sleeve, and he decided to play it. Leo’s heart rose to his throat as he felt the ship tilt. He watched helplessly as the ruined nosecone of the shuttle slowly teetered forward. The view was both breathtaking and horrific.
It was now clear to Leo that the Explorer II had not landed on an entirely stable area. The view of open-air nothingness was slowly replaced by a view of a vast ocean far below: the Explorer II was balanced on a cliff that had to be at least ten thousand feet high.
That’s why we couldn’t get a proper reading coming in, Leo thought. We were reading this plateau and the ocean’s surface below it.
Leo heard the sounds of rock giving way beneath the busted cockpit as the view tipped back to sky. The young lieutenant knew that they didn’t have much time. The thrusters and antigravity generators were totally stalled. If the ship were to fall now, they’d never survive. From this height, the watery surface might just as well have been concrete.
"Tae, you back there?" Leo whispered into the intercom while holding perfectly still, as if his mere one-hundred-andeighty- pound frame might keep the enormous transport ship from slipping the rest of the way over the ledge.
"Yeah, but why are you whispering?" Tae’s voice came back over the cockpit speakers. Leo could hear the commandos in the payload area speaking amongst themselves near the engineer, congratulating themselves on being alive.
"Tae, listen to me. I need you to get the anti-gravity generators back on line. Do you hear me? I need everything you can give me in as little amount of time as possible."
"Why? What’s going on?" Tae asked. The revelry in his voice turned to concern.
"Just do it, Tae," Leo said harshly. The nosecone teetered once more toward the ocean.
"Are we moving? Maybe we should abandon ship."
"Trust me; there’s no time." Leo shook his head, biting his lip. With as much calm as he could muster, he said, "Tae, listen to me. If you don’t get those A.G. generators back on line, we … are going … to die."
"Okay, okay, just give me about ten seconds."
But they didn’t have ten seconds. With Leo shouting, "no, no, no," the shuttle teetered on the edge, and then, gaining momentum, slipped from the rock face and plunged into the gaping void.