PRELUDE: Chapter 1

Prelude front cover

Part One: The Sally’s Pride

Chapters 1 scenes – Acquisition, The Good Night, Fight and Flight, The Rescue Team, Arrested Flight, The Rescue Strategy

*Uploaded 3/26/18

General H’Saichat – (pronounced: Say-Shåht)  the military commander of K’Laadian survey expedition

Khreseea – (pronounced: Kres-ee-ah) an exo-sociologist and Mission Specialist of K’Laadian survey expedition, specialty – study of Earth16

Acquisition

General H’Saichat marveled. A spectacular planet! It stood brightly against the darkness of the void. A million, million stars crowded behind it, pale in comparison, and this planet shone like a welcoming beacon. He’d studied the records – lush, green! A generous scattering of seas and lakes. An abundance of water! An abundance of life too – Sapients! Prime technology! It certainly looked ripe. All the requirements!

“Tact-one view.” H’Saichat’s voice broke the silence.

The walls of the observation room changed instantly. The blue planet was gone. A deep starless and murky darkness took its place. Two wide, angular chairs faced the broad concave wall that wrapped deceptively and almost undetectably into the other walls, ceiling and floor. And there was only General H’Saichat and mission specialist, exo-sociologist Khreseea, alone, sitting and observing. The room’s dim, milky deck seemed brighter…a distraction, and now a reminder.

H’Saichat frowned in disapproval, his large eyes narrowing. “Brighten the target.”

Nothing appeared to change. He remembered, looked up and pointed. A small yellow oblong smudge appeared in the center of the darkness on the ceiling. Pointed at one end, blunt at the other, it crept slowly toward their rear. A thin blue circle appeared around the smudge. “Rotate targeted image to main screen.” The whole image slid down from the ceiling to the wall before them. Dizzying and exasperating.

H’Saichat pivoted to face his companion. “I hope these subjects fulfill your requirements. You can see this is a considerably more troublesome task than Tact-Two’s mission. Commander Leedthra advises they haven’t even finished cleaning away the salts and chemicals from your first extraction. It’ll take eight additional days to clean his craft and prepare for departure. I do not see the value of this method.”

Khreseea nodded and smiled politely. Confidently. Her small, black nose twitched slightly. “These subjects are most important to our overall goal. I can assure you this extra effort has its purpose. So while I am sympathetic to Commander Leedthra’s extra burden, if all goes as well as we hope, this effort will greatly reduce everyone’s burden later. I’m sure you see the value in that.”

Khreseea’s practiced, smooth, melodic voice only irritated H’Saichat more. Condescending intellectual. But she was their Mission Specialist, had been given equal authority, and was well supported by the ruling council. He nodded perfunctorily and turned toward the main wall. “Add Tact-Two target view, main screen.”

A large aircraft in mid-flight appeared on the left side of the main viewing wall. They looked down on it from a vantage point somewhere behind its tail. Below and behind it dull white clouds seemed to race away.

Satisfied, H’Saichat took a deep breath. “Control, Tact-One and Tact-Two in ready position. Proceed acquisition as each target clears Earth16 satellites.” And that was that. With a large furred hand, H’Saichat rubbed the base of the horns on his forehead. They always ached when he had to stifle his frustration.

The Good Night

Seas were calm and the night dark. The half-moon hung in an overcast sky, no more than a dim promise behind the clouds. Alone, the Sally’s Pride, a sleek, white 182-foot research vessel, sliced cleanly through the waves at her own steady pace, rising and falling gently in the low swells. The sound of her engines, an ever-constant hum almost undetectable on board, was silent to the expanse of ocean. Only the wash of her props disturbed the peace of the warm Caribbean night.

Up on the bridge, the autopilot was doing all the work. Captain Mike Caulfield only needed to keep watch – so when Maggie’s assistant, Tracy, joined him, her presence was welcome. In addition to her deep blue eyes, Tracy had a well-rounded figure, a sweet oval face, and soft, thick honey-blonde hair. Moreover, behind her beautiful façade was a PhD in physics and sharp, dedicated mind Mike had rarely seen in such a young woman. “Beautiful night,” Mike observed – for her benefit. Beautiful, he thought again to himself.

Tracy smiled warmly. “Yes…and nice to enjoy it without having to get up early.” She gazed out at the dark horizon. Sally’s Pride and her passengers were at the end of a long test voyage with the Navy’s new multiband sonar; the days had been long, and to the disappointment of other team members, both Maggie and Dr. Mayhew were early risers. Everyone’s day had started early.

“Five AM’s not so bad,” Mike smiled. “We do it all the time underway.”

“Well, it’s not university time,” Tracy rejoined. “But at least the bugs, modifications, adjustments, fine-tuning – they’re all done now. We can finally sleep in!”

“You could’ve gotten off at Pont-à-Pierre with Dr. Mayhew and the rest. They couldn’t wait to fly home.”

“And I don’t blame them, but Dr. Kestler – Maggie – wanted to stay for the cruise back to Norfolk. Didn’t seem right for us to leave without her, and the forecasts were great. So why not? It’s a chance to just enjoy myself. My parents have a boat, and took me out sailing on weekends and vacations until I hit high school. I always loved it. Karen too…she was on the rowing team in college.”

“Why’d you stop sailing?”

“Schoolwork, study, scholarships…I ran out of time. There was too much to do.” Tracy looked away. “I missed it.”

“So, looking forward to getting home?” Mike asked.

“Some,” Tracy smiled, “but we’ll spend a few days back at the university first – just a little catch-up and organizing. But I promised I’d see my parents before returning to the project. You know where you’re going next?”

“Not sure yet…rumors are we’ll load some new equipment and may do some underwater survey work for an American outfit. Map the floor to run some fiber-optic cables. Too bad we can’t rent them your gear. But if we put into a yard, I’ll probably take time off and let somebody else have the headache of refitting her.” Mike’s dark eyes turned back to the chart plotter.

Tracy watched him. Sturdy and handsome – exactly her father’s description of whom she should date – not some bony geek. But most men she knew were bony geeks. Occupational hazard. She’d accepted that.

Tracy stepped out onto the starboard wing to enjoy the light breeze and the stillness. Maybe Mike would take the hint and follow her out. This was one of her two favorite spots for viewing the horizon; her other favorite was the fantail. She enjoyed watching the ship’s churning white wake and the endless sea falling away behind them. She heard Mike’s footstep on the steel deck behind her, but she as she turned, she caught a glimpse of faint blue light out in the water. It seemed odd, and she tried to make it out. A thin, glimmering streak. “What’s that?” she asked, and pointed.

Mike cast his gaze in the direction she’d indicated, and saw it immediately. “Not sure. Could be sea sparkle – it’s a kind of bacteria. They glow blue when disturbed…though, I’ve never seen them out here before. Usually only when they’re concentrated up in a bay, or when they light up a vessel’s wake, but…” He paused, looking more closely.

This luminescence was bright, and formed a continuous thin line, running fore and aft, about two hundred feet out. Moreover, it seemed to curve around forward of the bow. But when Mike looked aft, it seemed to be curving around the stern too – still a single line, not just random patches. It looked brighter, more distinct, and entirely strange.

“Hang on,” Mike turned and headed back into the bridge. But even as he entered, he saw through the forward windows that the blue glow seemed to encircle them. A quick glance through the aft windows confirmed it – Very strange.

As he stared into the water, Tracy stepped back into the pilothouse. A buzzer went off – the ship’s depth alarm. Mike hurried to the panel, checked the sounder, and turned off the alarm. The display read 650 feet – Clearly an error – Mike knew there were at least 1000 feet of water under the Sally’s Pride. The range alarm shouldn’t have tripped unless there was a notable change. Even more odd, the digital back-up sounder also showed a shoaling depth of 640 feet. What the hell…?

***

Mitch, Alex, Karen, and Maggie were down on the mess deck playing rummy, with Maggie’s grandson Matthew kibitzing. As was common on such workboats, the galley and dining area were combined into one compartment. The mess deck on the Sally’s Pride was a little larger than most, because it was designed to handle more equipment and crew. It was a large, comfortable compartment almost the full width of the ship. A large L-shaped bench with a dining table lined the starboard side, with the weather-deck hatch forward. Aft and port was a smaller L-bench and table set-up. A chill and freeze locker also lined the aft walls. The galley’s work counter hugged the forward port-side bulkheads, and there was freestanding serving counter and steam-line separating the galley from the eating areas. Along the centerline, one passage led forward towards the berthing areas, upper deck, and the bridge. An aft passageway led to storerooms and access to the engine compartment.

Such card games were common enough; it could get boring on long trips. But now that the sonar tests were completed and most of the crew had disembarked, it was quiet and everyone was more at ease; the Sally’s Pride could cruise to Norfolk in relative peace.

“Gin,” said Alex, laying his cards open on the table.

“You’re damned lucky tonight, Chief,” Mitch lamented, while Karen laughed.

“Talent, just talent,” beamed Alex. He and Mitch had probably played this game a thousand times over the past four years – not a lot to do in your spare time at sea. Mitch lost more than he won, but didn’t seem to care. It was the camaraderie that mattered. They worked well together on board – Mitch usually chief or 1st mate, Alex usually chief engineer.

“Can I play?” asked Matthew, but he looked away from them immediately to see Maggie shaking her head.

“No, you just finish your ice cream, young man. Then it’s bed for you.”

“Besides which, lad, you need a stake to get into this game,” Alex grinned. “You wait until tomorrow, and we’ll teach you how it’s played.” Matthew surveyed the faces in the room and knew he wasn’t going to play tonight. With a small grumble, he shoved his spoon deep into his bowl and grudgingly returned to its sweet, cold solace.

“So,” Mitch asked, looking at Maggie. “Now your project’s all done, what do you think the Navy will use it for?”

“That’s for other people to decide. We only do the science,” Maggie demurred. Karen laughed. “Yeah! It’s not like it’s a nuclear bomb or something.” Mitch nodded acceptingly, though as an ex-SEAL he could think of a few uses the Navy might have that Maggie’s team wouldn’t foresee.

When the lights suddenly died, the pitch darkness startled everyone. There was one porthole in the galley area, but the meager starlight didn’t help.

“Aaagh! What happened?” Karen shouted, startled. “I can’t see anything, can’t see my hands!” More alarming to Alex and Mitch, the steady vibration and hum of the ship’s engines had ceased – unnerving to any seaman. They felt the Sally’s Pride as she inexorably slowed – a dead ship at the mercy of the seas and current.

Alex was first to get up. He quickly grabbed a flashlight from the catch-all space behind the bench back. “Everybody sit tight. Let me see what’s going on,” he instructed. “Mitch, got your radio on?”

“Yeah.” Mitch thumbed the button in the dark to call the bridge on the ship’s com channel. No sound – not even static. He hit transmit twice again – still nothing. “Battery must’ve died. I’ll go up.”

Alex’s flashlight snapped on. The beam of his light seemed incredibly bright, but granted others relief from the dark. He found another flashlight for Mitch. “I’ll check the engines and get the auxiliary power back on line. Will you women mind sitting tight?”

Maggie stood. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “I’ll go up to the bridge with you.”

“Can I go too?” Matthew put in excitedly.

“No, you stay down here,” said Maggie. “We don’t want to distract the fellas too much while they’re trying to get the power back on-line.”

“I’ll stay with him,” offered Karen.

“I’ll open the starboard hatch,” Mitch offered, “…let in a little light until we get power back.” Matthew didn’t see why he’d be a distraction, and sulked as everyone else departed.

***

Mike had tried the ship’s com, but still got no response – it was dead too. His eyes had already adjusted to the darkness on the bridge, and the night sky was still lighter than inside. But now he noticed that the blue luminescence outside was clearly brighter than before… and now not so far off as it had been.

“Captain, all okay up there… what happened?” Mitch’s voice preceded him up the narrow stairwell to the bridge.

“We’re fine,” Mike called back, “but the coms are down.” Mitch and Maggie joined him and Tracy on the bridge, their eyes readjusting to the low light and shadows after negotiating the pitch-black passageway.

“Alex is getting the auxiliary power. He should have it soon,” Mitch reported.

“Good,” said Mike, “couldn’t reach anyone on the coms…. I don’t know what happened. Everything just suddenly died.”

“Strange. Batteries should have carried something,” Maggie thought aloud.

Should have,” said Mike.

“You know,” added Mitch, “I changed my battery this afternoon. It should have been good, but it was dead too.” Mitch was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable about the coincidences. Mitch didn’t place a lot of stock in coincidence.

Suddenly, some small red lights flickered on in the console. Alex had cranked up the auxiliary generator, and there was a collective sigh of relief on the bridge. Mike immediately tried the com again, but to no avail. He couldn’t reach Alex to ask about the engines.

Mitch glanced outside. “What is that?”

“Don’t know…a little strange,” Mike responded. “I think just sea sparkle. We were looking at it when the depth alarm went off. Then the power died.”

“The depth alarm?” Mitch asked, his blue eyes questioning.

“Yeah. It was showing 540 feet. In fact, both went off. I was about to check the settings when the power died.” As he spoke, Mike tried to bring the depth recorders back up, but nothing registered on either screen. “I think these are fried too,” he concluded. “What could do that?”

Maggie spoke. “Well, if there was a surge before the power went off, any electronics could be fried.”

“What about our equipment?” piped in Tracy. “They were off-line and might still be good.”

“Good idea – try it,” agreed Maggie. Tracy immediately moved to their project’s makeshift work area to the rear of the bridge. She flipped two switches and pressed the power-on button to begin the boot-up. She was relieved to see the keyboard and dials all lit light up instantly, and she waited for the software to illuminate the screen.

Mitch began getting restless. The blue luminescence was obviously getting brighter…and looked unnatural. He walked out on the port wing and followed the blue line with his eyes. It clearly ran around far forward of the bow and then back down the port side, then wrapped around the stern. Not random patches of bio-luminescence…just a single bright line, encircling them, getting closer. Something’s not right. Mitch had learned the hard way in the Navy that when something didn’t look right, it could be dangerous.

Tracy shouted out, “Got it. I think we’ve drifted over a shelf. It’s only 320 feet here, and shoaling.”

“That can’t be,” said Mike. “There shouldn’t be anything under 500 feet for miles. We’re on course – I know where we are.”

“Almost 310 feet now,” Tracy reported, sure Mike had to be wrong. If Tracy knew anything, it was this equipment.

Mitch stepped back onto the bridge, and took in their conversation. He knew as well as Mike it couldn’t be shoaling – not here. His instincts and training suddenly clicked in, “That’s not shoaling, and those blue lights aren’t bacteria. Something is down there. Those lights are closing in, and whatever’s down there is coming up. I think we’ve got to leave. We need to leave now!” Mitch’s voice was firm and clear, and it sounded like an order. Everyone froze and stared at him.

“What?” Maggie was momentarily confused.

“Now!” repeated Mitch. “Listen, I don’t know what it is, but when something knocks out your power and communications, and starts closing in on you, you don’t wait to see what it wants. You get out of Dodge.” He looked Mike straight in the eye. “Mike, unless we can fire this ship up and make a run for it, I’m launching the rafts. Everyone needs to get ready…I’m not waiting.” And he didn’t. He strode back out the port hatch and started down the steps to the boat deck.

***

Alex emerged onto the mess deck to find Matthew standing by the open starboard hatch, staring out. Karen was standing outside on deck. “What is that?” Karen asked. Alex looked out and could see a glowing band of water. “I don’t know, he said. “Has anyone come down from the bridge?

Karen shook her head and looked back at the lights. “No.”

“Stay here, I’ll go up and see what’s going on.”

“Do we have the engines back?” asked Karen.

“Not yet! Just hang tight and I’ll be back.”

***

Mitch tripped the manual release on the port life raft, and gave it an extra shove to send it into the sea. The hydrostatic release mechanism would open the fiberglass clamshell and the raft would inflate within minutes. He moved quickly around the rear of the house and to the starboard side. He released that raft and sent it over the side as well. Before he even heard a splash, he heard a startled scream below him. He knew the voice.

“Karen?”

“Mitch?” Karen responded. “What’s happening? What fell?”

“Hold on,” Mitch shouted, “I’m coming down.” He hurried forward, spun 180 degrees and jogged down the ladder back toward the galley. Karen and Matthew stood outside the galley’s hatch looking a little frightened.

“I’ve launched the life rafts. There are vests just inside under the bench,” he pointed. “Put them on quickly and be ready to jump.”

Karen looked helplessly confused now – the boy even more so. “Listen, I’m going back up for everyone else, but get ready,” Mitch told them and dashed off. He reckoned there was no time to repeat instructions, and wasn’t sure how wise it was for him even to go back up.

***

Alex arrived on the bridge out of breath and still sweaty from the engine room. Everyone was crowded around Maggie’s work station, completely oblivious to his arrival. He took a moment to catch his breath before walking over. “I don’t think I can do anything with the main engines for a while,” he said. “The control panels are both useless.”

Mike turned and faced him, unsurprised, “Same thing up here… think you can manually start them?”

Behind Mike, Alex heard Tracy say, “Two-forty.” Mike turned back to look at the sonar screen.

“I think so, but it will take a little time,” Alex replied. “What’s everybody looking at, and what are those lights in the water?”

“I’m seeing a little definition on the image there. Go to standard hi-def mapping,” Maggie instructed. The overall image on the screen was still fuzzy, but there appeared to be a deep pie-shaped trench between two ridges. “There, do you see it? Maybe a gully. Ping the ridge, then the center.”

Tracy moved the cursor to the right edge of the image and clicked. “70.105 meters” she read aloud. She slid the cursor to the center of the gully and clicked again, “96.965 meters.” Curious, she tried once more just inside the edge of the gully: “96.651 meters”.

“That’s strange,” said Maggie, “It’s a sheer drop-off…close to 90 feet, and levels off.”

“This whole thing is strange,” Tracy added, concern registering in her eyes. “All our readings were perfect – checked out again and again. Could whatever fried the other electronics have thrown this off too? The readings are obviously drifting.”

“Mike, do you ever encounter any submarine activity out here?” Maggie asked. “I’d hate to guess, but a strong EMP or an ELF discharge could have taken out our electronics.”

“ELF?” Mike asked, though he was vaguely familiar with the term.

“Extremely low frequencies. The navy uses them in their HAARP system for communications,” Maggie replied. “ But it can play havoc with anything electrical. It might explain what happened…maybe our skewed readings.”

“You think that’s a sub down there?” asked Mike.

“Well, we’ve got some really odd imaging, but it could just be a faulty interpretation of a sub,” Maggie opined.

“That’s no sub,” came another voice. Mitch was standing in the starboard doorway. “And that light show isn’t some bacteria! Look around us. Those lights are from whatever is down there. It stopped us, took out our radios, and if it surfaces under us, it could capsize us, or hole and sink us. We shouldn’t be here. I’ve already deployed the rafts.”

Everyone stared at Mitch for a moment, then Mike spoke. “Mitch, we can’t abandon ship. The vessel’s fully seaworthy. Alex can get the engines running again, and we can probably repair the radio. Besides, if there is a sub down there, and it accidentally knocked us out, it’s probably coming up to help. Or maybe surfacing because some of its own systems got hit too.”

Even in the dim red light, Mitch could make out the disbelief on their faces. He knew there was a rational argument behind what Mike said. Staying, waiting: that would be the easiest decision. But not for Mitch – the whole situation tugged at his gut. He could almost feel the ring of blue lights tightening around the Sally’s Pride. Something was wrong, and it was not a sub. And finally, as his SEAL training had taught him long ago, once you’ve made your decision, you have to act.

“I’m getting off this ship,” Mitch announced. “And you should too. If anyone else wants to come with me, grab a vest and come now. If I’m wrong, then I’ll paddle back, and you can ride me all you like about it from here to Norfolk…but I’m leaving!” And he did. He paused a moment outside to pull the EPIRB[1] off the bulkhead and fling it over the side, then took off down the steps. At least, he thought, its beacon would bring help.

“What? This is crazy,” said Alex, staring in disbelief where Mitch had just left.

“Shouldn’t you stop him?” Tracy cried to Mike, thoroughly alarmed.

Mike stared at the empty hatchway for a moment, then made his decision., “No. He’s already launched the lifeboats and can take care of himself. Alex, go down check on Karen and the boy. And keep an eye on Mitch to see he makes it to the raft okay. He’ll stay close, and we can pick him up after we get power back… And Alex, grab them a couple of life vests, just to be safe.”

Whew! Alex dutifully headed outside. He knew how headstrong Mitch was, and was damned glad Mike hadn’t asked him to stop Mitch. You don’t fool with Mitch once he’s made up his mind. As Alex headed down the steps, he saw Mitch talking to Karen and Matthew. A moment later, Mitch grabbed a life vest, stepped up onto the gunwale and jumped off.

When Alex reached Karen and Matthew, they were clearly distressed and full of questions, both standing there with life jackets in their hands. The best thing, Alex thought, was to send them up to the bridge with the others. He stayed on deck to watch Mitch swim to the lifeboat, now maybe some sixty yards away.

When Karen and Matthew reached the bridge, everyone was still huddled around Maggie’s sonar. “One-fifty,” Tracy read out., “It’s still rising, if this reading is right.” But Maggie was still looking at the pings as Tracy highlighted the now fan-shaped gully they’d seen. The height variance between the ledge and the bottom of the gully remained exactly 26.8603 meters. “Label a few more points in and along the edges of the gully,” she said.

Tracy complied. The floor of the gully was clearly level, but as the ledges merged, the variance steadily grew, They’re symmetrical, higher toward the center. This was all too consistent, Maggie realized, to be an error. Not natural! Not a gully. Not shoaling – and it’s rising under us. For the first time now, she began to worry, and to think of Mitch.

“Tracy, bring up the multi-band interphase, full high-def, and broaden the scope,” Maggie said. “Let’s get a serious look and see if the image stays consistent.” And there it is! Maggie stared. The broader image resolved itself into a smooth object with a well-defined curve. It was truly immense, and clearly extended beyond the range of their transducer. Flanking either side of the gully, she could distinguish two other pie-shaped outlines which also extended out from the center. And the gully itself was clearly not natural.

Except for the colors, the sonar detail was near photo-perfect. Moreover, inside the gully Maggie could now see smaller structures in more detail. One looked precisely like a large boat cradle.

“What is it?” Tracy asked.

“How big is it?” Mike asked. All were absorbed – fascinated – by the new image.

Tracy quickly drew two tangents, one edge to edge on the wide end and another at the narrow end of the pie shape. “In feet, about 320 wide. At least 90 to 100 feet wide at the narrow fan end. Deep, around 98 feet. What is it?” she asked.

“That gully,” Maggie announced appreciatively, “is a cargo hold. Those are the hold dimensions. My guess is those other fan shapes are hatch covers. Mike, these images and readings aren’t flukes. This whole thing’s got to be around 1000 feet wide, well over a thousand feet long, and over a hundred feet tall. I’m no sailor, but I was a Navy brat. I grew up around ships. And I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything like this. And I’d bet neither do the Russians or Chinese.”

“So what is it doing?” Mike asked.

“I’m not sure I want to wait to find out. I think Mitch is right. Listen – see the center of that hold? It looks like a boat cradle – and I think that’s where we’re headed if we don’t get out of here right now.”

Mike stared at her for a moment, then glanced back down at the screen. Christ on a bike. “Put on your life jackets…we’re leaving!” Tracy stood, stunned in disbelief, still trying to grasp what was happening when Maggie handed her a jacket. Mike assured her, “It’ll be all right, just put it on!”

Then, just as suddenly as before, the power blinked out. Mike felt a flash of anger, then a sudden lightheadedness. His vision blurred, but he could still see Maggie and Tracy drunkenly grabbing hold of whatever they could reach. He fell to his knees, himself grabbing at the back of Tracy’s chair. For a brief moment he felt at peace, then everything fell dark and silent.

[1] Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon

 

 

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3 thoughts on “PRELUDE: Chapter 1”

  1. This is an admirable piece of SciFi writing. very stylish, well-paced (and I don’t necessarily mean fast) with immediate character depth. I hope to achieve this quality. Congratulations.

    1. Thank you! Your comments are most appreciated. Now if I could just manage my time to keep my blog fresh, and figure out how to help others find it…

      Best wishes and luck in your writing

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