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Chapter One Pacific Ocean, 577 Miles
South of the Panama Canal
The USS Carl Vinson sailed smoothly through the calm waters of the Pacific. Her huge mass parted the sea 320 miles off the coast of South America, leaving a wake of incandescent colors and sea life that rolled and churned after her four massive bronze propellers.
The Nimitz-class supercarrier was on her way home after a cruise of six months in the south-central Pacific. Her home port was Bremerton, Washington, and that was where most of the crew's families would be waiting anxiously for their men and women to return from their long voyage. Her huge engines pushed her through the Pacific at twenty-six knots.
Flight operations on the Vinson were in preparation for the fighter and bomber air wings to lift off the following afternoon for their home bases of Miramar and Oakland. The only planes flying this morning were the carrier's combat air patrol, better known as CAP, and they now cruised at twenty thousand feet and were one hundred klicks out. The morning had been calm and without incident for the two old but formidable Grumman F-14 Super Tomcats when the first radio call was transmitted from the Vinson, call name Ponderosa.
"Range Rider flight, this is Ponderosa. Do you copy? Over."
Lieutenant Commander Scott "Derringer" Derry had his visor down as he looked into the rising yellow disk of the morning sun, reminding him of the Persian Gulf and his many combat missions over Iraq. As he thumbed the transmit button on his joystick, he looked to his left and slightly behind, eyeing his wingman, satisfied he was still in position and no doubt hearing the Carl Vinson the same as himself. "Ponderosa, this is Range Rider lead, copy five by five, over."
"Range Rider One, we have an intermittent contact south at eight hundred miles and closing. Advise this information comes from Bootlegger and not Ponderosa. We have no contact at this time. Over."
Under the mask, Derry pursed his lips. Bootlegger was the call sign for the guided-missile cruiser riding shotgun for the Carl Vinson. The USS Shiloh, with her Aegis tracking and fire-control system, could supply better air intelligence than the huge carrier, so her information was always acted upon.
Derry once again took a quick glance over his shoulder at his wingman. His partner gave a small wag of the huge fighter's wings, indicating he had the gist of the call.
"Range Rider copies, Ponderosa. Inform lead of any target aspect changes, over."
"Roger flight lead, Ponderosa will advise. Stay alert to TAC 3, Bootlegger will monitor. Over," the Vinson answered.
Derry clicked his transmit button twice in acknowledgment. "Do you have anything yet, Pete?" he asked his radar intercept officer, or RIO, Pete Klipp.
"Negative, boss, I don't have a thing on scope at this time."
Derry raised the dark visor on his helmet and once again looked down and back at his wingman, Lieutenant J. G. Jason Ryan, call sign Vampire, who was flying smoothly as ever as he brought his F-14 level with his commander.
"Does your RIO have anything, Vampire?"
"Negative lead, we're clear," Ryan answered.
"Understood. Let's go see what we can see," Derry said.
The two navy fighters made a slow turn to the south and climbed.
The Combat Direction Center on the Carl Vinson was darkened to the point where the outlines of the operators were cast in a multicolored, luminous veil caused by the screens they monitored. On one of these screens was an air-search radar patch-through from the USS Shiloh.
"Still nothing?" Lieutenant Commander Isaac Harris asked.
The radar specialist adjusted the bandwidth on the monitor and looked over his shoulder at his commanding officer; a confused look crossed his features. "Comes and goes, sir, first solid, then nothing. Then on its next sweep it's there, big as a barn, and then vanishes."
"Diagnostics?" Harris asked.
"Clean, Commander, and Shiloh also reports their equipment is working fine, everything is up and to spec."
Harris rubbed his chin and straightened. "This is damn strange." He leaned forward and asked, "Heading change?"
"Negative, course still holding on a line to Vincent," the technician answered. By this time a few of the other radar, sonar, and communications operators were leaning back in their chairs and watching with mild concern. Harris squeezed the young man on his shoulder and turned to his station, a large red-vinyl-covered chair raised on a pedestal so he could see the entire floor of the CDC. He lifted the red bridge phone that was mounted on the chair's side and waited, looking hard at his operators until they all returned to their screens.
"Captain, this is Harris in CDC, we have a developing situation in our defensive perimeter." He waited a moment for the captain of the Carl Vinson to respond. "Yes, I recommend the Alert One aircraft to be launched and bring the battle group to battle stations."
Up on the massive flight deck, an announcement squawked: "Stand by to launch Alert One!" The message was repeated, and then came a call that brought everyone above and belowdecks to their feet running: "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man battle stations, all hands man battle stations, this is no drill, repeat, no drill." On catapult number one, with its locking gear removed, the pilot saluted the plane captain on deck who was in control of the launch. He placed his head and back firmly into the backrest of his ejection seat and held tightly to the sides of the Tomcat's canopy. The first of the two Grumman fighters screamed down the deck at full military power as the steam catapult literally threw it into the air. It was quickly followed by the second F-14 on full afterburner.
After the sneak attack on the USS Cole, on October 12, 2000, in the Persian Gulf, American warships had started taking security very seriously. It would be a terrorist's wet dream to strike at an American symbol like a Nimitz-class carrier.
"Copy, Ponderosa, understand Alert One has been launched. Range Rider out." Derry turned his head slightly to the left after acknowledg-ing the call from the Carl Vinson. "It's go time, Vampire." There was no verbal answer to the flight leader as just two clicks of Ryan's transmit button acknowledged his readiness. "Let's go see what's out there," Derry called out.
Both F-14 fighters lit their afterburners as a steady stream of JP-4 jet fuel exploded into the exhaust nozzle of the huge GE-400 turbofan engines, causing the nacelles in the exhaust bell to open wider to allow the expanding gases to escape, creating over fifty-four thousand pounds of thrust. At the computer's directive, the wings on the two Tomcats started to retract to align along the aluminum fuselage as they crept toward supersonic. With the wings tucked in, both Tomcats screamed through the air, their outer skins heating up with the friction of passing air.
"I've got it!" Ensign Henry "Dropout" Chavez, Ryan's backseater called. "Five hundred miles and closing."
"We have it now," Derringer reported over the secure link. Both aircraft knew their transmissions were being monitored by the Carl Vinson and every ship in Task Force 277.7.
"SOB, it's huge," Dropout said into his mask, and then: "Damn!"
"What's wrong?" Ryan asked.
"Bogey just went ghost on me, disappeared like it was never there."
"Derringer, did you copy that?"
"We have the same thing; last read was three-fifty and closing. Keep your eyes open."
All thoughts for Ryan became reflexive as he felt the thrust of the two massive engines pushing him back into his seat. His flight suit was filling with air around his legs and chest, forcing the blood to stay put in his brain.
"There it is again. Damn, this thing is big," Dropout repeated.
"Keep cool, I need closure rates, not comments."
"It's gone off the scope again, but last rate of closure was over three thousand miles per hour. She's really moving, altitude is the same, we should see target at any time, a little to the left and below us about two thousand feet."
Two thousand is a little close, Ryan thought. "Derringer, recommend we climb another three thousand, might be a better safety margin when we need it."
Derry shook his head. "Negative, Vampire, just follow my lead and put a cork in it, concentrate on finding the ghost, over."
Ryan shook his head, he knew they were too low. The possibilities of a head-on collision were too great to just ignore, but at the moment, he had no options but to obey his flight leader.
"I have a glimmer . . . oh God, what is that?" Derry's RIO asked, his voice becoming lower, almost a whisper to himself.
Ryan scanned the sea below and ahead of his Tomcat; he saw nothing. "You have it?" he asked.
"Vampire, hard left and climb!" Derry called loudly over the radio.
The voice coming through the headphones in Ryan's helmet was panicked. He had never heard his commander lose his composure, but it automatically made Ryan climb and turn hard without asking for details. His reactions were still the fastest in the squadron as his F-14 banked hard left as he applied flaps and power and the fighter jet shot higher.
"Ponderosa, Ponderosa, we have a bogey inbound your position," Derry said.
"Range Rider, this is Ponderosa, we have your flight on scope but no bogey, confirm again. Over."
Ryan came out of his turn a little later than he would have liked. When he regained his senses, after the extreme g-forces of his maneuver, he scanned the area and finally found his flight leader about ten miles ahead and slightly to his right. Derry's Tomcat was not the only craft in the sky. His eyes widened as the full impact of what he was seeing registered in his mind.
"Vampire, are you behind me?" Derry asked over the radio.
Ryan could hear the breathing of his RIO; it was one of those noises you grew so accustomed to that you never noticed it, but now it seemed amplified.
"Roger, Derringer, right here. Don't get too close to that thing," Ryan said as he looked at the most terrifying and wondrous object he had ever seen in his life.
"I've got to get a closer look at this thing, Vampire, stay back on my six," Derry ordered.
Jason Ryan, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Navy, knew what his flight leader was attempting was dangerous, but all he could do was watch as Derry's Tomcat crept closer to the flying saucer.
The two Super Tomcats were about a mile behind the UFO. The shape was what they had always expected or thought they would have seen--if they ever saw one. These images, along with many others, flickered in and out of the minds of the crews in the two fighters. The craft was round and looked like two plates that were sitting open face to open face. It was silver in color and had no discernible anticollision lights. Derry estimated it to be close to four hundred feet in diameter and at least fifty feet at its thickest point in the centerline mass. Then the words coming through his headphones finally registered and brought his attention back to the here and now.
"I've lost contact with the Vincent," his RIO was saying.
"Come on, you mean we lost 'em just like that?" Derry asked.
"Sir, we have nothing. The Vinson is either off the air or we're not transmitting."
"We get the same over here," Ryan said over the radio.
"Okay, we'll go standard. We try and contact. If nothing happens, a warning shot. We cannot let that thing break three hundred miles to Ponderosa, is that clear?"
"Roger," Ryan answered. For the past thirty seconds, the electrical tone in his headset had informed him that his Sidewinder missiles were locked on and were tracking the object. But even better, Ryan knew the gun cameras embedded in the belly and wing of his aircraft were filming this thing. As an added measure, and because of the size and unknown composition of the strange craft, Ryan made sure to also target a long-range Phoenix missile with its larger warhead and superior range.
Derry knew their strategy was flawed. He didn't know how far a weapon from this thing could reach, as its range and capabilities were a mystery. The assumption of a line three hundred miles out from the carrier was just a guess, as a line had been drawn in the sky instead of the sand. Had this been a normal aircraft, a hundred miles was the limit of any antiship missile outside the U.S. inventory. The French-made Exocet antiship missile made infamous in the Falklands war by its sinking of the HMS Sheffield was now the weapon of choice for most of the outlaw nations that threatened ships at sea. But this thing was not a normal air-breathing vehicle.
Derry cleared his throat. "Unidentified aircraft, we are United States Navy fighter planes to your rear. You are approaching a quarantine zone and you are hereby ordered to identify yourself and turn your aircraft immediately to an westerly heading, over."
Ryan heard the call repeated twice more by Derry and shook his head. He assumed this object wouldn't feel threatened by their two small aircraft. As he approached, a large and jagged hole was increasing in size at the rear of the saucer.
"Derringer, looks like this thing has had a hole punched in it."
"Vampire, stay in place with your finger on the trigger, we may have a . . . a . . . Well, something's in distress here. That's damage of some kind. I'm going to get a closer look."
Ryan watched as Derringer's F-14 started its advance toward the giant saucer. He nudged his throttles forward just a little; he knew his wingman would never notice. He watched his flight leader's Tomcat as it approached from the rear. The huge jet wobbled from wingtip to wingtip as it was caught in the saucer's vortex.
"Vampire, there's a situation on board that craft. It looks like they're venting something, you seeing it?"
Ryan saw what looked like some form of liquid as it streamed from several smaller holes in the craft's aft compartments.
"I'm seeing, just not believing," Ryan answered.
USS Carl Vinson, Three Hundred Miles North
Men were speaking in quiet tones as they watched their screens. It seemed the temperature had risen ten degrees in the last few minutes as they waited for incoming information. Most of them had never felt this helpless.
"What have we got here, Derringer?" Harris asked. Static was the only answer he received.
Suddenly an enlisted man said loudly, "Captain on deck!"
Harris turned to see the captain of the Vinson leaving his marine escort outside as he entered the darkened Combat Direction Center. His stern expression told Harris that the captain was deeply concerned for the safety of his ship.
"At ease, continue with your work. What's Range Rider saying, Commander?"
"No answer yet, it may be interference or some sort of jamming, we're still evaluating. The Alert One aircraft should be in place in three minutes, Captain."
"I see. Keep trying to raise them," the captain ordered as he sat down in the chair normally reserved for Harris. The officer who drove one of the most powerful warships ever built watched his men performing their duties. He made no comment. The only indication of concern was the way he closed his eyes and listened to the calls to Range Rider that were going unanswered.
"Sir, Range Rider's radar signature has just gone intermittent. When the bogey goes, they go. Whatever electronic field that craft is emitting is now screening our own fighters." As Harris leaned over the man's shoulder again, he saw nothing on the green sweep of the radar. Then two small blips and one that measured at least four hundred feet or more in diameter appeared and then vanished on the next sweep.
"Two-eighty and closing," radar called out.
"Give me the status of the battle group," the captain asked, as he stood and started for the bridge, meaning he wanted the report now and while he was on the move. Overhead could be heard the roar of the steam catapult and thump of tires as another flight of F-14 fighters lifted skyward.
"All ships report in at battle ready, Captain. Air defenses are up and close-in weapons support is warmed and armed," Harris responded. He was referring to the Phalanx twenty-millimeter automatic cannons and Sea Sparrow missiles that were a major part of the carrier's close-in point protection. But their real defense was the Aegis cruiser Shiloh with her advanced missile defense system.
The captain heard the report as he paused at the hatch and then started for the bridge. Harris watched him go and rubbed his temple as he eased back into his chair. This close to home waters and the current threat board was clear. Of course, ships not much different from this one were sailing into home waters once when someone hit Pearl Harbor.
"Still no communication with Range Rider?" Harris asked.
"COM is clear."
"Sir, we have a second bogey inbound to Range Rider at four hundred miles behind the first bogey and closing at a high rate of speed. This contact is strong!"
Harris jumped from his seat and watched as the second contact closed on the first object and the trailing F-14s.
"Second contact closing at over Mach two point five," said a second, louder voice.
"What in the hell is happening here?" Harris said as he removed the bridge phone from its cradle.
Dropout, Ryan's RIO, caught another blip on his screen. "We have an inbound, mark it possible hostile, coming up our six and closing fast."
"Talk to me."
"Can't calculate distance and speed, it's moving too fast," Chavez said, close to panic.
"Damn, did you copy that, Derringer?" Ryan asked.
"Copy, Vampire, where in the hell are the alert aircraft?" Derry said, scanning the sky quickly for the two Tomcats that should be there any second.
Ryan didn't answer; at that moment his F-14 lurched in the sky, throwing him against his harness. His Tomcat quickly lost a hundred feet of altitude as something shot overhead in a blur of silver. The wings of his fighter wobbled uncontrollably for a moment and the nose dipped in a downward spasm. They were caught in the wake of a second saucer as it streaked toward the first. Several warning lights flashed on the Tomcat's control board. Ryan fought the stick, advancing his throttles to try to gain his original altitude. At that moment, a sick greenish light washed over their clear cockpit canopy, casting an eerie glow on themselves and the interior of jet. The Tomcat's engines lost their whine and the engine-failure light came on. First engine one, then two, flashed their red warnings. A silence now filled the cockpit with the exception of a computerized voice warning of engine stall, and the eerie quiet outside was almost as loud as the engines it had replaced. He didn't panic as training kicked in and he went into automatic. He fought the stick, bringing it forward, then to the left; all the while a soft hum now filled his ears, seemingly coming from outside the aircraft.
"Flameout! Flameout! Range Rider Two is going tits up; repeat, we're a dead stick," Ryan called. "Mayday, Mayday!"
"Aw fuck!" Henry said almost too calmly from the backseat as he clenched his teeth together.
Ryan brought the stick all the way forward, at the same time lifting both feet from the pedals that controlled the Tomcat's rudder, allowing the ship to automatically control the spin they were in. This brought the Tomcat to a nose-down attitude, a straight position to gain speed, and now the huge aircraft hurtled toward the sea below like an arrow.
"Trying engine restart," Ryan said, keeping his voice under control.
The Tomcat was equipped with an air-powered generator used for emergencies like this. Rushing air caught vanes, and those turned a generator, and that in turn supplied the aircraft with enough power to restart her engines without the help of ground facilities. At least that was the way the engineers had designed her. This was one scenario you trained for but never actually did outside of a simulator. The high-pitched whine of the rushing stream of air outside the cockpit was close to unbearable.
Derry heard the distress call made by Vampire as his wingman plummeted to the sea. He thumbed the safety release for his Sidewinder missiles, but he couldn't get a lock. He was about to pull away from the craft to his front and try to eye the new assault coming up his back when his own Tomcat was thrown forward as if it were a toy. The tail section was pushed down and the nose went straight up. The twin vertical stabilizers were sheared away as if they were made of eggshell. In the split second before the cockpit was engulfed in flames, Derringer saw the second ship as it rammed him. The F-14 Tomcat disintegrated into a million pieces as the force of the impact, combined with its speed, pulled the plane apart. The wreckage scattered into the wind and pieces of debris fell smoking to a watery grave below.
Another strange light, this time bluish in color, shot forward from the second saucer and engulfed the first. The two ships were now encased in a giant silver-blue sphere.
USS Carl Vinson
"We've lost contact with the two bandits, sir."
Harris made no comment. He watched as the single blip of one of his fighters suddenly lit the screen. It was losing altitude fast.
"Sir, Range Rider Two has declared an emergency, both engines are out," the radio operator called, finally hearing the distress calls from Ryan.
"Where in the hell is Range Rider lead?" Harris asked.
"Only Rider Two is on the scope, sir. Our Alert One aircraft are almost to the intercept point."
"Nothing on the two targets?" Harris asked.
"No, sir. They have gone completely off the scope. Shiloh verifies also."
Silence filled the Combat Direction Center as Harris moved for the bridge phone, but placed it back in its cradle when he heard the announcement to launch rescue choppers. Harris stood in silence. His hand moved to his chin and he closed his eyes. "What in the hell just happened?"
The Tomcat was falling too damn fast, Ryan thought. He had tried to ignite his engines twice with no luck. His panel was still brightly lit, but for reasons he couldn't understand, the big GE engines wouldn't fire. There was nothing left for the bird to do but fall from the sky.
"That's it, Henry, we gotta go, man, punch out now!" Ryan flipped a switch and allowed juice from the onboard generator to warm up his weapons system. At least this works. He instantly selected the Phoenix on his control stick and received an intermittent target lock. Ryan pulled the trigger and was satisfied as the large Phoenix shot off the Tomcat's centerline launch rail.
Henry Chavez grabbed for the yellow-striped handle over his seat and swallowed hard. "Eject! Eject! Eject!" he cried three times, and closed his eyes.
The canopy separated with a loud bang as Chavez pulled the handle. The force of the ejection shot him out of the jet at over a hundred miles an hour. The blast sheet that deployed when the handle was pulled down covered his helmet and head, so Ensign Chavez never saw the piece of debris that killed him. A chunk of aluminum housing from the destroyed Range Rider One stuck him in his visor-covered face, the debris sinking straight to the back of his skull.
Ryan's mind was spinning as his chute deployed and his ejection seat separated. He was fiercely concentrating on his own survival. He tried to turn and finally caught sight of the Phoenix's contrail through the sky and watched as he saw the long-range missile strike the second saucer, sending pieces flying off its aft quarter. The saucer lost altitude but quickly recovered, and it and the first saucer disappeared into the clouds on a northeasterly heading.
Now as Ryan looked about, he knew Derry was gone. Distant splashes in the water showed him where his commander's remains were striking the sea. The sky was now clear except for the two chutes that settled lazily for the sea. Ryan watched as Chavez's chute swung back and forth in big hitching motions. Ryan looked closer and saw Chavez's arms hanging loosely at his sides. The lieutenant closed his eyes a moment, knowing in his heart what the uncontrolled chute meant.
Copyright © 2006 by David Lynn Golemon. All rights reserved.