Flight of the Mariner

Wally fed the lumbering Mariner more power. The plane’s lights barely penetrated the Florida night, contributing to his sense of unease. As the boat-like fuselage cleaved through the choppy ocean, Wally shut out the radio chatter and focused on getting them airborne. Despite his best efforts, the mission briefing kept racing through his mind.

***

“A training group of five Avengers, Flight 19, is missing. Ditch your own scheduled training and get out there to look for them. You and another Mariner will perform square searches out past 29 north, 79 west, the area we believe F19 is in. Any questions?”

Wally had none, said so, and saluted. After his crew of twelve gathered, they boarded the PBM Mariner and began preflight.

***

“NAS Banana River, Buno 59225,” Harrie, his co-pilot transmitted in a smooth voice. “Five hundred, climbing one thousand. Proceeding northeast to operational area. Buno 59225.”

Wally, still lost in thought, didn’t listen to the air station’s response. Why didn’t the Avengers just fly due west till they hit land? It was an easy solution if you got lost over this stretch of ocean. Probably got disoriented and didn’t know which way was west. Wally normally would have chalked up Flight 19’s disappearance to pilot error or the growing bad weather, if not for the stories he’d heard lately. Several other pilots and crews talked of seeing strange lights, of instruments malfunctioning inexplicably. Wally didn’t believe in the supernatural, but these events made him wonder. Probably just a Kraut superweapon, he joked to himself, trying to relieve the mounting dread.

An hour later, the navigator told him they’d arrived near 29 north, 79 west. Wally banked the plane, beginning his expanding square. “Keep our pattern tight,” he radioed back to the navigators. “And make sure you keep good track of where we are. I don’t want to get lost like F19.” A faint light caught his attention, but when he focused out the cockpit window, he saw nothing. “Everyone else,” Wally continued, trying to shut the tales out of his mind, “keep your eyes peeled. I know it’s blacker than the devil’s heart out there, but we can’t be bunk lizards. Those guys could be going for their last swim. Let’s get cracking.” The crew acknowledged his orders.

Several minutes passed, and Wally made the course corrections given to him by the navigators. The world outside was an inky, claustrophobic black, and he wondered how they’d ever spot the missing airmen. Probably fly over them a hundred times and never see a sign. Hopefully, at least one of them is conscious and has a flare gun.

“What’s that over there?” Harrie asked. Wally’s heartbeat quickened as he followed the co-pilot’s finger. A column of white light shot out from below the ocean’s surface.

“What in the hell?” Wally said, banking the large plane. “You ever see anything like that?”

“No, can’t say that I have, Capt’n.”

Wally’s feeling of unease deepened, and when he looked at his flight instruments, he felt his stomach drop through the floor. “Harrie,” he asked, voice trembling, “your gauges fubar?”

“Uh,” Harrie replied, sounding equally upset, “yeah. They are.”

“That can’t be F19, can it?” Wally said, gaze returning to the white column. It’s intensity made him feel isolated, alone in the vast darkness of oceanic night. “How could they make such a bright light?” Before Harrie could answer, Wally keyed the intercom to talk to the radioman. “Cameron, give the River a report of our location and status. Our flight instruments are non-functional.”

The radioman confirmed the order, and Wally sat for a moment, thinking. The white pillar became larger and larger. As they drew closer, Wally thought he could see it centered on a deep depression in the ocean.

“Are there kites down in that hole?” Harrie asked. Straining his eyes, Wally thought he did indeed see multiple planes, perhaps even some Avengers.

Before he could agree, Cameron came over the intercom. “Capt’n, I’m not getting a response from the NAS. All static.”

Maybe it’s the storm activity. There were many potential reasons for loss of comms, but what were the odds it wasn’t something to do with the light? Pretty damned low.

“Alright,” Wally said, clenching his teeth reflexively. “I’ve had enough of this shit. Whatever is going on, I can’t see a way to directly help those guys. Navigation, take note of our position. We’ll head back towards NAS and let them know what’s going on out here.”

“Captain,” one of the navigators replied, “our instruments are non-functional as well. They’ve been deteriorating over time. We may not have an accurate fix on our location.”

Son of a— Wally cut himself off and tried to steer his mind towards more productive thoughts. “OK, well then let’s get this kite turned around and head back to Florida. Maybe when we get some distance from that thing, we’ll resume normal operation.”

But when Wally tried to turn the plane, nothing happened. His controls moved, but there was no response from the aircraft. All his nervousness and anxiety rushed to a crescendo. “What in the hell is going on?!”

Harrie sat in silence, tentatively moving his own unresponsive controls, looking stunned.

The airspeed gauge still wasn’t working, but Wally felt the big Mariner slowing. They were being drawn inexorably towards the column of light, straight and unwavering. Dread threatened to overwhelm Wally, but he knew he had to keep his head straight.

He hit the intercom button, intending to tell the crew what was happening. A violent squeal of static assaulted his ears. Wally tore off his headset, hoping he hadn’t completely lost his hearing. As he sat, wondering what to do next, a new sound came to his awareness: a grinding cacophony, like both engines were about to throw their main bearings. Instinctively, Wally pulled back the throttles.

“What are you doing?” Harrie yelled over the noise, having removed his own headset.

“Doesn’t matter,” Wally said as the engines died. The silence that followed was eerie. They were still moving towards the light, despite the lack of propulsion. It was an odd feeling, not like gliding, not like powered flight. It was closest to taxiing, but they were still a thousand feet over the ocean.

Slowly, small sounds came to Wally’s attention: the creak of the fuselage, the breath of the wind.

“What now?” Harrie asked, looking terrified. Wally felt exactly how his co-pilot looked, but his men were relying on him, and he no choice but to hold it together. The column of light passed out of view below the Mariner’s cockpit, and this solidified Wally’s resolve.

“We bail out.” He thought for a moment, nodded, and repeated, “We bail out. Whatever is down there isn’t good, and it wants our bird. Probably wants us too.” Wally felt the plane’s forward movement slow, and stop. Then, it began to descend. “They are dragging us down just like the Avengers.”

“But won’t we just parachute straight into that hole?”

“Maybe, but hopefully there is some wind and we’ll splash down elsewhere. We don’t have a lot of other options, Harrie.”

The co-pilot nodded, his face white.

“Since the electronics are fubar, we’ll have to go tell the crew individually. I’ll take fore and you take aft. Gather everyone in the lower forward compartment, and we’ll all jump together.” After Harrie left, Wally notified the nose gunner and the crew in the navigation and radio compartments. With everyone gathered, he gave the order to bail out. The men nodded in turn, looking like the scared boys they were. When they jumped, the shaft of light illuminated each for a split-second before they vanished into the surrounding blackness.

With the crew accounted for, Wally set to his second task. He pulled his .38 revolver out of it’s shoulder holster, aimed, and began firing up towards the fuel gauge lines. On the fifth shot, he saw what he’d hoped for: a gush of fuel. After checking his parachute was properly attached, Wally pulled out his black Zippo lighter, thumbed it to life, and threw it towards the pooling fuel.

As he dove through the hatch, the world exploded into overwhelming light and sound. Wind tore at him, and he felt his body accelerating. Pull the chute, he thought frantically, you don’t have much time! When his canopy caught and slowed the fall, Wally looked up and saw the Mariner bathed in flame. A breeze began carrying him away from the depression in the oceans surface, just as he hoped it would. Wally’s optimism bloomed. With any luck, the Navy would send out more planes to search for them. Certainly, given their proximity to the coast, someone would locate them.

“Blow it out your barracks bag, you Nazi assholes!” Wally exulted, glad to have prevented the capture of his plane. Yet, as he drifted towards the black ocean, a creeping sense of doom tugged at his optimism. The column of light, and it’s associated effects, seemed far too powerful to be caused by the Germans. And if it isn’t the Krauts, then who—or what—is doing it?

###

 

I would like to extend a huge thanks to Barney Rahal (who commissioned this work of fiction) for his inspiration, help, and support.