“The Four Fans of Freedom come stock with a bucket to poop in. Don’t break the seal or else…”
-Special Agent Doyle L. Johnson, ID: Hamburger-Papa-Lima, 3-15-3
The drone of the four engines in the C-130J was enough to put Thuli to sleep. She’d never had trouble sleeping on planes unlike some of her counterparts; the enclosed space, darkened windows, and vibrations from the four Rolls-Royce AE 2100 D3 turboprops was just as good, if not better than Ambien. What wasn’t good was when her teammates decided to wake her up.
All it took was a slight nudge on the shoulder, and she was wide awake. The cabin lights were turned to tactical red, covering everything with a dark glow, giving off enough to see and navigate the interior of the plane, but not enough to destroy night vision or give away position. Sergeant Fergus crouched next to her. He was in his standard Bureau urban tactical uniform, which was a digitized camouflaged pattern of grays, blacks, and blues. The uniform sported hardened knee and elbow pads made from black carbon fiber and a ballistic helmet in the same color. It also came standard with a black tactical vest with a variety of pockets able to hold a sidearm, extra magazines, and other deadly accessories deemed necessary by the wearer. His red beard stuck out like a sore thumb but pity to the person who decided to broach the subject.
Fergus pointed to his green, Dave Clark headsets. Thuli grabbed hers and put them on.
“We’re getting close,” he said, his voice modulating through the aircraft’s interphone system.
“Copy. Get everyone ready.”
Fergus nodded and walked off as she rolled out of hammock she had tethered near the rear of the aircraft by the cargo ramp. The spot in the back was perfect for such a set-up, although a little cold at times, it was nothing a heavy blanket couldn’t fix.
Kenshin sat in the corner near the fuselage, resting his head on his knees. He stood up before Fergus even got close. That man was always ready, regardless of the situation. His voice boomed over the interphone system.
“All right you dogs, let’s get ready to rock and roll. We’re getting close to the target area. Move like you got a pair!”
“A pair of what, exactly?” Cheryl asked, stretching her arms as Fergus walked by. “Because last time I checked, balls are pretty sensitive, one kick and most men take a dive. Vaginas on the other hand…”
Hannah laughed and gave Cheryl a high five. Fergus stared at them for a moment before letting out a deep chuckle.
“Aye, tis true. Regardless of all that bullshit, get your things ready.”
Thuli walked through the aircraft and up a small set of steps leading to the flight deck. The avionics in the new J models of the C-130 meant a navigator wasn’t needed. However, the Bureau was a sucker for redundancy, so they provided a traditional compliment of flight crew. Besides, given the things they were up against, sometimes traditional was the best way to go.
Outside the aircraft, it was dark. The sun had set but still cast a soft glow in the west, just enough to let someone know it was about to call it a night. Storm clouds roiled like boiling water in the distance, painting the horizon in a series of blacks, grays and blues.
“My guess is that’s our storm?” Thuli asked.
The co-pilot, Major Magnusson nodded.
“Yeah, generally we’d avoid such a storm, but we’ve got no choice. There’s no going around it. Best have your people strap in, it’s going to get bumpy,” Magnusson said.
Thuli’s pouch vibrated as if on cue, indicating the storm wasn’t normal, that there were forces, dark forces at work—forces that called to her on a primal level. This wasn’t good.
She returned to the back of the aircraft where her team was assembled with their gear. The plan was to get as close to Salt Lake City as possible before finding a strip to land on. They were flying blind since all communications from inside the storm had gone silent hours ago. The last transmission from anything resembling authority came from the Air Traffic Control at Hill Air Force Base launching F-16 Fighters to deal with an unknown threat. The pilots reported engaging a hostile target, and that was the last anyone heard of them.
They had strapped into their seats when the aircraft went through the first bit of turbulence. However, to call it a bit of turbulence was an understatement; it was if they had just driven over a series of massive potholes. The aircraft shook and bounced in the sky, bouncing the plane around as if it were on the rails of some hellish rollercoaster.
Static popped through the aircraft intercom accompanied by what sounded like voices. They weren’t the voices of the flight crew, but from someone else—correction, something else. Thuli turned up the volume on her headset to try and hear the voice clearly, but there was too much static.
“Sergeant Fergus, are you hearing this?”
If Fergus heard her, he didn’t give any indication. He sat on the cargo net seating with his arms folded across his chest. Sweat poured down the big man’s face in rivers. Nestled in his lap was a barf bag. It was one of the few times that the big man wasn’t eating something.
“Cheryl, Hannah? Can you hear me?”
No answers yet the voice continued to flit through the headset, barely above a whisper. There was something familiar about it. Not the language, but the cadence. She’d heard it before, but couldn’t place it.
“Pilot, are you hearing this?”
No answer from the flight deck. Thuli took her headsets off, but the whispering voice continued to roll through her head. She grasped the pouch at her neck. It was warm and vibrating in tune with the storm. Something was attacking them. Something that didn’t want them to get any closer.
The plane lurched violently and dropped, creating a sensation of weightlessness before gravity took the reins again. Fergus grabbed the bag on his lap and brought it up to his face, his eyes closed tightly.
Something buffeted against the fuselage of the aircraft, sending a loud thwap through the interior. This wasn’t just turbulence. This was something else.
Thuli unbuckled her straps and stood. Her team followed her movements, all eyes on her. She pointed to her headsets and then made a cutting motion across her neck, indicating they were dead. Everyone nodded.
She needed to inform the flight crew that they were comms sour in the back, and also let them know to be on the lookout for anything strange. Thuli made her way back up to the flight deck and placed a hand on the navigator’s shoulder, indicating to him that the comms weren’t working. He nodded and freed one of his ears from his headsets.
“What’s going on? We’re comms sour back there.” She had to almost yell to be heard over the drone of the aircraft.
“Things are getting really hairy up here. You need to strap in.”
“I’m going back there to check the cargo,” the loadmaster said, walking past Thuli. “I’ll let your people know to strap in.”
Thuli nodded in thanks, then strapped in on the flight deck. She wanted to stay there for a minute and see what was happening. There was more at work than just nature here, and it made her skin crawl.
“I’m getting some odd terrain readings on the instruments here. Something that shouldn’t be there,” the navigator said.
“Keep an eye on it, we don’t want to run nose first into a mountain,” the pilot said.
The storm outside was worse than she imagined. Lightning arced in all directions around them, and rain pelted the windshields of the aircraft as if they were flying through a wall of water making it difficult to see. However, through the storm, something moved through the clouds, something big—something with many tentacles.
Its form was indiscernible save for the briefest flashes of lightning silhouetting the creature behind the clouds in a hellish display of shadow-puppetry. Whatever it was, it was massive, bigger than a football stadium, and writhing in all directions.
The flight crew was silent as the pilot put the C-130 into a hard turn. Thuli grabbed on to a nearby rail to keep from knocking her head against the wall. The aircraft started to shudder as the pilot put everything into the turn.
“What is that, Captain?” the Navigator asked.
“I don’t know.”
She wished she did know, wished she knew so they could combat whatever monstrosity had crawled from the depths of nightmare and became real. But she didn’t know. The only thing that was certain was that they needed to get away from it, and fast.
The aircraft leveled out and the pilot punched the throttle. They had executed an 180-degree turn and were headed away from the creature. Thuli unbuckled her straps and ran to the back of the aircraft to peer out the rear porthole, hoping to get a glimpse of it one last time.
Cheryl was already there, crouched next to the window.
“This isn’t good, boss. Do you feel it?”
She did, not just by the vibration of her pouch, but deep in the marrow of her bones. Something had awakened in the storm and it called to her, drawing her closer like a magnet.
“Can you see it?”
Cheryl shook her head. “Too dark now.”
For a moment, the drone of the aircraft’s engine went silent, and the only thing Thuli could hear was her own breathing. Then, the plane bucked as if they had hit a speed bump, sending both Cheryl and Thuli into the air. They crashed onto the ramp with a dull thud, jarring Thuli’s shoulder with a flash of burning pain.
She was about to ask what had happened when a flash of orange, followed by several pops occurred on the port side of the C-130. An engine fire.
She rushed to the port window and looked out. Flames were spitting out of engine one, but only for a moment before they disappeared. The flight crew was on top of it and had run through the emergency procedures in their checklist, shutting the engine down and isolating it before the fire could spread. However, there wasn’t a checklist for what happened next.
A glistening tentacle, blacker than onyx and just as shiny burst through the clouds, whipping into the wing. It shredded through the damaged engine as if it were rice paper, sending debris flying in all directions. Shrapnel peppered the fuselage, hitting the aircraft like a machine gun and punching holes in several places. A loud pop rattled through the C-130 and all the air rushed from Thuli’s lungs. The cargo area filled with a smoky mist as the plane rapidly depressurized due to the breach in the hull. The wind rushed into the aircraft, roaring like some sort of leviathan.
Training kicked in and Thuli grabbed a walk-around oxygen bottle and put on the mask, gritting her teeth as she rotated her injured shoulder. The movements were mechanical, trained and ingrained into her from the early days of her training. Her team followed procedures to the letter as well. Shortly after, six loud rings of the alarm bell sounded—it was time to prepare for crash landing.
Three in the tree, six in the ditch was the adage. It was a mantra Thuli would never forget. They ran the checklist, getting all their gear strapped on, and securing themselves to their seat. Thuli hoped it was just a precaution, but the rumble coming from the wing spoke otherwise.
Hannah lowered her head and made the sign of the cross. Fergus sat upright, both hands on his knees. He was breathing hard, trying to control the sickness. Cheryl sat in her seat, motionless, eyes cast to the floor.
She looked to Kenshin. Rumor had it he knew the exact moment of his death. He caught her gaze and understood what she was asking. Kenshin smiled and pointed to his chest, shaking his head. He waved his hand out in a wide semi-circle pointing to the rest of the team and shrugged his shoulders.
“Thanks, you’re instilling a lot of confidence,” Thuli said.
The Loadmaster made his way over to Thuli, grabbing onto whatever he could to keep himself steady. He crouched next to her and yelled so his voice could be heard over the din.
“We’ve lost engine one, and three. Engine two is on its last leg. We’re going to make an emergency landing in a large open area below us.”
Straight facts, nothing more. That was one of the many reasons she liked this particular flight crew. The strain in the Load’s eyes was enough to tell her it was bad, though, and the vibration in the wing, which was getting worse by the second, was enough to tell her it could get even shittier at any moment.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the nearby mountains. They were at a lower altitude than she had thought, low enough they could breathe on their own. The Pilot had decent enough control of the aircraft, and they were descending gently.
The Load was standing near the paratroop door at the rear of the aircraft looking out the window when he let out a scream. A portion of the tail of the C-130 disintegrated into a thousand pieces as a tentacle ripped through the sheet metal. The sound of twisting metal filled the plane, along with the sound of something screeching, something alive. The Load fell to the floor, scrambling to get back to his feet, but before he could, another tentacle grabbed him by the leg and pulled him away.
Through the hole of the plane, Thuli could see the terrain getting more and more detailed. They were headed down fast. She grabbed on to the pouch which was so hot it almost burned her skin, and mumbled words under her breath, words that came naturally even though she loathed even thinking about them. Moments later, the plane hit the ground.