Special - Winds of Madness
by Zachary A. Applebee

The whine of the Blackhawk's rotors almost drowned out their thoughts. It was dark, oh-three-hundred hours, and the Bering Strait expanded below them. Flashes of lightning occasionally illuminated the passenger area completely, exposing the grizzled team of five in full combat gear.

The mission came as a surprise to Gamma Team. Intel in Seattle had gotten word that a freighter was carrying anomalous weapons from Russia with plans to deliver their payload to a fringe group in Anchorage, who would then transfer the cargo down the west coast. The whole thing stank, but their noses had been out in the cold too long.

Michael Liddy, leader of Gamma Team, lit the pipe clenched between his teeth. A warm glow took over his rough face as he breathed in the sweet-smelling smoke, his body loose and ready. The rest of the team were just as calm; they had been running the mock-up of the freighter for the past week and knew the mission inside and out. Ramirez and Johnson were quietly placing bets on who would have the higher kill count while Williams sent a quick text to his sweetheart back at base. Even Stokes, the team's FNG, was visibly relaxed, eyes closed and expression blank.

“The time's come, gentlemen,” Liddy said, his voice coming through the communication devices in everyone's ears. “Let's make this short and sweet. Any questions?”

Stokes raised his black-clad hand, opening his eyes. “Rules of engagement, sir?”

Liddy exhaled a lungful of smoke, tapping out the spent tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. “Crew expendable. If what they have is a hot as the eggheads are saying it is, they're going to shoot on sight.”

“Solid copy,” the soldier responded. “They're going to kill us, so kill them back.”

“Oorah,” Ramirez chimed in, patting his MP7 lovingly. “I like the new guy already.”

“Just keep a lid on your abilities, Ramirez,” Liddy added. “That goes for all of you: no anomalies are to be used. Don't want to scuttle the boat until after we're off of it.”

“Arkbird to Gamma Six,” the pilot interjected over the radio, “visual confirmation on the target. ETA sixty seconds.”

“Copy all, Arkbird,” Liddy responded. “Lock and load, Gamma.”

They could see the freighter floating in the rough waters. Low light was shining through the windows to the bridge, but other than that the ship was running dark. Liddy flipped down his night vision goggles and turned them on as they swiftly approached the swaying vessel.

“Arkbird in position.”

“Copy, Arkbird. Gammas, we are green and very, very mean. Go, go, go!”

The entirety of Gamma Team were on their feet, one by one repelling down the fast rope to the deck. Liddy was the last one down, quickly savoring the thrill of his controlled fall. The hunt was on. Liddy's feet hit the deck, and he immediately sighted his weapon through the bridge windows. “Gamma, you are weapons free.”

The silenced gunfire was further muffled by waves crashing against the hull of the ship. Shattering the windows, the hail of bullets found their marks, cutting down the three tangos manning the bridge. Liddy spun to his right, quickly opening the door to the interior.

“Bridge is clear. Williams, stay with the chopper. Everyone else on me.”

“Copy that, boss.”

Liddy lead the team inside, weaving through the consoles to the stairwell at the rear. He aimed his weapon, checking the path in front of them. “Stairs clear. Check your corners.”

“Clear left,” Stokes whispered.

“Clear right,” Johnson confirmed.

“Move up.” Liddy continued forward, but quickly stopped as the shadows shifted in front of them. “Movement front.”

A man appeared from around the corner of the hallway, stumbling towards the head. Liddy could tell that this man had yet to find his sea legs. It was almost a shame that he would never have the chance. Three bullets ripped through his chest, center mass, and he crumpled into a heap.

“Tango down,” Liddy called. “Hallway clear. Clear those crew quarters.”

Liddy took position as the rest of his team spread between the two rooms on opposite sides of the hall. The boat was silent except for the creaking of the hull battered by the waters outside.

“Nighty night,” Johnson whispered menacingly. Liddy figured they found a few crew members in their bunks, sound asleep. He knew they would not be waking up. “Left quarters clear.”

“Right quarters clear.”

“Copy,” Liddy commanded. “Move up.”

Liddy waited for a moment for the team to form up on him before he rounded the corner. He did a quick visual check for targets; finding none, he motioned to the door at the end of the metal-walled hallway.

“Hallway clear. Stack up on that door.” Liddy pressed against the wall as his team passed him, taking cover on each side of the access hatch to the main deck, Johnson took the lead position.

“One, ready.”

“Two, ready.”

“Three, ready.”

“Six ready. Breach and clear on my mark.” Liddy quickly checked his magazine before giving the order. “Mark.”

Johnson hastily undid the latch and kicked the door open. The team rushed through, guns pointing in all different directions. Liddy followed, keeping his weapon trained straight forward.

“Forward area clear,” Johnson confirmed.

The main deck was dauntingly vast and slick with ocean spray. Large shipping containers were stacked methodically to avoid toppling in case of rough seas, leaving many different angles of approach for both Gamma Team and the enemy. Liddy frowned to himself, considering their next course of action.

“Gamma, fan out,” he decided. “Check your corners and advance on the aft cabins.”

“Copy, Six.” Ramirez headed left and the rest of the team dispersed.

Liddy took the central path through the labyrinth of steel, checking shadows as he ran past them. As he was nearing the end, reports from an assault rifle echoed through the containers. He hit the deck quickly, sliding forward on the slick deck from his momentum.

“Contact forward area,” Johnson confirmed. “Five tangos, second floor deck.”

“Tangos confirmed,” Ramirez and Stokes reported almost simultaneously. “Suppressing fire,” Ramirez added.

“Gamma Six to Arkbird,” Liddy hailed. “We have tangos on the second floor.”

“Copy solid, Gamma. Arkbird, engaging.”

Liddy looked up as the Blackhawk helicopter positioned itself above Gamma Team, turning its Vulcan cannons towards the second floor. A wave of lead crashed through the entrenched tangos' cover, undoubtedly ripping the poor saps to shreds and raining debris onto the main deck.

“Area clear, Gamma,” Arkbird confirmed. “Arkbird's bugging out, we're bingo on fuel. Big Bird will be here in ten for extraction.”

“Copy that, Arkbird,” Liddy replied. “Thanks for the assist.”

“No problem, Gamma Six. You owe me a cigar.”

“Done. Gamma Six, out.” Liddy pushed himself to his feet and made his way forward. “Gammas, form up on me. We are oscar-mike.”

The team reunited and was on the move. Pressing forward across the deck, they closed the distance to the hatch leading below. The team instinctively stacked up on the door, Liddy taking the last position.

“Breech and flash on my mark,” he commanded. “Three... two... one... mark!” Johnson opened the hatch as Ramirez readied a grenade.

“Flashbang out,” Ramirez cautioned.

The normally loud explosion was muffled by the weather and walls between the team and the impact, but it was still heard. Like a starting gun, it was a signal to put themselves through the door at a full sprint, weapons at the ready.

“Check your corners,” Liddy said, scanning the forward area through the sights of his gun.

“Clear left.”

“Clear right.”

“Forward area clear.”

“Move up,” Liddy commanded. “We need to go through the engine room to reach the objective.”

Gamma Team quickly ran through the hallway, stacking up on the next door. Liddy could hear the roar of the ship's engines on the other side. He took a peak into the next room through the little viewing window in the steel hatch. Seeing trails of crimson against the far wall, he threw the door open to investigate.

“Squad on me!”

Without even giving heed to possible threats, Liddy slammed the door open and ran across the room to the wall. He furiously searched around the stairwell, seeing nothing but blood and entrails drenching the grated steps. Feeling something dripping on his shoulder, he looked toward the ceiling.

Two bodies, dressed in a similar uniform to the guards they encountered before, were suspended from the pipes above. Their chests were torn open and hollow and their eyes, glazed over in death, were wide with fear.

“Shit,” he heard Ramirez say from behind. “What the hell happened here?”

“Bad things,” Liddy responded quietly. “Keep frosty. We're not the only ones on this boat.”

Gamma Team descended down the blood soaked stairwell slowly, examining every corner through their night vision goggles and the sights of their weapons. Declaring the corners clear of hostile targets, Liddy motioned for the team to move up.

They stacked on the farthest door, labeled “Cargo”. Liddy held his hand up, palm out, instructing the rest of the team to hold. He listened intently; the only sounds he could hear were the drone of the turbines above and the groan of the hull, assaulted by the waves outside. He lowered his fingers one by one, leading a silent countdown to the breach. His hand finally clenched in a fist, Liddy pulled it quickly out of the air. Stokes threw open the door and the team followed him in.

The cargo bay was stacked to the ceiling with shipping containers, each stack partially obscuring the catwalks above, and blanketed with an oppressive chill. Liddy looked over one of the nearby containers, fighting off the sudden cold. He immediately recognized the insignia painted on each one.

“Intel dropped the ball,” Liddy said quietly. “This is a CrimsonTech ship.”

“Boss,” Johnson shouted, “You gotta take a look at this!”

Liddy fell back to Johnson's position. Even under the goggles obscuring his face, Liddy could see Johnson's worried expression as the man gestured towards the catwalk above. Five more bodies were there, eviscerated similarly to the ones they encountered before. The team's leader immediately put two and two together.

“No sane person would have done this. Gammas, switch to thermals,” he commanded calmly. “We might have some vores out here. Hurry to the objective.”

Stokes snorted. “Hope they didn't pick up how to shift. Thermals would be useless.”

“That's why we have you,” Liddy replied. “I want you to shift and cover us. Hope you ate your Wheaties this morning.”

“Yes, sir. I'll try not to burn out.” Stokes put his weapon over his shoulder and pulled out a Bowie knife. He flipped the grip around on the blade and disappeared into the dark shadows, leaving behind only a breeze. Liddy switched his earpiece over to the tactical channel as they quickly proceeded through the towering steel crates. “Gamma Six to Big Bird, what's your twenty?”

“This is Romeo,” a jovial male voice responded. “I hear ya, Six. ETA five minutes.”

“Copy. Six, out. Double time, Gammas. FNG can't stay shifted forever and our ride's almost here.”

The crates eventually began to thin out, the stacks getting shorter the closer they got to the center of the room. Ahead, they could see a twenty foot wide gap in the stacks, littered with the still warm chunks of flesh of the soldiers guarding what Liddy assumed to be the objective.

The open area was surrounded by defensive structures facing inwards. Liddy took note of the belt-fed machine guns mounted at each position, glowing bright on his infrared scanner. With a quick motion, he flipped a switch on the device covering his face back to night vision to fully inspect the area. After his eyes adjusted to the greenish hue displayed, he could see a single shipping container in the center, the steel walls blossomed out like a metal flower. From the wreckage, bundles of wire ran into the shadows.

“Ramirez, check out that container. Johnson, sweep for survivors. Something's not right.”

Liddy took a deep breath and proceeded to follow the cables into the darkness. There was not enough light to see, even with the night vision's enhancement. Flipping back to the infrared, a large object draped in blue dominated his view directly in from of him. The readout on the viewfinder indicated the object was near absolute zero. He recognized it immediately.

“Cryogenic equipment?” he mused to himself. “I don't think they'd freeze-dry vores.”

“Six,” Ramirez started over the radio, “found what looks like patient files in this debris. BP, cortisol and... serotonin levels are off the charts.”

Liddy considered this as he looked over the large mechanical device before him. “Serotonin? That can't be right.” He quickly keyed his earpiece to a different channel. “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?”

“One-twenty seconds out,” Romeo replied. “What's the problem?”

“We've stumbled upon something interesting for R&D. Whatever they were shipping is in the wind, but they were keeping it under ice. Any room on your bird for--”

Before Liddy could finish, a loud crash echoed through the hold. The team leader spun quickly on his heel, raising his weapon as Romeo repeatedly asked, “Gamma, what's happening?” Ignoring the pilot droning in his ear, he switched his goggles back to night vision with one hand.

On the far side of the open space, one of the machine gun nests was in disarray. Sand bags and scrap metal were flung yards from the epicenter, where what looked like a young man in a hooded sweatshirt stood. Liddy watched as the white-clad figure flexed his hands into fists. The air grew colder as dark, oily tendrils emerged from the hoodie's sleeves.

On the floor next to the figure, prone and unnoticed, was Johnson. At first, it seemed that he was laying in a contorted, uncomfortable position, but the truth was far worse. Liddy swallowed down a spike of fear as the tendrils emerging from the figure began to wrap around the soldier's bisected corpse. The leader found his weapon automatically on his shoulder, his training moving the fear to the side.

“Ramirez!” Liddy shouted. No reply. “Ramirez, where the fuck are you?”

“Gamma, please respond!” Romeo continued over the radio. “What the hell--.”

Liddy saw the object flying towards him, barely having enough time to react. He quickly dodged out of the way, keeping his MP7 trained on the feral beast as it fed on Johnson's flesh as the limp projectile impacted the machinery behind him with an audible thud. He took his eyes off the monstrosity for just a second, looking to see what the soaring object was.

Ramirez laid crumpled beside him, his chest torn opened and hollowed out. Liddy closed his eyes for a moment, trying to recenter himself, as a deep, raspy laugh echoed around him.

“Liddy, it's Romeo,” his earpiece squawked. “I'm at the evac point and you guys aren't. What the hell is going on down there?”

“A Corrupted,” Liddy answered quietly, opening his eyes. The beast in the white hoodie advanced slowly towards him, its face hidden in the shadow of the hood. “It got Ramirez and Johnson. If we're not up there in two minutes, sink the ship.”

The Corrupted returned Liddy's glare, a cruel parody of a smile emerging from under its hood. The skin on its face was pale white; dark, black fissures spider-webbed across its surface, widening the grin to frightening proportions. The raspy laugh continued as dark tendrils made their way ahead of the beast, starting to close the gap between itself and the soldier. It thinks it won, Liddy thought to himself. It thinks I'm another easy kill.

Liddy took note of the remaining battlements surrounding the open area. Noting they were much too far to run to, he allowed himself a small grin. The large weapons all slowly spun on their mounts, tracking the movement of the monster before him. Even if it was his last act on Earth, the leader of Gamma Team was going to teach this thing two final lessons.

Lesson 1: Never fight a teek in close proximity to heavy weapons. The collective clicks of the machine guns chambering rounds distracted the Corrupted for a moment.

Lesson 2: You thought wrong.

With merely a thought, Liddy depressed the triggers of all three mounted weapons, jamming them into place. A hail of hot lead struck the creature from three directions, the 5.56 millimeter rounds slamming through its flesh. The Corrupted howled, spinning in place and lashing out with its tentacles towards the turrets.

Liddy took advantage of the distraction, bolting towards the front of the boat. He barely made it twenty yards before the first machine gun ran out of ammunition. The second one jammed by the time he went another sixty. The sound of steel ripping from the floor of the cargo bay reverberated as the door to the engine rooms came into sight. Right before he could make it, he felt one of the cold tendrils wrap tightly against his right ankle as he left the ground.

The Corrupted dangled him five feet off the steel-grated floor. Liddy was disoriented, but not dead. He extended his MP7 in one hand and emptied a clip into the monster's torso to minimal effect as he felt more shadowy appendages snake their way around his body. This is it, he thought. At least I tried. The soldier closed his eyes and waited for his chest to be torn open.

Howling, the creature's tentacles retreated. Liddy opened his eyes to see Stokes using a boot as leverage to remove his bowie knife from the skull of the monster. Liddy dropped to the floor in a painful heap as the creature clutched at its injury. He could see Stokes cross the floor and felt the rookie's strong grip on his forearm.

“On your feet, boss,” Stokes shouted over the howls, dragging Liddy towards the engine room. “We. Are. Leaving!

Liddy stood unevenly on his feet and reached out for the hull of the vessel with his mind. He could feel the hardened steel under the psychic grip of his telekinesis peel like an overripe banana and the roars of the Corrupted were drowned out by the roar of the sea, its waters rushing into the newly opened space. The boat listed heavily to the side as the two soldiers climbed the stairs to the decks above.

Greeted by Arctic air and the whine of helicopter rotors, the pair sprinted towards the edge of the boat. Romeo was waiting there, dangerously close to the white-capped waves below. Liddy could hear the steel under his feet whine, pressured from the creature attempting to escape a watery grave. He paid it no heed as his feet left the deck, flinging himself into the cargo area of the chopper. Stokes was right behind him, landing much more gracefully than his leader.

“Good to see you boys,” Romeo said over the radio. “Hope you don't mind flying coach. Gotta keep you in quarantine until the head honchos say otherwise.”

“Where's Williams?” Liddy asked, breathless.

“Got turned into a grease-spot by our tentacled friend, it looked like. Time to get the hell outta--” The helicopter shook around them. “Aww shit.

Liddy turned around, spotting three shadowy tendrils wrapping themselves around cargo supports from below. Quickly drawing his knife, he took a step towards the open door.

“Just give up, already!” Liddy plunged the weapon into the nearest tendril, causing it to recoil. “Stokes, gun!”

As quick as he could muster, Stokes tossed his boss his weapon, drawing his sidearm in an effort to combat the Corrupted. Liddy caught the sub-machine gun as he grabbed a cargo strap from the wall. He hooked one end to his belt and the other to the support on the wall before dashing out the door and into free fall.

The Corrupted dangled below the chopper, roaring towards the heavens, while Liddy plummeted towards it. The cargo strap went taut, bouncing the soldier up a few feet before extending to its full length. Liddy took a deep breath, leveled the MP7 as best he could with the creature's head, and unloaded the clip into its brainpan.

Two of the dark tentacles retracted, leaving the monster unstable below the helicopter. Liddy saw an opportunity to end this beast's reign of terror and, reaching for the flash grenade on his vest, took it. He pulled the pin and threw the explosive orb overhand, bouncing it off the creature's chest, closing his eyes to prepare for the inevitable.

The bomb exploded in a bright flash, the report from the blast causing Liddy's ears to ring. He could not close his eyes in time and was blinded by the light. Blinking away the spots from his vision, he was surprised to feel himself being lifted upwards from his midsection. His vision slowly returned, the dark interior of the chopper's cargo hold materializing before him. Stokes was crouched over him, saying something that fell on deaf ears.

“I can't hear you,” Liddy said. “Nod if I got him.” Stokes nodded once. “Good.”

Stokes shook his head in disbelief and muttered something to himself. The soldier waved an extended finger in circles in the air, the universal sign for “return to base.”

“Yeah,” Liddy confirmed, surely too loud to compensate for his temporary disability. “We have to fill in the brass. Something big's about to go down on the West Coast...”

Continue Reading: Episode 03 - "Operation Sandstorm" by Zachary A. Applebee.