Commander Lee Rivers took one, last, deep drag on his half-finished, unfiltered cigarette and threw it to the ground. He held the smoke in his lungs for a few seconds, allowing the nicotine to fully circulate through his system, then blew it out into the warm, humid, coastal air.
He steadily walked up the gangplank of the waiting transport — an MV-22 Osprey gunning its powerful engines in preparation for vertical lift-off. The tilt-rotor wash beat down on him flattening his untamed, grey-brown hair. Dust and sand from the beach rose up around him like playful spirits. He squinted and raised his arm to fend them off but the tiny particles still found their way into his eyes.
Before he reached the entrance to the loading bay, Lee turned and stood triumphantly, soaking up the view one last time before egress. The mission had been a success. His crew were cleaning up, ready to move out. He blinked a few times to wash the grit from his eyes. To his left, he could see the other transport, a second Osprey, already loaded and ready, waiting for his command to exfiltrate the island.
A voice came through on Lee's earpiece jolting him out of the moment, "Sir. I'm down to red numbers here. Initiating final countdown. When T hits zero, we're not hanging around for stragglers."
Lee sensed the fear in his pilots voice. Simons did his best to mask his nervous impatience, but it was clear that 'the stragglers' were taking too long for his liking. It was understandable, thought Lee. This was no 'normal' mission, no easy ride, nothing routine about it. The whole island was a hot-zone, a mysterious entity, full of unknowns.
Lee thrived on such odds, but Simons was picked for his loyalty to certain chiefs, not for his special operations experience. That's just the way it was. The way it had to be. This mission was different. In more ways than one. Even the hand-picked crew was a mishmash of odd-bods — no specific training, no previous collaboration, just conveniently available when orders dropped into Lee's hands.
The extremely unique nature of the operation meant that corners had been cut, better teams forfeited, and changes made at the last minute by those who whisper into the ears of soldiers.
"Relax Simons. We're ahead of schedule. A couple more minutes won't hurt. Then I'll start cracking heads if need be." Lee's tone reached out through the comms attempting to calm Simons. There were no visible threats on the horizon but Lee was also anxious to get moving. The island was starting to give him a bad vibe.
For all of it's travel-catalogue, idyllic scenery — the rows of palm trees lining the beach, the pristine estuary joining the sea, the multi-colored exotic birds flying overhead, the sounds of creatures deep in the forest, the interminable azure sky dotted with wispy cloud formations drifting according to the whims of a gentle breeze — there was definitely something about the island that was off.
Lee couldn't quite put his finger on it, but it was there, making the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. And that sensation had helped him stay out of trouble, stay alive, many times in his life. He checked his watch again — 19:25. The crew were loading the last few crates and clearing the tactical landing area so that no trace of their activity would remain after departure.
There could be no paper trail, no clues as to who carried out the mission, and more importantly for Lee, nothing that would jeopardize his retreat back into his 'invisible' life, his particular form of retirement — a meditative, hermetic lifestyle away from the maddening crowds.
Down on the ground, two men had stopped working. They were staring off into the distance where something had caught their attention. Lee immediately picked up on the pause and felt the tingle on the back of his neck shoot up into his brain. Within a second, he was on high alert.
"It's coming from over there. Can you see... up the hill, behind the ridge. It appears to be spreading out and raining down on the forest."
"I don't know Doc. Just looks like a little lightning to me. Nothing I haven't seen before. Maybe your eyes are playing tricks on you. Trust me, that shit happens after a long day in the sun."
Julia Redmond stopped in front of the two men, interrupting their back and forth. She dropped a heavy aluminum case into the sand almost catching their toes. "Hey! If you guys can stop pulling each other's dicks for one minute, I could really do with a hand getting this gear back on the plane. It's a little much for one nurse don't you think?"
An irreverent smirk crept across Lieutenant Ben Sanders' handsome bearded face. "Well... you wanted equality, isn't that right Miss Redmond?"
Julia immediately switched on her sweet, little, homegrown-girl-from-Texas routine, "Oh, I just wanted to see you flex your muscles, big guy. You think you could do that for me?"
"Quit fooling around people," shouted Lee from behind them. "You can relax once we're up in the air. Do I have to remind you the mission is not over until we're all back at base home and dry. Team B is already loaded and ready to leave. Every second you waste goofing around means gallons of fuel burned."
Lieutenant Sanders shot him a look, checking for warning signs in the commander's body language. "Really?"
"Yeah, really. We're a long way from home with nothing but ocean in every direction so every drop of gas counts." The tension is Lee's voice was palpable now. Ben instinctively picked up on it. He kicked into high gear. Something was spooking his boss. Was it the shit the Doc was seeing?
"Alright, alright," barked Ben. "Hey Doc. Do something useful for a change. Help me get these crates back on board before the Commander here loses his mind and puts a bullet in our heads. Come on, let's go!"
Doctor Samuel Marek was transfixed, his eyes locked on the distant light show. "It's so beautiful, yet... odd."
"What the hell Doc. Didn't you hear me. Come on. Pick it up, we have to go. It's going to get dark soon," said Ben lifting the case that Julia had dropped earlier.
"Yes, yes," replied Doctor Marek. "Just one more minute. It would be a shame not to document this phenomena."
"Dude! It's just lightning. We haven't got time for this. Let's go!"
"Well. That's where I would have to disagree lieutenant. See. There. Did you see that? Definitely not your everyday lightning. And if you hadn't noticed... it's not exactly stormy weather over there, although the air does appear to be supercharged. Fascinating. Simply fascinating."
Lee shouted loud enough to be heard over the sound of the propellers. "BEN! If he doesn't get in the Osprey in the next five seconds, you have my permission to drag the Doc on board. Knock him out if you have to."
"It'll be my pleasure sir. This guy's been giving me heartburn all day since we left the base," Sam shouted back.
"I can assure you that won't be necessary Agent Sanders," said Doctor Marek with noticeable regret. "I have everything I need. Just give me one second and I'll get back on that wretched whirligig without your assistance. Sometimes I forget how uncivilized you private military contractors can be."
"JULIA!" Lee shouted again. "Leave everything that's not tagged with company logos, grab the rest and get on board as quick as you can. We're leaving in five."
"Something spooking you boss? You were super chill a few minutes ago," shouted Julia.
"Just do as he says," said Ben. "Trust me. I know this guy. When he get like this, it's time to get the hell outta dodge."
Once everyone was onboard Lee took one last look around the landing zone. A few unidentifiable crates and bags, some tent poles and pegs, unused food rations and water bottles remained scattered over the area. Scraps of paper and cotton sheets were swirling around under the propeller wash. It would have to do. He signaled to the other Osprey to lift off and it instantly began it's ascent upwards and away from the shore, seawater rippling in cross patterns under its powerful rotors.
Lee lifted his gaze to the strange light show in the distance. Breathing heavily now, his heartbeat quickening, he could see why Doctor Marek had been so captivated only moments before. This wasn't lightning. It was something else and it was getting closer to their position by the second.
What the hell!
"SIMONS! GET US OUT OF HERE. NOW!"
The light show was swiftly progressing over the top of the ridge, down over the forest canopy, and steadily making its way across the beach towards the two transports. Lee had never seen anything like this in all his years of operational experience. He leapt back and slammed the button that raised the gangplank and closed the rear loading bay door. But it was too late.
The blue-white electrical storm rushed towards the two Ospreys as if it had a life of its own, as if it was deliberately targeting them. Lee's transport had barely flown a few hundred yards before the electromagnetic pulse hit them with full force instantly shutting down both engines. The osprey immediately lost rotational lift and began to plummet into the ocean.
"Sir. You need to brace for impact," communicated the voice through Lee's earpiece.
But Lee knew there wasn't enough time to secure himself. The others were most likely strapped in already. Thinking fast, he squeezed through the tight space left by the half-closed loading bay doors and leapt into the waters below. He splashed down and immediately turned to watch the osprey belly flop into the sea. The crash was as loud as an explosive detonation. The expansive wave that followed broke in all directions pushing Lee up and back away from the transport.
As he rode the wave, his attention turned to the other osprey, the one carrying team B. His eyes widened. The tingle in the back of neck was on fire. Before he could take another breath, the transport tilted over and crashed onto some outlying rocks erupting in a fiery explosion as the half-full fuel tanks ignited.
Lee winced but couldn't take his eyes off what he was witnessing. He blinked away his shock and started swimming as fast as he could towards the disaster area, chunks of fiery debris falling all around him, hissing as each piece sunk into the sea.
He got close. The water was hot and full of fuel. His eyes stung. His skin was burning up. There was nothing he could do. Blood stained the water around him. Through clouds of black smoke, Lee could just about see the charred bodies of the crew torn up by the twisted metal.
No movement. They were all dead. Had to be.
Suddenly, Lee heard a cry for help. He recognized the voice. It was Carmen, team B's intelligence officer, the only female onboard the second osprey. The plane was ripped wide open, the top had been blown off. There. Behind a steel door. In the modified radio room. Lee grabbed onto a beam, pulled himself up out of the oil-slicked water, cranked the handle and yanked the heavy door open.
Inside, Carmen was jammed up against the corner, a thick steel antenna prong protruding from her left lung. Lee rushed to help her up, but soon realized he'd have to pull her off the prong to get her out. He reassured Carmen as best he could with his body language then said, "Ok. Just look at me. After three, I'm gonna lift you up. Ok?"
Carmen nodded frantically in agreement knowing she had no option but to do exactly as Lee said.
"One... two... three!"
"Aaaaaahhhh!" Carmen screamed as Lee lifted her body up off the antenna prong. The sharp metal slid through her flesh. Blood began to spurt onto her grey top. Lee immediately put pressure on the wound and told Carmen to take few breaths. She hadn't passed out. That was a good sign.
"This hardened room saved your life," said Lee looking directly into Carmen's deep brown eyes. They were stricken with pain, but he could see the trust in them. He led her out of the radio room telling her to keep the heel of her hand on the wound. Then he dropped her down into the water as gently as he could and slid in next to her.
"I can back peddle back to the beach," said Carmen bravely.
Lee agreed with her. He had no choice. He couldn't be in two places at once. His osprey was sinking with everyone still trapped inside. If anything, the salt water would help cauterize Carmen's wound as she swam on her back to the shore. He'd be able to help her later. For now, his own crew needed all the help he could give.
He swam back to where his osprey had belly-flopped into the sea. It hadn't taken long for tons of salty green water to charge in through the semi-open loading bay door. The osprey was now totally submerged, bubbles rising up in a frenzy as the transport continued to sink to the bottom of the sea.
Lee took a deep breath and dove under the surface. He caught up alongside the transport and was relieved to see one of the side doors slowly opening. A man swam out. It was Ben. Upon spotting his commander, Ben signaled to Lee that the others needed help getting out. Ben pointed to the surface. He needed air. He'd be back as soon as possible to get another crew member out.
Lee and Ben made several trips down to the dead osprey as it lay on the ocean floor some fifteen meters down until all crew members had been safely escorted back to the surface. Only Doctor Marek needed resuscitation. Ben and Julia skillfully took turns treading water, keeping Doctor Marek afloat, breathing into his airways, and pumping his lungs clear.
Back on the shore, the survivors tried as best they could to pick up the pieces. They were all in shock. Lee, Ben, Julia, and Simons did what they could to patch the others up. They had zero equipment, only what had been loaded on the transports. One had blown up and the other was underwater. It was too dark to go get supplies now. That would have to wait until the morning.
Whatever it was that had taken them down had tied their fate to the island. For now, they would have to live under its shadow, in the grip of its mysterious embrace.
"It's like this place didn't want us to leave," said Ben gently. He stood next to Lee looking out over the surface of the ocean, flotsam gently bobbing up and down as the gulls moved in to pick the remains clean.
"You put that out of your mind right now, you hear soldier?" said Lee sternly. "I don't believe in that voodoo shit and I know you don't either. Someone or something took us down. That much is true. But what we need right now... for the others... we need to keep our minds clear. You got that?"
Ben looked to his commander with concern in his eyes and sighed. "Yes sir. Loud and clear."
As they silently contemplated the fallen, they both began running through a list of objectives, contingency plans made on the fly, knowing full well that the other was doing exactly the same thing. No need to compare notes. The generic blueprint for getting out of an impossible situation had been activated in their highly trained minds.
By morning, they'd be executing their plans, retrieving what equipment they could from the sunken wreck, establishing a base camp, and making forays deep into the belly of the island to see what they could find. Between them, they would have to manage the group of survivors, maintain morale, and, with a little help from the Doc, solve the mystery of the strange phenomena that took them down.
Maybe there was a power source? Maybe they could hook up their radio equipment? There had to be something they could do to get off the island. If not, they would have to stay and face the inevitable. If safe passage away from this place could not be secured within a reasonable amount of time, Lee, Ben and the other survivors would all have to deal with the consequences of their failed mission brief.
And because the details of the mission were secured behind a strict compartmentalized structure, each agent functioning within their own 'need to know' bubble, Lee and Ben were the only operatives with enough of a high-level clearance to know exactly what they had wrought upon themselves and the rest of the group.
The apparent sabotage of their transports was only the beginning. That setback alone would not have been sufficient to make a couple of the toughest men in the world have to feign composure as they stood in absolute silence contemplating an improvised survival/exit strategy. No, that part they were more than used to executing. It was the 'other part' that was bothering them. Intensely so.
The 'other part' involved 'the package' — the whole purpose of the mission. "A simple delivery exercise," they had said. "Nothing to complicated. Securely make the drop and exfiltrate. They'd be back before nightfall. If all went well."
But it didn't go well, did it. And now they were stuck with 'the contents' of 'the package,' every single, last one of them. And 'the contents' had all woken up by now and were running loose over the land, free of their bonds, looking for any way at all to satisfy their needs, to satiate their hunger.
If the worst came to the worst, Lee and Ben would have to confront the very entities they had unleashed. They'd do whatever it took to keep the others safe. It was their duty, their responsibility. After all, the others wouldn't be trapped on this stupid island in the middle of nowhere if Lee and Ben hadn't selected them for the mission.
One dead pilot and crew — that was already too high a price to pay. Carmen struck lucky, but jumped out of that ordeal and straight into the next one. Nurse Sanders had already warned her that she may have to cauterize her deep wound with a hot blade. And even then, Carmen could succumb to infection and the med supplies were at the bottom of the sea.
Yes, they were all going to be tested. Pushed to their limits. They'd all have their feet pressed to the fire. Their will and fortitude could not falter. Failure was staring them in the face as soon as they'd crawled spluttering onto the endless sandy beach.
Only the toughest would make it through to the other side now, and that thought was firmly ingrained into the minds of every soul preparing for their first night in darkness away from home.
The night shift was noticeably picking up deep inside the forest up on the hill. All manner of animal sounds, hoots and whoops, chirping and raucous calls could be heard as the newcomers settled in. Lee and Ben secured the perimeter, checking all angles of approach for weaknesses. They lit a fire with the materials at hand and prepped their pistols for defense. Ben sharpened some sticks with his combat knife and stuck them into the sand around the makeshift base. They did what they could to keep warm and took short naps while the other kept watch. It was going to be a long night. Probably the longest of their lives.
The others had no clue what they were up against, but Lee and Ben had been thoroughly briefed. They knew exactly the kind of mess they in and that's why they had to keep it to themselves, at least for now.
For the first time in their lives, the two seasoned warriors, both reluctant masters of their craft, both bearing the internal scars of the things they'd had to do, were wondering how much carnage they would have to enact in order to win, how much pain they would have to endure to stay sane.
Lee and Ben shared a dried out cigarrete under a palm tree while the others huddled round the fire and slumbered. For the first time in their lives, they were not confident of the odds.
"What's on your mind boss?"
Lee blew out a puff of smoke and looked at Ben, then looked up the hill into the dark depths of the forest, his eyes full of doubt. "I hate to say it Ben, but you know it too."
"Well, you see, these fallen angel, nephilim, demonic shitheads aren't stuck in a hole with us this time. This time... we're stuck in a hole with them."
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