Typhoon Kujira was aptly named. It was a whale of a typhoon.
Or should I say, a super-typhoon. Kujira was rated Category 5, the most dangerous of the five typhoon classifications.
Even if the storm hadn’t made landfall yet, the Mistral Challenger was still bucking headwinds that were close to hurricane strength as we made our way to Kimura.
Where the next rip was predicted to appear.
I monitored the ship’s internal communication channel while sitting in the cab of one of the Mistral’s all-terrain electric trucks. The six-wheeled vehicle was secured to the floor of the main cargo bay and was ready to go once we landed.
Minori came online. “Keenan, how is ship integrity coming along?”
“Still stable, Lieutenant Asakusa,” Keenan replied. “We’re being battered, but the hull stress is manageable.”
I relaxed a little. I’d survived two recent aircraft disasters and wasn’t looking forward to a third.
The Mistral would arrive at Kimura just before the anomaly opened. When that happened, the ship needed to be safely parked on the ground with the EMP shielding at full. The last time a rip had opened near the Mistral we’d been in the air and taken by surprise. Only Minori’s incredible piloting had enabled her to successfully land what was essentially a flying brick.
The plan I’d hashed out with the ship’s officers was simple: First, the Mistral would set down as close to Kimura as possible. Then, Aiko, Tama, and I would rush out, get Rio and Doc, and do a quick sweep to see if there was anyone else trying to take shelter. We’d load all the evacuees into the ship and button up until the storm passed.
The Mistral shuddered again, and I looked with more than a little concern at my teammate in the seat beside me. “You holding out okay? It might be easier if you opened your eyes.”
Aiko’s eyes were shut tight and her teeth clenched. She gripped the passenger-side rollbar like a castaway clinging to a life preserver. I wondered if all ninjas suffered from fear of flying and airsickness.
Minori’s voice coming over the tactical channel caught my attention. “Alpha, be advised, three minutes to landfall. Status?”
I turned to Aiko. “You ready?”
Aiko gave me a thumbs-up, her eyes still shut. I looked through the back window at Tama in the truck’s bed. He gave me a “chuff,” a cross between a cough and a snort. I’d been told it was the panther equivalent of affirmation.
I was tempted to give him a “chuff” in return, but Aiko had informed me that it was also used in panther mating rituals. I didn’t want the big cat to misinterpret my intentions, so I just nodded and transmitted my response.
“Challenger Alpha-Six, ready. Challenger Alpha-Three and Challenger Alpha Tango also report ready.”
“Query, Alpha-Six. Identify Challenger Alpha Tango, please?”
In spite of her condition, Aiko managed to crack a smile as she replied. “This is Alpha-Three. Take the first letters of Challenger Alpha Tango to derive your answer.”
A crackling noise came over the tactical channel as Minori laughed into her microphone. “Copy, Alpha-Three. Understood.”
I tightened my seat’s restraining harness, checked my equipment again, then tried to relax. Aiko and I were both in our tactical outfits and armed to the teeth. Once the rip opened over Kimura, there was no telling what would come out.
With nothing else to do until we landed, I nervously drummed my fingers on the steering wheel as the Mistral continued to shake with the force of the incoming typhoon. The interior of the cargo bay was lit with red lighting to preserve our night vision, giving it an otherworldly appearance. Oddly enough, it also lent a cozy feel to the darkened truck cab.
Aiko interrupted my thoughts. “Lieutenant Peterson, may I ask you a question?”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but what made you think you could successfully infiltrate a high-security installation? You are a combat officer, not a -- um, what is it you call me?”
“Yes. You are not a ninja like me.”
I shut my eyes and rested my head on the seatback cushion. I’d been expecting this question for some time. “Are you angry that I did something you were better qualified for?”
“I believe I would have succeeded where you did not.” She couldn’t keep the disapproval out of her voice.
“Fair enough. Well, then, let me give you a little information on my background.”
“Yes.” The ship suddenly pitched upward and Aiko turned a shade paler. “It will help get my mind off… things.”
A roll of thunder rattled the hull as I collected my thoughts. “In my very first battle, my unit was destroyed within minutes. I was left on my own. ”
Unconsciously, I fingered the old 13th Airborne Division patch. Since I’d served in combat with them I was entitled to wear the insignia on my right shoulder.
Aiko was so surprised she almost forgot about her nausea. “You were? How did you survive?”
“At first, I spent my time just stealing from the enemy, living off of whatever I could find or take off dead Soviets. I spent most of my teenage years fighting behind enemy lines, in and out of uniform.”
I gave a short laugh. “While my friends still in high school were enjoying a lazy summer break and listening to cicadas hum in the trees, I was hiding from drone gunships and firing captured AK's.
“I got lucky, though. An allied special forces unit arrived in the area. They were tasked with the mission of training partisans -- guerillas, that is. I joined their group and learned quite a few things. And yes, that included how to infiltrate facilities.”
I slipped my commando knife out of its leg sheath and handed it to Aiko to examine. She pried her fingers loose from the rollbar and accepted the dagger as solemnly as if I was presenting her with a prized katana. In a way, I guess I was.
“It’s called a Fairbairn-Sykes knife,” I explained. “It used to belong to one of the SAS guys. He was a mentor and a good friend of mine. He told me I could have this if he bought the farm.”
“‘Bought the farm?’ What does this mean?”
“It means ‘killed in action.’ Which he was.” A ghost from the past appeared briefly in my mind’s eye, then faded away.
Aiko tested the dagger’s grip and balance, and nodded approvingly before handing it back to me. “An exceptional weapon.”
“Thanks.” I resheathed it and nervously scratched my chin. “Hey, uh, if I buy the farm, the dagger’s yours. I haven’t met anyone else besides you who could use it as well as me, anyway.”
A smile flashed across her face. “You honor me, Jim. But let us not purchase farms any sooner than we must. Agreed?”
“Agreed. Let’s shake on it.” I reached out a hand. As we shook, the ship lurched again. Aiko gulped, snatched her hand from my grasp, and gripped the rollbar with both hands.
A short time later, a solid thump signaled that the Mistral was on the ground. Aiko heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief.
Thankfully, Minori had landed us practically on the bottom of the “T” which formed the main streets of Kimura. It would be a short run to the community center where Rio and Doc should be. For this mission I'd fastened a hard shell over the truck bed, which would allow anyone we carried -- and Tama -- to ride in back while sheltered from the elements.
The ship’s public address system came to life, startling me. “Attention. EMP is imminent. Switch off all electronics until the initial burst has passed.”
Aiko and I switched our headsets off. It was just an added precaution since we were doubly shielded from the electro-magnetic pulse by being in the truck’s Faraday-cage cab, as well as inside the Mistral’s shielding.
“EMP pulse in three… two… one!” A sharp tremor passed over the grounded ship.
It seemed that the rip I’d predicted earlier had opened near Kimura. I felt a surge of relief, then gave Aiko a smug look. “I told you it would appear.”
She switched on her headset and raised her eyebrows at me. “I did not doubt your prediction, Lieutenant, only your common sense.”
“Thanks. I think.” I waited a few seconds before turning my headset back on, then punched the ramp control button on the dashboard. Aiko pressed another one that released the clamps holding the truck to the deck.
The howl of the storm grew louder as the cargo doors opened. It was built like a clamshell, with the lower half acting as a ramp. As it settled into place, we were greeted with a palm frond that whipped end over end before slamming into the truck’s windshield. I turned the wipers to full as rain poured into the bay.
Aiko keyed her headset. “Have we received any communications from Kimura, Sierra-One?”
“Negative, Alph--Thr-.” The signal cut in and out. Although the EMP had passed, the active anomaly was still putting out plenty of background noise that interfered with communication.
No use waiting around. I spoke into my microphone. “Alpha team, moving out.”
For a brief moment Minori’s voice came in clearly. “Copy. Godspeed, Alpha. Please bring them all home.”
I pressed the accelerator pedal and we rolled into the storm.
Driven by the force of the wind, raindrops pummeled the truck like bullets. Several times we were forced to one side of the street as the leading edge of the typhoon started to make its presence known.
It was hard enough to drive in the storm. How Minori had managed to fly in this natural disaster was beyond me.
As we approached our destination, I saw the rip.
The hillside behind the community center was silhouetted by a glow in the sky, floating above the hill like a giant red neon halo. Something big -- a vessel maybe? -- hung in the center of the glow. Its outline was hazy, distorted by the torrential rain and the effects of the anomaly.
Descending from the halo surrounding the mystery craft were shafts of crimson light that speared down to leave pools of red on the forested hillside.
And there was something else, too.
“Aiko, I think there's something moving up there on the hill.”
“Moving?” Aiko touched the zoom controls on her headset goggles.
Her lips parted as she sucked in a lungful of air. “Oh, no. Jim, you need to see this.”
To keep from running off the road I stopped the truck, then cranked up the magnification on my goggles. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Like giant metallic spiders, dozens of multi-legged constructs strode purposefully through the weird red light, heading down the hillside toward the community center. Each was the size of a bathtub, with an elongated head swivel-mounted on top of the central body.
I sagged back into my seat. Spiders, I thought. Why did it have to be spiders?