They had one more stop to make at Nha Trang before heading down to Saigon. Once back at his unit he could clean up and find some hot food before turning in. It had been a wasted trip and he'd have to explain why to the lunatic he reported to, come morning.
To hell with it. He was short. Every day he came a little more alive as his rotation date neared. He was ruminating on plans for duty back in the US or perhaps Germany when the air seem to change. Then the Caribou rolled hard over on its left wing and dropped like a stone, over a thousand feet. Farther up the hold, people were in midair, and he instinctively grabbed the netting behind his bench seat as his cap floated out over the ramp and into the slipstream. He felt the pressure of his seat belt biting into his abdomen as the Viet families up front began to panic, screaming shrilly while their livestock added to the racket.
The Sergeant watched with a sort of glazed abstraction as one old mamasan slipped free and sailed up to slam in to the overhead before dropping back to the seats. He felt a hard impact on the right side of the plane, then it dropped again. The engines were straining, fighting for altitude as the plane nosedived. As it plunged into another long, harrowing fall, he watched one entire side of the ramp shed its duffles and AWOL bags out into the night sky. Soldiers about the compartment were staring wide-eyed out their windows, looking for an explanation or shouting at the cargomasters on their lifelines who picked their way back to the ramp, just as the plane righted itself. Their expressions confirmed to the Sergeant that their problems were just beginning.
Then, a deafening screech came from the front of the hold and he saw passengers on that end recoil as if under attack, some of them pointing wildly at the ceiling of the compartment. The screaming renewed and grew loud enough to compete with the ear-piercing sound which was moving down the length of the hold toward him. When he saw what was causing the noise, he felt his mind somehow disconnect. This was someone's bad dream, this was clearly not happening. A line of long black talons had punched through the skin of the airplane and begun to slide down its entire length. The clamor rose to a frenzied wailing. The claws, exposed for at least a foot and a half inside the aircraft, raked across one of the main beams of the airframe and sliced through a bundle of hydraulic lines like soft pasta. The free ends flailed about, spraying scalding hydraulic fluid about the compartment.
As the hook-like talons neared him, the Sergeant did what came instinctively. He slapped a magazine into his rifle, popped its bolt and emptied all thirty rounds into the monstrous claws. Two of the tips exploded off as the metal-jacketed bullets struck home, then they all vanished, leaving the plane badly damaged, with frigid air pouring in through the rents down its entire side. Short seconds later, while the hold was still in a panic, the thing outside attacked again, from the opposite side. This time it was as if it were trying to twist the aircraft apart. The impact as it grappled with the Caribou, sent the Sergeant bouncing off of the bulkhead. Then the plane dropped again. He grabbed the netting as his rifle slid off beneath the bench. The cacophony rose, and he thought the noise alone would drive him insane.
Suddenly the lights died, intensifying the level of panic. Showers of sparks flew from the severed electrical lines along the bulkhead and the raw voltage arcing through the gaps carved in the conduit gave a spastic, strobe-like illumination. When the pilots finally righted the plane and began a swift, steep descent, the thing was ripping away at the aircraft again, more viciously than ever. This time, its claws marched down the left side with the same hideous screeching and people along that side began to leap from their seats and tumble about the interior. A black beret seated on that row raised a captured Kalashnikov and fired a burst at the horny talons slicing through the airplane's skin just over his seat.
One of the cargomasters leapt over and grabbed him by the arm. The Sergeant could barely hear him shout, "Are you nuts? You're wiping out the rest of the hydraulics." A second beret kicked the cargomaster's legs out from under him and butt-stroked the airman. The first beret didn't bat an eye, simply raised his weapon and sprayed the talons gliding through the overhead. This time, the attack stopped. Like the rest of the passengers, the Sergeant held on for dear life as the damaged Caribou continued its gut-churning dive to the deck. He was trying to remember where they might find a friendly airstrip before the plane, vibrating wildly now, simply shook itself to pieces in the air. "Hang on, we're going into North Field," a crewman shouted from the stairs into the cockpit. The Sergeant stole a glance through a nearby window. Out there in the blackness stretched the hostile city of Tuy Hoa, and someplace close was a little-used auxiliary airstrip for the Ninth Infantry Division. He just prayed the damned plane had time to get to the strip.
The Caribou's nose dipped even more sharply as it began its standard steep approach. As the bench almost fell away from under him, the Sergeant found himself wondering how they'd land the plane in the dark: North Field had no approach lights of any kind, nor a ground crew to tend them. This was going to be rough. The plane swooped in, suddenly righted its nose, then instead of flying down the runway, it hit hard, bounced, then came down again and tore apart. The cockpit section, the wings and most of the cargo compartment with its human freight, and the tail and rear seats all tumbled in different directions. One instant he was sitting on the bench, waiting for it to happen. The next he was lying on the far side of the runway, covered with dirt and oil. He tried to sit upright, alarmed at the smell of smoke and the chemical stinks of the wrecked plane, then he heard a fuel tank explode down the runway and felt the heat wave wash over him. He fumbled his seat belt loose, sat up and rolled off of the bench. A dead Air Force officer was still belted into the seat beside him. He checked the man's pulse. Dead. The Sergeant spat blood and got stiffly to his feet. The wreck had strewn bits of the aircraft and bodies, many in pieces, down the length of the metal runway. Many were burning. The Sergeant saw headlights coming from off to the right and moved that way. He checked himself as he limped along and found minor scrapes and cuts. Sometimes, you amaze me, he told himself with a macabre grin. He passed a mamasan hobbling off with her slightly singed goose under one arm. He cleared the wreckage as a line of army vehicles pulled up in a rolling cloud of dust.
He pushed through it to a jeep with a long whip antenna and asked its passenger, a young Lieutenant, "Mind if I use your radio, sir?"
"Sure? The hell happened?"
"Hard landing, I guess," he said. He slumped into the jeep's passenger seat as its crew joined the mob racing for the wreckage. He removed a small plastic envelope from his shirt pocket and emptied a radio crystal into his palm. Then he took out the radio's original crystal. He replaced this with his own and reset the dials. Still more vehicles, many of them ambulances, rolled past in a thicker wall of dust, churning it up until the air was unbreathable. He began transmitting with the handset. "Savage Rage Leader, this is Savage Rage Five, over." He repeated the sign in a monotone for over three minutes, sitting there focused amid the worsening pandemonium. Finally a signal came back. "Five, this is Leader, do you copy?" "Leader, I read you five by. Is the Actual present?" "Wait one," the voice replied. A minute later another voice came on and the Sergeant reflexively stiffened. "Leader, this is Five," he answered. "It's begun. Knocked a Caribou down…"