The Huff-Daland Duster’s engine screamed as Agent Thirteen banked right, nearly spilling me out of the passenger seat ahead of her. The biplane’s wood-and-metal skeleton shuddered, and its fabric rippled from the strain.
“Ruth, do you have a bead on it?” “Lucky” Lucy Ryan called.
I barely heard her over the rushing wind.
“No!” I screamed, fighting to keep my lunch down, never mind shooting anything. They nicknamed Thirteen “Lucky” because of her wartime exploits as a WASP flyer; at the moment, I was trying to make sure that my moniker, “Ruthless” Ruth Donlevy wasn’t because Ruth had fallen out of the plane.
“It’s coming in again,” Thirteen shouted. “Three o’clock, low!”
I fumbled with my equipment bag, but couldn’t retrieve the M3 in time.
The monster swooped toward us, toothy jaws thrown wide, talons extended. Some of the locals called it a thunderbird, but to me it looked more like a vulture crossed with a dinosaur—scaly bluish face and legs, black feathers, and glowing green eyes.
I tried to put a couple of shots into those eyes, but Lucy suddenly twisted the plane in another direction.
My .45-caliber slugs missed, but the enormous bird’s claws nearly took off my head as it soared past. A smell of rotting meat assaulted my nostrils, and I got a close-up look at the creature’s luminescent underbelly. That greenish-white glow had been mistaken by stargazers for UFOs flying overhead.
As I clutched my gun with one hand and the biplane’s fuselage with the other, I’d have preferred facing flying saucer aliens to this mutant beast.
Lucky Lucy whipped the plane around again, like an amusement park ride, as the monster came at us once more.
And to think, today had started out so… normal!
“Don’t you go messin’ with our thunderbirds, G-Men!” the long-haired young man in a beaded vest and jeans warned me and Agent Two. “They’re sacred!”
“Who are you?” I asked as Lucy and I stood in front of the general store outside Littlemesa, Arizona. We’d been sent to this desolate place, west of the Grand Canyon, to check into UFO reports.
“I’m Jimmy Skycloud,” the man replied. “And my people have been living here for generations.”
Clearly, his rant was in reaction to the questioning Agent Thirteen and I had done in the nearby town. Until now, we’d found the residents accommodating, if somewhat reluctant to provide details of what they’d seen, though it was Littlemesa newspaper reports that had caused the U.S. Science Bureau to send Thirteen and me.
“We don’t need folks from out east interfering with our traditions,” Jimmy finished, balling up his fists and glaring at us.
I figured either Lucy or I could take him, but it’s always better to play nice with the locals if you can.
Just then, a woman in an embroidered blouse and fringed skirt stormed out of the adobe storefront. “A bigger load of baloney I’ve never heard in my life!” she called, shaking her finger. “Your people may have lived in Littlemesa since the 1890s, but you’re no more Indian than I am, Jimmy Skylar!”
Her outburst startled Jimmy. “But I’ve seen the eyes of the thunderbird glowing in the night sky, Jayne!” he protested. “I’ve become one with this land and its native people.”
“Become one with locoweed since you went to college in San Francisco is more like it!” the woman, Jayne, replied. “Now you git before I call your parents!”
Jimmy “got,” looking abashed as he climbed into a battered jeep and drove east toward town.
Jayne smiled at us. “Now what can I do for you nice people from the government? I’m Jayne Marsh, and this is my store.”
“I’m Agent Ruth,” I said as we all shook hands. “And this is Agent Lucy. The U.S. Science Bureau sent us to look into the disappearances of sheep and goats around here—and whether those livestock problems bear any relationship to the lights in the sky people have seen.”
“That young man mentioned thunderbirds?” Lucy added.
Jayne waved away the suggestion. “P’shaw! There’s no such thing! It was the flying saucers that took those sheep—aliens from the planet Met-Us. I heard a woman explain that on the TV. The authorities arrested her but had to let her go because she and her husband were telling God’s honest truth.”
Thirteen and I exchanged a worried glance. Was Sister Starlight on the loose again?
“So, after talking to a few other folks in Littlemesa,” Thirteen said, “Ruth and I hoped to do some aerial recon. We were told you had a plane to rent.”
Jayne nodded. “Best areo-plane in the county,” she said. Then added with a wink: “About the only one, too! Right this way.”
She led us out back of the store to where a ratty-looking old crop duster sat at the end of a short sandspit of a runway.
Thirteen frowned. “I’ve flown worse. Fuel her up. We’ll take a look around before sunset and maybe fly some more tomorrow.”
A half hour later, the sun was dipping toward the western horizon, and we were soaring above the Arizona countryside, checking out the nearby mesas, buttes, and valleys—anywhere UFOs… or mythical birds… might hide.
“Is that the Grand Canyon to the south?” I called back to Lucy, who was, naturally enough, behind the stick.
“Can’t hear you!” she replied, her voice barely carrying over the wind.
I started to shout louder, but just then, I spotted something darting toward us from a mesa to our left.
“What’s that?!” I shouted, pointing.
Thirteen looked in that direction. “I don’t know.”
She banked the creaky Huff-Daland just in time as a black something—easily as big as our plane—swooped past.
“Holy frijoles!” I cried.
“Ruth, grab your guns!” Lucy shouted. “And hang on! It’s coming around again!”
“Ruth! Nail this sucker!” Thirteen cried as the thunderbird zoomed toward us from below.
I tightened my harness and did my best to bring both my agency forty-fives to bear, trusting that Lucy wouldn’t dump me from the plane as I fired.
The automatics sounded like popguns against the howl of the wind, and I think I probably hit the monster, but it kept coming. Unfortunately, with the plane bucking like a bronco, I also managed to put one through the delicate fabric of the lower right wing.
Only Lucy flipping the plane sideways kept us both from being killed by the thunderbird’s enormous deadly talons as it hurtled past.
“Do NOT shoot the plane!” Thirteen screamed as she righted us once more.
“I didn’t mean to!” I replied, holstering my guns and reaching for the bag with the M3 again.
“Do not shoot the plane again!” she emphasized. “Don’t make me wish they’d sent Dead Eye with me!”
“I wish they had!”
As she leveled us off, I dug into the duffle again.
“Finally!” I exclaimed, freeing the M3 submachine gun from the bag and readying it for action. “Where is that bastard?!” I looked around but didn’t see our target anywhere.
“It’s on our tail!” Thirteen called.
Sure enough, the slavering mutant bird was on our six. I swung the gun around.
“Do NOT shoot me!” Lucy warned.
“Do you want the gun?” I asked, wind threatening to whip the weapon out of my hand.
“NO! Hang on. I’m pulling an Immelmann! When you’ve got a clear target: Shoot!”
Turned out an Immelmann was a half-loop climbing up with a flip at the top to turn us—and my stomach—right-side up again, facing the other way. The Huff-Daland’s fabric, wood, and metal screamed all the way through it, barely holding together.
But as we came out of the turn, the bird lay dead ahead of us, coming straight on in an enormous game of sky chicken.
I brought the gun to bear.
“Do NOT shoot through the propeller!” Lucy warned. “You’ll cut it to pieces! Shoot the thing’s belly!”
I had no idea how to do that when we were aiming for a head-on collision, but I had to trust my fellow agent; she’d kept us alive so far.
The monster zoomed toward the biplane; its fetid breath washed over us…
As we were about to hit, Lucy nosed the plane down. The thunderbird soared overhead, and I emptied the M3—all thirty-two shots—into its glowing belly.
That killed the beast, but nearly finished us as well.
The dying bird’s talons raked our top wing as it passed, tearing the canvas to shreds.
Then the Huff-Daland and the monster were both spiraling toward the desert floor, thousands of feet below.
I held on with all my might, not caring that the empty M3 slid out of the cockpit and careered through the open air.
Somehow, at the last instant, Thirteen managed to straighten us out. The Huff-Daland hit the earth with a spine-rattling impact that shook my eardrums like a thunderclap. Our landing gear buckled, and then we were skidding, twisting, the fabric skin tearing off the plane.
The ruined biplane tilted left, and pain shot through me as both the fuselage and my left leg slammed into the ground. I screamed, and just as I thought we were done for…
“You okay, Ruth?” Thirteen asked.
“I think my ankle’s pretty busted up. You?”
“Lucky, as usual—rattled and bruised, but otherwise okay.” She climbed out of the aviator’s seat behind me, what was left of it, and then helped me from the wreckage.
“I think I spotted the store over that next ridge,” she said. “Can you walk it?”
My left ankle wasn’t happy, but…
“If it’s that or wait here to see if there are any more of those birds… I’m walking!”
About “Thunderbirds Are Glow”
One of the tricks with this series is what agents to feature in what adventures and which of our three main narrators—Ray Tyler (Agent One), Suzanne “Rocky” Rockford (Agent Three), or “Ruthless” Ruth Donlevy (Agent Seven)—best fits the tale I want to tell.
This episode originated with a snippet of a note in one of my commonplace books (as most of them do), and as I hammered the idea into an actual story, it became obvious that I needed our pilot “Ace” Freeman in the cockpit and “Ruthless” Ruth tagging along as gunner. Unfortunately, our original actor couldn’t keep performing Ace, and our backup also fell through at the last moment.
That left me having to rework the story as our deadline loomed. I considered replacing Agent Two with Agent One, or one of our other regulars—but none of them really felt right for the aerial acrobatics of the story.
So, I decided to create an entirely new aviator character to fill out the ranks. Remembering some shows I’d seen about the WASPs of WWII, I quickly decided that the new character should be a woman, and Agent Thirteen, “Lucky” Lucy Ryan was born. She’s not only fun in her own right, she’s also a nice compliment to Agent Two (if we can ever re-cast him), and she pays homage to the overlooked heroines of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Look them up. They were amazing.
This revised pair not only keeps our agent mix interesting but also varies the Point of View (POV) of the series. This last is especially important for the radio-style readings of Atomic Tales that are being produced by my buddy Christopher R. Mihm over at SaintEuphoria.com. Varying the POV changes up the mix of voices you hear in our little dramas every month.
In this case it’s also interesting because this is the first case where we have two women working the investigation, and because it’s the first story where we’ve had an agent with a double digit number. (In the U.S.S.B., agent numbers are equivalent to agent rank—so, here, Seven outranks Thirteen.) Plus, this particular situation gives brainy Ruth more of a fish-out-of-water experience than I wouldn’t have gotten even with “Ace” Freeman behind the stick. Lucy is just as good a flyer as Ace is, but Ruth doesn’t know her as well. All of which makes this high-flying adventure a real roller coaster ride for Agent Seven.
I decided it would be most exciting to start the tale in the middle of the fight (a storytelling device that’s always fun) and then cut away to fill in the background and build some suspense before revealing the episode’s smash-bang climax.
In my notes, I had pondered having a stronger Native American connection in this story. The thunderbird is, after all, an indigenous term/creature, and the part of me that loves myths and adventure tales would really have liked more traditional elements in my final product.
Thinking upon it, however, I decided that I really didn’t know enough about Native Americans and their traditions either now or in the 1950s to do justice to indigenous peoples or their traditions here.
Instead, I decided to “hang a lantern” on my own ignorance by putting in Jimmy “Skycloud” Skylar, a character representing some of the non-native cliches about the culture, as a kind of warning.
I then went on to tell the type of UFOs and Giant Monsters action epic that Atomic Tales is all about.
I hope my decisions work for you and all my readers!