Amputations

"There."

Castellano's finger touched the cloud banks over Florida. Mulligan strained to see anything relevant.

"What?"

Castellano continued to stare at his workstation's radar display. Smiling quietly, he nodded his head repeatedly.

"The bastards are coming in through the clouds. They're moving slow, trying not to set off any alarms based on speed. Clouds disorient the radar enough to give the ships the benefit of the doubt. And they're running really, really quiet--only one pulse per minute, and that one's an ultra high frequency, targeted straight out of the atmosphere."

"If you can't pick them up, how can you tell that they're there?" asked the Senior datatech.

"Oh, they're in there all right," smiled the triumphant Castellano. "The ship hulls are giving off enough heat from the atmospheric descent--they probably came in really fast over the Caribbean--so I got an infrared satellite photo displaying the bastards the second they hit those clouds. They're leaking heat, and you can see it."

Castellano tapped his workstation's touchpad. A blow-up of the satellite photo depicted four quite prominent heat signatures.

"I'll get the alarms," muttered Mulligan.


A minute turned into ten, and ten turned into an hour.

"You sure you saw something?" asked Schancer. He leaned over the radar screen. Nothing, absolutely nothing was visible.

"Cross my heart and hope to die, sir," replied the datatech.

Bright, slouched in a corner, sighed. "Can we get some sandwiches in here?" asked the lieutenant commander.

"Tom, all the cooks are sitting in Fort Bragg right now, along with the 'Rangers and everybody else who doesn't shoot a gun or man one. Go get yourself something," ordered the commander.

Rawlings cleared his throat. "The troops are probably getting hungry, too. It's near supper time."

Rolling his eyes, Schancer responded, "What? What? Have the bugs learned siege warfare all of a sudden?"

"Larsen probably felt that the evening meal was our weakest time of day," countered Rawlings.

I hate it when he's right, grimaced Schancer.

"There are field rations in the walk-in refrigerator. Dispatch a team of secondaries to distribute them," ordered the Southerner as he grew aware of the growing pangs of hunger in his gut.

"Oh, and wiseguy, you can get us some grub," added Schancer. "Make sure there's stuff for these techs, Jack."

Mulligan looked away, grinning. "Bodyguard? Huh."

"More like a butler," added Castellano.

"Hey, Ralph?" asked Bright, standing up. "You ever read that German's novel--'All Quiet on the Western Front?'"

"Senior year, honors English. It was me, Mr. Applegate, and Darleen Miller. Though, I have to admit that my thoughts were more on Ms. Miller than the book."

Bright grinned, flashing a row of perfect white teeth. "Can't say my reading of the work was that enjoyable. But all this waiting and hunger reminded me of the basis of a conversation from Remaque's novel--is it better to eat before a battle, and possibly suffer infection from gut wounds, or is it better instead to go hungry and not get infected when shot?"

"I think that's irrelevant in this age," answered Schancer. "We have antibiotics to clean up people."

Bright shook his head. "I'm not concerned with the literal meaning of that shit. What I'm wondering is--is it better to have something to fight for, like the comforts of life in these bases, or its it better to have nothing to lose, so you can fight selflessly?"

Schancer rolled his eyes. "Since when have you become the philosopher, Tom?"

"Against a backdrop like this, who can't?" snorted the lieutenant commander. "We are fighting, in essence, for the survival of our species. Hell, if Hitler and Tojo and Musollini had won World War Two, there would still be people walking around today. But if we fuck this, then that's it. No more racism, no more concerns about pollution, no more fear of overpopulation..."

"You almost make defeat sound good," muttered the Southerner.

"All that shit is just that--shit. Compared to what we are fighting right now, none of that matters. And this planet's going to suffer because of that. Did you know that Larsen and Molotov were considering using a nuclear bomb--a nuclear fucking bomb--to wipe out the Caucasus Hive? I mean, that was small potatoes to some of the other places we think the bugs are working out of. What next? If we fuck a terror raid, do we nuke the place? Are we going straight to scorched-earth?"

Rawlings stomped in, red-faced and bearing a tray stacked high with mess tins.

"Yer lunch, generalissimo," muttered the bodyguard, handing Schancer the first MRE.

Schancer peeled back the aluminum wrapping. He made a face at the food within.

"Sure brings back the memories," he muttered.

Rawlings distributed the other MREs to Bright and the remaining techs. Saving the last for himself, the bodyguard resumed his position at the entrance to the communications room.

Schancer gingerly tasted a strange-looking substance. Grunting his approval, he dug into the green-tinged jello.

"I don't think we'll ever go that far," he replied to Bright's thesis. "The Council would have a collective heart attack if we pulled a stunt like H-bombing Tokyo."

Bright frowned. "Don't you understand, sir? The Council is irrelevant! Ninety percent of our operating income is supplied via weapons sales, some to friendly militaries like your SDF deal, and others to not-so-clean organizations. Shit, I nearly approved a shipment of two hundred laser rifles to the Iranians! The Council isn't the hand that feeds us anymore. When they stopped increasing our funding at the appropriate rate, they withdrew responsibility for us! Sure, they might think they're in control, but it's people like you--you, Commander--who pull the strings around here. And if you want to nuke every city on the Pacific Rim, there's not a helluva lot anybody can do to stop you."

The comm room was silent for a long moment before Rawlings applauded weakly. Schancer shot him the evil eye, and the sergeant stopped.

"One problem with your logic, Tom. We don't have nukes," rebutted Schancer.

Bright set down his tray, clutched his stomach, and started laughing like a true madman. Wiping his eyes and struggling to contain his twisted glee, the lieutenant commander managed to say, "Ralph, that's flat out wrong! Ever think what happens to Elerium when it reaches critical mass?"

Schancer stepped back, visibly shaken. He opened his mouth to speak, but in the sick style of Lady Fate, the base alarms erupted.

"Here they come!" shouted Castellano. He touched a button, and the main projector screen flashed to life. Four UFOs--two very large and two scout sized--shot out of the upper levels of the Florida clouds and sprinted for Bluegrass.

Schancer touched the PA control.

"All assault teams, all secondary teams, power up and move into position," ordered the commander, pitching aside his half-finished meal. He tapped a few more controls.

"ALL XCOM UNITS, ALL XCOM UNITS. THIS IS BLUEGRASS. BASE RAID! BASE RAID!"

Schancer leaned back from the microphone, a wry smile on his lips.

"OK, what do we have to work with?"

"Two, Three, Five, Six, and Eight Bluegrass, plus two teams of secondaries," answered Bright.

Schancer touched a key on his workstation. The blueprints of Bluegrass Base rose on the projection screen. Hangars were to the north, the northwest, and the west of the main base complex. Off to the east, a corridor led to the primary supply lift.

Within the main base, the engineering sections took up the western third, the barracks the eastern third, and the main hall and communications area the northern third. Passages from the main hall led to each hangar, with the combat prep room halfway to the northwest hangar.

The commander examined the tangle of underground caverns. Finger pointing, he ordered, "Six and Eight guard the prep room. Two at the main hall exit to the northern hangar, Three at the exit to the western hangar. Five stays back near the access lift and as reinforcements."

"Got us spread pretty thin," muttered Bright. He pulled a microphone from his collar and directed the teams to their positions.

He turned back to Schancer. "Though I can't see any other way."

"Get the secondaries to dump anti-personnel mines in the passages and the lift."

"Kinda short on those, too. What gets priority?"

"The lift," replied the commander. "They won't be able to avoid them as well in there."

"Captain Lehman?" asked Schancer as he pulled his headset's microphone closer to his mouth. "Keep an eye on the other entrance to the prep room. If the bugs beat us out of the main hall, I'm going to withdraw survivors into engineering and the barracks."

He frowned for a moment as the team leader responded. "That won't happen. This is our territory, and we're going to beat the bejesus out of them."

Bright looked up. "Lift mined. Where do you want those secondaries?"

"Keep that team at the lift to back up the Fifth. Other one, I want it in the main hall. Tom... I want you to join your team. If this goes bad, the Sixth and the Eighth are going to be cut off in the prep room."

The swarthy lieutenant commander nodded. "Keep 'em fighting."

As he marched out of the door, Rawlings whispered, "Bring back my pistol, sir."

Bright nodded and tapped the weapon.

"I'll put some notches in her handle first."


"Hangar doors sealed. Lift powered down. Ventelation on standby. Power on standby."

Schancer quietly crossed his fingers as Datatech Mulligan counted off the base's systems.

"Lift doors sealed. Batteries on. External power disconnected. Emergency lighting on."

The commander hoped that he'd be around when power was restored.

"Cannon defences are functioning at maximum efficiency. Missile defences are functioning at maximum efficiency. Laser defences at full charge--on standby. Targets are one hundred fifty kilometers and closing rapidly."

Mulligan looked at Schancer. "Fire when in range?"

"Do we get a reload?"

The datatech shrugged. "Those ships have godawful long-range primaries. We might get off another shot--or we might not, sir."

The UFOs approached the hundred twenty kilometer mark.

"They are slowing; the smaller contacts are taking up flanking positions."

"Disregard them. Use the cannons if they get too close, but focus everything else on those heavy ships."

"Yessir." The datatech ground his teeth and snuck a glance at the nine millimeter pistol sitting on the next console.

"The very large contacts are in range of the missile batteries; firing now."

Schancer, Mulligan, and Castellano strained their ears for the sound of the launches. However, the defenses were scattered across the hills encircling Bluegrass Base--far out of hearing range.

"Small contacts are accelerating in--seventy, sixty-five, sixty..."

"Get those cannons on them!" ordered the Southerner. "They're going to strafe us. How long to missile reload?"

"Thirty seconds--ships are opening up. Lasers firing on very large contacts, focusing on lead target."

The dull roar of green lighting--the heavy UFO's primary weapons--shook the base.

"Battery Two is gone, lasers firing again. Missiles firing. Cannons-"

An explosion rumbled overhead.

"They got the supply depot and Cannon Battery One," moaned Mulligan. "Laser Two has malfunctioned--God damn it!"

"Did the cannons get those scouts?" asked Schancer.

"One UFO is withdrawing--Missile Battery Three is destroyed, sir."

Dozens of above-ground explosions began to rock the base.

"We got the second scout. It's dumping atmosphere and dropping like a rock. Cannon Battery Two just took a direct hit from the heavies."

"Get those on screen," ordered the commander.

A fuzzy image resolved into a long-distance view of two ominous aerial fortresses approaching. Plasma spit out of the giant UFOs, snatching up tons of earth and throwing it a dozen stories into the sky. A patch of maples vaporized under their dread barrage, and the smoking remains of the supply depot took another series of sickening hits blasting chain link fencing and metal sheds into nothingness.

A thin beam of barely visible light reached out from a hillside to touch the side of the nearest ship. It paused momentarily before turning ninety degrees and pumping out a one-two, one-two burst of superheated Elerium into the Appalachian forest.

"Laser One is gone," muttered Mulligan. "And Missile Battery One is out of shots."

"Shit," grumbled Rawlings, clutching his modified heavy plasma tighter with every sledge hammer blow of the three story UFOs.

The very image of desperation, an automatic cannon, equipped with armor-piercing shells, rattled a burst into the underside of a UFO. It drifted by, unawares. Another barrage from the automated weapon attracted the UFO's attention. It wrathfully torpedoed a dozen plasma shots into the defence mechanism's concrete bunker.

"Cannon Three is destroyed," mourned the datatech.

The projection screen displayed the steaming hole where the gun emplacement had been. The two huge UFOs continued to hover above. A pregnant pause in their barrage resulted in the return of a scout ship.

The flying cross landed in the smoldering center of the demolished supply depot. Aliens scrambled out of its hatch and wandered about on the almost martian surface of the violated Appalachian valley.

"Looking for the hangar entrances, I'll bet," mumbled Schancer.

After a few minutes of frenzied action, the aliens, mere blotches from the camera's view, returned to their ship and departed.

The heavy UFOs opened up with a vengeance. Barely ten seconds passed before they'd again plastered the valley floor with plasma; and then they send their death beams into the surrounding hills. Ancient oaks and maples spontaneously combusted or geysered meters into the sky. Finally, the remote camera was hit.

Mulligan winced as the screen went to static.

"Spent a damn month wiring those," muttered Castellano.

Schancer immediately filled the screen with an overhead view of Bluegrass.

Two seconds passed before Mulligan reported, "All hangars breached. Lift holding, they must've caved in the thing."

But the siege continued unabated. The ceiling shook with dozens of earth-crushing blows dealt from the two ships. A light shattered, a tile fell, and then a bank of monitors, used for tracking a team's progress in battle, plunged from above, smashing a radar console to bits and causing Castellano to jump.

Hundreds of bolts savaged the base, overturning furniture and a few soldiers. A section of ceiling collapsed deep within the barracks, crushing rows of hastily vacated cots. Air ducting, water pipes, and electrical cables snapped and spilled from their mountings. And in the access lift, the mines went off when the entire elevator lift assembly came crashing down the shaft.

And then it stopped.

"-shit, holy shit," murmured Castellano.

"Check for casualties!" yelled Schancer in the eerie calm. "Get that lift re-mined, also!"

A moment of dead silence passed.

"HUMANS OF BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE!"

Rawlings glanced around. "Who said that?" he asked, but nobody answered. They were all looking up at the ceiling.

"HUMANS OF BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE! WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DREAD ELOHIM! TO RESIST US IS TO DIE. WE HAVE TAKEN FROM YOU YOUR FINEST WARRIOR. BLUEGRASSLARSEN IS WITH US NOW. HE HAS SEEN THE TRUTH. BLUEGRASSLARSEN HAS SEEN THE TRUTH AND HE IS ONE WITH US NOW. JOIN US AND THE TRUTH IS YOURS."

Silence thick with tension and the pungent stink of fear flooded Bluegrass's rooms and corridors.

The PA crackled to life.

"Bastards in the big ships! We are XCOM!" shouted Bright, his voice booming in the same method of the mind-speak. "We are Adam and Eve's kids. We RESIST."

"HUMANS OF BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE! JOIN US! YOU STUMBLE IN THE DARK, UNKNOWING THE LIGHT. JOIN US IN THE CLOUDS OF LIGHT AND TRUTH!"

"WE RESIST! WE RESIST BECAUSE THERE IS NO OTHER WAY!" bellowed Bright.

The voice paused.

"HUMANS OF BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE. YOU HAVE DECIDED. YOU WILL RESIST."

"Damn straight," muttered Rawlings, hefting his weapon.

"HUMANS OF BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE. YOU HAVE DECIDED. YOU WILL DIE."

A second of dread passed as the soldiers of XCOM waited for the hammer to fall.

Shrieks sounded in the distance as dozens of guided Elerium warheads poured into the breached hangars.

"Here we go," shouted Schancer.


Bright shuddered as a trio of the alien's tactical nukes gutted the northwest hangar.

"Flatt! Get back here!" he yelled to the Eighth's scout. Deciding that his officer's order was a wise choice, the armored soldier bounded away from the thick alloy door to the combat prep room. A second later, the bulwark shuddered as a wave of flame rushed down the corridor.

Bright glanced around at the soldiers of the Sixth and Eighth Bluegrass. They pressed themselves against the locker-covered walls or propped their weapons on the low benches. Bright's cheek twitched; one blast to destroy the door, and one more to flood the medium-sized room with flames and death.

"Six, pull back to the main hall! On the double!"

Bright ticked off the seconds as the 'other' team sprinted from the prep room. Nuclear explosions were everywhere, shaking the floor and ceiling and walls. The lieutenant commander swore as the prep room door buckled with a nearby explosion.

Maybe one more, maybe none, reflected Bright on the status of the door and how much more stress it could resist.

"Eight-"

The officer's order to pull back was cut short as a smaller blast kicked in the mangled sheets of alloy armor. He whipped up his plasma rifle, for the enemy were upon the Eighth.

The first bug through the door was one of the huge green monsters that had killed Singer and his people. Emerson, with his laser rifle, lanced it with a burst of microwave beams.

But the tremendous barrel-chested alien didn't go down. A hail of plasma bolts staggered the bug, ripping out chunks of roasted flesh or welting gashes across its torso.

Bright put the finishing touch on the monster with a head shot that blew off the creature's face.

Even as the first died, more of the seemingly invulnerable aliens burst through the doorway, plasmas firing and pitching grenades.

McPeake died with a heavy plasma shot through his gut. A green flopped over, its entire chest seared off. Another screamed, blinded by a laser shot to its eyes. Anthony ate a pineapple raw and choked on it.

Bright ejected a cartridge and ducked behind a low bench for another. A grenade vaporized a locker meters from him, tossing shredded metal across his armor. He plucked one from his belt and bounced it across the floor. It touched a green and amputated his leg with one grotesque blast.

Observing that the bug didn't die, Bright shot it multiple times before it could crawl away. Steaming from an open wound in its back, the green collapsed.

A green charged at Smiley. The rookie panicked and tried to dodge. Flatt tripped the monster and pressed a plasma pistol to its temple. A burst of Elerium beams cut the scout down before he could finish the job.

Screaming from a lacerated shoulder, Flatt collapsed.

Bright emptied his clip into the green. A bolt caught the lieutenant commander square in the chest and kicked him back a meter.

"Fuck you!" swore the officer, ripping out his plasma pistol and pumping a pair of rounds into the attacking green's exposed face. One shot went wild; another crushed the alien's throat.

Emerson took a shot, but he gamely tossed a pair of grenades at a fresh squad of the bugs. The blasts rocked the small confines of the room, kicking up floor tiles, perforating lockers, and eviscerating a pair of greens.

Martin gutted the choking green. Smoke poured from the gagging creature's mouth as his lungs melted.

Something bounced off of the lieutenant commander. Roaring his disapproval, Bright hugged the floor as a grenade geysered tiles a foot from his back.

Swearing with pain, he reloaded and continued firing.

Smiley drilled a green between its eyes. It fell on its face, still clutching a live grenade. It exploded, tossing gore over its comrades. The rookie moaned as a bolt ripped into his thigh.

Bright, firing his plasma rifle in one hand and his pistol in another, gunned down a blitzing green buck. The alien flopped on its back when a dozen plasma bolts seared its hide and punctured its internals.

It twitched. Bright shot it in the head.

Emerson was down, clutching his stomach. A green grabbed Smiley by his arm. Martin pumped a bolt into its leg. The alien collapsed. Smiley cleaned out the bug's skull with his laser rifle.

The three remaining aliens started to back out of the room, firing their heavy plasmas on auto. Bright winced as his right hand shattered from a blow. He tossed aside his spent plasma rifle and aimed his pistol. With two deft shots, he had one bug down and one screaming, favoring its right leg. Its knee was a pulpy mush.

"Withdraw! Withdraw!" Bright found himself screaming, only a quartet of charges left in his pistol and not a reload on his belt. He glanced around the frenzied battle scene. At least a dozen big aliens lay across the crushed tile of the prep room entrance. Six of Bright's eleven soldiers were down.

"Stanley! Grab Smiley and pull back! Martin, check Flatt!"

"He's dead, sir."

"Pick up Emerson then. The nukes are on the way, no time, no time!"

Jackson, a young female rookie, moaned from a nasty burn on her right arm. Bright stopped to help her up. He tried to grab her by her backpack webbing.

"What the fuck?" asked the colonel, his right hand flopping uselessly from his wrist. He peered at it, suddenly realizing that the burnt, mangled rag was his hand.

Bright holstered his plasma pistol and pulled Jackson up with his left hand. There was no pain in his destroyed appendage, only a dull sense of loss.


"Bright reports that his team has taken fifty percent casualties, but it has halted the main bug thrust," relayed Mulligan. His left hand clutched his headset, his right hand his pistol.

Explosions were still going off near the main hall, but after initial probing attacks by small green detachments down the north and west passages, the aliens had stayed their attack. However, dozens of blasts rocked the lift column as the aliens attempted to force their way into the base through the surface debris.

"Wish we had some of those tactical nukes," muttered Schancer as a particularly loud explosion knocked loose tiles from the communications room ceiling. Rawlings nodded and resumed watching the door.

"SHIIIT! THEY'VE GOT A TANK!" screamed someone over the radio. Plasma and SAW rounds flew in the hall outside. A pair of secondaries firing M-16s burst through the radar room doors. They leapt behind radar consoles and immediately turned to face the unseen enemy.

"What the he-" asked Schancer, but a green bearing a snub-nosed concussion launcher kicked open the double doors. He leveled the weapon at the human commander.

A trio of plasma bolts hammered the alien's chest and tossed the weapon from his grasp. Bleeding profusely, the bug staggered out of the room. A rocket-assisted grenade flew after him. The blast scattered viscera everywhere.

"Fifth? Fifth Bluegrass?" yelled Schancer, crouched behind a light table.

A secondary turned to face the commander. "They just went nuts, sir, and started shooting each other. We decided to get the hell out of there on the double."

"Psionics," muttered Rawlings. "I hate psionics."

The doorway exploded. Even before the thick metal slabs could land, a squad of greens poured in, all carrying concussion launchers. They spotted the techs and the commander.

Rawlings calmly dispatched the nearest brute with two measured bolts through its torso. Adjusting, he pumped a grenade into the far wall. It kicked down the monsters.

The bodyguard stood and shot the survivors in their backs, his heavy plasma geysering flesh, blood, and bone with every bolt.

"Boss, they seem to want you alive," shouted Rawlings as he eyed the dead green's weaponry. He loaded his grenade launcher attachment.

"Don't make their mistake," responded Schancer, yelling. "All teams, report in!"

"Aye, this is Bright. The bugs sent in their two hovertanks, but we got them. My heavy weapons man, Reno, is dead. I had to shoot him."

"The other teams, Tom!" reminded the commander.

"Sixth is in good shape, Two is at fifty percent, Three got massacred by the tanks, and most of the secondaries are alive."

"Where's Five?"

"Aren't they outside of your location?"

"Shit, I don't know where they are!"

"Sir, who do you have guarding you?"

"I have two secondaries, two techs, and Jack."

"Get those techs and the secondaries back, 'long with yourself. Give Rawlings a clean field of fire."

A guided missile detonated in the hall outside of the communications room. A lighting boom fell from the ceiling, tearing the projection screen in half.

A green, looking quite dazed, stepped into the room.

Rawlings shot it in the face.

Not quite dead, it fell to its knees and clutched its burnt features. Almost sobbing with pain, the alien curled up on the floor.

Rawlings looked at the creature for a half second, thinking.

He shot it again, this time killing it.

"Regroup in the manufacturing ward," ordered Schancer. "Make these fuckers go room-to- room!"

Bright grunted and switched off his radio.

"Look's like we're cut off," muttered the commander to his small detachment of soldiers and techs. "Castellano, Mulligan, you two secondaries, get at the back of the room, away from the door."

A guided missile shrieked down the hallway. Its explosion jostled the already mangled base.

Schancer pulled out his plasma pistol.

A pipe burst in the ceiling, sending a cascade of water over the mainframe's locker.

"Shit," swore Mulligan. The computer shorted and sparked.

A pair of greens wielding heavy plasmas piled through the door. They dove off to opposite sides; Rawlings shot the groin out of one and quickly panned to the other.

But more aliens burst into the room, pitching grenades at the entrenched bodyguard. Rawlings kicked out with his legs, knocking over the radar display behind he was hiding behind. The muffled blasts of the alien grenades shattered the device.

The bodyguard leveled his plasma at the aliens in the doorway even as he scrambled away. Two shots to get them down, a grenade to rip them up, two more shots to kill one; Rawlings was a machine.

One of the first greens into the room stood and opened up on the sergeant. A secondary pumped a burst of lead into the monster's torso. Reeling with pain, it turned to kill the soldier. Schancer shot it a half-dozen times with his plasma pistol. It died violently, perforated with holes.

Plasma streaked across the room and caught an unarmored secondary in the chest, killing him immediately. Rawlings rolled behind another radar console to reload; a grenade flew over him and clattered to the floor beside Mulligan.

The datatech's eyes went wide for the half-second before the blast. His shredded, lifeless body flew into the air.

"Fuck!" screamed Castellano. Rawlings leaned around his cover and nailed the green in its rib cage. Trailing thick blood, the alien scrambled out the door.

A moment of unearthly silence passed.

Schancer reloaded his pistol and glanced around.

This place is fucked, the commander thought as he reviewed the damage dealt in the communications room alone.

"Jack, how are you for ammo?" asked the Southerner.

Rawlings didn't respond. Instead, he jerkily stood and pointed his heavy plasma at the commander.

"Fight it off, Jack!" screamed Schancer. Rawlings moaned unintelligibly, shivering and twitching. With great effort, the bodyguard lowered his heavy plasma a fraction of an inch.

He emptied the clip into the floor a foot from Schancer. Rawlings' hand reached for the grenade launcher's trigger. Eyes wide with fear, the sergeant violently whipped his weapon's muzzle to point at the projection screen. His finger touched off the bomb, and it arced away to slam into the ripped canvas.

Even as the explosion died down, Rawlings collapsed to the floor, drained.

"Thanks, Jack," muttered Schancer. He glanced to the door just in time to see the tell-tale streak of an elerium-tipped guided missile.

"DOWN!" bellowed the commander. He pressed his exposed head against the floor and shielded it with his arms.

The blast was incredible; Schancer swore as he was kicked across the floor and into the nearest wall. A dagger of debris ricochetted from his back armor. The room's ceiling braces sighed and snapped. The screen's projector and its array of lights tumbled from their maimed mountings and slammed into the demolished computer arrays below. Heavy I-beams and electrical relays poured from above, crushing anything unlucky enough to be below.

Schancer waited until the dust was clearing before he opened an eye. Still clutching his plasma pistol, he cautiously looked up.

The communications room was utterly destroyed. The floor was knee-deep in rubble and bracing, and the Southerner thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't been crushed alive.

But he wasn't so sure of the others.

"Jack? Castellano?" he raggedly shouted.

Schancer glanced at the door. It was now four persons wide; most of the force of the blast had poured out the entrance.

"Jack?" The commander reached for his headset. It was missing. He touched his right temple. A thin cut ran across it.

The projector, a large, tricolor version, shook. A moment passed. Then it slowly rose up.

Rawlings, insane with fury, hefted the machinery and tossed it aside. Shuddering from the strain of the task, the sergeant looked less a man and more an animal.

"They got the techs, didn't they?" coughed the bodyguard as he brushed dust from his heavy plasma. Its sight was missing.

Schancer glanced over at the far wall of the room. A human arm, blood soaked at one end, lay atop a pile of shattered concrete.

"Castellano's dead," replied the commander in a tired voice.

"My radio's still working," reported Rawlings. "Bright and his crew just killed a squad of greys with those damn nukes. He thinks they were the assault leaders. I hope they died slow," he added, as if it was the worst possible fate.

"Is that it?" asked Schancer. "Did we win?"

Rawlings surveyed the desolation of the demolished structure. The soldier grasped his helmet and turned it fourty-five degrees to the right. It popped off, revealing the sweaty face of the bodyguard.

He spit on the heavy blocks of concrete that surround him.

"You call this victory?"


It took a week's worth of work, and scores of 'Ranger flights, but Bluegrass was finally salvaged of all its useful parts. The manufacturing wing of the base, largely untouched, was transferred to the new Lakota Base--Nader's Nebraska II. The survivors of the raid retired to their quarters to fish out any personal items they could find. The aliens didn't come back to finish the job, but it was unnecessary. Bluegrass was finished.

Rawlings, Schancer, Bright, and all the other soldiers of the strongest of the American bases went into the hills, searching out quiet groves of maple or sunny brooks. There, in groups of two or three, the dead were buried. Dozens of graves, not only for the assault troops, but for the secondaries and the techs who had stayed on to fight.

And then they left the scorched, raped valley in their wake.

Most went to Lakota, but three did not. Bride in his arms, and loyal bodyguard bearing the happy couple's belongings, Schancer boarded a 'Ranger bound for the nation of his destiny--the Land of the Rising Sun.

Flying off into the sunset, all three knew that the end was near.

Nine months near.


"So, I finally get to meet your geisha?"

"No--Jack, will you vouch for me?"

"You're in for some tough competition, Mrs. Schancer. She's very beautiful."

"I oughtta have you shot for that-"

"Oh, I can't wait to talk to her!"

"I swear, Sergeant Rawlings, I'm going to have Tahara gut you for that."

"A veritable cherry blossom. You'll get along just fine."

"I hope she's not a bimbo."

"Not at all. The commander can really choose them, if you'll pardon me."

"Of course."

"Jack, shut up."

"Very intelligent. She was first in her class at Doshisha."

"I'll have to ask here just where she learned some of the things she taught Ralph."

"Carrie..."

"Don't give me that, you philandering creep!"

"Heh heh."

"Somehow you've got this lie into your mind and you won't let go!"

"Don't touch me!"

"Bob, mind if I sit in the copilot's seat for a while... maybe the rest of the flight?"

"Fine, have it your way. Would-you-like-your-own-quarters-at-Kansai,-Miss-Colonel-of- Secondaries-Carrie-Unger?

"Thank-you-no. You'll just have to sleep on the couch."

"Thanks, Bob."

"Hey! Jack, where are you going?"

"You know what? You two act like you're married sometimes. You really do."

"..."

"Well, now that he's gone..."

"Maybe we should have a big wedding ceremony at the base?"

"Yeah, and have the greys crash the party."

"No... why not?"

"I'll see what I can do. Maybe we can get out for a few days. Go to Osaka. Do they have a 'Chapel of Love' there? Hmm."

"My! What will I wear?"

"Or maybe not."

"Hey! I like that idea--for once you have a half-decent one."

"We can't just step outside and hitch a ride to Osaka!"

"Well, why not? After all, you are the head honcho UberCommander!"

"Hmm. Don't talk about that... that will come soon."

"Mmm. Anyways. You were saying something about Rawlings being gone?"


The pilot eyed the swarthy-looking bodyguard with suspicion. The man was short, ugly as sin, and armed with a plasma pistol. Airtech Robert wrinkled his nose.

"Didn't your mama ever tell you that if you keep your face in that shape, it'll freeze that way?"

Bob rolled his eyes.

Rawlings leaned over the throttle controls and whispered, "You got a radio? Turn it on. It's gonna get real nasty back there-" The sergeant pointed a thumb at the closed bulkhead door.