Decommissioning

by John Possidente
When I put it on, my flying suit was cold.

I figured somebody had been playing practical jokes with the coolant system again.
If they were expecting a reaction, they picked the wrong woman. I'm not what
you'd call a good sport. I kept a straight face, but every one of the tiny hairs on my
body stood up like flagpoles. Though it's against regulations to power up a suit in
the hangar, I slapped the contacts. I had to check the readouts. Tilting my open
helmet up so I could see the data panel, I gave it a quick glance--all nominal.

Captain Armstrong shot me a look, and I powered down right away. Discipline
had been getting pretty lax in the months since our return from Mars, but
Armstrong wasn't about to let us get as sloppy as some of the other strike groups.
He didn't believe for a minute that the aliens were finished with us.

I nudged Chunk, my wing. Our suits sounded like two beer kegs colliding. "You
know," I said, "I've been out on fifteen S and R's, seven of them in this exact suit,
and the armor's never felt cold inside."

At first, he looked startled, then serious, but he smiled a little. "If I didn' know your
psi rating was so low, " he grumbled, "I'd'a thought you were readin' my mind."

"Sergeants' prerogative," I said, "Sergeant." Chunk had been upped to 'Sergeant'
Horatio Chung just before the action at Cydonia, just in time to get reassigned to
my CYA squad and stay on the surface. The transfer probably saved his life, but he
still wasn't too happy about it. He had told me so, loud and clear, our first day
back. He'd also explained his other requirement.

"Nobody uses my real name," he'd said quietly. The walls of my office--and my
ears--were still ringing from his shouting. I barely heard him. "Just tell them all to
call me Chunk."

I'd seen his personnel file, so I didn't need to ask why. Horatio Chung had been in
two fistfights a week, starting the first day of training when he'd neatly decked his
Drill Sergeant. The only soldier to ever be drummed out of X-COM for "personal
reasons"--translation: psycho--was named Chung. So, naturally, rookies named
Chung get a lot of ribbing, and Horatio was no exception. It was his reaction,
coupled with his fighting ability, that set him apart.

Somebody up front bellowed, and we started trooping into the old Skyranger.
Nobody had had to tell us why we were transporting in the Mark I Rustbucket
today. The last of the engineers left two days ago on the Lighting, and the Avenger
has been gone for weeks. Except for the radar array, which we'd spent the last
three weeks rigging for remote operation, this base was empty and ready to be put
on Standby--indefinitely mothballed.

They say that olfactory memories are the strongest. I don't know, but the air in that
old transport sure sent me down memory lane. I shuffled to the top of the ramp, off
the thin, oily padding worn through by hundreds of armored feet.

As soon as I stepped onto the crosshatched steel flooring of the main bay, I heard
the old boot-clang and walked face first into memories of my first mission. I got
DelVecchio's musky sweat sitting on my right, next to the ramp. I remembered that
I'd smell that farm boy and put up with his clumsy flirting on the way to six Search
& Retrieves and one Terror Site. Then a Reaper would rip his head off in Madrid.

Ahn was on my left, doused in some awful concoction his mother had given him
before he left home. "Mom says, guaranteed to keep away biting insects," he
explained. In Korea, they were ordered to tell their parents they were fighting an
epidemic. Bugs are bugs, so we called it "Mrs. Ahn's Bug Spray". It didn't work.

Even the dust that puffed out of the sagging cushions had it in for me. When I
lowered my suit down next to Chunk, I got a strong whiff of burnt, empty plasma
cartridges. I remembered that one from the hours I spent staring up at the ceiling of
the Skyranger. My stretcher had just been dropped in the aisle like so much dirty
laundry. The jolt had really hurt, but I was lucky anybody'd even stopped for me.
Among other things, my eyelids had been fried off by a close call with a heavy
laser. That was Madrid again. Out of ten of us and a rocket tank, two walked
home and two were carried. I had to have new corneas put in. The other surviving
casualty, Edgar Roschenko, got too close to a prox on his first mission out of the
hospital. He was running from a Chrysalid, so he was probably better off blown up.

At the roar of the Skyranger's takeoff jets, reflexes brought me out of dreamland. I
checked my harness and my gear thoroughly. For a few seconds, I was
frantic--couldn't find my extra ammo. Then I remembered that we hadn't been
issued any. I leaned to my left and checked over Paul Aries' gear--while Chunk
double-checked mine--then put my hands in my lap. Done and clean.

I took a look around the darkened bay. By the dim amber in-flight lights, I could
see Armstrong's mouth moving. Everybody knows nobody can hear over the awful
din of those old engines, so he must have been talking to himself. He wasn't
praying; if Armstrong was religious, he'd had better opportunities to show it. I
nudged Chunk again and pointed.

Chunk signed to me, "Sometimes I talk to keep feelings away."

We reached cruising altitude, and the laterals kicked in. The rushing of the air was a
lot quieter than the engines, but only the harnesses kept us on the benches through
the change. I wondered why the pilot would be in any hurry, and started to sign so
to Chunk. I caught myself, realizing I could speak now. That was just instinct from
riding in the Avenger. The engineers put in every kind of radiation shielding you
could imagine, but never bothered soundproofing the damn thing. Except in space,
that ship was deafening to be in.

"Why's he in such a hurry," I said, pointing my suited thumb forward at the pilots'
area.

"Maybe there's an emergency," Chunk replied.

I thought about that for a minute. "That's a weird sort of wishful thinking, isn't it? I
almost feel like I'd rather be going out on another mission than closing down the
base."

"Touch of running gun in you," Chunk smiled. "Anyway, it's probably just some
Sectoid's cat got stuck up in a tree."

"Ha, ha." Captain Armstrong appeared, standing between Chunk and me in the
aisle. He was, as usual, not amused by us. "You two still don't get it, do you?"

I wasn't feeling too good about X-COM being slowly strangled to death by finance
officers and government bureaucrats. I took a big chance and told him so. What
was he going to do, demote me two days before my decomm? "I mean," I
continued, "all but the largest two of our bases have been shut down and turned
into remote-controlled radar posts, all our tech has started disappearing into
government security vaults somewhere, the Avenger left here under frankly
suspicious circumstances..."

"Advice, Sergeant," he interrupted me firmly, "Do not speak about the Avenger's
departure at your service debriefing." Armstrong swayed a little as we went through
a course change; experience had given him great balance en route--"air legs" we
called it. "Especially avoid mentioning any theories you might have as to its future
use. Am I clear?"

"Clear, sir." The Captain looked at me like he'd looked at Julius Kline on my first
desert mission. That was somewhere in Algeria, and he was only a Sergeant then.
We had just secured the lowest level of one of those monstrous supply ships, and
Rookie Kline got careless. If Armstrong hadn't stopped him, he would've walked
right into an "armed" lift--and into the prox we'd set there.

"Despite the plain foolishness of the administrators," he fairly spit the word, "who've
decided to carve X-COM up into bite-sized chunks, there are some humans with
foresight. Fortunately, one or two of them are in positions to safeguard our future."
With that, he turned and made his way forward again. I watched him until he was
well out of earshot; Armstrong went forward, glanced into his helmet, then
strapped himself in.

"Future?" I whispered to Chunk, "What the hell's he talking about?"

"I've got an idea," he replied, "but I'm not so sure I like it." Chunk peered into his
helmet for a moment. I think he was making sure his radio was switched off.
"There've been rumors, you know. I don't really believe it. You know how rumors
are. Anyway"

"Spit it out."

"I was about to," he looked suspicious. At least he didn't glance over his shoulder.
"The scuttlebutt is that two of the Colonels are ignoring the general order to
demobilize. They're finding ways to hide weapons and even craft from Command. I
heard they got the Avenger, and it's hidden somewhere in the Arctic. Also, fifty or
sixty units of elerium are supposed to be missing from General Stores."

"That's ridiculous," I said, a little too loud. Chunk looked scared for a second. I
quieted down, "General Stores is so tight they have to have new air delivered every
week. Nothing gets out of there without half of Command approving." I sat back
against the old ceramic alloy fuselage, "It's all squeak, just soldiers dreaming that it's
not all coming apart."

Chunk sat back, too. He sighed a big sigh, "I know how they feel."

One or two of the newer squaddies had unstrapped themselves for the long ride to
the Cheyenne Mountain Decommissioning Center--our first scheduled stop and my
point of departure. It was a good thing Chunk and I hadn't. I'd guess we were
somewhere over Alaska when the Skyranger suddenly heaved at least fifty degrees
over to port. Markley and Chandra got dumped, armor and all. I could barely hear
their scared screaming over the piercing whine of the engines and the clanging of
writhing Power Suits. By instinct, I locked up my helmet and powered the suit.
After so many missions, whatever had hit the transport wasn't going to kill me that
easily. Chunk's suit was floating a centimeter above his cushion, thumbs up, when I
turned to check him out.

As quickly as it had slewed over, the transport righted itself. It still felt shaky, so I
kept my suit hot. I bit the radio toggle and started being a sergeant.

"Pipe down, Markely! You're not hurt" I yelled. Every frequency was a zoo.
"Grigory! Power down that suit! Martin! Shut up" I unstrapped and floated over to
the pathetic mass of flailing power armor. Whacking my fist against the back of
Chandra's suit I switched frequencies, "Chandra, if you don't stop pretending to be
unconscious, I'm throwing you out the airlock! Power up and get back in your seat.
Now" He got up.

Chunk had Markley by both shoulders and was holding him up in the air. As soon
as the two of us had gotten into the act, everyone else had stopped squawking over
the radios and settled down. War over or not, nobody wanted to get on the wrong
side of Jefferson and Chunk.

Just then, the Captain got on the all-band, "Attention. Attention." The old guy
wasn't shaken at all, which was typical. "We are having engine trouble. The pilots
have found an airstrip and we have obtained permission to attempt an emergency
landing. Everyone will secure themselves and remove their suit batteries. I repeat,
remove the batteries from your armor. That is all."

I switched off my radio and turned to sign a snide comment to Chunk, but he was
facing me with his hands out palms forward--the ancient signal for, "Not now, the
boss is watching." I secured myself and made sure the rest of the soldiers were in
place. I didn't like it, but I pulled my suit battery, too.

As Chunk placed his in the lockbox under his seat, he signed to me, "This stinks on
ice."

Armstrong sat at the end of the aisle watching every soldier. He seemed especially
interested in Chunk and I. I carefully signed where he couldn't see, "Batteries won't
break on impact. He must know something he's not telling us." We'd never had a
reason to distrust the Captain before, but you don't get to be an X-COM veteran
unless you've got a big dose of paranoia in your personal makeup. Chrysalid
victims always took care of trusting soldiers.

When I leaned down to stow my battery, I twisted slightly to hide my hands from
Armstrong's line of vision. As fast as I could, I hit the elbow switch that armed the
emergency backup battery, then twisted back. Armstrong knew we all had a
backup. If he was up to something, he'd be watching to make sure nobody got a
chance to touch their elbows. I figured I only had that one shot. Call it insurance.

The landing went off without a hitch. In fact, the only sign of engine trouble was the
jittery flight in. The rear bulkhead dropped; just the sound made my adrenaline start
pumping. This was the way every mission started: tingling all over, knowing you
could die your first step out of the transport. I had no ammo and only the spare
battery for my suit. Suddenly, I was scared. Best cure for that is having the
responsibility for other people's lives.

I popped my helmet seal and started yelling, "Strap out! Stand in line! Clear your
clips! Fall out" I ran through the sequence for a return to base. If it didn't calm me
down, it might at least have made some of the guys feel better. They trooped out
onto the tarmac like good little soldiers. Chunk fed me a tight smile. He thought
something was up.

If there was anything going on, it didn't show. Whoever was manning the airfield
gave us exactly the wide berth the secrecy of our organization required--they never
showed their faces at all. Armstrong led us off the runway and into a corrugated
Quonset. The inside resembled nothing more than a military cafeteria--long tables
and lots of plastic chairs. On his order, everyone removed their suits completely.
Then we just stood there, feeling stupid in our underwear.

"We're going to be here a while, so make yourselves comfortable," he announced.
"Colonel Gunkel tells me that no transport will be available to gather us up until
tomorrow morning. Harris and Ong will be working on the engines until then." With
that, he disappeared into a tiny room at one end of the building. He emerged
seconds later with several cases of beer, which he dumped unceremoniously at the
end of a table.

"Enjoy," he said. "You've earned it." We all did.

Half an hour later, everyone was feeling a lot better about the forced stopover.
Several of the squaddies had already passed out, and even Chunk was wobbly on
his feet. Leaning heavily on my shoulder, he confided in me, "Never could freakin'
hold much." Then he sat down on the floor and started snoring, very loudly.

A few minutes later, I was the only one on my feet. They dropped where they
stood--all over the floor, on the tables, or draped uncomfortably over a chair.
"There's gonna be some achy soldiers tomorrow," I said to the sleeping room.
That's when the floor opened up.

Right away, I went for my gun, but all I could do was sit down on the floor. It
wasn't aliens that came boiling up out of the basement, anyway. Twenty or so white
coats climbed up and started loading my soldiers onto stretchers. That seemed like
a good idea; they needed to be woken up. I tried to say so.

"Ungh. Brrg. Mmph." I got somebody's attention, but I didn't communicate
anything but my location. The guy who picked me up was big and blond with
sensitive blue eyes. That's all I remember, except for a whizzing view of the ceiling
and the rough sheet under my back. Then I went bye- bye.

I woke up flat on my back with a vicious headache.

There was a bright light shining in my eyes, but I knew I was in a hospital room. It's
a smell you never forget. I tried to sit up, but nothing happened.

"Chunk?" I said weakly.

I thought I heard a woman say, "We got another waker" The voice was really
muffled and far away, though. I might have imagined it. I reached for my face, but
my hand bumped up against something in the way. There was a hissing sound, very
faint, and I started to feel cold again.

"What the hell's going on?" I said. "I have to report to the decomm center." I was
woozy and didn't have any strength to struggle. "We're putting the X-COM
equipment in storage." Was it really getting cold, or was I imagining it? "I have to
go to decomm, dammit." I was starting to get pissed, but something struck me. A
lot of things can make you feel cold--anesthesia, for one--but we were putting
X-COM in storage...


                                            END