In Earnest

"All ships, sound off," ordered Schancer.

"'Ranger One, all's well that ends well."

"Skyranger Two, now on cruise control."

"'Ranger Three, going for the gold."

Schancer peered at the 180 degree viewscreen fronting the newest XCOM assault transport. Beyond the dreams of Orville and Wilbur, this craft flew not by internal combustion engine and stretched canvas wings, but by harnessing the primal forces of the universe and funnelling them into gravitational fields.

"'Ranger Four, phasers set on kill."

"'Ranger Five, let's char-broil some grey butt."

The commander of all terran resistance spotted the formations of dark blue Skyranger light transports. Relying on twin jet engines, the slower aircraft had taken off thirty minutes prior to the launch of the faster Donners, Blitzens, and Schancer's personal ship, Gabriel.

"'Ranger Six, pick up sticks."

"Skyranger Seven, good bugs go to... hell."

"All 'Rangers reported in, sir," announced Airtech Will. The lanky Texan leaned back in the padded control chair of Gabriel. First of the new line of Avenging Angels, the Gabriel could out sprint, out maneuver, and out gun anything the bugs had, including their flying fortresses, the hated battleships.

"Donner One, commencing terrain-hugging protocol."

"Donner Two, lock and load, good to go."

Two small frisbees, bristling with heavy plasma cannons, shot by the right flank of the Gabriel. They were merely fighters, sent in to tenderize the landing zone for the less maneuverable transports. On their heels were a pair of larger ovoids.

"Blitzen One here. I'd like to take this time to thank all those-"

Schancer touched his stratcom radio. "Can it, Davidson."

"Yessir! Let's rock, rattle, and roll!"

"Blitzen Two. See you on the flipside, homeslice!"

The commander saluted Idzerda's transport as it flashed by.

"That leaves us, sir," proclaimed Will. He edged upwards the ship's grav drives, sucking forwards the heavily armored transport.

"Avenger One, reporting in. All craft accounted for."

Schancer selected the all-channels mode on his headset.

"XCOM," he rumbled, "PURIFY BY FIRE!"

Rawlings eyed the four men and one woman sitting across the Gabriel's aisle. None carried the standard fare of microwave lasers, plasmas, SAWs, or even the new tactical nukes. Devoid of any equipment, save a medikit here and a laser pistol there, all four might as well have been cattle for all their apparent combat abilities.

But then the bodyguard eyed the intricate maze of electrodes and wiring weaved through their hair or scattered across their bare scalp. Hundreds of contacts, designed to precisely measure and react to the wearer's brain waves.

A thin trickle of sweat rolled down Rawlings' forehead.

Psionics. I hate psionics, grimaced the soldier.

Five of them there were.

Marcussen, a short, balding man ballooned around the waste, thick folds of pale fat crammed inside his power armor. Must be what I look like in the mirror, realized the scarred sergeant. Except that I'm in better shape... and my face looks like a road map.

Lurie, the sole female amongst the five, was probably the most physically fit. Tanned and toned, her only vice had been extreme schizophrenia, cured by the training and care of XCOM's Victor Frankenstein--Chief of Research at Nevada, Harold Navarro.

Rawlings smiled at Lurie. The woman returned in kind, ambushing the ugly bodyguard.

Samuel Perkins was an unlucky rookie who'd stopped a bolt with his chest. Psi training had equipped him to deal with the chronic pain from his wound; it had also given him the right to fight again.

Poor fucker, winced Jack. Navarro probably railroaded him into the program while he was sedated.

'Kurt' Vigard, a short, blond man, was the most troubling of all five. Convinced that he was the reanimated body of some little known musician from the early nineties, the man was utterly insane.

"Damn thing's infectious," Marcussen had whispered.

Vigard's psionic specialty was exporting his delusions into the minds of others.

Reason why his armor's powered down and those electrodes aren't plugged in, thought Rawlings, eyeing the lunatic with contempt and a touch of fear. Greasy locks tied back in a knot, Vigard's red- rimmed eyes stared back.

The final psychic was none other than Wilkes.

"Hello, sir," Jack had said, unsure of the proper response.

The long tardy colonel had struck Rawlings as changed. True, his right arm was but a shriveled, useless appendage, and the left half of the man's face sagged slightly, but the difference wasn't merely physical.

It was more of the atmosphere that the man cast. As Wilkes had slowly walked up to the sergeant, the soldiers lounging about in the main hall had suddenly become focused, centering all their senses on the shade of a man that now stood amongst them.

Rawlings remembered the sensation well. A nauseous tinge of fear, of curiosity melted away with proximity to Wilkes, replaced instead by that of sureness, that something long wrong had at last been righted. Warmth, like that of a strong draught, had spread through every fiber of the bodyguard's body and soul.

"Hello, sir," the sergeant had repeated, adding, "Welcome back home."

Wilkes' strong left hand clasped Rawlings'; the bodyguard finding it not the least puzzling that he'd offered up his weaker hand.

"Thank you," had spoken the colonel, his every breath safety, warmth, rightness.

"Thank you for finding me when I was lost, Jack. Thank you for not leaving me behind. You're a good soldier, Sergeant; taking care of your own."

Taking care of your own.

Rawlings' back had stiffened at the mention of his greatest tragedy, of the quiet pool of despair licking at the bottom of his heart. Twelve dead men, only one survivor.

Taking care of your own.

But this time had been different. There had not been men left behind. He, Jack Rawlings, had come to the aid of his fellow soldier. He had waded in, when the crabs, the stink of death, had been as thick as wheat in the autumn, and he had fought his way in, and out, to save a man.

He had taken care of his own.

"Sir, the debt is mine," replied Rawlings, a tear working its way towards his eye.

Wilkes patted the sergeant on his back, every touch instilling strength in the man.

"We all did what we could," answered the colonel.

And then Wilkes had left, as suddenly as he had arrived, off to discuss the tactics of the raid with Commander Schancer. Rawlings had retired to his quarters, suddenly drained, yet feeling a new confidence incomparable with anything he'd experienced before.

The raid will be hellish, he had decided, but we, XCOM, will win. We will win because we cannot lose, because losing is not comprehensible.

Part of the bodyguard's mind asked, Now really, what is this blind faith? Has Wilkes stuffed your head with shit?

And Rawlings had answered, It's better that way, because nobody, nobody can face the possibility of fighting, and dying, in vain. We cannot understand defeat, so we resort to faith.

Fine, the bodyguard had thought. Fine. Faith and my heavy plasma.

Sakurai stood in the center aisle of his team's 'Ranger and cleared his throat.

Glancing down the twin rows of six faces each, six tanned, Oriental faces, the captain rubbed his hands together.

Speaking in his native tongue, he began.

"Fellow Japanese, today, the twenty-eighth of June, Two thousand and seven, we commence the greatest offensive operation XCOM has ever attempted. Eight assault teams, and four teams of secondaries will land in an invader facility. We will destroy it, and with it, its occupants."

Looking into the faces of his trusted friends--Tahara, Suzuki, Nakagawa--Sakurai continued.

"Today will not be the end of the war. But we have surely reached the beginning of the end. Even now, we have mastered the invaders' secrets of flight. We will hunt them down, to whatever stars they call their homes, and we will defeat them there. Today will not be the end of the war. But the end comes. And we will stand victorious."

Which ones will die? wondered the captain, looking into the naive eyes of a rookie and the jaded orbs of a veteran. Or will it be mine?

"This war has been long, brutal, and savage. Thousands of Japanese have died; tens of thousands of others have died, too. But we will win this war. And this is what I now say...

"Today, Japan raises her head high and joins the great nations of the world. Seventy some years ago, Japan invaded China, becoming a pariah among nations. Today, we do the same, but in the name of all humanity. Today, Japan realizes her full potential, not just as nation of factories and mills and of colleges and universities. A true superpower must fight not only battles of yen and mind, but those of the sword. We bring will fight with honor and courage. Today, Japan takes up the mantle of emperor among nations."

Pausing, and glancing down at the grating, Sakurai sucked in another lungful.

Face flush, he wound down. "So, as friends and soldiers, I thank you, for being the finest band of people I have ever led. It has been an honor to lead you; you have fought alongside me with bravery, honor, and intelligence."

The captain sat down.

A moment passed.

Tahara bowed his head, and the whole team followed suit.

Streaking in at treetop level, the two Donner fighters shot off in opposite directions, flanking a grouping of low, mist shrouded hills. An early morning sun rose far to the east, but fire of another sort poured into the sky.

A crouched giant stirred from its slumber, one hill erupted with a hail of plasma beams and darting guided missiles.

Canting wildly, the Donners exposed their twin plasma cannon, and the firefight began in earnest. Superheated particles roared through the fog, ripping into hillsides and splashing whole acres of bamboo into flaming molecules. A bolt slammed into a lazily winding river, flash boiling tens of thousands of cubic meters.

A plasma defense tower, nestled in an alloy bunker, took a glancing blow. Weapon disabled, its power feed shorted, blasting the bunker a half mile into the sky. Thick black smoke billowed from the hill's wound, and the Donners slashed by again, spinning, dipping, and diving to avoid dozens of thunderous bolts.

Twenty meters from the forest floor, a guided missile detonated, shearing down hundreds of bamboo trees. One Donner cartwheeled over the alien base, hacking away at the plasma cannon's cover. Another exploded, shaking the ground for dozens of miles. Another tactical nuke skimmed an XCOM fighter, gouging a hillside instead.

Belching smoke from a dozen wounds, the giant lashed out in its dying moments. Air rife with fusion bombs, the insidious missiles detonated in one synchronized flash, searing the life from ten square miles of China.

But from the aerial inferno, two victorious oviods scrambled, slightly charred. Turning their plasma on a far more testing target, they struck away at the welted alloy entrance to the alien base, a massive three football fields across.

Ineffectual, they clawed for sky as a single heavy fusion missile leapt from the horizon and burst the armored doorway. Massive plating, as thick as a house, blossomed into the air in a tremendous display of nuclear power. Raining down on the barren, smoldering landscape about, the debris tossed up clouds of dirt.

Rawlings traced the chrome lettering on his weapon's side.


"Entrance is breached!" hooted Wills. "Blitzens, go, go, GO! Barbecue some bug!"

Cruising in at low speed, the Gabriel escorted the massed 'Rangers. Though their boxy airframe made radar tracking something of an a difficulty, the Skyrangers lacked the maneuverability to tangle with PRC MiGs... justifying the presence of the Avenging Angel with its twin plasma cannon.

"Donners are inbound," reported the Airtech. "Commander?"

"Full ahead. Let's back up Idzerda and Davidson."

The Avenging Angel screamed away from the 'Rangers, the two fighters sent to replace it.

The dull crump-CRUMP of the transport's Fuel-Air Explosives rumbled, not so far away.

"All launchers set to standard fire?" asked Davidson for the fifth time in the flight.

"Yeah, yeah, sir," replied Hirsch, loading the massive weapon's barrel with an oblong silver football. If we're going to use them like fucking LAW rockets, wondered the senior sergeant, why didn't we bring some fucking LAWs?

Hirsch peered at the eight-inch long fusion bomb in his armored hand. Not only was there enough E-115 to flatten a city block inside its silver casing, but there was also a guidance system, based on small grav drives, that could send the bomb veering over and around obstacles.

And Mike wants to use them like fucking rockets, snorted the man.

"Thirty seconds to LZ!" yelled the pilot. It was Bob, the perennial XCOM fighter jockey, who'd downed over twenty UFOs and flown over two hundred ground assaults.

Hirsch touched his old laser rifle, its emitter and power pack strapped to his back. The weapon was obsolete, he knew, but nothing beat a laser when it came to sheer firing rate.

Something this nuke launcher doesn't have, he grimaced. Up at the Hokkaido training grounds, the fastest he could fire one of the launchers was a brain-numbing three rounds a minute, something akin to the days of muskets and grapeshot.

Checking his six bombs, Hirsch braced himself against the outer wall of the new transport as it descended into the alien base.

"Three, two, GO GO GO!"

Seals bursting, the Blitzen opened all five of its hatches, and the thirteen soldiers of the Fifth Kansai leapt out onto the scalded tarmac of the hangar.

Must've been impressive before we fucked it up, thought Hirsch, quickly scanning the cathedral ceiling and the half dozen medium and small UFOs parked underneath. Everywhere, huge slabs of alloy armor had fallen from above to crush anything unlucky enough to be caught underneath. Debris, brittle and charred, littered the flooring, and for a moment, it seemed as if the aliens had abandoned the facility.

"Move, dammit! Secure the LZ!" shouted Davidson, sprinting behind a mangled small scout and carrying another massive M-60. Every mission he'd bring one of the huge machine-guns along, and every mission, he'd manage to get it destroyed.

"Nothing hea, sah," muttered Aishu as he pointed his plasma rifle over a welted heap of metal.

Tokubetsu and Keikoku, Ika's replacement, scrambled behind a smashed large scout.

Hirsch jogged over to Aishu and readied his launcher.

"Mike--sir--there isn't shit happening here," he complained, nervously glancing around the expanse of the hangar.

"Idzerda's sending his men into the UFOs, cleaning those out. Find the lifts to the lower portion of the base and cover those."


Hirsch eyed a blackened recess on the nearest wall. Pulling a proximity grenade from his belt, he set the mine for no delay and bounced it across the flooring to within a meter of the entrance.

An odd whining noise off to one side caught his attention.

"What's that?" Hirsch asked.

Aishu shrugged, somewhat unnerved.

As it grew to a screaming, fever pitch, the sergeant spotted the source of the noise--a medium scout, pinned beneath debris, attempting to flee.

"Bob, we've got a live ship down here!" yelled Davidson, also noticing the commotion.

A thunderous beam of plasma lanced through the scout's hull, demolishing its drive and detonating its Elerium pile. Flaming sheets of alloy sprayed outwards, and the battle was joined.

A smaller blast ripped Hirsch's attention away from the smoldering ashes of the alien vessel. His prox mine...

"Greens!" yelled Tokubetsu, his plasma rifle up and firing.

There were dozens of them, sprinting out of the walls, armed with heavy plasmas and suicidal fanatacism.

Hirsch sighted the furthest one, and pulled the trigger on his launcher. Missile leaping away, he dove, already reaching for a reload. The warhead exploded before he hit alloy, a roaring WHOOSH that sent the better part of a green's head flying past Hirsch's.

"Holy shit," screamed Aishu, as a green shrugged off a trio of bolts and charged up to the squaddie. The monster shoved its heavy plasma into the soldier's face, but a hail of lead opened up the creature's entire right side.

Another guided missile screamed away, landing amidst a pack of grey technicians. Hirsch watched with distaste as the little aliens were brutally gibbed, only a pale greenish mist to mark their passing.

"Ok, enough of this shit," muttered Hirsch, tossing aside his launcher and pulling out his laser emitter.

A green, heavy plasma on full auto, charged at him. Seemingly impervious to the death flying about him, Hirsch calmly welded one of the bug's eyes shut.

Howling with pain, the green crashed atop the alloy heap that was Hirsch's cover. The sergeant reached over to the bug, pumped three beams into its thick skull, and pulled the alien's corpse to the top of the pile.

A bolt ate into the bug's thigh, splattering not yet congealed yellowish blood over Hirsch's face. He responded by lancing a beam through that green's torso, the task being completed by Tokubetsu's plasma rifle.

A grey, looking quite naked in the furious lashings of plasma, microwave beams, and old- fashioned lead, peeked out of a small lift room at the edge of the hangar. Its eyes seemed to gloss over, and Hirsch, aiming his laser emitter in the direction of the bug, felt the onset of a psionic attack.

He lined up the short bug's head in his sights and burned its fat cranium off.

"Psychic, huh," he muttered, blasting a crab off of a screaming Aishu.

Keikoku, the rookie, took a plasma bolt in his side. Tokubetsu grunted, crimson blood splashed across his armor. With a swipe of his hands, he pulled the lifeless body of his comrade over his own, using it as a shield.

Three more bolts scissored into Keikoku's corpse. The living squaddie swung his plasma rifle to bear, plinking a green. Spinning to the floor and gushing blood and half-digested food from its intestines, the green's skin erupted in under a hail of M-60 rounds.

"God damn," bellowed Davidson, punching a dinner plate sized hole in a suicidal crab. A bolt flew past the captain's ear; another welted his leg armor.

Hirsch tracked the shot back to its source, scorching a grey sniper in its arm.

A grenade shredded the little alien.

"Nice... arm," complimented Hirsch, as he gunned down a green.

Aishu grunted a response, but the death whistle of a guided missile streaking overhead drowned him out. Both sergeant and squaddie didn't bother to watch where the bomb was headed; instead, they covered their faces and ducked.

A tremendous explosion immediately to their rear sent a rolling wave of heat across their armored bodies.

Hirsch looked back--at the flaming wreckage of Blitzen One, his team's transport.

"Fuck," he muttered. But then a green leapt over the debris pile that had been his cover, and the sergeant didn't mull over the destruction of his ticket home.

A fist like a two-by-four crunched into his jaw. Hirsch responded by jabbing the big bug's eyes and delivering a series of jabs to the alien's rock-hard abs.

"Aishu!" pleaded the sergeant, kneeing the bug in its groin. A suspicious lack of pain in the monster merely assured Hirsch that he was about to die. He wrapped his leg around the alien's and both crashed to the alloy tarmac, the beating still going in full swing.

The soldier rammed an armored fist into the alien's jaw, knocking loose a few incisors. However, the infernal creature bit Hirsch's hand, eliciting a yelp from the sergeant.

Suddenly, a smoldering boot crunched into the back of the alien's neck. Another savage blow turned the bug's muscles to jello, granting Hirsch time enough to grab his laser emitter and burn a hole in the monster's heart.

Looking up to his savior, the sergeant whistled quietly. Light alloy armor blistered and still smoking and half his sun visor snapped off, Bob the Airtech was one pissed off pilot. A tiny golden crucifix, chain broken, swung from his clenched left fist.

"They blew up my ship," mumbled the enraged airtech.

"Thank God," replied Hirsch, immediately struggling to fend off the pilot's blows.

My God, what a sight for sore eyes.

Schancer surveyed the spoils of war from his vantage point on the Gabriel's rear ramp. Thick stacks of alloy, cut from the UFOs caught in the hangar, were already being hoisted up into the first few 'Rangers to have landed. Crates, specially marked as fragile, contained hundreds of kilograms of Elerium, sacked from the same UFOs. And rows of heavy plasmas, pried from the cold fingers of dozens of greys and greens, lay ready for secondaries to haul away.

The Ubercommander also saw the other side of the coin, the eight stretchers laden with wounded, maimed men and women, and the five stretchers whose occupants were beyond help. Cold blue eyes saw the price paid for just this fraction of the great alien hive, and those same eyes knew that there would be many more than five dead.

"Dillan, take out that secondary facility. Itoh, you're his reserves. Sakurai, Yoshii, go for the reactor, with First Nevada backing you up," ordered Schancer.

He watched his people scurry away on their assignments. Another 'Ranger took off, joining up with a Donner and a sister transport for the flight back to Kansai. The sooner we sack this toilet, the sooner we can go home, thought Schancer, waving to Commander Idzerda.

"Get this," said Schancer, pointing to the remaining debris in the hangar, "cleared out. I want a clean landing pad while we're running this place."

"Yes sir," replied Idzerda. "Do you want Davidson and myself to send some squads with Sakurai? Seems like you're really skimping on the main thrust."

Schancer shook his head. "The psis proved their value in New York; they are each equivalent to a squad of conventional assault troopers. Speaking of which, did you have psi trouble in the initial assault?"

"No," answered the South African. "Several soldiers reported light psionic probes, but nobody got mind controlled or panicked."

"That's good," muttered the American commander.

God damn, something isn't right here, thought Schancer.

"I think we hit them too hard, too fast, for their psychics to hit us bad. Anyways, looks like the rest of the show is just mop up--like the Caucasus raid. Just hunting down that last bug and packing up the goods."

Maybe it's missing Ogata, wondered the Southerner.

Five days ago, Ogata and his Seventh Kansai had assaulted a landed medium scout in South Korea. Hyperwave intercepts had listed the crew as primarily greens, tough bugs to tackle, but surely no match for thirteen toughened assault troopers.

After ten minutes of ferocious fighting at the LZ, the Seventh Kansai was no more. Massacred down to the last man, nobody, from Schancer to the airtechs who'd dropped off the unlucky team, had the slightest clue what had occurred.

Damn me for sending them out, winced Schancer. Should've kept them in, should've saved them for this raid, should've let the SDF or the Navy or the Air Force just toast the ship.

Focus, that was the word. Focus on the objective, and to hell with anything else. The commander sighed, for he had momentarily lost that focus five days ago, and now, he was stuck in the China Hive, possibly one team short of victory.

"Run the show, Commander," ordered Schancer, trudging back up the ramp of the Gabriel. No matter how things go inside the Hive, the Ubercommander reminded himself, I've got to stay alive, formulating and coordinating XCOM's global tactics. I am XCOM, he realized, bitterly, and there are only two people I answer to.

Recalling a fevered embrace from the previous night, Schancer grinned slightly.

Sorry, God, I guess that means three.

A soft footfall behind him made the commander twitch.



"Perhaps you'd enjoy watching the psychics in action," hinted Schancer.

A moment's silence passed.

"Yessir. Keep the bugboats occupied," replied Rawlings.

"Will do," smiled the Ubercommander, relishing the idiocy of the pun.

Battelene edged the tip of his heavy plasma around the corner. Glancing quickly, he breathed a sigh of relief, sucking in canned oxygen.

"Clear, for the next twenty meters."

"Proceed," ordered Dillan, from someplace far behind him.

The senior sergeant edged forwards, an armored finger tight around his weapon's trigger. Every step down into the hive he'd been expecting a fight, and with every moment's peaceful passage, his anxiety grew.

"Shit, I don't like this one bit," he whispered to the next soldier in line, Squaddie Nakano.

"Nor me. Where are the fucking bugs, sir?" responded the Japanese woman.

"Nomura, is Sawada still with us?" asked Battelene.

"Yes, but he smells like he shit in his pants."

Battelene held up a hand for silence, approaching the next corner in the gentle incline alone. He peeked around it.

"Clear, another forty or so."


The rest of Alpha squad joining him, Battelene muttered, "Well, so long as he doesn't give our position away to the bugs."

"I did not shit in my pants!" whined Sawada.

The senior sergeant rolled his eyes. Recruitment standards were going down fast, as Sawada exemplified. Most of the elite Japanese antiterrorist troops were either XCOM or dead or both, and now open recruitment from the regular Self-Defense Forces ranks was becoming the norm, bringing inferior troops into the 'COM.

And that, grinned Battelene, I don't like the smell of.

"Anything on the motion scanner?" asked Dillan, his radio message touched with static.

"Nada," replied Battelene. Even the low vibrations of alien machinery seemed to be lessening as the team moved further and further from the main complex.

"How far to target?" inquired Nomura.

"Hundred meters from your position," answered the colonel, his voice beginning to break up.

Battelene stopped his squad and looked around the next corner. Absolutely nothing; just a dark, dull alloy incline down.

"Clear, another fifty meters."

Dillan did not respond.

"Ahem, clear, fifty meters."

"Pro... ing up, proceed," finally answered the colonel.

Marching down the subterranean hall, Battelene became vaguely aware that something, something utterly horrible awaited him at the next corner, the next intersection that would inevitably lead to the secondary heat signature. Every step added to this unnatural premonition; his senses, however muzzled they were inside his helmet, took on a sharper, crisper tinge. The air grew by degrees colder, until it was as if drawn from a Siberian blizzard; his footfalls, the blows of a sledgehammer; even the walls seemed to be starkly defined, taking on subtle hues.

The corner loomed meters away.

"Uh, sir, any day?" muttered Nakano.

Frozen by an uncontrollable fear, Battelene simply managed to blurt, "Nomura, you take it."

Frowning behind his armored faceplate, the squaddie edged up to the jutting corner and peered around.

"Clear, about forty meters. Sir, what is wrong with you?"

Battelene, seized by a preposterous act of bravery, glanced around the corner.

Forty meters, give or take a few, of alloy, nothing less, nothing more.

The sensation ebbed out of his soul. What the hell was I thinking? he asked himself. Heavy plasma at the ready, Battelene marched ahead.

What the fuck was that? he wondered. Psionic attack? Jesus Christ, my mind isn't that strong, but at least it's gone now. Nothing to worry about.

The final corner presented itself. The sergeant glanced around it, did a double take, and ate two plasma beams.

Sakurai wished he had a cigarette.

Prodding one of the captive blues with the tip of his unactivated stun baton, he wished he had a cigarette, preferably a straight, because only women and eunuchs smoked filters.

The blues all wore that 'why-the-fuck-did-I-come-to-work-today' look. Probably scientists and medics, Sakurai's team had captured most of them in the cloning and laboratory levels. Unarmed and groveling, the bugs were pathetically civilian in their behavior.

The only thing they remove, anyway, is the flavor.

I wish I had a cigarette, thought Sakurai, because guarding these ball-less bastards is boring as hell!

He flipped on the current, and waved his baton threateningly at the captured bugs. They all backed away from him, huddling together in a corner of the unfinished room that was their impromptu jail cell.

"Sir, we'll take those loose shits off your hands," chirped a rookie from Yoshii's team. Sakurai flipped off the power on his baton, strapping it to his side again.

"Take them to the hangar. And if they move too slow, kill 'em," he replied in his native tongue, delighting in the fact that several of the bugs seemed to know Japanese.

The rookie and his companion, a stout squaddie, marched off with the prisoners of war, leaving Sakurai quite alone.

"Tahara?" asked the captain.

"Yessir?" replied his senior sergeant.

"Any luck?"

"None, sir. Nakagawa and Suzuki are not back, though."

The Fourth Kansai had easily swept through its portion of the base, arriving at the lowest level of the laboratories and finding no reactor, only an intricate series of narrow tunnels cut through the rock. Many of them had power conduits running within them, but as Tahara and his squad had discovered, the tunnels, and the cables, would double back, end abruptly, or simply descend into bottomless pits.

Fucking tunnels, snorted Sakurai, his index finger and thumb rubbing together.

To compound the problem, all of the tunnels barely had room for a single man--to crawl through, on his belly.

Fucking, fucking tunnels.

Sakurai walked around the corner to the rock floored cavern where his team was struggling to map out the elaborate passages. Low ceilinged and barely lit, the captain resorted to nightvision.

"What do you make of these?" asked Tahara, pointing at a cave mouth.

"Huh?" replied Sakurai.

"I mean, cut into the living rock, apparently not by mechanical methods. Look--the edges are too smooth."

The captain ran an armored hand over the tunnel entrance.

"Like glass," he muttered.

"How could you do that? Plasma weapons?" Tahara wondered aloud.

"Yes, you would need to heat--to burn the rock. But it would take forever with plasma."

"Hmm," muttered Tahara.

"Sir?" asked Suzuki's voice.

"Yes?" replied Sakurai.

"My squad is coming back up. Have you considered the possibility that... ugh... the secondary heat signature was the reactor?"

"Colonel Dillan can tell us that. Until then, I want these tubes mapped out."

"Yessir," grunted Suzuki, worming his way to the surface.

"Nakagawa?" inquired Sakurai.

"Sir, I've found a large conduit leading almost straight down. It's too dark in here to tell how far, but I've got radiation spikes indicating that the reactor's really close by."

"Have you marked the way?"

"Yes sir. Used my laser pistol to burn arrows at every intersection."

Sakurai eyed the low, narrow tunnel into which the sniper had disappeared.

"Tahara, take the lead. I'll follow, and the rest of your squad can watch our butts."

The Japanese sergeant looked disappointed, but he bravely slung his SAW over his shoulder and pulled out a plasma pistol. Crouching down, Tahara crawled off into the maze.

"Suzuki, resurface and follow us in," ordered Sakurai, shoving his plasma rifle into his backpack webbing. He lowered himself onto his hands and knees, and thrust himself into the claustrophobia.

The tunnels were smooth tubes of dark obsidian, gently sloping down into the silent darkness. With barely a shoulder's width of space, the Japanese captain could only manage to spot the soldiers behind him with the corner of his eye. Sucking in oxygen, and carefully keeping an eye on the heels of Tahara's power armor, Sakurai squirmed along, skirting around sudden downward tubes, carefully crawling over bundles of fiber optic cables and energy transfer conduits.

Tahara disappeared around a corner, and a burst of shots rang out.

"Sergeant!" yelled Sakurai, pulling out his own sidearm, an advanced laser pistol with E-115 batteries in its handle.

"It's nothing," replied Tahara. "A grey's corpse."

Sakurai crawled around the twist in the tube, eyeing with disgust the blackened heap that had once been a grey.

"Poor fucker," he muttered.

Nakagawa's excited voice broke in. "My squad is on the upper level of the reactor! No resistance yet, and it looks like the whole system is automated or controlled from further up."

"Secure the area," ordered Sakurai, planting a knee on the dead bug's chest.

"Sir!" yelled Suzuki, from further up in the tunnels. "Sir, we've got to get out of here!"

"What is it?" grumbled the captain, spotting the large power transfer ahead.

"The bugs are counterattacking, sir."

Rawlings jogged through the deserted armory, hot on the trail of the First Nevada. All around him were stacked crates and crates of heavy plasmas, guided missile launchers, and the ever-present concussion bomb launchers.

The sergeant picked up his pace, leaping over the few dead greys, all wearing expressions of shock. Most of the bugs had been killed in the hangar, he suspected, but it didn't take many aliens to ruin XCOM's day. And with the sudden lull in radio traffic, Rawlings knew that this day had just turned to shit.

Flying down a lift, the bodyguard felt the unmistakable brush of a psionic probe.

Nothing, nothing, nothing, thought the sergeant, attempting to deflect the attack. His heart began to beat furiously, and Rawlings knew that he could not resist the sheer will of whoever or whatever was prying at his sanity.

But then the icy fingers were gone. Jack glanced around, finding himself in possession of all his limbs...

"Oh shit," he swore, already knowing what had happened.

Sprinting down a ramp into the hive's central control room, Rawlings spotted the bodies of Marcussen, Lurie, Perkins, Vigard, and Wilkes strewn across the floor. Stumbling over to Lurie, and finding the woman's eyes extremely dilated, the bodyguard screamed.

Take out the psis, and the rest of us poor fucks follow, thought Jack. He lay down Lurie's head and glanced over the rest.

"Captain Marcussen?" asked Rawlings, shaking the plump man's shoulders.

"Aaagh," groaned the psi. He weakly looked up at the bodyguard.

"Mind flare," he mumbled, "hit us before we could get up shields. Hit us fast, faster than I thought the greys could."

Perkins rolled onto his side. "That... wasn't no fucking greys. Something stronger, sir."

Marcussen uneasily regained his feet, Rawlings aiding him. The captain looked over at the prone bodies of Lurie, Vigard, and Wilkes. Perkins stumbled up, and both psis touched their hands to Lurie's head.

"Get up, dammit," muttered Marcussen. The woman's eyes blinked, and she moaned.

The short man switched his attention to Vigard.

"No time to rest, got bugs to mosh, minds to fuck," he whispered into the earpiece on the psychic's helmet. The dirty man gurgled and awoke. Swearing profusely, Vigard hopped up and glared at everyone.

Marcussen tested his legs, flexing a knee.

"OK, let's go, they need us in the hangar," he announced.

"What about Wilkes?" complained Jack, glancing at the man's body.

The short psi shook his head. "They hit him the hardest--he was the strongest, after all. I'm sorry, soldier; Colonel Wilkes is dead."