Is It Edible?

Insane fanatics, sneered Sakurai.

The avenue bordering the Outer Garden of the Imperial Palace was awash in wreckage, debris, and corpses. Normally a gridlocked Tokyo thoroughfare, the street looked more like Rwanda or Yugoslavia or any of the many lands where men still killed men.

But the cooling bodies and severed limbs strewn across the avenue were not of men. They were of the invaders.

Which, I suppose, makes it OK, sighed the Japanese captain.

The little grey aliens had attacked courageously against entrenched defenders and they had paid the price. Easily forty of the aliens lay slumped over bushes, on their backs staring at the pre-dawn sky, or crushed into a smear of bone and flesh in the iron treads of the robot tanks.

Sakurai weighed the similarities between these aliens and his people. We are both small, but size is no fair judge of our abilities. We are both smart, brave, and sworn to victory or death.

The captain stared down at the blank eyes of a dead grey, plasma still clutched in its small hands.

We are so similar, and that is why we must kill each other.

The HWPs had massed for the push into the garden. Self-Defence Forces soldiers were manning the perimeter; two dozen APCs and a pair of main battle tanks were idling a few blocks back. Sakurai casually saluted the snipers who were perched in the high rises surrounding the Garden. They would be the next wave of recruits, inspired by the heroics of XCOM.

"My team is ready to advance," reported Sakurai. Tahara, as usual, had nearly been killed, but aside from an ugly plasma scar on his friend's shoulder, the short Japanese captain's team was full strength.

Nader, at the other northeast entrance to the Garden, mumbled, "Good. Let's kill some fucks. Remember, greased lightning."

Sakurai grunted in response. He didn't quite understand the full meaning of the American's rantings, but he was familiar with the drill--get in, shut down the reactors, and keep the aliens from blowing up the UFO with you inside.

"Green light, people! Move it, First Panzer!"

The HWPs, commanded by teams of hybrid tank drivers/robotics engineers sitting in some air- conditioned trailer someplace on the other side of the planet, threw open their throttles. Three tanks had been destroyed in the previous action, leaving only five combat vehicles and four fire support treads operational.

Sakurai gave the nearest tank a meter's head start before jogging after it. Nice to have some cover for once, thought the captain. Takayasu, his one-time rival, had died because he'd been in a sniper's recticle for half a second. Having a three ton moving wall 'walking' point somewhat increased Sakurai's courage.

Suzuki and his squad crouched behind the tank rolling parallel to Sakurai's. That vehicle was armed with a singled snub-nosed fifty thousand gillette laser--capable of cutting through more steel than a man could shave with... for his entire life. The weapon was deviously slow, but once its beam focused in on an unlucky bug, it would be a blue moon before the chop and mop crews could find anything solid bigger than a fingertip.

"Not much resistance," whispered Nader.

"You clean your side?" asked Sakurai, glancing through the rows of burnt and crushed cherry trees. It would be a generation before the Outer Garden looked anything like it had a mere eight hours ago.

"Not even a dead civilian... strange."

"Must be in ship," suggested the Japanese captain. Furtively, he glanced up at the three story fortress looming above. Walls of solid alloy, Sakurai hoped, without sniper ports to systematically kill off the advancing XCOM troops.

"Disk fifty meters," reported Sakurai's tank. Its voice was monotone and unemotional; the HWP's automated survival systems were activated. Throwing all power into its left treads, it made an abrupt right-hand turn. The captain dropped to the scarred earth, plasma rifle up and tracking the shadows under the massive ship.

The alien tank fired wildly, hoping to throw off the HWP's targeting systems. But it was Suzuki's tank, surging ahead, that lanced a deadly beam of UV light through the disk. Smoking and canting, the alien vehicle backpedalled.

"Don't let it get inside!" yelled Nader. Plasma and laser fire opened up on the stricken, outgunned disk. An armor-piercing shell killed the tank. Its self-destruct charge sprayed twisted hunks of alloy everywhere.

"Panzers, check the other side of the ship. Keep the bugs off while we grunts open up this can of Spam," ordered Nader. Sakurai spotted the Sixth Nebraska advancing up behind one of the UFO's five landing legs.

"You want honor?" asked Sakurai.

"Thank you. Keep an eye on my people; we're all good, but every once in a while, the bugs mind-fuck one of us."

Sakurai frowned. He'd heard the rumors, but the greys couldn't be psions. If they had 'mind powers,' why had they wasted their lives against his men?

The Nebraskans approached the central leg. A soldier, armed with an immense machine gun, stepped up to the door, closely followed by a smaller American clutching a packet of explosives.

The smaller one nodded to the gunner. The big one kicked the door, activating it.

The grenadier rushed into the warmly glowing shaft of light and heaved the charge up. Plasma rained down, and the soldier took a pair of solid hits before falling out of the UFO.

"JENNY! NO!" screamed the gunner, stepping into the lift column. He sprayed lead upwards, shells slowly settling to the elevator's flooring. Dozens of bolts poured down, washing over him.

The satchel charge exploded, aliens crying, disemboweled or blown to ribbons deep within the bowels of the UFO.

Other Americans rushed up, brandishing lasers and plasmas. Nader crouched down next to the stricken soldier, plugging in a portable medikit. He turned just in time to see the machine gunner fly up the lift.

"Berserker! Shit, get out of there! Duncan, grab him!" shouted the American.

"Fuck, he's lost it hardcore, sir!" replied a laser wielding squaddie, clutching the air behind the gunner. A bolt streamed down the lift.

"Get out, get out!" yelled Nader.

Duncan fired several times in vain. He backed out of the lift.

"They got into his head," he cried.

"Fucking fucked fucker motherfucking ass stabbing rapist fucker," snarled Nader. "If he comes out of that lift, kill him."

"Sir, we can't do that!" complained a sergeant.

The American, crouched over the hideously wounded Amador, reflected over the turn of events. His gaze slowly drifted over the closed entrance doors, the plaintive look on his senior sergeant's face, and the maimed woman at his knees. Lastly, Nader's eyes turned to the Japanese squaddies crouched down around the edges of the UFO.

"Sakurai. Go inside. Get my man out... alive, if possible. If not, I understand."

The Japanese captain blinked and steeled himself.

"Tahara, Suzuki, Nakagawa. Our turn. Defend Japan!"


Rawlings followed Takahashi's finger, extending the vector to a massive concrete and steel structure gutted in parts by fire. Its lower level was a series of smashed windows and mutilated manikins.

"You up to it, soldier?" asked the bodyguard. "We're probably too late."

"Colonel Wilkes is in there. We do not abandon Colonel Wilkes," retorted the sergeant.

Wonder if you'll feel that way when we're in that deathtrap, snorted Rawlings. But he did pass the test, thought the ugly killer.

"What the fuck. Let's do it to it."

Takahashi nodded. He was getting quite used to the meaningless profanity that the Americans would spout before committing astounding acts of bravery--or cowardice. The Japanese soldier checked the charge on his heavy plasma, visually counted the six reloads on his belt, and prayed silently to his ancestors.

I might be dropping in for a long visit, thought the man.

Rawlings finished his weapons check. He tapped the motion scanner slung across his chest, hoping that his frenzied jog hadn't upset the instrument's delicate electronic innards. Two white dots, set very close in the middle of the screen, appeared.

"All systems go," muttered the soldier. He raised his heavy plasma and stalked over to the smashed storefront.

"OK, here's my spectacular plan. I take point, you watch my ass. Once we find the colonel, you carry the poor SOB out. I keep the path clear. Comprende?"

Takahashi nodded. "Shouldn't I carry scanner, if I in rear?" asked the Japanese.

Rawlings stared into the blasted department store, and then out at the corpses--armored corpses-- in the street.

"Nothing personal, soldier, but I need this equipment," apologized Rawlings, "and I don't expect you to make it out alive."

Tahara kicked open the UFO entry door. The heavy alloy plating slid aside.

"Lettso fucku!" yelled the sergeant, twisting and jabbing his SAW up the lift. Squaddie Ishiyama leapt past him and hopped upwards. The lift's inertia field caught him, and he gently flew to the next level.

"Clear!" shouted the squaddie. Two more Japanese followed him up before being joined by Tahara.

"Berserker's got armor-piercing ammunition, Captain. Be very careful," cautioned Nader.

"Buggo!" bellowed Tahara, his SAW speaking a split second afterwards.

"Buggo wa ashinda desu," chuckled the sadistic soldier, reverting to his native tongue.

Suzuki's crew ascended the lift. Sakurai, crouched next to the alloy doors, held them open. Suddenly, he remembered something from the flight in...

"Get to the reactors! They're on the first level, in each of the feet!" he screamed in Japanese. Sakurai could almost hear Tahara's brain running.

"Lifts, at the end of each hall. Go," snapped the sergeant. A hail of gunfire interposed, Nader and the Nebraskans twitching visibly.

"Some kind of big crab," reported Suzuki.

Is it edible? thought Sakurai, filling in Tahara's punch line.

A terrible shriek sounded, like that of fingernails across an old-fashioned slate blackboard. The UFO shook visibly.

"Holy shit," mumbled the numbed Nader.

"Guided missile," narrated Tahara.

"Sugada and Gen were on the upper level. They are dead."

"Well, fucking kill that bug!" bellowed Sakurai, enraged that human blood had been drawn.

"Must stop suicide," mumbled Tahara. A volley of plasma shots and SAW rounds sounded inside the UFO.

Sakurai turned to Nakagawa and his squad; they waited by the door as reserves.

"Upper level," ordered the captain. He kicked the door open, leading the way. Up two levels, into a smoking room with shredded alloy walls he rose.

A grey peered at him through a hole in the wall.

Sakurai's plasma rifle spoke a moment too late, scarring the mangled alloy.

"Any sign of Gen or Sugada?" asked Nakagawa. A soldier in his squad pointed to a bloody stump lying in the corner of the room. The sniper instinctively covered his masked mouth.

"It's going to launch another one!" yelled Sakurai, panicking.

Four doors led from the room. Each soldier in Nakagawa's squad kicked one open and stepped through. Sakurai muscled his way through the growing gap in the wall.

"Reactors disarmed," reported Tahara. "Proceeding to clear out the rest of this fucking hellhole."

"Shit!" shouted a squaddie around the corner from Sakurai. A flurry of plasma bolts flew.

"Wa ashinda desu," growled the soldier. "But he nicked me."

Sakurai turned to aid the wounded man and slammed into the armored chest of Berserker.

Rawlings peered at the motion scanner, breathing a selfish sigh of relief that it remained unlit.

He and Takahashi were deep, deep within Maruzen, surrounded by darkened aisles of groceries and produce. The basement of the department store would normally have been crowded with ranks of housewives hunting down deals on fresh fish, vegetables, California-grown rice, and all the other comestibles that made Japan run. But that night, that satanic night of November 2, all the customers were gone; another kind of hunt replacing the usual.

Rawlings stepped on a ripe tomato, smashing it to a paste.

"Boss? We aren't finding jack didly--not even a dead civie."

Schancer's reply came in distorted and static-laden.

"Watch out for the crabs, Jack! The crabs probably-" the signal faded momentarily, and Rawlings tapped the side of his helmet.

Takahashi nervously scanned the surroundings.

"-damnit, probably seeded them. Watch out, Jack... Yoshii says Wilkes is probably on an upper level anyways, where they sell electronics."

Rawlings peered at his motion sensor. "If she can pick up the colonel, then how come I can't get a fix on his radio beacon?"

"Says she's getting messages in her head."

The bodyguard tapped his helmet aerial again. "Repeat that please--Yoshii is getting messages in her head?"

"That's what she says. Are you still in the basement? Don't waste your fucking time talking to me, get Wilkes out of there!"

Rawlings switched off his radio and considered removing his helmet. No, he thought, I need the nightvision. I'll be damned if I can't hear shit, though.

"Upstairs," he grunted to Takahashi. The Japanese followed him, heavy plasma twitching with every step.

Thank God they have escalators, thought Rawlings. With the power outage, elevators would be useless.

He placed an armored foot on the frozen escalator's first step and absentmindedly glanced at his scanner.

A white dot appeared on the edge of the screen. It moved with sickening speed.

"Oh shit," rasped Rawlings, raising his heavy plasma. The contact cleared the upper edge of the escalator.

Flying through the air, the bodyguard saw Death in his hideous regalia. Black as the night itself, and swinging a pair of meter-long sythes, the crab lunged for the humans.

Rawlings' scar twitched violently as he pumped a burst into the monster's belly.

A deluge of steaming crab viscera rained down on Rawlings and Takahashi.

"So that's what you meant by 'crabs,'" muttered Rawlings. He nudged a broken claw with his foot, and peered again at the motion scanner.

So that's why you're supposed to stand still, mused the bodyguard. Drawing upon it's wearer's temporary halt, the device had managed to pick up a greater range of vibrations. Dozens of white dots littered the small green screen.

"Fuck, let's move," whispered Rawlings, painfully aware that the nearest dots were beginning to converge on the soldiers.

The two XCOM men scrambled up the escalator, weapons drawn and glancing about nervously. Rawlings spotted a store directory and scanned it for the word 'Electronics.'

"Fuck," moaned the soldier, glancing down rows of indecipherable kanji.

"Fourth floor," uttered Takahashi.

Rawlings nodded, suddenly grateful that he had brought the Japanese with him.

"Let's take the stairs," suggested Rawlings. The escalator shaft was centered on each floor, a conscious effort of the architects. Shoppers would have to walk past much of each level to get to the down escalators. After all, thought the soldier, Maruzen wasn't built to defend itself. It was made to sell.

The emergency stairwell was located near the front of the department store. It was wide and well lit.

Almost looks too good, thought Rawlings, glancing at the sensor. Nothing nearby moved.

"Watch my back," ordered the sergeant to the Japanese. He sprinted up the stairs, Takahashi in tow.

Rounding the corner of the second story, a crab bolted from a shredded hangar of women's clothes straight at Rawlings. He leveled his plasma and sent a shot down the creature's spine. Still twitching, the bodyguard ignored the corpse, choosing instead to run past.

Rawlings glanced over his shoulder. Takahashi was still with him.

Third floor. Nothing.

Just one more flight, grab Wilkes and get out, thought Rawlings. And while I'm at it, why not have world fucking peace every day until the Apocalypse? I wish I wasn't so fucking stupid to get into messes like this.

"Shit!" screamed Takahashi. The Japanese soldier stumbled up the stairs, firing wildly at a pair of crabs. Rawlings stopped, pulled a grenade from his belt, ripped the ribbon pin out with spare fingers on his weapon hand, and wrathfully hurled the bomb at the bugs.

"Run, man, run!" he yelled, readying his weapon to finish the monsters. The Japanese sergeant frantically turned and leapt up three steps.

The grenade exploded on contact, shredding the aliens in a bloody mess of razor shards and torn ligaments. Takahashi scrambled up to Rawlings' side. The two staggered up to the fourth floor.

Rows and rows of microwaves, toasters, televisions, and VCRs presented themselves, along with another pair of crabs.

Rawlings and Takahashi sloppily gunned the bugs down, leaving a fatally wounded crab shrieking to high heaven.

"Some welcome committee," muttered Rawlings. Nothing was on his motion scanner.

A small red LED light in the corner of his faceplate glowed, as it had for the last few hellish minutes. Rawlings slapped on his radio.

"Jesus! Jack, I thought they'd nailed you!"

"Shut up, sir, I need to be able to hear."

"One thing--he's in the bathroom at the back."

Rawlings switched off his radio, and sneaked a glance at his motion scanner. Nothing.

"Back of the store, men's restroom," breathed Rawlings. Takahashi nodded.

The two XCOM soldiers slowly advanced, nervously peering over the stacked goods, fully aware that a crab might be in the next aisle, quiet, waiting. They reached the bathroom without incident.

Pushing the door halfway open with his left hand, Rawlings peered inside. An armored man, barely alive, lay sprawled across the floor, medikit resting atop his body.

Rawlings nearly mentioned the discovery to Takahashi, but a peek at the green glowing screen gave him other thoughts.

He squinted, and wondered if the night was getting to him. The bodyguard twisted the fine tuning dial of the scanner, and it appeared again.

Three dots, all neatly clustered in the center.

The third winked out for a long moment before appearing for the slightest of seconds.

Rawlings leveled his heavy plasma at the restroom door and emptied his clip into its wood frame. Splinters and burning chunks sprayed his armor--along with flaming bits of crab meat.

Weapons were of no use.

Sakurai felt the rough grip of Berserker on his shoulders. The mind-puppet slammed an armored fist into the Japanese captain's face, cracking the plexiglass viewplate. Squirming, Sakurai gut-punched the Nebraskan, drawing upon all of his and his suit's combined strength.

Like punching a wall, groaned the captain. He suspected that even without his armor, Berserker wouldn't have felt the blow anyway.

Plasmas and SAWs blared, and aliens screamed. But Sakurai and Berserker wrestled, one trying desperately for the plasma rifle barely a finger's width away, the other blindly struggling to crush the lesser man's windpipe with his bare hands.

"Ta... ha... la!" croaked Sakurai. He was starting to see spots, and his strength oozed from his every limb.

The sergeant burst through the alloy wall, SAW at the ready. One glance spoke a novel's worth.

Tahara emptied his clip into Berserker's back armor.

The big Nebraskan threw aside Sakurai and reached for the sergeant.

Sakurai, gasping for breath, clutched his plasma rifle.


"AARGH!" screamed the captain, grabbing his helmet and struggling to pull it off.


"No no no no!" Sakurai blathered as arms which weren't his pointed his plasma rifle at Tahara's head.


"Eat shit and die!" snarled the reassuring voice of Captain Nader. A pair of Nebraskans sprinted by, dragging Berserker between them.

"Kazutoshi! Are you hurt?" asked Tahara. Sakurai pitched aside his plasma rifle, suddenly unsure of himself.

"Nader and his people killed a tall grey and Berserker stopped fighting me... were they in your head?"

Sakurai, shaking with excess adrenaline, stood and patted Tahara on the shoulder to be sure that he was still there, and not dead from a plasma bolt to the head.

"I... am not sure," coughed the captain. Tahara threw Sakurai's arm over his shoulder and helped him to the lift room.

"Mariel," moaned Wilkes.

Beautiful name, mused Rawlings as he helped the grievously wounded man to his feet. He pulled his sidearm plasma from its low-slung holster and pressed it into the colonel's hand. Wilkes clutched it.

"No, it's Jack and... this Nip here. Now be a good invalid, and don't fire on us. We're gonna get you out of here and to some medics, so don't you worry your little head over some two-bit tramp. Everything's OK now."

Takahashi grunted as he hoisted Wilkes over his shoulder, feet first.

"It is Takahashi, and the arm of Colonel Wilkes is crushed."

Rawlings glanced at the fracture and whistled.

"Shit," he said, holding the 'that boy's never going to play the piano much less lead an assault team again' inside.

"Crab must've gotten real close to do that," Rawlings muttered.

It was waiting behind the door... like it didn't even see him.

Examining Takahashi's load, Rawlings snorted.

"I'll carry him. You shoot."

The Japanese gratefully handed over the wounded soldier, and Rawlings hoisted Wilkes over his shoulder.

Damn, that's heavy, thought Rawlings. But not as heavy as good old Frank Hudson...

Rawlings glanced at the scanner screen, reading nothing.

"OK, Tak. Let's get this show on the road."

Japanese soldier walking two meters ahead, the XCOM grunts wound their way through the consumer electronics department. Halfway through, in a cluster of smallish Japanese refrigerators, all hell broke loose.

A stand of blenders crashed to the floor, ten meters from Rawlings.

"Fuck! Run!" he yelled, swinging his plasma to bear.

The Japanese soldier didn't hear; a single crab, clicking and hissing, blocked the entrance to the fire escape stairwell.

Takahashi pumped a pair of bolts into the creature before it could attack.

Rawlings could hear the clicking now, the growing chorus of crabs surrounding him. Genuinely scared, he sprinted for the stairs.

Wilkes tensed up and fired his plasma pistol. A toaster oven exploded in flames.

"Takahashi! Cover us!" shouted Rawlings, bounding by the Japanese soldier. The ex-SDF man turned and fired a trio of bursts into the clicking darkness.

Crashing down the stairs, Rawlings accidentally dropped Wilkes on the third floor landing. Takahashi was still up a level, holding off the crabs, and the bodyguard knelt down to pick up his burden again. He suddenly looked up.

A crab, hissing and standing on its rear legs, stood a meter from Rawlings. A swift jab of a fearsome claw sent his heavy plasma flying.

"Oh fuck," swore the short American, backing up slowly and praying that Takahashi would be along any moment.

The crab lunged with obscene speed, a savage right-left combo which crumpled up Rawlings and airmailed him to the nearest concrete wall. The bug bounded over, ready to implant an egg.

However, the bodyguard was thinking otherwise. An uppercut to the monstrosity's twitching mandibles slowed the bug long enough for Rawlings to roll aside. Scrambling for his heavy plasma, he screamed as a claw swatted him down a flight of stairs.

Standing at the top of the stairs, the crab readied to jump. A pair of plasma bolts to its back killed that option, though.

"Takahashi?" asked Rawlings.

"Let's go!" shouted the soldier, scrambling down the steps. With surprising dexterity, he grabbed Wilkes' upper torso and dragged him along. Takahashi tossed his heavy plasma to Rawlings.

Down the spiral fled the three men, constantly watching for more crabs. Over a shallow crater littered with chitinous limbs and through the blasted wreckage of the department store's lobby scrambled the soldiers.

"Go," ordered Rawlings, pulling a pair of grenades from his belt. He yanked the pins from both and hurled them into the stairwell's base.

"We got pickup!" yelled Takahashi as the blast demolished the well. Through mangled and smashed window frames, Rawlings spotted an SDF APC.

"Medic, Medic!" shouted the Japanese XCOM sergeant. Two dogsoldiers hopped out the rear of the vehicle and grabbed Wilkes, cautiously pulling him inside the vehicle.

Rawlings backed out of Maruzen, his paranoia paying off when a crab, sprinted from deep within. The bug never made it; a burst of plasma cut him down.

"Get inside!" yelled Takahashi. Reluctantly, Rawlings crouched into the APC. Engine roaring, the tank pulled away from the infested building. Its turret cannon fired, and something collided with the closed rear door of the vehicle. A burst of machine gun bullets flew, and all was well.

Out of habit, Rawlings glanced at the motion scanner on his chest. It was smashed, its intricate workings hanging out one cracked side of its plastic casing.

The bodyguard snorted and the APC bounced along.

The APC rolled up, and two SDF antiterrorists hopped out the back. They flanked the door, and the Prime Minister of Japan stepped out. Schancer saluted.

"The people of Japan are forever in your debt, Commander," praised the PM, shaking the tired Southerner's hand. "I, personally, consider you completely responsible for today's victory. It is regrettable, then, that you shall receive none of the credit you so justly deserve."

The little politician looked over the wreckage of the Outer Garden and the streets leading to Ginza. A brilliant reddish ball of fire rose in the eastern sky. Dawn had come, and it was time for the SDF to set to the grueling task of cleaning out every room in every building in the combat zone.

The PM turned back to the Imperial Palace and the stone bulwarks which had held against many a would-be usurper of the throne.

"In time, your deeds shall be known. For now, though, I can only offer my profound gratitude on behalf of the nation of Japan."

The two shook hands again, and then the politician jumped back into his tread and rode away to a press conference detailing the SDF's glorious victory over the forces of evil.

Schancer gave a twisted little smile and peered after the departing tank.

"The liberals call him the most heartless sunuvabitch since Tojo," muttered Rawlings from the dying shadows. "I think this nation's in good hands."

The Kansai Base commander mused over the thought as a 'Ranger, laden with salvage, lifted off and flew over the Palace. An omen? wondered Schancer.

"Jack, thank you for saving Wilkes."

"The poor guy's never going to fight again, sir."

"Oh," asked Schancer, turning around. "That's what they said about you."

Rawlings grunted. "Touche."

"Anyway, there have been some remarkable developments of late... pretty soon ground-pounding grunts like yourself will be obsolete."

Rawlings was silent. A line of SDF soldiers marched by, M-16s at the ready.

"I doubt that very much, sir."

"Jack, if I were an investor, and you were a young man looking to make some fast money, what business would I tell you to dump your capital into?"

The bodyguard looked over the expanse of Tokyo, towards a certain department store.

"Sir, if Yoshii was correct, I'd have to wager on the Psychic Friends Network."