Last Rites

by scg
Last Rites

Branches murmured stiffly as the cool autumn winds caressed them, dislodging some dead foliage. The decaying leaves fluttered and flickered as they passed through the sunbeams that shone with eye-searing intensity through the forest. All else was eerily quiet, with only disparate and distant catches of birdsong disrupting the melancholy of the twilight.
The towering greenery did not encroach upon the small, wire-fenced compound in which men and headstones stood in sombre ranks. A freshly dug grave, earth heaped neatly to either side of its length, yawned between the expressionless men.
Squaddie Richard Bates was locked in place beside the foot of the grave. Typically unruly blond hair was pinned beneath a thick black beret, and his heavily built framed barely twitched. His starched and crisp X-COM dress uniform was every bit as stiff and motionless. His grey eyes, dry as they were, focused upon the mahogany coffin seated nearby.
As another X-COM soldier, bearing the insignia of a base quartermaster, gently cleared his throat and began to recite the words he uttered at every such occasion, Bates' mind began to drift. His conscious self was rapidly overwhelmed by recollection.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..."

"Second team, proceed to upper level."
Greenwood nodded, a curt and precise motion. "Path's clear, Bates. Lets go." His right hand reached out towards the sensor that would trigger the automatic doors they crouched beside, and three fingers counted down. Then he tripped the sensor, and Bates was through the doors, laser rifle poised, before they had completed opening. The sights of the rifle followed his eyes as he double-checked his locality for hostiles. There was no movement, save the sergeant following him through the doors. Greenwood rapped him on the shoulder.
"The lift."
The two soldiers proceeded to the humming, rainbow-hued shaft that bridged the two decks of the alien spacecraft the X-COM team had boarded.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
Bates' eyes refocused at the sound of the words. The scripture always seemed appropriate to Bates and consistently drew his attention. X-COM truly did walk in the shadow of death, but they would be fools to not fear the evil they faced.
And then he slipped away again into the ebbing tides of memory...

The second elevator level was deserted. Three corridors stretched away from the gravity lift; two led to supply rooms that Intelligence noted to be typically deserted during X-COM ground assaults on downed alien ships. The third led to the command centre, from which the alien leader oversaw the crew's operations.
Greenwood spoke in a hoarse whisper now. "Sentry. Watch the others."
Bates glanced down the two empty corridors in answer as his team-mate moved towards the command centre, rapidly but near-silently in an almost crab-like scuttle. Then he was gone from sight, darting around a corner.
The other two routes from the elevator remained resolutely empty, and it was unlikely that such status would change, but Bates could not secure both at once, nor could the undermanned assault team spare more troopers for the upper deck. It was left to Bates and Greenwood to clear them out one at a time and ensure nothing could outmanoeuvre the team.
Then the discharge of one of the standard issue electrical stunners crackled over the tactical radio frequency, followed by Greenwood's barked proclamation "Gray commander down."
And then the unmistakeable sound of superheated air filled Bates' ears as one of the alien plasma weapons was fired. The sound came via the radio but also from Greenwood's direction - and as the sharp blast cut off there was a brief gasp, as though someone were choking on fluid.
Bates was already hurtling down the corridor by the time he heard the thud.

He had found Greenwood dead, of course. The tall British soldier, ex-Her Majesty's Special Boast Service, had lain on his back on the pleasantly cool grey deck of the alien command centre. He had been eviscerated by a short-range energy blast; his belly and chest were a charred, sizzling wreck, with some pools of blood still hissing and popping. On the far side of the room, by a bank of bleeping, flashing monitors, one of the small alien humanoids had been curled in a foetal position. Dull ichor had been dribbling from a neat hole drilled into one of its huge black eyes. The muzzle of Greenwood's laser rifle had still been glowing a cherry red, his stun rod discarded a foot away, alongside the face-down body of the stunned alien commander.
Nothing else moved.
The other teams had reported in shortly thereafter; Greenwood's kill had been the last active hostile. The recovery team had moved in shortly thereafter, sedating the captured alien and disassembling the captured ship for research.

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
With the Psalm completed, the quartermaster coughed again; an unpleasant, rasping sound. Then he began to speak of Greenwood's life and what it meant to fight for X-COM. Bates ignored the man. The quartermaster did not fight, and had not known Greenwood as well as Bates had.

The return trip had been a typically morose one, as the survivors sat in silence aboard the bucking, rattling Skyranger transport craft. X-COM rarely returned from any combat mission without casualties. Bates' face had remained stony throughout. Sergeant Greenwood had not been a close friend (that possibility had been damaged by the difference in rank) but he would miss the steady presence his deceased comrade had provided. He had been a good soldier.
Less than twenty four hours had passed since he had been killed in action. The following morning, ringing in the day of his burial, also bore the news that the alien prisoner had died of trauma before interrogation.
The quartermaster's speech finished, and three of those present raised their rifles to their shoulders, firing a single round each in salute to their deceased comrade, and as Bates stooped to join three others in hoisting the coffin, he finally conceded a grimace.
Within the hour, reverent silence once again consumed the forest.