"Oh wow; this sucks."

Hirsch repeated his mantra for the thousandth time, and something in Davidson cracked.

"Shut the fuck up!" he bellowed.

At another time, in another place, Rawlings would have laughed. It wasn't often that Mike lost his temper, and every time he did, both teams would mock him to no end. But this wasn't back in the mess hall or even out the in the bush, hunting down bugs. This was right under the number two hangar door at Bluegrass.

"Get me some more sand!" yelled Battelene, one of the new rookies sent to replace the eight casualties of Osaka. Rawlings had to remind himself that the dead weren't the only ones who'd suffered; most everybody had been wounded in some way. The lucky ones--like him--just needed a band-aid... those that weren't so well off spent time with the base psychologist.

Davidson, fuming, threw a thirty-pound bag of kitty-litter to Battelene. The rookie staggered under the sudden weight, but he didn't complain. Yanking on the release string, he emptied the dusty grey sand over the concrete hangar floor.

The gasoline was everywhere. It had seeped under 'Rangers, helicopters, and the small trucks used to transport armaments. Fumes from the evaporating gas filled the base, forcing the techs to flush the ventalation system. And the gasoline was in the soldiers' hair and hands and skin, making some black out and collapse.

"Shit shit shit," whispered Rawlings, tossing a shovel's worth of the sand around the landing gear of the Number Three 'Ranger. He'd been in the combat prep room when Number Two had disintegrated; he and a dozen techs had charged into the debris to pull out the wounded. Nothing like it had happened before; bodies everywhere, some lying meters away, thrown from the force of the fall. Rawlings recalled cradling a bloody wreck of a rookie, thinking him dead; but the tough kid had coughed up blood and moaned for help. The medics had saved him.

As they had saved everybody. Crash straps and body armor were credited to keeping the death toll to zero, but the airtechs had mumbled that it was Bob, the 'Ranger's pilot, and his quick thinking that were responsible. He'd killed the remaining engine, preventing a catastrophic explosion.

But the threat was not gone. Everybody who could walk or crawl was in the hangar, soaking up gasoline with the sand. Rawlings was coated with the grey dust, and he coughed, trying to spit but failing, for the dust was in his mouth and lungs.

"Easy there, soldier," said a secondary, handing Rawlings a waterbottle. He poured the cold, clean water down his throat, and coughed it back onto the tarmac.

"Thanks," he replied, feeling much better and realizing that the good Samaritan was the guard who he'd tangled with a week ago. Rawlings shrugged; this mess was bigger than any minor squabble.

He labored for another two hours, throwing down sand and then scooping it up to be carted off to another hangar. Finally, Larsen, who was rather dusty himself, declared by bullhorn that the disaster had been averted.

"Excellent work, people. Something truly terrible could have happened, and you stopped it. Now go get yourselves cleaned up; the techs will hose the place down."

Face caked with sweat and dust, Rawlings stowed his shovel and wandered off to the barrack's showers. He didn't make it far, though.

"Jack, come with me," ordered Davidson, an angry look in his face. He too was filthy, but he had a portable phone in his hand and a fire in his eyes.

Puzzled, Jack stumbled after him. The senior sergeant of the Sixth marched up to a small cluster of techs and handed the phone to one of them, a Master Tech Flanders.

"Hello sir," answered Flanders.

Someone, mumbling and half-asleep on the other end, raised Flanders' eyebrows.

"Commander Schancer, I can't say... I've got three of my folks trying to contact the subcontractors... I can't say."

Angry, Flanders' knuckles turned white.

"You know how we run the 'Rangers! Twenty-four seven, every month of the year, and now you're wondering why they're all aging ten times what they're supposed to?"

Larsen strode up. He pulled out a similar phone.

"What channel?" he inquired. Flanders flashed him a two-three with his fingers.

"Commander Schancer! So, you've heard of our little mishap," snarled Larsen. "Yes, if I recall correctly, it was you that suggested the purchase of these fine vehicles."

Schancer roared something vulgar, but Larsen only smirked.

"Well, it's a good thing that I didn't follow your advice, now isn't it."

The other end of the line was silent.

"It's not that bad, really," continued the commander. "One, Three, Four, and Five must be returned immediately, but the others are quite all right."

"My folks are reinforcing the joints right now," added Flanders.

Schancer spoke at length for another minute, but Larsen was silent, finally ending the conversation.

"I'll inform them immediately. However, that second topic can be discussed before tonight's vidnet meeting, and should not be discussed over an open line. Until later, Commander."

Davidson and Rawlings, dishevelled but standing at attention, fell under the frosty glare of Commander Larsen.

"Looks like there's a premium on volunteers for Kansai Base, men. Do run along and inform your peers that anyone from the Sixth and Seventh can transfer."

Davidson raised his eyebrows and saluted crisply. Rawlings just waved feebly and left with the senior sergeant.

"You aren't letting them all go, are you?" asked Bright upon appearing from nowhere.

"Ten Japanese rookies for each of those cut-ups? I think Ralph's getting the short end of the stick."

"Here's the news: the boss is putting out a call for anybody who wants to join him overseas."

Rawlings glanced around at the gathered soldiers. Too many of them were looking away from Davidson.

"Remember the boss? Schancer--that good old sonuvabitch?"

Davidson snorted.

"I don't know about all you bitches, but this base is not the same without the boss. 'Colonel' Bright running around, pointing his shit in everyone's faces; Frosty the Motherfuck treating us like shit; and now this 'Ranger shit. This ain't Bluegrass any more without Schancer."

Rawlings recalled how, on the way back to the barracks, he and Davidson had nodded to each other. For him there was no choice--he was Schancer's shield; he kept the boss alive. The commander wouldn't last fifteen minutes in an anti-terror mission without him.

Davidson was another case. He'd often been at odds with Schancer, for the Southerner's tactics were often less than sound. However, Davidson would gladly follow erroneous orders rather than be one of Tom Bright's toys. At least Schancer cared if you got dead.

"Uh, I guess we should go," mumbled Battelene. He and Ken Matsumoto were Asia specialists in Delta Force, and their language skills and jungle training were going to waste in Bluegrass.

"Thank you, Dave," said Davidson. He peered around, but the other assault team members diligently avoided his gaze. Nobody else stepped forwards.

"It's been a damn fine pleasure serving with the rest of you," finally spoke Davidson. "I don't hold anything against you; I know you have other people to watch out for. Well, build up the teams again, make 'em something that the boss would be proud of. That shit in Osaka was too much for some of you, I'm guessing. Heal up, friends, the fight is not over."

Davidson offered a big black paw to the nearest squaddie, Valerie Lehman. She shook his hand, and looked back into his brown eyes. Rawlings saw a tear in the corner of one.

The parting took fifteen minutes, as those that were to leave for Kansai said their goodbyes. Rawlings, the least connected of the volunteers, merely shook Senior Sergeant Gabriel's hand.

"Watch out for the bossman," he said. "We want him back in one piece."

Rawlings nodded.

"Take care, Scar."

I wonder if this is what psychotic billionaires who want to take over the world and remake it in their own image see in their dreams, wondered Schancer as he walked down from the warehouse office.

From his vantage point, he saw the future of Kansai Base. Three hundred twenty-six armed men and women practicing close combat techniques made for an awesome display of power.

"They are eager to fight the aliens, yes?" asked Lt. Commander Taoka. Despite the not-so subtle body language Schancer was broadcasting, she was still trying to attach herself on his arm.

"Mmm," he responded. Until every single one of these soldiers went headfirst into a scout packed with bugs, he would doubt their abilities.

"Damn," swore Dillan. "Biggest crop of rookies I've ever seen."

Schancer turned to him. "Not all of these people are pure green," he reminded the Colonel. "In fact, I'm promoting about fifty to the rank of squaddie, and ten to the rank of sergeant, as soon as we get the uniforms."

Dillan shrugged.

"So what happens now?" he asked.

"Keep them busy," responded Schancer, fingering the VHS tape in his left hand.

The movie opened up with the scene of a setting sun. Deeply orange, heat waves distorted its circular shape. Pan to wide-angle view of a modern metropolitan area.

The narration was in Japanese, but Schancer had seen the same movie so many times back in the states that he whispered the words.

"This could be any nation. This could be any city. It could be your hometown."

A dozen shots of people driving in cars, walking pets, or talking to neighbors. Good sentimentalist stuff.

The deep bass of the Japanese narrator rumbled again. God, the folks in PR really found a good one, though Schancer.

"These could be your neighbors, your friends, your family."

More shots of the setting sun. The sky turned red, then purple, then black. Stars appeared.

"But this night, all is not right in your hometown."

A falling star shot across the sky. A dull whine grew in the background.

"In fact, something is very wrong."

A speck of light, moving faster than any aircraft shot in from the horizon and slowed to a halt over a dimly lit vacant lot. A park.

"The aliens have come for your neighbors, your friends, your family."

The speck of light was a UFO, an evil dull grey glint of starlight falling across it. A view from the park. Midnight strollers, couples necking, homeless people; all looked up to see the coming menace.

The whine increased to a fever pitch. Someone started running.

This is the scariest part, thought Schancer.

The UFO crashed to the ground, grav drives screaming. A door opened up, and shadows flitted out. Suddenly, thunder crashed as the bugs open fire. People screamed, and died. The movie zoomed in to show a woman's face, distorted with fear, screaming. The screen faded to black.

"How many will die?" implored the voice. "How many will the aliens take for their grim experiments? How many will fuel the insatiable appetite of the horde?"

A shot of a hand reaching for a gun.

"Not one more."

Real footage of a Skyranger lifting off, flying and landing in a city was next.

Heh heh, laughed Schancer.

"Not one more if you can stop it," demanded the narrator. "And you will."

Retrieved footage of XCOM troops pouring out of a 'Ranger switched to helmet-cam views of muzzle flashes and blurred bugs screaming and dying. Bugs died left and right, flashing by at an incredible rate. Scenes of raiding a UFO, of grenades shredding greys, of bugs corpses smoldering, of more death than a year in a World War. Finally, and Schancer realized that the PR department had touched up this segment, a deep crimson sun rose over the smoking cityscape.

"In XCOM, you are the only line between the aliens and those you love. You must succeed in order for them to survive."

A touching scene of SDF grunts and XCOM troops milling around after Osaka was inserted. Civilians, from the elderly to children, poured from the wreckage to congratulate the victorious soldiers. The screen panned to a view of the sun, a cheerful yellow. The black and white cross of XCOM took its place.

Schancer blinked, and wondered if the Nazis had initiated their stormtroopers in the same way. The film couldn't be further from the truth, and back in the states, a new recruit would occasionally break out laughing at the mushy stuff at the end. When he'd first seen it, the Southerner had wondered whether they spent more money on movies than weapons.

"Uh, Commander?" whispered Dillan.

Schancer looked to his colonel, but the man was merely pointing to the assembled recruits. Not one was speaking, and those that weren't looking at the floor were still looking at the screen.

"Holy shit," he muttered. Those folks in PR must've put some strong stuff in the Japanese narration, he mused.

Larsen eyed the four soldiers who had requested transfer. A fifth jogged in. He raised an eyebrow.

"Sergeant, pull the files for Rawlings, Davidson, Battelene, Matsumoto, and Hirsch. Transfer them to Orient Command, and then delete them. I'll also need two copies of that transfer receipt."

The secondary pounded away on his keyboard. After a few tense moments, the computer's printer spat out a pair of sheets. The sergeant handed both to Larsen.

"I expected this," he acknowledged. "Wish Commander Schancer luck. It seems to be his only positive attribute."

The commander turned and stalked off.

A tense moment passed.

"Well, that was easy," sighed Davidson. He noticed the sudden arrival of Hirsch. "What are you doing here, boy?"

"I got to the showers late," apologized the squaddie.

"Well, welcome aboard."

Another silence passed.

"Um, what do we do now?" asked Battelene.

The secondary handed Davidson a digital card.

"You're to take the next flight to Dulles," he mumbled. "You got five hundred dollars each, and prepaid tickets on the next Northwest flight to Narita. Commander Schancer will send a car for you. He's in the Tokyo Radisson."

"Uh, thanks," offered Battelene.

Walking away from the administration front desk, Rawlings asked Battelene and Matsumoto, "Do either of you speak Japanese?"

"Barely," answered Battlelene.

"Enough to get us where we're going," answered Matsumoto.

"Hmm," replied Davidson. A thin bead of sweat rolled down his face.

The soldiers returned to their barracks and packed their garment bags, stowing jumpsuits galore, more than a few cans of beer, and in the rookies' case, several pornographic magazines.

"You shouldn't read those," mentioned Davidson, upon seeing one. "They grow hair on your palms."

Battelene glared at the sergeant and buried the Penthouse deep in a roll of unwashed jumpsuits.

Rawlings removed his bunk's mattress and pulled a wicked-looking plasma pistol from a makeshift holster in the springs. He tucked it in his belt and walked out of the barracks; everyone who saw it wore an astounded look on their face.

"Shit, where are you going with that?" asked Davidson.

Rawlings smiled. "They won't let me carry it into the airport," he mumbled, stalking off.

"Where's Colonel Bright?" he asked a Bluegrass Eight squaddie.

"Hell, he's somewhere around here," answered the soldier before seeing the pistol in Rawlings' belt.

"Oh shit, he's gonna kill the colonel!" yelled the grunt as Jack walked away.

Larsen, with Bright at his side, walked out of the commissary. Kell could be heard shouting behind them.

"What the fuck, I'm no thief! I was acting under the orders of Colonel Schancer!"

Bright turned around. "Shuttup, you pig. If it weren't for you, we'd get enough to eat each week. As it is, I'm goin' to bed hungry."

Larsen was the first to see Rawlings approaching. He tapped Bright on the shoulder, but the angry colonel was too involved in berating the commissary chief to notice.

"Colonel, watch out!" he shouted, dodging behind a table.

Bright's angry black eyes turned to see Rawlings pull out the plasma pistol.

"Hello, Colonel," exclaimed Jack.

"Oh shit," snarled the cornered animal.

Rawlings flipped over the pistol so that its butt faced Bright.

"Considering how I'm about to depart for destinations unknown, and in doing so I'm forced to part with a variety of personal objects--hell, I thought that a crazy bastard like you could use this thing."

Rawlings offered the weapon to Bright. The colonel, eyes wide with a child's curiosity, held the pistol in two hands. With surprising caution and care, he checked the clip, the barrel, and the safety. Satisfied, he tucked the alien weapon in his belt.

He offered a hand to Rawlings. They shook.

"Thank you."

Rawlings nodded, shrugged, and walked off.

Larsen poked his head up, realizing that the situation was diffused.

"I'll be damned," the commander whispered. "I'll be damned."

And that was the last of Bright's pistol-waving.

Schancer nibbled on his loaf of bread. Crumbs fell across his lap.

"Damn," he muttered. Larsen raised an eyebrow.

"Then it's a deal," inquired the Bluegrass commander.

"Yup," responded Schancer, his mouth full of bread. "Twenty techs and five soldiers in exchange for fifty Japanese recruits."

"Excellent. When can I expect them?"

"I'll put them on the next Northwest flight to Dulles."

Considering that Rawlings alone was worth fifty rookies alone, Schancer was pleased. The techs would be the most useful of all the personnel, but Larsen had added them into the equation as a kind of parting gift.

"Well, let's go on to the main conference," suggested Larsen.

Schancer tapped a few keys on his PDA, and the screen was divided into the six part Hollywood squares configuration. The Southerner, crouched over the eight by eleven screen, frowned. This was a new layout, and he watched uneasily as Commanders Molotov, Singer, and Larsen fired up their cameras. One square was a mirror image of Schancer, and he brushed back an unruly lock.

"Lt. Commander Reading is engaged in combat," announced Singer. "But we're proud to have Commander Kalinkov joining us from Suise Base."

A grey-faced Russian's image emerged in one box. Several commanders nodded their greetings.

"Welcome to the ranks of commanders sans facilities," smiled Schancer. The Russian grinned. His site wouldn't be ready for another month.

"First on the agenda," started Molotov, "is the matter of UFO-345."

Singer groaned.

"I would like to express my condolences to the Nebraskan commander," stated the Russian. "And not only for the unfortunate incident of this morning. You were correct in demanding that 345 should have been tracked and intercepted on the ground... a most fearful discovery has been made at 345's intended destination."

Every commander leaned a little closer to their monitor screens.

"An EBE base has been detected at that location."

A brief moment of silence passed.

"Are you absolutely convinced of this?" asked Larsen at his most skeptical.

"I have satellite recon photos, and a standard patrol of two MiG squadrons detected unnatural levels of infrared radiation over the terrain in question," replied Molotov. "When the nature of UFO 345's passengers is taken into account, there is no question that the aliens have an existing facility there."

Schancer leaned back from the screen, frustrated. This development would divert XCOM resources from Kansai for the foreseeable future.

"Do you have any plans to destroy it?" inquired Singer. The stout Nebraskan rubbed his neck.

"More reconnaissance is needed, but I am aggressively preparing four of my assault teams and two secondary teams for a full frontal assault. However, I ask of the commanders present that if any manpower is available... I would be more than glad to share in the salvage."

As Schancer predicted, Kalinkov nodded.

"I am willing to send two teams heavy infantry and two spare Skyranger transports," he promised.

"The gift is most gratefully accepted, Yuri," responded Molotov. It was plain as day that the two Russians had hammered out the deal previous to the full conference, which had to be expected--Kalinkov had been the Volga commander's second-in-command. However, Schancer didn't expect what came next.

"I can call in some favors," started Singer. "Could you use two squadrons NATO ground-attack Eagles?"

It was Molotov's turn to be surprised. "Why, yes. I believe I could. Thank you. Thank you much."

A thin string of characters appeared at the bottom of Schancer's screen.

"Russians have no combat-worthy fighters; Singer's help invaluable. -Blue" it read.

Larsen blinked at Schancer.

"So, when does this 'go down?'" asked the Bluegrass commander.

"The preliminary schedule is for one and a half months from now," replied Molotov.

Schancer sighed. Any spare XCOM funds would go into prepping the Suise base to launch their prong of the attack.

"Well, that should be quite exciting," added Larsen. "Unless there are any other questions, I believe we can move on to the next subject." Nobody intervened, so he continued. "We were to discuss the nature of the prototype Heavy-Weapons-Platforms, but due to Lieutenant Commander Reading's unfortunate absence, we cannot go very far in that matter."

"How are the tanks coming?" asked Molotov.

Larsen shrugged. "As I was informed two weeks ago, the techs are in the final stages of equipping weapons in the snubtanks. The control mechanisms, and on-board computers, have yet to be installed."

That will be a real blast, thought Schancer, when we can fight those bug disk/tanks with our own armor.

"What is the largest weapon they can mount?" asked Kalinkov.

Typical Russian. Always worried about the guns, Schancer snorted.

"I can't recall the specifics," apologized Larsen. "Although I hear rumors of either a seventy-five millimeter armor-piercing cannon or an antitank guided missile."

Kalinkov rolled his eyes, disgusted.

"That seems to be tonight's business," sighed Larsen. "Happy hunting until we next convene."

The Russians immediately signed off to confer with each other, but Singer and Larsen remained.

"What's the news about Reading?" asked Singer.

"He's dead. Sniper shot him in the back in the course of a UFO assault. Only two other casualties, though," replied the Bluegrass commander, his eyebrows an angry stormfront.

"The man was incompetent," said the Nebraskan, his head shaking. "It's a crime that Sundeen had to get himself dead in Osaka. That soldier had a real head on them shoulders. Not much of a tactician, though."

"Who's up for the job?" interjected Schancer.

"My man Dillan would be, but he's only been Colonel a week," responded Singer.

"Probably a German, or maybe a French," theorized Schancer, "but it'll most definitely be a European."

"Damn, we don't need some fresh-off-the-boat rookie to run Las Vegas R&D;! Hell, I'd take the job, if I didn't know that that same immigrant would be running my Greengrass."

Schancer was getting a headache listening to Singer posture. He'd hear rumors that the Nebraskan hadn't so much said a word at the hurried funeral of his dead team.

That reminded Schancer of an aching hurt shelved away in the back of his mind. Frank Hudson, his trusted advisor, had been buried within the Bluegrass base perimeter, hidden in some thicket of his beloved woods. Only Larsen, Jack, and the base priest had laid the man to rest. Mulligan had said that his grave wasn't marked by anything more than a steel reinforcing rod; the same thing that'd killed him in Osaka.

I'll bet Jack carried Frank's body all the way to the hole, thought Schancer, revelling in a bit of gallows humor. He probably dug all seven feet himself...

Seven feet down. Perhaps it was another of the Council's innumerable typos; but Schancer liked to think there was deliberate thought behind the number. Sure, it was luckier than hell--but then again, why waste all that charm on a corpse? Jack's theory was that XCOM troops were buried deeper than anyone else because they were truly part of the earth--after all, what had they died defending?

Schancer didn't intend to die for anything or anyone. At least not with all this TV to watch, he thought, flipping on the HD set in his suite. He piled a stack of pillows behind his back and began to watch the insane parade of Japanese television shows.

A sharp rap on his door peeled his attention away from the screen. Checking his chronometer, Schancer swore, wondering what room service could want at one in the morning. He staggered over to the thick maple door and peered through the peephole.

"Hallo? Anybody home?"

"Dammit, what if this is the wrong room?"

"Shut up, rookie. Massuh Ralph? Yas boys is in from the fields..."