Reindeer

Dillan gripped the swarthy Afrikaaner's hand and shook it.

"Welcome to Kansai," smiled the American, matching the new commander's iron grip.

"Thank you, Colonel."

Noticing that captain's patches were still stitched into the Queensland Base officer's jumpsuit, Dillan frowned. A team of tanned, muscular Australians marched out of the 'KangarooCom' 'Ranger.

"Sorry I couldn't bring more of the family," snorted Idzerda. "Had to leave two teams to keep away the vultures."

Probably knocked off the previous commander, grimaced Dillan. The commander really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to pull the coup off, decided the American, suspecting that when one plays foul, one must hold one's nose to avoid the stink.

Hangar three's accordion door opened again, and a squat, armored frisbee dropped out of the sky and into the artificial cave of the landing bay. Gleaming slightly from the overhead lights, the ship hovered over to a suitable service site and lowered its three thin landing legs.

Mark is probably itching to try that on, smiled the colonel. Apparently, the new 'Donner' class interceptors were faster and tougher than anything the bugs had. Okano's grease monkeys had been working around the clock to complete a second 'Donner' vehicle, and the pilots were already training, via simulators, on the interceptor's operations.

Dillan ran an easy eye over the ship. Rimmed with polished alloy, a single hatch on the upper surface of the Donner allowed the entry. An excellent example of alien technology reverse-engineered for human use, the Donner possessed intricate alien navigational systems, a heavy anti-grav engine, and a pair of long range, rapid fire plasma cannon.

"I get a hard-on just looking at that baby," whispered Will from beside Dillan. The colonel turned to face the Chief Airtech.

"And you are?" asked Idzerda.

"Chief Airtech Mark Will, sir. I run all air ops out of here, and I'll be coordinating the assault."

Idzerda shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you. Give those bastards hell for us on the ground."

"No problem."

The three resumed admiring the beauty that was the Donner. Techs climbed aboard, replacing the airtechs within. Manned by two pilots and the most sophisticated nav computers ever known to man, the ship was surprisingly agile for its weight.

"They named it after a Second World War fighter, you know," confided Will to the other officers. "Means 'thunder' in German. Short for 'thunderbolt'--and you know what those craft did to them Germans' granddaddies."

Dillan grunted, waiting for a final entry into the hangars.

"How much damage can one of these buggers take?" inquired Idzerda, his dark eyes tracing the interceptor's clean lines.

Airtech Will shrugged. "Plasma's a real funny weapon. Some days, you can slice through twenty feet of reinforced concrete with a decent shot. Other days, the damn cannons can't punch a hole in a sheet of tinfoil--I'm exaggerating, of course, but if a Donner mixes it up with a bugboat, there's no telling how many shots it can take."

The hangar doors folded open again, revealing sunlight and the flash of another terran UFO. Larger, and mounting a single rotary plasma cannon on its upper surface, this ship lowered its four legs and sat down next to the Donner.

"What's that?" asked Idzerda.

"Blitzen," replied Will.

"Naming them after Santa's reindeer, are we?" snorted the South African.

The airtech chuckled. "Blame it on the Germans. They did most of the research at Nevada, and their Science Chief demanded that the final products be named appropriately."

Dillan, watching the UFO's side hatches pop open, muttered, "Lightning."

Will nodded.

A pair of techs lowered the central grav emitter on the Donner, revealing the bottom side of its Elerium drive. They meticulously removed a series of locks and control wiring in order to access a small hatch on the powerplant.

"The Blitzen are our new transport ships, made to order for anti-terrorist missions," stated Will. "The hulls are a lot tougher than the 'Rangers' when it comes to absorbing ground fire, and the grav drive is more heavily armored than the underwing 'Ranger turbofans."

"If it's made for ground combat, why the hell to you have the main armament on the roof? That doesn't help clear the LZ," argued the colonel.

The airtech replied, "There's always the danger that the bugs might divert another ship to their downed vessel's location. If they do, the roof cannon can make life hairy for anybody wanting to set down."

Techs driving a small transport truck pulled up to the Donner. A burly tech wearing second- hand body armor hopped off. Carefully, he opened a cabinet on the truck and pulled out a familiar canister, the same type that both Idzerda and Dillan had seen dozens of times, deep within UFOs. Cautiously, the tech opened the hatch on the grav drive. Another grease monkey pulled out the spent one within and the bigger man replaced it.

"How bad's the gas mileage?" asked Idzerda.

Will responded as the mini truck drove to the Blitzen, "Full war load is twenty pounds Elerium, same as in a UFO reactor. But Okano says it'll only burn half that on a thirty-minute interception run."

The American colonel grunted.


Rawlings inspected his heavy plasma/grenade launcher. A thin smear of gun grease on the launcher's snout caught his eye. Wiping it off with a blunt finger, the bodyguard flipped the weapon on its side, checking the elerium transfer mechanisms in the unloaded weapon's magazine receptacle. He grunted; they were clean as always.

Have to hand it to the bugs, thought the sergeant, they know how to make a decent weapon.

Rawlings returned the plasma to its storage case and hoisted up the wooden mockup of the weapon. The engineers and secondaries had done well; aside from the rather beaten and bruised look of the faux plasma, it possessed all the qualities of its decidedly deadlier cousin.

Shifting the mockup in his arms, Rawlings decided that its balance was acceptable. Slinging the weapon over his shoulder, he grabbed his helmet and wandered out of the combat prep room. On his belt were three stun grenades, a flashlight, and a medikit; on his right hip was his trusty plasma pistol.

Nodding to a band of secondaries as he clomped down the length of the main hall, Rawlings activated the tactical radio located in the small of his back. His armor was painted a deep matte black; the only patches of color on it were the white, tilted cross of XCOM on his right shoulder, along with the two chevrons of his rank; the broad Japanese naval battle flag--a white backdrop with the bright cherry sun and its numerous rays laid upon it--on his left; and a pair of arcing yellow lightning bolts racing down his forearms.

The lightning bolts were a gift of Tahara's. Rawlings recalled with pleasure the day he and that Japanese sergeant had shot darts and thrown knives while watching the HDTV. The Fourth Kansai soldier had taught Jack a variety of knifing techniques--along with winning three out of seven rounds of darts.

Damn you for that 'double or nothing', smiled Rawlings, recalling the numerous bank notes the two had traded.

The bodyguard reached the main entrance of the base. Saluting the two security guards, Rawlings proceeded to board the personnel lift. He'd had night outings such as this before, and the secondaries were quite used to it.

Thirty seconds later, Rawlings stomped out, into the basement of the townhouse. Climbing a short flight of stairs, he emerged into the house's kitchen.

"Night exercises, sah?" asked the secondary posted at the refrigerator.

"Yes. I'll be back around two."

"I'll inform the patrols," responded the tanned soldier. He lifted up one of several phones on the countertop beside him.

Rawlings plodded through a living room and out to the main door. Screwing on his helmet, he tested his tactical radio.

"Taxi One, Taxi Two, Taxi Three, this is Kansai Zero, Beta One."

"Copy. Enjoy your stroll, sah. We'll try not to run you over."

Rawlings grunted and opened the townhouse's front door. Marching down the steps and towards the thin mountain highway, Rawlings repeated his precombat tests; rolling his shoulders and stretching his legs, the bodyguard ensured that his servos were fully operational.

Without the motors, life is a bitch, decided the sergeant. Walking powered down was an incredibly easy way to get into shape. One hundred plus pounds of alloy plating, plus whatever equipment you happened to be carrying was not something enjoyable, however.

A deep blue VW van rolled by on the road. Rawlings instinctively saluted the four secondaries who would spend half the night driving back and forth on a ten miles stretch of Kansai highway. Armed only with submachineguns and grenades, the patrols kept unknowing travelers just that--unaware. After all, it wouldn't be too impressive to have a 'Ranger, both engines spouting flame and thunder, land while people drove by.

Two quick glances, and Rawlings ran across the road and partway down the sharp incline on its opposite side. Tapping the side of his helmet, he engaged nightvision, safely away from the single street lamp to the side of the townhouse. Its glare would kick in his blast filters and render him blind momentarily.

The bodyguard waded into the weeds and bamboo. Making a trail for himself, Rawlings slowly worked his way down the slope, cautiously avoiding the three craters over the hangars. Additionally, he skirted around two ominous camouflaged bunkers to the north of the entryways.

Fifteen minutes of continuous labor brought Jack to the small river at the center of the valley. Running swiftly and carrying away bits and pieces of the rocky backbone of Japan, it was rather deep at some points. Orienting himself off a small cliff on the opposite bank, Rawlings jogged along to a shallow ford downstream.

With utmost care, the bodyguard leapt from moss-coated rock to lichen-encrusted boulder. For some reason, alloy would weaken quickly when immersed in water. Okano's boys had devised a temporary solution; the powersuits were coated with a thick layer of rubber to their mid-thighs. Of the same make as the heavy soles of the suit's boots, it was also effective at cutting noise when crawling inside UFOs.

UFOs, wondered Rawlings, slightly taken aback with the nostalgic term. If they'd only remained UFOs, and we hadn't become entangled in this brutal war. The bodyguard looked up at the night sky. It was surprisingly clear, and the city-grown soldier picked out the few pinpricks of light he could recognize. The Big Dipper; the blurred mass of the Pleadies; the belt of Orion.

Where would I be now? mused the soldier, resting on the side of the river. Probably busting terrorists, the old-fashioned ones, in Delta Force. Risking my ugly head at every turn.

But Rawlings didn't regret his decision to join the military. In many ways it's my savior, decided the sergeant. If it wasn't for an aggressive army recruiter, I'd probably be face down in some storm sewer, floating along with all the other trash of Chicago. Dead, just like too many of my 'friends.'

The bodyguard grinned sadly, realizing how quickly all of his comrades could meet a similar fate. A year, a month, a week, a day. We're all going to die.

Rising, and turning to face the darkened wall of the valley across from the base, the man took comfort in the agility of his muscular frame.

If the bossman plans on pulling this next operation, it could be a lot sooner than otherwise.


A lean, ultraviolet-deprived finger planted on the map of the world spoke novels.

"Himalayas?" asked Idzerda.

Schancer frowned, and peeled back his fingertip.

"No, just short of the Burmese border."

"They call it Myanmar, sir," interjected Taoka.

The commander made an ugly face, tossing aside the small paper map.

"Whatever."

Tapping a few keys on his PDA, Schancer and the other officers of Kansai Base turned to the main projection screen of the communications room. Taoka, Dillan, Yoshii, Sakurai, Davidson, Itoh, and Ogata peered up at the detailed view of the western Himalayas. Three distinct rivers wormed their way across the right half of the map--the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtze.

Idzerda, the only stranger, also glanced up.

"So, where is it?" he asked.

The Southerner tapped a few more buttons, and six month's worth of UFOs flickered by on the screen, most disappearing and reappearing over a spot between the Mekong and the Yangtze.

A thin, pink-rimmed box appeared at that location.

Schancer didn't bother to point at it.

"That, ladies and gentlemen, is the China Hive. Judging by the bug's flight patterns, I'd estimate it to be at least five times larger than the Caucasus one."

The commander allowed the thought to sink in, waiting a moment before continuing. He tapped a few more keys. The screen zeroed in to show a thousand square miles, then one hundred, and then ten. Faint reddish circles like droplets of blood clustered in the center.

"This is our satellite infrared scan. They've got their reactor buried deep, so the birds didn't pick up any unusual amounts of particle emissions. But the bugs are there, obviously. The flight paths added to China's disturbingly hostile attitude towards XCOM craft equals a serious case of bug infiltration."

Schancer picked up a laser pointer, aiming its dot on the canvas.

"This," he said, touching the largest concentration of heat, "is the main complex. I suspect they've got at least three levels here, starting with the hangar space. Underneath that, a large armory, crew quarters, food storage, cloning facilities, base control, laboratories, abductee containment, and the reactor, in approximately that order."

The pointer's dot flicked over to a smaller, lighter splotch of red. "The airtechs have no idea what this is. It's either very deep, with heavy emissions, or very shallow. It might be the Elerium reactor, or it could be additional construction. Any way you slice it, though, we'll have to clean that out, too."

Schancer's final target was the uneven ring of blips surrounding the larger masses. "Obviously, these are defensive structures, much like the 'bunkers' Molotov's teams cleaned out. However, several of these most likely mount plasma cannons or guided missile launchers."

Dillan raised a finger. "How many teams in the assault?"

The Southerner responded, "Seven assault teams here, all of which I plan to use. There are four assault teams in training at Hokkaido; they'll fill in for us while we're out. Two teams of chop and mop are coming along also--all in standard light alloy armor with respirators."

"Quite a party. I don't suppose the Chinese invited us," inquired Idzerda.

"They did not. That's the reason for the excessive strength. I don't want a siege, I want a clean, fast raid, preferably stopping by their elerium reactors in the process. If a team can access them and destabilize the system..."

"That corner of Asia's going to be real quiet for the next twenty thousand years," finished Davidson. "Sir, if you haven't already decided, I volunteer the Fifth Kansai for the initial assault."

Schancer flashed a smile. "Offer accepted, Captain Davidson. Your team will immediately transfer to Hokkaido for weapons training."

The black man raised his eyebrows. "The missiles?"

Nodding, the Southerner grinned.

Rubbing his hands and making small 'yes's and 'oh baby's, Davidson proceeded to invent a victory dance.

Schancer raised a hand after suitable delay. "Preliminary battle plans call for Mike and the Aussies to bust in and hold the hangar, utilizing the Blitzen we have and another I'll procure. From there, eight 'Rangers, under Donner escort, will land and disembark the First, Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Kansai into the hangars. Three teams will clean out the main facility, and two will investigate the secondary. Fifth Kansai and Fourth Queensland will act as reserves, along with the secondaries. We sack the base, damage the reactor, and get the hell out."

Something tingled in the back of Dillan's mind.

"Sir, won't the bugs send reinforcements?"

"Transit time from what we suspect is a Martian command base is estimated at four to six hours at full steam for the fastest bugboats. We'll score ourselves some extra if we wait a few weeks, until Mars is on the other side of the Sun. Time would be about eight, ten hours."

The colonel nodded blankly, forgetting a far more troubling aspect of his question.

Idzerda frowned and scratched his head.

"Ubercommander, what's this talk of a Mars base?"

Schancer smiled, displaying his pearly whites for the nth time in the last few minutes.

"As you know, we've got ourselves a psychics program. One of the better-endowed of the mind- benders has had considerable success in 'interrogating' several high-ranking greys captured over the last year. The little buggers spilled their beans pretty quickly, I hear, jabbering about a supply depot on the red planet."

"Do we get psis for this?" asked Sakurai, pointing at the map above.

Schancer smiled.

"All in good time. Right now, I want you to get a good night's sleep, especially if you've just landed from the red-eye express," chuckled the commander, glancing at Idzerda. "Tomorrow morning, I'll fill in the whole base. I want everyone training, day and night, for the next week. Flyovers are down in this theatre, and excepting China, which is no-man's land right now, landings are also down. Bugs consenting, we'll get ourselves into shape for what could be the last major battle of the war."

The commander saluted, bidding good night to his troops. In clusters of two and three, they wandered out, chatting quietly in Japanese and English. Schancer turned to his PDA, pulling the network connections from its sides.

"It was Wilkes, wasn't it, sir?"

Grinning warily, Schancer turned to the remaining officer--Colonel Yoshii. Slack shouldered and slight, the woman wasn't exactly the image of terran resistance. A rumpled jumpsuit, a lock of hair straggling from the tight bun at the back of her head... there was only one thing remotely XCOM about her.

Schancer nearly stumbled back to avoid the Japanese woman's firey gaze.

"Wilkes what?" he replied.

"Jonas interviewed them, didn't he?"

Lie, you bastard, ordered the voice in the Southerner's head.

Fuck that, replied the part of Schancer that was still human.

"Yes, it was."

Yoshii closed her eyes, breathing a deep sigh of relief... or perhaps fury.

"I'm sorry, I should have told you."

The colonel waved a hand, shrugging off the apology.

"Jone was always strong with his mind, even before Tokyo. He'd always joke that 'I'll headbutt the bastards, if I have to,' but Jone was half serious. He knew he had something, something that made him see the aliens before they could see him."

Schancer shook his head, recalling the e-mail messages from Navarro, the genius behind the psi ops program. 'An extended program, conducted on a random sample, results in approximately a ninety percent chance of extreme psychosis or brain death.' God, how heartless have I become? wondered the blond-haired commander.

"I'm really sorry, I should've told you. Wilkes was placed in the initial group of psi trainees. It was... really rough on everybody."

Yoshii touched a fingertip to the corner of her right eye, brushing away something.

"Sir, I'm very happy to learn that Jone is still alive," she whispered, turning to leave.

The commander watched her leave.

"What a bastard!" muttered Unger from the balcony. Swinging down the spiral staircase leading to the viewing area, the golden-haired Colonel-of-Secondaries marched over to Schancer and slapped him lightly on his left cheek.

"Jesus, you've made a mess of this base! Thank God you brought me over to clean up, or else half the teams would be gunning for you!" commented his wife.

"Carrie, passion and warfare don't mix too damn well."

Snorting, Unger threw an arm over the Southerner's shoulder. Her hand barely reached the other side of his neck.

"Then explain us, Ubercommander."