Sancho Panza

It had been a typical mission in all respects. The bug ship, appearing over the Appalachians, had set down, and XCOM responded quickly, sending in Rawling's team from Bluegrass. The bugs were polite enough to wait around for the 'Ranger to drop out of the sky, causing a small celebration over the command channels. The Third's Alpha squad had jumped off the ship and killed a pair of greys; another few died in the advance to the UFO, with no human casualties.

That had changed, though, as soon as the Third approached the towering two level alloy fortress. Even before Beta squad could reach the UFO's door, Durand, the squad's sergeant, had a grenade out.

"What the hell... ?" was all the Captain could shout before the ugly iron bomb bounced to the ground a yard away from his boots. A hideous cloud of shrapnel ripped him to shreds and hamstringed Sergeant Davis.

Durand fired his laser into his nearest squadmate; poor Ray was screaming, a dime-size hole through his chest. Others scrambled to avoid the crazed sergeant's shots.

Rawlings, a mere rookie with only one previous mission under his belt, did what none of the others would--he crouched and loosed a burst of M-249 SAW rounds into the maniac.

Gushing blood and entrails, Durand collapsed, nearly cut in half. A single word was etched on his lips: "Why?"

"Holy fucking Mary," groaned Frank Weathers, wincing at the smear of blood and cloth where the Captain had stood. He crawled over to Davis, who was bleeding profusely.

"Shit shit shit," moaned the wounded man.

"We gotta call the mission."

"Sergeant LaBumbard?"

"Get Davis back to the 'Ranger. We're nabbing these bugs here and now."

"Yessir," mumbled Weathers. "Rawlings! Help me with the Sarge."

Jack recalled the looking at Sergeant Durand's corpse, bloody and mangled, and staring at his hands. He swore that they dripped the blood of his teammate for the slightest of moments; thick syrupy gore that ran under his fingernails and down his sleeves and stained his hands a deep crimson. The blood soaked his jumpsuit, painting his chest with the life of another.

"My God," he swore, eyes wide with terror.

Weathers belted, "Jack! Fuckin' A, Davis is dying! Help me get him to the 'Ranger!"

The fiberglass butt of a laser emitter hit him in his gut.

"Fuckhead, don't drop your SAW," growled LaBumbard.

The sharp pain brought him back. Face flushed, Rawlings snatched up his weapon and staggered over to Davis. Weathers was inserting a needle into Davis' forearm.

"Thirty cc's of this shit? Fuck it, here goes nothing."

Rawlings grabbed the sergeant's arm, machine gun slung over his back. "Ready to go, sir."

Weathers glared at him. "Thought you'd almost lost it, Jack."

The rookie looked away.

Another squaddie finished up patching Davis' leg.

"You take his arms."

Rawlings and Weathers stumbled away from the UFO, Davis whimpering softly and supported at his armpits and knees by the two soldiers. A grenade detonated somewhere to their rear, and they picked up their pace.

"Jesus, they were in my head," mumbled Jack.

Weathers grunted.

A single plasma bolt flew over their heads and struck an old maple. Burning leaves and broken branches cascaded to the forest floor. Weathers cursed, and a human scream, eerily loud, reverberated through the woods.

A few seconds of silence passed.

"Shit, I hope it was them doing most of the dying," gasped Weathers.

It was Rawlings' turn to grunt.

The 'Ranger was parked on a small meadow on a rise. Roasted daisies and mountain wildflowers surrounded the small blue jet transport, evidence of its powerful twin VTOL engines. Its rear boarding ramp was up, and Rawlings and Weathers set down Davis.

"Lower the ramp, Pete!" shouted Frank into his headset.

"Back so soon, sir?"

"Fuck it, we have wounded!"

"Ramp's lowering."

With painful delay, the Skyranger's rear descended. A plasma bolt foamed up the burnt flora at the wood's edge.

"Fire up the engines," ordered Weathers, pulling his laser emitter from its backpack hooks. Rawlings took the hint and unslung his SAW.

"Sergeant LaBumbard? Sergeant?" asked Weathers into his radio, peering into the sudden stillness of the forest.

The engines roared to life, gushing out a wave of heat.

"Let's get Davis aboard," suggested Jack.


Weathers reached for the wounded man's feet, but a sudden movement at the meadow's edge sent him tumbling to the ground.

A lone soldier, combat gear ripped and smeared with blood and dirt, stepped into the light.

"Steve!" yelled Weathers, recognizing the squaddie.

The soldier, a blank look on his face, calmly raised his laser emitter at Weathers.

A burst of lead cut him down.

"Shit! Grab Davis!" shouted Rawlings, tugging at the Sergeant's collar. A plasma bolt slammed the side of the 'Ranger, flaming bits of heat-resistant ceramic panelling flaking off.

Weathers opened fire on the forest, invisible microwave beams burning branches and trunks.

"Get him aboard, I'll cover!" he yelled. Plasma shots began falling in earnest, ripping up the steaming earth and scorching the exposed flank of the 'Ranger.

Rawlings pulled with all his might, dragging the invalid to the ramp's base. A bolt fried it, leaving a smoking oval scar on its surface. Jack tossed inside his SAW and pulled Davis to the relative safety of the transport's cargo hold.

"Lift off!" screamed to the pilot. He only received a faint moan.

Charging up to the fore of the jet, he opened the door separating the crew compartment.

Pete, the 'Ranger's pilot, was smacking his head with an open palm and gurgling.

"Christ," groaned Jack. Turning to the copilot, he ordered, "Bob, get us up!"

"He won't let me near the throttle!" whined the second aviator.

"I'll fix that," replied Rawlings. A quick jab to the pilot's temple knocked the man cold. Bob immediately commenced with pushing the engines to maximum output.

I'd better help Weathers, Jack recalled thinking, grabbing his M-249 and rushing to the ramp.

Frank's dead body lay sprawled across its base.

The night cycle in the medical ward lasted an eternity, and the dead time exacted a heavy toll in memories upon Rawlings. His second mission--and everyone in his team was dead. Schancer had taken him under his wing, hoping associating with his teams would have therapeutic value. He'd found a most loyal ally.

"Never, never again," was Jack's mantra. "I abandoned LaBumbard and Weathers and all the others; never again."

Only a few rays of dim red light found their way into Rawlings' shrouded cubicle as the maimed, angry man spent the night awake, afraid to sleep lest he dream of those twelve friends that died mere months ago.

"I should have stayed."

"Open the door, Colonel."

"Dammit, give me time to get dressed!"

The pale-faced man with the night black hair nodded to the pair of beefy secondaries. They immediately leaned into the small room's door. Cheap rivets protested momentarily before succumbing to the overwhelming pressure. The door flew inwards, striking something.

"Shit!" howled Schancer. He rubbed his shoulder, and continued zipping up a jumpsuit.

"Colonel Schancer, you're under arrest," intoned one of the security guards.

"Whose orders, soldier?" he complained.

The pale-faced man stepped into the room.

"Mine, Ralph." He glanced around the small quarters, his jaded eyes falling upon the female undergarments scattered about.

"Tell your girl to get dressed and get out," he continued.

"Woman to you," snarled Captain of Secondaries Unger as she crawled from under the bed.

The man frowned, finally saying, "Whatever."

He turned to the security men. "Escort the colonel to my offices. I want this room guarded; and disconnect the colonel's PDA."

Unger, dressed only in bedspreads, requested, "Would you mind giving me some privacy?"

The pale man responded, "Such an imitation of dignity for someone who so obviously lacks any." He cracked a lipless smile. "Very well. Pretend all you want. Men, if you will-?"

The security secondaries each grasped one of Schancer's shoulders and commenced in dragging him from his quarters.

"Goddamn it, I can walk--I won't run," he whined, shaking off their vise-like grips. The three men, two muscular and one tall, departed for parts unknown. The pale-face remained. Unger glared at him.

"If you mind?" she hissed.

He smirked. "Your own quarters, please. It wouldn't do for you to defile any of the data contained within the colonel's personal data assistant."

She glared at him. "I would never-"

His face turned to granite, no trace of amusement left.

"Get out. Now."

Unger, fuming, balled up her clothing and left Schancer's room. The pale man, upon observing her departure, stepped over to the small grey laptop computer located on the inadequate desk. He pulled a few cords from its sides, and nestled the box in the crook of his arm. He exited the abandoned quarters.

"Colonel Schancer get soaked in that shitstorm, sir?" asked a grinning soldier at the doorway.

"Yes, Captain Bright, I believe that our prodigal colonel has been reined in," spoke the pale- face.

"Best news I've heard all week. Thanks for making my day, Commander Larsen."

There was a sudden disturbance at the entrance to the med ward. A man's voice, slurred by sleep, argued with the sharp tones of an angry woman. Footsteps approached Rawlings' cot, followed by the warnings of the attendant.

"Hold on just one second; that man is--"

The curtain flew open, and Jack's eyes took a moment to adjust themselves. Carrie Unger, that 'special person' in the colonel's life, stood before his bed.

"Hello, Mrs. Schancer," Rawlings joked.

"Jack, Ralph's just been arrested for who-know's-what and I'm worried about him--Commander Larsen really, really has it in for him this time," she blurted.

"Captain, this man is ill; he needs his sleep!" argued the corpsman on duty as he strode up. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave!"

Jack slid his legs off the side of his bed and placed his feet on the cold tile floor. Systems seem operational, he mused. There was only a slight itch in his torso where the burn was still healing.

"Mr. Rawlings, you can't..." The attendant shrugged his shoulders and conceded defeat. He stalked back to his post, mumbling about space wasted on lazy bastards and limits on visiting hours.

Looking over his rather unbecoming surgical scrubs, Rawlings noted, "I'd better get some clothes on.

Eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed Unger's attire. "Maybe you'd better also," he suggested.

"What the hell is this about... sir?" shouted Colonel Schancer.

Larsen stepped away from his desk and approached the chair where Schancer, quite unwillingly, sat.

"How should I begin? Perhaps it is best to commence with the minor violations."

Schancer glared back, his fists curled into balls. One of the security men flanking him noticed, and placed a large hand on his shoulder.

"Failure to report recovery totals in a timely fashion, failure to return war materials lent to the Sixth and Seventh, failure to report for floor time on the eighth of April, and theft of supplies from the commissary."

"I can explain-"

Larsen waved him off with the flick of his wrist. "I'm quite sure you can supply some fashion of an explanation for these matters; therefore, I shall not dwell upon them. I have forgiven your lapses in judgment on previous dates, and I would do so again, if it weren't for several new issues..."

Schancer grimaced and waited for the death knell of his career.

"It has been brought to my attention that you and C of S's Unger have a most intimate relationship..."

"I take full responsibility, sir," sighed the blonde colonel.

Larsen frowned and peered at him. "If you would allow me to continue-"

Schancer nodded, eyes closed.

"As she is the officer heading those secondaries handling the storage of war material, and you are one of many field leaders responsible for reporting and depositing artifacts and weapons garnered from recoveries and assaults-"

Schancer leaned back in his chair and let loose a hearty laugh. "Sir, you're telling me that you're angry over my little gun-running operation?"

The base commander frowned, a sour look on his white face. "I would hardly call the theft of materials worth in excess of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars a laughing matter!"

"I thought you were going to can me for-" Schancer stayed his tongue, suddenly suspecting that a devious trap to trick him into admitting his venery was in motion.

"Oh, shit," he cursed.

Larsen strode up to him, peering down at his subordinate. Schancer was suddenly struck by the sacrilegious notion that the commander plucked his nasal hairs.

"Don't think I am so completely uninformed," he whispered. "I know what goes on behind the door to your quarters."

Louder, he announced, as if an audience were present, "But I feel it is not entirely appropriate to pry into such matters. I feel that your behavior, in that aspect of your life, is acceptable, considering the most monastic of existences that we lead here at Bluegrass.

"However, lust is no excuse for larceny. I want to know where those weapons went, how much you received in exchange, and where that money is."

Larsen sat on the front of his desk, touching a small remote. A bank of monitors switched on, revealing a circular table surrounded by fifteen austere gentlemen.

"Colonel Schancer," spoke the nearest, "the Council of Funding Nations has a few questions for you."

"I don't think you understand, squaddie. The commander is not--cannot see anyone at this moment."

Jack tried to brush his way past the security tough. He ran into a wall of muscle.

"Hey, I just want to see the colonel," he complained.

"He is meeting with the commander. He cannot see you," slowly explained the secondary, becoming annoyed. His hand brushed the nine millimeter strapped to his hip.

"Can you send him a message, then?" asked Unger in a most polite tone.

The secondary laughed, recalling what his friends had just related to him.

"If you're not careful, ma'am, you'll be the next one getting booted. Larsen is reading Colonel Schancer the riot act over what you two have been doing."

The captain, her face flushed, backed off.

Jack attempted to enter the base commander's office again. The guard caught him with little effort.

"Whoa there, squirt. No entry."

"Pull the stick out of your ass and let us talk for thirty seconds with the colonel," Jack barked back.

"I'd sooner throw you through a basketball hoop, runt."

Captain Bright, rubbing his knuckles in glee, approached.

"Is there a problem, men?"

Rawlings glared at the leader of Eighth Bluegrass. The man was a complete Judas, backstabbing and devious, but so slimy that you couldn't catch him in the act. Jack suspected that a number of Bright's previous incarnations had been lawyers.

"This midget wants to see his boss, and Captain Unger here wants to get lover-boy out of the oven."

Bright cackled, and rubbed his palms together. "Is that so?" he asked.

The man is evil, thought Jack. This is the kind of guy who runs over homeless people crossing the street. A fucking total Nazi.

"I'll see if I can't throw in a good word or two for them," he said, stepping around the guard and through the office door.

Jack took advantage of the moment and lunged past the guard. Almost through the doorway, he heard the sound of a bullet being chambered.

"We are quite attached to the colonel, aren't we?" laughed Bright. He'd pulled a nasty-looking Glock from his waistband, and the barrel of the plastic and ceramic weapon waved in Rawlings' face.

"Tom, what the hell are you doing?" screamed Unger. The security guard held her back.

"Give me a reason," snarled the insane captain.

"Sir, you're about a meter and a half away from me. I suspect you might be able to get off, one, two, shots before I can touch you, sir. But once I do, that pistol is gone, and your neck gets broken just like that-" Rawlings snapped his fingers for emphasis.

Bright, confused, took a step back. At the prodding of Unger, the security secondary reached over the captain of the Eighth and wrapped sausage-like fingers around his weapon, pointing it at the ceiling.

"Sir, if you don't mind," the guard apologized.

"What the fuck are you doing?" squawked Bright. Still clutching the pistol, he almost turned to attack the man, but catching a glimpse of Rawlings from the corner of his eyes, he halted.

"Just you and me, sir. I won't hit you low or in the eyes."

Bright surrendered his weapon to the secondary and raised his fists to the ready.

"Jack, Tom, quit screwing around," bellowed Schancer, emerging from the commander's office.

Looking much worse for the wear, Schancer had bags under his eyes and dark stains of sweat at his armpits and back. His blonde hair, usually the subject of undue attention by the colonel, was a mess. But instead of wearing the dejected look of a man broken, Schancer smiled and stood tall.

"Just a friendly boxing match, sir," chirped Rawlings. Bright glared at both, and stalked away, not bothering to retrieve his service pistol from the guard.

"What's Tom's problem?" asked Schancer, watching the furious man disappear down the hallway.

"Captain Bright merely attempted to restrain this squaddie, sir," said the guard, pointing at Jack. "I felt he was using unnecessary force, so I intervened."

Schancer patted him on the back. "Yes, Jack here can be quite the nuisance. Sometimes you just need to slap him upside the head."

The guard smiled and saluted. "I'll remember that, sir."

Walking away from Larsen's office, Unger and Rawlings bombarded Schancer with questions.

"What was that about?"

"What happens now?"

Schancer hushed them with the wave of a hand. "Hold on. Jack, go wake up the teams. I have something very important to tell you all."