Stillbirth

Rawlings closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, relaxing utterly. The astoundingly tremendous roar that had permeated his entire essence, the mind-numbing soul-shaking calamity of the takeoff, slowly receded from his pores, and another sensation crept up within his veins.

His body tugged upwards, outwards, against the webbing of his flight harness. Far away, other soldiers swore and cursed at the nauseating unfamiliarity of zero gravity.

"Beecroft's puked, sir!" yelled someone.

"Secure it then," replied the nearby officer, the still-sore man who'd been peeled from a Korean hillside.

The Avenging Angel was warm inside, lacking a truly efficient heat dissipater. That would've been installed next week.

At least the techs had the sense to build nutrient tubes into the ship. Rawlings sucked on an artificial teat, drawing a faintly sweet electrolyte-heavy solution into his mouth. There would be no true meals aboard this last mission--only the fluid tubes. Anything else would be too messy.

And the catheters, thought Rawlings.

The soldiers were packed in like sardines, all twenty men and four women. Packed into environmental suits and armor, strapped into belts and harnesses and webbing, thin transparent tubes duct taped up to their mouthes; embryos. Only one flitted about--Bob.

Rawlings opened his eyes to an odd whirring. The airtech hovered nearby, sucking up the random remnants of Beecroft's breakfast with a hand-held vacuum cleaner.

"...into your helmet next time. Sergeant Merlis needs all the help he can get up in the cockpit," finished the pilot. He shut off the device, tossed it to Sakurai, and swam off to the fore of the Avenger, a sense of grim enjoyment about the man.

Sakurai looked across the narrow aisle to Rawlings. The two sat at the fore of the ship's cargo compartment, where it narrowed into the thin bottleneck of the cockpit and the commander's chair. Aft of them, the better part of two assault teams shifted about, still acquainting themselves with their very noticeable loss of direction.

Stared, actually.

The bodyguard lazily examined the opposite man's irises, dancing his way around the twin brown circles and consciously avoiding contact with his pupils.

The Japanese officer closed his eyes abruptly, their twin lids snapping down like the shades of a voyeur's apartment. Only then did Rawlings notice the thin, bloody headband tying back the captain's thinning black hair--a crimson blot in its center, lesser smears to both sides. Dirt, grease, blood.

Lacking a teeming, textured countenance such as his own, the little sergeant quickly grew bored searching the sleeping officer's face for any sign of emotion. He was acting strange before the Pusan assault, thought the bodyguard... now he doesn't speak at all.

Instinctively sucking on the thin nutrient tube at the corner of his mouth, Sakurai proceeded to snore lightly. A light plastic band strapped across the top of his nose insured that it would get no worse.

There were other faces to look over, other stories to be read, but the small man, a jagged scar down his left cheek, was relaxed. Unlike the rookies with their sick eagerness to prove themselves in battle or the perhaps worse fatalism of the veterans--"Let's have at it and get this over with," he'd heard one say--the bodyguard was utterly limpid in mind and body, wanting neither to rush headlong into the battle or procrastinate feverishly. Events would happen as they would, and mind and body rested. Both would be savagely tried all-to-soon, and he had no desire to expend himself on the flight in.


Beecroft, Kates, Suko, Tripp and Merlis.

Nevada Base is no more than a smeared patch of radiation-tainted dust, but thank God for these five. Blasted their way out of a spare hangar with in this nearly-completed Avenging Angel. Third of the series, most heavily armed and armored of the lot. If we'd had the time, I would've wanted the hyperwave jammers and the other evasion gear installed... if we'd had the time.

Schancer turned around his cocoon-like command chair, spotting four of the five survivors sitting in the far aft of the Avenger. They were tested combat veterans with above-average psi resistance ratings. They had worked together in a squad for the last year.

They would have gone in the planned assault.

But that's not happening any time soon, winced Schancer, looking over the leftovers of the 12 August massacre. Each large base, with heavy air traffic, had been assaulted and eradicated by the bugs. Some had been overwhelmed immediately; Kansai and Queensland had fallen in a heartbeat. Some had resisted for hours...

"-SUISE BASE REQUESTING REINFORCEMENTS. DOWN TO THREE SQUADS, CAN NOT HOLD FOR LONG-"

The message, beseeching help, had burst onto the Ubercommander's PDA just as Bob had finished preflight.

He'd deleted it immediately.

Castro, Rubing, Sardy, Schiffman and Marcussen.

The other five who'd escaped aboard the Avenging Angel.

Minds can only control other minds; they cannot physically influence the laws of physics except by altering the perception of other minds.

Try as they might, Schancer bitterly thought, a top-notch psi like Marcussen can't so much stop a bird's feather from falling into the mud as stop a fusion missile from blasting Commander Vukovic to entrail-smeared alloy ribbons.

Gonzales, Gunn, Draher and Wilkes.

But Wilkes might have been able to.

Bundled up in his powersuit just like any other trooper, the dread psi was sleeping, his head held in place by a thick foam neck brace. Prematurely aged skin fell in wrinkles from his pale, sunlight- starved cheeks, bruised in bright purple and blue welts across his face. The left side of his face was a smear of eyebrow, cheek and jowel, the skin dead in places, black and flaking.

He is dying. Even now, he can barely stand in his power armor; his muscles are melting away, his organs shrivelling up and shutting off...

We could have saved him, thought Schancer. The source of his tremendous power must have lay within the thick knot of cancerous cells eating away at the inside of his skull; the psi training merely expedited their growth. Navarro knew it months ago; but the price of victory in this war was so dear...

Gonzales, Gunn and Gunn were the skeleton crew of the new Azteca Base. Wilkes had also been stationed there, away from Nevada Base's experiments in psionic disruption shields. He said that they were giving him migraines. The four couldn't do anything but watch as that base had been stormed.

Airtech Flannery, Sakurai, Takahashi, Rawlings, Rokkaru and his four rookies completed the roster. The scraps of XCOM Orient.

The scraps of XCOM, period.

The bases had not been the only targets of the massacre. As clever as the aliens were, they had found another, weaker link in the chain that defended Earth.

They'd killed the Council of Funding Nations.

Oh, they hadn't done the deeds themselves, sighed Schancer resignedly. The governments which had kept up the ruse of supporting XCOM were actually quite infested themselves... and humans were now killing humans. Humans, like the Councilman of the United States...

Schancer swiveled his chair away from the snoozing mass of assault troopers, dropping his head and crushing shut his eyes. The price of victory was dear, indeed.


Rawlings slept. What else was there to do?


Sakurai pried open an eye. The ugly American across from him was asleep, twitching every so often. The Japanese captain peered at the bodyguard's actions; Rawlings strained his harness, seeking to lunge out of his seat. Twisting, flexing his powered down armor.

Sakurai closed his eyes and sipped on his straw.

So this was it.

THIS IS NOT 'IT'.

There is only one voice like that, thought Sakurai.

THERE IS TOO MUCH LEFT UNDONE.

Such as? asked the captain. He shifted in his chair, bits of burnt Korean grass still caught in his armor's joints flaking away.

WE WILL DEFEAT THE ALIENS. IF NOT THIS MISSION, OTHERS WILL. THE ALIENS HAVE A VERY, VERY WEAK GRASP UPON OUR EARTH. THEY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN VULNERABLE IN THAT THEY ARE ALIENS, AND NOT OF THIS PLANET. AND THEY WILL CONTINUE TO BE SO, AND WE WILL CONTINUE TO DEFEAT THEM AT EVERY TURN.

So optimistic, chided Sakurai before he could filter his thoughts.

IT IS SO. THEY HAVE TOLD ME THUS.

Just like they 'told' you the location of their invasion base?

I AM NOT ONE TO EXPLAIN MY METHODS OF EXTRACTING SUCH INFORMATION.

Hmm. So what's next?

WE MUST EMULATE THE ALIENS. WE MUST BECOME ONE, FOR UNTIL WE DO, THE ALIENS WILL CONTINUE TO ATTEMPT OUR SUBVERSION.

The captain sneered, How do we become "one?"

ONE PLANET. ONE PEOPLE.

A voice cried out "Communist!" from within Sakurai's mind.

A deep, hearty laugh from somewhere in the Japanese's past answered him.

WHEN THE ONES THAT SPEAK OF DEATH FIRST PROBED US WITH THEIR MINDS, THEY WERE UTTERLY ASTOUNDED THAT SUCH A BOUNTIFUL PLANET, SO RIPE WITH RESOURCES AND LIFE, COULD BE POPULATED BY SO MANY WARRING FACTIONS. THEY ARE FROM A BARREN, LIFELESS PLACE FAR DISTANT, AND FROM THE BEGINNING OF THEIR TIME, THEY HAVE HAD TO WORK TOGETHER TO BARELY SURVIVE. EVERY SPECIES, AND THERE WERE FEW, HAD ITS PLACE IN THEIR STRUGGLE. THEY TREASURED WHAT THEY HAD...

AND SO THEY WERE UNPREPARED FOR SUCH A LAWLESS PARADISE AS OUR EARTH. ONE SPECIES, UTTERLY DOMINATING THE MULTITUDES INTO EXTINCTION, ALREADY REARING ITS COLLECTIVE HEAD TOWARDS THE STARS... WE WERE SEEN AS VIOLENT, DESTRUCTIVE--INSANE--A THREAT TO ALL LIFE, NOT JUST OF THE EARTH, BUT OF THE UNIVERSE.

WE ARE THE RABID DOG. THE ONES THAT SPEAK OF DEATH WERE COMMANDED TO DESTROY US BEFORE WE COULD ANIHILLATE THIS PLANET, THIS UNIVERSE.

And so they will continue trying to crush us into submission?

THEY COULD ONLY ADOPT OUR METHODS OF TOTAL WARFARE. WE ARE NOT WORTH TEACHING, TO BE EDUCATED IN THE WAYS OF THE UNIVERSE LIKE THE OTHER SPECIES SPAWNED SO LONG AGO. WE ARE TO BE EXTERMINATED.

So, thought Sakurai, there is only one option--crush them again and again and again.

NO, THERE IS ANOTHER, BUT WE WILL NOT CHOOSE IT.

There cannot be a choice without options.

IF WE HALT OUR DESTRUCTIVE MANNERS, WE WILL BE LEFT ALONE.

Lies, lies, lies, Sakurai screamed out. They descended out of the night sky over Tokyo, killing hundreds! And before, at Osaka, they killed thousands! Those were not the ways of a... teacher! It was murder, all of it, and we fly now to your 'Cydonia' to avenge those deaths by excising the Invader's cancer from our Solar System!

AND THAT IS WHY THIS WILL CONTINUE. THAT WHICH IS UNDONE SHALL REMAIN UNDONE. YOU ARE RIGHT. THIS IS IT.

Sakurai waited a long moment for more, but it was evident that Wilkes was through.

The captain opened his eyes and craned his neck towards the aft of the Avenging Angel.

Wilkes lay in his seat as before, asleep to unknowing eyes.

"There is only one voice like that," he muttered--in Japanese, of course.


Bob looked over the one hundred and eighty degree viewing screen of the pilot's station.

Far distant, shining with light reflected from the sun, was the fateful destination of the Lucifer.

I do not like this ship, he frowned.

The countermeasures suite isn't installed, the visual screens are too unreliable in rough conditions, and to top off all the little, annoying quirks of this bird is that damned name.

Lucifer, the techs had called it. Deep black armor plate, curved and velvet smooth unlike the awkward grey angles of the Gabriel; silent as death itself, unlike the Daniel with its oversize E-115 engines and its secondary thrusters; fast as mercury...

Blasted, smoldering Gabriel, burnt into the tarmac in the wreckage of Lakota Base--just a memory now. Daniel, no more than a dozen acres of cropped Appalachian hillside welted by the plasma beams of two alien battleships. Of the three, it had to be Lucifer, the Fallen One, who had been bestowed the awful honor of bearing in the Cydonia assault.

Lucifer. Since when had XCOM sunk to naming its flagships after Satan?

Bob looked down to the white cross painted over his pitted armor suit.

Going to take more than a few Hail Marys to explain this one.

The airtech looked up again. The so distant star was slowly growing larger. Soon, it would expand to fill the whole screen, and it would be time for Merlis to wake up. Provided that the two could get the bird down in one piece, they'd be relegated to running point for the psis.

Bob felt the plasma rifle tied down beside him.

This is NOT it, he said, repeating words from an overheard conversation.


Rawlings propped open an eye, twisting it around, searching for the source of the sound.

"Sergeant," repeated the voice.

The bodyguard peered across the narrow aisle.

"Sergeant?" asked Sakurai for confirmation.

Rawlings stared at him blankly.

Motioning at the ovoid profile of the commander's perch, the Japanese man asked, "Would you really die for him?"

The sergeant blinked momentarily, considering the question.

"Wouldn't we all, sir?" Rawlings replied.

Sakurai frowned, unsure of how to continue. The bodyguard didn't press him on the matter.

He leaned towards the captain, his thick chest armor tugging at the straps which held him down.

"The bossman has led me for upwards of fourty months; you, more than fifteen. I don't see how you, or anybody who has served under him, could not help but sacrifice themselves to save him."

"Just why is that?" retorted Sakurai.

Rawlings' brow darkened, and the captain noticeable blanched.

"This is the military. I can't believe I'm hearing this."

Sakurai looked down.

"No, this is not the military," he spoke, half expecting the little American across from him to reach over and crush his throat.

An armored gauntlet patted him on the shoulder.

"You're right."

The Japanese captain didn't look up.

"We ceased being 'The Military,' I think, after Dallas--just after I joined. After we realized that the bugs weren't just after us, and I mean us, the guys with guns, but that they wanted everything dead or mind controlled or twisted into something more and less than human. That's when we really changed from just a detachment of government employees on loan to the United Nations to something else... just a little tribe of people, watching out for each other."

Sakurai smirked. "You think too much for an American."

"And you're too insubordinate for a Japanese."

The two soldiers sat there, as a twinkle in the dead black night blossomed into a distant planet, thinking.

"As for whether I would die for Commander Schancer... I still would. He's the strongest man I know. All we have to do is shoot bugs and bury our buddies--he has to find enough spare change between the couch pillows to keep this show running. Kowtowing to the bureaucracies of ten nations is not an easy task or one resulting in a gratifying release of stress, such as gutting a grey."

Rawlings reverently looked up at the sleeping shape of the commander.

"The boss sent Mrs. Schancer to D.C. to secure adequate funding for the completion of the Lakota and Azteca bases."

The bodyguard stared back at Sakurai.

"He sent his wife! Anybody else might regard that as bordering on cowardice, but I think that everyone in the... everyone from Kansai knows how much he loves Carrie; it's killing him to risk her like that."

Sakurai met the American's gaze. Slowly looking through the commander's seat to the deep red blot of red that quickly rushed up to fill the Lucifer's forward monitors, the captain nodded, taking his time.

Bob unstrapped himself, drifted over to Schancer, and awakened the man.

Leaning around the big seat, the airtech announced, "ETA one hour."

In lethargic motions, the aftmost troopers rubbed the sleep from their eyes and peeled the thin plastic tubes from their armor. Clutching the seats before them, they unbuckled and reached up into the low ceiling compartments.

Belts and bandoliers went on, dozens upon dozens of clips on the assault troopers, mixed with the mandatory medikit and grenades. Tripp slung a small laser pistol onto his belt. Nobody asked how he'd acquired non-standard weapon. As the wave of action slowly rolled forewards, other illicit weapons were fished out of the compartments. Laser rifles with small E-115 batteries built in. Nine millimeter pistols. Plasma sidearms. Nobody would go down without a fight.

Plasma. Only plasma. The bulky, but profoundly effective, heavy plasmas found their way into the hands of the assault troopers. Rolls of duct tape were flung about; soldiers paired clips together, flipping one upside down. Fast reloads. The weapons were inspected, deemed operational, and stowed again.

The psis pasted on their neural nets, thin wires snaking over their shaved cerebrums, every jellied contact memorized from thousands of hours in the grueling psi gyms of Nevada Base. Marcussen applied Wilkes' net.

I LIKE THE FEEL, half-joked the nearly paralyzed psi.

Everybody knew that he didn't need it.

Two of the psionics specialists, still rather unsure of their abilities, strapped on plasma pistols.

Then helmets, and it was the next guy's turn.

Rawlings time came after what seemed like an eternity. He pulled off the harness and immediately pulled on the tools of his trade. Two bug fragmentation grenades, six terran projectile grenades, three doubled clips for his heavy plasma, a portable medikit for good luck, and his ever-useful plasma pistol with three reloads for the alternative possibility.

The bodyguard ran his fingers over the tarnished chrome lettering on his plasma. FAITH. The sight, a rectangular shotgun-style type, was still true. The grenade launcher's bore was clean. The balance wasn't quite right, but it would be soon.

Rawlings eyed the weapon's cartridges before replacing the plasma.