Take Me Home

by scg
Take Me Home

The hull of the UFO was a dull grey shade, with small matte black indentations interspersed along its sides - windows, perhaps. It appeared lifeless. Nonetheless, small bipedal figures were scurrying uphill towards it, heading away from the small country town below. In the darkness of the night, no features were discernible; only silhouettes. Several of the small figures appeared to be carrying or dragging larger humanoid shapes.
As they neared the UFO, one unencumbered figure ran ahead, and laid a hand delicately upon an area of the hull ringed by a tiny cut. The doors slid open at the touch, and the figure stepped aside to allow its approaching comrades by. Seemingly from nowhere, it drew a bulky-looking handgun. Moonlight made a brief escape from the thick cloud-cover above, and the small creatures large, round black eyes were illuminated by reflection. The pistol it gripped glinted as its holder twisted to survey the grassy landscape.
As the last of the column passed through the UFO doors, the sentry turned from its watchful pose and hurried into the small craft. Almost the instant the doors slid shut, the small craft had lifted off into the air, accelerating upwards at a slight angle. The only discernible sound, beyond a nearly inaudible hum, was the soft thump of a dislodged rock rolling into a grassy knoll.
The UFO shot off into the thick clouds that cloaked the skies and was quickly lost to sight.

--

Two hundred miles and one hour distant, in the subterranean facility known to a select few as X-COM Base Wales React, a small red light blinked on, and then off again. It continued to flash for a few seconds, before a woman dressed in the uniform of the X-COM Administrative Corps pushed away from her desk. Her wheeled office chair carried her the two metres to reach the telephone handset that sat beside the winking incoming call light.
The handset made a sharp snapping sound twice, indicating that the advanced scrambling technology was operative. "Wales React," stated the administration officer.
"This is Informant eighty-one. You tracked the alien scout that lifted off from Llangynwyd an hour ago?"
"Yes. Interceptors are in pursuit."
"They abducted a number of individuals. I observed them from a distance. More importantly, they left something behind. I heard screams, and the whole village has begun to wake up. I'm moving to investigate now; I'll report in at five minute intervals."
"Affirmative, informant eighty-one. Five-minute intervals. Be careful out there."
"As ever. Over and out, Wales React."
The communications line went dead, and the officer replaced the handset. She turned to another handset marked "internal communications: commander's office" and picked it up. The double-snap sounded again, and then a woman's voice said "This is Commander Morgan. What is it, admin?"
"We just had a call from a roving agent a few hundred klicks out. He reported that alien scout seven eighty left something behind in the village it landed by. He's moving in to investigate now. Thought you should know, ma'am."
"Thank you, admin. Keep me informed."
The commander cut the connection, and the administration officer returned the handset to its cradle. Then she ordered a subordinate to take over her previous task of debugging a routine in the X-COM base mainframe computer, and set to gathering information about Llangynwyd, and awaiting the next report from the investigating agent. He was due to report in in three minutes, eleven seconds.

--

"X-COM Combat Team, ah-ten-shun"
The six agents, dressed in the sickly blue-coloured personal armour the science team had developed the previous month, snapped to attention. The sergeant who had given the order nodded. "Stand at ease." He too relaxed his posture.
"One of our informants called in not long ago, reporting that the medium scout the Interceptors lost earlier in the night dropped off a little care package. He went in to investigate, and he hasn't radioed back in as he should have. We're to assume the worst and conduct a thorough hunt for bugs. There are probably plenty of civilians in the area, so be damn careful what movement you jump at. That's pretty much all we know, but I'll flesh it out en route. Any questions?"
A female soldier with short-cropped hair came to attention and raised a hand. The sergeant nodded to her. "Yes, Squaddie Grayson?"
"Equipment, sergeant?" replied Grayson, in an enquiring tone.
"We'll be taking lasers on this one." Ignoring a groan from another of the assembled soldiers, the sergeant continued. "Plasma rifle ammo is running low, and apparently we don't have enough elerium to manufacture more. And I'll be damned if I let a bunch of trigger-happy troopers run riot with the big guns through a village! So lasers it is."
The sergeant snapped back to attention. "Combat team - attention! We launch in five. Dis-missed"
The soldiers, four veteran squaddies and two green rookies, broke ranks and moved off towards the armoury. One of the squaddies clapped the sergeant on the shoulder and grinned, stubble surrounding his thin lips and perfect teeth.
"At least we can give the bugs a pretty light show, huh Stark?"
The sergeant's eyes narrowed. "Right now you want to address me by my rank, squaddie Biggs. Dickhead."
"I'm shocked to hear an educated man speak that way." Squaddie Biggs made a hammed-up motion of astonishment.
"Fuck you, Biggs. Get on the damn Skyranger."

--

Aboard the small alien scout craft that had recently departed Llangynwyd, two small grey-skinned bipedal aliens reclined in bucket seats. Their eyes focused on the half-spheres that were mounted in the centre of separate arrays of screens and information, as they psionically piloted their craft out of the Earth's atmosphere.
Behind them, the automatic doors to the elerium reactor cell slid open, and a third sectoid stepped out. It glanced about itself, then marched off to one side and gestured impatiently for another door to open. It did, and the small alien looked inside the small room beyond, peering around the unconscious human captives within. Then it stepped back and took a few steps towards the two pilots.
"Engineer," it said.
One of the two seated sectoids blinked in a very slow, deliberate motion, breaking psionic contact with the spacecraft. Then it span on its seat to face the speaker. "Yes, leader?" it enquired. The voices of the two sectoids were identical.
"We have lost something. We have lost... my friend."
"Leader, did you not confine it to the cell during our absence?"
"Do not insinuate incompetence on my part, Engineer. I did. Apparently its cognitive capabilities have progressed at a faster rate that we suspected. We shall have to return for it. We cannot allow it to remain with the ape-children."
The seated sectoid wobbled its head from side to side slightly. "So you lead me, so it is." Then it turned back to the half-sphere and focused. It informed the sectoid sharing its duties of their orders, and then they slowed the ship, before beginning movement back the way it had come.
The leader nodded as one monitor noted the reversed course, then padded back into the elerium reactor room.
The medium scout hurtled back down through the Earth's atmosphere, heading for Llangynwyd at full speed.

--

The Skyranger lurched violently as it passed through a pocket of turbulence, as it travelled at high speed towards Llangynwyd. Inside, the seven-strong team of X-COM soldiers bounced in seemingly unrelated directions. Only the rookies, however, seemed to notice the bone-jarring motions. Squaddie Grayson affably attempted to make conversation with Rookie Dawson, but the American recruit simply smiled vaguely before groaning in reply. Grayson gave up, and went back to cutting words into the stock of her laser rifle.
Biggs and another squaddie, a lanky Punjabi man called Singh, were playing poker. Singh grinned in triumph as he reached over to scoop up a number of tokens from the jam jar sitting in the middle of the Skyranger. The glass receptacle was gripped between the four feet of the players. The tokens jangled as Singh scooped. Biggs scowled cheerfully.
Sergeant Stark sat in the co-pilots seat, evaluating tactical possibilities and strategic information, whilst Squaddie McMahon piloted the rapid-response transport aircraft towards their destination. McMahon leaned over towards the non-commissioned officer, and rapped him on the shoulder. Stark looked up from his work.
"Five minutes to go, sarge," said McMahon, without a trace of an Irish accent. "Better get the troops saddled up."
Stark nodded back, turned off the monitor he had been fiddling with, then stood and turned to face back down the length of the Skyranger. "X-COM combat team, prepare for drop in four! We deploy assuming a hot environment. Saddle up and safeties off" Stark picked up his tactical helmet, before looking back at the suddenly active soldiers. "And for God's sake remember that there are probably still civilians down there"
The X-COM soldiers prepped rapidly and efficiently; even the rookies forced back their nausea to check their weapons, armour and equipment a final time. Within two minutes six soldiers stood in ranks of two, feet spaced apart, hands tightly gripping webbing that covered the ceiling. They all faced the ramp that would shortly fold down in order for the Skyranger to disgorge its cargo of X-COM soldiers. The first two off, Biggs and Grayson, would drop to either side of the Skyranger and check for local hostiles. Whilst they were securing the area, Dawson, with Singh to "nanny" the junior trooper, would deploy and advance directly towards Llangynwyd. Stark, supported by Rookie Mellor, would follow. The sergeant would then begin to direct the team as they moved in towards the village, searching for hostiles and for their missing agent. The time it would take for the three small units to deploy would give McMahon time to shut down the Skyranger"s systems and gear himself up. He would move in to support the sergeant.
That, at least, was the plan. Stark was well aware that a huge number of things could change even this simple plan. However, the biggest problems in his mind were Dawson and Mellor; the rookies would not be familiar with X-COM combat operations outside of training.
"Ready" cried McMahon. An instant later the VTOL aircraft touched down with a thump, and the ramp swung down. Biggs and Grayson were off in a flash, checking their surroundings with eyes sighting down laser rifles. Singh and Dawson followed shortly, as planned, with Stark and Mellor bringing up the rear. As Stark took a moment to check their surroundings and study a small map, McMahon bounded down the ramp to join him.
Stark lowered the microphone built into his combat helmet. "Comms check," he said. Confirmations of reception came from his six charges. "Good. Okay, I want noise and communication kept to a minimum. Anything in the village will probably know that someone's arrived, but I don't want them to know where we are. Now, fan out and approach the village."
The X-COM team again acknowledged the sergeant's orders, and spread out in a loose formation, creeping towards the village. Above them, thick clouds persisted in hiding the moon from view.

--

The sectoid leader rose with a start, blinking its vast eyes to accelerate its return to full consciousness. The engineer had just made fleeting mental contact, via the ship's interior psionic network, to inform him that he should come to the bridge immediately to make a decision. The leader would ordinarily be angry that a subordinate had dared to interrupt his meditative trance, but that the engineer had made direct mental contact told of an urgency and importance that the sectoid's mentally formed words had not contained.
The leader strode through the doors leading onto the bridge of the medium scout. "Yes, engineer?" it demanded.
The engineer had already broken psionic contact with the ship, leaving the delicate task of piloting to its comrade. It was seated facing the reactor room doors. "Leader, the ship"s sensors have detected the presence of a grounded ape-child aircraft just outside the village. This data was considered important enough to demand a decision of you." It stopped talking abruptly, staring at the leader.
"Destroy it," the sectoid leader ordered. "If we are lucky, whatever pathetic specimens it transported are still on board. Otherwise, continue as planned."
"So you lead me, so it is."
The engineer turned back to the half-sphere, re-establishing mental contact. Then: "We used our plasma cannon to destroy the target, leader."
"Is there any possibility of it still being operable?"
"It is in numerous fragments, leader. We are landing now."
"Good. Arm yourselves, and then go to the exit area. I will gather the others." The sectoid leader turned on its bare heels and walked off towards a different area of the ship. The Engineer and its fellow pilot glanced at one another before moving to collect plasma weaponry from a magnetic rack nearby.
The two sectoids rapidly headed towards the exit of the craft as ordered, and were acknowledged by the leader. A number of other sectoids had gathered, all equipped with similar plasma weaponry. The leader demanded their attention before beginning to give orders.
"It is unlikely that any threat greater than the pet itself exists here. Remember that our priority is to recapture it, and to do so alive. Remember the instructor words installed in its subconscious. Speak these to command it. Do not kill it! However, if any ape-children obstruct you, kill them. We have all the specimens we need." The leader nodded as if in acceptance of its own words, then hefted a heavy plasma rifle in its skinny arms. "Spread out throughout the nest. We need to find the pet as quickly as possible, and then leave. Go. Do so now."
The sectoids chorused "so you lead us, so it is," before trooping out of the ship and moving at a run towards Llangynwyd. The leader brought up the rear at the same pace, its deep black eyes scanning the village for signs of their target.
The noise of a plasma discharge came from up ahead, inside the village, and one of the distinctive ape-child screams burst out. The leader halted its run. There was a second discharge and the scream cut off. For a few seconds more there was silence, before there came a low, nearly inaudible thrum sound that the leader did not recognise. Then a sectoid wailed in death.
The mind of one of the sectoids touched the leader's mind. Leader, there are apes here with light guns. They shot a soldier. I do not know if it lives. Then the presence was gone as the other sectoid returned to focus on its own consciousness.
The leader frowned inwardly. It considered the possibility that the armed force Mars Command had tentatively labelled "ecs-com" was present. Then it recalled that the interception rate for this landmass was below twenty-eight percent. Still...
It made psionic contact with its subordinates. Be warned that there are armed apes present. Be wary, and close on the last position of the soldier.
The leader broke contact, and began to move in towards the village again.

--

Sergeant Stark crouched down beside the corpse McMahon had led him to. He lay his laser rifle down on the dirt track that led between two unlit houses, and ran torchlight up and down the length of the body. There were deep wounds in the lower back and rump of the figure; claw, tooth or talon wounds, and one missing chunk of flesh that might have been bitten off or chewed away.
"Are you sure that's him?" asked Mellor. McMahon rolled the dead man over with the toe of a boot.
"Huh. That's him alright. You agree? We all saw the pictures." Stark glanced at his two comrades. McMahon nodded humourlessly; Mellor wouldn't meet his eyes. He stood, retrieving his rifle.
"Similar wounds to the others, sergeant," said Mellor, in a near-whisper.
"Correct, rookie. Consistent with any alien species X-COM has in its databases?"
"No, sergeant. It's kinda... kind of like a dog, I think."
McMahon spoke up. "Ugly fuckin" dog. Jaws must be about seven inches wide, and it's got big claws. Strong, too."
Mellor seemed about to reply, when Stark chopped a hand through the air. "You two, spread out and keep watch. Looks like Grayson wants a word."
The two soldiers obeyed silently, moving away from the sergeant, rifles lowered but ready. Grayson jogged up towards Stark; her partner Biggs was just visible as a vague silhouette, crouching in the unruly front garden of a cottage.
"Sergeant. We've scouted out the village. Singh and Dawson are down at the end of this road. No sign of any bugs here." She paused for a second, sucking in one side of her top lip. "There's not many cars around here, and we've only seen half as many live people as we have dead ones. Biggs agrees that most must've left town. Maybe whatever was here followed them, or someone-"
The village was suddenly lit up, first by a sickly green colour, and then by a bright flash of red-yellow light. The first burst of light was accompanied by the sound of a powerful plasma blast; the second by an explosion.
"Shit"
Stark and Grayson glanced over at McMahon, who had just yelled. The squaddie was waving an arm violently, gesturing at something out of Stark's line of sight. McMahon looked more animated than Stark had ever before witnessed.
"The" Ranger! Someone blew up the "Ranger"
Stark swore and sprinted up the track towards McMahon. He quickly caught sight of a blazing ruin of twisted metal where their transport craft had landed. He swore again, and then spoke to McMahon, who was still watching the wreckage burn, with a hand shielding his eyes from the glow.
"Did you see what did it?" he snapped.
"No, but I saw a single plasma beam for a split-second before the "Ranger blew. That means a bug ship." McMahon glanced around, as though this thought had only just occurred to him, and he was concerned that an alien battleship were about to disgorge its deadly cargo beside him.
"Alright," said Stark. "We re-group. I want you to get up to the end of this road," he pointed, "and bring Singh and Dawson back here. Tell Grayson to go fetch Biggs. In fact, fuck that. Leave Biggs where he is. Go"
McMahon took off across someone's garden, vaulting a fence, whilst Stark ran back to where Grayson and Mellor crouched.
"We're re-grouping," he told them. "McMahon thinks bugs are arriving, and I'm inclined to agree. Once we're together We'll start a dispersed group sweep of the village and its locality... I don't want to split us up, because for all we know there could be a full brigade of aliens out there."
Grayson nodded, chewing her lip. Mellor nodded as well, but her fear was much more evident. Even in the ruddy orange light that the burning Skyranger cast around the area, her face was pale.
Then the sound of two more grunting plasma discharges, followed by a quiet thrum, filled the air. Green then blue light bathed the ground. There was a sudden, blood-chilling wail, and something crumpled to the ground. "Biggs" muttered Stark. "Grayson, stay in cover, move to support him. Mellor, stick by me, but not too close. Don't want to give them a big target."
He considered using the radio to contact Biggs and perhaps find out what they were up against. This idea was very rapidly rejected, however; Stark was paranoid by nature, and rarely used the radio without total necessity, for fear of aliens eavesdropping or worse still, blocking and impersonating orders.
Shit, he thought, we don't even know what we're up against. This has been going downhill since we stepped off that fucking ramp.

--

The sectoid leader had watched as more of his subordinates closed in on their comrade's last known position, and then its eyes had widened as another was killed. Despite its larger than average command, it could not afford to throw away troops like that. However, it was not well trained in combat operations. It did not understand what to do.
Somewhere, another sectoid primed and hurled a grenade. The leader spotted it as a small dark shape arcing up into the air, and then bouncing towards one of the ape-child buildings. A figure seemed to appear from nowhere and lurch away from a patch of thick foliage next to the building. The grenade exploded and it was hurled several feet onto its front. The leader felt a brief moment of elation, but the figure got up again and started to run. Several plasma bolts shot by it as it fled into the darkness.
The leader nodded to itself. "The soldiers will be fine. Come with me. We must find my friend, the pet." The two sectoid medics who crouched with it behind a low brick wall seemed happy enough to avoid the war zone they had been watching.
Standing very carefully, the leader began to pad towards a nearby cluster of buildings, the two medics in trail behind it, plasma rifles clutched tightly.

--

They found it in a building not far from the firefight. As the three sectoids had entered the building through a shattered doorway, an ape had appeared from behind an overturned slab of wood and shot at them with a primitive kinetic projectile weapon. Small hard pellets of metal had broken a medic"s elbow. It dropped its weapon and keened in pain, whilst the leader raised its heavy plasma and pumped three blasts into the alien"s chest. Its limbs virtually flew apart as the hot plasma vapourised the torso. The unwounded medic scurried over to the wooden slab to peer over it, and discovered another large ape and what was probably a child or immature specimen cowering behind it. The medic studied them for a few seconds, and then shot them once each with its plasma rifle.
The leader nodded approvingly. "I am sure that our target is still in this building. Split up and search for it. Bring it to me, here." It stared at the wounded sectoid for a moment, then tossed it a plasma pistol. "Endure the pain for now. We will be gone soon." The medic nodded, and then it and its comrade were gone, exploring the building.
Throwing a quick glance back out of the broken door, the leader padded over to the three corpses, and sat down. It carefully focused its mind and established psionic contact with the sectoids still fighting the ape-children outside. With a shock, it realised that there were few of its brethren left alive or unwounded.
What happened? He demanded of one of the few surviving soldiers.
They killed us, replied the soldier. Before the leader could snarl at the unimaginative response, it continued. We think it is ecs-com. They are good fighters. Better than us. We exchanged five of ours for two of theirs.
The leader immediately broadened its link to all the surviving sectoids outside. Fall back to my position. We have almost achieved our objective, and must be ready to fall back to the ship. Do so now.
Only a few of the survivors responded with the traditional "so you lead us, so it is." As the leader broke the psionic connections, he heard a renewed exchange of fire outside, and then another sectoid death scream. It began to drum its long fingers nervously on the barrel of its heavy plasma rifle.
One of the medics sprinted back into the room. "We found it, leader," it informed the seated sectoid. Outside, something else screamed.
The leader stood as the second medic, with the wounded arm, led the docile creature into the room. It gnashed its teeth dozily.
"It was asleep in the sub-building, leader."
The leader did not reply. Another had demanded urgent psionic contact with it - the soldier it had communicated with seconds before. Leader. Only I remain. They head for the house. Be warned. Contact was abruptly severed; too suddenly for it to have been intentional. The leader shivered; a sensation it rarely experienced.
"You two. Go outside! They come for us! Hold them off, whilst I take our pet back to the ship. Hurry"
The medics made brief expressions of displeasure, but could not disobey. They raised their weapons and hurried out through the doorway. The leader's eyes darted around the room in panic. How to escape? There must be another exit somewhere... or it could break one of the glass light-portals the ape-children liked, but that would attract attention.
One of the sectoids it had just ordered outside hurtled back in. Thick green blood and worse ran in torrents from a wide wound in its belly. It was screaming incessantly at a low volume. It had only gotten two metres from the doorway before a beam of light shot in after it and lanced through its neck.
The leader began to back into a corner in panic, pressing the sleepy pet behind it.

--

To Stark's left, McMahon clicked his tongue in annoyance as his target fled back into the building it had emerged from. He sighted up on the wounded sectoid and let fly again. This time Stark saw the diminutive alien collapse forwards, droplets of blood trailing from the fresh throat wound.
Grayson hefted a heavy laser, and fired a volley of shots into the porch of the house, where a second sectoid had taken cover. Sparks and small fires exploded everywhere. So did the sectoid; it leapt away at the last instant, small legs pumping as it ran towards new cover. Biggs lasered it through the hips and it collapsed, plasma pistol spinning away from a spasming hand. The squaddie jeered at the alien as its movement slowed and stilled.
Stark took a moment to review the situation. Grayson, McMahon, Mellor and himself were unwounded. Biggs had suffered minor burns as he fled an alien grenade. Singh was seriously wounded, but with luck he would stay alive until they got him back to base. Rookie Mellor was watching over Singh, and rookie Dawson had been killed by another alien grenade. So far they had killed, incapacitated or stunned nine of the sectoids. There was still no sign of any alien that could have inflicted the wounds they had found on the corpses.
McMahon had pulled out a motion scanner. "Sergeant, there are two contacts inside the building. Might be civilians."
"Might be," replied Stark. "Might not be. Come with me. We'll check it out." He glanced over to where Biggs lay, peering out from under a hedge. "Biggs! Follow us in" Then to Grayson, who knelt ten metres away: "Grayson, cover us"
"Use the fuckin" radio already," Biggs griped.
"They won't understand speech, but they can record radio. Shut the fuck up and follow us."
Stark and McMahon moved at a fast pace towards the damaged house, with Biggs trailing some distance behind. Grayson carefully scanned the building and the surrounding area for any hostiles.
Then McMahon and Stark were inside the building. An overturned table barely concealed the corpses of a woman and her son; scattered limbs probably marked her husband. In the adjacent corner, a sectoid was pressed almost against the walls. It began to raise the heavy plasma rifle it held. Stark was faster, sending a laser beam straight through the creature's eye.
As the creature crumpled to the ground, clear fluid leaking from the wound, Stark gasped at what lay behind it. McMahon's eyes widened a little. Biggs burst in through the doorway, and did a high-speed double take. "What the fuck...?" he tried to begin.
Behind the corpse of the sectoid, there lay an extremely small example of the alien life form known as a reaper. The creature lacked the limited armour plating of the adults, but the stunted snout, huge maw and bizarre two-legged body were easily recognisable. So too was the crimson that coated its face.
"I guess they came back for their puppy," Biggs managed weakly. The reaper pup snored gently. The corner of one of its eyes twitched momentarily.
Stark raised his laser rifle, as did McMahon. Biggs followed suit a few seconds later.
"Welcome home, motherfucker," said Stark. And shot the creature in the head. The squaddies opened fire an instant later, riddling its body with laser bolts. The creature's eyes snapped open and it made a confused whining noise. Then another volley of laser fire shot into it and it died. McMahon spat on the twitching corpse.
"Somebody call for fucking retrieval," snarled Stark. "Our turn to get a ride home."