The Phoenix

"Good evening, Colonel Schancer."

The southerner, long legs sprawled over the floor, was overcome with an urge to vomit. The wave of nausea left him clutching his stomach, the stench of fear in his mouth.

"Colonel?" repeated the speaker, a greying aristocrat.

Schancer glanced up, and resumed his former posture. However, the fear was still in his gut, for it was not for trivial reasons that the entire sixteen-man XCOM Council of Funding Nations accosted a simple soldier. Sixteen of the most powerful men in the world, each able to call on billions of dollars and armies of men for the cause--and they were sitting in the monitors, watching the colonel's every squirm.

"Hello, sirs," weakly mumbled Schancer. He was a dead man, most likely to be spirited off to a quiet prison in some backwater nation for the duration of his natural life. A sweat, pungent and offensive, emanated from every pore of his skin. He thanked his Lord that the cameras couldn't transmit the stink.

"Colonel Schancer, I will be brief," stated the chairman of the Council, the silver-haired power- broker. "It has been brought to our attention that you have misappropriated materials and funds intended for the effort. These include, but are not limited to, one hundred 'plasma' weapons, four hundred 'laser' weapons, and ten tons of recovered metals. Also missing are funds in excess of twenty million US dollars."

Larsen, who was diligently avoiding the full gaze of the camera, glared at Schancer. It wasn't so much that of rage, but of pity.

"You've potentially set back our Eastern Seaboard operations by two hundred million dollars, Colonel. I want the who, when, why and how of your embezzlements. Perhaps this situation can be corrected before it is completely out of hand."

Schancer gulped, his prominent adam's apple bouncing like a yo-yo. A few months ago, when he'd received the first payments for the guns, the whole thing had seemed a remarkably beautiful way to turn excess supplies into cash for other items. But now, his previous logic failed him.

"I can't say who else was involved, sir. I will assume full responsibility," he managed to spit out. Cursing himself for sounding so mentally challenged, he prayed that the Council wouldn't resort to more expedient methods of obtaining the list of soldiers, techs, and civilians who'd been involved.

Another Caucasian man, wearing a bristling bear and smoking long, thin cigarettes leaned over the table, waving a finger. "Damn straight. Your ass will be the first to fry."

The chairman tapped a finger on the black marble of the round Council table, and the man returned to his chair.

"The details can be worked out later, at our discretion," said the grey one, his fingers toying with a water glass. "However, there is one thing I, for one, would be pleased to know... just why did you undertake such foolhardy measures? Surely you could not have expected to elude our most enterprising accounting corps. So tell me, what motivated you--some misplaced sense of duty, or simply avarice?"

Schancer was extremely agitated, chewing his tongue and rubbing his scalp. He knew that this was the end of an all too short career in the US military; he'd have his say, and then the pair of brawny security personnel at his shoulders would hoist him up and haul him to the base brig. He might stay there another week, providing what information the Council requested, and then he would be discharged. A federal prison, maximum security, would be his new home.

"I did it for the troops, sir," he started, fixing his hair with a quick swipe of his hand. "I did it because I got sick and tired of watching the brave men and women under my command die pointlessly."

The chairman raised an eyebrow, but he did not stop Schancer.

"I've been here since the beginning; I was one of the first officers. I know that Bluegrass has always been short of funds because the surplus gets siphoned off for the less productive facilities. I got fed up with seeing half my team dead after an assault--only to have the UFO parts, the bugs' guns, shipped elsewhere. We were dying for those things, and I thought that it was only right for us to get some of the cake.

"So I started 'misplacing' material from the assaults. Got myself a small stockpile of weapons, and then I sold them to the highest bidder. It's a bit more complex than that, but that's how I got the money for real weapons--not the pathetic assault rifles we were using at the beginning--but real guns, like the SAWs and the grenade launchers.

"The bugs started dying faster, and more of my people were coming home alive. Everybody seemed happy, but we were still out of cash. That's when I got the lasers..."

The chairman of the Council raised a hand and motioned for Schancer to stop. The Council was silent for a moment, but then an Asian, thick glasses and all, nodded to the chairman.

"Commander Larsen, is this the colonel you referred to us?"

"Yes sir," spoke Larsen, not one drop of emotion in his voice.

The chairman stared at Schancer, and for a moment, the southerner forgot that he was merely watching a bank of TV sets, for the diplomat rubbed his fingers for a moment and then spoke, in a very quiet voice, "I think we can make our decision now."

A few heads bobbed up and down. None dissented.

"For?" asked the chairman. Over half the men at the table raised their index fingers.


Not one finger went up, although several council members abstained.

"Colonel Schancer, you are no longer of Bluegrass Six and Seven. You will depart from Bluegrass tomorrow morning."

Schancer's heart sank to his toes, and he keeled over, face in hands.

The chairman chuckled.

"You will arrive at Kansai Base. Serve us well, Commander Schancer."

"Holy shit," mumbled Rawlings. His ripped-up face was beaming. "Congrats, Commander."

"That goes for me, too," chimed in Davidson.

"I'll wait for you," whispered Unger. Schancer held her close, but there would be no more fun tonight.

The surviving members of the Sixth and the Seventh, along with anybody who happened to be off duty and awake, were gathered around the colonel. Some wore the dirty overalls of techs, others the rumpled fatigues of soldiers and secondaries, and a select few wore the long white dusters of scientists. All were, as an effect of the time of day, dead tired.

A few mumbled questions, but Schancer deflected them. "I'll fill you in over cereal and bagels," he promised. Most, still quite unaware of the likely outcome of such events, wandered off to catch some shut-eye. It was only Rawlings, Unger, and two dog tired assault teams who watched the red sun rise through the hangar doors that really knew where Schancer had gone.

A special 'Ranger flight at subsonic speeds to Honolulu landed the southern gentleman in the predawn heat of Hawaii. A Lincoln Town Car and two manicured bodyguards waited. Thirty minutes later, Schancer found himself on top of the world.

The limousine turned off the Honolulu-Kailua highway and bounced uphill, through a heavily wooded jungle. It finally came to a rest in a large clearing; set upon the crest of a mountain, the site offered a spectacular view, and Schancer watched the sun rise over the Pacific. The stutter of helicopter blades further explained the size of the site.

An unmarked helicopter, bearing only a crisply painted American flag on its flank, approached and set down. Out stepped two armed soldiers--secondaries, obviously, but more tanned than the normal base rats. They eyed Schancer warily, but nodded to the bodyguards. An elderly gentleman was the other passenger of the Blackhawk.

Silver-streaked hair fluttering in the artificial wind of the rotor blades, the chairman of the council approached.

"Hello," he said, offering a grizzled hand. Schancer shook it.

The chopper killed its rotor. The diplomat pointed to the car, and Schancer opened the door for the man. He chuckled slightly, and hopped onto the hood of the Lincoln. Raising an eyebrow, Schancer joined him. His makeshift seat was pleasantly warm.

"You know what the really funny thing is?" started the almost old man. He wasn't expecting Schancer to answer, and he didn't offer time for a response. "We pull that shit on all of you."

"I don't understand," mumbled Schancer.

The diplomat smiled, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He first offered it to Schancer, who declined, and then to the bodyguards and the secondaries; none took him up on it, though. Not the least bit puzzled, he flicked out a thin tube and stuck it the corner of his mouth.

"I know it's death on my lungs, but what the hell; we're all gonna die," spoke the man. He admired the yellow dawn sun for a moment. "Some of us sooner than the rest."

Unpreturbed, he pulled out a pathetically cheap Bic lighter. He struggled with the disposable for a few embarrassing seconds before succeeding. A small, centimeter high flame rose from the lighter.

"Watch this," he grinned. Touching the switch on the back of the Bic, the flame shot up to the height of a foot. Satisfied, he toned it down and touched the tip of his cigarette to the fire.

Sucking in and then releasing a cloud of bluish smoke, he continued, "Larsen was different. Damn schoolboy'd never had an impure thought; so, I said to the rest of the boys, 'Let's just bullshit him.' I'll be damned, but that pale shit put up the biggest stink when we accused him of sexually harassing his geriatric secretary."

It was all too much for Schancer. Sitting on the hood of a car with a nicotine-crazed old man, surrounded by men with guns and halfway around the world from his birthplace, he ran a hand through his blond locks.

I don't think Dad would be too proud, he thought.

"You see, every one of you soldier boys has to know what it's like to be expelled from the service. Some commanders tell us off, some go suicidal, but we have to know that the 'COM is their life."

The diplomat loosened his tie and pointed the glowing tip of the cigarette at Schancer.

"You were worse than most. Damn, if the Council had found your ass before Schoolmarm Sven had referred you to us... you'd be lucky to be dead."

The southerner couldn't help but ask, "Who's Sven?"

"Heh, Commander Larsen. I can see why he doesn't go by first name," answered the chairman. "Anyway, your former commander decided that while you did have your kleptomanic tendencies, you had the moxie to turn a patch of Nippon woods into XCOM Orient. Some of the boys didn't agree, but Mr. Arikawa thought you were the best thing since anime--apparently, you pulled some impressive shit in the Osaka incident."

Schancer nodded, for lack of anything else to do. The sun was rocketing away from the horizon, and he began to notice other vehicles parked at the edge of the clearing. Soldiers, lots of them, were patrolling the woods. A chill ran up Schancer's spine; for all the apparent slobbishness of this chairman, he was most likely a methodically paranoid type.

"Larsen validated the Nip. He pointed out four separate cases where you simply talked 'COM troops into regrouping and beating ass. I really enjoyed that speech to the Third Nevada's boys... how did it go?"

"'It's better to get shot from the front, looks better on your tombstone,'" recalled Schancer, regretting having ever said those words.

"Yeah, that's it." The chairman tossed aside the spent cigarette. A bodyguard immediately stomped on it.

"Real shame about Commander Sundeen," said the diplomat, looking at the ground.

Sundeen, leader of the First and Third 'Las Vegas' assault teams, had been the first XCOM officer on the ground in Osaka. He'd attempted to rein in the aliens by surrounding the landed UFO; all he accomplished was throwing away the lives of his people. The aliens had advanced further than suspected, and they simply lassoed the Nevadans, slaying all but four.

Three of those survivors had broken the bug lines. They were fleeing when Colonel Schancer had contacted them by radio, ordering an about-face. They'd obeyed, killing five bugs before joining their comrades...

Commander Sundeen had been the first XCOM casualty in Japan.

The sun was now well into morning, and yet the darkness of those hours just a few nights ago cast a long shadow over Schancer's soul. Thus, he merely mumbled a goodbye after the chairman made a few vague promises of aid should the new commander need it.

Hearing the Blackhawk lift off, Schancer couldn't help but wonder if his fate was that of Sundeen's.

Kansai is the mountainous heart of Japan, where the bamboo-shrouded heights tower above a small costal plain and the Inland Sea. Within this rugged land lay the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe; two are past capitals, and the other two the future of Japan. Here the industrial might of Japan slowly gave way to the information age; Kansai is Japan's past and future.

South of Nara, in the deep valleys of said region, spring was in bloom. Bamboo shoots lanced from the earth, earth that was still rich and vibrant. Dotting this region were numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and it was with no undue trepidation that the few holy men populating these remote patches of sacred ground watched the helicopters arrive.

The helicopters were black, black as the night, sporting only the rising sun of Japan on their sides. For a week, they scoured the hills, flying here and there, often diving far into the valleys. Then they were gone, and the priests hoped that that was the end of it.

Then the earthmovers and the bigger helicopters and the sudden earthquakes came.

Working out of a hotel room in Tokyo, Schancer was pleased to know that excavation of the new base site was underway. He planned on visiting it immediately, but other matters, of greater import, concerned him.

A UFO, bigger than any save the blasted corpse of the 'terror ship' from Osaka, had been downed by the Russians in the Caucasus Mountains. Aboard, they'd found hundreds of tons of liquid nutrients, along with a huge crew of one hundred aliens. Shaped like a sausage, this UFO was rather simple to bring down, creating the theory that this had been a transport, not heavily armed mission ship. That raised the obvious question--where was it headed?

The video conference had been heated, most of the sticks and stones being thrown by the Nebraskan and the Russian commanders.

"I'm asking you again, why did you down UFO-345?" practically screamed the American.

"Three forty five was over Russian airspace. It was deemed a threat. It was neutralized," responded the Russian in lightly accented English. "You would do the same, would you not?"

"Tail the damn thing and hit it hard when it lands, that's more of a plan," yelled back Commander Singer of Nebraska.

"One hundred greys are not something to treat lightly," growled Commander Molotov. "Knock them around, soften them up, we did that."

"But you didn't know 345 had that many greys, did you?" replied the Nebraskan.

"It was a big UFO. I do not wait for big UFOs to land in Russian cities before I do something about them." Molotov looked to Lieutenant Commander Reading of Nevada for support, "I do not like losing my friends to greys in city fights."

"You should have followed it, Goddamnit!" bellowed Singer.

"Yes, maybe I should," snarled Molotov, winding up. "And maybe you should go to city fights and lead your men!"

It was widely known that one Captain Davies was the ranking officer from XCOM Nebraska, not the commander, who was 'in bed' at the time of the raid. Davies had died, holding a bridge north of downtown Osaka. Singer, and his apparent cowardice, had placed a black mark on the otherwise illustrious history of Nebraska Base.

"Gentlemen, it would be for the best of all if you would cease your bickering immediately," said Larsen, in a genuinely frosty tone of voice. He, like Singer, had been curiously absent from Osaka--but Schancer knew, better than most, that while Larsen couldn't shoot bugs or lead men, the Bluegrass commander was particularly adept at coordinating soldiers out in the battlefield. The combined SDF/XCOM push that had ended with the storming of the UFO was his handiwork.

"Let's cool our heels, yes," agreed Reading. Schancer couldn't help laughing at Reading's choice of the word 'heels'.

One by one, the commanders of Nebraska, Volga, and Nevada Bases mumbled their goodnights and signed off. Finally, Schancer and Larsen were left.

"Reading sure is a card," mentioned Schancer.

"Mmm, yes," replied Larsen. "I doubt he's even being considered by the Council for the full job."

"Speaking of which, sir, why did you suggest me?"

Larsen laughed--a truly unique incident. "Because, Ralph, we both know you're a born leader. Your troops would gladly follow you down to hell if you desired to slay the devil himself. The finest example of such fanaticism is that attack-dog Rawlings. You molded someone bound to push a broom for the rest of his tour into the most lethal--and loyal--soldier I know. That's why XCOM can't afford to dispose of you."

Schancer was surprised, so say the least. He'd never expected such praise from the least emotional person he knew.

"But don't venture off on a power trip, Ralph. If you were entirely composed of peach and ice cream, you wouldn't be conversing with me over the vidnet." He laughed again, but it was the old Larsen, cold, with a hint of mean. "I like to know where my base funds are."

"I understand," answered Schancer, apologetic. "What I did was, quite honestly, out of line."

"Oh no, Ralph. You don't understand," replied Larsen. "My only consolation is that you'll probably wind up with some psychopath much like yourself."

Schancer shrugged. He bid his former commander adieu, and finished up his preliminary lists of those he would ask to join him in Kansai. It was pathetically short. Frustrated, he eyed the inch-high folder of names, ranks, and serial numbers of the SDF soldiers who wanted in on XCOM. Not feeling up to the job, he settled down to the task of preparing for the next day's meeting with Councilman Arikawa.

Realizing all he was going to do was hear the bureaucrat out, Schancer shut down his PDA and flipped on the high-definition TV.

A flurry of insane advertisements, equally disturbing game shows, three samurai dramas, two golf tournaments, and a dozen other television offerings flashed by. All were in Japanese; all could have been in Latin for what Schancer understood.

"Good God," asked the overgrown southern boy. "How in Jesus' name did I get here?"