Posted 01 January 2019 - 11:29 PM
"Son, this is a basketball."
"Dad, I know what that is!"
"Then why don't you play? Lord knows, you're tall enough."
"Can't shoot? Is that it?"
The father looked over the vast grounds of the decaying estate. Lawns, once tended by dozens of African American slaves were once again dominated by high grasses, unshorn in over a decade. Where there had once been an orchard, stood only a few sickly fruit trees, heavy with small, bitter apples that only the worms would eat. The twin rows of willows, once stately and distinguishing this place as the house of important men, was but a mockery; thick locks of Spanish moss hung from every branch, lending the path a grim, dying air.
"Is it the other boys?"
"Ralphie, just because you happen to be white and the negroes... black... doesn't mean that you can't play a damn fine game of ball."
"They talk dirty and push me around."
"Whadda you mean 'that's all?'"
The father laughed, leaning on the termite-infested pillar. The big house was going to come down within a year, and he didn't have the heart to tell his son that they'd soon be living in one of the broken-down shacks in the back.
"Son, the negroes have been putting up with a great deal more than just a few mean words and some shoving. Lord, I have seen fellow whites do the most terrible things to them--and they just stood and took it. They are tough, son, because they have to be tough."
The son mumbled something.
"I want you to go find yourself a ball game and play. I don't care if they push you or speak bad; you're gonna take it. Ralphie, you just play ball fast and clean, and that court will be yours."
The father tossed the old orange basketball to his son. He caught it with long lean fingers and eyed the peeling rubber of the ancient ball. Slowly, he stood, his tall, wiry frame unfolding, and shambled off in the direction of town.
The old soldier watched his kid disappear in a cloud of dust between the rows of dying willows. Gripping the metal cranks on his wheelchair, he turned himself around and rolled into the house, cracked porch boards creaking with his passing.
"Sue, our son will be a fine man," he whispered to the lazy humid breeze.
Schancer hopped off the helicopter, landing on the soft humus of the bamboo forest. He glanced over his shoulder, checking for witnesses. He spotted the Marine manning the Blackhawk's side cannon watching him intently, but the Southerner was too sick to care.
He knelt on all fours and vomited, half-digested bits and pieces of his complimentary continental breakfast splashing in the thin fallen leaves of the forest floor.
God, Schancer thought, that felt good.
The helicopter ride from Haneda Airport had been the most traumatic experiences in his week- long career as a base commander. Moments after clearing Nagoya, the chopper's pilot had thrown the damn bird into a terrain-hugging pattern that put rollercoasters state-side to shame. More than a few mountain top trees were missing their upper branches, and Schancer felt a mild pride in managing to restrain his purgatory tendencies until landing.
Wiping the putrid remains of bread and butter from his lips with the back of his hand, Schancer attempted to stand. He wobbled for a moment before deciding to rest. Sitting down on the dry debris, he detected the sound of the helicopter's crew laughing up a storm.
"Fucking leathernecks," Schancer mumbled.
To his relief, the Blackhawk lifted off, its soldiers eager tell all the boys back at base about another ballless brass who'd dared to fly with the 56th Airborne. Schancer mulled his fate, lying alone in a deserted stretch of Japanese wilderness; perhaps the chopper wouldn't come back. Maybe he'd be forced to live out the rest of the war as a hermit, scrounging for nature's bounty.
The distant drone of another aircraft pulled his eyes to the sky.
Hermit, he thought. Highly unlikely.
He snapped off the spear-point of a bamboo shoot. Warily, he inserted it into his mouth and proceeded to chew.
"Tastes like grass," he snorted, spitting the green chunks from his mouth. They landed in the drying puddle of vomit.
This bird was neither an outright helicopter nor an outright fixed-wing airplane. It was slightly smaller than a standard 'Ranger, but on both ends of its stubby wings were broad props. Circling around once, the aircraft killed its forward velocity before tilting its propellers up and back.
Osprey Two Light Transport, recalled Schancer. He kicked leaves and dirt over the nasty mess at his feet.
The ungainly bird landed and shut down its powerplants. Both side hatches opened and secondaries wearing the matte black jumpsuits of XCOM leapt out, brandishing snub-nosed Heckler-Koch submachineguns. They glanced around; finding no threats, one signaled to the other occupants of the Osprey. Two Japanese men, three American men, and two Japanese women piled out of the light transport.
"Good day, Commander Schancer," intoned the first Japanese man. He wore a pinstripe suit, dark glasses, and the mantle of power. This could only be one man.
"Hello, Councilman Arikawa," replied Schancer, shaking the man's hand.
The diplomat nodded and pointed out his companions.
"This man is the finest manufacturing engineer Mitsubishi has trained; Commander, Chief Technician Okano."
Schancer shook the very short, buck-toothed man's deeply tanned hand.
"Pleased to meet you."
"I hope so, Boss."
"This is Colonel Dillan. He is formerly of Nebraska Base."
"Heard some good stuff about you and your crews."
"Thank you, sir."
"Air Command Colonel Will; formerly of Nevada Base."
"It's my pleasure."
"Nice to meet you, sir."
"Captain Wilkes, formerly of First Nevada."
Schancer eyed this man. Of medium height and average weight, there was nothing spectacular about this brown-haired, fair-skinned soldier; or so the Southerner thought until he looked the man in his eyes. There was something there; glowing coals they were, waiting for the right tinder to ignite an inferno of repressed rage. Schancer shook Wilkes' hand; his touch was of cold steel.
He leaned close to the man's ear.
"We'll show those bug fucks a thing or two next time," he whispered.
"I'll be first in line, sir," acknowledged Wilkes.
Arikawa motioned to the next person--a female officer.
"This is your executive officer, Lt. Commander Taoka; formerly of the Eighth Motorized."
Shaking the short, black-haired woman's hand, he smiled, "Welcome on board."
She returned his grin, answering, "XCOM and the SDF have much to teach each other. Pleased to be here, sir."
"And this is Captain Yoshii, formerly of B Company, Eighth Motorized."
"You were in the thick of it?" asked Schancer, shaking her small hand.
The short woman with curious brown and black hair merely nodded.
From the six paragraph briefing he'd read on Yoshii, Schancer suspected that 'in the thick of it' was a gross understatement. B Company, armed only with heavy machine guns, grenades, and a suicidal attitude, had fended off alien tanks at close range. Not many soldiers, XCOM or not, could brag about that.
"Enough introductions," proclaimed Arikawa. "Let's tour the site."
Located on a mountain side, Kansai Base was the first of a new line of 'deep shelter' facilities. The hangars, on the extreme west, or downslope of the mountain, would be the closest to the surface; ten meters of dirt and rock separated them from daylight. East of them, though, the base would tunnel straight into the mountain, where the distance up would be over two hundred meters at its greatest. This excavation would house barracks, stores, administration, and communications facilities. A manufacturing wing to the south would be added after the main base was functional.
But the tunneling was merely beginning. Schancer and his seven companions had to content themselves with a jeep ride to the three pits where the hangars would eventually rest. Underneath a ceiling of camouflage netting, hundreds of heavy dump trucks, industrial cranes, and cement mixers labored. The clamor, confusion and dust halted as the VIPs drove by; but they were not the cause. For a few seconds, the mountain rumbled; the middle hangar belched grey dust. Then the work continued.
Further up the mountainside and across a rural highway that clung to the edge of the steep slope, the visitors arrived at a two-story townhouse in the final stages of completion. Scaffolding and construction materials obscured most of the building's face, but it was obvious that this almost American construct would be rather hansom.
"What's this?" asked Dillan, eyeing the apparently civilian structure with trepidation.
Arikawa smiled. "This is the surface extension of Kansai Base."
As the van rounded the side of the new home, Schancer realized the purpose of the structure. Paired double-wide doors, one rigged for truck-loading, were built into the mountain side.
"All this in one week?" he asked, incredulous.
Okano nodded, a bitter expression on his face. "Osaka is all rubble because we take machinery."
"It's necessary," mumbled Wilkes.
Arikawa tapped the van's driver on the shoulder. He pulled the vehicle over to the doors and shut it down. The councilman stepped out the side and his entourage did likewise.
"The facilities will be ready for you in two weeks," he promised, gesturing to the green carpet of the valley below. "After that, it will take a month for the base to reach full capability."
Arikawa nodded to a clean-shaven XCOM secondary at the door of the house. The soldier rapped on it, and another inside cracked it open. Peering out side, the Japanese grunt noticed the imperious diplomat and the obviously high-ranking personnel beside him. He unlatched the chain.
"Security seems a bit low-tech," chuckled Dillan. Schancer frowned; this would not do.
The interior of the hastily-constructed house was much the same as the outside; plastic coverings, paint buckets, and harried workmen were everywhere. Arikawa shrugged at the less-than pristine condition of the lower floor before leading the base's new residents to the second level. Even the sheet rock was lacking here; steel braces and wooden struts, the skeleton of the structure, were visible.
It was the third floor, little more than a single room, that Arikawa led Schancer and his subordinates to. Windows on every side, the room commanded an impressive view of the valley below and the several hundred meters of wooded mountain above. A sea of green surrounded the house, broken only occasionally by the asphalt ribbon of the rural road.
"It's beautiful," spouted Taoka.
Dillan replied, quite dryly, "Sure beats the Plains."
Schancer ignored the extraneous comments and peered at the construction below. The netting, while adequate, did not quite simulate the effect of swaying bamboo. He made a mental note to mention that small item to the engineer in charge.
"What's that?" asked Wilkes. His keen black eyes were focused on a small patch of pink far to the north.
"Those are the cherry trees of a Buddhist Temple," explained the councilman. "They're everywhere. Don't worry, they do not speak to strangers."
The cramped conditions of Japan made even the wilderness less than desolate, thought Schancer. Back in the US, the bases had military reserves around them stretching to the thousands of square miles. This base--my base--corrected Schancer, might have one hundred.
"I hope you have seen enough," said Arikawa. "Soon, this will be your home and you'll grow sick of all this nothing." He paused. "The van will take you to the Osprey."
As the 'COM personnel filed down the stairs, the councilman halted Schancer and pulled him behind the others.
"Commander, I would like to talk to you in private."
Schancer shrugged. Wilkes, the last one down the stairs, looked up. The Southerner motioned for him to continue. The Nevadan walked out of sight, obviously suspicious.
"Of course, sir," finally responded Schancer.
Arikawa leaned up against one of the tower's window panes.
"Commander Schancer, you are here because of one thing--tradition."
Likewise, Schancer rested his back against a window. This looked like it was going to be a long speech.
"As a matter of procedure, your personal history and profile were examined by the Council. I was intrigued to learn that your family, for the past six generations, has produced a disproportionately large number of soldiers. I suspect that this... trend goes back further."
Schancer nodded. He'd grown up on war stories about his distant ancestors in the War of 1812.
"I too, possess a similar history," added Arikawa. "Since the beginning of time, Arikawas have served under the Emperor. World War Two and the creation of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Forces have not changed that.
"So you and I are bred of tradition. Then let me speak of this mutual understanding.
"Tradition is that Japanese defend Japan. This has always been so; even the placement of US military bases throughout Japan has not shaken the truth that if this nation is the target of a hostile force, Japanese will be the ones to stop it.
"Likewise, due to the disturbing nature of these newest of assailants, there is only one military capable of facing this opposition and succeeding. That is XCOM. I believe we are the only hope of this Earth, and that is why I, and you, are here."
Actually, the entirety of the US Special Forces Command was dissolved into forming XCOM and I just happened to get railroaded in, thought Schancer. But he didn't voice his dissent--then or now.
"So the obvious solution to this dilemma is this: The XCOM Forces of Japan must be Japanese. Our soldiers may lack the training of US troops, but we possess courage..."
Schancer zoned out the usual 'Banzai and Glory' speech. Sure, maybe in World War Two the Japanese might have had that something, but this was now--and the Nips had been eating in McDonalds and playing Nintendo just as long as Americans.
"...you know this power--your ancestors found it in the 'rebel yell'."
That quote jerked Schancer back into reality.
The summer he'd turned eighteen, many wild months after he'd first played 'ball with the Negroes, bested them at their sport, became the High School team captain, loved his first woman, and been accepted at West Point to boot, his father had called him to his wheelchair in the long, lazy hours of a Mississippi afternoon.
"Ralphie," he coughed, calling him by the same childhood name, "let's go out into the woods, far away from the other cabins."
Puzzled, Schancer had shambled alongside his father--his old man had never asked his aid in moving about--until they were deep in the swamps behind the ruins of the big house. Spanish moss seemed the dominant life form, crawling everywhere and smothering all other plants with its stringy grey tendrils. It seemed to add to the humid, dank gloom, hurrying the sun from the sky.
"This is about far enough," wheezed his father.
Schancer looked around. He couldn't tell which direction they'd come from; even the wheelchair tracks were quickly obscured by the soft, wet earth.
"Ralph H. Schancer, yesterday was your eighteenth birthday," announced the old soldier. "What have you done on your first full day as a man?"
Grinning lopsidedly, Schancer recounted, "Well, I visited Diane, played 'ball with the brothers, bought a pack of Camel Straights, went fishing, threw away the cigarettes, played some more ball and came home for supper."
Chuckling lightly, his father said, "Those are all fine things to spend a day, Ralphie, but I think it's high time you learn what it is to be a Schancer."
With that arcane comment, the frail paraplegic began to yell.
Not the high falsetto of an indian on the warpath nor the defiant roar of some clansman in battle, the sound was a mixture of both, growing in intensity and wrapping itself around the very trees, saturating the ground with pure emotion. It was a force of nature, charging the darkening woods with a tangible static as a hill does before the lightning bolt.
Only with its dying echoes did Schancer realize that his father was the author of that sound.
"You should've heard it with ten guys," rasped the old man. "You could never forget something like that."
And with that, Schancer wheeled his dying father from the woods.
"I understand," whispered Schancer.
Arikawa examined Schancer through his thick glasses.
"You are all-right?"
"Yes," replied the Southerner, looking out not over a rugged stretch of Kansai valley but over a flooded forest of ancient elms and willows.
"I am confident that between Kansai Base and the Self-Defence Forces, Japan, and Asia, will be quite protected from alien incursions. We must work together; respecting tradition will facilitate this."
Arikawa turned to the stairs. "It is time to go now. I will be awaiting the base rosters."
Back in the Tokyo Radisson, Schancer began to read the lists.
"What the fuck?" he asked himself. "This is insane."
The roll-call of potential volunteers was a directory of every SDF soldier who'd been in the Osaka action, lieutenant on down.
He leafed through the inch-thick manifesto of desperation, noting that entire units had signed up. Reserve troops, elite two-man sniper teams, anti-terrorist specialists, chopper pilots, fighter jocks, and even fifty combat engineers were among the names.
Schancer rooted through his baggage. His PDA case contained only a few sheets of paper, and they were instructions. Frowning, he threw aside dress-shirts, socks, and underwear. Cursing lightly, he glanced in his tolietries kit. He laughed victoriously and pulled a tube of vermilion lipstick--something to remind him of Carrie.
Brandishing the extended paint, he proceeded to circle the first group of four anti-terrorist soldiers. He guessed that they were the remains of a platoon of fifty, meaning that they'd seen heavy action. Next, he marked off a few snipers. Schancer continued this pattern, underlining close-action specialists to long-gun boys at a ratio of two to one. Every pilot and engineer also received a flashy red mark.
After more than a few hours' worth of labor, Schancer had reduced the senseless list into four groups. First came the elite soldiers who'd been in combat with the bugs. Then came those who hadn't, but had still volunteered. Roughly two hundred fifty names were those of soldiers.
Engineers made the third group. The commander wasn't quite sure what having fifty combat- certified techs meant, but he liked the idea. Anyway, XCOM needed all the grease-monkeys it could get.
The pilots, ranging from the Fighting Falcon pilots who'd engaged the UFO in the air to lowly Blackhawk drivers, would probably be shipped to the US for training in 'Ranger tactics and handling. Other Japan Air Self-Defence Forces pilots would be on call to shoot down UFOs, so these volunteers could be spared.
"This is good," declared the Southerner as he locked his room and headed down to the hotel bar for a meal. Schancer felt strangely confident after seeing such an outpouring of volunteers. Back home, the only soldiers who'd joined XCOM were like himself--unwilling warriors. Sure, he'd signed up for West Point with the vague knowledge that he might see combat, but against extra-terrestrials? Either the Japanese were very courageous or very stupid; neither was particularly good.
Suddenly having changed his mind, Schancer mumbled, "This is... bad," drawing a backwards glance from another hotel patron. The lobby was quite deserted; Schancer glanced at the thin strip of metal implanted just under the skin of his left arm.
It read two o'clock in the morning.
"Jesus," he muttered. He sauntered over to the bar.
"Eigo hanashimasuka?" he asked.
The barkeep responded, "Yes. How may I help you?"
"Get me a loaf of french bread and a small glass of light Asahi," ordered Schancer. The bartender opened his mouth to protest--they didn't normally serve food at the bar--but the Southerner pulled out a ten-thousand yen note and placed it on the polished marble.
Suspecting that more than a few coins would wind up in his pockets, the man raised his eyebrows.
"Excuse me," mumbled the keeper, struggling to maintain a poker face. He opened a small silver can of Asahi, poured it into a tumbler, and handed both to Schancer. Then he stepped around the bar and left through the double doors to the kitchen.
Sipping the light amber brew, the commander pondered who he wanted from Bluegrass. The ranking American officers had to be assigned bases, but sergeants on down retained marginal control over where they wanted to serve. Volunteers from the Sixth and Seventh, a small crew of experienced techs, and a few decent pilots.
Schancer rubbed his chronometer implant. A dull rainbow of colors appeared in the wake of his finger; it slowly faded away.
He'd had it put in on a dare, and ever since, he'd regretted the decision. While the implant was quite a bit more useful than a tattoo, Schancer didn't like the eerie feeling that anyone with a metal detector could track him down. In West Point, he'd heard all the rumors of the aliens sticking alloy tracking labels in their abductees, and now that he was hunting down said bugs, it gave him a chill every time he thought about it.
The bartender returned with a meter-long loaf of fresh, crispy french bread. They must be making tomorrow's--today's--supply, mused Schancer. The kid gave him his change; he handed over the five thousand yen note as a reward for his troubles.
Will I be able to afford breakfast? wondered the commander. XCOM wasn't the most liberal organization when it came to spending money, and Schancer, through his dabbling in embezzling, he knew that even a big base like Bluegrass was run primarily off of a shoestring budget.
"Thank you very much," beamed the barkeep. Schancer nodded politely, resisting the urge to say "now don't get abducted, y'hear?"
Feeling very much alone, Schancer finished off his beverage, grabbed his bread, and stumbled to the elevators. Back in his room, he plugged his PDA into the phone jack and called Bluegrass.
"Anybody awake?" he typed in 'The Mess Hall,' the primary chat room that allowed techs and troops to keep in touch.
"Hey, look who's back," responded Senior Tech Mulligan, the datanet's administrator. "It's past morning rolls, Commander. Everybody's out in the hangars cleaning up after last night."
"'Ranger Two had a drive failure during lift-off. Damn engine nearly fell off, I hear. The bird dropped like a rock."
"No, thank The Man Upstairs. Team Three is all bruised to hell, and a few techs were hit by some debris, but nobody dead. Goddamn miracle, actually; that 'Ranger's tanks were topped off."
"Jesus. Can you repair it?"
There was a jarring pause before Mulligan responded.
"No. And that's not the least of it."
Schancer's empty stomach flipped.
"Flanders found metal fatigue symptoms at the same spots on 'Rangers One and Three. His people are going over birds Four through Ten right now."
"Fuck. You're saying that we might not have any long-range capability?"
Schancer sighed. The Skyrangers, no matter how clunky and inefficient, were the workhorses of the XCOM fleet. To lose them meant defeat.
"Any news from other bases?"
"Nebraska lost its number four team in a similar crash two hours ago."
"The whole team? All thirteen?"
"Plus the two pilots."
It was then, in the wee hours of an anonymous morning in a Tokyo hotel room, that Schancer began to doubt.
My X-COM Patch Kit For UFO Defense | Emergency XCOM Meeting spoof on YouTube
Zombie: Empirical data's your only man, when formulating a research plan.
A soldier's death is never in vain if it makes the formula more plain.
A few dozen make a better case for refining that third decimal place.
They call me Zombie because I don't sleep, as I slowly struggle to climb this heap,
of corpses, data points, and trials, but from the top - I'll see for miles!