Posted 02 January 2019 - 02:54 AM
Secondary Urkell tapped on the door to the commander's office. Bluegrass was proud of their commander, obviously the hardest working of the lot, and it wasn't unusual for Larsen to spend days living out of his office, constantly on the vidnet with Councilmen, cajoling them for money and arms.
Thus, Urkell wasn't quite startled when Larsen didn't answer. Figuring that the head man was in an early morning meeting of importance, he started to turn away with the tray of orange juice and bagels bound for Larsen. However, the secondary noticed that the door wasn't locked--it was slowly swinging inwards.
Puzzled, Urkell pushed open the metal door and looked over the scene within the commander's office. Papers were thrown everywhere, a PDA rested on the floor, and a shattered coffeepot lay in one corner. This was not the office of the Commander Larsen he knew.
Then the secondary saw the pale, emaciated arm still clutching a snubnosed .38 revolver and the splash of vermilion across the marble tabletop.
Urkell dropped the tray.
Plastic cup, plate and tray crashed to floor, soiling the grey carpeting.
The secondary groaned.
Rawlings rolled awake, swearing, praying that it was a nightmare. The dread sound of misery rose and subsided into scattered pockets of whimpering and sobbing.
The bodyguard pulled on a jumpsuit and immediately strapped on his plasma pistol. Stalking out into the dimly-lit hallway, a clot of secondaries bearing medical equipment jogged by. Rawlings noticed that they did not hurry. It was all over.
A crowd grew at the edge of the Bluegrass main hall. Rawlings dove in, shoving his way through the anxious mass of techs, secondaries, and soldiers. He spotted Schancer. One look at the Southerner's drawn face and the pair of security guards blocking the entrance to Commander Larsen's office spoke of the tragedy within.
"Larsen?" asked Rawlings.
"Get back!" shouted the bodyguard. "Step back so the medics can get in!"
A corpsman, the same who'd presided over Rawlings' brief residence in the base's dank medical ward, stepped through the door. A few seconds, an eternity, he returned to the hall. He, too, wore a stricken countenance.
He and Schancer shared a glance.
The Kansai Base commander opened his mouth to speak.
Only a croak came out.
Trying again, Schancer managed, "Bright? Where's Colonel Bright?"
A flush-faced man barreled his way through the crowd.
"Tom, you're Lieutenant Commander now."
Bright stared at Schancer, at the opened office, and back again at the tall blonde man.
"Commander Larsen is dead," rasped Schancer.
A new wave of moaning rolled away in every direction.
"As ranking officer, I'm taking charge," announced Schancer. "There will be a time to mourn Larsen. Right now, I order you to return to your tasks. Later, later."
Schancer turned away from the dissipating crowd, his face cramped up.
"Bright, go on the PA. Everybody knows, OK? Run the base, Tom," ordered the commander, barely in control of his own body.
"Yessir," mumbled Bright. So much for that cock-of-the-walk, thought Rawlings, watching the suddenly humble colonel drag his plumage away.
Schancer peered at the gory scene within the Bluegrass commander's office. Turning away, he retched.
"God damn you, Sven! Why? Why?" swore the commander.
Rawlings looked in. His eyes drifted over the smeared blood, the limp corpse of the greatest of the American commanders, the unfinished paperwork, and the flashing PDA piled on the floor.
"Can I enter?" asked the sergeant to a guard.
Blinking to keep a tear back, the secondary muttered, "We might want to send in a squad to dust for fingerprints, make sure there's no sign of..." The big, muscular man looked at the tips of his boots, silently sobbing.
"Just don't touch the commander," whispered the other guard.
Rawlings carefully stepped over the worn-in smear of cream cheese and orange juice. Walking over to the blinking computer, he cocked his head to glance at the screen. He touched the spacebar. Screensaver deactivated, the sole window open on the monitor was marked 'Intercept/Decrypt Messages, January 8, 2007.'
Curious to see just what Larsen had been doing previous to his apparent suicide, Rawlings frowned when he read the half-dozen lines of text within the window.
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:40:32
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:41:15
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:41:56
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:42:22
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:43:02
DECRYPTION DELETED 23:44:44
"What is the Intercept/Decrypt device?" asked Rawlings as he munched on a thick ham sandwich.
Captain of Secondaries Unger shrugged and continued to slowly peel and eat grapes.
Schancer stared at the tabletop, not touching his small course of tuna surprise casserole. "It's got to be the Hyperwave Detectors," mumbled the morose commander.
Rawlings swallowed a large hunk of unchewed meat. "And what does the Detector do?"
"It lets us tap into the alien's communications channels."
The bodyguard set down his half-finished sandwich. "You're saying we can tell when and where the bastards are going to hit us?"
Schancer nodded sullenly.
"I don't mean to party on your rain, but am I the only person who see what that means?" asked Rawlings. "We're going to win!"
"I don't think victory is our aim right now," growled a voice from behind the bodyguard. Rawlings instinctively reached for his plasma pistol.
"Col--er, Lieutenant Commander Bright, what a pleasure," responded Rawlings, slowly turning to face the officer.
"As I was saying, victory is not our goal. Survival is," continued Bright, a decidedly dejected aura surrounding him.
Rawlings glanced around, at the depressed and moping personnel of the cafeteria. He repressed the urge to scream.
In a low voice, the sergeant hissed, "I don't mean to disrespect Commander Larsen, but he was one man. One man! One man can't change anything! It takes a dedicated group. If one man dies, the war doesn't end. If a base dies, then maybe."
Schancer slowly looked up at his bodyguard.
"For God's sake, Jack! Shut the hell up!"
Bright raised an eyebrow and wandered off to the ala carte line.
Rawlings lowered his eyes and resumed eating his lunch.
"Where do the datatechs keep the Hyperwave Detector records?" asked the sergeant.
"Comm room. Ask Mulligan."
Rawlings crammed the rest of his ham sandwich into his mouth and shoved his chair back under the table. Fuming mildly, he stalked off. However, the anger subsided as he strolled along.
Commander. Commander means unlimited access to files. Commander's PDA read files deleted. Commander dead from self-inflicted. Sane people don't suicide... Commander wasn't mentally sound. Commander wasn't well when deleting files. Could there be other deletes?
The dull resentment Rawlings had been harboring against Schancer for the last three months melted away, replaced by something much more tangible. With every step, he realized that a cold tightness grew in his stomach. Fear.
Rawlings found himself running to the radar room.
"A Mulligan? Is there a tech named Mulligan around here?" shouted the sergeant.
A pale, flabby-looking soldier sitting under the red lighting at the rear of the theater-like room waved his hand. "That's me," he called.
"Mulligan, I'm Commander Schancer's aide-de-camp," lied Rawlings. "I need access to the Hyperwave Detector files."
Mulligan looked up at the short, ugly man. "If you want records of traffic over Japan, you're outta luck, pal. These things only get two thousand four hundred nautical miles, give or take a few hundred."
"No, no! I want the Bluegrass records. All of them, from as far back as they go."
"You're Commander Schancer's aide?" asked Mulligan, skeptical.
Rawlings sighed and threw up his hands. "Actually, I'm his bodyguard. But this concerns you, too."
"How so?" inquired the tech, running a cloudy brown eye over the bald bodyguard.
"It involves the circumstances of Commander Larsen's death."
Mulligan bowed his head out of respect. "Oh."
The tech tapped on his keyboard. A small speaker next to the monitor beeped.
"That can't be right," muttered Mulligan, annoyed. He typed for a few more moments.
Annoyed, the tech slammed the console and stood up.
"OK, who's been screwing with the server?" he yelled. The three other datatechs in the room shrugged.
Mulligan stalked off, Rawlings in hot pursuit.
"What's wrong?" asked the bodyguard. The tech pulled an electronic key from a string around his neck. Running it through a magnetic reader, a small closet popped open. Mulligan yanked out a keypad from within and touched a button. A monitor within the closet blinked on.
"This is the mainframe, the mother which runs every workstation in this damn hole. Someone," and Mulligan stressed the word, "has locked me out of the Detector systems at my console. So that's why we're here--this is a direct connection, no passwords, no nothing."
The tech scanned a list of directories within the mainframe. As his eyes reached the bottom of the list, he roared.
"SOMEONE... has deleted the entire Hyperwave Decoder directory!"
"What does that mean?" asked Rawlings.
Mulligan stared at the bodyguard like he was speaking to a child. "The interception programs, the decrypt, the automated alerts... they've all been destroyed!"
Rawlings looked aside, failing to think of anything appropriate to say.
"Shit," he muttered.
"Oh, it's not that bad," sourly smiled Mulligan. "I just have to dial up the Russians and get them to transfer everything in their computer over here. Easy eight-hour operation... the fiber-optics land lines help quite a bit. Until then--Castellano! Toss that coffee and get the radar network up and running! The Detector's crashed or something."
"So everything's OK?"
Mulligan nodded weakly. "Yep. Only real loss is any traffic within the last how many hours since the deletion. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see if I can recover anything, see how bad the data was erased."
Rawlings watched the tech step over to his console and begin typing.
"Radar net is back and running. NORAD reports nothing... holy Jesus, no repeat no UFOs detected for the last twelve hours!" shouted a tech.
"Is that worldwide?" asked Mulligan.
"Yeah... I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it myself."
Rawlings looked up at the screen. A peaceful day in Appalacia had begun again. Thin cloud cover over Florida in the far south was the only weather item of note.
Mulligan grunted. "Whoever mashed these files wasn't any pro. They've been written over a few times, but I wrote the damn program which does that, and it can be cleaned up. It'll take me a good half hour, but at least we won't get a huge long distance bill calling Mama Russia."
"That's good," muttered Rawlings. Something still wasn't right. The bodyguard sat in an empty radar operator's chair.
Thirty-one minutes and ten seconds later, the immensity of the crime was finally unearthed.
"Hey, you! Baldie, get over here. I think you might want to see this."
Rawlings hopped over to Mulligan's workstation and glanced over the characters upon the screen:
Intercept/Decrypt: 8 January 22:32:10
SEARCHFINDKILL DESIGNATE BLUEGRASSLARSENBASE PROTOCOL MAXIMUM, MINDSCAN. 179 837 123 82 793 877 372 22 294 23 927 40 SEARCHFINDKILL
Deleted: 8 January 23:44:44
"Heavy stuff," muttered Mulligan.
Rawlings glared at him, and then at the screen. "Did you read that?"
"Yes, why?" asked the tech.
"I think we should be a little more worried," responded the bodyguard.
"Oh, don't be paranoid. We get these things every day. Nothing ever comes of them... wait," Mulligan read the message again. "Maximum? Mindscan? And all those numbers... that I have not seen. Normally, it's 'minimum' and one group of three digits and one group of two. A few hours later, a large scout flies over the US."
"I think I'd be more worried about that," snorted Rawlings, pointing at the third group of characters. "How can they know Commander Larsen's name?"
Mulligan and Rawlings stared at each other for a moment.
"You got a base alert button somewhere around here?" asked Rawlings.
"Yep--Castellano! Hit the alarms. No! Type three, full base alert."
Schancer looked over the message.
"Why?" cried the commander.
"God damn you! Why, Sven?"
Head in his hands, Bright leaned against a small radar display. "You saw him, Ralph. He was completely deranged. Lost, fucking lost."
Schancer continued to stare at the fateful words.
"Shouldn't we commence evac?" whispered Rawlings. Twitching, the betrayed commander nodded abruptly.
"Load them 'Rangers," announced Castellano over the base PA. "Ranking engineers first, then techs. All non-combat secondaries report to the service lift to board trucks. All assault teams, all security secondaries, lock and load."
"You getting out of here, Paul?" asked Mulligan.
"Hell no, sir. Someone's gotta keep old Blue's systems running," replied the datatech, unaware that the PA was still on. Flushed, he switched it off.
"See you in the prep room," muttered Rawlings, jogging off.
Bright looked up at the radar display. "Is the Detector on?"
"Yeah. Ain't it weird?" answered Castellano.
Nothing, save clouds and the usual ruckus of airliner traffic and private aircraft disturbed the skies of America.
"Maybe they're running silent?" suggested Mulligan.
"And maybe they're coming in on Cesnas," growled Bright. UFOs were notorious for their constant communications via hyperwave. Every few seconds, they'd send out a data pulse relaying their location, vector, and crew status. This habit only reinforced XCOM suspicions of a secret alien base somewhere in the solar system.
"Skyranger Three is up, set for a holding pattern at five thousand feet off the coast. Skyranger Four just joined Three," announced Castellano. "The secondary convoy is starting up. We're keeping a pair of trucks back for any stragglers."
"Where are they going?" asked Schancer.
Looking up at the projection screen, Castellano smiled. "Anywhere but here, sir. Anywhere but here."
Rawlings gratefully accepted the shipping crate containing his heavy plasma. The armorer who'd given it to him nearly collapsed from the weight.
Clearing a space on the prep room floor, Rawlings lovingly opened and unwrapped his weapon. It was a standard heavy in every way, with the notable exceptions of the shotgun-style sight clamped over the end of its huge barrel, the removed trigger-guard, and the grenade launcher, retrofitted from an M-16, bolted underneath the barrel.
"Fifty-fifty belt of shrapnel and stun grenades and six clips," ordered Rawlings. He pulled three spares from his discarded jumpsuit; running out of ammunition was not an option. It was to be avoided even to the extent of stealing from the stores.
Strapping his customary plasma sidearm to his belt, Rawlings felt whole. A bandolier of ten launcher grenades when across his chest armor and the modified heavy plasma, attached by a strap, went over his shoulder.
"Are they going to shut down the lights?" asked the bodyguard, picking up a spare pistol and clips for his commander.
"I dunno," responded the secondary in charge of the prep room.
"Soldier," smirked Rawlings, "you're never going to make it to the big leagues with that kind of attitude. Find out; it would be nice to know before the greys come knocking."
The secondary ran off, looking for an intercom.
A medikit, and the bodyguard was ready for war. Helmet in his left, Rawlings ran an armored hand over his face, feeling through the alloy mesh the numerous crags, pits, and blotches of his visage.
An assault team, the Eighth Bluegrass, lifted their weapons above their heads. Bright, standing before them in his personal armor, proclaimed, "There was a Lakota Chief who once summed up situations like this. I'm pretty sure that he didn't say it in English, but here's the translation: IT IS A GOOD DAY TO DIE!"
A roar rose up from his soldiers. Bright threw back his shoulders and bellowed unintelligibly at the ceiling. Soldiers stomping, whistling and screaming, Bright yelled again, his plasma pistol pointed at the ceiling. Rawlings glanced at the weapon, its new owner and caught Bright's eye.
Bright saluted the bodyguard, and Rawlings responded in like.
Didn't even have time to say goodbye, winced Schancer. He peered at the radar display on his PDA, searching out the small white blip of Skyranger Four--Carrie. He hoped that the UFOs wouldn't notice the small flight of transports headed for the New York-Washington D.C. air corridor.
Who knows? he thought, maybe this is all a lot of fuss over nothing. Raiding UFOs hadn't been detected, and with the Hyperwave up and running again, Bluegrass was in no danger of being taken unawares.
Schancer finished strapping on his personal armor. Rawlings handed him a plasma pistol. The commander clumsily accepted it.
He strapped it onto his belt. Like I'll ever need that, snorted Schancer. A good officer directs other men to the right places at the right time. An officer shouldn't have to resort to physical weaponry himself; his greatest weapon is his mind.
"Anything?" asked Rawlings. Schancer smiled; Jack was an excellent example of why kill tallies an officer do not make. The runt was probably the finest soldier in all of XCOM--his bravery, marksmanship, and sheer bloody-minded approach to combat--'kill or be killed'--equalled dozens of dead aliens, many at ranges of bare meters. But it was obvious that Rawlings was not meant to lead.
"Nope," replied Schancer. The bodyguard survived combat because he was a one man killing machine. Put him in a team, and his effectiveness would decrease. Schancer recalled those terrible long moments on an Osaka street when Rawlings had stood over him, shielding him with his body as three grey snipers had poured down plasma.
"Tell those boys in the radar room to report anything bigger than a sparrow," muttered Rawlings, taping an inverted clip to the clip inserted into his heavy plasma. Schancer nodded.
Rawlings wouldn't have stayed in the center of the street if it hadn't been for me, Schancer realized. That was the bodyguard's critical flaw: he was so afraid of losing his comrades that he would watch over their every movement. And that was why he could not lead men--a true officer must be prepared to send men to their deaths if it is necessary for victory.
The sergeant rolled his shoulders, testing his armor's reactions and warming up the servos. Schancer couldn't help smiling. Well, that's what makes Jack so special, thought the commander. He doesn't kill for the 'COM, he doesn't kill to protect himself, and, thank God, he doesn't kill for enjoyment.
He kills so his friends won't die.
The Southerner eyed his bodyguard with pride.
"Well, it looks like the drought is over," reported the commander. Several scout-class UFOs had dipped into the atmosphere over the Great Plains and were circling Kansas.
"Those ships losing altitude--they're going to land," announced the datatech Castellano in Schancer's ear. "Damn, looks like they played us for suckers, sir. Should I alert Nevada Base and have them send teams to intercept?"
"Yes," replied Schancer.
"They're still coming," whispered Rawlings.
"Why do you think that?" The Southerner raised his eyebrows.
"Send in some nice, slow, fat scouts to get snapped up by the monkeys, and while the overgrown apes are out cleaning those ships' clocks, bring down the hammer on the primate house."
Schancer nodded and touched his tongue to the tips of his incisors.
"Communications room, keep your eyes open. I have a hunch that the show hasn't started yet," ordered the commander. "Too bad we already lifted off with our 'Rangers."
"That's what's got me worried," muttered the bodyguard. "The bugs were obviously messing with the dearly departed Commander Larsen's head. Now why put an end to a good thing and tip us off?"
"Good point, Jack." Schancer frowned.
Rawlings shuffled his feet and looked at the floor.
"He seemed somewhat sane when I talked to him yesterday... just a little overblown," mumbled Schancer.
Rawlings looked at the commander. "I think I know what happened..."
"The bugs somehow got into Larsen, just temporarily, long enough to delete the Hyperwave files, but not long enough to do more damage or permanently control the commander. Anyway, Larsen must've come out of that hypnotized state, looked around, realized what he'd done, and offed himself out of shame."
Schancer stared at his bodyguard. "No, that's close, but that's not what happened."
"What's your take on last night's events?"
"Basically the same up until the point where the commander was coming out of his trance... he fought his way to the 'surface,' where the bugs tried to regain control. Two minds in the same body equals some pretty nasty fighting, physical and otherwise. That explains the state of Larsen's office.
"So, the bugs are trying to get him again, and Larsen knows it, and he can't fight them off. He probably had very little time to act..."
Rawlings lowered his eyes. "Not enough time to get help or leave a note or anything. Just enough time to act. Decisively."
Schancer and Rawlings sat in the deserted prep room, the dull hum of fans somewhere in the background.
The sergeant looked up. "I think... sir, I think you should tell the troops that."
"It would bring closure to this tragedy."
"And they'd be consoled to know that Larsen died fighting."
The Southerner looked up at the ceiling, through meters of concrete and piping and stone and soil and trees to the clear blue sky above. Somewhere, somewhere up there, though Schancer, Larsen is waiting, waiting for us to get this shit over with and win it all. Finally shedding a tear for his mentor, Schancer bowed his head.
"I know I am," mumbled the commander.
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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!