Posted 02 January 2019 - 03:38 AM
The Fort. The City. The Face.
Fleeting blasts of plasma streaked by the Lucifer. Armed only with three fusion missiles, Airtech Flannery gritted his teeth and threw the Avenging Angel into a maddening corkscrew head on towards the blood-red Martian plain. A beam glanced the ship, twisting the transport into more severe convulsions.
Rawlings closed his eyes, mentally reviewing the plan of attack called for by the commander.
Damned defense towers, swore Bob, wrestling the controls around and pointing the ship away from the heaviest concentration of fire. Small, squarish pyramids sprinkled liberally across several square miles of the plateau below blinked on and off, beams licking away at the night sky.
"This is their stronghold. We can not expect anything other than extremely heavy resistance on the surface and... below. Colonel Wilkes informed me that the 'Deaths' he... interviewed confirmed this. Over two hundred greys, backed by hovertanks, are garrisoned in the 'Fort,' this unique structure-"
"Merlis, anything?" the pilot asked, again. The copilot, more used to shuttling around XCOM ships due for maintenance, twitched and grunted "no." More shots were striking the Lucifer, welting the ship's thick hide with flaming patches of seething red. However, no alien craft had risen from the Red Planet to do battle.
"We will come in as fast as possible. With our resources, we cannot sustain a siege; we must enter the subterranean sections of the alien base before they can muster their full strength. That means landing within the 'City,' this collection of defense towers and security posts. One of them, according to Wilkes, contains a lift down. Bob will insure that the garrison doesn't have the chance to stop us..."
The airtech pushed the bleeding Angel into another round of yaws, cants, and violent twists. Nodding to his copilot, Flannery stabilized the ship for three critical seconds.
Merlis centered the ship's targeting computer on the low, hulking complex bordering the clustered pyramids. The small monitor before the copilot blinked, and he confirmed the command.
The main screen flashed white, and a dazzling flare leapt away from the Lucifer.
"Fusion missile away, sir," reported Merlis.
Bob thrashed the manual controls, pulling the ship away from the Martian plain. Bleeding off velocity in the thin, thin atmosphere of the Red Planet, the Avenging Angel swung out low and lazy, plasma flashing by.
Not so far below, a huge face glared up at the assault party, its stern lines worn smooth by the millennia. Flannery grazed its nose.
A tremendous fireball lit up the eastern horizon.
"Hit is good," grunted Bob, swinging the transport around. Boulders of brittle red rock flashed by, momentarily suspended in the low Martian gravity.
The cabin began to depressurize, and everyone hefted their weapons, praying that they'd sealed their suits properly.
"Thirty seconds," yelled the pilot, closing up his own light armor.
Rawlings suddenly wished that he had a seat at the rear of the ship. The vessel shook violently, barely skimming the debris-strewn soil below.
The airtech killed the Lucifer's forward velocity, strafing it to the right. Even before the landing feet were fully settled, the rear door was open.
The doctor stumbled out of the operating room, his surgical scrubs smeared with blood. He pulled off his gloves and washed his shaking, tired hands.
"Could you save her?" asked a lounging medical technician. He rubbed his beard thoughtfully before offering the tired physician his seat.
The doctor shook his head and dejectedly sat down.
"Goddammit, sh-shit like this doesn't happen!"
The technician shook his head but remained silent.
"This is America, for Jesus Christ's sake! This is Washington--hell, when the President comes down with a cold they bring him in here! Our security is second to none! And now this happens."
The tired man rubbed his eyes and looked at his audience.
"Your people took some casualties?" asked the tech.
"They have names, dammit!" screamed the man. He immediately covered his face with a hand.
"Excuse my behavior," he muttered, masking his tears.
The bearded technician rubbed his collar. Scrubs were not his usual attire.
"She is dead, then?" he repeated.
"Very," mumbled the doctor. "Jane Doe. White female, age twenty to thirty five, pregnant..."
"She has a name, too," interrupted the technician. The surgeon cleared his eyes and looked up at the man. "Pregnant? Could you save the child?"
The physician frowned and nodded. "The bastards were professionals. Two bullets through the heart, each and every one. They didn't even come close to hitting the fetus."
The technician straightened up and brushed down his garments.
"Do not worry about the child. His father will come for him."
Growing more suspicious by the moment, the doctor inquired, "What department are you with, mister? I don't remember anybody in trauma looking like you."
The bearded man shrugged and left, dropping a business card on the prep room floor. Scooping up the card, the physician sucked in a breath. A stark black cross in a white circle, bearing a distinct resemblance to a swastika, adorned one side.
The other read RACE OF MAN.
Rawlings hadn't even stepped off the ramp before the fight was over.
Wilkes, braced by another psi, stood several meters off the ramp.
"He's got them," excitedly whispered the other soldier.
Rawlings frowned, sprinting into the cover of a boulder. He peered over its dusty surface.
LIFT IS CENTRAL PYRAMID, BEARING 270 DEGREES/DUE WEST/FOLLOW ME.
"Hmm," muttered the bodyguard.
Wilkes and his helper limped off towards the near cluster of tetrahedral stone pyramids.
"Jack, cover Colonel Wilkes!" ordered Schancer from the ramp of the Lucifer. Airtechs Flannery and Merlis, both armed with light plasma rifles, flanked the commander.
Rawlings scanned the darkened Cydonian landscape again. His trigger finger twitched, but the reassuring presence in the back of his mind stayed his reactions.
"Looks like Wilkes has picked up his own escort, sir," muttered the sergeant.
From behind craters and debris, small dark figures stood and turned to lead the way for the XCOM assault team. Big black eyes, better attuned to the dim light of Mars than the primitive night vision systems of the humans, watched for enemies.
"I don't like this," voiced Sergeant Kates, rushing ahead of Wilkes with his squad.
"Follow Colonel Wilkes orders; he's running the battle from here on out," announced Schancer.
Jack turned to him, surprised. "Sir?"
"And I want you to be his bodyguard, just like in the China raid."
Rawlings opened his mouth again, but nothing came out. He shrugged under his armor and scrambled after Wilkes.
Taking up a position behind a high sand dune, Rawlings paused. He's right, he thought, the bossman's right. Wilkes is our MVP from here on out; he's the only one who can handle the Deaths. Still, I don't like it. The commander--fuck that, the Ubercommander--should have more escort than those two, snarled the bodyguard, looking back at Bob and Merlis walking abreast of Schancer. Merlis cradled his plasma rifle tightly against his chest; Flannery, the more experienced, comfortably carried his at the ready, muzzle down but ready to respond.
Rawlings snorted again and bounded ahead to keep watch on the thin line of greys walking point for the team.
TANK, ONE HUNDRED METERS TO THE RIGHT, spoke Wilkes. A burst of plasma fire and the heavier response of the alien vehicle's weapon sounded, sounding very far away in the thin air of Mars. A bug screamed, and then another, before the far side of a pyramid exploded, tossing a reddish mist into the sky.
TWO MIND PUPPETS DOWN, TANK DESTROYED, reported the psi.
So that's what you're calling 'em, responded Sakurai.
Rawlings nearly halted in his tracks, deciding instead to throw himself behind a crater first.
Captain, did I just hear you think? asked the bodyguard, wondering what the strange sound in his mind was.
I AM LINKING THE ENTIRE TEAM'S THOUGHTS IN ORDER TO EXPEDITE COMMUNICATION, mentioned Wilkes.
Rawlings thought he could hear the psi laughing. Roaring with mirth, in fact. A second alien tank exploded somewhere ahead.
The bodyguard ducked behind the lip of his crater, flooded with the distinct feeling of someone or something peering over his shoulder.
Wilkes, he asked, is that you?
How far to the lift?
THE MIND PUPPETS HAVE REACHED IT. THEY WILL SECURE IT IMMEDIATELY.
Rawlings rolled his eyes. Replaced by greys...
A rolling wave of fire directly ahead of the lead XCOM elements snatched up several small aliens and dashed them against the Martian soil, their bodies rent and twisted.
"Launcher, left pyramid!" yelled Kates. Plasmas roared, and the tip of the stone building exploded in flames, incinerating the sniper within. An unsteady, wobbling disk rounded its corner and was immediately consumed in the base defense tower's gory death throes.
A shard of stone bounced off Rawlings' helmet, sending him diving for cover. He could hear Wilkes' eerie laughter.
LIFT IS CLEARED, announced the psi.
Scanning around for more trouble, Rawlings watched most of the assault troops enter the lift building's alloy doorway. A pitted red pyramid, it was one of dozens...
YES, THIS IS THE LIFT. THE OTHER BUILDINGS ARE SECURITY AND DEFENSE STATIONS, WITH ONLY POWER CONDUITS AND HEAT SINK SHAFTS RUNNING TO THE SUBTERRAINEAN PORTIONS.
OK, thought Rawlings, wondering nervously if Wilkes was simply ordering him to or whether he still had any free will left.
MOVE IT, replied the psi. The bodyguard looked over the harsh reds and blacks of the Martian landscape. Cruel, unforgiving: a tough land that had seen better times.
Must come back here on vacation, smirked the soldier as he bolted for the closing doors.
Sperber looked out the window again before shutting the blinds. The big man rubbed his beard; he liked the feel of it.
"The bugs are making their move," he idly commented. The guerrilla proceeded to load bullets into yet another banana clip, revelling in the situation.
"Over the preceding fourty-eight hours, the United Nations," a few of the other men present hissed at the mere mention of the hated organization, "has aborted the project known as XCOM... the fail- safe against the bugs. Sources close to myself indicate that the bases of said organization have been destroyed or abandoned; in any case, that grand experiment has failed, and it is our turn."
The Colonel, as he liked to be known, set down the loaded cartridge.
"The sleeper agents they have planted will work their treachery now, undermining our conventional military and delaying their deployment until it is too late. We must stop the traitors, we must smoke them out. There is not much time left."
Loading the snub-nosed German submachinegun at his side, Sperber nodded to each of his lieutenants.
"You have your lists. Marshall your men, and act with speed. We are not yet defeated."
TANK STORAGE: the first words in Rawlings' mind.
Inky blackness, a thick veil of velvet in every direction.
The little grey men, still enslaved, fanned out into the dark.
The silence was profound; twenty four soldiers moving with cat-like stealth through an overwhelming sea of dark.
Rawlings looked back; the lift was lit. A hundred-square meter patch of crisp red light, let down from the surface. He couldn't guess at how far they had descended.
A pitch black tunnel lay ahead; the opened end of an oil pipeline.
Rawlings pulled down his nightvision visor.
Only the faint outlines of the men ahead of him were visible, quickly moving columns of marionettes...
It's too dark, he thought, jogging along in line.
He tapped on the infrared filters.
Everywhere. Stretching off to the left and right and as far to the front as he could see, rows and rows of nutrient tanks surrounded Rawlings. Tanks, with tubes and wires and ducts slinking down from the high ceiling. Tanks, warm red glows emanating from each; a warm bath nourishing, feeding something alive. Warm red glows where cold alien hearts would form...
What is this? asked Sakurai, breathlessly.
So many, thought Airtech Flannery.
Wilkes, somehow in front, somehow leading the small assault team, halted. They'd only crossed one fourth of the tremendously huge cavern, but the psi stopped anyway. Everyone else stopped too; they could feel something new about to happen.
Like a teacher's fingernail across a blackboard, a thin, rusty squeak emerged from Wilkes' throat. So long unused, it creaked and stammered to a halt.
"Aaaa-I can't pro-protect you anymore," he managed, collapsing to the floor.
Merlis leaned down to help the psi up, but it was no use.
A fusion blast, a deafening roar that rendered the mental connections Wilkes had labored so long to create, a lightning bolt.
Rawlings wilted from the mental blow, his Faith nearly slipping from his fingers.
"Get under cover!" bellowed Schancer.
Dim lights slowly switched on down the length of the cloning chamber, catching the soldiers in their glare. Sakurai turned back to face the entrance they'd come from, but a monstrous bipedal tank was already striding into place, its tremendous bulk blocking out any chance of escape.
The grey mindslaves were the first to fall.
Groggy from the sudden severance of the telepathic twine which held their bodies up, the little men were caught flat-footed in the chamber's central aisle. Perhaps out of pure spite, the alien construct centered its double plasma cannon on the little flock of greys. The bugs fell screaming, frustrated and confused. Their green blood was just the first of many hues to spill.
Rawlings' head hurt. An axe, he swore, is surely sticking out of my brainstem.
Ah, but I'm not dead yet, thought the bodyguard, pressed up behind a spawning bath. He peeked around its polished edge. The thick slab of alloy and servos, the tank, was still parked in the doorway, pumping out plasma at fleeting glimpses of soldiers.
A bolt arced by the sergeant's head. He pulled his head back, but another shot slammed into the tank above his helmet. Thick polymers shattered, and syrupy nutrient goo splashed over Rawlings. He glanced towards the other end of the cloning chamber.
He didn't like what he saw.
"Bugs to the front!" the bodyguard shouted, an identical alien tank stepping into place. Its cannon opened up, catching one of Rokkaku's men. The rookie yelped, spun, and collapsed face down on the alloy.
"Kates! Kill the near tank! Rokkaku! Stop that other thing!" yelled Schancer, the roar of XCOM's plasma nearly drowning out his strained words in Rawlings' ear.
The little bodyguard rolled behind another tank. It too shattered. A beam lanced through its burnished side and smoldered the tip of his boot.
"Gunn, where is that launcher?"
"I don't care if it's a tank, mind control it!"
"Beecroft, watch my back."
Rubin, one of the team's precious psis, suddenly stood up and screamed, frantically trying to rip his sealed helmet off.
A fusion missile leapt from behind the cloning tanks across the central avenue, but instead of twisting about in midair and bolting for one of the tanks, the silver football ripped into the chamber's ceiling. Liquid nutrient and sparks rained down.
"Get down, man!" ordered Marcussen, but it was too late for Rubin. A thin, steaming vapor poured out of the synthetic seals at his neck and wrists, and the man's faceplate burst open, his visage reduced to nothing but boiled meat.
One of the near tank's chicken-like knees crumpled under the third heavy plasma bolt to hit it. The massive construct canted sideways and sprawled across the gap.
Another brown and red monster replaced it.
"Jesus," muttered Sardy, a moment before her mind went under attack. Rawlings looked away as the pretty psi's head went through a cheese grater.
"Gunn, give me that!"
"Suko is down," muttered Kates. The far end of the chamber was ablaze where Rokkaku and his surviving rookies were keeping the other tank engaged.
"OhmyGod," screamed Sakurai. A malformed crab claw reached out of a demolished nutrient tank. The captain jammed his heavy plasma into the premature's thorax...
Rawlings calmly turned and executed the struggling fetuses from the nearest ruined baths.
Merlis screamed and went down, a mucus-covered crab ripping into his gut.
"Kill that thing. Shoot Merlis," mumbled Schancer.
THE VENTALATION SHAFTS LEAD OUT.
Rawlings eviscerated another crab and dove to the floor, bolts streaking above his head. He glanced back at the limp form next to Merlis' corpse.
INSIDE YOUR HELMET. THE DEATHS ARE WEARING ME DOWN; THEY ALMOST DESTROYED ME WITH A COMBINED ATTACK. WE WILL FAIL IF WE DO NOT ACT QUICKLY.
"Tak! Follow!" ordered Rawlings, his voice cold steel.
Crunching over a few dead bugs, the sergeant limped over to Rawlings' side. His left shoulder plate was a twisted heap of metal.
FLOOR-LEVEL VENTALATION DUCTS ARE WITHIN THE NUTRIENT FLOW TOWER, USE THEM TO BYPASS THE GUARDS.
"Sir, where are we going?"
Rawlings sprinted past the surprised corpses of Rokkaku and two of his men. Sure enough, a pair of heavily-braced pillars rose from the center of the cloning chamber; indeed, they were the only things keeping the ceiling up. The bodyguard absentmindedly blasted open grating at the base of the nearest. He swung himself inside.
"Sergeant Kates? Kates? We're falling back--" screamed Schancer, far away but yet too loudly in Rawlings ears.
What will happen to the commander? asked the bodyguard, pausing halfway up the ribbed interior of the vertical air tunnel.
THEY ARE OF NO CONCERN. OUR TASK IS FAR MORE IMPORTANT.
Rawlings blinked and continued his ascent.
"Sir!" yelled Takahashi, painfully pulling himself up behind the American.
DUCT GOES HORIZONTAL OVER THE CHAMBER CEILING. ONE HUNDRED METERS TO A HEAT EXCHANGE SHAFT.
Rawlings increased his pace, sprinting down the darkened tunnel. By degrees, it opened up as more passages joined it; finally, the bodyguard emerged on a small overhang above a tremendously deep shaft. Down its center ran a massive tangle of wires and pipes; a small walkway across the gulf led to it.
AROUND THIS; THERE IS AN IDENTICAL DUCT ON THE FAR SIDE.
Rawlings recklessly bounded over the walkway and wormed around the clustered nerves and vessels of the alien base. He ran down the short tunnel to the other side.
THIS GRILLE IS ADJACENT TO THE ENTRANCE TO THE MASTER CONTROL CHAMBER OF CYDONIA. IT IS GUARDED HEAVILY BY DEATHS.
"What next, sir?" mumbled Takahashi, staggered up behind Rawlings.
The bodyguard blew open the thin allow covering with his plasma. The two soldiers leapt out into the corridor. Five meters to the left of the vent and just out of sight, a dozen little grey men stood at the ready. Five meters to the right, a dozen more.
Rawlings dropped and thumbed the trigger on his grenade launcher.
The dozen to the left evaporated in a sick churning spray of limbs and weapons. A nasty green mist hung in the air for a second.
The dozen greys to the right dove too, yanking up their plasmas. Hundreds of bolts flew, and Rawlings reached for his belt. Burst after burst tore into the alloy floor and cleaved the air, superheated matter geysering alloy, from the ceiling, the walls, the armor on his shoulders and back and thighs, and Rawlings ripped a grenade from his belt and touched it to instant detonation and threw it...
An alloy shard pierced his helmet, gouging a sheet of flesh from his forehead and flooding his faceplate with blood.
"Tak?" he muttered weakly, knowing that his comrade was surely dead.
Now, about this master control chamber, thought Rawlings, desperately trying to keep the pain of his baked flesh out of his mind, what do I do there?
"Colonel Wilkes?" mouthed Rawlings, his entire face moist.
The horribly wounded soldier rolled over, his crisped skin exploding in agony.
"Col'nel Wilkes?" he asked again, mechanically reloading his plasma. His skin felt like it was tearing at his armpits...
"No," he coughed, trying to pull himself up.
You're a sitting duck for the crabs, the soldier in him screamed.
Lie still, lie still and go to sleep, purred another voice.
"Damn... mind control," he rasped, knowing that there was no Death tinkering with his psyke.
Rawlings propped himself up with his elbows. His bones felt soft, malleable. He fell back to the floor.
A jarring, violent, vicious wrenching sensation dragged the bodyguard back to life.
"Shit, Jack, we gotta get you out of here!"
Rawlings tried to speak, but his tongue was a fat, useless slab of meat in his mouth.
Prying open one eye, the mangled man saw his torturer.
"Boss," he whispered.
"Come on, dammit! Sakurai's evacuating in ten minutes!"
Schancer pulled the groggy man's torso up.
"The team finally busted past that damn tank; they're on the surface, waiting for us in the ship!"
"Can't go," Rawlings plaintively muttered.
"What's that?" asked Schancer.
"Wilkes told me," coughed the sergeant, "that the 'master control room' is behind that door, sir." The bodyguard pointed at the thick alloy doorway smeared with green gibs.
"Captain? Send a squad back in here, if you can spare it. Jack found the damn alien brain," reported Schancer. He frowned at the reply.
The commander hoisted up Rawlings and looked him in the eyes, as best as he could.
"Jack," he inquired, "are you up to this?"
"Just a flesh wound, sir," answered the bodyguard.
Schancer paused for a moment, looking the man in his eyes. A long moment...
"Well then," chirped the commander, hoisting his heavy plasma. "Let's go."
The door slid open quietly, belying its tremendous size and weight. Just behind it lay a smoldering Death, its hood thrown back, revealing the very visage of agony: head rolled back, its neck snapped; jaw yanked down, small, yellow teeth and tongue exposed; and eyes, dead, sightless eyes peeled open by physical force.
Bright blue irises, too human for comfort, stared at the alloy ceiling.
"Wilkes has been here," muttered Schancer.
Rawlings dared not grunt a response. His chest felt weak, and though his back had been scorched down to his nerve endings, he was quickly becoming aware of a wet sensation in his boots and calf armor. Through a red haze, he decisively stepped past the crumpled alien.
There were two small grav lifts at the culmination of the long corridor behind the door. Both led into the ceiling. Two of them, glowing red, two beacons to the wounded man. Here, they shouted out to his brain, here is where you must go; Rawlings obeyed.
"Jack, wait up," ordered the persistent voice at his side. "I'll take the left one . . ."
The lifts were very close now, and it was apparent that they both led up into the low ceiling. It was very dark above. Rawlings staggered over to the right, turned around and stared up.
The wetness of his feet, the tearing of his back's skin; the mere physical annoyances of being grievously maimed fell away. A pleasant weight in his arms, the warm embrace of his armor suit; these too drifted from his consciousness. Only the inky black entrance above him--and something else. . .
"On three? On three."
The bodyguard tensed his ruined body for the leap.
"One, two, three-"
Up into the night sky hell flew Jack; upwards, and already pushing off, lashing out with his right leg against the upper rim of the lift, throwing himself out of the intertialess zone, rolling onto the alloy tile, Faith already up. A Death, robed and unholy, gave last rites to himself and went down with a double tap that separated his torso from his abdomen. His comrades did not die so easily. Armed with menial heavy plasmas, two, standing directly behind the fallen, belched fire.
Rawlings shuddered with the impact of their blows. He triggered a final burst before he felt his right shoulder give way. Arm stupid and unresponsive, he scrambled behind a row of high-backed seats, dumping his heavy plasma and ripping out his pistol. One of the Deaths was on its frail knees; the other turned slowly, unsurely, for humans were not to take such punishment and live, and fired again.
The blast hit him dead center in the chest, the heavy plating of his suit flaming and molting away. The pistol was out, though, and firing left-handed, Rawlings squeezed off a burst. The Death's thick garment rippled, the alien belched blood, and canted over.
His right hand stung. Twisting to his right, the bodyguard sighted the last alien, descending upon him like a swarm, brown robe flapping and roaring flame and one wizened, evil hand outstretched for his forehead. Rawlings fired from the hip, once, and the Death shrieked, its guts in its lap.
And the little man from Chicago knew that he had failed.
Laid out on his face, the commander was down. Not one nick of armor gone on his back or sides, but he was down none the less, and a crimson swath from under his belly spoke the worst.
"No," rasped the bodyguard, stumbling over, trying for the medikit at his side with his lame hand. He set down his pistol, and reached for the thin package of coagulants and painkillers.
AND IT WOULD DO YOU WELL TO LEAVE IT DOWN.
All his pains, his hemorrhaging, his newfound anguish drained away like the blood from his heart.
Rawlings turned to face the voice. Fifteen meters away, nestled in a massive network of wires and monitors sat a tremendous, throbbing creature. Soft and organic, yet bristling with electronics, plush and damp and arrogant, a king on its throne sat the obscenity. The Alien Brain.
The bodyguard scooped up his weapon, every joint in his body aching like it was filled with sand. With a trembling hand, he aimed at the monster.
HEAR ME OUT.
Rawlings lowered his pistol, unconsciously, before he'd even realized what he had done. Panicking, he raised it again.
YOU ARE A MOST TENACIOUS SORT, YOU HUMANS. COMPLETELY ENRAPTURED WITH THE IDEA OF LIFE ETERNAL, DESPITE A UNIVERSE OF EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. FOREVER RESISTING, HANGING ON, UNABLE TO PAY RESPECT YOUR BETTERS. A TRULY UNIQUE TRAIT AMONGST THAT SAME UNIVERSE, AND IT WAS ONLY WITH MUCH REGRET THAT WE DETERMINED THE NECESSITY OF YOUR DESTRUCTION.
"Fuck, die," grunted Jack, firing at the creature. His unsteady hand sent the shot wide, slagging a monitor.
IT WAS ON THIS PLANET, OF COURSE, THAT WE INTENDED TO CONSTRUCT OUR PARADISE. TWEAKED THE ATMOSPHERE, SEEDED THE APPROPRIATE ENGINEERS OF OUR ENVIROMENT, AND WAITED. OH YES, WE HAVE MUCH PATIENCE, UNLIKE YOU OF THE MORTAL SORT. WAITED A HUNDRED MILLION YEARS, WE DID; AND WHEN WE RETURNED, THIS PLANET HAD BLOOMED SPECTACULARLY. 'INTELLIGENT' LIFE, AND I SCOFF AT THAT PRESUMPTION OF YOURS, HAD ARISEN IN OUR ABSENCE.
THE 'GREYS' RESISTED FOR A TIME. IN A RARE MOMENT OF INDESCRETION, WE DESTROYED THE MAJORITY OF THEIR PLANET TO SO PUNISH THEM. BUT THAT WAS AN ABBERATION OF WHICH WE REGRETTED GREATLY; AND SO, WE REBUILT WHAT WE COULD, AND ALLOWED THE GREYS TO SERVE AT OUR FEET FOR THE SECOND COLONIZATION OF THIS SYSTEM.
YOUR PLANET, WHILE ALTOGETHER TOO RIFE WITH LIQUID HYDROGEN HYDROXIDE, MADE A FAIR SECOND CHOICE. HOWEVER, GENETIC MATERIAL FROM THIS PLANET HAD CONTAMINATED YOURS. . . AND YOU ARE THE RESULT.
"God, no." Rawlings lowered his pistol, shivering uncontrollably.
YOU, SPECIFICALLY, ARE THE MOST STALWART OF A STUBBORN SPECIES. BY MOST ACCOUNTS OF YOUR PHYSICAL ABILITIES, YOU SHOULD HAVE JOINED YOUR COMPANIONS LONG AGO. BUT YOU HAVE BORNE WITNESS TO OUR WORKS; WE ARE THE ONES WHO BUILD WORLDS. WE POSSESS THAT SAME ABILITY TO DESTROY THEM.
WE ARE THE ELOHIM. WE ARE NOT THE CHILDREN OF YOUR PETTY GOD. WE ARE YOUR GOD.
The bodyguard looked down at the body of his friend.
WE ARE THE ELOHIM. DO YOU NOT THINK IT A SIMPLE TASK FOR ARCHITECTS OF WORLDS TO GRANT YOU WHAT YOU SO DESPERATELY STRIVE FOR? LIFE ETERNAL! JOIN US, AND JOIN THE CHILDREN OF THE STARS! LIVE FOREVER AS ONE OF US!
"That," whispered Rawlings, "is not what I want."
The massive construct lay quiet for a moment, its multiple processors, humming, thinking.
SO, IS THAT YOUR PRICE?
The humble soldier nodded his head.
WELCOME TO FOREVER, SERVANT.
The heady, intoxicating haze of the mind control came onto Rawlings faster than the Deaths had ever done, inundating his every cell and aligning the polarity of every atom of his being with the great magnet of the Brain. Broken skin, broken DNA, stitched together by a hasty tailor. Blood, born anew, of another color. His aura shifting, twitching, overwhelmed by another.
And before it could be completed, a single shot rang out, loud as a textbook slapping the floor in an abandoned school.
The waters rushed out of Rawlings, their work undone. He had been mended, but his transformation had been such that even then, he felt a deep pang of loss, a fork into his heart. He shook violently.
"Boss," he cried.
"Mind control's the shit," coughed Schancer, still dying, the slow, clotting blood oozing out of his guts, a smoking heavy plasma clutched in his right hand.
"Boss," Rawlings repeated, hugging the prone form of his commander. The dying man did not respond in kind.
"You know why, don't you?" mumbled Schancer. "Carrie, the fuckers got Carrie and the godawful American Councilman. It would've been me, should've. . . Much better this way. Now get out of here, the bus is leaving."
The weeping bodyguard reached down to help his commander up, but before he could, the widower brushed aside his hand, reached around to the back of his helmet, and flipped open the seal there. Pulling off his stinking, sweaty mask, Schancer gulped down a lungful of the sick, evil Martian air, sucking it in with his beardless face, breathing it in, and breathing it out and breathing no more.
Rawlings rolled the dead man's body over, placed his Faith across Schancer to hide the wound, and stood.
There were barely five of them, huddled around the Lucifer, armor hacked up, scarred, and coated with the thick red dust of the plains. Senior among them was Captain Sakurai, the barest patch of a crimson sun on his right shoulder. The others were the indomitable Flannery, a frail and shaken Marcussen, a hungry Beecroft, and the swarthy, tired, and bloody Gonzales.
There were barely five of them, and yet the bugs had not attacked.
"Air's running out. We gotta go," muttered Gonzales, crumpled up against the Lucifer's left rear landing strut.
"We don't go until the commander gives the word," chided Flannery, scanning the near pyramids for trouble.
Sakurai grunted. He will not return, he sighed, hating himself for knowing the truth. He touched off the strategic radio on his back; his suit was running low on power.
"Uh, sir, what's the word?" asked Gonzales. The more he gets wounded, the more he talks, observed Sakurai.
"Five minutes," grunted the captain.
Several passed, and Beecroft groaned from lack of nourishment. A sharp glance from the Japanese officer silence him.
"Sir, possible contact to the west," whispered Gonzales, pointing off at the horizon.
"Bob, your preflight done?"
"Yessir, she'll lift off. . . we'll just have to trust gravity to bring us down."
"Sir, it's Rawlings. He looks wounded."
"Beecroft, go get him."
And in stumbled the bodyguard, his trashed, barely airtight armor testament to all that had occurred. The six survivors climbed aboard their trusty black ship, waited for it to pressurize, and strapped in.
The twin grav drives of the Lucifer coughed awake, and Flannery cautiously pulled the vessel aloft. Kicking up red dust in its wake, the transport cruised off into the sky and turned its back on Mars.
"God, he's burned bad."
"Coat him with more of that crap. It'll keep him from infecting."
"He's already healing--what in hell?"
"Shit, he needs plasma bad; blood pressure's getting lower."
"What the hell."
"No, external. Lookit this--his right shoulder's a fucking mess."
"Language, Beecroft. Epithets won't make Sergeant Rawlings heal any faster."
"Sorry sir. Gonzales--how are you doing?"
"Awful. Simply godawful. Do you need help with Rawlings?"
"No--good thing that we stabilized him when we did."
"Guys, uh, strap in. Descent is going to be. . . nasty."
"What about Rawlings?"
"Strap him to the floor."
"Oh God! Marcussen's just fainted!"
Rawlings lay on his back, eyes closed, waves of narcotics washing over the jagged holes in his being. I like morphine, he decided, only not right now. The wounded man reached over and pulled the needle from his arm.
"What is it? What is it?"
"Beecroft! What is it?"
"Aneurysm! Deaths must've scrambled his head!"
"Do something, he's dying!"
"Shit, I can't--"
Someplace far away: "They say that only with the willing death of a commander at a major battle can XCOM emerge victorious."
Rawlings shivered, and the Lucifer shook in return.
"Oh, Lord, help me."
"Bob, what? The main monitors!"
"The computers are completely fried! Damage must've breached the heat shields. . . I'm going manual."
Something whirred against the growing roar of atmospheric friction, and Rawlings knew that the Lucifer was doomed.
"Oh shit, I can't see anything; I'm aiming for the terminator."
The airframe began to creak and ping. Jack breathed in, the bruise on his breastbone hurting somewhat. His shoulder and the arm below it were completely numb.
"Marcussen's dead, sir."
Flannery began to mumble something. Rawlings opened his eyes. Gonzales peered down from the aisle seat.
"Rawlings is awake, sir! He's not going to die!" chirped the unnecessarily perky squaddie.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," muttered Beecroft.
The former bodyguard rolled back his head and looked up at the flight deck. Schancer's old chair was gone, thrown out at Cydonia, perhaps. Monitor screens pulled apart, Flannery sat before the windscreen; the atmosphere outside glowed with the friction of the passing ship.
"Decent. . . into hell," gagged Rawlings.
Flannery spoke louder: ". . . and I think it would be a shame, Lord, if so many of our friends and comrades were to die for you, without anyone to tell the rest of the world about them. Lord, protect us, and I will devote the rest of my life, be it long or be it short, to your service. . . "
Something external snapped, and the Lucifer wobbled slightly. Flannery, without cutting short his prayers, touched the controls lightly and corrected the ship's path.
". . . I've been a soldier, and I know how to fight, Lord, so I'll fight if that's what you want. But I can love, too, Lord, and if you want me to teach love and spread love, I can do that, too. Because I think we've done enough fighting, enough pointless arguing between humans, when this whole war should teach us that we can't waste time fighting each other. . ."
"What was that?" asked Sakurai, somewhat apathetically. He was wearing his kamikaze headband again.
". . . can be a beautiful place, and I'll make it so, if you grant me strength today--sir, that was the starboard grav drive--which I really need, considering that this marvelous ship is entirely in your hands. . ."
"Is starboard left or right?" continued Sakurai.
"Left, sir," answered Beecroft.
"Not hungry anymore?" chided Gonzales.
"No," he replied.
Rawlings stared at the ceiling and breathed slowly. There would be much to do, after all the destruction of the war. Much rebuilding of the razed cities, much research into what the aliens had left behind. . . But what place would he have in it? Without a sound body, what could a mutilated, little, ugly vet do?
"God Almighty, save us," whispered Bob, ending his sermon.
The sky grew, by degrees, whiter and whiter. Rawlings peered up from his moorings, watching, waiting for Saint Peter to appear before the Lucifer and sign in five tardy souls. This surely must be heaven, he mused, for our flight has grown almost comfortable. . .
Suddenly, Flannery uttered a most un-Christian word, jerking back on the small control stick, grunting, straining for what he was worth.
The Lucifer shook violently, lurched back into the air, and crashed to earth again.
"Goddamn trees," muttered the pilot before collapsing in his seat.
"Who is it?" asked the farmer, pulling open the door to his home.
"Oh my God," whispered his wife.
The door opened further, and Rawlings' stretcher lurched forwards.
"Government project, sir. We're astronauts, and we had a little bit of an accident setting down," explained Beecroft.
"What are the damn hand cannons for, then?" asked the old Nebraskan, pointing to Rawlings' pistol.
"XCOM. We kill aliens," answered Sakurai, carrying the rear of the stretcher. Gonzales and Flannery helped each other along behind him.
The farmer's face came into Rawlings' line of sight. The man was old, with whitish hair visible around the back of his baseball cap and wrinkles everywhere, down his tanned neck. A frown was planted on his face. But a moment passed, and the dull grey pre-dawn clouds drifted off.
"About time you boys did something about them damn bugs. 'Been killing my cattle since '97. About damn time."
The humble soldiers marched into the small living room of the farmhouse, carefully setting Rawlings down on the couch. Gonzales and Flannery sat also, resting, tested.
"Sir, one of my men didn't. . . last the flight. Would you mind if we put him in your garage?"
"I'm sorry--of course, perfectly fine with us."
Beecroft and Sakurai marched out again, off to the hayfield where the Lucifer had set down most roughly; leaving the wounded to themselves.
Far away, in the east, where the clouds slowly dissipated, a vibrant, crimson ball rose into the sky, casting its first rays into the home's living room. Rawlings stared at it, its pure brilliance.
"May the sun rise forevermore," he whispered.
"Would you boys like some food? You look awful hungry."
Flannery and Gonzales nodded. Rawlings merely looked out the window.
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!