Posted 17 May 2006 - 11:00 AM
Commodore Elizabeth Anson disembarked from the aging military helicopter onto the base that represented her latest command assignment.
The UN decision to appoint her as the supreme commander of X-Com had been the result of several days of political bickering. Since the X-Com charter allowed it to enter national territory at will, no nation was keen on X-Com being commanded by a representative of an economic and geopolitical rival. The result was that a candidate from the sleepy backwater of the European Syndicate was selected as a political compromise.
Upon entering the base, the first thing she did was to find someone, a technician by the look of him, to direct her to her quarters, and then her office. Before she entered her office, she said to him “I want all the aqaunoughts to assemble on parade in Submarine Pen one in thirty minutes.”
“But they’ve not long come back from a mission. They’re exhausted.”
Ooops, she thought. But I can’t look indecisive or weak-willed on my first day. “I think you’ll find that I’m in charge now, and I’ve just given a military order. Thirty minutes and no excuses!”
As the frightened technician hurried off to find Sergeant Nielsen, she opened the door to her cramped little office; space being at something of a premium on the base. A strange man with a Mediterranean complexion was standing in front of her desk. Although he appeared to be the wrong side of sixty, he had the build of one who was determined not to let himself go. “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my office?” she asked; she tended not to beat around the bush.
“My name is Ali Hussein. I served in X-Com during the last war against the aliens, and I have come here to offer my services as a recruitment officer in the current war.” He handed over his ID card; she spent a couple of minutes scanning the card into her computer terminal to ensure he checked out. As well as confirming his identity, it revealed that he had been awarded a Cluster of Mars; a medal made from an alloy of iron extracted from the Martian rock samples X-Com had taken back after the Cydonia mission and alien alloys. It had been exclusively issued to the X-Com soldiers who had taken part in the Battle of Cydonia, posthumously in some cases. After a brief ceremony, most of the surviving soldiers were told that they were being laid-off to cut costs.
“Okay, your ID checks out”, she said as she returned the card. “How the hell did you get on a top secret base?”
“You might like to work out some new security measures, like getting the information on this base removed from the telephone directories. After that, all I needed to do was to ask the locals when the next passenger flight here was going to be.” He spoke English with the formal precision of someone who learned English as a second language.
“What do I need a recruitment officer for? I’ve already got a squad of soldiers here, and there’s others on the way. The UN is sending me an American team of special forces operatives, and they’ve said they’ll send me more if I ask for them.”
“With respect, Commodore, they will not. You were lucky to get this much out of them.”
“What are you talking about? They’ve given us their full support.”
“You lack the resources to train up raw recruits, so you are going to be depending on finding experienced soldiers who also happen to be experienced divers. Not many people have such a combination of skills.”
“Maybe, but X-Com’s going to get first choice.”
“I would not count on that. National governments are setting up their own taskforces to deal with the alien problem. They will not allow these taskforces to be headhunted by X-Com. To be blunt, they do not think you can ever do more than mount guerrilla operations against the aliens. X-Com was only reinstated to keep the public happy. Half the UN is looking for a chance to shut you down.
“If you are serious about recruiting more soldiers, you will have to get involved with the mercenary scene. I have thirty years of experience as a mercenary soldier, and I have many useful contacts across the world.”
“Mercenaries?” she asked, barely able to keep the contempt out of her voice.
“Although a mercenary fights for money and not a cause, he would not dream of breaking a contract. Those that do are usually murdered by other mercenaries. And not all my contacts are mercenaries.” He noticed that she was still unenthusiastic. “My first loyalty has always been X-Com, and nobody else with that loyalty has my level of contacts. I suggest we postpone this discussion until after you have had a chance to inspect your current squad. If you do not wish to deal with me after that, I will leave and never bother you again, however I think you will. Three hundred years ago, your namesake circumnavigated the world with a crew of Chelsea Pensioners because of a bungling Admiralty, and I fear that you are facing a similar task.”
The X-Com charter gave her full authority to recruit whoever she liked, without going through official channels. Also, he was a Cydonia veteran, so surely he deserved to be given a chance. “Okay, we’ll talk later. Get yourself something to eat in the mess hall.”
Sergeant Nielsen hadn’t been able to get back to sleep after the return of the Triton. He decided to write the official letter to Goldstein’s family, informing them that he had been killed in action. He had been getting a lot of practice at this lately.
While the other squad members crashed out on their bunks, the sergeant noticed that Able Seaman Reynolds had started packing up Goldstein’s personal effects. “Get some sleep lad,” he said in a kindly tone.
“I tried on the Triton, but all I could dream about was Brian, and the guys we lost the previous time. Brian and I were at university together, and we’ve always worked together. Up until this morning when I got lucky and he didn’t. I’m not letting anyone else pack up his stuff. Even you, sarge.”
“I know what you’re going through. I went through it myself enough times when I was in the Euro Marines. Maybe you should take a holiday and then be reassigned to the lab. You’re an oceanographer, not a soldier. Fighting aliens isn’t in your job description.”
“I’m going back out there. Next time I encounter an Aquatoid, I’m going to cut its head off and nail it to the wall above Brian’s bunk.”
“I wouldn’t, that’s an external wall. You don’t want to flood us out.” Although Mark laughed, Sergeant Nielsen was worried about his mental state. The sergeant resolved to keep a close eye on him and the other surviving squad members.
The sergeant was still lost in thought when he was approached by one of the base technicians. “”We’ve got a new officer, sergeant. You’ve been ordered to get your squad on parade in Sub Pen one in, uh, 25 minutes.”
“Has he arrived already then?” asked the sergeant. He didn’t think Ferreau would be due for another day.
“It’s a woman. Said she’s our new commander. I’ve seen some icy women before, but nothing like her. I thought she was going to have me executed when I said you guys’d only just come back from a mission. If you want me, I’m going to be spending the next week hiding in the workshop with Bubbles.”
Typical, thought the sergeant. They give us a new officer to take charge and don’t think to mention it to us. Still, he was relived as this meant that there would finally be a bit of order to the base.
Commodore Anson looked in dismay at the small squad assembled in a close approximation of a parade, Sergeant Nielsen at her side. She stood before Exhibit A. “Sergeant, who the hell’s this?”
“Able Seaman Munt, ma’am.”
“He needs a haircut. Munt, do you have any previous military experience?”
“Erm, well I once dated a girl in the Logistics Corps.” One look at her steel grey eyes told Munt that his new CO didn’t have much of a sense of humour.
“I’ll take that as a no. And if I catch you joking again, you’ll get two weeks punishment duties.” She moved on to the next ‘soldier’.
“Combat engineer Milne, ma’am,” whispered the sergeant.
“Combat engineer? How much combat experience do you have?”
“What’s your callsign?”
Milne turned to the soldier next to him. “Hey, Dale. What’s a callsign?”
“I think it must be a military thing,” said the other soldier.”
“Silence on parade,” shouted Sergeant Nielsen.
The commodore felt the onset of a headache. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the rest of the inspection as it would be too depressing. “X-Com soldiers are supposed to be the best of the best, but you lot are a complete shambles. What the hell makes you think you’re good enough to defend the planet against invading aliens?
“Well, we’re not proper soldiers are we?” said one of the other soldiers.
“Quiet, Reynolds,” said the sergeant. “Save it for the mess hall.”
“Well, we aren’t. We’re mostly scientists and engineers. The bugs ambushed us when we were investigating the Hyperion sinking. Then those of us who escaped were given harpoon guns and told to go out again to die for king and country, neither of whom give a stuff about us. Now you’ve got the nerve to run us down for not being proper soldiers.”
“You are fined one week’s pay for insubordination,” shouted the commodore.
“Big deal. We haven’t actually been paid for two months now.”
“Mister, you are one inch away from being dishonourably discharged, which carries a two year prison sentence during wartime. Is that want you want?”
Mark struggled to control his temper. He would not be able to avenge Brian’s death in a military prison cell. “No.”
“Better. Okay, parade dismissed. I’ll put together a training schedule for you over the next few days.”
“Okay, you’ve got yourself a deal,” the commodore said to Ali Hussein back in her office. “I’m paying you thirty thousand US dollars per month, plus reasonable expenses. I need an additional eight soldiers within the next two weeks.”
“Thank you. Might I suggest we set up a rendezvous point for picking up the recruits I find? I happen to know a small bed and breakfast lodging in Pembroke. The owner used to be in the SAS, so he will understand the need for secrecy. I suggest you place a permanent booking on two of the room. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a great deal to do before I leave the base.”
Sergeant Nielsen entered the office shortly after Ali left. “You were a bit hard on Reynolds weren’t you ma’am? Fining him and bawling him out like that?”
“I had no other choice; he had just disobeyed two direct orders to remain quiet.”
“Well, I think you should cut him a little slack. Maybe you didn’t know this, but his best friend was killed in action this morning.”
Way to go Lizzie. Maybe you could see if anybody has a pet kitten you can kick around. “I… I didn’t know. But there has to be discipline or we won’t stand a chance against the aliens.”
“I understand. I’ll talk to him and smooth things over.”
She nodded her thanks. “Let me tell you something about the last war. The first time X-Com lost an aircraft, it was down to negligence and not enemy action. Two pilots took their interceptors up on an unauthorised training exercise. They then tried to outdo each other in stupid macho stunts to show off their flying abilities. One of the interceptors crashed, and the pilot was very fortunate to escape with only minor injuries. The base commander at the time seemed to think that only the most minor reprimand was called for. I don’t even know who the pilots were because he didn’t think to make a note in their files.
“A soldier managed to break the security codes and gain access to off-limits areas of the base. His careless prodding caused a potentially fatal lab accident. Another two squad members found time to have a punch up, and most of them attended a drunken party. In each case, either the commander decided that this was acceptable conduct or he didn’t know what was going on.
“All these incidents occurred before X-Com first engaged the enemy. With that kind of rampant indiscipline, it’s a wonder that any of that rabble survived the first month. Anybody at this base who behaves in such a reckless manner is going to be keelhauled and then kicked off the project.
“Concerning the subject of alcohol, I am well aware of the New Year party. I am not going to impose a total ban on alcohol, but anybody who cannot do his job properly because he is the worse for wear is going to end up with worse things wrong with him than a hangover. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly ma’am. I’ll inform the rest of the squad.”
“Okay, now perhaps you would like to tell me why you hold the rank of sergeant. An army rank in a naval organisation.”
“I was a sergeant in the Euro Marines before I joined SORESO. They said I could keep my old rank.”
“That won’t do, you need a navy rank. I’m making you a leading seaman. I’m going to need an ensign when the new recruits arrive, so I’ll consider you if you do a good job.”
Leading Seaman Nielsen was delighted when he left the office. Finally a bit of organisation! He wasn’t sure about the Ensign bit though; he didn’t want to become a Rupert at his time of life.
After Nielsen left, Commodore Anson busied herself with reading the reports that had been sent to her computer. There was a particularly disturbing report about the new head scientist that had been forced on her. As if reading the report had called him up like some malevolent spirit, one of his assistants opened her door, and the wheelchair bound scientist entered the room. Anybody else would have knocked first.
“Commodore, I would like to complain about the poorly trained chimpanzees you assigned to help unload my lab equipment. When one of my assistants writes “this side up” and “fragile, handle with care” on a box, he does so for a reason. I designed and built a lot of my equipment, and it could set me back months if any of it is broken.
“And another thing, the laboratory you have assigned me is rather cramped. Do you think I have Sectoids for assistants? How long will…”
“SHUT UP!” roared Commodore Anson.
It had been so long since anybody had dared to talk to Zager in that way that he did so out of shock, but not for long. “Perhaps you are unaware of whom…”
“I TOLD YOU TO SHUT UP!” She had long grown used to the fact that as a petite blonde, now dyed, naval officer, her male colleges had difficulty taking her seriously until she had crushed a few egos. She certainly wasn’t going to take any crap off a scientist who behaved like a petulant child, no matter how brilliant a mind he might have. He looked like a freak with those purple eyes anyway. “Now listen up, because you’re only getting the one warning. I know about your illegal and unethical experiments and how you use your psionic ability to mess up people’s minds, even if you don't always intend to. I don’t care how good a scientist you are, if you pull any stunts like that here, I will personally throw you and your lapdogs off the base. And that means you won’t get your sticky hands on the latest alien technology, which is probably the only reason why you signed up. The only way you are going to get near a single piece of alien technology is if I personally approve it.
"And I have received a report about your confrontration with Brown earlier today. Whatever past there is between you, put it aside for the good of the project. I cannot have playground bickering among my senior staff, and I will be telling hm the same thing when I visit the workshop."
In his younger days, Zager might have demanded that the UN replace her, but they would have just found an even stupider career officer as a replacement. When he had insisted on rejoining X-Com, he had accepted that he would have to put up with some hotshot officer as his nominal superior as a necessary evil; he just hoped that she wouldn’t start getting ideas about interfering with his lab work.