Two men, the signs of age beginning to show--a bald patch on one, a shallow network of wrinkles on the other--yet somehow young. Both wear suits, conservative in trim yet subtly expensive; quality clothes. One stands in the glass doorway of the multinational business he founded, the other before an elegant luxury automobile of his own. These men are rich, but not only in material wealth.
They shake. Both are right-handed. Both wear tattoos on their right hands; one is an X over a blue circle. . .
"Squadder Jeff Patterson," smiles the visitor.
The other wears the astronomical sign of Mars.
"Sergeant Jack Rawlings. Please come in; I've been expecting you."
They walk into the building's lobby. On the far wall, in ten foot high gold lettering are the words: RAWLINGS SECURITY. There are men and women here; they pause in their tasks and nod to their boss. He is short, wears scars over his cheek, eyes, and the crown of his head--he keeps his hair cropped very short--and lacks much of one ear. But he is not ugly, if only for the fact that he is very rich.
"Nice place you've built," praises Patterson. He carries a briefcase. The guards at the elevator do not take him aside and examine it.
"Beats wasting away at the VA," replies Rawlings. He is melancholic. "But don't think that I came up with the capital myself--no, I have to thank a lot of the guys back at Kansai for that. . ."
"Only thing to do, only thing to do," answers Patterson. It was the same at his base.
Due to the large number of soldiers without close relatives or civilian love interests, the majority of XCOM personnel willed their back pay to the best friends they had ever had--their squadmates, officers, and subordinates.
Those who survived became very, very wealthy.
Rawlings and Patterson step into the elevator.
"I read Crusade," mentions Rawlings. "Best damn book written on the topic, and that's including Bob's."
"Thanks, but Flannery's book is very spiritual."
"Bob wasn't a normal dogface like us. He only saw a little ground action--he was a flyboy. I think you book covers the ground combat aspect, the only one which mattered, far better than anyone else, especially all these civilian authors."
Patterson blushes slightly. He is modest.
The door opens and the two walk out, through a large floor divided into dozens of work areas; hundreds of employees scramble about, receiving or filling orders of all types. They do not stop their work in the presence of Rawlings.
"Business good?" inquires Patterson.
"The business of providing protection to the world is always good," smiles Rawlings. He has changed.
"Ten thousand rounds standard nine-millimeter ammunition?" asks a nearby clerk into his headset. "I don't care if we have to buy from those guys! Get me those crates!"
Patterson nods, as if in thought. He has changed also.
The two men arrive in a small conference room. Rawlings offers Patterson a chair and sits nearby.
"So, I assume that you're working on another documention."
"That I am."
Rawlings nods in agreement. Patterson hauls out a personal computer. He opens its screen and touches a RECORD button on its screen.
"If you don't mind," he asks.
"Certainly not," replies Rawlings. "But first I have some questions of my own."
"Why did you decide to do this-" the businessman waves his hand at the computer. "Normally, that's the job of civilians--not that I think you shouldn't, I certainly hope I made my appreciation clear- "
Patterson smiles. He gets this question often.
"Well, as you may or may not know, I got my leg blown off in the second landing I participated in--sometime around oh two. That was when the bugs first came out with those damn heavy plasmas."
"I happened to like those heavy plasmas," chuckles Rawlings.
Patterson shrugs. "Yeah, I guess they were decent for nailing bugs. But they were just as good at punching through light armor. And I lost a leg to one."
Patterson taps his right calf. It sounds metallic.
Rawlings raises an eyebrow and taps his right shoulder. It makes no unusual noise.
It is Patterson's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"Nanotech. New biotech company--taking advantage of the UN's drop of the cloning ban. I suggest you get some money on that pony."
Rawlings hands Patterson a business card. The author runs its metallic strip through his laptop's magnetic reader and hands it back.
"Anyway, I spent the rest of the war on my back in a ward. Not very exciting, but I did get to thinking, which has always been a vice of mine, that perhaps I should write down everything I remember from the war. So, I wrote quite a bit, and managed to get Crusade published right after Cydonia."
Rawlings looks away.
"Cydonia," he mutters.
Patterson is silent for a moment.
"I didn't mean to start off on that subject; I know you lost a good commander there-"
"A good commander? Hell, he won the damn war."
Patterson doesn't argue with Rawlings.
"I'm going back there, some day, when the lab rats get a decent replica of an Avenger running. Personally, I can't see why they haven't already."
"Military," answers Patterson.
"Bah, military shmilitary. Okano and his boys built one of the damn things--from scratch--in less than a month. Or was it a Donner? I forget."
"Well, before you forget it all, I'd like to get what you do remember. . ."
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.
Rawlings closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, relaxing utterly. The astoundingly tremendous roar that had permeated his entire essence, the mind-numbing soul-shaking calamity of the takeoff, slowly receded from his pores, and another sensation crept up within his veins.
His body tugged upwards, outwards, against the webbing of his flight harness. Far away, other soldiers swore and cursed at the nauseating unfamiliarity of zero gravity.
"Beecroft's puked, sir!" yelled someone.
"Secure it then," replied the nearby officer, the still-sore man who'd been peeled from a Korean hillside.
The Avenging Angel was warm inside, lacking a truly efficient heat dissipater. That would've been installed next week.
At least the techs had the sense to build nutrient tubes into the ship. Rawlings sucked on an artificial teat, drawing a faintly sweet electrolyte-heavy solution into his mouth. There would be no true meals aboard this last mission--only the fluid tubes. Anything else would be too messy.
And the catheters, thought Rawlings.
The soldiers were packed in like sardines, all twenty men and four women. Packed into environmental suits and armor, strapped into belts and harnesses and webbing, thin transparent tubes duct taped up to their mouthes; embryos. Only one flitted about--Bob.
Rawlings opened his eyes to an odd whirring. The airtech hovered nearby, sucking up the random remnants of Beecroft's breakfast with a hand-held vacuum cleaner.
"...into your helmet next time. Sergeant Merlis needs all the help he can get up in the cockpit," finished the pilot. He shut off the device, tossed it to Sakurai, and swam off to the fore of the Avenger, a sense of grim enjoyment about the man.
Sakurai looked across the narrow aisle to Rawlings. The two sat at the fore of the ship's cargo compartment, where it narrowed into the thin bottleneck of the cockpit and the commander's chair. Aft of them, the better part of two assault teams shifted about, still acquainting themselves with their very noticeable loss of direction.
The bodyguard lazily examined the opposite man's irises, dancing his way around the twin brown circles and consciously avoiding contact with his pupils.
The Japanese officer closed his eyes abruptly, their twin lids snapping down like the shades of a voyeur's apartment. Only then did Rawlings notice the thin, bloody headband tying back the captain's thinning black hair--a crimson blot in its center, lesser smears to both sides. Dirt, grease, blood.
Lacking a teeming, textured countenance such as his own, the little sergeant quickly grew bored searching the sleeping officer's face for any sign of emotion. He was acting strange before the Pusan assault, thought the bodyguard... now he doesn't speak at all.
Instinctively sucking on the thin nutrient tube at the corner of his mouth, Sakurai proceeded to snore lightly. A light plastic band strapped across the top of his nose insured that it would get no worse.
There were other faces to look over, other stories to be read, but the small man, a jagged scar down his left cheek, was relaxed. Unlike the rookies with their sick eagerness to prove themselves in battle or the perhaps worse fatalism of the veterans--"Let's have at it and get this over with," he'd heard one say--the bodyguard was utterly limpid in mind and body, wanting neither to rush headlong into the battle or procrastinate feverishly. Events would happen as they would, and mind and body rested. Both would be savagely tried all-to-soon, and he had no desire to expend himself on the flight in.
Beecroft, Kates, Suko, Tripp and Merlis.
Nevada Base is no more than a smeared patch of radiation-tainted dust, but thank God for these five. Blasted their way out of a spare hangar with in this nearly-completed Avenging Angel. Third of the series, most heavily armed and armored of the lot. If we'd had the time, I would've wanted the hyperwave jammers and the other evasion gear installed... if we'd had the time.
Schancer turned around his cocoon-like command chair, spotting four of the five survivors sitting in the far aft of the Avenger. They were tested combat veterans with above-average psi resistance ratings. They had worked together in a squad for the last year.
They would have gone in the planned assault.
But that's not happening any time soon, winced Schancer, looking over the leftovers of the 12 August massacre. Each large base, with heavy air traffic, had been assaulted and eradicated by the bugs. Some had been overwhelmed immediately; Kansai and Queensland had fallen in a heartbeat. Some had resisted for hours...
"-SUISE BASE REQUESTING REINFORCEMENTS. DOWN TO THREE SQUADS, CAN NOT HOLD FOR LONG-"
The message, beseeching help, had burst onto the Ubercommander's PDA just as Bob had finished preflight.
He'd deleted it immediately.
Castro, Rubing, Sardy, Schiffman and Marcussen.
The other five who'd escaped aboard the Avenging Angel.
Minds can only control other minds; they cannot physically influence the laws of physics except by altering the perception of other minds.
Try as they might, Schancer bitterly thought, a top-notch psi like Marcussen can't so much stop a bird's feather from falling into the mud as stop a fusion missile from blasting Commander Vukovic to entrail-smeared alloy ribbons.
Gonzales, Gunn, Draher and Wilkes.
But Wilkes might have been able to.
Bundled up in his powersuit just like any other trooper, the dread psi was sleeping, his head held in place by a thick foam neck brace. Prematurely aged skin fell in wrinkles from his pale, sunlight- starved cheeks, bruised in bright purple and blue welts across his face. The left side of his face was a smear of eyebrow, cheek and jowel, the skin dead in places, black and flaking.
He is dying. Even now, he can barely stand in his power armor; his muscles are melting away, his organs shrivelling up and shutting off...
We could have saved him, thought Schancer. The source of his tremendous power must have lay within the thick knot of cancerous cells eating away at the inside of his skull; the psi training merely expedited their growth. Navarro knew it months ago; but the price of victory in this war was so dear...
Gonzales, Gunn and Gunn were the skeleton crew of the new Azteca Base. Wilkes had also been stationed there, away from Nevada Base's experiments in psionic disruption shields. He said that they were giving him migraines. The four couldn't do anything but watch as that base had been stormed.
Airtech Flannery, Sakurai, Takahashi, Rawlings, Rokkaru and his four rookies completed the roster. The scraps of XCOM Orient.
The scraps of XCOM, period.
The bases had not been the only targets of the massacre. As clever as the aliens were, they had found another, weaker link in the chain that defended Earth.
They'd killed the Council of Funding Nations.
Oh, they hadn't done the deeds themselves, sighed Schancer resignedly. The governments which had kept up the ruse of supporting XCOM were actually quite infested themselves... and humans were now killing humans. Humans, like the Councilman of the United States...
Schancer swiveled his chair away from the snoozing mass of assault troopers, dropping his head and crushing shut his eyes. The price of victory was dear, indeed.
Rawlings slept. What else was there to do?
Sakurai pried open an eye. The ugly American across from him was asleep, twitching every so often. The Japanese captain peered at the bodyguard's actions; Rawlings strained his harness, seeking to lunge out of his seat. Twisting, flexing his powered down armor.
Sakurai closed his eyes and sipped on his straw.
So this was it.
THIS IS NOT 'IT'.
There is only one voice like that, thought Sakurai.
THERE IS TOO MUCH LEFT UNDONE.
Such as? asked the captain. He shifted in his chair, bits of burnt Korean grass still caught in his armor's joints flaking away.
WE WILL DEFEAT THE ALIENS. IF NOT THIS MISSION, OTHERS WILL. THE ALIENS HAVE A VERY, VERY WEAK GRASP UPON OUR EARTH. THEY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN VULNERABLE IN THAT THEY ARE ALIENS, AND NOT OF THIS PLANET. AND THEY WILL CONTINUE TO BE SO, AND WE WILL CONTINUE TO DEFEAT THEM AT EVERY TURN.
So optimistic, chided Sakurai before he could filter his thoughts.
IT IS SO. THEY HAVE TOLD ME THUS.
Just like they 'told' you the location of their invasion base?
I AM NOT ONE TO EXPLAIN MY METHODS OF EXTRACTING SUCH INFORMATION.
Hmm. So what's next?
WE MUST EMULATE THE ALIENS. WE MUST BECOME ONE, FOR UNTIL WE DO, THE ALIENS WILL CONTINUE TO ATTEMPT OUR SUBVERSION.
The captain sneered, How do we become "one?"
ONE PLANET. ONE PEOPLE.
A voice cried out "Communist!" from within Sakurai's mind.
A deep, hearty laugh from somewhere in the Japanese's past answered him.
WHEN THE ONES THAT SPEAK OF DEATH FIRST PROBED US WITH THEIR MINDS, THEY WERE UTTERLY ASTOUNDED THAT SUCH A BOUNTIFUL PLANET, SO RIPE WITH RESOURCES AND LIFE, COULD BE POPULATED BY SO MANY WARRING FACTIONS. THEY ARE FROM A BARREN, LIFELESS PLACE FAR DISTANT, AND FROM THE BEGINNING OF THEIR TIME, THEY HAVE HAD TO WORK TOGETHER TO BARELY SURVIVE. EVERY SPECIES, AND THERE WERE FEW, HAD ITS PLACE IN THEIR STRUGGLE. THEY TREASURED WHAT THEY HAD...
AND SO THEY WERE UNPREPARED FOR SUCH A LAWLESS PARADISE AS OUR EARTH. ONE SPECIES, UTTERLY DOMINATING THE MULTITUDES INTO EXTINCTION, ALREADY REARING ITS COLLECTIVE HEAD TOWARDS THE STARS... WE WERE SEEN AS VIOLENT, DESTRUCTIVE--INSANE--A THREAT TO ALL LIFE, NOT JUST OF THE EARTH, BUT OF THE UNIVERSE.
WE ARE THE RABID DOG. THE ONES THAT SPEAK OF DEATH WERE COMMANDED TO DESTROY US BEFORE WE COULD ANIHILLATE THIS PLANET, THIS UNIVERSE.
And so they will continue trying to crush us into submission?
THEY COULD ONLY ADOPT OUR METHODS OF TOTAL WARFARE. WE ARE NOT WORTH TEACHING, TO BE EDUCATED IN THE WAYS OF THE UNIVERSE LIKE THE OTHER SPECIES SPAWNED SO LONG AGO. WE ARE TO BE EXTERMINATED.
So, thought Sakurai, there is only one option--crush them again and again and again.
NO, THERE IS ANOTHER, BUT WE WILL NOT CHOOSE IT.
There cannot be a choice without options.
IF WE HALT OUR DESTRUCTIVE MANNERS, WE WILL BE LEFT ALONE.
Lies, lies, lies, Sakurai screamed out. They descended out of the night sky over Tokyo, killing hundreds! And before, at Osaka, they killed thousands! Those were not the ways of a... teacher! It was murder, all of it, and we fly now to your 'Cydonia' to avenge those deaths by excising the Invader's cancer from our Solar System!
AND THAT IS WHY THIS WILL CONTINUE. THAT WHICH IS UNDONE SHALL REMAIN UNDONE. YOU ARE RIGHT. THIS IS IT.
Sakurai waited a long moment for more, but it was evident that Wilkes was through.
The captain opened his eyes and craned his neck towards the aft of the Avenging Angel.
Wilkes lay in his seat as before, asleep to unknowing eyes.
"There is only one voice like that," he muttered--in Japanese, of course.
Bob looked over the one hundred and eighty degree viewing screen of the pilot's station.
Far distant, shining with light reflected from the sun, was the fateful destination of the Lucifer.
I do not like this ship, he frowned.
The countermeasures suite isn't installed, the visual screens are too unreliable in rough conditions, and to top off all the little, annoying quirks of this bird is that damned name.
Lucifer, the techs had called it. Deep black armor plate, curved and velvet smooth unlike the awkward grey angles of the Gabriel; silent as death itself, unlike the Daniel with its oversize E-115 engines and its secondary thrusters; fast as mercury...
Blasted, smoldering Gabriel, burnt into the tarmac in the wreckage of Lakota Base--just a memory now. Daniel, no more than a dozen acres of cropped Appalachian hillside welted by the plasma beams of two alien battleships. Of the three, it had to be Lucifer, the Fallen One, who had been bestowed the awful honor of bearing in the Cydonia assault.
Lucifer. Since when had XCOM sunk to naming its flagships after Satan?
Bob looked down to the white cross painted over his pitted armor suit.
Going to take more than a few Hail Marys to explain this one.
The airtech looked up again. The so distant star was slowly growing larger. Soon, it would expand to fill the whole screen, and it would be time for Merlis to wake up. Provided that the two could get the bird down in one piece, they'd be relegated to running point for the psis.
Bob felt the plasma rifle tied down beside him.
This is NOT it, he said, repeating words from an overheard conversation.
Rawlings propped open an eye, twisting it around, searching for the source of the sound.
"Sergeant," repeated the voice.
The bodyguard peered across the narrow aisle.
"Sergeant?" asked Sakurai for confirmation.
Rawlings stared at him blankly.
Motioning at the ovoid profile of the commander's perch, the Japanese man asked, "Would you really die for him?"
The sergeant blinked momentarily, considering the question.
"Wouldn't we all, sir?" Rawlings replied.
Sakurai frowned, unsure of how to continue. The bodyguard didn't press him on the matter.
He leaned towards the captain, his thick chest armor tugging at the straps which held him down.
"The bossman has led me for upwards of fourty months; you, more than fifteen. I don't see how you, or anybody who has served under him, could not help but sacrifice themselves to save him."
"Just why is that?" retorted Sakurai.
Rawlings' brow darkened, and the captain noticeable blanched.
"This is the military. I can't believe I'm hearing this."
Sakurai looked down.
"No, this is not the military," he spoke, half expecting the little American across from him to reach over and crush his throat.
An armored gauntlet patted him on the shoulder.
The Japanese captain didn't look up.
"We ceased being 'The Military,' I think, after Dallas--just after I joined. After we realized that the bugs weren't just after us, and I mean us, the guys with guns, but that they wanted everything dead or mind controlled or twisted into something more and less than human. That's when we really changed from just a detachment of government employees on loan to the United Nations to something else... just a little tribe of people, watching out for each other."
Sakurai smirked. "You think too much for an American."
"And you're too insubordinate for a Japanese."
The two soldiers sat there, as a twinkle in the dead black night blossomed into a distant planet, thinking.
"As for whether I would die for Commander Schancer... I still would. He's the strongest man I know. All we have to do is shoot bugs and bury our buddies--he has to find enough spare change between the couch pillows to keep this show running. Kowtowing to the bureaucracies of ten nations is not an easy task or one resulting in a gratifying release of stress, such as gutting a grey."
Rawlings reverently looked up at the sleeping shape of the commander.
"The boss sent Mrs. Schancer to D.C. to secure adequate funding for the completion of the Lakota and Azteca bases."
The bodyguard stared back at Sakurai.
"He sent his wife! Anybody else might regard that as bordering on cowardice, but I think that everyone in the... everyone from Kansai knows how much he loves Carrie; it's killing him to risk her like that."
Sakurai met the American's gaze. Slowly looking through the commander's seat to the deep red blot of red that quickly rushed up to fill the Lucifer's forward monitors, the captain nodded, taking his time.
Bob unstrapped himself, drifted over to Schancer, and awakened the man.
Leaning around the big seat, the airtech announced, "ETA one hour."
In lethargic motions, the aftmost troopers rubbed the sleep from their eyes and peeled the thin plastic tubes from their armor. Clutching the seats before them, they unbuckled and reached up into the low ceiling compartments.
Belts and bandoliers went on, dozens upon dozens of clips on the assault troopers, mixed with the mandatory medikit and grenades. Tripp slung a small laser pistol onto his belt. Nobody asked how he'd acquired non-standard weapon. As the wave of action slowly rolled forewards, other illicit weapons were fished out of the compartments. Laser rifles with small E-115 batteries built in. Nine millimeter pistols. Plasma sidearms. Nobody would go down without a fight.
Plasma. Only plasma. The bulky, but profoundly effective, heavy plasmas found their way into the hands of the assault troopers. Rolls of duct tape were flung about; soldiers paired clips together, flipping one upside down. Fast reloads. The weapons were inspected, deemed operational, and stowed again.
The psis pasted on their neural nets, thin wires snaking over their shaved cerebrums, every jellied contact memorized from thousands of hours in the grueling psi gyms of Nevada Base. Marcussen applied Wilkes' net.
I LIKE THE FEEL, half-joked the nearly paralyzed psi.
Everybody knew that he didn't need it.
Two of the psionics specialists, still rather unsure of their abilities, strapped on plasma pistols.
Then helmets, and it was the next guy's turn.
Rawlings time came after what seemed like an eternity. He pulled off the harness and immediately pulled on the tools of his trade. Two bug fragmentation grenades, six terran projectile grenades, three doubled clips for his heavy plasma, a portable medikit for good luck, and his ever-useful plasma pistol with three reloads for the alternative possibility.
The bodyguard ran his fingers over the tarnished chrome lettering on his plasma. FAITH. The sight, a rectangular shotgun-style type, was still true. The grenade launcher's bore was clean. The balance wasn't quite right, but it would be soon.
Rawlings eyed the weapon's cartridges before replacing the plasma.
The thin commander sauntered his way down the officers' quarters' hallway, his long, lean legs carrying him towards the communications room faster than he desired. Spotting his bodyguard, the man altered his bearing.
"Hello, Jack. Everything normal topside?"
"Yessir," responded the unnaturally short sergeant, sword still dangling from his back. "But it's far from that down here."
The Ubercommander raised an eyebrow.
"Did you see Sakurai? I nearly ran into the captain--I was checking out the work at the far end of-"
"Captain Sakurai?" asked the Southerner, remembering his reasons for avoiding the radar room.
"Yeah, he was right outside of your quarters when the alarms went off."
The commander paused for a moment, striving to recall something.
"He must have desired to speak with me," the officer mumbled.
"Well, he'll get his chance on the main screen. His 'Ranger has got to be on final descent," offered Rawlings.
"Hmm." The commander looked away, signalling the end of the conversation. As the bodyguard trotted off, he too resumed his path.
The 'Ranger's ramp touched down, the soldiers within piled out, and absolutely nothing happened.
"Where is that damn ship?" muttered Suzuki, scanning the desolate Korean landscape. Treeless hills rolled away in every direction, only a few minor roads far in the distance.
"Fan out," Sakurai responded, his order already completed. His eleven soldiers, all veterans of the horrific base assault, jogged away from the landing zone and up the nearest rise. Only Sergeant Suzuki and four others were original Fourth Kansai troops; the rest were assorted odds and ends, a collection of the disenfranchised.
I will kill him, thought the captain, scanning the hills. A roasting noon sky devoid of clouds looked overhead; in the background, Sakurai barely heard the roar of the 'Ranger's liftoff.
"Where the fuck are they?" asked the first soldier to the top of the rise. Adjusting a faceplace built to magnify ambient light rather than restrict it, the squaddie examined the empty land.
Japan demands it, repeated Sakurai, the mantra burned into his mind.
"Sir, are you sure we set down at the right place?" inquired Suzuki, also looking out across the wasteland.
A thin plasma beam lanced out from behind a nearby hill, striking the ascending 'Ranger. The ship wobbled, still intact.
"Yes," replied the captain, diving into the long grass.
The transport dropped a hundred meters, either taking evasive action or crashing or both.
A fusion missile arced up into the sun before screaming down into the crown of the Fourth Kansai's hill.
And the nightmare began.
"Ambush. Ambush," the bloody Japanese sergeant repeated, his helmet camera view displaying only frantic glances, desperately searching for a hidden enemy.
"Davidson, armor up anyone who can drive a powersuit," ordered Schancer, swivelling around in his chair.
"Yes sir!" yelled the captain, sprinting from his perch by the radar room doorway.
More guided bombs pelted the Fourth, shredding men when finding their targets, geysering great truckloads of dirt and grass when not.
"Is that me?" asked his ever-present bodyguard.
The commander tipped his head.
The short man loped off.
Bring 'em back alive, prayed Schancer. Tired eyes watching the final destruction of XCOM's Japanese recruits, the commander winced with every crushing blow of the missiles.
Custer, rang the word. Custer.
"GOD," yelped a squaddie, his chest armor seething with burns. Screaming, the soldier staggered to his feet.
The Ubercommander watched through Sakurai's helmet, grunting with real pain as plasma bolts cut the man down.
"When... ?" whispered the Japanese captain, his voice eerily loud against the twisted background of screams and explosions.
"Sir! Sir!" shouted a datatech.
"They're on the way," yelled Schancer, to the projection screen, to the techs, to the condemned man with ears deafened by blasts.
"Sir," repeated the tech, his face pale.
"What?" snapped the commander, his face livid.
"Sir," the computer jockey pointing to the hyperwave decrypter readout.
A bomb landed on Suzuki, instantly reducing his view to a snowstorm of static.
"What the hell is your problem?" bellowed Schancer.
Shaking with fear, the tech muttered, "Two battleships. Very low and very fast over the Philippines. Coming straight as an arrow for us."
Blood slowly draining from his face, the commander slumped lower in his chair.
He flipped open the intercom on his armrest.
"Mike, nix that takeoff order. We have a base raid in-bound. Base raid."
Schancer closed his eyes, the gurgles of an eviscerated soldier flooding his senses.
He touched the intercom again.
"Base raid. All secondaries, prep for raid. All engineers, prep for evac."
"No time sir. The ships are here in five minutes."
The commander sighed.
"All non-combat personnel, assume raid positions in the engineering wing. You have five minutes."
Datatechs flinging down their headsets, a squad of beefy secondaries stomped in and surrounded the commander.
"Sir, we've got to move you to a suitable combat command position-"
Eyes closed, breathing deeply, the haggard American straightened his back.
"First off, I want everyone inside or on the road. Release the surface patrol, get them out of here. Next, all the chop and mop teams at the lift. Weld the doors shut; they're going to take a beating. Two security teams at the combat prep room. Plasma weapons only, and respirators for everybody. This cave is going to get hammered bad, and with all the smoke, the lasers aren't going to be effective. Rig claymores everywhere; wire 'em to the prox mines. And I don't want anybody but soldiers in the combat zone! All engineers, techs, cooks in the factory."
The surface defenses opened up and were immediately echoed by the alien's weaponry. The room already shaking with concussions, Schancer slowly flicked the intercom off.
"Get me my armor," he muttered.
Screaming by at mach three, the Blitzen pumped a burst of plasma into the battlewagon's side. Huge flaming chunks of alloy armor flaked off at every hit, the sky dark with smoke.
"Looks like the first one has set down," mouthed Will to nobody in particular. A sizzling beam of superheated particles grazed his fighter, and he sent it scrambling to evade the second shot.
"Defense towers were taken out after two shots," he continued, weaving his way down to the Kansai valleys. "Looks like the hangars have been breached, too."
The small terran UFO shook violently, spinning hard to the left. Will winced and pulled the ship under control, flashing off a few shots at the still flying battleship.
A glance at HUD confirmed his suspicions--the Blitzen's left plasma cannon was disabled.
The SDF will get some boys up here in time, lied the airtech. No, no they won't. It's over now.
A fusion missile detonated aft of the fighter, confirming the presence of alien ground units.
Looping around, Will flashed off a few desultory shots at the landed battleship. Smoke was already pouring out of Kansai Base's three hangars, thick soot-black clouds. Another beam lanced into the mauled Blitzen.
The airtech tugged at his controls. Ever so slowly, too slowly, the Blitzen yawed to the left.
Saddened, knowing that he would never see Mars, Will muttered, "Twelve August two thousand and seven. Unlimited ceiling and hundred kilometer plus visibility."
Shrieking madly, a missile slammed into the mortally wounded ship.
"Kansai Base has fallen."
Will touched a small toggle switch and the Blitzen belched out one of its flight recorders. Flipping up his visor, the airtech yanked back on the fighter's stick, aiming its ragged shape at the nearly visible stars.
Beams were crashing into the sorry little ship now with the crushing regularity of waves against a rocky shore. One ripped through the remaining cannon, a bleeding, blistering hole in the ship's right side. Dripping only sparks, for combustable oxygen is rare at that altitude, the Blitzen continued its maddening ascent, beams sparkling by.
Finally, a shot straight from the UFO's main armament tore through the fighter's grav drive, cleanly gutting the cockpit atop it.
And the greens came.
A tremendous flash caught three members of the chop & mop team, pitching them aside and busting through from the access lift.
"Davidson, get the boss into engineering," ordered Rawlings, diving behind a low couch. Someone screamed in Japanese, and another fusion missile went off, flash roasting the sergeant's cover.
God, thought Rawlings, looking up. He lay alone in the open, the only soldier between the access lift and the rest of the main hall. A green poked its head through the doorway, and he shot it.
"PULL BACK!" Hirsch was shouting, dragging a wounded Davidson through the thin haze of smoke and fear that was flooding Kansai Base. Plasma was flying everywhere; a secondary, covering the sergeant's withdrawal, flipped backwards, his chest blown open.
Where the fuck's the commander? wondered Rawlings, lunging for cover as a squad of greens walked right into the prox grenade he'd left for them. The lead bug ate most of the blast, his legs useless ribbons of smoking flesh.
"Where's the boss?" yelled the bodyguard, firing at the invaders. He shouted again, "Where's Commander Schancer?" but everybody seemed to be screaming or moaning or shooting and even the private space inside his helmet was flooded with the din of battle.
"PULL BACK! PULL BACK!" bellowed Hirsch, like some sort of stricken cow. Davidson, somewhat conscious, shot a crab off of a secondary. A grenade blossomed, shredding the Japanese soldier.
Then Takahashi and someone else scrambled past Rawlings, a claymore flooding the air with ball bearings. Two greens went down, their faces pocked with bleeding holes.
"I'm here, Jack. Let's move!"
Rawlings pumped a grenade into the next bug out of the access lift, filling the air with gristle and bloody mist.
A fusion missile cut its way over the bodyguard and into the cafeteria of the base. Its sickening detonation brought down the ceiling.
"Move, dammit!" yelled Schancer, a plasma pistol in his hand.
"GO GO GO!" shouted Hirsch, still holding the big black captain's arm over his shoulder and firing at the bugs coming from the combat prep room. A group of techs sprinted from across the hall, from the communications room. One took a plasma hit in the leg and went down. Another stopped to help him and got his head blown off.
Hirsch covered the men as they started down the long, straight passage to the engineering wing. Rawlings, Takahashi, and the commander staggered over, plasma flying everywhere, the pipes and wiring spilling out from the ceiling like the intestines of a gored horse.
"Go," yelled Rawlings, pointing to the wounded Davidson. Hirsch nodded, limping off with the captain in tow.
The bodyguard and the Japanese and commander bedded down, hugging the smoldering floor as a few more greens tried their luck. A bolt munched on Rawlings' shoulder armor, but that alien took a shot in the groin for his effort.
A moment passed. No more bugs.
The tiled floor of the main hall was thick with the dead. Heaped in corners, behind chairs, or just lying, lifeless and alone, in the center of the burnt, bloody floor. And the blood was everywhere. Thick swashes of crimson, smeared across the walls, syrupy yellow alien blood pooling up around the access lift and the combat prep room entrances, everywhere.
Rawlings checked his ammunition supply. Tossing aside a half-empty cartridge, he plucked a pair of clips from the sad dead mess of a secondary.
"Think they're... ?" asked Takahashi.
"No," replied Schancer and Rawlings at the same time.
Schancer coughed. The two soldiers in power armor glanced at him anxiously. The commander pulled on his respirator and took a long pull.
The smoke was thinning, ever so slightly.
A heavy thud shook the passageway behind them. Rawlings looked back.
"Nanda?" muttered Takahashi.
Another impact shook the floor and sent a few loose tiles fluttering from the ceiling.
A trickle of cold sweat ran down the side of Schancer's nose.
Fourty meters down the passage, roughly two thirds the way to the engineering wing, the wall erupted.
Even before the heavy concrete debris was done collapsing into the hallway the bugs were pouring through. Rawlings swung Faith over, burping out a grenade. It slowly sailed down the length of the passage, its momentum almost spent when it tapped the shoulder of a green and tacked its internals onto the ceiling.
More aliens swarmed out of the wound in the wall.
Far away, on the other side of the growing mob, Hirsch frowned behind his helmet. A pair of plasma bolts caught him low in the stomach.
Rawlings roared, loosing a clip into the greens. Shrieking, a half dozen bugs turned to face their new assailant. Heavy plasmas thundered, hundreds of shots flying in the narrow passage, streaming into walls and tiles and bugs and corpses. Dozens of bolts grazed Rawlings. Red. Two bugs, and then another, fell to the smoldering floor.
Ducking behind the hallway entrance to reload, the bodyguard felt someone grip his shoulder armor. It crumbled away, welted and brittle.
The short man slammed home a fresh cartridge.
"Jack," Schancer repeated.
Takahashi was firing with cool precision, conserving his rounds and bringing down the greens as they piled out of the deep gash in the wall.
"Too many," the Japanese sergeant grunted, a bolt splashing off his shin plates.
"Jack, we must go."
Remembering a day so long ago when he'd set foot in this base, his home, Rawlings waited ten seconds as bug after bug stampeded towards the manufacturing plant, only two wounded soldiers standing between the screaming horde and the techs.
"To the hangars, then," he whispered, the fate of tbe base already set in concrete.
Rawlings was up instantly, pulling a hand grenade from his belt and activating it for delayed blast. Takahashi stumbled backwards, gunning down yet another green. The grenade went into the passageway; the three ran.
Staggering over dead men and aliens, over splintered furniture, over the tattered wreckage of their raped base, Schancer, Takahashi and Rawlings made for the hangars. The combat prep room was empty, its ceramic flooring torn up in a few spots, a dead green or two lingering on the tiles. Likewise, the short passage to Hangar One was devoid of hostiles.
Gazing over the violated landing bay, Rawlings spotted the metal access ladder on the far side. A Ranger, its belly torn open from plasma burns, lay in the thin trickles of sunlight filtering down from the blasted accordion doors.
Across the blackened tarmac. Up the many rungs. Over the lip of the entrance.
In Nagoya and Osaka and Tokyo and Kyoto and in every city on the Pacific Rim, the meteorologists had officially declared August twelve a beautiful day. Warm, late summer rays smiling upon the Earth. Low humidity, a light breeze. The skies were cloudless and robin's egg blue; but it was not a beautiful day.
"Follow me," grunted Rawlings, Faith clutched in one hand, sprinting down the blackened grass, into the bamboo which lay twenty meters from the hangar.
Schancer cleared the rim and did likewise.
So did Takahashi, the Japanese sergeant.
Another series of screams and plasma fire.
Hirsch struggled to keep his plasma aimed at the door. A warm sensation was flooding his lower body, as if he had wet himself. The sergeant concentrated on the metal doorway. He trembled, afraid to look down.
"I'm sick of this shit," gurgled Davidson. He was awake again, barely. A makeshift compress was plastered to his lower right chest. A bit of blood trickled from the side of the black man's mouth. Davidson was lung shot.
"Hey, it's not over yet," mumbled Hirsch, twitching as a plasma went off nearby.
"Fuck... you, Henry. The fat mother has sung," chided the other dying man.
A missile wailed by, both soldiers shivering at its passage.
"Henry, do you believe in heaven?" asked Davidson, suddenly lucid.
The standing man risked a glance backwards.
"I wish I did," he whispered.
The missile hit, its massive blast hammering the small broom closet where the two men hid.
"Don't worry," mumbled Davidson, more blood foaming from his mouth. "I'll have a chat with Saint Peter. You'll make it in."
Hirsch frowned slightly, as more explosions rumbled ominously. However, it was something else that troubled him.
"You'll make it in," sighed the African American, his body relaxing by degrees.
The sergeant snapped out of his trance and peeked back.
"Mike," he asked, "Mike? Dammit."
The captain smiled slightly, the crimson trails down his exposed face giving him the look of a ghastly clown.
"I'm sick of this shit," he barely whispered, the last essence of life seeping away.
Hirsch opened his mouth to swear, but a green ripped open the doorway and leapt in, knocking away the sergeant's plasma rifle. Struggling with the monster, Hirsch realized that it was just as surprised, and afraid, as he. Landing a fist on its face, he fell to the floor under it.
And then the explosions enveloped them, burning away all memories of the long war.
Barely three kilometers away, yet so much further, the three were thrown down by the warm, unstoppable wind that flattened everything before it. The warm wind and then the impossible second sun that ripped itself from the earth, purifying the fetid hole reeking of fear and death, erasing the two alien battleships, and shaking the land for kilometers.
Rawlings blacked out momentarily; and then covering his eyes and shrugging off the mown bamboo and willow that lay over him, he staggered up.
His ears still rang, but he became suddenly aware of someone shouting.
"The Elerium! The Elerium!" went the chant and the bodyguard opened his eyes and saw the commander kneeling on the crushed, beaten earth, staring back at the still-rising cloud.
Takahashi too stared at the sick monument to the downfall of mankind.
But Rawlings did not look. Instead, he plucked up his heavy plasma, inspected it for damage, and seeing that there was none, proceeded to reload the grenade launcher.
Schancer was crying, his respirator off and his dusty face streaked with trails of moisture. Takahashi merely sat and watched, watched the garish cloud rise upwards, until it dominated the blue sky, thin ringlets circling it.
The bodyguard, content that his weapon was fully operational, checked his ammunition supply and pulled out a thin square package. Ripping it open, he gingerly pulled the condom over the barrel of his launcher.
Glancing about, he uttered one word.
The Blackhawks were everywhere, dropping hundreds of soldiers to the burnt, scraggly grass. Long lines of them scoured the valleys, but it was not a US Marine who found him.
Visor up, helmet nearly off, the airtech sadly examined every one he found. Dead. Dead. Dead.
Bob did not cry. He merely spotted the next scorched lump of man and metal and marched over to it, already knowing.
His 'Ranger was nearby, most of its cargo hold blown open by the single plasma beam it had sustained. The crash landing had cracked his visor in half. It had also split his copilot's head.
Another dead body. He rubbed the ash from the man's nameplate. He grunted, reading the kanji. It was a woman.
"Sir," yelled the marine lieutenant, because he did not know what rank the stranger merited, "please report to one of the choppers. We still have hostiles present."
The wiry pilot looked up from the dead squaddie.
"Get a chaplain in here," he muttered, standing and stumbling over to the next corpse.
The lieutenant frowned and barked orders. Several marines jogged over and took up position discretely behind the stranger.
Bob pushed aside the dead sergeant. Suzuki, read the plate. Twenty confirmed kills, mostly greys. Ten stuns, mostly greens and snakes.
"Brave man," muttered the pilot.
The corpse underneath flexed a hand.
Bob didn't bother to glance at the soldier's rank or name.
The commander closed up his laptop, a tired, wrinkled hand pressing it shut. Leaning back in his swivel chair, Schancer closed his eyes, remembering better days.
Lazy summer days, too hot to move, just sit on the porch and wait for the hint of a breeze. Cold winters at West Point, thick heaps of snow everywhere, a stark landscape of white and black and grey. Summers again, training as a Green Beret. The months before his selection as a Delta Force agent--the seemingly pointless marching through woods and swamps, the disorienting interviews, the final joy of having been selected.
And then this war.
The tired young man frowned. How many have I lost? How many teams have I seen shot out from under me, how many people have I buried?
Schancer, dry-eyed, looked over the long hand-written list lying on his desk.
The Ubercommander stared at the horrendous cost of eradicating the China Hive.
Starting with Colonel Dillan and ending with Rookie Hashira, more soldiers had died taking the alien base than had survived.
The Southerner's eyes were red. He had already shed his tears.
God Almighty, forgive me for throwing away so many, he prayed. More men have died on my orders than this whole base has now.
The realization sickened him, turning a waste basket into an impromptu receptacle for his vomit.
Coughing and spitting out the remains of his lunch, Schancer slid from his seat onto the office floor.
Christ, I never should have become a soldier. Too damn weak.
Reaching up to his desk, the commander pulled a small, gold-framed portrait down before his eyes.
"Carrie, come back soon," he whispered.
Closing his eyes again and clutching the photo to his chest, Schancer slept again.
"I am sick of this shit," muttered Davidson.
Hirsch, half awake but sucking on a cup of coffee, nodded assent.
"I am sick of selecting, training, and educating rookies and then just watching them eat plasma two missions later. I hate this shit. The bugs don't seem to have a problem losing five hundred of their shits, but... oh, fuck this."
Henry reached over the cafeteria table and patted the captain on his back.
"Mike, it's ok. We're gonna win."
Davidson glared back.
"Colonel fucking Wilkes says he knows where the bugs are. That's fucking great! But some good it does us! We are getting a batch of rookies--read green and yellow shits--straight from the oven, and they ain't half done. If the casino lizards don't really beat the shit out of them, we are fucked."
"Nevada Base will take 'Cydonia,'" replied Hirsch, feeling the caffeine really flowing through his veins.
The captain grunted back.
Peeling a banana, Hirsch asked, "You don't think it can be done, do you?"
The big black man shook his head.
"No. Not with the head-shrinkers. They nearly killed Wilkes--and I'm betting that there'll be more than three at that place."
"But Wilkes is stronger than ever, right?"
Davidson looked across the table.
"Fuck that, Henry. Did you see the man when he left?"
Hirsch raised an eyebrow.
"What--was something wrong with him?"
"'Was something wrong with him?'" chuckled the captain, immediately sighing. "He looked pretty bad when he showed up a week ago--that sagging face of his. Fuck, when he left, they had to wheel him onto the 'Ranger! He can't walk anymore, says that he's half paralyzed."
Hirsch swore. "You think those 'Deaths' did that to him?"
Davidson grunted. "Seemed pretty ok when we scrambled from the hive. Set in right after we landed here, though."
The captain chuckled. "Yeah, we're gonna need as much help as we can get from that direction."
The sergeant across from him sat in silence, sipping coffee and thinking.
"I'm sick of this shit," repeated Davidson.
Hirsch smiled. "No, you're not. You're just pissed that Mayumi's up at Hokkaido, leaving you alone at night."
"I respect the lieutenant commander too much to do that," rebutted the captain, jabbing a finger at Hirsch.
"Mike, you wouldn't lie to your best friend, right? I mean, what's it like bedding the second-in- command?"
Davidson shot daggers at Hirsch.
"Henry, shut up. We are not like that."
"Mike, what ever happened to 'the missus wuz lookin' pretty lonesome, so ah's upt and layed her daown while's the massah wuz in da town?' You haven't done your Toby impressions since Lord knows when."
The captain's clenched fist relaxed, and his hard brown eyes softened.
"I think it's the war," he replied.
Henry lowered his eyes.
"Yeah. All that fun shit we used to pull in Bluegrass-"
"Paying off Kell, getting piss drunk and partying 'till Larsen woke up," remembered Davidson.
"Now we just drink. No partying, no nothing, just drink until we fall asleep," snorted the sergeant.
The two soldiers sat quietly in the mess hall, vaguely aware of the comings and goings of others.
"I'm sick of this shit."
In the small, parched river that flowed through the valley where Kansai Base lived, there was a huge boulder, as large as a Mack truck. Crusty lichen coated its smooth, flat top, while thick moss and more than a few ferns hung from its flanks, drinking water from the depleted river.
Atop this twenty-ton giant sat Rawlings.
Eyes closed and ears deaf to the sounds of nature, the bodyguard breathed in and out, slowly, drawing air deep into his lungs. Cross-legged, a sheathed sword sat at his bare feet. The simple, elegant, and undoubtedly deadly weapon was the sole result of a short trip to Tokyo, days after the hive raid. Purchased from a private collector's stock, the sword was quite the museum piece when compared to the wicked plasma pistol Rawlings had carried under his suit as protection.
True, the katana was at least four centuries old and Rawlings held no fantasies of utilizing the weapon against an invader, but it seemed a most appropriate possession considering his duties. Hideously expensive, it had cost him a year's pay; but considering the fringe benefits of XCOM--namely room and board--it was a bargain.
And so Rawlings meditated, his mind and billfold quite devoid of useless baggage. The war was winding down, but he did not think of it.
He thought of Bright.
Paranoid, sociopathic jackass. Back-stabbing sonuvabitch opportunist. Who could imagine that he'd reform?
Rawlings smiled, a thin, crooked grin.
Six months and the jerk became a leader. Six more, and he's a hero.
Eighteen XCOM soldiers had perished in the massive firefight known only as 'New York.' In the earliest stages of the battle, before the psis at Nevada could arrive, Bright and three teams of ex-Bluegrass troops had broken the alien advance at Wall Street, leaving the financial capital of the world a flaming ruin.
Predictably, the Dow had taken a five-hundred point drop.
But not content to fall back with his survivors, Bright had insanely charged on, rolling back the bugs, killing them at every turn. Ingeniously, he and the last four members of his assault team had descended into the sewers to sneak into Central Park.
There, they'd been killed when the bugs suicided their craft.
And in ten years' time, that asshole martyr will be a god.
Rawlings recalled the shock of seeing New York on TV. New York was burning... and yet, even before the last embers were extinguished, the President and all four network's anchors were calling for Bright's canonization.
"Bastard," laughed Rawlings.
As usual, he'd been at the right place at the right time, and by getting himself dead, he'd invalidated any chances to get up close and personal with the psychopath himself.
They want a statue in Battery Park. 'The Avenging Angel,' they call it.
They don't even know his name.
A thousand years, and men will paint frescoes of him.
I'm not bitter, decided Rawlings. I gave him a pistol and turned my back to him. Deep inside that necrophiliac corpse rapist was a good, brave man. A core of iron--tough and unbending. God damn, he was either inspired or insane. A genius.
But I'm being redundant, smiled the bodyguard, picking up his sword and the plasma pistol that lay by it. Flexing the muscles in his still-lean, still-scarred body, the sergeant hopped from his thinking place atop the boulder to another rock, lean legs carrying him quickly back into the temperate jungle.
Schancer cupped his hands and threw another wave of water over his face. Most of it landed on his head, washing back his stringy blonde hair, revealing a receding hairline.
"Shit," he muttered, immediately pulling his locks forward.
What a tired face I have, thought the most powerful man on the planet. Thin wrinkles, not yet canyons but merely the foundations of such, criss-crossed his face. A thick moustache, drooping and soaked, revealed a gray hair or two. Pale blue eyes were streaked with red.
Feeling very much depressed, the Ubercommander staggered over to his quarter's double-wide bed.
Carrie, Carrie, Carrie, thought Schancer.
Wow, I'm already happier, he realized.
Looking over the small collection of photographs, both new and old, that featured the couple's respective families, the officer raised his eyebrows.
"We are going to have a baby," he mumbled in awe.
Running a hand through his hair instinctively, Schancer lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
We're going to have a baby.
"What should we name it?" Carrie had asked.
"Do you have any... uh, successful grandparents, grandaunts, et cetera?"
"Oh, please. Let's not saddle the tyke with all that."
And so they'd named him Jacob, after the first man to see a UFO.
Someone brushed Sakurai's arm, and the captain turned. Seeing nobody recognizable in the small groups of techs, engineers, and secondaries that floated throughout the main hall, the Japanese captain turned back to his mug of coffee.
Sitting in his lap was a thin strip of cloth.
The officer glanced around again, wondering who'd dropped the item. Gingerly turning it over, Sakurai suddenly stiffened, shrinking down in his seat.
It can't be, it can't be, his mind screamed.
A single blood red circle marked the opposite side of the headband.
It is, he realized.
Scanning the main hall for soldiers, the captain clutched the cloth, shoving it into a pocket on his jumpsuit. He rose unsteadily and haltingly walked towards his quarters, his body unwilling.
I must, the soldier commanded. I have been ordered, and I shall not betray.
His shaking hand pushed open the door to his small bedroom.
But you are betraying, betraying your comrades here, another voice screamed back.
Reaching under his cot, to the small holster tied to the springs beneath, Sakurai pulled forth a plasma pistol. Like nearly every combat officer, he'd 'procured' a spare sidearm from the dead fingers of a bug... but this was not how he had meant to use it.
Japan. The Emperor commands me, through his officers of the Self Defence Forces, that I defend Japan.
Checking the weapon's clip, and damning himself for keeping it charged, the captain shoved the weapon into a pocket on his jumpsuit.
Is this how you honor Keisuke? Not even a month in the ground, and you're going to defecate on everything that he gave his life for?
Sakurai slowly pulled the plasma from his jumpsuit and stared down its alloy barrel.
Keisuke should not have died! Keisuke died because of him! He killed Keisuke and all the others, sending you in without knowing what you'd face, sending you in with barely one third the number of troops needed, sending you in and then nuking the whole fucking hive, dumping a thousand tons of radioactive ash across Eastern China... and Japan.
The pistol went back into his pocket.
He doesn't care about Japan! He doesn't defend Japan--look at him, he'll blast the planet to dust motes before he cares about anything but his XCOM. Stop him, stop him before he vaporizes Tokyo and Osaka and Yokohama and Sapporo and Nagoya and Kobe and Kyoto and Nara.
Slowly--not with hesitancy but with deliberate, effortless actions--Sakurai pulled open the door to his quarters and started to stride the twenty meters to Schancer's room. In one pocket, the headband; in the other, the pistol.
The door was open, hanging from its repaired hinges. The captain could hear the Ubercommander sloshing about in his bathroom. In a moment, he would fling the door open, just as the monster stumbled from his sink, rubbing his face and looking up and blinking like some dumbfounded baby.
And then Sakurai would shoot him.
The Japanese officer's left hand swept, touching the cool metal of the commander's door. A sweet, sick sensation filled his head.
The base alarms.
Rushing around the corner, a short, scarred soldier carrying a katana nearly collided with Sakurai.
"Hey," Rawlings said.
Nearly drawing his pistol from his suit and gunning the bodyguard down, Sakurai stared at the ugly American, waves of hatred lapping at his sanity.
"Your team's on call-" mumbled the sergeant, realizing suddenly that something was critically amiss.
Sakurai relaxed, sliding back into the comfortable confines of his current position as officer of XCOM.
"-Captain," finished the American.
"What..." asked the officer, "what is it?"
Rawlings, also releasing his tension, replied, "Looks like a Harvester-class triple-decker headed for Pusan. Looks fishy; there's nothing else on the scope--anywhere on the planet. Will says he'll fly cover for you, just in case things heat up," the bodyguard nearly forgetting, "sir."
Sakurai nodded, the guilty weight of the plasma tugging at his conscience.
"No point in delaying," he stated, filling the air with the typical nonsense of his post. "I'll get my gear on."
The disgusting toad of a sergeant nodded and muttered something equally noncommittal, jogging away with his burden.
Schancer watched Sakurai's transport lift off. Loaded with the walking remnants of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Kansai, a single 'Ranger embodied over half of XCOM's ground forces in the Japan Theatre.
Come back in one piece, the commander prayed.
With four 'Rangers, one Blitzen, and two Donners, Kansai Base was supremely gutted. The Gabriel had been shipped Stateside for participation in the last, greatest 'ground' assault of the War. Five teams, assembled from Nevada, Lakota, and Cherokee Bases plus one team of psis, led by the increasingly enigmatic Colonel Wilkes filled three Avenging Angel class heavy transports. Each armed with twin plasma cannon and three heavy fusion bombs, nothing, save a solar flare, was going to stop XCOM from reaching the aliens' base at Cydonia, Mars.
Then it's your job, Jonas, thought Schancer, watching the disappearing dot of Sakurai's 'Ranger.
Turning back to his PDA, the commander sifted through the digital heap of electronic mail already clogging his computer. The Europeans, though solely on a grunting basis, were trading UFO salvage for the endless information supplied by Nevada Base and its scientists.
Ever since Siberia fell, grimaced the Ubercommander.
He promised to hand me my heart on a plate, but that doesn't mean I can't mourn for Russians.
Siberia Base, the secret research center of EuroCom, hadn't been defended by anything less than six plasma defense cannon.
The bugs had taken it out with one battleship.
Two to two, mentally commented Schancer, wading through dozens of salvage reports and periodical research status reports. Causasus Hive. Nebraska Base. China Hive. Siberia Base.
I won't count Bluegrass. We kicked your grey asses there.
Cydonia. The word echoed through Schancer's mind.
Wonder if that's how it sounded to Wilkes? What do you have there? All your families, all your loved ones? Everything and everyone you've ever cared about in your cold, alien hearts?
We're going to fuck it back to the Big Bang, you planet-raping Starspawn.
A single e-mail caught the Ubercommander's eye, burning away his fatalistic mood with nary three words:
To: 48372@484800132 [CinC Glbl Ops Cmdr R. Schancer]
From: 48236@789232045 [Cnl (Sndry) C. U. Schancer]