THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 10: Operation Brutal Scepter
The last thing Lewis saw before the Skyranger lifted off was Commander Pournelle standing at attention, snapping a hard salute. Then the back tray closed with a solid thunk of steel, the engines whined petulantly, and they were off. Half a klick into the air already and rising fast, headed for Berlin.
The Skyranger shuddered as it banked through ocean turbulence. Lewis staggered across the pitching craft until he found his seat, strapping himself into the kevlar webbing before he flew off his feet. Major Adam ‘Santa’ Rudd grinned across the cabin at him. “How do those leaves feel, Major?”
Lewis brushed the little gold oak leaves welded to the collar of his titanium-plate body armour. It still didn’t feel real – Pournelle had surprised him with the promotion only an hour before the mission. A quick handshake, a pat on the back, and then a whispered plea – “Don’t fuck it up this time.”
He met Rudd’s gaze. “Good. I think. How’d it feel for you?”
Rudd shrugged. No mean feat, seeing as how he was weighed down with about half a ton of ablative armour and plasma powered weaponry. “After Lone Mountain, I didn’t feel anything. Just glad to be alive.”
“Boy, do I know how that goes.” Lewis set his own rifle across his lap and fiddled with the power core. Stolen alien tech, retrofitted to contour properly to human hands. Would’ve been real useful two weeks before when they were pulling Mobolaji out of Nigeria, but he supposed the XCOM science team worked to their own schedule. To them, grunts were just chess pieces with heavy armaments. No matter if they lost a few pawns while working up to the endgame, so long as they got there eventually.
He knew he shouldn’t let him itch him like it did, but it was impossible not to feel a little… passed over. Cheap. Expendable. Even the oak leaves on his collar didn’t help shake it off.
“Hey,” Rudd whispered. “You got something on your mind?”
Lewis nodded. Like it wasn’t obvious.
Lewis nodded again. Bad decision, letting her run up front. That was the problem with Assault Specialists. They always thought they had to have their nose right in the middle of the action. Lieutenant ‘Vandal’ Shephard hadn’t known when to pull back, when to cut and run. And it’d been his fault for not telling her to get her ass back behind the line.
If he’d been a little quicker, a little louder…
“Hey.” Rudd slapped Lewis’s leg. “Chin up. Me and you, we’ve got four kids in this Skyranger who need us sharp. Doesn’t matter if this is just some run of the mill abduction. Vasos and Leybourn over there, they don’t know which way is up if we don’t tell them.”
Lewis glanced over to the furthest end of the Skyranger, where Squaddies Leybourn and Vasos were sitting, silent, twiddling their thumbs. He’d seen Leybourn in action once before – smart guy, listened well, but had terrible aim and a rookie’s nervous jitters. Vasos, on the other hand, he’d never fought with before. A thin woman with a bright smile and a pixie cut dyed neon pink. An Assault Specialist, newly minted plasma rifle across her lap and a heavy laser pistol hanging on her hip. Big eyes, always moving. Taking in every nut and bolt of the Skyranger. Alert. That was good, Lewis thought. It might keep her alive.
The other two – Corporal Paul Bedford and Captain Wendy ‘Scarecrow’ Gollnick – had serious talent. Hell, Lewis had fought beside Bedford in Lagos. He knew the man could shoot straight. That wasn’t what worried him. What gnawed at Lewis’s guts was whether Gollnick and Bedford could keep the two newbies in line.
The Skyranger slowed. They were coming into range. That sort of talk would have to wait until they were on the ground.
The abduction site was a petrol station on the outskirts of Berlin. The X-rays abduction patterns were growing increasingly clear – they focused on sites where the population was diverse, but not so crowded that they’d come up against direct opposition in the middle of their operations. Construction sites, lonely highways. A small town cinema. Places where they could sample all humanity had to offer and then vanish into the skies before XCOM arrived.
But not this time.
The Skyranger banked hard left, swooping in to land. Lewis swallowed as his lunch rose up in his stomach. “Hey, Bedford. You ever finish that novel?”
Bedford shrugged. “Turned into a screenplay. Second draft, now.”
“Yeah? That’s good, that’s good. Gollnick, how’s the rabbit?”
Wendy Gollnick was a little more responsive. “Ripleys’ good! She’s getting real fat.”
“Is that… is that supposed to happen?”
“I guess! Rabbits just do what they want, you know?”
“Yeah, well. You’ve both got something to go back to.” Lewis met Squaddie Leybourn’s eyes. “What about you, Leybourn? Your wife is with XCOM, isn’t she?”
Leybourn nodded, eyes wide.
“And you, Vasos?”
The young woman gave a quick, terse nod. Her gloves creaked as she gripped the butt of her plasma rifle tight. “Boyfriend.”
“Think about them when you’re out there, and you’ll get home okay.” Lewis closed his eyes as the Skyranger touched down. It was never quite smooth enough – the roar of the VTOL engines burning black holes into the macadam, the hard thud as those four feet crunched on gravel. It always made him nauseous. But they were down now, stable, and the back tray was already lowering, revealing a star-speckled slice of Berlin night.
For once, he had a clear view of the engagement zone. They’d landed on the far side, behind the cars still lined up at the pumps. Two hundred meters away was the service station itself, the windows dark. No attendant waited behind the counter. The cars were empty, lights still on, some still vibrating gently as they burned through the last of their tanks. A single corpse lay in the shadow of a petrol pump – a woman, curled in upon herself, her white dress charred by flame.
No sign of the X-rays. Lewis figured they’d be inside, setting up an ambush. That was, if they were still in the area at all. Their pilot had picked out several hotspots as they’d approached, but it was hard to sell whether those were sectoids or humans, hostages or hostiles.
They’d just have to suck it and see.
Major Lewis scanned the empty lot through the scope of his rifle. “Vasos, Leybourn, right! Scarecrow, Bedford, left!”
Rudd was the last to pass him by, slapping Lewis on the shoulder as he ran for the cover of a family sedan. Lewis followed, that same sick feeling still turning over in his stomach. The whole engagement zone felt bad. Cars, cars, petrol pumps, more cars. They might as well have been hiding behind colossal landmines. Why the hell hadn’t the pilot put them down on the other side? Advancing across open ground was better than this death-trap…
Movement on the far side of the station. Two huge shapes, hulking headless masses against the Berlin streetlight glare. Lewis knew them immediately.
“Mutons!” he called. “Eleven o’clock, hit ’em, hit ’em!”
Lewis fired from the hip as he ran for the cover of a garbage can. He still wasn’t used to the hard kick of their newly developed plasma rifles – his first shot went wide, but the rest of his wild burst struck home. Even from across the petrol station he could see the first of the gorilla-monsters buckling, bleeding across the concrete. Vasos and ‘Santa’ Rudd were firing as well, but as far as Lewis could see they were only taking chunks out of the tarmac at the X-rays feet.
‘Scarecrow’ Gollnick and Bedford had set up behind a small sedan. They popped over the hood simultaneously, their faces lit in strobe as they hosed the pair with plasma. The first of the mutons had taken cover behind a Volkswagen, and for a moment Lewis couldn’t tell who was shooting where, whether the pair were just firing blind. Steel popped and pinged as the Volkswagen’s hood melted beneath the impact.
There was a hissing sound. A high whistle of gas.
The VW exploded.
It wasn’t like any explosion Lewis had ever heard. Not like the sudden, bone-cracking thud of a grenade, or even the carefully engineered roar of one of Leybourn’s rockets. It was a tectonic thud that turned his bowels to jelly, that rumbled in his molars and slammed the breath from his lungs.
The first muton was taken by the blaze. Just a jittering black shape bathed in flame, screaming, stumbling, falling. Dead.
The second muton turned on the spot, dancing back and forth between the burning VW and the safety of the shadows. It was the best opportunity Lewis could imagine for an easy kill. “Take it down!” he called “Vasos, Rudd, point!”
It was amazing how Major Rudd and Squaddie Vasos had squeezed together into the cover of one small terracotta planter, seeing as how their bulky ablative armour made them both the size of sumo wrestlers. The Major and Vasos shared a look that Lewis knew well – a mutual one, two, three, before they came to their feet.
They fired as one. The sizzle of plasma carried low across the petrol station, and the second muton fell in a spray of blood. “Fuck yeeeeeeeeah!” Vasos cried. If she’d been tense and terrified before, she was drunk on blood and gunfire now. “Suck it! Suck it down! You-”
Lights in the darkness. The flicker of a laser-dot lapping across the asphalt, licking over Vasos’s armour. Even from a distance, Lewis knew that light.
He moved on autopilot, finger on the trigger, the rubber socket of the scope pressed hard against his eye. Two quick squeezes, two bursts of light, both dead on target. Plasma splashed across hard steel curves, extrusions of alien alloys.
It floated from the shadows at the back of the petrol station like some oversized metal wasp, humming on jets of thin blue flame, gunbarrel extending from beneath its abdomen, ready to fire. A cyberdisc, one of the colossal X-ray weapons platforms they’d gunned down inside the base near Krakow.
Lewis knew how to handle a disc. Hit it hard, hit it fast. So long as the team kept their sights straight…
A second glimmer of light. The slick sound of steel sliding along perfectly engineered grooves.
Two of the bastards.
Lewis froze. He hadn’t planned for two. One was bad enough. He took in the surrounding architecture in an instant, the angles, the cover, the open ground. Fifty meters between himself and the cyberdiscs. Nowhere to hide that wasn’t a vehicle or a petrol pump. A field of flammables and high explosives.
They were fucked.
And then, from across the station, came Leybourn’s cry: “Heads down, fire in the hole!”
Lewis spun. Squaddie Leybourn was down on one knee, rocket launcher on his shoulder, squinting down the sights. A straight shot, dead into the heart of the two cyberdiscs.
Leybourn squinted, braced, and fired.
The rocket was a point of light slicing the world in two, bottom and top halves separated by a thin trail of flame. It travelled too fast to track – the only record of its passing was the bright scar left on Lewis’s vision. And then…
Fire, and heat, and a roar like the earth had split open. The clatter of shattered brick raining down across the street. Lewis blinked, waiting for the smoke to clear.
His heart almost stopped as the two cyberdiscs floated free of the dustcloud, untouched. Leybourn had missed. The rocket had hit the side of the petrol station, blowing out one wall entirely. The roof had collapsed and flaming brick had been scattered across the length of the parking lot, setting off spot fires in the brush lining the road.
Lewis knew Leybourn had only brought one rocket. That was all they allowed the Squaddies. One big boom. One chance.
The two cyberdiscs spun, tracking the rocket as it passed, then settled on their target. It only took a moment for them to settle their laser dots on Lewis’s chestplate.
He tried to throw himself aside, but he was carrying too much weight. It didn’t matter how many hours he spent in the gym, squatting and lifting and doing sprints. The layers upon layers of armour he wore kept him slow, kept him clumsy.
The first cyberdisc reared back. Light flashed from inside its metallic bowels.
Lewis had been shot before. He’d taken plasma to the chest, grenade shrapnel to the face. He’d had his inside rearranged by concussive blasts.
He’d never been sliced by a wafer-thin beam of heat. For a moment, there was no pain, and he thought madly, desperately, it missed! Then he fell to his knees on the concrete, all his strength bleeding away in the time it took to blink.
A light popped behind his eyes. Then, finally, the pain hit. It was immense, all-enveloping. He screamed so high it came out as a whistle of breath.
He was on fire, he realised. A thin line ran from his right shoulder down to his stomach, a slit barely wide enough to fit his finger. Smoke coiled from the gap. Tiny tongues of flame lapped across his chestplate. He could smell himself cooking from the inside.
The rifle slipped from his fingers and crunched on the concrete. The second cyberdisc was swinging around, unfurling, its cannon extending like a poison barb. Light gleamed deep inside that stinger.
It wasn’t fair, he thought. He’d watched Aliens twenty times, but they’d never warned him about this.
The light hit him square between the eyes. After that, there wasn’t anything to see.
From the far side of the pumps, Captain Wendy ‘Scarecrow’ Gollnick watched Lewis ignite. There was a brief flash, like iron oxide sprinkled through a bunsen flame. Then he fell, the flame still guttering across his corpse, and Gollnick turned away.
She wanted more than anything just to throw her plasma rifle to the ground and sprint for the safety of the Skyranger, but she knew already that the cyberdiscs would cut her down the moment she stepped into the open. Fifty meters of open ground was fifty meters too far.
Squaddie Vasos was still crouched behind the second set of pumps. Even from such a distance, Gollnick could see the woman was terrified. Her rifle shook in her hands. Her brow was shiny, almost polished with sweat. Her lips fluttered. I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna die.
Stay down, Gollnick begged. Stay out of sight. But Vasos wasn’t thinking straight. “I don’t wanna die!” she shrieked, and jumped to her feet, spraying the cyberdiscs from across the lot. The flash of plasma and the hard thud of recoil sent Gollnick’s pulse through the ceiling, and she waited for the two mecha to turn and cut Vasos down.
They didn’t. Vasos’s aim was true. The nearest of the two discs spat sparks as her plasma hit it broadside, and Gollnick almost cheered as both X-rays backed off. “Got them on the run!” she called. “Bedford, hit it!”
Bedford was hunkered down behind his blue sedan, sniper rifle propped across the bonnet. “I got it!” he called, and fired. A line of laser light split the carpark down the middle, and Gollnick sucked air between her teeth as it missed the nearest cyberdisc by less than a foot.
“I said hit it, you… you dope!” Gollnick settled her rifle atop the petrol pump and sighted. A quick spray of plasma spun the cyberdisc around, but it wasn’t enough to put the alien drone down for good. “Support, I need support!”
Squaddie Leybourn was still hunkered down behind a petrol pump, unstrapping the bulky rocket launcher from his shoulder and trading it for his LMG. “I’ve got you!” he called. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you!”
The LMG roared. Leybourn braced against the recoil, every hard kick sending him skittering backwards on the asphalt. The service station behind the two cyberdiscs erupted in clouds of brick dust and the whine of ricochets sent Gollnick diving for cover.
The barrage ended. The two cyberdiscs floated on, untouched.
“Gollnick, Bedford, find cover!” Major Rudd was shouting from across the station. “Goddamn it, get to-”
Wendy Gollnick was already back-pedalling, stumbling over her feet in an effort to reach cover, but Corporal Bedford was still behind the sedan, his sniper rifle resting on the hood as he tried to line up the perfect shot.
He didn’t get the chance.
The cyberdiscs were firing even as they swung around the sedan. Bedford still had his eye glued to the scope when they cut him down – a flare of red, a sudden hiss and pop, and the Corporal slid to the gravel, boneless.
For a moment Gollnick waited for him to scream for help, but then the smoke faded and she saw the damage the beam had done. Bedford wasn’t getting up again. No chance.
She fell back behind a concrete pillar, gasping, swearing under her breath. She could smell Bedford cooking. It made her want to vomit. The Skyranger was three hundred meters away, barely a smudge of steel and light beyond the pumps, but at that moment the rear hanger looked like salvation.
“Hit them now! Everything you got!”
It was weird how the Major’s voice slammed Gollnick upright. Something about the authority in Rudd’s commands. The knowledge of where he’d been, what he’d done. You couldn’t refuse when Santa told you to stand. His word was law.
She forgot Bedford, still cooking in the gravel. Her rifle was already humming, hot with plasma. She didn’t bother sighting through the scope; her hands knew what to do.
They fired together: Rudd at a full sprint across the open ground, Vasos leaning out from behind the petrol pump she was using for cover, Leybourn plucking a grenade from his belt and tossing it overarm. Three streams of plasma sliced across the lot and met in one tremendous green flash, followed by the crack-bang of Leybourn’s grenade.
No mistakes this time. No misses. The first cyberdisc didn’t even hit the ground before it exploded, vanishing in a bright nova of shrapnel and fire. The second was limping, jets sputtering as it struggled to regain height. There were holes melted in the robot’s flanks large enough to see through. Sparks jumped between ruined circuitry.
For a moment Gollnick thought that the second disc about to drop as well. But segments of steel slid away, exposing more dark hollows, and before she had a chance to reload something unfolded from the bowels of the machine.
A mechanical arm about three foot long, segmented, pneumatic. It clutched something small and round, like an aluminium baseball, and before Gollnick could make sense of what was going on the cyberdisc flung the baseball underarm.
Gollnick watched, mute, as it bounced across the lot and fetched up at the feet of Squaddie Vasos, who was still pressed up against the petrol pump.
The baseball blinked.
There was a sudden flare, brighter than any burst of plasma, even brighter than the sun. The low whump of petrol igniting. For a moment, Vasos vanished, swallowed entirely behind the glare. Then it faded, and what remained was Vasos twisting, twirling in the flames. Almost like she was trying to dance, slapping herself, screaming as fire licked from inside the collar of her armour.
It was a halo around her temples, a bright garland on her brow. Then, mercifully, she fell and went silent.
“No! No no no!” Behind the concrete pillar he was using for cover, Squaddie Leybourn was shaking, eyes wide, clutching his LMG to his chest. “Gotta get out,” he moaned. “Gotta get-”
“Squaddie, stay down!”
But Leybourn was beyond rational thought. He leaped out from behind the pillar and squeezed the trigger. The LMG bucked so much that for a moment it looked like Leybourn was about to lose his grip and drop his weapon on the bitumen. But he kept his grip, and as Gollnick stared, something incredible happened.
Leybourn’s aim was dead-centre. The second cyberdisc stuttered in the air, sparks jumping off its metal carapace, the high spang of impact ringing out across the lot.
“Get back!” Gollnick called. Leybourn snapped around, as if finally realising where he was. He leaped away just as the cyberdisc tumbled to earth. It bounced once on the concrete, skidded into a petrol pump, and vanished in a ball of flame as fuel met spark.
Gollnick sprinted across open ground and grabbed Leybourn by the shoulder. “Are you crazy? The whole thing could go up!” But he barely responded. His eyes were glazed by panic. “Come on, we need to move, we need-”
“It’s over,” Leybourn whispered. “We got them.”
Gollnick glance back. Rudd was dragging Bedford’s limp body towards the Skyranger, but she didn’t think it’d make any difference. No more movement in the service station itself. Maybe Leybourn was right, but that didn’t mean it was smart to hang around and wait for reinforcements.
She took him by the arm and dragged him towards the Skyranger. “We need to go.”
“We need to go!”
Step by step, inch by inch, the flames leaping higher and higher, she pulled Squaddie Leybourn back to the dropship. Rudd was waiting, down on one knee, rifle up against his shoulder as he scanned what remained of the petrol station.
“All quiet out there,” Rudd said. “You hurt, Gollnick?”
Captain Gollnick patted herself down. There was a chunk the size of a fifty cent piece taken out of her chestplate – a scar left by some shrapnel she hadn’t even felt. Other than that, she was intact from head to toe. “Got lucky,” she said.
“I saw Lewis,” Rudd whispered. “He, uh…”
“I know, sir.”
“You want to make the call, Captain?”
“No sir. I wouldn’t want to deny you the pleasure.”
There was nothing but defeat in Rudd’s eyes. “Wish you weren’t so right, Gollnick. I mean… Jesus Christ.” He fell back on his haunches, dragging gloved fingers through his hair. “Jesus. I didn’t… I didn’t mean for this to happen. You know that, right? This was Lewis’s mission. This wasn’t my fault. I didn’t mess up this time. I didn’t-”
Rudd stopped. He touched his earpiece. “Yes, Commander. Yes. Threat neutralised. Yes sir, it… It got messy. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s all crazy over here, it…”
Gollnick turned away. There were some excuses she didn’t want to hear.
– – –
Um. Shit. Shit.
I did the best I could. There were a lot of unlucky misses in this mission, and a lot of unluckier critical hits. The map is a tough one, too. Almost nothing to hide behind that doesn’t explode. But in the end, the blame lies with me. I’m the Commander. I got those good men and women killed.
Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed The B-Team so far and want to support it, why not check out my new horror serial Rust: Season One? It’s spooky, it’s gory, it’s getting good reviews and it’s only a couple of bucks. Less than a cup of coffee, where I live!
Take care, everyone!
– – –
Read on to Chapter 11: Operation Dying Station!