THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 11: Operation Dying Station
Note – this chapter was written as a thank you to all the XCOM fans on reddit who’ve been reading my fanfic since the beginning. All six squaddies are redditors. All six knew the risks when they signed up.
Good luck, kids.
– – –
“Did you know that I once considered that squad my B-Team?”
Commander Pournelle paced outside the infirmary. He’d just completed a lightning-quick tour of the injured, shaking hands and patting backs, and now he was fighting the urge to throw up. From Major Rudd down to the lowest of his Corporals, everyone was bleeding. Some of them more obvious than others. Shattered bones, plasma burns, spinal fractures. Others, like Alan Zelman, were hurting in places the doctors couldn’t fix with antiseptic and skin grafts.
His new assistant, Moreau, just ducked his head. “I wasn’t here when you first recruited them, Sir. But I’m sure they’ve made you proud-”
“Cut the weasel-word bullshit, Moreau. I sent them into battle week after week and they came back missing parts of their limbs and none of them ever asked for a day off. I promised them equipment and gave them scraps. I said I’d shift the budget and send them out with SHIV support and all they got was dime-store body armour that wouldn’t stop a .22. They were the last hope and they fought like it, and now every damn one of them is walking wounded.”
“You thanked them for their service, Sir-”
“It’s a token gesture and they know it. Come on, Moreau. My handshake won’t grow back those missing fingers.” And it wouldn’t resurrect Vasos, Bedford and Lewis from their body bags, either. “Call came in an hour ago. There’s been a rash of abductions in the UK. The X-rays are moving again, and we either cut them off now or cede Great Britain, Wales and most of Ireland. And my B-Team… the saviours of the free goddamn world – aren’t fit for lawn bowls, let alone a combat op. So tell me, what am I supposed to do that doesn’t involve shaking hands?”
Moreau grimaced. He was a thin man, fresh-faced, an administrator on loan from the Canadian Air Force. Obviously too much of a pain in the ass for the Canucks, so they’d shipped him south to get him out of their hair. “There are recruits-”
“Oh, come on! They’re not even my C-Team. They’re F-grade, at best. And sending them to an abduction site without a combat veteran to lead them?”
“I agree, sir. It’s suicide. On the other hand, walking away from the UK now will almost certainly be seen by the X-rays as an invitation to invade. Considering their dense urban populations…”
“How many millions of dead?”
“Enough that the Council will likely pull support from the XCOM operation.”
Pournelle ran his hands through his hair and found grey strands tangled between his fingers. “This job will be the death of all of us, in the end. Won’t it, Moreau?”
Moreau nodded. “I’ll tell the Council you’re sending a team.”
“Don’t tell them that they’re all squaddies. Let’s just…” The words tasted foul on his lips. “Let’s hope they do the job right. If we’re lucky it’ll all work out.”
But as Moreau ran for the elevator, leaving Pournelle behind, the Commander knew there was only so far a lie would carry him.
Six Squaddies. No support.
God help them.
Total time from landing to everything going to shit – eight minutes, thirty two seconds.
They came off the Skyranger cautiously, following all the protocols. Of the six squaddies, Yanto McKay had been nominated the leader by proxy, so she went first with her rifle up hard against her shoulder, scope pressed to her right eye. Behind her, Steven Sylvestris, his belt laden with emergency medical supplies. Ivan Chesnokov and James Rustle watched the skyline, clanking their way down the ramp, laden with advanced ablative armour. Finally, Clay Gale and their second sniper, Josiah Ketchum.
All fresh faced, thinking they were hot shit because they’d passed their marksmanship exams and busted a couple fingers training close quarters combat. Every one of them thinking they were going to be the hero.
At least, that was how Sylvestris saw it.
Sometimes Sylvestris thought he was the only one of the Squaddies who had a clue. Maybe that was because he’d done his time both in emergency wildlife rescue and as a paramedic before signing on to XCOM. He knew how to suture a wound and suck the fluid from a man’s chest cavity. He knew how to seal a gushing artery severed by a bear attack. He’d tasted other people’s blood on his lips, the high-pressure spray that came when a motorcycle crash severed someone’s limb, the spatter that got into every fold of skin. He knew all the best Catholic prayers to whisper to the dying.
He knew how easily people took damage. He knew he was only one stray bullet or plasma shot or shrapnel hit away from a coffin. And he knew everyone else on the Skyranger was in the same position, even if they didn’t believe it.
So when Squaddie Rustle ran from the Skyranger like some wannabe Marine, whispering “Come get some, come get some,” all Sylvestris could do was despair. They were unprepared. Pournelle had thrown them to the wolves. Dead, every single fucking one of them, and none of them knew it yet.
They’d arrived outside a truck yard thirty miles from Manchester, following up on reports of abductions. Commander Pournelle had assured them that three in four reports were dead ends, that all they’d have to do was sweep the buildings and tag the bodies left behind. But as Sylvestris followed Yanto McKay into the shadow of a UPS delivery truck, he was already getting the creeping feeling that came with being watched.
“Yanto. You see anything?”
Yanto McKay was tall, blonde, and severe like a brick to the head. Despite having trained as a sniper specialist, she was the only one of the six Squaddies who showed any leadership potential. No wonder everyone deferred to her when it came time to step off the Skyranger. Sylvestris gnawed his thumbnail as McKay scanned the buildings through the scope of her rifle. “Looks clean to me. Maybe this mission was a waste of time after all-”
A growl from the front of the truck. Sylvestris spun, finger on the trigger.
They came around the cab of the truck like two walking, growling brick shithouses. Sylvestris had watched all the training videos. He’d seen mutons and berserkers in his nightmares for weeks during training. Eight foot tall and as wide as a bus. Claws long enough to go in one side of a man and come out the other.
Clay Gale was already unhooking a grenade from his belt and rolling it underhand along the concrete. Sylvestris hadn’t spent much time with Gale before the drop – far as he knew, Gale was just another six-foot-six Canuck with a stupid grin and a bad haircut – but at least he was a Canuck with razor-sharp reflexes. The grenade rattled off the macadam, bounced once, and landed between the muton’s legs.
Both X-rays vanished in a cloud of black smoke and debris. McKay was down on one knee, shielding her face with one hand as she brought her rifle to bear. “Jesus Christ, shoot them!”
But even as Sylvestris slapped his plasma rifle to full auto and sprayed fire into the cloud, he knew it was hopeless. They were all too panicked, too green. Half as much fire was hitting the trucks as the X-rays. Sheet steel puddled like melted icecream.
Two figures emerged from the smoke. The muton staggered as its chest turned to ash under the impact of plasma, falling to its knees, twitching, then going still. And close behind…
The berserker was moving fast. Ten foot of chitin and muscle. Chesnokov’s bullets burst off its chestplate as uselessly as cherry bombs. It closed the distance before Sylvestris could reload.
But it wasn’t headed for him. It was fixed in on McKay.
She didn’t budge an inch as it swung. Every bone claw was honed like steel.
McKay didn’t scream, didn’t cry for help. Just a low burble as her chest tore open. Blood ran between her lips as she fell.
Sylvestris slammed a fresh charge into his rifle and didn’t lift his finger from the trigger, not until the berserker was painted from head to toe with plasma, not until the monster had been laid out with its guts torn open and its bones smoking in the midday sun. But that didn’t help McKay. She was already going still, left leg twitching but fading fast, the last of her life spread out across the concrete.
“Shit,” Clay Gale whispered. “What’re we going to do?”
Sylvestris licked his lips. He didn’t have an answer. And the worst part was knowing he’d been right all along.
Squaddie Clay Gale had, back in his high school days, been voted “Most Likely to Become a TV Star” by his classmates. He’d been on the school ice-hockey team, a blonde, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, perfect example of Canadian-Aryan breeding. Back then he’d thought he was invincible.
Then again, didn’t everyone at that age?
Now, with Yanto McKay – their leader-by-proxy – dead at his feet, Gale was thinking of granite gravestones carved with pithy lines. Clay Gale, handsome and stupid, RIP. It made him want to vomit.
Sylvestris slapped him on the shoulder. “Eyes front, Gale.”
“Get in the game!” Sylvestris snapped his fingers before Gale’s eyes. “You think that’s all of them? Sack up, all of you!”
Sylvestris’s voice snapped Gale to attention. He reloaded, checked the lights on the side of the rifle, and tried to pretend he was back in training. It was all a game. He’d be graded at the end, given an icecream and sent back to the barracks. Ignore McKay dead on the ground. Ignore the stink of blood. Move the feet, one after the other. He followed Sylvestris through the parked trucks, keeping his eyes on the horizon. Easier to pretend, that way. Easier to forget they they’d just left one of their own behind.
Growls in the distance. Gale’s finger tightened on the trigger. “How many?”
“Fuck should I know? Ask Ketchum.”
Josiah Ketchum – the second of their two sniper specialists, and their only sniper now that McKay was going stiff in the shadow of the truck – scanned the distant gas station. The truck yard opened on to an open concrete plain, dotted with gas pumps and concrete planters sprouting withered bushes. “Movement,” he whispered.
“Two. No… four.”
“Make up your mind!”
“Four,” Ketchum repeated. “Three mutons, one big bruiser.”
That was two too many, Gale thought. If one muton and one berserker had cut McKay down so easily, what chance did they have against double that number? His rifle shook in his hands. “I think we should get back to the Skyranger. Get the Commander to send backup-”
He didn’t have time to finish the sentence.
The berserker had only been a distant speck, but it must’ve smelled danger because now it was charging. Every footfall shook the macadam under Gale’s feet. It was like watching a truck bear down, a truck with no brakes. A truck with teeth.
He squeezed the trigger without thinking. Plasma lanced across the gas station, lighting the berserker with acid green.
It was a tidal wave of plasma. Sylvestris, Ketchum and Chesnokov unloaded their magazines as one while Squaddie Rustle dashed across the open concrete into the cover of a small sedan and unclipped a grenade from his belt. He tossed it over the roof of the sedan and plugged his ears.
The berserker never stood a chance. There was a great boom, followed by a rain of meat and blood. Gale shied back, shielded his face from the spray. “Jesus Christ! One down, eh?”
But things were never that simple.
Ketchum had counted three other mutons, and Gale figured they were only going to get madder now that their muscle had been picked off. He tried to pick shapes through the smoke cast by Rustle’s grenade. Were those cars, or monsters the size of cars? God, had he emptied his entire magazine? No, still half charged. He could do this. Just stay calm, stay-
“Jesus, help! Cover me, cover!”
From across the parking lot came the terrible sizzle of plasma. It burned across the trunk of the sedan, forcing Rustle low. He was pinned, unable to pop over the hood and fire back, cut off from the cover of the trucks. “Come on, help me!”
It was too late. Two great silhouettes had emerged from the smoke – mutons, toting three-foot-long plasma rifles already spitting green flame. Their eyes were lit from below, baleful and rotten.
Sylvestris was urging them back, trying to pull Gale back behind the trucks, but he couldn’t help himself. Not with Rustle trapped out there alone.
He squinted down the sights and jerked the trigger back, aiming for the closest muton’s chest. “Burn,” he whispered. “Burn, you bastard-”
The shot went wide. Badly wide.
Gale stitched a line of plasma across the back of the sedan Squaddie Rustle was crouched behind. Rustle swore as plasma splashback etched his body armour. “You crazy? You trying to kill me?”
The words died in Gale’s throat. It wasn’t the mutons stalking across the back end of the parking lot that’d stolen his breath. It was the light blooming inside the holes his plasma fire had torn in the sedan.
Flames, rising fast.
“Oh God.” Gale tried to scream but all that came out was a whisper. “Get down, get away, get down, get down-”
It wouldn’t have done any good. He’d hit the gas tank. The car was already burning from the inside out – no way to stop the ignition. Even if Rustle had been on his feet, he couldn’t have gotten clear in time.
Rustle met Gale’s eyes across the parking lot. There was no anger there. Nothing at all but fear.
The car exploded, and James Rustle was swallowed by shrapnel and flame.
Josiah Ketchum, trained sniper, had already pulled back around the side of the truck when the sedan – and Rustle – went up in flames. A hard lump rose in his throat, but he swallowed it down quick and checked his rifle was charged. The plasma pistol on his hip thrummed silently, irradiating his testicles as it boiled over with alien energy.
Ten million little swimmers, all useless. He’d always thought he’d raise a family once he’d finished his contract with XCOM. Now he wasn’t even sure he’d survive the evening.
“Get down, get down!” Sylvestris had a hand on Ketchum’s shoulder, pushing him to the floor. “You see anything?”
“Fuck you!” Ketchum shot back. “I shouldn’t be here! You see this rifle? I should be up high, not on the front fucking line!”
“Do your goddamn job!”
“That is my job-”
Plasma splashed off the truck, sizzling as it dripped to the floor and burned inch-deep holes in the tarmac. It’d been close enough that Ketchum had felt the hairs on his head smoke away. “Screw this,” he growled, peering through the gap between cab and trailer. There, just beyond the sedan, was the upturned salad-bow shape of a muton’s skull.
He sighted, exhaled, and fired.
The muton reeled back, screeching. Even through the smoke Ketchum could see that he’d taken half the bastard’s head off at a single blow. There wasn’t time for congratulations, not with two more coming in. If those bastards flanked the team, they’d all be going home in black bags.
Ketchum’s mother had always told him not to jinx a bad situation. He regretted the thought immediately, but it was too late. Even over the crackle of flames he could hear the X-rays coming, their thick, throaty growls echoing off the parked trucks.
Coming from both sides.
Sylvestris had heard it too. “Fall back!” he called. “Get to cover!” But the team was either too caught up in the whoop and wail of plasma, or they didn’t recognise Sylvestris’s voice as one of authority. “Get back, damn it!”
The mutons came around both ends of the truck simultaneously, flame boiling deep in the throats of their rifles. Ketchum looked back and forth, swinging his rifle impotently, unable to choose which to shoot. He should never have been so close to the front line, should never have signed that contract, should never have believed the recruitment line…
The nearest muton, coming around the cab end of the truck, raised its rifle. Ketchum tensed, waiting for that sudden flash, the moment of pain. But it wasn’t aiming at him.
It had Chesnokov in its sights.
Squaddie Ivan Chesnokov, the Russian brick-wall, toting an LMG twice his own height, was the only thing between Ketchum and the muton. He growled at Ketchum: “Get to the van, boy,” and depressed the trigger.
Ketchum didn’t look back. There was a whump of plasma, followed by the ear-splitting chatter of the LMG. A brief, alien scream.
And then, nothing.
He skidded around the back end of the nearest van, bounced hard off the tarmac and came up with his sniper rifle in hand. Clay Gale had followed him, pressed up against the tail end of the tail end of the Ford Transit while Sylvestris had split right, diving behind a concrete bollard. As for Ivan Chesnokov…
It didn’t bear saying. Chesnokov was a smear of meat inside his armour. But amazingly, impossibly, he’d taken down the muton as well with his final burst. The two had slumped facing each other, as if acknowledging each other as equals in their final moments.
“Bullshit,” Ketchum whispered.
Clay Gale panted beside him, eyes wide, sweat running off his chin. “What now?” he said. “What the fuck do we do?”
“Chill,” Ketchum replied. “There’s only one left, far as I can see. If I can get somewhere high I’ll put a dime-hole between his eyes. One shot, that’s all I need-”
It was Sylvestris’s voice that snapped Ketchum out of his reverie. “Grenade!”
Ketchum glanced up. A small green light blinked against the stars – a plasma grenade turning lazily as it arced above the cars. He was frozen in place. Nothing he could do but track it as it came down, down, down.
Bastard, he thought. Perfect throw.
Sylvestris watched, mute, as the grenade spun through the air, blinking in time with his heartbeat. He raised his rifle as if to shoot it out of the air, but even in that moment he knew it was futile.
The little handball of steel landed between Gale and Ketchum’s feet and exploded.
Green flames leapt over the roof of the van. There were screams, but Sylvestris couldn’t tell which was which. They were both high pitched, ragged, terrified. Then a figure stumbled from the flames: Clay Gale, beating at the fire dancing across his chest.
Plasma flashed at the far end of the parking lot and slapped Gale off his feet. He fell back into the flames. This time, he lay very still.
Sylvestris tasted vomit. “I’m gonna die,” he whispered. “I’m gonna die. Mother Mary forgive me my sins.” He glanced back towards the Skyranger. Too far. He’d be cut down halfway there. The only way out was through that final muton. “Mother Mary give me strength. Sacred heart of Jesus-”
He’d always said the words with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, but at that moment, with the stink of burning flesh in his nostrils and an X-ray less than fifty yards away, plasma rifle still smoking, he thought they gave him a special strength. They calmed the shaking in his hands. They kept his teeth from clicking together.
He could just make out the crown of the X-ray’s head as it passed behind a black sedan. Reloading, most like. In ten seconds it’d be charging him, and he’d be shit out of luck.
Now or never.
Sylvestris came around the side of the concrete bollard with his rifle up against his shoulder, squinting down the scope. His stomach was knotted but his finger was steady on the trigger.
“I accept from Your hands whatever kind of death it may please you to send me this day,” he whispered, and fired. Plasma splashed across the sedan. Glass tinkled in shards across the macadam.
Green strobe seared his vision. The muton was firing back. Sylvestris threw himself aside, fetched up against a concrete planter, and hosed the sedan. The muton was scuttling away but he kept the trigger down, herding the X-ray from one end of the parking lot to the other.
His rifle belched green smoke as his plasma charge depleted. Sylvestris slammed another charge in and got to his feet, the prayer still on his lips. “With all its pains, penalties and sorrows, in reparation for all my sins, Mother Mary-”
The flash was too soon, too close. This time, he wasn’t fast enough.
Plasma smashed into his left leg and threw him to the ground. His rifle spun out of his hands. The pain was immediate, like needles sinking deep into his bones. He screamed but all that came out was a panicked, breathless whistle.
The concrete thudded beneath him. The steady drum of approaching footsteps. Even through the pain he remembered being eight years old, watching Jurassic Park in the cinema, holding tight to his mother’s hand as the Tyrannosaurus approached the upturned cars. Rain pattering down on Grant’s face. The primal terror unfurling in his gut.
The muton was a silhouette of muscle and iron. Flames cast long tongues of light up its flanks. Even through the tears Sylvestris could see it raising its weapon.
Not now, he thought. Not here.
He reached for his rifle, barely brushing the magazine with his fingertips. “Please.” He could barely manage a gasp. “For the souls in Purgatory, for your greater glory-”
The muton’s weapon whirred as it prepared to fire.
“Whatever kind of death-”
His fingers curled around the butt. He didn’t dare hope as he yanked the rifle back into his hands.
He pulled the trigger, just as the world filled with light.
“Not the result we were hoping for, Commander.”
Commander Pournelle stood before the wall-screen, hands knotted behind his back, hoping the council couldn’t see the sweat on his brow. They’d chewed him out before and they’d chew him out again – hell, it was their job to ride his ass whenever XCOM returned from a mission with anything less than six healthy soldiers and a sack full of fresh alien tech – but the panic never went away. The Council had more combined power spread across their sixteen nations than he could comprehend, and he fully expected that some of the XCOM staff would ‘vanish’ when the project ended and it came time to protect all their patented secrets.
He didn’t intend on becoming one of those vanished men. As such, he needed to bring them positive results. And this mission…
“It was a miscalculation,” he managed. “But one that yielded results. The abduction team was eliminated, and our A-team is now fighting fit. They’d still be bedridden if not for the time off.”
“And that was worth all those lives? Not to mention the thirty million in training costs and ruined equipment?”
“You didn’t hire me to play the numbers game,” Pournelle shot back. “You hired me to kill aliens, and by God, I’m killing a lot of aliens. So if you want to replace me with an accountant, fine. Just don’t cry when the world burns.”
“Are you giving us lip, Commander?”
“Lip? I’m laying out the facts! You seem to think this is a clean war. Soldiers die, and equipment gets lost, and secrets get stolen. That’s life!”
“We’ve heard enough.” The council – sixteen blank, anonymous faces representing nations on all ends of the globe – nodded in unison. “The next time we see a casualty list like this, we’ll have strong words. Until then… we’ll be watching.”
The feed blinked off. Pournelle wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Thank God for that. Moreau? Any news from the infirmary?”
“Still touch-and-go, Commander.” Moreau simpered by the door, iPad in hand. “They say you should attend immediately.”
Pournelle sighed. Always running back and forth, always answering to someone else’s schedule. And Moreau was about as much help as a tits on a bull. He was beginning to suspect the Council had shipped him in to act as their mole. A useless drag on his time and attention, feeding his every decision and mistake back to the Council before he’d had time to strategize. How else had they known to call within five minutes of the Skyranger landing?
“No time to waste,” he grumbled. “Lead the way, Moreau.”
The same sense of dread returned as he approached the infirmary. The feeling that everyone was staring at him, judging him behind their sterile face masks. Even those soldiers laying intubated, eyelids flickering as they dreamed of better days, were demanding his time.
Sweat ran down the nape of his neck. Anywhere but here, he thought. Put me back on a battlefield, strap me into a fighter jet, put a rifle in my hands again. Anything but the faces of the men and women I’ve sent to die.
The surgeons were waiting at the last bed in the row. They motioned Pournelle in close. “Thank you for coming, Commander. It was fifty fifty for a while, but I think we’ve-”
“Quiet.” Pournelle swallowed the lump in his throat as he looked down at the man in the bed. Steven Sylvestris, paramedic, wildlife rescue specialist, eager recruit. He remembered the day Sylvestris arrived at XCOM HQ. The enthusiasm in the man’s eyes. His stupid optimism.
Not much left of that smile now. He’d taken plasma to the legs and chestplate, and the heat had seared the left side of his head. Not much left of his jaw, or his right eye. A real-life Two-Face.
It wasn’t scary so much as sad. “Jesus Christ,” Pournelle whispered. “They weren’t ready.”
The nearest surgeon coughed. “His injuries are severe, but stable. Given a routine of high-intensity nutrient baths and some of our more experimental surgical techniques, he may be battle ready again within, oh, two months? Three at the outside. We’ve made great strides when it comes to muscular regrowth and transplants, but-”
Pournelle tuned the surgeon out and bent low, until he could whisper in Sylvestris’s ear. “Squaddie Sylvestris. You hear me? This is Commander Pournelle.”
The surgeons went quiet. Moreau was silent. There was nothing but the steady beep of cardiac monitors.
“Sylvestris.” Pournelle could barely form the words, his mouth was so dry. “You did good. You brought the mission home. You hear me? They said it was impossible but you did it. So don’t you die on me. We need you. XCOM needs you. Sylvestris-”
A rustle beneath the sheets. Even with his eyes closed, Sylvestris was trying to raise his hand. “Good man,” Pournelle whispered, as the sheet slid away, revealing Sylvestris’s closed fist. “We need fighters. Stay strong in there, and we’ll get you on your feet soon as we can. You’ve earned a rest, you hear? You’ve-”
He’d thought Sylvestris was going to give him the thumbs up. Instead, Sylvestris’s middle finger uncurled by slow degrees.
It was all the sign Pournelle needed. He replaced the sheet over Sylvestris’s hand, coughed, and marched from the infirmary with Moreau by his side. Behind him he heard the surgeons snickering, but he didn’t give a shit.
One man lived. One from six.
By God, that’d have to be enough.
– – –
Sorry it’s been so long between chapters! I was working on this entry when my missus and I realized our lease was almost up. So, with the encouragement and support of our families, we decided to get out of the rental market before it ate us alive.
Three months later, we’re comfortable in a little house of our own. Getting here was an exercise in blood, toil, tears and sweat, but in the end we pulled it off.
Unfortunately, that now means that we have a mortgage to pay off! So if you’ve enjoyed The B-Team so far and want to support me in finishing 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 12: OPERATION RED MOON!