THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 12: Operation Red Moon
Note – This is the first chapter of The B-Team in over a year. Life got in the way, along with a host of other problems, but I think I’m back now. Will try to update regularly until this sucker is done! Prepare for heartbreak, ladies and gentlemen.
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“You understand the importance of this operation, Colonel Gollnick?”
Colonel Wendy ‘Scarecrow’ Gollnick stared straight ahead, hands by her sides, soaking in the battle plan. It was ridiculous. Impossible. But Commander Pournelle said it had to be done, so she’d do it. When the Commander said jump, she jumped, and when he gave her a bigger task than she could chew, goddamn, she got chewing. “Sir.”
“Doctor Vahlen says there’s no mistaking the energy signal coming from that ship. It’s in communication with the big cheese, the alien HQ, wherever that is. We need that comms device. Just as important is dealing with whatever leader-caste creature is in charge of the device. Killing it, Doctor Vahlen says, could cripple the X-ray’s war efforts. Bringing it back alive could end the war altogether.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Now, you know I could send in waves of rookies, swamp it with bodies. We’ve got some promising recruits out training with Captain Nomi Chi right now – Hunt, Wendig, Oakes and Hart, I believe – but a smaller precision team will best suit this job. You’ll need to hit hard and fast, shock whatever’s running that craft and drag it back. Who’s your best man? Someone you can trust to get in close and not panic.”
Gollnick grit her teeth. “White is excellent under pressure…”
“But, respectfully, and not to be too arrogant about it… it’s me. I don’t trust anyone else with the job.”
Commander Pournelle raised one wary eyebrow. “Your decision, Colonel. As our top-ranked combat specialist…”
“It is. Sir.”
“Then choose your team. And come back in one piece.” Pournelle looked haggard, drawn thin by too many funerals. “I can spare some of the others. I can’t spare you.”
She was halfway out the door when Pournelle said, “Oh, Colonel?”
“I hear you’ve been speaking with the kids down in the psych wards.”
Gollnick grinned. It was Pournelle’s pet name for the Psi-Labs in the basement of HQ, the place where you went to have your brain picked over, to see whether you had what it took to fight a battle of the minds. To plug into the same weird energy that the X-rays used to communicate and turn it back on them. They’d seen potential in her, just as they’d seen in Sergeant Nilmini Leybourn.
But it was still up to her to figure out how to use it.
“Been learning what I can, sir,” she replied. “Every weapon is welcome.”
“Excellent work. You…” Pournelle didn’t meet her eyes. “You can’t read minds, can you?”
“If I’m in the right mood. Sometimes I think I can tell what Ripley is saying.”
“My rabbit, sir.”
The Commander chuckled, but it was a low, wary laugh, one that didn’t extend to his eyes. “Can you read my mind? Right now?”
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
Pournelle turned back to his desk, shuffling papers. “Good luck, Colonel. You’re going to need it.”
She took only the best.
Major William ‘Xeno’ Huang, the most talented sniper XCOM had in its employ. Rumour had it that he slept with his rifle, cuddled it like he’d cuddled his girl, the recently departed ‘Vandal’ Shephard. Rumour also had it that he sang Bruno Mars in the communal showers, but so long as his aim was good…
Sergeant Nilimini ‘Loco’ Leybourn, the only other XCOM grunt who’d pulled through Psi testing with positive marks – an experience that’d earned her a nickname to match. If they were up against a command-level X-ray, it’d pay to have someone else on the team who knew how to grab hold of the enemy’s minds and twist hard.
Captain Andy ‘Crater’ White. Nicknamed for the damage he threw down. The UFO Vahlen had identified was big, almost certainly carrying heavy weapons platforms. They’d need all the raw force they could get.
Major Adam ‘Santa’ Rudd. Religiously cool under fire, and he never hesitated to run into danger to patch up a wounded comrade. Gollnick didn’t want to be the only one holding the morphine when things went bad, and Santa was exceptional.
Finally, Lieutenant Alan ‘Moose’ Zelman. Deadly with an LMG, when he could be trusted to aim it in the right direction. Still torn up over the loss of his sister during Operation Cold Shield. Moose by name, moose by nature – big, angry and tough as steel. He’d be into the thick of it without being ordered.
She surveyed her five soldiers as they approached the drop zone, hoping she looked braver than she felt. “Hit them hard, wipe out all opposition and locate the leader. I get close, taze the bastard-” At that, she waved her arc thrower in the air. “-and get out before they send backup. Questions?”
“No questions, Scarecrow. We’ll get it done.” Captain White tugged at the curled lock that’d fallen over his eyes. “You think I need a haircut, or should I grow it out? I kinda like it messy.”
“Why don’t you ask the X-rays, Captain? Try some inter-species flirting?”
“Actually, Colonel, I think the aliens have a lot to offer in terms of extra-terrestrial sensuality-”
Zelman snorted through his nose, but Gollnick wasn’t nearly as amused. “Captain, respectfully… Ew. One more line like that and I’ll throw you out the hatch.”
The Skyranger groaned as retro-thrusters kicked in. They were almost on the ground. “Remember, you’re the best XCOM has. They need all of us back alive. Clear?”
The kick of impact sent Gollnick bouncing around the cabin. She thumbed the safety on her plasma rifle, heat tingling in her palms and up her forearms. She was scared, yeah, but she hadn’t earned her stripes by listening to the fear.
The tray dropped, and the cabin filled with smoke. Beyond, flames rose over the treetops. The UFO had hit hard, ploughed a trench fifty meters wide through the earth. Now they were heading into the maelstrom.
Gollnick grit her teeth. “Let’s get it done!”
They stepped off the rear tray and into plasma-fire.
Major ‘Xeno’ Huang already had his rifle up, the rubber socket of the scope glued to his skull, surveying the ruin of the UFO. The harsh sizzle of plasma as it passed close enough to touch scared the shit out of him but didn’t disturb his aim. He knew his rifle and his rifle knew him. Rookies were telling stories that he cuddled his rifle at night, but they were all clowns. He didn’t cuddle Freddie. He sang to Freddie.
Lieutenant Zelman was by his side, already laying down suppressing fire. “You got eyes on, Xeno?”
“Keep your head down, Moose. Two mutons.” He sighted, exhaled, pulled the trigger. “One muton.”
The process had become mechanical. Sprint for cover, make sure Freddie was charged, aim and plink. He didn’t even have to dial in the wind any more. Point and shoot, point and shoot.
Didn’t mean he wasn’t crapping his pants when enemy plasma blew a corpse-sized hole in the earth in front of him, though.
“I said keep your head down!” he called, but Lieutenant Zelman was forging ahead, his LMG spewing laser fire across the muddy field. Moose had started styling himself as invincible after getting out of the psych ward, leaping cover in favour of keeping the heat on every X-ray in his path. It was enough to give Huang a heart attack. “You wanna get killed?”
Zelman didn’t reply. His jaw was set as he hosed the second Muton, keeping the gorilla-beast pinned behind a fallen log. On his right, Rudd and White were moving forward, Rudd dropping a smoke grenade to cover their advance while White plucked a frag from his belt.
“Fire in the hole, dickheads!” Captain White hurled his payload overarm. The muton grunted in surprise, turning to run, before it was swallowed by flame. Nothing left but the patter of dirt and X-ray guts, and a ringing in Huang’s ears.
Gollnick was up hard against a slanted pine, taking in the fields surrounding the crashed craft through the scopes in her helmet. “I think that was just the greeting party. Everything else will be holed up inside.”
“So, what? This is our Normandy?” Zelman circled the two dead mutons, glaring down at what little was left of their corpses. “Fuck ’em.”
“Don’t be a hero, Moose.” Huang poked Zelman with the butt of his rifle until the man paid attention. “This isn’t your revenge trip.”
“Yeah. Alright.” Zelman didn’t look around as he dropped the still-smoking battery from his LMG into the grass and slid a fresh charge into the chamber. “You and me know how it is. You lost your girl, Shep. These guys…” He waved at Rudd, White, Leybourn, all creeping towards the UFO. “They never lost anyone.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know. You learn a lot from the psychs.” He grinned at Huang as he shouldered his LMG. “You should try it some time. Play crazy, take a week off.”
Huang could’ve happily kept chatting, but the smoke was clearing. Nothing left to disguise their advance. “Let’s move, before they get wise.”
Colonel Gollnick waved them on, her hand signals quick and precise. Huang, Gollnick and Zelman were to break left, headed for the UFO’s main doors, while Rudd, White and Leybourn split along the right flank, covering them from the high ground. They moved on their toes, trying to be stealthy, but it was impossible to mask the heavy thud of their armour on the soft earth.
“Hear you’ve been down in the labs,” Huang whispered to Colonel Gollnick. “They testing you for ESP?”
“Something like that.”
“Can you… sense things coming?”
Gollnick closed her eyes. For a moment all was silent. Then…
“It’s muddy. I don’t get it, not really. Just a bunch of shapes in the air.”
“How… handy.” Huang kept his real opinion in check as they flanked the ship. The entrance – a huge opening in the side of the craft shielded with a shimmering opalescent light – was empty. No mutons waiting in ambush, no motherfucker cyberdiscs just itching to pop out of a shadowed corridor and ruin everyone’s day.
The old cliche, “It’s quiet… too quiet,” came to mind. With fifty metres between them and the craft, Huang slid into cover beside a boulder and socked the scope of his laser rifle up to his eye. Thermoptics picked up nothing but great clouds of steam spewing from vents, machinery pumping away on the far side of the craft…
Big machinery. Moving.
“Incoming!” Huang waved Gollnick back from her advance, trying to make sense of the shapes. Just blurs of orange and red, something eight foot… no, twelve foot tall, moving on two legs. Jerky, definitely mechanical… some sort of heavy armour? “Cover, get to-”
His jaw dropped as the thing came around the side of the UFO.
It was huge, hulking, a tank on two digitigrade legs. The field shook with every step it took, steel feet leaving great divots in the earth. Tubes and hissing plasma coils jutted from its shoulders and hung from beneath its segmented carapace.
It had no cockpit, but Huang was somehow sure the thing was sizing him up.
He was still squeezing down into cover when the cannons beneath the tank-thing started to hum.
It was too quick to take in, too fast to do anything but hold his breath. A light brighter than anything Huang had seen before boiled from the mouth of those cannons, an arc of pure plasma leaping from the walker’s cannons and searing a path four foot wide across the hillside. Everything it touched blackened and curled. The air around the cannons steamed as the water in the air ionised.
“Back!” he screamed. “Goddamnit, fall back!” Gollnick was scrambling for cover, hurling herself behind a boulder, while White and Leybourn had skidded up against the flank of the UFO itself. Major Rudd was clear, lying prone in the ditch left behind by White’s grenade, which left…
Zelman was still running, eyes wide and lips drawn back over his teeth in a terrified snarl, when the beam hit. He was caught in flash-frame, one leg up as he leaped over a rotten log, one arm thrust out for balance, his LMG swinging wildly from the leather shoulder-strap.
He looked like he was calling Huang’s name.
Then the light washed over him, and in less time than it took to blink, Zelman blackened and popped like a microwaved sausage.
Gollnick was screaming for them to regroup, to train their fire, but Huang couldn’t speak. He was frozen in place as blood drifted down across his helmet in a fine, misting rain.
Captain Andy White was pressed flat against the wall of the alien craft when Zelman vanished in the beam of light.
Part of him wanted to shriek, to tear his hair out, to curl into a little ball and wait for all the bad shit to go away. The other part of him was already unslinging the rocker launcher strapped across his back, sighting on the walker and pulling the trigger.
The kick slammed him back against the hull of the UFO hard enough to bruise, but watching the impact was worth it. The walker collapsed in a gout of flame, one leg blown to a steel stump, kicking uselessly as it fell on its side.
Still firing, though. Still dangerous. It spat flame across the fields, blowing trenches from the soft earth. White dropped his empty launcher and fumbling for his LMG. “Anyone got my back? Anyone-”
Twin lines of plasma and laser fire zipped across the field and drilled through the walker’s carapace, exposing circuitry and cables dripping dark, blood-thick fluid. It kicked feebly, vomited sparks, and finally fell still.
Huang and Rudd met White’s gaze and nodded. Smoke wended skyward from the barrels of their rifles. “You okay?”
“Think so.” White inched across the field, barely daring to breathe, his finger on the trigger. Not until he’d emptied half a battery-worth of laser fire into the belly of the walker.
Behind him, Gollnick and Rudd were tending to Lieutenant Zelman. “He okay?” White asked, more out of habit than any real hope that Zelman was still alive. He’d seen the damage the beam had done. The scraps of his former squadmate littering the landscape.
Rudd turned away. “There’s… nothing to save. Fuck. Fuck!”
If the body had Santa dry-heaving – Santa, who’d been a combat medic before joining XCOM – then White didn’t want to look. He whispered a brief prayer to a God he didn’t believe in. “You get his tags?”
“Later.” Colonel Gollnick was already on her feet, her eyes hidden beneath the visor of her helmet. “Let’s just… get this done.”
Gollnick had picked the best for a reason. The rookies would’ve been screaming after what White had seen, but the whole team was already reloading, checking their angles as they approached the UFO entrance. Would the psychs be working double-time once they got home? Shit yeah, but at that moment they were on the job, and the job would get done.
The shimmering barrier of energy that formed the UFO’s front door dissipated at a touch. Colonel Gollnick motioned the team onward.
They slipped into the darkness and left the ruin of Lieutenant ‘Moose’ Zelman behind.
Groans rang through the segmented carapace of the downed UFO, although whether they were the moans of dying X-rays or the grumble of cooling metal was anyone’s guess. White took the lead, heavy weaponry humming in his hands as they wound through the all-too-organic corridors of the alien craft.
It was Huang who motioned for everyone to get low. “Movement ahead,” he whispered, rolling his battle scanner across the floor. The scanner was a crude echolocation device, sending out pings in all directions that funnelled back to Huang’s helmet HUD. “Two up ahead. Looks like mutons, heavily armed.”
White nodded grimly, wishing he had grenades to spare. Only one left on his belt, and they had no idea what was waiting further down the hall. “I’ll lay down spray. Keep them pinned. You guys-”
“We know.” ‘Santa’ Rudd hoisted his plasma rifle, the hard line of his jaw turned a sickly green in the glare. “Christmas comes early.”
The mutons didn’t stand a chance. The five remaining XCOM troopers were well-oiled, working in sync. They rounded the corner at the run and found the armoured gorillas patrolling a section of hallway outside another wide, shimmering door. The X-rays were still breaking for cover when Huang cut one of them down with a quick burst of laser fire, and White kept the other pinned while Santa and Leybourn hosed it with plasma.
Quick. Clean. Efficient. Fish in a barrel.
The problem was what lay behind the door.
Colonel Gollnick inched as close to the door as she dared and closed her eyes. Behind her, White whispered, “You hear anything?”
“No. It’s airtight. Huang, got another scanner?”
Huang shook his head. “And thermoptics shows zip. It’s sealed tight, Colonel.”
“Which means there’s something important in there.” Gollnick rubbed her eyes. “I can sense it, I think. This psi-testing stuff… I guess we just kick the door down and see.”
“Ready when you are, Colonel.” White unclipped his last grenade and tossed it from hand to hand. He was hoping he looked casually confident, that Gollnick couldn’t see the way his hands trembled. “I trust you.”
Gollnick nodded, lips pursed, her eyes narrowed to slits.
“Then we go.”
Colonel Wendy Gollnick insisted she be the one to pop the door. She’d pulled the mission from Pournelle, after all. She was the one carrying the only arc thrower. Whatever was waiting on the far side of the door needed to be tazed from close range, and there was no way she’d throw any of her teammates into the monster’s jaws.
Her palms sweated as she gave Major Rudd the countdown. Three, two…
The light peeled back. The door was open.
They were trained well, her chosen soldiers. Huang was stationed back from the doors, tucked into cover behind some alien control unit, watching the chamber through the scope of his rifle. “Three targets!” he called. “Two mutons, heavy armour, three meters inside the door! One… one, uh… what the fuck is that?”
Gollnick grit her teeth. Even without peering around the lip of the door, she knew they’d hit the jackpot. Pournelle and the lab team had been right – there was something new inside, some leader-caste X-ray plotting and seething.
Gouts of plasma spat through the doorway, burning fist-deep holes in the UFO’s fuselage. Blind fire, but if it caught them on their approach…
She met White’s eyes and flashed a quick series of hand signals – grenade, count of three, right side. Rudd and Leybourn would follow, with Huang providing cover from the rear.
It had to work. It was the only shot they had. “Now!”
White grinned and tossed his last grenade blind through the doorway. Gollnick’s teeth clacked together as the explosion rocked the craft. Something screamed inside, a guttural roar like a lion being put through a pasta press. “Go, go, go!”
She hurled herself through the open doorway while the smoke from White’s grenade was still clearing. The chamber was identical to the command chambers on previous UFOs they’d boarded – twenty paces per side, banks of chest-high control platforms encircling what a Star Trek nerd would’ve called the bridge. One of those control platforms was blown to hell by grenade shrapnel, the muton hiding behind it bellowing in indignation as it struggled to lift its rifle with one shredded arm. And in the centre, at the bridge…
A tall figure cloaked in velvet robes so long they puddled across the floor. Thin, impossibly thin, and so tall Gollnick found herself craning her neck back to meet its eyes. Such huge, dark eyes, almost hypnotising…
“Colonel! Snap out of it!”
White hit cover beside her, armour clanking as he skidded up against the control platform. The mutons were already firing back, blowing chunks out of their own control systems. “The hell is wrong with you, Gollnick?” He waved one hand before her eyes. “Head in the game!”
“It’s that thing!” She slapped herself across the cheek, the pain driving away the last of that muzzy, comfortable hypnotism. “It’s in my head!”
“Thought you were supposed to be the strong one.” White popped over the lip of the command consoles long enough to pump a barrage of laser fire into the injured muton. It died kicking, air whistling through the ruined cavity of its lungs. “You really think you can take that thing alive?”
“Commander says we’ve got to!”
“The Commander isn’t here! He’s back home, jerking off over his skim latte.” White ran his fingers through his curls. “Whatever you say, we do.”
It was hard enough to strategise in the safety of the Skyranger, let alone while pinned by plasma fire in the heart of an alien craft. “Okay! White, pin that weird skinny sucker. Huang, Rudd, I want that other muton dead! Leybourn, cover me as I hit that sucker-”
But Leybourn wasn’t listening. Leybourn was standing up, walking away from her cover in the corner of the chamber, marching steadily toward the centre of the room. She moved jerkily, bent forward, like she was struggling against an unseen wind. “Leybourn! What’re you-”
Sergeant Nilmini Leybourn turned and fired a sudden burst of plasma that sent Colonel Gollnick skittering back to safety. “Leybourn, hold your fire! Hold your-”
She saw the blank, distant shimmer in Leybourn’s eyes. That creature, the leader-caste, whatever it was, was in her sergeant’s head.
Only two ways to snap her out of it – disable the thing controlling her, or kill Leybourn.
No. No damn way was she shooting one of her own. “Bring that other muton down and give me a clear line to their commander! Not tomorrow, now!”
Like she even had to ask. Huang was a surgeon – a laser pinprick opened a hole as wide as a fifty-cent piece in the last muton’s forehead and it dropped, still steaming, its own plasma rifle stitching a jagged path across the UFO’s ceiling. That just left their leader.
Problem was, everything they threw at it just bounced back. It had some sort of energy barrier thrown up before it, a wall of light just like the door they’d walked through. A shield of pure power…
The UFOs had the same shields, and they could be burned through. All they had to do was hammer it hard, before it managed to puppet Leybourn into becoming an impromptu kamikaze.
She raised her rifle and sighted on the thin creature, the one now waving Leybourn closer, closer. “Take it off at the knees! I want it alive, and-”
The creature waved at her almost dismissively. Gollnick flinched back into cover, expecting a sudden spattering of plasma fire. But it wasn’t gesturing at her – it was motioning toward White, who was frantically reloading his laser LMG.
Something appeared in the air above him. Something that ate the light, that hurt just to look at.
It was a pinprick of absolute darkness, like a drill had been taken to the fabric of the world and opened a hole to somewhere beyond light and time. Then, before she could shout for Captain White to move, that point of black unfurled into a storm.
A cyclone of un-light opened around White, screaming as it shredded the air, tearing the walls of the UFO to splinters and reducing the consoles to shattered plastic. White was struggling to crawl out of the heart of the storm, dragging his way along the floor hand over hand, but the pressure was too much. It slammed him flat on the floor, thrashed his armour from his back, stretched him to the point of tearing.
His eyes met Gollnick’s. He was trying to say something but no sound came out.
As suddenly as the storm had appeared, it vanished. Captain White collapsed. His eyes bulged from the sockets, so bloodshot as to be two swollen orbs as red as raspberry jam. His tongue hung over his lips. His fingers drummed on the floor, then fell still.
It was strange how she looked at White lying dead, took that little portion of reality and filed it away in a dark corner of her mind labelled bad trauma, deal with it later. Right now, she had an alien to kill. Gollnick grit her teeth and forced herself to stand. “Hit it now! Everything you’ve got!”
She didn’t wait to see whether her team were following her commands. There was no other option. If she waited, they’d all be torn apart before they could call for evac.
She tugged the arc thrower from her belt even as plasma zipped over her shoulders, lines of heat cutting across the chamber as Rudd and Huang let loose. In the centre of the room, Leybourn was still stumbling, raising her rifle to bear like she was being tugged by invisible strings, but it wasn’t fast enough. The thin creature was staggering beneath the impact of plasma, the strange shimmering shield peeling away with every blast.
She could almost see the flesh beneath, the true creature hidden inside the layers of alien shielding. So fragile, eyes wide and dark, reaching for her with gentle hands. Why fight? Why, when it had so much to offer? It could teach her such things…
It would’ve been so easy to drop the arc thrower. To let those deep, black eyes swallow her altogether.
Instead, she jammed the device into the creature’s belly and pulled the trigger.
The snap of contact shocked her out of the trance. A light jumped from the arc thrower, a moment of pure lightning condensed into the palm of her hand. She reeled back, blinded, teeth clicking together.
Behind her, Sergeant Leybourn gasped. Her rifle hit the floor. “How the fuck-”
It was over.
“The boys down in the lab are running out of names for these things. The big walkers, the heavy armour you encountered, they’re calling those Sectopods.”
“Oh, great.” Gollnick shook her head. “Fat lot of comfort that is for Zelman.”
Pournelle didn’t flinch. “As for the tall one, the leader caste… it has its own name. An Ethereal.”
“How’d they come up with that?”
“They didn’t. It told them.” Pournelle tapped his temple with one liver-spotted finger. “It’s in communications with our team. Threatening us, mostly, but we’ll find a way to get some solid info out of it.”
“Was…” Gollnick gnawed her lower lip. “Was it worth it? White and Zelman for that thing?”
“You know I don’t like putting a value on human life.”
“But was it?”
Pournelle nodded slowly. “That communications artifact, that creature… yes. It would’ve been worth all your lives.”
Gollnick turned away, hands knotted behind her back. “Thanks for telling me the stakes, I guess.”
“You knew the stakes when you signed up.”
Gollnick nodded. “Sir… I have a request.”
“I need some time away.”
“What, to spend with your rabbit? Nobody leaves until the fight is finished, Colonel. They’re only going to come at us harder now, harder every damn time until one of us is finished.”
“Not leave. Just… turn off, for a while.” She closed her eyes. “Don’t make me lead any more. Not if they’re going to keep dying on me.”
“I can’t make that promise, Colonel.”
“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “I guess.”
Gollnick walked away, her heartbeat a distant throb in her ears, Pournelle’s voice a bare whisper behind her. She waited for everything to go numb.
– – –
Regular readers have been waiting a long time for this update. So what’s my excuse? No excuse, really. I mean, besides renovating a house and writing three novels in a year and going back to university full time…
But it’s here now, and hopefully here to stay. I’ll be pumping words a week into the B-Team whenever I find the time, so maybe I’ll finish the whole story some time before 2017? Maaaaaaybe?
Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed The B-Team so far and want to support me in finishing it, why not check out my 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!
Take care, everyone
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