THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 4 – Banished Hammers and Shattered Hearts
“I need one alive.”
It wasn’t what Commander Pournelle had wanted to hear. He’d been awake near two days straight, waiting for results from the lab as to the masses of extraterrestrial weaponry they’d been flying back from Operation Cold Shield. The fact that all of those weapons had detonated upon the death of the owners hadn’t stopped Doctor Vahlen’s team from peeling circuits out of the wreckage that could do more for weapon’s technology in a week than Lockheed and Metal Storm had achieved in a decade. Even so, they still didn’t have anything concrete. Nothing Pournelle could put into the hands of his soldiers.
He took a deep breath and clenched his hands into fists behind his back before replying. “Why?”
Dr Vahlen tilted her head. She’d been awake just as long as Pournelle, but somehow she still managed to look fresh behind her thin, wire-frame glasses. The woman was a machine, Pournelle thought. He couldn’t bring to hate her for it. If everyone working for XCOM had her energy, they’d have beaten the invaders back weeks ago.
“Why not?” she said. “The autopsies on the Sectoids show an extremely complex neural network wired throughout their craniums – a merger of flesh and electronics, far beyond our understanding – but without live impulses, I can’t examine how that network functions. I suspect their plasma weaponry interacts directly with their nervous system, but how can I test that hypothesis on corpses? Corpses that, I might add, continually return here suffering massive bullet and explosive trauma-”
“And you want me to bring one back… how?” A muscle twitched in his brow. “You want my people to risk their lives for your research?”
“Commander.” Vahlen’s voice was steady and stern, as if she were lecturing a child, and it made Pournelle feel very small. “If your people don’t bring an extraterrestrial back alive, we will all die. I want to win this war, and this is a necessary step. Otherwise…” She waved one hand. “We have a device.”
“A device? That’s all?”
“A stunning device. It links directly with the circuitry throughout the Sectoid brain.”
“But you haven’t tested it?”
“On livestock yes. How can I do any more than that when you haven’t brought me back a live specimen?”
“Yes, yes, I know, God dammit!” Pournelle hung his head. His voice was echoing back off the walls of the laboratory, and he knew he’d overstepped the line. Shouting was the child’s way to solve problems, he thought, and one he’d eschewed since his early days as an officer. But now, with one XCOM Squaddie dead in the ground and more reported abductions than he could respond to, he found it harder and harder to keep his calm.
“Okay,” he managed. “This device. How does it work?”
“Point and click, Commander,” Vahlen said with a hint of a smile.
“And what do you call it?”
Chapter 4: Banished Hammers and Shattered Hearts
Rookie Michael Sullivan turned the device over in his hands. “The arc thrower?”
“Yes, soldier,” Sergeant ‘Santa’ Rudd sighed. “The arc thrower.”
“It’s a taser.”
“It’s much more advanced than-”
“It’s an alien taser.” Sullivan leaned over and nudged Rookie Jake Solomon in the ribs. “Opinion? Taser, or no taser?”
Solomon raised one weary eyebrow. He’d been up all night, gut turning, worrying about missions to come. Rookie he might be, but he understood more about squad rotation than most of his fellow soldiers. With twenty other rookies fresh on base all going through rapid re-training, he knew it was only a matter of time before someone upstairs decided it was time for a trial by fire.
“Alien taser,” he said finally. “So what?”
“So what?” Sergeant Rudd’s eyes bulged. “So what? If you don’t know how to operate this when the time comes, you’re going to be on a slab! Rookie, that is your life you’re holding!”
“Sarge, please-” Solomon sighed. They’d been listening to the same lecture on repeat since being assigned to Sergeant Rudd’s command. Word throughout the barracks was that he’d lost a promising young Squaddie on his last drop, and now he’d been assigned to babysit the rookies until he got his nerve back. Which was fine with Jake Solomon – it’d been a year since he’d done live-fire training, and any time spent on the range was good time – but he didn’t like the idea of boarding a Skyranger with a Sergeant in command who wasn’t sure of himself.
And then, just as he’d feared, the klaxon sounded. Solomon and Sullivan winced as the siren pounded through the barracks, echoing off the walls and shaking the bunks. “All stations, all stations,” came the command. “Away teams Alpha and Beta to ready room. Repeat, Alpha and Beta-”
Rudd hadn’t flinched when the speaker sounded. He straightened his shoulders, took the arc thrower from Solomon’s hands, and licked his lips expectantly. “Both teams,” he said, eyes flashing in the barrack lights. “Something big. Get your kit, boys.”
Away team Beta was made up of five men – Rudd, and the four rookies he’d dubbed his boys, Solomon included. Bedford, Sullivan, and Young were the other three, and Solomon had had the chance to get to know each in turn during his weeks on barracks. Bedford was chiselled from rock, an Australian with a jaw like a sledgehammer and a quiet tone that put Solomon in mind of his highschool principal – always watching, always evaluating, ready to strike like the fist of Zeus. Sullivan was the old man of the group, even though he didn’t look a day over thirty-five. His curled moustache and quick eyes led Solomon to believe he had more combat experience than he’d let on. Fresh rookies didn’t have the guts to wear that sort of moustache, and they didn’t laugh like Sullivan either. The rookies Solomon knew kept quiet, building an air of mystique, but Sullivan told filthy jokes like it was going out of style.
Finally, Young. A man who never went anywhere without a paperback stuffed in his pocket. Solomon liked to read as much as the next man – hell, he had a small library at his home – but Young flipped pages like a man possessed. And while he didn’t share in Sullivan’s jokes, Jake Solomon could always see the corner of Young’s mouth twitching at the punchlines.
Now, all five men were assembled in the ready room, along with Away Team Alpha – Corporal Huang, Corporal Shephard, Squaddie White, Squaddie Gollnick, and a fresh-faced rookie Solomon had passed in the hall called Hickman. Ten soldiers, Solomon thought. He’d never heard of a Skyranger setting off with any more than five.
Something was very wrong.
He snapped to attention as Commander Pournelle strode through the side door and up to the stage. The Commander looked exhausted, head down, shoulders slumped, and he snapped the order to stand at ease without even looking up from his tablet. “God dammit,” Solomon heard him mutter. “God damn… Okay, ladies and gentlemen. Listen up, I’m going to make this quick.”
Solomon’s pulse quickened in his chest as Pournelle brought up a series of satellite images on the main briefing screen. “We have two incident sites,” Pournelle said. “A UFO landing in the midwest, and a bogie shot down fifteen minutes ago eighty kilometres north of Stalingrad. Two sites. Two teams.” He looked first to Away Team Alpha. “Corporal Shephard. Your team will attend the UFO landing in Nevada. Eliminate all hostiles and bring back the bodies.” He spun, fixing his gaze on Sergeant Rudd. “Away Team Beta will attend the UFO crash landing north of Stalingrad. We expect little resistance, so it’s a good opportunity for you rooks to gain some combat experience. Doctor Vahlen would also like us to bring back an X-ray alive for… further study. You’ll be supplied with arc throwers, so if you find any X-rays with crash injuries, make use of them. But do not, I repeat, do not jeopardise your safety just to keep the good doctor happy. I want you all back here alive, understood?” Pournelle glared at everyone assembled in the ready-room, jaw jutting. “Dismissed.”
Only once Pournelle was out the door did Solomon allow himself to exhale. Young and Bedford were looking at each other with worried expressions, but Sullivan had the furrowed brow of a man deep in thought.
“Russia,” Sullivan said. “Been a while.” He looked up at Jake Solomon, a grin spreading beneath his thick moustache. “Don’t forget to bring your camera, eh son?”
Solomon tried to smile back, but he couldn’t bring himself to fake it.
Away Team Alpha’s Skyranger landed just after noon, Nevada time. Squaddie Wendy Gollnick was the first down the back tray, surveying the woodland through the scope of her assault rifle. The landing zone was clear – a square kilometre of firs, mountains rising up in the distance to snow-capped peaks, a stream running through the scrub so clear that she could see every white pebble resting on the bottom. She tilted her head to the wind and was just able to make out the whine of engines somewhere ahead – the UFO, maybe idling, maybe preparing to lift off with its cargo of abductees.
Corporal Eliza Shephard was already out, barking orders. “White, Hickman, we’re heading north around the hill. Huang, up the slope with Gollnick and cover us.”
“Aye aye.” Corporal Huang scampered ahead, his colossal sniper rifle slung over his shoulder. “Gollnick, you coming?”
Gollnick nodded. She’d never considered herself one of the forward team – her training had focused almost exclusively on providing combat support, not front-line fire – but the chain of command existed for a reason, and she wasn’t about to break rank. They climbed the hill together, Gollnick and Corporal Huang side by side, until they reached the peak. Thick oaks shuddered as the wind rose up, the spiny bushes at their base bent almost flat. A grey hare darted from the undergrowth, and Gollnick barely held back from firing reflexively and turning the animal to mush. The hare sniffed the air, nose twitching, but when Gollnick bent on one knee and reached out the hare bounded away into the tall grass and vanished.
“You see that?” she whispered. “They don’t abduct the rabbits.”
“Seriously?” Huang was by her side, panning across the field below, the scope of his sniper rifle pressed to his eyesocket. “I can see the UFO. Rabbits aren’t the priority.”
Gollnick thought back to her childhood. Her parents’ red-brick house with the little back garden, her white and brown rabbits milling in their cage. The way they nibbled at her fingers when she fed them carrots through the bars. It’d been weeks since she’d seen a tree, and God knows how long since she’d touched anything living beside other men and women, trading quick handshakes and fist-bumps as they passed in the corridors.
“Think they’d let you keep one on base?” she said.
“What, a rabbit?” Huang tugged at his thin moustache. “Can’t hurt to ask, I guess… Contact!”
Gollnick pressed low against the oak and sighted on the field. Three sectoids, crossing from right to left, headed for a tall rock outcropping, their oversized skulls bouncing on their pencil-thin necks like dashboard bobble-heads. If they’d seen any of the XCOM troops they gave no indication, which put Huang and Gollnick in the perfect position to rain down fire.
Huang pressed one finger to his ear. “Shephard. Three moving ahead of your position, east to west. Initiating fire.” His hands moved too fast for Gollnick to follow. He propped his sniper rifle against the tree, drew his pistol, cocked and fired in one swift motion. The first sectoid stumbled, clutching itself, and that was the opportunity Gollnick needed. She raised up and put a three-round burst through the alien’s midsection while it was still trying to get to its feet.
The sectoid crumpled. Huang whispered, “Nice. Xeno down. Two still out there, though.”
“Xeno is a silly name,” Gollnick replied. The two other sectoids had reached the shelter of the rock, and she was struggling to find a clean line of fire. “You should call them…” She stopped. Something had caught her eye in the distance, and she squinted through the sun glare.
“What…” Gollnick whispered, “the fuck… is that?”
White, Hickman and Corporal Shephard had been advancing around the base of the hill, moving to flank the two sectoids, but as they reached the end of a shallow stream they’d startled something hiding around the bend. What rose up out of that stream struck Gollnick mute.
Sectoids were easy. She’d blasted them at close range, long range, blown their heads off, cut them down with rifle fire, watched them laid out on the slab back at HQ. Sectoids were passė. These things were abominations, nightmare creatures made flesh. She sighted on the first, trying to find her range, and saw an upper torso, flesh puckered and rotten, bristling with tubes and knotted cables. A face that could only glare, skin scarred by repeated surgery, mouth sealed by intubation. The lower half gone, replaced by steel and carbon. The engineering that had replaced the creature’s legs spat fire and plasma beneath it as it drifted across the grass, providing some cruel parody of flight. It set tiny spot-fires in the brush as it advanced on the hill, and Gollnick found her hands shaking as she tried to keep her aim.
Beside her, Corporal Huang whispered, “These Xenos are fucked up.” He raised his rifle and adjusted his scope. “Block your ears-”
But Huang didn’t get a chance to pull the trigger. Gunfire roared at the base of the hill, and Gollnick peered around her cover to see Squaddie White opening up with his LMG. “Suck it!” he called, as the first floating creature was slammed back by the weight of lead. “Suck it long, and suck it hard!”
The floater was flipped end over end, sparks and black blood gouting from wounds the size of coke cans. It drifted, righted itself, roared, and erupted in a hail of shrapnel as something in its lower half sparked and ignited. Gollnick ducked as the creature hit the hard-packed soil, shards of steel ringing off the tree-trunk, taking chunks out of the bark inches from her nose.
The steady whump of plasma fire rang out from the field below. Gollnick peered out just far enough to see the two remaining sectoids crouched behind their rock cover, firing wildly, while the pair of living floaters retreated back up the stream. Squaddie White was scrambling back on hands and knees, trying to find some safety in a grassy hollow. “Cover me!” he called. “Cover me, god dammit!”
Gollnick looked to Huang. The sniper nodded. “On three.”
She was ready. Beside her, Huang raised his rifle, sighted, exhaled, and pulled the trigger. The crack of gunfire was deafening, but it was worth it for the sight of one of the sectoids falling back, its skull split like a cantaloupe. The second sectoid stopped firing a moment, confused, and Gollnick took the opportunity. She charged down the hill, skidding on wet grass, and jammed her rifle over the top of the rock ledge into the remaining sectoid’s face.
Three rounds between the eyes put it down. Gollnick slumped against the rock, panting, fumbling for the release on her magazine. “Corporal!” she called. “Got eyes on those two flying things?”
The reply froze her down to the bones. “Gollnick, they’re coming in high! Down, down, stay down!”
Gollnick threw herself flat, fumbling a fresh magazine into her rifle, as the whirring of engines rose up overhead. The roar of the floating creatures closing the distance. The liquid whoosh of plasma.
Fire boiled over the lip of the rock, and Gollnick bit back a scream.
The Skyranger bumped and rocked as they came into land. Solomon was strapped in tight, but Bedford was already unstrapping, like he was desperate to get out of the craft. “Calm down,” Solomon said. “Safety first, don’t you know?”
Bedford grinned uneasily. He fumbled in his ration pack and came out with gum, which he chewed manically. “Yo, Solomon. What’d you do, before this? I mean, military, sure-”
“I designed tactical systems,” Solomon said. “In fact, I worked on the systems deployed in XCOM HQ.”
Bedford raised one eyebrow. “No kidding?”
“No kidding. Commander Pournelle is, right now, monitoring our position and vital signs on a system I helped create.”
“Damn. So… Do you know how this is gonna play out?”
Solomon laughed. “I built the GUI. Doesn’t mean I’ve got any idea how Pournelle is going to set this up. Besides, I think ground decisions are in Sarge’s hands. Isn’t that right, Sarge?”
Sergeant Rudd might’ve been about to reply, but the Skyranger had settled and the back tray was dropping. “Chitchat later,” Rudd said. “Move, move, move!”
They ran out as one into the woods. All was silent, apart from the distant crackle of flames. Ice crunched beneath Solomon’s boots. The Russian woodland was thick, firs clustered together so tight he could barely see more than fifty yards ahead, their branches drooping beneath the weight of snow. The forest was a pristine National Geographic photograph opportunity, untouched by human hands until the Skyranger’s VTOL jets had melted circles from the snow and burned great black holes in the grass beneath.
They’d passed over the ruin of the UFO upon their approach. It was a huge silver lozenge half buried in the snow, flames boiling from long rents in its outer skin, a trail of debris and trees crushed flat leading back for half a mile. But it’d been an eight hour flight from the US to Russia, and the Xrays could’ve gone anywhere in that time. Maybe they were stealing children from a nearby town. Maybe setting up an ambush.
Solomon watched the trees, watched the shadows. His breath came fast and quick.
The rest of the team – Young, Sullivan and Sergeant ‘Santa’ Rudd were taking up positions against the trees. Rudd made quick hand motions, directing the team to move along the peak of the hill, and Solomon obliged, dragging his feet through the heavy snow as he moved from tree to tree.
Bedford was close behind, assault rifle at the ready. “Hey, Solomon.”
“Want some gum?”
“No thanks. I’d just swallow it.”
“Huh. Well, just wanted to say, if the shit starts, let me up front.”
“You want to bag one, huh?”
Bedford laughed nervously. “Don’t you?”
Sergeant Rudd held up a closed fist, and the team came to a halt, finding protection behind the thick firs. They’d advanced on the UFO, and Solomon could now make out the curve of its bulkhead, tilted against the slope where it had come to rest. As far as Solomon could tell, nothing was moving in that twisted mass of steel.
Sergeant ‘Santa’ Rudd pulled a small pair of binoculars from inside the pack at his waist and focused on the snowy plain below. “You see how the left side has been gutted?” he said. “Easy entry, but they’ll know that too. If there’s any resistance, it’ll be concentrated around that point. We come in from the south. Sullivan, Young, you’re up front. Solomon and Bedford, keep close behind. Fifteen meter spread.”
“We shot the fucker down, Sarge,” Bedford protested. “Look at it! Nothing living in there, I bet.”
Jake Solomon was about to reply when Sullivan cut in. “You ever seen a man live through a hard landing in an Apache?”
Bedford paused. “I, uh… no.”
“I have,” Sullivan said, grinning beneath his moustache. “And people pulled out of a burning jet that came down in the woods. Men crawling out of an APC that hit an IED, too. So if you think all those Xrays are putty in there, sure. Go check out the UFO yourself. We’ll see you back at the ‘ranger.”
Solomon grinned at Bedford’s expression. “I think,” he said, “we’d better take every precaution. Right, Sergeant Rudd?”
Rudd tucked his binoculars back in his pack and grimaced. “Damn right. Let’s move in.”
The ramshackle remains of an old barn or smoking shed lay half-buried by snow, and Solomon was the first to reach the chest-high ruin of its outer wall. Sullivan and Young were moving up on the right, Sergeant Rudd a few paces behind, and Solomon rested his finger on the trigger as he watched the UFO from behind the pile of brick.
He wondered what Pournelle was seeing now, how the Commander felt watching their movements on the interface he’d built. Soldiers reduced to blips of light on a tactical screen. He wondered whether Pournelle still remembered that these were men he was directing and not just tools, automatons carrying assault rifles.
Ten seconds later, all of that didn’t matter.
Young and Sullivan were fifty yards from the downed ship, close enough for the flames to reflect on their polished armour, when the creatures boiled out from inside the craft. They were unlike anything he’d seen before on the chest-cam replays spooled over and over back in barracks – gangling, half-steel horrors with their legs removed, replaced with pipes and wires and cold steel all twisted and hammered into something like a jet assembly. They drifted five feet above the grass, their engines spitting flames behind them, melting the snow to black slush.
“Fire, fire!” Sergeant Rudd called, and the entire team poured it on.
In the end, Solomon couldn’t tell who hit what. The two Xrays were still lifting their weapons to bear when they were slammed down by the weight of lead. The first spun about in the air before tumbling to the ground, blood and oil squirting out at high pressure, its rotten arms dragging snow-angel patterns as it spasmed and died. The second was only winged, and it leaked black fluid from its mess of steel tubing as it flipped out of control, finally landing on its side less than ten yards from where Sullivan and Young were waiting.
It was Sullivan that broke cover and crossed the gap, jamming his rifle into the dying creature’s chest and cutting off its cries with a single squeeze of the trigger. The creature jerked, sighed, and went silent.
Solomon peered out from behind the wall, rifle still up against his shoulder. “Down?”
“Very down.” Sullivan gave the thing a hard kick. The steel of his armoured boot rang against its artificial carapace. “What a monster, huh?”
Solomon had to agree. The scars where the creature’s torso had been welded into its electric lower half were livid yellow, pulsing with rot and infection. Even dead, he had to pity the things. The sectoids were bad enough, but this… he couldn’t even tell whether he was fighting a footsoldier or some engineered slave.
“Hey, Solomon.” Rookie Sullivan was by his side, rifle at the ready, his moustache twitching as he inhaled whatever corrosive gases were leaking from the creature’s corpse. “Leave it for the collection team, huh? Sarge says you and me are up front.”
“Sure.” Solomon’s mouth was dry as he popped his empty magazine and reloaded. The weight of jacketed lead was comforting. “Ready when you are.”
It was hard for Solomon to keep his terror from leaping up and taking control of his shaking fingers as they crossed the open space between the treeline and the downed UFO. The closer he got, the larger the craft seemed to become, until it loomed over the heads of the entire team, blocking out the afternoon sun entirely. He could see through the huge rent in the side of the ship, into dark corridors where lights on strange consoles blinked in sequence. A smell wafted out of that blackness that tingled in the back of Solomon’s throat. Metal reduced to puddles of liquid by the impact of landing. Circuits leaking black smoke.
Or maybe, he thought, he was smelling death. The corpses of the craft’s pilots strewn throughout the bays, mashed like soft fruit against bulkheads, shredded by the impact of whatever missile had shot it down.
It was bizarre, comparing the sight of the UFO to what he’d experienced while working on XCOM’s tactical systems. Landscapes reduced to vectors, bogeys just blips skimming low across abstract continents. He’d applied for the ground assault crew specifically because he wanted to put his own systems to the test, to see whether his millions of lines of code would stand the test of a real engagement.
Now, with the hull close enough to touch, he was regretting his curiosity.
Sergeant Rudd was at their backs. “Solomon, Sullivan, inside! Bedford, Young, keep right!” Solomon didn’t argue. With his rifle up and his heart in his throat, he dashed through the gaping hole in the steel wall and into the cool shadows of the UFO.
It was quiet in the corridors, as if the craft itself were dampening the sound of Solomon’s footsteps. He pressed against the wall, feeling the ribbing of his body armour catch against rivets and seams. He and Sullivan had slipped through into a chamber the size the pool-hall back at barracks, empty aside from a console flashing green and red lights in rapid sequence. The back side of the chamber opened up into a corridor, and at the far end of the corridor was what looked like a flat plane of energy, a door of blue light that shimmered like pearl.
Rudd had caught up, watching the rear. Where Bedford and Young had gone, Solomon had no idea. Around the back, most likely. The only way left to go was forwards.
Solomon took a long, slow breath, and advanced to the shining door. He could feel the static rising off it, the crackle and hum of energy, tendrils of lightning like inquisitive fingers leaping out and stroking his breastplate.
He looked back at Sergeant Rudd, who had taken up position two paces back. “What now?”
“Open it and immediately fall back. Be ready to fire.”
Open it? But how? There were no buttons on the energy door, no handles. Solomon reached out and, barely daring to breathe, pushed his index finger into the plane of light.
The door blinked out of existence so fast that Solomon jumped back, startled. The sudden flash of light had blinded him, but as he blinked away tears he could make out a chamber on the far side of the door, a wide room with bowed steel walls and a polished metal ceiling. The far ends of that chamber were shadowed, and standing up out of the shadows were…
Solomon couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. His finger tightened on the trigger. “Sarge!”
There were three of them, not sectoids or the hideous mutated flying things they’d gunned down outside, but men, humans in neat blue suits… but somehow wrong. Even as he staggered back against the bulkhead, Solomon knew that whatever was rising up out of the darkness wasn’t truly human. They were too tall, too thin, and they moved like marionettes jerked along by invisible strings. Even their suits and sunglasses looked false, not fabric at all but flesh rippling like fabric, skin curling in a crude parody of clothing. Imitation people inside imitation suits.
The first of the thin men loped across the chamber, one hand rising to adjust its glasses, the other holding a weapon that glowed with energy.
The thin man didn’t just fold and die but exploded, rupturing like a balloon. Guts and gas sprayed out in a cloud as the creature fell, choking the room and forcing Solomon back. He tripped and stumbled, coughing, vision blurred by tears as the gas stung his eyes like acid. “Sarge!” he called, unable to see whether Rudd and Sullivan were at his back or had retreated down the hall. “Sarge, help!”
Green fire lanced out of the dark, cutting through the cloud with surgical accuracy. There was no pain – just a curious warmth as Solomon slid down the wall, hands crossed over his belly, his rifle sliding from his fingers.
“Sarge?” His voice was a bare whisper. He smelled flesh cooking and knew it was his own. There were popping sounds like gunfire, but whether it was his squad or the thin men advancing was impossible to tell. The sounds grew distant, tinny, like he was hearing them from across a great divide. “I think…”
Darkness crowded in at the edges of his vision. Solomon closed his eyes.
It was one PM in Nevada, and Corporal Huang was under fire.
The two remaining floaters – xenos, he decided, was a shitty name after all – were pouring plasma down on his position. Whenever he tried to peer out from behind his tree and take a shot they opened up again, blasting chunks out of the wood and sending him scrambling back for cover. And whenever they gave him half a moment to grab his sniper rifle and adjust his scope, they would turn their attention on Rookie Gollnick, who was still trapped behind the tumble of boulders where the two sectoids had died.
He tried scooting down the slope of the hill, but there was too much open ground. He’d be gunned down before he made it to the safety of the bushes. “Need some covering fire up here!”
“Gotcha!” That was Corporal Shephard down below, safely tucked around the bend in the stream. He heard her shotgun roar, and the enemy fire slackened. That was all Huang needed. He scooted on his belly around the trunk of the tree, rested his rifle on a lump of hard sod, sighted, and fired.
The rifle kicked against Huang’s shoulder so hard he thought he heard something snap, and the nearest floater erupted in midair as his slug took it through the middle, shredding organs and circuitry in equal measure. The second floater spun, panicked, and through his scope Huang could make out every hideous detail of how its breathing mask was grafted to the flesh of its skull, how its arms were criss-crossed with stitching and scar tissue, the aftermath of repeated surgeries.
His hands worked automatically, ejecting the spent shell and ramming the slide home. His finger rested on the trigger as he sighted on the alien’s mid-section. Breathe. Just as he’d been taught in Specialist training, as he’d rehearsed a thousand times on the range. Exhale, pull…
He didn’t get the opportunity. Far down at the base of the hill, Corporal Shephard was moving fast. She broke from the cover of the curving stream to dash across the open ground, and was standing directly beneath the second floater when she fired, blasting a hole as wide as a dinner plate through the creature’s undercarriage. The beast roared, and Shephard threw herself aside as it hit the earth. Dirt and flames sprayed in great arcs as the creature flailed, coughed, and died.
Huang relaxed his finger from the trigger. “Sheeeeeit,” he whispered, watching Shephard coolly slide a fresh slug into her combat shotgun. “That’s one hell of a lady.”
The five regrouped at the base of the hill: Huang, Shephard, Gollnick, White and the rookie Hickman, who’d been crouching behind a boulder throughout the entire firefight. “I had a clean shot,” the kid grumbled. “Could’ve taken them.”
“And?” Corporal Shephard was down on one knee, binoculars in hand, scanning the treeline to the north. “Next time, take the shot.” She snapped the binoculars back on to her belt. “The bogey is up ahead. Big door facing south. White, you lead. I don’t want to lose any more body parts.”
That was when Huang noticed the slice up her left cheek, a cut as long as his finger running from Shephard’s chin to her ear. “Shit, you need that stitched?”
“Now? Really? Priorities, boy.” Shephard grinned, showing off her bright teeth. “Will you support from the rear, Corporal?”
“Only if you quit the puns, Corporal.”
Shepard’s grin grew wider. “Deal.”
Which, in the end, left Corporal Huang two hundred yards back from the alien craft, secure behind a tree while White, Hickman, Shephard and Gollnick advanced across the open ground. He knew he was in the right position – elevated, fully loaded, and with a clear line of sight – but he still felt as though he’d abandoned his own team. His finger rested lightly on the trigger as he panned back and forth across the hull of the ship, waiting for any hint of movement. Shephard and Gollnick were flanking what he assumed was the front door – a huge sheet of energy rippling across the bulk of the UFO – while White and Hickman were headed for an opening on the right corner, intending to slip through and meet up with their Corporal inside.
It was a solid strategy, apart from one detail – Huang wasn’t there to assist.
“Don’t fuck this up,” he said through gritted teeth. Shephard was pressed against the hull, reaching through that strange forcefield, her rifle at the ready. White and Hickman were down low, wading through a shallow stream that led up to that side entrance. Everything was smooth. Everything was fine. They were professionals, he reminded himself, and professionals got it done.
Shephard stepped through the forcefield, and Huang’s jaw tightened. “Don’t fuck this up. Don’t fuck-”
Shephard motioned Gollnick forward. They were standing beside a bulkhead that blinked with little amber lights, and it slid open as Shephard approached. What Huang saw through his scope made his gut tighten into a knot the size of his fist.
A control room, or what he assumed was a control room, lined with tiny lights. Three small figures, sectoids, massed around a central console, blinking owlishly as the door slid open. And behind them…
He’d seen that thing before. A creature shaped like a man, muscled, armoured, but glowing from inside like it was constructed out of shifting planes of light. The outsider.
Huang had time to shout, “Shephard, get down!” before all four of the creatures opened fire, and the forward team vanished behind a wave of plasma.
Russian winter was cold, no doubt, but Sullivan had been through worse. Desert cold was agonising – when the sun dropped on the dustbowl, all the life just went out of the earth and left it barren. Snow was almost comforting.
What he couldn’t deal with was seeing Solomon on the floor. Kid wasn’t dead, so far as he could tell, but he wouldn’t last long. He’d only caught a glimpse of the thin men when Solomon had opened the door, but it was enough to tell him numbers and positions. Two of the bastards, pressed up against the outer wall. Hidden, but not completely protected.
Sergeant Rudd was at his back. “We’ve got to pull him out,” Rudd said. “I’ve got you covered, just move, move, move!”
“Sir!” Sullivan didn’t hesitate. There was no fear, only cool adrenaline pushing him on. He rounded the corner with Rudd beside him, one shoulder hard up against the wall, rifle at the ready. The two thin men were silhouettes against the blinking consoles, their spidery limbs throwing obscene, jittery shadows across the floor.
The first was raising his weapon to fire when Sullivan blew his head off. The creature clutched itself like there was still some semblance of life in those artificial limbs, before collapsing like a deflated pool-toy, gas hissing from the ruin of its face. But the second thin man was close behind, pistol humming, plasma spilling from its vents.
That was when Rookie Bryan Young punched through the UFO’s back door with Bedford by his side. Young fired first, rifle bucking in his hands, and the thin man collapsed, bleeding something black and viscous from its chest. Its blood sizzled where it hit the floor, like an Alka Seltzer on the tongue, and Sullivan recoiled at the stench. Then Rudd was at his arm, rifle up, shouting, “The arc thrower! Stun the fucker, stun it!”
The creature was on its knees, guts tangled around its wrists, but it was still trying to draw a bead on the soldiers when Sullivan pressed the bulb of the arc thrower to its head and depressed the trigger. He had a moment to think: God, what if Vahlen miscalculated? before the air sparked and electricity licked between the end of the device and the thin man’s skull.
The creature jerked, slipped, and fell flat. Sullivan exhaled. “He’s down, Sergeant.”
“Hit him again to make sure!” Sergeant Rudd was on his knees beside Solomon, bandages and needles in hand, hands working so fast they were almost a blur. “Come on, keep breathing, keep breathing. Don’t die on me, don’t you dare-”
Rudd hit the catch that opened Solomon’s chestplate, and Sullivan winced when he saw the expanse of blackened flesh beneath. Rudd worked with patient hands, disinfecting and binding with the firm but controlled motions of a career Corpsman.
“Is he okay?” Sullivan asked.
“He’ll live.” Sergeant Rudd jammed two hypodermics into the soft flesh of Solomon’s neck and depressed the plungers. Solomon jerked on the floor, eyelids fluttering. “The wound is already cauterised. Just need to keep his heart pumping long enough to get him back to the Skyranger. Blood plasma and adrenaline should do-”
Solomon spasmed as the plungers hit home, hands curling into fists. Then he coughed, blinked, and looked straight into Sullivan’s eyes. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “I think I fucked up, Sarge.”
“You did fine,” Rudd said, patting Solomon on the shoulder. “You just lie still.”
But Solomon was already pushing off the ground, snatching at his rifle. “I’m all good, Sarge-”
“Stay on the fucking ground!” Rudd pushed Solomon back down with a finger in the centre of his chest. “If you move, if you goddamn move-”
Sullivan’s attention snapped around. He wasn’t watching Solomon writhing on the floor any more, or Young and Bedford setting up position around the chamber. He was transfixed by the door in the back of the compartment, another shimmering wall of energy that flexed and hummed in time with his heartbeat.
He could hear something beyond that door. Footsteps. A low, near-subsonic growl.
“Sarge!” he called, swinging his rifle to bear even as the energy-door blinked and vanished. “We’ve got-”
Tall, shimmering, bursting with light. A Greek God advancing across the battlefield. An outsider, weapon in hand.
His finger tightened on the trigger, but not fast enough. He felt the plasma impact before he heard it – a hit from less than a meter away, harder than a baseball bat to the ribs, that lifted him off the ground and threw him against the bulkheads.
From where he lay, Sullivan couldn’t see the outsider, or his squadmates. Just the rapid crack-crack-crack of rifle fire, the shouting, the panic echoing off the steel walls. He reached down and traced the hole burned in his armour by the plasma. His hand came away sticky with blood. He could feel it inside the carapace plating, pumping hot and slick.
Pressure, he thought. Have to keep pressure. But when he pressed down with both hands he realised he couldn’t feel the ends of his fingers. Everything tingled. His eyelids seemed impossibly heavy.
He could hear Rudd shouting his name. He tried to reply but his tongue was stone.
In the end, it was easier to just close his eyes.
– – –
– – –
Author’s note – Holy crap, a two parter.
For those who play XCOM, you’ll know that you can’t set out on two missions at once, but these UFO events occurred almost immediately after each other and didn’t feature any of the same soldiers, so I thought I’d combine them for max tension. Even so, just the first half of this chapter is nearly twice as long as any of my previous chapters, hence the longer wait.
If you’d like to support me in this venture, why not grab a copy of my latest science fiction novella, The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan?
Take care out there!