THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 4 – Banished Hammers and Shattered Hearts
Chapter 4, Part 2
Squaddie Andrew White was five meters from the hull of the UFO when the doors slid open and revealed the sectoids inside, huge black eyes reflecting his own terror back at him. He would’ve raised his LMG and hosed the bastards, but Corporal Shephard and Squaddie Gollnick were standing in the way. “Down, down, down!” he shouted, and darted the last few steps to the UFO, slamming into the hull shoulder-first as the X-rays vanished from sight. “Corporal, are you-”
“Go right, go right!” Plasma was pouring out of the UFO, hard bright lines of light illuminating Shephard and Gollnick as they crouched just inside the safety of the doorway. “Cut them off!”
White hesitated. “You need backup-”
“Go right and give us that fucking backup!” Shephard jammed her shotgun around the doorway and fired blind, and White heard one of the X-rays gurgling as it died. “Flank, motherfucker, flank!”
There was no disobeying Eliza Shephard when she spoke like that. White motioned Rookie Hickman to his side. “Be ready to shoot this time,” he growled, and followed the curve of the UFO anti-clockwise as he split for the rightmost door.
The UFO had landed at the head of a thin stream, and its back door opened directly on to the water. White slowed as the door came into view, taking in the treeline beyond the UFO, and the large log laying across the streambed, large enough for a sectoid to crouch behind. He held up a hand, fist closed, and nodded towards the log, before motioning for Hickman to loop around.
The kid understood and split further right, creeping through the tall grass with his rifle up hard against his shoulder. Behind him, White could hear the crack of gunfire, Gollnick screaming, “Two more, two more!” It took every scrap of self control he had not to run back and pour on the lead. Orders were orders. “See anything?” he called to Hickman.
Hickman was a thin kid, dark skinned, with a sharp Aussie accent and a finely carved chinstrap goatee. Every time he’d bumped into the kid in barracks he’d been grinning, talking cars and girls and games White had never heard the names of. Now, those thick brows were furrowed with concentration. “I see… Fuck!”
Hickman fell flat in the grass, his rifle spitting fire. “The log, behind the log!”
White could see it now, the thin grey crown of the sectoid’s head protruding above the line of the log. Hickman had it pinned but White couldn’t draw a bead. “Kill it!”
“I got it, I got it!”
“Then take the fucking shot!”
Hickman let loose another burst. The air filled with splinters, and the sectoid hissed in surprise. “I… I missed!”
White spat in the grass. “No shit, kid! Coming through, watch your fire!” He leaped into the stream and sprinted to the cover of a shelf of stone. The sectoid was crouched, unable to run back to the safety of the UFO without exposing itself.
White took the time to put the X-ray clean in his sights before blowing the alien to scrap. Half a second with his finger on the trigger turned the creature into a long grey smear, guts and cartilage spread from the log to the door of the craft. “You see that?” White crowed. “Aim, shoot, hit! No messing around! Door, left side!”
Hickman scowled as he moved up, splashing through the stream. “Yes, sir!”
White held back on the urge to slap the kid across the back of the head. There was a time to talk shit and a time to shoot shit, and this was the former. They took up positions on either side of the door, and White dared a glance inside. He could see the two remaining sectoids taking up position behind a central console, their weapons flashing as they fired on Shephard’s position. The outsider loped across the chamber, eight feet tall and shimmering as the plates of its armour shifted like liquid glass, and as White watched Shepard pivoted out from her position behind the doors, fired her shotgun into the outsider’s gut, and pulled smoothly back into cover.
The outsider fell, gurgling, hands curling into claws, and faded from existence like a bulb flickering and dimming. The two sectoids behind the console didn’t seem worried. They were firing hard, working in concert to keep Shephard pinned.
White met Hickman’s eyes. “You see them?”
“Sure, sir. I see them.”
“You got a bead?”
Hickman raised his rifle, lower lip white between his clenched teeth. “I got him.”
Hickman inhaled, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
The hammer-crash of rifle fire boomed inside the UFO, and the two sectoids ducked down, hissing furiously. “I missed!” Hickman called, “Sir, I fucking missed-”
The air sizzled and ignited. A line of green fire hung in the air between the sectoids and Hickman’s chest. The kid looked down at the hole in his armour, the flames boiling from his ruined chest. White smelled melting plastic and skin.
“Fuck,” Hickman whispered, and fell back against the bulkhead. His rifle slipped from his fingers. Blood bubbled over his lips.
He slid out of the doorway and fell into the stream, blood pluming outward in the water, and even before the weight of his armour dragged him down Squaddie White knew the kid was dead.
Rookie Paul Bedford was so close to Sullivan when he fell that he felt the hot splash of blood against his bare cheeks. The outsider stood before him, eight foot tall, shimmering, a beast of legend, and he found his finger frozen on the trigger.
Oh God, he thought, as the X-ray raised its rifle to bear. I never got to write my novel.
Then came a sudden boom, a hail of gunfire that shocked Bedford back to attention. The outsider screamed as it fell, the light behind its armour fading. Then it was gone, simply folded out of existence as whatever energy sustained it ran dry.
Solomon lay on his back, panting, his rifle propped awkwardly against his armpit. “Did I get it?”
“God damn it, Rookie…” Sergeant Rudd slapped Solomon on the shoulder before crossing the chamber to attend to Sullivan. “The old man’s alive. Hurt bad though. He’s not walking out of here.” He sprayed some expanding foam compound into Sullivan’s wounds and turned the man on his side to keep him from choking on his own blood. “Gonna need an evac. Bedford, you think you can get back to the Skyranger and organise a stretcher?”
“Aye aye,” Bedford said, then snapped around. Something had moved beyond the vast doorway through which the outsider had appeared. “Sarge, down!”
Beyond the door was a long chamber, the walls and floor gunmetal grey. At the far end was a second door, and through it Bedford could see three small shapes. Sectoids, moving fast, taking up positions behind the ridges and alcoves of the UFO.
Bedford fired from the hip, rifle bucking in his hands, and one of the X-rays went down in a spray of blood. The other two were luckier, slipping effortlessly into cover. Bedford crouched low, wary of oncoming fire. “Sarge, what do we do?”
Rudd was still feverishly patching up Sullivan, binding deep wounds and jabbing wicked looking needles into his neck. “I can’t leave him!”
“They’re right fucking there, Sarge!”
“Then shoot the bastards!” Rudd unclipped a smoke grenade from his belt. “Search and destroy,” he hissed, and tossed the grenade through the door.
The smoke grenade was a little steel cylinder, about the size of a can of red bull, that spun across the floor and popped with a sound not unlike a balloon being pricked with a pin. The smoke that poured out was thick and purple, stinging at the back of Bedford’s eyes. Sure, the X-rays couldn’t see them advance, but their vision was just as limited.
“Young,” Bedford grunted. “You with me?”
The rookie grinned nervously. “Why not?
And together, they ran into the smoke.
From her position in the main doorway of the UFO, Corporal Eliza Shephard had a perfect view of White and Hickman flanking through the back entrance, but there was nothing she could do to help when Hickman fell back, burning from the inside as the plasma ate through his ribcage. “Gollnick!” she called. “I need cover, now!”
But Squaddie Wendy Gollnick had split, running from her position at the UFO doorway back into the treeline. Shephard watched incredulously as the woman crouched behind a thick oak, her rifle forgotten, cowering with her hands over her head. “I can’t!” she cried. “I just can’t, I-”
“She’s gone, Corporal!” That was Huang, still safety atop the hill, tucked behind his tree. “She’s going nuts!” Huang raised his rifle and fired mid-word, the roar of his sniper rifle echoing off the hills. “I’m empty!”
“God damn it! Do I have to do everything myself?” Shephard peered around the door, into the darkness at the heart of the UFO. Sectoids scuttled in the shadows, moving between their consoles. She pumped a fresh slug into the chamber and waited for her shot.
Shephard didn’t get the chance. Green fire licked out of the dark and smashed her to the ground, leaving her gasping, spitting, her shotgun slipping from her fingers. She clutched her chest, tracing the line of shattered ceramic. She felt blood.
More fire lanced out of the UFO, and Shephard scooted back on her butt until she was out of the doorway. Every breath sent bolts of pain across her chest. She fumbled for the medical kit at her belt until she found the little canister of foaming coagulant, a squeeze-tube of material that sealed the wound and numbed her roasted flesh. The pain faded by degrees, and even though she knew it was shock setting in she found herself not scared but angry.
Her shotgun was heavy in her hands. Pure, like an extension of her hands.
“White!” she shouted. “You alive?”
The call came back. “Under fire, but I’m still tickin’!”
“Flank on three! Huang, provide fire!”
She forced herself to her feet, using the shotgun as a crutch. Her wound tugged, sending a fresh bolt of pain into her lungs, but she breathed deep and knew she was ready.
“Go, go, go!”
Squaddie White’s LMG roared, the noise colossal in that tight space, as Shephard rounded the corner and entered the UFO. She took in the scene at a glance: the two aliens crouched on opposite sides of the chamber, one distracted by White’s onslaught of lead, the other cowering beside the bulkhead, its plasma weapon humming and ready to fire.
Huang’s rifle cracked, and she felt the air beside her ear tug as a bullet whipped past. The sectoid pinned by White’s fire tumbled back, its face reduced to a red ruin. That left the creature hiding in the corner.
She could’ve chanced a shot from across the chamber, but she was too angry for that. She closed the gap at a sprint, shotgun up hard against her shoulder, until the alien was close enough to feel the heat rising off the barrel.
She thought of Hickman falling back into the stream, and the pain in her chest, and how it had felt to watch Squaddie Zelman’s body being lifted off the Skyranger the week before.
It could’ve been her, she thought. Could’ve been anyone.
Rookie Bryan Young tried to recall some parallel from his gigantic collection of science fiction novels as he charged into the smoke with Bedford by his side. There was shades of Starship Troopers in all of this, he thought. Catchphrases, jingoistic heroism. The inevitability of death.
He’d hoped for something a bit more dignified when he signed up for XCOM. An elite unit working to exacting specifications, wiping out the alien invasion force with a combination of tactics, 22nd century tech, and the weight of numbers. But all that gone out the window when Sullivan and Solomon had been hit. To paraphrase German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and he was close enough to the enemy to make contact with his fist.
All he could do was run, and pray.
Plasma flashed out of the gloom, cutting through the purple cloud, and Young juked left towards an alcove with Bedford close on his heels. “They’re fucking shooting at us!” Bedford cried, as if it had come as a surprise. “The fuckers are shooting!”
“No shit!” Young leaned out from the alcove and fired back, hosing the X-ray’s position until the bolt locked down on an empty magazine. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke, not the aliens or even Sergeant Rudd’s position behind them. For all he knew, the two suckers were flanking them right now, sneaking through the labyrinthine corridors of the UFO, preparing to blast them in the ass.
Bedford leaned past him and fired into the dark, and recoiled as he was answered with plasma. “We’re gonna die,” he said, his voice unusually calm. “Nice knowing you, Young.”
Young tried to slam a fresh magazine into his rifle but the steel slipped in his grip, rattling on the floor. “Don’t say that!”
“Just a statement of fact, man. I just thought you should know-”
“Shut up!” Young groped for the magazine on the floor and brushed something hanging on his belt. A grenade.
A grenade in an enclosed space, he thought. Thrown blind, into smoke, with minimal cover. It was suicide by another name, but staying put was just as bad an option. What, he thought, would Johnny Rico do?
“Fire in the hole!” he called, and tossed the grenade overhand. Then all he could do was plug his ears and hope.
The explosion was a punch in the gut that left Young staggering, his head ringing and vision blurred. He couldn’t breathe, let alone see what had happened beyond the smoke cloud. Bedford was swearing beside him, hands clamped over his ears. “Are you crazy?”
Young blinked away tears. He could just make out the fallen magazine on the floor, and snatched it up, reloading his rifle and yanking back the bolt. The rain of plasma had stopped, and the cloud was shifting. He waited, finger on the trigger, heart thudding against his chest.
The cloud cleared, revealing steel walls scarred by flame and shrapnel. He could just make out the corpses of two sectoids lying amidst the debris: one lying gasping, its guts tangled on the floor, and the other a smear of flesh running from floor to ceiling.
From the corridor at their backs, Rudd called out, “You got ’em?”
Young lowered his rifle. His brow was slick with sweat. The gutted sectoid heaved, then fell still.
“Yeah,” he called. “Got ’em all.”
Away Team Beta’s Skyranger touched down a shade before noon, twenty-four hours after they’d left XCOM headquarters. Sergeant Rudd watched quietly as the medics carted Sullivan down the back tray, his body limp, respirator clamped down over his nose and mouth. The man would live, they assured him. Rudd’s medical attention in the UFO had saved his life. Even so, Rudd didn’t feel like celebrating. It was too easy to close his eyes and see Squaddie Zelman in place of Sullivan, her corpse concealed inside the plastic folds of a bodybag.
He’d been lucky. They all had.
It was common enough for Commander Pournelle to be waiting to shake hands with the returning soldiers, but Rudd hadn’t expected to see Doctor Vahlen by the landing zone. He’d never been introduced to the Doctor – what business did a grunt have with the head of XCOM Research, anyway? – but he’d seen her more than a few times, pacing the halls with a tablet beneath her arm, lost in thought. He’d heard stories, too. Vahlen was the only person on base who could stare down Commander Pournelle. When she said jump, Pournelle took a run up.
So he was surprised when Vahlen approached and offered her hand. “Sergeant Rudd, yes?”
“Uh.” She had one hell of a handshake for such a slight woman. “That’s me.”
“I received word that you had captured a-”
“It’s in the back.” He jerked his thumb towards the Skyranger. “Nearly lost a man getting it, but the arc thrower worked.”
Vahlen peered at Rudd over the rim of her wire-frame glasses. “The other soldiers call you Santa. I suppose this is my Christmas present, yes?”
“Hah. Yeah. I get it.” Rudd forced a smile, but it felt awkward, plastered to his face. “I have to go speak to my men, so if you don’t mind…”
“Of course.” Doctor Vahlen stepped aside, and Rudd made his way through the ready rooms, stripping off his armour and racking his rifle. The barracks were three levels down, beneath bedrock, and the elevator moved slow. He had a long time to think about everything that had gone wrong. Solomon being shot. Sullivan nearly bleeding out on the floor. The flash of plasma, so bright it had seared trails of light behind his eyelids.
The elevator stopped, and he stepped out into the barracks.
Bedford and Young were waiting, slouched on the sofas in the rec room. Young was already thumbing through a paperback, but Bedford just looked tired. Baggy eyed, head in his hands, slumped like he was carrying his two injured colleagues on his shoulders. “Yo,” Rudd said. “Look at me. We have a debrief in five minutes, so I need to say this now. You did good. Sullivan and Solomon are going to recover, no problems, and the thing we brought back-”
“They lost one,” Bedford said.
Rudd’s gut clenched. “What?”
“Away team Alpha.” Bedford nodded towards the bunkroom. “The kid. Hickman.”
“Jesus.” Sergeant Rudd looked at the closed door leading to the bunks. “I don’t-”
“Leave it, Sarge.” Bedford stared, his eyes black hollows. “They’ve got their thing. Let them work it out.” He waved towards the pool tables. “You think that debrief can wait ten minutes?”
Rudd swallowed. His throat was tight and his skull pounded like there was too much blood up there to keep in.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Why the hell not.”
– – –
Author’s Note: Gollnick, what’s with panicking when I needed you the most? You weren’t even close to Hickman when he got taken out! FIRED FROM XCOM. Nah, not really, I still need ya. Also, sorry about that, Hickman. First mission out and you’re dead in a stream. Tough break.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support me in this venture and you enjoy a) things being shot at and b) adults behaving badly, why not read the first novella in my Olesia Anderson Thriller series, Dirty Deals? It’s got gunfights, a bit of intrigue and some *wink wink, nudge nudge* adult situations. Plus, I just got the cover professionally redone and I’m proud of the result, so I’m taking every opportunity to show it off.