THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 5 – Operation Enduring Mother
The Skyranger skimmed low above the Munich skyline, landing skids brushing antenna and startling flocks of pigeons from their nests, before circling the Hochhaus Uptown twice and coming in to land on the rooftop. Corporal Eliza Shephard was the first down the tray and onto the bare concrete, sweeping across the open expanse with her rifle up hard against her shoulder. “Clear, clear, clear!”
The rest of the team were close behind: Sergeant Adam Lewis, Sergeant Andrew White, Sergeant Wise, and bringing up the back, Lieutenant William Huang, his ridiculously oversized laser rifle resting over his shoulder, wind in his hair like he was some Pantene shampoo model. God, she hated the Lieutenant, with his perfect smile and his gun taller than he was. Cocky bastard, too good looking to ignore.
Huang pointed out cover around the rooftop. The Hochhaus was a skyscraper, primarily commercial, thirty-eight stories tall and wrapped in glass like a shining phallus thrusting up out of the earth. The top of the Hochhaus was under construction, littered with shipping crates and scaffolding and plastic sheets twisting in the breeze. Somewhere amidst that mess were a whole host of X-rays. XCOM had gotten the call, frantic, panicked, the German translation coming through in fits and starts – an abduction in the heart of the city, aliens pouring through the ventilation shafts, snatching up office workers on the top level and spiriting them away into the skies.
Shephard had always wanted to visit Munich. The Symphony Orchestra was world-renowned, and the Munich Hochschule for Music and Performing Arts… her heart thudded harder at the thought of a half-hour tour. But today, they were in town for business, and that business was killing.
Huang slapped her on the shoulder as he passed. “Got your back, Vandal.”
Shephard scowled. “Right behind you, Xeno.”
“Hey, that shit isn’t funny.”
“About as funny as Vandal.” The name had stuck after Operation Banished Hammer. Hadn’t been anything left of the aliens inside that UFO but smears of blood and skin across the floor like clotted paint. She’d have preferred something like Killer or Deadeye, but she supposed beggars couldn’t be choosers. It could’ve been worse. Like how the squad had taken to calling Lewis ‘Devil-Dog’ after the number of times he’d nearly died in the field and been resurrected by the XCOM surgeons. Or ‘Xeno’ Huang, who’d earned his nickname through overuse of shitty catchphrases.
Yeah, she thought. Vandal wasn’t so bad after all.
They spread out across the rooftop, Shephard leading, finger on the trigger. They hadn’t been told what to expect out there, no indication of the forces they were up against. Only that, in XCOM tradition, shit was probably about to hit the fan.
And, like clockwork, it did.
Lieutenant Huang took point, tossing his battlefield scanner overarm into the tangle of shipping containers. The device functioned much like a miniature radar, pinging off steel and flesh alike, giving the Lieutenant a clear view of nearly everything on the rooftop. Huang was crouched behind a pile of steel drums, staring at his tablet, which in turn gave him a birds-eye view of the Hochhaus.
“Two blips ahead,” he whispered. “Around the back of those crates. Might by X-rays, might be pigeons.” He pointed up ahead. The Skyranger had landed at the south-east corner of the skyscraper – dead ahead was a stack of shipping containers, large enough to hide any number of hostiles. Meanwhile, to the left, was two stories worth of scaffolding creaking in the wind, shored up with half-finished prefab concrete walls. A tight little maze where any encounter would be at a fatally close range.
Shephard made sure her rifle was charged. They’d issued the entire team with new, laser-based weaponry, forcing Shephard to trade in her beloved shotgun for a slick, rounded rifle that felt more like a kid’s toy than a device of destruction. She’d spent a hundred hours on the range, adjusting to the weight of the gun, the way it hummed in her hands, but it still didn’t feel like a real gun.
She tapped Huang on the shoulder. “You want me up front?”
Lieutenant Huang hesitated. “You want to be up front?”
“I go where you need me, sir.”
Huang nodded slowly. “Take point. Just… stay safe, Corporal.”
Staying safe had never been Shephard’s concern. Doing the job right was the priority. She watched the skies as she advanced, Sergeant Wise close behind. Huang was keeping back, watching their advance with his sniper rifle ready, reading off his battle scanner. “Those two are moving in from your north. No idea what they are… Woah! Two more on the right, two more!”
The attack came in almost too fast for Shephard to track. Almost. To their left, from the scaffolding, came a low roar of engines. She knew that sound well – floaters, the mutated stitched-together sons of bitches, skimming low above the skyline. From the right…
They emerged together, two beasts like armoured gorillas, huge and hulking as they knuckled their way across the rooftop. Bodybuilders wrapped in steel, carrying oversized weapons, their strangely human eyes glinting in the sunshine.
Instinct took over. The floaters were coming in fast, and Shephard dropped to one knee, found her range and blew the lead X-ray out of the sky. Her new rifle buzzed, laser energy venting through hidden grills, filling her nostrils with the stink of melting plastics. Huang’s laser fire lanced out from behind her, catching a second floater in the chest, and the two tumbled together, exploding as they hit the concrete.
Behind her, Sergeant White called, “What the fuck are those things?”
“Just shoot them!” was Huang’s reply, and White obliged. He shouldered the chunky steel tube he’d carried off the Skyranger – a rocket launcher, five foot long, painted green with a red arrow at one end declaring THIS END TOWARDS ENEMY. The two gorillas were still coming, their footfalls thundering on the concrete. They roared, showing deep black mouths, tongues shining in the pits of their throats. God, Shephard thought. The beasts didn’t need guns. If they closed the distance they could pick White off the ground and crush his head in their medicine-ball fists.
White slid a rocket into the tube, dropped to one knee, and shouted, “Fire in the hole!” Shephard threw herself down, clenching her gut, waiting for the boom.
The two armoured gorillas were less than ten meters from White when he pulled the trigger. There was a hissing sound, and the rocket launcher tube farted flame out both ends. The first of the gorillas threw one arm up over its face, and then both creatures vanished in an apocalypse of flame and shrapnel.
There was a moment when the whole squad held their collective breath. Then the smoke cleared, and the two armoured gorillas were revealed – one lying dead, cut in two by the explosion, the second twisted against one of the shipping containers, sitting in the centre of a ruined depression of concrete.
White fist-pumped the air. “You see that! Left a crater!”
Sergeant Lewis, standing a few feet behind White, wasn’t laughing. “That fucker’s still moving!” he called. Lewis was a big hunk of meat, bearded and severe, and Shephard knew he’d taken fire before – hell, he’d been there when Nyssa Zelman had been blasted in the back, a day that XCOM Commander Pournelle was still trying to live down. She’d expected Lewis to be frozen in fear, to hold back behind cover. She didn’t expect him to vault over his barricade of wooden planking and jam his arc thrower into the downed alien’s face.
There was a crackle of energy, and the alien slumped, blood bubbling on what Shephard assumed were its lips. Lewis stood over the body, the arc thrower still spitting sparks. “Target has been neutralised,” he grunted.
Shephard stared at the body. The creature was still breathing, but only barely. The gorilla comparison had been right, but the alien was hairless, even scaled, its eyes sunken beneath a simian brow. It looks strong, top heavy, nothing but muscle inside its armour plating.
It looked, she thought, like the aliens had watched XCOM soldiers kicking ass in the field and done their best to build an imitation.
“What the fuck it is?” White whispered. “These cocks just get bigger and bigger. I hit him dead fucking centre. Left a crater and it’s still breathing. What do they make them out of?”
“I guess they drink their ovaltine, Sergeant.” The smell rising off the stunned alien was enough to make her gag, and Shephard stepped back, slamming a fresh battery into her laser rifle. She missed the feel of sliding individual shells into the breech, but she couldn’t deny that blowing floaters out of the sky with a sizzle of energy held a certain charm. Maybe she’d get used to it in time. “Lieutenant Xeno, orders?”
Huang scowled. “Are you trying to make me angry, Corporal?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Lieutenant.”
Huang didn’t meet her eyes. “Then you wouldn’t mind taking Lewis and White on a recce around the north-east corner of the site?”
The north-east corner was where the floaters had emerged from: a wild knot of scaffolding piled eight meters high, iron piping laying in piles like snowdrifts, tarpaulins slashed by high winds. It all seemed quiet to Shephard, but everything seemed quiet before things went bad.
“It’s a death-trap, sir,” she said, trying to keep her voice even.
“Then be careful.” Huang checked the charge on his rifle, hands moving fast, automatically. “Do it right.”
Shephard couldn’t refuse. She motioned Lewis and White to her side and crossed the rooftop, cocking her head, listening to the breeze. The way it moved across stone and plastic was a distinct, and she drew a picture of the scaffolding in her head. Tunnels of concrete and steel…
There. A sound below the wind. A low growl, so deep that it vibrated in some deep, primal part of her skull.
Shephard dropped low, rifle humming against her chest. “Lewis,” she whispered. “Up those stairs.” She pointed to the north edge of the rooftop, where concrete stairs led up to a rooftop access door and a port-a-potty. Lewis nodded, creeping up the stairs as silently as a cat, surveying the expanse of the rooftop from up high. “White. Cut left.” White did so, his LMG prepped and loaded, ready to tear holes out of anything that would appear. Huang and Wise were at her back, watching the shipping crates, making sure nothing jumped them from behind.
Nowhere to go but forward. She advanced into the mess of scaffolding and lifted a trap aside with the barrel of her rifle, peering into the gloom.
Simian eyes stared back, shining a sickly yellow in the evening light.
“Contact, contact!” she shouted, tumbling back, her finger on the trigger. Laser light flared from the end of her rifle and the plastic sheeting melted into the air, but there were too many of the things, three, four, five of the steel plated gorillas pouring out of their hideyhole and into the light.
She fell back against an air-conditioning unit and scrambled on hands and knees, putting it between herself and the X-rays. They were tearing free of the plastic now, roaring as they advanced across the rooftop, each eight foot tall and built like trucks. Shephard fumbled for the grenade at her belt and tossed it overarm, and the thud of the explosion carried through the concrete, vibrating in her guts. She didn’t dare peek out, but from overhead she heard Lewis call, “Blew it in half! Nice hit, Vandal!”
“Just shoot the fucking things!”
“Yes sir!” Lewis’s shotgun roared. Then, the words she dreaded most. “Can’t believe it! They’re moving too fast, I missed, I fucking-”
The low whump of plasma carried in wind. The gorillas were firing, and all Shephard could do was hunker down. She could hear Huang and White opening up from behind, the laser-zip of gunfire sending shivers down her spine. She was caught in the middle, pinned between two fronts. “Hit them again, hit-”
The impact was an electric shock to the gut. She stared at the huge hole blasted in the air conditioning unit, where the bolt of plasma had melted through steel and continued on to hit her in the side. Her armour was smoking. She tasted copper.
Her last thought before she slipped into unconsciousness was that the Lieutenant was an asshole. Then, there was nothing but black.
Sergeant Adam Lewis was up on the second level with a sweet view out over the streets and byways of Munich when the armoured X-rays burst free of their hiding place. His initial attack had gone wide, even with a clear shot down on to the bastard’s heads, and then Shephard had been hit, leaving her slumped behind the air conditioning unit.
He couldn’t tell whether she was alive or dead, but he knew he was angry. “Fuckers!” he said, jamming the trigger back on his shotgun until the breech locked open. His pistol was ready on his belt, and he drew it from the holster with one swift movement, exhaled, and fired into the mass.
One of the big X-rays went down kicking, a hole barely as wide as a bic pen bored through its skull. “Eat shit!” Lewis crowed. “Die, you-”
There were three still on their feet, and they fired as one. Lewis wasn’t fast enough to duck, and the bolt of energy caught him in the shoulder. He was slammed back, hitting the concrete, the shock jarring his pistol out of his hands.
“Hit!” he called. “I’m down, I’m hit!” He probed the open hole in his armour with one trembling finger, expecting to feet blood and pulped flesh, but his finger brushed the underlayer of armour, softened but not penetrated by the plasma. His arm was numb from shock, but he was intact.
“Forget it!” he shouted, scrambling for his pistol. “Kill those sons of bitches!”
But there was no reply from below, just the chatter of automatic weapons and the hiss of laser beams cutting the air, and by the time Lewis was on his feet he understood why. The creatures had advanced, hulking their way across the rooftop, leaving Shephard isolated behind the air conditioning unit. Lewis could see the blood pool beneath her body widening, the slick red puddle staining the concrete.
She had minutes, maybe less.
Sergeant White was hunkered behind a barricade of 2-by-4s, and he tossed a grenade out almost lazily that landed between two of the hulks and exploded in a spray of fire and shrapnel. Sergeant Wise was close behind, ducking out of cover to laser the first hulk’s face off, but there were still two coming, big and angry, muscles popping out of the gaps in their armour. Lieutenant Huang was still safe behind cover, laser-sniper set atop a bipod, finding his range. “Heads down,” Huang called, “watch your lines!”
Huang fired. The rifle painted a red line of energy across the rooftop, cutting close enough to one of the hulk’s heads that the creature winced, clapping one huge hand to its ear, but the shot didn’t find a target. “Fuck!” Huang called. “Reloading, re-”
“This is bullshit, Lieutenant!” Lewis pumped two shells into his shotgun, which was the most he could fit in his hand at one time. “Bull! Shit!”
The hulks were almost on top of Shephard, their huge feet threatening to crush her skull into the floor, and as far as Lewis could see the Corporal had stopped breathing.
Lewis had never given two shits about the chain of command, but there were some things he couldn’t abide. His back was slick with sweat and his guts were a knot of panic but he forced it down and dropped off the second story, into the midst of the X-rays. He could smell them as he landed, a thick, rotten-vegetable stench that left him gagging.
The two X-rays turned, a little too slowly, and Sergeant Lewis jammed his shotgun up into the first alien’s face and fired. A trigger pull, a pump, a second pull, and the creature went down with its skull split in two.
The second X-ray was close enough to touch, and Lewis threw himself to the floor as it fired, plasma searing a hot line across his back. “Shoot it!” he called, and the staccato roar of Sergeant White’s LMG filled the air. The X-ray staggered back, throwing one hand up over its hideous face, and a moment later its arm was tumbling free, severed at the shoulder, the flesh cauterised by Lieutenant Huang’s laser.
The X-ray staggered, keening in pain. Lewis clutched his useless shotgun. He had the perfect angle, but no shells. His left hand stole down to his belt and caressed his pistol.
Then, next to it, he found the arc thrower. The taser device had enough charge in it for two solid hits, but there was no telling whether that would be enough. He had to trust in Vahlen, and the dubious nature of the XCOM research team.
Heart in his mouth, Lewis closed the distance and slammed into the alien, tackling it low and behind the knees. The creature fell, spraying blood in great hot arcs, and Lewis jammed the prongs of his arc thrower into the alien’s raw stump.
It kicked, writhed, and fell still.
Lewis rolled away, panting, blinking the sweat from his eyes. The stench of the creature was making him gag. “Is she okay? Is the Corporal okay?”
Huang and Wise were by his side, busy with hypodermics and bandages. “She’s pretty messed up,” Wise said. “Gotta hope we can stop the bleeding.” Wise was a big guy, hair shaved down to the knuckle, built from bricks, but even he looked terrified as he jammed a hypo of adrenaline into Shephard’s chest. “Get the goddamn stretcher!”
As White sprinted back to the Skyranger, all Lewis could do was watch Wise performing chest compressions, a rapid thud thud thud, pressing deep into Corporal Shephard’s ribcage. Each compression forced a bubble of blood up over her lips.
He stared at the two X-rays lying stunned on the rooftop, and all the others blown to shit, eyeballs and brains congealing on the sun-warmed concrete.
“Well,” Lewis said, “at least Doctor Vahlen will be happy.”
Huang spun on his heel, jaw jutting, tears gleaming at the corners of his eyes. “Go fuck yourself, Devil-Dog.”
“What? What’d I say?” It was too late. Huang had already stalked away, rifle strapped over his shoulder, head hung low.
On the horizon, the sun dipped below the jagged Munich skyline.
– – –
Author’s Note: Phew, things are accelerating. I’m skipping a lot of boring, no injury missions in favour of the near misses. My units are getting better at surviving though, which hinders a lot of the excitement. Even so, I’m not going to let anyone die for the sake of drama. When an XCOM soldier goes down, you know they went down kicking.
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