THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 6 – Operation Swift Sword
Commander Pournelle woke and stared at the blank concrete ceiling of his private quarters. For the first time in weeks he didn’t feel the need to jump out of bed, pull on his uniform and sprint upstairs to mission control. For the first time in weeks, he felt rested.
Five soldiers went out on Operation Enduring Mother. Five came back, battered and bleeding but dragging with them two live specimens. Vahlen had been working the big bastards over in her chamber beneath the base for forty-eight hours. The reports were promising. Vahlen hadn’t figured out how to talk to the things yet, but she’d learned a lot about what made them squeal. She’d dubbed them Mutons, based on how their organics had been artificially fused to their armour. It was, Pournelle thought, as good a name as any.
No UFOs had been sighted in two days. Sergeant Lewis was looking more and more like top leadership material, and he shrugged off burn wounds and shrapnel blasts like he was cast from iron. And Rudd was shaping up as a fine combat medic as well – his team of Solomon, Bedford, Sullivan and Young were shaping up to be a fine, cohesive unit.
It seemed as if great clouds were lifting from the horizon. God, if everything went this well, they might even win the war. Six months ago such a thought had seemed an impossibility, but now…
The phone by his bed rang, vibrating on the hook. Pournelle sighed, dug a lump of wax from his ear, and answered. “This is the Commander.”
“Sir!” Panic on the far end of the line. One of the techs up in mission control. “We’ve just had contact from Lagos. X-rays on the ground, sir!”
Pournelle straightened, snatching for his glasses. “What, another abduction?”
“No sir! This is an attack!”
“It’s a slaughterhouse, sir! Hundreds of civilian and military dead! They’re massing at the Dodan Barracks. The city’s military force is being decimated!”
Pournelle squeezed the receiver so tight he felt the plastic bending. What Nigeria couldn’t do would fall to XCOM, as always. But Sergeant ‘Vandal’ Shephard and Sergeant ‘Devil-Dog’ Lewis were his two most experienced soldiers, and both were bed-ridden. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Huang seemed to be developing an unhealthy attachment to assault-specialist Shephard – unhealthy because he didn’t need the man flaking out when one of his squadmates was under fire. Huang had been spending altogether too much time in the infirmary over the past two days, which made him a liability.
Which meant that Rudd and his crew were the front line.
“Call the barracks,” Pournelle barked. “I want Rudd, Bedford, Solomon.” He paused. Heavy artillery would be necessary. “Richardson too. And is Lewis out of bed yet?”
There was a pause as the man on the other end contacted the infirmary. “Patched up as of this morning.”
“No time for R&R. Get him loaded and ready. Briefing in five.”
Assault Specialist Jake Solomon could barely bring himself to look out the Skyranger windows as they descended into Lagos. It was the fires that terrified him the most, the flares of red in the darkness. From half a mile up it looked as if the entire city was bathed in flame, a miniature apocalypse centered in Nigeria. The knowledge that every one of those points of flame was a burning car, or even a dying man, their clothes and hair fuelling the fire.
He couldn’t hear the screams, but he could imagine them well enough. It was a holocaust, and they were descending into it at two hundred miles an hour.
Solomon looked up into ‘Santa’ Rudd’s eyes. “Sir?”
“Chin up, soldier. This is just another job.” But even Santa looked rattled. He was gripping his laser rifle so tight that Solomon thought it might bend in his hands. “This is a rescue mission. We collect civvies and get the fuck out. No big deal. God, it’s hot in here. Bedford, you got any gum?”
Bedford handed a stick across wordlessly. The Skyranger bounced as it hit an air pocket, and Solomon swallowed bile. “Do we know how many civilians are in the drop zone?”
“As many as three hundred. Maybe none.”
None. Code for, everyone dead. It wasn’t something Solomon wanted to think about. All the months he’d spent developing XCOM’s battlefield software had forced him to think of soldiers and civilians alike as numbers, blips of light on a screen. He’d managed that. That had somehow been okay. That was war. But civilians? They could never just be dots.
“Look at me, Specialist!” Rudd punched Solomon in the shoulder hard enough to sting. “You’re gonna get down there and do what you were trained to do, understand? No bullshit, no theatrics. Deal?”
“Awesome.” Rudd rolled his gum from one side of his mouth to the other. “Fuckin’ awesome.”
– – –
Solomon could feel the heat before he even stepped off the back tray.
They’d come down just inside the walls of the Dodan Barracks, the central military outpost in Lagos. The light of the flames was so intense that Solomon could barely see what he was running into, but incurring the wrath of Sergeant ‘Santa’ Rudd was more terrifying than staying on board. He sprinted blind into the smoke, Lewis and Bedford thundering behind him, until he came up against a tall brick wall. There, he crouched low and took stock.
The base was in ruins. Dodan was a small outpost, a barracks with a tank and jeep yard attached, but those tanks were now burning in neat rows, their treads melting into the dirt. The jeeps were overturned, blasted black. The horizon was strangled by smoke.
Worst of all were the screams. They rose above the crackle of flames, wavering, desperate. Solomon didn’t understand the language but he didn’t need to know those people were in pain. Somewhere amidst the tangled wreckage of cars and corpses were people that needed help.
Blips, he reminded himself. If he thought of them as anything else it’d drive him mad.
Rudd led them into the flames, the heat strong enough to blister, directing them to cover behind a head-high wall of sandbags. “Bedford, get your rifle deployed. I want you in solid, covering the north approach. Lewis, you see the second tank? Get up by the tread and watch the crates. Solomon… shit, shit, incoming!”
Solomon spun, laser rifle up hard against his shoulder. Floaters, the mutant half-steel sons of bitches he’d gunned down in Russia. First two, then two more, moving in formation above the flames, plasma rifles venting energy in their hands.
“Down, down, down!” Rudd was the first to fire, and Solomon joined him, the sizzle of their rifles louder than the crackle of flames. One of the floaters tumbled from the sky, screaming thinly as it impacted and exploded across the parade ground, but the other three slipped behind the line of burning tanks, vanishing into the shadows.
Solomon panted. His sinuses were full of ozone, the discharge of his laser rifle coiling in his nostrils. Rudd slapped him on the shoulder. “Good shot. We need a defensive perimeter, before those fuckers surround us. You got the arc thrower charged?”
Solomon nodded, his mouth dry. He’d drawn the unlucky straw in the Skyranger, being handed the taser in lieu of something useful, like a grenade.
“Good. Doctor Vahlen wants one alive. Again.” Rudd’s lips drew back over his lips in a rictus grin. “God damn it. Okay. Bedford, cover! Lewis, Richardson, on me!”
There was no way to say no, and Solomon found his legs moving automatically, propelled by the chain of command, as they slipped across from the wall of sandbags to the steel shipping containers facing the line of tanks. Solomon could hear the floaters but couldn’t see them. Their metallic roars echoed in the night air.
“Stay low,” Rudd whispered. “Lewis, up front. They-”
The three floaters rose above the tanks, blue flames jutting from their undercarriages as they shot into the air, propelled by plasma. The bright lance of Bedford’s sniper rifle cut across the sky, missing the pack by inches. Solomon fired instinctively, Richardson’s LMG chattering beside him, their combined gunfire deafening.
Two of the floaters spun, collided, and fell to earth, spitting blood and electricity. The third ducked low, slipping behind the line of tanks. “Go, go!” Rudd called. “Chase that fucker down!”
Solomon ran, flanking the parked tanks, his rifle up hard against his shoulder. Rudd was by his side, pistol in hand, and as they rounded the final tank they found the last floater hovering a foot above the ground, hiding behind a stack of wooden shipping crates.
When it came to swinging a pistol, Rudd was fast and true. He aimed and plugged the floater through the chest three times, sending it crashing to the ground. “Stun the fucker!” he called, and Solomon jammed the arc thrower into the monster’s chest.
Electricity leaped from his hand to the beast, and it fell in the dirt, flailing and throwing up dust. Solomon jumped back, keeping his distance as the creature finally settled. It was bleeding bad, yellow blood pumping sluggishly from gaping wounds. “You, uh, you beat it up pretty bad, Sarge.”
Rudd grinned. “It’ll live long enough for Vahlen to poke at it.” He sauntered back towards where Bedford had set up his sniper rifle. “Okay, that’s the frontal assault, but there’ll be more in the wings. Lewis, I want you up front, full loaded. Richardson, you see that garage? Find a way up on that roof. Bedford, you ranged in? I-”
The Sergeant’s shouting had all faded into the distance for Solomon. Something had caught his eye on the far side of the compound, beyond the flames and the upturned jeeps and corpses lying blackened in the mud.
There was a row of shipping containers against the furthest wall, stacked two-high, lined up neatly. Some were seared black by plasma blasts, others half melted by the flames, slumping into the mud like candlewax.
In the darkness, beyond the shipping containers, yellow eyes gleamed.
Every X-ray Solomon had seen, whether in the flesh or on shaky chest-cam footage, had been monstrous. The spindle-bodied sectoids, the thin men with their skin-suits and thin smiles, the mutons roaring in their containment cages deep below XCOM Headquarters… Each new alien was a new, terrible assembly of bone and steel, and Solomon had thought he was numb to the horrors that the invasion could throw at him.
He was wrong.
The thing that stalked out of the black was eight feet tall, multilegged, claws scraping on the concrete. At first he thought it was a spider grown impossibly huge, some mutant tarantula emerging from its web, but then he saw the skinny torso emerging from the centre of all those multi-jointed legs, the grasping arms, the two eyes shining with sickly intelligence.
“Jesus,” Solomon whispered, as a second set of eyes appeared behind the first, blinking lazily, reflecting flames. The two spider-creatures advanced, claws ringing like steel on the concrete. “Jesus Christ.”
The creatures pounced.
Solomon turned and ran, rifle clutched against his chest, lungs pounding, vision blurred by panic. Lewis and Rudd were waiting behind the crates, and their eyes widened as they saw his terror. “Shoot!” he screamed. The crates were only a few feet away, close enough to touch. The clatter of claws rang in his ears. “Shoot them!”
Laser light ripped across the tank yard. One of the creatures hissed, a sound like oil and water crackling on a stovetop, but the other was close, so close he could feel its foetid breath on the back of his neck.
He spun, raising his rifle, finger on the trigger. The creature loomed over him, blocking out the stars, carapace gleaming.
The claws lifted and fell, so fast they were a blur, and Solomon fell in two neat pieces.
Sniper Specialist Paul Bedford was close enough to Solomon that the squaddie’s blood splashed across his boots when the monster cut him down. He staggered back, finger on the trigger of his laser rifle, unable to speak, unable to scream. His entire world was the blackness of its chitinous armour, the claws descending, gore dripping thickly from the blades.
Then a voice brought him back. “Bedford, get the fuck down!”
A small shape arced past his head, bouncing on the wooden crates. A grenade. Instinct took over and Bedford threw himself to the floor, just as the grenade detonated. The explosion was a hammer in the guts, smashing the air from his lungs. His ears were filled with a dog-whistle tone.
“Back, back!” That was Sergeant Rudd, his hand on Bedford’s shoulder, dragging him away from the line of jeeps. The vehicles were on fire, he realised, great gouts of flame boiling from below the undercarriage. What the X-rays had been unable to do, the grenade had done for them. They were about to blow.
The two creatures were still advancing, but they limped now, dragging their segmented limbs. Thick yellow blood puddled beneath them with every step, but their claws were still long and vicious.
The first of the monsters crouched, tensed, and leaped.
Sergeant Rudd’s hand left Bedford’s shoulder long enough for him to aim and fire. The laser sliced the creature from the air, leaving it steaming in the dirt. “Get the fuck up!” he said, and Bedford couldn’t help but obey.
The second monster jumped too fast for Bedford to track. It skittered back into the shadows of the shipping crates, leaving a trail of sizzling ichor. The clicking of claws echoed off the steel, and then all was silent.
Bedford gripped his rifle tight, waiting for his heart to slow. “What the fuck was that?”
Rudd wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You think I know?”
“God, it just-” The jeep nearest Bedford exploded as the fuel line caught. Glass shards sheeted across the muck. “Is Solomon-”
Squaddie Richardson had already crossed to where Solomon fell. His face was ashen white. “He’s, uh-”
“I know.” Bedford’s hands had stopped shaking. He swept his rifle across the shipping crates, watching through the scope for any signs of life. There were none. Solomon’s blood was drying on his kneepads, and that fact made him want to scream. He’d been joking with the man less than an hour before as they swept south over Lagos, and now he was in two pieces.
It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem fair. Then again, what did fair have to do with war?
Rudd waved towards the shipping containers. “Bedford, keep an overwatch. Richardson, Devil Dog, on me.” The Sergeant advanced, rifle up, and although he looked grim Bedford could see his shoulder shaking. “You see anything move, you blow it away.”
“Sir.” Bedford racked a new battery into his laser rifle and unfolded his bipod, propping his rifle up on the crates where Solomon had died. Rudd’s grenade had done terrible things to the Squaddie’s corpse, and the floater he’d stunned with the arc thrower had taken shrapnel as well. Their live specimen was dead. Solomon had exposed himself for nothing.
It made Bedford’s trigger finger itchy. “Come on, you fuckers,” he whispered, sweeping his rifle back and forth across the crates, watching through the night-vision scope as Rudd and his team-mates advanced. “Come on, stick your dicks out, come on-”
A shadow unfolded behind the steel. The monster was back.
Bedford fired, his laser searing across the parade-ground. His shot was precise, and the creature faltered, one of its many terrible legs tumbling into the dirt. But it was still upright, still moving, and there was something behind it, lurching out of the dark. Something upright, two legged, human, ragged and burned black by the fires, moaning through a mouth full of broken teeth.
“Jesus Christ,” Bedford whispered. All his childhood nightmares had come to life.
The aliens were fielding zombies.
Squaddie Michael Richardson was five paces behind Rudd when the Sergeant fell back, scrambling for cover behind one of the shipping containers. He caught a glimpse of a shambling figure, a man dragging his way out of the dark, and then Rudd’s hand caught his wrist and hauled him to safety. “You see that?” the Sergeant hissed.
Richardson wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Looked like a civvie to me.”
“That’s no civilian. That guy was…” Santa shuddered. “Okay. Lewis, you’re with me. Let’s blow this thing away. Richardson, cover. On two-”
They rounded the shipping container, and Richardson found himself face to face with the walking dead.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was a monster ripped from a cheap horror B-movie, a man staggering from the flames, his eyes rolled back in his skull and his chest soaked with gore. Richardson might still have mistaken him for a civvie, if not for the massive wound in his neck – he could see right through to the bone. Something had nearly sliced the man’s head off, and he was still walking, still biting at the air.
A zombie. A real life walking zombie.
Then came the sizzle of gunfire as Bedford, Lewis and the Sergeant opened up simultaneously. Three lines of light arced across the compound, and the zombie thing fell apart, still groaning and twitching, carving snow angels in the dirt. Richardson gaped as the thing whistled out the last of its air and, mercifully, died.
Devil-Dog Lewis kicked the thing in the guts. It twitched, but didn’t get back up. “You think that came down from the ship?”
“Check the uniform,” Richardson said. The zombie was dressed in Nigerian camo, two gold pips on his shoulder. “They’re turning soldiers into… shit, Sarge! That isn’t right!”
“Focus, Specialist! Still at least one of them out there, and-” Rudd swung around. “Up high, up high!”
Richardson looked up in time to see the spider-thing silhouetted against the night sky. It was scuttling along the lip of the shipping container, dragging its severed limb along the steel, but despite its injury the creature’s claws still looked sharp enough to shear through bone.
Panic rose up like glue in his throat as it leaped, arcing high overhead. Rudd and Lewis fired, but too slow, too late, their lasers slicing harmlessly across the night sky. Richardson watched it soar. He could already see where it was going to land.
His finger was on the trigger. He was ready.
The spider thing hit the dirt less than a yard away, mud splashing across its carapace. Firelight slid across its armoured bulk. It turned to Richardson with its jaw hanging low, revealing rows of needle teeth.
He hosed the bastard, not letting go of the trigger until his LMG was dry.
They swept the rest of the base but the only things left alive in the maelstrom were two guard dogs driven mad by the heat. Richardson let them out and led them to a busted water main, where they drank gratefully before loping away into the night.
Santa fetched the body bags from the Skyranger. It took two trips to get Solomon inside.
It was a smooth ride back to HQ, but Richardson’s stomach kept turning regardless. This was the second time he’d had to sit next to a body in the Skyranger, and the knowledge that Solomon was so close, still there in the flesh but not breathing, not thinking, reduced to meat and bone, made him sick.
He drank water until the shakes stopped, then closed his eyes and willed the flight to go faster.
He was asleep when they bumped down in XCOM HQ, but the jolt brought him back to attention. The tray eased down, and the first thing Richardson saw beyond the glare of the landing bay lights was Commander Pournelle himself, standing at attention.
“Jesus,” Bedford whispered. “The Commander-”
“Keep it in your pants,” Sergeant Rudd said. He stood slowly, rifle resting on his shoulder. “Solomon goes first.”
Richardson stood stiffly, his LMG by his side, bent beneath the Skyranger’s low ceiling, as the medical technicians marched in and collected the body bags. This time, at least, Rudd had gotten the zips done up securely. There was no blood on the floor of the Skyranger for a change.
Once the bags were gone, Pournelle crooked one finger towards Sergeant Rudd. “Debrief. Now.”
Lewis stood tall by Rudd’s side. “Santa, you need any-”
“You too, Lewis. Bedford, get your ass down to the range. I was watching your chestcam. That shit will not pass, soldier.”
Bedford’s jaw jutted. “Sir!”
Richardson trembled. He’d gunned floaters out of the sky and watched some nightmare spider-thing cut one of his fellow soldiers in half, but Pournelle’s sunken eyes and razor-thin scowl was more terrifying than either. So when Pournelle’s eyes fell on him his breath seized in his chest.
“Corporal Richardson,” Pournelle said.
“Uh, Squaddie Richardson, Sir-”
“What did I say, Corporal? Did I say Squaddie? Am I going deaf in my old age? Clean your weapon and return to the bunks, Corporal!”
Richardson nodded, snatching his LMG from the rack and snapping off a quick salute. He met Sergeant Santa’s eyes as he passed, and a look of sympathy passed between them. Then he sprinted past, into the corridors, far beyond Pournelle’s judging gaze.
Half an hour later he stepped out of the elevator and into the barracks. He’d heard no announcements while cleaning and storing his LMG, which meant that Solomon’s death was still hush-hush. Soon, all the troops would be summoned up to the briefing room. The mission would be summarised in a few sentences. Solomon’s death and the blame for it would be passed over in moments. The rest would be a eulogy, just like that read out for Nyssa Zelman and Lucien Hickman. All of Solomon’s mistakes wiped clean. Turned into a hero post-mortem.
Which, Richardson thought, he was. But Pournelle’s speeches made the XCOM dead into fake heroes. TV heroes. Not real people, scared people, who went down screaming.
He didn’t like Pournelle very much.
He passed the pool tables and the drinks machine. The riot of colours behind the glass was just a smear. He punched a dollar into the machine and bought a Twix. It tasted like ash.
He spat the chocolate down the sink and went into the bunkhouse.
Corporal Wendy Gollnick was in her bunk, legs crossed, a book open in her lap. She looked up as Richardson walked in. “Hey! Easy op? No scrapes?”
Richardson nodded numbly. He could just make out the cover of her book – an X-Men hardcover collection. Something twitched in her lap, and long white ears poked out from above the lip of the book. “How’s Ripley?”
Gollnick set her comic down, revealing the white rabbit curled up in her lap. “She needs some sun. The UV lamps aren’t enough, I think. But they don’t mind me stealing salad from the mess, so she’s eating all her greens.”
Richardson couldn’t help but grin. “How’d you get the Commander’s approval?”
“I just asked nicely! Pournelle’s a nice guy.”
“If you get him on a good day.”
“I guess.” Gollnick flipped a few pages, met Richardson’s eyes, and snapped the comic closed. “Where’re the others?”
Richardson swallowed. “They’re… debriefing.”
“Oh God. Who-”
Gollnick nodded slowly. “Was it… bad?”
Gollnick stroked Ripley almost mechanically. “I’m…”
“They say they’re following a signal from the UFOs. Might lead us to their base.” Gollnick ducked her head. “It’d be nice to end all of this.”
“Yeah. If that is the end.”
The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Gollnick didn’t meet Richardson’s eyes. The rabbit in her lap combed its ears.
It didn’t seem like there was anything else to say.
– – –
Author’s Note: SOLOMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
What a damned tragedy. Jake Solomon cut down in his prime, and for what? The captured floater was killed by the grenade blast. Another poor squaddie thrown into the meat grinder.
It ain’t fair, bro. It ain’t fair.
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