THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 7 – Operation Lone Mountain, Part 1
Operation Lone Mountain
The pistol shook in Sergeant Tama Wise’s hand. His gloves were slick with blood and sour alien mucus and when he tried to pull the trigger his finger slipped on the steel, the pistol almost falling from his grip. It wasn’t fear but exhaustion that had left him broken. The comedown after two hours spent under assault, the non-stop adrenaline rush, the screaming, the plasma, the stink of cooking flesh.
“Ciao, Uso,” he said, and fired.
TWO HOURS EARLIER
Captain Adam Rudd was starting to wonder why the soldiers he commanded called him Santa. The only presents he brought them were third degree burns and bodybags. So when a runner knocked on the door of Rudd’s private bunk at four in the morning and summoned him into Commander Pournelle’s office, his stomach was already doing backflips.
“Captain.” Pournelle was seated behind his desk, hands folded before him, his face illuminated from below by a desk lamp. The Commander had grown thin since Rudd had first met him, drawn skeletal by sleepless nights. His cheekbones jutted and his eyes were sunken deep into his skull. His skin was yellowed like he had jaundice. There was grey in his hair now, as if a year spent running XCOM had sucked a decade from his bones.
“Sir.” Rudd hoped the fear wasn’t showing on his face. Not the fear of the mission, but the fear of what always followed. The black plastic shrouds. The paperwork. Comrades reduced to files in a cabinet.
Pournelle’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Are you familiar with what we’ve been doing… below?”
Below. The euphemism for the alien containment laboratory. Rudd had never been down there, but he knew what went on. Advanced interrogation. Thumbscrews and manacles for the twenty first century. Rudd nodded.
“There have been developments,” Pournelle continued. “Developments which the council would like us to pursue immediately.”
“Of course, sir.”
“You and Captain Young will be lead a team of four. You choose your soldiers. Only the best for the task.”
“Sir.” Young’s brow furrowed. “Where’s the landing zone?”
“Three kilometres outside Krakow.”
“Poland? Forgive me, sir, but it doesn’t seem a logical place for an abduction.”
Pournelle’s hands tensed on the top of his desk. “This isn’t an abduction, Captain. The information we took from our captive…”
It wasn’t quite a smile and not a grimace. More like invisible fingers had hooked the Commander’s lips back in a parody of a grin. It only made him look more like a living skeleton.
“Something better than an abduction, Captain,” Pournelle said. “We have their home base.”
Two hours later they were airborne.
Rudd sat at the head of the Skyranger, across from Captain ‘Cash’ Young. They hadn’t spoken since liftoff. Young, like Rudd, knew what it was to bag and tag a comrade. It was easier not to talk.
The other four, their personal picks, were doing their best not to look grim. Lieutenant Nomi ‘Alpha’ Chi, sniper specialist, her rifle half a foot taller than her. Lieutenant ‘Devil Dog’ Lewis, laser rifle racked by his side. Lieutenant ‘Crater’ White, explosives expert, a bandolier of rockets slung across his chest. Finally, Sergeant Tama ‘Ace’ Wise, Rudd’s preferred support specialist, who somehow had the calm of a monk under fire and surgeon’s fingers hidden beneath his bulky armoured gloves.
He wished they’d sent the entire XCOM force, but Pournelle had insisted on a small insertion team. Quick, fast, quiet. Rudd doubted anything would be quiet, but in the end he had to defer to the man upstairs. They were armed, jacked on uppers and fresh from burying Solomon. Five angry men and a tiny, furious Canadian sniper.
Rudd hoped it would be enough. It had to be.
Lieutenant Chi spent the next four hours cleaning her weapon, her brow furrowed with concentration. Devil Dog and Crater shot shit up the back while Ace slept against the bulkhead.
Rudd tried to sleep. It wouldn’t come.
Then, long before he was ready, he felt the Skyranger dip. The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. “If you look out the left window, you’ll see one of Poland’s most popular tourist features.” There was a smirk in the pilot’s voice. “The bunker bomb.”
Rudd just had time to peer through the tiny slit window and get a glimpse of the sweeping Polish hills before the world went white. The Skyranger duked sideways, and Rudd was thrown from his seat as the shockwave tossed the entire ship aside. The engines whined as their pilot compensated. “Jesus,” Young said, clinging tight to the bulkhead. “You think they could’ve found a more subtle way in?”
Rudd returned to the window. The green fields were gone. Pine trees lay flat against the ground in an ever-expanding circle, torn out by the roots by the force of the explosion. The air was choked with dust and flame.
At the epicentre of the explosion was a great hollow blown from the earth. It was impossible to miss the steel shining beneath the churned mud.
The X-rays home base, buried beneath Poland. They’d chased the bastards back and forth across the planet, killed them in every continent beneath the sun, and all the while they’d been hiding just outside Krakow.
Rudd didn’t know whether it was tragic or hilarious. Maybe a bit of both. But the Skyranger was banking hard, and he knew he didn’t have any more time for philosophising. The job had to be done.
“Move fast,” he told the team, meeting their eyes in turn. “If there’s a leader in there, we bring it back alive. If not, kill everything that moves. But for the love of God, keep each other safe. Understood?”
The Skyranger jolted. They’d touched down.
Rudd led the team out onto the still smoking grass and down the muddy crater left by the bomb. The base of the pit was a hole thirty feet wide, leading into darkness. They’d blown straight through the outer shell of the base, although whether they were about to rappel down into the X-Rays barracks or their larder was impossible to tell.
Rudd dropped a flare. Bright green light shone on curved steel surfaces, chrome and rubber coiling organically until it vanished beyond the edge of the chemical glare. “Devil Dog,” he said. “You first. Then Crater, me, Ace, Alpha, Cash. Go!”
They slid down one after the other, rope whizzing through their gloved hands. The ground shot up towards them and Rudd hit hard, rolling over his shoulder and coming up hard against the wall. His armour clicked against a surface like glass, and he shone his light upwards, letting the beam play across the slick, curving walls.
Beyond the curving glass, rimed with frost, was a tall figure. Stone still, eyes closed, mouth and nose sealed away behind an intubation mask, but unmistakeably human.
Wise, Chi, and ‘Cash’ Young thudded down behind him, taking up positions around the perimeter of the room. “Captain,” Chi said, her hand on his shoulder. “Are you…” She saw where his light was trained and jumped back, reaching for her pistol. “Fuck! What is that?”
“Abductee,” Rudd said, running one hand across the glass. Even through the gloves he could feel the chill. It was a woman on the far side of the glass, naked beneath her blanket of ichor and frost. She wasn’t breathing, but that didn’t mean she was dead. “This is where they bring them.”
“Same reason we have the basement. They want to know what we are.” When Rudd swept his light across the chamber he saw more of the glass tubes set into the walls, more figured muzzled by piping. There might’ve been ten. Might’ve been thousands.
Captain Rudd forced himself to step away. It wasn’t the time, and they had a job to do. “Medical will come in and help them when we’re done. Move fast!”
He took the lead with ‘Devil-Dog’ Lewis and ‘Crater’ White close behind. The chamber they’d dropped into was a womb of steel, their footsteps echoing down long black corridors. Their path was lit not by bulbs but by a skin of something like moss clumped on the walls, glowing with a sickly blue phosphorescence. The ceiling rose high overhead until it was lost in the darkness, and Rudd began to forget there was any ceiling at all. He could almost imagine they were walking through a thin mountain pass, the stars obscured by cloud, instead of descending ever further into the bowels of the earth.
And still, no X-rays. Hadn’t they heard the explosion? Maybe the intel had been wrong, he thought. Maybe the aliens had cleared out weeks before and found somewhere new, carving a chunk out of the loam beneath Washington or Tokyo…
A door loomed out of the black. It was like the breaching doors aboard the downed UFOs, eight foot tall and reinforced, a small panel in the centre just the size for Rudd’s hand.
He pressed against the cold steel. When he closed his eyes he could just make out something on the far side. A skittering, like claws.
“God dammit,” he whispered, motioning for Lewis and Wise to take up positions on either side of the door. Chi was twenty meters back, pressed against the wall of the tunnel with her massive sniper rifle braced across her knees. Captain Young had his rifle up and White’s LMG was unslung, his finger resting alongside the trigger.
Rudd’s heart hammered inside his chest. He’d killed so many X-rays he’d lost count but there was no way to forget the way Solomon had returned to base, cut through the middle like a bratwurst. There could be anything on the far side of that door. There might be six XCOM soldiers boarding the Skyranger in a few hour’s time, or six bodybags being extracted by a backup team.
No way around it. He pressed the button and jumped back, rifle hard up against his shoulder.
The doors slid open soundlessly. Lewis whispered, “Goddamn.”
Rudd counted five shapes on the far side of the door. Two were huge, hulking, muscled, piggy eyes glinting inside bulky armour, plasma weaponry glowing in their fists. Mutons, the beserker bastards that had nearly killed Shephard on that rooftop in Germany. The three behind them…
The spider-things that HQ had dubbed the chryssalids. They advanced in a pack, their huge claw-legs clacking on the steel, bright yellow eyes shining in the dim phosphorescent glow. They raised their claws as one.
Rudd could even have sworn that they chittered.
“Fire, fire, fire!” he shouted, but Lewis was already moving, yanking a grenade from his belt and slipping the pin. Rudd saw him and dropped flat as the grenade bounced through the doorway and between the first Muton’s legs, vanishing somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Rudd shielded his eyes.
The crash of the detonation was immense. It ricocheted down the corridor and slammed through Rudd’s lungs, knocking him flat against the wall. Shrapnel rang off his armour. The corridor was choked with smoke, the X-rays invisible behind a curtain of debris.
And then, out of the darkness, they came.
“Take them down!” Captain Young called, his rifle already spitting laser-fire. One of the mutons fell with its skull ruptured, bleeding thickly across the floor, but the other was raising its weapon and the three chryssalids were clawing their way down the corridor, dragging their ruined bodies with what was left of their many legs.
A high crack rang out in the corridor, reverberating down the hidden halls; the familiar sound of Chi’s sniper rifle as she racked the slide, the ejected cartridge skittering away across the floor. The first of the chryssalids didn’t just tumble. It exploded, spraying Rudd with yellow gore as thick as pudding.
Rudd didn’t take the moment to wipe the blood from his eyes before he hosed the X-rays. The one living muton duked left, pressing into a hollow along the length of the corridor, and Rudd’s wild laser spray took the second chryssalid in the gut. It went down kicking, its long claws carving arcs through the air. The third didn’t even pause as its comrade died. It leaped over the bodies of its comrades, claws striking sparks through the patina of blood, and leaped for Captain Rudd’s face.
The roar of Lieutenant White’s LMG was immense. It was like being picked up and battered by a tornado, the sheer volume deafening, and Rudd fell back with his hands over his ears as the chryssalid erupted in a spray of chitin and blood. The battering of bullets went on until the chryssalid and the muton hiding behind it were nothing more than smears of protein across the metal floor.
Finally, White’s belt of ammunition ran out, and the bolt of his LMG locked down. The gunner panted, grinning, his dark curls sodden with alien fluids. “Nothing but a crater,” he whispered.
Rudd stood on shaking legs, sliding a fresh battery into his laser rifle. “You don’t always have to live the dream, White. Subtlety is a virtue.”
White cocked his head. “I don’t even know the meaning of the word.”
“I believe you.” Rudd motioned the team in close: ‘Alpha’ Chi reloading her rifle, White already slamming a fresh magazine into his LMG, Young and Wise checking that their own laser-rifles were humming and ready to fire. He could barely believe that nobody had been hurt. Five X-rays down and they hadn’t suffered a scratch.
In Rudd’s experience, if it seemed too good to be true it probably was.
“Wise, up front,” he whispered. “And for God’s sake, be careful.”
The air in the tunnels smelled bad. Not just stale, but rotten. Lieutenant Nomi ‘Alpha’ Chi knew bad smells. She’d toured the X-ray UFOs twice now, dragged leaking corpses out in plastic sacks. The whole base had the same smell. Like it was less a command centre and more a tomb.
Her footsteps echoed off the steel walls as the team moved single-file down the corridors. She was at the back, her rifle at the ready, scope uncapped, ready for her trained eye. The rifle and she were a trained unit. She knew it better than any of the other men and women she fought beside. She understood its bad moods.
So when the tunnels opened up suddenly into a wide, dark hall, Chi knew just where to set up shop. She hugged the back wall, finding an alcove where she could extend her bipod and sweep the length of the cavern, inspecting the steel nooks and the vast arched ribs of the ceiling. Nothing moved in those dark spaces.
Captain Young sidled up beside her. “Anything?”
“Is that bad?”
“You tell me, sir.” There was a whirring in the distance, a metallic whisper she couldn’t quite make out. Machinery? An iris door opening and closing? “Think you’d better find some cover, sir.”
Young snapped around. “Lewis, Wise, defensive line! Rudd, you hear that?”
“Coming in fast!” came the reply. “Artillery?”
“I don’t know! You tell me-”
Even as the two Captains squabbled, Nomi Chi knew what was going down. Her eye was glued to the scope, and so she was the first to see the disc floating through the hallway at the far end of the chamber. It was twice as wide as a satellite dish and near a foot thick, and it floated on what looked like a bed of steam. Superheated air spilled from vents on its underside, somehow strong enough to keep what looked like a tonne of steel wobbling through the air. Or maybe that was just the backwash of hidden plasma jets, or a magic spell cast by an alien wizard. Chi didn’t give a shit. All she needed was the order to fire.
“Sir!” she called.
“Target four hundred yards ahead!”
Young squinted. “Hostile?”
“No idea! Inorganic, possible drone.”
“Shoot the asshole, just to make sure.”
“You’re the boss,” Chi grunted, and lined up her shot. The disc wasn’t advancing, wasn’t making any aggressive moves – simply hanging in the air, bobbing like it was suspended on string.
Better safe than sorry, Chi thought, and fired.
The boom echoed off the walls. The disc jumped like it’d been bitten, sparks spraying against the ceiling. Perfect shot, but it hadn’t even left a dent.
Chi was still racking the slide when the disc made a sound like a low-budget Transformers toy. The disc turned slowly, seams opening in is previously seamless flanks.
The disc unfolded. One moment it was floating peacefully, and the next moment it had split down the middle to reveal dark electronic guts. Slim black barrels slid out from nested cavities, already glowing with plasma.
And behind the disc, marching through the same door, were the backup. Two mutons, the hulking bastards raising their rifles to bear, and behind them the spidery silhouettes of chryssalids, more limbs rising and falling than Chi could count.
“Fuck me blind,” Chi whispered, and pulled the trigger.
– – –
Author’s Note: Phew! Sorry about the massive wait in between installments of The B-Team. In short, life got in the way… specifically, writing and publishing Olesia Anderson 5, Burning Bridges! But I have some free time now, so I’ll be polishing off Chapter 7 some time this or next week.
If you enjoy my sci-fi and would like to support my writing ventures (and keep The B-Team going), why not check out my collection of sci-fi shorts, Past the Borders? It’s just $2.99 on Kindle, and contains some of my favourite works.