THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 7 – Operation Lone Mountain, Part 2
Operation Lone Mountain, continued
It wasn’t so much a smattering of gunfire as an eruption.
The six XCOM soldiers lined up along the back wall of the chamber opened fire as one, the electric sizzle of lasers lost entirely beneath the boom and rattle of Lieutenant White’s LMG. Lieutenant Chi just kept her head down and tightened her aim. The trigger was warm beneath her gloved finger. It understood her. When she tugged, it obeyed.
Her first shot missed the floating disc by an inch, and in the time it took to reload Rudd and Lewis had begun sweeping it with laser fire, burning it out of the air. The disc dipped beneath the impact, spun away from their beams, and fired back.
“Down, down!” Rudd called, but even as he was ducking the plasma slammed him to the floor. Chi saw splintered armour plating and smoke wending upward from Rudd’s gut, but she couldn’t move from her position, not without losing her perfect field of fire.
“Medic!” she called, but Wise was fifty yards away, pinned behind a balustrade as the mutons swept him with plasma fire. It might as well have been fifty miles. “Ace!” she called. “Move on three!”
‘Ace’ Wise nodded, and Chi counted down fast as she fixed her aim on the first of the two mutons, settling her crosshairs just below the scaly asshole’s eyes. She exhaled. Her finger danced on the trigger.
She fired, and the muton’s skull sheared in two like it’d been struck by the fist of God. Wise popped out of his cover, laser rifle flashing, and the second muton fell back screeching.
“Put it down, put it down!” Young turned his laser rifle on the muton, and in the strobe-flash of his fire Chi saw the creature shear down the middle, its armour melting beneath the onslaught. The air filled with the sweet smell of barbecued pork and Chi’s aim wavered as she inhaled the smoke.
Three chryssalids still coming, and the disc-sentry was still coming, sweeping rapidly from left to right across the chamber. It ducked and wove like a linebacker, skipping between Lewis’s laser fire almost too fast to believe.
Almost. Chi didn’t bother pressing her eye to the scope. She led the disc on instinct, her finger tense on the trigger, and fired. The rifle bucked against her shoulder hard enough to bruise, but the explosive pang of steel on steel was worth it. The disc wobbled, tumbled, and shed sparks as it hit the floor. Its steel panels flapped spasmodically, little black gunbarrels retreating inside the carapace. Then it kicked once more, spat fire, and fell still.
“Spiders, coming in fast!” That was ‘Crater’ White, hosing the back wall of the chamber like he had ammo to spare. The three chryssalids were scrambling over each other in their eagerness, and even when Crater’s wild fire chopped one out of the air the others clawed their way over their companion’s body. Rudd was down and Wise was up to his elbows in blood as he tried to stem the bleeding, which left Young, Chi and Lewis to stem the tide.
The two chryssalids jumped the ruined hulk of the disc. They dripped acid-yellow ichor from their jaws as they clacked and clattered, and through the scope of her rifle Chi could swear she saw a sickly intelligence behind their alien eyes.
She sighted and pulled the trigger.
The bolt caught. Magazine empty. Chi felt her stomach drop away. “Out, I’m out!” she called, yanking the magazine and fumbling at her belt for another. Young was down on one knee, raking the X-rays with laser fire, and one of the chryssalids split down the middle like overripe fruit. But the last of the three was still coming, a silhouette of claws and shadow.
Lewis ducked out from his alcove and swept the last of the chryssalids, his laser rifle hissing steam as it vaporised the water in the air, but even with its guts hanging loose around its legs it kept on coming, tearing itself apart as it hauled its carcass across the steel floor.
Chi’s spare magazine wouldn’t fit. She rammed it up into her rifle but something had jammed. There was no list of curses long enough in English, and she spat epithets in French as she let the magazine fall to the floor.
Her left hand found her pistol and slid it from the holster, tugging free of butter-smooth leather. The chryssalid loomed closer, claws scraping on steel. Its guts were knotted, leaking black fluid with every step, but it never slowed. Its two claw-arms swept up, lights gleaming on serrated bone.
Chi brought her pistol up, sighted, and fired.
The pistol bucked as she squeezed the trigger, three quick shots echoing off the riveted walls. The first two shots were wide but the third took the chryssalid in the right eye, leaving a bloodied hole so wide Chi could see clear through to the far side.
The creature skittered across the floor, legs splayed, canting drunkenly as its brain shut down cell by cell. Its claw-arms came up, and Chi threw herself aside, expecting the spider-thing to cut her in half, to live on even though it was missing half its head. But the creature only sighed, gases hissing through the rent in its skull, and collapsed to the floor.
Chi stood slowly, pistol held tight in both hands. The chryssalid lay still at her feet.
She put the rest of the magazine into its head just to make sure.
When the last echo of gunfire had faded she turned to the remainder of the crew. White had slammed a fresh magazine into his LMG and was walking the perimeter of their little basecamp, while Young and Wise were still crouched over Rudd. Captain Rudd’s face was deathly pale, his right hand clenching and unclenching inside his heavy gloves as Wise injected anticoagulants deep into his chest.
Chi knelt beside them, her pistol still smoking in her hands. “Is he okay?”
“Fingers crossed,” Wise said, not even glancing up from his work.
“You see the size of the hole?” White called. “The Captain is fucked.”
“Don’t count him out. Santa’s tough.” But Sergeant Wise didn’t look so sure as he sounded. His forehead dripped sweat as he yanked the last of his bandages tight. “Captain, you hear me?”
Rudd blinked slowly, lizardlike. “Sergeant?”
“We got you, Captain. You gotta hold-”
“I know the drill,” Rudd whispered. He folded both hands over the bandages and squeezed. “Apply pressure and wait for evac. Do the fucking job, Sergeant!”
Wise nodded. His adam’s apple bobbed. Then he stuffed the remainder of his hypodermics back into his medic’s satchel and snatched up his rifle.
“You heard the Captain. We’re moving on!” Wise met Captain Young’s eyes, and the two men nodded to each other, communicating without a word. Wise turned to Chi. “Got my back, Alpha?” he said.
Lieutenant Chi dared a grin. “All the way, Ace.”
“Then let’s move.”
It hurt Sergeant Wise to leave Captain Rudd behind, but he’d seen more of the man’s injuries than anyone and knew the old bastard would live if they had him on a Skyranger within an hour. So long as he kept pressure on the gaping hole in his chest and didn’t pass out…
But Wise knew the math. If they stopped the infiltration to drag Rudd to safety, whoever was running the base would have enough time to evac themselves. Then they’d set up base somewhere else, vacuum up more civilians, burn whole cities. Leave townships as craters of ash.
Rudd was a small price to pay, in the end.
Wise stayed up front as Captain ‘Cash’ Young led the way into the bowels of the base. The five remaining soldiers moved close together, Chi bringing up the rear, their footfalls echoing strangely off organic curves of steel. They passed through doors that opened like irises, snicking closed behind them, like airlocks forcing them deeper and deeper into the bunker, one hatch at a time.
The corridors wound down, and down, and further still, until Wise began to wonder whether he’d ever feel sunlight on his skin again. His rifle shook in his hands as they stepped through another silken iris. The air didn’t taste like rot any more. It tasted electric, a charge tingling on the back of his tongue. Like plasma vapour.
“I don’t wanna die down here,” he whispered.
White was by his side, lugging his LMG, sweat shining on his brow. “You’re not gonna die.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“What they all say doesn’t count for shit.” White stopped, panted, and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “You know what, Wise?”
“They need to put wheels on this thing.”
“Why don’t you mount it on a bicycle?”
“It’d overbalance. Need a baby carriage.”
“Bring a go-kart, then. You can be our mounted cavalry.”
“I’ll put it in Pournelle’s suggestion box… holy shit.”
They’d stepped through a tall door into a chamber the size of a football stadium. The ceiling arched far overhead, revealing walkways and balustrades, a balcony on the second floor glowing with the light of holographic consoles.
There were no further doors, no other exits. The heart of the base, Wise realised. This was their neural hub, their command centre. And somewhere behind the consoles would be the X-ray Commander, their own Pournelle.
Chi dropped to one knee and swept the chamber through her scope. “Two mutons at the base of that pedestal… thing,” she whispered. “Two hundred meters.”
Young was by her side, watching through his own scope. “Armed?”
“Something moving behind the pedestal. It looks like… What the fuck?”
Wise peered through the scope on his laser rifle. He’d recognised the silhouette at the far end of the chamber and thought it only another sectoid, one of the bobble-headed bastards who’d gunned Nyssa Zelman down so many months before, but now that he saw it moving he realised it was subtly different. Its skull was somehow larger, swollen, and there was an electrical glow behind its eyes, a flare of phosphorescence.
He remembered where he’d seen a creature like that before. The chest-cam footage recovered from the very first contact. Corporal Lebedev and Ramirez getting torn apart by X-rays in a dim warehouse on the outskirts of Hamburg.
And now, they’d found the bastard.
His finger was already on the trigger when Young grabbed his shoulder. “Alive! We need it alive!”
Wise growled. “Whatever you say, boss. How’d you want this done?”
“We need those two pinned.” Young pointed out the mutons circling the pedestal. “Shredded if possible. I’ll take the leader myself.” He patted the arc thrower hanging on his belt. “Crater, you blow the one on the left. Full artillery. Alpha, Ace, hammer the one on the right. Devil-Dog, watch the rear. No idea if there’s any more coming through the pipes, and I don’t want to be surprised. See that ramp?” He pointed to the incline leading up to the control console far overhead. “I’ll go up, come off the far side and stun the leader from behind. He’ll never know what hit him.”
“Sir!” ‘Crater’ White unslung his rocket launcher and fitted an explosive into the tube. “Just give the word.”
“No better time than now,” Young said, and ran.
For a moment Wise was frozen, watching his Captain sprint up the ramp and into the shadows. He could almost hear Young’s brass balls clanging together as he reached the peak and vanished into the shadows. Then White’s rocket-launcher roared, and the two mutons turned in surprise just in time for the sucker on the left to disappear behind a cloud of flame and shrapnel.
“Take ’em down!” White called, but Wise was already firing, spraying the second muton with laser fire. The beast stumbled, its weapon almost slipping from its hands, and managed to crawl behind a barricade. Wise’s laser scattered harmlessly off the steel.
Up top, Young was a blur behind the hologram shimmer of the consoles. He was still running fast, and the sectoid commander didn’t seem to have noticed him yet. “Couple seconds more!” Wise called. “Chi, can you hit that thing?”
Chi was already folding out her bipod. “On it,” she muttered, one eye pressed to the socket of her scope. A quick exhalation. A click. A crack of gunfire. “Missed.”
The black cloud left by Crater’s rocket was clearing and Wise could make out something moving at the centre. The muton was on its knees, bleeding, dragging its guts behind it along the floor, but still alive, raising its plasma rifle to bear.
Wise’s rifle gave a sad little hum as the battery depleted. He ejected, letting it hit the floor, and slammed a new battery home. “What’s it take to kill these bastards?”
“I’m on it!” Chi reloaded and fired again. “Fuck! Missed!”
“Stop screwing around!” The muton’s rifle flashed, and Wise leaped back as plasma burred past his shoulder. “Down, down!”
It was little consolation, but at least the X-rays were concentrating on him and not Captain Young. ‘Cash’ was a silhouette far overhead, and Wise held his breath as the Captain hung off the railing of the balcony, lowering himself to ground level, out of sight of the sectoid commander. Almost there, Wise thought. Just a few more seconds…
Captain Young dropped, a solid thud echoing around the chamber as ceramic armour met steel plating. The sectoid commander spun, his huge head bobbing on his tiny shoulders, and screeched like a cat dropped into cold bathwater.
The alien didn’t even have time to fire. Young rolled as he hit the hit the floor and came up with his arc thrower in both hands. There was a lightning flash, the crackle of burning flesh, and the X-ray dropped face-first.
“It’s down!” Young called, scurrying for cover behind one of the steel barriers. “It’s-”
The plasma flare was searingly bright, like staring into the sun. Wise hadn’t even seen the second muton turning – one moment the X-ray was pinned and the next it was on its feet, rifle in hand, fire boiling across the length of the chamber. Young screamed as he fell, tumbling mid-stride, hands flung out before him. Then he landed behind the barricade and vanished from sight.
Wise’s stomach knotted in panic. “Get the Captain, get him out of there!” He raked the muton with laser fire but the alien was already scampering away behind solid cover. “Chi, hit the goddamn thing!”
“On it!” Sweat gleamed on Chi’s brow as she lined up her shot. “Breathe… breathe…”
The crack of gunfire echoed around the vast chamber, and the muton behind the barricade collapsed in a spray of bone and blood. That only left the muton half-shredded by White’s rocket, somehow still crawling on hands and knees, stitching the ceiling with mis-aimed plasma fire.
“I’ve got it!” White had ditched the empty rocket-launcher tube in favour of his massive LMG. He braced against the back wall of the chamber and hosed the last muton, ricochets pinging off the steel floor like fireworks. But the muton kept crawling despite the heavy fire, and its own wild plasma bursts were inching lower, blowing fat holes out of the walls less than a meter over Wise’s head.
Now or never, he thought. He had to move.
“Keep him pinned!” Wise called to White, and dashed across the open chamber. The muton saw him coming but Tama Wise already had his rifle up against his shoulder. He pulled the trigger, waiting for the laser flash that would take the muton’s head off.
Nothing happened. He glanced down and saw the charge light blinking. Another dead battery.
Wise didn’t break his stride. He let the rifle fall clattering on the floor and drew his pistol. His gloves were slick with blood and sour alien mucus and when he tried to pull the trigger his finger slipped. Exhaustion that had left him broken but he knew what he had to do.
His aim was true. White had let off the LMG fire long enough for Wise to close the gap. He pressed the barrel against the creature’s temple.
“Ciao, Uso,” he said, and fired.
It was only hours later, as Pournelle was pinning the badge on the lapel of his uniform jacket, that the echo of the gunshot began to fade.
“Congratulations, Lieutenant Wise.” Pournelle stepped back. The handshake was brief and professional. “XCOM thanks you for your service.”
“Sir.” Wise blinked. He was standing in the briefing room on the second floor of XCOM HQ, but he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. His right hand was still curling unconsciously into firing position, gripping an invisible pistol, finger on a non-existent trigger.
“You’ve done something incredible,” Pournelle said. The commander’s eyes were sunken by exhaustion but there was a smile dancing on his lips. “The thing you brought in? The commander? We’re already learning from it. This may be a turning point in the war.”
Wise nodded automatically. “Sir.”
“Get some rest. You’ve earned it.” A pat on the shoulder. A quick squeeze. “At ease, Lieutenant.”
And that was that. Pournelle turned on his heel and walked out, and Wise exited out the other door, talking the long, lonely walk to the elevators that would take him down to the barracks. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead and every footstep echoed strangely off the concrete walls. The world seemed muted, the volume knob stuck on one, cotton wool jammed in his ears.
And then he passed the shrine, and stopped dead.
The shrine was just a corkboard propped on a ledge along one wall of the corridor, just outside the mess hall. A simple thing, those few colour photos pinned there oddly out of place against the grey concrete wall, the concrete ceiling, concrete floor.
He’d walked past those photos more times than he could count, but he never stopped to really look at them. It was easier not to. Easier to pretend certain things hadn’t gone down the way they had.
Ramirez, Lebedev and Hashimoto. Nyssa Zelman. Lucien Hickman. Jake Solomon. Six names, six photographs. Six that could become eight if Young and Rudd didn’t pull through. They were still in surgery, getting stitched and sutured and cauterised. Medics said Young was 50/50. Rudd, somewhat less.
He remembered how close the muton’s wild fire had been to his head. The claw of a chryssalid sweeping down. A matter of inches, every time.
And somehow, he knew things were only going to get worse.
Someone was laughing in the mess hall. The crew that hadn’t been on the Skyranger, watching Young and Rudd bleed out. Huang, Shephard, Richardson, Nyssa Zelman’s brother Alan, Gollnick… Wise knew they’d all been there, under fire, but somehow Wise felt apart from them all. In a day he’d be one of the crew again, but for now he still had gore dried on his boots. The pin on his lapel was oddly heavy. It still didn’t feel like he’d done anything to deserve it. And yet…
He brushed the bank of photos with numb fingers. “For you, guys,” he said, and marched on, towards the laughter and the light.
– – –
PHEW. The end of Chapter 7 is a major milestone in the story of The B-Team (those who’ve played XCOM understand why). Things are only going to get worse from here, because I’m ramping up the in-game difficulty to compensate for how well things have gone so far. I mean, three deaths outside the tutorial level? That’s barely a warm-up!
A couple thousand people have read through The B-Team already, and I thank each and every one of you for sticking with me so far. It’s hard to believe, but chapters 1-7 total 36,000 words, which is longer than any of my Olesia Anderson novellas. So if you’ve read this far and would like to support me, why not do me a favour and give my Olesia Anderson series a go? The latest entry, Burning Bridges, is pretty much a stand-alone story! For $2.99 you get 35,000 words of espionage, sex, gunfights, double-crosses and beautiful scenery. Or, if you’re the sort of reader who likes to try before you buy, why not read Dirty Deals? It’s the first Olesia Anderson thriller, and is available as a free download in Kindle and Epub formats!