THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 8: Operation Flying Fog
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Corporal Alan Zelman swallowed hard. He was seated in a stiff-backed chair, staring into a bright halogen light. Seated beyond the light was an XCOM-hired psychiatrist. Beyond him, armed guards, rifles trained on Zelman’s chest.
His ankles and wrists were secured, not so tight that it hurt but tight enough that he couldn’t stand or pull away. They’d fed him and given him water but when he’d asked to see the Commander he’d been met with blank stares. Even so, he suspected Commander Pournelle was somewhere close by. Standing behind the one-way mirror on the far wall, or watching through one of the many cameras mounted around the edge of the concrete chamber.
The psychiatrist coughed and repeated his question, his voice monotone. “Do you know why you’re here?”
Zelman nodded. “I had… an episode.”
“I shot a friendly.”
“Do you know why you had this episode?”
Zelman began to shake his head, then reconsidered. “Might’ve just… flipped out. You know, because of-”
“Were you angry at Squaddie Faber?”
“Then why’d you shoot her?”
“Because I thought…” Zelman sighed. He had an itch above his left eye but he couldn’t scratch it, not with his hands secured to the chair. Sweat was running down his forehead and beading on the end of his nose. “Look, is this really necessary?”
The psychiatrist leaned back, chair creaking, pen clenched between his teeth. “Why don’t we start from the beginning? The landing.”
Alan Zelman closed his eyes. “Sure. The landing.
“The UFO was huge. Biggest we’d ever seen, crossing Canada from west to east. Came down just outside Ottawa. Captain Huang and Lieutenant Shephard were leading. Me, Sullivan and Wise close behind. The new girl, Faber, she stayed at the back. She’s a sniper specialist, so Captain Huang figured there wasn’t any reason to throw her into the shit just yet. We landed about half a klick from the UFO, but the bastards were coming at us before we were even off the back tray.”
The psych paused. “Bastards?”
“You’re still angry.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
The psych clicked his pen. “Do you miss your sister?”
What sort of a question was that? He missed her every fucking day. Hour by hour, since the moment they’d brought her off the Skyranger in a body bag. Operation Cold Shield. Too clinical of a name. Every time he heard it his gut clenched. The Commander said that losing one soldier that day had been ‘acceptable losses’. For him, it’d been the day the world split in two.
But all he said was, “Yeah.”
“Do you blame your comrades for what happened that day?”
“They did their best.”
“I know what you’re trying to do, but I’m telling you the truth. I didn’t shoot Faber for any real reason. I just… did it.”
The psych nodded. “Tell me about the attack.”
Corporal Zelman closed his eyes and remembered. The UFO squatting at the far end of the field, leaving a trail of burning grass and mutilated livestock in its wake. The back tray down, revealing a cavernous interior, lights flickering on strange consoles. And the creatures pouring out, the thin men, those spindly imitation humans with their neat blue suits formed from skin and their sunglasses of bone.
They’d come from the ship in a wave, scuttling from the shadows, plasma rifles in hand. The first sizzle of energy boiled past Zelman’s head, close enough that the echo of air igniting left a ringing in his ears. Captain Huang had motioned for them to get low, to fire, fire, fire…
“It was a slaughter,” he said.
“Were any of you hurt?”
“Not that I saw. They got close, I know that. Sullivan nearly lost his head, but we poured it on. I swear, they were dying on the ramp.”
“How many did you hit?”
He remembered a black and white detective film he’d seen as a child, flickering on the old CRT his parents kept in the dining room. A man in a slouched hat and duster stepping nonchalantly through a crime scene, nostrils flared, inhaling gunsmoke. “Smell the cordite?” he’d said. “That’s the smell of death.”
Cordite. A hard word, raw edged, dangerous and romantic. It set up root in his brain. He imagined striding across war-torn fields and sucking down lungfuls of cordite, the remnants of battle fizzing in his sinuses. It wasn’t until years later that Zelman learned how cordite was old tech, superseded by the beginning of the Second World War. An anachronism that refused to die. But even so, when he walked into battle and all his fellow soldiers were hosing the enemy with laser fire and plasma, he was still shooting real bullets. When held down the trigger on his LMG on that field outside Ottawa, the gun bucking and spitting fire, shell casings plinking off his armour, the smell of hot brass making him dizzy, thin men cut in half by his bullets, their slick yellow blood misting the air, he’d felt like a battlefield God. The God of Cordite.
“Don’t remember,” he said. “Lost count.”
“Your chestcam recorded five definite kills. Three with a rocket.”
Zelman shrugged. “Couldn’t forget the rocket. They were all hiding behind a log together. Bad place to hide.”
“Twelve corpses were retrieved from the field in total.”
“That’s your count. I just kept shooting. If they didn’t want to get blown away, they shouldn’t have gotten in my face.”
“Did you feel bad for them?”
Zelman paused. “Excuse me?”
“The thin men,” the psych said. “They were outclassed, in hardware and tactics. That was a banzai charge. Did you feel any sympathy?”
“Fuck no,” Zelman growled.
“But they were dying-”
“I’d kill every fucker there myself if they’d give me the bullets,” he said.
The psychiatrist nodded slowly. “Twelve thin men dead, no injuries. What next?”
“We regrouped, reloaded, scouted the perimeter. Nothing else moving out there, so Huang led the team in. He kept Vandal up front. You know those two.” The psych didn’t reply. “Huang and ‘Vandal’ Shephard? Always flirting? No?”
“I haven’t spent any time with Lieutenant Shephard,” the psych replied. “By all reports she’s a capable, well balanced soldier.”
Zelman tried to decide whether the psych was being sarcastic, but he couldn’t make out the man’s eyes, not through the hard glare of the lamp and the man’s insect-lens glasses. “Whatever you say. Well, she and Huang were being real cautious. We took our time. Shephard and Huang were joking about taking each other home to meet their folks for Christmas or something… Did you know Shephard sings?”
“As I said, I’ve never met with Lieutenant Shephard.”
“Yeah, yeah. I remember. Well. We worked through the whole ship like that. Silent, I swear. Nothing moving in that place. Like their whole force was that banzai wave of thin men. Or maybe those guys were just left behind to distract us while the rest of the force split off into the fields. Lights were mostly off, so we worked by feel. Spooky place, a UFO with no lights. That was some serious Giger shit. But still, couldn’t see anything moving, and I was starting to think it was already over. And then-”
At the end of the final corridor, they’d found the door of light, so tall it reached the ceiling. Sounds beyond, whispers, guttural. Afraid. Huang motioned for them to set up on either side of the barrier. The steady click click click as they all reloaded, recharged, flipped their tripods. Zelman’s LMG still hot in his hands, the barrel glowing very faintly in the darkness of the UFO corridor with the heat of all the rounds he’d fired into those bastard thin men.
Huang gave the signal, and Zelman waved one hand through the wall of light – the command they’d learned would open the doors. The light fading, and on the far side…
“What did you see?”
“Two of the commanders,” Zelman replied. “The sectoids with the swollen heads. You know them?”
“I’ve heard of them.”
Zelman raised one eyebrow. “You’re the company psych. Shouldn’t you have done your homework?”
“We’re not here to talk about me, Corporal. What did you do?”
“Nothing. Not at first. They were ready for us. Door opened and they were already firing. Plasma in the air like fireworks. Sullivan got hit. I saw him get knocked down. I know he’s been through a lot, I swear he shouldn’t even be out on those missions… he cracks easy. So when he got shot he just started screaming, flipping his shit. And Shephard, she goes nuts as well. She’s shouting ‘we’re dead, we’re all dead, we have to get out’… Everyone’s frozen. They’ve fucked us up real bad. We need cover, so Wise drops a smoke grenade. I can’t see shit any more. I’m coughing, I’m crying from the smoke stinging my eyes, there’s plasma so close it’s burning my beard.”
They’d arrived at the part of the conversation that Zelman had been dreading. “You know what happened.”
“Tell me. Take your time.”
“I can’t explain it! It just happened!”
“Then tell me how it ‘just happened.’”
“You…” Zelman sighed. “You know how in dreams, everything makes sense at the time? You’re in your bedroom and you step out the door into a jungle and you just…”
“Yeah. You fill in the gaps. So I was outside the door looking in through the smoke, trying to lock down the two X-rays, and then there was a light.”
“A light? How so?”
“Like someone set off a flash right behind my eyes. And then… the X-rays were with me. They just jumped through the doorway. One second there, one second not. And Sullivan and Wise and all the others were inside the door now, and they were shouting at me, shoot them, shoot them-”
“Your comrades and the aliens switched places?”
“Yeah. And it just made sense. They were there, and then they were over there. Dream logic. And I wanted to kill them. Serious scorched earth. And I was already getting ready to shoot, because I couldn’t not, you know? It just made sense.”
The pen scratched incessantly. “So you shot Sniper Specialist Faber.”
“I didn’t know it was her! She looked like-”
“But you still shot her.”
“Yeah. Twice. Third time missed.”
“Do you regret that?”
“Fuck do you think?” Zelman’s hands clenched into tight fists in his lap. “The other X-rays were running. I saw one sprint out of the cloud…”
It’d all made sense once he’d returned to base and they’d shown him the replay recorded on their chest-cams. Lieutenant Wise abandoning the protective smokescreen and sprinting through a field of plasma fire into the control chamber with Captain Huang at his back. Huang firing his sniper rifle from the hip, blowing a hole through the commander so huge you could see light through the other side. Wise putting his rifle to the injured alien’s head before it could recover and turning its skull to mush.
“There was fighting inside the room,” he said. “I saw two of the X-rays shoot Sullivan in the face. But then I blinked, and it was like… waking up. And I realised that I had it all backwards. Sullivan was still freaking out in the corner, and Faber was screaming because I’d hit her in the shoulder.”
“Like that.” Zelman snapped his fingers. “I don’t know what pulled me out of it. But I was angry. Real angry. So I charged in there, right after Wise and Huang. Only one X-ray left. Little arsehole hiding in the back. He was moving to shoot me, I think, but I was too quick. Got my gun and jammed it right up in his face.”
That memory, at least, was still vivid. The feel of the trigger resisting the pressure of his finger. The LMG kicking back against his shoulders. The hot splash of gore on his cheeks.
“I killed it,” he said flatly. “Done and done.”
The psychiatrist turned, as if receiving instructions from some hidden earpiece. Then he set his pen and paper down. “What happened after that?”
“Huang brought me down,” Zelman replied. “Tackled me so hard it bruised. They dragged me back to the Skyranger and left me there while they completed the sweep. I don’t blame them. Faber looked more scared of me than the aliens.”
“Do you harbour any resentment towards her?”
“Hell no! Don’t know much about her but I hear she’s a good soldier. Put three or four chryssalids down in an op last month. That’s good odds.”
“What about Captain Huang?”
Zelman shrugged. “I would’ve tackled me too. Hell, I would’ve used the taser.”
“Do you think you need treatment? A break? Was this battle fatigue, or-”
“All things considered, I’d prefer the opportunity to kill more X-rays.” Zelman looked to the window at the back of the chamber. “Sir.”
The psych nodded. “I think we’re done here. Thank you for your time, Corporal.”
He pressed a button beneath the table, and four security staff came through the door. They loosened the restraints on the chair long enough to get Alan Zelman’s hands behind his back, and snapped the cuffs tight.
As they marched him out of the room and down to the concrete chambers that doubled as the XCOM brig, Zelman whispered to the psych out of the corner of his mouth. “Apologise to Faber for me.”
After that, he had a long time to sit alone with his thoughts.
The psychiatrist swallowed nervously. He’d been with XCOM for two months but Pournelle still terrified him. Something about the way the Commander stared at him, eyes half-lidded, so still it almost looked like he wasn’t breathing. An automaton dressed in flesh.
“Corporal Zelman isn’t insane, Commander. And it wasn’t a fugue state. I suspect that what occurred was similar to what happened to the soldier who killed Corporal Lebedev during first contact.”
“What, he was hypnotised?”
“He mentioned seeing a bright light before the event, and we’ve seen the X-rays communicate with each other using something similar. Perhaps this is the same?”
“A form of telepathy, yes.”
Pournelle folded his hands before him on the table. “Lingering effects?”
“None that I could see. I believe the link was severed the instant the controlling alien was killed.”
“That’s no reason not to be cautious. We’ll keep him under observation for the next week, see how he behaves.” Pournelle sucked air over his teeth. “It’s not the idea of losing a soldier that worries me. It’s what the bastards could learn with five minutes inside one of their heads. There’s too much to lose.”
“Is there anything…”
“No. I have this under control.” Pournelle snatched up the phone. “Major? Yes, we need to talk. New protocols for enemy engagements. Yes. Yes. No, it regards friendly fire.” A pause. “Specifically, returning friendly fire. Yes, I understand that. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable with the subject. Ready room, ten minutes.” He slammed the phone down and sighed. “This job never gets any easier, you know?”
“Of course, sir.” The psychiatrist swallowed again. It felt like there was a lump of glue jammed in his throat. “I meant to ask… I have leave coming up. Two weeks with my family? I just need a signature on-”
“Leave is cancelled, young man.” Commander Pournelle was already shuffling papers, his attention elsewhere. “Put your application in again when this is all over.”
“That might be years away, sir.”
“Might be never. Come on, kid. You didn’t think you could take a holiday from a war?”
The psychiatrist nodded slowly. “Of course, sir. I just… sorry. I’ll get out of your way.”
Pournelle ushered him out the door without glancing up, and the psych was relieved when Pournelle’s office door finally clicked closed behind him. There were two guards flanking the door, rifles in hand, and they made sympathetic noises as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Commander’s in a mood, huh?”
The psychiatrist nodded. “There were… developments.”
“Always developments,” the soldier said. “You better get out of here before he get a real temper.”
The psych was halfway down the hall when he reconsidered and turned back. The two soldiers looked up as he approached. “When was the last time you got official leave?” he asked.
The soldiers stared blankly. “Leave?” one said.
“This is wartime,” the other said.
“But I’m not enlisted. I’m here on contract. My wife expects me home in-”
“Better send her an apology,” the first soldier said. “Word is, nobody leaves HQ unless they’re out to kill.”
“So when do I-”
The soldier shrugged. “Sorry, buddy. All in it together, right?”
There was nothing the psych could do but keep his mouth shut and walk away alone, into the cold concrete bowels of XCOM Headquarters.
– – –
This chapter was really fun to write, and I think I’ll be experimenting with the format of The B-Team more often now. Operation Flying Fog was the first chapter of what I consider the second half of the game, and also the first mission I played with the increased difficulty. I’ll warn everyone in advance… things got messy, fast. The next few missions were nothing but tragedy after tragedy. You’re in for quite a ride.
As always, thanks for reading, and check out some of my other projects (linked in the sidebar) if you’d like to support this ongoing project!