THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 9: Operation Fading Pyre
“Alive, Captain Lewis.” Commander Pournelle’s hands were knotted before him on his desk, veins standing out like blue ropes. “We need her alive and talking.”
Captain Adam ‘Devil Dog’ Lewis stood rigid, at attention. It was tough for him to maintain the professional facade – he’d never been one for salutes and proper posture, but they’d pinned the medals on his shoulder and now he had to play the part. “Sir.”
“The Skyranger will be waiting for an immediate evac. Get her back here ASAP. The information she has on the X-ray’s plans…”
“Vital. I understand, sir.”
“Good.” Pournelle eased back in his chair, sighing. “God knows we don’t need another incident. After our last VIP pickup went sour… well. You know how the Council is riding me.”
“No, I don’t. Sir.”
Pournelle shrugged. “Pick your team and get it done, Captain.”
Lewis grinned. He already had his list.
They landed in Nigeria just after eight PM local time. Benin City looked quiet from the air, which was a good sign. According to CNN, X-rays had swept through Nigeria two weeks before, killing en-masse and scattering refugees east into Cameroon. XCOM hadn’t provided support during the invasion, but Lewis had yet to be told why. Suicide mission or not, they could’ve done some good.
But the wave of violence was over now, with most of Benin City empty. Satellite reports showed scattered X-rays roaming the streets, engaged in small skirmishes with the locals. Most of those battles ended in slaughter. Bodies stacked in alleys.
If they’d asked Lewis to lead a strike team into the city he would’ve gladly accepted, but Pournelle had given him very strict mission parameters. Thirty clicks from the centre of Benin City was a small dock alongside the Sapele river. Hiding somewhere at the docks was a Nigerian engineer. Ene Mobolaji, a woman who’d witnessed first hand what the X-rays were dumping into the Nigerian water supplies.
She had samples waiting for XCOM’s science team. All Lewis had to do was pluck her from her hiding hole and spirit her back to the continental USA. If the streets stayed quiet, they could be in and out without any fuss.
He looked to his team as the Skyranger touched down. Captain Tama ‘Ace’ Wise, a man who he could trust to be consistently level-headed under fire. Lieutenants ‘Vandal’ Shephard and ‘Bishop’ Sullivan, both of whom had the uncanny ability to bounce back from whatever the X-rays threw at them. Corporal Faber, a sniper specialist who’d earned her stripes not on the firing range but under fire. Finally, new Squaddie Evan Leybourn, a rocket-launcher toting guy with a quiet smile and the sort of beard that Captain Lewis could respect. He hadn’t seen action yet, but Leybourn had the look about him of a man who’d get shit done, and there was no way to test that except on the battlefield.
Lewis’s chosen five. He just had to hope he hadn’t chosen wrong.
The back tray hit the ground and the arid Nigerian air rolled in. Lewis looked out at a dark, silent dock. Filthy river water lapped against shipping containers stacked along the water’s edge. A few small boats bobbed with the tide sweeping up from the ocean. At the far end of the concrete dock was a two-story building that Lewis assumed was the shipping master’s office, every window broken, the walls blackened with plasma fire.
If Mobolaji was alive, she’d be hiding there. A three hundred meter jog. Easy in, easy out, as Rudd always said. Then again, Rudd didn’t always bring his soldiers back alive.
No reason not to take every precaution. Lewis motioned for Faber to climb up the nearest shipping container while Leybourn and Sullivan took point. “Watch the shadows,” he whispered. “Fingers off triggers. Don’t nail Mobolaji by mistake.”
They moved through the graveyard of shipping crates and rusted steel drums meter by slow meter, checking every corner. The docks were silent but for the creaking of boats against the shore.
Five minutes of careful shuffling later, Lewis hit the wall of the shipping master’s office with his team close behind. He waved Faber and Leybourn into position, covering their path back to the Skyranger. “Captain Wise, you and Shephard with me.”
“Gotcha.” Wise motioned Shephard over and together they inched around the back of the red-brick office, peering behind steel drums, waiting for Mobolaji to stick her head out.
Wise lifted the lid off a wooden crate, glanced inside and grunted. “Nothing here. Ene Mobolaji, hide and seek champion 2015.”
“Do you blame her?” Shephard whispered. “Poor woman’s being hunted.”
“True enough.” A pause. “So,” Wise said. “You and Huang, eh?”
Shephard scowled. “What about it?”
“Just making conversation. You and that boy look like you’re gettin’ pretty sweet.”
“Captain Wise,” Lewis mumbled, “that’s not appropriate banter-”
“Apologies, but I don’t think Vandal’s really one for ‘appropriate banter’,” Wise shot back.
‘Vandal’ Shephard just shrugged. “Maybe we’re getting sweet. Maybe you should shut your mouth. Flip a coin for it.”
“Hah.” Wise stopped. “Wait. You hear that? Coming from-”
Captain Lewis already had his finger on the trigger of his laser rifle when the woman staggered out from behind the brick boathouse and collapsed on to her knees. “Oh thank God,” she sobbed, grabbing at Lewis’s legs. “Thank Christ Jesus. I knew you’d come.”
Ene Mobolaji, Lewis presumed. A thin black woman in bluejeans and a leather coat, her boots spattered with paint, brick dust in the black ringlets of her hair. She was wide-eyed, trembling. Lewis suspected she’d been hiding somewhere in the construction site at the far end of the dock before moving up to the shipping master’s office.
No matter. They had her now. “You’re safe,” Lewis said, lifting Ene to her feet. “We’ve got a ride waiting. You got the data?”
Ene seemed dazed, and it took her a moment to process what Lewis was saying. Then, in a flash of understanding, she produced a slim white USB stick from her pocket. “The water,” she whispered. “They’re poisoning us. Taking over our minds-”
Lewis snatched it out of her hand and buried it in the satchel at his belt. “I need you to hustle, Ms Mobolaji. It’s not safe-”
It was as if they’d been waiting for the perfect theatrical cue. Lewis heard the whisper of soft-soled shoes against concrete. The low hum of a plasma rifle spitting heat.
“Heads down!” he called, and fire erupted on all sides.
Lewis hated the hiss of plasma fire more than any other sound. It was the way it burned the air in its path, the superheated trail that left his ears ringing. The noise was worse than the heat, than the sudden punch of impact.
But at least it shone bright enough that he could see where the fuckers were hiding. He counted three thin men keeping to the shadows beyond the shipping crates, their sunglasses reflecting the green flare of their weaponry. Dumbasses were keeping close together. He’d make them regret that little tactic.
“Squaddie!” he called. “Grenade, now!”
Squaddie Leybourn was hunkered behind a wooden shipping pallet, but he snapped to attention at Lewis’s cry. “Sir!” he shouted, and threw a grenade overarm. Lewis watched the neat arc as it flew over their steel-drum barricades, bounced off the concrete and pinged off the door of a shipping container, bouncing…
Bouncing straight back towards them.
“Fire in the hole!” Lewis called, and dropped flat as the grenade went off. Ms Mobolaji shrieked as shrapnel rang off the brick. The air above their heads was choked with black smoke, threaded through with plasma fire. “Goddamnit, Squaddie! What sort of throw was that?”
“Sorry, Captain!” Leybourn looked genuinely mortified, hunkered down against the red brick wall. “I didn’t-”
“You’re goddamn right you didn’t!” Lewis unclipped his only grenade from his belt, measured the distance, and pulled the pin.
This time, the aim was perfect. The thin men scattered as the grenade arced in, but not quickly enough. There was a flash, followed by a bubbling scream.
The wind ripping up the river took care of the smoke, and Lewis peered over the lip of his cover long enough to count bodies. Two of the thin bastards down. The third was…
“Down!” Faber called, and Lewis obeyed without thinking. He hit the floor just as Faber’s laser line cut the air above his head, and the third thin man – who’d been creeping across the dock to get a better angle of attack – was flipped end over end.
The X-ray hit the concrete, twitched once, and fell still. Lewis exhaled. “Sound off! Ene, you hurt?”
The engineer whimpered, still flat on her stomach. Lewis took her arm and dragged her to her feet; the woman was a dead weight, eyes glazed. Lewis grimaced. If he had to throw Ene over his shoulders and piggy-back her out…
The low slap of footsteps echoed in the distance. Lewis brought his rifle up, scanning the dock through the scopes. All black out there. God forbid XCOM HQ lay down the cash for thermal scopes…
“Shephard,” he hissed. “Take point. Let’s get this poor woman home.”
Lieutenant Eliza ‘Vandal’ Shephard didn’t really enjoy being the first in line, but shit, she was good at it. Her laser rifle was humming in her hands and her adrenaline was jacked up to eleven. Her breath came fast and quick as she slipped from cover to cover, crouching behind steel barrels and empty wooden crates. She knew they’d give her no real protection from alien plasma, but it went against every instinct to simply walk in the open. Every inch of her body she could hide gave her an advantage.
So when she heard the steady thud of footsteps carrying off the docks, she moved automatically, sliding up against a low brick wall and bringing her rifle up to her shoulder. She made out two figures shifting behind a forklift, and another hiding out on one of the boats tied up beside the dock. Waiting in ambush, she figured.
Arseholes. She motioned Faber into position and held her breath as the sniper specialist lined up her shot. “Easy…”
“You need to relax, Lieutenant.” Corporal Meryl Faber was a picture of calm as she sighted on the nearest thin man. Shephard liked Faber – she didn’t fit the typical mould of a combat sniper. They were usually young, brash men who talked a lot of shit back at barracks and then went all silent and serious when it came time to do the job. Faber, on the other hand, never broke character. She smiled when they played pool back at base, she smiled when the Skyranger lifted off and she smiled as she inserted a fresh battery into her rifle.
Shephard didn’t know if it was all an act or whether Faber was genuinely happy to be in the firing line. Either way, she appreciated having someone on the team that didn’t look like they were walking dead.
Faber squeezed the trigger, and Shephard’s pulse quickened as the thin man and the wooden crate behind him burst into flame, the beam passing through flesh as easily as butter.
“Two for two.” Faber grinned. “More coming in. Leybourn, give us some cover!”
Then came the return fire, the whoosh of hot plasma and the chatter of Leybourn’s LMG. Shephard kept low, watching the shadows, trying to pick her target. There were more than just the two by the forklift – four, maybe even five of the bastards, flanking from both sides. “Captain!” Shephard called. “Cover, cover!”
Lewis was already by her side, slapping her on the shoulder. “Left side, two on the barge! Move, move!” He fired from the hip, the laser lancing out, slicing one of the thin men through the middle. “Take them down!”
For all Leybourn’s wild fire, it didn’t look to Shephard like he’d clipped a single one. Just as Lewis had said, two of the thin men were trying to sneak across a barge tied up at the edge of the water, flanking from the left. Sullivan was already charging them, and she had a terrible premonition of Sullivan getting blown away before he reached the edge of the dock.
She sprinted to catch up, rifle bucking against her shoulder as she hosed the barge with laser fire. The two thin men didn’t stand a chance. They were still raising their weapons when Shephard cut the first one down, and ‘Bishop’ Sullivan blew a hole through the second X-ray wide enough to fit a beer can. Shephard panted, grinning, her rifle hot in her hands. “Blew ’em right out of their shoes, huh?”
Sullivan only grimaced. There was soot in his neat moustache and grime worked into the lines of his cheeks. “Shoot the shit later, Shephard. More coming in from-”
Sullivan didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. He was pointing out into the darkness beyond the barge when the world flashed green, and a bolt of plasma slapped him off his feet and threw him to the floor.
“Bishop!” Shephard scrambled after Sullivan, dragging him out of the line of fire. He panted, eyes rolled back, clutching at her hand. “You’re okay,” she assured, “You’re fine-”
But the hole burned into his chestplate said he wasn’t fine. There was blood between Sullivan’s teeth, and he spasmed on the floor of the barge like he was having a seizure.
A line of plasma blurred past Shephard’s head, close enough that she felt her hair frizzing. She glanced over her shoulder. Three shapes closing in, and there was no good cover on the barge. She’d have to make a run for a wall of wooden debris in the centre of the dock. She’d be protected from the front, but those assholes could flank her no problem of the rest of her team didn’t catch up.
Damned either way. She grit her teeth and made her choice.
With plasma whizzing past her head, she leaped off the barge and sprinted across the docks. A burst of green fire splashed at her feet and she dove left, rolling on hard concrete and fetching up against the barricades. Just wooden shipping crates and safety signs piled chest-high – a crude, last ditch attempt by the locals at keeping the X-rays away from the boats.
At that moment, it was all she had. Shephard dropped low behind the wooden barricades, sighting through the gaps between planks of wood. Two of the bastards were coming straight at her. The others must’ve already split off.
Hemming her in. Her heart thudded in her throat. She needed backup, fast. “I’ve got no exit! Support, support!”
Shouting was a mistake. Plasma fire roared, and Shephard bit back a scream as the barricade exploded around her. Wood splinters cut her cheeks and ricocheted off her armour. Smoke wended around her head as the remains of the crate ignited.
Shephard swore. Her finger trembled on the trigger of her laser rifle. Four, maybe five X-rays. She’d beaten those odds before. All she had to do was blow a hole through the centre. Scatter them like dogs.
She peeked over the ruin of the crate. Two thin men were coming closer, creeping through the shadows like suited spiders. On the right, coming around the stack of shipping containers, was the third. She couldn’t make out others, but she knew they wouldn’t be far behind.
Every instinct was telling her to get up and run, to retreat back to whatever dark hole she could crawl into, but she knew that’d only end with her flat on the concrete with a hole blown in her back. Leybourn and Wise were coming up behind her, boots thudding on the cold dock. The thin men were splitting up, spreading out across the docks, taking up better positions. It was going to be an all-out firefight.
No time like the present.
Lieutenant Shephard pushed off the deck with her rifle already spinning up to full power. The battery whined as she drew a bead on the lead thin man and pulled the trigger.
She saw the dot on the X-rays head the moment before his skull exploded. The thin man fell kicking, spraying the dock with brains, but the other was still loping towards her and her battery light was blinking empty. “Cover me,” she called, “cover-”
The roar of Leybourn’s LMG echoed off the shipping crates and reverberated in Shephard’s chest. A line of sparks stitched across the concrete and up the side of the shipping crates, shattering the windows of an office in the distance. Brick dust rose in great clouds.
The thin man stalked onward, untouched. “Goddamnit!” Shepard hissed, fumbling a fresh battery into her rifle. “Do your fucking jo-”
Green light etched into her retinas. It was like lightning had struck just beside her, the sudden thunderclap lifting her off her feet and throwing her to the floor. She skidded on her back along the dock, gasping for breath but unable to inhale, her lungs hitching, her throat closed.
Smoke wended up from her breastplate. She touched it gingerly, tracing the teacup-sized hole burned through the carapace. “Fuckers shot me,” she whispered. “Fuckers-”
She glanced up to see Captain Wise charging across the open ground, his rifle flashing. The thin man who’d shot her fell in turn, slumping across the body of his companion. “Vandal, you alright?”
She took a deep breath. Air burned in her chest. “Doing just fine, sir!”
“Sure don’t look fine. Stay down, eh?”
“With all due respect…” Shephard levered herself up to one knee, retrieving her rifle with shaking hands. It hurt just to move but damned if she’d let a Kiwi take the glory. A glance left – one of the thin men was coming into her line of sight. She’d dropped the spare battery when she was hit, and yanked another from her belt. “Left side, left side-”
She didn’t even see the flash.
Shepard’s legs buckled. There was no pain, no thud of impact. Just a tingling in her spine, a sudden loss of balance. The world spun around her as she fell to her hands and knees on the dock.
The air smelled funny. Like the tang of ozone after a lightning strike. She reached around to touch her back and found the armour peeling away like onion skin.
She’d been shot from behind. The other thin man, looping around. She knew she should be angry, knew she should be up on her feet firing, but she couldn’t muster the strength. Everything was leaden.
Dimly, distantly, she heard Captain Wise calling her. Vandal, he was shouting. Vandal, get down, get down.
It was a good nickname, she thought. Better than Xeno.
The last of the thin men was running at her, spindly legs pumping, his sunglasses lit with green fire.
With the last of her energy, she raised her rifle, but she couldn’t bring it all the way up to her shoulder. What would Huang have done? One long, calm breath, and then he’d put a round through the bastard’s head.
Do it. Do it. Her finger tensed on the trigger. If you want to get home, do it. If you want to see him again, do it. Pull!
The thin man fired. The world was filled with light.
Corporal Meryl Faber was atop a steel shipping container, drawing a bead on the leftmost X-ray, judging her distance and windage, when she saw the flash. Through her scope she watched in close-up as Lieutenant Shephard took a third bolt of plasma, just above the neckline of her chest armour. It enveloped her, her head wreathed in flame. Then she fell and lay very, very still.
Faber screamed between her teeth, sighted and fired, but her hands shook as she pulled the trigger. Sparks jumped off the concrete, and the thin man ducked away. Then came the barrage of plasma fire, the air sizzling around her, and she dropped flat against the crate with her rifle against her chest. “I’m pinned!”
Below her, Captain Wise was still calling Shephard’s name. Then he shouted, “Down, down!” A click, a pop. The wheeze of a smoke grenade spitting thick gas in all directions.
Faber’s view of the docks vanished behind the protective smoke. She couldn’t see shit, but at least the X-rays wouldn’t be able to pick her off. She slammed a fresh magazine into her sniper rifle and rolled off the shipping crate, hitting the concrete with a bone-jarring thud.
She could just make out Wise and Lewis through the haze. “Sir! Is she-”
Wise shook his head.
“Immobilised but stable. And those arseholes have us from both ends!”
Four on two would be good odds in any other situation, but with Shephard down Faber was starting to doubt. Captain Lewis was scrunched down behind a stack of steel drums, rifle humming in his hands. “I’ll cover!” he called, and popped over the lip of the drums long enough to let off a burst of laser fire. But the thin men fired back, plasma flashing from points all across the midnight skyline, and Lewis dropped flat against the concrete as the steel drums rang with the impact. “Goddamnit, I’m pinned!”
“I got you!” Squaddie Leybourn was crouched in the shadows, his rocket launcher up on his shoulder. He was only a couple yards back from Shephard’s body but with so much plasma in the air the gulf between himself and the rest of the team might as well have been miles. He pivoted out from his cover and let loose, the launcher spitting flames from both ends.
The rocket spiralled into the distance and exploded in a hail of sparks and shrapnel. Something screamed out there in the black, although whether it was an alien or a stray dog was impossible to tell. Corporal Faber squinted into the smoke and made out two shapes. One tall, loping, pistol spitting flame. The other staggering for safety.
Her sniper rifle wasn’t going to do her any good, not with the X-rays close enough to spit on. She pulled her pistol from her belt, a sleek little laser-powered unit with a battery half the size of her sniper rifle – not chunky enough to melt brick, but more than powerful enough to burn a hole through a thin man’s skull.
XCOM hadn’t put her through two months of non stop snap-fire training for nothing. She sighted on the limping X-ray and pulled the trigger.
The beautiful thing about the laser pistols was how they didn’t buck. Zero recoil, perfect accuracy. Just a hole the size of a ten-cent piece bored through the X-ray’s skull. The thin man collapsed in a twitching heap. “One down, sir!”
“Keep firing!” Captain Wise peeked out from behind his shipping crate. Faber could see him calculating distances and odds. Then, before Faber could take a breath, he charged into the open.
The final thin man raised his weapon, and Faber found herself unable to breathe as plasma burred past Wise’s head. She was sure he’d drop at any moment, flipped end over end by a bolt of energy, but somehow he blurred through the hail of fire and shoved his rifle into the thin man’s gut.
The rifle flashed, red light spilling over Captain Wise’s armour, and the thin man collapsed in a spray of fluids and sickly green gases. Wise fell back, one hand thrown over his face. “It fucking burns!”
“Get the captain out of there!” Lewis called, and Faber sprinted into the cloud of biogas. It stung her eyes, ached in her throat, but she got a grip on Wise’s arm and dragged him back anyway. They collapsed together against one of the shipping crates, panting, wheezing for air.
In the distance, Mobolaji screeched, “Are they dead? Is it safe?” A pause. “Hello?”
Wise was still coughing, tears streaming from his eyes. He swept his rifle back and forth across the docks, aiming blind. “Whatcha think, Faber?” he wheezed. “Is it clear?”
Faber squinted into the shadows. Nothing moved out there, but she didn’t think it’d stay that way for long.
She grabbed Wise’s hand and hauled him to his feet. “If we hustle-”
“I get it.” Wise thumped his chest. “Leybourn! Get Ms Mobolaji out of that fuckin’ box. We’re headed home!”
But as Squaddie Leybourn helped their esteemed guest out of her hiding spot and hustled her towards the waiting Skyranger, all Faber could think about was the one that wouldn’t be making it.
One more nylon plastic bag. One less soldier.
Ene Mobolaji clutched herself throughout the entire flight back to HQ, whispering prayers every time the Skyranger was rocked by turbulence.
Captain Wise tuned her out. He couldn’t look away from the black nylon bag secured beside the bulkhead. The way it bounced when the wind tossed the Skyranger sideways.
He wanted to tighten the straps, to keep poor Shephard from being knocked around any more. She was Vandal, he thought. Fuckin’ Vandal. She deserved better than a zip-lock bag.
Just like Zelman, and Solomon, and Hickman. They all deserved better.
Mobolaji squeaked as the Skyranger dipped and banked towards XCOM HQ. “Too much,” she whispered. “Too much.”
Wise couldn’t bring himself to care. He was all out of empathy.
Ten minutes later, the Skyranger thudded down. Mobolaji was the first off the ramp, scampering past the medic teams with her hands over her mouth, struggling to hold back vomit. Commander Pournelle was waiting by the ramp as well, hands behind his back, one eyebrow raised as Mobolaji ran for the nearest garbage can.
“Captain,” he said. “I received your in-flight report.”
Wise ducked his head. “It was my mistake, sir.”
“Quiet.” Pournelle’s teeth were sunk deep into his lower lip “Shephard. Our most talented assault specialist. What the hell were you thinking, putting her in that position?”
“Sir, I accept full responsibility for this, but Vandal isn’t… wasn’t… one for taking orders. There was a breakdown in communication, and-”
Pournelle’s voice was a barely disguised growl. “This isn’t the time or place. I want you and Lewis cleaned up and in my office in fifteen.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Goddamnit. Get him out of here!”
Wise spun. Major William Huang was standing in the landing-zone doorway, his black hair combed neatly, his uniform sharp and his eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly as the med techs set to carrying Shephard’s body-bag down the ramp.
Wise moved to block Huang’s path. “Don’t.”
But Huang couldn’t be slowed. He shoved his way past, and Wise had to grab Huang’s arm and haul him back. “You don’t want to go there!”
“Is it her?” Huang swallowed over and over. “I heard-”
“Just stand back, man! Stand-”
“Were you there?” Huang’s voice rose to a manic pitch. “What happened?”
“Fuckin’ breathe, man!”
“Just tell me!”
Captain Wise’s shoulders hitched. “I’m sorry, man. I’m so… It got bad.”
Huang stared at his feet. His face was an expressionless mask.
“We couldn’t do anything. She went down fighting.”
Huang shook his head. “No.”
“I was right there, uso. It was quick. Not pretty, but quick. Best way it could be.”
His eyes were blank. He wasn’t looking at Wise but straight through him, at a point somewhere beyond the walls of the XCOM compound. “No.”
“She’s gone, man. She’s-”
“Fuck you!” Huang threw Wise’s hand away and jumped on to the Skyranger’s ramp, where the medical techs were still struggling with the body-bag. He shoved them aside, reaching for the body-bag zip. “Get off her! Get-”
Wise couldn’t watch. He turned away, heart rising in his throat, and stamped his way towards the elevator that would take him down to the barracks.
A wail of despair rose behind him. Wise shut his eyes as the elevator doors thudded closed.
For one blessed minute, everything was silent.
– – –
Author’s notes: Yeah, this was a tough one. I pumped up the difficulty after the alien base mission, and I’m already seeing the effects. Shephard was my very favourite Assault, but there wasn’t anything I could do to help her. She was in cover, but she took three hits in a row. Never stood a chance.
Personally, I blame Squaddie Leybourn.
The reason my XCOM: The B-Team updates have been a little slow is because I’ve launched a second serial fiction series called RUST. It’s a small-town horror story inspired by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, a bit of Stephen King and a dash of Junji Ito. So why not check it out?
Thanks again for reading!