THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Prologue – Goodbye, A-Team
Commander Pournelle slumped in his chair as the footage looped for the eighth time. He’d hoped there’d be something new to discover in those fifteen minutes of chest-cam video, some vital piece of information that would compensate for the loss of his three best soldiers, but it was useless. Grainy images of a shadowed warehouse. A flash of movement. The sudden concussion of a grenade detonating, followed by the meaty thud of Corporal Lebedev’s body hitting the floor. Then flashes of muzzle fire, screams, and silence.
Pournelle paused the replay and rested his head in his hands. His breath echoed in his ears. “What’d we get out of Ramirez?”
The men and women assembled around Pournelle’s desk looked grim. “Sargent Ramirez is badly injured,” one suit finally volunteered. “His version of events is… suspect.”
“Tell me anyway.”
The suit coughed. “The team landed in Hamburg just after nine pm. They located the extraterrestrial object – what we’re referring to for now as pod zero – and followed a series of strange noises to a local auto storage facility. Once inside, the team discovered an unidentified man who requested help in German. However, when approached, the man shot Corporal Lebedev at close range and-”
“The X-rays, damn it! What did he say about the aliens?”
The suit stared at his papers, pointedly avoiding Pournelle’s gaze. “Three extraterrestrials. Lieutenant Hashimoto killed one with a grenade but was shot from behind shortly after. Ramirez killed the second.”
“And the third?”
“Escaped, we assume.”
“Christ.” Commander Pournelle ground his back teeth. First contact with an alien race, and what did he have to show for it? Nearly eighty German civilians dead or missing, a first response team cut to ribbons and their backup team reduced to one man – a man who, if their surgeons were correct, would be lucky to ever walk again. On top of that, an extraterrestrial loose in Hamburg, and the XCOM council out for his head on a plate.
At least the dropship came back in one piece. Small mercies, he supposed.
“Our research team is already conducting autopsies on the corpses of the… X-rays,” the suit said, as if to break the silence. “That aside, we need to know your instructions in case of a second incursion. We know the current list of recruits is small-”
“We barely have a squad,” Pournelle said. “Twelve rookies. They’re trained for peacekeeping operations, not hostile contact with extraterrestrials. Maybe if our sponsor nations were willing to donate a few platoons of their best and brightest, we could turn this outfit into something professional. As it is, I’m protecting Earth on a shoestring budget, with barely enough manpower to keep the lights running.”
The suit grinned weakly. “What do you expect, Commander? That’s politics.”
Pournelle was about to reply when the phone on his desk rang. Not the white phone, but the heavy ceramic hardline. He snatched it up, took a quick breath to calm his nerves, and said, “Central?”
He recognised the voice. Jerry King in HQ. He sounded panicked, which was unusual for King, a man who’d been both a military analyst and highschool teacher before joining the X-COM project. That could only mean one thing. “Contact?”
“Touchdown in Calgary,” King said. “Abductions and civilian deaths reported. The Canadian government request immediate assistance.”
Pournelle squeezed the phone tight. He looked at the circle of suits across from his desk, but none of them were offering solutions. He supposed that if they’d had solutions, they’d be sitting on his side of the desk, and he on theirs.
His best recruits were either in traction or on slabs, Calgary was under attack, and he needed to make a decision.
Pournelle’s lips drew back over his teeth in a rictus grin. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Your second incursion has arrived, right on schedule.
“And, God help us all, I’m sending the B-Team.”
Chapter 1: Operation Devil’s Prophet. Abduction in Calgary, Canada.
Rookie Nomi Chi had ridden in some shitty aircraft before – a domestic Cessna, a military Ruslan, a glider held together with spit and rubber bands – but the Skyranger was a whole new breed. When it wasn’t whipping up and down like some cheap-shit seaside rollercoaster, it yawed with every gust of wind, slaloming her guts back and forth against her ribs.
The rifle in her hands was impossibly huge, impossibly heavy, a science fiction parody of how rifles were supposed to look. Her body armour was massive around her chest and shoulders, all bulging angles and blinking red lights. The three other rookies in the back of the Skyranger were grim-faced, staring at their feet, refusing to meet anybody else’s gaze.
And then came the cherry on top of the shit-sundae. Aliens in Calgary.
“X-rays,” Chi whispered. “Serious greys. This has to be a dream.”
The guy sitting across from her glanced up, grinning like a maniac. “Dream? Shit, I wish.”
Chi scowled back. White, the guy’s name was. Andrew White. Big shouldered, dusky blonde and curly haired, bright eyed like a kid on a field trip. She’d barely exchanged three sentences with him or any of the other recruits over the past few weeks – it was the side-effect of being signed up to a secret program that ran out of an underground base, organised to fight an extraterrestrial force that couldn’t exist. It made everyone scared to say hello, lest the XCOM thought police appear from the shadows and drag them off to the brig.
But now, halfway to an incursion in Calgary with the very real possibility of death or evisceration growing more real by the minute, this guy had decided to get chatty.
So be it. “Doesn’t feel real,” she said. “Not yet.”
“Like it’s all a big joke. I get it.” White jerked his thumb at the dark-haired woman sitting next to him, her eyes focused somewhere beyond the steel wall of the Skyranger. “Zelman here thinks it’s bullshit. Like Pournelle is some actor and they’re going to whip the curtain back in a second and show us an audience. Tada, assholes! You’re the most gullible wannabe soldiers in history!”
Chi met Zelman’s gaze. “You really think that?”
Zelman – Nyssa Zelman, by the nametag on her breastplate – stared at the ceiling of the Skyranger for a while. The craft rattled around them, creaking in a crosswind. Then, finally, she said,
“No. But I wish I did.”
Andrew White grinned even wider. “What about you, Gollnick?” he said, calling to the last of their squad of four. “Reality, or cruel daytime TV hoax?”
Wendy Gollnick, another slim Asiatic with black hair cropped short above her eyes, glanced up at the sound of her name. “Huh?”
“I heard you,” Gollnick said. “I was just thinking about the first contact team. They say only one guy came out. So, which of us gets lucky?”
The Skyranger hit another pocket of turbulence. Rookie Chi grimaced, and tightened her grip on her rifle.
They landed two hundred meters outside the incursion zone: a risky move, Chi thought. Close enough for ground fire, not close enough to surprise anyone waiting inside. Even so, the parking lot of the Calgary supermarket was silent and dark. A row of cars were parked outside the front doors, the Volvo on the end blinking its alarm lights silently. A single lamppost was bent at the base all the way down to ground level, denting the asphalt, sparks jumping from ruptured wires. Beside that, all was still.
Chi led the way out the back of the Skyranger and into the relative cover of a concrete planter. Her earpiece chirped: Commander Pournelle, his voice strangely grating. “Rookie, you see anything?” White, Gollnick and Zelman were already taking up positions on each end of the planter, watching all oncoming angles. “Negative, Commander.”
“You’re on point. Take it slow and steady. Eyewitnesses reported at least three X-rays, maybe more.”
“Understood.” Despite her measured tone, in her head she was cursing him. Out of four rookies, why her? Didn’t they have anyone else they could throw to the wolves? And why in the hell would aliens choose a Canadian supermarket as a likely spot for abductions?
As if reading her mind, Rookie Zelman said, “Guess they came to pick up fresh humans at low low prices.”
“We could die here,” Chi muttered. “You think this is the time?”
“Gimme a break. I’m shitting myself here.” Zelman cracked a grin. “So, they send in three Asian women and white boy. Racial discrimination?”
“Flip of a coin.” Chi peered over the lip of the planter. It looked clear all the way to the supermarket doors. “Okay, you’re with me. White, Gollnick, keep low and move to the second entrance. Entry on my signal.”
The rookies nodded and Chi led the way across the gravel lot, past the rows of empty cars and up to the red-brick walls. Passing those silent vehicles was eerie. Some still had the keys in the ignition. There were no bodies, no civilians cowering in their trucks, which only made her more nervous. Evacs never went so smoothly. Either there were more bodies to discover inside, or the so-called alien attackers had already left, taking corpses and captives with them.
She reached the wall with Zelman close behind and crept along to the glass double-doors. From her position, Chi couldn’t see shit. Rows of shelving and canned goods, a wine rack and a cute display of Doritos chips. No greys, X-rays, whatever HQ was calling them. She motioned Zelman in close and double checked her rifle was locked and ready to fire. White and Gollnick were already at the second door. All she had now was excuses.
Rookie Chi counted to five and, heart in her throat, nudged the door open.
The inside of the supermarket was shadowed, long black wedges cast by the shelves and tall stands of confectionery. When she concentrated she could just make out a whisper echoing at the back of the store – it might have been breath, or bare feet against linoleum, or a curtain flapping against an open window. Maybe just her imagination.
The front counter seemed like a solid bet. She slid inside the door, vaulted the counter and sighted down the length of the supermarket. Something was moving at the far end, behind the freezer section, but she couldn’t tell whether it was civilian or X-ray in the darkness. Zelman was slipping into cover behind her, taking up position behind the shelves, while White and Gollnick eased the back door open and moved through, whisper quiet.
Chi caught Zelman’s attention, then pointed at the shadows at the end of the store. “Movement,” she mouthed.
There was a sound like the hum of a microwave, and then all hell broke loose.
A bright green flash lit the world in strobe, and Chi dropped instinctively. The air above her head tore in two and the chewing gum display set atop the counter exploded in a hail of fire. Scraps of paper and boiling plasma danced down around her shoulders. Zelman was screaming her name, but she couldn’t reply. Her tongue had frozen in her mouth.
Don’t let me die here, she thought. The words repeated in her skull like a mantra. Don’t let me die here. Don’t let me die.
Zelman dove for cover as soon as soon as the barrage began. She skidded along the linoleum, fetching up hard against tall store shelving, and crouched there helplessly as green flame zipped across the supermarket and ignited the wall over Chi’s head. “Talk to me!” she called, but if Chi was shouting anything back she couldn’t hear it over the electrical crackle of gunfire.
She peeked out from behind the shelving, tracing the fire back to the corner of the store, and her breath caught in her throat. She could see them clearly, crouching in the dark, huge bulging heads propped atop comically spindly torsos. They would’ve seemed a B-movie joke in any other situation. Now, with what looked like laser fire sizzling in the air, all Zelman wanted to do was exactly what she’d warned Rookie Chi about: shit her pants.
Fear was a luxury, she thought. That was what her boot-camp instructors had drilled into her head. Combat was about instinct, action and reaction. No time for sentimentality.
Her left hand crept down to the grenade at her belt and yanked it free.
A quick second to make sure of where White and Gollnick were stationed – safely behind the heavy freezers on the other side of the store – and she pulled the pin. “Fire in the hole!” Zelman cried, and hurled the pineapple overarm down the length of the supermarket.
The two greys glanced up as the grenade landed between them. They stared at it, then at Zelman, then back at the grenade. The first grey bent down on tiny legs and stroked the grenade with one long, slippery finger.
Zelman pulled back and plugged her ears.
The boom rattled her guts and vibrated her eyeballs inside her skull, and she tried not to scream as shrapnel tore the shelves around her head. Potato chips and scraps of aluminium foil drifted down around her ears.
The concussion faded, and she dared peek around the corner of the shelves. All that was left of the two greys was a smear of smoke and viscera, stirred through with plaster and shattered glass.
“Two down!” she called. “Two-”
The back door of the supermarket slammed back on its hinges. Zelman saw two squat figures in the darkness and smoke, huge black eyes shining. Weapons hummed in their hands, boiling with plasma.
She had just enough time to scream before the fire rolled in.
Rookie Wendy Gollnick was behind a homewares display when the two X-rays burst through the back door and started shooting. She could smell the power in the air, the stink of ozone as plasma boiled past and blew the shelves to shit.
Zelman was down on one knee behind the shelves, pinned. “Fuck!” she screamed. “Fuck, fuck, help me! Fucking-”
Gollnick’s finger was already on the trigger. She raised up, sighted, and grinned as the rifle kicked against her shoulder. The flash of gunfire and the clack-clack-clack of the bolt slamming home was soothing, metronomic. It sounded in time with her heartbeat. She breathed gunsmoke and exhaled poison.
Plaster and stacks of cans exploded at the rear of the supermarket, and the two X-rays scattered – one breaking right, behind a rack of fresh vegetables, and the other diving left, towards a bank of open windows leading out onto the street. She couldn’t tell whether she’d scored any hits, but they’d stopped firing on Zelman and that was a start. “Hey, Rookie, you okay?” she called. “You hurt?”
Zelman answered with a roar. She rounded the shelves at a run, rifle up against her shoulder, and Gollnick watched, frozen, as Zelman closed the distance, rounded the vegetable stand, and jammed her rifle up into the first X-ray’s face.
A short, sudden burst echoed off the tiled floor, and Zelman sagged against the shelves. Her ballistic armour dripped bright white fluids. “One left!”
“Are you insane?” Gollnick called, but she already knew the answer. She couldn’t judge Zelman. Hell, all of them were insane just for signing up. I could’ve been an artist, she thought. Or a pilot, or a zookeeper. Instead, she’d chosen a rifle, an underground barracks and a shitty pay-scale.
And yet, she loved it. She could still taste gunpowder on the air, and she let it fill her lungs like a drug. One left, Zelman had said. The X-ray she’d seen jump through the window.
Rookie Andy White was already moving in that direction. She checked her magazine, caught White’s gaze to let him know she’d cover him, and let him take the lead.
Since the moment Andy White had entered the store he’d been operating blind. Luck had seen him pressed up hard against the walk-in freezers when Zelman tossed the grenade, leaving him with a ringing in the ears but little else. The first he’d seen of the two X-rays was when Gollnick fired down the aisle, and the little grey bastard had split left, towards the windows. A flash of slick pale flesh against the glass, and then he was gone.
His rifle shook in his hands as he approached the bay of windows, but only barely. Gollnick had his back, and that gave him a little confidence, but he knew he was still first in the firing line. He hissed back, “Bastard could be anywhere. Might’ve circled the whole building to shoot us in our asses.”
“You think they’re that smart?” Gollnick replied.
“Well, they flew a fucking spaceship, so I’m just assuming-”
There was a bright green flash and White threw himself sideways, slamming shoulder-first into the fruit display. There was a high ting of glass shattering, and then a sound like a miniature jet banking low overhead. The air was cut with bright green oxide splashes, so hot White could feel them curling the hairs on his arms.
“Shit!” he screamed between his teeth. “He’s got a bead!”
“Shoot back, arsehole!” he heard Zelman call, from somewhere inside the rows of shelving.
“I can’t see anything!”
“Then take a look!”
White swallowed hard. He crawled a few meters forward on hands and knees, until he figured he was out of the X-ray’s line of fire. Then, barely daring to breathe, he peered over the top of the vegetable display.
He could see it, he realised. A slim crescent of grey flesh just above the windowsill was the crown of the bastard’s head. He held back on the urge to take a wild shot. The supermarket backed on to a local nature reserve, and if he missed the fucker would run. It it reached the treeline they might never find it.
“What’re you waiting for?” Zelman shouted. “Get the little shit! Go, go, go!”
White swallowed glue, his finger trembling on the trigger, and ran for the window.
There was a moment, just before he jumped, when he thought this is crazy – real people don’t leap through goddamn glass! But he was already moving too fast, sailing through the air, one armoured hand thrown over his face as he crashed through. The air around him was filled with tiny, splintered shards, as fine and sparkling as snow.
He landed on the macadam on hands and knees. His rifle slipped in his hands, but he kept his grip. The grey looked up, glass pinging off its leathery flesh, and White was sure there was genuine surprise behind those huge, black eyes.
It lifted its weapon, and White squeezed the trigger.
Back in basic training, White had spent weeks putting high explosive rounds through pumpkins. He’d gone back to barracks every night picking seeds and strings of pumpkin flesh out of his hair, and his skin never stopped smelling like gunpowder and pie.
Firing his rifle into the grey’s face at close range had the same effect. The X-ray was nearly flipped, tiny legs kicking at the air, the ruin of its skull smashing against the pavement. The air was filled with a fine green mist and the stink of burning flesh.
White lay on the ground, panting, his finger still trembling on the trigger. For a moment he expected the creature to get back up and totter around, fumbling blindly with its slick grey fingers. He’d seen chickens do just that, back on his father’s farm. Some had lived for hours with blood squirting from the stump of their necks. But the grey wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing. Its black eyes were blank, reflecting the light of streetlamps and stars.
Glass crunched behind him, and White whirled. Rookie Chi stood behind him, rifle up against her shoulder, sweat shining on her brow. She scratched her head, and for the first time he noticed the tattoo above her ear, barely visible beneath her buzz-cut. Like flowers, or math, or some unholy fusion of the two.
“Hey,” she said. “Thought you were dead.”
“Maybe I am,” White said. “Maybe this is a dream.”
Chi scowled. “Eat a dick, White.” She touched her finger to her ear. “HQ? Any more signs?”
It seemed an age before Chi nodded. “Roger. Coming home.” She flicked the safety on her rifle and reached down to White. “Need a hand?”
“I’m good.” White stood slowly, knees aching. The body of the grey steamed at his feet. He swallowed hard. “Feels like I should have some line. Like Will Smith, you know. Welcome to erf! But…”
“I dunno.” He nudged the body with the toe of his boot. It was light, fragile. Birdlike. Only the size of a child, when you got down to it. “Stupid fucker flew a billion miles just to get shot in the face. Kinda sad.”
“You feel sorry for the thing?”
“Hell no.” He tried to crack a smile, but it felt weak. Fake. “Just thinking out loud. Let’s get home.”
It wasn’t until the entire supermarket had been cleaned and decontaminated and the four X-ray corpses loaded into the back of the Skyranger than Nomi Chi began to relax. Even so, she kept her rifle ready and her finger alongside the trigger-guard until the back ramp of the Skyranger had locked in place and they were lifting off the tarmac.
She looked across to Zelman, who was strapping herself into place. “Hey. Lady.”
Zelman looked up. “Yeah?”
“Nice work with the, you know. Saving my ass.”
“Thought you were gonna say grenade.” The woman reached across and punched Chi on the shoulder. “Let’s hope it’s always that easy. Pew pew and stick them in bags, right?”
“Yeah. Easy.” The memory of hot plasma skimming inches above Chi’s head made her shiver. “In like Flynn.”
Rookie White was pressed up against the tiny Skyranger window, grinning from ear to ear. “Ciao, cockfags!” he hooted, and then the roar of the engines swallowed the rest of his sentence. Chi leaned back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. The steel was hard and studded with rivets, but at that moment it was the most comfortable pillow she could’ve asked for.
One mission down, she thought. Easy. Pew pew.
But somehow, she knew it wouldn’t last.
– – –
Author’s note: Phew! Chapter 1 down. Thanks for reading, hope it was as much dumb fun to read as it was to write. If you did enjoy it and would like to make sure there’s more, you can always buy one of my other books on Amazon and pretend like it’s a contribution to The B-Team! That’d totally be cool too
If you’d like to volunteer yourself as a squad member (there WILL be openings, I assure you) just drop your name, and I’ll put you on the list! Just… be prepared to die, okay? That’s how this game goes.