XCOM SAGA #2: THE BETTER PART OF VALOR
by Russ Brown
Copyright (1994) MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM Copyright 1994, MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM is a Trademark of MicroProse Software, Inc.
Compared to the flight to England, the trip from Little Rock to Arizona was just a hop, but still two too many hours to think about what was coming - a desert, everything right out in the open. Most of the troopers had grumbled about not having cover, but as a scout, Shuji Akira liked the idea - nothing for the bugs to hide behind. He was near the rear of the Skyranger, ready to be the first trooper out the back ramp. Between him and the ramp sat a heavily armored robotic tank, equipped with a powerful rocket launcher. It would leave first and scout the area. It had been a new addition when the skyranger had salvaged a small UFO crash in Alberta ten days earlier. A rookie scout named Maxwell had been killed on that mission, but otherwise it was a complete success, largely due to the presence of the tank and its ability to obliterate light cover. Akira had missed that mission, still healing from a shot to his shoulder. The scout who was killed had been in far squad, where Akira would have been. He wondered if he would have fared any better. Morinov, the near squad scout, now sitting across from Akira, had gained notoriety and respect during that mission by sneaking into the back of a shed and using his stun rod on a skinny, bubble-headed alien who's complete attention seemed to be on Bouton and his laser rifle out front. The captain had raved about it, "That's what we have to do to win this! I don't have a medal for you, son, but I'll let you name these new bugs." "They're sectoids," Morinov said, and it stuck. Unfortunately the alien had died, locked away in an empty room in the living quarters, but its loss convinced X-COM command to build a special containment facility for the aliens right in the base. Morinov had told the stun story so many times that Akira got completely sick of it. Even Bouton, the most easy-going trooper in the squads, had made comments under his breath. And Bouton was Morinov's backup trooper, the one person he shouldn't tick off. Akira turned to his right to talk to Crossett. She would be right behind him off the ramp. After five missions, her yellow hair was even shorter than his, about two inches long and uneven in places. "Hair's nice," he said in English. She smiled and slicked it back. "Domo areegatto gozeemas," she replied. He was sorry he had ever tried to teach her Japanese. "Remember, `Kira," she said, "just point and duck. I'll do the shooting." While she talked, she rolled her eyes to the right toward Morinov and pretended to stab at him with her bowie knife. Bouton saw it, snickered, then composed himself and gave her a disapproving look. Morinov was oblivious, squatting and staring forward past the tank, already planning his next stunning triumph. When the alarms had gone off that afternoon, Akira and Crossett had rushed to the radar center, along with half of the troopers in the base. From there they had watched the track of the UFO and seen the interceptor converging on it. Nearly an hour after the UFO was first detected, heading south from Idaho, the interceptor caught up with it over Nevada. The captain punched up the display from the interceptor's targeting camera. The UFO looked slightly larger than any they'd seen so far. "Get close enough to launch an Avalanche," the captain said over the comm link to the pilot. "..Avalanche launched.." Nearly a minute passed. "...A Hit...he's turning, heading west...250..." "Follow him, Interceptor-1," the captain said, "if he tries to head out to sea, hit him again, otherwise let him fly or land where he pleases." The troopers in the room all turned and stared at the captain in amazement. Why not just blow it to pieces? There were two more Avalanches loaded on that interceptor, and a laser cannon to finish him off. The captain was still staring at the displays, but he seemed to sense the confusion. "We have other X-COM radar sites coming on line in secret bases around the world," he said. "The UFO incursions are not a local event. In fact some areas are being hit harder than North America. There is even evidence of a possible alien base somewhere in Russia." He turned to look each trooper in the eyes. "We can't win in a straight battle with the aliens, not with the resources and technology we have. But we may be able to use the alien technology against them, and maybe learn enough about them to stop them." There was still confusion in the room, but a few of the troopers were somberly nodding their heads. Akira understood too. "We have to take the aliens alive and their equipment intact if we can." With that he turned back to the displays. Fifteen minutes later the UFO had landed in eastern Arizona, near a town called Holbrook, and Akira was rushing to the Skyranger. Now, two hours later, they began their descent over the desert. Only the troopers far behind Akira, toward the front of the Skyranger, could see outside, so Akira judged their progress from his first landing experience. They hit ground and the ramp began to drop. The evening sun blazed in on Akira and forced him to squint as he got ready to disembark. Someone near the windows called "Bug left." Mine, Akira thought, and pulled a grenade off his belt. The ramp hit ground, kicking up loose sand and crushing a small cactus. Akira ran quickly onto the ramp behind the tank, priming his grenade with his teeth and clutching his laser pistol. He heard a crack and a dull thud against the back of the Skyranger. Had he missed a bug behind the Skyranger somewhere? Too late to find out; he was already off the ramp to the left. He landed in the parched sand behind the Skyranger's landing gear, and scanned the area. He looked for the violet outline of a floater, but instead spotted a small grey figure with a large head. One of Morinov's sectoids. As he threw his grenade, Akira heard someone on the Skyranger fire off a laser rifle on autoshot. There was a high-pitched nasal shriek far to his right, which got the attention of the grey alien. It turned for a second and spotted Akira around the corner of the landing gear. The world went to slow motion as the alien brought its weapon around and raised it to aim at him. Then the grenade went off and blew the little grey body four feet into the air. Akira took time to scan the area. He saw no UFO and was about to send his squad right. He checked again and saw a thin trail of prints leading back from the dead alien toward a small mesa in the distance. He moved forward cautiously, a dozen paces from the Skyranger, and crouched behind a cactus. Now, around the edge of the mesa, he could see a rounded wall of metal. "Far Squad left!" he called back. Crossett was still near the ramp. She nodded and yelled something back to Sergeant Evans. Akira moved forward, crouching and scanning often. There was no good cover, and at the moment he couldn't remember why that was a good thing. He went wide to his left, not approaching the UFO directly. He wasn't about to leave his flank open, and Crossett and Davies could watch the center. The tank should have been there. Maybe the captain had programmed it to hang back, Akira thought - rockets tend to kill aliens, not take them alive. He made it behind a small ridge with a patch of scrub and cactus on the other side. he poked his head up and scanned carefully. A large panel in the side of the UFO facing him somehow looked different than the surrounding wall. It had to be the door - or one of the doors. Then he noticed movement on the side of the UFO opposite the mesa. Another small grey figure was moving out into the open. Akira wasn't sure Crossett and Davies could see around the mesa. He didn't think he could hit it with his pistol, and was afraid it would be scared back into cover by wild shots. He pointed his pistol and waited. He remembered the captain's speech and wondered how the hell they were supposed to sneak up on an alien in terrain like this. This time he would just have to settle for an intact UFO. As the alien moved out into the open area in front of the UFO, Akira gave the bug signal and pointed. As soon as he saw that Crossett had spotted it, he squeezed hard for autofire. At the same time, Crossett fired her laser rifle, and Davies rattled off six High explosive rounds with his autocannon. The succession of explosions drowned out the crackling of laser fire. The alien was blown apart and buried in sand and glass. "Sorry captain." Akira said out loud, "I guess you won't be learning much from him." Akira could see clearly for a hundred meters or more to the left and behind, and saw no sign of aliens, so he made his way slowly around toward the side of the UFO, hiding behind small brush and cactuses as he went. He saw nothing beside the UFO and moved up to its corner. He knelt down with the open sand to his left, the UFO door straight ahead and the mesa beyond. The small research team at Little Rock had developed hand-held motion scanners for the scouts. It didn't seem to be necessary in the open desert, but Akira wondered if they could detect motion within an intact UFO. He removed the scanner from his belt and held it still. Waves of white light converged into four bright spots. If he was reading the range information correctly, one spot was only a few meters in front of him, inside the UFO. Another was also straight ahead, but farther away, beyond the UFO. The other two were back behind the UFO somewhere. Suddenly Morinov appeared on top of the mesa, moving quickly down toward the front of the UFO with his laser pistol in one hand and stun rod in the other. With the open terrain around the Skyranger, near squad must have checked things quickly and moved on toward the UFO. But if Morinov was up on the mesa, who were the two blips behind the UFO. Akira was hit with a feeling of dread and moved along the UFO's side to see for himself. Lack of information was the most disconcerting part of battle. Morinov should have checked behind before moving to the front. He had left his squad's right flank open. Before he rounded the corner to the back of the UFO, Akira heard something like a laser discharge, but different, followed by a short human scream and a second shot. Akira dropped his scanner, rounded the corner and dropped to one knee. He was looking at the back of a sectoid, less than three meters away. It was holding an extremely large gun, bigger even than a heavy laser. Akira had stashed his stun rod in his backpack and didn't want to take the time to unpack it. He aimed carefully for the alien's lower back and squeezed off a single shot. The alien dropped and lay still. Beyond the UFO was a dead trooper's body, flopped motionless, face down on the sloping side of the mesa. Gaudin, the near squad heavy weapons trooper, appeared at the top of the mesa and looked down at Akira, then at the body. It must have been Bouton. Akira heard more alien fire, this time from in front of the UFO. He moved around quickly the way he'd come. He peeked around in front but saw nothing but the alien Davies had blown up, so he went around the front of the UFO and stayed close to the wall. Crossett was already there, against the wall on the other side of the doorway. "Morey went in and got shot," she said calmly, "The door just opened for him." Idiot, Akira thought. He probably went right in waving a stun rod. Now Akira wished he hadn't dropped his scanner. "Get ready," he said, and primed a grenade. He moved up to the door. When he got within arm's reach, it opened quickly. The inside was dimly lit compared to the outside. Akira didn't wait for his eyes to adjust. He moved inside and tripped over a body, ending up on his knees and almost dropping his grenade. A green beam shot over his head and vaporized part of the wall next to the door. Akira raised his pistol, but there was no need. Crossett filled the room with a strobe of automatic laser fire and the alien went down screaming. There were two doors out of the room they were in, to the left and right. Akira tried to cover them both as Crossett dragged Morinov's body out of the ship. Crossett came back in and knelt down a couple yards away. Akira noticed she had a grenade in her hand too. We're a pretty dangerous team, he thought. They kept low and moved along the walls. The wall between the doors bellied out, blocking the view between them. Crossett stopped while she could still cover both doors, and Akira moved on toward the one on the right. He waited only a second or two next to it, then moved in front of it. It opened with a slight "woosh" sound. He stepped inside and got down, and saw no aliens. The door wooshed closed behind him. He was in a control room of some kind, and all the panels and controls still looked intact. The captain will be happy, he thought. This room, together with the area they'd entered through, comprised nearly the whole inside of the UFO, with the exception of a circular area in the center which bulged out into both. He stood up to move around the wall to his left. He heard a door open ahead of him, followed by laser fire mixed with alien weapon sounds, then there was an explosion. The UFO contained the blast, and the concussion stunned Akira for a few seconds. Instead of going back he moved quickly forward through the room. As he approached a closed door around the other side, it opened and a small grey alien stepped through. Fear and reflexes took over. Akira fired autoshot until he was sure the alien was dead. Through the open door he could see the door into the entry room, and another door to the left which had to lead to the center of the ship. He went through that door and found himself alone in a circular room. In the center was a silver half-sphere with a long, glowing red cylinder rising out of it - nothing else. He left the room and looked through the door into the entry room. Sergeant Evans was bending over Crossett with a medikit, and Davies was covering the door Akira had just come through with his auto cannon. Akira wondered how close he was to being blow up like the alien out front. "All clear on this side," he said. He still had a primed grenade, and he couldn't be absolutely sure no aliens had made it past Crossett and got behind him, so he went back into the control room. It was empty except for the dead alien. "You shot her, didn't you?" he said. "Well, I have this grenade, and nowhere to throw it, and I don't want it to damage all the captain's new toys." He bent down and lifted the alien up and tucked the grenade underneath, then ran quickly to the entry room. The explosion surprised Davies and Evans, but he motioned that everything was clear. Evans looked up. "Looks like she took a shot in the leg and tossed a grenade too close by. If there's no internal damage from the concussion, she'll be OK." Akira bent over her. Her eyes were open, but she didn't seem to be fully conscious. "I'll duck and let you shoot, if you let me handle the grenades, OK?" She nodded weakly. "Who else got hurt?" He asked Sergeant Evans. "Bouton's dead. Sergeant Perez is out checking Morinov. He might live, but he's probably no good to X-COM any more." Akira walked back outside into the sun and walked around the UFO again to make sure the area was clear. The alien he had shot in the back was gone, but Bouton's body was still on the side of the mesa. He picked him up and carried him back toward the Skyranger. On the way back he passed Captain Marcelle, already bringing torches and heavy tools from the ship to dismantle the UFO. "Good work, Akira," he said as he approached, "I hear you're the one that crippled the sectoid that got Bouton. We've already got him locked up inside the Skyranger." Akira passed without saying anything. When he reached the Skyranger he laid Bouton's body on the ramp and went inside. Up against the far wall of the cargo bay was a collapsible cage, all set up, with a little grey alien inside. It was already sitting up and conscious. Akira stared at it and it stood up. Large, oval, featureless green eyes stared back.