X-COM SAGA #4: MIND GAMES
by Russ Brown
Copyright (1994) MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM Copyright 1994, MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM is a Trademark of MicroProse Software, Inc.
Through the windows on the right side of the Skyranger, Akira could see the Amazon rolling by below like an endless, lumpy, dark green carpet, broken only by the silver arteries flowing east toward the Atlantic. Where are we going to land in all that, he wondered. "Is that plasma too heavy for you, Sergeant?" Captain Perez asked. It took a second for Akira to realize she was talking to him. He hadn't completely adjusted to his new rank. He lifted the big plasma weapon with both hands and tried not to let his arms shake under the weight. She seemed to be carrying hers with no trouble. "No. No problem." It was the most powerful infantry weapon X-COM had, and there was no way he was going to give it up. "I'm not a scout anymore," he added, "I don't need to be so light on my feet." She gave him a skeptical, sideways look, then turned to look out her own window. He had a lot of respect for Perez. She had become captain in the shake-up following the disastrous mission to Tokyo, at a time when a lot was happening within X-COM. New recruits had to be trained, and world governments had to be reassured after Japan withdrew funding, presumably under an agreement with the aliens to stop terrorist activities in Tokyo. And the base itself was growing. New living quarters, laboratories and workshops were always under construction, and new researchers and engineers came in every week. Akira found it interesting that, although X-COM was fundamentally a military organization, the scientists and engineers now outnumbered the soldiers nearly four to one. Well, without them they wouldn't know how to use and maintain plasma weapons, and they wouldn't have personal armor, or the new hovertank sitting in the back of the Skyranger, built through reverse-engineering of captured UFO components. Perez had been the obvious choice for captain, though. At the time she had nine missions, more than anyone else, and she had been a sergeant since Buchard was killed in Wales. The only drawback was the fact that some national representatives held her responsible for leaving Tokyo at the mercy of the aliens. She seemed to blame herself too, but everyone else new that, by giving the order, she had saved valuable equipment and a core set of troopers to allow the fight to continue. Akira was promoted too, and was now Far Squad's sergeant. The strike team's first three missions under their new leaders had gone well - only two casualties from all three. And for the first time in months there were no rookies on the Skyranger. Akira had a good squad - Gaudin, Crossett, and a relatively new, but intelligent scout named Okamoto who had been recruited only days before Japan withdrew support. Crossett had joined them on missions again right after Tokyo - they were severely short on good soldiers and couldn't afford to leave her behind. She had been in longer than Akira, and he knew that she would be sergeant if she hadn't been injured, but she didn't seem to hold it against him. Her hair had grown out an inch or two during her recovery, probably costing her a few more missions, but Akira noticed she had been cutting off less on each one. He began to think she actually enjoyed all this. Crossett turned to say something to Gaudin and caught Akira staring at her. She smiled and gave him a thumbs up. She could feel it too, he thought - This is the best squad we've ever had. He wanted to be up there in Okamoto's place, with Crossett covering his back. "We've never fought in the jungle before," Perez said from behind him. Akira turned and could see in her face how concerned she was. She certainly didn't have Captain Marcelle's poker face. "There are a lot of places we haven't fought," he said, "especially some of the newer troopers in Davies's squad." Sergeant Davies was sitting against the wall right across from Akira, checking over his medi-kit. "So what?" he said, "The bugs have never fought us in the jungle either." He's right, Akira thought. "I wonder if they're as afraid of us?" he said out loud, "After all, they're the ones on the alien planet." "They're just bugs," Davies said quickly, stowing his medi-kit and picking up his plasma, "and bugs don't have feelings." The Skyranger began its descent and Perez stepped toward the center of the cargo bay and addressed everyone. "Our interceptor was badly damaged bringing down this UFO. It looked like a fairly big one. I want Far Squad to find it and guard it, but don't go in until Near Squad's ready to back you up. And take care of yourselves." They descended quickly and the autopilot headed for a small clearing. Akira tried to spot signs of the UFO before they reached tree level. The only interesting feature he could see was another clearing off in the distance. The UFO could be at the bottom of it, but he wasn't sure. Their landing area turned out to be so small that the Skyranger's vertical thrusters burned the surrounding canopy as they descended. It was much darker below the canopy, but when they hit ground, Akira thought he could see the dull glint of alien alloys in a sunlit clearing through the tree trunks and sparse undergrowth. He saw no aliens, but there were plenty of places for them to hide. "Anything that looks like a UFO or alien on that side?" he asked Davies. "Nope." The ramp was already dropping and Akira could feel the first hints of the warm, humid atmosphere. "UFO left," he called. Okamoto echoed with "Far Squad left," and after the hovertank slid out among the trees, he and Crossett quickly dropped out of sight to the left side of the ramp. Akira watched them for a few seconds through his window, then moved toward the ramp himself. "Bug, sector thirteen," Okamoto reported calmly from everyone's headset. As Akira reached the ramp and Gaudin jumped off, they heard the deep, repeated whistle of a heavy plasma on autofire, followed by an alien scream. "Gottem," Crossett called, "it was one of those little guys - a sectoid." Akira jumped down beside Gaudin. He was surprised at how thin the ground cover was, but the trees were dense, limiting visibility to thirty or forty yards. He could still see Crossett and Okamoto moving off at a right angle to the Skyranger, to the right of where Akira thought he saw the UFO. Higher up he could see the hovertank, scouting ahead just below the canopy. Gaudin stood and moved toward the front of the Skyranger. "I think I see one," he said. "Where?" Perez asked over the headset, "Which sector?" "To the left..." he began, then Akira saw him wince and press his left hand to his temple. "ahnnn...sector..." As Akira watched, Gaudin suddenly turned to his right and fired a rocket through the jungle toward Crossett. It hit a tree long before it reached her, blowing the trunk to pieces, shaking all the trees nearby and bringing down heavy branches, screeching birds and howling tree dwellers. "What the hell was that!" Crossett protested. Akira could see her looking back at them through the debris and flames. Gaudin didn't reply. Akira turned to find the rocket launcher pointed at him and Gaudin reaching in his pack for another rocket. Akira focused past Gaudin and saw one of the small grey aliens, partially obscured behind a large fern about twenty yards in front of the Skyranger. The alien was not pointing a weapon, just staring in their direction. Akira took careful aim so he wouldn't hit Gaudin and squeezed off a single shot. The plasma bolt singed the top of the fern and took the alien square in the chest. It went down. Akira stepped behind the Skyranger's back landing gear for cover and peered through at Gaudin. He was shaking his head, still holding the rocket in his hand. "You OK, Gaudin?" Akira asked. "Uh...sure..just got dizzy for a second there." Gaudin stared at the rocket in his hand, felt in his backpack and found only one more rocket, then stared at the destroyed area of jungle. "Drop your launcher and get out your laser, Gaudin," Akira ordered, "your going to stay here and guard the Skyranger until you recover." Gaudin nodded without looking up and dropped his launcher as if it were burning his hands. Akira passed him and moved as quickly as he could into the jungle, as afraid of being shot in the back by Gaudin as of running head-on into a sectoid. He made it to where the alien had gone down, went around to the left of the ferns, and found it lying there, obviously dead. "UFO is in sector thirteen," Okamoto reported. "I'm moving around to the right to find a door." Akira could see the wall of the UFO straight ahead of him, three levels high. "And in sector twelve," he added. As he moved slowly toward it, he noticed that the side of the UFO had been opened up on the second level, presumably by the interceptor attack. Suddenly there was a strange voice inside his head, pushing him aside. It was as if there were two of him inside his mind, one being forced out by another who was desperate to protect the UFO and defend the aliens against an unprovoked attack by humans. Akira strained to force out the usurper. He thought of Crossett and managed to bring up memories of troopers killed by the aliens. He regained control and was immediately invaded from another direction, this time it was a little harder to fight off and seemed to take minutes. He found himself kneeling on the ground, still in the same spot. Had he hurt anyone? He glanced around and saw no other troopers, and there was no chatter over the headset. Seconds later a small silver football streaked past over his head and turned sharply toward the Skyranger. There was a deafening explosion behind him. He felt the blast and turned to find a huge area of jungle to the near side of the Skyranger engulfed in a fireball. The bottoms of the trees had been vaporized and their trunks blown outwards, bringing the canopy down in a burning ring around the whole area. "Gaudin!" Akira shouted in his headset. "He's dead," Perez replied. "What the hell was that?" Akira decided he wasn't going to wait around for that to happen again. "Perez, we can't wait for Near Squad. They've got guided missiles of some kind and some way to get inside our heads and turn us against each other." "Then go," Perez replied, "Davies, get your squad there as soon as you can." Akira primed a heavy, bulbous alien grenade they had captured on a previous mission and tossed it up through the breach in the side of the UFO. Seconds later there was a tremendous blast and expulsion of metal fragments from the hole. He stood and ran to the door. It opened in front of him with a woosh, and he stepped in and dropped to on knee. To his left a high wall ran nearly to the opposite side of the UFO. To his right was a high room, reaching to the top of the UFO and comprising its entire front half. The opposite side of the room contained a large table surrounded by metal arms, like the robots in an automobile plant. Some kind of large animal, possibly monkey or human, lay on the table, skinned to lay its insides bare. The high wall to his left had a jagged hole at the top, directly above Akira's head, probably blown out by his grenade. Thick, noxious smoke was settling around him, burning his nose and eyes. "Found a door half-way around the UFO," Okamoto reported. Akira could hear a door open to his left, somewhere on the other side of the wall, then another that sounded like it was somewhere up on the second level. There was a door immediately to his left, and the high wall was open at the far end. If he went either way he would leave his rear undefended. "This is Okamoto. Me and Crossett are inside. It's a small room with no doors, just a glowing red field of some kind around a red panel on the floor." "It's a lift," Akira said, "We saw some in Iceland. If you want to go up, step in and wave your arm upwards." It sounded simple, but it had taken Akira a long time to get up the nerve to step into one the first time. Then he had flailed around and nearly been killed trying to imitate the actions of the sectoid he'd seen use it. The door behind him opened and he turned to find Thompson, the Near Squad Trooper, facing him with his heavy plasma raised. Akira jumped to the side and raised his own weapon, half expecting to be shot, but Thompson just gave him a strange look and scanned around the room. Akira composed himself. "watch this room while I check in here," he ordered, waving his gun at the doorway. He stepped up to it and the door opened. Inside was a small room with a platform, in the middle of which was another lift. No doors. He primed a proximity grenade and tossed it beside the lift. "Lift on the Skyranger side of the UFO is rigged with a 'P' grenade," he reported over the headset. He left the room through the door and ordered Thompson to guard it, then he moved along the wall to where it opened and turned to the left. He got down and checked around the corner. The ceiling was only one level high and there were various containers or cages of some kind arranged like a small museum. Most contained animal and plant specimens, but a few contained mutated or alien creatures. No doors. Akira cautiously searched behind the cases and found no aliens, so he made his way back towards Thompson. He rounded the corner and moved along the high wall, intending to somehow detonate the proximity grenade and take the lift up to help Crossett and Okamoto. When he got within five meters of Thompson there was a high pitched whistling sound from above and a small explosion at the trooper's feet. For a second, Akira's field of vision contracted to a small tunnel. He felt dizzy and nauseous, but he didn't fall over or pass out. He recovered slowly and looked up to see an alien pointing a luncher of some kind at him through the hole in the wall. He raised his heavy plasma and squeezed off one shot, but missed far to the right, striking the wall. He was still too dizzy to aim properly. Before the alien could get him, a plasma bolt shot through the opening in the outside wall of the UFO and killed it. Who could have shot through from outside the second story, Akira wondered. Then he remembered the hovertank. "Perez," he said, "remind me to thank whoever programmed that flying monstrosity." Thompson was down. Akira checked him and found that he was still alive, and had no visible injuries. He was preparing his medi-kit to treat him when he heard an autofired laser on the second level. "Last one coming down your way, 'Kira," Crossett called. Akira heard the proximity grenade explode, and he barely had time to crouch down beside the door before it opened and a sectoid ran out. He hadn't had time to drop the medi-kit and get his heavy plasma into position, but it didn't matter; the alien ran right past him. It ran to the wall across the room and stood there, fidgeting with its hands. Akira heard movement above and looked up to find Okamoto pointing his laser rifle down at the creature. "Hold it!" Akira called. "Toss me your stun rod." Crossett appeared above and trained her weapon on the sectoid while Okamoto pulled out the long blue stun rod and tossed it down. Akira caught it and walked slowly up to the alien. It looked right at him, and even in its alien face and featureless eyes, Akira recognized fear. As he stood over the injured alien, he thought he sensed the beginnings of another attack on his mind. He reached out with the rod and pressed the end against the alien's side. After a blue flash and a "tzzt" sound, the alien slumped to the floor. Akira looked over the stun rod. "I guess these are good for something." He turned and Crossett looked down and gave him a thumbs up and a smile. "All clear," she reported over her headset, and reached for her knife.
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