X-COM SAGA #6: BIG FISH
by Russ Brown
Copyright (1994) MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM Copyright 1994, MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM is a Trademark of MicroProse Software, Inc.
The Skyranger barely reached cruising altitude, and already they were passing over Indianapolis and descending. They were after a very large, three-level UFO which had landed in northeastern Indiana. It would be simple, open terrain, Akira thought, but that was a deception. He was sure it would be one of the toughest battles in months. The UFO was of the three-level design with five landing pedestals extending below it. Another just like it had skimmed over China three weeks earlier, and the new Russian strike base had lost its interceptor trying to shoot it down. That UFO had landed near the China-Turkistan border, and the Russian base commander, Captain Ragulin, had sent in the rookie strike team in power suits, with heavy plasmas and blaster launchers. Even with all the supporting technology, the battle went badly. By the time the captain finally aborted the mission, six troopers were lost, including Okamoto, who had voluntarily transferred over from Little Rock only a few days earlier. This time the pilot of X-COM's new UFO-like interceptor, the Firestorm, had followed the alien ship as it approached the Little Rock base at over mach three. Colonel Perez had ordered an evacuation of all non-combat personnel from the base and had sent the Skyranger up into a low holding pattern over Tennessee. The Firestorm pilot had closed his pursuit distance enough to use its fusion balls and plasma cannon, weapons that would have meant a quick kill on any other UFO. The large UFO began to fire almost the second the Firestorm did. In less than a minute the battle was over, with the Firestorm backing off, badly damaged, and the UFO barely scratched. It passed within twenty miles of the X-COM base, but continued on, erratically backtracking across Middle America for six more hours before landing in in rural Indiana. Now the Skyranger was on its way to catch the abomination on the ground. Akira and Colonel Perez sat in their armor, helmets removed, toward the back of the Skyranger's cargo bay. She was still in command of the entire X-COM military operation, but that now included another base and more troopers, so she had been promoted to colonel, and a commanding captain had been chosen for each base. Akira was one of them and was now in charge at Little Rock. Well, almost - Perez was still stationed there, and she outranked him. He imagined his problems were very similar to those faced by the captain of a navy flagship with an Admiral on board. "I still think you should stay back, Colonel," he said, "You're too valuable." She read through it, as Akira hoped she would. He liked Perez and was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the organization, but what he was really saying was, "Why didn't you stay behind and let me lead this mission in peace?" Without looking up, she said quickly, "If I want to run this operation properly, I have to know what's going on on strike missions." "But there are video records, and ..." And you don't even leave the ship, he thought. You sit at the ramp with your blaster launcher and try to run the battle from there. His mind drifted as he talked. They had had this discussion many times before, with Perez complaining about all the special problems of X-COM's high casualty rates and accelerated promotion system, but whenever they got around to the issue of Perez's involvement in missions and her authority at Little Rock, she would use some excuse to cut the discussion short. She seemed desperate to continue fighting and prove something, but what? Was she still trying to make up for Andianov's death? The promotion of other members of the strike team had also put some distance between Akira and Perez, and had disrupted other ties within the team. Davies had been selected to go to Russia as captain of the new base there, but had refused. As far as Akira knew, he had never been considered for the job at Little Rock. And Crossett had nearly missed being promoted to sergeant to fill the gap left by Akira's move. He had gotten wind that Perez planned to promote Mederow, or maybe even Zander to that position instead. "Crossett has almost twice as much time in as Mederow, and Zander's nearly a rookie!" he had complained to Perez one day when they were checking supply deliveries. "She's a loose cannon," was Perez's only reply. "She was a loose cannon," Akira said, "I agree, but only because she's a natural at this. I've seen her become much more focused over the last four months. She seems to know where the squad's going next before I give the order." "For God's sake, Perez," Akira continued, "even Morinov is a sergeant in Russia now, and he's crazy. He got Bouton killed!" There seemed to be more to Perez's rejection of Crossett than just perceptions of past self-discipline problems, but Akira didn't know what. That night he and Crossett watched an old movie in her quarters, and he asked her about it. She simply admitted that Perez didn't like her and left it at that. The next day, Perez announced that Crossett was the new Far Squad sergeant. Now Crossett sat in the Skyranger with her squad, reduced to just herself, a scout and a heavy to make room on the plane for the team's two new psi troopers, Hudson and Tonida. Over the last two months, every trooper had been evaluated for their psionic potential, but only Hudson and Tonida had been chosen for further training. They used captured aliens to actually attempt mental control using spiny mental amplifiers developed by X-COM researchers. Now the psis sat together in power armor, farthest back in the cargo bay. They had suddenly become the most valuable items in the X-COM inventory and were under orders to not even leave the ship. Akira wondered how much good they would do. He would rather have had two more troopers out where it counted. The Skyranger landed and the ramp began to drop. Akira looked to his left out the window and saw only corn fields, a few small farm buildings in the distance, and what might have been a town far off. "UFO right," Perez called out. The hovertank slid out, followed by Zander and Mederow crossing over to the left. Then Esser, the Far Squad scout, stepped out of the Skyranger and floated around to the right. She disappeared behind the plane's tail section. The three members of Far Squad, plus Akira, all had flying suits - reinforced power suits with anti-grav capabilities similar to floaters. This was not the first mission they used them, but it was the first where flying was key to their plan for taking the UFO. As he moved forward to leave the Skyranger, Akira could see a small, two story farmhouse directly ahead. Crossett was in front of him, and Bradley in front of her. As Bradley floated forward above the ramp, he aimed his rocket launcher at the farmhouse and fired. From his vantage point directly behind, Akira could easily follow the bright streak of the rocket's path. It hit the first floor wall directly in the center. Old wood, rusted metal and years of dust blew outwards, leaving a hole in the side large enough for two tanks to drive through. Akira saw no sign of any aliens. "I guess he can hit the side of a barn," someone commented over the headset. It sounded like Zander. Akira and Perez had talked for hours about changes in strike team strategy and had come to the conclusion that the flow of raw materials and captured supplies was steady enough that they didn't have to worry about conservation during combat. They would use whatever firepower they had to clear cover and get to the aliens fast, and they wouldn't worry too much about property damage. Crossett moved off and floated up behind the Skyranger's stabilizers, and Akira heard her footsteps on the roof. As he reached the ramp he heard another explosion behind him, toward the front of the plane. "What the hell is that thing?" Esser said over the headset. There was a sizzle of laser fire from her position. "My grenade blew right next to him and he's still standing." "It's a soldier of a unknown race," Hudson, the psi, answered from inside the Skyranger. "It's wounded, but not severely. The closest approximation of the name is 'muton.'" Akira glanced back before he left the plane and saw both Hudson and Tonida facing away from him, toward the front of the Skyranger - toward a solid wall. Hudson was holding a mind probe, a large metallic sphere, and Tonida was holding one of the fragile psi-amps. The sight gave Akira the creeps. Akira heard the whistling crack of a heavy plasma, then more laser fire. "He took a grenade and two laser hits before he went down," Esser reported - she always assumed aliens where males. "Sorry, Couldn't catch it," Tonida said. Akira felt like things were happening too fast without him. He manipulated the controls built into the left arm of his suit, and quickly floated around to the right, following Esser's path. When he got around the corner, he stopped for a second. Half of his field of view was filled with an enormous alien ship, three levels high and probably fifty meters across. The top two levels were supported by five pedestals below, each the size of a small UFO. How many grenade-resistant aliens were in there? He continued toward the front of the Sykranger and noticed smoke ahead. The side of a barn had been opened up, presumably by Esser's grenade, and it was burning. Esser was floating ahead, sliding into what was left of the barn's loft. On the main floor, amid the smoldering bundles of hay, Akira could barely make out the still body of a barrel-chested purple humanoid. A heavy plasma lay next to it. Akira checked his HUD. Zander, Mederow, and Davies, all in power suits, were heading toward the farmhouse Bradley had blown open. The tank was already there, checking the roof and the second floor. He could see Esser in the barn ahead of him, and Crossett covering her from atop the nose of the Skyranger. So there was no one between him and the UFO. Akira turned back to his left and saw Bradley using one of the plane's stabilizers as cover. Another streak from Bradley's rocket launcher cut across in front of the UFO and turned the side of another barn to the right of the UFO into splinters, smoke and flames. Beyond that barn Akira saw only cultivated fields and an orchard. To the left of the UFO, next to the farmhouse, he could make out part of a few small sheds. "Crossett," he called over the headset, "have your squad secure these two barns then move on toward the orchard. Near Squad, when you're through looting the farmhouse, check out those small buildings to the left of the UFO. Bradley and I will watch the center and look for the entrance underneath." "Yessir, Captain sir," Davies replied. Akira had promised himself he would leave as many decisions as possible up to the squad leaders. Hadn't he? Davies was usually sarcastic, but Akira sensed genuine irritation this time. No time to worry about it now, he thought. He descended to the ground and found he could see much more of the terrain underneath the giant ship. He was standing in open sunlight, so it was difficult for his eyes to adjust to the dim shadows around the pedestals. A plasma bolt streaked past to his left and passed under the Skyranger into the fields beyond. He wasn't sure if it was aimed at himself or at Bradley, who had descended to the ground a few meters to his left. Akira thought he knew where the shot had come from - the small shacks on the other side of the UFO - but he couldn't see any aliens there. It didn't seem to matter to Bradley exactly where the alien was. He carefully aimed his rocket launcher at the shacks, probably worried about hitting Near Squad in the building next door, and fired. Akira wasn't sure of what he saw, but he thought the rocket actually went through a small window on the side of one of the sheds before exploding inside. The whole front half of the building blew open, destroying part of a smaller building next to it. He dropped to one knee and aimed in that general direction. As the smoke cleared, one of the misproportioned purple mutons stepped out from right where the rocket had exploded. "Damn," Bradley said, dropping his launcher and fishing a laser rifle out of his pack, "that's one tough son-of-a-bitch." Akira autofired his heavy plasm. At the same time, laser fire cut across at the alien from a window on the second floor of the farmhouse. The alien took three more wild shots in the direction of the Skyranger. Bradley got his weapon down and added to the crossfire for just a second before a small silver football streaked out of the back of the Skyranger and up over the top of the UFO. Akira didn't see it descend on the other side, but half a second later the blast protection kicked in on Akira's lenses and everything went black. His sight was immediately restored when the initial flash was over. Charred, splintered wood and chunks of dirt rained down over the entire area around the UFO. The two small buildings were completely gone, as was the alien. Part of the farmhouse had also been damage, but not too badly. "Near Squad," Akira called, "Are you OK?" "Fine," Davies replied. "I almost had that one," Tonida reported from inside the Skyranger, "I could feel it." "Both squads," Perez called over the headset from inside the Skyranger, "we have to give the psis more time." Akira had actually seen Tonida and Hudson control aliens back at Little Rock, in the containment facility. But he wasn't confident enough in their abilities to risk giving an alien a chance to shoot back while the psis mentally located it and attempted their control. Akira waved Bradley forward, and they both stood and moved into the shade of the UFO. They split up, on either side of the nearest pedestal. They had learned from the survivors of the Russian assault that there were doors on the central leg and a large lift inside, but that's as far as they had gone. Akira made his way cautiously around the leg to get within sight of the doors. As the center leg came into view, he spotted a set of doors, on the side opposite the Skyranger. As he continued around and popped a proximity grenade from his belt, he spotted another set of doors on the near side of the center leg and caught a glimpse of purple in front of them. Then a huge explosion on the other side of the leg he was using as cover lit up the entire underside of the UFO and blew the muton back against the doors. No time to check on Bradley. Akira didn't have the grenade primed, so he dropped it and raised his heavy plasma. "I've got him! Don't shoot!" Tonida shouted over the headsets. Akira kept as much cover as he could, and continued aiming for the huge purple chest. As he watched, the alien turned, reloaded its blaster launcher, and went through the door into the center leg. Akira checked his HUD and it confirmed his suspicion - Bradley was dead. "Davies, Bradley's gone" he called, "can you spare someone to help me cover the doors down here?" There was a moment's pause. "Sure," Davies replied, "take the tank." It had probably understood the exchange, but it wouldn't hurt to be more explicit. "Hovertank, cover the UFO's central..." Another explosion came, followed by what could have been alien screams. This one was in Akira's field of view and triggered his shields. When they cleared he saw that it must have occurred up inside the UFO. Part of the bottom of the UFO had been destroyed on the opposite side of the center leg, leaving an opening large enough for a trooper to fly up through. Seconds later a muton stepped out of the door. Akira reacted, but saw it wasn't carrying a weapon. "I've still got him," Tonida called, "but I think he was hurt pretty bad by the blast. On the second level the lift pops out where two wide hallways cross. I think I got two aliens with the launcher." Akira wanted to get around the leg to his left to see what the first blast had done, but he was afraid to turn his back on the muton or leave him uncovered. He switched his HUD to the hovertank's view and saw that it was just moving around the far leg and the muton was in its sight. While Akira moved back around to where Bradley was, he heard what sounded like a grenade, followed by laser and plasma fire near the orchard. Crossett was giving orders to Esser over the headset, but Akira didn't get a chance to listen. As he came around the outside of the UFO's leg, he found himself facing a muton on its way toward the Skyranger. The alien turned blindingly fast and fired a heavy weapon of some kind. There was a small explosion near Akira. It didn't seem small, but he assumed it was because he survived it. His shoulders and the muscles down his back all tightened as if trying to fold back around his spinal column, and he lost feeling in his legs. He dropped to his knees and his vision blurred. Akira's weapon was pointed in the general direction of the alien, so he managed to freeze where he was and squeeze hard for autofire. The heavy plasma had some kick, but it was dampened by the weapon's weight. Akira held steady and continued to fire at the blurry figure barely moving in front of him. "...Akira!" He heard Tonida yelling through the constant crack of the plasma. "You killed it! Hold it!" Akira's vision was clearing. He had thought that his suit had been damaged by an alien grenade and he had collapsed under its weight and lost visual input. Now he could see the alien was carrying a small launcher and had probably hit him with a stun bomb. Control of his legs returned and he moved the rest of the way around the leg to cover the door. He was at the edge of a crater, over a meter deep. Bradley's body was at the bottom, inside a jagged remnant of a flying suit. He could now see how the alien who had stunned him got past Tonida's mind puppet. The blast had blown a hole in the side of the leg, revealing a small lift inside. The mind puppet was still standing beside the door, waiting for Tonida's instructions. "Akira," Perez said, "I'm on a private channel. I want you to come back and guard the Skyranger." Akira didn't understand. Then he remembered his wild shooting. She thinks I went berserk, he realized. "I'm fine, Colonel," he said, "I got hit by a stun bomb and my vision was blurred for a minute. I couldn't tell when the alien went down." Perez paused. "Fine." "We don't need any more holes in this ship, Colonel," Akira continued. Their plan was to try blowing a hole in the side on the top level, with a blaster bomb, then go in with flying suits. "We have a small hole in the underbelly on the other side and access to two different lifts down here. "I still want Far Squad through the top," she replied, "Davies can cover the bottom with his power suits as soon as they've cleared the surrounding area." I guess I'm just a another trooper on this mission, Akira thought. He could accept that for now. "Crossett," he called, "Are you secure yet?" He checked his HUD and saw that she and Esser had already moved under the UFO from the other side. In fact he could see her looking at him between the center and far right leg, her flying suit painted with the image of a bowie knife - her choice of coat-of-arms. "Secure," she said, raising her heavy plasma slightly to acknowledge him. She had a habit of just appearing when he wanted her. "Toss me a 'P' Grenade," he said. She snapped something off her belt, still training her weapon on the far door. He couldn't see Esser behind the center leg. "Primed or unprimed?" she asked dryly, tossing the grenade twenty meters to land within arm's length of him. She had lost her first trooper as a squad leader, but her sense of humor remained intact. He primed the grenade and tossed it into the opening of the leg at his side to cover the small lift. "Lift in the leg near the Skyranger is rigged," he announced. The mind controlled muton suddenly began to move, turning back toward the door. "I lost it," Tonida called. Akira aimed carefully so he wouldn't hit Crossett. He got off one shot before the door closed and the alien disappeared inside. "I think I hit it, but it didn't make a sound." Akira wasn't about to go after it. He just hoped it was either dead or injured too badly to be a threat. "Area's secure." It was Davies. "We'll take the underbelly now. You glory boys can head up top." "Boys?" Crossett and Esser said together. Akira could see two troopers tromping toward him from the left where the tank was still standing guard. One was Davies, the other small enough to be Zander. Another explosion behind him caught him off guard. It took him a second to realize it was Perez blasting a hole for them. "Sounds like we might have a door up there," he said, "Let's go." He stood, moved quickly out from under the UFO and looked up where he thought the blast had come from. There was a hole all right, at the top level, big enough for one. He ascended and hovered just beside the opening waiting for Esser and Crossett. When they arrived, Crossett waved Esser inside. She went through and they heard the thunking of her heavy soles on alien alloy as she walked farther. "room," she said, "one door." Crossett moved in next, and Akira followed. The room was roughly a triangle. The wall they'd come through was the long side, and the door was on the wall to their left. It had been blown outward by the blast. There was an explosion somewhere below, and Davies announced that his squad was heading up the lifts. The door opened into a hallway. Esser glanced out in either direction then stepped out completely, moving slowly down the hall to the left. Crossett followed, turning right and kneeling to cover Esser's rear. Akira followed, heading left and trying to keep some spacing between them all. The hall went down a few meters and turned right, probably very close to the outside wall of the ship. Esser took the turn and disappeared. "The hall's a dead end," she reported, "one door to my right." Akira heard the door whoosh open, then close. Then he heard plasma fire below, and Hudson yelling "I had him, I had him." "...quiet," Davies ordered, "Zander's hit!" "I'm OK," Zander called, "the suit took it all. I'm just a little shaken up. Esser appeared around the corner again. "empty," she said out loud, "no other doors." Crossett was still against the wall to the right, covering the hallway in the opposite direction. Only a few meters down it intersected another passage, and again ten meters farther down. Esser motioned that she was going left at the nearer intersection. Crossett nodded and moved forward almost to the corner, turning so she could see down to the left and straight ahead. Akira got down across from Crossett, covering the hall to the right. A soon as Esser rounded the corner she was shot. A plasma bolt caught her in the leg and took her down only a meter or two from Akira. Crossett immediately stepped into the hallway and filled the hall with plasma. Akira didn't dare step out into the crossfire, so he kept his eyes on the other two passages. Just as he heard the death scream of the alien Crossett was shooting at, another muton lumbered out of a doorway toward the end of the center hall. Akira got off one snap shot and missed, then his clip ran dry. Crossett turned to see what he was shooting at. "This one's mine," Hudson shouted over the headset. Akira wasn't sure of that meant he already had control, or if he was just claiming the alien and they were still at risk. The muton lowered its weapon and moved toward them. "Hudson, I don't like aliens moving toward me with loaded weapons," Akira said. "Okay with me." The alien lifted its weapon, a plasma rifle, and popped out the clip. Akira reloaded his at the same time. The alien continued around the corner past Esser's body and stopped, facing away from them. Akira had time to check his HUD. Esser was still alive. He moved down to her and plugged his medi-kit into her suit's medical interface. The scanner showed that her leg was badly damaged and bleeding. She was still conscious. "Captain, I've been hit." "Yes, I know ..." Akira said, momentarily at a loss for words, "... you'll be fine." He applied coagulants and pain killers and activated some of the pressure devices built into the suit to stop the bleeding. She might actually make it, he thought. He was nervous, because her life was in his hands, and because his life was in the hands of a mind-controlled alien with no clip in its weapon. He finished and left her where she lay. It was as safe a place as any. "Load up Hudson, but keep that damn thing in front of me." "Sure, Captain." The alien loaded the clip back into its rifle and started down the hall. "Stay where you are, Crossett," Akira ordered, "I'll escort the mind puppet around this way. They began a systematic search of half of the ship, with Crossett covering the center hallway to warn them of any aliens crossing over from the other side. Akira would wait outside doors while the alien stepped inside. Hudson would report on what the alien saw. The entire process worked well and was uneventful until they reached what turned out to be a triangular room on the opposite end of the UFO from where they had entered. The muton stepped inside and was immediately shot three times by plasma fire. Whatever had done it was at close range, just on the other side of the door Akira guessed. He had enough time to pull a grenade off his belt, prime it, and toss it inside just as the door closed. The blast went off immediately after the door closed, but there was no sound from the alien. It might not be dead, Akira thought. "Can you get it, Hudson? Tonida?" "I can tell where it is," someone replied, "but I really need to see it to get control." "I've got it," Colonel Perez said. There was a whistling noise somewhere outside the UFO, then a blast knocked the door next to Akira out into the hall and sent molten alloy spraying through the opening. The alien inside screamed in pain for just a second. Akira stepped into the room and dropped to one knee. It was filled with smoke and metal vapor that would probably have choked him without his armor. A muton lay motionless on the jagged floor and he could see inviting sunlight through a new opening to the human world outside. In the center of the room was a small lift platform. "Davies," he called, "I've got a down lift in the corner opposite where Far Squad came in. Are you secure below it?" "Not yet," Davies replied, "just a second..." Akira ducked inside the room so he couldn't be shot from behind. He stood behind the alien body and tried to cover the door and the lift. "...we see it now. It's clear." Akira turned and continued the search through the alien world of the ship. All he had left to search on his side of the center passage was a square room directly in the center. As he moved toward it, There was plasma fire below and Davies announced that the second level was secure and his squad was moving up. Seconds later a trooper, Mederow, stepped out of one of the doors from the center room. Soon Zander and Davies were there, and Crossett was free to head down the hall to her right. In a few minutes they had searched the entire area. When things had calmed down, Akira went to check on Esser. Crossett was already bent over her and had removed both of their helmets. "I hate the smell in here," Crossett said as Akira approached, "It smells like oil and rotting fruit." She pulled her knife and started cutting her hair. Akira checked his medi-kit, which was still attached to Esser. She would be fine. They were both interrupted by Davies, stomping quickly up, still in full armor. "You should come look at this, Akira." Akira followed him without asking, back to the what looked like a control room, one of the last rooms they'd checked. Once inside, Davies pointed at a display on one of the panels. They had taken alien controls intact before, but never with displays active - at least not with anything on them they could understand. The small panel they stared at showed a slowly rotating orange sphere, marked by rough, irregular patches of brown and partially obscured by the strange alien writing. The writing was unintelligible, but it was not difficult to figure out what the sphere was. "Mars," Davies said unnecessarily from inside his environmentally sealed power suit.
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