X-COM SAGA #8: EXPOSURE
by Russ Brown
Copyright (1995) MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM Copyright 1995, MicroProse Software, Inc. X-COM is a Trademark of MicroProse Software, Inc.
Akira and Crossett were sitting in one of the small common rooms on the bottom level of the Little Rock base's living quarters when the alarm sounded. Akira received a personal page over the intercom. "Perez wants you," Crossett said smiling. It was an inside joke, one Akira wasn't quite ready to laugh at yet. He just gave her his best look of cold disgust and said nothing. They had been watching local news. A clean cut, well-chiseled man with an accent from some state farther north tried his best to squeeze every ounce of sensation from a group of a few hundred students from the University of Arkansas and the Baptist College who were marching north toward the state capital. Some of the students carried peace signs and placards displaying general slams against the military. There was also a group of students trying to block the gates of Camp Robinson, on the north end of town. But what concerned Akira the most were the two dozen or so students who had driven sixty miles northwest in crowded cars, into a remote area of the Boston Mountains, to march back and forth outside of a small military supply post built on the site of an old bauxite mine. They explained to the single reporter on the scene that it was a test site for experimental aircraft. "Do they know we're down here?" he asked out loud. "Probably not," Crossett said, "Someone may have seen the Skyranger or the Firestorm taking off or coming back, but they don't seem to have a clue what's really going on." There were only a few seconds of coverage about the Boston Mountain protest, then the station went on to other stories. A few minutes later, Crossett and Akira felt the sudden roar and thunder clap of the Firestorm taking off and immediately going supersonic. The news station quickly cut back to cover the event. Their tape showed another old college student sedan pulled up on the twisty gravel road and five more protesters piled out. The attention of all of the students and the news camera was suddenly drawn back to the supply post by the dramatic sounds. The camera missed whatever had made the noise, but some of the students had seen it. Most of them huddled together for a few seconds, then one ran off to an extremely old Ford Escort and drove off toward Little Rock, probably to get friends. The reporter, who had been facing the other way during the launch, interviewed students to get a description, and got a wide range of answers. "You'd better go, boss," Crossett said, "sounds like we've got customers. You can monitor the action outside from the command center." Akira set off west, through the base's main lift, toward the small command center spread out inside the radar equipment rooms. We're in no shape to mount a UFO recovery, he thought. It had been less than a week since their base raid in Africa, and he hadn't even had time to fill out the squads with replacement troopers. And there were those damn students outside - could they launch with them around and give them even more of what they were looking for? He found Perez in a small room filled with monitors, below the short range radar room. "It's one of the big one's," she said, "coming in from the northwest at about Mach four." Akira checked the radar screen and saw that Perez had launched the Firestorm to intercept. "What's that interceptor going to do? The last one that attacked one of those monsters was destroyed." "He can follow it," she said, "pinpoint its landing site." Akira nodded. "Come look at this," she said, and led Akira down the hall into a room below the long range radar next door, carefully stepping around scattered electronic equipment and loose cables as she went. She pointed to a relatively new display mounted up in the far corner of the room, connected to their new hyperwave decoder. The information the decoder had deciphered and translated from the ship's transmissions confirmed that it was one of the large, five-legged alien battleships. It had also classified it as a muton ship. "What do you make of that mission?" Akira asked. In most cases the decoder could also surmise the basic objective of the UFO, such as base supply, terror missions, or scouting. In this case the mission was just "retaliation." "I asked Dr. Morey about it. He said it indicates the aliens want to inflict damage on the sources of the attacks which have damaged their own ships." "Us," Akira said, "this base." "I would guess so." "Do they know where we are?" "Don't know - scouts have come close, but have never landed here. " "And Morey's people have had the mind shield operating for a couple weeks," Akira added, "to try and block the emissions from all the psionic activity." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Maybe the ethereal commander has somehow given our position away." "Maybe," Perez said, "but we checked it for transmitters and scanned for alloy, and it's had a psi-suppression collar on since we nabbed it. Maybe the aliens are watching the local news." They both hurried back to the command center. Davies was at the tracking display. "Which way is it going?" Akira asked. "Southeast," Davies replied, "looks like it's coming this way." "It could be here in about twenty minutes," Perez added. "Do we have enough defenses?" Akira asked no one in particular. Davies and Perez shrugged without saying anything. The base had point defense systems - missiles and plasma, and an unfinished grav shield to slow down incoming weapons or ships, but they had never been used and never tested for fear of giving away their position. Perez gave no sign of taking charge. She was looking at Akira for this one. Technically, he was in command at the base. He thought it through. It would take nearly ten minutes for the handful of experienced troopers to get into their armor and collect their weapons. They would also have to evacuate whoever they could. "Davies, call the..." Akira suddenly remembered the protesters again. "Damn." "What," Davies asked. "Perez, Get Dr. Morey in here, and Perry. Fast. Davies, you get the troopers suiting up, and round up any recruits that have passed a reasonable amount of screening. Get them into defensive positions with weapons and headsets, and some of the old personal armor, if we still have any." Akira waited a few minutes to give Perez a head start finding Dr. Morey and Perry Lem, the Chief Engineer, then he went to a command terminal and set off the general evacuation alarm. He watched the track of the UFO for a minute as it made noticeable progress across Idaho, accompanied by the rhythmic honking echoing through the underground base. It crossed into Wyoming just as Dr. Morey and Perry arrived. Morey was a tall, authoritative scientist who communicated in short, intense bursts in between forcing himself to listen to other opinions. But he was brilliant and very convincing if allowed to talk uninterrupted. "Dr. Morey, get your people and the engineers out of here, and away from the supply post. And on your way, try to convince the students up there that this is a real emergency and they're in real danger. Tell them there are volatile materials on the post and we think they might explode or something. Just get them away from here." "An alien battleship may be here in about fifteen minutes," Akira continued, "Can you evacuate the Avenger?" "Don't think so," Perry said, shaking his head and wringing his plump hands. "we have the drives pulled apart to test the navigation system. It would take us hours to get it up again." "Dr. Morey," Akira continued, "How far along are you with the alien commander?" "It's tough," Morey said, "We have the mind shield and psi-suppression fields operating, so our use of psi-amps is limited, and the ethereals don't seem to have a spoken language." "Can you evacuate it in the Skyranger?" Akira asked. As he spoke they heard the roar of the Skyranger's vertical thrusters echoing in from the hangar to the south west. "Damn," Akira said, "No time to land it again." "It would have been dangerous and disruptive to move the alien anyway," Morey said. Akira couldn't tell if he was serious or just trying to make him feel better. "One more question," Akira said, "Will the tanks' programming allow them to help defend the base if we're invaded?" Morey looked questioningly at Perry, who stuck out his lower lip in thought, then nodded slowly. "Sure," Perry replied, "I don't see why not." "Then it's time for you both to leave." They both turned and headed back east toward the lift and the living quarters. Before they disappeared, Morey turned and said "Good luck, Captain." Akira nodded and looked back at the monitor. The battleship was nearly into Colorado already. It may be coming for the alien commander, he thought. Maybe that means we're as close to the answer as we think. A few minutes later, the Firestorm caught up to the UFO. It managed to drop in behind and get a good look, confirmed the battleship classification, then followed at a safe distance. "Firestorm-2," Akira called, "if the target gets within a hundred klicks of the base, I want you to hit it a few times then bug out for the emergency hangar." The pilot acknowledged. The evacuation was proceeding smoothly, but he could see that the reporter at the scene realized something important was happening. Vans filled with dozens of scientists and engineers streaming from a small supply post gave him plenty of fuel for speculation. One of the vans stopped and Dr. Morey stepped out. He tried to shout over the barrage of questions and accusations from the students. "I am Dr. Stan Morey, of the DoD Alternate Energy Development Project," He began. It was their official cover story, provided by the U.S. government. Was there really such a project, Akira wondered? If so, the heat would soon be on them. "For the past few months," Dr. Morey continued, "we have been using this facility as a secure laboratory for the development of a compressed hydrogen fuel. Your presence here compromised that security and we were forced to make plans to move our research elsewhere. Unfortunately, an accident in packing the existing material for shipment has left it unstable and near the point of an unpredictable and little-understood slow fusion reaction. For your own safety, we must insist that everyone evacuate an area within a radius of ten kilometers from this base, until the small group of experts we've left behind can stabilize the sample." "Nice," Akira said out loud. "I just caught the end," Crossett said, coming into the room in her full flying suit, except for the helmet. "but it sure sounded convincing. Morey's a scary guy." Akira smiled. "We'll see if it works." The students were still discussing the situation among themselves, but a few vehicles were already loading up and heading down the road. Davies arrived, wearing just the environmental suit that went underneath his armor. He checked the radar monitors. "Looks like we've got about eight or nine minutes," he said. "How do you want us deployed, Captain." "What have we got?" "Well, we have us three, plus Zander, Perez and the two psis. We also have the two tanks and one rookie, Richter, checked out on plasma and power suit. I figure we can give him to Crossett." Akira nodded quickly. "Beyond that we have six rookies that I'd trust with lasers, and I found personal armor to fit four of them." "Oh," Davies continued, "and Esser - she's hurting pretty bad, but she refused to leave and is trying to squeeze into her armor." "Fine," Akira said, "she can guard her living quarters." Akira looked up at the crude map of the ever-changing base on the wall above the terminals. "We have to prevent any damage to key systems on this base, but our priority is to defend the containment facility and the Avenger's hangar. If either was destroyed we'd be set back months. If they know where we are, I don't think we'd last that long." Akira looked closer at the map, as if reading information that wasn't printed there. "We can shut down the main lift and lock the sliding hangar doors from here to keep them out for a while." "Not long," Davies said, "A good plasma shot would rip through the hangar doors like paper - they're made of pretty light stuff. And there are shafts running alongside the main lift that are big enough for bugs to get in. I don't know how effectively we can block them." Perez was just walking in, already suited up. She looked as if she'd stumbled across a party she hadn't been invited to. "Colonel," Akira said, "can you see about shutting down the main lift once everyone's out, then block the small service shafts around it?" "Sure, Captain," Perez said without much enthusiasm, and left. Akira checked the monitors again. The UFO was in Kansas, less than six minutes away and still headed directly for them. "I have to suit up," he said, "I want the rookies split up and in defensive cover where we can watch them." He pointed at Crossett, "You and Richter take the rocket tank and cover the southwest hangar and alien containment. Davies and Zander get the plasma tank and cover the Avenger. We'll arm the psis and put them upstairs in the living quarters with Esser. Perez and I will stay near here to cover the lift and the hangar next door." With that he ran out through the lift room, where Perez and two rookies were stuffing shafts with lab equipment, then south into storage to find his armor. He changed in the center of the floor and got his helmet on just as the interceptor pilot reported through the chatter of excited rookies that he was breaking off his attack. A few seconds later, as Akira ran back toward the command center, the base echoed with a low, pulsing whine . It must be the plasma defenses, he thought, but he had never heard them in operation. When Akira reached the command terminals, he saw that the plasma defenses were indeed firing, as were their one laser battery and two outdated missile launchers. The UFO was now nearly directly above them, at about fifteen hundred meters and descending fast. The external cameras were still operating, and Akira could see that some of the students and the reporter and camera crew had been foolish enough to stay. Now they could see the ship and were beginning to understand how large it was. Some ran for their vehicles, others stood and watched the high-tech fireworks display in awe or fear. "No more secrets," Akira said out loud. Perez heard him as she walked into the room. She stood beside him and watched the monitor, letting her heavy plasma drop at her side. "We'll have to go soon," she said, "in the next few days, if we survive this. We can't hold off the press for long." As they watched, the small groups outside came within range of the battleship's huge plasma weapons. A series of flashes that saturated the camera and left nothing but charred, cratered ground. One pulse caught two carloads of students fleeing down the road, and the next took out the outside camera. "There's nothing more to do here," Akira said, "let's get into position." Perez motioned toward the lift room. "I told Okabe to wait for the missiles to stop firing, then head into the passage below the missile room to cover the hangar's east exit. Kidd is on the other side of the lift." "What do they have on them?" Akira asked. "Lasers," Perez said, "Okabe only has a pistol." "Against mutons?" Akira shook his head and tried to position himself below the short range radar so he could see north into the hangar and east to lift. "You cover the west side of the hangar. They'll have to pass under the laser defenses to get out that way." "OK. Good luck." Just after she left the room, a hollow explosion went off to the north, following by sounds of metal bending and falling down into the hangar. "North hangar doors are down," Akira reported as he ran out into the hallway and knelt down just outside the hangar. Two more identical explosions sounded to the south just as Akira saw a large, barrel-chested purple alien drop into the hangar only a few meters away from him. He swung his heavy plasma around and autofired. One shot hit and seemed to shake the alien up a little. It turned within the spray of plasma and looked directly at Akira. Another plasma bolt caught the alien from behind before it could raise its weapon. It dropped, and Akira could see Perez behind, in position at the entrance to the passage beneath the laser defense room. Suddenly at least two separate streams of plasma streaked across toward her from the eastern part of the hangar, hidden from Akira's view. Perez jumped back, and Akira couldn't tell if she'd been hit. There was a short pause in the exchange, but the sounds of weapons fire from other parts of the base filled in. Crossett was barking out orders to one of the rookies. Akira took two quick steps north toward the hangar, stopping just behind the opening. He could see two mutons toward the back right corner of the hangar, and as he watched, another dropped down to their left. Perez moved up, and more plasma streaked as she returned fire. The rookie Okabe was firing too, with his laser pistol, from a hiding place somewhere east of the hangar. Akira guessed that Perez couldn't see the alien which had just dropped, so he sprayed it on autofire as he backed up a step out of sight of the other two. The muton moved quickly to its right into the plasma defense room. "Perez," he called on the headset, "A muton has moved into the passage to your north." He wasn't sure she had heard it through all the plasma fire. She didn't respond immediately so Akira called again as he began moving around toward her. "I've got one," Hudson the psi reported. But which one, Akira thought. "Perez. Alien to your north," he called again. As he passed under the long range radar, Akira heard plasma and laser fire directly behind him, probably on the other side of the lift. He ignored it for the moment and continued around to the north toward Perez. He approached from the south just as the muton entered from the north and pointed its weapon at Perez. The alien got off one shot before Akira sprayed it with plasma. When he was sure it was dead, Akira rounded the corner to check on Perez. She was still up, but crouching on one leg and leaning against the wall, firing into the hangar. The armor on the other thigh had been blown open, and there was a fair amount of blood. "Thanks," she blurted out. Akira could hear the pain in her voice. Akira's mind raced. He couldn't treat her with mutons firing at them from the hangar. He had also lost track of the aliens. They could have left the hangar and be coming at them from any direction. More sounds of weapons fire, mostly laser this time, echoed to them across the hangar. "One...One of them got past us," someone said excitedly over the headset, "From the lift...Kidd is down." In the mean time, Akira had moved up, almost into the hangar. From partial cover around the edge of the opening, he spotted two mutons moving toward the front of the hangar. They fired sporadically in his direction, missing wide to his right. Akira took careful aim at the lead alien and fired. The single plasma shot caught the muton in the abdomen, ripping open its purple covering and armored skin. It stopped for a few seconds but didn't go down until Perez hit it in almost the same spot. The second muton paused and fired in their direction. The bolt shot past to Akira's right. Perez gave an audible grunt, and Akira heard the metalic thunk of her suit hitting the floor. He glanced back and could see that she had been hit in the chest, just below her left shoulder. It looked bad. He moved toward her, pulling at his medi-kit and moving his body between her and the hangar. "...Go..." she blurted over the headset, "that's an order." Akira glanced back over his shoulder into the hangar. The last muton had moved almost to the entrance to the missile defense area. Suddenly one of the rookies - Okabe - spun around the corner and began firing at the alien from only a few feet away. The muton towered over Okabe, and they were too close together for Akira to take a wild shot. He dropped to one knee to aim. Okabe got off three shots with his laser pistol, probably all hits, before the alien got him point blank in the chest with its heavy plasma. He dropped just as Akira shot the alien cleanly in the head and took it down. Akira brought up his HUD. Okabe was a white cross - dead. Perez was flashing. He turned and found her leaning against the wall, still conscious. She had her own medi-kit half unpacked and was trying unsuccessfully to take care of her own wounds. "Let me do that," Akira said, crouching beside her and taking the medical monitor cable from the floor with his armored gloves. "Won't work," she said, "the jack's gone." It was true. The jack would have been on her chest, where there was now a charred hole larger than Akira's hand. Her status telemetry seemed to be working, so he switched to the limited medical information on his HUD as he began working on the wounds. He didn't like what he saw. She was on the verge of shock and had lost too much blood already. Coagulants would help, but stimulants might kill her. Before he could take any action, Perez looked up at him, and her eyes cleared. "Go," she said in her crisp, earthy voice, with no sign of pain. "The aliens that got out are headed for the psis." Akira stared at her for a few seconds. Was she actually thinking clearly about the situation at a time like this, or was she hallucinating? "Can't you ever follow orders, Captain?" She was right. There was no time for this. If the psis became casualties, the Mars mission would be delayed too long and might never happen. "Davies," he called over the headset, "What've you got?" After a pause of a few seconds, marked by plasma fire from somewhere south of them, Davies replied. "Something got the plasma tank from behind," he reported, "Webb is down, and we have one alien under psi control." Akira found the injection port on Perez's neck and gave her coagulants. "The one that got your tank could have been the one that got past the rookies up here. They're both down too." "This hangar's secure," Crossett interrupted, "but Richter's hurt and one of the rookies went berserk in the lab north of alien containment." "Go!" Perez repeated out loud to Akira. Without a word, Akira dropped the medi-kit items within reach of her, laid his hand on her shoulder for a second and ran south the way he'd come. "Crossett," he ordered on a closed channel, "keep your squad there and protect alien containment. If it looks like your berserk rookie might injure the alien commander, shoot him." "Her," Crossett corrected, "it's Collignon. And yes, I'll do that." Instead of running straight through the empty hangar, Akira followed the passages along its edge. He saw no troopers or aliens until he reached the main lift. The big lift doors were open, and he could see a trooper's body on the other side. He approached cautiously and saw that it was Kidd, his laser rifle still in his hand. He had taken at least two plasma shots in the chest. A strange, glistening organic sack lay on the floor beside him, like a pale alien afterbirth. Akira continued east into the living quarters. He could see down the central hallway into the psi lab's cluster of evaluation chambers. He had just seen the body of a rookie, probably no older than nineteen, and it had barely effected him at all. His only concern was that an alien had gotten past and now threatened the psis and the entire X-COM project. He decided he would have to take time later to figure out what this was all doing to him, and he knew for sure he wanted it to end. As he rounded the corner to his right, into the north-south passage, he caught a glimpse of purple moving into a doorway about five meters down on the left. A trooper moved into the opening on the far end of the passage, just inside the Avenger's hangar, and took a wild shot at the alien before it disappeared. If Akira remembered correctly, that was the door that led to Esser's barracks and the psis. "Hudson," he called on the headset, "did you get it?" "Not enough time," Hudson called, "but we're ready when it comes up." Akira ran down the hall, as did the trooper on the far end. By her size and location he guessed it was Zander. "Let Esser take the shot," Akira ordered, "Hudson and Tonida, hide yourselves if you can." He knew it sounded callous, using a wounded trooper as a shield for the psis, but they were more critical now. As he reached the doorway, ahead of Zander, something floated in behind her from a side passage. It was like a shining opalescent water balloon about a meter long. Akira took aim at it. Zander was running towards him and took it as a cue to duck. He didn't realize until later that she might have actually thought he was under alien control and aiming at her. As the balloon moved slowly toward them it shimmered brightly for a second, then something very much like a plasma bolt shot from it over Zander's head and to Akira's left. It was followed by an explosion, like a grenade, and heavy plasma fire from the quarters upstairs. Akira had walked this hall thousands of times over the last year, coming and going from his living quarters down the hall. Now the presence of an alien in the same corridor, in his home, struck him hard. He was suddenly, uncontrollably angry. It helped to squeeze hard on the alien contours of the heavy plasma trigger and to watch the spray of plasma bolts pass around and through the alien balloon, ripping it to smoking shreds on the floor. Almost in response, he heard a long volley of plasma and laser fire from the hangar to the south - Davies hangar that was supposedly secure. There might have also been another shot from upstairs mixed in. Akira pushed through the door and took the stairs in three jumps, ignoring the sudden burst of chatter over his headset. He entered one of the common bunk areas and found Hudson with a laser rifle trained on a prostrate muton. Esser had her helmet removed and was bending over Tonida, who was propped against the wall and had taken a shot in the leg. Zander looked up at Akira. "It doesn't look too bad," she said, "toss me your medi-kit." Akira reached to his belt, half expecting that he had left the kit with Perez, but it was still there. He popped it off and tossed it to Zander. He brought up his HUD to check on Perez and found her cross flashing, but still yellow. In a few seconds he was back down the stairs, passing Zander on her way up. He moved quickly south past the slippery remains of the balloon alien and stopped at the entrance to the Avenger's hangar. The sight of the new ship, sitting apparently unharmed, helped return his calm analytical frame of mind. Then he saw Davies power-suited figure sitting just inside the storage area to the west of the hangar, next to a dead muton, with Dreyfus standing guard over both of them. The rookie looked extremely glad to see Akira. "He was under control," the rookie reported very calmly, "then he just took a shot at the sergeant, so we had to kill him." "Are you sure it's dead?" Akira asked. He glanced down at the alien and realized it was an unnecessary question. Davies let out a painful, snorting laugh inside his suit and prodded Dreyfus in the side. "Oh, he's dead all right. Dreyfus here decided to use its body for autofire laser penetration testing." Dreyfus looked hurt at first, and couldn't see the expression on Davies face, but the rare note of admiration, and maybe gratitude in Davies voice was clear to Akira. "How bad is it?" Akira asked Davies. "I'll be fine for a while," he replied, "You should worry about cleaning this place out." Akira nodded and switched to his headset. "Crossett," he called on the open channel, "leave someone to watch containment and sweep north. You've got everything west of the access lift." "Understood." "Zander," Akira continued, "head north through the living quarters to the missile battery. I think we may have an alien or two wandering still. We'll cover each other and check the second level as we go" He spoke out loud to Dreyfus. "You head up the far east edge of the base. I'll try to give some backup to you and Zander." Dreyfus nodded and ran recklessly across the hangar toward the psi labs. "I'll guard the Avenger," Davies added seriously. Akira brought up his HUD to monitor progress, and it didn't take him long to notice the small, steady white cross toward the northwest corner of the base. Perez was dead. And she had died alone, Akira thought. He stood for a moment as a mixture of memories, regrets, and self-blame took over his mind as effectively as any alien mind control. He tried to shake it off, but only managed a slow, mindless shuffle back toward the living quarters. Crossett must have been watching her HUD too. "Perez is gone," she reported flatly. The control in her voice was enough to snap Akira back to action. He would have to deal with the memories and guilt later. For now he convinced himself that it was the aliens and only the aliens that were to blame. He moved into the living quarters, up within ten paces of Zander. He watched on the HUD as Crossett's squad advanced. When they reached the midway point between the south and north hangars, the bug warning light flashed and Akira switched his HUD automatically to the spotters view. He was just in time to see Crossett's tank launch a rocket right into the hallway below the long range radar room. The muton survived the explosion but was immediately hit from the side by plasma fire. "Another one down," Crossett called, "last one?" Akira was still on the tank's view, studying the destruction the rocket had caused inside the hallway and radar equipment rooms. Apparently the tanks didn't distinguish between alien and X-COM property. As he shuffled forward and tried to discern details of the damage in the other room, a plasma bolt shot across the passageway on his right. There was apparently an alien in with the mind shield equipment, firing across the psi labs at Dreyfus. Akira checked to see how Zander was responding - she was moving up to enter the mind shield room from the west. Akira moved into the psi labs while Dreyfus wildly fired back at the alien with his laser pistol. A second plasma shot came from the north without interrupting Dreyfus's fire. He either has great cover back there, Akira thought, or he's the luckiest bastard in the world. Akira moved along the psi evaluation chambers, but thought twice about stepping out into the cross fire of the central hallway. He stopped where he could see partway north up the hall, and caught a glimpse of the muton before Zander's plasma fire tore open the right side of its big chest. The alien fell forward to its knees, and before it crumpled into a fetal corpse on the floor, it looked directly at Akira. There was no way for Akira to interpret the expressions on an alien face, but he got the distinct impression of confidence, of a sense of victory. If it had been human he would have expected a smug, knowing smile. "This side's clear", Crossett called, "Krause and I are heading topside to check on the battleship." Technically, Akira should have given an order to move up the lift, but he knew she was probably thinking much more clearly than he was. "We're clear here too," he reported, "Don't go after the ship until we're out too." "Roger, boss." Zander was making sure the muton was dead, so Akira went to check on Dreyfus. He was still kneeling, in the center of the hall about five meters south. His laser pistol was still pointed toward Akira. "You're a very lucky trooper, Dreyfus," Akira said as he approached, "hopefully it's a consistent trait. You'll need it if we get to Mars." Dreyfus snapped out of his trance and stood. Akira could see that he was physically unharmed. "Let's go up and see the ship," Akira suggested. The one-sided conversation was interrupted by Crossett. "It's gone," she reported, "The ship is gone. No sign of any more aliens." "Could any be hiding in the buildings," Akira asked. He headed for the lift, and Dreyfus followed. "No," Crossett replied, "they're gone too. Flattened." She paused for a few seconds. "You'll have to come up and see for yourself, 'Kira. There's nothing left up here." The immediate danger seemed to be gone. Akira's mind raced ahead as he ascended the lift. The UFO had landed in sight of witnesses, some of whom may have survived. And the news offices in Little Rock might have tape of the entire incident. It would be only hours before the place was surrounded by reporters and blustering local politicians demanding to know what was going on. "Zander," he called on the way up the lift, "Davies is in the south storage area. See if he needs any help." "Gotcha," she replied. He reached the surface and found Crossett with her helmet off. He removed his own so they could talk quietly while the two rookies moved among the remains of the supply post looking for survivors.. "We have to go very soon," Crossett said, staring out toward the twisted, burning wrecks of student cars and the new van. Akira thought for a moment, then turned to head down the lift. "Try to get ahold of Morey and Perry. Get them back here immediately. Tell them they can have any resources they need, and they can shut down the mind shield, but they're working eighteen hour shifts until the ship is ready and the ethereal spills its guts" "Ethereals don't have guts." Akira allowed himself a brief smile at that. he watched her for a moment as she turned and looked out through the destruction. "You haven't cut your hair after these last two fights, " he said. Crossett just shrugged her shoulders as best she could in her flying suit. "I'm going to see if I can contact Washington," he said as he left, "Maybe they can invoke national security and suppress this mess, at least until we're out of here." Before attempting to make the satellite link with half of the surface equipment destroyed, Akira went to see Perez. Richter was with her. He was stripping her flying suit and getting ready to move her to cold storage. Two of the rookies were standing nearby, just watching silently. Akira wanted to help her, but there was nothing to do. He briefly considered taking her with them to Mars, but it was an unnecessary gesture which would just take up space and disrupt the mission. Maybe she was actually better off. Maybe they would all die horribly on Mars.
. . .
Akira and Crossett watched the local channels closely that night. The destruction in the mountains and the loss of one station's reporter had not gone unnoticed, but there was no mention of the huge UFO. Apparently there were no survivors. The DoD regretfully reported that research on an important alternate fuel source had been disrupted by the students, resulting in the unfortunate explosion which had devastated the area. The potential for lingering radiation and future explosions justified the evacuation of the immediate area around the base. There would be a complete investigation. Congress was already choosing representatives to head up the initial review, which could take months. "So no one knows we're here," Akira said. Crossett leaned against him. "No one except the aliens."
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