X-COM SAGA #9: GOD OF WAR
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 took a final, quick slug of his coffee, spilling a little on his jump suit. He tried to wipe it off with a napkin as he walked toward the main lift to greet the Russians. The western skies had been relatively quiet for the week since the Little Rock base had been attacked - just one snakeman terror ship, prudently shot down over the open Atlantic. The scientists had used the time to intensify the interrogation of the ethereal commander and had discovered the location of the alien base on Mars. During the same period, the Russians had taken on a harvester and a muton battleship. They had lost a lot of good troopers, including Captain Ragulin, and now had only five to send along to Mars. Akira had seen the list and knew that Morinov was one of them. In fact, he was their captain now, taking over for Ragulin. Akira tried to forget his previous impression of Morinov, who was remembered at Little Rock as a reckless braggart. Morinov's promotion had come out of an emergency council of X-COM's national representatives, held in the wake of the attack at Little Rock and the disastrous Russian missions. The same council had promoted Akira to commander of the entire X-COM organization - a position left vacant by Perez's death. Akira ascended on the main lift, emerging from the floor of a large, corrugated metal storage shed, hastily erected to cover the lift after the base was attacked. The Russians were already there, unloading from the van and glancing around with mild curiosity. Akira was surprised he didn't spot Morinov immediately, expecting a loud, energetic personality to stand out in the group of more stoic Russians. Morinov finally turned from a conversation with one of the troopers and walked toward Akira. He saluted and Akira clumsily saluted back. He'd aged, Akira thought, and all his brash, youthful energy was gone - replaced by a cool analytical stare. It wasn't until they shook hands and exchanged greetings that Akira realized he had gone through a nearly identical transformation in the last year. Suddenly the idea of judging someone based on actions taken before the defining experience of X-COM seemed foolish. "Has our equipment arrived?" Morinov asked in English, handing Akira a manifest. Akira politely glanced at the list, which he could recite from memory. "Everything is in the southeast storage area. You can inspect it as soon as you're ready. The plasma tank is being delivered by special Air Force transport and should be here this morning." "When do we leave?" Akira checked his watch. It was barely 0800 in local time, making it early evening for the Russians. "We can let your troops get some sleep this afternoon, then launch in the evening." The Russian troopers had gathered around - two additional men and two women. The two men were Korkia and Maleev, but he didn't know which was which. Akira recognized Zdanovich, the only remaining Russian psi, from her photos. And the other woman, Iwahara, was the only remaining Japanese trooper in X-COM besides himself. Recruiting had slowed to nothing there after the Japanese pact with the aliens. "Ohayoo gozaimasu," Akira said, bowing slightly to her with a solemn face. "Shintsu desu." She bowed quietly in return. "Will we have time to adjust our schedules during the flight?" Korkia or Maleev asked. "Dr. Morey says the flight to Mars will take thirty-two hours," Akira replied. "If he's right, we'll arrive mid-day for you, but the middle of the night for us." Akira had already thought it through and was actually more worried about the shifted cycles than he let on. "We'll get some extra rest on the flight and hope it's enough." Morinov glanced around at his troops. "Then lets leave now - this morning. You will fight in your afternoon, we will fight in our early morning." It had merit. The Russians could sleep two nights on the Avenger. "Sounds good," Akira said, "Let me check with our engineers on the Avenger's status and find out when the plasma tank will arrive." He also wanted to check with the scientists to make sure it would be daytime when they arrived at the site on Mars. Akira gave the Russians a brief tour of the base, forgetting that Morinov already knew his way around most of it, then went to talk to Perry Lem. The Avenger could be ready in two hours, so Akira moved the launch up. They all kept very busy for the first hour, inspecting equipment, writing letters, and eating if they had appetites. All the troopers, with the exception of Davies, worked quietly, keeping their thoughts to themselves. Davies, completely recovered from his leg wound, moved among the Little Rock troopers, getting progressively louder and more animated, patting the rookies on the back and going on about how they were going to destroy the bugs for good this time. Far from being an inspiration, he seemed to be getting on everyone's nerves. Akira finally had to send him off to double-check the ammunition stores in the Avenger. Akira checked to make sure the Russians had everything they needed, then went and found Crossett in one of the small common rooms. They sat together, studying Dr. Morey's report on the ethereal commander, but said very little. For twenty minutes the base was completely quiet, but thick with apprehension. Then the alarms sounded. Akira headed for the command rooms, and Crossett followed. Morinov and Maleev were there already, pointing at the display and whispering in Russian. They moved against the wall as Akira and Crossett entered. Akira glanced at the screen and saw a UFO track coming toward them over the Pacific. There was also a report on the Air Force transport carrying the plasma tank. It was less than fifteen minutes away. He continued on into the next room to check the hyperwave decoder's monitor. He wasn't surprised to find the UFO was a battleship on a retaliation mission. He was a little surprised that the transmission pattern was ethereal. "A battleship full of psionic ethereals," he said out loud. If it was after their base, which he didn't doubt, and it got past the base defenses, which the last one had, the ensuing fight could cost them valuable resources needed for Mars. They might even lose the whole war. He moved back to the main control room and only then noticed that the two Russians had been silently following him. Crossett was still watching the displays, and Davies was just walking in. Akira ordered the launch of both interceptors and gave the pilots instructions to attack, but to back off if they took too much damage. The base defenses might be able to finish off a damaged battleship. "It's a battleship full of ethereals, headed for us," Akira announced. "Captain Morinov, please make sure your equipment is all stowed on the Avenger, then let's get all the troopers on board. We leave as soon as the transport gets here and we can load up the hovertank - we'll leave without it if we have to." Everyone nodded and moved off quickly to finish preparations. Akira went to find Dr. Morey and Perry Lem to start the evacuation, and possibly the booby trapping of the base. Ten minutes later the transport was landing. The UFO had reached California and was still moving on a steady course toward Arkansas. Akira did a quick inspection of the Avenger. The Russians were loading the last of their equipment, and one of Perry's engineers was reviewing the ships navigational settings. She turned and smiled as Akira approached. "Captain - I mean Commander, It's just about ready to go." She was too happy, and Akira's initial impulse was to chastise her to impress upon her the seriousness of the situation. He checked himself, realizing how little he understood the engineers - they seemed to thrive on the hopeless situations and last-minute pressures. And today they were going to see the culmination of all their work over the last year. Akira managed a smile back, ignoring the knots in his gut, "What's this Cydonia place like?" he asked. "Cydonia's its old name," she replied, "pre-Mariner. It's actually the eastern highlands of Acidalium Planitia." "What's it like," Akira asked again. "Oh. Well, it's hilly, and a little rough in places. But it won't be as bad as, say, landing in the Andes." Akira had dozens of other questions for the engineers - would their power suits hold up in the Martian atmosphere? How would it effect the hovertanks? Would they have enough light on the surface? He had already asked Perry specific questions as he thought of them and had received terse replies which somehow left him uneasy. Akira left her and went to round up all the troopers and get them onto the ship. He found most of them already on their way. The evacuation was also going well - all but a core handful of the engineers and scientists were already on the road. Akira contacted the transport, told them to send the tank down the main lift on its own and advised them to take off as soon as possible. The design of the Avenger required him to board before the newly arrived hovertank was loaded, but before he entered he shook hands with Perry Lem, who had stayed behind to see the launch. "Good bye, Perry," Akira said, "don't forget to lock up when you leave." Perry smiled. "I will, and I'll leave a few surprises for any intruders." Akira quickly herded the troopers into the ship. Crossett and Richter were the last to show. "It's already over Kansas," Crossett reported as she climbed the ramp. "We have about four minutes." Akira followed Richter up the ramp and ordered their own plasma tanks inside, arranging everyone to leave room for the Russian tank. "Perry," Akira called out, "If you're still out there, open the hangar doors." "Yes, sir." The automatic launch sequence would have opened them, but doing it ahead of time could save them a few precious seconds. Akira heard the steady metallic grind of the opening doors, still not completely repaired from the last alien attack. Before the sound had subsided, it was accompanied by the whirring of a plasma tank on the move, and the Russian tank slid into view at the bottom of the ramp. Morinov called out something in Russian and the tank moved up the ramp into the ship. Akira immediately gave the order for Davies to start the launch. "Does your tank speak English?" Akira called back to the Russians. One of the Russian troopers whispered something in Russian and his squad-mates all laughed, even Iwahara. "Yes," Morinov replied, snickering, "A little. But she prefers Russian." Akira knew their good humor was fueled by nerves, and probably at his expense, but he was glad to hear them laugh. It was a good omen for what could be the most important departure in human history. The Avenger's ramp rose quickly into position and Akira's eyes had to adjust to the ship's relatively dim interior lighting. Seconds later there was a brief jolt, as if the Avenger had jumped an inch or two in the air, then landed back in the hangar. "Anything wrong?" Akira called back to Esser, who was next to one of the ship's control stations. "No, Sir...We're up. Radar altimeter data shows us at eight hundred meters, accelerating at just over three Gs. Internal sensors show just under one G." Troopers began moving around the ship. There was just enough room on board for each of them to stretch out and sleep - something the Russians would have to do soon. Akira walked forward toward Esser and the control stations. For the first time Akira really believed they might make it to Mars. They would complete the trip, historically assumed to take months, in just over a day. If we get through this, he thought, the human race will do some amazing things, but if we fail... "Colonel," Esser called out, not realizing he was right behind her, "The Battleship is less than a minute from the base. Interceptor two is down, and interceptor one has broken off its attack." "Has the UFO changed course?" Akira asked over her shoulder. He could tell by the jerk of her hand on the display controls that he had startled her. She was as wound up as everyone else. "Not that I can tell," she said. Akira watched the radar signature of the huge ship approach the base and ignored the urge to contact the base on the radio. Hopefully, Perry was already on his way out. "After that beating from the interceptors," Esser said, "the defense systems may be able to destroy it." "Maybe," Akira replied, but they had the same defenses as last time - the grav shield wasn't even finished yet. The battleships symbol changed to a green cross sitting on top of the white box marking the Little Rock base. Akira moved back toward his seat, knowing that a rocket tank could not hold out against so many ethereals. He wondered if Perry had gotten away in time - he was no soldier. He settled in for the trip, reviewing the two pages of sketchy, and possibly unreliable information the scientists had extracted from the ethereal commander. Two of the Russians were already asleep, and the rest were trying to get comfortable.
thirty-three hours and 270 million kilometers later they could see the blotchy, rust-colored planet getting steadily larger at the information station. There were no windows on the Avenger. Akira scanned around and found Davies nearby, checking over his blaster launcher. "Wake the Russians please, Sergeant," he called calmly. Davies nodded and began his rounds. They were both amazed that the Russians could sleep on this flight - Akira himself had gotten very little. As they made their final approach, the planet seemed to rotate beneath them. Akira knew enough about Mars to recognize the unimaginably huge rise and caldera of Olympus Mons as it rolled over the horizon. The Avenger, moving at sub-orbital velocity, seemed to creep past, just above the mountain's northern slope, as if trying not to wake it. After a few minutes Olympus was behind, and two more majestic, ancient volcanos marked their path to the north and south, like sentinels guarding the alien stronghold. Akira did not know their names, and he saw them only briefly. The visual display was gradually obscured by a golden glow as they entered the thin Martian atmosphere. The glow continued for five minutes, then faded as the Avenger slowed to two kilometers per second. They were twenty kilometers up, descending slowly across a large, cratered plain, weathered over millions of years by the thin, fast Martian wind. Within a few minutes Akira saw high, rough terrain rise over the horizon. Esser called up some maps that Dr. Morey's people had supplied. "That's all Acidalium Planitia ahead of us," she reported. "What used to be called Cydonia is back along those highlands. Her alloy finger traced a line from what she estimated was their present position, eastward to a sight someone had marked with a small box on the map. Dr. Morey had explained to Akira that the site was already interesting before the aliens gave it away, because crackpots had interpreted strange shadows in Viking images of the area to be ancient pyramids and a huge face rising out of the ground. It was interesting, Akira thought, that Dr. Morey had still referred to them as crackpots. It took less than ten minutes for the craggy orange rise to roll toward and underneath them. To their south the rough, hummocky terrain went to the horizon. To the north, the drop at the edge of the highlands looked like the edge of the world, broken only be deep crevices carved by huge, but long gone rivers. Esser began to slew the camera around and play with the magnification. In a minute she had it pointing at a rough, shadowy area ahead of them. At first Akira could make out no interesting details, but as they approached and settled toward the surface, he could make out terrain features that obviously were not natural. There were at least six strange pyramids, all oriented with the cardinal points of Mars, but scattered with respect to each other on a conspicuous patch of level terrain. To the south of the pyramids was a face, a human face larger than any on America's Mount Rushmore, staring skyward from the rusty Martian dust. Akira turned to make sure everyone was ready. While they finished sealing their armor he repeated their mission instructions. "We'll be landing in a minute or two," he began, and left a few seconds for that to get everyone's attention. "Keep your suits sealed at all times and be careful moving in the lower gravity." He had to stretch up so all of the troopers toward the back of the ship could see him over the three hovertanks in the center of the hold. "I can't tell you exactly what this mission will be like. Our research team believes there is an entrance to some kind of underground base inside one of these pyramids, and that the alien mastermind behind the entire Earth invasion is somewhere down there." He realized he wasn't giving them much to go on, so he tried to bring it all back to something they understood. "We'll treat the surface like a UFO recovery mission. The Americans will be Far Squad and take the plasma tanks with them to search for the lift. The Russians will watch the area around the Avenger and escort the psis to the lift once we find it. Remember, this time we're here to destroy, not capture." His last sentence brought unintelligible exclamations of approval from inside sealed helmets. The American psis, Hudson and Tonida, sat together just to Akira's right. By now they were probably used to being treated as precious cargo and didn't show much reaction to the plan. Akira couldn't see much of the Russian psi, Zdanovich, who sat with her own people nearer the ramp. Akira quickly sealed his own helmet. "We're down," Esser called over the headset, "and decompressing." As the air hissed out of the Avenger, Akira looked over the thirteen troopers and the tanks. It was the largest and, with the exception of a few rookies, the most experienced X-COM force ever assembled. And it would probably be the last - no matter which way things went. The hissing stopped and dim, orange tinted light poured in as the rear of the ship opened up. His stomach lurched as the ship's artificially gravity cut out and he was suddenly standing on Mars. There was more he wanted to say to them, but it would have to wait. "Far Squad left," he called out. Davies repeated it. A plasma tank slid out first, and Akira moved to the monitors in the back of the Avenger and switched one of them to its viewpoint. The tank was immediately hit from the right by a plasma bolt. The view swerved and centered on a small crater southeast of the ship. The light was dim, like late twilight on Earth, but Akira could make out the familiar shape of a sectoid on the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he could also see the American psis clutch their psi amps and spin to face southeast. The tank took a shot at the sectoid and missed. Immediately after, the tank's viewpoint disappeared and Akira felt dense vibration through the hull of the ship. Two enemy markers flashed on his HUD and more plasma fire went off, tinny and quiet in the Martian atmosphere, even with his helmet's amplifier at maximum. He checked the monitor showing the schematic map view and confirmed that the first tank was gone. The other monitor switched automatically to the spotter's view. It was Korkia. He had killed the sectoid and was now firing at one of the flying disks, barely visible off beyond the crater. He was also blocking the ramp so that the second hovertank couldn't get a shot. With one hovertank out, there was more room to move around inside the ship, and Akira could see Davies trying to get forward with his blaster launcher. Another member of the American team, probably Richter, had moved outside and floated around the corner to the left. Akira's blood pressure rose - it was taking too long to disembark - one alien blaster launcher shot inside the avenger right now would wipe out most of his troopers and decide the whole war. He was about to order the Americans to move out, despite the firefight, when another quiet explosion punctuated the disappearance of the last enemy marker on his HUD. The troopers cleared the ramp and their exit proceeded like a drill. As the third tank was gliding out of the hold, Akira heard another plasma shot and the monitor switched automatically to tank two's view. It had been hit, and was firing through a square opening near the top of one of the pyramids. Morinov was quick with his blaster launcher - he must have had a few waypoints programmed already. Though quieter, the whistle of the flying blaster bomb sounded the same as on Earth. Akira watched through the tank's cameras as the bomb passed through the small opening and turned the inside of the pyramid into a blazing hell. A second later the sound of the blast hit Akira and he regretted having an amplifier. The sectoid inside the pyramid disappeared, but the blast seemed to do little damage to the pyramid itself. The tanks and American troopers spread out quickly among the pyramids. Akira moved past the psis to the ramp and could see the remains of the destroyed Russian tank at the bottom. The enemy marker flashed again. This time Akira switched his HUD to Dreyfus's view. Dreyfus had spotted a sectoid moving behind a pair of pyramids just to the north of the ship. He hesitated to shoot, probably afraid he would hit Richter, who was almost directly in the line of fire and had turned to face Dreyfus for some reason. After a few seconds Richter took a quick shot with his laser rifle, hitting Dreyfus. "Dreyfus," Akira called firmly, but calmly, "Shoot Richter." Akira's HUD told him Dreyfus was wounded and would need attention soon. He moved out onto the ramp to head that way himself, but saw Crossett already moving along the south edge of the pyramid to take care of it. I should stay here and command, he reminded himself. He remembered how much he had grumbled to himself about Perez coming along on missions and wondered if any of the troopers felt the same about him. Akira could see Dreyfus now, but not Richter. The wounded trooper knelt and hesitated. After another shot from between the pyramids barely missed him, he squeezed of at least six laser shots on autofire. Akira checked his HUD's map view, which showed no symbol for Richter - he must have switched off his link. He switched back to Dreyfus' channel. "Did you hit him?" "Sure, I hit him," Dreyfus replied, "He's down." The bug marker flashed again and Akira heard plasma fire toward the front of the ship. He had no time to orient himself and change views before the marker disappeared. One of the Russians said something over the headset. By the tone, Akira thought he might be swearing. "Trooper Maleev has killed another sectoid west of the Avenger," Morinov called from the other side of the ramp. Akira guessed it was a much shorter and calmer translation of what the trooper had actually said. Davies yelled out instructions over the headset for Esser to check out the pyramid to the right, which had already been hit by Morinov's blaster launcher. Akira was still on Dreyfus' view. The trooper was moving toward the back of the pyramids and was just passing Richter's body. Richter looked very dead. Akira suddenly realized how hard shooting him must have been for Dreyfus - they had come through training together. He wondered if Dreyfus could hold up through all this, Akira's thoughts were interrupted by movement to Dreyfus's left - a sectoid. The trooper saw it too and got off one quick shot, missing far to the left and striking some dim structure in the distance. The alien had been moving south, not directly toward Dreyfus, but now it turned and lifted a large weapon. Dreyfus had knelt down and was taking better aim at the alien. Before he could fire or the alien could use its weapon, a plasma bolt shot over the trooper's head and seared through the thin atmosphere, right into the alien's chest. It let out a horrible, shrill, high-pitched scream and dropped. Tank Two had moved around the pyramid to the east of Dreyfus and had taken the shot. Akira switched to its view, fifteen feet off the ground. It turned north and moved toward another pyramid. "Dreyfus," Akira called, "stay behind cover where you are. Let Crossett check out your wounds." The trooper's advance stalled as Esser and Davies found the entrances to the two nearest pyramids and went inside to check them out. "Some sort of control center. Empty," Davies reported. "Same here." Akira took the time to study the map on his HUD and hop between trooper viewpoints. They knew of five pyramids now - the two Esser and Davies had just searched, two more to the north of those, and one west of the Avenger. Zander was getting ready to enter that one. The two tanks had found the east and west edges where the artificially flat terrain gave way to the natural rough hills. They were moving along its edge toward the two pyramids to the north. Akira suddenly realized that the ground around the pyramids, flattened and smoothed by the aliens, had craters in it. He knew very little of how often craters were formed in an area this size on Mars, but it was the first solid evidence of just how old these structures were. It was intimidating, so he got his mind off of it. He fumbled with his mouth controls to find a private channel. "Crossett, How's Dreyfus?" "He's stable," she replied immediately, "Not hurt all that bad, and his suit resealed properly" Akira checked his HUD again. Dreyfus and Crossett were in the small gap between the two nearest pyramids. There was a wide space, maybe forty meters, between them and the two pyramids farther north, so there was a lot of open ground to cover. "Dreyfus," he called on the open channel, "hold your position and cover the open area to your north. Davies, Esser and the tanks will come around at those other two pyramids from the flanks." "Yessir" Akira was going to confirm the plan with Davies, who didn't like to be left out of decisions regarding his squad, but he didn't get the chance. The bug marker flashed, this time from tank three. It was approaching the pyramid to the west and spotted a sectoid around the side. The plasma tank got off one shot and missed, then was hit by the alien's plasma fire. Akira thought about launching one of his blaster bombs, but he only carried five and didn't know what they might need them for in the future. He programmed the waypoints anyway and waited. The tank turned quickly and moved back toward the pyramid to it's south. It had spotted the alien, which could now be destroyed, even without line-of-sight, by a grenade. "Got that one," Tonida the psi called excitedly. "I've got a bead on it if you loose control," Esser called. Akira stood, tapped a few of the controls on his right arm, and flew up five meters and north toward cover behind the top of one of the pyramids. He heard plasma fire and switched to Esser's view. She was indeed aiming carefully at a sectoid, which had its back turned to her and was firing at something hidden off in the darkness behind the pyramid. Another distorted alien scream announced that it had hit something. "Splash one for the psis," Crossett called. "Two if they can make this one blow itself up," Esser replied, still aiming carefully. "Tonida, can you hold it?" Akira asked privately, immediately regretting his choice of words. "I think so, but someone has to keep it in sight." "Okay," Akira replied, then added Esser to the conversation. "Esser. See if you can move up to that pyramid. We're going to send the sectoid inside, and I want you to follow." Esser agreed, but sounded skeptical. She moved north, keeping her weapon pointed at the alien, which moved back and forth on the pyramid's west side. Tank Three slid into Esser's field of view, heading farther north to another pyramid just visible in the thin light. From his observation point behind the peak of the pyramid, Akira could dimly see the tank for himself. He was amazed that it could understand so quickly that the sectoid was under mind control and completely ignore something it was otherwise trained to kill instantly. He looked to his right and saw Davies moving up to the door of a pyramid to the northeast. Tank Two had already passed around its far side and moved around to the north. Below him, Crossett moved cautiously out into open terrain. Suddenly, he saw the tracks of two plasma bolts aimed at the tank, each originating from a different location far off to the north. distorted plasma fire sounds seemed to come from all directions, and a dull crash of metal told him the aliens had hit their target. Three alien markers lit up on Akira's HUD, then one disappeared as quickly as it had come. He looked hard into the dim landscape and saw what must have been a cyberdisk, straight north, out beyond the last pyramid. He couldn't make out the other source of plasma fire to its left. Crossett knelt in the open and autofired continuously at the cyberdisk. As Akira entered waypoints into his launcher, the disk began firing back at Crossett. Akira let the blaster bomb fly. It whistled up, over the pyramid, dove quickly down to the ground out beyond Crossett, and streaked straight ahead into the cyberdisk. He thought he heard a secondary explosion from the cyberdisk's self-destruct mechanism. When his visor cleared there where lumps of Martian dirt and pieces of the cyberdisk raining down everywhere, some plinking against his flying suit as he hovered in place. with much less gravity and almost no atmosphere to resist it, the debris from the blast was spreading much farther than it would have on Earth. Another large explosion went off near the second source of plasma fire, followed by the distorted scream of a sectoid. Davies must have tossed a grenade from behind the northeast pyramid, Akira thought. Akira switched back to the open channel. "What was that third alien marker?" "That was mine," someone replied. It sounded like Zander. "I was face-to-face with one when I stepped into this pyramid, but it's dead now." Akira checked his map. Zander was inside the pyramid off to the west of the Avenger. Davies was heading into the pyramid to the northeast, and the psis still had control of their sectoid and were sending it into the pyramid to the northwest with Esser close behind. Akira waited for bug markers, but none flashed. In a few seconds Tonida called out. "Our sectoid found the lift." Akira switched to Esser's view. She was standing just inside a pyramid, aiming carefully at the back of the captive sectoid. The floor of the room glowed green like the main lift in an alien base back on Earth. "That's it," Akira called, "Tonida, get your alien back outside and post him to the north as a guard. Esser, follow him and shoot him if he turns on you. Everyone else head for the lift." "Morinov, space your troopers to the northwest of the Avenger to guard the psis as they cross." Akira watched from behind his pyramid as the troopers below him and to the east cut across the open field toward the lift. Crossett ran back for a moment to retrieve a grenade from Richter's body and spare clips from a dead sectoid. Akira dropped down beside her as she moved across toward the lift. "I expected worse," he said out loud, but realized she couldn't hear him. They reached the lift safely and Akira quickly counted twelve troopers, including himself, and the one surviving tank. Esser was still outside. "Esser, kill the alien and get in here." The plasma shot outside was followed by an noticeable flinch from Tonida. In a few seconds Esser was inside. Zander had located a strange panel on the wall beside the lift. When Akira gave her the signal she pressed it and they all descended at once. Akira had been afraid all along that all the intelligence they had about this place would lead to a trap. He waited to descend into a barrage of plasma fire, or a blaster bomb set to go off in the center of their group when they arrived. But the lift stopped without incident, in a room about the same size as the pyramid, but with wide openings to the east and west. Through the openings Akira could see more glowing green floors. Troopers quickly moved to check out the neighboring rooms and found them empty except for large lifts. It looked too similar to an alien base on Earth. "We'll split up," he announced. "The Russians will take the east lift with the remaining plasma tank. The Little Rock squad will take the west." Now he turned to find the psis. They were still clustered together. "You psis will stay up here and monitor from these rooms. If you see we're all dead or you lose contact with us completely, get to the surface and try to get the Avenger back to Earth." The group split up and headed into the lift rooms. Troopers from each squad carefully checked down the lift shafts before stepping out onto them. Akira looked across to the other room and saw Morinov. He nodded and gave the order to descend. Akira watched Esser and Zander drop into the unknown and he switched to Esser's view. He waited to hear an explosion or a burst of plasma fire, but none came. Esser was looking into another room to the west. It had a smaller room, three or four meters across, inside of it, with windows all around. "Looks like a base," Esser called, "we're in a typical room with an opening in each direction. I see a..." "Shhhhh!" Zander interrupted. "Listen!" She sounded panicky. Esser was quiet, as was everyone else on the channel, but Akira could hear nothing. Crossett and Dreyfus were ready on the lift, but he hesitated to send them down until he found out what had disturbed Zander. Esser view froze for a second, then suddenly spun around to face east. Something quick and black moved into the opening, less than ten meters away. The pulse of a laser rifle and the blue flash of a heavy plasma on autofire mixed for a few seconds, and a chrysalid lay dead on the ground only two paces from Zander. Akira had occasionally thought about the worst scenarios on Mars. The trap situation, with a quick death from plasma fire or blaster bombs was not the worst. A base full of more chrysalids than his squads could handle had crossed his mind, but he'd always quickly forced it aside. He waved Crossett and Dreyfus down and watched them disappear into the floor, then he moved onto the lift with Davies. He suddenly felt a large explosion through his whole suit, and the room below was saturated with a bright white flash. Alien and trooper screams came to him from below, and over his headset. He quickly checked his HUD. In the room below the Russian squad's lift, Iwahara's symbol had gone white and Maleev's was flashing yellow. "Morinov," he called, "Maleev is wounded." "I see. On my way down now" We can't keep this up, Akira thought. If we keep losing troopers at this rate, we've lost. The possibility of defeat had been overshadowed by hope and much greater unknowns when they'd started this mission. Now it loomed in front of him as reality - maybe even the most likely outcome. Who did he think he was to presume to come here, to the alien stronghold, with little more than a dozen troopers. Now he had eleven - only eight without the psis. He descended and found troopers moving out through each of the four openings of the room. Crossett was moving quickly to the east, probably trying to find the source of the blaster bomb attack before another one was launched. The bug marker flashed and Esser fired three shots with her laser rifle through the western opening. Akira's weapon needed no direct line of sight, so he stayed around the corner on the lift and brought up his HUD map. "An ethereal," Esser reported excitedly, "inside that little room. I don't see it now." Esser had stopped firing. Davies moved around to get a look while Akira programmed way points. He hoped a blaster bomb explosion centered on the opposite side of the room would take out the center room and the ethereal without harming Esser. Things grew quiet as Esser waited for the alien to reappear. Now Akira heard what had frightened Zander only seconds before - the sliding click, click of chrysalid claws on alien alloy. It was hard to locate in the maze of rooms, but it sounded like it was coming from the west. He switched to Esser's view just as a shiny black and green shape skittered into view from the northwest. Akira let his blaster bomb fly as Esser swung her rifle to fire at the new threat. The silver football-shaped bomb streaked behind and within a few feet of Davies, then cut around the corner into the other room. Akira's body shook violently. As his eyes recovered from the flash, he could still see debris flying into the room. Esser and Davies had been knocked down, but she was getting up quickly, laser ready to fend off whatever had survived. Davies stayed low and began programming his own blaster launcher. Akira reloaded and watched through Esser's camera as she scanned back and forth across the devastated room. The small, windowed room in its center was nearly gone. As the smoke and metal vapors began to clear, she centered on a lumpy black shape oozing fluid just inside the other room. She stepped forward cautiously to check it out. "Let me check the bug," Davies ordered. "You cover me." Meanwhile, the rest of the troopers, realizing no one was hurt in the blast, spread out even further. Crossett had moved all the way into the room to the east, and could probably see Morinov and the tank. "There's a dead ethereal in here," she called, "and it's got a blaster launcher." One less to worry about, Akira thought. But he had no idea how many there were. "Another one here too," Esser reported. "That last blast got the chrysalid and the ethereal I saw in here. Akira still had Esser's view up. Something moved at the left edge of her vision. She dropped to one knee and brought up her rifle. She was looking south, into a large room filled with display cases, apparently identical to the large rooms they'd seen in bases back on Earth. Whatever had moved was at the far end of the room, but was no longer visible. As she continued to aim in that direction, A heavy metallic sound came from just southwest of her. She jerked her weapon right just as a giant sectopod lumbered into view only a few meters in front of her. She didn't bother aiming now, but stayed kneeling and squeezed off autofire. Akira was as startled by it as she was and had to suppress the urge to raise his own weapon and fire. He quickly decided the creature was too close to Esser for him to use his blaster launcher. Esser got in one, or maybe two clean hits before the robot fired. Her video feed lit up as plasma hit her and dispersed, taking molten alloy from her armor with it. She was knocked back, but landed with her viewpoint somehow upright and straight ahead. The camera survived, and Akira could see another group of laser rounds cut across from off to the left somewhere. One of them caught the sectopod and its legs gave out. It collapsed and didn't move. "I'm OK," Esser called. Akira checked his HUD and found out that she was. It looked like she hadn't been injured at all by the blast. He checked trooper positions and realized the shot that killed the sectopod had come from Dreyfus, who had moved down a passageway to the south of the lift room. He took note of the positions of the other troopers. Crossett and the tank had moved south, parallel to Dreyfus and had hit a large enclosed area. Maleev had moved east from the Russian lift room with Morinov covering the north. A bug marker interrupted him, and he switched immediately to the spotter's view. It was Crossett, peeking around the northwest corner of the large enclosed space at one of the balloon aliens Akira had seen at Little Rock. She was aiming carefully, but not firing. "I've got it," Hudson called. Akira thought quickly. "Use it as a scout," he ordered, "but don't go too quickly. Crossett, follow it an keep an eye on it." "Yes, Commander." Suddenly, three more bug markers appeared in quick succession, accompanied by plasma fire from all around him. The trap, he thought. Akira cycled through viewpoints. The first marker had come from the tank, which was far to the east, facing a sectopod at close range. The second had come from Morinov, but Akira saw that the Russian was now running into the other lift room with no aliens in sight. He wondered for a moment if Morinov had gone berserk, until he rounded the bend into the passageway to the east, where Maleev had gone. Maleev was still there, but he was immobile, in a kneeling position with a chrysalid bending over him. Morinov got off one shot before something exploded right at the alien's feet. The blast wiped out the video for a few seconds, but when it returned, Akira could see the chrysalid and Maleev were down. He didn't have time to watch another chrysalid emerge from Maleev. The third marker had come from Davies to the north. Akira could see that he was in one of the large display case rooms. He could also see an ethereal looking back at him from behind one of the cases less than five meters away. Almost as soon as Akira switched to the view, he lost it. Akira checked his HUD - Davies' marker was gone too. Either he had been hit so hard that his link had been destroyed, which didn't happen often, or he had deliberately switched it off. But Akira hadn't heard an explosion or plasma shot from that direction. Akira began programming his own launcher. He decided Davies was under alien control and destroying the alien in the room with him might help. But could he place the explosion so it wouldn't hurt Davies? "Esser, take cover!" he called out. "Davies," he said to himself as he worked, "shake it off! Kill the damn bug." Akira was ready to launch, but stopped when he saw Davies video re-appear. There was no sign of the alien, and Davies bug marker was gone. Davies suddenly turned and was facing the alien, only a few steps away. He looked down at his blaster launcher, and cleared the waypoints, but before he did Akira could see that the ones he had programmed would have taken the bomb back toward himself and the other troopers. "I...," Davies mumbled, obviously struggling, "Akira...I can't..." Akira didn't get a chance to say anything. Davies quickly programmed a single waypoint and pulled the trigger. Davies view lit up and saturated as Akira felt the blast from only twenty meters to the west. The flash lit up the inside of the lift room like flash powder. He ran recklessly west past Esser, then north to where Davies had been, meeting Zander moving more cautiously in from the east. She covered him as he examined Davies' still body. His power suit was badly charred and dented inward in places from the blast, but there were no obvious penetrations. Akira grabbed clumsily for his medi-kit and managed to get Davies hooked up. He found no signs of life. He removed Davies' helmet. He wasn't sure why. In the strange atmosphere of the base it might insure his death. Maybe he just thought the trooper should die in the open, not sealed up in some tin can. Blood flowed from Davies' mouth and a cut in the center of a large purple wound on his forehead. For a few seconds, Akira's thoughts drifted back over the last year, to his first missions in Wales and the Arizona desert. Davies had been there. Others had been there too - Gaudin, Perez, Evans, Bouton - all dead now. "It's time to end this," he said out loud. Zander continued to cover him and glanced over at Davies but said nothing. Akira checked his map display again. The tank had survived the fight with the sectopod, but Maleev was dead. It looked liked the Russians had found the eastern extent of the base, and Akira guessed that the two large display rooms the American team had entered represented the western edge. Esser was moving farther into the southern display room, and could see no openings or doors on the opposite wall. Akira hoped that meant they had also found the southern extern of the base. So the problem had limits. But we may not have to clear it all out, he reminded himself. They would find the mastermind, kill it, and take it from there. Korkia and Crossett, with her celatid scout, were each about to enter small doors to large, square enclosed areas. The similarities between this base and those on Earth made Akira suspect that the mastermind would be in something similar to a command center, with nested hallways and a large lift, but neither of these looked like a command center. Korkia moved into a small door on the south side of the square area north of the Russians. Akira switched to her view and saw a straight hallway with a lift at the end. It was just what he expected and just like in the Earth bases. Meanwhile, Crossett had followed the celatid through a door on the west side of the southern enclosure. He again switched views and saw a hallway similar to the one Korkia was in, but longer. And it appeared to split at the end, going north and south.. This was different, Akira thought. Everything else they'd seen so far in this base matched some pattern of rooms back in the Earth bases, but this one didn't. "Everyone north of the lift rooms, hold your advance for now," he ordered. He kept Crossett's viewpoint, but left Davies' body and moved south and east, back toward the lift room. He froze when a bug marker flashed, and he heard laser fire close by to the south. He moved two steps farther, until he could see down the passage which ran south from the lift room. Dreyfus was ten meters down, firing wildly at a huge, bubbly mass moving at him from the south. Akira had a clear shot at it past Dreyfus, but he had no weapon to use. He began programming waypoints for a blaster bomb shot, but the creature was too close to Dreyfus by the time he finished. He watched as it reached its prey. It stopped directly in front of Dreyfus, who kept his head and got in one more hit. Then, without doing anything to the trooper, it slid back south. Dreyfus hit it again as it moved away and it collapsed on the floor and lay there oozing. "You are the luckiest bastard I've ever met," Akira called. Dreyfus didn't reply. He was frantically scanning to the south and east for more creatures. Akira still had Crossett's view up and could see now that the split hallways each ended with small lifts after only five or six meters. "Hudson," Akira called, "send the alien up one lift. Crossett, cover the other one." For a just second Akira expected Davies to break in and make some jab to remind him not to order his squad around directly. But that little rivalry was all over now. "OK," Hudson replied, "the celatid's heading up." There was a pause for a few seconds, then Hudson let out a loud whoop. "Jackpot," he called. "The little bag bought it, but I think this is the place. There's a big room right above you, Crossett, and it's crawling with ethereals. At the back there's a huge blob that looks like it could be the brain." Akira ran through his options. He could risk a blaster bomb up the lift past Crossett, or he could send troopers up one or two at a time with grenades to finish of the ethereals. They could also wait for the ethereals to come down after them. He checked the map on his HUD and realized he still didn't really know the layout of the room, just the description Hudson could give. As he studied the map, the layout of most of the new room suddenly appeared, accompanied by flashing bug markers. "Who the..." Akira blurted over the comm link. But it had to be Crossett. He switched to her view and saw the room. It looked like she was at the back of a small theater, with chairs facing west toward something at the other end. There were large tanks of some fluid in the corners, but Akira didn't get a chance to see many more details or get a good look at what Hudson had identified as the brain. Crossett had come up firing wildly, and it looked like she had taken down one of the ethereals. She tossed a grenade farther into the room and moved a couple steps south, enough to see the pulsating blob before plasma burst against her and she fell. "No," Akira grunted deep in his throat, and began running southeast towards her. He heard the grenade go off and another ethereal moan. As he entered the passage to the south, he saw Dreyfus, a complete rookie only days before, calmly holding his position at the far end. Akira was embarrassed for a second and regained his composure. He checked his map again and found Crossett's marker still flashing - still alive. He knelt in the hallway to think for only a second or two, counted his blaster bombs - one in the chamber and two on his back - and began programming waypoints. "Stay where you are, Dreyfus," he ordered. His first shot streaked east down a side passage, then turned sharply south as it followed the outside of the enclosed area below the theater. An instant later, the whole area lit up, and the blast pressure dissipated down half a dozen connecting hallways. Akira allowed himself to move east until he could see the destruction. Through the smoke and vapors he could see that the blast had destroyed the door to the long hallway, along with most of the walls around it. He placed another bomb into the chamber and felt the dull click as it dropped into place. He was in a hurry to get to Crossett, but he forced himself to take his time. He had fought for nearly a year and lost dozens of friends. He didn't want to blow it now. He heard heavy plasma fire far to the north, but managed to ignore it as he programmed. He pulled the trigger and watched the bomb disappear through the opening he'd just made. This blast nearly knocked him over, but he regained his balance and dropped his last blaster bomb into position. He hoped the second shot, programmed to go up a few meters inside the doorway, had destroyed the floor in the center of the room, allowing him to send a bomb up into the room without risking an explosion near Crossett. As he finished his programming and was about to pull the trigger, possibly for the last time in the war, an ethereal stepped out of the destruction into the hallway only a few meters in front of him. Akira couldn't launch with the alien there, and he had no other weapon. Instead of running, he waited for the plasma bolt to come, instinctively deciding it would be better to take it in the front instead of the back. Instead of a plasma bolt, the alien threw its mind at Akira. He found himself once again struggling for space in his own head. Most of his thoughts turned against the other troopers, and his hand moved to reprogram the launcher. But the struggle ended, and the alien left Akira's mind abruptly. He glanced around and found himself in the same place as before, but with the correct waypoints programmed on his launcher to send the bomb toward Dreyfus. The alien lay in a still pile on the floor. At the other end of the hall, Dreyfus lifted his laser rifle slightly in a mock salute. The mind control had been too successful, and Akira had come to close to using the launcher against his own people. And he wasn't sure he could risk sending a bomb up into that room with Crossett there. He threw it aside and grabbed the dead alien's heavy plasma and made sure it was loaded. "Thanks, Dreyfus," Akira called down the passage, "Let's end this thing." He motioned for Dreyfus to follow and headed into the destruction caused by the first two bombs. Once inside, Akira could see that his second blaster shot had blown a large hole in the floor of the theater room. Akira stopped beneath it and waved Dreyfus past him to the lifts. Crossett was up there, but so were ethereals, he thought. He waited for a few seconds and listened. An alien glided into view up above just long enough for him to take a quick shot and miss. "I can't believe it," Tonida called, "Zdanovich got that one - an ethereal!" Plasma shots seared the air above Akira, one streaking all the way across the opening over his head toward where he had seen the alien. Zdanovich said something in Russian, then switched to English. "I could not get a shot at the brain. The ethereal is dead." "Time to go," Akira said out loud. He pulled a grenade from his belt, primed it short and motioned for Dreyfus to go up the lift. Akira tossed the grenade up over the edge to where he saw the plasma shots coming from. It exploded almost as soon as it landed and another alien moaned as Akira hit his flying suit controls to ascend. He rose into the room amidst rows of broken and burning seats and he quickly took in the scene in front of him, forcing himself not to turn around and check on Crossett. The brain was there, pulsating directly in front of him. Time slowed as he pointed his heavy plasma at it. He could see an ethereal's flame orange robes near the left edge of his vision, but he didn't let his eyes drift from the brain or his weapon point anywhere else. As his finger applied pressure to the trigger, the brain called out to him somehow. In a fraction of a second it passed on the story of the alien's relationship with humans, how the aliens guided human development on Earth and would help them and live with them as brothers and sisters in the future. Akira's finger let up on the trigger a little, but the sound of laser fire at his back cleared his head. He thought of Crossett dying behind him and Davies' body down below and squeezed hard on the trigger. The first shot blew of a large piece of the brain, but Akira kept firing. Dreyfus finished off the ethereal to the left and added laser autofire to the barrage. Within seconds the brain was reduced to a lump of charred, steaming sewage slowly oozing of of it's platform. Akira scanned the destruction in the room and made sure no ethereals were hiding. He moved quickly back to Crossett and plugged in his medi-kit. She was unconscious and hurt bad, but she would make it. "What's going on, Akira?" Morinov called. "We've got ethereals out in the open and running away." "It's over," Akira called on the open channel, "the brain is dead. Clean up the remaining aliens and lets get out of here."
. . .
They collected their casualties and headed back to the Avenger. Dreyfus carried Davies' body and Akira carried Crossett. Zander and Esser returned from cleaning up the panicked aliens on the north end of the base and, out of habit, gathering up alien technology items. Korkia and Morinov carried the two dead Russians on board. Akira was quiet. He realized he should have been ecstatic - The whole invasion could be over, and he would be a hero back on Earth. But all he felt was tired and a little angry. When he was in the middle of it all, everything was urgent and a struggle to survive. Now that he let himself believe it was over, he just kept asking himself why it had ever happened in the first place? What did all those soldiers and innocent civilians die for? Dreyfus, on the other hand, couldn't stop talking. "Wow! I can't believe we did this," he repeated every few minutes. As Zander and Esser loaded the last few items on board, Dreyfus stopped what he was doing and turned to Akira. "Now what do we do?" he asked. "We wait for them to come back," Akira replied. He touched the button to close the doors in the back and re-pressurize the Avenger. When it finished he removed his helmet. Then he reached up to his left shoulder, then his right hand popped his commander insignia off of his power suit. He handed them to Dreyfus. "I won't be needing these any more, but I have a feeling you might." Dreyfus stared as the insignia dropped into his gauntleted hand. Akira reached over and started the launch sequence, then sat down beside Crossett. She was conscious, but groggy from pain medication. He removed her helmet and she gave him a weak smile. "Congratulations, Commander," she said, then she reached behind and pulled out her bowie knife. She handed it to him and pointed a shaky finger up at her hair. "All of it this time."
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