• Published 2nd May 2013
  • 59,015 Views, 7,180 Comments

Stardust - Arad



Can Twilight earn the trust and friendship of people who are by nature suspicious and hostile to anything that isn't 'human'?

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Gangplank

BREAKING NEWS: POLICE AND MILITARY FORCES IN NORTHERN UNITED STATES AND SOUTHERN CANADA ARE REPORTED MOVING TO ALERT STATUS. BOTH CIVILIAN AND MILITARY AUTHORITIES REFUSE TO COMMENT DESPITE MOUNTING EVIDENCE OF TROUBLE ON THE HORIZON.

BREAKING NEWS: GOVERNOR OF NORTH DAKOTA ISSUES STATEWIDE REQUEST FOR RESIDENTS TO STAY IN THEIR HOMES AND BUSINESSES AS METEORS SPOTTED EARLIER IN THE DAY ARE POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED AS ALIEN CRAFT. “STAY AWAY FROM YOUR DOORS AND WINDOWS. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TRAVEL. STAY HIDDEN, STAY SAFE, AND MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON US ALL.”

------

11:27, 05/02/2015, SKYRANGER BIG SKY

Click.

“Estimated time of arrival at the train yard is approximately ten minutes,” Bradford’s voice came from the head of the Skyranger’s passenger compartment. A rough overhead image of the yard layout appeared, along with an animated arrow indicating Strike One’s insertion point, and the train a short distance away was highlighted as well.

Click.

“The fourth car in the train is an empty cargo container. Harris will deploy the beacon within the car, then Strike One will proceed to the engine and start the train, then regroup with Big Sky to rejoin the other Skyrangers for the second part of the operation. If this mission is successful the alien attack force will be diverted to the west and away from population centers.”

Click.

“From there, interceptor squadrons will make an opening in the battleship’s formation to allow the Skyrangers to approach the ship to engage in boarding action. Data on the ship is still being compiled. Once a more complete picture is gathered, a method of assault will be devised to board and disable the ship.”

Click.

“Good luck.”

The monitor in the passenger cabin winked out and left Strike One in almost total silence.

Click.

The only sound that could be heard was the slow and deliberate clicks of Lana’s shotgun as she loaded shells one by one. The tension between her and Matt was almost palpable, and the rest of the team could sense it. They all had their helmets on that hid their expressions but it was also apparent that the two soldiers were wordlessly glaring at each other.

“All right, kids,” Lieutenant Dryzimski said, “You heard the boss. Harris and Jenkins on delivery, the rest of you lot are on overwatch. This is going to be clean and by the book. We’re all professionals and we’re going to work. Leave your personal crap here the moment the ramp drops. Clear?”

“Clear, sir!” Strike One replied in unison, though everyone involved knew exactly who he was referring to.

Silence fell and the tension returned, before Henderson asked, “So, what’s ‘Wallflower’ equipment? Doesn’t sound like the kind of alphabet soup name that comes out of the Foundry. What’s it do?”

Matt sucked in his breath before he caught himself, and the only sign that the question startled Lana was a brief pause in her robotic loading movements. “I’m afraid it’s mostly classified, but I can tell you it’s a sophisticated camouflage system.” Matt explained after considering his options. “I don’t know how it works, sorry.”

Henderson seemed satisfied by the answer and Matt let out a held breath in relief, until Anderson asked another uncomfortable question, “Something’s been bugging me for a while. You remember that thing you captured last month? The unicorn thing?” Harris had to resist jerking his head around to glare at the marksman, and Lana nearly fumbled the shotgun shell in her hands. Zhang’s response was the most subtle, his hands tensed before relaxing back to their more peaceful state on his legs.

If Anderson noticed the signs, he didn’t bother stopping to acknowledging them. “It’s been a month since the capture and we’ve not heard one word about it. And wasn’t it responsible for the scare down in Containment? I mean, we usually receive a summary of the research team’s new findings, even if the summary is ‘shoot it here.’ What’s the holdup?”

“I’m a little curious about it, too…” Potter spoke up, though he flinched noticeably when Lana’s helmeted head turned to face him.

“What makes you think we know?” Lana asked slowly.

“Nothing really, nothing!” Anderson backtracked quickly. “I just thought it was strange is all. I spoke with some of the guys in the other teams and none of them have seen any unicorns in their missions. Some of them even thought it was a joke! I went to prove what we found during the mission and every mention of the thing is gone from the AARs, even the preliminary stuff that was written up as we got back. There’s no trace.”

Jesus Christ, just shut up and stop looking, you idiots, Matt would have screamed, but was saved by an unexpected ally.

“Before you spend such time pondering why such information is not available, perhaps you should consider the consequences of such a search,” Zhang commented with the tone of a teacher addressing a student. “We work for an organization that prizes its anonymity above all. If such an organization hides such information, it is no doubt to preserve that anonymity, and it would not take kindly to someone who takes it upon themselves to uncover that which they purposefully hid.”

“You…have a point,” Anderson nodded as he sank back into his seat.

“Unicorns? You’re jerking my leg, right?” The newest addition to Strike One, a rookie named Halverson, said with a laugh. “Are all you on some kind of organized campaign to pull my leg? First there was a flock of guys from Strike Six who were trying to convince me their Sergeant could bend spoons with his mind and now unicorns? Come on. I don’t have naïve tattooed on my ass.”

Any further conversation was cut off when Big Sky’s voice filled the passenger cabin. “Strike One, prepare for landing in ten seconds. Landing zone appears to be clear of hostiles.”

“Alright, cut the chit chat and get ready!” Dryzimski shouted and the team rose to their feet and grasped the handholds to steady themselves as they turned to the exit ramp. The grated metal descended to reveal row after row of tracks and seemingly abandoned train cars before slowly coming to a stop, and the soldiers boiled down the ramp like a flood. Jenkins and Harris sped out and into cover and the rest were close behind.

“Big Sky, Strike One Actual. We’re clear.” The Lieutenant reported before propping his machine gun up to cover the cargo-laden expanse between their current location and the train in question. “Harris, Jenkins, double time! We’ll take up positions around the train.”

“Solid copy, Strike One.” The Skyranger’s VTOL engines flared as it lifted off. “Command, Big Sky. Strike One is on site and we are assuming overwa—EVADE! Strike One, be advised, enemy aircraft is en route to your position!”

Harris and Jenkins were already halfway to their target when Big Sky’s frenzied report came across the comms, and Matt had just enough time to look over his shoulder to see one of the invader’s ominous saucers zoom overhead and stop almost immediately over their position. “Jenkins, SHIFT IT!” He screamed as a series of blue flashes appeared along the underside of its hull.

Flashes of blue began to appear around the two sprinting soldiers and for a brief moment Matt thought he was going to be vaporized by plasma fire…until he saw shapes begin to resolve themselves within the light. They were huge hulking monsters with vaguely human shapes. As the blue light disappeared their forms became more clear, with heavyset green armor and massive plasma rifles. The flesh of their faces was an angry pinkish red, and in place of a nose and face there was a horrid amalgamation of flesh and metal. Their angry yellow eyes quickly took in their surroundings… and completely ignored both Matt and Lana in favor of the other soldiers in Strike One.

The rattling reports of gunfire echoed behind the two as they completely abandoned any pretense of cautious movement in favor of a dead sprint towards their objective. Harris made the open cargo car first and rolled inside, while Jenkins was right behind. He didn't waste a single moment in tearing the bag off his back and emptying its contents onto the floor as Jenkins pressed herself against the door to intercept any interlopers.

The beacon was a cylinder roughly the size of a Pringles can, with an almost smooth and featureless surface save for the series of lights glowing severely along its side. Also included in the bag was a pair of brackets that Harris quickly fit around the ends of the beacon before he retrieved the last item in the bag: A nailgun. The search for an inconspicuous place to stash the beacon was mercifully quick; he selected a bare section of wood pallete between two massive boxes at the end of the car and brought the nailgun to bear on the brackets while trying to ignore the ongoing battle outside and in the radio.

"Command, Strike One! New enemy contact is heavy infantry. Designation is Muton." "Jesus, they're coming right for us!" "Don't bunch up, they're trying to flank us!" "Body shots are not effective, go for the headshots!" "Anderson, Halverson, covering fire! Frag out!" "Ohshit, enemy close air support, heads down no--" "SHIT, Henderson's gone! He's--" "Command, Strike One! We are pinned down by enemy CAS, requesting interceptors on our location!" "Solid copy, Strike One. Skull is inbound."

The last nail sank into the wood pallete and secured the beacon in place, and Harris tossed the nailgun as he turned to stack up behind Lana. One quick tap on her shoulder was the signal she needed to dismount the car and rejoin the fray. The once tranquil rail yard had devolved into a warzone, with several overturned rail cars now scattered in the area. The scattered reports of gunfire from Strike One echoed from across the way and were quickly answered by the whoosh of enemy plasma fire as well as the roar of ship-grade plasma from the saucer still loitering above the zone.

The saucer continued to casually dispense fiery green death upon Strike One's position before the angle of its shots swept upward to fire on something at a higher elevation. The entire saucer then jerked to the side to narrowly dodge a missile heading straight for it, followed by the lightning-fast form of an Interceptor as it screamed over the combat zone. The saucer angled slightly and fired as the Interceptor passed, then moved in pursuit. No sooner had the saucer left its position than two more Interceptors appeared in pursuit of it.

"Strike One, enemy air assets are occupied. Good luck, Skull Actual out."

"One one, this is Harris! Beacon is planted! We can sweep around behind the enemies and flank them in thirty seconds." Matt shouted into the comms as he made to follow his own suggestion but the response cut him off.

"Negative. Get to the engine and get the train running. We can hold the xrays here but you have to get that train moving now, Sergeant!"

"...Copy that. Good luck, Harris out." With his orders clear, he turned and ran towards the head of the train with Jenkins in tow. What felt like an eternity passed as the pair sprinted past a dozen cargo cars before finally reaching the engine. Harris mounted the cab and flung the door open while Jenkins fell into the shadow of the engine itself for cover.

What Matt feared would be an insurmountable wall of instrumentation and controls turned out to be significantly well-documented, including numbered controls to activate the engine and release the throttle. Just as he was following the steps, Jenkins' voice came through the comms.

"One one, second wave of enemy reinforcements from the saucer... thin men approaching your position dressed as civvies! No suits, mixed civilian clothes."

Matt couldn't resist the impulse to look out the cab window for a moment at the report, and he did see what appeared to be a half-dozen men charging through the rail yard in what appeared to be an assortment of coveralls, sweats and police uniforms. A pair of them leapt onto the cab and Matt had to resist the impulse to duck as he heard their footfalls on the roof above him. He flipped a few levers and the train lurched into movement just as the soldier headed for the door.

"Big Sky, can you intercept?"

"Big Sky is en route. Harris, Jenkins, recommend you keep your heads down. Tally ho."

Harris had just exited the cab in time to catch the Skyranger's idling profile as well as the meter-long gout of flame sprout from its chin. A trio of the thin men that tried to return fire simply evaporated in a cloud of reptilian ichor and poisonous clouds. The two running along the top of the train dismounted on the other side, while the third on the ground dove and rolled underneath it for cover.

Big Sky's appetite would not be so easily thwarted. The VTOL engines in its wings vectored and it slid sideways to bring the other side of the train into view. The chin gun roared again for half a second before the pilot finally reported his success. "Thin men are neutralised, resuming overwatch."

"One one, Harris. Train is moving, we're on our way back to your position." Harris dismounted the train and tapped Jenkins on the shoulder before the two sprinted back to the firefight still taking place back in the train yard. One of the big green brutes was down in the center of the yard, with dozens of pock marks, scrapes and burns along its armor and a neat hole drilled in his forehead. One stood behind an overturned rail car nearby and fired shots downrange at distant targets, while two more skirted along the side of the rail car in an attempt to flank.

No instructions needed to be given as Matt raised his rifle and began to fire shots at the first Muton while Jenkins took off to chase the two flankers. Matt's target flinched from the shots taken at it before it turned and leveled it's plasma rifle, just in time to catch a shot in the left eye. Rather than simply fall to the ground dead, the thing screamed and charged forward while waving its rifle like a club. Fear lent Matt wings as he dove to the side, and as he rolled over to bring his own weapon to bear he saw the Muton continue running blindly forward while swinging its rifle before stumbling and falling to the ground, dead. He scrambled to his feet to assist Lana...but stopped.

The two Mutons she had chased had stopped to stack up in an eerily similar fashion to XCOM's standard procedure, and Lana came in right behind the tail position and leveled the shotgun at almost point blank range with the second Muton's face. One trigger pull reduced its head to meat, and Jenkins simply racked her shotgun and turned to the next one and repeated the process.

"Command, Strike One. The package has been delivered successfully and all targets have been neutralised," Lieutenant Dryzimski reported as he rose from cover with his machine gun. "Donald Henderson is KIA."

"Copy that, Strike One. Regroup for extraction with Big Sky."

------

12:01, 05/02/2015, MISSION CONTROL

"Copy that, Strike One. Regroup for extraction with Big Sky," Bradford ordered through the radio, and he had to resist the urge to let out a breath he did not know he was holding. First half of the operation complete with only one casualty...unfortunate but acceptable.

"Command, Big Sky. Strike One is retrieved. We're oscar mike to the rally point," The pilot reported but before Bradford could reply, a second report cut him off.

"Command, Skull Actual. Tango one has disengaged and is returning to the rail yard... strike that, Tango one has fired on the train!"

"What?" Bradford growled as his eyes jumped to the gun cameras of the interceptors. The saucer was indeed firing plasma on the length of the train and it was soon a smoldering wreck from one end to the other. A moment later the saucer itself was struck with a trio of missiles as the interceptors caught up with it, and it fell to the earth like a stone.

"Sir, the battleship and its remaining escorts have resumed course towards the city!" One of the control room technicians shouted, and the main monitor switched to the satellite view to confirm the report. The rectangular ship was indeed correcting its course towards the nearest population center, and its three remaining escorts remained in position around it like pickets around an aircraft carrier.

"Signal the national guard to begin their assault, we have to delay them at all costs." Bradford said decisively before swithing channels. "Command to all Strike teams. The decoy operation has failed and the battleship has altered its course to head towards the nearby city. As our current air capabilities would not be able to destroy it before it approaches the city, it is now imperative that we board and disable the battleship before it reaches the city or thousands of people will die."

Bradford tapped a few fingers on his tablet and the display in front of him turned into a 3D model of the battleship and several spots became highlighted as the image was fed to the soldiers.

"Analysis shows the majority of its weapons are concentrated in the forward and ventral surfaces of the battleship. In addition, there appears to be personnel access points and firing positions along the dorsal surface which leads our analysts to believe it is designed for bombardment and area suppression and has little in the way of integrated weapon systems to repel attacking aircraft. Interceptors will engage and eliminate the escorts providing close support to the battleships, which will allow the Skyrangers to deploy the Strike teams on their designated locations."

"King Fisher, Big Sky; you are to deploy your teams to the aft section of the ship near the access point there, and Strike One and Two will attempt to disable the engines. Ominous, Domino; you are to deploy your teams to the central section, and Strike Three and Four will secure any access points going from the fore and aft sections of the ship as well as provide support fore or aft if necessary. Harbinger, Crimson; you are to deploy your teams to the forward section, where Strike Five and Six can secure the bridge and any command assets there."

"All units, commence operation." Bradford finished with as much confidence as he could muster in his voice.

"Skull Actual, solid copy." "Diamond Actual, copy." "Ghost Actual, solid copy." The Interceptor squadrons reported as they peeled off and charged toward the alien formation.

"King Fisher, acknowledged." "Big Sky, solid copy." "Ominious, message recieved." "Crimson, understood." "Harbinger, copy." "Domino, solid copy." The Skyranger pilots all turned in tight formation in the wake of the interceptors.

"Strike One, solid copy." "Strike Two, solid copy." "Strike Three, message recieved." "Strike Four, copy." "Strike Five, solid copy." "Strike Six, copy." The Strike team leaders closed their links as they readied their soldiers for battle.

"Sir..." one of the mission control personnel spoke with a guilt-riddled voice, "Air Guard is pulling back, they've suffered over seventy five percent casualties."

"They've done all they can, now it's our turn," Bradford replied, and he crossed his arms to project more strength than he felt. God forgive me...so many of them are going to die.

The command display began to dissolve into anarchy as the two forces met.

The saucers and the battleship's limited broadside weapons opened up on the approaching Interceptors with stuttering green lines of plasma fire, while the Interceptors responded in kind with flocks of missiles. One saucer failed to avoid a missile in time which staggered it long enough for the majority of missiles to follow, and it exploded spectacularly. One Interceptor lost a wing to plasma and spiraled out of control towards the ground, while another took a volley and broke up in mid-air. A split second later the Interceptor squadrons were past the invaders and split into three separate formations to begin a second, staggered attack run.

As the second attack run began, the Skyranger formation began its descent towards the battleship. The six transports split up into pairs for their assigned sectors, and they began evasive maneuvers as scattered fire came from the two remaining saucers. One of the Skyrangers in the central formation took a blast of plasma in one of the VTOL engines and a second to the cockpit. The now flaming hulk sank out of the central formation and disappeared from sight with its doomed and helpless cargo still inside.

All Bradford could do was simply watch as they died.

------

"Brace for evasive action, we're approaching the battleship now." came the command over the passenger cabin intercom, and the remaining members of Strike One grasped their harnesses. Lana rocked forward and back with the momentum of the Skyranger as it twisted and turned to avoid whatever danger was going on outside, and she pointedly didn't look at the now empty seat in the passenger cabin.

I should say something... anything! Lana wracked her mind for some sort of pithy comment to alleviate the mortal fear that now filled the room, but her eyes settled on Matt and his helmeted gaze was still directed at her and her mood instantly soured. Goddamn it, Matt, why couldn't you have just played along?

Any further thoughts on the situation back at the base disappeared as the Skyranger's ramp cracked open to flood the compartment with the roar of the wind as well as the sounds of the conflict outside. When the muted purple hue of the alien battleship came rushing up to the ramp, Lana hit the quick release on her harness and ran down the ramp. Matt was right behind her, followed by the rest of Strike One. Big Sky never came to a full stop, and the moment the last soldier made it down the ramp it was already ascending.

Strike Two boiled out of King Fisher in a similar manner nearby, and Lana could see further down the hull another Skyranger depositing a strike team in the midsection of the battleship. She was just about to turn and make her mad dash to what appeared to be an access hatch in the aft section when she noticed flashes of silver. Three silver disks detached themselves from the hull and unfolded into shapes that reminded the shotgunner of the spiny fish she had seen at the zoo when she was young. Two pairs of 'fins' jutted out from their sides as well as a whip-like segmented tail from their aft sections gave them a predatory look, and they zoomed toward the Skyranger in the central section like sharks scenting blood.

Before Lana could call out a warning, bright gold lines of fire spat from the disks toward the Skyranger. The pilot's reaction time was stellar as the VTOL engines roared to lift it out of danger, but a line of fire raked across the cockpit and its ascent quickly became uncontrolled. It began to spiral out of control directly towards the aft section of the battleship.

"Get down!" Lana yelled as she hit the deck, and Strike One complied. Strike Two must have noticed the attack and they dropped as well. The out-of-control Skyranger roared over their heads and collided with the aft deck with a horrible screech of twisted metal before coming to a halt just past the now impact-opened hatch.

The three disks followed their target's descent and began to zip toward the aft section to finish off their prey, but the dull roar of an aircraft's chin guns erupted and the first disk broke apart in a hail of bullets and tracers. The two remaining disks made nearly ninety-degree turns to address the loitering Skyranger that had opened fire, which promptly cut its VTOL and engaged its primary engines to break away with the two disks in hot pursuit.

With the immediate threats no longer present, the two aft Strike teams rose and sprinted towards the hatch while keeping a wary eye on the Skyranger wreck just beyond... until the ramp dropped with a clang and two bloody figures shuffled out.

"Strike Two, head inside! We'll assess the survivors and follow you in!" Dryzimski shouted to the other team leader before heading over to the pair as they stumbled towards them.

"Crew Chief Eric Ehlers, and copilot Monica Levans... we're the only survivors," The first reported, a man in the lighter flight armor with a cracked helmet and a rifle reported. The second was a short woman, and despite her dark skin and hair appeared as pale as a ghost.

Dryzimsky and Halverson moved to help the pair towards the hatch. "Are either of you injured, what's your status?"

"I may have cracked a rib, but I'm no dead weight, sir," Eric said with a grimace as he straightened.

Monica's response took a moment longer before she drew her pistol from her holster. "I'm one hundred percent, sir. T-the blood's not mine," She finally reported, though she looked rather nauseus as she finished her report.

"Good, you're with us for the duration. It's not safe to leave you here," Dryzimski told them both, and he didn't wait for their acknowledgement before starting his run back to the hatch. "Command, Strike One. We've linked up with survivors from the crashed Skyranger and are moving to link up with Strike Two."

"Double-time it, Lieutenant. Strike Two is experiencing heavy resistance in the engine room."

"You heard the man, shift it!"

------

The trail Strike Two left for the other team to follow wasn't subtle. Spent shell casings littered the corridors as well as the plasma-burned corpse of one of their soldiers and several bullet-riddled bodies of sectoids.

Muzzle flashes could be seen further down the corridor, and Strike One picked up the pace with its two extra members in tow.

"Strike Two, Strike One. We're approaching from your six, what's the situation?"

"Situation is fucked!" Came the not so welcome reply, "Engine room layout is an outer elevated ring with what looks like consoles and controls in a lower level in the center of the room. We are pinned by heavy infantry on the opposite side of the elevated ring, and we've got little bastards trying to flank us. Hit the suppressing position and my boys can take the little shits without any problems."

"Solid copy! Harris, Jenkins. No bullshit, will your Wallflower equipment get you close enough to flush or kill the mutons?"

"It will," Lana said quickly, and Matt simply nodded.

"Get to it, then. Strike One will advance into the room and take cover to secure Two's flanks. Ehlers, Levans, I want you two providing covering fire from the door. Move!" Dryzimski ordered, and Strike One flooded into the room. Lana sprinted around the outer ring and Matt's footfalls were close behind her. The pair of soldiers caught sight of a trio of mutons firing plasma back at the doorway and hadn't paid a single moment's attention to either soldier as they rounded the corner.

You can't see me, I'm invisible. You can't see me, I'm invisible. Lana repeated over and over again in her head as she raised her shotgun and approached her first target. As with the mutons back in the train yard, these were all heavily armored save for their eyes and forehead, which might have proven a problem if Matt and Lana hadn't a way to walk up to point blank range.

The first muton's head exploded with a shotgun blast while the second took three precise taps to the head from Matt's rifle. The third turned to see its brethren drop to the deck and it let out a bone-rattling roar and charged out of cover. Lana had to quickstep out of its way to avoid the blind charge, and she unloaded a shotgun blast into its armored back as it ran past. The blast itself did little damage beyond causing it to trip and stumble. Not one to let the opportunity pass her by, Lana racked her shotgun and unloaded a shot into the Muton's mostly unarmored right elbow.

She racked the shotgun one more time and moved to take the killshot, but she caught sight of Matt drawing his ARC Thrower. Lana stepped back as the Muton tried to rise, only for it to drop like a puppet with its strings cut as Matt brought the ARC thrower to its face and pulled the trigger.

"Command, Strike One. Engine room is now secure."

"Solid copy, Strike One. Strike Five and Six have secured the forward sections of the ship, but Strike Three is in danger of being overrun. Rally your squad and reinforce them. Strike Five will attempt to reinforce from the forward section."

"And Strike Four?" The moment the question was asked, Lana wished she could snatch it out of the air and throw it away.

"Strike Four's insertion on the objective was not successful."

"... Copy that, Strike One Actual out." Dryzimski hung his head before turning back to the room. "Strike One, form up. We've got a job to do. Ehlers, Levans, stay here and reinforce Strike Two."

"Yes, sir," Both airmen reported, and Lana agreed with the order. Strike Two had been through a meatgrinder. One soldier died in the corridor to the engine room while two more died in the ensuing firefight. Three of the survivors were wounded to the point where they couldn't move under their own power.

The survivors of Strike One formed up and began to filter through the corridors towards the central section.

------

Lana held a fist up to call a halt as she glanced around a corner. “I see a body... looks like one of ours.”

After confirming no movement down the hallway, Lana snaked around the corner and quickstepped to the body. She stepped past the grizzly sight to cover the hallway beyond when one of the soldiers following her reported, “He’s from Strike Three. I...I don’t think I can identify the body.”

“Command, Strike One. We’re almost to the central section, we’ve found the remains of one of Strike Three. Status of the rest of the squad?”

“Strike Three has gone silent,” Bradford reported over the radio, and frustration was apparent in his normally unwavering voice. “If survivors can be found, retrieve them. Otherwise, your new objective is to link up with Strike Five to secure the central section.”

“Copy that, Strike One out.” Dryzimski closed the comm and motioned wordlessly for the team to move on. No more drill-sergeant inspired words of confidence followed the command.

The corridor abruptly ended with an entrance to an elevated walkway above a large cargo bay or hangar. Signs of battle were everywhere, with burn marks of plasma on virtually every surface in the room, as well as spent shell casings and bodies both alien and human. Anderson and Zhang took up overwatch positions on the elevated walkway as the rest of Strike One descended to check for survivors.

“Command, we’ve located Strike Three in the central section. There are no survivors.” Dryzimski reported dully through the comms.

“Copy that, Strike One. Hold your positions and wait for Strike Five. They should be there soo—JENKINS FALL BACK NOW!” Bradford’s haggard tone switched to a harsh order in an instant and Lana froze. She was mere feet away from one of the large glowing doors leading toward the forward section of the ship, and before she could step more than one legspan backward a flat silvery disk pushed through the energy door.

A glowing orb swept across the outer edge of the disk and locked on to Lana just as the disk began to spin and unfold. She tried to raise her shotgun to get a shot off but the segmented tail unfolded mid-spin. Its wickedly bladed tip struck her just beneath the her left shoulder with enough force to send her flying into the opposite bulkhead. Pain exploded all across her back and chest as she felt something break within her. Lana’s vision blurred and for a brief moment the only connection she had to the events around her was the screaming over the radio and the staccato reports of gunfire.

“Jenkins is down!” “Command, Strike One, we have a disk inside the central section!” “Jesus that thing is fast.” “Reloading!” “Halverson, Harris, try and flank it and make it turn! I’ll deploy HEAT as soon as it does!” “On it!” “Yes s—hrk.” “Halverson’s down!” “Potter, get back to cover NOW.” “Command, we need Strike Five here now!”

Lana slowly opened her eyes to see that the visor of her helmet was cracked. She reached up to pull it off her head, but her left arm refused to obey her commands. With a burst of sotto voice profanity she tore the helmet off her head and dropped it beside her before her eyes focused on something lying on the floor a few feet from where she sat.

It was her left arm.

Well, crap. Was all she could think before she tore her eyes off the spectacle of her own severed limb to see the state of the rest of the room.

One of the snipers, Lana couldn’t tell which, was dragging the limp form of another soldier into cover. Potter’s legs were a bloody mess but he attempted to drag himself back into cover only to be shot in passing by the disk as it tracked its targets. Matt had somehow made it to the other side of the room and rattled off a handful of shots before the disk snapped in his direction. At that moment, Dryzimski rose from cover with his rocket launcher primed and ready.

The rocket launched with the speed of a lance thrown by an angry god, but the disk was even faster as it turned and fired at the approaching projectile. The rocket detonated mid-air and the disk emerged from the cloud of fire and debris to begin chewing up the lieutenant’s cover as he ducked back down.

Lana wracked her mind for something to say as she shakily drew her pistol and started to aim. ‘Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back on the inhale.’ She remembered the quote from somewhere, and she thought it would be appropriate last words as her finger tightened on the trigger. Yet, for all the eloquence of her thoughts, what she wheezed was somewhat less so.

“Goddamn alien frisbees.”

Close enough.

BAM

The one bullet pinged ineffectually off the side profile of the disk, but the reaction was immediate. The disk rotated to face her at ridiculous speeds with an audible hum. Time seemed to slow as she saw the inline barrels of the disk’s weapons turn to face her... and a rocket connected squarely with the now-exposed profile of the disk. What was left of the disk spun off to the opposite corner of the hangar where it sputtered, twitched and died.

New shapes, familiar shapes appeared in the hangar. Lana let the pistol drop to the deck and she let out a sigh. My only regret is not getting to beat the shit out of Harris, she thought with a smirk, Why didn’t you just play along? She closed her eyes and willed the pain to go away.

------

OPERATION GANGPLANK: COMPLETE
ALIEN CRAFT (SCOUT) DESTROYED (4 total)
ALIEN CRAFT (BATTLESHIP) CAPTURED
XCOM FACILITY LOCATION SECURE
ATTACK ON CIVILIAN POPULATION AVERTED

STRIKE-1 REPORTS 4 KIA, 1 WIA
STRIKE-2 REPORTS 3 KIA, 4 WIA
STRIKE-3 NO SURVIVORS, 8 KIA
STRIKE-4 NO SURVIVORS, 8 KIA
STRIKE-5 REPORTS 1 KIA, 3 WIA
STRIKE-6 REPORTS 0 KIA, 2 WIA

SKULL SQUADRON REPORTS 3 INTERCEPTORS UNDAMAGED, 1 DESTROYED, 1 DAMAGED (0 PILOT CASUALTIES)
DIAMOND SQUADRON REPORTS 4 INTERCEPTORS UNDAMAGED, 1 DESTROYED, 1 DAMAGED (1 PILOT CASUALTY)
GHOST SQUADRON REPORTS 2 INTERCEPTORS UNDAMAGED, 2 DESTROYED, 2 DAMAGED (2 PILOT CASUALTIES)

SKYRANGER BIG SKY, LIGHT DAMAGE, NO CREW CASUALTIES
SKYRANGER KING FISHER, NO DAMAGE, NO CREW CASUALTIES
SKYRANGER DOMINO, DESTROYED, 4 CREW CASUALTIES
SKYRANGER OMINOUS, DESTROYED, 2 CREW CASUALTIES
SKYRANGER HARBINGER, NO DAMAGE, NO CREW CASUALTIES
SKYRANGER CRIMSON, LIGHT DAMAGE, NO CREW CASUALTIES

RECOVERY TEAM INVENTORY:
(Documented by Lt Dryzimski)
PLASMA RIFLE (1 total)
MUTON LIVE CAPTURE (1 total)
PLASMA WEAPON FRAGMENTS
SECTOID CORPSES (62 total)
MUTON CORPSES (20 total)
THIN MAN CORPSES (6 total)
CYBERDISK WRECKS (12 total)
ELERIUM (1000kg+)
UFO ELECTRONICS (Various)
UFO POWER SOURCES (10 total)
UFO FUSION WEAPONS (2 total)

OPERATION EVALUATION: ACCEPTABLE

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