Written by: Adam “ManKorn” Korenman, CC2K Video Games Editor
18 April 2015 / Colorado / Operation First Thorn
I only talk to the Interceptor pilots when they come to the mess, and that’s a pretty rare sight. More often than not, the flyboys keep to themselves and sleep in their luxury barracks. I’ve never been inside their suites, but I’ve heard from the cleaning staff that they have real beds and personal bathrooms, and that’s five-star compared to hot-seating a hammock with two other dudes.
The cleaning staff was a bit of a surprise at first. It makes sense, when you think about it. This place is going to get filthy, and we can’t be expected to save the world and make our beds. But when I think about the people we didn’t invite into this nice bunker at the start of the war, and a few janitors were brought aboard, it makes me think.
I try not to do that much. Makes my head hurt.
Raven 1, old Lou Heinz, knocked another Scout out of the air not far from our base. The aliens seem to have an idea that we are an operational threat, and they’ve been probing our area looking for a clue. I don’t want to think about what would happen if they made it in here. Some of our rookies are pretty green, and that might not make for a fair fight.
Amber was unusually quiet on the flight over. Victor said he’d overheard some exchange between her and CO Brandon. Apparently they had made contact with elements of her old unit in Belgium. She had learned something about her family, and I had to assume it wasn’t good.
We landed in a burning forest, following a glowing line of orange flames that pointed to the downed craft. From the air I could just make out the forms of two Sectoids as they emerged from the wreckage. I remember thinking that this would be an easy mission. Talk about a fucking jinx.
Amber took off as soon as we hit the ground. The ramp had just descended when she launched out at the aliens, shotgun blazing. I’d never seen anything like it. We gave chase, hollering for her to stop and wait, but she was a woman possessed. She kept screaming about the vreemdeling. I saw Victor duck under two plasma blasts and keep running. We all fell into cover, catching our breath. The mission was seconds old and already we were on the defensive. Shit.
Amber dodged another shot and closed in. She caught one of the gray aliens with a gutshot, splitting it in half. It’s buddy panicked, charging off in the opposite direction. Victor took the shot but missed wide.
“Damn it,” I shouted. “Get back with the team, Amber.” It wasn’t really the right thing for me to do. She outranked me, after all.
Amber stopped short, just at the entrance to the Scout. I think I finally reached through whatever fog she was in. Unfortunately, she was inside the trigger zone for the Outsider. I saw the familiar orange glow as the alien appeared, and called out too late. I saw the last Sectoid appear, ready to ambush Amber. I put a round through its throat and kept moving forward.
I reached the ridge overlooking the ship just as the Outsider attacked. Amber screamed as plasma tore through her armor and into her flesh. I tried to get closer, but the Outsider had us all pinned behind rocks and tree stumps. Amber rolled into a ball near a broken piece of hull and tended her wounds. She fired overhead, but only took a chunk out of an alien computer.
Victor moved in closer and ran headfirst into two Thin Men–the humanoid aliens we’d met in France. Both wore the same blue suits and sunglasses. They sped into cover, shrieking like the damned. I lost them in the foliage and had to shift my position. Olga took over as lead sniper, watching for movement through her scope.
The Outsider appeared at the edge of the ship and fired a continuous stream at Amber. The plasma cooked the ground and splatter on her cover, but didn’t hit her directly. She was completely helpless, crying out for someone to kill the alien before it exposed her further. Before we could react, the Thin Men reappeared. One stood tall and started to hack, like a cat with a hairball. A lump grew in its throat until I swore it would burst, and then the alien spat a ball of mucous into Amber’s cover. The ball exploded into a purple gas cloud.
Amber sucked in the poison, her skin taking on a ghastly pallor. She collapsed into her cover, gripping at her throat. The Outsider, cool as ice, pressed closer. In a feat of incredible strength and will, Amber stood, leveled her shotgun, and put 12-gauge buckshot into the center of the 4th dimensional creature. It splintered into pieces and spread across the Scout’s deck.
One of the Thin Men shouted in alarm, exposing his position. I let loose with a Hail Mary shot that took off most of his head. All went quiet as we waited for the last alien to appear. Amber choked, unwilling to leave her cover but still engulfed in the toxic fumes. I shouted to her, letting her know we were close by.
A shot rang out from nowhere, flying over Amber’s head and hitting Olga in the shoulder. She panicked, ducking into cover and throwing her rifle to the ground. Victor ran to her, but couldn’t take the shot. He’d burned through his ammunition too fast and had to quickly switch boxes. Milena, one of our new recruits, fired a long burst at the humanoid, but hit only dirt.
I leveled my rifle and prepared to engage. My heart pounded in my ears, hard enough that I felt it in my trigger finger. It skipped a beat when I saw the green plasma flying toward Amber.
She didn’t have a chance to dodge. The shot struck her in the back, breaking through her armor and punching into her body. She went down hard, rolling in the dirt, blood spraying from her lips. I watched it, squeezing my weapon so I wouldn’t scream. For a second no one moved, not even the alien.
I heard her voice, weak and wounded, come over the radio. She was still alive!
The Thin Man sneered at me through my scope, but wore a different expression after a .50 cal slug perforated his chest. He dropped to the ground in a puff of purple smoke. I was already out of cover, sprinting to Amber, calling Big Sky to come in for evac. She was so light in my arms, so frail.
Amber shot again and goes down hard. She cries out for a medic. Adam moves to a new position and prepares to fire. All others cover down.
“Tell Kristina…tell her mom was brave.”
Amber passed out before we got her on the Skyranger, and remained unconscious the entire ride back. We pumped her full of biofoam and adrenaline, but nothing could rouse her. It felt like a day before we landed back at Granite Peak, bloodied and disheartened. The docs took Amber into the infirmary, dragging the crash cart behind them. Before shutting the door on us, the doc gave me a single shake of his head.
“We’ll do the best we can.”
I stood there, dripping sweat and blood on the grated floor, unable to comprehend just how a simple mop-up had gone so wrong. I didn’t notice the Commander walk up until he was practically on top of me.
“Sergeant Korenman,” he said.
I snapped to attention, saluting with a filthy glove. “Mission complete, sir. We got pretty chewed up.”
“I know.” His normally stoic face was etched with new lines. I think he’s aged a year for every week of this war. I don’t know if he ever sleeps. “Listen, sergeant. Strike One is going to need an officer to run the day-to-day operations. We can’t slow down, not even once. I know you’re just getting used to those chevrons, but I need more from you.”
I didn’t say anything. He handed me a silver bar and congratulated me on entering the officer corps. I felt numb even as I attached them to my uniform. Nothing was real at the moment. It was exciting to be growing within the unit, but I couldn’t enjoy it.
The rank had been pulled off of Amber’s burnt armor.