Little Moment: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

By Eric 'Erico' Lawson and Shadows59


Chapter One: Welcome to the Party Pal

Plumbers Central Base "Avalon"

(Classified Location)

March 7th, 1979 C.E.

" - as of this moment, your record means precisely dick."

Jerry Baylor blinked at the curt words thrown at him by the scowling old man whose callsign was Merlin and who nobody dared call Jim when he was around to hear it. It was more than a little disheartening, honestly. He'd been a First Lieutenant O-2 in the Marine Corps due for promotion when word came down that he was being 'reassigned' to a new unit. It was only after the transfer papers were a done deal and he was being shipped out from Butler in Japan back stateside that he'd been told he wasn't going to be a Marine any longer. He got told that he was going to be a Plumber.

Initial heartbreak and fury aside, once they landed in California and he was taken to an installation out in a forest for his initial briefing, Jerry had quickly stowed the attitude. They didn't mean someone who fixed clogged up toilets, no; Plumbers with a Capital P were something else entirely. Given what he'd been shown, he considered it a miracle that he didn't faint, and he was certain his face had been white. The secret history of the world was laid out in front of him - that aliens had been coming to Earth for a lot longer than their public debut in 1952 in Washington D.C, and that most of them weren't all that friendly. Then he found out that that was all he'd be dealing with, if he was lucky.

The information about magic being real and the existence of extradimensional threats…

But for all of that, Jerry was certain he'd manage all right. He was a goddamned Marine, not quitting had been beaten into him back in boot camp and that lesson hadn't gone away. There'd be a learning curve, but he had the skills. These Plumbers had gone looking for the best of the best of the best. They'd chosen him.

Somehow, that just wasn't good enough for General James Huxby, the man who ran the show and put everyone on edge just by standing too close to them. The old man was dressed in a full suit coat like he'd walked out of the 1940's or 50's, hat and all, and the scowl didn't go away as he raised an eyebrow at his newest recruit, puffing on an old-fashioned tobacco pipe clenched in his teeth. "You have something to say, lieutenant?"

"No, sir." Jerry answered reflexively. "I didn't think you had asked for a response."

"No. I hadn't." The scowl softened just a touch and Jim harrumphed. "Nice to know you've still got some of that Marine Corps discipline in you. Let's see if you can make that rub off on others a little. You'd better. It's the reason I'm skipping the usual rotation that rookies go through and am assigning you to one of our advance teams. A squad of troubleshooters. They're decent at their job, but they can get a little cocky at times. Your job is to listen to everything that they tell you to do, try not to get yourself killed, and do your damned best to show them what military disciple looks like. Lord knows they need it after the goddamned mess they made in Colorado."

"Yes, sir."

Jim nodded at the crisp return. "I'm putting you under Colonel Tennyson. His unit callsign is Whiskey, and he's Whiskey One. He'll introduce you to the rest of his team. They've been told to expect a rookie today, so get to supply, grab your gear, and then get down to the motor pool to meet up with them."

"Yes, sir. General, sir?" Jerry asked hesitantly. "What vehicle will they be signing out today?"

Merlin made a face full of disgust and irritation. "Trust me, lieutenant. You'll know it when you see it." He waved his hand to his office door. "Dismissed."


Avalon

Motor Pool

Baylor wasn't sure what to make of Merlin's cryptic answer. He'd know it when he saw it, sure. The motor pool was full of vehicles of every kind, from innocuous black Lincoln town cars with their enormous front ends to U.S. Army troop transports. There was even a section of the massive underground space that seemed dedicated to helicopters and fighter aircraft, and Jerry wondered at it until a shutter overhead opened and a screaming jet descended down through it as casually as a person riding an elevator might. Aside from the glowing burners of its exhaust blasting out beneath it, naturally.

"Hey, Rookie!" He barely heard the shout over the noise the jet put out, and it almost caught him by surprise when someone walked towards him off of his left side. He turned towards the man and tamped down the impulse to slip into a defensive stance, which proved to be the right move given that the fellow walking towards him was dressed in engineer's coveralls. He was trying to talk, but Jerry couldn't even follow his lips, and the fair-haired man rolled his eyes and looked towards the jet, waiting until the thing had landed and its turbines had begun to spin down.

"Finally." The man exhaled. "Those Harriers are something else but they're noisy as hell. Just got them in, they won't be available to the military for another year at the earliest. Whaddya think?"

Jerry stared at the jet that the mechanic had called a Harrier and blinked. "It must be a pain to service."

"Ha!" The mechanic guffawed. "You'd be right about that. But enough shop talk. You need something, Rookie?"

"That obvious?" Jerry asked dryly, and the man just stared at him. "I'm looking for Colonel Tennyson and his team."

"Whiskey 1?" The mechanic took a step back and re-evaluated him. "Oh, wow. Yeah, scuttlebutt was they were getting a fifth." He pointed with a thumb. "They're back that way. They'll be around the ugliest ride in the lot, jiggering something up again." The mechanic made a face at that, and Jerry could only wonder as the man gave him a nod and wandered off, muttering to himself about 'goddamn do-it-yourselfers.'

Even more intrigued, or maybe just worried, Jerry hoisted his bag of gear and made his way further back into the depths of the motor pool. At long last, he pulled to a stop past a row of humvees and troop trucks, gaping at the one mode of transport which had no earthly business in a lot full of military vehicles.

Jerry Baylor had heard of them, of course. Recreational vehicles, RV's for short. He'd seen campers that got dragged behind pickup trucks, and he recalled another recruit from Iowa who told him once about a school bus that his parents, a farmer/carpenter and a housewife, had painted blue and converted into one. This one looked like one of the newer ones that had come out a few years back from Michigan. It was an all-in-one with futuristic streamlined angles, looking factory floor fresh and gleaming under the halogen lamps along the ceiling. The back end of it was full of radio dishes and other gear, which definitely wasn't factory standard. The side door was open, and two white men were outside of it arguing back and forth as they hefted supply boxes while a third with American Indian features and sun-kissed skin sat in the side door, shaking his head as he carved at a block of wood. Unlike Jerry, none of them were dressed in the Plumbers regulation uniform, a gray suit capable of 'hermetically sealing' when a helmet was added to it. Jerry was wearing his minus the helmet, which was stuck at the side of his waist by some mechanism he still hadn't figured out yet. Magnets, maybe?

"...the last time, no! I am not going on another goddamn SCP patrol with you eating nothing but baked beans and vienna sausages!" The sterner looking man in flannel and blue jeans growled out as Jerry got closer to the RV.

"Really? You're going to complain about that after all the weird crap the Colonel makes us eat?" The other man in khakis and a white button-down with the top three buttons undone complained, still hefting a supply box full of canned food.

"The Colonel's food doesn't turn the inside of the MCC into a gas chamber!" Flannel guy screamed back at him.

The Indian in the side door glanced up from his wood carving and noticed Jerry approaching. "That's enough, you two. We have company." The bickering came to a close as three sets of eyes settled on Jerry, and he shifted his feet once before approaching them.

"Lieutenant Baylor, reporting for duty." He announced himself. "I'm looking for Colonel Tennyson?"

"Yeah. You're the FNG all right." White shirt guy muttered, walking up and shoving himself past the Indian in the door to put the supplies away.

"The Colonel's inside and up front." The Indian explained, and Jerry finally noticed how most of his dark black hair was tied back behind his head in a single braid. "I'm Wes Green, callsign Whiskey 2. Make any cracks about tepees and I'll deck you, I'm Navajo and yes, that matters. This here's Leslie Cooper and Mr. Personality who just went inside is Phil Billings, they're Whiskey 3 and 4 respectively. That makes you Whiskey 5, Rookie."

Rookie. If Jerry hadn't been forewarned by Merlin about how his previous skills didn't mean a thing here, he would have bristled from the name. Even with it, he stiffened up. "Baylor is fine, sir. What does SCP mean?"

"We didn't ask for you, so I'll call you what I want, Rookie." Whiskey 2 huffed softly. "SCP stands for Secure, Contain, Protect. It means we go out driving around looking for trouble or waiting for a call to point us in the right direction. Usually, trouble finds us first." The Indian got down from his spot and cleared the door. "Stow your gear and head up front. You may as well introduce yourself before we take off, we're wheels up in 5. I have to see how much of Phil's pork and beans I can throw out before we get going, or Coop here's gonna be bitching for two states about it."

"Damn right I will." Flannel guy, 'Coop' muttered, and undid a hidden panel next to the front wheel well to stow more of their gear in the hidden compartment.

Baylor made his way inside and took notice of the interior of the RV. It had a lived-in smell and there was a dreamcatcher hanging from the ceiling near the back. Whiskey 4, Billings, was in the kitchenette stowing cans and still grumbling to himself. Baylor could hear soft music drowned out by a pair of talking voices in the direction of the RV's nose, and after he dropped his bag on the table set up in the dining nook, he walked up towards it.

His first look at Colonel Max Tennyson was startling. The man was dressed in tan khakis and a red hawaiian shirt with white flowers that was so bright it made him wonder if this was a mission or a vacation he'd been assigned on. While the strains of The Who played quietly from the sound system, the Colonel's attention was wholly on a louder voice coming from the speakers over it and a small television built into the dash. Although Baylor had never seen a screen that flat before…

"...ill early in the season, so you may be running into some leftover winter weather on your patrol route." A cheerful female voice said. "So I hope you packed your snow tires, Whiskey 1."

The Colonel's brown hair was trimmed flat and close to his head in a military buzzcut that seemed out of place with his clothes. He chuckled and was about to respond when he froze and his eyes swiveled back to Baylor, who reflexively came to attention. He had a broad-shouldered build and gave Baylor a single nod before turning back to the radio. "We'll be fine, darling. Nothing we haven't dealt with before. Want me to bring you anything back?"

"You still owe me a coffee mug from North Dakota, Whiskey. See if you can't remember to grab one this time." The woman's voice was teasing, and Whiskey 1 chuckled quietly.

"I'll see what I can do, Control. Whiskey Team, out." He pushed a button and the television with a map of the U.S. on it went dark, leaving only the strains of Join Together as Max Tennyson turned and gave Jerry his full attention. "So. You're Baylor, then?"

"Yes, sir." Baylor saluted. "Jerry Baylor, from the Marines."

"I was Air Force." Max told him. He gestured to the passenger seat, and Baylor gratefully moved to sit down in it as Max faced forward again and yawned, scratching at the stubble on his chin. The man started when Jerry's hand came close to the gear shifter on the console between them as he reached for a handhold. The stick didn't sport the usual gear diagram on the top, but a red button with a flip-cover over it. "Woah, careful there Rookie! You don't ever press the red button!"

"Sorry, sir." Baylor apologized, settling his hands into his lap. "What does it do?" Max shook his head, ignoring the question and frowning at him.

"I'll be honest with you, Rookie. You're only here because we got on Merlin's shit list. I'm not keen on bringing in someone who hasn't even seen Malta or Tranquility Base yet, much less someone I didn't pick. Which means that Merlin assigned you to us for a reason." The stare turned harder. "You a spy for him, son?" Baylor was taken aback at the question and found he couldn't speak. He settled for a shake of his head, and though Tennyson didn't seem entirely appeased by it, he let it go. "By now I imagine that they've given you the initial briefing on what sort of fires we put out, right?"

"Yes, sir. Before we even got to Avalon." Jerry nodded, and Max hummed thoughtfully.

"Right. Well, I'm assuming that Wes gave you the introductions before you got in here, so let me fill you in. The Plumbers are the best kept secret in the world. The average joe doesn't know we exist. More importantly, they don't know that the troubles we deal with exist either. It's why the rest of us are dressed casually. Anyone spots us going down the road in my girl here, they'll just think we're a bunch of guys on vacation going on a camping trip."

Hiding in plain sight, Baylor realized, and found himself admiring the logic. "Sir, Whiskey 2 implied that trouble has a habit of finding you."

Max laughed again, a little more honestly this time. "Well, he isn't wrong. It must be the Tennyson luck, but usually all we have to do is go driving around and something pops up. A rogue magic user or cult trying something, an unauthorized alien incursion, or just general weirdness. Then we stop it, clean it up, and move on so John Q. Public is none the wiser."

"Permission to ask a question, sir?"

"Granted."

"...Is that right, sir? To just...cover it up?" Baylor asked tentatively. Max looked a little more tired at the question for reasons he couldn't fathom, and the man rubbed his chin stubble again.

"Maybe. Maybe not. But it's what we do, and it's what the Plumbers have been doing since World War II, if you go digging into the history." Baylor shivered at that, recalling the video footage that he was shown in his briefings. Footage taken from B-17 bombers of the rampaging monsters that the Nazis had conjured up through the mass sacrifices in their concentration camps, enormous things as big as buildings with teeth and claws and tentacles and scales that had taken entire squadrons full of high explosive ordnance to put down. "You tell me, son. You think the world is ready to learn that magic and monsters are real, and that unfriendly aliens from the stars are the least of our worries? I never could come up with an answer. It's just too big for me."

Baylor mutely nodded his head, and that was that.

Everyone else on the team had finally gotten on board, and Baylor looked up at the sound of the side door closing in time to see Whiskey 2 walking up front towards them. "You're in my seat, Rookie." Wes said, and Baylor got up and moved out of the way.

"Everyone squared away, Wes?" Max asked, finally strapping himself in.

"Everyone but the Rookie here." Wes indicated, glancing at Baylor meaningfully.

"Grab a seat in the dining nook, kid." Max told him, smiling. He turned the ignition and the RV rumbled to life, then while Baylor was heading back, the music came to a stop. The Rookie sat down and looked up front to see Max ejecting an 8-Track from the tape deck before slamming another one into the player.

"Oh, come on." Whiskey 2 complained. "Max, can't you play something else besides Rock and Roll?"

"I'm driving, so it's my music." Max grinned, and then the steady rhythm and guitar work of REO Speedwagon bled into the air.

"Oh, yeah. Boss is playing the good shit now." Whiskey 4 grinned, uncapping a bottle of Pepsi as he slid into the booth across from the Rookie.

"So, Max. Once more, we go to hunt the Buffalo." Wes Green said loudly from up front, in an exaggerated voice that could have been ripped straight from a western film.

"You're never gonna forgive me for that, are you?" Max asked the other man.

"Save my life a few more times instead of me saving yours and I'll think about it." The man said. There was a story there, and Baylor was interested in hearing it, but Billings and Cooper just chuckled and didn't say a word in explanation.

"Welcome to the Plumbers." Cooper said instead, and Max gunned the engine of the RV, starting them out of the motor pool and Avalon's underground base.

They headed for the surface, and untold dangers.


North Dakota, I-94 Corridor

10 Miles West of Belfield

March 9th, 1979 C.E.

10:07 P.M.

While they drove northwest through Oregon, they listened to Chicago. In the small span of Idaho they passed through, the 8-Track blared out Orleans. Through the whole of Montana, they listened to Kansas and then Boston. With Colonel Tennyson behind the wheel and in firm control of the radio, there was no escaping the deluge of rock and roll, the man lived and breathed it. Baylor would have killed for the man to just put it over to a radio station, but he'd only asked once halfway across Montana and gotten a snort for it. The rest of the squad was sedate and relaxed, and the Rookie'd found himself roped into a three-way game of poker that he and Whiskey 3 and 4 played for Peanut M&M's which lasted until they stopped for a bite to eat in Helena. They'd slept in the RV, with Whiskey 3 and 4 taking the foldout bunks and Max crashing in the driver's seat. Wes shared the foldout couch bed with the Rookie, and later complained that he snored.

It couldn't have been more than half an hour or so since they crossed the border into North Dakota (With another suitably loud announcement from the Colonel up front) before the man himself came back with Whiskey 2 right on his heels. Baylor did a double take and stared past them to the empty seats at the front of the RV, looking out through the safety glass to the highway that they were somehow still driving down. Max caught his stare and chuckled.

"Relax, Rookie. The autopilot can take over for a while, there's no traffic this time of night."

Baylor gave the empty driver's seat another dubious look before he shook his head. "Just how much technology do you have packed in this crate, sir?"

"Everything that the Plumbers could beg, borrow, or steal." Whiskey 3 said, more than a little smugly. "The self-guided autopilot's my work, we just installed it last year. Had to wait until we could manufacture our own integrated circuits to bridge the gap between salvaged alien computer cores and existing gear."

"Coop's our tech man." Max explained, motioning around the circle. "Wes is our best scout, and Phil is heavy weapons." Which may have been another reason for why Baylor had been put with them; He'd been second in his class in Sniper School, and the first had taken a teaching position after graduation. There wasn't a designated sniper on the squad.

Or that was what he tried to tell himself anyway. You're only here because we got on Merlin's shit list, the Colonel had said.

"Is this when you're finally gonna tell us what we're doing out here in the ass-end of nowhere, sir?" Whiskey 4 demanded. "They still have snow on the ground up here."

Max nodded, and the smile he'd been wearing disappeared in an instant. Baylor couldn't help but sit up a little straighter.

"Starting in the late 50's, there were UFO's sniffing around our nuclear weapons. The first ones were kind of innocent, just flybys during rocket tests. Overflights of nuclear refineries and power plants. They got less innocent throughout the 60's. Rockets shot down during boost phase test flights, with the warhead zapped clean off. Missiles carted around on convoys disappeared after their crews reported saucer sightings and blacked out for an hour, and missile bases got razed to the ground with no sign of their missiles on the pads after."

"I thought our nuclear missiles were stored in underground silos." Baylor interrupted, and Max's answering smile was more than a little grim.

"They are now. They weren't always, and they didn't dig holes in the ground because they were afraid of the Russians taking them out." That sent a shiver down his spine, and Baylor found himself wondering.

"I don't get it, boss." Cooper said. "What would X-Rays want with nuclear weapons? And do we know which aliens are gunning for them?"

Max shook his head. "We don't know. Whoever they are, they've been flying bar-standard spaceships, saucer and cigar-shaped craft. Our contacts in the Galactic Enforcers, when they bother to talk to us, can't give us a solid lead there. The only thing we do know is what they're after. That's why we've been driving this stretch."

And Baylor finally got it. "The Minuteman silos. You're not driving us around, you're following a search pattern."

"Along the northern U.S. sector, yeah." Max nodded. "There are five teams patrolling the Russian and Siberian bases, and two more squads running the central and southern U.S. sectors. It's a waiting game. With any luck, we'll have a team close enough to intercept before our uninvited guests get away with their thieving. And if we can bring down their ship, Coop, you can ask them in person why they're stealing our nukes."

"Why now?" Baylor asked, and all eyes in the RV went to him. "The patrols, sir. Have they been going on for years? Or if we're just starting now, why?"

Wes Green raised an eyebrow. "That's not a bad question, Rookie." He looked over to Max and some silent conversation passed between them as the men eyed each other. Max gave a slight nod, and Wes turned back to Baylor. "We've been running patrols for years, but it wasn't until we got some decent computers that we could start to compile the reports and look for a pattern. And even with that, we didn't have enough gear to hope to make a dent. Now we do."

"You can shoot down a spaceship?" Baylor blurted out, and that got a low chuckle from Max in response.

"Yeah. You can, if you're really lucky and they're really stupid. But having better gear helps."

Baylor nearly opened his mouth to blurt out another followup question, but the sound of a chirping alarm from the front of the RV had the other four men going grim in moments. Max and West turned around and went for the front seats almost faster than he could follow. The heavy impact of a hand on his shoulder jolted him out of his thoughts.

"Time to suit up, Rookie." Whiskey 4 rumbled menacingly. "We're on the clock now."

Jerry Baylor nodded mutely and went for his gear, seeing how Whiskey 3 and 4 slipped on their suits and their boots with practiced movements. It took him a lot longer because of his unfamiliarity with the strange fabric.

All the while, he heard the frantic shouts and terrified cries of military personnel on the radio, broken up occasionally by a woman's authoritative voice. There was no mistaking the solid response that Max Tennyson gave.

"Control, this is Whiskey 1. We're 20 miles out and Oscar-Mike."


Minuteman Silo November-84, Undisclosed Location

North Dakota

March 9th, 1979 C.E.

10:34 P.M.

Everyone had been on edge and keyed up when they finished the drive. The last leg of it had taken them off paved roads and onto graded gravel and dirt paths covered in mud and slush that should have trapped them in the muck and left them stranded. The 'Mobile Command Center' however, hardly seemed to notice the rough roads. Any time that there was even a moment that the Rookie felt they were going to get stuck, there was a hard jolt from the undercarriage that knocked them loose and kept them moving forward.

Once they got closer to the missile silo out in the middle of nowhere after the terrified reports went silent, Baylor wasn't thinking about the condition of the roads or how his suit still didn't feel like it was sitting right. He wasn't thinking about anything aside from the long-barreled gun he'd assembled under Whiskey 4's brusque instruction and what he could see through the front windows of the RV as they barreled through the chain link fence around the facility. There was an enormous shape looming over the silo in the night sky, lit up by a few scarce lights at its wingtips and mostly by the hazy glow of the fires burning underneath it. Ramming the fence jolted them a little, but there wasn't a good alternative. The burning wreckage of a car scattered over what was left of the gated entrance had made it impassable.

"Wes, take the wheel." Colonel Tennyson said from the front, slamming his helmet down into place and reaching for the door handle. "Whiskey 3, 4, and 5, deploy!" He shouted over the suit's radio and then he was shoving the door open and jumping out the side.

That much was ingrained into Baylor's mind, so when Whiskey 3 and 4 shoved the side door open and jumped out with their weapons, he was right behind them. The RV sped along as they hit the ground in a modified tuck and roll around their gear, leaving them behind to swerve for the main objective.

"Whiskey Team, comms check." Colonel Tennyson said crisply.

"Whiskey 2, driving."

"Whiskey 3, Oscar-Mike."

"Whiskey 4, loaded for bear."

"Whiskey 5, all green." Baylor answered. He was already sweeping the battlefield and cringing at what he saw. There wasn't a guard tower or a hangar, or any sort of defensive weaponry. There was, aside from the burning timbers of a small shack and a blown-open metal hatch that seemed to be close to two feet thick, nothing that had been previously standing which would indicate it was anything more than a concrete patch and an old hut in the middle of nowhere that used to have some kind of a telephone pole nearby. More importantly, there was nothing around that he could use to gain some elevation, something drilled into him in Sniper School. Also, there wasn't a scrap of cover to be found, another problem.

It didn't matter. They still had a job to do.

"Whiskey 5, check that silo on our nine o'clock. Whiskey 3 and 4, on the bogey. Weapons hot."

Baylor ran for the massive metal silo hatch that had been twisted up and wrenched out of the ground. He had about a second and a half to wonder and worry about what kind of force could do something like that before he had to slow at the edge. He peered down into the gaping chasm lined with red emergency lights and stared at the absence of the thing it was designed to hold, hearing the sound of strange weapons fire behind him all the while. There was a trick to getting the communicators in his Plumbers combat suit to turn on and off but he hadn't figured it out yet. He'd left his radio's microphone to 'always on' when he suited up, so it was just a matter of talking. "Whiskey 5, the silo's empty. Did the missile get fired?

"Negative." Colonel Tennyson answered him. "Which means the UFO took it."

"There are two of them, Colonel."

"What?"

"Two UFO's." Wes clarified, speaking from inside the RV which was spinning towards the lone object hovering over the site. "I am tracking a second object 10,000 feet up and accelerating away. Just drove by a second silo torn open as well."

That one was probably empty also, and Baylor unslung his long gun, taking aim at the one UFO he could still see. Whiskey 1 and Whiskey 3 and 4 were already unleashing hell on it with incandescent bursts of light and bolts of glowing blue energy, but none of it seemed to do much to affect the ship that kept hovering with impunity. Then the roof of the RV split open and a mounted turret popped up not far from the mess of radio dishes and antennae along the back. When it opened fire on the UFO, those laser blasts burned blue-white and filled the air with percussive thunder. The impacts caused the thing to shudder. The laser shots burned through the hull of the ship, and Baylor dialed in his scope on the impact site, noting the telltale red glow of melted metal around the edges of the hits. He steadied his breathing, took aim, and fired. So did everyone else on the squad.

Whatever was flying the UFO must have thought itself impervious to their weapons, and until the RV had opened up, that had been true. By the time it finally registered the danger and started to move to retreat, they'd cratered its underbelly with half a dozen holes and unleashed their small arms fire into them, doing worse besides. Baylor couldn't fire nearly as fast as his team leader or Whiskey 3 with their laser rifles, or with as much damaging punishment as the chambered plasmabursts from the heavy ion cannon that Whiskey 4 was carrying, but he made up for it with the sheer penetrating power of his sniper laser. He wasn't sure, but he thought that it might have been his last shot at the thing's tail section, right on a glowing port just beneath the equatorial edge of the saucer, that did it in. The thing shuddered, the few lights on it gave out as an explosion from its back end sent a gush of orange flame and smoke into the air, and it dipped down and careened for the far end of the missile site. The sound it made when it slammed into the snow-covered concrete and the muddy ground just beyond it was horrendous, and the whoops of joy from the rest of the team just barely made it tolerable.

"Don't celebrate just yet, team." Whiskey 1 admonished them. "Whiskey 2, keep the cannon pointed at the wreckage. Whiskey 3 and 5, I want you looking for survivors. Whiskey 4 with me, we need to have a look at this thing. Any radiation readings, Wes?"

"Geiger Counter says about 13 millisieverts. Not lethal but above average, worst of it's from the crash. Long as we stay in our suits, we'll be fine."

Baylor had his orders, so he hoofed it for the wreckage of the shack and flung it aside, unbothered by the heat and flames in his gray suit. As he flung one chunk of charred wood after another aside, he finally saw what he'd been looking for - the ruins of a service elevator that had been torn to pieces. The cabling had been snapped clean off and looking down the shaft revealed a hazy interior with sick yellow lighting.

"Whiskey 5 here, I've got eyes on the main entrance and it's totaled. I might be able to make it down with some rappelling gear…"

"Everyone, eyes up!" Colonel Tennyson cut him off sharply, and there was a note of urgency that wasn't quite terror in his voice. The Rookie had known Whiskey 1 all of three days now and he didn't think the man had it in him to ever panic. "We've got movement from inside of the wreckage!"

Baylor turned away from his last objective and instinctively brought his long-barreled laser rifle up, tucking the stock against his shoulder. It had a fair amount of kick to it that was a little less than the M40, and he was still adjusting to it.

Through the scope that he had jammed up as close to his helmet as he could manage, the Rookie could make out something bulging the roof of the downed UFO up and out. Like there was a creature inside pounding at the alien metal trying to break free of it. In the firelight it took on a menacing quality, and that was even before the loud hammerblow thuds of it rattled his heart.

Then like a bird hatching from an egg, a massive, sharp-edged limb tore the metal apart and smashed out of it. That was followed soon after by a second, and then a third and a fourth widened the breach until it was large enough for the body those spiderlike legs were attached to.

The robot was metallic and painted a burnished, dried-blood red. Its head was a rotating cylinder bristling with guns and gleaming glass eyes. It took one sweep of the battlefield, passing over the four figures on the ground that opened fire on it instinctively and immediately turned its attention to the RV nearby.

The side of its body parted and a rack with missiles slid out into play. A pair of those warheads fired off and screamed towards it, and the Rookie heard Whiskey 1 scream Whiskey 2's name right before they slammed into the ground right next to its side and detonated. The explosion lifted the RV clean off the ground and into the air by ten feet before it crashed down onto its side, the paint job warped and smoking and the turret pointed helplessly away from the robot.

"Take it down!" Max shouted, increasing the rate of his shots as the robot turned towards him. It angled two legs at him and stabbed down, trying to spear him like a bug collector mounting a wasp on a pin, but Max rolled clear and kept shooting as it pursued.

"Too close, can't get a clean shot!"

"Take the shot, Phil!"

"Boss, you're right…"

"TAKE THE SHOT!" Max screamed at him. There was a delay and the ominous whining sound of Whiskey 4's ion cannon charging up even more. Then a thunderous boom came when the plasma grenade was released and slammed into the side of the robot, detonating in blinding white light. The red robot went flying through the air even farther than the RV had and hit the ground in a heap thirty feet away. Baylor stared through his scope, stunned to see that Whiskey 1 had somehow gotten clear of the explosion at the last instant and was struggling to pick himself back up again. The legs of the robot must have just missed him.

"Whiskey 2, report."

"Whiskey 2 here...shaken up, but alive." Came the reply from Wes Green, who groaned afterwards. "I'll need some aspirin after this, Max."

"Tell me my ride's okay and I'll buy you the whole pharmacy." Max joked, earning a weak and pained laugh from his second in command. "Phil, Coop, Rookie, sitrep?"

"All good here, boss."

"No damage."

Baylor moved his scope from the Colonel to the smoking robot on the ground and dialed in his scope. "Whiskey 5 is green." He said, and stared at the heap of alien-forged metal. It looked battered, but even with the punishment that Whiskey 4's charged cannon shot had smashed it with, it was remarkably intact. What the hell was it made of? And was it even down for the count?

Maybe it was paranoia run amok, but he refused to ease his concentration off of it. When the light in its mechanical eyes glowed back to life and it started to stir, he didn't bother shouting out a warning. He just centered the scope between the thing's eyes, marveled at how he didn't have to account for windage or dropdown all that much, waited between heartbeats…

And bored a hole through the thing's skull before it could do anything more than shudder as it tried to move its legs underneath it. The effect of the killshot was immediate. The eyes went dark and it lost all power, dropping back to the ground under the full control of gravity and momentum.

There was silence on the line for several seconds as the rest of the squad recovered from their shock and put it together.

"Did the Rookie make that shot?" Whiskey 4 asked wonderingly.

"That was me." Baylor replied coolly, finally safetying his weapon and lowering the barrel back down.

"Good shooting, Whiskey 5." Colonel Tennyson said, all business again, and there was a click on the line as he switched from their team's private channel to the main Plumbers frequency. "Whiskey 1 to Control. We've got a downed UFO at Installation November 84, a second UFO that broke atmosphere before we could intercept it, and some kind of red four-legged robot that put up one hell of a fight before we took it down."

"Control confirms, Whiskey 1. Merlin instructs you to Secure and Contain and search for survivors. A cleanup team is enroute, ETA 30 minutes."

"Roger that, Avalon." The radio clicked again as Colonel Tennyson switched their channel back to team private, and he didn't lose a step. "Okay, team. Phil, Coop, help Wes get our ride back on its wheels and then take a look at that robot. It took a hell of a lot of punishment and I want to know who sent it. Whiskey 5, you're with me. If the main shaft is down we'll have to look for the secondary access, and we need to know if there are any survivors left here."

Whiskey 1 got a series of affirmatives in response and the other two raced for the RV lying on its side. The Colonel walked straight for Baylor who came to attention automatically. It made the older Plumber chuckle a little.

"At ease, Rookie. I'm not big on formality in my unit, just results. That was one hell of a shot. How did you know it wasn't down for the count?"

"I didn't." Baylor confessed. "I think it was just nerves."

"Nerves, huh?" Max muttered, patting him on the elbow and walking past him. "Just be sure you don't have that thing pointed at one of us the next time you're feeling nervous."

"Yes, sir. Erm. No, sir." Baylor quickly replied. "Sir, what the hell is an alien robot doing stealing nuclear missiles?"

"That's the 64,000 dollar question, Rookie." Max answered grimly.


12:21 A.M.

It was called the 'Mobile Command Center' for a reason, and that became abundantly clear when the team sat or stood around the kitchen table, nursing glasses of water while a medic from the cleanup crew gave them all a shot. No needles, just the press of a strange device that resembled a stubby-nosed otoscope on the side of their necks once their helmets were off and they didn't have to worry about radiation sickness. No iodine tablets in water needed, and he even felt energized after, like he'd had three cups of coffee and he'd had ten hours to heal the bruises. It reminded the Rookie a little of the shot they'd given him back during his brief orientation, but that one hadn't done anything except allow him to understand nearly everything anyone said, regardless of language. He just wished he knew why some people speaking made him think of food.

The heavily modified GMC Motorhome had taken some abuse at the hands of the robot's missiles and being knocked on its side, but less than Baylor would have thought. Aside from Wes Green drinking herbal tea and being constantly prodded by his superior in case of concussion, the worst damage had been a lot of broken dishes and spilled beverages in the refrigerator. Easily swept up, mopped up, and forgotten about.

Max had laid out a paper map of the United States with old fold and crease lines marring the image on the dining table, and they all clustered around it while the speakers in the kitchen piped in the Plumber's radio chatter.

" - No other sites were hit, just November 84 -"

"Tranquility Base here, no sign of your missing bogey from our vantage point…"

"The two survivors we found got carted off by the cleanup crews." Colonel Tennyson said, giving a nod to another fully-suited Plumber who took two steps into the RV from the side door, saluted, and handed over a folded note. Max took it and read it out loud. "The wounds on the other five bodies were consistent with high-energy weapons discharge, stab wounds and laceration, and blunt force trauma. It'll take the reconstruction teams a while to piece together what happened, but if I had to guess, the big robot we fought against had some little X-Ray brothers and sisters that got into the base."

"Isn't that a lovely thought." Wes groused, putting a second bag of frozen peas against the side of his head and the still swelling lump there, with the first thawed one tossed over into the sink. "How many missiles were on this base, Max?"

Max shook his head. "If it's standard to other Minuteman bases, about two to four. They usually have the command center centrally located as a hub with the silos spaced out away from them in a circle. Avalon's going to have to play cleanup with the folks at NORAD, and I don't imagine that SAC in Offutt will be all that happy with this."

"When those blue-suits wanna come out here and try doing our job I'll pretend to give a shit." Billings scoffed, taking another sip of his beer.

" -Whiskey 1, Merlin requests an upda -" Control said, but Wes Green's hand snapped up like a rattlesnake and cranked the knob down until the speakers turned off.

"Thanks, Wes." Max exhaled wearily, putting a thumb and two fingers against his forehead, rubbing at it steadily. "They'll be dragging the UFO back to Area 51 for study, the robot's another matter. Chances are good that'll get carted off to Fort Tesla or Rushmore Base for examination or study, and my guess is Tesla. They've got that new Electron Microscope and I'm sure the tech squad is salivating over the metallurgy. Son of a bitch took a hit from your ion cannon and was trying to get back up, Phil." He opened his eyes enough to give Whiskey 4 a wan smile. "Good thing the Rookie's a sureshot."

"I softened it up for him." Phil argued, defending himself, and that just made Whiskey 3 laugh a little more honestly as he poured a shot of whiskey in his own glass of beer for a boilermaker. The Rookie just shrugged. He'd just been following orders. The threat got put down, the rest was just details.

Cooper drained half of his boilermaker down in a few steady swallows and set the glass down firmly, but gently on the table. They didn't have nearly as many glasses or bowls and plates after the RV got up-ended to waste on dramatics. "Permission to speak -"

"Say what you need to, Coop." Tennyson cut him off. Whiskey 3 blinked once and then allowed himself to frown.

"That was a fuckin' shitshow, and we only nailed the diversion. You know it, boss. There was a second UFO that got off clean, there weren't any missiles we pulled out of that saucer we took down."

"Yeah." Max nodded. "It got away clean, escaped Earth's atmosphere, and it could be halfway across the galaxy in a couple of days."

"So what are we gonna do about it?" Coop pressed him.

"Regs say that our jurisdiction ends past the orbit of the Moon, Coop. You know that."

"Screw the regs." Phil blustered angrily. "Whoever's responsible for this raid, for the robots, they've been snooping around for close to 20 years now. They just kicked our teeth in, boss. You don't let something like that go."

Whiskey 2 entered into the conversation as a voice of composure and calm. "In this situation, standing policy is that it's up to Avalon. It's Merlin's final decision whether or not to reach out to Galactic Enforcers to request extraterrestrial aid and intervention."

"Which they won't do." Cooper argued. "Hell, Avalon's keeping them in the dark about the Sludgepuppy Wars, remember? Because the higher-ups don't want them interfering in a local matter. You think they're gonna go begging for help now?"

Whiskey 1, Max Tennyson, slumped a little at the accusation in his subordinate's bitter arguments. "No, they probably won't." He conceded, and went back to rubbing at his forehead. "It's no big secret that the Galactic Enforcers have never been fond of humanity's development of nuclear weaponry. Their demands for disarmament were what killed the talks in '52. The old man would never authorize a request for aid on this. Better to lose the missiles than lose face."

Jerry Baylor bristled at the notion. Yes, he'd had chains of command and following orders beaten into him hard until it was second nature, but this - this was too big. It was too much to just gloss over.

Years this had been going on. Years. And now there were fatalities, stolen missiles, the kinds of things that if humans had done them would lead to a firing squad and an international incident unlike anything ever before.

Max dropped his hand down and looked around the table, and Whiskey 5 found himself doing the same. In the eyes of his new team, he could see burning anger, resolve, and a question.

What are we going to do about it?

Whatever Max was looking for in their faces, he must have found. Permission or agreement, there was too much in the eyes of Whiskey Team for Jerry Baylor to parse out entirely. Colonel Tennyson let out a loud huff of air and pushed himself off of the end of the table. "I guess I'd better make a call, then."

Whiskey 5 blinked wonderingly and his confusion was something that Whiskey 4 shared also, because Billings spoke up when Max had meandered to the front of the RV and started twisting the dials on the communications gear in a new sequence. "Uh, Wes? Who's the boss calling?"

Wes Green chuckled and drained the rest of his now lukewarm tea in one go. "That's right, you weren't with us the last time he made a call. Let's just say that Max Tennyson's a legend, and he's got friends in high places."

Jerry Baylor turned his shoulders around and craned his neck to see Max grinning as he slipped on a bulky set of headphones and put the jack into an auxiliary port on the dash. The Colonel was still tired, but something in his eyes glowed when he spoke.

"Hey there, beautiful. You have ears on tonight? Roswell needs a favor…"


Turtle Mountain State Forest, North Dakota

March 10th, 1979 C.E.

7:31 P.M.

Nobody said anything else that night after Whiskey 1 finished his call to whoever his friend 'in high places' was and Wes wearily told them all to finish their drinks and sack out. Shedding their uniforms and bedding down, they woke up in the morning to the sound of someone at the stove. It was always one of the best sounds Baylor ever heard just because it meant more than another C-Ration that tasted like chemicals and rust. Or worse, like the floor he was lying on. At least the couch was folded back up. Now he almost had enough room to roll over.

All of which made the groaned, "Damn it, Phil, I told you to set the alarm," that came from the bottom bunk across from him sound all the worse.

"Why?" Baylor asked as Max and Wes's whispered voices filtered back through the curtain, and even the Native American sounded like someone pissed in his Cheerios.

"Because the colonel made it to the stove first," the blond man muttered as he dropped down from the bunk above Phil.

Phil just hid his head under his pillow. "Rookie gets first bite. If he can keep it down, come and get me."

A lifetime of eating on the rough made Baylor snort at that as he pushed himself out of the sleeping bag that the colonel had pulled out of somewhere last night. "We're getting a warm meal and you two are complaining? It's a good thing that you're here, because neither of you would have lasted five minutes as Jarheads."

It was an attitude that lasted until he saw the goat cheese and squid omelet that the Colonel plopped down on his plate. It was a mix that would have made Chesty Puller gag just from the smell, but it went down better than the side-eye he got from everyone but the Colonel. Tennyson was the only one who wolfed the food down with a grin as he cheerfully told them the news that they'd be patrolling the other missile sites around North Dakota, which would keep Avalon off their backs as they killed time until his 'friend' arrived later in the evening.

They made camp in a large clearing beside a small lake, and despite the park being closed, they had no trouble getting in. Wes Green used a laser pistol to burn a sizable hole in the ice next to the shore and they took turns fishing, coming up with some trout for their evening meal.

In spite of the cold, they sat around an enormous bonfire that blazed brightly in the growing darkness, relaxing in a way that felt almost unnatural to Baylor after the hellish firefight the evening before. Cooper had pulled out a harmonica from somewhere and puffed on it to produce a low and crooning melody that mimicked one of the songs Max had played on his 8-Tracks during the days' drive. Phil was cleaning up the cast iron skillet that they'd used for the fish earlier, Wes tended the fire, and the Colonel sat on the ground with his legs stretched out in front of him. Tennyson leaned back against a fallen log with his arms behind his head and smiled as he stared up at the stars.

"What are you smiling about?" Phil finally asked.

Max gestured at the night sky, and the crescent moon broaching on half-full. "How often do you stop and look up at those stars, Phil?" He countered the Plumber's question with another question.

"Not often." The man grunted. "Stars don't pay for my new set of wheels."

"Well, you ought to." Max grumbled. "It's easy to get caught up in our problems down here. It's easy to forget that our world's just a small part of something bigger. I look up at the sky to remind myself why I do this."

"Is the rest of the universe better than here?" Baylor asked him, and Max turned his head over slightly.

"Bigger. Better?" The Colonel shrugged. "Couldn't say. There's as many problems out there as there are here, so I've been told. We just try to keep our own little corner of the universe safe, Rookie."

"You all should listen. He knows more about this corner than most," Green said conversationally as he poked at the fire. "He could have commanded Apollo 11, you know." and Baylor and Whiskey 4 both whipped their heads over to Whiskey 2 in surprise before doing a double-take to Max. "Really. He passed it up to become a Plumber."

"I ought to stop telling you things, Wesley." Max grumbled. "You pick the worst times to remember them."

"You could've walked on the Moon." Baylor stammered out.

"I did three months ago, during a routine check-up on the staff at Tranquility Base." Max replied easily. "And you'll be heading there yourself after you finish your tour with us."

"If he survives it." Phil muttered, earning a dark look from the Colonel and Whiskey 2.

"We all knew the risks when we signed on, Phil." Max said warningly. "I took the job because it meant I could protect the people I cared about. It's why most of us did. Maybe not you…" Phil smirked and shrugged his shoulders, then surrendered to Max's logic and looked up at the sky. They all did then.

Maybe if Baylor hadn't been staring up in a different patch of sky than everyone, he wouldn't have noticed it. There was a spot in the sky where there should have been stars and there weren't. If they'd been in a city or somewhere that had loads more light pollution beyond their bonfire, he could have missed it completely. Or if he hadn't been hyper-aware of objects in the sky after their fight the night before…

Regardless, he saw it, and then he couldn't not see it. A ship was gliding in silently towards them, a dark spot in the sky that got bigger and bigger. He swallowed and pointed. "Colonel? Sir? We've got company."

They all looked over and followed his finger, and then Phil swore and lurched to his feet. "Fuck, another one. Get to the RV!"

"Stand down, Whiskey 4!" Max bellowed, and the thunder in his voice was enough to make everything come to a halt. Wes had looked tense for a bit, but he relaxed when he heard that command.

"Is that…"

"She always did love to make an entrance." Max said in reply, smiling as he pushed himself up off of the ground. "Relax, everyone. This one's friendly."

"How do you know that, sir?" Whiskey 5 asked carefully.

"If she wasn't, that ship would be coming in shooting." Max explained, dusting his hands off on his pant legs and standing by the fire. The dark shape in the night came down and settled in a silent hover over the lake, and then a figure glowing in purple light appeared off of its side, flying down and across the lake towards them.

It was undeniably alien. The creature was wrapped in a tight skinsuit with two long tentacles that grew out of the sides of its head and hung down behind its back like hair, its skin green and slightly scaled, and a third eye in its forehead. Yet for all of that, Jerry found himself swallowing and standing up a little straighter, because the figure that flew in an aura of strange light was undeniably feminine, and when she finally got close enough to see their faces, she looked past them all to the Colonel and smiled.

"Hey there, Roswell." She greeted them, and nope, Jerry was not going to ask why there was a purr in her voice when she said that.

"Xylene." Max said, stepping past the rest of the team to go over in front of her as she settled down the last few inches until she settled on the ground and the glow around her faded. The smile on his face hadn't been that genuine in a long while. "Thanks for coming."

"Well, it must have been pretty important if my favorite Plumber was willing to make a transmission on the Hyperwave circuit I gave you for emergencies." Xylene said, tipping her head back a little to look into his eyes. She was about a head shorter than the Colonel and seemed pleased by that truth. He laughed and pulled her into a hug that she readily returned with a kiss on the cheek for his troubles, then the alien looked past him, finally recognizing the others. "Wesley Green. You keeping Tennyson here out of trouble?"

"When he lets me." Wes said, getting a laugh from the alien woman that was nothing short of sparkling. After she finished, the Navajo bowed his head. "It's good to see you again, Magister."

"Same." She looked to the others. "Cooper, I know...who're the other two?"

"Phil's our new fourth, been with us for a while. And this here's Baylor, the Rookie." Xylene gave them both a polite nod before turning to Max again.

"So, astronaut. What's so important that you'd ask me to fly a few dozen light-years over at full speed, when the official channel from the Plumbers to the Galactic Enforcers is quiet?"

"Because I don't think our boss wanted your bosses knowing what was going on." Max said, all business again. "Me, I want the problem dealt with, and I need off-world help to make it happen." He motioned with his head. "Come on inside the RV. I've got some video footage from our last mission you need to look at."

"Oh, so we're watching movies now?" Xylene crooned as she took his arm, sauntering beside him as they walked past the rest of the Plumbers with a deliberate sway to her hips that went all the way down to the tip of her tail. "I hope you have snacks. Isn't that how you humans do it here on Earth?"

"I've got some chocolate covered crickets in the freezer." Max volunteered, and she laughed again.

"Oh, Max. You know just what a girl likes…"

Everyone else on the squad was silent as Max escorted Xylene into the trailer, and Baylor might well have continued to say nothing and stand rigidly as a statue if Wes Green hadn't looked over and snorted at him.

"Tongue in your mouth, Rookie." Wes said, the words having too much bass to be a whisper even if it didn't hide the laugh in it. "That's a lady. And she's spoken for."

"Funny." Cooper muttered, forcing his legs into action and moving to follow the Colonel and their alien visitor. "So's he."


Xylene was a Magister with the Galactic Enforcers, a rank that allowed her greater autonomy. Or so Jerry Baylor was told. She was his first alien and he'd thought that she spoke English up until they got inside and Max showed her the first of their color-image recordings, and she hissed something that was nothing but a garbled mess to him. That was enough of a disconnect for him to recall the 'translator microbes' that he'd been injected with, and then he felt stupid for a few more seconds. Nobody else noticed, though. The attention of the rest of the team was on Xylene, who frowned at the drone that crawled out of the downed saucer.

"This is so familiar." She said to herself, munching on one of the chocolate-covered crickets Max had given her. "You didn't find any biologics on board the crashed saucer afterwards?"

"Negative. No X-Rays. Just that big robot." Wes told her.

"Drone." Xylene corrected the Navajo. "Four legs...any flight capabilities?"

"Not that it showed." Max said, shaking his head. "We're pretty sure that it wasn't alone, though. Our cleanup crews think that there were smaller ones that got into the command and control section of the missile base, those ones might have been able to. They left a hell of a mess behind them. Why? What are you thinking, Xylene?"

"That I should know this." The alien woman told them heatedly. She huffed and brought up the strange gauntlet strapped to her forearm, turning it on, and a projected screen manifested in thin air above it. With careful and deliberate gestures of her free hand, she scrolled the image full of some kind of green alien script between different pages that were accompanied by wire-frame outlines of models of robots, with all three of her eyes moving between Max's recording of the previous evening's fight and her own device's projection. "Mounted pulse lasers. Internal seeker missiles, unknown detonation index…" Her three eyes widened when Phil's charged ion cannon slammed a plasmaburst into its side and sent it flying, smoking but relatively undamaged. "...And some very impressive armor. How did you take it down after that?" She asked, pausing the recording and looking over to Max, sitting just off of her elbow. The Colonel smiled and motioned towards the side door where Baylor was leaning at a respectable distance. "Rookie knows how to shoot straight. Keep watching."

Xylene restarted the recording and a few seconds later, blinked as the sniper laser bored a hole through its rotating head and dropped it cold. "Wow. That is a good shot. Honestly, though, I think you got lucky." She glanced to her screens which were still sorting through possibilities. "No matches yet, but if I had to guess, that thing could move a lot faster if it wasn't banged up from the crash of its ship."

"That's us all right." Cooper snorted, grabbing another pair of beers from the RV's fridge and handing one off to Phil. "We're all kinds of lucky. We drive two days and stumble right into the kind of firefight that makes my Irma keep buying me antacids and telling me to lay off the spicy foods."

"You don't eat spicy foods, though." Phil pointed out, popping the top of his beer with a hiss.

"Exactly." Cooper agreed wearily.

The gauntlet device Xylene had beeped cheerfully then, and she turned her attention to it. Whatever she was looking at must have been bad. Alien or no, there was no mistaking the sharp intake of breath or the way all three of her eyes widened. Her head tendrils going rigid before shivering was new though.

"Fuck." Xylene whispered. "Fuck. Fucking…" And Baylor wouldn't have believed it, but her seafoam green skin went even paler then. Max had an arm around her and was holding her close as she panicked, anchoring her.

"Xylene?" Max asked her carefully. "What is it?"

"You said there was a second ship." She said, licking at her lips before she turned her head to him. Max nodded, calm where she wasn't.

"Unknown design. We didn't get a visual on it and radar return was nonspecific. Seeing as we didn't recover the nuclear missiles on the downed UFO, we figure the second one has them."

Xylene closed all of her eyes and breathed in and out, very slowly. Baylor figured she was putting herself together again, but the way that Colonel Tennyson and Mr. Green both tensed up spoke of something else.

"Has anything like this ever happened before?" She asked, her voice calmer than any of the nonverbal signals her body kept giving off. The Plumbers aside from Max all looked to one another, silently asking if they should own up to it or not. Max didn't hesitate at all.

"UFO sightings around nuclear tests and missile launches have been happening since the late 50's. It wasn't until this past decade that thefts started happening."

"And the Plumbers didn't think that Galactic Enforcers needed to know about this until now."

"Pretty sure our bosses still don't want Galactic Enforcers knowing about this." Max told her consolingly.

"You rebklath'n humans." Xylene snarled, jerking herself out of Max's reach and storming to her feet. "I swear Max, you're the only one I know with any common sense. We need to go. We need to go now."

"Xylene, what is it?" Max demanded, getting up after her as she stormed out of the RV. Baylor and the rest of the team scrambled to chase after the two, and caught up to them outside where Max was almost yelling at her. "Xylene, talk to me!"

She spun around, a purple glow in her eyes, and raised her arm with the strange device strapped to it. "The GE Drone Database got a hit, and you really hit the jackpot this time for trouble. This I have to call in, because you humans are in no way prepared for the storm of trouble that's headed your way if he's serious about stealing your fission warheads for his crusade. Grab every piece of heavy weaponry you can carry, it'll give me time to land my ship."

Max could move fast when he wanted to, and he was grabbing her wrist right as she went to fly off. Her head spun back around and she bared her teeth at him. It made Baylor's breath catch in his throat as he realized the exotic alien woman he'd been giving moon eyes to was actually dangerous. To anyone but Max, apparently, because she covered her teeth with her lips right after.

"Xylene." Max repeated her name. "Who. Is. He." He asked.

Xylene blinked all three of her eyes simultaneously. Her head tendrils shivered again, and Baylor marked it off in his head as something akin to an expression of fear. The way she spoke afterwards clinched it.

Baylor hadn't heard a name uttered that fearfully in his life, but Xylene whispered it like it was the Devil himself.

"...Vilgax."


Low Earth Orbit

Xylene had told them to bring all the firepower they could, but had balked when Max insisted on loading up the Mobile Command Center in the back of her spaceship. It was blue and all sleek lines, shaped like a multi-pronged dart with rounded tips and curves that had Baylor thinking about a race car and a beautiful woman at the same time. Her ship was nothing like the geometric simplicity of the saucer that they'd taken down and it didn't seem boxy and constructed like any airplane he'd ever seen, and it had nothing in common with the flying washing machine that NASA had used to take men to the Moon. Xylene had argued their ride wouldn't fit but Max had gotten out a measuring tape from the toolbox stored in the back for quick repairs and answered, to his own satisfaction, that it could. In reality, the RV ended up just barely fitting in the rear storage compartment meant to carry much smaller vehicles or a complement of troops, and whoever drove it in wouldn't have enough space to even open the door to get out. Max surrendered driving privileges to his second in command, and Wes joked that he'd finally get to listen to some symphonies he'd picked up back in Boise. They set up an intercom connection between Xylene's ship and the RV to keep in touch, and the rest of the squad minus Whiskey 2 went through her spaceship's side door, and Baylor met three more aliens right after; a yellow-eyed blue dinosaur in another sleek bodysuit like Xylene's, a squat pot-bellied alien with an enormous mouth that seemed like a lumpy potato, and a towering red-skinned alien with four arms that made Colonel Tennyson freeze for a moment before he kept on. Whiskey 1 fed him the names of their species after the introductions; Kineceleran, Perk, and Tetramand. And Xylene was an Uxorite. The Galactic Enforcers officers under Xylene's command all bristled when she told them to make orbit, begin scanning for recent ion exhaust trails and to call command with the news that Vilgax had been sniffing around Earth for years stealing nuclear weaponry and that they were only just finding out about it now.

Then she took the four humans away from the bridge into a modestly-sized cabin full of padded chairs and a futuristic white table, sat them down, and told them who they were going up against. What they were going up against.

Xylene spun them a tale of an amphibious species whose expansionist vision was spurred on by a tyrant emperor, and a world full of squidlike inhabitants that found their world swallowed and enslaved to that greed. She spoke of an intelligent boy skilled in mechanical engineering who grew up as a slave and became cold and hard very fast, became what his people needed in a leader and a vengeful freedom fighter. She spoke of a desperate call that he and his forces risked everything to make to beg for the help of the Galactic Enforcers, and the crushing bitterness that followed when he was told by an agent that was later censured and dismissed for their callousness that no help was coming. When the boy was told that the Chimera Sui Generis species was on their own in the war against an empire that the Galactic Enforcers couldn't defeat, and could only push back so far.

She spoke of atrocity after atrocity committed by Vilgax in the name of his people's freedom and the slaughter of the Incursean Empire, how he drove such fear into the heart of the 'Illuminated Emperor' that the Empire sued for peace and begged Galactic Enforcers to broker the treaty.

Baylor found himself pouring a fresh round of alien alcohol Max declared safe for human consumption when Xylene concluded by explaining how Vilgax refused the peace treaty and walked away from his people and the Galactic Enforcers, becoming a Warlord in truth, and turned into the most feared conqueror in the last two human centuries.

When she fell silent, nobody else around the table was too eager to say anything else and they sipped at their drinks. Baylor took another hit of his, catching strong notes of a licorice flavor that reminded him of the snacks his grandfather always brought around Thanksgiving. Well, maybe the Colonel and his two more experienced squadmates didn't feel like speaking up, but he did.

"How do you know it's this Vilgax that's been coming for us, ma'am?" He asked the Galactic Enforcers officer. "We didn't run into anyone with octopus tentacles dangling from their chin last night."

"No, you wouldn't." Xylene huffed, slugging the rest of her own glass back. "But it was one of his drones that came up as a match on our ship's database, and Vilgax isn't in the habit of lending those out to other people, no matter how much they offer for them. That's the one good thing he does in my opinion. None of us in the GE are too fond of what a group like the Blood Pack or the Black Sun might do with his tech, it's a nightmare to deal with. But him sending his drones out is completely his usual procedure. The way he's been doing it, though…"

The Uxorite's head tendrils shivered again, and her three eyes glazed over for a bit before she came back to herself. "He's always looking for an edge in his one-person war on the Incursean Empire, and he's never been shy about destroying anyone that got in his way."

"He's just one man, how much damage could he…" Phil started to argue.

"Destroying a planet is an afternoon's work for him when he gets well and truly riled up." Xylene cut him off bitterly. "The Petrosapiens of Petropia were among our strongest supporters of the GE, and he destroyed their planet outright." She set her plastic cup down and flashed her teeth. "We never did figure out why he did it, whether he was trying to send us a message, or if he was bored, or if they had something that they refused to give him. What we do know is that they're, for all intents and purposes, extinct. The surviving Petrosapiens we did know about either up and disappeared after, or committed suicide."

"Fuck." Cooper breathed heavily.

"And I thought that him causing a star to go supernova to take out a shipyard was bad." Max grunted. "All right. Is there any good news here?"

"Yeah." Xylene agreed after a small pause. "He's not coming himself yet. He's been sending his drones, but he's using standard saucer spacecraft. That means he's been doing this quietly."

"For two decades?" Baylor asked, and Xylene nodded.

"The Chimera Sui Generis lifespan is about 400 of your planetary revolutions on average. For him, this is just a midlife crisis. And honestly, I'm not sure how much standard physiology to his species applies to him after all the augmentations he's gotten over his life. Him doing this quietly means that he's not committing his full reserves here, our last reports had him chipping away at the fringe of the Incursean neutral zone, slaughtering their colonies. If he got his hands on your fission warheads, then he could really start doing some lasting damage."

"Fallout." Colonel Tennyson stated flatly. "Like poisoning water wells and salting the fields."

"It's much easier to make a place uninhabitable for thousands of revolutions than to keep coming back and blowing it up over and over again." Xylene said, and the purple glow in her eyes returned. "Why do you think the Galactic Enforcers outlawed them, Max? It's because to us, life is precious. And the worlds and moons that can support life are even more so."

Whiskey 3 and 4 looked to each other and then to the Rookie, but nobody could look at the Colonel who swirled what was left of his licorice-flavored liquor around in his glass carefully.

"We don't make the laws. We don't give the orders." Max said wearily. "We just try to put out the fires and keep our world safe for the people we love."

Xylene's bitter attitude softened at that, and her hand reached over, green fingers settling over his and squeezing gently. "Max. I'm not mad at you, okay? I'm frustrated at the situation and everything your people's leaders have done that's brought us to this, but I'm not mad at you."

Max mustered a weak smile. "You're just saying that because I'm your favorite human."

She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Always." She said warmly, and the purple gleam in her eyes faded back away again.

The device on Xylene's wrist beeped at her, and she hit a button. "Yes?"

"Magister, we've identified an ion trail one Terran rotation old."

"Do you have a course fix?"

"...Affirmative. It leads directly to the fourth planet in this system."

Max sat up straighter at that. "Mars?" He demanded. "The second UFO flew to Mars?"

"If that's what you call the fourth planet out from your star, yes." Xylene nodded, turning back to her wrist communicator. "Set a course, but take us in slowly and keep our sensors at maximum sensitivity for any traps or cue lines. I don't want to warn that Visacha that we're coming."

"Affirmative, Magister." Her device went silent again and Xylene got up, stretching her arms out.

"You boys can relax in here. We don't have a lot of extra space up on the bridge, after all, and I've probably got some calls to make. If you want, Max, we can route a communication back to your Plumbers on Earth. Let them know what's happening."

"Oh, that'll be a fun call to make." Max turned his eyes towards the ceiling. "As if Merlin didn't have enough reasons to get on my case. He isn't going to like hearing about this."

"And here I thought that keeping your world safe was the only thing that mattered to your little band of warriors." Xylene poked him in the chest with a finger. "Don't worry about it, Max. I'll make sure you get home safe and sound."

"With a note for the principal?" The Colonel suggested dryly, and Xylene snorted and turned around.

"You humans and your strange sayings. Whatever. Meet me up on the bridge when you're ready to - what's the phrase you use - phone home?"

"Thanks, Xylene." Max Tennyson said, and she waved a hand over her shoulder as she left the room. The door closed behind her automatically, and Max sighed and smiled as he looked out after it.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Whiskey 3 asked, his voice colder than usual.

"Sure, Coop. What's on your mind?"

"You shouldn't be flirting with her." Whiskey 3 glared daggers at their leader. "I can't believe I have to remind you of that."

"She's a friend, Coop." Max pointed out. "I've known her since 1965, trust me, flirting is what she does. It's innocent."

"Does she know that you're a married man? Because that sure as hell didn't look innocent to me." Cooper insinuated.

Max stared back at Whiskey 3, unfazed by the accusations. "I don't care what it looked like to you, Cooper. It's the truth. I've done nothing to betray the vows I made to my Starshine."

Baylor considered that for a moment, and glanced down to Max's left hand, noting the lack of jewelry on it. "I didn't know you were married, sir. You're not wearing a ring."

Max patted a hand on the chest of his suit, above his heart. "I don't wear it in the field, Rookie. Too much of a chance it'll interfere with the suit."

"Too much of a chance it'll interfere with something, anyways." Cooper snarked, and Max's face went red.

Whiskey 1 got to his feet stiffly. "Find something to eat. Get comfortable. I'm not sure how long a trip to Mars will take, but once we land, don't come begging me for a break. We're finishing this."

Colonel Tennyson disappeared out of the break room and Whiskey 4 whistled lowly. "Wow. Awesome job there, Coop. I didn't think anyone could piss him off that bad."

"He didn't yell at me." Cooper pointed out. "And he didn't defend himself too hard either. I'd put good money that he's dipped his wick with Xylene at least once in his life. You two are new, you haven't been around as much. I brushed it off the first time I met her on a different assignment, we teamed up to stop some human traffickers that were making an end-run on some small villages out in Siberia. She flirted with him then too, but there's something between them, I just know it. And I hate that he has a wife back home who has no idea he's got a girl on the side."

"I don't think he was lying, though." Baylor said, and Whiskey 3 and 4 looked at him dubiously. "Honest. I haven't known Colonel Tennyson or the rest of you that long, but I've met other guys like him before. Nothing ever seems to get to them, but when they get too quiet, that's when you know you're in trouble. That's when they started throwing punches and laying out entire barrooms."

"You don't know what you're talking about, Rookie." Phil snorted. "She might be an alien, but if I had a piece that liked me that much, you bet I'd be giving it to her on a regular basis. Marriage is for chumps, anyways. What did James Dean say? Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse."

"Do me a favor and don't live up to that motto on this mission." Cooper snapped at his teammate. "Being the first man to die on Mars is an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records we can all do without."

Baylor blinked at that thought and then poured himself another shot of alien liquor. In the heated exchange between Colonel Tennyson and Cooper, he'd almost forgotten.

They were going to Mars.

Whiskey Team Will Return in

Chapter Two: For All Mankind