Chapter 2: Condition Amber

2nd March 2040 0200 hrs

It seemed to Shen that he had barely closed his eyes for sleep when something pulled him out of slumber. He lay there uncomprehending for a moment, his mind seeking the source of the disruption.

The alarm… The Alert Klaxon!.

He bolted upright at about the same time as Lee, both men grabbing for their lockers where their air/sea combat suits awaited. The bunk lights had automatically come on, highlighting the two cursing men as they jammed on the suits, fastening gloves, trouser attachments, sealed combat boots and a light composite armour vest. The Alert klaxon blared in the background, the yellow strobe light pulsing from the wall-mounted device indicating a detected USO.

At least it isn't the red light. Both men thought. Red indicated an incoming base attack. Red was bad. Very bad.

The two of them grabbed their helmets, weapons and ammo webbing, Shen already pulling open the door as the two XCOM hurtled out into the corridor, the noises and shouts from outside indicating other troopers racing to the hangars, strapping on gear and helmets as they ran.

"What is it?" Captain Pierpoint snapped as he ran up the metal steps to the radar/sonar station, which doubled as SporeCom's Ops Room. The duty officer dressed in XCOM noncombatant blue beckoned to him and pointed to a flashing contact on the screen.
"Possiblesmall sub sir. Looks like a cruiser." The lieutenant said. "Picked her up from her noise signature and mechanical transients off Indonesia. She's landed, don't know for how long. Barracuda 3 has been launched and should be covering her in fifty seconds."
"What's the Bard carrying?" Pierpoint asked as he examined the plot, trying to predict the depth and terrain where the air/sea interceptor was likely to meet the USO. If XCOM got lucky and the Bard pilot knew how to keep his boat quiet, the Triton could drop right in on the USO before she came off the bottom – a surprise assault. On the bad side, it meant more bugs alive to shoot at his men.
"Double DU-heads sir. Couple of hits should drop the USO if she tries to get off."
"Any chance of an overland intercept?" Pierpoint asked.
"No sir. We won't be able to catch her in time. Xenoc USO's tend not to hang around long after their job is done. You will have to assault before she leaves." the DO replied.
"Damn… When is Platoon 1 due in?"
"Six hours sir."

The phone rang, an operations specialist sergeant immediately picking up the handset. He listened for a moment before calling for the DO, who motioned for Pierpoint to wait up while still keeping an eye on the closing Bard, which was being guided to the USO by another ops-spec. His conversation was very brief, before tossing the phone back to the sergeant.

"Sir, Colonel Noel says take out Platoon 2 with Triton 4 with Bard 3 on overhead cover. We will send the vector to the bird shortly."
"Right." Pierpoint said as he turned and ran down the steps two at a time to the hangar, a scowl on his face.
Fuck! Take out the platoon? I haven't even the chance to know who's in my platoon yet!

Platoon Sergeant Faizal, as platoon sergeants always did, was already busy forming up the sleep-dazed Platoon 2 with old-fashioned cussing, transforming the scattered mill of lost-looking men into something resembling a fighting unit. The two squads had formed up on either side of the Triton's door, with the support squads nearest to the craft so that they would be the last out of the hatch. The pilotless Triton was designed with only one exit hatch on the port-side, its designers making it so that the craft could land with the doorless side facing an enemy threat, proving maximum coverage for a platoon deploying from the Triton. It worked a bit better than the old Skyranger 'ramp-of-death', which offered precious little cover should a squad be engaged upon touchdown.

Not many of the troopers knew each other… The coporals had all been blooded, but only Private Alexseyev among the privates had seen action before. The remaining privates were fresh out of Selection, with the same goggle-eyed, what-the-hell-am-I-doing here look. Sergeant Faizal looked disgustedly at them. USACom has picked out all our good corporals. Now all we have left are untested rookies. Hearing running footsteps, Faizal turned around, recognising Captain Pierpoint. He turned and bawled to the men.

"Officer on deck! Look alive people!"

Faizal gave the officer a quick salute, not bothering to bring the rest of the men to attention for the captain's inspection. The officer was a vet, despite his Gunner 2nd class ratings patch – Faizal was a Assaulter 1st Class – and the sergeant knew (and approved) that he didn't bother with formalities. Captain Pierpoint returned the salute hurriedly as he carried out a quick inspection of his men. He saw the aquajet rifles carried by Shen and Lee and immediately called them out to replace the weapons with aquapistols. Pointmen were supposed to move light and spot targets, even the 5 kilogram aquapistol and ammo could slow them down – especially if they were rookies like these two soldiers obviously were.

Shen and Lee didn't argue, though they had enormous doubts as they hotfooted it to the armsquote at Stores to exchange weapons. Pierpoint continued on with the others, ensuring that everyone had the correct loadout of weapons and ammo. The two privates made it back just as the base CO, Colonel Noel, ordered them into the Triton-4 over the PA system, relaying the message through the Ops Room from his own returning Triton. The mission was a go.
Captain Pierpoint ordered the men to load up, crossing over the gangplank that separated the Triton from the hangar floor and taking up his spot on the fold-up/fold-down metal seats at the starboard bow of the Triton, a spot where he could easily control the Triton's guiding computer as the thrumming power of the twin engines rose in pitch and amplitude, vibrations carrying through the metal floor into the captain's aquaplastic armour as the big sub submerged.

"Engage liquid-breathing systems and check your voice synthesizers." Pierpoint ordered as he strapped the mask over his nose and mouth, activating the electrical anti-gag aid that surrounded his throat like a black plastic choker. The device enabled one to 'drown' in the liquid-breathing fluid, giving XCOM the ability to operate at depths and pressures impossible for gas-breathing divers. The equipment also included a voice synthesizer that took over the voicebox's job, giving the soldiers the ability to 'speak' underwater. Then he pulled out an inconspicuous waterproof plastic slip that printed Platoon's 2 estab, memorising the unfamiliar names. He sure as hell hoped that Selection had squared them away with the proper combat techniques and SOP's permanently burned into their heads by repetitive drilling and ruthless punishment. Thank God for Standard Operating Procedures. The Captain thought.

The sub slowed as it approached the landed alien sub, engines cutting down their noise signature as it proceeded in a circle around the USO. Ten minutes to arrival, Captain Pierpoint had received news that the alien had attempted a takeoff, only to be dropped by the overwatch Bard. Cylindrical devices dropped from the Triton at regular intervals, ringing thedowned alien. The black metallic tubes floated at neutral buoyancy some a hundred meters above the sea floor. On a command from Captain Pierpoint, the machines activated simultaneously. Each device instantly flooded the vicinity with electronic signals designed to interfere with USO engines and communications. While they were individually ineffective, the bombardment had the required effect on the alien ship… locking it down on the seafloor with dead engines and lifeless communications. Meanwhile, the Triton was diving hard, bottoming out on the ocean floor.

This is it! We're going to face them!

Shen swallowed hard, uncaring that it was hyperoxygenated "liquid air" that he swallowed and not atmospheric air. In that aspect at least, the underwater cross-training "drowned state runs" during Selection had served him well. Nothing, however, could quell the butterflies that ran amok in every pointman's stomach since the dawn of modern combat. The pistol in his right hand was already poised to shoot as he readied himself by the doorway. A smoke/dye grenade was loaded into the XCOM standard-issue compressed air launcher mounted on his left arm, ready to be fired the moment the double doors opened. At his feet and back, small impellors thrummed, ready to assist his body in moving against the underwater resistance. Beside him was 2nd Squad's pointman, Private Ryan Koh. The two of them were unarmoured and packed little firepower – SporeCom had only enough alien-alloy armour to equip Captain Pierpoint and Sergeant Faizal – so if an alien was out there and engaged them the moment the 'curtains opened', their only protection lay in moving fast to clear the doorway so that the Riflemen of both squads (standing directly behind the points) could engage freely.

The doors whooshed open.

Shen didn't even hear the captain's order to move. He was already taking in the surrounding terrain with a quick sweep before firing the smoke/dye grenade five meters in front of him. He ducked right, moving on memory alone as he darted towards the nose of the Triton, scanning his side as he did so. Shen got to the nose before he dropped to one knee, bringing his pistol over in a two-handed grip to cover the blind side of the Triton.

"Bug left!" Koh shouted. Shen obeyed his training and didn't even look back… Koh's voice had barely registered over his earphones when the crack-crack of a aquajet rifle sounded. Two shots, then something gave an unworldly scream.
"Bug down! Greenskins!" Singh's voice rang out. 2nd Squad's rifleman had been on the ball. Greenskins meant gillmen. Shen blinked… at least it wasn't lobsters. One Lobster had gotten into one of USACom's Tritons as it was bugging out – they had shown the photos of the scattered limbs, heads and internal organs after the alien went to work with its claws. Four XCOM had died to that one xenoc before the bug was shot apart by massed panicked fire. Two men got home.

Shen felt the rap on his shoulder by Corporal Calley, 1st Squad's rifleman. It indicated that Calley was in position to cover as Shen slipped around the blind corner and cleared the other side of the Triton. It was clean.

The next part was tricky… because it involved leaving the cover of the Triton for unknown territory. But Shen moved without hesitation, knowing that it depended on him to expand the LZ so that the support teams could deploy. He ran towards a hillock just off the Triton's nose and cleared its blind side, conscious of more XCOM running forward on his right as pointmen and riflemen leapfrogged forward. As he pulled away from the hill, a luminous steady yellow marker appeared on his HUD superimposed over the hilltop together with Captain Pierpoint's voice in his ear. Steady yellow meant that the order was meant for someone else. Flashing yellow was orders specifically for him. Red meant enemy contacts.

"1st Support. Deploy there." The officer ordered from his position behind Shen, Navier and Calley, his voice metallic through the synthesizer. "Roger's" sounded over the comms net as Vermont and Misha broke for the vantage point at a dead run, leaving it to their comrades to cover them as they both dropped prone on top of the hillock. The sniper pulled his scope to his face while the machinegunner unfolded his bipod, jammed them hard into the soft earth and leaned his helmet's faceplate against his brutish weapon. Squad 1's heavy firesupport was in place.

There was a sudden eruption of gunfire over to the right, followed by a couple of screams. Thankfully, everyone recognised the sound of aquajet rifles. A moment later, the disinterested voice of Sergeant Faizal broke in.
"Got one. Dumbshit took his own sweet time aiming at Koh."

Shen continued forward, this time noticing Navier pulling alongside to the left. Accordingly, Ravern corrected his zone of responsibility to the right, narrowing down the area that he had to cover.

Movement.

The human eye relied largely on movement to spot things, and Shen was sure that it was the same for the bugs. But freezing wasn't an option, as he saw the gillman step around a jagged outcrop of rock twenty meters to his two o'clock, weapon already being brought to bear. Shen didn't know if he yelled a warning… he was already diving for the seafloor, pistol out and firing before he hit the ground. Points were supposed to spot targets and not engage, except when they were being targeted themselves. In which case, to put it in the words of his drill sergeant… "Shoot the fucker first!"

The characteristic bubble-trail of supercavitation rounds erupted in lines towards his target as the bullets blasted from his pistol, each tungsten round riding in the cavity of air that surrounded each bullet, allowing nearly-supersonic projectile speeds even in water. Shen saw the flowers of destroyed rock around his target, but was more concerned with the returning lines of sonic gunfire coming his way. He rolled hard left, reaching cover behind a mound of dirt as craters blasted up around him.

The soldier twisted, keeping most of his body behind cover as he stuck his pistol out again. Calley was already firing as he moved sideways towards the nearest cover, one of his rounds scoring an obvious hit on the gillman, who promptly turned his fire from Shen to the more exposed American. Calley grunted and folded over as the sonic trails intersected his form, going down hard. A moment later, a single long line erupted from the top of the hill behind Shen, the sniper round punching the gillman hard to the seafloor. The sonic rifle that it had been firing skittered away into the sea sludge.

"Shit! Vermont here. Got one. But 1st assault team has a man down, I repeat, man down." The comms crackled as Shen pulled himself to his feet and backtracked to where Calley lay, hoping that the sniper was faster on the draw if anything else appeared. Navier took up position with his pistol, covering in case any more bugs were attracted by the firing.

Calley was dead or almost there. If the intestines and various other organs waving merrily in the water wasn't evidence enough, the huge plume of cloudy red that continued to spout into the water was pretty much it. Shen didn't feel any physical revulsion. Past of Selection involved being shown gory movies and pictures, dead people of all ages and both sexes, apruptly and at various times of the day, including mealtimes and during 3am "morning surprises". Anyone who puked or showed any retardation of faculties after such a viewing collected an instant fail and was fired on the spot. A 14 man XCOM team couldn't waste any time on typical human mental weaknesses.

But that didn't mean that Shen didn't feel… The trooper hurriedly pulled poor Calley's not-so-dead remains behind hasty cover and took a quick look. Shen had pulled the spasming man out of the firing line, but didn't see any point in applying any first-aid. You don't waste time trying to fix someone when bits of him had been dropped along the ten or so meters that you had to drag him, or when he was spouting a bigger blood "smokescreen" than a dye grenade. Instead, you take care of the pragmatic issues. You drop your inadequate pistol, then reach over and grab the AJ-42, then you unsnap the ammo pouch from his belt and clip it to your own.

After that, you move on.

"Ravern here. Calley's bought it. Continuing with sweep." Shen snapped as he ran to keep up with Navier, the other point having carried on forward until Vermount could cover him no more. Shen took up the job with his rifle as Pierpoint ordered 1st Support off the hill and to another overwatch point to continue the sweep.

Two minutes later, Squad 2 finished its pincer sweep and met up with Squad 1, which had found the USO and placed it under sniper observation/overwatch. Vermont spotted movement within the torn starboard flank and fired once, but without visible results. Platoon Sergeant Faizal and Captain Pierpoint had decided to wait five minutes for any other alien activity, before deciding on the next move.

Soon, seven men lay on the unbreached port side of the USO, two of them with the massive breacher cannons up and readied. The other five assaulters got in position, then signalled to the captain.

"Commence firing."

Sato and Alexseyev pulled back their oversized triggers and braced as the Ballbreakers began their thunder, huge heavy bolter slugs tearing into the gloomy insides of the USO's starboard flank as their sixty-round magazines emptied. The massive bullets shrieked and whined within the hulk, hopefully making life for anything hiding within short and violent. The two snipers lay beside the heavy gunners, waiting for the dust and smoke to clear as they finished pouring their load into the gloomy USO insides. They tensed for their turn.

The two gunners ran dry simultaneously, and the next phase began with the screamed howl of both breachers firing on the previously-quiet port side, opening two assault points, one directly into the entrance airlock, and the other into the center of the USO. Navier and Ventral lobbed grenades, just as the whipcracks of both covering snipers fired on the starboard side, cleaving apart a wounded gillman that had tried to escape after the Ballbreakers had finished with their pounding. The thunder of the grenades accompanied a severed gillman arm flying out of the airlock hole. Navier, Shen, Ryan, Ventral and Jorban entered almost immediately after as the breachers threw their massive guns over their backs and entered on the heels of the assault guys.

The airlock had only half a gillman torso wedged into a wall and an assortment of internal organs whirling madly in the aftermath of the grenade blast. The internal doors had been blown open, revealing only deserted and shrapnel-riddled walls and consoles. The second assault hole had something more… in the shape of a gillman-wielded sonic pistol popping Private Ventral's head cleanly off its shoulders with a meaty whump. Navier's pistol returned the favour in earnest, removing the last threat as "Clears" sounded out from all the other assaulters.

"Roger that. Area is clear. Stand by for recovery."

Pierpoint switched frequencies and ordered the recovery teams in while the support teams changed magazines beside him. Meanwhile, Jorban quietly applied the safety before pulling Ventral's rifle from jerking hands, pushing the body firmly to the USO floor and pinning the arms as he waited for the spasms to subside. As he held down the jerking body, he heard the captain talking to the support crew that was now inbound with USO stripping equipment.

"… give me a heads up when you are five minutes in. Medivac? Negative on that. I have 2 KIA but negative on WIA. One stripper-ship and crew should be enough. It's a small one afterall."

Ravern watched and listened, then spoke.

"I'll get the head."