Short, sappy awkwardly-paced and different from what I usually write, but I'm still glad I finally got around to finishing this story :) I'm sure I'm not the only one who got a little too attached to their aquanauts throughout TFTD and would reload a mission over and over just to make sure none of those special few died. Right? *crickets* Anyone?
...Anyway, this is a sort of tribute to the aquanauts who made it to the end of the T'leth mission. It begins right after the mission ends (nu spoilers though, so no need to worry.) Italics denote flashbacks. Would love to hear what people think of this, so if you read it and liked it, please leave a review!
The unfinished question sounded in seven comm links at once, little more than a timid whisper, as though Andy Ayliffe was afraid that any sound might awaken the creature even now. The other aquanauts were still frozen in place - some standing, some kneeling, a few drifting this way and that as the currents pushed them.
"It's over. It's dead."
The voice, belonging to X-COM Commander Klaus Zander, shook a little as it said the last words. Or maybe the pressure, or the murky water, or whatever else had caused some uncompensated-for interference. A long moment passed.
"Is strange... I pictured this moment so many times... but it vas nothing like this. I never thought..."
Ensign Vogel trailed off. A strange sound came through the comm link - something between a gasp and a sob. Underneath her heavy helmet, Gudrun was probably crying.
Another moment passed, longer and more awkward than the last.
"Somebody say something," Tatyana Alkaviades said softly, pleadingly.
"We should... double back. Some of our men might still be..." Zander didn't want to finish the thought. He'd never been one to give the squad false hope. But now, a tiny piece of him did hope against all hope - that the men they'd been forced to leave behind had somehow pulled through, that they were free of the aliens' mind control or that their wounds were still not enough to claim their lives.
Full of uncertainty as they'd been, the words seemed to spark a renewed determination in the squad. With one last look at the slain abomination in the center of the room, the aquanauts exited single-file and began the long, silent journey back to the Leviathan.
"I wasn't expecting to live, y'know," Ayliffe said to no one in particular.
Tatyana paused to give him a strange look, even though he couldn't see it. "Why's that?"
"When they said they didn't have enough armor to go around, I didn't care. When Garnier killed Tim Thompson... well... I thought, that could've been me. That should've been me. And now look at me... The war is over, and I didn't fire a single shot. The rest of you... you're all heroes now. No... always have been. But me... I don't deserve to be here. I never did."
Tatyana felt her heart break. Ayliffe was barely twenty - the standard age for enrollment barring special abilities that recommended one for field duty at a younger age - and had been with X-COM since one day after his coming of age. "You're more than just a hero, Andrew," she said soothingly, choosing to use his full name rather than the child-like nickname everyone had gotten used to. "You're a survivor. You have a different kind of duty now."
Ayliffe made a discouraged sound. "And what would that be? Taking credit for something I didn't even-"
"Your duty," Tatyana interrupted sternly, "is to promise yourself that you will never forget. Good men died on this day. Some of them..." She paused a little, feeling her throat tighten with renewed grief. "You knew some of them better than I did," she said when she was certain her voice would be firm again. "Who were they?"
"Spence..." Ayliffe sighed deeply, a heart-rending sound. "Spencer Scotney. He..." Suddenly, he took his helmet in his hands and groaned. "My God... Trace... What am I going to tell her?"
Tatyana put a hand on his shoulder. It was cruel, she knew, forcing him to relive the loss so soon after it had happened, but she had to make him understand. "'Trace'? Who is she?"
The answer came nearly a minute later, and so quietly Tatyana had to strain to understand the words. "His sister... Tracey. They wouldn't let her come along because she's still too green for... for all of this. She made Spence promise he'd come back." Another pause, then, "He didn't."
Tatyana didn't comment. Even though their time together had been brief, Ayliffe and Scotney had somehow managed to form a bond so strong that his supposed death had affected the younger of the two immensely. Spencer Scotney had been lost en route to the deepest level of T'leth, when one of the aliens' devices had managed to latch itself onto his molecular signature and suppress all traces of self-control. Regardless of whether or not his body was still alive, chances were that his mind would be severely damaged by the intrusion. Others had survived this 'possession' - some, only barely - but that had been a question of seconds... minutes...
"I vill never forget Marti," Vogel said quietly. "He vas the best of us. He never should have died."
Tatyana snapped out of her thoughts. "Able Seaman Alcala, you mean? Were you close?"
"Ve vere lovers, if that is vat you mean."
The revelation was made in the dispassionate tone of someone who didn't care anymore. X-COM forbade any and all love affairs between active personnel, but the budding romance between Ensign Vogel and Able Seaman Alcala had been no secret to the rest of the HAMMERHEAD crew. They'd even made plans to settle down once the war would end, and joked that the captain of their ship should be the one to marry them. How hollow it all seemed now. How utterly pointless.
Tatyana didn't know what to say. She'd lost friends of her own since the beginning of this accursed war, but never a lover.
Before she could think of anything, however, the comm links buzzed and another voice came through - strained, very faint, but still intelligible, "-assistance. Does anyone read?"
What followed was a moment of hope, joy, dread and confusion, all rolled into one. Then the voice came again, a little louder this time. "This is Tarantino. My armor's weight compensating unit is shot and I can't move on my own. I require assistance. Does anyone read?"
"Oh my God - Mickey!"
"How did you-?"
"Are you hurt?"
At the front of the procession, Zander ignored the cacophony of questions and exclamations and allowed himself a moment of unbridled relief. That even one of his men - and this was Mickey 'Nine Lives' Tarnatino, who should have been dead nine times over by now - was still alive meant that his gut feeling had been right after all. And where there was one...
No. He couldn't afford to think in terms of 'maybe' and 'what if'. "We read you, ensign. Stay put, we're on our way."
'What's your name, recruit?'
The tallest of the three aquanauts stood to attention. 'Alkaviades, sir!'
'At ease, son,' Zander said with an almost paternal smile. 'So you're Tatyana's little brother, hm? Looking at you, I would've said it's the other way around.'
The recruit barely sketched a smile. 'Sir!'
'Still... with your sister in the same squad, we'll need to call you something else. What's your other name?'
The slightest moment of hesitation, then, 'Krug, sir!'
X-COM personnel were typically trained to control their outward display of emotion. Even so, there was a giggle and one or two snorts coming from the back of the sub. Krug didn't seem flustered in the least. It probably wasn't the first time that his name elicited this sort of reaction.
Zander considered disciplining his squad, for the sake of appearances if nothing else, then decided against it. 'What about you, recruit?' he asked, turning to the second of the three new transfers who had arrived that afternoon.
The recruit in question grinned widely even as he snapped a textbook salute. 'Mickey Tarantino, sir. As in, the bastard lovechild of Quentin Tarantino and Mickey Mouse. I'd say that one-ups our friend Krug here. Uh, sir.'
Zander was actually speechless for a moment or two. Most recruits he'd met had been either too enthusiastic or too overwhelmed by the immensity of the task at hand. Tarantino, on the other hand, acted like he had not a care in the world. 'Never heard of either,' he said off-handedly, 'but thanks for sharing that anyway. Anything else you'd like to get off your chest before we move on?'
If Tarantino caught any hint of reproach in his commanding officer's tone, he didn't show it. 'No, sir,' he said serenely.
As Zander would find out over the course of the following months, Tarantino and Krug were almost polar opposites of each other. Krug hailed from a small island in southern Greece, whereas Tarantino hailed from a crowded metropolis half a world away. Krug was pale, tall and well-built; Tarantino, on the other hand, was shorter, leaner and darker-skinned. Lastly, Krug was a taciturn, so much so that Tarantino had a tendency to talked for both of them sometimes.
For the time being, however, Zander turned his full attention to the third aquanaut. 'And you must be-' he searched his memory for the right way to pronounce the exotic name '-Tatyana Donski, inbound from our off-shore base in Kamchatka.'
Even with her relatively short experience, Donski's file was impressive: an excellent marksman, decorated for bravery twice, first in line for promotion... until a series of unfortunate events involving an alleged case of molecular control. Zander made a mental note to himself not to bring up the incident if he could help it. He had no way of knowing, of course, that Donski would prove to be more than a liability whenever MC probes would be involved...
"Has there been any word from base, sir?"
Zander snapped out of his reminiscing and turned to his second-in-command. Despite the fact that he'd been wounded rather severely earlier in the mission, Lieutenant Aguila was holding up admirably under the circumstances. "We're still too deep to make any long-distance contact," Zander answered distractedly. He couldn't imagine what base would have to say right now, though. If anything, they were the ones waiting for the squad to check in, not the other way around. Just like the rest of the world, he thought. So much had hinged on their success that it seemed almost miraculous they'd actually managed to complete their mission against all odds.
"I've taken the liberty to start preparing a preliminary report on my personal log recorder as we were walking, sir," Aguila said after a moment. "Once we reach the Leviathan, I can compress it and transmit it over the emergency frequency in a hyper-concentrated data burst. Even with nothin to bounce the signal off of, it should still work, even at this depth."
Zander wondered if the transmission would be intercepted by hostiles en route to Ragnarok 1. For all the good that would do them, now that their greatest stronghold had fallen at last. "Do it, then."
"Another thing, sir..."
Zander sensed rather than heard the apprehension in the other's voice. His armored fingers moved in a certain pattern and the comm unit in his helmet reacted almost at the same time, switching them both to a secure channel. "Speak freely, son. What is it?"
"The casualties list. I was wondering..."
"How can we know for sure who's dead and who isn't? Think of it this way..." Zander sighed – a drawn, anguished sound – before resuming, "Those who aren't dead probably wish they were."
"If there's anyone still alive out there, they will be dead, and soon," Aguila said gravely. "According to my readings, without its main power source to sustain it, this place is already starting to collapse under the pressure. I'd give it twelve hours, thirteen tops,before back-up power reserves are drained and it all goes to hell..."
And what's left of our men goes with it, Zander thought bitterly. They'd known the risks They'd all known the risks. Still... that they couldn't even bring back the bodies of those who'd given their lives so that this accursed war could finally end... He shook his head. Regrets would have to come later. Right now, their priorities were to retrieve Tarantino and get the hell out of this place. "We're closing in on Tarantino's last known location," he said dryly. "I'll leave the rest of the report up to you."
The ensuing rescue, at least, went almost mercifully easy in light of recent events. Tarantino's weight compensation unit – a small but vital part of every suit of magnetic ion armor – had beend amaged by a stray blast when he'd gone back for another aquanaut who was pinned down by enemy fire. As for who the other aquanaut was – or had been, Tarantino couldn't say, but they were most likely dead along with their assailant, both buried under a heavy metal slab that had been dislodged from the ceiling.
"I wanted to pull him out of there, but I couldn't move," Tarantino said at the end of his brief but pained recollection of what had happened. "I think he's... I mean, I don't think he made it. No one could have lived through... that."
"Save yourself the guilt trip, son," Zander said quietly. "Krug, get Tarantino and let's get out of here before the whole place comes crashing down on our heads. Keep your intervals tight and your weapons ready. We're moving out."
Zander's comm link rang with a chorus of acknowledgements, some more reluctant than others. They only made the silence feel that much heavier afterwards.
The LED display of his wrist watch said he'd gone to sleep a meager three hours ago, but once again he was wide awake and sorely lacking something to do. After tossing and turning for a while, he finally gave up and slipped quietly out of his bunk, then slid into his jumpsuit and crept out of the living quaters, careful not to disturb any of the other aquanauts huddled peacefully in their bunks. God knew they deserved their rest, especially after the horrors they had witnessed.
Once outside, Honorary Ensign Ayliffe sighed and let his steps carry him where they may.
Another sleepless night.
It was almost frightening how fast things were changing now. Barely a week had gone past since the fall of T'leth, and the tide of war was already turning. A global X-COM offensive the likes of which the world had never seen before had taken out dozens of colonies and hundreds of USOs. Without their supreme intelligence to guide them, the aliens were in disarray, an easy prey for the emboldened aquanaut crews.
What would happen to X-COM once there were no more aliens to fight? Some speculated that the organization would be turned into a global peacekeeping force, much like the United Nations had been back in the day. Others said that it would be disbanded and its facilities refitted for civilian purposes. Either way, many of the aquanauts Ayliffe had spoken to since their return were more than eager to return to their former lives – or start new ones, if they were among those whose homelands had been decimated by the invaders at some point during the war.
As he turned a corner, Ayliffe realized that he had unwittingly wandered into a hall that housed a memorial for those who'd fallen during the war. The memorial itself had been crafted from the remains of a downed Barracuda submarine and decorated with depleted power crystals salvaged from alien constructs. On either side of it were several rows of plaques, each bearing the name of someone who had given their lives in service of their homeworld. Some of the plaques had already lost some of their metallic luster. Others looked like they'd only just been poured.
Two other aquanauts contemplating the memorial looked up at his approach and raised their hands in hasty salutes. Ayliffe mirrored their gesture with a mixture of embarrassment and sheer panic. Both aquanauts looked older and certainly more seasoned than he was – and they were saluting him?
To hide his sudden anxiety, Ayliffe bent down, pretending to inspect one of the plaques. It took a few moments for the name engraved on it to register, and when it did, he was thankful that he was facing away from the others. Timothy Lemarchand had joined the crew of the Leviathan as part of the same recruit contingent as Ayliffe. A stray shot fired inside the submarine – supposedly by mistake – had ended his career before it even begun, and now he, like so many others, had been reduced to a golden plaque and an already fading memory.
No... not fading. As painful as it was to remember, Ayliffe had made a promise that he would never allow himself to forget.
When he finally turned away from the plaque, Ayliffe saw that the other aquanauts had thankfully gone on their way. He raised a hand and rubbed his eyes, wondering where to go from here. The crew of the Leviathan hadn't been called on since their victory in T'leth. The others welcomed the rest. Ayliffe, on the other hand, felt useless and lost without something to do.
"Still burning the midnight oil, ensign?"
Ayliffe turned around quickly, saluting before he even came face-to-face with the officer who had addressed him. Lieutenant Rudolf Zander – or Rudi, as he was known to some – looked remarkably like his older brother, who commanded the Leviathan crew. Unlike the commander, however, he didn't smile nearly as much and rarely went out of his way to put those around him at ease.
Belatedly, Ayliffe realized that his superior was still waiting for an answer and he settled for an ambiguous, "Sir."
Ayliffe lowered his arm, but kept his posture. Rudi Zander had been a legend long before he'd even enlisted. He'd lost his left arm in a skirmish on the Faroe Islands soon after the sporadic fighting had escalated to all-out war, but he'd still managed to drag himself back to his craft and, if the rumors were true, take out more than a few hostiles on the way there. The cybernetic arm that had been grafted in place of his lost appendage made him look even more intimidating.
And so, Ayliffe waited to be addressed.
When the lieutenant finally spoke, it was nearly a minute later and his voice had lost its rough edge somewhat. "How many plaques are there, ensign?"
Ayliffe didn't know. "I'm not... sure, sir. A hundred?"
"One hundred and twenty-three, to be exact" the lieutenant supplied with a grimace. "And do you know how many recorded casualties there were since the beginning of the war?"
This time, Ayliffe wisely kept his mouth shut. Zander didn't seem to need a reply, at any rate. "Ten times more than that at least, and the numbers aren't even final yet. That's not counting civilian casualties, collateral damage, local armed forces... you get the gist of it. Now tell me, ensign, is there any difference between our dead and all the others?"
Ayliffe hesitated. There was a so-called 'politlcally correct' way to answer the question, and then there was what his gut told him was the way to answer it right. With a deep breath, he opted for the latter. "Ours died as heroes, sir. And that's not just..." He fumbled for words, but he refused to let go of the thought. "There are heroes, and then there are heroes. Each one of 'ours', as you put it, bought tenths, hundreds of lives with their own. For that, I think... no, I know they should be remembered. And I also think..." He swallowed thickly, "I think it's our duty to do so."
Zander was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, he nodded and murmured, "Well said."
Ayliffe knew that this was just about as much praise as he was going to get, but he welcomed it anyway. Zander left shortly after, saying something about relieving someone on the graveyard shift. Alone with his thoughts once more, Ayliffe chose a row of plaques at random and began to read the names to himself. Victor Ozaki... Uta Unger... Grigory Kurchenko... Stuart Garnier... Tracey Moreland... Tracey Hand... Some of the names were foreign, further proof that the earth had finally come together in the hour of her greatest need. This memorial – along with others of its kind – were a testament to that.
The question, then, was what would happen from here on out. With the menace of the aliens gone, would the various nations of the world find new reasons to wage war against one another all over again? Or had the alien menace finally succeeded in bringing the world together where countless centuries of diplomacy had failed?
For now, at least, many seemed content to just put the war behind them and rebuild. Some nations were more reluctant than others to extent or receive help, but all in all, no human had waged war against another human since the first alien invasion all those years ago.
Ayliffe hoped things would stay that way for a very long time.