Little Moment: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
By Eric ‘Erico’ Lawson and Shadows59
Chapter Two: For All Mankind
Just Outside Aurorae Sinus, Southern Hemisphere
The Planet Mars
March 11th, 1979 C.E.
Baylor remembered the unmanned probes that NASA had sent to explore Mars not so very long ago. The Mariner probes at the start of the decade, the Viking Landers in 1976. About the only thing he really remembered about them was that they confirmed the presence of ice at the poles and people called in to complain when the Special News Bulletin about the Viking Lander touching down on Mars interfered with their favorite television program.
All of that didn’t really do it justice, and the speed at which Xylene’s ship had taken them from Earth to the red planet was frankly mind-boggling. But then, she’d gotten from wherever she was to Earth in...a day?
In orbit around the world named for the god of war, Xylene’s team had traced the ion trail of the second UFO’s drive engines down to the southern hemisphere. “That’s a fault with the Exigency Class ships,” The Kineceleran had speedily bragged. “You don’t keep up with the engine maintenance, they leak emissions all over the place. But most crews don’t, because it’s expensive and the leak doesn’t hurt performance all that much. Just makes it easier for us to track.”
The ship had put down into a depression that was hidden in slowly retreating shadows, and using the passive sensors of Xylene’s ship, they had managed to locate it sitting on the surface with a handful of other similar vessels. A few bulky transports with large storage spaces, but there was a second saucer like the one they’d downed at November-84 parked there as well. There wasn’t a sensor net that they could detect in orbit, but they erred on the side of caution, drifting with the thrusters cold and the ship buttoned up tight until they were on the far side of the planet before starting everything back up. They descended fast and skimmed over the planet’s surface, putting down a fair hike away from the base.
Baylor was on pins and needles, and only the relative calm of his teammates kept him sane. He was in space. He was in an alien ship. Talking with aliens. And he was on Mars.
“Tell me something, Max. Is that heap on wheels you brought along even rated for vacuum?” Xylene asked Max as they suited up in the airlock adjoining her ship’s side door.
“Hey, she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.” Max argued. “It may not have hard seals, but we’ve got our suits and those are rated for hard vacuum.”
“Oh, good. I suppose this is a bad time to tell you that the water tank froze?” Wes Green volunteered dryly over their ship-to-RV radio connection. Max made a face before he slipped on his helmet and sealed himself into his suit with a hiss of pressurized air.
“Just tell me that the important stuff is still working, Wes.”
“Oh, you mean like the engine and the weapons and…” Whiskey 2 said with a laugh.
“Yeah, all of that. Would be kind of important.”
“Yeah. I switched over to the Tritium converter right after Xylene sealed me up in here. I didn’t think she was keen on choking on exhaust fumes the entire trip, and it’s not like there’s oxygen out there to use.”
“Not enough to breathe, anyways.” Max agreed. Baylor heard the Colonel sigh inside his helmet and stand straight. “Whiskey Team, check in.”
“Whiskey 2, I’ve got it in neutral and waiting for deployment.”
“Whiskey 3. Suit is good.”
“Whiskey 4. Let’s get mean and make some green.”
“Whiskey 5.” Baylor said, swallowing hard after. “Ready as I’m going to be.”
Xylene slipped on her own helmet after curling her head tendrils up so they would fit inside of it. Once the seal was set, she lifted the cover from the airlock depressurization switch and punched it in as purple light bled to life around her. There was a hissing sound as the precious nitrogen-oxygen-helium blend that had been on the ship was sucked away, and then the outer door slipped open. The alien landscape of the Martian surface waited for them on the other side, a desert that wouldn’t have been out of place in Arizona coated in sun-bleached rock and asteroid-cracked crags. Phil started to move forward, but a purple energy field appeared around him and held him fast. Xylene raised a gloved hand and gently wagged a finger at Whiskey 4. “Uh-uh, new guy. Max goes first. He needs this.”
Colonel Tennyson shifted from one foot to the other, his laser rifle slung over his shoulder and his gloved hands clenching and unclenching. “Right.” He muttered. “Not the first alien world you’ve ever stepped on, Max. It’s just...Mars.”
That was when it hit Baylor why this might have mattered so much to Max Tennyson. He’d been primed for NASA back when he’d gotten recruited. He’d been on the shortlist of candidates for Apollo 11. He could have walked on the Moon. But he hadn’t. He’d walked away from it so he could protect the world he loved, and the people on it. Did he have kids with the wife that Cooper had mentioned? If he did…It would make sense why he’d given up the Moon to do this. It was a chance to keep them safe.
Max took two more audible breaths, then walked out and stepped down from the ship onto the red soil. Whiskey 3 and 4 crowded forward along with the Rookie into the doorway after him and watched as Max took another step forward and looked all around.
That’s one small step for man, the now famous quote echoed in Baylor’s head. Undoubtedly, it was in the Colonel’s mind as well. What would he say, as the first human to step foot on the Martial soil?
“Welp. We’re here.” Max said, and Baylor blinked. Then Whiskey 2, 3, and 4 all started chuckling or laughing outright.
“Oh, you are so full of shit, boss.” Whiskey 4 cackled, shaking his helmet incredulously. Max turned back towards them and though they couldn’t see his face, Baylor knew he was grinning.
“All right, Xylene. Open up the back hatch and let Wes out. Let’s go for a drive. Anyone else on your team coming with us?”
“No, it’s just us. They’ll stay with the ship, fly in and save us if things get dicey.”
The team piled out and walked towards the back of the spaceship on alien dust. Baylor tried to remember all of his training and keep his mind on the mission as Coop and Phil guided the RV out of the back of the alien spaceship, and Wes stared back through the other side of a windshield that was already stained with dust. Baylor couldn’t help looking back at all of the footprints they were leaving behind. Their footprints. His footprints.
He was walking on another planet.
That thought left his mouth dry as the dust that surrounded them as he stared at the dunes and the mountains he saw in the distance, but he couldn’t make himself believe it. And it wasn’t just because it seemed impossible..
“I thought it would be redder.” The words were barely a whisper and just a thought. Something that Baylor could wrap his head around as he stared at the tan landscape and wisps of clouds in the almost blue sky. The setting sun looked too small and there weren’t any of the plants hiding that he’d seen in his desert training, but besides that... “It doesn’t…”
“ It looks like home,” Wes Green’s voice cut in. For once there was more than steel and reserve in that voice. And he could tell just from the tone that the Colonel wasn’t the only one with someone waiting for them. Even Xylene stilled at the words and for a crazy moment Baylor almost looked up for the little blue star he wasn’t sure he could see, even with his scope. Then the man took a breath. “ And good hunting grounds.”
“ Here’s hoping,” Whiskey 1 murmured as the rest of them started moving again. Baylor followed Whiskey 3 through the side door of the RV just as Whiskey 4 said, “You know, Max, there’s one good thing about driving this heap in a place with no real atmosphere.”
“What’s that, Phil?” Whiskey 1 asked him as the team and Xylene all hopped inside the RV. Once they were secured with their weapons and gear, Wes shoved it into gear and took off like a shot, kicking up an enormous cloud of dust in their wake.
“We can’t listen to your 8-Track collection.”
There was quiet over their radios aside from light chatter, and Whiskey 5 was glad that Whiskey 3 had taken pity on him during the trip to Mars and shown him how to work the communicator so he wasn’t set to ‘transmit-always’. For one, he was breathing harder than normal, amped up on the upcoming mission and the danger in it as well as the prospect that they were on an entirely different planet. For a second, Max’s music was infectious, and he was humming the melody from one of the Shag Carpeting 8-Tracks that his CO had played back on Earth. Whiskey 1 would have appreciated it and sang along, but it was doubtful anyone else would have enjoyed it.
“Option 2’s to ride in there guns blazing and kick their teeth in.” Max said over their suit radios. “Not the best choice to start with when we have no idea where the stolen nuclear weapons are on this base, or how nasty their defenses are. I don’t know about you all, but I’m not keen on being the first human to die on Mars. Being the first one to walk on it’s enough for me.”
“The greatest story you’ll never be able to tell your sons about, right?” Whiskey 2 said jokingly. Or at least it seemed like a joke. The hollow laugh Max answered it sucked the air out of the line.
The alien - Galactic Enforcers Officer - Xylene, the Rookie quickly sifted through the pronouns for her before settling on her name and convincing himself it was okay to use it, chuckled a little as she shook her head.
“I suppose that means that you want Wes and myself to scout some, Max.”
“Take the Rookie with you too.” Max nodded, and all of the helmets turned towards him in a move that left Baylor feeling like he needed to hide a little.
The RV pulled to a halt in a shower of gravel and Martian dust that was silent, and Whiskey 2 and Xylene got off with their weapons in hand with the Rookie right on their heels. The RV’s tires spun up again and it took off, moving to circle around a ridge between them and the crater that Vilgax’s forces had commandeered as their staging ground. “Good luck, all.” Whiskey 1’s voice crackled over the radio, a little weaker as the terrain started to cut off their line of sight. They’d switched to short-range transmissions after leaving the ship to minimize their chances of communications being intercepted. At least until they had engaged, anyways.
Baylor had thought he was hot shit when it came to fieldcraft. It had been a mandatory pass or fail part of Sniper School and drew on his instructor’s experiences in Vietnam, and they’d been rigorous in pounding those lessons home. It only took about a minute for him to learn that maybe General Jim Huxby’s glowering remark of his skills at their first and only meeting might not have been incorrect. Whiskey 2 whisked through the terrain like a ghost and Xylene moved sinuously, hovering over the terrain in a near-horizontal fashion the closer they came with that purple light all around her. He followed their lead, especially after one close call which led to them diving into the shadows beneath a craggy boulder when a miniature wingless airplane - drone, Baylor recalled after the fact - zoomed around on some kind of perimeter sweep.
God, they were on Mars infiltrating an alien operation so secret and so well hidden that it had been going on for close to two decades without any attention given by the Galactic Enforcers because God forbid the leaders of Earth be forced to lose face and admit that they couldn’t handle the problem themselves. Why the hell did this Vilgax feel the need to have his robotic henchmen be so paranoid?
After the sweep they pushed on, crawling up the small rise on their bellies and stopping at the crest. At last, they could get a head-on view of the site and Baylor raised up his sniper laser rifle, using the scope to zoom in for a better view on everything.
There were three huge boxy transports easily three times the size of Xylene’s ship, one saucer ship like the one that they had shot down back in North Dakota, and an enormous assembly line full of red robots. Most of them were smaller things, drones that hovered about with grappling arms and cutting torches and worker models perhaps the size of a man or working up to twice that large, but there were five others as big as the one that had crawled out of the downed saucer and nearly taken them all out that were there as well. Robots large enough that they did the bulk of the work in moving the stolen missiles around the site. Piece by piece, the drones used by the alien warlord Vilgax cut through the missile’s sections with laudable precision. No explosions, no leaks, just one piece of the missile after another separated until all that was left was the warheads carefully gathered by the flying drones.
This was a disassembly line.
“Why are they taking the missiles apart?” He asked, leaning away from his scope.
“You humans, still doing things so backwards.” Xylene answered with a sigh. “He doesn’t need the entire missile, the chemical reactants you use are inefficient and dangerous. Once he has the piece that goes kaboom, the rest of it can be repurposed. A phased repulsor array is a lot cleaner and a lot more efficient for thrusters.” She motioned with her gloved hand just a few inches above the soil and Baylor followed her aim to the second section of the workyard where red robots gutted the missile sections, removed the guts, and installed alien machinery in their place. The smallest ones seemed to be in charge of rewiring it all. “He’s taking them apart, rebuilding them into something more dangerous. And it’s all thanks to your world’s asinine policy on nuclear proliferation.” Yup, there was that anger of hers again.
“One problem at a time, Xylene.” Whiskey 2 told her with a weariness of someone trying to avoid a very old argument. “For now…”
The alien breathed in loud enough to be heard over the radio, and let it out with an aggrieved sigh. “Right. Rookie, you’re the one with the long gun. Find a good spot with elevation and cover. You’ll be overwatch for us while Wes and I make our way down there and try setting up a few...surprises.”
“I’d do better if I had a spotter with me.” Baylor pointed out diplomatically.
“Yeah, you probably would.” Whiskey 2 said, patting him on the back as he and Xylene started to inch back down the rise again. “But we make do with what we have.”
Baylor huffed and started down after them. He’d already marked a spot in his mental map that would work for a sniper’s lookout if he could get to it unseen. “Make do with what you have,” he said to himself, trudging on.
Wasn’t that the truth.
It started as most things did in Whiskey 5’s short tenure with Whiskey Team, with a bang. Or several of them spread out over a few hundred yards, detonations caused by explosives spread about the robot’s missile disassembly line. He’d kept his scope up and had done his best to find Xylene and Whiskey 2, which should have been easy considering that the rest of the landscape was red robots and machinery and spaceships. It wasn’t. The gray Plumbers suit Wes wore somehow blurred and blended with the environment at a distance in spite of the clashing colors, and Xylene had dimmed her aura to the point that it seemed more a trick of the light. More often than not he’d only seen a flicker of movement before they vanished again. Then the explosions had gone off, and so had his suit’s radio.
“Whiskey 2 here, we just got the party started!” Wes shouted, and the strength of the broadcast made it clear he’d wanted everyone to hear it. Even Xylene’s spaceship that they’d left behind them miles back. Baylor settled down into position with his sniper laser and steadied his breathing.
That was the toughest part of sniping, he’d learned back in school. You had to be in shape for it. You had to know the pulse of your own heartbeat, you had to know how to calm it down even when adrenaline was telling your heart to beat faster, faster dammit we need more oxygen and your brain needs to pay attention now.
He was Overwatch. His job was simple. Make the things trying to kill his teammates dead first. Simple. Right. Like flying an airplane was simple. Like being in a firefight on a different planet was simple, when the gravity was a third of what it was on Earth and the explosions had kicked up enormous clouds of dust and debris that hung in the air endlessly. There wasn’t enough wind on Mars to blow the clouds away. Weapons fire did, though. The drones around the makeshift compound had frozen for maybe a second before they’d gone from ‘worker bees’ to ‘angry hornets looking for the intruders.’ Or at least that’s how it seemed to Baylor, when Xylene and Wes made it to cover and opened up on the closest smaller robots, melting them down and blasting them apart. They’d formed a line and Baylor made sure it held, picking apart the larger models that came racing in over their smaller brethren. That lasted for all of maybe half a minute before the robots figured out his location, then he was slinging the rifle over his shoulder and tearing ass for the hills.
“Hoss, we could use a rescue right about now!” The harried voice of Whiskey 2 shouted over the radio. Baylor kept huffing as he felt pebbles and debris smack him in the back.
“Light damage. Light damage. No suit punctures.” The computerized voice made to sound like a sultry woman reported to him. Wonderful. Baylor wasn’t sure how painful death by decompression was but he didn’t feel like experiencing it any more than death by explosives or laser burns or blunt force trauma. He kept on running. “You’re not gonna die here,” he told himself, panting from the exertion and keeping his jumps limited. Sure, jumping was easy in this light gravity, but he lost the ability to change his direction when he did, and made for an easier target. To calm himself down, he ran one of his favorite songs through his head. I was born in a crossfire hurricane…
Then suddenly, the weapons fire that had been chasing him as he ran along the ridge and darted between quickly destroyed bits of cover started to die down. When Baylor slowed down enough to look back over his shoulder, he could see that the bulk of the small robot army had a more pressing problem on their plates in the form of the heavily modified 1976 GMC Motorhome that was driving through and over them while the laser turret on the roof was blasting away at the bigger robots like it was a turkey shoot. The front fender had extended out in front of it and expanded with additional supports like the cow catcher on the front of a locomotive. It scooped up unfortunate robots, sending them flying in all directions. But what really sold the bit was that Whiskey 1 was leaned halfway out of the driver’s side window with his pulse rifle blazing, and Whiskey 4 was standing on the roof with his ion cannon. Baylor stared for half a second before he realized that the money-grubbing guncrazy lunatic must have magnetized his boots to stick in place and turn himself into a second mounted turret lobbing charged plasmaburst death on their foes.
“Cavalry’s here!” Whiskey 1 laughed.
“Yippee-kai-YAY, motherfuckers!” Whiskey 4 shouted, chunking another pile of robots into melted slag from another burst impact.
With a second and more pressing threat on the board, the red robots that milled about in the crater like a sea of ants found themselves engaging in multiple tasks. The ones who weren’t counterattacking started moving their ill-gotten goods towards the transports. The attack saucer which had been idling in the yard started to rise up into the air. And unlike the saucer that they’d taken down at November-84, when the RV’s turret lifted the barrels up into the air and fired at it, a powerful honeycomb glow erupted over its surface when the shots impacted.
“Dammit, they’ve got their shields up!” Xylene snarled over the comms. She had two robots caught up in the grip of her purple power and she hurled them towards one of the larger tank-like drones crawling over the battlefield, rocking it from the impact and the explosions. “Max, you won’t be able to get through that with your transport’s gun!” The saucer’s outer edge began to glow with a building weapons charge, which ominously dipped down towards the ground to take aim at them. “Watch it! That thing’s got an Incineration Beam that’ll tear through you like plasma through paper!”
“Shit, hang on to something Phil!” Max swore, and the RV swerved hard as Max gave up on firing his gun and put everything he had into driving in defensive and erratic turns and weaves. They wouldn’t have looked out of place if he were jinking the stick of a jet fighter to avoid getting his ass shot off, Baylor realized. He brought up his rifle and did his best to clear a path for his squad, chipping away at the bigger robots that tried to get in their path or looked ready to open fire on them. One lucky shot plugged a biggie right in the rack of missiles that extended out from its body a fraction of a second before it could fire them, and the resulting explosion sent pieces of it flying into the air and took out all the drones around it with the shrapnel from its corpse. None of that helped the bigger problem of the UFO that was in the air and glowing dangerously red around the outer ring of its edge, shields flaring but never breaking as Phil’s plasmabursts and the high-energy laser blasts of the RV’s turret kept pinging away at it uselessly. It was getting ready to fire and when it did…
It didn’t. Rather, it didn’t get the chance. An absolutely perfectly timed pair of missiles screamed in and exploded in white-hot plasma, rocking the saucer like a leaf in a hurricane and making every light on it shudder as the shields flared even more brightly and seemed to give out in places. Xylene’s ship screamed overhead a second later.
“Hate to interrupt the party, Magister, but we thought you could use some top cover.” The smug voice of one of the aliens they’d met earlier said conversationally.
“About damn time, Blue Whisper!” Xylene called back. “Keep that saucer occupied, we’ll deal with things down on the ground!”
“Confirmed, Magister. Engaging.” Her futuristic spaceship veered up and launched another pair of missiles back at the saucer, blasting it again. It soared up and chased after it, firing its red beam after them and winging the ship, and soon the two were darting through the skies at incredible speeds. It didn’t matter anymore, and Baylor put the ships out of his mind. They had enough of a fight on the ground.
“Wes, Xylene, we’ll keep them engaged out here. Make for those transports and shut them down, I don’t like the look of their operation.” Max ordered, as the RV spun back around to re-engage with the forces swarming towards them in earnest again. Baylor shook off his stupefaction and leveled his sniper laser, noting how much of its charge he’d already burned through. Maybe a dozen more shots. He used one of them and bored through a red robot that had raised a scythed foreleg up to swipe at the RV. It rattled the thing enough that Whiskey 4’s followup shot gutted it and sent it flying in pieces.
“Sir, you sure that you’ll be all right?” Whiskey 2 asked.
“I have them covered.” Baylor said, and pulled the trigger again to smoke a hovering drone who’d been firing for the mounted turret up top and held still long enough for him to make the shot.
“Keep it up, Whiskey 5. Move it, Wes! The Rookie’s on Overwatch!”
“Come on Wes. No time to foot this out, we’re flying!”
“Damnit Xylene, you know how I feel about you picking me up with your powers! And it’s hoofing it!” Whiskey 2 complained as he was hauled up in her aura and the two of them soared through the air towards the first of the transports.
Baylor wanted to say something to reassure Wes and Xylene, but the fighting was too intense and there were more of those smaller hovering drones coming his way. He swore and stowed his rifle, bringing out the smaller laser pistol that had been strapped to his waist and that he hadn’t fired yet in anger. Hadn’t needed to. But he knew well enough how to bring it up, power it on, and disengage the safety. He took off running and fired shots behind him while the drones tried to pelt him with the same, listening all the while to the sounds of battle over the comms.
“Coop, coming up behind us!”
“I have them, 1, relax.”
“Fuckit, boss, watch the bumps!”
“You’ve got maglocks on your boots for a reason, Phil!”
“Doesn’t help me if I’m knocked flat on my ass with broken ankles!”
“Whiskey 5, I could use a pickup right about now!” Baylor shouted, cutting over the conflicting voices of the others. The laserfire from the drones around him was getting too close, and one clipped at his ankle and made him yelp before his suit fired an alarm.
“Warning. Right boot damaged. Compromise imminent. Deploying countermeasures.” And then there was a hiss of something, the smell of some kind of astringent, and a splash of something wet around his lower leg and his foot that quickly hardened and gained mass. It messed up his gait and sent him tumbling, and instinct alone kept him from collapsing completely. Instead, fighting the wince in his back from the odd roll, he snagged up his rifle, corkscrewed about, and came into a kneeling aim. He was too close for the scope and he didn’t need it anyways. There were a host of drones flying down towards him, guns at the ready to cut him to pieces.
He didn’t give them the chance. There was one good thing about firing at robots, there was no hesitation about shooting at them like he did against living targets. To his sensibilities, it was no different than taking down clay targets launched into the air.
Jerry Baylor had always been good at skeet shooting. He stopped counting his shots and lost track of how many drones there were. He aimed and fired until his rifle’s power cell went dry, and after two clicks with no resulting laser beam, he swung it onto his back, whipped up his laser pistol again, and kept on firing. They shot back and plugged him in the shoulder, nearly knocking the breath out of him when the shot pierced through his suit and exposed him momentarily to the sucking vacuum of the thin Martian atmosphere. Then the suit kicked in again, foaming his shoulder and half of his chest and his upper arm, sealing the wound and making his right arm heavy and limp. It forced him to fire single-handed for the last two flying drones and as soon as he’d cleared them out, a larger one about the size of a horse was coming towards him to finish what they’d started.
The report of Whiskey 4’s ion cannon had never been so welcomed, and it blasted the drone apart right before the RV pulled up alongside of him, kicking up a cloud of dust when Max hit the brakes. Whiskey 1 leaned out the driver’s side window, face hidden behind the visor of his helmet, and waved a hand at him. “Don’t just stand there getting more holes shot into you Rookie, get inside already!”
Stumbling around the side of the RV with one foot feeling like it was stuck in styrofoam and his right shoulder aching from the wound and the momentary exposure and the feeling of heaviness, Baylor made for the side door. He was nearly around the nose of the RV when there was a barrage of laserfire from a row of defenders closing in on them from the side, and a bellowing cry of pain came from Whiskey 4.
“Shit! Fuckers got me!” Phil swore, rolling off of the side of the RV to plop in front of Baylor in a groaning heap. Smoke and oxygen vapor was steaming out of a hole in the side of his suit before the same foam kicked in, and Baylor grabbed at him with his left arm, Phil’s oversized gun and all.
“Rookie, get him in NOW!” Whiskey 1 shouted in a harder voice, punctuated by several flashes of return laserfire. Baylor didn’t waste time on niceties, he jerked the man up and shoved him into the side of the RV, hobbling in after and closing the door after him. They were rolling again even before he got the door completely shut, and Baylor sagged against it as the pain caught up to him. That lasted for all of maybe a few seconds before his suit spoke to him again.
“Remote command accepted. Administering nanokit injection.” There was a prick at the base of his neck that made him flinch, and then a soothing warmth spread over him along with a burst of fresh energy. Whiskey 3 was on them both in moments, grabbing at Whiskey 4 and dragging him over to the kitchen booth. The ion cannon that Billings had been carrying forever lay uselessly on the floor.
“Damn, Phil, they don’t give you medals for getting injured this often.” Whiskey 3 said, trying to be lighthearted about it.
“Fuck you, Coop, just fix it up already.” Whiskey 4 groaned, slumping on the table.
Whiskey 1 broke Baylor from his staring. “Rookie, get up here! You’re taking Coop’s place on the guns!”
Baylor took a gulp of processed, sterilized oxygen to clear the dizziness he felt. It did nothing for the unusual combination of panic, giddiness, and something he was beginning to think might be the beginnings of a psychotic break. It didn’t matter, though. They still had a job to do, and Whiskey 3 was busy patching up Whiskey 4 so he wouldn’t bleed out. The Rookie made his way forward and sank into the passenger seat, noting the presence of a joystick that was extended out from the glove compartment. It was accompanied by a small television screen in the dash above it that displayed a targeting reticule and a full-color image of the battle going on outside.
One hand on the wheel and the other on the laser rifle stuck out the open window, Whiskey 1 turned them around and went nose-first towards the group of robots that had ambushed them.
“Take the control stick, aim the turret, push the fire button.” Colonel Tennyson ordered curtly, and kept on driving. Baylor did so and immediately started laying the hurt on the drones attacking them outside. He ended up chuckling, but offered no comment and the Colonel was too busy to ask for an explanation. The Colonel would’ve found the reason irritating, anyways.
How would he take it if Baylor told him that it felt like he was playing a game of Pong to save the world?
They were up against an army of robots sent by an alien warlord, and they were somehow holding their own. Whiskey 5 wondered what kind of force drove Colonel Max Tennyson as he sneaked glances over to the commander of Whiskey Team. On the surface he’d looked like any other career soldier. But career soldiers didn’t have friendships with alien law enforcement or sniff their noses at regulations. Career soldiers didn’t risk everything to travel to another planet to chase down stolen property. Career soldiers followed orders, reported their findings, and waited for someone higher up the chain to tell them what to do next.
Colonel Tennyson didn’t seem to care about any of that. He just cared about getting the job done. So did the rest of his team.
No wonder Merlin called them a bunch of loose cannons. Their approach must chafe horribly on that man’s sensibilities. It still felt weird to Baylor, but in the thick of it, as he kept pulling the trigger and blasted another small pack of drones to molten slag, he knew one thing for certain.
If he had to be stuck in this airless hellscape fighting for his life, there was nobody else he’d want to do it with besides Whiskey Team.
“Wes, status!” Colonel Tennyson demanded over the radio.
“They’re still trying to load up the transports, but it looks like they’re separating the loads. There’s one transport we’ve grounded without the nukes, and there’s a second with the warheads they hadn’t converted. The third has finished missiles though…”
“Magister, the Blue Whisper is going down!” The voice of the Galactic Enforcers agent on Xylene’s ship suddenly broke into the communications circuit. “That saucer was tougher than we expected, it roughed us up some before we managed to blow it apart and we’re losing power to the thrusters!”
“Damnit! Try and put her down close by, Salo!” Xylene ordered. “Nobody dies, you hear me!”
“We’ll try, Magister. Wish us luck.”
“Well, there goes our air support.” Whiskey 1 murmured, and Baylor looked out of the windshield in time to see the blue spaceship they’d taken to get here come screaming down towards the surface, trailing smoke. “Don’t worry, Rookie. Xylene’s crashed her ship in worse places than this and gotten away with it. Stay focused on the job.”
“Yes, sir.” Baylor nodded, and winced when the push of the robot army seemed to increase. The ones who had been working on loading up the missile parts onto the transports dropped their loads and turned towards them with weapons at the ready. Right about then, Whiskey 3 came forward from the back of the RV and set his hands on their headrests.
“I’ve got Phil stabilized and patched up good as I can for now. He’ll live but he’s already complaining about paid time off.” Cooper said wearily. “Things still look FUBAR’ed up here, I see.”
“Yeah, what else is new?” Whiskey 1 snorted. “Rookie’s pretty good on the guns, but Xylene says there’s a transport full of processed, alien-upgraded missiles we still have to deal with. And these things are bound and determined to get in our way.” He spun the wheel away from the robots and the transports and took the RV towards emptier landscape, running over smashed up debris from the battle that rattled them even through the shocks and suspension.
Whiskey 5 spun the turret around behind them and took potshots at the robots that were flying or running after them, and the RV’s radio let out one alarm after another as impacts from their weapons rattled it. “Danger. Danger. Incoming fire exceeding ablative armor tolerance.”
“Thank you for stating the obvious.” Colonel Tennyson grumbled. There was movement on his gun camera, and Whiskey 5 found himself looking as one of the transports started to lift off from the ground, its back hatch still open as a few drones piled inside with some last pieces of gear.
“Uh. Colonel, sir?” Baylor said tentatively. “We’ve got a ship taking off.” Whiskey 1’s helmet jerked towards his side mirror and he swore.
“Xylene, please tell me you and Wes are on that ship lifting off the ground.”
“We aren’t.” Came the grim reply from the alien woman. “That’s the one with the finished missiles. Max, we’re out of position, we can’t get to it!”
Whiskey 1 sighed, then sucked in a breath full of determination. “Guess it’s up to us then.”
“Max, that’s insane!” Whiskey 2 yelled at him. “You have the rest of the robots between you and that ship! You’ll never get to it in time before it takes off, and we don’t have a ship that can follow it now!”
The RV sped up and passed a sloped rise around a sizable crater from some past impact that the windstorms on Mars hadn’t eroded away completely. By now, the robots had fallen behind a fair amount, not that it kept Whiskey 5 from shooting at them. The sudden braking and 180 degree spin that Colonel Tennyson used to bring them about, facing the direction they’d come a good mile past the slope however…
“You’re right.” Whiskey 1 answered. The distant quality of his voice made Whiskey 5 shiver. “We’ll never get to it in time before it takes off.”
The radio paused. “Max, please tell me you aren’t about to do what I think you are.”
Max didn’t bother answering that hopeful remark. “Xylene, take Wes and fall back to your ship. Regroup with your team and then come back loaded for bear.”
“Just remember that tank of yours doesn’t have wings, flyboy.” Xylene warned him. Max left that comment go unresolved as well, and glanced back to Whiskey 3, who swore and raced to the back, muttering about ‘fucking fighter jocks’ and something about stasis fields.
“You’ll want to buckle up for this, Rookie, and put the turret forward.” Max said. Whiskey 5 swallowed inside of his helmet and snapped the belt into place, then jerked on the stick until the laser turret was back at zero. Max flipped a toggle on the dash and blew out air while the front fender of the RV extended out again into a ramming sled. A second switch caused a metal shield to raise up over the windshield from the nose of the vehicle as well as the side windows, and a third button press projected the image from the laser turret’s gun camera onto the now-covered windshield. It was the only window that they had to the outside world now. Max jammed his foot onto the accelerator, and they tore off back towards the fight, with the alien transport ship gaining altitude rapidly.
“Rookie!” Max barked out, and Whiskey 5 jumped in his seat a little. “You remember that little red button I told you never to press?”
Baylor’s eyes darted down to the console between their seats, where the gearshift and the ominous red button on top of it waited. Max had it jammed into third gear and had both hands on the wheel tightly, holding the vehicle steady as laserfire began to pelt their front end again. “Yeah?” He shouted back.
“PRESS the little red button!” Max yelled. Baylor reached for it shakily, flipped the cover off of it with his gloved thumb, and punched it. There were some impressive sounds from the rear of the RV after that, and then…
Speed. Sudden, violent, intense acceleration that slammed him back hard into his seat and left him gasping. Speed that the robots hadn’t accounted for, and Max’s grip on the steering wheel was hard as steel and just as steady. Baylor looked over to the speedometer and swallowed as the needle passed 140 MPH...and kept on going until it circled back around and pressed hard at the stopper on the other side of the dial at 0.
“Ohhh, shit. OH, SHIT!” Baylor screamed, as they plowed through the robots and Max pointed them to the rise they’d driven past, a rise that resembled an ominous ramp.
“Easy. Easy. Don’t move that turret away from straight on, I need to see where I’m aiming. These rocket thrusters are touchy.” Max said soothingly, his voice eerily calm in the violence of the wild maneuver.
“Xylene was right, this thing doesn’t have wings! We can’t fly!”
“This isn’t flying, kid, relax. How else are we going to get up on that ship?”
Baylor clenched his teeth as the RV finally cleared through the last of the robots that couldn’t scramble away in time and hit the slope. They screamed up the incline and when they hit the end of it, they were going so fast that the RV shot into the air like it had been fired from a gun. But then, considering that pushing the red button had activated hidden rocket boosters in the back of the RV, it was probably better to say that they’d been launched like a missile.
His stomach sank down to his bladder and Baylor gripped the armrests of his chair as they soared high up into the air, flying towards the still rising spaceship. “We’re not gonna make it!”
“We’ll make it.”
“We’re not gonna make it!” Baylor repeated, terrified.
“We’ll make it!” And sure enough, for a moment it seemed like they were aimed straight for the back end of the transport, whose rear hatch was even now trying to close up. “Shoot the hatch, Rookie!” Baylor’s hand snapped back to the joystick and he started pushing the trigger so hard that he thought that he might break it. Blast after blast from the turret on the roof of the RV slammed into the ass end of the spaceship, warping the alien metal of the hatch until it glowed red hot. It finally gave way when a shot passed through the door and hit something explosive, blowing the hatch out completely. That was about the time that the lurching feeling in Baylor’s stomach finally gave way to the weak gravity of Mars.
They’d reached the peak of their jump, and they were about to start falling down again. Thousands and thousands of feet to the ground below them, and the alien ship would get away.
Max reached up to the ceiling full of tiny buttons and switches. “You have the scope zeroed in straight ahead still, Rookie?”
“Never took it off zero axis, sir!”
“Good. Hang on to something.” Max punched a button, and there came a powerful thunk from under their feet. On the gun camera’s projection, he watched as some kind of projectile on a steel rope shot out and soared into the darkness of the transport’s interior. “C’mon, you bastard, hit something…” Whiskey 1 hissed under his breath. Whatever he’d fired must have, because the rope went taut and Max let out a whoop as they found themselves being pulled in. The Colonel hit a pair of buttons underneath the steering wheel and a jolt shook the RV, stabilizing it and keeping it from dropping for a time. Enough that the rope reeled them towards the spaceship until the front wheels hit the deck plating, and Max laughed as another jolt pressed Baylor back into his seat for a moment and shoved them the rest of the way in. “Hey, Coop! Good news. The thrusters and the grappling hook both work fine! And you were worried!”
“I’m STILL worried!” Whiskey 3 fired back heatedly.
“You ramped us over a mile into the sky, shot out the back door of a spacecraft, and then landed this tank of an RV into said spacecraft.” Baylor got out, gripping his armrests so hard that he would undoubtedly be leaving imprints.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Whiskey 1 countered brightly. Now that they were inside the ship, they could make out the contents. The other end of the grappling cable was tied to a barbed hook embedded in a massive container that looked like it had been dragged several feet before it smashed into the biggest drone in the rear storage bay and crushed it. The destroyed robot gave the anchor point enough mass and stopping power to hold the RV’s grapple. A few drones were moving around, and the refitted missiles were strapped against the hull and on floor mounts. “Hm. No way we’re getting these missiles out of here before this ship gets away. Whiskey 3! Got any of the Mark 24’s back there still?”
“Set the timer for 4 minutes and get ready to chuck it out the side door on my mark. Rookie, get your gun ready!”
He was crazy. That was the answer to everything, Baylor told himself as he slammed a fresh power pack into his sniper laser rifle. The man was absolutely crazy. Max Tennyson lived it, breathed it, preached it. The barricades over the windshields and windows lowered at a button press as the robots, hesitating to open up with their energy weapons or missiles in confined quarters, came racing for the RV. Max had his gun and one arm out the window and Baylor stuck his sniper laser out the other, tearing off the scope and taking boresight potshots whenever he could. Max treated the ride like they were in a bumper car arena, sideswiping piles of robots and shooting at the ones that got too close. Especially the ones who jumped up on the nose of the RV and tried punching their way in through the windshield. Those got blasted into heaps that the windshield wipers scraped off like oversized insects.
“Mark 24 prepped, boss!” Whiskey 3 called up, the sound of his labored breathing audible over the channel.
“Roll it out!” Whiskey 1 ordered, and there was the shiver of a heavy metal cylinder thumping dully out of the RV’s side door before another near-silent thump of the door closing sounded.
“Hang on to something, everyone! We’re getting off this banana boat!” The RV spun around until they were facing out towards the exit, with smoke still streaming out the back. Through the gaping hole in the ship’s stern, the faint glow of the Martian skies and the dull orange and brown landscape of the planet loomed, beneath them and getting farther away every second. Whiskey 1 gunned the engine and they screamed out of the ship, leaving it behind them and plummeting towards the surface.
In an RV. A damaged RV. An RV that probably didn’t have…
“Colonel? Do we have a parachute in this crate?” Baylor asked hopefully.
“No, we don’t. Seems like the kind of thing we ought to look into adding, though.” Colonel Tennyson replied easily. “Are they still shooting at us?”
The need to follow orders won out over his rising panic at falling out of a spaceship and Baylor spun the laser turret around, using the gun camera to track the spaceship rising up higher and higher away from the planet. “No, they aren’t.”
“Good. Landing this crate’s going to be hard enough without getting blown to pieces. I wanted them to think we made a run for it.”
“Isn’t that what we did, sir?” Baylor asked, looking out the windshield as the nose tipped down slightly into a dive.
“Not quite. We couldn’t stop them from leaving the surface and we couldn’t disable the missiles, not in the time we had. And there was no chance in hell I was going to stay on that ship any longer than we had to, not with Wes and our reinforcements stranded down below.” Max toggled the switches and there was a jolt that swung the nose up, pointing them towards the sky. “Altimeter. This thing needs a fragging altimeter.”
“Why would an RV need a goddamn altimeter?!” Baylor exploded in panic. “What kind of...You drive out of spaceships or airplanes on a regular basis?”
Max huffed and shook his head inside of his suit’s helmet. “Were you ever a boy scout, Rookie?”
Baylor shook his head. Cub Scout, yes, but he quit going before he could’ve moved up. But he knew what the man was driving at. Be prepared, the motto went. “How are we going to survive this, sir?”
“Turn the turret around facing backwards and get us a view of the ground. I’m going to be firing the thrusters, and trying for sporadic bursts. It wasn’t built for it, but…” The man shrugged. “Either we put her down gently or we’ll make the least impressive crater on this side of Mars.”
“I don’t know why the General thought that I could change the way your team operates.” Baylor said, swiveling the laser cannon on the roof of the RV until it was pointed at the ground instead of the sky.
He didn’t see Colonel Tennyson’s eyes fix on him, but he could feel them. “Merlin thought what? You a spy for him, son?”
“I don’t know why I ended up on your team. You have a four-man element, I’m the odd one out. I got the feeling he didn’t like your methods very much, sir.”
“Nothing new there, Baylor.” Colonel Tennyson said, using his name for the first time. It jolted with a touch of surprise. “Tennysons have a habit of getting on his nerves.”
“Good God, there’s more of you?” Whiskey 5 blurted out. Max chuckled and changed the subject.
“We don’t have an altitude reading, so I’m counting on you to eyeball it. Once I fire the thrusters, you tell me when it looks like we’re standing still. I’m going to try dropping us in stages to save on our booster fuel.”
“How much do we have left?”
“...Not as much as I’d like.”
“...Whiskey 1, respond!” The near-panicked voice of Wes cut in over their conversation.
“Not now, Wes.” The Colonel replied, nodding at Baylor. “Whiskey 5 and I are trying to land the MCC without a parachute or wings. Baylor, call it out for me.”
“My God, you...you’re serious.” Wes Green murmured in horror. “Boss…”
“NOW!” Baylor shouted, cutting off the worry of Whiskey 2, and Max punched the thrusters, which took a bit to unfold, warm up, and fire. Damnit, he’d have to account for that too wouldn’t he? “Release!” The lurching feeling of resisting gravity ended and they started to fall again.
It made for the most terrifying three minutes of his life. Plummeting down a thousand feet at a crack by his guesstimate, broken up solely by his shouts and the sputtering thrusters on the back of the RV as Max fired them over and over again, in the hopes that they wouldn’t turn into a sticky paste of blood, mangled flesh, and crumpled metal and plastic on impact. And maybe he had Whiskey 1 hold it a little bit too long there at the end when they still had a hundred feet left of airtime to go out of dread panic, but how was he supposed to know that they would run out of juice after that? They hit the ground hard with the back end and the rear wheels smashing down first before the nose tipped down and rattled his teeth as the RV settled. The whiplash of being thrown around didn’t help any either, and if it hadn’t been for a flash of light that cocooned around him and kept him immobile while the rest of the RV seemed to shudder, rattle, and nearly crumple on impact, Baylor probably would have gotten a concussion out of it. And probably a lot worse. When the RV stopped bouncing and finally settled back onto its wheels in an upright position, the light around him died down and he heard swearing and groaning coming from Whiskey 3 and 4 on their channel.
“MAX!” Xylene screamed over the radio.
“Boss!” Wes repeated the shout.
“We’re alive.” Colonel Tennyson answered them wearily, putting a gloved hand up to the front of his helmet, like he’d been going to run a hand through his hair and forgot that it was there.
“Somehow.” Whiskey 4 whined over the radio. “What the fuck, boss? You see the alien ship getting away and your first thought is, hey, you know what we oughta do? We oughta see if this thing can do a ramp jump better than the General Lee!”
“It worked, didn’t it?” The Colonel said with a laugh, opening the door of the RV and stumbling out of it on shaky legs. “Any crash you can walk away from.”
“That ship’s still getting away, you know.” Xylene pointed out.
“Is it?” Colonel Tennyson countered, and his tone made Baylor roll down the window of the passenger door and stick his head out, looking up into the sky in the vague direction of where the spaceship had been fleeing. He remembered the ‘Mark 24’ that Whiskey 1 had ordered Whiskey 3 to roll out the side door about two heartbeats before a brilliant explosion of light ignited high above them, and his helmet’s visor darkened automatically. He jerked his head back around to look at Max, standing beside the RV with a hand tipped up against his helmet’s visor with a casual air, like he was watching an airplane flying overhead. “Four minutes. Nice work, Whiskey 3.”
“Goddamnit, Max.” Wes offered a long-suffering sigh. “What did you do?”
“We tossed out a Mark 24 before we jumped ship.” Max told his second in command. “Best way to make sure that this Vilgax doesn’t get his hands on those retrofitted nuclear missiles, isn’t it? But enough about that. The rest of the robots?”
“They all shut down and then self-destructed once that ship got up and away.” Xylene scowled. “Vilgax must be trying to hide the evidence. I’m amazed he didn’t rig up the other transports to blow either.”
“The transports are generic though, right? Like the saucers?”
“Yeah, they’re pretty common even out of GE-controlled space.”
“That would be why then.” Max harrumphed. “Nice to know we have a ship we can still use, though. And you have the other warheads secured?”
“Yes, Colonel.” Whiskey 2 confirmed. “And Xylene made contact with her team. They’re a little banged up but nothing serious. They were loading up their emergency supplies and all the sensitive equipment and should be coming our way. I don’t know how you’re going to explain this mess to Merlin, though.”
“If anyone asks, Xylene, I’m telling them you blew up all the missiles.” Max Tennyson said, dismissing Whiskey 2’s concerns far too easily. The alien woman laughed at him.
“That’s fine. I’m just sad I didn’t think of it first.”
Enroute to Earth
March 11th, 1979 C.E.
To everyone’s relief, the transport that Xylene and Wes had commandeered was not only full of stolen warheads that hadn’t been processed yet (Including some Russian ones and wasn’t that interesting) but it was also equipped with a life support system. That meant that once they’d tossed out all of the deactivated and exploded drones Vilgax had sent to do his dirty work and loaded up the MCC in the back, all they’d had to do was seal the ship up, move a few switches and everyone, even the aliens, were able to take off their helmets and breathe without smelling their own reprocessed, sweat-soaked air. And take off their suits also, which allowed the alien medic on Xylene’s squad to patch them up a little bit better. Baylor’s foot and shoulder still felt a little numb from the swallowing pressure of the foam casts that had set in to stabilize their injuries and seal his suit punctures, and Phil was in even worse shape.
“You know, I gotta say that I’m a little impressed with you humans.” Per’ri the Perk said in a somewhat craggy voice that made Baylor think of Munchkins, especially the butch ones in the Lollipop Guild. He definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore, after all. “For a bunch of bipeds with no special talent, you sure have a knack for blowing stuff up. Too bad you don’t know how to stay out of the blast radius.”
“Thanks, Perry.” Phil said weakly, worn out after the nanokit had gotten to work in healing his injuries. Wes was standing beside the injured Plumber and patted him on the shoulder condescendingly before Phil scowled and shoved his arm off.
“That’s Per’ri!” The Perk huffed, his rounded belly puffing up a little. And now Jerry was thinking about blowfishes. “Anyhow, just take it easy for the next couple of days. You have to give those nanos a chance to work on your wounds.” Then the alien pointed to the pile of foam that they had pulled out of their suits and off of their bodies once they’d been in a pressurized atmosphere again. “Are you two going to eat that?”
“Uh, what?” Baylor blurted out, blinking. “That’s - that’s foam. We can’t eat that.”
“More for me then!” The little Perk shrugged happily, then waddled over to it. Before Baylor’s shocked eyes, the small pudgy green alien dislocated his jaw, opened his mouth incredibly wide, and horked down the entire pile of discarded bits of hardened foam in one massive bite. The resulting swallow bulged his gut out for all of maybe a second before his body returned to its normal shape.
Per’ri let out a satisfied moan and tilted his head back, belching up a small jet of flame. “Oh, that’s good. I don’t know what you humans put in your bio-foam, but it tastes even better than ours does. What’s your secret? Polyphenols? Ethyl salicylate?”
Xylene came in, wearing a smirk as she saw the gobsmacked look on the faces of the humans. “I think Max told me once that it had to do with an extract from some plant that grows on their oceans. They use it in a dessert called ice cream too.”
“Magister, please tell me that we can stop and get some ice cream to eat before we get back.” The Perk pleaded, and Xylene shook her head.
“No luck, Per’ri. Earth’s off-limits to us except in dire emergencies.” She patted the crestfallen alien on the head and looked back to the three humans in the Perk’s medical bay. “So, Wes. How are you feeling?”
“Like I could use a three-day nap.” The Navajo answered her honestly. “We don’t often get the chance to go off-world.”
“And I don’t enjoy explaining to GE Command that I’ve wrecked another ship.” Xylene scowled. “But it happens. I was looking for Max, have you seen him?”
“Knowing him, he’ll be in the cargo bay trying to fix up our Mobile Command Center.” Wes said. He nodded to Baylor. “Rookie, why don’t you walk down with the lady? Make sure Max keeps it professional.”
“You think he’ll try and take advantage of me?” Xylene widened her eyes, and Wes smiled and shook his head.
“Other way around, beautiful.”
“When do I stop getting called the Rookie?” Baylor cut in, breaking up the flirting.
“You made it through a mission with us.” Phil Billings said, only slurring a little bit through his anesthetic. “I think now’s good. Your name’s Baylor, right? So...I think Bales.” Whiskey 4 glanced over to Wes. “What do you think, Green?”
“Bales?” Wes sounded it out in his head and smiled. “Well, he did bail you out of some trouble there, Phil. So yeah. Bales works.” He nodded at Whiskey 5. “Well, don’t just stand there, Bales. Per’ri gave you a clean bill of health, get going.”
“Yes, sir.” Baylor smiled and gave the man a salute that Wes waved off with a snort. He walked down the ship’s corridor in a pair of borrowed leggings that kept him warm, but tugged slightly on his skin. He’d refused the shirt, staying with his white undershirt for comfort. Bales, Phil and Wes had called him. He could get used to the name.
As they walked on in silence, ‘Bales’ thought that Xylene was going to keep to the silent treatment, but the alien woman actually spoke to him. “You did good work today.” She told him. “Max picked a good one when he chose you to join his squad.”
“Choose me.” Baylor explained, noticing how Xylene shivered in the cool circulated air of the borrowed spaceship. “I got assigned to him. This was my first mission.”
Xylene gave him a look that was both understanding and pitying. “This would have been a lot for your first mission, Bales, but you came through all right. I know that Plumbers like to keep to Earth and stay separate from the Galactic Enforcers, but I’ll tell you the same thing I told Max and Wes; I’d scoop you up as one of our agents in a heartbeat. A few revolutions of experience and you’d be a good magister.”
Baylor laughed a little brokenly at the idea, shaking his head. “Honestly, ma’am? I think that this is the last time I’ll be leaving Earth. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.”
“Considering the stunts Max likes to pull, I can’t really blame you for that.” The alien woman hummed.
“Ma’am? If it’s all right, do you think I could ask you a question?” She nodded. “How did you and Colonel Tennyson meet up?”
“Well, that was...hm. What year is it by your calendar?”
“14 years ago then. He shot down a saucer I was a prisoner on, got shot down himself, and we crawled out of the jungle together.”
“Huh.” Baylor blinked, tracing the encounter back to the early days of the Vietnam War. “That’s it?”
“That’s all you get to hear, Bales.” Xylene purred. “It’s not my story to tell.” Then they were at the door to the cargo bay, and Xylene winked at him as they walked inside.
Just like Wes had predicted, Colonel Tennyson was working on the RV when they walked up to it. So was Coop, although he was underneath the enormous vehicle and Max was inside of it.
In their haste to get the RV inside of the alien transport, get the ship working, and get off of Mars and headed back towards Earth, Baylor hadn’t paid much attention to their trusty vehicle. Sure, it had gone a little slower and there was a clunk to it that hadn’t been there even during the fight, but Colonel Tennyson was still able to drive it. Now that he’d been patched up, Baylor could see just how roughed up the vehicle was after the firefights, the death-defying jumps and falls, and that final crash landing. The sides and the back of the vehicle were blackened by weapon impacts and slightly warped or melted in places, just by how the thing sagged even on the jacks he could tell the suspension was shot, and there was a filmy layer of Martian dust caked on the sides of it that looked like it’d take an industrial car wash to get off. Max saw them coming and called out to them, and Coop pulled himself out from underneath it.
“How bad’s the damage?” Baylor asked.
“I’m amazed it held together.” Coop grumbled. “We shoved every piece of gear we could think of into it, and it still wasn’t enough. The suspension is shot, Max here almost broke the spine in that freefall stunt, we’ll have to redo most of the armor plating, and it’s so caked up with ionized dust that if we don’t get it cleaned off, we’re going to have to start calling this thing a Rustbucket.”
“Hey, now.” Max protested, and Coop waved him off. “I found another problem too, Coop. The toilet’s not flushing right.”
“There’s the end of the effin’ world.” Coop snorts. “How’s the vitals?”
“Got a reading. You were right about us tearing a hole in the fuel tank, there’s about 15 gallons of gasoline on the surface of Mars right now. Good thing we were running off of the batteries.”
Baylor heard the word and didn’t even want to think about just what the man meant by that. He was just sure it wasn’t anything that had the word Energizer stamped anywhere on it and that was already one thought too many right now. Cooper looked just as wasted as he took off his work gloves and pressed the palm of his hand up against the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. “It’s a miracle we aren’t dead, Max. You have God’s own luck.”
“Too much to live for.” Max told his squad member, looking over to Baylor and grinning. “You did good work out there, kid.”
“Actually, sir?” Baylor said. “Whiskey 4 came up with a nickname for me. It’s Bales.”
“Bales, huh?” Max chuckled. “Well. If Phil signed off on it, okay. And you’re definitely not a rookie now.” His eyes danced over to Xylene. “So, gorgeous. Did you come down here to talk shop?”
“Sort of.” Xylene said. “There are two things I wanted to tell you before we got back to Earth. The first thing is, Vilgax is the kind of tyrant who holds a grudge. We stopped him here, but if he’s got his eyes set on Earth and your idiotic stockpiles of nuclear weaponry for his warmongering, then he isn’t going to stop with just one setback. And the next time he comes for you, he’s not going to be playing it quiet. Next time, Max, he’s going to come out swinging.”
Colonel Tennyson sighed. “Yeah, I kind of figured that would be the case. You’ll have your people send us his profile, right? So we know what to expect?”
“What I can.” Xylene nodded. “Which isn’t much, with your planet being declared off-limits to interference and GE operations.”
“Right. Okay. And what’s the second thing?” Max asked her.
“My boys got this ship’s sorry excuse of a communications system hooked up to our Hyperwave circuit we pulled out of the Blue Whisper. We made contact with GE Command and let them know about the mission, and I thought you might appreciate calling home to let them know you were coming on a different ship. I’d hate to get shot down again, after all, and I’m three for three on missions with you now.”
“Axila 7 didn’t count, Xylene.”
“The bounty on your head that the Blue Suns and Blood Pack signed off on say otherwise, Tennyson.” It really was an old thing between them, and the way that they looked at each other made Baylor blink. Max smiled often, but his smile here was more relaxed, and Xylene may have been alien, but she wasn’t using anything less than pure bedroom eyes on Whiskey 1. The Colonel rolled his eyes and conceded the point.
“Think your tech boys can patch a call back to my girl here?” Max asked her, moving past the old argument. Xylene cocked her head to the side.
“Yeah, probably.” She rolled her shoulders. “Sure I can’t just convince you to join up with the Galactic Enforcers, though?”
“Xylene.” Max shook his head, and Xylene smiled again.
“Well. At least we’ll always have Roswell.”
“That we will.” Max agreed, and she waved before turning around and walking off. Max started for the side door of the RV and lingered in the entrance, examining the damage and the dust that coated it. “Rustbucket, huh?”
“You could do worse for a name, sir. And you have to admit it sounds a lot better than Mobile Command Center.” Baylor pointed out. Max snorted and stepped in, and Baylor followed, slumping into the passenger seat while the Colonel took the driver’s seat again with the soft harmonizing of the Little River Band played from the 8-Track. “I see the tape player still works.”
“Hm.” Max grunted, and Baylor tipped his head back, closing his eyes. God, was he tired. And sore. And wounded, come to think of it.
“What now, sir?” He asked Max.
“Now?” Max replied. “We get back home. We get my girl here towed back to Avalon for some repairs and upgrades, and we get ready for what comes next.”
“...Vilgax?” Baylor said the name, wary of it. He heard Max shift against the fabric of the driver’s seat.
“Xylene said Vilgax holds grudges. He’ll be back. And this time, we’ll be ready for him. That’s what we do. That’s why the Plumbers exist, we’re the line between everything out there that wants to hurt us, and the rest of humanity.”
“Yeah. Whiskey Team’s going to have its hands full.” Baylor agreed.
Max was quiet for a bit after that. “You know, I was going to transfer you to a different squad after this. You didn’t go through the usual process, and everyone deserves a shot to see Malta and Tranquility Base before they get thrown to the wolves. Not to mention you weren’t my pick. Finding out Jim stuck you with us to try and ‘calm us down’ was more than a little irritating.”
“Didn’t work, though.” Baylor pointed out, rolling his head to the side and cracking an eye open. “Are you saying you don’t want to kick me out of your unit now?”
“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Bales.” Max said. “And we don’t have a lot of room on this crate, but if you’re up to staying on, I’m sure that I could talk Wes and Coop into rigging up something for you to sleep on properly…”
Baylor held up his hand to stop him. “Thanks, Colonel, but...I think I need something quieter after this mission. Like a police action.” Max laughed at that. “But if you do ever need a fifth guy on your squad in a few months…” Baylor looked to the older man, and there was a level of respect that passed between them when Tennyson gave him a single nod.
Then the radio turned on as Xylene’s crew patched them into a transmission back to Earth, and Max worked the dials to get onto the Plumber frequency.
The initial report to Avalon took several minutes longer than Baylor had thought it would, and that was all due to the fact that Merlin himself got on the horn and immediately started grilling Colonel Tennyson on the results of the mission. He wasn’t pleased to hear that Max had broken regulations and sought outside help. He was less than thrilled to learn that an alien warlord the entire Galactic Enforcers feared and hadn’t yet been able to pin down was behind the last two decades of nuclear-related alien activity. And as for the missing missiles…
“Whiskey, what in God’s name convinced you that blowing them up was a good idea?” The old man growled over the radio.
Max smiled and tried to keep it out of his voice. “Well, sir, there wasn’t much we could do to stop it. It was Xylene’s idea, and if we hadn’t done it, that last ship would have gotten away. We may not have recovered all the missing warheads, but we kept this Vilgax from getting his hands on them.”
“And now we’re in for the fight of our lives.” Huxby snapped. “But if the Galactic Enforcers think that they can just come storming in and take over, they’ve got another thing coming. I can’t rightly stop them from installing that Hyperwave relay they’ve been pestering us to let them put in for the last five years, but I can make damn sure that they put it on Tranquility Base and keep out of our hair. Earth is our planet to protect and we don’t need their help.”
“Sir, if I hadn’t contacted Xylene and gotten their assistance, we would have never traced them to their operation in Mars and shut it down, much less recovered any of the stolen nukes.” Max argued. “Maybe it’s time to rethink our policy on going it alone.”
“And maybe you ought to remember who’s in charge, Colonel. Get your asses home, that crate you’re flying in is cleared to land at Area 51 to drop you off.”
“Yes, sir.” Max said, keeping the huff out of his voice. There was a pause as Merlin disappeared, and then the female voice of Control replaced the old man’s voice.
“Having all the fun without me, Whiskey 1?” She teased him. “Did you at least remember to grab my souvenir?”
Max groaned. “Sorry, I’m pretty sure it got broken with the other dishes. I’ll have to get it for you next time.”
“Your debrief is going to take forever, you know that?”
“I don’t see why it should.” Max argued playfully. “It was just another day at the office for us.”
“That’s a normal day?” Baylor said, exhausted. “What’s your whole call sign, sir? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” Max’s head snapped over to him and Baylor realized he’d vocalized that thought in his weariness. The woman back on the radio at Avalon laughed at it, though.
“Maybe it ought to be, for all the trouble you get into, Colonel.”
“Now don’t you start.”
“Come home soon, Whiskey Tango. Control, out.”
As Baylor smiled and closed his eyes, Colonel Max Tennyson let out a soft groan and reached for the radio dial. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. You see what you did, Bales?”
“It suits you, sir. After this? I can’t think of a better team who deserves the label of What The F -”
“Ah!” Max cut him off and clicked the radio offline. “Whiskey Tango is fine.”