In space, so they say, no one can hear you scream. That's clearly not true under-water, thought Lieutenant Benjamin Talbot III as he examined the comm unit inside the helmet that a moment ago had been locked onto his armored suit. He made a mental note to advise the techies to increase the amplitude compression in the units so that an aquanaut would be less -- what was the proper word? “Distracted” wasn't quite right -- by the decibel level of a comrade's piercing scream as his helmet imploded from an alien weapon strike.
Talbot breathed deeply for the first time since removing his helmet. The air in the Triton flying sub was laced with the distinct metallic smell that always followed the release of the compressed air that had not yet finished pushing the salt water back into the surrounding depths. Mixed with the scent of the air was the briny odor of the sea, the plastic aroma of his aqua armor and the perfume of his own perspiration. As Talbot pushed back his hair, he realized it was soaking wet. Evidence of what? His exertion? Or his fear?
His squad (“his” because Lieutenant Talbot was the ranking aquanaut in the group) had just completed a successful recovery of a small alien sub. Success was measured by the fact that no aliens were left behind and that the Triton would be bringing back sufficient booty to be sold on the black market to help pay the bills in a world where you could never know when a funding country might reduce its support or drop out altogether after signing a treaty with the aliens.
The fact that forty percent of the squad had been decimated in the raid did not diminish the action's “success” in the collective mind of X-COM's administration. There were always fresh recruits to replace the blood spilled on the ocean floor.
Grimly, the Lieutenant reminded himself that he shared responsibility for whatever heartlessness he blamed on the administration. Like a good officer, he followed standard operating procedure, which entailed, among other things, sending the least prepared-and most expendable-rookie seamen in advance of the squad to scout and draw enemy fire.
And despite their visible fear, these rookies obeyed his orders willingly, almost lovingly, eager to be heroes. Perhaps each expected a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in his honor when he returned victoriously, or at the very least a statue in a small park in his home town to commemorate the life that he had sacrificed for his species. Talbot himself had no need to be a hero. There was enough of that in his family history to last for generations.
Talbot's personal contribution to the success of the mission was the capture of a live “Deep One,” as the haunting creatures had come to be known. To his knowledge, no live Deep One had yet been brought back to base for interrogation.
Interrogations of live aliens invariably produced valuable information. In the endless juggling of resources peculiar to an underfunded organization like X-COM, space in the alien containment facilities was limited. When an interrogation was completed, a unit of space was magically freed up for the arrival of other prisoners. Talbot often wondered, but never asked, what methods were used to make an alien talk and what happened to the alien after he had no more data to divulge.
His Deep One was now in a stunned state, packed horizontally in the Triton's small alien containment facility together with the corpses of several of the Tasoth, the yellowish lizard-like species that had earned the nickname “San Diego Chicken.” He didn't understand the reference, and nobody was able to explain it to him either, but the moniker had stuck.
Talbot studied the Deep One's visage, and found its face to be completely opaque to his probing. Usually, the soul of a being is found through its eyes, thought Talbot, but with this being, he could find no soul. Nor had he seen any spark of a soul when he first had encountered the Deep One, waiting for him in ambush around the corner of a steep coral escarpment rising in the gloom of the deep.
It had been almost too easy. A brilliantly bright incendiary blast from another corner of the battlefield had cast the Deep One's shadow in the sand, revealing his location. Talbot hefted his gas cannon, loaded with armor piercing bolts, turned the corner and fired swiftly at the waiting alien, who had either been too distracted by the previous blast to pay attention to his station or simply did not have the reflexes to match Talbot's.
In the moment before he had fired, Talbot had gazed into the face of his quarry, searching for the eyes, and he saw-nothing. His shot knocked the alien lifeless to the sand. Reaching down to pick the booty off the body, Talbot realized that the creature had not died. That was an unexpected but welcome accident. He hefted the Deep One into his backpack and headed back towards the Triton.
Now, back at the Triton awaiting liftoff, the lieutenant glanced at each surviving member of his squad, all of whom appeared to be at least as exhausted as himself. In these moments, silence was always the unwritten rule, as each aquanaut privately flushed the adrenaline from his or her blood, quenched internal fires of emotion and invariably lapsed into sleep for the ride back to base. Zander, predictably, was already snoring.
The pneumatic pumps became silent as the last of the brine was pushed back into the depths. Seconds later, the Triton's engines awakened with a deep thrumming, and immediately the flying sub lifted off bottom, inclining steeply towards the surface. It was not long before the vehicle was airborne, heading back to South Atlantic Base.
For the four hundredth time, Talbot asked himself how he had gotten himself in this position. The answer was always the same. Destiny and genes. All of his life pointed him to this circumstance, as well as the lives of those in his family before him.
Some people believe that destiny is written in a mysterious book in which some guiding force enters all the events that have happened and are yet to be. Talbot had a different view. He suspected that destiny was written down in each soul's genetic code, hidden in some bend or spiral in a way which no human cryptographer would ever decipher.
It was natural for Talbot to think in these terms, for he was trained to think in terms of genes. His expertise, when he wasn't fighting aliens, was in transgenetics, the science of splicing and dicing genes, combining them in new ways to discover the effects of the combinations. This was a respected science that owed its roots to the late twentieth century, when scientists first grafted human growth hormone into mice to create a “super mouse.”
Talbot smiled as he recalled the graduation party thrown for him by his parents after he had earned his Ph.D. They had bought him a snappy red convertible sportster to celebrate the end of his studies and the commencement of his days as a productive member of human society. A buffoonish friend of his father had cornered him in the den, punctuating his words with a smelly cigar. He said, “Benjamin. I have one word for you: Plastics!” At the time, Benjamin Talbot had politely listened, without bothering to tell the plastics industrialist that seven pharmaceutical firms were in a bidding war for his loyalties.
His smile erupted into an involuntary chuckle as he fondly stroked the plastic of his armored suit. The old geezer probably had a requirements contract with X-COM to supply the organization with all its plastic aqua-armor. The morbid in-joke about the plastic suits was that they actually made the standard issue medi-kits more effective, not because they improved the healing properties of the kits but because the medi-kits were useless to revive a dead, unarmored aquanaut.
If only the weapons we had were better, Talbot thought. In the last alien war (AW I, as it was now called, to distinguish it from the present AW II), scientists had copied from captured alien weapons the wonderfully effective plasma weapons and the devastating blaster bomb launcher. Today, all of these were outlawed. What had not been known at the time of AW I was how severely damaging Elerium-based weapons were to the environment and to the health of the general population. The lawsuits from the X-COM veterans and their families as well as from the general public brought about a tremendous expense that had never been budgeted by X-COM or its benfactors. Elerium and Elerium-based weapons were banned throughout the world. AW II would have to be fought with environmentally safe weapons.
What frustrated Talbot more than his unhappiness with the weaponry was the fact that this new new breed of aliens was completely immune to mind control. The tide of AW I turned in favor of the humans only when scientists developed the ability to train soldiers to amplify and focus their brain power for the purpose of causing an alien to panic or to obey the commands of the controller.
With the close of AW I, the science of mind control continued, and schools in the mental martial arts stole big business away from from the dojos of the traditional martial arts. Talbot himself held a third degree black belt in mind control, but his skills were useless against an enemy that did not have a mind, as a mind is normally understood.
These aliens, the scientists were beginning to understand, were not normal races of beings. Discovery after discovery was leading the scientists to come to the conclusion that most if not all of these aliens were half-breeds, clones, grafts and mutations, some based on captured human stock. Talbot understood much about the science required to perform such magic. He wondered how the war would fare if the humans had a mutation technology of their own.
In creating these abominations, the alien powers-that-be had no concern with allowing the being to retain a mind. All that was important was to create a fighting machine that would kill well and obey its superiors through some as-yet undiscovered method of communication.
There had to be a way to find something comparable to mind control. If that did not happen, Talbot believed that the human race would ultimately lose this war. He stole a glance at his Deep One guest. Perhaps interrogation of this soulless devil would offer up a clue.
Unavoidably, the weight of Talbot's eyelids overcame the waning strength of the muscles to which they were attached. He chose not to fight, leaned his head back against the cold metal of the Triton's wall and dreamt a dream that knew quite well.
He was his grandmother, famous Helen White, hero of AW I, 40 years ago. The first act of the dream always took place in what he knew to be China Base, a backwater installation serving more as a radar post than for combat purposes. Helen (or Benjamin -- the faces kept switching in the dream) was one of three untested rookies at the base. The base was under attack by Sectoids armed with heavy plasma and blaster launchers. The three rookies had laughable laser rifles in comparison. They feared their imminent death.
The dream turned to a flurry of violent activity, with emotions and fears twisting within the dreamer to accompany the action displayed on his internal movie screen of sleep. One of the rookies succumbed to panic, leaving the battle screaming. The remaining two battled frantically, and with remarkable tactics picked off Sectoid after Sectoid. When the battle was apparently over, there was still a hint of hidden movement, but the panicked soldier who was now just recovering his wits caught the remaining Sectoid wandering the halls of the base.
The dream dissolved into Act Two, the final raid on Cydonia. The mind-controlled mental weakling from China Base had been transferred to administration and as a welcome favor to an old, dear friend arranged for Helen's transfer to the away team. She was warmly welcomed by her new comrades. Her actions in China had already become legend among the X-COM soldiers. She was a grunt's hero.
In the Cydonia alien base, Helen/Benjamin was assigned to guard the PSI-team and to relay to them coordinates of sighted aliens for their mind control attacks. The mission was going easily. The squad was advancing methodically in search of the alien mastermind. Their combined skills were too much for the aliens. The aliens never got off a shot as they were successively sighted, mind controlled, and then turned into “doggies,” the name the soldiers gave to mind-controlled aliens kept on an invisible leash to be walked down dark corridors as combination scout and cannon fodder.
As the advance crew drew near to the triumphant conclusion of the mission, Helen heard a deafening explosion. Then a frantic plea was radioed to her directly from Commander Yakubik: “Blaster bomb just caught two in the corridor around the bend. Best guess is we screwed up and didn't unearth all aliens in your sector, Sergeant. Whatever it is may be coming your way. Get it!”
Helen/Benjamin set her heavy plasma on auto-shot, and, after acknowledging the good luck gestures of the eggheads she was supposed to be guarding, headed in search of unknown quarry.
It didn't take long. It was the smoky trail from the blaster launcher missile that lead her to her prey. There was the Ethereal in a corner behind a bulky alien fixture, his blaster launcher still smoking. You would have to be in just the right position and pointing in just the right direction to spot him. She could understand how the advance team had missed him, and she forgave them.
She was close enough to see into the shadows of the Ethereal's golden cowl, and she picked out the alien's small but expressive eyes. The alien made no move to defend itself. Maybe its launcher was jammed, maybe it had no more ammunition. In its eyes and posture, Helen/Benjamin saw an attitude of relaxed acceptance. She fired, and the first of the three auto-shots found its mark.
She paused over the corpse and examined the blaster launcher. It was fully loaded and completely operational. She wondered why it happened this way, and she had no answer.
“Got it, Commander,” Helen/Benjamin crowed over the telcomm unit.
“Come here, Sergeant. We have a surprise for you.” She could hear the smile in his voice. When she arrived, she was met by two soldiers who escorted her in a jovial manner to the access lift. At the second level, a line of soldiers blocked her view to the interior of the great hall. All were grinning joyously.
“We took a vote,” said the Commander, “on who would get the kill on this one.” The line of soldiers parted to reveal the huge alien brain. “You won.”
“With great pleasure, sir.” Without hesitation, Helen/Benjamin lifted her heavyplasma once again. In seconds, the great alien brain was turned into a mass of sweetbreads.
She could hardly maintain her balance from all of the heavy congratulatory slams on the back. A warm can of beer was being passed around. She wondered who had the audacity to smuggle a beer to Mars. Everyone was applauding her. She was thankful that nobody thought to cut off a piece of the brain and eat it in a demonstration of warrior's victory.
“Sergeant White,” said the Commander, “I now christen you the one and only hero of this war,” and he proceeded to pour the few remaining drops of warm beer over her braids. And with this action, bright lights flashed around her, blinding her eyes. Photographers? How did the press get to Mars?
The heavy kerchunk of the Triton's doors completed the intrusion into Lieutenant Benjamin Talbot's dream. The lights were the bright fluorescence of the sub pen of South Atlantic Base. The illumination was always excruciatingly painful after being confined for hours in the dim light of the flying sub and the murkiness of the ocean floor.
Grandma. How he had loved her. She was indeed the hero of the war, a regular icon. The whole world loved her, but only he and his cousins could call her Grandma.
As a child, he always believed that she loved him the best. She would regale him with stories of her X-COM exploits, stories that had been told and retold countless times in the press as well as in the authorized and several unauthorized biographies. The difference for him was that she shared her whole being with him, and with each retelling he was transported with her to a place and time far away.
He felt quite differently about his slimeball grandfather, Benjamin Talbot. Sr. (Of course the “Sr.” was not added until the son Benjamin Talbot, Jr. was born and named.) Ben Talbot, Sr. was the mental weakling from China Base who successfully wooed Grandma following the war. The two of them made a grand, storybook couple who always remained in the eyes of the public. They became rich.
At some point, however, an enterprising cub reporter digging into X-COM archives discovered some inconsistencies and irregularities in administration accounting. Benjamin Talbot, Sr. was accused of having received kickbacks from black marketers on the sale of lucrative laser cannons during the war. He was tried for the offense and acquitted for lack of evidence.
The government then turned to its most stolid legal weapon, one which had been used for decades against its targets: tax evasion. The government was able to prove that Ben Talbot, Sr.'s net worth had increased markedly during the war years, and he could not point to any gift, inheritance or other reported source of income to explain the change. Unable to offer an explanation for his increased wealth, the government proved to the satisfaction of a jury that the famous Ben Talbot, Sr. had failed to report massive amounts of income. He had to pay back taxes, interest, and penalties that ran into millions of dollars, and he spent two years in jail to boot.
Photographs from his sentencing showed the face of an unconcerned defendant, leading Lieutenant Benjamin Talbot III to conclude that his grandfather had gotten off with too light a sentence. For this reason, the Lieutenant had always been uncomfortable with family money. He rejected the offers of support for his education and went to college on a scholarship with the Reserved Officers Training Corps. He had excelled in his schooling and in his officer's training. His fellow ROTC cadets kidded him that he had his father’s eyes, his mother's hands, and his grandmother's reaction times and firing accuracy.
It was two weeks after his Ph.D. graduation party that he had been called to honor reserve commitment. After returning the handset to its cradle, he sat in meditation for almost an hour before the phone jangled him back to material awareness. The caller was solicitous, but brief and direct.
The cruise ship Hyperion had sunk on its maiden voyage. There were no survivors. His parents had been aboard. He was stunned, and had to draw himself together sufficiently to provide some sort of brief acknowledgment so that the caller could politely terminate the call and return to the next name on a long list to be notified.
The decision by the aliens to sink the Hyperion in a terrorist attack as the first announcement of their renewed presence on Earth was a propagandist's stroke of genius. The Hyperion, the first brand-new cruise liner built in the last ten years, ,was built in a retro-style that made it look stunningly like the Titanic, and its owners basked in the press that singled the ship out for its beauty as well as its functionality. Before its maiden voyage, the owners made no attempt to debunk nickname of the “Unsinkable Hyperion.”
The attack occurred in the middle of the Atlantic crossing, timed for the moment that the press was providing a live feed of the Maiden Voyage Ball. It was one of those defining moments in live television that made viewers want to turn away in horror, but they could not. Over 1800 passengers, crew members, and media representatives died. Millions more were scarred by the live images of the rapidly sinking liner with those on board not having a chance in hell of survival.
As he strode into the bright lights of the sub pen from the Triton, Lieutenant Talbot acknowledged to himself that, like it or not, inheritance had made him a wealthy man. He could probably buy the island of Bermuda for himself as a refuge. He could probably turn his back on X-COM at the first opportunity and live a safer, saner life. But he had long ago understood that there was no refuge and no safer, saner life to be had, so long as this new alien menace remained.
Besides, he found himself governed by one of the very strongest of human motivations: vengeance.
''Lieutenant Talbot, sir?” An Ensign awaited recognition. Talbot glimpsed the identification tag.
“Yes. What is it, Mr. Pulver?”
“Admiral Gunterow is here at the base to see you, sir. She ordered me to bring you to her as soon as you disembarked.”
This piqued Talbot's interest. Why would the Admiral, commander of western hemisphere operations, come here to see him?
“So be it. Lead the way.”
In the Admiral's chambers, Talbot stood at attention as Helga Gunterow alternately studied him and a manila-colored file that she had open on her desk before her. She wrinkled her nose at him.
“At ease, Lieutenant. I know I told the Ensign to bring you here immediately, but I suppose it could have waited for you to get out of your stinking armor and take a shower.”
Talbot shifted self-consciously, wondering how to stuff his body odor back into his suit.
“No matter,” she said, closing the file. ''Lieutenant, I need your help.”
“I don't know what to do with you.”
“I don't understand, sir.”
“I'm going to make you a proposition and let you make the decision of where your future will lead you. You will be in charge of your own destiny. It's a luxury that is given to few in X-COM. Come to think of it, I don't know anybody else who has been given this kind of choice.”
Talbot waited as the Admiral studied his face further. “You do look very much like your grandmother, you know.”
After a pause she continued, “The point is this. You are our most highly qualified aquanaut. That is not intended as a compliment. It is a statement of fact. You also have another potential that could be very advantageous to X-COM and its fight against the aliens. But if we exploit that potential, it would be completely inconsistent with your continuing in a combat role.”
“Admiral, if I may interject?” Talbot waited for the Admiral's nod of permission. “If it is up to me, I have no desire whatsoever to trade on my face and my name to be a public relations specialist for X-COM. I am not qualified to deal with either the media or with heads of state.”
“You're jumping the gun, Lieutenant. Although you pose an interesting third alternative, that's not what I have in mind. You consider yourself an expert 'splicer and dicer', don't you?”
“Yes, sir. You're referring to my transgenetics degree.”
“Yes, I am. You see, our scientists have determined that the aliens that we are confronting are genetic monstrosities, pasted together by an alien intelligence possessing a highly advanced mutation technology.”
“I am aware of this finding, Admiral.”
“Good. I thought it would be something that you would follow. Our scientists have asked for additional staff and funding to embark on a research effort that could deliver this mutation technology into our own hands. This could be an extraordinary weapon in our favor. Do you understand the thinking on this?”
“The thought has crossed my own mind more than once, Admiral.”
“My staff determined that you would be a prime candidate for the heart of that effort. Here's the deal. You can join the research team and maybe, just maybe, you'll hit upon a viable technology that can help us win this war. Alternatively, you can remain on combat duty. Either way, I have a no-lose situation: I either retain a great aquanaut or I gain a great mind.”
“You could look at it as a no-win situation, too, Admiral. You either lose a great aquanaut or you fail to gain a great mind.”
“Good point,” the Admiral laughed. “Will you consider it, please?” Talbot nodded. “When do you think I can have your decision?”
“May I have an hour for a shower and meditation?”
“Certainly. Dismissed, Lieutenant.”
As he approached the door, Admiral Gunterow called to him.
“Either way you decide, you could be the hero of this war, like your Grandmother before you. Funny how destiny works out, isn't it?”
“With all due respect, Admiral, we don't need another hero,” Talbot responded, and he quietly shut the door behind him.