Disclaimer - this is fanfiction based on an ongoing game of XCOM, a turn based strategy game available for PC, PS3 and XBOX360. Everything that happens in these missions happened in my game. This is my real squad, my real B-Team. I invent nothing but the dialogue and external character arcs - I am, in essence, transcribing a videogame as it happens. When a character kills, is injured or dies, it happened in my game. There are no reloads and no cheating. All decisions are final.
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There wasn't much left of the X-ray on the autopsy table. Not much recognisable to Commander Pournelle's untrained eyes, at least. Scraps of flesh. Organs connected by valves as intricate as chemistry tubing. An ichor that stung his eyes, even through the protective goggles.
He turned his head to cough. “So, what do we get out of all this?”
Dr Vahlen, head of XCOM research, was bent over a laptop on the far side of the operating room. The bright light of the laptop screen flashed in her lenses. “Excuse me?”
“Net gain, Doctor. You've taken apart four dead aliens today. Conclusions? How does this help my troops?”
A sigh. Doctor Vahlen closed her laptop, removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “To tell you the truth, very little. I could talk about how they reprocess our atmosphere to suit their lungs, how their brain structure is honeycombed, how they bleed a mild analgesic... But as for your troops, all I can say is that they die just like men. They are flesh. Shoot straight, and they fall over.”
Commander Pournelle was glad he could stuff his hands into the pockets of his military jacket, to keep Doctor Vahlen from seeing how they were clenched into fists. “I send them out to risk their lives, and all you can say is, shoot straight?”
“If you brought me a live specimen...” Dr Vahlen shrugged. “We are making advances on their weaponry as well. Despite the equipment self destructing upon the death of the user, we have still retrieved enough fragments to confirm the use of a high-temperature plasma discharge.”
Rookie Nomi Chi's chestcam footage had been accurate. That was more disheartening than encouraging. “Can we protect against it?”
“To a degree. With time. Commander, you've given me so little to work with and you expect miracles.”
“I gave you everything!” Pournelle's voice echoed back off the autopsy room tiles. He took a slow breath, straightened his shoulders, and forced his voice to stay even. “You do the best with what you have, Doctor. Just like my troops.”
The phone on the far wall buzzed. Doctor Vahlen stopped mid-sentence and spun on her heel, stalking across the room and snatching the handset off the wall. “Yes?”
“Don't bother,” Commander Pournelle said. He was already thumbing the button for the lift. “They need me in HQ, right? Another abduction?” But something about Vahlen's expression stopped him. The woman was always pale, just like everyone working the XCOM project – months spent underground tended to have that effect. But Vahlen's cheeks were sheet-white, drained of blood. “What?”
“A UFO,” she whispered. “They're tracking it over Utah. You've got a live one, Commander.”
Chapter 2: Operation Defiant Gaze
“So it's been shot down, right?”
Adam Lewis had to lean in close, shouting to be heard over the roar of the Skyranger. “They shot it down. It's a wreck, yeah? Why can't they just bag and tag? Why us?”
“Hey, have you seen these things before?”
Lewis frowned and shook his head. He'd been with XCOM for months, humping his pack and training on the range, but this was the first time he'd lifted off for an actual front-line assignment. He half-hoped that there'd still be some action once they arrived – a few greys crushed in the crash, too injured to move but just alive enough to provide a bit of excitement. The other half of him hoped there'd be little left of the craft but a fiery smear across the landscape, and that all he'd have to do that day would be to wander back and forth with a zip-lock bag, picking up scraps of alien bone and sipping soda.
The soldier sitting across from him sighed. “I was in Germany last week. Four of them pulling people right out of a restaurant. They're tough, okay? Bet you a buck there'll still be resistance at the crash site.”
That was enough to get Lewis interested. The nameplate on the soldier's armour read William Huang, but the pips on his shoulder indicated he was a bare Rookie, just like Lewis. Short guy, long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Looked too delicate to be a soldier, but hell, if he'd passed XCOM's recruitment standards then he must've had something up his sleeve.
The Skyranger bucked like an angry bull, and all four soldiers in the back gripped their benches tight. “So,” Lewis said, trying to keep his voice calm. “Why're you still on Rookie status? Didn't bag an X-ray?”
“Hell no! Barely got to shoot at all. Have you met, uh, Shephard?”
Lewis cast his mind back, trying to recall the names and faces of every recruit he'd passed in the barracks. “Short woman, red hair-”
“And boy, can she shoot.” Huang looked almost dreamy as he rocked back and forth in his bulked out body armour. “Took two out through a window, straight off the 'ranger. Yeah, boy. Hell of a shot.”
“But you didn't-”
“Not one. Ask Chi, she's seen action.”
Lewis looked down the Skyranger at the two other recruits. Alan Zelman, he knew. Tall guy, big shoulders, cropped hair, strong beneath his armour. They'd played an awkward game of pool with him the day before. One of two Zelmans on base, Adam thought, but names were never his strong point. The other must've been Chi. A short woman with her hair shaved down to the knuckle and a permanent scowl. He'd also passed her in the halls, and she'd been smiling then, bobbing her head to an unheard beat. Now, half an hour from touchdown, she looked ready to punch a hole through the wall of the dropship.
“So, uh, Chi-”
“Nomi,” she said.
“Nomi is fine,” the woman said again. She still hadn't looked up. Her fingers drummed on the seat with a maddening rhythm. “Nearly got hit last time, you know. I should be on holiday. In therapy. Something.”
“You know what they say,” Huang said, checking the bore of his rifle. “No rest for the wicked.”
“And you're wicked?”
The Skyranger bounced, and Huang grinned, a showman's smile that displayed perfect white teeth.
Nothing more needed to be said.
They landed just before midnight, and Lewis stepped off the Skyranger tray into knee-high swamp. The marsh-water rose up thick around Lewis's boots, and despite the fact that his armour was high-pressure and air-tight (to prevent catastrophic bleedouts, he'd been told), he swore he could feel that sticky gunk soaking through and staining his skin yellow. What few plants still lived in the swamp were thin and sickly, skeletal trees with limbs like old bones scratching at the sky. The flies were the worst. Clouds of mosquitos moved across the stagnant water, their buzz almost as loud as the Skyranger's cooling jets. It set Lewis's teeth on edge.
Chi was by his side, rifle up at her shoulder, making sure the grenade at her belt wasn't dangling in the water. “Lewis, Huang, up on that ridge. Zelman, with me.”
“Who put you in charge?” Huang said, but Rookie Chi fixed him with the sort of stare that would wither flowers. “Yeah, I'm on it.”
Lewis grinned. “Better keep up,” he said, and made for the top of the closest hill. There was a scattering of boulders up top, enough cover for him to hunker down and get a better look at the expanse of the swamp. The water only looked deeper up ahead – they'd have to stick to the high ground or risk getting stuck. Worse, sinking in an unexpected pit, drowned by the weight of their armour. He supposed he just had to trust that Chi knew what she was doing.
Huang dropped down beside him, back against the rocks. “You see anything?”
“Light way ahead. Maybe a fire. Could be the crash site, could be hillbillies. Don't even know what to call these guys. X-rays, greys-"
“Shit,” Huang said. “You never watched Aliens? Xenomorphs.”
“Once or twice,” Lewis admitted. The number was closer to twenty, in truth – he simply hadn't made the connection. “Xenos,” he said, rolling the word around in his mouth. “It fits.”
Far below, Rookies Chi and Zelman were making their way from tree to log to tree, splashing through the murky swamp, slipping through stormclouds of mosquitos. Huang was watching them through the telescopic sight on his rifle, covering their advance. The guy's aim was steady, Lewis noticed. Good hands.
Without taking his eye from the sight, Huang said, “What'd you do, before all this?”
“Before I joined the military? I was a stage director.”
“No shit?” Huang's smile grew wider. “I did theatre too!”
“Musicals. Always the musicals.”
“An entertainer to the end.”
“Always,” Huang said. Steel clicked as he adjusted his sights. “Hey, so I've got a joke. This guy wakes up one morning, comes downstairs to get the newspaper, and when he picks it up off the front mat there's this snail sitting on the paper. So he picks the snail off and throws it over his house, and-”
Lewis jerked upright. That was Chi calling from the base of the hill. He popped up, rifle up against his shoulder, and sighted.
Two greys, just like they'd appeared on Squaddie White's chestcam footage. Ungainly, tottering things slopping their way through the swamp, top heavy, skulls like swollen balloons and legs like Chihuahuas. Whenever they hit deep patches the water came up to their chins. The weapons they carried were the size of assault rifles and glowed bile-green with energy. Plasma, they said. The sort that tore holes in ceramic armour and left flesh smoking. Chi and Zelman had dropped flat behind a log, which meant Lewis had the only clear line of sight.
He thumbed the safety and let it rip.
The rifle slammed back against his shoulder hard enough to bruise, but it was worth the pain – one of the X-rays staggered, clipped in the torso. The other spun, startled, and ran on all fours up a slanted log and into the treeline, vanishing from sight.
“Put it down!” Huang shouted, but the grey lying injured on the ground was firing back. The light that boiled from the end of its weapon was as bright and sharp as staring into the sun, and he only had a moment to drop flat before the rocks he was crouched behind exploded in flame. Stone chips stung his cheeks as he fumbled for the magazine release. “Don't jam,” he whispered, his finger moving automatically. “Don't you fucking jam-”
Down below, Chi's rifle was spitting fire, but Lewis couldn't tell whether she'd hit anything. The electrical hum of the grey's plasma had died off, and he dared peek over the lip of the boulder. The swamp below was empty. The greys had gone.
He propped his rifle up on the edge of the boulder – the surface, he noticed, was fused black, still dribbling molten rock like candlewax – and swept across the marsh below. “Huang, you see anything?”
“Yeah.” Huang sounded hushed, almost awed. “But whatever it is, I have no goddamn idea.”
He'd spent the whole firefight hunkered down, jaw set, finger on the trigger but unable to pop his head over the lip of the rocks and shoot back, but now Rookie William Huang was hallucinating. At least, that was how he explained what he was seeing: a wavering line of purple light tracking through the swamp mists like the Aurora Borealis, snaking through the trees, the still water glowing in its wake.
He didn't know whether it was some new alien weapon they hadn't been briefed about or some discharge from the downed UFO. Maybe the Northern Lights had descended into the middle of their battleground. All he knew was that the line was headed for Rookies Chi and Zelman, and that from behind their log they'd have no idea it was coming.
The stage was always terrifying. Stepping out into the lights, faced with hundreds of expectant theatregoers, faces upturned, smiling, waiting for his opening speech... that was an exercise in gut-clenching fear every single opening night. This, somehow, seemed an easy choice. Fight or die. Kill or be killed. Or worse, watch others be killed.
He snapped the cocking lever back on his rifle and vaulted the boulders he and Lewis had been hiding behind. “Cover me!” he called, and slid down the far side of the hill, kicking up mud and pebbles. There wasn't time to check whether Lewis was doing as asked. He just had to trust that XCOM wouldn't recruit people they couldn't trust to get the job done.
The line of purple light – more like a ribbon of energy, he thought, flexing with the wind like a living thing – ran across the bowl of the marsh, scattering swarms of gnats and knotting between the limbs of dead trees. He couldn't tell where it ended, but if he followed it to the source...
There. As he hit the bottom of the slope and splashed through the tepid swamp, he saw the silhouette of a grey crouched in the mists. That purple light shone slick in its eyes, and when he squinted he was sure he could see the energy flowing not from the weapon it held, but from its fingers.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard the sizzle of plasma. “Pinned!” Chi cried. “It's got me-”
No time to second guess. With the grey only a smudge in the distance, he brought his rifle up, sighted, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
He hit the creature dead centre, the burst of fire sawing it in half. The grey didn't just fall over – it fell apart, its torso simply disconnecting from its oversized skull. There was a splash, and a bubbling sound, and then silence.
Huang found a space behind a tree-stump and waited, panting, finger still resting on the trigger. The hiss of plasma fire had stopped. Footsteps echoed through that vast, cold space. He heard grumbling – the big man, Zelman, he figured.
Finally, the two Rookies appeared around the hill – Chi with her rifle up, scanning the treeline, and Zelman closed behind, kicking up water like he'd rather be anywhere else. “You do that?” Zelman called.
Huang frowned. “What? You get the second one?”
“Didn't need to. The X-ray just dropped. Skull went pop like...” Zelman held both hands up on either side of his head. “Bam. Right as that purple light went out. Like they self destruct when you break their connection. I don't know, it just-”
Chi was already poking at the remains of the dead grey. “Long shot,” she said, whistling between her teeth. “Not bad. Should put you up front all the time. Blow the heads off some more ETs.”
“Xenos,” Huang said. His mouth was dry and his heart was a thudding engine inside his chest but damn, he felt good. “Sounds better if you call them Xenos.”
Rookie Alan Zelman had, as the expression goes, seen some serious shit.
He'd spent the last week sequestered in the barracks, watching chest-cam reruns of Operation Devil's Prophet until his eyes were raw. It didn't help that the best footage had been captured by his own sister, who had made a point of sitting with him in the ready-room, chewing rice crackers and noisily pointing out all her best-of moments. You see? That grenade? Dead centre. Watch, watch what happens when I hit it up close. Right in the brainpan! Flipped him arse over apex!
He already regretted having volunteered for the XCOM project... or at least, having signed up alongside his sister. It wasn't the bragging that worried him. It was the silence that followed. How she flinched away from his hand on her shoulder. How she left the barracks in the black of night, her footsteps echoing as she paced the corridors while everyone was trying to sleep. The clenched fists. The anger, barely disguised.
She'd been cut by shrapnel and felt plasma burn low enough overhead that it crisped her scalp, but she'd walked away from the mission with damage that went much deeper. Something a bandage couldn't fix.
So now he was trudging through some festering swamp, waiting for his own moment of truth. The mosquitos rose up thick in his nostrils, buzzing in his ears like they were trying to lay eggs inside the warmth of his brainpan. He stepped on something beneath the water that slithered away as he raised his foot; a flash of green scales was all he saw before the snake was gone.
Two down, he thought. How many greys could they fit in a UFO? The fires were getting closer, great flames belching smoke. He could just make out the slick steel curve of the craft, the metal sheen somehow otherworldly, like oil on water. Nothing like the clunky paper-plate flying saucers he'd been raised on as a kid, low budget Dr Who affairs with salt-shaker Daleks pouring out of the vents. This was so real he could smell it.
Then, from his right, the cry went up. “Contact!”
Zelman moved instinctively, sliding into cover against a rotten log, scanning the horizon. There: behind the trees, moving fast, two more of the lumpy-headed greys. A rifle chattered to his right, and then another: Lewis and Chi firing from the hip as the X-rays sprinted for cover. One wasn't so lucky, tumbling in a spray of ichor and sinking quickly beneath the surface of the water. The other stumbled, clutching its gut, and vanished in the direction of the downed UFO.
“Get after it!” Chi called, and Zelman found his legs moving, unbidden. He jumped his log and splashed across the marsh, the UFO looming closer and closer, the fires almost hot enough to blister.
A flash of green ripped across the bog. To his left, Zelman heard Huang swear and hit the deck. “He's got me pinned!”
Zelman didn't have time to stop and check that his comrade was still in one piece. Lewis had caught up, and they sprinted side by side around a tangle of fallen trees, rifles up and ready.
The grey was standing up to its knees in the water, staring dumbly as the two men sighted down their rifles. It had no mouth, but Zelman was sure he heard it hiss in surprise.
He shot the bastard between the eyes. The kickback was vicious, but the grey split like a melon. Didn't quite flip arse over apex, as Nyssa would've put it, but the effect was still satisfying. Zelman panted, the stink of gunpowder in his nostrils. “Two down.”
“God dammit,” Lewis said, grinning good naturedly. “I've winged two today. Thought that'd be my first confirmed kill.”
“There'll be more,” said Zelman. The grey had left a stink on the back of his tongue, and he spat in the dirt in his feet. “There's always-”
A shimmer in the corner of his eye. Zelman spun.
If he'd been paying attention, like his training demanded, he might've been able to shout a warning, but he'd been distracted by Rookies Huang and Chi advancing out of the undergrowth. The UFO at their backs was a hulking construction of shimmering steel and windows that warped like soap bubbles, so fragile it seemed he might step through them entirely. One wall of the craft had been blown to shit in the crash, exposing the guts of the craft, dark corridors and banks of flashing lights and engines vomiting green light like the plasma weapons the creatures carried.
From that darkness came something Zelman had never seen before.
It was six foot tall, maybe taller, built like a man but constructed out of what looked like shifting planes of light. A monster of glass and fire, glowing from within as it advanced out of the black. It carried a weapon like those the little greys carried, long and thin and bubbling with energy, and as it raised it high Zelman opened his mouth to scream, “Down, down!”
Chi threw herself flat and Huang was shielded somewhere behind a log, but Lewis was still dropping to one knee when the creature opened fire. Zelman was close enough to touch the man, close enough to feel the heat on his fingers, as plasma splashed across Lewis's chest. There was a sound like crockery shattering as his ceramic armour melted beneath the impact, plates popping and buckling as rivets liquefied. Zelman inhaled, breathing the stink of burned flesh.
Lewis didn't cry out, didn't scream. He tumbled back, one hand clutching his chest, the other still cradling his rifle. “I-” he gasped. A bubble of blood rose and popped on his lips. “I don't-”
The creature, monster, alien of light, whatever it was, pivoted back around the corner and vanished into the shadows of the ship. Rookie Chi was already moving, sprinting from behind the safety of her cairn of rocks and pulling an emergency medical kit from her belt. “You're fine,” she whispered, pulling the cap off a syrette with her teeth and jamming it into a gap in Lewis's armour. “Keep breathing, keep breathing-”
“Fucker!” Huang was on his feet, rifle booming as he raked the UFO with lead. Zelman saw the light-creature peering out, the planes of its face shifting and glowing in the heat of the rifle spray. It had no eyes that he could see, but even so, he felt like it was staring straight through him, analysing him like an insect pinned to a board.
He counted off rounds in his head. Half a magazine left, at least. But that creature was smart, smarter than the bobble-headed greys. It would wait them out, let them empty their magazines. Then it would duck out again, and who knew who it'd fire on first? Him, Chi, Huang? Would it finish off Lewis as he lay bleeding?
He understood what his sister had done, now. The moment of hesitation. Kill or be killed.
“Cover me!” he shouted, and ran for the craft, even as Chi called his name. Huang was still peppering the opening, but the fire slackened as Zelman hit the wall of the UFO. He could almost feel the energy creature on the far side, its breath like an electromagnetic pulse, tingling in his metal fillings.
If he knew it was there, then it knew the same. No time to second guess.
He rounded the corner with his rifle up and found himself face to face with the beast. It was quiet, chest rising and falling in some obscene imitation of breath, its skin flowing like plates of amber. The heat rising off it forced him to screw his eyes shut, and while it was only half a foot taller than Zelman he found his knees shaking.
The creature raised its weapon, and Zelman squeezed the trigger.
He expected it to fall, to bleed. He didn't expect it to dissolve, its flesh folding in like a miniature black hole, like origami crunched down small. The creature keened as it died, its cry echoing through the hollow corridors of the ship. Then, silence.
Alan Zelman panted. He ejected his empty magazine, slotted another, and crept back out the shattered wall of the ship. Chi was crouched beside Lewis, her hands inside his armour, pressing on his chest. “Is he alive?”
Chi looked up, eyes wild. “Evac. Now.”
“Evac!” She pulled her hands out of the rent in his armour. They were red up to the wrist. “Now!”
Lewis slipped in and out of consciousness on the trip back. Chi kept patting him on the shoulder while the field surgeons did their work, but by the time they landed Zelman still wasn't sure whether he'd pull through. It was all in the hands of fate, he supposed. Luck of the draw.
He didn't think about what would've happened if he'd been standing in Lewis's place. It was down to a single meter either way. One step forward, or if Lewis had been one step back...
By the time the Skyranger touched down his hands were steady again. He went through the debrief on automatic, reciting every moment with perfect clarity. He remembered each step he'd taken that day. Every pull of the trigger. He described the light creature as best he could. His chest-cam did the rest.
The exhaustion hit as he returned to barracks. The others were there: Huang, Gollnick, Shephard, White, some rookie named Hickman, his sister Nyssa, huddled together in a corner. Their whispers carried through the still bunker air. “Didn't think he'd be back so soon-”
“Yo,” Zelman said. His voice was dead flat. “What's the big deal?”
Nyss waved him over, one finger held to her lips. “Ramirez,” she hissed.
“Who? Oh!” First contact, he remembered. The only survivor of the team. Seeing Lewis being fast-tracked into surgery was bad enough, but for one man to have watched his three companions being gunned down... “Is he-”
“In his bunk,” Nyss said. She jerked her thumb at the door. “Alone.”
“You didn't talk to him?”
“We tried. Didn't want to talk back.” She patted Alan on the arm. “Look, forget him. Just glad you got back okay. You got one, right? No bruises? I was worried about you, man. Spent the whole day scared that you wouldn't-”
Three men, Alan thought. Three friends. And it didn't matter what the team of in-house shrinks said. There was no coming back from something like that. Not intact, anyway.
“I'll just be a sec,” he said, shrugging Nyss away and heading for the door. The other rookies in the room quieted as they watched him, but nobody went to stop him. Nobody dared.
The door wasn't locked, and the only other person in the bunks was a big guy, dark Latino skin flat chin, hair shaved down to the bone. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing thick ropes of scar tissue, still fresh and pink. His leg was braced at the knee and a bandage was pulled tight around his temples, but there was no mistaking the man. Sergeant Jesus Ramirez.
Ramirez looked up as Zelman closed the door behind him. “What?”
“Just, uh...” Zelman's tongue was stuck. “We...”
“I was out today,” he said. “Shot one down.”
“I saw some real weird stuff.”
Ramirez nodded slowly. “Hell of a thing.” His voice was soft, gentle. It didn't fit his hulking frame. “They tell you about me?”
“That's all you need to know.” Ramirez hunched on his bunk. The top of his skull nearly brushed the mattress above, but he didn't seem to notice. “Be out there again soon, I figure.”
“You, uh...” Zelman coughed. “You're sort of legendary. I was wondering if you had...”
“Tips? Man, I was just in surgery for two weeks. They had to stitch parts of me together I don't even know the names of.” Ramirez grinned. It was a sickly smile, full of teeth, and it made Zelman shudder. “My advice is quit. Just get the fuck out.”
That was when Zelman saw the steel in Ramirez's hands. His service pistol, shining in the dorm lights. “Um,” Zelman said. “You sign that out?”
Ramirez shook his head. “Get out of here, man. You don't want to see this.”
Zelman was frozen in place. He reached for his own pistol instinctively but it wasn't on his belt – he'd checked it in upon returning, like every other recruit on base. All he had was his fists. “Put it down.”
“I'm not gonna waste your time,” Ramirez said. The pistol rose up. “Last chance to go.”
“Damn it, don't-”
Zelman reached out, but he moved too slowly, the air thick around his hands like treacle. The pistol shot was deafening in that small space. It rang in his ears like a great cymbal, brass crashing over and over, shaking his teeth, blurring his vision.
The other recruits were bursting into the room behind him, shouting, screaming for help, but Alan couldn't hear them. His whole world was a gunshot, followed by silence.
- - -
Authors Note: Sergeant Jesus Ramirez was the sole survivor of my original tutorial missions. He died a hero when I ran him blindly through a set of doors in a UFO and got his head blown off. In this new game, I skipped the tutorial, but wanted to give Ramirez his due. So, he returned briefly as an NPC.
Thank you to Nyssa Zelman who gave me advice on writing about the effects of PTSD. Regardless of whether a story takes place in a fantasy setting, it's a condition that requires dignity and respect. I hope my representation doesn't offend.
If you're interested in my writing process (as in, how I function as a full-time writer), check out some of my on-writing posts:
And if you'd like to support me in this venture, feel free to pick up my latest science fiction novella on Kindle, The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan!