Nerd Corps Alien Defense Pt. 3: Attrition 6

If you missed the first part of Matt Schanuel’s game jour­nal of his XCOM Ironman Classic playthrough where­in all the sol­diers are named after old col­lege friends of ours, it’s found here.  This is part three.

Dr. Shen insists that we must under­stand the aliens in order to defeat them. I am inclined to agree, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Shen is an engi­neer; the end point of this knowl­edge, for him, will be supe­ri­or tools for our sol­diers. It means bet­ter shields and bet­ter swords for our sol­diers and pilots. Dr. Vahlen, via dis­sec­tion of alien tech­nol­o­gy and bod­ies, will pro­vide that knowl­edge. My task is quite sep­a­rate.

I must aim to under­stand for its own sake. Shen’s work is impor­tant, but I can’t just think of the aliens as foes. Demonizing the aliens is the most dan­ger­ous thing we can do. If I get lost in my hatred, then I will fail to see oppor­tu­ni­ties for com­pro­mise, or at least for greater illu­mi­na­tion. My sol­diers might fall to that temp­ta­tion. They can become dis­il­lu­sioned and angry, but I can’t afford that. These aliens have a pur­pose for these abduc­tions. I need to know what that is, and the path to that is a mind unfet­tered.

The first inci­sions were made last night in the con­tain­ment facil­i­ty. I stood, along with Biggs, out­side the glass struc­ture, look­ing down on the dis­sec­tion. He looked tired, and I under­stand; I haven’t slept in over a day. XCOM is all-consuming. A project like this is intim­i­dat­ing in its breadth, and espe­cial­ly in its impor­tance, but it’s also intox­i­cat­ing. It’s a cock­tail of fear and eupho­ria that keeps me up at nights, that keeps me ingest­ing cof­fee like it’s water and lets me sleep only when I can out-run the exhaus­tion no longer. Biggs is alike, in ways. He’s got a cer­tain drive. And when I invit­ed him along to the autop­sy, he, like me, put off sleep and stood beside me for the two and a half hours it took to cat­a­log the body.

As they picked the sec­toid apart, he spoke in short asides to me. He is a doc­tor him­self, and so noted, as the butcher’s notes did later, that its phys­i­ol­o­gy was­n’t entire­ly nat­ur­al – it was a lit­tle too designed, too pur­posed. It did­n’t take long for Biggs to come to that con­clu­sion; the body was a study in effi­cien­cy. “There’s no waste there,” he said, sur­prised. “It’s all just as it needs to be. The skin is just thick enough to hold every­thing in, the skele­ton built for a clean tran­si­tion from bipedal to quadrupedal move­ment. It’s some sort of per­fect – no nose or ears or repro­duc­tive organs, though. It can’t be evo­lu­tion­ary. It must be manip­u­la­tion on some level, or they are much more alien than I’m giv­ing them cred­it for.” That’s when the metal nodes were pulled from its skull. “Yuck. That’s not nor­mal.”

Biggs turned away from the glass. “Sickening. I hope they did­n’t do that to them­selves.”

I asked him whether that would both­er him. He said it would. I asked why. “It’s so wrong. I mean, there’s plen­ty that we do that isn’t nat­ur­al, but this… the design has unpleas­ant impli­ca­tions. It’s use­ful on the bat­tle­field, sure, but it’s also flim­sy. It’s not the sort of body one would give to a sol­dier unless you did­n’t care about them dying. In mas­sive num­bers.” He looked at me, brow creased. “Why would they remake them­selves like that?”

The report went fur­ther. The sec­toids aren’t just impec­ca­bly designed; they’re clones, prod­ucts of the same mold. What we’re view­ing here is a prod­uct – a cun­ning, mur­der­ous, intel­li­gent prod­uct. It’s an alarm­ing dis­cov­ery, but it tells us much. Among other things, it tells us there is a pro­duc­er – or, per­haps, was a pro­duc­er. But there is a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty that the pro­duc­er remains with the prod­uct and, per­haps, directs it. Perhaps their com­mand class is a dif­fer­ent model; per­haps it’s anoth­er species entire­ly. It also hints at the inten­tions that lie behind the abduc­tions. This might be a vision of our future should XCOM fail.


The fol­low­ing is a tran­script of the audio/visual events of the mis­sion as cap­tured by head-cam.

[Biggs, Gilson, Hastey and Schanuel sit in the Skyranger. The engines emit an omi­nous hum. Gilson stares at the floor, clench­ing and open­ing his right hand. Hastey hums ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ to him­self. He catch­es Schanuel’s eye and grins. Schanuel smiles back.]
Schanuel: I’ve got a good feel­ing about this one. I feel like we’re final­ly get­ting on top of this.
Biggs: Yeah. The grays are get­ting easy.
Gilson: Are they.
[Biggs looks over to Gilson, whose eyes remain on the floor.]
Biggs: Yeah. We’ll fight off what­ev­er grays they have guard­ing the bomb, dis­arm it, save the city, be big god­damn heroes. [He nods to Schanuel.] All with­out get­ting shot.
[Gilson looks up at Biggs for a moment, then looks away.]
Gilson: Whatever you say.
Hastey: I real­ly would have pre­ferred Lagos.
Schanuel: Given the con­text, it’s prob­a­bly best that we aren’t in Lagos.
Gilson: That bomb goes off, won’t mat­ter where we are.
Hastey: …I’d rather die hav­ing seen Lagos. I’d rather die hav­ing seen Tokyo, and Jerusalem, and Rio de Janiero, and Russia’s secret moon base.
Biggs: Russia has a secret moon base?
[Hastey grins wide]
Hastey: Whoops.
Schanuel: You weren’t an unwill­ing pris­on­er of the Russians, were you?
Hastey: I sup­pose not.
[The Skylander’s jets choke off, and it set­tles in over Kaduna. The ramp descends.]
Hastey: Welcome to sunny Kaduna!
Schanuel: A train yard. Odd. The aliens don’t real­ly have a sense for the dra­mat­ic.
Gilson: I got a good look at the map. If it has a decent enough pay­load, a bomb set off here would spare a few dis­tant burgs and noth­ing else.
Schanuel: Right, that makes sense, but think about it. We haven’t fought through state build­ings, or near any sites of strate­gic or sym­bol­ic impor­tance… it has been con­struc­tion sites, most­ly. Places that are iso­lat­ed. They’re still avoid­ing areas with high pop­u­la­tion.
Biggs: That way they main­tain their mys­tique.
Gilson: Sure. You only fear what you don’t under­stand.
Shen: [over the radio] I’m detect­ing power spikes in your vicin­i­ty, squad. There appear to be nodes sup­ply­ing ener­gy to the bomb strewn through­out the train yard. Calculations show that your time is lim­it­ed; you might be able to increase it by dis­abling nodes as you work your way through. But do hurry. I’m work­ing off my best guess, and this is still alien tech­nol­o­gy – I could be quite wrong.
[Hastey approach­es one of the squat, beetle-black nodes and punch­es a fist into it. When he pulls it out, wires dan­gle between his fin­gers, and a metal­lic pop erupts from the hole, fol­lowed sec­onds later by white smoke.]
Hastey: Whoops!
Shen: That is a bomb you’re deal­ing with.
Hastey: Не волнуйтесь. We encoun­tered some of these in Petrovka. They look intim­i­dat­ing, but they’re total­ly harm­less when they’re not hooked up to a giant explo­sive. And these are appar­ent­ly still pret­ty harm­less.
Biggs: Heh! We missed you, Hastey.
Shen: [sighs]
Gilson: What the hell is that?
[some­thing rises from behind a set of crates. It is absurd­ly thin and very tall; its skin the pal­lor of a man’s, its eyes a mag­ni­tude too large. Its tongue whis­pers from its mouth like a snake’s, and with rep­til­ian speed it leaps through the air, its long limbs bent for land­ing, and takes cover behind a train]XCOM-EU_ThinMan

Schanuel: Well, that’s new.
Biggs: Bet it dies when I shoot it.
[he runs full tilt around the train. Schanuel fires a few shots to keep the Thin Man’s head down, and then there’s a loud blast, and a cloud of thick green mias­ma rises from behind the crates]
Biggs: It explod­ed.
Gilson: Yeah, we can see that.
[hiss­es rise from the train-yard]
Hastey: Looks like we woke up the hive.
Schanuel: Brood, I think. Brood?
Biggs: Yeah, brood works.
Shen: Bomb. There’s a bomb.
[Gilson is already pulling apart anoth­er node]
Shen: Thank you, Bradford.
[on Biggs’ cam, two sec­toids are seen flit­ting deep­er into the yard]
Biggs: Bomb must be that way. Come on!
[the squad moves up, tak­ing cover as they go. Gilson picks up the flow quick, and they actu­al­ly start to work like a squad. Schanuel acci­den­tal­ly flush­es out a sec­toid, that runs for dis­tant cover, but Gilson takes an oppor­tu­ni­ty shot and takes it out mid-flight]
Schanuel: Nice.
Biggs: I see the other one. I’m going to move around right again; he won’t see me com­ing!
Schanuel: Joedd, don’t!
Biggs: Don’t worry, I’ve got this.
[he runs to an open train-car and enters. He hits the lip, takes a quick sight around, and un-holsters his pis­tol]
Biggs: Time to put you out of your mis­ery.
Schanuel: Joedd, get back here!
Hastey: I think I’ve got him any­way.
Biggs: Yeah, but he won’t see this com­ing.
[a hiss comes from inside the train-car. Biggs turns fast. A Thin Man looms above Biggs, fill­ing the cam­era]
Biggs: FU- [plas­ma fire, cam­era goes dead]
Schanuel: Joedd!
[Schanuel stands from cover and moves toward the car, but the sec­toid sends off a shot that catch­es him in the shoul­der]
Schanuel: Hrahh! [Hastey grabs Schanuel by the col­lar and drags him back behind cover] Let go – augh. Joedd, answer me!
[Hastey rises and fires a clean shot through the sec­toid’s chest, send­ing it to the ground]
Schanuel: God damn it, god damn it!
[Schanuel’s vitals spike. He applies med-gel to his wound with a shak­ing hand, and then leaps from cover again, run­ning to where Biggs was]
Grey: Schanuel. Keep your head.
Schanuel: [heavy breath­ing] Don’t.
[the Thin Man looms from the open train-car, and Gilson fires, killing it and drop­ping it from the open door. Schanuel is there in sec­onds, and begins cough­ing as he dives through the cloud. Gilson and Hastey move up to cover him]
Schanuel: Joedd. [cough] Be alive. Be alive.
[he falls to his knees. The cam­era focus­es in on Biggs. There is a super-heated crater of metal and flesh in Biggs’s belly]
Schanuel: Oh, shit. Shit.
Biggs: Ahn-
Schanuel: Oh my god, Joedd. Just… Don’t move.
Biggs: Andrea.
Schanuel: Yeah, I know, man. I’ll tell her.
[Biggs opens an unfo­cused eye. It falls shut again a moment later]
Shen: There is still a bomb here that will kill mil­lions. Only you three can dis­arm it.
[Schanuel’s cam­era bobs; he is nod­ding his head. Gilson leaps through the smoke as well]
Gilson: Oh. Oh no.
Hastey: I think I see the bomb. Shen, con­firm.
[Hastey’s cam­era zooms on a dis­tant block that bris­tles with alien tech tucked between two rail-cars]
Shen: I think you’re cor­rect. Please. Disarm it.
[Schanuel sniffs and clears his throat, then stands]
Schanuel: Where is it.
Hastey: Ten o’ clock.
Gilson: We see it.
[the squad silent­ly moves toward it. All is quiet. Schanuel moves up to the bomb. At first, he grabs a few cables and yanks]
Shen: We have no under­stand­ing of how the bomb works, but pre­sum­ably that’s a det­o­na­tor. Do exer­cise care.
[Schanuel begins to just punch the thing. Gilson drops back and drags him away from the bomb; Schanuel does­n’t resist. Schanuel watch­es as Gilson dis­man­tles the rest of the tubes and con­nec­tions to the ener­gy sources. Moments later, it churns, and fluid force­ful­ly pours out of the bro­ken tube cas­ings]
Gilson: Liquid igni­tion. Huh.
Shen: All ener­gy read­ings in the area dimin­ish­ing. Kaduna is safe. Excellent work.
[hiss­es erupt around the squad. Gilson and Schanuel hit cover; Hastey aims up, and when a Thin Man leaps atop a near­by rail-car, he takes off its leg and sends it careen­ing back off]
Hastey: One down. Two more on the roofs.
[Gilson takes a step back and fires a vol­ley into one creep­ing along the rail-car above him; bub­bles form in its mid­sec­tion, and then it explodes. Another runs down a dis­tant car, attempt­ing to escape, but Schanuel growls, runs into the open and fires into its chest; it trips up and col­laps­es atop the car]
Schanuel: Got it. I got it.
[plas­ma fire strikes Schanuel in the shoul­der, send­ing him twist­ing to the ground. Hastey whips his bar­rel around and fin­ish­es off the aggres­sor, a sec­toid peek­ing from a near­by train]
Gilson: You alright?
Schanuel: What the hell do you think?

Part 4, Trepidation, is here.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

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