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.
OPERATION TWISTED MOON – Kaduna, Nigeria –
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]
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.]
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.
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]
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]
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 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.
Schanuel: Oh my god, Joedd. Just… Don’t move.
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.