Nerd Corps Alien Defense Pt. 4: Trepidation 10

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 four.


I have just come from my first review under the inter­na­tion­al shad­ow court that funds this project. “Shadow” because their iden­ti­ties aren’t known to me, and thus can’t be cap­tured in this log. “Court” because they sit in judg­ment over this project. They sit in judg­ment over me.

Their voice, a bald, American man who sounds like fine grav­el, is whom I inter­act with. When he speaks, his pro­noun is “we,” and shad­ow obscures his face. He is more idea than man. As he lis­tened to my report and silent­ly scanned page after page of our progress, I grew unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly ner­vous. The world’s great­est were rep­re­sent­ed by this enig­ma. Under such scruti­ny, who could be com­fort­able?

Finally, he spoke:

We are impressed.”

I could­n’t sup­press a smile for a moment; thank­ful­ly, I gained con­trol of myself. As incen­tive, the coun­cil fun­neled extra funds to the project. Well, they’ve given me more funds than I antic­i­pat­ed; there’s noth­ing extra­ne­ous here. We’ll never be at a loss for what to do with the money we receive. The strug­gle will always be the inverse – which three of the fifty avail­able projects should we invest in?

For now, at least, it’s less dif­fi­cult a deci­sion than it might become. I have ordered Shen to begin work­ing on an Officer Training School in one of the newly-excavated sites below the base prop­er. I eas­i­ly for­get that they’ve bare­ly been at this work for a year, and Biggs’ demise under­scores their stag­ger­ing lack of train­ing. Our focus right now must be pre­serv­ing the lives of our makeshift sol­diers. To that end, I’ve had Dr. Vahlen look into some of the met­als we’ve sal­vaged from the alien UFO; she believes that it might be craft­ed into light-weight per­son­nel armor that will help when their train­ing inevitably fails them.

Credit should be given where it’s due, though. For Bradford Gilson’s clear head and exem­plary per­for­mance on the last mis­sion, I’ve seen fit to make him a full mem­ber of the squad. He seems a nat­ur­al fit for a heavy weapons load-out and, more impor­tant­ly, there’s not a one of them I would trust more with high explo­sives. I believe that Gilson will be a valu­able asset to the project.

Josh Hastey also proved him­self quite capa­ble, and with Biggs gone he and Erin McNeil are our high­est rank­ing offi­cers. This is fit­ting. McNeil has become hard, flint-like. Understandable, and also poten­tial­ly ben­e­fi­cial. Hastey’s unfail­ing opti­mism nat­u­ral­ly off­sets her lead­er­ship.

For our next mis­sion, how­ev­er, I want to get McNeil back on the field on her own and see how she oper­ates. Winters needs more expe­ri­ence, and I think send­ing Tracy along will help her per­for­mance. I’m also keen for Gilson to become com­fort­able with his new equip­ment. Now all we need is an abduc­tion.

In broad­er mat­ters, my assump­tion about a genet­i­cal­ly diverse alien pop­u­la­tion were proven right; we reclaimed one of the lean, thin aliens that the squad fought in Nigeria. It looks sur­pris­ing­ly human from a dis­tance, but up close it does­n’t pass; it’s far too unnerv­ing to serve as an actu­al spy. Its use­ful­ness in infil­tra­tion is ques­tion­able. If any­thing, it seems to be psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare pack­aged in the genetically-altered flesh of an entire species.

OPERATION BLACK HERO – April 2nd, 2015

[In the bunks, Squaddie Tracy flex­es and growls. He is with­out a shirt, show­ing the mild plas­ma scar­ring that is splayed across his chest. On his face, a clas­sic “Vizier’s Goatee.” Recruit Winters and Sergeant Hastey laugh near­by]
Winters: [she pan­tomimes a swoon] My hero.
[Tracy leaps into anoth­er hero­ic pose before her; Winters laughs hard­er. Schanuel snorts from across the room]
Tracy: I’ve heard… that women love scars. [he winks at Winters]
Winters: And where did you glean this snip­pet of infor­ma­tion? Spies? Has the Femdom been betrayed?
Tracy: Nope! I read it in a mag­a­zine.
[Gilson sets down a tray at the oppo­site side of the table]
Gilson: You know those are just pro­pa­gan­da, though. That’s what they want you to think. They’re clever like that.
Hastey: Ah, but the best pro­pa­gan­da expands from a ker­nel of truth.
Tracy: The ver­dict, mila­dy?
[Winters runs a hand across Tracy’s chest, then assumes a stud­ied expres­sion]
Winters: I give it an eight out of ten. Elegantly blem­ished.
[Tracy shrugs, grins, and leans in for a kiss]
Tracy: I’ll take it.
[the loud­speak­er crack­les to life]
Gray: We’ve got anoth­er wave of abduc­tions, XCOM. Get ready for action. I need the squad at the Skyranger in ten.

[At the armory, McNeil and Winters fas­ten on armor across from one anoth­er. Gilson and Tracy do the same at the other end of the room. Winters stops and gazes over at the two men.]
Winters: I real­ly don’t want to go today.
[McNeil does­n’t look at Winters; she focus­es instead of fas­ten­ing a boot tight to her leg.]
Winters: I’ve just got a bad feel­ing.
McNeil: You find that unusu­al?
[Winters looks over at McNeil.]
Winters: Should we have to? We did­n’t ask for this. It’s not like they can force us to go out there.
McNeil: Giving up?
Winters: No. No, it’s not-
McNeil: Explain to me what you would do. Where you would go. Paris? Venice? Somewhere roman­tic to watch the world crack?
Winters: Erin-
McNeil: Make it a good story. Maybe I can pre­tend that my hus­band isn’t dead and that it’s me instead of you con­tem­plat­ing run­ning off.
[Winters is silent; she turns away. McNeil lifts her rifle from the rack, checks the cham­ber, and exits.]

[Gray stands along­side Schanuel and Hastey in Mission Control. The globe, in holo­gram, spins; upon it, abduc­tion alerts shine over Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro, and Chongqing.]
Gray: We need the extra funds from Glasgow, but we’ve been neglect­ing Asia; I’m inclined toward China. I’m wor­ried that nations might panic if we don’t have a show of force there.
[Additional incen­tive flick­ers in at the bot­tom of the dis­play.]
Schanuel: That makes it eas­i­er. China has one of us. They’ll return them if we go to Chongqing.
[Gray nods.]
Gray: China it is.
Hastey: I real­ly hope it’s Jarrod.

[China is rain-soaked, empty; the abduc­tion has occurred at a road near an indus­tri­al park, but all is eeri­ly quiet. The squad moves up through the storm, tak­ing turns run­ning behind the cover of widely-spaced cars and trucks. Winters and Tracy stay close.]
Winters: [She glances over at McNeil.] I’ll make the next move up!
McNeil: Confirmed. Get mov­ing.
[She grips Tracy’s arm for a moment, then runs full-tilt for the back of a car. She hits hard, and then comes a tell-tale hiss.]
Gilson: Thin Man! Anne, keep your head down!
[The Thin Man darts from cover, run­ning away from the squad; McNeil fires wide, but Winters clips its leg, caus­ing it to stum­ble. A hail of machine-gun fire from Gilson caus­es it to erupt in a toxic cloud.]
Winters: Yeah!
[Over the trucks comes a noise equal parts ani­mal roar and metal whine. Via McNeil’s head-cam, the video tracks some­thing soar above the truck, pro­pelled by fire and belch­ing out a cloud of smoke. The image sharp­ens as it rock­ets clos­er. Atop the minia­ture jet engine is a sev­ered humanoid torso, but the skin is ruddy and punc­tured with dozens of implants and tubes. It car­ries a plas­ma rifle. Another fol­lows just behind.]
Floater Game
McNeil: Up!
Winters: What?
[They fly above Winters and bom­bard her with plas­ma fire. The first impact sends her leap­ing from the car; the sec­ond vol­ley burns into her chest and she trips, falling on her back into a writhing, smok­ing mess.]
Tracy: No!
[He runs toward Winters. One of the Floaters fires, catch­ing him in the shoul­der. He loses his foot­ing with the shot, land­ing hard on his back, but fires up and catch­es the alien’s jets. With a hiss it mis­fires, send­ing the alien careen­ing face-first into a truck. McNeil fires through the skull of the sec­ond. It explodes in mid-air.]
Tracy: Anne!
McNeil: More Thin Men!
[A pair of Thin Men hop over the medi­an and take aim at Tracy. There’s a metal click as Gilson hoists his rock­et launch­er to his shoul­der. The rock­et roars into place; when the dust clears, there is car­nage, but noth­ing liv­ing.]
[Tracy scrab­bles over to Winters’ body and drags her behind cover. She does not move or react.]
Gilson: The jet-pack guys. You hear them? There’s more com­ing.
[There is a dis­tant whine, and then two careen around the indus­tri­al park, rock­et­ing at full speed toward the squad.]
McNeil: They’re dead.
[Her first shot hits engine and the Floater explodes in a show­er of shrap­nel. Her sec­ond catch­es only flesh. With a choked sput­ter, the jets die, and it tum­bles into a slide across the pave­ment before slam­ming into the same car behind which Gilson and McNeil are hun­kered.]
Gilson: Damn. …I think that’s it.
[McNeil sighs, then looks over to Tracy. His body rocks back in forth in silent sobs over Winters.]
McNeil: Yeah. That’s it.

Promotions: Erin McNeil-Coberly has been ele­vat­ed to the rank of Sergeant, and gained the nick­name “Nightmare.”

Alex sat, silent and star­ing at the side of the Skyranger. Erin paced just out­side, her gaze alter­nat­ing between Alex and any­thing else. Brad looked into the rain.

There was a mechan­i­cal buzz, steadi­ly becom­ing more pro­nounced from the down­pour. A Chinese APC trun­dled into the light. It came to a hard stop meters from the Skyranger, and the door opened to reveal a well-dressed gen­tle­man. A sol­dier in fatigues held an umbrel­la over his head as he stepped out and offered a hand to Erin.

I believe our busi­ness here is con­clud­ed,” he said. Erin bat­ted his hand away.

It is. Meet your end of the bar­gain.”

Of course. Ms. Hammond, if you’d join us.”

Megan Hammond crawled from the belly of the APC and ran to wrap Erin in a hug. “Hey, lady.” The rain meant that the tears went unno­ticed, but Erin shook in Megan’s arms. The man stepped back into the APC and it dis­ap­peared into the rain.

I’m so sorry.”

Recruit Hammond

Recruit Hammond

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

10 thoughts on “Nerd Corps Alien Defense Pt. 4: Trepidation

  • Brad

    Boom baby! I think it might be a bad idea to send cou­ples out into the field togeth­er. Is Megan’s nick­name “Boomer”?

    • Matt Schanuel

      Soooorry Anne. :’( You did­n’t even get a spe­cial­iza­tion. But you prob­a­bly would have been the world’s best sniper, right after “Nightmare” McNeil-Coberly.

  • Tom Dawson

    I’m real­ly impressed by your abil­i­ty to hold all this nar­ra­tive in your head as you play. My ses­sions with XCOM tend to fea­ture less think­ing about char­ac­ter inter­ac­tion and instead place a great amount of empha­sis on cussing out the need­less­ly obstruc­tive Council or pan­ick­ing when­ev­er armoured Brutes appear behind my troops — “Fuckity fuck fuck TITS! Run away, you absolute mup­pet!” (actu­al quote). I would make an absolute­ly awful leader.

    • Matt Schanuel

      Ha! Occasionally, I want to write pref­aces for these pieces about the mechan­ics of trans­port­ing the pro­ce­dur­al into what you see here, which I hope will be inter­est­ing. For now, I will just say that copi­ous note-taking and a fair amount of dressing-up occurs long after I have played. It actu­al­ly feels a lit­tle jour­nal­is­tic — “here are the facts, now how do I make them com­pelling?” After the fact, I don’t have any con­trol over what hap­pened; I just frame them, and imag­ine how they would affect my friends.

      So I don’t actu­al­ly hold all this in my head as I play. Sometimes the nar­ra­tive does snap into place imme­di­ate­ly, and let me tell you, there’s some stuff com­ing up that had me leap­ing about, shout­ing “Holy crap that is incred­i­ble! I can’t wait to write it!” But other times, it’s spin­ning an oth­er­wise bor­ing mis­sion into a chance for char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

      Anyway, I’m very glad peo­ple are enjoy­ing it; I’m real­iz­ing now that it’s going to be long, so it’s good to have moti­va­tion to keep on mov­ing for­ward.

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