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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.

Trepidation

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 http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

  • and another one gone and another one gone…

  • Brad

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

    • Oh my good­ness. Megan is a Cylon.

      • Matt Schanuel

        Yuuuuup.

    • Matt Schanuel

      Look, we don’t have enough peo­ple to spare, and DRAMA

      • Brad

        If the toast­ers want to help us fight the aliens (bugs? greys? other?) I say let them do it.

  • Anne

    Being dead sucks

    • 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.

  • 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.