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?
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: 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.]
[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.]
[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.]
[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.]
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.”