This story is based on the video game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a turn-based strategy game that revolves around protecting the earth from an extraterrestrial threat. I hope you like it.
Operation Burning Skull
Silver cirrus clouds, thin brushstrokes against the night sky, hung above the darkened forest. Only a few amorous crickets disturbed the quiet. A crescent moon and its attendant stars lit the earth. And then one of the stars began to move, slowly, meanderingly, as though it were looking for something: a peripatetic, periwinkle pinpoint. From beyond the horizon another star appeared, moving quickly, the same yellow-white as the sun itself. It flew straight towards the first star. Briefly, they danced, one pursuing the other. Bright lights volleyed back and forth between them. A sudden burst of orange signaled the end of the hunt.
The Interceptor, Raven 4, turned around and flew back to base, while the purple star grew larger and larger. The UFO plummeted out of the sky and made impact, smashing through the trees as though they were toothpicks, leaving a scorched, smoldering corridor through the forest in its wake. It struck the ground, skipping gracefully like a stone thrown across a pond, skidding along the earth, and finally coming to rest near a lake, its leading edge half buried in a small hill, its hull steaming in the cool, spring air. The forest, temporarily silenced by the crash, slowly returned to life.
Within mere hours, a Skyranger had taken off from a continent away and arrived at the crash site, littered with embers and debris. The bulbous jet landed with a deft grace that defied its appearance, its turbines roaring as it gently lowered itself onto solid ground. Its rear door yawned open, and four soldiers walked out, weapons drawn, alert to the dangers waiting for them unseen in the woods, the dangers they were here to eliminate. Earth and humanity itself were under attack by a new, unknown enemy. Alien abductions and terror attacks were a fact of life as they aliens struck all over the world. Only XCOM, the Extraterrestrial Combat Initiative, the shield and sword of mankind, sworn to protect humanity and defeat its extraterrestrial attackers, had the potential to stop them.
The soldiers emerged in a small clearing. In one direction led the smoldering trail of broken trees left behind by the UFO as it crashed. “Ich denke, dass wir das UFO gefunden haben,” Captain Friedrich Jünger, a veteran of the Kommando Spezialkräfte, reported back to base.
At XCOM Headquarters, the translation team immediately set to work. A truly international organization, XCOM had been expanded from a small core in urgent haste as the gravity of the alien invasion became apparent to the governments of earth. Unfortunately, this rapid creation had left a number of weaknesses in the organization, including a lack of a common language among the soldiers and staff. With personnel from all over the globe, a way to keep communication flowing was urgently needed, and during missions, when speed and accuracy were of the essence, Esperanto was used as an interlingua to bridge the gap. “Mi pensas, ke ni trovis la nifo,” reported Jünger’s translator.
“I think that we’ve found the UFO,” the other translators reported into their own languages.
“Roger that, Strike One,” replied Central Officer Bradford from the base. “Major Kim, you’re authorized to assault the crash site. Exercise extreme caution and expect heavy resistance: we don’t know how many hostiles survived the crash.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Ji Hye Kim. “Raven, cover us,” she ordered.
Lieutenant Shivani Gavde nodded. She had joined XCOM two months ago, after an alien abduction raid on her hometown of Kanpur. Her home had been razed, her friends and family killed or worse, her city ruined. She was left with nothing but her anger and a burning desire for revenge. XCOM had found her in the rubble and taken her in for medical treatment, and once she recovered, she had volunteered for service. Since that awful day, she had inscribed the name of one of her lost loved ones on every bullet she aimed at the enemy. She had yet to run out.
Gavde took up her position behind a felled log and set up her Accuracy International AS50 sniper rifle. The rest of the squad inched forward, moving between cover. Gavde followed them with her sights, looking for any movement. She clenched her teeth and flexed her trigger finger, hungry for battle.
The UFO gradually came into view, a fat, squat disk the color of mercury, its force fields shimmering blue. A large hole had been shorn through one side. Equipment lay haphazardly outside the craft. A faint, deep, almost soothing hum filled the air.
Kim whistled. “Still in one piece. That thing must be strong.”
An insectoid chittering broke the calm. “We’ve got contact!” Sergeant Eric McAllister shouted. “Two ETs, one o’clock!”
Two Sectoids looked up from the glowing pod they were examining. Their metallic, burnt orange eyes glistened in the moonlight, their chests glowing gold through an apparent fissure underneath their flesh. Their veins could be seen through their sickly grey skin. They lopped awkwardly behind a piece of wreckage. From behind the wreckage, ghostly purple and indigo tendrils appeared, arcing across the air.
One of the Sectoids, his oversized skull glowing violet, lit from the inside, peered out from behind the wreckage and raised his arm, firing a bolt of plasma at Jünger. A brilliant green beam shot towards him, superheated gas smoking off its surface as it just barely missed him, striking the tree behind him and causing it to explode as the plasma vaporized the water inside. “Scheiße! Looks like they’re mind-melding,” he observed. “Get into cover!”
“Raven, do you have a shot on them?” radioed Kim.
Gavde aimed her rifle at where the arcs would converge behind the Sectoids’ cover. She exhaled slowly, squeezed the trigger, and fired. Her rifle bucked against her shoulder and the bullet burrowed through the thin, metal wall. The Sectoid screeched and collapsed, green ichor leaking from its mouthless face. The second Sectoid screamed, scrabbling furiously at its skull, bent over double in pain until, with a brief flash, it, too, expired, without a single mark upon its body, its mind destroyed from its partner’s death. “X-ray down,” Gavde informed Kim, chambering a new round, inscribed with the name Urvashi Prakash.
“Thanks,” she replied.
“Boom Boom, look at this,” McAllister called to her, looking at the aliens’ pod. Kim and Jünger walked over. The upper surface of the pod was transparent, filled with a translucent, dark blue sludge. Through the bubbling ooze could be seen the faint shadow of a human being. “Central, are you receiving this?”
“Roger that, Strike One,” Bradford replied, watching the live video feed with a pained grimace. “Looks like we found what they’re doing with the abductees. God only knows what they’re doing to these people. All the more reason to blow ‘em to hell. Get moving.”
“Yes, sir,” Kim responded, sizing up the UFO. She removed the FGM-148 Javelin from her back, grinning. Major Kim had nearly been removed from the Daehanminguk Gukgun for an “unhealthy interest” in explosives, but the war had rendered her ability too valuable to discard. Her superiors transferred her to XCOM, neatly solving two problems with a single solution. “Knock knock. Let’s see how tough this thing really is. Jünger, McAllister, get ready for a breach. Raven, keep a look out. We don’t want anyone coming in after us. Any X-rays show up, take ’em out for us.”
“Fire in the hole!” Kim cheered as the rocket took off with a whoosh, floating briefly, almost gracefully, before its engine ignited, yellow flames billowing as it flew towards its destination. The UFO’s hull exploded with a thunderous roar. Jünger and McAllister moved up to the ship’s new door as the smoke slowly cleared.
A neon green flash suddenly illuminated the smoke. A chartreuse bolt plunged forth from the smoke, striking Kim in the chest. The last thing she saw was the hulking silhouette of a Muton behind the swirling clouds of smoke. Her body was thrown backwards, a look of surprise on her face.
“Ji Hye!” screamed McAllister, running to the major.
“Wait, stop!” warned Jünger. The Muton leveled its plasma rifle. Its thick, clawed, puce finger reached for the trigger, its small, milky-white eyes narrowed. A loud bark threw the Muton staggering back, temporarily dazed.
“Take him out,” Gavde called out as she hurried to reload.
“Jawohl,” replied Jünger. He stormed into the breach, up to the apelike Muton, and before the alien could recover, fired his shotgun twice at point-blank range. The first shot broke open the alien’s heavy black and green armor, while the second ripped apart its flesh and bones, throwing it against the wall with a bellowing roar. It struggled to lift its plasma rifle for one final shot, growling its last breaths, its arm trembling, but Jünger unleashed another round directly into its forehead. Gold blood splattered onto his face and armor. “Good riddance. How’s Major Kim?”
“She’s alive,” McAllister reported, kneeling by her side. At least the aliens’ weapons were clean, he thought. None of the messy deaths he had seen in Iraq, watching good men bleed out from an IED that tore off their legs. “The shot just missed her vitals. The medikit sterilized the wound, and she shouldn’t feel any pain until after we get back to base, but she’s sitting the rest of this mission out. She’ll be fine once we get her to the infirmary.” He stood up. “You’re in charge now, Captain.”
Jünger sighed. “Hope she enjoys the vacation.” Gavde’s sniper rifle wouldn’t be much use in the tight confines of the alien craft. That left just him and McAllister against whatever remained inside the ship. “Alright, Doc, let’s clear out the rest of the UFO. Raven, guard Major Kim.”
McAllister climbed through the ship’s gaping wound and joined Jünger inside. His Geiger counter clicked more and more quickly as he walked deeper inside the ship. They entered the craft’s hallways, guns drawn. “We’re clear,” reported McAllister. The interior of the UFO was in better shape than the exterior, but not by much. One of the elerium reactors had exploded, turning the wall separating the generator from the rest of the UFO into a storm of shrapnel that had lacerated and impaled an especially unlucky Muton to death, his bloated corpse, caked in dried, mustard-yellow gore, left unmoved from where it had fallen in the chaos and confusion since the crash. The burnt out generator still glowed with a dull green light, but it would be worthless for research now. The charred remains of something were burnt into the door’s threshold.
“Let’s try the cockpit,” Jünger suggested. “There might still be something holed up in there.”
“And the flight computers… Trying to bring back a valentine for Doctor Vahlen?” McAllister teased.
Jünger smirked. “Well I bet she’d be awfully appreciative if we did. She’s been bugging the commander for months about bringing one back intact. Boom Boom usually prevents that from happening, though…”
“I think you’d have to bring back a whole UFO to get back on her good side after The Mess Hall Incident.”
“For her, I’ll carry it back myself.”
They made their way to the rear of the craft. The cockpit had two entrances opposite each other, located at the front corners of the room. Jünger prepared to enter one, while McAllister took the other. “At the count of three, we’ll blitz whatever’s in there. One. Two,” he counted, tightening his grip on his Mossberg 590. “Three.”
The two soldiers burst into the empty room. Huge consoles filled the room, displaying unintelligible holograms that, if translated, would assuredly bestow the important knowledge that the ship had, in fact, crashed. A bundle of floating shards in the middle of the room incandesced. They rearranged themselves, growing, merging into the rough shape of a man made of some bronze alien metal, its abdomen a gaping hole filled with a fiery, glowing crystal.
Before the stunned soldiers could react, the Outsider dived behind the flight computer and fired a salvo of plasma shots wildly. One struck McAllister in his shoulder. He screamed as he returned fire, spraying bullets across the room, striking the monstrosity.
Jünger tore a frag grenade from his jacket, ripped out the pin, and hurled it towards the technological terror. He lunged at McAllister, throwing the both of them to the ground behind the safety of the ship’s walls just in time to escape the blast. With a haunting moan, the alien expired, evaporating into the air, leaving behind no evidence of its existence. The flight computers were reduced to scrap metal.
McAllister coughed. “Vahlen’s gonna be pissed, Blitz.”
Jünger lifted him up and helped him back to the Skyranger. “I’ll make it up to her next mission. Don’t you worry.
“Central, this is Captain Jünger. We’re detecting zero enemy movement. The UFO has been secured. Send in the clean-up team.”
“Roger that, Strike One. Chalk up another one. See you when you get home.”
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