August 11, 2015
‘ETA three minutes and counting; prepare for deployment,’ crackled Big Sky’s voice over the intercom.
‘Ready to prove your worth, Rookie?’ It was Ballard. Six-foot-four. South African. Dark skin and darker eyes. Specialised marksman.
‘Call her “Hughes,” Sergeant,’ said Lieutenant Matheson. Six-foot-one. English. Clean shaven with long hair tied in a bun. Highest ranked officer on this deployment next to Lt. Brooke. His friends called him “the Doctor” despite his specialisation being a heavy weapons operative.
‘Meant no disrespect sir,’ replied Sgt. Ballard promptly. ‘Just making conversation.’
I glanced at Lt. Brooke to gauge her reaction. Five-foot-four. American. Pale skin and black hair cut loose above her shoulders. She wasn’t paying us any attention.
Lt. Brooke was much less talkative than her fellow operatives. She was our field medic and had been on the field since the first contact. She was known as “Demon” despite her role. It was supposed to be because of her deadly marksmanship and high kill count but the trainees traded rumours about her medical practices.
It seemed strange to have two officers of the same high rank on one operation. In training we had been informed of the irregular ranking system our organisation employed. Officers’ rank was more a representation of their prowess and service than their actual commanding influence. Such a system was used because of the Commander.
The Commander, or the “GCO” as some of the veterans referred to him, was the head of our entire organisation. I had never seen the man in person but I was familiar with his voice. We all were. I adjusted my earpiece.
‘Two minutes,’ crackled the intercom.
Although I knew it was full, I checked the magazine of my rifle. It slid into the chamber snugly and the bolt made a satisfying snap as I pulled it back and released. This weapon was heavy. Much more than I was expecting. The standard assault rifles of the local military generally weighed between four and five kilograms. This thing must have been at least seven. The rounds it fired were fifty millimetres in length and could punch a hole through solid concrete at thirty paces. On the scale of things it wasn’t even that large. Lt. Matheson carried an LMG two-thirds the length of his body and was wearing full blast padding, yet he could keep pace with the rest of us.
‘Sixty seconds people.’
I could feel the Skyranger slowing and beginning its descent. Sgt. Ballard stood up. Sgt. Shoulong and Corporal Frost were already at the drop-ramp. Sgt. Shoulong was equipped as Lt. Matheson. Five-foot-nine. Chinese. White hair. Packing high explosives and a grim attitude.
Cpl. Frost was our close combat specialist. Assault class. Equipped with a nanofiber vest and a shotgun for close encounters of the most violent kind. Five-foot-ten. Kiwi. Spiky blonde hair and quick on his feet.
The ramp began to lower before we hit the ground. Despite the impact being caught by the suspension I had to grab the rail as I lurched forward.
‘Scramble!’ ordered Lt. Matheson and we ran out into the snow.
The cold air stung my eyes as I dashed from the warmth of the Skyranger. I clung to the right and sprinted to the cover of a nearby shack. With my back against the wall and a waist-high woodpile to my right, I began scoping out the area.
Six seconds passed. Then twelve.
‘It’s quiet,’ said Sgt. Shoulong from his position against doorframe of a nearby hunting lodge.
‘Stay frosty people,’ replied Lt. Matheson.
‘Yeah, particularly you Georgie,’ added Sgt. Ballard.
Cpl. Frost raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t speak.
‘How’s it feel to be home?’ Sgt. Ballard asked as he used the woodpile to vault on top of the shack I was using for cover.
‘Shut up Ballard and get into position,’ barked Lt. Matheson.
‘Aye aye,’ he replied, spraying me with snow as he clambered onto the roof.
A small fishing village in Newfoundland up the coast from Saint John’s had recently gone dark. Intel reports suggested X-ray activity. So here we were. It felt strange to be back in Canada. Given the circumstances, I figured the less I saw of my home country the better. A creeping dread constricted my stomach as to what we might find here.
The briefing had been simple. Government officials had been investigating a mayday signal from a shipping barge out this way when all contact had been lost; from the ship, the village and the response team itself. We were to investigate the site with extreme caution, eliminate any hostiles and return with a full report.
‘Not seeing anything from up here,’ called Sgt. Ballard from above me.
‘Keep those eyes open Sergeant,’ replied Lt. Matheson. ‘The rest of you, stick to the buildings. The Commander doesn’t want us out in the open on the wharf. Take it slow.’
One at a time we shifted our positions to explore the surrounding area. Each time one of us exposed ourselves, the others were ready to provide covering fire. Standard practice. Just like in course back at base.
The Skyranger had parked itself atop a small snowy ridge on the edge of the village. The terrain behind it rapidly became mountainous and densely forested. The village itself comprised of several small structures: a hunting lodge, a couple of woodsheds and shacks, dock sheds, some kiosks and a couple of cottages. These were grounded on a plateau overlooking the wharf to the west. Several docked boats were visible from my position.
‘Hold up kids, we got movement!’ barked Sgt. Ballard. Everyone froze.
I looked up to his position on the roof. He was standing, using the scope on his sniper rifle as a binocular. He was indicating out to something on the other side of the shack we were behind.
‘Report,’ ordered Lt. Matheson.
‘It’s humanoid… a… ah shit.’
After a blip of static another voice familiar to all operatives spoke in my ear.
‘We’ve confirmed sighting of zombies near your position Strike-One,’ reported Central, ‘and that means Chryssalids aren’t far away. You need to find where they’re coming from on the double.’
A wave of unease flooded the squad, it’s effects immediately tangible. I had heard stories of the nightmarish creatures Central stated were nearby. Many of our own soldiers had fallen to them during the terror missions the X-rays conducted across the globe. They were supposed to be some kind of apex predator, quick as lightning with razor-sharp talons and deadly venom. Their most horrifying ability was their means of reproduction. Like something out of a science-fiction horror film, Chryssalids supposedly infested those they attacked with a rapid developing embryo that grew within the host’s body. It liquefied their internal organs and converted it to biomass for its own rapid growth. Within minutes the host’s body would be torn open from the inside out as a newly formed Chryssalid was birthed. To make matters worse, while this development is occurring, the body of the host is animated by the alien inside it, turning it into (for lack of a better word) a zombie.
Growing up in Canada, I was used to the cold. This small fact was not enough to keep my hands from shaking uncontrollably. Prove my worth, huh? If that was our enemy, I was not too sure what value I could provide.
My thoughts were shattered by an ear-splitting crash as Sgt. Ballard opened fire. ‘It’s still standing. Coming your way Frost.’
‘On it,’ he replied curtly and vaulted over crate to reach the corner of the shack. The roar of his shotgun was followed by wet thump and an inhuman gargle. ‘Hostile down,’ he cried. ‘We got another one behind the truck.
‘Kill it before it spawns,’ crackled Central in my ear.
Lt. Matheson charged toward the shack Cpl. Frost was leaning on and kicked in the door. Sgt. Shoulong moved to Cpl. Frost’s left and unloaded a rattling volley at the foe I couldn’t see, followed closely by a ‘Missed. Adjusting sights.’
‘Get to the other side of the shack for vision on the target,’ said a firm and surprisingly mundane voice. The voice of the Commander.
‘At once,’ I responded and dashed through the snow. As I passed a window to the shack I saw Lt. Matheson opening fire through another window on the opposite wall. I rounded the corner and sprinted up to the passage between the shack and the nearby rock face. I skidded a little in the snow and slammed my shoulder into the shack’s wall to offload some of my momentum. I used the rest to bring my rifle’s sight up to my eye.
It didn’t take long to spot the target. A shambling figure the shape of a woman was disappearing behind a pickup truck riddled with bullet holes. I couldn’t help but gape when I saw the cavernous wound in her neck. Even in the dim moonlight I thought I could see bone.
‘Fire, Rookie!’ ordered the Commander.
I snapped back into focus and squeezed the trigger enough to send a burst of lead at the retreating figure. The recoil of the rifle punched painfully into my shoulder and the last few bullets ricocheted into the darkness. The first few, however, sunk home into the woman’s skull and the body dropped behind the vehicle.
‘Confirm your kill, Hughes,’ ordered Lt. Brooke from behind me. I retained enough self-control to prevent myself from jumping in fright but the Lieutenant’s expression indicated she knew she’d startled me. Her gaze was unyielding.
Rather than speak I nodded and edged over to the truck. I could hear the other soldiers repositioning behind me. I rounded the truck with my rifle raised and looked over the body behind it. The corpse’s coagulated blood was mixing with the snow and some thick sickly green and yellow fluid. The body was twitching slightly and I noticed something shifting beneath the woman’s clothes, or skin, it was hard to tell.
I took a deep breath, steadied my arms and squeezed the trigger again, putting several more rounds into the prone body. There came no noise but the movement stopped. More of the sickly liquid spilled into the snow.
‘Hostile terminated,’ I called back to the squad. It surprised me how steady my voice sounded.
‘Good work, Hughes,’ I heard in my ear.
‘If there are any X-rays nearby they’ll have heard us,’ said Lt. Matheson. ‘Watch for patrols.’
Beyond the hunting lodge was a ring of kiosks. Several had built-in hanging beams, all of which were empty but one. What looked like a shark hung on the other side of the kiosk square before a large barn-like structure, most likely a boathouse.
‘Alternate reloads,’ signalled Lt. Matheson. ‘Shoulong, you first.’
We edged to new positions, keeping our weapons up. Sgt. Shoulong called out when he was finished and took up watch as Sgt. Ballard reloaded. When it cycled to me I checked my clip. I’d been conservative with my shots so there was still the better part of a half left. Better to be shooting on a full magazine though. I tucked the clip into a holster on my belt and loaded a fresh one in.
‘Ready to go,’ I called.
We took up positions around the kiosks, checking in each one to make sure there weren’t any nasty surprises.
‘Heads up on that shark!’ yelled Cpl. Frost from my flank.
I looked back to the hanging fish to see it twitching rhythmically.
‘I’m no fisherman, but I’m certain that shark was dead,’ spoke Central’s voice from my ear. ‘Take it out Strike-One.’
Sgt. Shoulong untucked one of the frag grenades from his belt and pulled the pin, lobbing it gently into the snow beneath the shark. Everyone took cover. I counted the bleeps of the timer in my head. The detonation boom bounced off the surrounding mountains, followed by the wet pattering of chunks of flesh spraying over the square.
Once the smoke cleared we were able to see past the demolished kiosk the shark had been hanging from. Behind it, down on the far side of the docks, was a large fishing boat. It wasn’t docked as the others were. By the looks of things it had crash landed on the shore. A gaping hole in the hull exposed the ships guts to the wharf.
Central spoke up again. ‘That ship didn’t just run aground… it looks like it was overrun. I’d say that’s likely the source of our Chryssalid problem. I guess we should just be thankful it wasn’t a cruise liner.’
‘Amen to that,’ said Sgt. Ballard as he climbed to the top of kiosk next to the one that had held the shark. ‘Shanks on team! Hostile spotted. And they’ve spotted us!’
Sgt. Ballard’s warning was reciprocated by a cry down on the wharf that sounding like a cross between some kind of bovine and feline creature. Ballard responded adequately by opening fire.
‘Matheson! Covering fire!’ roared the Commander’s voice in my ear. ‘Shoulong, the same! Frost, to the stairs, now! Brooke, watch his back!’
I was about to follow Lt. Brooke when the Commander spoke to me. ‘Hughes, get behind that boatshed now!’
‘Sir!’ I replied, despite my confusion. As I ran I could hear the shrieking of the X-rays and the war cries of my comrades, punctuated by the rattling of gunfire. I skidded around a barrel and grabbed the rim of it to keep my balance.
‘Get to the end of that shed, Rookie. Make sure we’re not getting flanked.’
Of course! Shame swept in to replace my doubt. I stuck my head out around the corner. Beyond the barn was a small fenced off area and a deck overlooking the wharf. The fishing barge had crashed into the shoreline and ploughed its way up the rocks to the deck area. With a running start it would be possible to clear the deck and land on the ship’s top deck.
‘Moving in closer to investigate,’ came Lt. Matheson’s voice from my earpiece. ‘Weapons ready.’
I crept up the side of the barn, listening carefully to my squadmates’ feed.
‘Mother of god…’
‘I’d say we found the source of our infestation,’ said Central, ‘but this is worse than we could have imagined. If the Chryssalids are using that whale as some sort of “hive,” who knows how many offspring they could produce.’
‘There’s a whale on that ship?’ I asked.
‘Correct,’ answered Lt. Brooke. ‘It looks to be covered in alien growths.’
‘This is serious,’ said Sgt. Shoulong. ‘Requesting instruction, Commander.’
Central’s voice suddenly spoke, thick with apprehension. ‘Strike-One, our sensor readings are picking up a whole lot of activity from inside the hold of that ship. I think you're about to have a lot of company headed your way, but nothing you've got on-hand is going to be enough for this one. What we need is an airstrike... if you can reactivate that ship's transponder, we can have air support pinpoint your location.’
‘You mean we’ve got to go in that thing?’ replied Sgt. Ballard.
‘Not all of you.’ The Commander’s voice was flat and precise. ‘Just one.’
The squad was silent. I may not have been able to see them but I knew they were looking my way. To confirm my suspicions, the Commander’s voice spoke in my personal com.
‘Hughes. Catherine. I am about to request something of you that no man should ever have to ask. But I ask it because if I do not, we may very well lose more than a village to these monsters.’
At first when I saw the squad list I thought I was being deployed because we needed another specialist. “No better training than in the field.” Other squaddies had done it. Proven their aptitude for various skills in the heat of battle, returning to be promoted and given special equipment and training. I thought I was the same. I’d worked so hard to be selected by XCOM. I’d given my all to be the top in my classes, to be the best I could be, to be selected to be a defender of humanity. And I was to serve my planet by being a lamb. Had the Commander known? Had he figured out what had happened here and deliberated chosen someone inexperienced, someone expendable who could do the job? Perhaps that’s why he sent some of his best troops along too. Not to teach me, but to make sure I could fulfil my duty completely. They did ask us if we were willing to give up our lives for the cause when we signed up. I just didn’t think they would follow through with it.
‘You don’t have to ask me anything, Commander,’ I said, maintaining control over my voice. ‘Give me an order and I will see it done.’
There was a brief pause. ‘Very well. Activate that transponder, Hughes.’
‘At once,’ I replied.
‘The rest of you, get into position!’ the Commander roared through the radio. ‘Give that soldier as much time as you can.’
‘Sir!’ chorused the rest of the squad.
I could hear their footfalls on the wharf planks as I sprinted towards the edge of the deck. Another inhuman shriek split through the air and I heard the beginnings of a firefight. Snow sprayed out behind me with every bound and with an effort I leapt for the ship. I hit the railing with my gut and double over it, clattering to the floor. Albeit slightly winded, I’d made it onto the ship.
Clambering to my feet, I grasped my rifle with both hands and belted for the ship’s control booth. I glanced to my left as I ran and saw my squad unloading a storm of lead into the base of the ship where the hull breach was. Shrieks and roars and the sound of tearing flesh echoed in the metal shell beneath me, but I ran on.
Twenty feet. Fifteen. Ten. A high-pitched chittering followed by four precise metallic clangs sounded behind me. I reached the control booth’s door and risked a look over my shoulder as I fumbled for the handle.
A dark, spindly shape highlighted by orange bioluminescence had appeared halfway down the deck and was rushing toward me with astounding speed. It ran on four talon-like legs, rearing a humanoid-like upper torso with long clawed arms but an insect-like head.
I manage to wrench the door open and dove inside. The control panel of the ship was a mess of switches and dials. I scurried up to the navigation equipment and flicked every switch on I could see. The rhythmic clanging of the closing Chryssalid was getting louder and louder. LEDs were flashing different colours. Screens were flickering to life. The X-ray was almost on me.
‘The ship's transponder is active and transmitting,’ alerted Central. ‘You need to get moving Strike-One, that whole place is going up in a matter of minutes and anyone left behind is as good as dead.’
With a cry I turned to face the door, spraying bullets as I went. The Chryssalid on the other side tore the door off its hinges. Some of my fire had managed to clip it as its torso dripped with yellow-green fluid. It glared at me with vibrant yellow eyes that held far more intelligence than any creature of its making should be allowed to have.
Here it was. Everything I had accomplished in life amounted to be torn apart by a monster from outer space. The very thought was enough to freeze me stiff.
And yet… it didn’t. The beast watched me for barely more than a second then looked over its shoulder to my retreating squad. It gave chase.
Utterly dumbfounded, I climbed to my feet and ran to the door. Over the railing I could see the squad falling back as several Chryssalids charged them down, my wounded one among the ranks. I lined up my sights.
‘I’m not finished with you!’ I cried and fired.
By whatever string of luck I was having, the bullets buried themselves into the creatures back and it crashed to the ground. The rest of the squad were able to dispatch the other few but I could hear mad tearing and scrabbling coming from within the ship’s hull.
A single word over my personal com gave me the adrenaline boost I needed. ‘Go!’
I vaulted over the railing of the ship, dropping about a storey and a half onto the softened planks below. My combat boots took the brunt of it but the impact sent a splintering pain up my legs. I tried to remember how many rounds I’d fired and how much was left in my magazine. A third maybe? Perhaps only three or four bullets? Not enough to make a difference. I dropped my rifle and sprinted for the steps up off the wharf. Over my shoulder I could hear more Chryssalids bounding after me. The squad was only just ahead of me.
‘Strike-One that airstrike is closing on your position. You need to get to the EVAC point before it's too late.’
These things were faster than all of us, particularly when two of our company were weighed down by heavy armour. Rather than make a bee-line for EVAC, I dashed back to the kiosks. The Chryssalids followed, with more running around from behind the boatshed. I managed to leap over one of the kiosk counters and use its back door to shield myself from the claws of my pursuers. As they scrambled around the structure, I sprinted for the hunting lodge.
Central’s voice was urgent. ‘You're running out of time, Strike-One! The airstrike will be there any minute! Get moving!’
More Chryssalids scuttled over the wharf near the lodge. As soon as they saw me they began pelting toward my position. With the rest of the pack in tow I made my way to the corner over the upper deck. At least from there they could only get at me from two directions.
Big Sky's voice spoke over the radio. ‘All but one soldier within the EVAC zone. Ready to depart on your order Commander.’
There was a pause, at which point I reached the corner of the deck. The Chryssalids below were bolting up the stairs to reach the deck, the rest of the pack was almost on me.
‘No,’ said the Commander’s voice. ‘How can I call myself Commander if I forsake the lives of those who would so readily give up everything for our cause? You’re bringing everyone home tonight, Skyranger.’
I vaulted over the edge of the deck onto the wharf. As I dropped I felt a momentary pressure grate down the back-plate of my Kevlar. I hit the wood below and pain shot up my legs again.
‘You’re going home tonight!’ I screamed as I sprinted along the wharf toward the far steps. Gunfire rang out as I ran.
‘This is it Strike-One, that airstrike is imminent. Get to the EVAC point NOW!’
I took the steps three at a time. Not bothering to check if I was about to run headlong into a Chyrssalid, I made a final dash for the Skyranger’s ramp. The rest of the squad was already inside the craft as it was taking off, firing shots so close to me I may as well have been an X-ray. I leapt.
Cpl. Frost caught my left arm as my right latched on to the ramp drop-bar. Sgt. Ballard grabbed my collar and heaved.
‘She’s on!’ he screamed and the Skyranger launched. The force would have dragged the three of us back out if it wasn’t for the Lieutenants. I clambered inside as the ramp began to rise. We were climbing rapidly. Suddenly the whole craft shook violently as the airstrike hit below us. The turbulence corrected and we were on our way back to base.
‘That was far too close,’ muttered Sgt. Shoulong.
‘That’s XCOM baby!’ Sgt. Ballard roared with laughter.
There was a crackle on my personal com. ‘Good job soldier,’ said the Commander. ‘You are a hero amongst heroes.’
‘Thank you sir,’ I replied, somewhat out of breath. ‘Just doing my duty.’
This short story is based off a mission I played during a 'Classic' run of XCOM: Enemy Within. The events of the mission played out very similarly to what is depicted here; albeit with less dramatization and small talk. During the run I was changing the names and appearances of soldiers once they got beyond Squaddie rank to various friends and fictional characters. Rk. Hughes went above and beyond the call of duty and won herself a permanent position on my XCOM roster. She became one of the finest Support Colonels I have ever commanded and her legacy lives on in other games I've played. Her daughter, May Hughes, was a welcome addition to my XCOM 2 squad; and a potential ancestor, Scarlet Hughes, is an archer in a D&D campaign I am part of. Second Lieutenant Scarlet Hughes carries her own field journal, the pages of which might just end up on this site as well...