Written by: Adam “ManKorn” Korenman, CC2K Video Games Editor
19 May 2015 / Canada / Operation Hidden Palace
I had the dream again.
It always starts the same. I’m walking between a row of burning tanks, surrounding by fire and smoke. All around are bodies, mostly civilian, laying in heaps by the broken treads of the armored vehicles. There’s no smell, at least at first I don’t notice one. I take one step at a time and draw closer to a large warehouse. A noise pulls my attention to the right, but nothing is there. When I look forward again, Shannon stands in front of me.
She looks fine, at first. Then her skin grays and dries up, cracking at the face and flaking off onto the ground. Blood spurts from the broken flesh and dribbles down her soiled uniform. Her jaw slacks to the side, then falls off entirely. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. Shannon takes a shuffling step toward me, her eyes milky white. Just before she reaches me, before her long fingers grip my throat, I see another face laying on the ground behind her.
Jin, his head crushed in on one side, stares at me accusingly. “You failed us.”
And then I’ll wake up, sweating and freezing at the same time. It’s not every night, but it happens more and more nowadays. I think that’s why the Commander had me sit out this last mission.
Our North American satellite picked up the UFO contact late in the afternoon. It was down before we could even scramble the interceptors, landing just east of the Alaskan border. CO Brandon had our eye in the sky redirected to the landing zone immediately, and we gathered with the rest of the Strike Team in the briefing room and waited for the order. I sat in the front, next to the lectern Brandon would use during our fun talks.
The Commander stood in the back of the room, lending his presence to add gravity to the mission. After Brandon gave his usual speech about safety and security, he called me to the podium. The room became a sea of hissed whispers and confusion. I couldn’t help but smile. The Commander had told me exactly how to lay down this information, and how it would be received. It was good to see how right he had been.
“Good morning, X-COM.”
“Good morning, sir,” came the reply.
“I’m Major Korenman, operations leader for Strike One. For those of you who are new to the program, welcome. Find the soldier with the dirtiest armor and stay close. They’ll keep you safe.
“At 1645 local time, a small Scout touched down in the Northern Canadian wilderness. We don’t know why they are exploring such a remote location, but rest assured we plan to find out. With that in mind, I’m sending Strike Two on a seek-and-report mission. As this is a smaller vessel, enemy disposition is expected to be minor. This affords us a unique opportunity.”
I took a breath, readying myself for the shitstorm ahead.
“Your mission is to locate the alien LZ, secure the area, and capture a living Sectoid using the Arc Thrower device.” Immediately the room erupted into shouts and curses. Most of the ruckus came from newer soldiers; none of the veterans needed to be told twice. For the rookies, who had only just escaped alien control, the idea of such a high-stakes mission seemed ludicrous. The Commander had forseen that. It was one of the reasons he had picked me to run the operation.
“Listen,” I said, holding up my hand to settle the room. “I know this is a risky op, but it is one we have to do. If we take one of them alive, we could find out all sorts of information about their military structure. We could find a leader, and then we could take them out. I don’t know about you, but I’ve aged ten years in the last few months. I’m not really interested in making this war last any longer than it has to.
“I’ll be running the operation from Mission Control. That means we need someone to lead Strike Two, and I can’t think of anyone better than SGT Bonanno.”
Corey stood up in the back of the room and walked to the front, grinning the whole time. Everyone applauded and smacked him on the back as he passed. The docs weren’t happy about him leaving the infirmary and heading straight into the field. I had to tell them it was for their own safety that they let him go. Corey’s cabin fever had reached its peak, and I didn’t want to see what would happen next.
“Good to be back, guys,” he said, waving to his brothers in arms.
I smiled and continued. “Corey will take Tipton, Hendryx, Ewan and Durand. I want a tight operation. Move in teams and don’t take unnecessary risks. Everyone comes home from this.”
The briefing took another hour, but went better than expected. The soldiers asked me questions and I actually knew the answers. Any time I wasn’t sure, Corey would quickly chime in and help me out. He’d spend most of his month in traction reading military tactics manuals and studying the alien battle doctrine. He was sharper than ever; the perfect choice to lead Strike Two.
I watched Big Sky streak toward the engagement area on the monitor. I felt completely out of place as I entered Mission Control, wearing my gray operations uniform rather than my armor. CO Brandon had set up a computer and microphone set for me, and he was waiting when I arrived. They oriented me to the control interface (it’s pretty damned impressive, and gave me incredible awareness of the battlefield) and gave me a cup of hot coffee.
“Command, this is Strike Two.” Corey’s voice was shaking over the radio. I could hear his teeth chatter. “We’re on the ground, and I can see the ship up ahead. (Damn, it is freezing.) Making our way to the entrance.”
“How’s it going?”
I nearly jumped out of my seat. The Commander pulled up a chair and leaned in close to see my monitor. “Good dispersion. We don’t know if the aliens have grenades, but it’s best to avoid making that kind of mistake.” He turned from the computer and looked at me. “So, Major. How are you holding up?”
“Um, good sir.”
He smiled. “No need for a brave face, soldier. I spoke with the doc.”
I sighed. In the old world, what he’d done would be a huge violation of my privacy, but this was the new status quo. A crazy soldier cost lives. “I’m fine, sir. Just nightmares.”
“Completely normal,” he said. “Hell, I still have mine every now and then. It’s a part of the job, sadly.” He took a sip from his own steaming mug of coffee. “We’re human, and we value life. Makes it a lot harder to accept when that life is so easily taken away. Almost doesn’t make sense. One minute you have a living, breathing person, and then they’re gone.” He shook his head.
I was about to answer when Corey shouted over the radio. “Three Floaters, 11 o’clock! Suppressing fire!” I stared at the screen, searching for the targets. They showed up as red dots on the topographical map. It took me a minute to imagine the scenario, but then I could see the terrain as plainly as if I were there.
“Strike Two, lay down cover fire and move to flank at 1326-1698.” I watched Corey relay the information, but the lag from my commands to his meant Chris was too late to catch a flanking shot. “Damn it,” I said away from the mic.
“Let them make the calls on the ground,” the Commander said. “You’ll never be as fast as them, so trust them.”
I didn’t answer. I watched the screen, squinting at the glowing dots and willing my thoughts to them.
“Three Sectoids, exiting the ship! Keep one alive.”
Scott rolled through a snow drift and came up firing, taking down one of the floaters. Corey blasted the other two in one long burst. He shouted triumphantly and ran forward, bringing the team along behind. Sam climbed up a nearby hill and covered the engagement area with his rifle. One of the Sectoids popped up too close for comfort and he put it down for good.
“Watch those Sectoids,” I said into the mic. “We need one for Dr. Vahlen.” The Commander said nothing, but smirked.
Corey charged close to the craft and started to holler. I was about to ask what he was doing when the Outsider appeared. I couldn’t help but beam; it was a pretty clever ploy. Sectoids were dangerous, but manageable. Outsiders were deadly and unpredictable. By luring one out into the open, they could remove it from the equation and focus on the bigger mission. Scott pulled a smoke grenade out and covered the squad.
I saw Chris’ signal pick up on the other side of the ship. The Outsider didn’t see him until it was too late. Chris fired a few rounds into its back and the alien exploded into shards. The two Sectoids panicked, running out into the woods, and into the waiting arms of the other fire team. Sam took out the lead creature, splattering green blood across the snow. Scott sprinted up fast, pulling the Arc Throw from his pack and lunging at the remaining alien.
I watched it all unfold exactly as I had briefed. Corey had put his own spin on the plan, and to great effect, but they had followed the script beat by beat. The entire base seemed silent as Scott squeezed the palm handles and loosed an electric shock at the frightened alien soldier. We waited an interminable few seconds for the report to come in. My heart pounded so loud I thought I’d miss the broadcast.
“Command,” Scott said. “This is Strike Two. Put out another plate for dinner, we’re bringing home a guest.”
The room EXPLODED into cheers and applause and victorious screams. I leapt from my chair and pumped my fist into the air. The Commander, always cool as a fucking cucumber, just leaned back and smiled, putting his hands behind his head. CO Brandon was practically in tears, hugging Dr. Vahlen and coordinating the retrieval crew.
I turned around just as the Commander started for the exit. “Sir,” I said. “You’re not sticking around? I’m pretty sure we’re about to throw a pretty damned impressive party.”
He looked down on me proudly. “I’ve got some promotion paperwork to sign, I’m sure. That was one hell of an op, Major. I’m looking forward to see how you handle the next one.” He left the room as bottles of champagne materialized from thin air. I had a glass of booze in my hands before I could think, and had a decent buzz on by the time the soldiers landed. I made sure each one of them had a drink the second their boots hit the deck.
Corey was the last man off the boat, his smile stretching ear-to-ear. “Not bad for a day’s work, huh?”
I returned his salute and handed him a drink. “It’s a start.”