Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Guest Post: X-Com: Enemy Unlimited

A short story from Luke Bellmason:

See that guy with the Auto-Cannon; that’s Elvis. There’s Ludwig Van Beethoven with the Plasma Cannon, but we usually give him the Blaster Launcher when we’re sure he’s not under alien control (we learned that the hard way). The Sergeant over there is Cliff Richard and the man in charge is Eddie Van Halen. Nobody has a higher kill rate than him.
Of course, the names have been changed. We all know Beethoven is dead, and the real Elvis Presley? Who knows, maybe he is with the Aliens after-all. Maybe we should just ask them one time, when we’re not trying to melt them with our lasers. Except they probably don’t know he’s called Elvis. No, the names are for our benefit, that’s how it started anyway.
New recruits get assigned a name based on their skills. Heavy Weapons specialists are the hard rockers like Ozzy Ozbourne. Explosives experts are drummers; Keith Moon and John Bonham. Long range riflemen are the great guitarists. It all helps us remember.
We fly over the crash site and circle the perimeter, the doors of the drop-ship are already open and we can see the swathe of farmland that’s been ripped up by the flying saucer as it crashed. I get my smoke grenade ready, and I wonder which of us won’t be coming back. Somebody always dies. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a Rookie or a hardened veteran of twelve missions, there’s only ever one ending. Xcom doesn’t have a retirement plan. You go out to fight, if you return, you go out to fight again.
We come in low and slow for a landing and the others form up behind me; Robert Palmer next to Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly behind Cilla Black. The names are just a cover, a nod to the celebrities of another age. Nobody uses their real name. The recruits queue up to join our cause from all the world’s armed forces and police. Some of them join because they want to fight the Alien threat, some because they’ve lost family in the numerous terror attacks on their home city. Some, just because they want to be famous for a few weeks. All of them think they can fight and win.
A red light comes on above our heads, but it’s not the signal that we’re about to land, it’s the light to show us that we just went live to 560 channels in 94 countries and right accross the internet.
I check my gun and pull the pin on the cannister I’m holding. The smoke from the grenade spills out as it rolls down the ramp and onto the ground, giving us cover as we deploy into our starting formation. It’s a finely choreographed dance routine – back on those channels I know they’ll be running some hackneyed old music cue like AC/DC or Iron Maiden. Bruce Dickinson or Brian Johnson would be proud if they were still here.
In all my six missions, this is the part which scares me the most; running down the ramp. It’s different every time. Sometimes the aliens wait and hit us from multiple sides, other times it’s quiet and we have to hunt them down in buildings or through dense jungle. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to their strategy, sometimes they stand there like dumb statues while we shoot them, then when we get cocky we meet a group of them who take us apart one soldier at a time until we’re lucky if 2 or 3 of us make it back to the dropship to fly away.
This site is a real mess and I doubt there’s many of them left alive from the looks of the crashed ship. The Intercepters did a good job bringing it down thanks to a little help from newly developed fusion weapons, courtesy of alien tech we recovered on earlier missions.
“What’s it gonna be this time eh Ray? Snakemen again?” Shirley Bassey whispers in my ear.
“Nah, doesn’t smell right. Probably Mutons,” I say.
“Anything, as long as it’s not Ethereal’s eh guys?” Cries Ken Dodd.
Those aliens that did survive have probably holed up in the ship, it seems to be the only constant. I’ve learned, I’ve seen the mistakes of my comrades, but then none of us lives long enough to really get any better. New rookies come though all the time, but all our training involves is being sent out to become cannon fodder. We only know what we see on TV, before we’ve joined up, then it’s all so different when you get into battle.
You learn to respect the Aliens though. Even though they’re sometimes dumb, their technology is superiour to ours and they’re cunning. No matter if you think you’ve got them all, there’s always the one just around the corner in the shadows waiting to pounce, or the crafty bastard who shoots a grunt just as he’s primed a grenade so he drops it and takes out nearly a whole squad.
Me and Bob Dylan form up behind a hedge, which admittedly won’t provide much protection when the energy bolts start flying. It keeps us out of sight though and we know the cameras will be on the new recruits, the eager ones who wanted to show to the world just how tough they really were, to get noticed.
Standing at the front of the line gets you noticed alright. A green ball of lightning flashes through the trees towards James Brown.
“Get down!” Shouts some joker. George Gershwin, another new recruit, bounds towards the source of the shot and zeros in on target.
“Muton!” He calls over the radio, firing off his laser rifle on full auto. The beam brings down branches, flays the grass from the ground and finally strikes the chest of a huge green-skinned alien soldier, who shrugs it off and fires back.
Two plasma bolts pelt Gershwin’s chest, but one is enough. As a Rookie, he’d failed to qualify for protective armour or advanced weapons. Resources of alien alloys used to make the bodysuits are in short supply and only if you progress to a high enough rank do you earn the right to wear metal.
The smouldering remains of George Gershwin fall to the floor as Elvis winds up the motor drive of the auto cannon. We know the folks at home will be loving this part and one of Elvis’ great hits like “Burning Love” will be playing under the voice over telling the viewers that we’ve ordered incendiary rounds for best effect. The huge bullets thunk through the forest in the general direction of the Muton soldier, but Elvis doesn’t need to be accurate.
As each shot hits it bursts open its sticky chemical which ignites on contact with the air. The trees erupt in flame, as a lake of fire forms around the alien, lapping up its legs and body. Still it stands, like nothing’s happening. Has it ever seen fire before?
Bob Dylan dodges out from behind the hedge and tosses an alien grenade, captured on a previous mission. It lands right at the feet of the blazing Muton. It explodes with five times the force of one of our own similarly sized devices leaving a huge crater and not much else.
That’s the thing about alien tech, it’s so much better than ours. So why do the aliens keep losing? Over the months, and years, we’ve captured and analysed dozens of alien artefacts and our brightest scientists have gradually figured out the operation of each one. Plasma weapons, mind probes, gravity control and the mysterious new element Elerium-115. With that and the recovery of numerous alien corpses and even the odd live alien specimen, Xcom has become big business. That isn’t even counting the TV and merchandising rights, which we all get a cut of. Not that any of us ever live long enough to spend it.
“Advance!” squawks Eddie Van Halen, perched high in the tree-tops thanks to his flying suit. We all move forwards. Now the trees are gone we can just make out the edges of the crashed UFO, that’s where we’re headed.
Then another shot from our flanks and a scream. I didn’t catch who it was but it was female. I hoped to God it wasn’t Debbie Harry. The blast had come from a barn, across the other side of a corn field. There’s another sneaky damn alien lying in wait for us to pass so it can attack us from behind. We should have checked that barn before rushing off to storm the craft.
Someone yells the catchphrase that’s already been printed on fifty-million t-shirts this month,
“Beethoven, blast that barn!” Ludvig Van kneels down, pulls the weird, huge, lumpy-looking device from his backpack, slots the melon-sized blaster bomb into its nozzle and hurriedly programs in the waypoints. Now I’m imagining the close up shot of Beethoven’s face (he looks nothing like the real one, but hey – none of us do), watching as he concentrates on loading the delicate mechanism with a small nuclear bomb. They’ll be playing Beethoven’s 9th symphony about now, or maybe 1812. Or was that the other guy?
There’s a loud whooooosh – as the rocket twists impossibly up into the air, makes a ninety-degree turn around a tree, flies out over the cornfield and slams down into the roof of the barn. As the barn vapourises, hopefully along with everything inside it, I begin to wonder about the folks watching back home and if any of this seems real to them, because it sure doesn’t to me.
I’ve wondered about this war, how finely balanced it all seems. The Nations of the world, all funding our project to fight the alien invasion. Our seemingly endless mission to down incoming UFOs, take out the occupants and return home with the spoils. This technology that’s advanced humanity hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ahead in a little over a year.
Xcom has rapidly become the biggest company in the world by developing and selling this technology. How long before we could build our own spacecraft and fly it to the source of the alien incursion? And why would we?
Without the war Xcom would cease to exist; no more TV shows, no more t-shirts, no more ready-made celebrities dying each day for the entertainment of billions.
Then I wonder if the Aliens watch the broadcasts too. Maybe Elvis does.

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