Mission 21

OPERATION SEVERED GAZE
ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

The ramp dropped, revealing HQ’s hangar, and Volkov walked down it wearily as the medical team pushed past with its stretcher. As he reached the bottom of the ramp, he heard someone calling his name, and looked up to see Lancaster running towards him, wearing sleeveless body armor. He grinned as he approached, asking, “How’d the mission- oh.”

Volkov stepped off the ramp, watching the medical team carry the loaded stretcher past them and down into the morgue. Lancaster watched them go, mouth agape, before saying, “Who-“

“Squaddie Verdant.”

“How did he go?”

“Mechtoid. Had its bubble up, and he made a dash to kill the Sectoid but he didn’t make it.”

“God damn.”

The rest of the Bodysnatcher filed out of the Skyranger and into the hangar, dispersing among the many doorways leading out. Absentmindedly, he watched Mendiola walk towards the garage to get his suit stripped off and fixed up, when his eyes were drawn to a soldier he had never seen before, who was chatting animatedly with Ravenshaw.

“Who’s she?” asked Volkov. Lancaster shrugged and said, “I guess the deal was that if we helped out Russia they’d send us one of their finest, and she showed up a little bit after you guys called the mission complete. Coach says her name is Captain Wolfswift.”

“Her first name is Captain?” asked Volkov.

“May as well be,” replied Lancaster. Volkov chuckled and looked over Lancaster and asked, “What’s the deal with the sleeves? You look ridiculous.”

Lancaster looked away, red creeping into his cheeks, and said, “It wasn’t my idea. Apparently the alien genes messes with our metabolism, we generate a lot more heat. So Dr Vahlen lopped them off so we don’t, you know, die of heat stroke. Not like it matters, we won’t wear the body armor when we’re out on mission anyway. This is just for training.”

Volkov nodded, eyeing the leopard silhouette stencilled on Lancaster’s armor, when Lancaster continued. “Speaking of training, can you run some marksmanship drills with me? I’m getting spun up for a cell in Russia, and it’s been awhile since I handled a rifle. I’d like to be prepared before I go in.”

Volkov shook his head and said no, “No. No rifles, only pistols. You know the regulation.”

Lancaster had obviously prepared for the argument, and countered with, “But what if one of them drops a rifle during the exfil? At least that way-“

“No. Not your job. Your job is to make sure the data goes through, and then get the hell out. That’s it. The squad that comes to pick you up, fighting is their job. The data is yours.”

Lancaster sighed and said, “Dammit, I thought as much.”

Both soldiers remained silent for a few moments before Volkov said, “Let’s go pay our respects to Verdant.”

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Mission 20

OPERATION ENDURING GAZE
TERROR ATTACK
PARIS, FRANCE

“Get the civilians out of here! This alley’s a killzone!”

Soot hung in the air, burning Blacksmith’s nose. The aliens had razed a whole city block, trying to burn it to the ground, and the civilians were running around uselessly, getting in the way of the soldiers. Wishing he could speak French, he tried to communicate with a nearby civilian but failed utterly.

“Get them back to the Skyranger!” shouted Ravenshaw, “We need- CONTACT!”

She fired her sniper rifle at something that had flown into view of the squad, and Blacksmith watched a white disc soar over a nearby rooftop. Leaning against the brick of the building, Blacksmith watched it as it hovered over the street, gently descending while being trailed by two smaller mechanical devices. The whole squad was mesmerized by the steady movement of the object, and once it touched down the disc suddenly spun sideways, revealing a multitude of openings. Mechanical legs were splayed outward and two unmistakable cannons thrust out of it. Blacksmith’s eyes went wide, and Ravenshaw shouted, “Down DOWN DOWN!” as the strange disc opened fired at Ran. He dove for cover, scrambling behind a nearby truck as a plasma volley soared overhead. The squad opened fire on it, the lasers and bullets finding their mark, decimating the exposed interior of the object. It fell to the ground, scarred from the barrage, and after a few short moments, it exploded. Blacksmith flinched instinctively, but the explosion was too far away to do any damage.

The two objects that had trailed the disc suddenly opened fire on the squad, sending plasma bolts into the asphalt. Blacksmith aimed carefully, getting one in his sights, when there was a scream from further down the alley. He glanced down and saw two civilians fleeing from a pair of scurrying Chryssalids, barging through a door that led into the building he was using as cover. The Chryssalids were directly behind them, following them inside, when Maxwell shouted, “Rookie! On me!” and charged down the alley, straight for the doorway. The sounds of plasma fire filled the air as the squad fought off the two robots, and Blacksmith slipped inside the building.

He bumped into Maxwell, who had stopped just inside the building. The light was dim, and Maxwell held up a fist and brought his hand to his ear. Blacksmith listened, hearing the sound of whimpering inside the store, and both soldiers slowly moved forward. Blacksmith scanned his surroundings carefully, looking for any signs of movement. As they moved through the store’s aisles, he could hear the soft whimpering get closer, when suddenly there was an inhuman snarl, followed by a scream. Maxwell took off at a sprint and Blacksmith followed, thinking for a moment of how stupid it was to run towards a Chryssalid. Both soldiers rounded the corner and were greeted with a grim sight- a Chryssalid standing triumphantly over a corpse, feasting on it, while the second civilian stood nearby paralyzed. Maxwell quickly fired twice, killing the Chryssalid and throwing it sideways into a nearby pillar. Maxwell approached the dead civilian, exercising caution, but immediately the civilian started to stir he fired once more, obliterating his head. The second civilian screamed again, and ran further into the store.

Blacksmith had been briefed on what happened when Chryssalids killed humans but he still looked away, deciding to keep an eye out for the second bug. He could still hear the sounds of battle raging outside, but more importantly, he heard the sounds of the Chryssalid scrabbling around in the store. He gripped his laser rifle, scanning the darkness, when there was a flash of movement and the Chryssalid was on top of an aisle divider, rearing up. Instictively, Blacksmith fired, boring a hole through its tough exoskeleton and it fell lifelessly backwards, out of sight.

“Good reflexes, rookie,” said Maxwell, but before Blacksmith could reply, there was a commotion outside and a massive hole was torn in the building, letting light through. Over the aisles, Blacksmith caught a glimpse of Strawberry’s massive frame destroying the bricks before falling out of sight. The sounds of plasma fire intensified, and over the radio someone shouted, “Drac 4 is down!”

Maxwell ran through the store to where Strawberry lie while Blacksmith trailed behind, checking over his shoulder to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them. Coming upon Strawberry, Blacksmith was dismayed to see he was dead. He was covered in bricks and rubble, his suit crushing an aisle divider under him, and his torso looked as if it had been torn open by plasma fire. Blacksmith froze, not sure of what to do, when Strawberry gave a massive snore and Maxwell shouted, “He’s alive!”

“That’s great, but we still need help out here!” replied Ravenshaw. There was the sound of another volley of plasma fire and Blacksmith saw her duck, the plasma sailing dangerously close to her head. Blacksmith took one last look at Strawberry, wishing he could do something, and followed Maxwell carefully through the rubble, being sure not slip on anything. The squad had held its position and Blacksmith saw dead aliens littering the alley, but they were pinned down by another disc flying high in the air. There was the crack of Ran’s sniper rifle followed by the whiz of the round ricocheting off the disc, and Maxwell rushed further into the alley.

Blacksmith followed, firing a quick shot at the flying disc, as Maxwell took cover behind a nearby dumpster. The disc suddenly spun open, revealing its twin cannons, but Ravenshaw fired another shot into it and it rapidly closed back up, though not before emitting a shower of sparks.

“Keep the fire on!” called out Ravenshaw, and Blacksmith fired once more. Maxwell fired a pair of blasts at the disc when it suddenly faltered, dropping 5 feet in the air before catching itself. Holding its altitude for a few more moments, it suddenly dropped, falling to the asphalt with a terrific crash. After a few moments, it exploded, creating a second crater within the alley. Blacksmith ducked, hearing shrapnel ricochet off the dumpster. After a few moments, he risked a peek and saw smoke rising from the wreckage, but everything in the alley was otherwise still.

“Go get the first aid kit, patch up Strawberry,” muttered Maxwell, “we won’t be able to move him until the science team gets here, but keep him alive.”

“I’m not a medic,” replied Blacksmith.

“Neither am I. Do your best.”

Interlude 2

XCOM HQ
LABORATORY

Lancaster opened his eyes and could only see green. He brought his hand up to try and clear his vision, but found he couldn’t move his arm. He struggled, trying to pull his arm up, but it was being held back by something. He kicked his feet and found that were restricted by something as well, when he realized that he was floating in water.

His eyes went wide and he started to thrash fiercely, trying to swim out. He felt air on the top of his head and felt relief at being so close to the surface, trying to swim up and get a gulp of fresh air. He kicked and thrashed as hard as he could but the waterline was slow to come below his eyes, and then his nose. He was finally able to get above the waterline and took a deep breath, trying to force air into his lungs. It was only then that he realized he was wearing some sort of mask, and he had been breathing the whole time. He suddenly remembered he was in a glass tube, and looking down he saw the tubes connected to his body all, restraining his limbs. The green water was rapidly draining out of the tube, and Lancaster remembered what happened. He tried to say, “Genetic modification” but could only manage a grunt before the tubes fell out of him with a pneumatic hiss, and the tube opened up and dumped him on the ground.

He fell to the ground on all fours, his head hung low as a wave of nausea came over him. He had seen some people standing in the lab through the glass, and he was vaguely aware of them now standing around him. From nearby, he heard someone cry, “My arm WHERE IS MY ARM” and Lancaster looked to see Coach in a similar position as him, though his left arm was missing. Coach’s eyes were wide, but Lancaster’s eyes were drawn to his neck, where he could see his pulse traveling through his carotid artery, the flesh of his neck pulsating in a horribly hypnotic way. Suddenly, Coach’s arm materialized back into existence, and Lancaster felt another wave of nausea come over him. He looked back down at the ground, and someone squatted down next to him.

“Do you know who you are?”

“Squaddie Walter Lancaster. Serial number-“

“That’s fine. Do you know what’s happened to you?”

“Genetics,” replied Lancaster, “Genetic modification.”

“That’s right. Think you can stand up?”

Lancaster felt hands grip him under his armpits and he allowed himself to be picked up, closing his eyes as he did so. Once he was on his feet, he felt himself swaying a bit, and decided to try opening his eyes. He did so, and saw that Captain Ravenshaw was standing in front of him. He felt as if he was looking at her through a high definition camera, and blinked rapidly to try and restore his normal vision.

“Do you remember what modifications were performed on you?” asked Ravenshaw. Lancaster nodded his head, fighting down the nausea, and said, “Yes. Something with my eyes, my legs, and my skin.”

“That’s correct. Your depth perception has been increased, you have camouflaged skin, and you’re leg muscles are now denser.”

“Craziness.”

At the mention of the leg muscles, Lancaster suddenly became aware of a sort of tension in his thighs. Carefully, he squatted down slightly, feeling the energy start to wind up in his legs.

“Don’t…. don’t try jumping now, Lancaster. You should wait until you’re feeling better.”

“Right.”

The nausea had started to fade, but a multitude of other unpleasant feelings immediately hit him. His stomach growled, his mouth felt like it was filled with cotton, and to Ravenshaw he said, “I’ve gotta find a bathroom.”

Lancaster walked past Ravenshaw, feeling much steadier on his feet, and she called out after him, “You won’t control the camouflage for the first couple of days. So don’t freak out if parts of you go missing!”

Mission 19

OPERATION MORBID THORN
COVERT EXTRACTION
ARGENTINA

“Drac 3, everyone’s in position. You might want to hustle over here.”

From the rooftop, Ben Paddon watched Sans Leon slip out of cover and start to sprint towards the warehouse. Gold Squad’s rifle element had been sent to the rooftop to defend the transponder up there, where Sans Leon was to connect to his first transponder. As he closed the distance, Paddon said to the rookie Verdant next to him, “I can’t believe Coach wasn’t available to do this.”

“The operation was just taking too long, I guess,” replied Verdant.

“How long does it take to shovel alien genes into someone?”

“Shut the hell up, both of you. Listen,” said Thakilla, “Do you hear that?”

Paddon cocked an ear and heard the rotors of an approaching helicopter. Frantically, he looked around the roof of the warehouse, trying to find cover, and said to Thakilla, “Shouldn’t we hide somewhere?”

As the sound of the helicopter got louder, Thakilla glanced around, trying to find a place to hide on the rooftop, when he said, “Just lie down, stay low, keep an eye out for where they drop.”

Feeling unbearably exposed, Paddon laid down on the rooftop and listened as the helicopter got closer and closer. The night disguised the helicopter completely, but he could hear it hovering directly above him, the rotorwash bathing him in warm air. He looked up, hoping he could see something, when he was blinded by a searchlight suddenly flipping on. He swore and looked away, spots in his eyes, when he heard the crack of a sniper rifle. There was the snap of a high caliber bullet passing by his head, and the sounds of laser fire being returned. He looked back up and saw an EXALT soldier hanging out of the helicopter, but a well-placed laser shot severed his arm and he fell to the rooftop screaming. The helicopter turned to the left, revealing another EXALT soldier, but Paddon fired quickly and made short work of him.

The helicopter turned off its searchlight and flew away, and Thakilla called to Sans Leon, “Alright, they’re gonna shuttle some more people in so you better get your ♥♥♥ up here.”

After a few moments, Paddon heard the sound of Leon climbing up the ladder and he pulled himself onto the roof, running towards the transponder. As he ran past Paddon, he smirked and said, “Snazzy outfit, Leon.”

“Shut up.”

Working quickly, Leon pulled the laptop out of his bag and connected it to the transponder. After a few moments had passed, he quickly disconnected the laptop and said, “Done.”

Picking up the computer, he glanced down the nearby skylight and brought his pistol down on it, shattering glass. From below, an angry Volkov called out, “Hey, what the hell!”

“Sorry!” called out Leon, clearing out the remaining glass with his pistol. Gripping the ledge, he swung himself over and let go, dropping inside the warehouse. Paddon looked down the skylight and saw that he had dropped on to a pile of crates, scrambling down to reach the second transponder. Once he reached it, he repeated the same process, and from far off Paddon could hear the helicopter returning.

“Hey, Leon, we need to move!” called out Thakilla.

“Aaaaaand… I’m done! Let’s get the hell out of here.”

With the helicopter getting closer, Thakilla shouted down, “You 3, get Leon to the Skyranger. We’ll provide top cover from up here.”

“Roger that,” replied Mendiola. Thakilla gestured towards the other end of the roof, and both Paddon and Verdant followed behind him. Thakilla took cover behind an air conditioning unit and Paddon crouched low, moving as close to the edge as he dared. Verdant took a position close by, and from below they heard the crash of the warehouse door. Paddon watched as Mendiola charged out first, clearing the path to the Skyranger, and Volkov sprinted in front of Leon as they both charged towards the ramp. The sound of the helicopter was dangerously close, coming from the direction of the Skyranger, when Paddon suddenly saw it emerge from the darkness to drop two more EXALT troopers to the left of the running soldiers.

“Two contacts, to the left!” called out Paddon over the radio.

“Got them!” replied Mendiola, firing his railgun. One EXALT soldier took the impact to his chest and was thrown backwards, and from out of sight below the rookie Totoro Couch fired his laser rifle, striking and killing the remaining EXALT soldier. After the 2 soldiers were killed, the helicopter started to fly away and Leon made it to the safety of the Skyranger. Mendiola held his position on the ground, which Paddon took as his cue to get to the Skyranger. He slid down a nearby drainage pipe, hitting the ground and running. Behind him, Thakilla and Verdant followed suit, all 3 making it inside the Skyranger.

“Get inside, both of you!” cried out Thakilla, and Totoro Couch dashed across the ground and towards the Skyranger. Mendiola was the last soldier to make it inside, and as soon as he was, the craft lifted off and began the long trip home.

As soon as they were airborne, Paddon gave a sigh of relief and opened the vents on his carapace armor, enjoying the fresh air hitting his sweat soaked shirt as Leon pulled his laptop out and addressed the squad.

“The EXALT base isn’t in the United Kingdom,” declared Leon. He looked up, waiting for a response, when Thakilla asked, “Is that all you were able to learn?”

“Yes sir. That’s all I was able to get. Turns out covert operations aren’t really my thing, I thought for sure I was found it a couple of times.”

Thakilla grunted and said, “Well, it’s a good thing you weren’t. Welcome back.”

Interlude 1

XCOM HQ
BARRACKS

“Attention to award!”

There was the click of heels coming together as the gathering of soldiers snapped to attention at Corporal Coach’s command. Holding the paper out in front of him, he called out the names of the awardees in his best, booming voice.

“Captain Silla Thakilla, front and center, to receive the Squad Leader’s Badge for demonstrating superb leadership skills throughout multiple operations while still keeping every member of his squad alive.

“Captain Matthew Mendiola, front and center, to receive the Global Campaign Medal. Captain Mendiola has participated in major combat mission in the American, African, European, and Asian theaters of operations, helping to keep panic low across the globe.

“Lieutenant Anselm Maxwell, front and center, to receive the Urban Operations Pin for successfully completing XCOM’s urban operation course under the required time.

“Squaddie Sans Leon, front and center, to also receive the Urban Operations Pin for successfully completing XCOM’s urban operation course under the required time.”

Mister Coach watched the four soldiers fall out of formation and march to the front of the formation, shaking hands with Ravenshaw as they passed by her. Coach handed her the medals as she went down the line, quickly pinning the medal to the soldier’s uniform. Once all 4 soldiers had their new medals, Ravenshaw turned to address the remaining soldiers.

“Thanks for being here everybody, though I suppose you didn’t really have a choice,” she began, earning a few snickers from the squads. “I know it’s been awhile since we’ve handed out any awards, we’ve just been too busy. It’s important to recognize the good work everyone is doing, both on and off the field. I’d especially like to call attention to Captain Thakilla’s efforts in leading Gold Squad, not taking a single casualty since the restructuring.”

Coach sucked on his top lip, waiting for her to finish talking, when she said, “That’s it. Thanks for coming again, everyone. Carry on with the rest of your day. Mister Coach, Lancaster, I need to talk to both of you.”

The squad fell out of formation, talking amongst themselves as Ravenshaw passed by Coach, gesturing for him to follow. He put the list down, following her out as Lancaster jogged behind him. Once all 3 soldiers were outside, she made sure the door sealed shut behind her and then turned to the two soldiers and said, “I’m removing both of you from your squads.”

Coach practically heard Lancaster’s jaw drop and Coach exclaimed, “What the hellCaptain?”

She held up a hand, silencing him. “Listen to me, both of you. You’re getting removed and placed in to your own section, just the two of you. Things with EXALT are getting hairy, and we can’t afford to keep taking people out for the covert operations, it’s just hurting the squads. We’ll draw on the two of you when we need to take down an EXALT cell.”

Coach’s face broke out in a grin, and Lancaster said, “That’s great news, Captain.”

Ravenshaw gave a weak smile and said, “Yea, it is. But, listen…”

Lancaster said, “There’s a catch.”

“No. Well, yes. Look, have you heard about Dr Vahlen’s theories on genetic manipulation?”

Coach’s eyes went wide and he said, “No.”

“Yes.”

“No,” repeated Lancaster.

“Yes! Listen, this is the requirement. The genetic mods are supposed to… will help you survive during the extraction. We’re not going to send people out without them,” Ravenshaw said.

“How can I blend in with the EXALT whenever I’ve got, I don’t know, alien bug eyes?” asked Coach.

“You won’t!…. Christ, you won’t. The changes, whatever they are, will be completely invisible,” snapped Ravenshaw, clearly becoming irritated.

Coach realized he was treading on dangerous ground, and gave a dejected sigh. Next to him, Lancaster said, “Do we get to keep all of our limbs?”

“Yes, Lancaster, you do. No one will ever know anything is different about you.”

Coach and Lancaster exchanged looks, and Coach knew that he was feeling the same mixture of trepidation and excitement. Lancaster nodded, and Coach said, “Can you give us any more details about it?”

Ravenshaw shrugged and said, “I’m not really clear on the science behind it. I just know Dr Vahlen’s been able to harvest some genes from the aliens we’ve encountered. She’s laid out some templates of the different genes, trying to achieve similar results to nature. For you two, she mentioned something about, I dunno, a leopard and a snake or something.”

“We’re not going to grow fur, are we?” asked Lancaster.

“Invisible!” said Ravenshaw, and Coach winced. He glanced over at Lancaster, and saw that he had the same look of uncertainty on his face. Coach bit his bottom lip before finally saying, “Alright, Captain, I’m in. As long as it’s safe.”

“Me too,” added Lancaster. At this, Ravenshaw brightened and said, “Great! As of right now, Violet Section is now an active component in the roster. Let’s get you over to the lab, Dr Vahlen can give you better briefing than me.”

Mission 18

OPERATION DEFIANT KING
ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
SHANGHAI, CHINA

Walter Lancaster held his breath, watching Sergeant Maxwell creep towards the two patrolling Mutons. He had rested his sniper rifle on the gravestone in from him and couldn’t help but imagine a hand reaching from the grave under him. He tried to distract his mind by finding something poetic about having a firefight in a cemetery, but failed. Next to him, Volkov was crouched behind a tombstone as well, also observing the patrolling Mutons. Lancaster muttered to Volkov, “You got the one on the right?”

“Yup.”

Lancaster fiddled with the scope, bringing the Muton into sharp focus. Looking over his rifle, he watched the dark silhouette of Maxwell as he crept towards them, hiding behind a mausoleum. He fiddled with something on his belt, and then lobbed the grenade around the corner. It was a perfect throw, landing directly between the Mutons, and as soon as the grenade exploded Lancaster fired, hearing Volkov fire half a second behind him. The round hit the Muton’s head, the top half of it exploding into a green mist, and the Muton collapsed. He looked over his rifle and saw the second Muon had been killed as well. Maxwell was still looking around the corner said over the radio, “Great work, guys. Now, if only we could work out a system that doesn’t involve me putting my neck on the- FLOATERS INCOMING!”

Lancaster winced, Maxwell’s shout driving a pick into his brain. Looking up into the night sky, he could see the twin jets of two Floaters flying high before the suddenly dove, landing on ground near Maxwell. He fired a retaliatory shotgun blast, though it didn’t find its mark. Before he could fire again, Thakilla suddenly shouted from behind him, “Leave one alive! Paddon, get a flashbang on them!”

Up ahead, Lancaster watched Thakilla and Ben Paddon break cover and run towards Maxwell. Maxwell shot again, driving the Floater pair behind the mausoleum, and Thakilla shouted, “Keep them pinned! Snipers, watch the sky!”

Feeling useless so far away, Lancaster watched the top of the building, making sure neither alien escaped. He heard the heavy footsteps of Mendiola’s MEC as he tried to find a good position, when there was a bright flash, followed immediately by the dull pop of a flashbang detonation. There was more commotion from behind the mausoleum, and Thakilla’s voice said over the radio, “Mechtoid incoming, we need everyone up here now.”

Immediately, Mendiola started to run forward and Lancaster muttered, “God dammit,” as both he and Volkov picked up their sniper rifles and ran towards the squad’s position. Maxwell had stuck himself against the wall of the crypt that dominated the center of the cemetery and was firing at the out of sight Mechtoid, and Volkov and Lancaster threw themselves against the mausoleum, looking around the corner. Up ahead, Lancaster watched a Mechtoid encapsulated by a blue bubble fired plasma at Mendiola as he, Thakilla, and Paddon all fired at it, and Thakilla called back to Lancaster, “Any time now, Lancaster!”

A red lance of laser pierced the bubble, striking the Mechtoid underneath, and Lancaster brought his sniper rifle and got the alien in his sights. He fired his rifle, the heavy round piercing the Mechtoid’s arm and Volkov followed with another shot, causing the alien to stumble backwards. Up ahead, Paddon unhooked a grenade from his belt and lobbed it under the alien, exploding. The explosion demolished its legs, creating a strange bowlegged effect as it fell backwards. Thakilla fired his laser rifle once more into the distance and then reported, “Sectoid down. Everyone OK?”

Everyone confirmed they were still healthy, even Mendiola. Lancaster loaded more rounds into his sniper rifle to top it off, glancing down at the 2 Floaters in front of him- one unconscious, and the other a bloody mess. He could hear the clicks as the rest of the squad did the same, and Thakilla called out, “Let’s keep it moving. Maxwell, Paddon, you two on point. Volkov and Lancaster will bring up the rear.”

Maxwell replied, “Ready to take the first plasma bolt!” as he passed by Thakilla, earning an icy glare from him. Once Paddon and Maxwell were further ahead, Thakilla left cover and followed, Mendiola’s heavy footsteps right behind. Lancaster slipped out of cover, drawing his laser pistol as Volkov did the same.

The squad continued the patrol through the cemetery, and Lancaster glanced nervously around. The moon didn’t provide much in the way of illumination, and the darkness had ample places for an alien to hide.

“Snatcher 1, I think we’re done here,” called out Maxwell over the radio, “If there were any more on site we would’ve found them by now.”

“Call it a hunch, Snatcher 3. Let’s keep it moving.”

There was a crunch behind Lancaster and he whirled around, raising his pistol. 20 feet away there was the hulking silhouettes of a Muton pair, comically crouched behind a bench. Lancaster shouted, “CONTACT” and fired his laser pistol, striking one of the aliens. He dove for cover as a plasma bolt sailed overhead. He fired again with his laser pistol and then started to crawl for nearby cover, keeping his head low. The rest of the squad started to engage, and he heard a roar as one of the Mutons died. Finding cover behind another tombstone, he sat up and looked over at the remaining Muton just in time to see it get cut down by a burst from Mendiola’s minigun.

Lancaster could feel his heart thumping in his chest from his brush with death and leaned against the tombstone before suddenly recoiling from it, not wanting to tempt fate. He held his position, looking for any more aliens sneaking up on the squad when Thakilla declared, “See? I told you there were more hanging around.”

In an irritated voice, Maxwell replied, “Oh, Captain, you’re so strong and wise. I hope I can be like you when I grow up.”

“Maybe you will one day. Let’s get everything together for the science team.”

Mission 17

OPERATION FROZEN HEART
COVERT EXTRACTION
UNITED STATES

“How have you been, Corporal?”

“Fine, fine.”

Thomas Strawberry sat across from Dr Vahlen, feeling uncomfortable. He drummed his fingers on his cybernetic leg, enjoying the rhythmic sensation of tapping while looking all over the room. While Strawberry had never been inside of a psychologist’s office before, it seemed to him as if she had taken great pains to make things as pleasant, which normally wasn’t a quality he associated with her.

“How have you been sleeping?”

Strawberry gave a harsh laugh and said, “Not well. I’m having the nightmares again.”

“Of the surgery?”

“Of the surgery,” confirmed Strawberry.

She wrote something down on the clipboard in front of her and said, “Even though you were under anaesthesia?”

Strawberry sighed and said, “Yes, Doc, even though I was under anaesthesia. But, for real, trying going to sleep and then waking up a as a torso. Wouldn’t you have nightmares?”

“I wouldn’t know, Corporal.”

“Of course not,” muttered Strawberry. She was still scratching on the notepad with her pen and Strawberry surreptitiously tried to see what she was writing down, but she caught him and lifted the clipboard up after throwing him a disapproving glance. He sat back in the chair and continued tapping his fingers, waiting for the doctor to continue asking questions.

“How has your coordination been? Last time we talked, you mentioned the artificial limbs were giving you some problems….”

“It’s getting better. You never realize how hard it is to do anything without nerves. Want that cup of coffee on the counter? Let me swing my arm out like the strongest spaz ever and knock it over for you! I’ve also stopped doing that thing where I accidentally drop my cup. I would just… forget I was holding something,” said Strawberry. Wanting to prove he had a handle on this, he carefully reached out with his mechanical arm to grab the cup of water next to him to take a sip. Dr Vahlen carefully observed the movements and continued to take more notes.

“How’s your rapport with the rest of the soldiers? Has it seemed like anything has changed with the rest of the soldiers?”

“Since the last interview?” asked Strawberry.

“Just in general, Corporal.”

Strawberry shrugged and said, “Not particularly. Sometimes, with the new recruits coming in, they pretty clearly avoid me at first. But no one else seems to mind. Mendiola was given the cold shoulder a bit by everyone at first, myself included. But everyone just got used to it, I guess.”

The doctor nodded, scribbling some more notes. Strawberry continued to drum his fingers on his legs, wondering what was going to be for dinner. He looked around the room, studying the certificates framed on the walls when Dr Vahlen said, “You seem impatient, Corporal.”

“Just getting a little hungry, Doc.”

“We are almost done. Are you still having the pains?” 

“Sometimes,” replied Strawberry, “Though it seems to be happening a lot less. It’s the same thing as before, though. Just sharp pain just down the augmented limbs, it feels. It hurts like hell.”

“Well, that is to be expected. It is known as phantom li-“

Strawberry waved his arm impatiently, saying, “Yes, yes, phantom limb syndrome. I’m well aware Doc, we’ve talked about it enough times.”

With no small amount of pleasure, Strawberry saw Valhen purse her lips in irritation as she looked down to make another note. After a few moments, she looked back up and said, “It seems you are adapting extremely well to the mechanical augmentations. All your combat reports have been favorable, as well. How’s the treatment going for your wounds, by the way?”

At the mere mention of it, Strawberry felt a twinge of pain from his chest, where the deepest plasma burn had been. Instinctively, he brought his hand up to touch it and said, “Thakilla says I’ll be out for another week or so, but it’s healing well. He’s not entirely sure, but he thinks the Meld does something to help out with the healing.”

Dr Vahlen nodded and said, “Makes sense. We still do not entirely understand how the Meld works, but it would make sense if that was the case. Do you have any questions for me, Corporal?”

Strawberry shook his head, and Dr Vahlen said, “Excellent. Enjoy your dinner, Corporal.”