We aren’t allowed to use the words “alien” or “xeno” anymore.
You won’t find them in any dictionary, or at least any published ones. They’re “divisive.” This is the Elders’ home now too, they say. Divisiveness like that hurts everyone.
I’m only sixteen, but my mother remembered what it was like before the Elders. She told me about those times, but only after she made me swear never to repeat any of it to anyone. Back when we could say what we really thought about the people in power. Back when it was people in power.
The slender, sharp-dressed man from ADVENT told me there had been an accident at the gene clinic. He said I would be given a new family to watch over me until I turned eighteen and could work at one of the jobs ADVENT gives everyone when they turn eighteen.
My mother would never have gone to a gene clinic.
It was a poster, slapped crookedly onto an alley wall, out of sight of the security cameras. It showed two women, wearing armor like nothing I’d ever seen – outside of the ADVENT troopers that guarded the city checkpoints. They had guns, big ones, and tattoos, which aren’t allowed anymore.
JOIN XCOM, the poster said. FIGHT THE XENOS.
Below that was an old-fashioned radio frequency. My mother taught me all about radios. ADVENT doesn’t like people having them.
I took the poster down and threw it in the trash, because while it was out of sight of the security cameras, I wasn’t.
That evening, when my new father smiled casually and asked what I’d done after school that day, on the way home, I told him I’d seen a poster. Terrorist propaganda. I told him I’d thrown it in the trash. He smiled even broader and said that was good, he was proud of me.
He didn’t ask me if I’d memorized the radio frequency, which was good. My new father can smell it when I lie.
I’ve always been good with mechanical stuff. Nuts and bolts. Circuits. They make sense to me. The ADVENT train system, the big armored cars they use to ferry supplies and personnel around by land, is well-guarded – in urban areas. But an hour’s hike outside of my city center, out in the scrubland, runs one of the tracks.
The tracks aren’t well-guarded, or guarded at all. And I’ve memorized the train schedule. I send the radio signal letting them know that in about eight hours, in the dead of night, a train is due. And it will, if not derail spectacularly, then at least have to be stopped.
The smart thing would be to go back home. But I don’t have a home to go back to. Not really. I settle myself in the grass and wait.
Precisely on time, the train roars out of the night and comes to a screeching halt, avoiding the break in the rails.
Less than a minute after that, something appears in the sky.
A craft of some kind brakes to a halt in midair a short distance from the train, thrusters blazing in the night. There is a light at the rear of the craft, a hatch opening. Dark figures appear, silhouetted against interior illumination, and descend. I can faintly see them against the sky, stained as it is with light pollution from the city center even at this distance. They are rappelling down on long ropes.
Minutes pass. There is a sudden eruption of gunfire, the distinctive sound of magnetic bolts being propelled to lethal velocities. Shouting, words in the ADVENT language. At least two explosions. The sounds of fighting continue for a few more minutes. Toward the end, there is a high, wailing scream, one which could be human. More gunfire.
When the sounds of combat cease, I count to a hundred and twenty. With no more gunfire or other indications that fighting has resumed in that two-minute span, I make my decision.
I stand, make sure my hands are visible, and walk slowly toward the train.
If XCOM didn’t win, this might end poorly.
I round the front of the train, which has been blasted by some kind explosive, and get my first look at XCOM.
There are only four of them. There had been five, but one of them –
In the harsh light of the flares they have scattered around the area, I recognize one of the women from the poster. She kneels over the body of the other woman. She rocks back and forth, shaking her head and sobbing. A large rotary cannon and grenade launcher lie in the dirt, forgotten.
Two other fighters are men, one with an old-fashioned sniper rifle and the other with a boxy weapon that looks like a knock-off of an ADVENT trooper’s. One sits atop one of the train’s cargo pallets, while the other leans against the side of an armored car. Neither of them are looking at the woman.
The last one is a hulking, massive figure, fully armored, his helmet featureless in the dark except for a pair of glowing, slit-like visual sensors. A band of what looks like fur lines the collar of his scavenged ADVENT trooper armor.
He is pointing his rifle at me.
“I’m Xenophobe,” I say, using the callsign from my radio transmission to XCOM. “I set up the train for you.”
The giant lowers his weapon. “What are you doing here?” he demands. His voice buzzes like the ADVENT’s do.
“Your poster said to join you and fight the xenos,” I say. Clearly, he isn’t ADVENT, so I don’t think twice about using the word. “I want to join up. This was my audition.” I try not to look at the woman, or listen to her sobs.
He cocks his head. “Firebrand, one additional passenger expected,” he says, obviously addressing someone over a transceiver in his helmet. “The resistance contact who set up the op wishes to join. We are accepting.”
I don’t hear the reply, but he nods at me. “Come.”
I follow him as he turns and walks back to the other fighters. As he approaches, the sobbing woman looks up at him, her expression one of bitter anger. “You bastard,” she says. “If I’d dropped a grenade on that trooper, she’d still be alive.”
“The trooper was standing next to a crate of medical supplies,” the not-ADVENT tells her. “There are eight people at base with subdermal hemorrhaging who require plasma infusion if they are going to survive the next week.”
The men shift uncomfortably and keep quiet.
“Fuck you,” she says. “We have the whole train, you cold asshole. There’s going to be more medical supplies somewhere else.”
“Are there?” he asks. “Are you certain?”
She glares at him for another long moment before she snaps her stare to me. “You Xenophobe?” she asks.
I swallow past a suddenly tight throat and nod.
“Thanks,” she says, her voice bitter, as she swipes viciously at her eyes. “Thanks for this.”
I don’t say anything, or even nod again. Something tells me it would be the wrong move.
The craft, which the not-ADVENT refers to as the Skyranger, returns a few minutes later. The fighters begin loading crates aboard. I seem to be expected to help, so I do my best. They are all much older and stronger than I am, but they don’t tell me to stop.
When we board, the not-ADVENT scoops up the dead woman like she weighs nothing. He carries her aboard and lays her gently on the deck. He crosses her arms over her chest. It seems to me like he says something, but if he does, he doesn’t let his helmet broadcast it.
I find myself wedged in at the front, next to the one crate of medical supplies. There might have been more, but there was no time to do a complete search of the train. ADVENT reinforcements were less than half an hour out.
One of the men settles himself across from me. He looks at the crate, at the body of the dead woman laid out in the center of the Skyranger’s cargo compartment, at me.
“Welcome to XCOM,” he says.