X-Com Chronicles: Twilight

by Skonar
Props to FullAuto, for inspiring in me the concept that X-Com's internal structure is not nearly so straightforward as we think. (The whole Agents thread, etc.)



----



X-Com Chronicles - Twilight



1. --- Somewhere over continental Europe, SR77X-01 en route to ground contact 334, June 3rd 2000, 03:12.



There could be no hesitation. In and out. That was the way it had to be. Peter Conners understood this all too well. In this war there were already too many lives lost. The whole war was commando. A kind of desperate guerilla war, where fleeting contact happened first in the skies, then on the ground in tiny commando raids.

The modified Skyranger, designated by the 'X' in its model number of SR77X, with its passenger compartment clattering back and forth, didn't even exist in the murky recesses of the GEOSCAPE command and control network. This mission was an experiment, and a carefully controlled one at that. No one could know. The risks were too great as it was in the first place.

Budget funds were sinking faster and faster into conventional responses to the war effort. A thousand code-name only projects and efforts had already been cancelled. 'Tidebreaker', 'Gearhead', 'Enforcer', 'Shakeman', 'Mirage', 'Hallowed', 'Polar', all of them and the hopes they represented thrown away like garbage. Critical efforts, every one of them. Peter knew. He'd been there when the funds dried up at Gearhead, saw them file away the powered armour programme because of power problems. He'd undergone testing at Mirage, trying to understand the stranger psychological effects of being in the presence of the invaders, only to have the money for it bleed away as soon as one researcher started testing with ESP cards.

The money went into guns, the new lasers, poured away into recruitments. There wasn't enough for everything. X-Com - the organisation, as Peter thought of it - couldn't centralise its knowledge. Couldn't find proper organisation in anything but the fight, putting the invaders into freezer bags and filing them away, as though that'd make them dissappear.

That was why there could be no hesitation. Why it had to be fast, clean. Why the money being funnelled away into this single Skyranger, a valuable asset in conventional war, was being hidden away. Why there was no registration. This was going to be a gamble, and Peter wasn't comfortable with the way the dice were weighted against him.



He'd never even heard the code-phrase uttered once, even after his transfer out of the small 'civilian intelligence' department at the Houston base and into the base underneath the Swiss Alps. He went deeper even then, into the labs underneath, past coded vault and coded vault, only to find another smaller base of operations, seemingly built there for the protection offered by that other base, well built and efficiently battling along.

He'd worked there as an agent, shadowy fiend slinking along the sides of human society, quietly probing, finding out who was willing to do what, who knew the enormity of everything happening to the human race in those closing years of 1999. The organisation as a whole had only turned up once after a full year of operation, misrepresented and misunderstood. 'Men in Grey', claimed the tabloids. 'Appearing from nowhere, abduction victims report being rescued by these MIGs, in a reverse from their brethren, the Men In Black.' It was layer upon layer of deceit and caution. Half the militaries of the world had their blinders on.

Even there, at the black heart of it all, it had been a whisper. One of the men working the signal interceptions had spoken to him, 'go find Captain Trewitt.' That man had been an agent in similar capacity, merely working a far tougher piece of turf than the unsuspecting streets and byways of Europe.

The offer had been straightforward enough. 'It's just like Mirage and Gearhead, with a little extra. Interested?' The offer hadn't made any sense. One had been trying to understand something entirely unknown, the other trying to develop and test theoretical equipment. The two projects had been lightyears apart in philosophies.

Once, what seemed a million years ago, Peter used to have barbecues with his family. Used to appreciate rock music. It all went downhill from there. A young hopeful with the FBI, rapidly pulled into the hostage rescue unit to help with scouting locations. Then sidelined away from that. Again and again. Further and further away from the light.

He had said yes. 'Project Twilight', was the response from Trewitt. 'Pack your bags.'

Twilight. Huh. Now he couldn't see the light anymore, just a vague reflection of it on the horizon.



Peter Conners was only a little apprehensive. The suit he wore, a near-black camouflage, made him almost invisible in the night. The handgun he had with him had no markings and no serial numbers, a boxy silencer that reduced the passage of 5.7mm slugs forged from tungsten and steel into something less than a whisper. The gold-edged card he had snug in a static-free pouch was less certain, a device built to secure information systems. Alien information systems.

Here was something almost approaching clarity, but only for those who understood and knew. A society. An alien society, one proven to exist by the bodies in frozen rows in covert storage facilities. Immeasurably superior in every way to the human race. People thought they understood, abductions and sightings. The reality of it was harder to understand. Most sightings were not of alien craft. An alien craft could blend in with the sky as seamlessly as a rock blended into a quarry. If a person had been abducted, in all likelihood they would never know.

In the most famous case an abductee didn't know she'd had a dog, and from the pressure of neighbours began to seek help. Investigating X-Com Agents had unearthed this from the real Men In Black, who had coldly noted that the ASPCA had found no terriers, but that ashes and burns were found nearby. The followup X-Com investigation had, at length, discovered ultrasound images of something not quite human within the woman. The woman herself? Still listed missing by the authorities, but Conners had heard from one of the few confidants he had within the ultracovert structure of investigations that there was a packet of ash sitting on a shelf in a hallway in Washington, marked 'Interview Completed' with a nondescript reference number.

This entire business, working in the Shadows, was dangerous. It was a bright burning flame, and you were likely to get burned.

Somewhere ahead of the modified Skyranger, there was an alien craft that was still set down on the ground. Maybe the occupants were having a leak, Peter Mirthfully reflected. Perhaps they'd set down on the ground, as though pulling off a highway, and were still waiting for their little brother to finish business. But like always, the X-Com soldiers that knew it was there were going to descend on the craft like the wrath of god, trying to find something worthwhile. Like always, the aliens would see, start to cycle whatever powersources they used into heat, try to get away. But they wouldn't be fast enough. This time, though, when they saw that assault Skyranger, armour panels riveted to the sides to protect it from damage from alien weaponry, and they did whatever it was to erase their semi-organic computer's memory, destroying even the characters of their alphabet, they'd get an error message. Maybe it would flash red, if the aliens had come to associate that colour with potentially lethal problems. Maybe they'd be able to fix it, erase everything anyway. Peter didn't know.

All that Peter Conners knew was that he had fifteen minutes or less to secure the little gold-edged card into the alien craft's systems, to sneak inside in the first place. To escape before the wrath of god slammed down on that small ship, and god's own eyes to recognise him, and so for the bureaucrats to recognise Project Twilight, and to once more seal away one of the few good chances for X-Com to gain any kind of ground, in this strange Guerilla war.



2.--- Somewhere over continental Europe, SR77X-01 making dropoff at ground contact 334, June 3rd 2000, 03:28.



The co-pilot struggled through the corridor connecting the cargo area of the Skyranger to the cockpit, bulky headset clamped over his ears. He staggered to the back of the craft, linked his safety harness to one of the clamps on the roof. He fumbled with the intercom cable for a moment, and got it plugged into one of the seat backs.

"Lieutenant Conners, we are approaching your drop zone. Is your rappelling harness secure?"

Peter made a show of plucking at the nylon straps of the rappel harness, a businesslike dull green, except for a hastily rigged tear away panel in the front.

The co-pilot nodded, and glanced up at the winch arrangement on the roof's cargo rails. Electric motor and all, with a long arm folded in on itself.

Skyrangers were bulky, small craft. Originally built for special operations work that required transglobal transportation and insertion, there were several inherent disadvantages to the frame. Its aerodynamics were fine at speeds slightly past Mach 1, but the tiny and boxy plane simply wasn't built for subsonic speeds. Unfortunately, the engine noise related stealth modifications were ineffective approaching the speed of sound. As a result, if you had to go in quietly, the airframe itself had to become your enemy.

"Alright. Lets get you hooked up. Less time we spend in the area, the better for you."

Peter scowled, but nodded in agreement. He pulled his own headset off, and was immediately assaulted by the sounds the aircraft seemed to suck into itself rather than let escape into the air around the craft. The crashing whine of air bleeding into the complex vent system of the Skyranger was almost as bad as playing around in a firing range without ear protection. He stood up, clamping his hands around his head as he approached the co-pilot and the winch.

The co-pilot wordlessly held out the tensile wire, ending in a loop.. Peter hesitated, but braved the deafening noise and accepted it, pausing to lock carabiners on his safety harness to the loop.

He slapped his hands back over his ears, grimaced at the co-pilot as the Skyranger's speed dropped abruptly, shaking the unarmoured airframe more than Peter liked. Skyrangers had infamous design flaws. When switching through to VTOL mode, pouring thrust from the engines from the various belly-mounted vents, the plane had to be within ten degrees or so of being perfectly level. If it wasn't, the craft would flip over, tumble through the air like a brick with bottle rockets strapped to one side. Not pretty. More than once it'd happened to an assault squad, coming in too fast, too low, too close to the enemy. A couple of good hits from the plasma weapons could do it. For all its bulk, a Skyranger was a fragile thing in the air.

The screaming of thrust rattled through the airframe, and abruptly the ride became smooth as molten glass. The co-pilot said something, lost to the noise, and the internal lights glimmered out, one by one. The co-pilot punched out at the cargo ramp button, and the back of the Skyranger's internal wall tilted away and down, locking in the turbulent night air.

Christ! Peter's breath caught in his throat. The treetops below were skipping side to side in the craft's engine wash, far too close for comfort.

The co-pilot extended the winch arm, far out and past the back of the Skyranger's delta wing tail. A thumbs up signal, as he placed one gloved hand on the cabling, looped it around the pulley.

Peter Conners hesitated, pulling on nightvision goggles and flicking them on, before stepping off the edge of the cargo ramp, to hang freely four meters over the bucking treetops.



3. --- Southern German Forest, Immergr??Ľn camp grounds, June 3rd 2000, 03:28.



Air blasted down over Peter Conners, a burning wash of air that was worse than being inside the Skyranger itself. Head pounding, the line lowered in a long and smooth descent. Green blurs of trees and branches lingered in Peter's enhanced vision, and he reflexively held out his arms, keeping himself from tangling in the worst of it.

He glanced down, and the ground was only a few meters away. He reached up to his chest, gripped the protruding edge of his harness' tear away panel, and yanked down. The construction of nylon webbing pulled apart by its seams around him, dropping him to the ground. His heart seemed to leap into his neck, before he landed in a tumbling crouch, bones jarring with the impact.

He glanced up at the noisy Skyranger, watching the tattered harness pulling back into the black shape on a black sky. The craft lilted slightly away, and he watched the heavy shape lift up into the sky again. He could barely see the craft with his nightvision goggles, and sorely doubted that anyone else in the area could. The sound of the Skyranger's engines abruptly halted as it got far enough away, only the resonance of faint echoes through the trees. As it began to pick up speed, all sound disappeared entirely. Baffles on the vents worked like some kind of silencer, obliterating all sound except for that directly in the exhaust wash of the engines.

It'd come back for him. He hoped.



The campgrounds were smeared shades of green. The night-time gloom illuminated into an ill focused daytime panorama. Peter crouched beside a bulky camping trailer.

Somewhere a dog barked. The sound echoed back and forth before being swallowed up in the trees.

The branches stirred with the breeze, creaking.

Peter ducked his head around the side of the trailer and stared.

The barbecue near the camping tables was a beacon, the dull light and warmth of the embers amplified through Peter's goggles. The meat abandoned there continued to sizzle.

It wasn't hamburger.

A man's body was slumped over the grille, his face a charred and deformed mess. He wore an apron with German words. Something like, 'Kiss the cook', Peter thought.

A little girl was laying down on the ground, like she was a puppet with the strings cut. A teddy-bear lay face down beside her.

The dog barked again, nearer this time.

A chill came over Peter's body despite the suit.

He edged his way around the trailer, his vulnerability a stabbing terror in the back of his mind.

The pathways through the campgrounds went through brightly labelled clearings that would, no doubt, be inviting on a warm day. Here and there a body, cut down without a sign of struggle, no marks on their body. Some were still breathing.

Finally, there it was. A shining fortress of metal. Octagonal. Hanging in the air like a weightless slab of the blue-grey alien alloy.

It was brightly lit, the alloy giving off a luminescent glow, backlighting the trees between it and Peter. He switched off the night vision goggles and settled them on his forehead, he wouldn't need them anymore.

He crept through the underbrush.

The alien craft's glow was theorised to be a byproduct of the so called 'gravity waves' that pulsed through the craft's hull. Just slightly blue light, a sickly radiance, pouring out of the un-cloaked ship. The material, the alien alloy, could do that. Magnetically forged, it could alter its surface reflectivity to match any shade of colour with the right electrical cues. How it was done, precisely, was an unknown. A literal blank.

The light pouring down from the wide, open hatchway was yellow-green, pulsing orange every few seconds. The light itself wavered in the air, almost liquidly. Waves and eddies, a tangible shimmer in the air.

The dog barked, bristling where it stood at the base of the column of light. It yowled up at the craft expectantly.

A long probe unwound from within the hatchway, a long and silvery cable. The thin point sank languidly in the light towards the ground, the length of the probe undulating, twisting. The dog started to whine, backing away, tail dropping between its legs. The column of light shifted, sweeping across the ground. The dog was trapped in the light, the probe snapping snake-like at it.

The dog started to howl as the probe twisted around its body, the thin cable began to pull back up into the body of the craft, the dog twisting and struggling fruitlessly as it was lifted weightlessly away.

Peter stared up from the underbrush.

A whisper half formed on his lips, "Jesus Chri-"

The probe wavered as he breathed out, releasing the dog to drift weightlessly in the light. The column began to sweep over the forest ground again, eating the dark space between it and Peter.

"Holy"

He started backing away, turning to run.

The ground around him was lit with the flashing green to orange pulse of light. His head whirled, his balance thrown off as he suddenly seemed to be in a free-fall. He tumbled away from the ground, helplessly drifting before the probe snapped taught around his ankle.

His hands fumbled towards his gun holster, his arms wheeling around with the unfamiliar weightlessness, he could feel the pressure of the holster's catch--



"Peter?"

His vision swam. An indistinct figure above him. He recognise the gleaming gold of a commander's insignia glittering at the figure's backlit shoulders.

"Wake up now son."

The voice sounded like his father's. His vision cleared slightly. The figure's face was backlit by the hospital lights overhead.

"Give me your hand."

He felt only trust. His arm felt weightless as it rose almost instinctively.

"That's it. Good boy."

The face cleared. It was Captain Trewitt's.

"Just squeeze now. Hard as you can."

Peter felt someone hold his hand. He frowned. He tried to mumble back 'why', but he didn't hear anything.

"Just squeeze."

His vision started to swim again. The gold of the insignia was particularly clear.

"Squeeze. That's an order."

Something wasn't quite right.

"It's an order. You know how to follow orders, don't you?"

He closed his eyes. He could still see.

"Just squeeze my hand, Peter. It's important. The president said so."

The voice was becoming feminine. His mother.

"You don't want to disappoint me, do you, Peter?..."

He could feel the pressure of the holster's catch--


His fingers drew back with a click, the holster flopped open. The ceiling was dull grey, lit by surgical looking plastic squares of white plastic. The figure leaning over him was backlit by the lights. The head was too big, the shoulders too narrow.

The gun's grip felt heavy. Reassuringly heavy. Real.

He could feel his toes. He could feel the uncomfortable pain pressing into his back from his equipment harness.

The figure overhead stepped back. Slick grey flesh, almost frog-like, gleamed at the shoulders, the dome of the ridiculously large head.

He just couldn't concentrate. He felt the nagging warmth of embarrassment and shame crawl down his spine, a desire to sleep.

He pulled out the handgun, tugging six inches more than he used to with his department issue sidearm. He thumbed off the safety while the figure continued to back away. Somewhere a door opened with the strange hiss of metal scraping against metal.

He fought down bile rising in his throat, an irrational desire to put the gun against his own head, the realistic remembered pain from his broken leg at age eleven.

He shook his head, and sat up. He felt the edge of something. A bench. He shifted his legs over the side.

Nothing was particularly clear. The door was open. The figure there was visible. Big headed. Naked other than an equipment belt. A bulky, stubby-ended handgun being lifted.

Peter lifted up the handgun, consciously keeping his weak grip. He pulled the trigger. He pulled it again. He glanced to one side. He felt tired. Very tired. There was the other one. Its eyes were huge, distended. It had backed all the way into the corner.

He turned the handgun towards it. He pulled the trigger.

Brass clinked against alien alloy. Peter's sinuses hurt. He lifted his left hand up, swiped his fingers underneath his nose, and stared at the blood glossing his fingertips. He looked towards the door. There was a sectoid laying there, its alien weapon a few inches away from its fingers. There were two neat holes in its forehead.

There, at the other end of the room, was another sectoid, that one entirely naked, its left eye socket grotesquely bulged outward from a puckered hole in its surface, still drooling an orangish fluid.

Peter felt better. Each breath was just slightly cold. Aliens had a lower body temperature than humans. He felt normal. His head was clear. He felt almost a little sticky, still somewhat sluggish, like after a nap.

The room was like a small operating theatre. Greenish tubes that seemed filled with liquid lined the walls. He was sitting on what seemed to be some kind of operating table.

He remembered his briefing. He worked out where he was.

"Crap."

He threw himself to his feet. His balaclava was gone, and so were his goggles. He edged towards the door, taking careful steps, and patted the pouch at his side. Everything was still there. The card was still there.

He dragged the armed sectoid's corpse into the room, away from the door. He glanced both ways along the corridor, a curving tunnel of just slightly luminescent metal with those same light fixtures against the ceiling.

He heard gentle, fleshy footsteps, like those of children.



4. --- Data Canister 914, X-Com Archives. Transcript of personal report on internal investigations relating to codenamed projects, James Dawson, 4368-3tp-XII, 08/09/2000



"There are a lot of questions that we need to follow up.

"The interception of 03/06/2000, for example, in Germany. Sergeant Charles Benson, the pointman on the way in, maintains to this day he found sectoid bodies, shot, in a room that the report listed as 'routinely cleared', despite the fact that none of his team had entered.

"There, the computers were intact and undamaged, recovered in full, for the first time in the war, giving us massive insights into alien culture, movements, etcetera, ultimately resulting in the reinstatement of Project Gearhead, and as we know the research currently underway on plasma weaponry would not be possible without it.

"But the cleanup team that moved in to recover the craft after the aliens had been neutralised is still unknown, and six members of the presumed roster are still listed as missing. Regardless, the craft was returned to Gamma Base near the Black Sea.

"I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth, gentlemen, noone can deny that, arguably, that was the turning point of this war on the intelligence front.

"But we need to know what is really going on inside X-Com. We cannot afford the existence of rogue elements within our ranks, possibly fostered and encouraged behind the doors of our highest security clearances, which the Internal Investigations department still requests access to.

"We support any war winning initiatives. But the 'black' projects we have shut down are useless wastes of our resources. Enforcer should never have gotten funding in the first place, and the team members of that project can be proven to, even now, be working against our overall war effort. Gearhead was previously shut down due to feasibility concerns, which have been reassured thanks to the availability of new alien technology. Project Mirage, Gentlemen, cannot be reinstated at this time. It is a load of garbage. Originally slated as psychological research into the affects of alien encounters on our troops, there is still talk of 'ESP' and 'Psionics'.

"Project Shakeman, working even now on 'advanced' medical procedures based on alien cloning technology is yet another dead end. Hallowed, based on these unfounded reports of yet another alien race is a further example of the almost cult-like zealotry infecting X-Com's ranks thanks to our inability for the right hand to know what the left is doing.

"There are questions to be answered, gentlemen. The council of funding nations can be kept in the dark as to our methods, but we cannot hide from ourselves any longer."



--- Archival Note

Subject 4368-3tp-XII, AKA James Dawson, confirmed rogue agent. Was terminated 26/03/2003, after two years in hiding with the rogue government of Bolivia. Autopsy revealed extensive modifications to central nervous system in areas traditionally linked with Psionic capacities.

Decision at voting session on lowered internal security, after Dawson's report, failed at eleven votes to twelve.