Siberia, Land of Eternal Cold. Icy, freezing winds whipping along at better than 70 miles per hour. Add that to an ambient temperature averaging around negative ten or twenty, and one had prime conditions for frostbite and hypothermia. Still, a job was a job.
Ivan Romanov shifted uncomfortably. Even wrapped snugly in the fur-linked jacket, plus four layers underneath and thermals, he was chilled to the bone. The chunky AK-74 assault rifle he held had been greased to work in the hostile environment, its thirty round magazine locked in place and the safety off. His finger was light on the snow trigger, ready to send a hail of hot lead towards unfortunate recipients.
In this case, said recipients were ... unknown hostiles. Merely hours ago, Base Commander Sergey Andreiyevich had called for a meeting. Severe-looking outsiders in suits had attended the meeting. They wanted volunteers for a new task force. Better pay, food and equipment were promised, although it was all going to be under a veil of secrecy. What the heck, thought Ivan at that time, Rodina Russia had been going to hell since the 80s. For a professional soldier, things were even worse.
So Ivan had signed on.
The expected red tape had been cut through with ruthless efficiency for his transfer; Ivan had been informed practically on the spot that transportation to the new task force base would be provided within the next half a day or so. The suits had pleasantly thanked everyone who attended, and had left one of their own as a liaison officer, a Colonel Wolf, someone who spoke perfect Russian.
Standing slightly shy of six feet, with a shock of unruly hair that hung down over his forehead, Wolf could only be described as average in appearance. He did not look exceptionally muscular, did not appear to have any birthmarks, and simply did not speak a lot; he even refused to answer where he had learnt his Russian. If left in a crowd, he would quite easily be absorbed and blend in.
A dangerous trait, Ivan thought. A dangerous trait, but useful.
Left unspoken was the word, "assassin".
Uniforms had been left with the Colonel, standard issue military fatigues that armies around the world used. Each uniform bore a single insignia and nothing else - a pair of silvery collar pins, shaped like X's.
Even as the few soldiers were shrugging into their new uniforms, things went to hell in a hurry.
The proximity alarms had sounded, the klaxons wailing like banshees. Something had landed close to the airbase. But what?
Wolf had taken charge immediately. Surprisingly, even Commander Andreiyevich had yielded control to him. He had merely nodded acquiesce when the Colonel requested a patrol of a half-dozen men to investigate. The (un)lucky few consisted of the four transfers and two more base personnel, including a heavy weapons expert.
They had trudged out into the freezing day, and slogged through two kilometers worth of ice and snow. The small band had mostly AK-74 assault rifles, and a single AK-74 with an underslung 6GD15 grenade launcher wielded by the aforementioned heavy weapons specialist. A not-inconsiderable amount of firepower, by any military standard. Wolf had produced a Heckler and Koch 4.7mm G11 from somewhere, along with a rather surprising weapon - a katana, the straight-bladed sword used by samurais from ancient Japan. Its handle was ivory, carved in the likeness of an oriental dragon.
"Where did you get that?" Ivan had ventured to ask.
The Colonel had merely smiled at Ivan, a smile so sad and bleak that it almost broke Ivan's heart. He had caressed the hilt of the sword, and spoken in a soft voice tinged with regret, "Somebody gave it to me."
Wolf would say no more.
There! A glow from up ahead. And a strange, box-shaped ... craft?
Ivan frowned. Surely his eyes must be lying! Something like that must have all the aerodynamics of a block of wood. It gleamed in the dull afternoon sun, an eerie silver that blended in beautifully with the icebound landscape. The alien metal appeared to glisten wetly.
The men glanced uncertainly at each other even as Wolf swore softly under his breath.
Silent now, the Colonel dictated two pairs of men to flank right and left. He motioned to Ivan and another trooper, Pieter, to follow him and provide covering fire. As soon as the flanking teams were in place, Wolf set off with Ivan and Pieter in tow.
At a mere twenty meters from the object, Wolf signaled all safeties off. He signed Ivan and Pieter to stay put, while he went prone and crawled up to the alien craft. Ivan could not help but admire the man; it was difficult to move about when swathed in so many layers of clothing, but Wolf made it look all natural.
So here he was, the AK-74 braced against his shoulder for a quick burst. Similarly, Pieter had raised his weapon, ready to fire. The Colonel had reached the craft by now. He crouched down by its side, apparently listening for ... something.
That something came in a burst of green fire and a scream.
Ilych! Ivan recognized the agonized shout. It had come from the left flanking team. Almost immediately, the harsh rattle of autofire sounded above the howl of the wind. Startled, but still ready, Ivan dared to spare a glimpse at Ilych's position.
The Siberian landscape here was flat, with hardly any cover, hence it was easy to spot what Ilych's team was firing at. A gray, bulbous head jutted out from the ground, unexpectedly difficult to spot if the flash of gunfire and eldritch energy had not given away its position.
Even as he watched, a second blast of the green fire consumed Ilych's head, catapulting the carcass some ten feet from the sheer impact. The other man, Sergei, Ivan recognized, had managed to drop prone and was raking the ... creature's position with huge 7.62mm rounds. Ignoring the hail of bullets striking the ice around it, the gray one took aim again and fired. In a stunning display of marksmanship, the creature unleashed a bolt of the ravening energy that caught Sergei's AK-74 in the muzzle. Without slowing down, the blast continued up the AK-74, destroying the weapon and tearing off Sergei's arm in the process.
As Sergei's lifeblood stained the ground red, training took over.
Knowing that Pieter had also seen all this, Ivan spoke calmly.
"Target and fire at will."
Gunfire again merged with the shrieking wind. 7.62mm rounds cratered the gray one, piercing its flesh. The bullets slammed into the creature with enough force to lift it completely off its feet and send it tumbling backwards. Great gouts of alien blood stained the ice an eerie green.
There was hardly time to register the victory.
The minute the fighting had started, a hidden door had opened in the alien craft's side - the side the Colonel was crouching next to. Ivan had time to register a down from the Colonel and drop prone before a veritable storm of green power flashed over his head. Desperately rolling to avoid the artificial lightning that was even now descending, Ivan cursed savagely as he fetched up against a particularly unforgiving rock. The loud crack of Pieter's rifle gave him time enough to get back into a crouch to prepare his own attack.
The sight took his breath away. More of the gray ones were silhouetted against the lit interior of the craft. Ivan counted at least four. Pieter had managed to pot one clean in its distended forehead, and the bullet exploded its head like an over-ripe tomato. Even as he watched, the Colonel hazarded a dash in front of the deadly alien fire. The G11 spat out its case-less rounds in an equally deadly hail.
The Heckler and Koch 4.7mm G11 was unique among weapons. Holding all of 45 rounds in its extended magazine, the first thing anyone noticed about it was its weight. Capable of firing single shots or 3-round bursts, it boasted a superbly high rate of cyclic fire. This meant that by the time the third bullet had left the barrel, the recoil had barely begun to travel up the weapon's stock. All this translated into an incredibly high accuracy even while firing in burst mode.
The first three round blast tagged one alien in the center of its chest, and it crumpled to the ground. Wolf walked his fire into the next creature, taking it in the shoulder and sending it crashing into its neighbour. As they fell to the ground in a heap, Wolf dropped the G11 and drew his katana. He leapt forward, keeping the blade angled towards the ground close to his hip, then sweeping it upwards. The stroke clove open the uninjured creature from navel to throat, spilling its innards to the craft floor in a greasy mess. Reversing the blow, Wolf pinned the other one to the ground.
Ivan motioned Pieter towards the craft, and they both sprinted towards it. Wolf was calmly wiping the blood off his katana, ignoring the alien slowly bleeding to death on the floor. He looked up at them and said, "There's one more - typical crew of six."
Ivan gulped and was about to ask what were they up against, when the remaining two members of the patrol came crashing through as well. Heavy weapons specialist Andrei looked completely shell-shocked. Leon was barely holding on to his sanity, his eyes wild and darting about.
"What was that?" Andrei gasped out.
"You mean, what is this?" Wolf sheathed the katana and kicked contemptuously at the still-bleeding form. It gave a low moan of pain and tried to squirm weakly away.
Unable to bear the sight of even an alien creature suffering thus, Ivan placed his AK-74 against its skull and pulled the trigger once. Ichor burst from the shattered skull. He looked the Wolf, his eyes cold and hard.
It did not seem to bother the Colonel.
Wolf retrieved his G11, and used it to point at the dead gray ones around them.
"Those who signed up - I know you didn't, Leon - welcome to the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit. Otherwise known as X-Com. I wished I could have given you a warmer welcome, but I guess this is all the welcome you're going to have.
"Earth has been in contact with aliens for a long time. Read about all those kidnappings and such? Well, they're real. We've been trying to stop them for a long while, but it's only recently that our technological advances have allowed us to even marginally come close to catching them. As you have seen, we're completely outgunned. Probably outnumbered, as well.
"It's a war out there; it's Humanity against them. So welcome to the war, fellows. Hope you don't buy it without taking at least one of them with you."
With that, Wolf fished a cigarette out from somewhere and lit it.
They had gone hunting the last alien after that. Sectoids, Wolf called them. They had found the last one cowering nearby. It was holding some kind of alien pistol, which it fired as it charged suicidally. The fire team had cut it apart with their AK-74s with little effort.
Upon the return to base, Leon had been taken away for debriefing by Commander Andreiyevich himself. Ivan wondered what would become of him. The rest of them gathered together in a small interrogation room.
Wolf heaved a sigh.
"Looks like I've got one less man to work with, now."
He shook himself then.
"Alright, enough of this. I must be getting old. The Skyranger will be here in another half and hour or so. Pack up your stuff and then we will get you settled in your new home."
Andrei looked up at Wolf with tear streaks down his cheeks.
"Can I ... get ... out ..."
The Colonel looked at him with an unreadable expression. His face softened for a moment, as if he understood what Andrei was going through. Ivan certainly could.
"God have mercy on you."The Colonel pulled out something and laid it on the table then. Ivan recognized the matt black finish of a Glock pistol. Wordlessly, Andrei picked up the weapon and stared at it.
"Let's go." The Colonel turned and left.
Half an hour later, standing on the tarmac of the landing strip, Ivan gazed at the Skyranger in awe. It represented the pinnacle of modern troop transport technology, filled with everything from automatic tracking systems to supersonic-capable engines. The aging C-130 transports Ivan had flown in before could not compare with this marvel.
As the three of them boarded the Skyranger, a single shot ran out.
"Goodbye, Andrei." Ivan whispered into the cold night.