Prelude

Sumie breathed hard, forcing her body's gulps for air to slow down to deliberate inhalation and exhalation. Her armor was starting to get heavy, and pressed awkwardly into her shoulder as she leaned forward against the tree providing her cover. The all too familiar green pulses flew past her, blew up clumps of soil, and began rapidly turning her tree into toothpicks. She waved to Son behind her, pointed right, then held up three fingers. He nodded and brought his Autocannon to bear. He had it on full auto, and began sending short bursts of suppressing fire down range. After the third burst, Sumie broke cover and dashed through the densely packed forest, working hard to flank the Greys taking cover behind a fallen tree.

As Sumie ran, sharp reports sounded from the direction of the Skyranger, and a high-pitched scream told her one of her snipers had hit his mark. Sliding behind another tree, she stopped to catch her breath again, hoping she hadn't been seen. Creeping slowly to her right to get behind some bushes for a little more concealment, she heard two more three-round bursts from Son's rifle. The Greys responded by blowing the tree Sumie had been behind into toothpicks, getting another one of them hit by the sniper. Mikhail, she thought. He always shoots twice.

Pulling out one of her grenades, Sumie peeked around the tree to make sure she had a clear throw. She could make out the tops of two of the gray, hairless scalps in the dappled sunlight below the trees. Deciding they were within range, and the branches were high enough, she ducked back behind the tree and set a grenade to detonate on impact. Mentally crossing her fingers, releasing the safe, Sumie stepped back and to the side just long enough to heave the grenade twenty-five meters, landing it right behind the fallen tree. Ducking back behind her cover, Sumie started counting, and got ready to sprint again.

Hearing a sharp "Oh shit!" over her headset, Sumie glanced back to her left saw Son drop at the sight of her grenade. Three seconds later, a maelström of ignited gas blew branches, roots, dirt, and best of all, gray body parts and green blood past her. Peeking around her now smoldering cover, Sumie saw her throw had been a little long, leaving a few pieces of the defenders scattered where the fallen trees had been. Not bad at all. Son started spewing curses on the radio, drawing a quick "Can it." from Lt. White. Sumie allowed herself a smile as she shifted her attention to the scout ship's door, only two dozen meters away.


Sitting in intro to physics, I pretend to take notes while I turn a business card over in my hands. Gray card stock, with only 'Recruiting, Reginald Yves" on the front and a local phone number on the back, the card had been given to me by a 40-something man in a crumpled gray suit. He and a tall, fit looking man he introduced as Mr. White, had intercepted me and my roommate, Justin, on our way home from class the previous Friday. He wouldn't tell me much, just that he had seen the application I'd filled out at a job fair, and his company was interested in hiring me. Something about them looking for a dual major in Physics and Biology. The job would also lean on my medium distance track background; the position entailed extensive field work. He wouldn't provide any more details. He and Mr. White left Justin and I with only his card and "what the fuck just happened?" expressions on our faces.

What could all this be about? I had never gone to any job fair. I was only a Sophomore, working at the grocery store to pay the bills. Career day was at least another year away. Yet Yves seemed to know me, and Justin as well. I had been stewing over both Yves and White all weekend; it just seemed too Hollywood to me.

Justin had been relentlessly teasing me: "Hey! Earth to Ian! Spaceman, you gonna come back to base, or do I have to finish this beer you've been drinking for an hour?"

I realize I've been ruminating for half the class, and Prof. Urban is writing the homework assignment on the board. I mechanically copy it down before packing up my stuff. I make idle chat with my study buddy Joe as we walk outside, then unlock my bike and ride home.

I drop my bag inside my room and lie down on my bed. I guess the rotational force of the fan makes my decision, because I find myself picking up my phone and dialing the number on Yves's card. A curt, but not impolite female voice answers, "Recruiting."

Phone calls never go as smooth as you imagine them. I pictured my self as James Bond, saying the exact right thing at the exact right time. What comes out is "Uh yeah.. uh, this guy came by and gave me this card with this number? Uhh..."

"Name please?"

"Regi.. I mean, uh Mr. Yves."

"Transferring, hold please."

The line goes silent with a periodic beep, presumably while Reginald Yves' phone rings on his desk. The line clicks and a familiar grumbly baritone picked up. "Recruiting, Yves."

I now realize I should have thought out what I was going to say, so I can sound a little like someone 'Recruiting' might be interested in recruiting. Instead I say something like this; "Uh, Hi. It's me Ian from the other day, the uh guy with the annoying friend. Anyways, yeah, just calling you, uh so..."

"Yeah Ian, I knew it was you already, fabulous new invention, caller ID. You may have heard of it? When can you come in?"

"What? Come in where?"

"To the office, it's right in the shopping center where you work. National Temps. How about four, right before your shift?"

"Um, ok. Wait, how do you know..."

"Great, see you then." *click*

Justin was working on his Tekken skills when I left. I said 'Laters', he said 'Peace', typical dude goodbyes. I'm wearing my work clothes to the... meeting? Interview? Whatever. White shirt with matching Navy pants and tie, my apron in my back pocket. Super classy, I know. I jump in my '91 Celica and drive 10 minutes to the Palm Paradise Shopping center. Funny I never noticed National Temps before, I figure I must have pulled carts from in font of all the stores by now. I park in the back half of the lot (company policy) and walk up to the storefront in the shopping center with a white sign and black impact text proclaiming there was indeed a 'National Temps' in my shopping center.

I push open the tinted door and step into a very sanitary lobby. White walls and ceiling, with a solitary door opposite the one I just came through. A few posters adorn the walls with pictures of people smiling in various professions; construction, secretary, lawn work. The only furniture is a single desk with a 30-ish woman sitting behind it, looking very busy doing something on her computer. I notice there are no chairs for visitors.

I clear my throat, more than a little nervous, and say "Hi, I'm Ian, here to see Mr. Yves." Finally, a coherent sentence! OK, I had practiced in the car.
The lady looks up briefly, "You're expected, right through that door please."

"OK cool, thanks!" She is already back to clicking away at her computer.

I walk toward the door, trying to determine where the Candid Camera crew could be hiding. I figure someone is going to jump out at me the second I open the door. Instead, all I get is a soft click as I turn the knob. The door swings quietly open to reveal a short hallway with two doors on my left. One is shut and blank, the other open and labeled "Yves, R". I step up to the frame and see Yves at his desk in an old brown blazer and half undone tie, intently studying some paperwork. There's only one folder open in front of him, the rest of the desk is clean. At least there's a chair in front of this desk. I knock on the door frame to get his attention. He looks up at me impassively, then says "Yamada, good. Have a seat."

I obey, sitting in the Wal-Mart grade chair in front of the desk while Yves closes the folder. He continues by asking me a question. "Have you seen the movie 'The Matrix'?" I had, and replied as such. "Good, then you know about the blue pill and the red pill?" I nodded, having no idea where this is going. "Well you and I are Neo and Morpheus, except neither of us are cool and this is real life." That one made me sit back in my chair, even more confused than when this conversation started. Yves stands and straightens his tie, then steps around the desk to sit on the corner closest to me. "You've been selected to attend a unique training program in the defense of our beloved United States..." I open my mouth to ask a question, but Yves lifts a hand, palm facing me. "No, I can't tell you how or why you were selected, and I can't tell you what program it is, yet. Just shut up and listen to my spiel for a minute. Shit, where was I?" He glances over at a picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall. To my surprise, something that almost looks like a smile quickly passes over his face.

He turns back to me and continues. "Yeah, beloved United States. Catch is, you've gotta lose everything. I mean everything. If you decide to join up, you're not going to work today. You're not going to play video games with Justin tonight. You're not going to get drunk and hit on Wendy Adams and get shot down again..." he finds time for a chuckle as my face flushes. "You are off the grid until further notice. Your Aunt will be informed of your decision to join a hippie commune and move to Europe... Hey, you're not going to throw up are you?"

I must have looked as shook up as I felt, because Yves leans forward and scrutinizes my face for a second. I lean back a little further and say I'll be fine.
Yves straightens, satisfied for now, but still looks at me as though I were a wad of dirty toilet paper. "OK, like I said, red pill or blue pill. In or out? You have to decide right now if you're coming or staying. Do you have any questions, besides dumb ones I can't answer?"

"Do I get one last phone call to my Aunt?"

"No, you may get one later if you make it through training."

"Can I go home to pack up some things?"

"You'll be provided everything once you get to training."

"What about Justin? My car? My lease?"

"We'll take care of all that for you. All your things will be packed up and placed in long term storage with your car."

I look down and can't help but frown. How did all this come about? One minute I'm ready to bag people's groceries for 8 hours, the next I'm being invited into some crazy super secret... what? I don't even know what I'm potentially maybe not signing up for. This is like something out of a movie...

Yves seems to read my mind, as usual. "I know this all looks and feels like some elaborate trick or something out of a movie, but I assure you the threat is real. You've been selected for very specific reasons to be offered this opportunity. I'm not going to say it's a good opportunity, because it's not going to be easy or cushy." Yves stops for a moment, looking undecided about something. Then he stands up and buttons his jacket. "How about I let you sit for a few minutes? I need a smoke anyways. I'll be outside if you need me."He turns around to open one of his desk drawers and pulls out a crumpled pack of Menthols and a Bic lighter. I wonder if anything about this guy is ever neat?

He steps out of the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving me with the desk, Ronald Reagan, and the folder he'd been looking through. Hmm... The folder. Surely it wasn't left out by accident. I decide to take the bait and lean over to pull the folder toward me. It's a pretty standard looking brown, the kind personnel files are kept in, with two holes punched in the top of the pages. The front has a bold print 'X' inside an equally bold print circle and says in boldface, all caps "TOP SECRET NOFORN: FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY" along the bottom edge. The tab along the side has my name printed: "Yamada, I." I open the folder and find my school ID picture printed and stapled to what looks like a profile. I'm astounded at how much data they have on me. Full name, place and date of birth, my record in track in High School, my dual major, favorite color, everything. These pages are all on the left side of the folder. On the right is a bunch of odd looking graphs, the last page is notes. I skim these, picking up only a few phrases like "Good athletic base" and "Sufficient Intelligence". Wow, thanks. Then I read the one that floors me. "Potential for Psionic resistance." As soon as I read that, curiosity takes over reason. I know Yves left that folder out so I would read that exact phrase. That sneaky old bastard.

A few minutes later, I step back into the lobby of 'National Temps' and see Yves leaning against the glass store front, smoking what had to be his third or fourth cigarette. I step outside and lean with my back against the glass next to him. He takes a long drag and blows the smoke out his nose. "So?" he asks.

"I'm in."

"Oh yeah? What convinced you?"

"Ronald Reagan."

Yves chuckles. "He has that effect. They call him the 'Great Communicator', you know." He drops his cigarette and steps it out, just like he had done the day I met him. "OK, let's get you going." With those simple words, I left it all behind. I would remain Ian Yamada in name only. As far as the rest of the world would be concerned I either never existed or am unreachable. As Yves and I step back into 'National Temps' and through the door into the hallway, I ask him what it is exactly I had just joined. Without turning, he says over his shoulder "X-COM."