XCOM: Viral Offense

Chapter 1

In a way, Mercer's life, if you could even call it that, had been defined by sound. Those first few weeks had been permeated with the staccato of gunfire and screams of the dying, the moans and growls of the infected only adding to the hellish choir.

As the conflict escalated, a variety of explosions joined the orchestra and the armaments of the tanks and helicopters together provided an admittedly impressive percussion section. Many of his personal contributions were drowned out by the louder artillery, but privately he thought that the squelch of claws slicing through flesh and bone was just as satisfying.

As fun as that was, like all good things it eventually came to an end. That end was definitely quite explosive, and not just because of the nuke that went off in his face. One disintegration and messy reconstitution via crow later, Mercer was back, but his symphony was gone. The infected force scattered once Elizabeth Greene was gone, and with most of their officers dead Blackwatch wasn't in a much better state. In weeks Manhattan was almost clear of infection, and slowly but surely things began to return to normal.

The city was quieter than he had ever heard it, and time seemed to pass so slowly that he could barely stand the stillness. There was no enemy to fight, no target to consume, no revenge to be gained. Those silent days were the worst he ever knew, and the urge to consume and slaughter grew with every pedestrian that passed peacefully on the street below. He would have given in to it, if not for her.

Seven years and a global catastrophe later, the orchestra returned to Manhattan. It was rather diminished, as it seemed no one had bothered to bring out the tanks this time, but it was nevertheless impressive. Green flashes lit the panicked streets, and unearthly shrieks accompanied the more mundane cacophony of screams.

For Mercer, it was pure music. The sounds of destruction were like a long lost ballad, a dance whose steps he remembered all too well. It didn't take more than a minute for him to dash across town to one of the few stockpiles he'd set up after the first infection, and in his excitement it took even less time to get back to the battlefield and onto a conveniently located rooftop.

Hefting an oblong tube over his shoulder, Mercer gave a rare grin to the combatants below. As fun as it was to fight up close and personal, if there was one thing he couldn't resist it was a good explosion. After all, what better way is there to introduce yourself than with a bang?

"Strike One this is Central. United States authorities have requested our help. We've gotten reports of alien activity taking place in a densely populated urban center. You should move to secure the area and minimize further civilian casualties."

Lt. "Vampire" Ramirez couldn't help but feel a familiar sense of dread as the Skyranger approached the drop site. He was a sniper, the best XCOM had to offer, but just because he fought from a distance didn't mean he couldn't see the horrors of a terror mission. Watching one of those huge bug things rip your squaddies apart, and then having to shoot their shambling corpses down before they burst out more monstrosities, that was something you never forgot.

However, since strong emotional suppression is practically a requirement for promotion, the lieutenant had little difficulty keeping a straight face. Looking around at his squadmates, he could tell not all of them were capable of the same. The two sergeants, Haddad and Santiago, seemed equally stoic, but he could tell from Haddad's shaking "Magic Hands" that the medic wasn't quite as calm as he looked.

The two rookies on the other hand, seemed far more interested in debating ethics or something rather than contemplating the inevitability of their deaths. Well, to be fair to Cpl. Green she wasn't really a rookie, but Ramirez had never been on a mission with her before so she was about as predictable as one. Jackson, on the other hand, was definitely worthy of the term. He really shouldn't have even been there, but after a poorly aimed grenade had left most of the other soldiers in the infirmary there weren't exactly a lot to choose from when the mission alert blared to life.

"I'm just saying, why do we even have to go down and fight them?" said Jackson, oblivious to Green's quickly growing irritation and the lieutenant's silent interest. "We know where the aliens are. We have bombs. Seems pretty simple to me."

"Because," growled Green, gripping her rifle ever more tightly, "there are civilians down there who aren't exactly immune to bombings. It's right in the middle of fucking Manhattan. Don't you think someone would get upset if we just dropped a nuke on it?"

Jackson shrugged. "Whatever, lady, don't come crying to me when those bug monsters have turned all your precious civilians into meat puppets."

Green was practically trembling with rage, but before she could act on it Ramirez stood up. The lieutenant looked calm, but it was a calm like that found in the center of a hurricane.

"Jackson, is that any way to speak to a superior officer?" he said slowly, tension building with every word. Jackson merely gaped, so the lieutenant repeated himself. "I said, rookie, is that any way to speak to your superior officer?"

Breaking out of his stupor, the rookie mumbled a quick, "No sir," and quickly took to staring at the floor.

"Well then," continued the lieutenant, "You shouldn't be surprised to learn that we are going to have a rather lengthy talk when we get back to base. Right now, sit down, shut up, and prep for landing. We've got aliens to kill."

It could have taken a second or a century, but after a veritable eternity of angry glares and mumbled insults the Skyranger finally reached the landing zone. True to their training, the squad filed out, scanning the area for hostiles and civilians. Screams and explosions could be heard nearby, but the immediate area seemed to be clear, even if it was partially on fire. Keeping his eyes peeled for movement, Ramirez sent out the standard call.

"Central this is Big Sky. Confirm signal uplink. Strike team is in position near the terror site. Awaiting confirmation."

Waiting for the static of the coms to solidify into an answer, the lieutenant once again took stock of his surroundings. The squad seemed alert and ready, although the rookie looked like he'd already forgotten his orders and was prodding with his rifle at a pile of rubble rather than maintaining his position. He was about to give the idiot another good shouting at when the static cleared and Central returned his call.

"Solid copy Big Sky. Strike One has been given the green light. Your highest priority is to protect those civilians."

There was an odd pause in the explosions after the transmission, and perhaps the lieutenant would have paid more attention to it if not for the sudden scream that pierced the silence.

"Contact!" yelled Green over the coms, and Ramirez immediately whipped around with his sniper rifle. Jackson was flat on his back, and looming over him was a horribly familiar shape.

Hanging half out of the rubble, yellow ichor pouring from its black chitin and its glowing eyes staring unblinkingly, was the one creature that had ever given the lieutenant nightmares. It was a chryssalid, and it was only as it literally fell to pieces over the screaming rookie that he realized that it was also very, very dead.