Disclaimer: This story contains storyline spoilers for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Enemy Within, Operation Slingshot, and Operation Progeny. It was also formerly known under the name of XCOM: The Ones Left Behind.
XCOM: From The Ashes of Temples
"And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."
- Horatius, Lays of Ancient Rome
Chapter One: The Ones Left Behind
That was all it had taken to bring the XCOM Project to its knees. Just one month ago, XCOM had been spearheading the resistance efforts against the alien invasion of Earth. While every other military force in the world struggled and were curb-stomped by the might of the invaders, XCOM had been the only ones holding their ground and making progress.
It had all been in no small part thanks to their strategy of aggressively reverse-engineering alien technology for human use. They'd been successfully driving back the aliens whenever they'd encountered them, even managing to capture some of the enemy troops and resources. Slowly and surely, they'd been taking the invaders' own weapons and turning them against their owners, thus evening out the playing field.
Or so they had thought. But they'd thought wrong, and nothing seemed more clear on that point as Central Officer Bradford stood in the situation room of XCOM headquarters, and broke the bad news to the leader of the shadowy Council of Nations that backed the project.
"The attack on XCOM Headquarters happened without warning or precedent. Our troops repelled the alien forces and HQ is now secure, but our losses were heavy and The Commander... The Commander is dead, sir."
XCOM headquarters had previously been considered one of the most secret and secure locations left on Earth. That the aliens knew where to strike and just how sudden their blow had been... no one had thought that possible. Yet, it had happened— their impregnable stronghold had been breached and their leader killed. But even with a bombshell of such magnitude, Bradford noticed that the Council Spokesperson still retained his composure and displayed no emotion.
"I see, " the shadowy silhouette said at last. " This is a very great setback indeed. We must be frank, Officer Bradford: this incident will shake the faith of many of the Council members in the XCOM Project. The loss of The Commander's leadership is of particular concern and will need to be addressed."
Bradford kept his face neutral as he was put on hold so the Council could deliberate. Behind him he could hear the hushed whispers of the two advisors standing in the room.
"... do you think they will shut us down?"
"They can't. Not at this stage. Not with all that we have accomplished..."
The video returned shortly. "Officer Bradford , this Council has come to a decision. While the implications of the security breach are grave, we do recognise that XCOM ultimately dealt with the immediate threat, and is still in a position to act against the alien invasion. With this in mind, the Council has agreed to continue with the project, with some changes."
Behind him, the two advisors exhaled in relief. Bradford however, had tensed up. He had a good idea of what was coming up next.
"With The Commander no longer available, it is vital that a suitable replacement be immediately appointed to lead the XCOM initiative. While there has been some reservation from some quarters due to the previous results of Operation Devil's Moon, this Council has agreed to reappoint you, Central Officer Bradford... as the new commander of XCOM."
Bradford nodded and said the requisite words of thanks and acceptance. He had no choice, because everyone left in the project all knew it was too late to find a replacement with enough experience at this point of the invasion. As the former Commander's XO, and if he didn't step up to the task, the XCOM Project was as good as over.
"Excellent. We trust that your leadership will have a better outcome this time... Commander." The screen blinked out. The moment after it did, Bradford let his shoulders sag. With good reason, the weight of the world had just been placed on them.
"I guess congratulations on your promotion are not in order, Commander Bradford?" Dr Raymond Shen, now one of his two advisors, spoke up. The old man looked sympathetically at the former central officer. He had been there when Bradford had failed spectacularly at his first mission as the Commander of XCOM months ago, and had witnessed Bradford's entire fall from grace. Almost losing the entire ground team, letting the first aliens they had encountered escape... Under his command, Operation Devil's Moon had been a disaster, and had nearly resulted in the XCOM Project being shut down in its infancy.
Bradford had been swiftly demoted to Central Officer and replaced with the one who had been their late commander. He'd taken it in his stride, and had worked very hard for, and very well with the new commander to turn the project around, and it had been all on track until The Commander's unexpected demise. To be given a second chance at leadership because of the death of his commanding officer was really more akin to a slap in the face than a chance at gaining redemption.
"Thank you, Doctor," Bradford replied dully. "I don't think there will be any need for celebrations," he added, his attempt at humour sounding flat even to his own ears.
"Commander ... Bradford." Dr Vahlen, the head of science, tried unsuccessfully to leave out the second part of the name and failed. In XCOM HQ, there was only one person whom everyone referred to as "The Commander", and that person was currently lying in the morgue, along with the rest of their veteran soldiers and the security personnel who had fallen defending the base.
"Commander Bradford, I know this must seem like a bad time to bring this matter up, but before our systems were sabotaged, the Hyperwave Uplink project was about to be launched. As Dr Shen's team has since successfully restored the power, it is of great importance that we proceed with the activation, with your permission, of course."
She was right on both counts. It was a bad time to bring the issue up, and the launching of the Hyperwave Uplink had been of vital importance to The Commander's plan to end the invasion which should proceed regardless. He held back his irritation at her cold single-mindedness and gave his assent, then watched as the doctors filed out to carry out their duties.
Bradford had his own duties to see to, and then the late commander's as well, so he got to it.
First and foremost there was the issue of rebuilding the decimated Strike Team. It was going to be a monumental task. Of all their numerous veterans, they had only one left: their sergeant assault specialist, Kim Chun Hyun, who was currently in the infirmary and would not be fit for duty for at least another week.
He shuffled through the personnel files and paused. Well that was not strictly true. There was technically Delta-2, but there had been a good reason why the only survivor of Operation Devil's Moon been taken off the active roster and reassigned as ground staff. The man had been, to repeat the terms the base psychiatrist, Dr Hendriks had used: "badly compromised in mental stability". Even if he was still technically capable, the Commander had deemed it too risky to continue fielding him, because "One unstable officer with PTSD in the field leads to panicking squaddies, which leads to a dead squad."
That was then, however. But now, with available options stretched to their limit, Bradford briefly wondered if Delta-2 had had enough recovery time for him to risk putting the man back in the field. Maybe. If push came to shove. If he had no other choice.
Just as he was pondering if it was worth paying a visit to the infirmary and the man in question, the klaxons blared.
"Commander to Situation Room!"
The familiar silhouette of the council Spokesman appeared on the screen again. "Hello, Commander," he said, in a tone that sounded as though if they hadn't just spoken hours ago. Bradford nodded as the Council spoke of a hijack attempt on a military convoy in France. He didn't really react until a certain sentence jumped out at him from the brief:
"... the alleged perpetrators were human..."
Now that little tidbit of information got Bradford's attention. He glanced over the details that had just been forwarded and frowned. The hijacked French convoy had been carrying a highly valuable weapon. In fact, when he noted what the 'weapon' was, his brow furrowed that much more. Then he understood the Council's eagerness to act on the matter.
''Excellent. We look forward to seeing your progress." The video screen went blank shortly after he communicated the acceptance of the task.
Bradford let out a long sigh. The last time XCOM had had to deal with human traitors, it had been that incident with the Chinese triad informant and the Shenzen Dreadnaught. The death toll in that particular alien attack had been staggering, and the incident would have cost XCOM their support from the Chinese members of the Council if it had not been for The Commander's considerable political clout.
That influence had died with The Commander, and they had no such thing to fall back on now. If they failed again on this Council mission, the stark reality was: there would not even be an XCOM by next month. XCOM could not fail again.
But Bradford's problem still remained: with the end of the attack on the HQ, they had no functioning Strike Team to speak of. Sending a bunch of rookies into a Council mission with barely enough intel and no experienced leader would be simply sending them to the slaughter. There was no way around it, Bradford decided, he'd have to send Delta-2. But one veteran alone wouldn't be enough. They needed more experienced people who knew what it was like to be out there in the field, who could make the right choices without descending into panic.
The subject of human collaborators suddenly reminded Bradford of someone else, someone he had initially dismissed as a candidate. He hesitated, then picked up another file and flipped through the information it contained. Military background, a substantial service record too, but discharged dishonorably due to a certain incident which was probably what had led to the man getting involved with some rather shady activities later in his career...
Bradford looked down at the file in his hand and made up his mind.
The Commander might not have approved of defected triad member Shaojie Zhang as a potential recruit. But right now, the XCOM Project was in dire straits, and beggars couldn't be choosers.
End Chapter 1
XCOM Barracks Memorial Wall
Commander Liang-Yue 'Big Picture' Hé (Major Trauma, Unknown)
Colonel Jackson 'Ol' Jack' Spencer (Cyberdisk)
Major Henry 'Crumpets' Harris (Explosives)
Captain 'Hail' Mary Harris (Chryssalid)
Captain Kathleen 'Sitting Duck' Douglas (Chryssalid)
Lt. Leticia 'Jabs' Vega (Cyberdisk)
Sergeant. Fatima 'Tanky' Turk (Thin Man Light Plasma Rifle)
Sergeant Johan "Nukem' Hamdar (Zombie)
Corporal Jorges Klakov (Sectoid Plasma Pistol)
Corporal Erin Erikssen (Heavy Laser)
Corporal Varsha Sharma (Thin Man Light Plasma Rifle)
Private Matthew Hawkins (MIA)
Private Iriko Sakamoto (Sectoid Plasma Pistol)
*Footnote: - Horatius, Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay is currently in the public domain. The quoted verse in the opener is very likely the reason why the Base Defense mission is always called 'Operation Ashes and Temples' in-game.