Monday, March 28, 2016

The Long War, Part X - Terror in Nigeria


Contact

At approximately 6 am local time on 7 April 2016 a medium-sized UFO touched down in the Nigerian city of Ogbomosho. Its arrival grounded nearby air traffic, and prompted a swift response from Nigerian security forces, who surrounded the UFO with a cordon to keep away the growing throng of interested onlookers on their way to work that Thursday morning. This was the first time a UFO had been seen in such close quarters by most people, and its arrival touched off a media frenzy as more and more people arrived and pressed in to take photographs and video footage of the historic event. Several attempts were made to communicate with the crew of the vessel, all to no avail, and eventually President Muhammadu Bahari gave the authority for the armed forces to go in and secure the UFO. Elements of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian army either drove or were airlifted from the divisional headquarters in Ibadan, some 100 km to the south, and took charge of the perimeter from local police.
 
The floater was first sighted in Ogbomosho.
 
At 9 am elements of the Nigerian 72nd Special Forces Battalion assaulted the UFO. Upon breach a dozen or so unidentified flying aliens egressed from the craft, and began firing and hurling grenades into the crowd. The aliens employed plasma weapons already seen by X-Com, and the grenades used by the aliens were particularly destructive, more akin to anti-armour satchel charges in their explosive power than conventional human grenades. Most were eventually shot down and killed, but a few escaped into the city, sowing terror and confusion wherever they went. Some of these "floaters" were heavily armoured and exceptionally difficult to kill. Their speed and manoeuvrability made them difficult targets. Glancing hits by small arms usually ricocheted off their armour, and even the impact of direct hits only served to knock them backwards or spin them around rather than put them down. The floaters also avoided exchanging with large groups of soldiers, preferring instead to use their superior mobility to move to undefended locations. It seemed to all observers that the floaters' sole aim was to kill as many people as possible. They did not try to escape or return to their craft, but instead shot unarmed civilians who posed no threat to them. Such wanton cruelty enraged the Nigerians, and the floaters were aggressively pursued all over the city. Most were eventually cornered and killed, but one or two would remain a deadly nuisance for days after the crisis.
 
The heavy version of the floater. It was more durable and heavily-armoured than its regular counterpart.

In the confusion the status of the breaching team was momentarily forgotten. Given the order to continue the breaching team proceeded inside the craft, where they encountered the lifeforms now designated by X-Com as "chryssalids". The Special Force soldiers put up fierce resistance, but were hampered by the inefficacy of their weapons and the cramped confines of the UFO. Several soldiers were badly wounded and mauled by the creatures while the rest of the squad fell back in disarray. The surviving chryssalids pursued them out of the UFO, and ran amok among the already panicked crowds outside. Out in the open the chryssalids were easier targets, and were eventually put down, but not before they had maimed, injured and killed dozens of bystanders.

Outbreak

What the Nigerians did not know at the time was that the chryssalids impregnated their victims with an embryo that attached itself to the host's central nervous system. Once the embryo was attached it assumed control of the host until at some point a transformation was triggered in which the host organism was devoured from within to fuel a horrific metamorphosis that turned it into a chryssalid. Unaware of the ticking time bombs on their hands, the critically wounded were immediately placed in ambulances and rushed to hospital, while the injured were treated onsite in makeshift medical tents hastily erected by the soldiers. Some of the impregnated victims struggled and fought but were subdued, in some cases being forcibly strapped to gurneys. Other victims appeared dead or unconscious. About 5 to 10 minutes after the last chryssalid had died the Nigerians surrounding the UFO were privy to the horrific sight of seeing the dead and wounded transforming into chryssalids before their eyes. The spectacle caused wide spread panic and terror, but in spite of this the Nigerian soldiers were able to rally and put down the newly hatched organisms. In the process, however, several more people were wounded and impregnated, which began the cycle anew. The only way to stop the transformation was to kill the embryo, which was usually implanted in the abdomen of the victim and attached itself to the victim's spinal column. The embryo grew quickly to the size of a grapefruit, and acted as the new brain of the creature. Destroying this embryo-brain halted the process, but the Nigerians had no way of knowing this at the time. Furthermore while destroying the embryo was the rational answer to the problem, most people found it difficult to mutilate the remains of their former friends, family and comrades-in-arms. The price they usually paid for their humanity and empathy was death at the hands of the newly hatched chryssalid.
 
The chryssalid was also first sighted in Ogbomosho, but they would become horrifyingly familiar in the months ahead.
  
While the Nigerian soldiers at the landing site were able to offer organized resistance to the chryssalids, unarmed civilians in other parts of the city fared much more poorly. Some of the ambulances carrying the stricken made it to the hospital, while some crashed en route as their erstwhile patients transformed inside the vehicles and attacked the paramedics trying to treat them. The fastest ambulances only succeeded in bringing the impregnated victims into an environment where the newly hatched chryssalids could run rampant. Patients, doctors, nurses and visitors were helpless fodder to such a creature. Security personnel armed with handguns were no match for a single chryssalid, whose armoured carapace could shake off small calibre fire. Hospitals became the unwitting vectors for the spread of the chryssalids, and one private hospital, Bowen University Teaching Hospital, was completely decimated after throwing open their doors to the wounded and dying.

By noon, three hours after the breach, analysts had concluded that there were more than a few hundred chryssalids roaming the city, and that their numbers were growing at an exponential rate. If a single chryssalid could double its number every hour then in 28 hours there would be more chryssalids than the entire population of Nigeria, which numbered over 173 million people. Fortunately for Africa, the spread of the chryssalids was limited by geography and the availability of hosts. This number was still significant - Ogbomosho had an estimated population of over one and a half million, and the worst case scenario envisioned over a million chryssalids spreading out from the city into the rest of the continent. The heroic actions of the Nigerian army fighting desperate and scattered actions throughout the city kept their numbers in check, as did organized police units who were able to arm themselves with rifles and shotguns. Everywhere else the chryssalids spread like wildfire. At the landing site nervous tank commanders, unnerved by the sight of more chryssalids emerging from both inside and outside the perimeter, decided unilaterally to destroy what they thought was the source of the infestation. They pounded the UFO with armour-piercing rounds from their 125 mm guns, until one shell hit the UFO's power source and triggered a cataclysmic explosion which destroyed the UFO, levelled the surrounding area, and started a number of fires in the city. The explosion severely crippled the Nigerian command element, most of whom were present at the landing site. Reinforcing units from the 2nd Division arriving from Ibadan found themselves arriving in a city in chaos and being attacked by seemingly endless horde of nightmarish creatures bereft of any effective leadership and without any knowledge of the capabilities of their foe.

Arrival of the UN

It was at this point that the lead elements of the UN brigade led by Major-General Peter van Doorn arrived in Ogbomosho from the northeast. Originally earmarked for deployment in the Central African Republic (CAR), their transports had landed in Ilorin Airport as a precaution when the UFO entered Nigerian airspace. When notified of the unfolding crisis the UN Secretary-General ordered the blue helmets to intervene and render whatever humanitarian assistance they could, despite technically not having the authority to do so. UN resolutions created very specific task forces from scratch on a per resolution basis, each with their own clearly defined mandate and rules of engagement (ROE). Forces earmarked for peacekeeping operations for one region were not readily transferable to another. In spite of this, the Secretary-General decided to act after an impassioned plea from President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. According to President Buhari the crisis in Ogbomosho coincided with a massive push by the Islamic Jihadist group Boko Haram in Nigeria's Borno State. The offensive, which was unprecedented in scale, diverted much of Nigeria's armed forces assets to the northeast, leaving precious little to allocate to the growing crisis in Ogbomosho.

After intense discussions with the Secretary-General, Doorn decided to commit his brigade and worry about the possible ramifications under international law later. His troops arrived in Ogbomosho in dribs and drabs, having had to plead, persuade and cajole Nigerian authorities into providing them with motorized transport. Most of the UN's heavy equipment had preceded them to the CAR, leaving the soldiers with nothing but their rifles and grenades. Nonetheless Doorn was a resourceful and stubborn man, and his advance units drove down Ogbomosho Road in commandeered trucks and jeeps to find a city in convulsion as civilians tried to flee the city. Three companies - one third of the UN's total strength - were able to make it to the city while the remainder either waited at Ilorin Airport for more transport, or started the long 40 km march on foot.
 
The interior of the city during the early hours of the crisis.
 
Doorn's first action was to try to link up with Nigerian forces near the UFO and ascertain their status. He sent one company to push towards the landing site, but their advance was hampered by the chryssalids and the fires burning out of control in the vicinity. They were soon recalled. With the Nigerian army scattered and leaderless Doorn took it upon himself to collect whatever elements he could and rally them together. He chose Ladoke Akintola University as a rallying point and ordered his soldiers to create a perimeter around the university grounds. He then sent out several aggressive patrols whose goal was to find and bring back civilians to the safe zone. These patrols were initially very successful, and soon the grounds of the university began to fill with frightened civilians. Ogbomosho's cellular network and emergency broadcasting system still functioned, and civilians were advised to either make their way to the university, or to barricade themselves within their homes. Civilian helicopters repeated the same message over loudspeakers overhead. Doorn's patrols were discontinued when they began to run into more and more of the chryssalids. Like the Nigerian army the UN's ignorance of the chryssalid's life cycle proved to be a massive liability, as they brought wounded and fallen members back into their perimeter with the same disastrous results. Doorn's initial scepticism of the stories being told by civilians and soldiers were quickly laid to rest when he witnessed a transformation first-hand. The wounded were hastily segregated outside and covered by shooters on all sides. Soldiers given this duty compared it to a ghastly game of whack-a-mole, in which squads of soldiers would converge on a luckless victim convulsing and writhing on the ground, and putting them down before the transformation could be completed. Even the dead were fair game to the chryssalids. An implanted cadaver would rise and walk around and try to attack people, much like how zombies are portrayed in popular culture, before finally transforming into a chryssalid. It was the wounded that suffered most. While it seemed that the chryssalid embryo could co-opt a dead person's central nervous system and use it to move the cadaver around, a living person suffered a state akin to that of paralysis, as the human and alien mind vied for control of the body. Only by killing the embryo brain stem, usually located lower down the abdomen, could this process be halted, and this procedure usually ended with the death or paralysis of the host as well. There was a famous story of a particularly strong-willed African man who struggled against and overcame the conflicting signals being sent by the parasite, and cut it out of himself with a knife. Whether the story was genuine or apocryphal is open to debate, but it did point to a genuine moral conundrum amongst those struggling to keep the wounded alive that day. Most people found it difficult to callously abandon the people they loved to the transformation, and went to great lengths to try and save them, even at the cost of their own.

UN forces are depicted in blue, Nigerian green. Doorn's pocket, consisting of three UN companies, two X-Com squads and numerous civilians, is the red spot in the centre. 
 
Doorn's problems were only just beginning. Two of his companies were spread out in a perimeter surrounding the university, while one was stationed inside keeping order and acting as a mobile reserve. They were fighting an enemy that was heavily armoured and required a lot of firepower to put down. Their numbers were increasing exponentially while UN reserves of ammunition were being depleted as time went on. The nature of their enemy also terrified and unnerved the soldiers. No one wanted to become one of these monsters, and this thought either galvanised the soldiers to greater efforts, or hollowed out their bravado and replaced it with will-sapping dread. The chryssalids were fast - not a large concern in open spaces with large fields of fire, but the stuff of nightmares in an urban environment where line of sight is usually measured in metres. The chryssalids possessed tremendous strength in their limbs, demonstrating the ability to jump one or two stories or to punch through plate steel with equal ease. Close quarters combat (CQC) against such a foe was tantamount to suicide. To add to Doorn's woes, the remaining two-thirds of his brigade (another 4,000 soldiers) were stalled outside Ogbomosho and strung out along the highway due to the congestion on the roads and the lack of available transport. One company entered the city on its own, was cut off by the chryssalids and completely wiped out. After that disaster the 2nd and 3rd battalions concentrated on creating a line northeast of the city to prevent a chryssalid breakout. In the meantime Nigerian troops from the 2nd Division coming up from the south made a similar line to the southwest of the stricken city, and worked on extending this line eastwards as more and more troops arrived. The eastern tip of the Nigerian line would eventually link up with the UN line in a U-shaped cordon around Ogbomosho. The only avenue for escape for the chryssalids would be at the top of the U, to the northwest.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Long War, Part IX - Ogbomosho

Previous: The Long War, Part VIII - The Phony War

Ogbomosho was on fire.

Home to over a million souls, the city was a funeral pyre. If it had been day a thick pall of smoke would have been visible - in the dark African night the only way to tell was when the smoke briefly obscured parts of the burning city. Sparks rose like fireflies into the darkness, wafting upwards to where solitary helicopters thumped noisily overhead. The city was screaming, a keen, wailing sound that pierced the darkness - a cacophony of human anguish, pain and misery interspersed with something otherworldly.

From the darkness a trio of black shapes congealed and materialised out of the night sky. A trio of Skyranger craft came screaming out of the east, foregoing any attempts at concealment - their mission required speed, not subterfuge. Two of the Skyrangers banked away and bled off speed, corkscrewing down to the city in elegant circles and descending towards a part of the city yet untouched by fire. Vertical jets spurted into flame, and the two birds held position vertically over the city as the ramps in the back opened and disgorged long black ropes to the city below. Heavily armed men and women - 16 in all - roped down to the streets below. They landed with practiced ease on the dusty streets, now choked with debris and soot, and spread out quickly to form a circular perimeter. The ropes were winched up, and the Skyrangers pulled out. The soldiers lay unmoving in their positions, letting their eyes and ears adjust to the new environment around them.


After several minutes one of the figures stirred. Okami swept through his perimeter, verifying with each operator that they were alone. Once satisfied, he said quietly, "Central, we're on the ground. Moving to the compound."

"Roger, Okami." Central's reply crackled with static from over 13,000 km away. "Watch your butts out there."

"Tora, ike zo," Okami whispered to his second in command.

"Ryo-kai." Tora motioned to his lead scout, Rohan, to take point, and the big Spaniard curtly nodded. He tapped his countryman Murf on the shoulder as he passed, and he rose and followed on Rohan's heels. The rest of Tora's squad moved out swiftly but silently, their plan of action hurriedly improvised over outdated maps during the preceding flight from Japan. GPS and Google maps disappeared when Earth's satellite network went down, but the caches, now four months old, could still be used to provide fairly accurate street level information. The team was tasked with extracting UN Major-General Doorn and his men from the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology to their immediate east. The group would split into two - Okami's squad would approach from the northwest, while Tora's would come in from the southwest. Once the compound was secure, the team would call in the Skyrangers holding station in the skies above and extract all survivors to Ilorin Airport 43 km to the northeast. Originally called in as technical advisors, the mission had changed mid-flight when the UN peacekeepers arriving in the city found the Nigerian army being overrun. Intelligence on the ground was shaky - confused reports of overwhelming numbers of giant insects were met with derision and scepticism. Nonetheless the UN soldiers appeared in deadly earnest, and their last report stated that they were making a stand at the university.

"It's the sectoids," Syp had said in the chaotic briefing back in Tanegashima. "They're creating illusions and putting them in the minds of the soldiers."

Most concurred. An overhead shot taken by a news helicopter earlier in the day showed a medium sized UFO surrounded by Nigerian forces. It was bigger than the scout class vessels usually encountered by X-Com fighters but surely not big enough to contain the number of aliens purportedly overrunning the city. The Nigerian report cited hundreds of aliens. The final seconds of the footage showed a Nigerian platoon about to breach the UFO, backed up by a cordon of police, soldiers and a massive throng of interested onlookers. Two Soviet T-72 tanks were part of the perimeter. An alien break out seemed impossible.

On the deserted streets of Ogbomosho X-Com's preliminary assessment felt less certain than it did 8 hours ago. The fires raging unchecked in parts of the city indicated the collapse of the city's emergency services. Even more unsettling was the occasional rattle of gunfire, the screams in the night, and the absence of civilians on the streets. Okami watched as the last of Tora's squad disappeared behind a make-shift shanty before turning his attention to his own squad. He had tried his best to memorize the route his team was to take, but down at ground level the neat cartography in his mind refused to meld with the confusing mosaic of dirt roads and corrugated iron buildings in the flickering half light. He hoped that his lead scout would not be disorientated as he was, and he mentioned for Jeromai to come up. If the Russian veteran was, he betrayed no sign of it. He passed Okami without a word, and the rest of the squad followed his lead into the night.

The two squads advanced on the university like two prongs of a pincer, each picking their way through the streets as quickly and quietly as they could. On the southern wing the route chosen by Rohan was simple. The squad cut southeast until they hit Ogbomosho Road, and then they followed the road northeast. The road was a main traffic artery bisecting the town, and the university was situated right on it. Tonight it was crammed full of abandoned vehicles of every make, a testament to the panicked attempts at flight by the inhabitants. Some of the cars were burnt out wrecks, consumed in conflagrations hours earlier. Most were simply abandoned, and in some cases, still occupied by the dead. The blackened holes in the corpses told the tale of how they died. Plasma fire sliced through almost anything, leaving perfectly cauterized holes the size of a man's fist wherever they passed. Something about the angle of the holes discomfited Rohan, and it took a moment for the thought to clarify.

"These people were shot from above."

Murf understood immediately, and swept the surroundings for high vantage points from which the fire could have originated. There were none. "Drones? Maybe they outfitted them with plasma weapons." 

"Perhaps." Rohan sounded doubtful. They continued their advance along the road, alternately moving then covering for each other. The Spaniards were even more cautious now, heads on a swivel, scanning both the vertical and horizontal planes for threats. Moving alongside an abandoned vehicle Murf saw a circular pool of red on the side of the road. He assumed that it was the remains of someone who had bled out, and steeled himself as he approached. What he saw puzzled him. The blood had soaked into the dirt, leaving a dry crimson patch in the soil. There was no body within - only the shredded remnants of what appeared to be a floral Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and shoes.

"Jewel, I need you up here."

The Australian medic was up in less than a minute.

"What do you make of that?"

Jewel dropped to one knee and surveyed the scene. Upon closer inspection she made a grim discovery - along with the ripped clothing and torn shoes she found human hair, teeth, parts of the skin and fingernails. Here and there, small scraps of human flesh and skin.

"Where's the rest of him? Organs, heart, brain?" Murf asked.

Jewel shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe something ate him?"

Greatly discomfited, the squad continued moving. Occasionally they would come across more torn fragments of clothes, shredded shoes, jewelry and watches. Murf and Rohan were baffled. There was blood at each scene, but no body, nothing to indicate the fate of the victims.

"It's like they were torn apart from the inside." Jewel said in disbelief.

Half a kilometre from the university they came across the remains of a massive firefight. The cars were pockmarked with bullet holes, and several were blackened wrecks. Shattered glass lay everywhere. The place was streaked with dried blood. It stained the ground and was smeared and spattered over vehicles, barricades and walls. There were bodies here, but not the kind the squad were expecting.

"What the fuck is that?" Izlain breathed.

It looked like a gigantic purple praying mantis, as big as a horse, six limbed as far as he could tell, covered with vicious barbs and protrusions. It looked dead, but Izlain was not about to take any chances, staying a healthy distance away and keeping his weapon trained at it at all times. Eldaeriel, the team's scientific liason, showed no fear and sat beside the corpse. She put her weapon down, and strapped on a pair of surgical gloves.

"Careful!" Izlain hissed.

The Argentinian nodded, but nonetheless began to push and prod the corpse, articulating its limbs, and examining the creature's anatomy. Gunfire had shredded it, shearing away limbs and destroying what appeared to be its head. Seeing a wound in the creature's abdomen she noted several round spherical jelly like balls oozing from the opening. Some had burst open from the bullet's impact, but quite a few remained intact. They were the size of tennis balls, and in the middle of the clear membrane surrounding the spheres something black and many limbed twitched and stirred.

"Eggs?" Cider asked in disgust.

"Looks like it." Eldaeriel grimaced. She picked up an egg in a gloved hand. The embryo in the centre writhed towards her palm, and she dropped it with revulsion.

"There's another one over here," said Rohan quietly. The Spaniard motioned to a similar corpse on the other side of the street. "And over there - and there." He walked over to the cadaver and prodded it with his rifle. "Shot with 5.56 mm rounds, probably with a Belgian FN. Nigerian army weapons."

Murf nodded. "I think they came up along this street from this direction, and the army made a stand over there." He pointed to a make-shift barricade straddling the width of the road to the northeast. The barricade was in tatters, and abandoned. The remains of a technical - a small jeep with a machine gun mounted in the back - lay overturned nearby.

"Lots of shell casings - bullet holes - look, I've got a UN helmet here." Jewel held a blue helmet aloft. "But no bodies. Unless..." She looked at the ground near her and noted the torn blue scraps of khaki, the scraps of boot leather and red chunks of gore. She swallowed. "Unless that used to be him."

Eldaeriel finished her examination, casually rolled up the gloves and threw them away. "Should we bag one? Dr. Vahlen would love to get her hands on one of these."

"You want to haul one of those, be my guest. I'm not touching them." Izlain growled.

"What are they?" Cider asked, eyes wide in the crimson night. The Nigerian translator was born and raised in Abuja some 800 km to the northeast. She had spent some time here in her youth, and the enormity of the disaster which had befallen Ogbomosho was starting to become apparent. Her mind was forcefully rejecting it, however. Perhaps if she didn't believe it then it wouldn't be true, it whispered.

Rohan placed a reassuring hand on the Nigerian's shoulder. She slapped the hand away brusquely. The Spaniard cocked his eyebrow, but made no comment.

"Tora? What do you want to do?" Eldaeriel asked.

The small Japanese soldier also appeared to be having problems coping with what he was seeing. "Let's keep moving," he said finally.

"Dr. Vahlen would want a sample," Eldaeriel insisted.

"You heard the sarge," said Izlain. "Move out."

Eldaeriel ignored him. "Our brief is to research and investigate the visitors. We need to know more about this thing here."

"Lady, are you deaf? Can I remind you that our mission, right here, right now, is to rescue the Major-General?"

The operators were on the verge of a shouting match when they were interrupted by a transmission from Chestnut. The Mexican had taken point position while the squad inspected the site of the firefight.

"Chestnut here. I have a civilian approaching."

The squad burst into action, relieved at being in motion at last. Eldaerial and Izlain exchanged final glares before moving out in line. They found Chestnut standing atop the bed of utility vehicle, weapon resting on the cab and trained at a solitary figure shuffling along the road some 50 m away. "He hasn't seen me yet."

Cider was hustled to the front. The civilian was a middle aged man, wearing jeans and a white shirt. He walked in clumsy, faltering steps, and seemed lost and disorientated. Cider walked forward slowly, and hailed the civilian in English. When that failed to elicit a response, she tried Hausa then Yoruba. She was completely ignored.

"He's wounded." Eldaeriel observed. pointing to the streaks of blood pouring down his jeans. The remainder of the operators emerged from the shelter of the cars. Cider inched closer, with Izlain following close behind. She put her weapon down and waved her arms slowly to get the man's attention. This gesture seemed to work, as the man suddenly turned and looked at her, revealing a gaping, gory wound where his abdomen used to be.

"What the fuck...?" Izlain said. His startled exclamation was enough to get the man's attention, and he suddenly lurched forward in his direction. Izlain backed up instinctively. "Tell him to stay back!"

"Tsaya!" Cider shouted. "Ba ta motsa!" The man ignored her, seemingly fixated on Izlain. She tried again, in every Nigerian dialect she knew. The man kept stumbling forward.

"Stay the fuck back, I'm warning you! I will shoot!"

The man kept advancing. Izlain dropped his sights, and fired a bullet into the man's leg. He aimed at the outer thigh, erring on the side of caution - a bullet through the femoral artery would kill a person just as well as one to the head. His aim was good, and the bullet grazed the man's outer left quadricep. The man stumbled and fell, but made no sound as he crumpled to the ground.  Within seconds Murf and Rohan were on the man. The two Spaniards were big burly men, but their attempts to subdue the civilian met fierce, crazed resistance.

"I don't want to hurt you," Murf said in the man's ear as he struggled to keep him pinned. "We just want to ask you some questions." The man jerked his elbow backwards and caught Murf square in the face. White pain exploded in his eyes, and he felt a sticky metallic liquid drip from his shattered nose.

"You asked for this," Murf hissed angrily. He pulled the man's elbow back and up behind the man's back, applying pressure on the shoulder joint. The man continued to struggle and kick and writhe, and Murf kept cranking the hold in response, until an audible pop marked the dislocation of the man's shoulder. If it hurt the man he gave no sign - if anything it merely provoked him further. The man continued to buck and writhe like an enraged bull with a rider, and one particular convulsion sent Murf flying into the dirt.

Rohan cracked the man across the face. He grabbed a fistful of the man's shirt with his left and started raining blows down with his right. The man seemed impervious to pain. A sharp pain in Rohan's left hand made him stop. A bony protrusion had erupted from the man's body, and the jagged edge had made a savage cut across his knuckles. Near the knees and elbows the man's skin ripped and tore open, releasing fine welters of blood - hooked claws burst out and grew, scrabbling and searching for purchase on the ground. The man's body was changing in front of their eyes. Even the face was changing - the bones were shifting impossibly but perceptibly beneath the skin. Blood sprayed from the man's face as the eyeballs ruptured and burst, spraying into Rohan's eyes and mouth. Frantic thoughts of the ebola epidemic which swept through West Africa raced through his mind, and he flung himself off the man, spitting frantically. He rolled on his back, and saw the shattered remains of a man performing what looked like a wrestling bridge - arms and legs thrust backwards and pelvis arcing up into the air. From the ruins of the man's face glowered two alien eyes.


"Get out of the way!" Izlain shouted. "Get clear!"


Rohan rolled away, and several assault rifles barked in unison. The alien-human pupa collapsed in a heap, yellow ichor pouring from the holes in its side. Even as it died, it completed its transformation. Whatever parts of the human host not consumed or appropriated by the metamorphosis was being shed by the organism, falling in bloody heaps to the ground, sliding off the sleek carapace emerging from beneath. By the time the creature stopped twitching there was nothing human left about it - the chrysalis which had fuelled its transformation was nothing more than a pile of torn clothes and ripped skin on the dusty streets of Ogbomosho.

Next: The Long War, Part X - Terror in Nigeria

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Long War, Part VIII - The Phony War

Previous: The Long War, Part VII - Global Unrest

April, 2016

By the beginning of April, X-Com could claim to have successfully completed nine missions. In addition to their successes to date, X-Com were also able to shoot down two more scout class UFOs (UFO-6 and UFO-7), and conduct salvage and recovery missions at the crash sites. X-Com were also able to stop abductions in progress in Shanghai, China. Anti-abduction missions were essentially counter-terrorism operations, and Colonel Bradford had plenty of operators with ample experience and training in this field within the ranks. The fact that the Chinese allowed X-Com to intervene within their borders surprised everyone, although the request was made with the caveat that Chinese operatives "Dacheng" Nguyen and "Xanziee" Tsang were included in the mission. Bradford was more than happy to comply, and the mission was completed without a hitch. As a gesture of good will, Bradford offered to turn over all recovered artefacts to the Chinese government, an act which won him some favour in Beijing, and some headshaking in Tokyo.

X-Com's March 2016 evaluation from the Council of 16. France withdrew on 11 March 2016, barely two months after X-Com was created.

The strike force had suffered two casualties, but was beginning to display unit cohesion and camaraderie after eight weeks together. Morale was high despite the aliens' total air superiority, and the squad leaders (with the exception of "Tora" Sato) appointed by Colonel Bradford were beginning to become comfortable in their roles. Researchers and engineers had access to enough alien cadavers, materials and tech for a lifetime of study, and governments and corporations with security clearance were beginning to realize the wealth of R&D potential the fledgling international organization had at its disposal. Requests began to pour in from various corners of the world, much to the dismay of head researcher Moira Vahlen, who counselled Bradford to hold onto the artefacts for the time being. Finally, X-Com was able to launch a second satellite from Tanegashima, greatly increasing X-Com's coverage of the skies over Asia. Overall it was a very encouraging start for the fledgling organisation.

X-Com operators relaxing in the mess hall. From left to right: Japan's "Tenshi" Hatakeyama; Israel's "Kitty Boom" Biton; and "Milady" Edwards from the UK. 

The world did not stand idly by as X-Com racked up these modest victories. The major powers conducted anti-alien programmes of their own, some of which were very public and transparent. Others were more clandestine, but they, too, enjoyed a similar level of success, if not more, than X-Com did in its early incarnation. Generally speaking special force units in their respective countries were far superior to X-Com's ad hoc and polyglot units, even if X-Com had some outstanding individuals in its ranks. X-Com did possess the advantage of combat experience against the extra-terrestrials, as they were pitted against the visitors on a weekly basis. Squaddies disseminated information among themselves as to the capabilities of the various aliens encountered by the task force, and constantly drilled, trained and developed tactics to combat them. Sectoids, while physically frail and inept soldiers, were treated warily due to the accounts told by "Bhagpuss" Taylor, "Mesmer" Levin and "Syp" Muyumba about the visions and sensations they could somehow induce. Outsiders were respected foes, and the sight of one was usually enough to summon as much firepower as X-Com could bring to bear due to their durability and regenerative capacity. Drones were annoying and difficult to hit, but packed a vicious short-range attack which could seriously injure, even kill - the sight of drones in the air prompted a blizzard of automatic weapons fire from the ground in every deployment.

World opinion was deeply divided as to how to best respond to the alien presence. The destruction of Earth's satellite network in November 2015 initially engulfed the globe in mass hysteria, as commentators predicted the imminent end of mankind. Air transit almost ground to a halt - the skies, so long a repository of human longing and ambition, became menacing and hostile. Hoarding and the acquisition of firearms became common place. Crackpots and lunatics of all stripes emerged from their lairs and circulated wild theories, some of which started to gain traction in the highly charged atmosphere of the closing days of 2015. By April 2016, however, humanity was returning to a sense of normalcy. The non-appearance of doomsday weapons or conquering hordes of extra-terrestrials took the edge of the terror experienced by most in the early days, and this soon gave way to acceptance and even derision. Late night show hosts and comedians began taking pot shots at the aliens, turning the sectoids into bumbling comic figures lost in space. Some people simply chose to ignore the UFO phenomenon. For many people, the presence of the aliens were limited to strange lights in the sky shown on national TV, and occasional stories circulating of abductions, visitations and little grey men. Faced with little more than stories on media, most people simply ignored them and went about their lives without a second thought.

X-Com's operations were also as clandestine as they could possibly be, even if the organization was the world's worst kept secret given its global mandate. As far as the world knew, Resolution 70 of the General Assembly only advocated the creation of an international task force dedicated to the research and investigation of the UFO phenomenon. The general public did not know that a consortium of 16 nations had agreed to the creation of such a task force, nor did they know that the task force was armed and funded by the US with the latest air interceptors at its disposal. Most people did not know that X-Com had a mixed brigade of about 6,000 UN soldiers along with its researchers and techs, nor that this brigade had been whittled down even further into a small elite strike force of about 50 soldiers. Even X-Com did not foresee that their security force would essentially become a counter-terrorist unit, but the aliens' hardiness and propensity to defend their crashed craft propelled the military arm of X-Com further and further into prominence. For the general public, the word X-Com conjured up an image of researchers and scientists in lab coats peering into telescopes and analysing UFO remains. They would have been right - but it was only part of the story.

Nigeria

On 7 April 2016 X-Com forces were called in to assist UN Major-General Peter Van Doorn in Nigeria. Doorn and his UN brigade were part of MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission) and were en route to the Central African Republic to take up their posts when a UFO sighting forced them to make an unscheduled stop at Ilorin Airport in Nigeria. While waiting for clearance to continue their journey Doorn learned that the UFO had landed on the outskirts of the city of Ogbomosho, some 43 km to the south west of the airport. Nigerian army units went to the scene and surrounded the UFO. Soon afterwards confused reports on TV, radio and Internet gave conflicting accounts of a massive firefight in the area. Three hours later Nigerian government officials reached out to the UN for humanitarian assistance, citing that they were under attack by a sizeable force of aliens and had suffered casualties running in the thousands. Doorn and his brigade were ordered to the scene, and the UN peace keepers, combined with newly arrived members of the Nigerian army, raced to the town in commandeered vehicles to render whatever assistance they could. X-Com's presence was also formally requested by the Nigerian authorities. It was hoped that X-Com's experience in fighting the extra-terrestrials would prove invaluable in the developing crisis.

The crisis in Ogbomosho marked a turning point in the war against the aliens.

X-Com's Skyrangers were the fastest transport aircraft in the world, and they could cover the 13,000 km distance from Tanegashima to Ogbomosho in under 7 hours at a cruising speed of Mach 1.8 (approximately 1,900 km/h). The Skyranger was an amazing feat of engineering for its time. Kawasaki Heavy Industries had created a VTOL aircraft with a minimal radar profile capable of travelling at supersonic speeds. Engineers at Kawasaki had eliminated the sonic boom through the use of finely-tuned aerodynamics, fulfilling the promise of silent supersonic flight embodied in earlier prototypes like the SAI Quiet Supersonic Transport.

By April the Skyranger fleet had been expanded to three, and Colonel Bradford didn't hesitate in deploying all of them to Nigeria. Two Skyrangers would carry an eight soldier squad apiece, and a third would carry "Missy Mojo" Fitzgerald and the newest toy from Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the Super Heavy Infantry Vehicle (SHIV). The SHIV was a remote controlled heavy weapons platform making its operational debut. Japan still led the world in the field of robotics, and the SHIV was the logical consequence of the growing trend towards increased automation in the military. From bomb disposal robots to unmanned drones, humanity had been relying more and more on machines to fight their wars. The SHIV was the latest manifestation of this trend, and it was called "Thunder" by its Australian operator, Missy Mojo, in honour of the hard rock band AC/DC.

The two squads were led by "Okami" Takeda, with "Tora" Sato as his second-in-command. Okami's squad consisted of the Indians ("Noisy" Tendulkar, "Kurn" Jaiteley and "Jaedia" Dagur), the two Israelis ("Mesmer" Levin and "Kitty Boom" Biton) and Russian "Jeromai" Kurnakov. The final member of Okami's squad was Nigerian "Syp" Mayumba, who would act as translator and liaison. Tora's squad was composed of four Spanish speaking soldiers ("Rohan" Navarro, "Murf" Cervantes, "Chestnut" Jiminez and "Eldaeriel" Fonseca), one Australian ("Jewel" Phillips), one American ("Izlain" Favre) and Nigerian "Apple Cider" Agyapong, who would also function as translator and liaison for Tora's squad.  The diminutive Tora still remained unpopular despite a successful UFO crash recovery mission earlier in the month, so Bradford took care to surround him with dependable soldiers. Izlain was fluent in Japanese, and he was fast becoming the liaison officer between the Japanese officers and the rest of the squad.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries' SHIV (Super Heavy Infantry Vehicle) made its debut in X-Com's first operation in Nigeria. It was remotely operated by a human controller and could theoretically be used from X-Com HQ in Tanegashima, but in practice was usually controlled by a soldier safely ensconced in the Skyranger.

The soldiers were roused, kitted out, and on board the Skyranger within an hour of the call from the UN. Several soldiers were concerned as to the nature of Nigeria's distress call. The sectoids they had encountered so far seemed incapable of inflicting the type of damage that had been wrought in Ogbomosho. The lack of concrete intelligence on the ground meant that they would be going in blind, and while they received assurances that they would receive more information as the events developed, it did not assuage the soldiers. They had no way of knowing that their fears were to be proven well-founded - the events in Nigeria would mark the beginning of a new phase in the war against the aliens.

Next: The Long War, Part IX - Ogbomosho