The spacecraft sailed silently through the void of space, cutting its way through the infinite blackness as slowly but surely it approached its destination. A tiny green-blue orb hung in the vacuum like a shining jewel. But to Colonel Mike Hunt as he stared out of the ship’s windows, it meant only one thing.
He supposed that his own planet, the Earth, had looked just as serene and peaceful as the vast alien armada arrived to attempt to sink their filthy reptilian claws into his home world. The aliens had struck fast and without warning; first with their Sectoid scouts that kidnapped innocent women and children, and enslaved minds with their insidious psi powers. Then came the Floaters and Mutons, horrific amalgamations of flesh and machine that annihilated everything in their path. Earth had been on its knees, but XCOM had fought back. The aliens may have had superior technology and weapons, but XCOM had something they did not: lots and lots and lots and lots of soldiers. After battle after battle of heroically sending more and more XCOM soldiers at the invaders, they were finally able to drown the aliens in blood and push back.
After that final terrible battle aboard the alien mothership, the Earth was safe. Or was it? For humanity knew that their foes were lurking out there in the darkness, watching and waiting to strike again. XCOM was nothing if not ingenious though, and so a captured UFO had been retrofitted, and using alien star charts, a small team had been chosen to fly to the alien home world to take the battle to them.
Colonel Hunt bunched a fist and punched the window in frustration as he thought of the brave men and women who had died to get them this far. A manly tear trickled down his cheek to nestle in his gigantic beard. “That’s XCOM, baby,” he whispered hoarsely in solemn remembrance.
“Colonel! We’re ready to go!” Grant Powergloves, Hunt’s right hand man waved from the Skyranger. Grant was a brute of a man, a gigantic Russian paratrooper who sported a bright pink goatee and spoke in a heavy American accent. As the team’s assault specialist, he had pulled XCOM out of many a tricky situation in the past, armed only with his wit, sharp mind, and gigantic laser gun.
Hunt nodded in the affirmative, and stroke determinedly up the ramp, the sealed orders from XCOM headquarters clutched in his hand. This was a mission he knew many might not survive, but such was the life of an XCOM operative. As the ramp swung shut behind him and the familiar whine of the Skyranger’s engines filled the room, he surveyed his team.
“We stand at the end of a long journey!” he boomed out, nodding to each and every one of his loyal soldiers in turn. “These alien scum thought they could invade Earth. They were wrong! They thought they would be safe if they ran back home! They were wrong! In ten minutes we’ll touch down in the first habitable area we see, and show them what they get when they mess with XCOM!”
“Yeah!” The cry went up as one from the four seated soldiers around him. At the back of the Skyranger, someone shouted “That’s XCOM, baby!”
“I hope we catch an alien on the toilet!” Grant Powergloves piped up, waving his shotgun. After a brief pause, he added: “So we can shoot it. Not, uh, watch or anything.”
“YEAH! XCOM BABY!” Everyone punched the air in unison. Everyone but Hunt, who stared at Grant’s gun.
“Major Powergloves,” he muttered, raising an eyebrow. “That’s a standard issue shotgun? Where’s your gigantic laser gun?”
Powergloves shrugged. “We ran out, sir. Engineering said a new one would cost twenty dollars and they didn’t have the budget for it, so I’m going retro.” He waved his double-barrelled shotgun in the air. “I mean yeah, I could have leant them the cash, but screw that!”
“It’s true sir,” piped up the team’s medic, Dr Gorillapower, a slight Japanese woman with a heavy American accent. “It’s the damn bean counters! If I’m not in the field murdering gigantic alien death robots, I’m being sent door to door trying to sell alien corpses for five dollars each to prop up the XCOM budget.”
“I bet the coffee machine cost more than twenty dollars!” Powergloves snapped back.
Hunt rankled at this insubordination. “Calm down, men. In the face of planetary annihilation, of course there need to be some… budget cuts.”
“Like my armour?” The squad’s Brazilian sniper, Hooty McOwlyface, pointed to the heavy Titan Armour she was wearing, a large all-encompassing body suit which sported a massive gaping hole in the chest area caked with dry blood. “I swear this is a hand-me-down, but engineering says it’s a ‘design feature’” she whined in her heavy American accent.
“At least you have armour!” Hunt’s attention was drawn to the team’s heavy weapon specialist, Biceps McKillicutter, a large blue-bearded Egyptian with a heavy American accent. McKillicutter had been sat near the back so Hunt had not paid him much attention, but now it was obvious that McKillicutter wasn’t wearing any armour at all.
“McKillicutter!” Hunt barked out. “Why on Earth have you come to work in your pyjamas?”
McKillicutter shrugged. “I was supposed to be in the Archangel Armour. It was my turn to be the heavily armoured flying guy, but that bastard Slingblade Murderstalker has still got it!”
Hunt shook his head in disbelief. “Slingblade Murderstalker isn’t on this mission!”
“I know!” McKillicutter rolled his one good eye. “But he wouldn’t give it back! He locked himself in the toilet and said he wasn’t going to come out until he had finished. And sir…” he lowered his voice. “It was a number two. I’m not gonna wear that after him!”
“Fine! Fine!” Hunt threw his hands into the air and took his own seat, sparing a glance out of the viewport at the rapidly approaching planet. “It’s too late to turn back; go invade a planet full of hostile aliens in your pyjamas, see if I care!” He withdrew a small knife, and tore open the sealed orders, carefully reading the instructions.
There was silence.
Powergloves was the first to speak. “Uh, sir, what’s the mission name?”
“That’s not important!” Hunt snapped back, almost too fast.
“It kind of is,” Hooty McOwlyface paused in her peering down the gun barrel of her sniper rifle to query Hunt. “How else will we know what we need to do?”
Hunt sighed. “Look, the mission names aren’t important, they’re just randomly generated by computer or something. It’s not relevant!” A chorus of protest cut across him, and he rolled his eyes one final time. “Fine, fine, if you really want to know, this is ‘Operation: Exploding Face’. No, no, don’t look at me like that, it’s obviously talking about the alien’s faces exploding, not ours.”
“So uh, what’s the mission?” Powergloves leaned back in his chair with a pout.
“There’s two objectives…” Hunt stared at the sheet of paper in his hands. “Objective one: ‘kill everything.’”
“And two?” McKillicutter asked cautiously.
“Two is….” Hunt pursed his lips. “Objective two is ‘Don’t die too horribly.’”
There was a pregnant pause in the room until Dr Gorillapower punched the air and shouted “That’s XCOM, baby!” The others soon joined in, and even Hunt found himself yelling out the chant. The aliens wouldn’t know what hit them.
Literally nothing could go wrong.
Like a vast predatory bird, the Skyranger cut through the atmosphere of the planet, streaking across the blue skies towards its destination before landing with a roar of engines and disgorging its cargo of hardened XCOM soldiers.
“GO GO GO!” Hunt screamed at the top of his lungs as the soldiers raced off the ramp and into unknown territory. He knew there could be instant death waiting for them the minute they stepped onto hostile soil: some sort of alien battle fortress, an army of horrible brain eating monsters, anything!
He did not expect this.
“Well blow me down…” Hunt’s run slowed to a crawl and he eventually stopped as he looked about in bewilderment. While no-one had any idea about what to expect, the general consensus was that the alien homeworld would look a bit more… evil than this.
Instead, the sky was a bright blue. Lush green fields and hills stretched as far as the eye could see, and instead of a death fortress, the Skyranger had touched down in front of a small picturesque village that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a child’s colouring book. Despite it being bright daylight, the village looked deserted, but tell-tale wisps of smoke from various chimneys indicated that they were not alone.
“I don’t get it.” Powergloves clutched his shotgun to his chest protectively as he looked about. “It looks so… nice. Are you sure this is the right planet?”
“Of course I am!” Hunt snapped back. “Are you calling into doubt the efficiency of XCOM? This is the right place all right…” He trailed off thoughtfully. “Perhaps this is how the aliens live? Maybe they attack other planets to finance their cushy lifestyles? Or it could be a trick! Maybe we’re being mind controlled!” He wheeled around. “You did all bring your Mind Shields, right?”
Everyone shook their heads in unison. Hunt slumped his shoulders. “Fine, well, if we encounter any aliens, just make sure not to let them enslave your brains.” He crouched down against the grass, staring at the houses. “Okay, it may look clear, but you know how this works. One step in the wrong direction and suddenly ten gigantic alien war robots will step out of nowhere and blow your head up. Remember the XCOM motto.” He patted the inscribed badge on his chest. “Vigilo confido!”
“What does that mean anyway?” Hooty McOwlyface waddled off the ramp last, and to Hunt’s annoyance he saw that she was carrying her sniper rifle by the end of the barrel.
“It means… it means…” He shook his head. “It means… that’s XCOM, baby!”
“YEAH!” They all shouted in unison.
Hunt licked his dry lips as they began to crack from the tension. Beside the Skyranger they were exposed to any alien counterattack. They needed to move closer to the buildings to get to cover, but it was a long way… “Okay, here’s the plan!” he finally declared. “Hooty, you stick with me. We’ll hang back. McKillicutter, you make your way to the back of that large pink and blue circular building. Powergloves, you hide behind the fountain in the centre of the settlement. Gorillapower, you circle behind the building with the roof that looks like it’s made out of gingerbread.”
Four heads nodded their assent. Like a well-oiled machine, the XCOM forces dashed across the bright green grass towards their respective destinations knowing that any moment could bring about their horribly bloody deaths.
It wasn’t long before the spectre of certain doom raised its head. “X-ray in sight!” screamed Powergloves into his radio at the top of his voice as he dashed towards the fountain, throwing himself down to hide beneath the rim. Quaking, he peered up as a bright orange flash of movement scampered towards him. “I’m pinned down!” he cried, cocking his gun. “It’s coming right for me!”
Hunt and McOwlyface threw themselves behind a stack of cardboard boxes as the creature revealed itself. “What is it?” Hunt mumbled, staring hard at the unfamiliar creatures in the distance. “I’ve not seen anything like that before?”
Hunt’s radio crackled into life. “I can see it!” came the voice of McKillicutter. “It’s some sort of orange four-legged beast.”
“A Chryssalid!” burbled out Powergloves from his exposed position. “It’s going to lay eggs in my face!”
The alien ambled slowly out of cover, getting ever closer to Powergloves, before stopping behind a flowerpot. From his vantage point, Hunt blinked in surprise. “I can see it!” he whispered urgently into his radio. “It’s… it’s some sort of small winged equine creature.”
“Is it going to lay eggs in my face?” Powergloves risked a peek, before recoiling suddenly at the closeness of the creature to his position. “Oh god it’s going to lay eggs in my face!”
“Powergloves!” Hunt barked out at his radio. “Don’t let it lay eggs in your face. That’s an order!” He patted McOwlyface on the shoulder, pointing to the orange creature in the distance. “Right, Hooty, you’re up. Take that bastard out!”
McOwlyface slowly took out her sniper rifle and stared down the scope. After a moment, she turned back to Hunt. “What shot?”
“The alien! Shoot the alien!” Hunt pointed a finger towards the orange thing. “That one!”
McOwlyface leaned forwards. “What one? I don’t see anything!”
“Behind the plant pot!” Hunt found himself shouting despite his deep professionalism. “It’s hiding behind a small plant pot!”
McOwlyface didn’t look convinced as she picked up her gun again. “I’m not shooting a plant pot! Once I see the alien, I’ll shoot it!”
“I’ve got it sir!” McKillicutter crept around the circumference of the building he had been hiding behind to raise his excessively large gun and let loose a hail of plasma bolts in the direction of the enemy. The entire town square exploded into flames; the fountain that Powergloves was hiding behind shattered into rubble causing a few more terrified squeaks from the radio. Unfortunately, the only thing the gun did not hit was the alien.
“Dammit! Dammit!” Powergloves cocked his shotgun and stood up. “That’s it, I’m not going to go down without a fight! I’m going to blow this thing’s brains out!” Ignoring the cries of protest from his teammates, he dashed out of his remaining cover towards the alien contact. “Die you bastard, die!”
If he was thinking a bit more clearly, he would have noticed that the alien did look a bit like a pony.
It had been a pretty good day for Scootaloo. The happy little pony had got up early in the morning, done all her chores, and then spent the morning playing with her friends. She had found a shiny one bit coin on the ground, and used it to buy a delicious cake for her hero Rainbow Dash, which had earned her a pat on the head. Later, she was planning to attend an arts and crafts faire in the town hall. Yes, it was a pretty good day, but it had just got better.
She had been idly trotting along beside the town fountain when she saw a strange monkey hiding behind it! Ponyville was no stranger to weird and mysterious creatures, but before she went to say hello, she realised that it might be playing hide and seek. Not wanting to spoil its game, she ran behind the nearest flowerpot. After all, joining in games was fun!
Apparently she must have won the game, because another monkey ran out and started letting off fireworks. This made Scootaloo smile so happily at all the pretty lights and colours that flashed across the town square, although it did accidently break the fountain. Then the first monkey ran up to Scootaloo holding a long tube and waving the end at her.
Scootaloo wasn’t a silly pony. She was almost six years old and thought of herself as very clever. She remembered helping Pinkie Pie out in her bakery making cakes. Pinkie Pie had a large tube that she squirted icing from onto the cakes – obviously this monkey was holding an icing dispenser, and this was her prize for winning the game. Feeling very proud of herself, Scootaloo opened her mouth as wide as she could in front of the end of the monkey’s icing dispenser, ready to get her prize.
“Die, alien scum, die!” Powergloves couldn’t believe his luck! His clever flanking of the alien had resulted in the perfect kill shot, and the alien seemed to realise this, giving up and placing its mouth over the end of his shotgun. With a deep glow of satisfaction, Powergloves pulled the trigger.
“Shot wide!” Powergloves cursed as somehow his guaranteed shot missed, the bullet thudding into the ground by his feet. He fumbled with his gun, desperate to reload and try again, but realising that this close to the enemy he was dead meat. “It’s going to lay eggs in me!” he wailed.
Suddenly, thankfully, the creature bolted away. As it moved from cover, racing towards the building McKillicutter was hiding behind, XCOM sprang into action. Hunt’s laser rifle rang out but to no avail as the shot missed. Gorillapower and McKillicutter both opened fire at once at the exposed pony as it darted across the town square, but their shots too went wide of the mark.
Cursing, Hunt turned to McOwlyface. “There!” he shouted. “Now! Sniper rifle!”
McOwlyface picked up her sniper rifle, closed one eye, waited until the orange pony’s head was directly in her crosshairs and fired.
The shot sailed far over the pony’s head, and it ran into the building, slamming the door behind it.
Hunt ground his teeth in annoyance. “Okay!” he hissed into his radio. “Move in around the building, but be careful! Silence is our watchword! McKillicutter, I want you to get round to the other side of the building, see if you can flank it.”
As the other soldiers stalked forwards, McKillicutter saluted. “Yes, sir!”
“Hey, Sweetie Belle, you’ll never guess what!” Scootaloo scampered into the Carousel Boutique, her mane frizzed up from the exertion as she looked about for her best friend in the whole world. “There are all these monkeys in the town square and they have fireworks and icing tubes and –”
“Now, that isn’t a way for a young filly to behave!” Scootaloo clamped her mouth shut as Sweetie Belle’s older sister, Rarity, ambushed her with a large frilly hat. To Scootaloo’s horror she saw that Sweetie Belle had already been flanked and was uncomfortably sporting a pink lacy dress.
“Now, how about this?” Rarity smirked as the hat landed on Scootaloo’s head at a jaunty angle. “Let me get my camera, that will make a darling headshot!” She tweeted.
Scootaloo threw the hat down and stamped on it ungratefully. “No, no time for dressing up! There’s a party outside! It’s not going to come in here!”
Before Rarity could respond, a loud screaming suddenly filled the air, and the form of McKillicutter launched itself through a window, sending shards of broken glass everywhere. McKillicutter ignored the ponies as he continued to scream, waving his gun above his head before smashing headfirst into the wall and exiting the building through the enormous hole he had created.
Rarity stared after the strange man. “Was… was he on fire?”
“How? How is he on fire?” Hunt looked on in disbelief as McKillicutter rolled about in agony on the ground. “McKillicutter, I meant go around the building, not through it!” he hissed into his radio somewhat redundantly before standing and waving his rife. “McKillicutter needs a medic! Dr Gorillapower, move in!”
Dr Gorillapower waved awkwardly at Hunt from across the street. “I’ve not got any medkits sir, sorry!”
“What?” Hunt yelled, forgetting the need for stealth for the moment. “You’re the team medic! What the hell did you bring?”
“Combat stims!” Dr Gorillapower pointed at her belt, which was bulging at the seams with hypodermic needles. “Lots and lots of combat stims! Look!” She took one out and jabbed it into her arm, sighing happily.
“You realise those are just sugar and water, right? They don’t do anything!” Hunt sunk back down again. “McOwlyface, do you have a shot?”
McOwlyface stared down the barrel of her rifle towards the hole in the window McKillicutter had made. “No sir, no line of sight!”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a medkit…” Powergloves started to run towards the fallen McKillicutter as he routed through his belt’s pouches. “Uh, wait no, a grenade!” He held it up triumphantly. The grenade slipped from his fingers and rolled down his sleeve. His eyes boggled wide as the grenade slipped down the front of his armour and began to frantically beep. “Oh well,” he sighed. “That’s XCOM, baby.”
Colonel Hunt hit the floor as Powergloves exploded into a fine mist. “Man down, man down!” he shouted. “Everyone pull back, get to cover!”
McKillicutter patted the last of the flames up and staggered to his feet. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it!” he shouted, glaring in the direction of Scootaloo, Rarity and Sweetie Belle through the hole in the building’s wall. “Three cooked aliens coming right up! You won’t have died in vain Powergloves!” Unhooking a large rocket launcher from his back, he slung the weapon across his shoulder and let loose a missile directly at the three ponies.
“McKillicutter! No!” Hunt screamed out, but it was too late. The rocket veered off course, whooshing straight through the building and straight into the boxes behind which Hunt and McOwlyface were hiding. The boxes exploded in a fireball, sending Hunt and McOwlyface sprawling out onto the ground.
“…Shot wide!” McKillicutter called out, somewhat redundantly.
Hunt grunted as pain arced through his body, slowly crawling across the ground, grabbing handful after handful of bright green grass as he struggled away from the fire. “M-McOwlyface, you still with me?” he croaked.
“Don’t worry sir!” Hooty was bruised and burnt, but still alive. She raised her sniper rifle, aiming it once more at the exposed flank of Rarity through the building. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this!”
The shot rang out.
“…Shot wide!” Hooty shouted.
Dr Gorillapower pressed herself back against the building and stabbed another combat stim into her arm. “This is worse than that time in Mumbai when we thought we’d killed all the aliens so Radical Larry went to the nearest public toilet and found ten Sectopods hiding up the u-bend.” She cradled her rifle to her chest, taking long, shaky breaths.
Dr Gorillapower screamed as from out of nowhere a pink pony bounced into view, gabbling out a string of incoherent words in an excitable manner. “I’m flanked, I’m flanked!” Gorillapower cried as she looked for a way to escape.
Hunt finally crawled behind a wall and hissed into his radio. “Keep your head, Gorillapower! Don’t panic! Whatever you do, don’t panic!”
“Myname’sPinkiePiewhat’syoursdoyouwantaparty?” The pony chirped happily, whipping out a large blue cannon from thin air and placing it in front of Gorillapower. “ThisismypartycannonIputstreamersandballoonsandallsortsoffunthingsinhere!”
“It’s got a cannon! It’s got a cannon!” Gorillapower cried as she ignored Hunt’s orders and panicked. In such situations of high stress there are very few options. In this case, Gorillapower pulled her rifle to bear and shot McKillicutter repeatedly until he collapsed in a spray of blood.
“What? How? No!” Hunt shouted. “Get a grip, Gorillapower!”
“I’m going to die!” Gorillapower yelled, running as fast as she could away from the pony and cowering behind a nearby cart piled with hay. A moment later, the cart exploded into a gigantic fireball, sending Gorillapower’s lifeless body into the air.
“Bull!” Hunt half-sobbed as he turned to McOwlyface. “We’re not beaten yet McOwlyface! These alien scum haven’t seen our full armament yet!”
McOwlyface adjusted the sights on her sniper rifle, and fired at the pink pony. The shot hit a weathervane half a mile away. “Sir,” she frowned as she reloaded her rifle. “Are… are you sure this is the alien homeworld? I mean, it just seems to be full of little ponies…”
“What?” Hunt took out a small control pad and started to punch buttons. “How can you say that, McOwlyface, when Powergloves, McKillicutter and Gorillapower are all lying dead at the hands of those alien bastards?” He pressed a final button, as from the Skyranger’s ramp came a motorised humming. “Well, they won’t know what hit them! We’ll stay here and let EXPLODOTRON-5 do all the work!”
Down the ramp trundled what could only be described as a large metal box on tank treads. Explodotron-5 was one of XCOM’s most secret projects, a robotic battle unit known as a SHIV, to be used in the most dangerous of situations where no human operative could survive.
“Now, let’s see the aliens in that building face Explodotron-5!” Hunt hunkered down under his cover, manipulating a small joystick on the control pad as Explodotron-5 moved slowly but surely towards the large circular building where the three ponies were hiding. Motors whirring, it trundled through the doorway.
Hunt hit the control pad in frustration. “It’s jammed in the doorway! Bloody thing!” His rage soon turned to wicked delight, as the screen on the pad lit up with three targets. “Oh, oh, brilliant! It doesn’t matter, they’re in range! Now those aliens will see what happens when you mess with XCOM. That’s XCOM, baby!”
As the targeting crosshairs centred on the form of Scootaloo, Hunt jabbed the fire button triumphantly. Nothing happened.
“Oh. Yeah.” McOwlyface leaned over Hunt’s shoulder. “I don’t think anyone put any guns on it.”
“What?” Hunt turned to McOwlyface with a face like thunder. “What do you mean, no-one put any guns on it? Explodotron-5 is just a box on wheels with a gun! If you don’t put any guns on it, what’s the point?”
McOwlyface shrugged. “Don’t ask me. It was Dr Gorillapower’s idea, she said she wanted to try something new. I guess you could ask her…” She trailed off as she remembered Dr Gorillapower’s burning corpse just metres away. “…Or not. Hang on.” She took out her sniper rifle, aimed again at the pink pony, and missed once more.
Hunt stared in despair at Explodotron-5 and pressed the fire button once more in desperation. Out of Explodotron-5’s front panel spilled a cascade of syringes all full of combat stims. Then Explodotron-5 exploded.
Hunt gripped his rifle and reloaded it, gazing out upon the alien village which had already taken the lives of so many of his troops. “I’m going out there,” he announced to McOwlyface. “Hooty, it’s been an honour and a pleasure serving with you in XCOM. But the world needs to be free, and if it takes my life to do so, so be it! I’m going to run out there and murder every alien bastard I see. I want you to sit here with your sniper rifle and shoot everything that moves, got it?”
McOwlyface frowned, but reloaded her own gun and steadied the barrel against a fallen crate. “Everything, sir?”
“Everything.” Colonel Hunt saluted McOwlyface stiffly. “That’s XCOM, baby!” he yelled, leaping out of cover and bounding across the village, gun in hand towards the ponies, and into history.
McOwlyface lifted her rifle, looked down the scope, and shot the first thing that moved. Hunt instantly dropped down dead, a perfect bullet hole drilled through his skull. “Hah!” Hooty happily called out to no-one in particular. “I finally got one!”
“I can’t believe the mess those monkeys made of the town square with their silly games!” Mrs Cake shook her head in annoyance as she wheeled the baby carriage along, rocking it gently.
Pinkie Pie hopped alongside her, rolling her eyes. “Oh, those silly billies! They didn’t even want to stop for a cake before exploding! How rude! Poor Scootaloo was really upset that she didn’t get any icing, but I made her a big bun and she seemed happy!”
They stopped by the fountain, which was already slowly being repaired as several stonemasons chipped away at nearly hewn blocks of marble to repair the chunks broken by the fighting. Mrs Cake was about to reply, when there was a sharp crack and a bullet flew over her head. “Goodness, Pinkie, is this safe?”
Pinkie shrugged, pointing to the figure of Hooty McOwlyface, who was still crouched behind a wall at the far end of Ponyville, rifle pointed into the town. Every so often another shot would ring out. “Of course it’s safe, Mrs Cake! She’s been there hours, it’s not like she’s not hurting anyone!”
There was a gurgle from inside the pram, and Mrs Cake reached in to pull out the little foal who was wrapped up within. “Is mummy’s little princess grouchy?”
The little foal spat out its dummy and pointed a hoof down at the fallen body of McKillicutter, which hadn’t yet been cleaned up.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Mrs Cake smiled at her bundle of joy and glanced at McKillicutter. “That’s XCOM, baby.”