Cory opened his eyes to see nothing but blackness, which stretched from where he was floating to the horizon in all directions. His mind was groggy and, at first, he struggled to maintain a coherent thought for longer than a few seconds. The only thing he could easily remember was a bright flash before ending up in this infinite void.
He looked down at his clothes to see if everything was still attached, and he saw a tiny sky-blue symbol on the left side of the dark-purple armor that his body was almost completely covered in. Upon looking closely at it, he could make out two words: “Vigilo Confido.” Almost instantaneously, Cory was bombarded by memory after memory of his life, and more importantly, XCOM. On the second day of the Ethereal invasion, his town was caught off guard when the aliens shot “abduction pods,” as Cory called the gray-colored pods that the aliens seemingly loved to use, into the main square.
As a part-time police officer, Cory was never trained to fight extraterrestrials that were armed with plasma weapons. Nonetheless, he fought alongside the main police force to try and contain the situation while minimizing civilian fatalities. It only took thirty-five minutes for the entire police force of around twenty officers to be cut down to just three. Having very few options left, Cory and the other two officers, Lieutenant Simon King and Corporal Maria Alvarez, sent out an emergency distress call on the radio and waited in the police station to fight off the invaders until help could arrive.
The next two days were a blur as he and the other officers barely managed to fight off several waves of attacking Sectoids. At one point, Simon took a grazing bolt of hot plasma to his left arm that rendered him unable to fight back. Maria was killed when one of the Sectoids fired a ball of green energy into her torso mere minutes before Army forces finally arrived. Cory said a quick prayer for her in the lull between the invaders’ attacks before returning to the fight.
After several medics flew Simon off to get proper medical attention, Cory was approached by a Caucasian man in tan combat armor by the name of Samuel, who had appeared to be twenty nine years old. He offered Cory to join “XCOM,” an elite fighting force specifically chosen and trained to combat the alien invaders. Samuel warned Cory of the high possibility that he would not end up coming out of the invasion alive.
Regardless of the risks, Cory joined the XCOM project and was almost immediately met with hostility from several of the other soldiers, who had served in their countries’ military in one form or another before joining XCOM. They apparently didn’t like the thought of fighting alongside a part-time cop with little actual combat training, but Cory ended up proving himself on their first UFO raid.
After the rest of his squad started taking fire from an Outsider and a complement of Sectoids, Cory flanked the alien aggressors and laid down covering fire, giving the others a chance to take down the distracted invaders. Cory’s actions weren’t without consequence, however, as he took two bolts of plasma to the chest of his body armor from the Outsider’s plasma rifle, which melted through his armor like a hot knife through butter and caused severe second and third-degree burns to his flesh.
When he was released after five days of intensive treatment, Cory walked into the barracks and was met with words of gratitude and apologies from his squad mates. He had gained their trust and respect, even though deep down, he felt that he hadn’t truly earned it yet.
Everything seemed to be going well...until Bradford was informed by the Council that a group of humans, going by the name of EXALT, was working with the alien invaders. The traitors struck numerous locations in very little time, spreading panic around the world and actively attempting to thwart XCOM's efforts to repel the aliens.
Their actions ended up being their biggest mistake, as XCOM swiftly and viciously cracked down on EXALT cells and operations wherever they were found. For every XCOM operative that was killed, twice as many EXALT operatives were taken down in retribution. When they tried to attack the base from within, the soldiers of XCOM stubbornly held their ground and killed every last attacker that came inside.
As the war against both the aliens and EXALT progressed, XCOM managed to capture a live Outsider and found the alien base in Asia. When the Sectoid commander was killed and the Hyperwave Beacon was brought back to base, Cory began to suffer from mild to severe headaches. These headaches only grew worse when the base’s research team began to construct the Hyperwave Relay and the Psi Labs. Upon hearing rumors throughout the base that the Commander was looking for potential psionic soldiers, Cory was the first to be tested and was found to be capable of psionic abilities.
The Hyperwave Relay was soon remotely contacted by the Ethereals, the ring-leaders of the alien invasion themselves, and their attacks grew more and more frequent until the Gollop Chamber was constructed. The psionic who entered the chamber and activated it would become the strongest human psionic on Earth, and the soldiers of XCOM almost unanimously suggested Cory, who hesitantly accepted the role after much reassurance by his fellow operatives.
When the invasion was nearing its end, XCOM managed to locate EXALT's base, regardless of the rapidly increasing attacks by the aliens, and decimated the vast majority of EXALT's forces. Cory didn't hear very much about them after that, mainly because of the Gollop Chamber was turned on shortly afterwards.
His activation of the chamber brought him to the forefront of the Uber Ethereal’s attention, and the alien Temple Ship uncloaked itself seemingly as an invitation to Cory and the rest of XCOM. The final battle was almost there, and now, XCOM was finally ready to end the invasion.
After plowing through dozens of the Ethereals’ slave races, Cory and his squad reached the control center of the Temple Ship and were confronted by the Uber Ethereal, who gave them the choice of either becoming the Ethereals’ favorite pets or being destroyed. Without any hesitation, the XCOM operatives killed every last alien on the bridge, including the Uber Ethereal, which caused the Temple Ship to start collapsing.
Cory was about to leave with the others when he had a vision of the ship’s collapse forming a black hole, which would swallow up the Earth and everyone on it. He ordered his squad mates to leave as he activated the controls and began to fly the ship upwards. He could just barely sense the Skyranger that had brought him to the Temple Ship escaping, his squad safely onboard as the Temple Ship began to ascend into space.
He had taken one last look at Earth before destroying the ship outside Earth’s atmosphere, which ended up bringing him to the void surrounding him. Cory now had nothing but his memories and his equipment to prevent him from going crazy in the boring, silent oblivion that he slowly began to drift through.
This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of what the afterlife would be, the psionic thought sardonically as he formed a miniature rift in his right hand, watching it spin around rapidly above his palm. A frustrated sigh left his lips as he clenched his hand, dissipating the rift into a quickly-fading pink mist. It had been what seemed like days or even months of him just floating around endlessly in his new “prison.”
It was absolutely infuriating to him; he had run out of things to do that could distract him from the inevitable boredom of being stranded in an empty plane of existence. He had no one to talk to, either, and he certainly didn’t want to accelerate his descent in madness by talking to himself.
“…I wonder if some higher entities put me in here for safekeeping while they argue about what they should do with me,” the XCOM operative sarcastically asked the void with a roll of his eyes. “It wouldn’t be really surprising to me, considering the fact that I’ve been fighting aliens for months and somehow not getting killed. It wouldn’t kill them, however, to at least give me something to look at instead of staring at nothing all the time.”
Just as the words left his lips, something appeared in the corner of his eye that easily grabbed his attention. He swiveled around to see the faintest of lights shimmering just at the edge of his range of vision. After smacking himself in the face to make sure that he hadn’t gone insane and wasn’t hallucinating, he cautiously drifted towards the light, which slowly grew larger and brighter as he approached.
As he got closer, he quickly became aware of soft, unintelligible whispers that echoed throughout the void without any particular source. The voices grew louder and louder until he could finally make out what they were saying.
“You are…” “They are coming…”
“Fated…” “Time is short…”
Without warning, the light approached him at an impossible speed, consuming Cory and all of his surroundings. Before everything went dark once again, a man’s low, oddly jovial voice echoed in his thoughts, “War is coming, and you must succeed. I wish you luck, because you’re going to need it!”
A light breeze swept through the forest, making tree branches slowly sway and dance in the cool night air. The daytime animals were resting peacefully in their slumber as the creatures of the night woke up, going about their nightly routines once more. Deep within the woods, the crumbling walls of a decrepit castle stood firmly in place, the tapestries hanging from them swinging back and forth as gusts of wind made their way inside.
A stone balcony on the castle’s main tower overlooked the calm forest, which seemingly stretched for miles in every direction. Moss and vines hung from almost every available space on the abandoned castle’s exterior, adding to the sense of loneliness the stone stronghold gave off.
Several miles away from the forest stood a small town, its populace sleeping peacefully as the moon bathed it in a soft, white glow. One individual was still awake however, watching the bright stars as she rapidly took down notes from her balcony. She blew a lock of her lavender hair out of her eyes and looked up at the sky once again as her horn gripped the feather quill in front of her in a light purple aura. The moonlight lit up the wooden floor, letting her see the writing on the parchment held in place beneath her hoof.
A light yawn originating from her right prompted the mare to look over at her assistant, a small baby dragon who looked at back at her through sleepy eyes, “Twilight, why are you still awake? It’s almost one in the morning.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and replied, “You know that Princess Celestia sent me a letter this afternoon, Spike. You were the one who coughed it up! The princess wanted me to keep watch for anything strange in the night sky, and I don’t want to disappoint her!”
A bright, loud flash in the corner of her eye startled her as she spun around to see a strange, dark mass fall into the Everfree Forest. Spike’s jaw hung open in shock as Twilight ran to pack her saddlebags with everything she thought she’d need. The sound of her door opening roughly eight minutes later interrupted her frantic packing, prompting her walk downstairs to find her friends standing in front of the doorway, anxious and worried expressions painted on their faces.
“Twilight, darling, did you see that flash, too? It woke me up from my much-needed beauty sleep!” Rarity asked her friend as she brought a hoof up to her violet mane, which was somewhat-comically filled with hair curlers.
Twilight nodded, “Yes, I saw it, but I also saw something falling into the Everfree Forest, something big. I was just getting ready to go out when you girls came in.”
Fluttershy, a butter-yellow pegasus, softly spoke up from Rarity’s left, “Oh, my! Do you think that it might have been an animal? What if the poor thing is scared or hurt?”
Before Twilight could respond, a cyan pegasus interrupted, “Oh yeah, Fluttershy? Well, what if it’s some kind of giant monster that's trying to trash the town or something! I don’t want a repeat of the Ursa Minor incident with Trixie. Hay, what if it's some bad guy whose flank we kicked who's come back for revenge, like Sombra?"
“If it was a monster or a bad guy, Rainbow, then Ah’d think that the Princesses woulda taken care of th’ problem, already. They ain’t gonna make a mistake like that so easily,” Applejack retorted, fixing her Stetson back into place atop her head.
A pink blur appeared in front of Twilight, her mouth going a million miles per minute, “Oh, maybe the thing that fell out of the sky was a pony from the future! If that’s the case, then I have to go and throw a huge “Welcome to Ponyville of the Past, Pony from the Future” party! There’s so much stuff that I could ask them, and-”
Twilight clamped a hoof over Pinkie Pie’s mouth and let out a mildly frustrated sigh, “Listen, girls, we could keep throwing theories around all night. That won’t get us any closer to whatever it was that fell into the Everfree.”
The purple alicorn went back upstairs and put on her saddlebags, walking back downstairs as she looked at each of her friends. “Are we ready to get going? I don’t want to waste any time by running back to get things at the last minute,” Twilight asked, receiving a small chorus of “no’s” from the others after a moment’s hesitation. Satisfied, the mare trotted out of the library with her friends walking on either side of her.
It took about ten minutes to arrive at the entrance of the forest, and its mouth was still as intimidating as ever. Fluttershy whimpered slightly and attempted to back away, but she was stopped by a reassuring pat on the back courtesy of Rainbow Dash. With a few last looks at one another to make sure that they were all sure about the situation, they all ventured forth into the dark depths of the Everfree.
Elsewhere, in the far reaches of the universe, an ancient being looked on with disgust as its exiled and disgraced brethren failed in their task. Yet another pointless failure of its kind, but now, it would be the last. A wave of its hand across a pulsating pink orb activated the gargantuan engines of its ship, bright red jets of elerium thrusting the leviathan craft forward. A telepathic pulse throughout the ship woke its occupants, their stasis pods opening up as millions of crew stepped out to perform their duties.
The being turned to face twelve other Ethereals, their heads obscured by their highly-ornate helmets as they bowed in reverence to their brother. One of them, an Ethereal wearing a silver headdress, was the first to speak, "You have summoned us, High One. For what purpose have you graced us with your attention?"
The High One raised a hand to signal its fellows to stand, then turned its back towards them as it glared into the vastness of space, "The Exiles have failed to redeem themselves, destroyed by the very race they tried to ascend. From the messages they sent to me, I have learned the name of their remarkably stubborn quarry: 'humanity.'"
The other Ethereals nodded and shook their heads in disappointment as an Ethereal with "horns" on its helmet responded, "If these 'humans' were able to defeat our disgraced brothers, then they are a force to be reckoned with. We must not underestimate them as they did, High One. The invasion will have weakened their numbers and resolve, so we must act quickly to eradicate them before they are able to recover!"
"No, Izen, you must have patience. The humans will have likely awakened their psionics abilities and assimilated our weaponry. To fight them now would be foolhardy, and we mustn't be arrogant like our fallen ilk were. Before we can launch an offensive against the humans, we must first take another race into our collective," the High Ethereal told Izen as it waved a hand in dismissal.
The silver-helmeted Ethereal spoke once more, the faintest hint of frustration in its voice, "Taking in another slave race just for them to be failures like the rest? Surely you jest, High One! If the humans were able to best all of the failed races that we still use, then what chance would another slave race have against them?"
The High Ethereal swiped its hand in an arc, silencing the others as it explained, "The new race will not be like the others that have failed to ascend, Varda, as our new quarry all have the Gift from conception."
A shocked and disbelieving murmur erupted among the Ethereals, which died off as the High One continued, "These 'Equestrians,' as they call themselves, are powerful enough with the Gift to rival even us Ethereals. The strongest among them, rare individuals called 'alicorns' that live for millenia, are able to control the movement of their star and moon. With their power, we could abandon these frail bodies we now use and easily overcome the humans. If we are successful, then there will be little chance of anyone ever defeating us again!"
The Ethereals nodded and spoke words of approval, their leader gracefully levitating towards the ship's controls and entering their destination into its flight path. Once finished, he turned around to face his brethren once more, "Now, my brothers and sisters, let us prepare for what is to come! You are all dismissed."
They all dispersed and floated off in different directions while the High Ethereal remained in the bridge, staring at the holographic image of a yellow star orbiting a vibrant planet, "Soon, you will all be ours, and nothing will stop us."