Author’s Note: If you’re unfamiliar, XCOM is a strategy game that places you in control of XCOM, fighting against alien invaders. Lily Shen is from XCOM 2, at which point the aliens have already taken over, but a small band of resistance fighters, including Lily, continue to fight against them.
The Avenger slept. Beneath the moonlit night, it sat nestled within a canyon, deep enough to avoid Advent scanners, wide enough to allow for an emergency take-off in case it didn’t. Within its alien geometries and cavernous rooms, its massive power plant throbbed and hummed.
A few unlucky rookies on watch duty kept each other awake on the bridge with coffee and stories of missions both successful and failed. Everyone else was in bed, either sleeping or fucking. Everyone except for Lily Shen, Chief Engineer, that is, who was working alone in the Proving Ground, in sore need of both.
“Think this’ll do it, ROV-R,” she commented to the small robot hovering beside her, who whirred affirmatively. “Alright, test it out. Just a quick blast.”
ROV-R turned towards the articulated mannequin wearing a prototype E.X.O. Suit. The mannequin lifted its arm at a painted Viper target and pulled the trigger for the wrist-mounted flamethrower.
After Lily had put out the fire from the explosion, she sighed deeply. “We’ve got a problem, ROV-R ... Any ideas?”
The Gremlin beeped and chirped. “You’re right! I forgot about those. I don’t think Dad ever got the chance to build one for real before ... But I remember he had notes on powered armor that utilized flamethrower weaponry. With his notes, I bet I can get this thing working in time for that supply raid.
“Dad’s notes ... where did I leave them?”
ROV-R whistled. “Great...” The Shadow Chamber ... Central would give her an earful if he caught her in there without an armed escort. The last soldier who had dared had been reassigned to a New Arctic reconnaissance base indefinitely. It could probably wait until morning...
... But that would be half a day wasted. And that convoy could leave for Berlin any moment. Even a delay of a few hours could be the difference between the strike team having a new weapon or not.
“ROV-R, disable the security cameras outside and inside the Shadow Chamber,” she instructed, grabbing a pistol from its rack and her bag of tools. “Anyone asks, we’re there to fix the cameras. And if we get caught in the Shadow Chamber ... well, I’ll come up with something.”
Lily opened the door to the Shadow Chamber. “Stay here, ROV-R. Keep guard. I’ll be right back,” she instructed the Gremlin. She walked inside. Unsleeping monitors bathed the room in an eldritch, amethyst glow. It was cold, far chillier than the rest of the Avenger. Even at the best of times, the room was unsettling. Alone, at night? It was downright creepy. Not even the mag pistol on her hip gave her much comfort.
Of course, Lily mused, had she actually been alone, it would have been far preferable. But the room contained one other occupant. Sealed within a reinforced-glass cylinder in the center of the room was Subject Gamma. His long, pallid body curled up within the container, his mazarine stripes and ebony spikes the only color on that ivory form.
Bradford has christened him the Viper King, but Lily personally disapproved of the name. She saw nothing kingly in that king’s behavior. It was a monster, plain and simple. It had killed Sergeant Liu when XCOM had first discovered his nest, and would have murdered Bradford, too, were it not for a lucky shot with an antiquated arc thrower that had stunned the monster long enough for it to be retrieved alive. As it was, it had broken two of Bradford’s ribs. Keeping something so dangerous on board the ship just to satisfy the doctor’s curiosity struck Lily as idiocy bordering on the suicidal, but the commander had assented to Tygan’s bold undertaking, and that was that.
At the very least, Lily had ensured that the Shadow Chamber was well-equipped to hold the serpent. Sometimes she thought that she should find some Schadenfreude in the doctor’s experiments on Gamma, but despite its monstrosity, she could derive no joy from its pain and imprisonment. It should be euthanized and dissected. But if the doctor could save a single human’s life or shorten the war by a single day through his studies, then it was for the greater good, she reasoned. Didn’t mean she liked it.
Lily crept past the fogged glass. Within, Gamma stirred lazily, its pallid body slithering over itself. Its black eyes watched Lily’s movements closely. She shuddered. The beast looked like an enormous python, with two thin, reptilian arms, and a spiked, cobra-like hood. Without its armor, it looked like nothing more than a cryptid, a beast forgotten by man and science. But she knew that its mind was as dangerous as any other alien’s, probably more so. If Doctor Vahlen’s recovered notes were correct, Gamma was more intelligent than any species yet encountered, including humanity.
“Get in, grab the notes, get out,” Lily whispered to herself. She didn’t want to spend a moment longer near that thing than necessary. She spied the datapad on the shelf where she had left it, its contents more valuable than anyone or anything on the Avenger, besides the Commander himself: the research notes of her late father, Raymond Shen.
It had been he who had resurrected the Avenger, turned an abandoned wreck into a mobile resistance base. It had been he, with the help of Bradford, who had turned XCOM from a pitiful bunch of vandals and vigilantes into an actual rebellion against the Elders. Ever since his passing, the Avenger had felt ... empty. Like its soul was missing, as unscientific as that sounded. It was a heavy burden to succeed her father, but a necessary one. She would complete what he had started and restore humanity’s freedom, or she would die trying.
She grabbed the datapad and turned towards the door. A sudden creak froze her in her steps. The glass cylinder was now entirely opaque with frost. A loud, thunderous thwump shook the room as Gamma’s tail struck the glass, sending the room’s assortment of display screens shivering. Again, the beast struck, and this time, as his tail vanished into the mist, it left behind a crack that slowly crawled across the glass, the tiny clinkling of its passage seeming to echo through the otherwise silent room.
Lily ran, but the final blow smashed through the weakened glass, and a chunk of Gamma’s former cage struck her leg, knocking her to the ground. The datapad clattered to the floor and slid under one of the tables.
With a speed that seemed impossible for his size, Gamma slithered out of the chamber. It looked at Lily, then the door. It darted towards it.
“I hope this is worth it,” Lily thought. She slammed her hand onto the nearby emergency door lock. Eight inches of door slammed down, trapping Gamma inside. With her. Perfect...
Gamma tried to break through the door as it had the glass, but it was no use. Even it, with his hideous strength, couldn’t so much as dent it. It turned back towards Lily with fury in his eyes. It approached slowly. Her leg was still bleeding. She tried to scrabble backwards, but she bumped up against a workbench. There was nowhere to hide from the monster.
.... There is more of this story ...