Note: Written because one of my soldiers died horribly during his first encounter with an Ethereal, and I felt like he needed a story to send him off.
Your hand breaks the door (if you can call it that—a thin, translucent bluish screen, glowing iridescently.) It parts around your fingers, and you dive through, sideways.
Your neck tingles with rising hair as you squirm behind the console. There’s something here, that dreaded thud…
"Muton here!" you whisper into your radio.
"Say again?" Freestyle. She didn’t hear properly.
Thud. Thud… arrhythmic.
"Correction. Two mutons!" They’re getting closer. You check your rifle: enough juice for two shots, enough to down one… you’re not sure if you’ll have time to reload…
What is that noise? Quiet, whispery… it sends a chill down your spine. You can feel the muton. Thud, thud…
You spring up on your feet. You fire.
The thing recoils, beats its chest, but it doesn’t scare you. Not any more. You faced one down in the middle of Toronto without blinking: that’s how you ended up with XCOM in the first place.
In the first place.
The rifle beeps. Ready!
You squeeze the trigger again. Boom. The alien collapses, its form barrelling to the floor.
That’s when you see it. As you crouch again, you catch it in the corner of your eye.
Not a muton. Too small. Too slender.
Slender Man is your first thought. Sycorax is your second. A beige, gnarly, bone-like thing that passes for a face, and a tattered red cloak. It’s hovering.
You’re shivering again—not just out of fear, actual cold shudders—and you can’t take your eyes off this thing.
Tina’s on the comm again. “What’s happening? What do you see?”
You open your mouth to report as the thing floats a little closer.
Its cloak opens. Its cloak closes.
For a moment you see a flash of mauve light—and then a horrible feeling of something penetrating, snaking its way in through your mouth and your nose and your eyes and fuck you feel like—you are throwing up, doubled over, your digestive system inverting itself as your world turns purple.
"What’s happening? Mustang, get there! NOW!" You hear Tina bellowing over the comm, but it’s distant, noise in a sea of static and growling and gurgling and…
The Thing raises its hand. It has four, bony, stretchy… and as it contracts into a fist, you gasp involuntarily, swallowing your own vomit—
"Help!" you ejaculate, your blood running white-hot and cold. You can’t hear yourself scream, but you can feel it.
You’re in the classroom. Your mate Charlie made a joke, but the Mrs Banner’s there, beckoning.
"There’s people here to see you," she says, gently. You see the lights of the police car flashing outside… and your stomach turns in on itself.
A flash of understanding… and your mouth hangs open in horror as you realise what it’s doing. The mauve tendrils extend, face-fucking you in the mouth and the nose and the eyes and the ears and the mind…
"I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news," says the policeman. "Your father Stephen was hit by a car on Rectory Road earlier. The driver didn’t stop, but—"
"No, no," you weep, echoing what you said all that time ago… the Worst Day Of Your Life…
"He’s in Intensive Care. It’s not looking good," the policeman says, gently.
"God. God." You choke up, but you can’t tell why… he’s dying, dead… your dad is dead, has been for years… and you remember, realise what’s happening—
"I’m so sorry," the nurse says, touching his hand. "Your dad had extremely bad internal injuries. He didn’t make it."
"IT’S INSIDE MY HEAD!" you roar, and there’s a flash in your periphery as something—someone severs the link, and you gasp and vomit again.
You spit, trying to clear the burning sensation from your mouth and your nostrils. How did it do that? What did it do!?
You’re on all-fours, and you summon the courage to look up, through the latent tears… Mustang, in the doorway, legs astride, arm forward. An explosion of purple between them, a condensed cyclone of light and sparks and arcing.
You came through the Psi testing without a single blip on the graph. Mustapha Nur’s was perfect—but the most gifted psionic soldier humanity had produced was losing. His eyes were flaring, but he was sweating and shaking visibly.
A sudden flash of red as you regain your footing. The Elder—as you slowly process what Dr Vahlen has been barking in the comm all this time—turns its attention to Tina, braced behind the opposite doorway, her scattergun flaring.
Its hands rise. Its cloak opens.
Your blood runs hot.
"Oh, no you don’t," you spit, reaching for your rifle.
The Elder recoils. Its face swivels, and your field of vision flares purple again.
You keep your finger on the trigger.
It’s all coming back… everything. Everything in your worst nightmares.
The voices come thick and fast, the faces popping into view as formations in the flares of green plasma.
The disappointment on Mom’s face when you told her your results. The argument. The smashed family portrait. Walking out of the home with nothing more than the clothes on your back and a guitar you couldn’t even play.
You keep your finger pressed down. You don’t know how this is working. Everything you hate about yourself—every mistake, every cringe of your life—
The girlfriend you didn’t really love. The shitty attempts to dump her. The shitty attempts to pick up someone else. The desperation.
The physical pain rises up your spine, and you scream in rage as the gun rat-tat-tats against your skeleton, muzzle flaring…
The pain. Every bump. Every scrape. Every burn. Every broken bone. Every migraine. All the pain of your life in one exquisite, excruciating symphony of discord.
"Come on, ya son of a bitch!” you manage, as the purple sphere builds.
Your vision whites out, and you can’t breathe. You know it: this is the end.
The howling noise dulls into wind, then a soft breeze. The end. You can still feel it—the horrible shooting feeling up your spine, the regrets, the pain—but there’s nothing more you can do.
The magazine must be empty by now, anyway.
You feel your knees give way, and gravity snatches you from the physical world, hauling you to the ethereal with a gust of wind. You can’t see a thing—it’s all happened so fast, but there’s a shadow where the Elder is…
and another red flash, and a dull boom…
the shadow fades, and as you exhale your last breath, although you have no energy to smile,
no life left to live,
Phyrrus would be proud.