Illustration by AntiMingebag on DeviantArt

Welcome to another mission report for GURPS X-COM: Noises in the Dark! Our characters for this mission are:

  • Kendall Fairbarn: A paranoid hacker from the UK. Was completely convinced human society had been heavily infiltrated by shape-changing aliens… and it turned out he wasn’t entirely wrong.
  • Minette Duvall: A bomb-disposal expert from Southern France, Minette is also quite handy with a rifle. She’s devoutly Catholic and swears a lot when faced with danger, which is all the time.
  • Jack Choi: A former police detective from Hong Kong, and a staunch adherent of the “kick down the door” school of policing despite his light frame.
  • Sam McCall: A brave and burly former US Army Ranger, run by a new player.

Julia participates in this one as an NPC, as her player dropped out quite early in the mission.

After the voting for the strategic phase concluded and I posted the rewards for it, we entered a small hiatus as I planned the next field op. The group made a few in-character posts with scenes from the month or so in which their PCs spent recovering from the last mission.

The general tone of those is that the soldiers were somewhat traumatized by the experience, but now that it’s over they’re all itching to get another shot at the aliens. Kendall mentioned something about BRUTAL ADVENT deserving the “Golden Slenderman Award for Most Fucked-Up Story”, which I thought was amusing.

Anyway, after a suitable rest period, the squad was reorganized with some of its members being transferred out and a new one joining in. About a month after the end of BRUTAL ADVENT, they had been cleared for duty. And soon after that, they were pressed into action!

Rushed Briefing

It started with a blaring alarm waking everyone up before dawn. All members of Strike One dressed as quickly as they could, picked up the loadouts Nobby had prepared for them, and piled into the Skyranger for a rushed takeoff, all the while wondering what exactly was that they were getting into. Out-of-character, the players got to pick their gear, but the characters themselves had no time for that.

Their briefing came after they were already in the air: X-COM’s satellites had finally spotted an UFO. More than that, they had spotted four of them entering Brazilian airspace, with three of them apparently chasing the fourth. X-COM fighters stationed nearby had already been scrambled to intercept the UFOs, and the Skyranger was launched early to minimize the time it would take to reach any resulting wreckage. Their mission was to sweep downed UFOs to mop up any survivors before they reached the local population, and to collect any artifacts before said population got to them. If one of their fighters was downed instead, they were to rescue the pilot.

Over the next few hours, the squad would get periodic updates about the situation. The pair of modified F-15SEs could barely keep up with the alien craft, only managing a few inconclusive engagements. The three pursuers eventually managed to take down the fourth UFO somewhere over Minas Gerais, and disappeared soon afterward.

The crash site was bad news, plain and simple:

The area of operations. Click for a full-size version.

Now, in real life, we began playing this mission in November 2015. Just a few weeks prior, the area depicted on the map had been the site of an horrendous environmental disaster. There’s a big iron mine in that location, and they have several large reservoirs to store the toxic byproducts of the mining process. The dams on one of those reservoirs burst, and the resulting toxic flood completely destroyed a nearby small town and tainted the surrounding rivers. To clarify, this is a real life disaster that actually happened. You can see a before/after map overlay here.

This was the first instance of me using real-life events directly in the game, and even then it made me a bit uneasy. At the time, I went forward because I figured it would be a good way for me to process what happened.

Now, in-setting, it had been about five years since the disaster happened, and the clean up efforts there had never amounted to much. The reason for this became obvious once an X-COM sattelite imaged the area: it was completely covered by an alien anomaly much like the one in Cologne. As this one covered a much greater area, the squad’s goal wasn’t to shut it down, as it would likely be impossible. Their main goal was recovering the downed UFO, and a secondary goal was to bring an intact sample of one of the black trees.

Rough Landing

The group looks over the map and agrees on a landing zone: a parking lot about 2.5km north of the crash site (which is located near the red map pin in the illustration above). From there they would proceed on foot, either on a road that leads from the parking lot to the main complex, or through the forest.

The landing zone seems peaceful from afar, but it’s quite creepy up close. The squad can see many of the black trees scattered about, not only amid the native vegetation but also growing out of the asphalt on the parking lot and even on the rooftops of nearby buildings. They look like slightly smaller versions of the trees found in the first mission - black ash trees, which are in no way native to the region. The temperature on the ground is several degrees colder than it should be. The buildings they can see are all defaced, and the only vehicles in the parking lot are a couple of rusted out car husks. One of the trees has a skeleton hanging from it by the neck, and many others have human bones scattered around their roots. Interestingly, Korsakov seems unable to see the trees, though he believes that they’re there when the party tells him.

The squad finds the landscape quite unsettling, which was my intent. They approach the tree with the hanging skeleton and examine it more closely. The skeleton is real and from someone who was hung to death on that branch. It’s tied with common rope. Aside from it, the tree also has several immature mines growing on it, as well as large yellow flowers the squad hadn’t seen before.

Kendall checks the airwaves for the now familiar patterns of alien interference, and finds them all around the group. Each tree emits its own field! It also becomes clear to him that this interference seems to be actively malicious, spoofing their sensors for maximum scare value. Listen to the static long enough and it begins to call out your name, but you’re the only one who can hear it.

Minette manages to cut the skeleton down without disturbing the mines, and with the help of the others she proceeds to brace one of the tree’s largest branches with rope and belts so she can cut it down with the chainsaw Nobby thoughtfully loaded into the Skyranger for just such an occasion.

As soon as she begins cutting, though, all the black trees in the area seem to have their branches shaken by a strong wind, though there is no wind at all. The yellow flowers begin to bloom, and then it’s like someone skipped ahead in a video as they suddenly look like large cocoons that open up and disgorge unclothed but fully armed puppet soldiers!

The ensuing firefight is quite brutal, as no one has decent cover in this open parking lot. The PCs drop what they’re doing and begin a fighting retreat towards the Skyranger, which is still landed in the middle of the lot. They take several hits on their trauma plates, and the puppets seem to immediately wise up to their armor as they begin aiming lower and manage to score a hit on Minette, crippling her leg. After that, they get a little reckless, and the PCs manage to keep their cool and kill all the opposition.

Julia (who by now was an NPC) treats Minette’s wound while the rest of the PCs manages to cut down the tree branch. I think it’s safe to say that this puts a damper on their original plan to torch every tree they come across. Julia’s ministrations recover most of Minette’s lost HP, but her mobility is still impaired and they have a 2.5km walk to look forward to. At this point, Minette’s player decides to switch to Julia for the rest of the mission, leaving their original character to guard the Skyranger. The squad packs the branch and a couple of the more intact puppet corpses into the craft, and proceed with the mission. What they found next will be told in Part 2!