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XCOM: The Atlas Protocol

Chapter Text

 

This story is based on XCOM: Enemy Within with the Long War mod

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This story may contain material some may find disturbing

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This story is a sequel to XCOM: The Hades Contingency

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I do not own any characters explicitly mentioned in XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within/2

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Beta Reader: Johnclaw Dragonhelm

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Dramatis Personae

(Please note that not all characters are listed)

            The Commander -       Commander of the XCOM Project

            John Bradford -           Central Officer of XCOM Analysis and Communications

            Raymond Shen -          Head of XCOM Engineering

            Moira Vahlen -            Head of XCOM Research and Development

            Shaojie Zhang -           Director of XCOM Intelligence

            Peter Van Doorn -       Tactical Advisor to the Commander

            Abigail Gertrude -       XCOM Intelligence Agent

            Patricia Trask -            XCOM Squad Overseer

            Annette Durand -        EXALT Test Subject

            Patrick Rush -              United Nations Liaison

            Saudia Vyandar -         Director of EXALT

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Synopsis of XCOM: The Hades Contingency

In December of 2014 the entire population of a small town in Florida went missing without a trace or explanation. Publically, the incident was covered up and silenced when a powerful subsection of United Nations, known only as the Council of Nations, quietly stepped in. The Council discovered that their worst fears were coming to pass, what had happened was the result of alien activity and that only meant one thing: An invasion was coming.

In response, the Council officially activated the XCOM Project, a secretive paramilitary organization created specifically in the event of an extraterrestrial invasion. Despite being more advanced than the militaries of Earth and composed of the best soldiers in the world, the Council knew that they would need someone to lead it. Someone who would do whatever to took to defend the human race.

One such person existed. Only known as the Commander, he’d been imprisoned by the United Nations for nearly a decade for war crimes committed in a crusade against terrorism. A brilliant, deadly and ruthless leader, the Council knew that he dangerous, but also knew he was their best chance to survive. His appointment wasn’t without conflict, but eventually the Council allowed the Commander to assume control of the XCOM Project on the condition that he would answer directly to the Council.

The Commander accepted and immediately began working to increase the military and technical strength of XCOM. The first few months involved multiple alien abductions which the Commander responded to by sending squads of soldiers to investigate, though despite their expertise, not even XCOM was able to keep their missions free of casualties. But with each successful mission, XCOM learned more from their technology and utilized that knowledge to its fullest potential.

Throughout this time, the Commander began working to implement an Intelligence division into XCOM, though time constraints and other responsibilities prevented him from doing so. The Council quickly learned that the Commander was not the obedient subordinate they had hoped as he flatly refused to supply the Council with alien technology recovered and further antagonized them when he refused to turn in Shaojie Zhang, a man wanted by the Council. Not only did he refuse to follow the directive, he appointed Zhang Director of the new Intelligence Division within XCOM without the Council’s knowledge.

Despite victories against the aliens on the ground, the extraterrestrial beings made their influence known in other ways. XCOM soon realized that Germany was targeted by the aliens for destabilization. Within weeks the country was whipped into a state of fear and the Commander had Zhang use his agents to determine the cause.

In anticipation for the worst, the Commander began making alliances with high-ranking German military leaders as well as gaining the support of non-Council nations such as Israel in exchange for alien technology to expand XCOM’s influence and authority.

After capturing several people responsible for the destabilization of Germany, they were interrogated and revealed that not only had the aliens been responsible, but the Council as well, though it appeared to have not been the original intention. Another mysterious organization was also identified, though the Commander only learned a name: EXALT.

The events in Germany culminated with the aliens attacking Hamburg and massacring thousands of civilians before XCOM was able to stop them, losing several more soldiers in the process. Fearing another attack, Germany withdrew from the Council and began negotiations with the aliens. In response, the Commander initiated the Hades Contingency, a final effort to ensure the country didn’t fall under alien control.

Despite the high civilian casualties, it succeeded and the Germany became an official ally of XCOM, much to the chagrin of the Council, some of whom made their opposition more public. In response, the Commander learned the name of a Councilor allied against him and paid the councilor a visit, threatening to expose his involvement in Germany if they continued interfering.

The following months involved a massive offensive against the alien forces where the Commander led XCOM to a string of several major victories against the invaders. Alien transports and UFOs were shot down and raided mercilessly, though the list of dead soldiers continued growing as well. In response to these victories, the aliens sent a dreadnaught to China with the intent to raze the city.

XCOM learned of the impending attack and quickly assembled a squad of their best soldiers. In coordination with the Chinese and Japanese military, they diverted the dreadnought and boarded the ship. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the XCOM soldiers crashed the dreadnought into a city. Removing the threat, but also killing almost a quarter of the population.

Realizing the Commander had been given too much autonomy, the Council sent a representative to reestablish their authority and ensure their will was known.  A week after the attack, an alien substance that had been recovered throughout the war was thoroughly researched and dubbed as MELD by the science and engineering divisions. The Commander immediately ordered then to begin work on implementing it into their arsenal. Meanwhile, the enigmatic organization known as EXALT prepares to move against XCOM, though not before gathering allies.

 

             

           

Chapter Text

 

The Bastion, Antarctica

Saudia Vyandar stood in front of the small hologlobe resting on the conference table, the image slowly rotating on its axis.

It was rather incredible, she mused while watching the world spin, how much times had changed in such a relatively short span of time. The War on Terror had been the only recent event that had nearly given them the opening they needed to shatter the countries apart. It was unfortunate that it hadn’t worked out quite like she hoped, but even their reach had limits.

Even so, she still wasn’t quite sure if she could count that event as a failed operation or if they simply hadn’t invested enough resources to begin with. The extent of their involvement had been planting agents within some of the terror cells and maneuvering them into positions of influence while encouraging the scattered cells to unite. They had enough ranking agents in the Saudi government to make funding the unification possible and were nearly untraceable thanks to EXALT’s shell companies and banks.

But after that initial investment…EXALT had quietly watched as the terrorists united better that they could have possibly hoped. It was unfortunate that truly organized fanatics were much rarer these days, as they were by far the best to work with. They were easily predictable, loyal, and genuinely believed they were fighting for some higher power.

Saudia smiled in derision as she reflected on that. Idiots, all of them. But useful idiots who, while probably not conquering the world as their god dictated, would have made enough of an impact that EXALT could begin making deeper inroads into the United Nations, America, Russia and China.

Of course, everything had gone downhill after the so-called “Commander” appeared pretty much out of nowhere. Solaris has told her that he was positive that the Commander had been an American special forces operative, which seemed to explain who was supporting him. Regardless, she had watched with rather morbid fascination as the Commander had proved himself every bit as ruthless and barbaric as the terrorists he was fighting.

But he’d proven to be a highly intelligent tactician as well, and she was fairly certain that his terror tactics were less of an innate sadism, and more like an accurate reading of what would have the most effect. Not that it made his version of warfare any less barbaric; if she tried waging a war like that, there was no doubt the Families would remove her immediately, if not execute her.

True, there had been some discussion on becoming more involved after the massacre in the Caliphate’s capital. But she’d ultimately decided against it as another operation would accomplish nothing except to waste more resources. It was clear that the Caliphate weren’t going to advance into any civilized country, especially after the United Nations finally stepped in. Combined with the Commander, it was only a matter of time before the Caliphate would be finished.

To her though, it was slightly annoying that the Commander had been a little too thorough in his victory. The destruction of Mecca, combined with the actions of the Caliphate as a whole, had essentially reduced the Islamic religion’s influence to a shadow of its former self. Unfortunately, it made the exploitation of Islamic-World relations an unwise use of resources, due to the reduced demographic.

So that had been a loss for sure. But one they could recover from, and they’d taken the opportunity to plant some more operatives within the United Nations. EXALT had known about the Council and the XCOM project for years, but quite honestly, never thought about investing too many resources into controlling it. The possibility of an alien invasion was a low one, especially with the state the world had been in.

Saudia shut off the hologlobe and walked away towards the window displaying the vast Antarctic wasteland. She inwardly sighed as she noted a snow picking up speed and whipping around with the wind. A storm. Great, just what she needed today.

She brushed her hair back and crossed her arms. Well, nothing she could do about that. Returning to her rumination, there had been one thing out of the whole war that had come out in their favor. Once the war was over, the United Nations decided to hunt down the Commander and his soldiers. A sentiment she could understand, and had even considered sending some of her own to help them. But it had turned out to be unneeded as the Commander had unexpectedly surrendered.

Saudia had been honestly surprised. It showed a surprising degree of acceptance to do that, especially knowing that it was going to lead to execution. Which was probably why the Commander had also negotiated for the lives of his soldiers as well, thinking that the United Nations would hold to their word. And had that condition come from anyone but the Commander, it likely would have been upheld.

But it turned out that even the United Nations had their limits, and sent most of the soldiers to the remaining Middle Eastern countries for “trial.” Which had given EXALT the perfect opportunity to gain some of the most skilled soldiers in the world. Extracting soldiers of that caliber from prisons across the world had been one of the more expensive operations in recent years, but she felt it was worth the cost. It hadn’t been hard to convince the men and woman imprisoned of the failings of the United Nations after their hypocrisy was exposed. EXALT hadn’t been able to extract every soldier, sadly, but in the end EXALT had gained twenty elite soldiers from the Commander’s ranks.

One of them now her husband.

Extracting the Commander himself had been out of the question. But she had received numerous reports from multiple sources that he’d been executed. Perhaps it was for the best; she wasn’t sure she would have been able to trust the man to not make an attempt to remove her if he was dissatisfied with her leadership.

All that had led to almost a decade of relative peace where they’d worked planting agents, influencing events and expanding their reach further than ever. The continued globalism and interconnectivity only made things easier to spread their influence.

Then the aliens had invaded.

Although that term felt incorrect. This was less of an invasion and more of an incursion. An invasion would have involved an army marching on Earth with the intent to conquer them. And while she had no illusions as to that being the alien’s ultimate goal, there weren’t here just to conquer. They had something else in mind, given that they’d hadn’t publically revealed themselves until the Hamburg attack. She’d seen their technology, and it was far superior to their own.

If the aliens really wanted to, they could win this war within weeks. But instead they were holding back.

This gave EXALT the best opportunity in decades.

This invasion would be a catalyst for the direction humanity wished to take. They would either unite as one species and defeat the scourge coming to take their world, or they would collapse and the aliens would scatter them to the winds.

Uniting would ultimately solve nothing. The best that could happen is that the aliens would be defeated. But she always looked at the bigger picture and she knew that within years the infighting, squabbles and wars that had plagued humanity since the beginning of time would simply resurface and the cycle would repeat again.

There was only one solution. The world had to be broken, defeated and scattered. The countries and superpowers of the world must descend into anarchy before true unity could come. Humans valued their independence too much for their own good and once they had lost everything, then they would be ready to accept new leadership.

The leadership of EXALT.

This had always been their goal, but there hadn’t been a sufficient event that could have brought this about. World War II had been the closest, but their influence hadn’t been sufficient to ensure the Axis powers acquired and used nuclear weaponry.

But an alien invasion? There would never be another opportunity like this.

There was only one force that stood in their way: XCOM.

The paramilitary organization had proven to be unexpectedly effective in the war with the aliens. Its small personnel numbers and obscurity had made it almost impossible to effectively infiltrate, forcing them to work with information from aides to the members of the Council.

What she knew for sure: XCOM had between twenty and thirty soldiers, was far beyond them in terms of technology, and that their Commander was surprisingly competent and secretive. What was most interesting to her were reports of tension between this Commander and the Council he reported to. She wouldn’t have thought the United Nations would have put someone in charge who wouldn’t adhere to their agenda.

Further complicating matters was the unusual secrecy surrounding not just the Commander, but XCOM in general. They was getting their soldiers from somewhere, likely from special forces units across the world, but all of it was conducted in secret. The small number of active soldiers also made it impractical to try and determine which ones had been recruited.

She scowled to herself. There was one high-level operative within the Council of Nations that would be able to answer all these questions, but due increased risk of scrutiny, she’d decreed that he only report in once a year and through pre-recorded messages so as not to blow his cover. He was the culmination of decades of work and there was no way she was going to risk blowing his cover for the sake of more frequent updates. Still, it was irritating in times like these. But the date was coming up soon, so in the meantime, they’d just have to manage.

But they had to defeat XCOM to bring about the fall of the world and unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to do it alone. As much as she hated to admit it, EXALT didn’t have the time, resources or technology to defeat XCOM and be able to deal with the aliens after, not to mention dealing with the remaining governments.

So the Families had convened and reached a decision: A temporary alliance with the aliens, who they would direct at XCOM and the United Nations. While the aliens did the hard work, they would learn the secrets of alien technology and go far beyond what XCOM could hope to achieve. When the aliens finally removed the last semblance of organized human government, then they would strike, unite humanity under their leadership and eradicate the aliens.

Rather simplistic, when she thought of it that way. Put into practice, it would be far more complex and fluid, but that was the ultimate goal. They’d reached out to some of the alien doppelgangers EXALT had identified and expressed interest in an alliance. After the destruction of the dreadnaught, they’d received a message back asking for details.

Today was the day they were scheduled to arrive.

Saudia turned as the door hissed open behind her and Ethan walked through with his customary casualness. Her husband did look rather dashing in his dress uniform, which to anyone else, would just appear to a black suit, tie and pants. Not exactly what most assumed to be military attire, though appearances could be deceiving. Every EXALT soldier wore Kevlar-woven pants, combat boots and a concealed breastplate. The suits themselves had been treated as well to be resistant to extreme elements such as fire and acid. It was a hallmark of EXALT to be as professional as possible and that extended to their soldiers as well.

Of course, there was a reason these were their dress uniforms. They were rarely worn into actual combat, EXALT soldiers had actual protection in that case. But when greeting an alien race, dress uniforms were warranted.

Saudia frowned as she took a closer look. “You didn’t check your eye.” She noted, walking over. Ethan Vyandar, formerly Ethan Delger, raised an eyebrow in mock concern.

“Is it really that noticeable?” He asked in mock exasperation. “I can see fine.”

She sighed and reached up to his eye and moved it until it rotated the right way and it fit snug into eye socket. Ethan probably was right, very few would notice, as the mechanical eye was almost identical to the real thing. Well, she noticed and it would bother her the rest of the day if she left it.

Stepping back, she appraised her handiwork. “You can see fine?”

“Perfectly.” He confirmed with exaggerated exasperation.

She nodded and smiled. “Excellent. Now I can say you look good.”

He inclined his head. “Thank you very much. You look very…” he paused, searching for the word. “Regal.”

She smirked at that. It was clearly flattery, though she could see why he chose that particular word. Though remembering how she looked in the mirror, she had to agree that she didn’t look that bad. Her own dress uniform consisted of black pants and a long-sleeved close-necked suit.  

It complimented her black skin nicely and contrasted well with the red sash that ran up to her right shoulder, displaying nothing but the EXALT logo. On her right shoulder was a red, ceremonial one-shoulder cape that fell to her waist. Highly impractical, but she had to admit it was striking, as with all EXALT attire.

“I should hope so,” Saudia answered. “I only wear this thing maybe once a year.”

“You should wear it more often,” he commented, leaning on the wall and looking her up and down. “It suits you.”

It likely did, but she still preferred more practical attire. Well, something to consider once the important work was done. “Do you think I should have put my hair up?” She asked, twisting a strand of raven hair in her finger.

“Nah,” Ethan shook his head and walked over to the window overlooking the empty Antarctic wasteland. “If we were going into combat, certainly. But not during a peaceful visitation.”

“Agreed.” She walked up beside him and they looked out the window together.

He looked at her as she stood by his side. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important,” he said. “You looked rather deep in thought.”

She shook her head. “Nothing important, just…reminiscing.”

“A fitting time to do so,” he agreed, then grew more serious. “Are you ready?” He asked quietly, not looking back outside at the fresh snow.

“Of course,” she answered immediately. “We’ve plotted out every scenario imaginable. But I don’t think the aliens will cause trouble.”

“Not at first,” Ethan amended quickly.

“Not a first,” she repeated. “But the Families all agreed that this was the best course of action. If the aliens become hostile, we’ll deal with them.”

“Who do you think they’ll send?” Ethan asked, a curious lilt in his voice. “I somehow doubt the leaders themselves will honor us with their presence.”

She smiled in amusement at his snark. “I agree. I suspect they’ll send one of those thin men to negotiate.”

Ethan snorted. “I know XCOM popularized that particular designation, but I don’t think that term can be applied to the latest wave of doppelgängers. The aliens can create realistic humans now, not all of them thin either.”

“They may look like humans,” Saudia pointed out. “But there’s always something distinctly alien about the way they move and speak. But you’re right, the aliens have stepped up their tactics. I’ll have to consult with the Families to devise measures to reduce infiltration of our own.”

“I’m honestly surprised you were able to convince all of them to agree to this in the first place,” he commented wistfully. “Matthew, Darian and Hasina of course, but what of the rest?”

“Zara was easy,” she explained dismissively with a wave of her hand. “She jumped at the chance to improve our arsenal and technology. Not to mention upgrading the training grounds.”

“I’d imagine she also wanted to pit her soldiers against XCOM,” Ethan added, nodding. “She’s probably ecstatic at the possibility of a legitimate threat.”

Saudia had also gotten that impression when talking to the head of the Venator Family. It was an understandable, though dangerous motivation, as her entire job involved overseeing the military arm of EXALT. One which Saudia had regularly avoided using. There were so many other ways to solve problems than just sending soldiers to kill people, something Zara had a difficult time understanding.

“What of Elizabeth and Diguon?” Ethan asked. “After what happened in Germany…”

“Elizabeth failed in Germany because of XCOM,” Saudia reminded him. “Focusing on the revenge angle seemed to do the trick. She knows her position is tenuous and this offers her a chance of redemption.”

Ethan shook his head as he remembered. “I can’t believe she botched the operation that badly. We lost a chance of directly influencing a Council Nation. Now we don’t have much of chance since they broke from the Council and work with XCOM directly.”

Saudia sighed. “In her defense, I don’t think any of us were expecting XCOM to abduct all the protestor leaders. It was…a surprisingly tactical move.”

“But they shouldn’t have talked,” Ethan stated firmly. “That is more concerning than that they were taken in the first place.” His jaw tightened. “I’ve stated repeatedly that it’s a mistake to recruit untested civilians. Lo and behold, someone talked and screwed our entire operation there.”

“I was there when you gave that speech to her,” Saudia remembered as she moved in front of him and leaned into his chest. “You don’t need to repeat it.”

“Sorry,” he apologized, putting his arms around her shoulders, being careful not to bump off her cape which she appreciated. “Alright, what about Diguon? He was the toughest, right?”

“That entire family is difficult,” she muttered. “Half of them want an alliance, the other half wants to watch and wait.”

“They really should split,” Ethan commented as they watched the storm pick up. “The family is too big.”

Saudia shook her head. “No. You know the agreement. One family, one continent. If we break up Asia, what would stop the rest of the Families from splitting up every time there is a disagreement? I don’t know the solution, but dividing territory isn’t the answer.”

“If you say so.” Ethan was clearly unconvinced, but she let it slide. “Regardless, how did you convince him?”

“Practicality,” she answered. “Refusing to go along would put him at odds with the rest of the other families, including the Russian side of his. Combined with XCOM shooting down that dreadnaught in China and forcing a contest for the wreckage, he has enough issues without risking my displeasure.”

“I’m impressed.” Ethan rested his head on her shoulder. “It’s almost a shame no one will know this historic event.”

“Flatterer,” she chided, turning around and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’re biased.”

“Maybe,” he shrugged with a smile. “But remember, I served with the Commander. That has to give my opinion some merit.”

“Perhaps,” she admitted. “Martel is in his room, right?”

He nodded. “Secured and with guards at the door. The aliens won’t even know he exists.”

She pursed her lips. “Good. Though I’d prefer he wasn’t here at all. You explained to him why?”

“I did,” Ethan confirmed. “He seemed oddly excited about the whole thing.”

“I can sympathize,” Saudia said wearily. “But exciting isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear from him.”

“He’s seven,” Ethan reminded her. “Give him some slack.”

“He’s going to succeed me,” she countered, her tone hardening. “Which means I’m holding him to a higher standard.”

“Well, you can talk to him afterward,” Ethan placated holding up his hands. “I’m sure he’ll be eager to talk-“

His words were interrupted by a pinging from his wrist. Ethan pressed his wrist communicator and held it to his mouth. “Chief Operative Vyandar, what’s the status?”

“Inform the Director we have detected the alien aircraft approaching the designated coordinates.” A voice answered.

“Understood,” Ethan nodded. “Prepare the welcoming party. The Director will be notified at once.” He clicked off the wrist communicator and looked at Saudia grimly. “Showtime.”

“Aye,” she agreed, striding over to the black leather gloves lying on the table and fitted them on. “Let’s hope this goes well.”

“Well, I’m quite interested to meet our new alien allies,” Ethan countered lightly, then waved a hand toward the door. “After you, Director.”

Then both of them walked out the door to prepare for the arrival.

***

Times like these Saudia was grateful she’d taken the same training regiments her soldiers went through. It certainly made the cold easier to bear, even if the temperatures were sub-zero. At the very least, she wouldn’t have to spend nearly a week in these conditions again. But a half-hour at most? Even the lowest soldier could handle that.

The Elite of EXALT stood behind her, twelve of the best men and woman serving in their military division. Each of them at the highest physical form the human body could attain and with at least a dozen operations completed. Once again Saudia was grateful that her family had been blessed with unusual height. Standing at six-foot-three, she was taller than most of the soldiers behind her. A trait that helped emphasize her image and authority as Director.

As they stood stoically behind her, she tried recalling how diverse this unit was. A mentally taxing task if not for the distinguishing bandannas each of them wore concealing the lower half of their faces.

While no longer utilized for such crude means, the use of bandannas had roots deep in EXALT history. Bandannas had first been used in a time when EXALT had acquired much of its wealth through more…uncivilized means. Saudia personally didn’t see the need to keep a memento like that alive, though she didn’t see a practical reason to end the tradition. Besides, it allowed for some individuality within the ranks.

The first EXALT bandannas had been one solid color with no meaning behind it. Now from a glance, one could tell which continent they were from, which family they belonged to and other decorations of service. It allowed for some interesting combinations. She glanced over at Ethan’s blue bandanna with the Vyandar symbol embroidered into the sides.

An American joining the African family wasn’t exactly unprecedented, but it had been unusual enough to raise some eyebrows. Intercontinental recruitment was something she was hoping to change in the future. Unfortunately, most of the families tended to recruit from their own continent instead of looking beyond. It was something that she’d tried to normalize when she’d been head of the Vyandar family. Unfortunately, after she’d taken the mantel of Director, Hasina had assumed her position.

She loved her sister, but her views were more…traditional…than she agreed with. A glint in the sky caught her attention and they all watched attentively as the alien craft landed gently in front of them roughly ten meters away.

XCOM called them “UFO’s,” a clichéd term she felt was grossly unprofessional, though a quick glance at the craft could explain what inspired them to use that archaic word. The craft in front of her was circular and symmetrical as far as she could tell. It wasn’t that large either, she suspected it was one of the scout variety.

It emitted a low hum that somehow penetrated the whipping wind and snow, probably an aftereffect of the craft’s engine. The shimmering multicolored shield that covered the entrance to the craft suddenly receded and two hulking creatures stepped out. None of her soldiers so much as blinked; they were too disciplined for that, but the creatures were intimidating even from a distance.

They were almost half as tall as the craft itself not counting their ornate headgear. They appeared to stand just over three meters. The crimson armor they wore appeared to cover every vulnerability she could see from a cursory glance. Their faces were obscured by a pointed and spiked helmet that reminded her of the old tribal masks of archaic African tribes.

From what she could tell, these appeared to be an enhanced version of the green armored aliens XCOM had encountered. While the green ones had seemed to her as shock troops, these were the leaders. She wondered if their intelligence had been enhanced as well. A shame the aliens likely wouldn’t let them experiment on their subjects.

Four of the hulking aliens walked out and stood symmetrically in front of the entrance, two on each side. Each carried a plasma cannon nearly as tall as her and probably as heavy. Grenades were strapped to their waist and several other weapons were attached to their back, indicating their enormous strength. Scrap the leader theory, these appeared to be the living embodiment of tanks.

The two groups stared at each other, neither making the first move. Saudia didn’t mind. Her soldiers would stand their indefinitely until she gave orders, if it was a test of patience the aliens wanted, she would gladly give it to them. She knew the one she was to meet had not yet disembarked.

Sure enough, a new figure stepped onto the white snow. Even though she kept her face a mask of indifference, it was tempting to curl her lip in disgust at the abomination before her. The doppelganger, what XCOM had dubbed a “Thin Man,” stood before her. Though this one was different from the suited disproportionate aliens they’d observed.

The alien before her was a near perfect recreation of what an actual well-built human would look like. As tall as her, he was lean and fit, not to mention impeccably dressed. It was similar to the dress uniforms of EXALT in a way. Black pants, dress shoes and a suit with a higher collar than normal. Still, the aliens hadn’t been able to entirely erase the discolored spots around his neck.

The face bore a welcoming, almost human smile, though the eyes were concealed by spectacles. She cocked her head slightly as she thought she saw thin blue lines scrolling on the right lens. Information, perhaps? His wavy hair whipped in the wind, but it had clearly been orderly a few minutes ago.

The thin man walked until he reached the front of his entourage, hands folded together in front of him. He glanced briefly at the aliens at his side, then kept walking forward and they fell into step behind him. The alien kept walking until her was directly in front of her.

“Director,” the alien greeted in a warm voice as he inclined his head slightly toward her. It was disconcerting how human he sounded. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” she replied cordially and extended a hand. Not missing a beat, the alien took her gloved hand in his bare one. It was a firm handshake, showing that the aliens were at least somewhat familiar with human customs. Inclining her head towards him, she finished. “Welcome to the Bastion.”

The alien looked behind her at the impressive snow-covered fortress behind her. The four-storied building, reinforced with steel and stone, housed the brain of all EXALT activity. Dozens of auto-turrets were built throughout the building to be activated at a moment’s notice if a hostile army invaded, and a dozen AA guns rested on the roof to shoot them out of the sky.

“I assume that the conditions in there are more hospitable,” the alien commented. “I would suggest we move in, Director. We have much to discuss.”

On that they agreed. “As you say,” she responded and began walking toward the entrance. The alien took a place beside her and kept her pace, all the EXALT soldiers following close behind. The alien soldiers didn’t move to follow, instead going back into their craft.

The alien glanced behind him with a disinterested, almost haughty look, then looked forward again. “Tell your soldiers not to follow, our conversation is not for them.”

She raised an eyebrow. “They are trustworthy, each and every one of them. Your concern is unneeded.”

“I insist,” he repeated, smile fading as they approached the entrance as snow whipped around them. “My instructions were to speak to you only. It doesn’t matter their qualifications or trustworthiness, those do not supersede my orders.”

Fair enough. It wasn’t as though she was going to keep what she learned a secret. She’d humor the alien if he wished. “Very well,” Saudia conceded, then turning to face her entourage, continued. “Return to your posts, I’ll call if needed.”

They nodded and left without a word. They knew she could take care of herself if threatened. The door to the Bastion opened and she and the alien walked in together.

***

They walked noiselessly on the red carpet. Paintings depicting certain events in EXALT’s history lined the walls, which the alien kept glancing at as they slowly walked down the hallway. The high ceilings and hanging chandeliers were ornaments more suited for a mansion than a fortress, but EXALT had never held to the idea of mutual exclusivity. “What is your name?” She asked the alien.

“Unimportant,” he answered without looking at her. “But you may address me as the Speaker of the Elders.”

Ah, useful information already. “The Elders are your superiors, I assume?”

The Speaker wrinkled his nose. “If you would like to use such a…crude…term, yes. Though that is a poor description.”

“Then perhaps you could clarify,” she suggested. “We are here to learn from each other after all.”

“Very well,” the Speaker conceded. “Sharing some of our history is permitted. The usage of the word elder doesn’t have the same correlation in your language. A better term would be infinite, simply because they have existed for millennia and longer.” His tone turned reverent as he continued. “They are not just our superiors, they are our guides, masters and leaders.”

He paused in front of a painting and observed it. “I have read your history. Your myths of the Greek and Roman gods were especially intriguing. An apt comparison I suppose, your ancestors lived believing that gods existed and utilized their power to wage war against each other, hidden away in the sky. Ours walk among us and dispense their wisdom freely.”

He turned to look at her, his smooth face hard and serious. “I do not believe you comprehend the honor you have received.”

She managed to keep her face clear of what she was feeling. She couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed by the revelation, at least from this particular alien, that at least some of the alien races appeared to be religious fanatics serving the whims of a select few “gods.” These Elders were likely just highly intelligent beings who knew how to breed fanaticism and loyalty.

“I confess,” she finally admitted. “I wasn’t quite sure our message would reach you.”

“Recent events have forced us to…reevaluate,” the Speaker admitted, some annoyance in his voice. “Humanity had proven more difficult to subdue than we anticipated.”

“Not humanity,” she corrected, shaking her head. “XCOM.”

“Yes,” the alien answered, a slight hiss on the s. “XCOM is an unexpected obstacle. One that we will overcome, along with your help.”

“We will do our best to assist against XCOM and the United Nations,” Saudia promised. “However-“

“You will need technology,” the Speaker finished with a wry grin, not looking at her. “Our technology.”

“XCOM has advanced beyond us,” Saudia continued, not missing a beat. “If we wish to pose a credible threat, we need to match them.”

“Never fear,” the Speaker promised. “We will provide you with whatever you desire. The Elders are generous with their allies and are interested in seeing how the enlightened of humanity will utilize them.”

That was easy. Far too easy. There was no way the aliens would place unlimited resources at their disposal without some kind of catch. Unless the aliens actually were being truthful and hopelessly naïve. And while she might believe the alien before her was capable of such naivety, she was doubtful the so-called Elders were as well.

“I suspect you want something in return.” She responded, clasping her hands behind her back.

“We have only need of your information,” the Speaker answered. “The Elders have no need of your wealth, soldiers or weapons. They are also interested in humans with the Gift.”

She raised an eyebrow. “The Gift?”

“You have dubbed it as “psionics”,” the Speaker clarified. “If you have people who can utilize that power, we would request several to observe and cultivate.”

Well that was interesting. But she didn’t see the need to quite reveal everything quite yet. “If I may ask a question?”

He looked at her. “You may ask.”

“Why have you come?” Saudia asked simply, it was a question she had wondered ever since the incursion started. She didn’t entirely expect a satisfactory or straight answer, but she was curious nevertheless.

“Anyone with any amount of intelligence knows you are technologically superior to us in every way,” she continued. “Why prolong this war any longer than necessary?”

The Speaker sighed in exasperation. “A disappointingly human question. You fail to see beyond the scope of your own world. You are concerned with only your planet and species,” his lip curled in derision. “And judging by your history, not even then. The Elders see beyond the scope of one world, or one solar system. We are not here to enslave, eradicate or conquer. Humanity has enormous untapped potential, the Elders only wish to see that potential come to fruition.”

“And your means of accomplishing this is bombing cities and murdering civilians?” Saudia questioned calmly. It was a dangerous line of questioning, but after that explanation, it was a perfectly valid question. Luckily, the alien didn’t seem offended.

“I assume you mean the attack in the country of Germany,” he answered. “It was a sadly necessary step in reminding XCOM who is truly superior.”

Saudia sighed. “I was more referring to the alliance between you and the former Chancellor. Right before your…questionable decisions.”

“Ah, yes,” the Speaker’s lip curled up. “That wasn’t us.”

Saudia blinked. That wasn’t what she had expected. “Is that so? If not you, then who?”

“XCOM,” the Speaker stated. “A tactic that even the Elders were surprised at. Not the plan itself, anyone could conceive of it, but that it was executed so thoroughly.”

She was skeptical. “Speaker,” she began, shaking her head. “With all due respect, I find that hard to believe. XCOM ultimately answers to the United Nations and that kind of operation is one they’d never approve of, even if their own lives were at stake.”

“You assume that the Commander of XCOM blindly follows the guidelines of the parent organization,” the Speaker chided. “That is not the case.”

“I find it hard to believe that the United Nations would appoint someone so willing to go against them,” Saudia countered, unconvinced. “It would be…unlike them.”

“Hold on to that if you wish,” the Speaker shrugged dismissively. “But this Commander is highly intelligent and dangerous. We do not use those terms lightly.”

“Do you have anything on the Commander?” Saudia asked. As unlikely as it was, it was worth a shot.

“Nothing concrete,” the Speaker answered, his tone subdued. “Infiltrating human organizations is…difficult for us. That is an area in which you are more qualified.”

“That is true,” she agreed. “And one we will utilize to the best of our ability.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes. “I would not be incorrect in assuming your influence is substantial,” the alien said. “Your organization would not be worth considering if that was the case, but the Elders are curious as to the…extent of your reach.”

A fair question, and one that the alien would not have been able to answer on their own. Still, she was certainly not going to reveal everything to the alien in front of her. “You might say that. EXALT has many operatives stationed across the world. Our directives are carried out through them.”

The Speaker rubbed his chin, although it looked more like an imitation of what a human would do. “I would guess that you primarily station your operatives in the various governments and militaries,” he mused quietly. “Is that right?”

“Nearly,” she answered, glancing over at him. “Though we don’t limit ourselves to stationing operatives in such predictable places. Many are placed in mundane positions whose job is to watch and report. Too many high-level operatives draw unwanted scrutiny.”

 “I see,” the Speaker answered. “A wise move, though there must be some who you control.”

“Manipulate,” she corrected. “And yes, there are some nations where our operatives are highly placed.”

“In a position to eventually take over?” The Speaker asked, looking at her curiously.

“No,” she denied. “We avoid direct control of countries and companies. EXALT works from behind the scenes. Anyone with too much influence draws scrutiny from not just their own nation, but the surrounding ones as well. Should they become exposed, not only is EXALT at risk, but our entire operation there as well. An exposed aide or advisor can be replaced, the president of a nation is much harder.”

“A methodical and intelligent approach,” the alien commented, his lip curling up in a mockery of a smile. “You understand patience, the Elders chose well.”

Saudia suppressed a snort. But they’d talked enough about EXALT’s operations, time to go to more practical matters for this alliance. She spun on her heel and gestured for the Speaker to follow. “Come. I have something I believe you’ll find interesting.”

He stayed by her side, looking around constantly as if trying to memorize every single detail. Saudia didn’t mind, the superficial decorations and furniture provided no tactical advantage and even the layout would be useless as the unique structure of the Bastion made it possible to reconfigure corridors and hallways, rendering schematics nearly useless.

“Can you provide us with human subjects?” She asked as they walked. “It would be possible to acquire them ourselves, but that would take time.”

“We would be able to spare some,” the Speaker agreed. “We would need to coordinate more to find a village with enough specimens to satisfy you.” Saudia blinked. That hadn’t exactly been what her request was, she had assumed the aliens could spare some from those they had gathered from earlier abductions. However, she wouldn’t turn down a small village of subjects.

They finally reached the holding cells. The lower floor currently contained twenty-four cells that had formerly held test subjects. Sadly, many of the subjects had died during the catalyst experiment, but the results had been worth it. She motioned the Speaker over to one of the cells containing a woman huddling in the corner, not knowing she was being watched.

The Speaker frowned. “What is this?”

“This,” Saudia answered proudly. “Is Subject Four, the result of years of testing.” She watched the woman through the one-way glass as she rocked on the floor, clutching her head. Saudia picked up a tablet that controlled the shock device implanted in her spine. Provoking her should do the trick, her abilities were tightly intertwined with her emotions at this point so the more unstable, the better chance of a demonstration. She disliked inflicting unnecessary pain on her prisoners, but this case was warranted.

The woman screamed as the device shocked her and writhed on the floor. It wasn’t a high voltage, so it had the effect of simply making the woman pained and angry. She shakily rose to her feet and looked at one of the windows. “What do you want?” She shouted, fists clenched as she tried directing her bloodshot eyes at her tormentors. “Aren’t you happy with what you did to me?”

Saudia frowned. Ranting wasn’t what she wanted. She administered another shock which sent the woman to her knees twitching and shuddering. The Speaker didn’t seem amused. “Is there a point to this?” He demanded, looking at her in annoyance.

“Just wait,” Saudia promised.

“Stop!” The woman screamed, shouting at her in the right direction. Her voice became layered as if multiple people were speaking at once. “Please stop! Get out of my head!” With her final words, a visible wave of purple energy emanated from her, pushing all the objects around her away. Her eyes were now glowing purple orbs that leaked a fine purple mist. Her face contorted in pain a few seconds later and she fell to the ground clutching her head and crying.

She looked over to the Speaker and was pleased to see an expression of awe on his face. “She has the Gift,” he whispered.

“She does,” Saudia confirmed. “And we have three more just like her.”

“The Elders will be pleased,” he said reverently. “I wish to see them.”

“I will show you,” Saudia promised, inclining her head. “Then we can discuss the finer points of our alliance.”

“An excellent plan,” the Speaker agreed enthusiastically. “I believe this alliance will be beneficially for both our organizations.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” Saudia thanked, hiding her true thoughts. She motioned down the hall of the other cells. “Right this way.”

Chapter Text

 

Scotland, Wilderness

Cerian Irelan took a deep breath and steadied the rifle. With the sun behind him illuminating the target, the shot was clear. Not wasting another moment, he fired. The shot rang out across the valley and the dummy fell over, a new hole in its “head.”

Rising from one knee, he appraised his handiwork in the fading sunlight. Frowning, he slung the rifle over his shoulder and began walking down the hill. Shooting at dummies was never as satisfying as something living. Hunting season wasn’t here yet, so he had to make do with inanimate objects.

Granted, he did do his best to make it challenging and interesting. Challenging by placing the dummies at absurd distances or picking easily damaged objects such as plates or glass bottles. But even then, it was only a few sessions before he became bored due to it being so…lifeless.

But such was his life now.

His not-inconsiderable personal wealth, a reward for his service, allowed him to purchase the highest quality gear possible. Which he invested in quite regularly, although his usage of the weapons was limited to…this.  Ah well, luckily, he had other hobbies and now had all the time in the world.

Unless the aliens conquered Earth of course, which was a distinct possibility. But given how one of those massive dreadnoughts had been recently shot down, it appeared the UN had things under control, more or less. He smirked in recollection, though he imagined that even the UN would find something to complain about that. But such was the result of working with such a diverse coalition;

 no one was ever satisfied. Anyone working with them just had to roll with it.

Personally, he hoped a small alien ship would touch down around here. It was a nice quaint area, perfect for some extraterrestrials to conduct some…operations in peace, or whatever the aliens called them. And if his little project worked out, they might just come down to investigate and probably provide him with the most excitement he’d had in years.

Reaching the dummy, he grasped it in his hands and raised it back up. Lightly brushing the head to remove some of the dust, he nodded in satisfaction. Regardless of the lack of challenge, it was always satisfying to see a nice bullet hole between the eyes.

His ears perked as a loud crack from a branch sounded behind him. Drawing his pistol, he whirled around aiming at the direction of the noise, then sighed when he saw the man calmly staring him down.

Dressed in the military uniform of a UN Peacekeeper, consisting of the familiar dark and light blue camouflage patterns, the only indicator of his rank was a row of badges on the upper left chest. At least he wasn’t wearing one of those ridiculous bright blue pieces of headgear that the UN was so fond of.

He did wonder who’d been the genius to commission that particular color. No doubt the brass thought they were doing such a good thing by making the soldiers stand out so much. The official line was that they would be recognizable easily as the “good guys.” Which essentially meant that they didn’t want people in meaningless third-world countries attacking them who had no clue who the UN actually was.

However to quite a few in NATO, along with himself, the obnoxious uniforms essentially screamed “I am your enemy. Shoot me now!” Especially to a sniper like him. Drawing attention to yourself was idiotic and even the thugs the Peacekeepers were sent to fight were able to figure at who to shoot at. Luckily they were a bit more lenient with their intelligence agents.

“I wouldn’t sneak up like that,” he warned, keeping his pistol at the ready. “You’re lucky I looked before shooting.”

Patrick Rush looked unimpressed. The UN liaison had a gift for always remaining collected. It was easy to see how he’d risen so quickly in the Peacekeepers. A shame he’d left when offered the position of liaison, he’d have been an excellent officer. He did have a bit of amusement glinting in his brown eyes as he appraised Cerian calmly. It was hard to believe he was almost forty; his black hair didn’t have any gray and his lean face was flawless.

“But you did,” Patrick responded, walking up and observing the dummy. “I knew that, so I didn’t see the need to worry.”

Cerian snorted. “Next time I won’t look.”

Really,” Patrick drawled. “Then how will you hit me?”

Cerian raised an eyebrow. “A blind man could hit you in that uniform.”

Patrick waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, you’ve made your feelings about the state of the Peacekeeper attire very public. I don’t wish to hear it again.”

Cerian stepped back and waited. Liaison Rush never came without a reason and also had an annoying habit of taking his time before explaining himself. There were two possibilities he could see; either Patrick was here to get something from him, or he was here to kill him. Patrick walked around the dummy, taking his sweet time before continuing. “I see you’re keeping your skills up,” he noted, pacing around the dummy.

“Yes,” Cerian agreed cautiously. “I spent nearly two decades cultivating them, I certainly won’t lose them now.”

“So I’ve heard,” he agreed, nodding. “And if the reports I’ve received are any indication, you’re improved considerably.”

The revelation that he’d been watched wasn’t a shock. He would have been more surprised if the UN hadn’t had anyone watching him. Based on that, he had a more concrete idea of why Patrick was here. “Why are you here, Rush?”

Patrick stopped pacing and looked at him, clasping his hands in front of his body. “You don’t waste time, I’d forgotten that. Very well, I’m here on official business. From the Council.”

Cerian smirked. “Official business, really. Thanks, would never have figured that out.” Irelan frowned and scratched his chin, the beard was itchy again. “And you’ll have to be a little more specific, the UN has quite a few Councils if I recall correctly.”

“Apologies,” Patrick corrected. “The Council of Nations, a body of the most influential nations on Earth.”

“Correction,” Cerian amended smoothly. “A body of the wealthiest nations on Earth.” He raised a hand as Patrick opened his mouth. “And I’m going to give my answer now. No, I won’t work for any multinational organization that is not the UN.”

“The Council is a legitimate organization within the United Nations,” Patrick insisted. “It is not illegal.”

“Then cut to the chase,” Cerian demanded. “What do you want from me?”

Patrick pursed his lips. “To utilize your skills. They have clearly not diminished and we have reason to employ you again.”

Cerian blinked in astonishment. He’d expected to be asked about his contacts or project, not to be recruited. “Is that right?” He answered slowly, not bothering to hide his disbelief. “Well, then I can give you my answer now. No.”

Patrick didn’t seem surprised. “You should hear me out. This is a matter-“

“Then perhaps you should have thought of that before forcing me into retirement.” Cerian stated, ice crystallizing his tone. “I did my job for a long time. Then you removed me when it was politically convenient.”

“You always knew that was a possibility,” Patrick countered calmly. “In fact that possibility was specifically mentioned in your contract.”

Cerian nodded. “It was. And I don’t begrudge the UN for taking advantage of it. But as a consequence, I don’t owe the UN anything. I’ve enjoyed my retirement, I don’t see any reason to leave it.”

“Not even if the world is at stake?” Patrick pressed, eyes boring into his.

Cerian met his gaze easily. “I assume you mean the aliens? Yes, perfectly fine. You seem to have things under control anyway.”

Patrick frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cerian sighed. “Don’t treat me like an idiot. Go ahead, tell me XCOM isn’t part of the UN or your Council.”

“I can neither con-“

“Don’t bother,” Cerian interrupted. “But my point is that you have an entire organization for fighting the aliens, and UN or no, and they seem to be doing a decent job. I’m well past my prime and can name a dozen men and woman who can do whatever you want just as good as me. But I’m not your agent, nor your assassin anymore.”

Patrick’s eyes flashed in annoyance and his calm demeanor broke. “It’s not nearly as simple as that,” he hissed. “You have no clue what is going on.”

“Then enlighten me,” Cerian challenged, crossing his arms. “Justify bringing me back.”

Patrick hesitated. “You can’t repeat anything I tell you.”

“Don’t insult me,” Cerian answered, annoyed. “I can be discrete.”

“Fine,” Patrick took a breath. “The Commander is alive.”

It took him a second to realize the actual meaning of what he said and Cerian actually took a step back. “What?” He hissed.

“Alive,” Patrick repeated, more sure of himself. “And in charge of XCOM.”

Cerian holstered the pistol in his hand and looked at Patrick in disbelief. After a few seconds of contemplation, he made a decision. “Let’s go to my house,” he suggested to the UN Liaison. “I have a feeling this is going to be a long story.” Without a word, he began walking towards the isolated house on a hill overlooking the valley.

***

“I’d ask that you not touch anything,” Cerian warned as he opened the door to his modest house. Being honest with himself, it was a mess, but he didn’t receive visitors often. As a result, the small house was organized in a much different manner than normal.

Immediately to the left of the entrance was what had once been the “living room.” After several weeks of work, it’d been converted into something of a workshop. Tools and parts were strewn across the floor, though in his defense, he’d planned to continue working after his shooting session and hadn’t seen the need to put everything away only to take it out again.

To the right was the kitchen/slaughterhouse, since here was where he did all the cooking, along with skinning and gutting the animals he hunted. It wasn’t like there was another place to do it, not to mention he usually didn’t have to worry about guests. The bloodstained table along the wall had other advantages as well. Some idiot planning to rob him had once come in the middle of a skinning session. He’d walked in very confidently, then quickly ran away when he saw Cerian covered in blood, knife in hand.

He wondered what had happened to him.

Luckily the kitchen was one area he was sure to keep pristine as much as possible. He despised unclean eating places. He motioned Patrick to sit on a wooden chair by the table. Cerian set his rifle in the corner for now, he’d put it back in the armory later. Patrick looked over into the workshop.

“May I ask what that is?” He asked curiously, indicating the project he’d been working on. 

Cerian took a seat across from him. “The reports you got didn’t mention that? I’d think I warranted at least some competent spies.”

“Not every spy is you,” Patrick sighed. “And no, I do have some idea. The one watching believes it has something to do with the aliens, though since you don’t have friends and don’t talk to yourself, it isn’t confirmed.”

“Really,” Cerian stated with a raised eyebrow. “And this, ah, “spy” actually respected my privacy and didn’t come in when I wasn’t around?”

“Oh no, she did,” Patrick amended quickly. “But she had no idea what it was.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Cerian leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “You tell me what’s going on and I’ll tell you what I’m working on if you want.”

Patrick nodded. “Agreed.”

“Alright,” Cerian leaned back. “So tell me, one: How-no, why is the Commander alive? And two: How the hell is he in charge of XCOM?”

Patrick sighed. “For your first question, he was never killed in the first place. The Council faked his death in case he was needed one day. As for your second, well, the Council placed him in charge.”

“You’re kidding,” Cerian denied flatly, shaking his head in disbelief. “There is no way the United Nations would put the Commander in charge of anything.”

“I am not,” Patrick insisted, his lips pursing in exasperation. “You really think I would make this up?”

“Probably not,” Cerian admitted, his voice lowering. “So please tell me; what the fuck possessed the UN to make such an idiotic move?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick admitted slowly. “I was brought in on this after the decision had been made. But I’d imagine it was a combination of fear and practicality.”

Cerian waved a hand. “Go on.”

“The aliens are much more widespread than the public is aware of,” Patrick revealed, face tightening. “For reasons we don’t know, they’re keeping their invasion rather low-key. Instead of armies conquering countries, they stick to abducting small towns and citizens. Thousands of people have been abducted across the world and they’ve inserted agents that look just like us to infiltrate and destroy.”

“So how long’s this been going on?” Cerian inquired.

“Since December,” Patrick explained. “We were aware of them long before the Hamburg attack. There was hope XCOM would be able to prevent that, but they were unable to.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Cerian pointed out. “Why the Commander of all people.”

Patrick’s tone was audibly annoyed. “Let me finish,” he cleared his throat. “I believe the Council was scared that the aliens were coming to wipe us out or enslave us. When they became fixated on that, letting an experienced war criminal with proven results take control of their only means of protection wasn’t much of a concern.”

“Just how sure are you of this?” Cerian asked, leaning back.

“I’ve spoken to the Councilors,” Patrick explained. “And even then it wasn’t unanimous. The Commander’s appointment has split the Council into two very clear camps. One supports him, the other wants him gone.”

Cerian held up his hand. “I’ll admit, this is the most fascinating thing I’ve heard in years. But I don’t want you explaining anymore unless I accept this job. If this Council is composed of superpowers and I fall on one side or the other, there is a decent chance I’m going to end up dead or imprisoned for choosing the opposite side. So before I make a decision, I want to know exactly what you expect of me.”

“The ones I represent want you to take charge of a small group of operatives,” Patrick explained and handed him a file. “The names are in there. We have reason to believe the Commander is conducting unsanctioned intelligence operations across the world. Your job will be to find out what he is doing and gather evidence to build a case against him.”

Cerian flipped through the file and rubbed his beard. “Interesting. For a minute I thought you were going to ask me to kill him.”

Patrick shook his head. “Impossible I’m afraid, even for you. The Citadel was designed to be impenetrable. Only two ways in, both under heavy observation. As far as we know, the Commander has only left twice, both times unannounced.”

“The Citadel?”

“XCOM Headquarters,” Patrick explained. “The Commander gave it the name.”

“Cute,” Cerian commented. “Unsanctioned intelligence operations you say? If he’s conducting these against the aliens, I’d think that would be part of his job, correct?”

“Except he’s not,” Patrick shook his head. “At least none we’re aware of. He’s conducting operations against other countries.”

How interesting and entirely unexpected. What did the UN expect? That the Commander was really going to ignore all the problems he saw within the organization? No, an alien invasion wasn’t going to stop the Commander from either taking revenge or justice, as the two seemed very intertwined when it came to him. Compounded by the fact that the Commander probably knew part of the Council was against him, so self-preservation was another likely possibility.

Either way, if the UN genuinely hadn’t anticipated this, they were either very naïve or very stupid.

And the fact that Patrick was telling him this and not to a court gave him the impression that the evidence to back these claims up wasn’t very much. “You don’t have anything, do you?” He stated, a humorless grin on his lips.

Patrick frowned. “Sorry.”

“Evidence. Proof,” Cerian nodded towards the file in his hand. “Something that back up what you’re saying. And you don’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be needed, would I?”

“Circumstantial evidence,” Patrick admitted. “And tenuous at best.”

“Right so let’s call this job what it is,” Cerian stated bluntly. “A smear campaign. You want me to find some credible evidence to dismiss the Commander from his position. In that case, why not just fabricate it?”

“Two reasons,” Patrick said slowly. “First of which is that we would lose XCOM completely. The Commander isn’t an idiot and would be able to counter false evidence. Even if it were credible, too much time has passed and we fear that most of the personnel under the Commander are now loyal to him, not the United Nations. Not to mention it would prove us no better than him.”

“And the second reason?”

“Because enough countries still back the Commander to ensure that any forged evidence would be dismissed,” Patrick explained grimly. “As it stands now, even if we gather enough legitimate evidence to use, they’ll probably still obstruct us.”

Cerian made a note of that. “So then, why are they backing him? I find it hard to believe that they would overlook what he did.”

“As much as I hate to admit it, XCOM has had much success under his leadership,” Patrick admitted. “Aside from that, some of them believe he is the one who is needed in times like these. Uncompromising, deadly and ruthless. The most disturbing part is that I can see why they think so.”

“I’m assuming that the Commander’s freedom came with constraints,” Cerian muttered aloud. “Has he broken any of them?”

“Technically…no,” Patrick answered after a second of silence. “But it’s been hard to determine his honesty since we have no legitimate clue what goes on inside the Citadel. The Council gave him too much freedom and that made him think he could do anything with no repercussions.”

“So what prompted you to come to me?” Cerian demanded. “Something must have happened.”

“He first performed an unsanctioned mission in Germany before the attack,” Patrick answered. “Captured the leaders of the protests and either turned them over to national authorities or killed them.”

Cerian raised an eyebrow. “And the reason was…?”

“They suspected the aliens were manipulating the populace,” Patrick explained.

“And were they?”

“The Commander found evidence to suggest yes…” Patrick answered slowly. “Along with some organization called EXALT.”

Cerian snorted. It was remarkable how that legend just wouldn’t die. “EXALT is a myth.”

“Perhaps,” Patrick shrugged. “But the questionable part is that we suspect that the Commander extracted that information through torture based on the state of the prisoners returned.”

Cerian raised an eyebrow. “I suppose my level of outrage would vary on whether the information he extracted was correct, and from the sounds of it, it appears to be so. Which means I’m not entirely moved by the fact that some criminals were hurt a little.”

“The point is that he broke the Geneva Conventions. That’s-“

“What did you honestly expect?” Cerian demanded fiercely, facepalming. “You put a war criminal in charge of a military organization. Did you really think he was going to care about rules set by the United Nations? The organization that hunted him down?”

Patrick actually flushed a little. Good, even if this whole mess wasn’t his fault, at least he recognized the stupidity that got them here. “You have a point. I can’t really contest that.”

Cerian sighed and waved a hand. “So continue.”

“We also think the Commander was responsible for what happened in the aftermath of the Hamburg attack,” Patrick admitted. “We don’t know how he did it, but we suspect that he tricked the aliens into attacking. Which gave the German military the excuse to take over the country and establish a chain of command sympathetic to the Commander. The pieces fit too well not to have some kind of connection.”

As outlandish as it seemed, Patrick did have a point. When watching that entire massacre, he had privately wondered why the aliens had attacked a country that had flat out admitted to surrendering to the aliens. It made no tactical or common sense, which made him suspect there was other things going on behind the scenes.

But it was still circumstantial at best.

Cerian was silent for a minute. “I’m going to be perfectly honest here. I think the Commander was a war criminal who should have been executed when he was caught. If given the chance, I would have killed him myself.”

He narrowed his eyes. “However, this seems less like a job about the Commander actually breaking the rules and more like a personal vendetta. You don’t like him, these councilors don’t like him, I don’t like him and we’re all perfectly entitled to that. But by your own admission, you have no proof. The Commander hasn’t broken any rules that you know of, and circumstantial evidence is not good enough for me to risk my life on the assumption that he might be doing something illegal.”

“Do you really think the Commander has the best intentions for the world in mind?” Patrick challenged. “He’s just biding his time until he has enough power. When he’s ready he’ll kill everyone who stands in his way.”

“How melodramatic,” Cerian commented, suddenly feeling every one of his fifty-two years weighing down on him. “Well I hate to say this, but the UN brought whatever’s coming directly on themselves.”

“Is that a no?” Patrick demanded icily. “Because if not, I really need to be going.”

“Tell me why you wanted me,” Cerian demanded, crossing his arms. “The truth. You have your pick of operatives who are just as skilled as me and probably wouldn’t ask as many questions.”

Patrick took a few minutes to ponder that. “Because you’re one of the few principled and idealistic operatives whose served. Simply put, you’re trustworthy.”

How nice of him. “Principled and idealistic,” he repeated airily. “Not words I’d use to describe myself.”

“I would,” Patrick answered simply. “You might have held the role as an assassin, but you certainly captured more than you killed. No collateral damage in any of your assignments, you never broke any regulations and always completed your mission to the letter. The United Nations is flawed, everyone know this, but you focused on the ideals of the organizing rather than all the disagreements you personally had with it.”

While all of that was true, he’d never really thought about it that way. “It’s kind of sad when just doing your job right makes you a principled person,” he commented wearily. “I never really thought of myself as such, considering my line of work.”

They were both silent for a few minutes. “I need an answer,” Patrick finally said. “Say yes and we can get to work. Say no and I’ll leave and you’ll probably never see me again.”

Cerian had to smile at the disclaimer at the end. Rapping his fingers on the table as he thought, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. There was no clear-cut answer in this case. Honestly, he could easily make a justification for either decision. But he wanted to make the right one, not just choosing one side or another.

Compromise. That was it, both sides had to stand to lose something, and he had an idea of how to accomplish that.

“How sure are you that the Commander is performing illegal operations?” Cerian asked slowly.

“Certain,” Patrick stated without hesitation.

“Would you bet your life, and those of your partners on it?”

Patrick eyed him suspiciously. “What are you saying?”

“I will accept on certain conditions,” Cerian explained, holding his gaze. “I will take command of your operatives and determine if the Commander is performing illegal operations. If he is, I’ll help gather evidence to bring him down for good. If I find him innocent, I will go to him and rest of the Council and expose this entire operation.”

Patrick visibly swallowed. “I’ll need to confer with my superior.”

Cerian nodded. “Go ahead.” Patrick got up and went outside while he waited. A few minutes later he came back in and took his seat.

“It will be done,” he confirmed. “Welcome aboard.”

Cerian rolled his shoulders. “Excellent. Let’s get to work. I’m curious to meet this team.”

***

Ireland, Undisclosed Location

When Herman Diederick had been summoned by order of the United Nations, this hadn’t been quite what he expected.

Actually, not at all what he expected.

True, the whole area was very ceremonial and decorated and he’d spent a good amount of time admiring the architecture, shiny tiled floors and ornate furnishings. Fitting for the most powerful international organization in the world. He had partially accepted the offer out of curiosity, as the Council had been a part of the United Nations even he didn’t know much about.

That might have bothered him had the Council interfered in NATO operations, but as far as he was aware, they tended to keep to themselves and only a few knew the organization existed. As a Major General in NATO, he’d been fortunate to know a bit before receiving the unusual summons.

It had been interesting at first, seeing the twelve councilors and their entourages milling around the commons area he was in now, conferring with aides and speaking to each other. But as time passed he was growing more and more uncomfortable. It was becoming quickly apparent that there was division and tension here, he’d seen councilors pointedly ignore each other and had witnessed several getting into arguments about oddly menial matters.

Furthermore, all of them had been glancing at him with either wariness, suspicion or outright contempt and he wasn’t quite sure what he’d done to warrant any of this. Hell, he’d been in warzones less charged than this.

He’d attempted to speak to several of the Councilors and had barely gotten more than a few tense words out before quickly saying farewell and leaving him alone. He was getting a suspicion that he was something of a compromise that no one wanted.

Unfortunately, no one seemed to care to explain anything.

“I must apologize for my colleagues lack of manners,” a man with a deep voice apologized as he walked up. “Unfortunately, you’ve come at a very…divisive…time.”

Herman turned to face the newcomer. Dressed in an ordinary suit with the United Nations emblem sewn on the upper left chest, he was otherwise no different from most dressed here. However, he had a pretty good clue based on the man’s bald head.

“I suspected as much,” he answered, sighing. “I suppose you are the Speaker. A pleasure to meet you.” He extended a hand which the Speaker took.

“I imagine you have….questions,” the Speaker stated neutrally.

“Some explanation would be appreciated,” Herman agreed, watching with interest as several of the councilors noticed them speaking and frowned in apparent disapproval. “It appears they don’t like me speaking to you either.”

“The unfortunate truth here is that you are a victim of politics,” the Speaker stated bluntly. “A large number would prefer you not be here at all, while others are frustrated that you were the one chosen.” The Speaker paused. “They view you as a…compromise…one not in their favor.”

Herman pursed his lips. “Wonderful.” Great, he’d joined NATO to escape politics, or at least the high-level kind here. True, as he’d been promoted that had been a risk, but he’d never imagined this would be the result.

“Is there anyone who wanted me here?” He asked the Speaker, looking around the room.

“The one who put your name forward is on your side,” the Speaker answered neutrally. “However, she also didn’t want anyone in the first place. But in your current…position…the most support you will find is either skepticism or indifference.”

While this brutal honesty was refreshing, all it made him want to do is leave this place and have them pick someone else to be mad at. Unfortunately, walking out on the Council would be career suicide, along with possibly worse. “Thank you, I guess,” he told the Speaker wryly. “I don’t suppose you have an opinion on me?”

“I certainly do,” the Speaker answered, raising an eyebrow. “For the position you have been…summoned…for, you are qualified and from a practical standpoint, that is all that should be considered. As for my personal opinion, I cannot share. My purpose is to be an…objective… mediator, my opinions do not matter.”

“Shame you weren’t a politician,” Herman muttered. “You might be one I actually vote for.”

The Speaker smiled at that. “An appreciated sentiment,” he murmured looking around the room. His eyes brightened as a woman walked over to them. Cropped brown hair cut sharply at the neck framed a stern face, and hard eyes which contradicted the small smile on her face.

“Major General,” she greeted firmly, extending her hand. He took it and she gave a brief nod towards the Speaker. “Speaker, a pleasure.”

Herman looked at her. “Same to you, ma’am. Apologies, but I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

“Tamara Vasilisa,” she answered. “Councilor of the Russian Federation.”

Ah, so that was a Russian accent. Diminished, but it was there. “Well, Councilor Vasilisa, I appreciate you speaking to me.”

“Tamara will suffice,” she advised. “I don’t see a need to make this more difficult than it already is.”

“As you wish, Tamara,” he answered, not entirely comfortable with that. Addressing a woman who was technically his superior in such a casual way was a foreign concept, but he felt it would probably offend her more if he refused. And the last thing he needed here was more enemies.

She turned around and motioned him to follow her. “Walk with me. We should talk.”

About time, maybe he’d finally get some answers. They walked out of the commons area into an equally ornate hallways with a red rug on the ground. “I don’t suppose you could tell me why I was asked here?” He asked as they walked.

“In fact, I can,” she answered easily. “You are aware of XCOM?”

“As much as anyone else,” Herman answered. “An anti-alien paramilitary organization. NATO doesn’t know where it came from, who’s funding them or who the commander is. It’s generated a lot of speculation to say the least.”

“And do you have a theory?” She asked neutrally glancing up at him.

“Before coming here?” Herman paused. “I would have guessed either a private organization or an American, Chinese or Russian venture. However, now it seems pretty obvious that the United Nations is behind it.”

“Correct,” Tamara confirmed. “The Council, specifically. You will be our representation within XCOM.”

Well. That was interesting, and not what he’d expected. “I’m not a politician,” he told her. “I’m not exactly the most qualified-“

Tamara raised a hand to cut him off. “Correct. You are not a politician, which was why I put your name forward for the position. You are aware of the rules the United Nations abides by, correct.”

“Of course.”

“Then as far as I’m concerned, you’re perfectly qualified. You don’t know how precarious our war is and we can’t afford more politicians making decisions. If we were going to send a representative, it would be someone who could actually contribute to the defense of Earth.”

And again, there was that feeling that despite her recommendation, she didn’t want him here at all. It was interesting that she seemed to disapprove of politicians, seeing as how she was technically one herself. Perhaps she was like him, possibly former military forced well outside her comfort zone. “I’m flattered, councilor,” he answered. “But if this reception has proven anything, it’s that not many seem entirely pleased to see me.”

“I wouldn’t concern yourself with them,” Tamara dismissed, her voice turning frosty. “Those fools wanted a puppet, someone to fulfill their naïve and petty agenda. I have little tolerance for such fools and you should give them as much consideration as they deserved.”

The venom in her voice was unmistakable. Still, he knew when he was being used. “And what is your motive, Councilor? Do you wish me to promote your agenda instead?”

She chuckled. “If you see things from my point of view, I would certainly not oppose it. But no, despite what some think, we don’t want a puppet. You are intelligent enough to make decisions and draw your own conclusions.” She paused. “Which is why I would ask that you keep an open mind when speaking to the man I’m bringing you to.”

Hm. That sounded ominous. “And who is he?”

“We’re at his office now,” Tamara answered as they approached a door and knocked. “After you finish your meeting, I would like to speak with you again. You’ll have a much better understanding of the situation after this meeting.”

Without waiting for a response, she opened the door and they stepped into a finely decorated office. Bookshelves lined the walls and a window gave a beautiful view outside. In front of them, sitting at a desk, was a brown haired man. He looked around thirty or forty, wearing a generally indifferent expression on his face.

“Councilor Vasilisa,” he greeted coldly, looking up with a frown. “I wasn’t aware you were coming.”

“For all your talk about wanting a representative, you didn’t seem to care to speak to him right away,” Tamara countered with a smile. “I didn’t think it polite to just leave him in the commons to the stares of your colleagues.”

The man’s eyes widened, then narrowed as he looked at Tamara suspiciously. “I see. Apologies, Major General, I was supposed to receive word when you arrived.”

“Accepted,” Herman stated neutrally, some more theories growing in his mind. “May I ask who you are?”

“Councilor Ali Ennor, of Australia,” he replied. “I believe it is time to speak.” He nodded at Tamara. “Good day, Councilor.”

She gave a smile, though to him it appeared more of a smirk. “Always a pleasure, Councilor Ennor.” Without a word, she turned around and left the room. Hopefully she’d find him once he was done, since he had no clue where everything was.

“I imagine Tamara told you what you’re here for,” Ali asked, standing up.

“As a representative to XCOM,” Herman answered. “Though she didn’t mention specifics.”

“Unusually respectful of her,” Ali commented. “Regardless, to have a clear picture, I should explain why we felt this step had to be taken in the first place.”

Herman nodded. “I’m listening.”

“You are aware of the war criminal known as the Commander, correct?” He asked.

Herman nodded. “Of course. I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t.”

Ali paused. “There is no light way to put this. The Commander is alive and in charge of XCOM.”

Herman coughed in disbelief, a rare display of emotion for him. But in this case it was perfectly warranted. Questions blazed in his mind and he honestly didn’t know what to ask first. Shaking his head to focus his thoughts he finally addressed the Councilor. “Perhaps you should explain.”

“Of course,” Ali inclined his head. “Know that not all the Council, myself included, wanted this. However, he was kept alive in the event that we might need his expertise. Despite his crimes, he is an undisputed tactician and commander, something the majority of the Council thought worth preserving. And with growing evidence of extraterrestrial life, some viewed him as the best chance to preserve humanity.”

Herman shook his head in disbelief. “With all due respect Councilor, I can’t imagine a scenario where that benefits anyone. Not only does it violate multiple United Nations regulations, but the Commander himself has publicly denounced us multiple times.”

“Concerns that were brought up,” Ali agreed. “Unfortunately, our bloc was outvoted and the Commander placed in charge.”

“Let me guess,” Herman guessed wearily. “Things haven’t gone as planned.”

“It’s potentially worse than even I thought,” Ali admitted. “He’d done everything possible to exclude us from any discoveries made from alien technology recovered. Technology that our own countries could use in conjunction with XCOM. But he jealously keeps it all to himself doing God knows what with it.”

“Honest question,” Herman asked, frowning. “What did you expect? The United Nations were the ones who…well, apparently captured him. Why would he feel any loyalty to you?”

“You’re telling this to the wrong person,” Ali sighed. “I’m well aware of the problems and saw them all coming. Sadly, Councilor Vasilisa and her supporters are blind to this fact.”

He was beginning to get a picture of the situation now. “Is that it? Or is there more?”

“More,” Ali stated grimly. “We have precious little evidence, but there is some to suggest the entire Germany fiasco was engineered by the Commander.”

Herman blinked. “If I recall, there were several fiascos. You are referring to…?”

“The one where the German military secured the country,” Ali informed. “The blackouts we suspect were caused by the Commander along with him baiting the aliens into attacking the cities. There is also a chance he was behind the assassination of the German cabinet.”

“If that were true, you’d have already arrested him,” Herman pointed out. “What makes you think he was behind it?”

“Because that led to Germany refusing to rejoin Council and supporting the Commander directly,” Ali finished. “After the Commander failed to protect Germany, the Chancellor was understandably displeased. Funny how quickly he was replaced with someone the Commander supports.”

Unfortunately, that was a tactic he could fully see the Commander using. He’d seen a lot of terrible things, but the War on Terror had been especially brutal. “I suspect there’s more,” He said wearily.

“There is some good news,” Ali answered, a satisfied smile growing on his face. “Some of the Councilors are starting to realize how badly they’ve blundered this. Unfortunately, the Commander has realized that and is doing his best to ensure that everyone from the Council is excluded. The current legal war for the dreadnaught wreckage is his doing, a clever move to keep us from acquiring the technology.”

“If this is all true, why have you not done anything?” Herman demanded. “With all this suspicious and theory, you should have something more!”

“That is where you come in,” Ali explained nodding his head. “The reason the Commander’s been able to get away with so much is that we failed to provide adequate oversight. We believed the staff would report any violations, but the Commander is more…charismatic…than we anticipated. We need you there to make sure the Commander conducts this war in accordance with the laws and standards of ethics the United Nations expects.”

“Agreed,” Herman nodded. “Though I don’t imagine he’ll be pleased.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” Ali warned. “You’re heading into enemy territory. The Commander will likely do everything to impede and frustrate you. Don’t give him a reason to dismiss you; he’s intelligent and resourceful and if we want to remove him, we need to do it in a way that will be undisputed by law.”

“I can promise that any violations will be reported,” Herman promised. “If the Commander is in violation of anything, I will be sure to report it.”

“That is all we want,” Ali nodded. “Though following the law is something the Commander appears to have trouble with. You’ll have as much authorization as you need. If the Commander gives you trouble, just inform the Council. That will put him in his place.”

“When will I leave?” Herman asked.

“A few hours,” Ali answered. “I’ll ensure someone shows you the way.”

“Excellent,” Herman replied with a nod. “I’ll ensure the Commander is brought into line.”

Ali extended a hand which he took. “That relieves me more than you know. Good luck.”

Herman nodded and walked out the door, thoughts and conflicting emotions running through his head.

***

It turned out he didn’t have to look for Tamara, as she’d apparently never left the area. Leaning against the wall as he walked out, arms crossed, she seemed fairly nonchalant as he glared at her. “You knew the Commander was alive.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Everyone on the Council does,” she shrugged. “So yes, Ali insisted he be the one to tell you, otherwise I’d have said so from the start.”

“Funny,” he commented as he walked up to her. “I’m surprised you’d listen to him since you clearly despise each other.”

“Simply put, I was placating him,” she answered calmly. “Had I ruined the little speech he no doubt gave to you, I’d have had to put up with his borderline harassment for a few weeks. Frankly, I have more important matters to focus on than a superficial power struggle.”

“Fine,” Herman stated wearily. “You wanted to talk to me after. Make your case, since that’s clearly your intention.”

“My intention is nothing more than to ensure you have a perspective from both sides,” she attempted to reassure him. “Councilor Ennor made his case, now you should hear from the other side.”

She waved forward and began walking. “Councilor Ennor probably painted a highly grim picture about the state of the war.”

“Less about the war,” Herman corrected. “More about the apparent power consolidation taking place within XCOM as well as suspected ethics violations.”

“’Power consolidation’?” she sniffed. “To Councilor Ennor, if his subordinates do not abide by his every command, he automatically assumes they are plotting against him.”

“I feel his concern is warranted,” Herman shook his head. “Putting a convicted war criminal in charge of XCOM can only lead to bad things.”

“I disagree,” Tamara stated flatly. “The Commander has done exactly what we wanted him to. His sole purpose was to take command of XCOM and defend Earth from the alien threat. And judging by the results, I think he’s succeeding.”

“I don’t think I would call Hamburg a success,” Herman countered.

“If the Commander had not intervened, that city would no longer exist,” Tamara pointed out. “Not to mention he successfully dismantled the protest rings plaguing the country.”

Herman frowned. “Ennor didn’t mention that.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Tamara stated smugly. “That doesn’t fit into his narrative. The truth of the matter is that the war is beginning to turn in our favor, and I firmly believe that can be attributed to the Commander.”

“I admit, I’m surprised,” Herman commented. “I wouldn’t have expected you to support him.”

“Why not?” She asked curiously, it sounded like a genuine inquiry. “Is it because I’m Russian?”

“That, in addition to the regular…issues…people take with him.”

He saw her lips curl into a smile at that. “You assume that just because he killed our president, I should automatically be against him,” she paused and shrugged. “Perhaps I would be, had he been wrong. But something people tend to forget is that the Commander always provided evidence when he executed someone of importance. True, I would have preferred he be executed the lawful way, but I shed no tears that he was killed. So no need to get offended on my behalf. As it stands, most Russians feel the same way.”

“You almost sound like you admire him,” Herman stated, trying not to sound disbelieving.

“From a purely militaristic standpoint, I do,” she agreed. “Now clearly, he fails on the moral and ethical fronts, but we are at war. I can overlook my personal issues with his methods as long as he gets results.”

“You have to realize he might turn against you.” Herman pointed out.

“What Ennor doesn’t understand is this,” Tamara answered coldly. “The Commander doesn’t work like that. He won’t do a thing unless we give him a reason to. He’s denounced us in the past for sure, but even during the War on Terror, he never acted against us. Hell, he even assisted General Van Doorn when capturing Syria. Ennor’s constant moral crusade is only going to provoke him into doing exactly what he’s trying to prevent.”

“But is he actually cooperating with you?” Herman pressed. “From Ennor’s description, it sounds like the Commander is hoarding all the resources to himself.”

“A lie,” she stated flatly. “The Commander has provided some materials he’s recovered. It’s just not as much as the good councilor would like.”

“And the Commander forcing a legal war for the dreadnought resources?” he asked.

“That I’m not sure,” Tamara admitted, for the first time showing some uncertainty. “Provided he is behind it, the only reasonable motive would be to keep the resources out of China. A reasonable motive, but I’m not sure it’s the correct one.”

“I’m assuming you opposed giving him more oversight,” Herman guessed.

“The last thing he needs is oversight,” Tamara stated firmly. “You of all people should know that politics and war don’t mesh. The only thing oversight will serve to accomplish is to turn the Commander against us, and I’d prefer to keep him focused on the aliens.”

“But if he’s conducting everything according to the rules, he shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Herman stated. “Unless of course he is hiding something.”

“Everyone is hiding something,” Tamara insisted in mock exasperation. “More oversight is only going to force him to work harder to hide it. He isn’t going to stop simply because someone is there watching him. Sorry to let you down there.”

“Then why did you put my name forward if you’re so opposed to the idea?” Herman demanded, pursing his lips.

“Truthfully, if we wanted too, we probably could have stopped it,” Tamara admitted. “But I saw an opportunity. Instead of turning the Commander against us, we could provide him a qualified individual with a purpose besides watching him. This is a chance to establish some tangible goodwill between XCOM and the Council. I don’t want you to go as an observer, Herman, I want you to be partner to him.”

“A partner to the Commander,” Herman corrected grimly, unable to keep the disbelief from his voice. “You understand what you’re asking?”

“I do,” Tamara stated. “And I stand by it. We can’t afford to make the Commander our enemy, especially as he’s in charge of XCOM. Watch for violations as per your directive, but for the good of the Council and humanity, I would ask that your primary objective be ensuring that we win this war.”

“And if I do find something that violates our laws?” Herman asked. “Should I ignore it in just because we’re at war?”

Tamara was silent for a few moment. “I’d advise you use your best judgment on that. Ask yourself if it’s really worth jeopardizing everything to have a clear conscience.” She paused. “And if you absolutely must report everything you see, I advise you do not contact Councilor Ennor. Contact me instead.”

“Councilor Ennor is my superior,” Herman stated incredulously. “Contacting you instead would break the chain of command. I could get prosecuted for that.”

“Incorrect,” she said with a smile. “Ennor was just the one who asked to speak to your first. He is the face of his side, as I am mine. We are both at the same level in terms of rank, as all the councilors are. He just likes to think himself the unofficial head of this Council. You would be breaking no rules my reporting to me instead.”

“And how will I know what I report will change anything?” Herman demanded, waving an arm to the side. “You might simply ignore a potentially dangerous violation since you clearly support him.”

“I assure you, if the charge is serious and with evidence to back it up, I will take the necessary action,” Tamara promised, nodding solemnly. “But Ennor will use even the smallest violation as justification for removing the Commander.”

“If it’s within the law…” Herman began when Tamara interrupted.

“It’s not that simple,” she scowled. “Ennor seems to think that if he orders the Commander to step down, he’s just going to do it. That’s not going to happen and everyone not blinded by self-righteousness knows it. We would lose XCOM for good and then the Earth. I’m trying to prevent a catastrophe and you have the power ensure everyone stays on good terms.”

They stopped walking and Herman realized they were in a hanger of some kind. An odd looking aircraft of some kind rested on the ground. Engines appeared to be built into the wings. An advanced propulsion system? Interesting.

“Your ride,” Tamara noted. “Perform your duties at your discretion, but I ask that you think about what I said.”

“I will,” he promised.

“Then good luck,” she nodded toward him. “I hope to speak to you soon.”

She turned and left curtly, leaving him alone. He shook his head, trying to clear it as much as possible. Quite honestly, he didn’t have a clue what to do. Tamara had clearly been planning her own speech for some time, and he found it honestly rather convincing. But the issue was that she clearly had an agenda as well, something he couldn’t forget.

Despite what she said, he wasn’t at all comfortable with a war criminal in charge, let alone working with him. He needed to go there, speak with the man himself, perhaps then he’d have a clearer picture of what to do. At least the sides were clearly defined here, and unfortunately, it didn’t look like he’d be able to stay neutral this time.

He sighed. Well, he had plenty of time to think about this on the way there. Might as well get a head start. On that thought, he began walking toward the odd transport that would take him to the Citadel.

 

Chapter Text

 

Skyranger, En Route to Abduction Zone

The armor fit him surprisingly well. Snug and solid, it afforded him a surprising degree of flexibility. He hadn’t had the opportunity to fully test it out yet, but was fairly certain he would be able to perform as well as in the 1st Airborne Brigade

Soran Kakusa was still a little shocked that he’d been sent at all to XCOM. The organization had been widely discussed within the Japanese military, especially after some of the air force had assisted in the downing of the alien dreadnaught. The organization was of particular interest to him and his friends, especially since the future of Earth would likely lie in their hands.

But as far as he’d known, no Japanese soldier had been recruited into the illusive organization, though that wasn’t saying much since if it had happened anyway, he probably wouldn’t have known about it. He wasn’t sure why he’d been selected out of everyone in the Brigade. True, he’d made some inquiries and expressed an interest, but honestly hadn’t expected much to happen so quickly. Yet soon after he’d been informed that he was to be transferred to the division.

Everything had happened fast after that. Within a few days, he’d been shipped off to someplace called the Citadel, which he’d been told was in America. He hadn’t been the only one to arrive either, the rest of the newly recruited soldiers riding with him were also from different countries across the world.

But none of them were on this particular flight, the men and women beside him were all veterans of this war.

He’d barely settled in when he’d been assigned to a squad with instructions to investigate alien activity. He had no clue where they were headed or what to expect beyond a fight. He knew what kinds of aliens existed, thanks to a handbook XCOM had provided in addition to their archives. It was going to be vastly different to actually face them in an XCOM uniform.

The secrecy was apparently normal, according to Marten, a man who’d been sort of his unofficial guide when he arrived. The young Iranian struck him as somewhat arrogant, but he’d been helpful all the same. Apparently, the exact nature and location of the mission was kept secret until the team was on their way with only a few exceptions.

A rather clever security precaution if that was its intended purpose. Keeping information like that from all but a select few reduced the risk of the mission being compromised dramatically. Of course, it wouldn’t completely remove the risk, but the reduction couldn’t be ignored.

Still, doing something like this without proper preparation was foreign to him. Typically missions for him often consisted of a few days warning and briefing before they even made preparations to move out. He was somewhat surprised that no one had ever complained or even discussed the lack of preparation, but no one seemed to care that much.

An odd bunch, for sure.

“What time do you usually get the orders?” Soran asked, hoping that was the correct order of words. The English language was one he wasn’t completely fluent in yet, though he expected he would be within a few weeks given that it seemed to be the primary language spoken within XCOM.

“Depends,” Marten shrugged, tapping his laser rifle. “It’s usually a few minutes before we actually deploy, it really depends on the mission area.”

“Quite honestly, I think it’s whenever the Commander wants it to be,” the Australian who called herself Eden Rayna answered, lacing her fingers together. “But since we’ve been in here almost a half-hour with nothing, I’m going to guess that it’s not urgent and on the other side of the world.”

“Speculation is an alien abduction,” the hulking man across from him, Anius Creed, added. “And because Kakusa, Wong and Carmelita are all here together, I suspect that we’re heading towards either Japan or China.”

That would be an odd move. Soran doubted that the aliens would move on China so soon after what had happened, the Chinese military would be on extremely high alert, making any abduction operations extremely risky at best. Japan, possible, but its proximity to China also made it a dangerous target.

Soran glanced over at the woman apparently called Carmelita. She hadn’t uttered a word through the entire flight, only clasping her hands together and resting her forearms on her knees. Something about her immediately put him on guard, and despite the casual posture, he could tell she was dangerous.

Hm. She was from South Korea, which suggested she’d been part of the many special forces units operating there. Carmelita….given what he’d learned about the country, that was an odd name for that part of the world. Which implied that wasn’t her real name. At first he wondered if it was some unofficial rule for soldiers to “westernize” their names upon entry.

Something he dismissed once he noted the names of several of the other soldiers. Cai Wong, the Chinese Jinan on this mission didn’t appear to have changed his name, and several others bearing names matching their ethnicity and country. So yes, he doubted that was her real name and if so, raised a number of questions.

Questions he’d try to answer if he had the time. Though between fighting the aliens, he suspected that there’d be little time to answer rather low-profile questions such as that. She was without a doubt the most intriguing of all of them here. Cai Wong was another one he was watching. He wasn’t particularly fond of the Chinese, but the Jinan operative hadn’t done anything against him. Yet, at any rate.

He did admit that he was curious to see the SEAL in action. Creed had been designated Squad Overseer, though the reason for which hadn’t been disclosed to the squad. The entire title of “Squad Overseer” was…confusing to him. Soran was used to very clear hierarchies and ranks. A private stayed a private until he advanced or was demoted, titles and designations weren’t handed out at random.

Yet that seemed to be the case with this particular designation.  From what Marten had explained, it could be given to any soldier at the Commander’s discretion. It apparently was temporary as well; previous squad overseers could operate together without incident and it wasn’t even considered a demotion either.

“It’s less of a rank,” Marten had explained. “More of a…let’s say temporary directorial position. The Squad Overseer is the undisputed leader, but it’s not a rank as you understand it.”

This Commander had very odd procedures to say the least.

“Kakusa, right?” Eden asked, leaning towards him.

“Soran,” he amended. People generally were more comfortable using first names and he didn’t see a reason not to share his, especially since they’d be serving together for a while.

“First time fighting aliens?” She asked. From her tone, she suspected she was smiling even if the helmet hid it.

He gave a curt nod. “Yes, it is.”

“Nervous?”

He shook his head. “No.”

That answer didn’t seem to be what she was expecting judging from the way she sharply sat back up. It also attracted the attention of Carmelita who turned her head towards him and held his gaze for a few seconds. “You should be,” she stated, he voice much softer and melodic than he’d expected.

“Perhaps,” he shrugged. “But I’ve seen enough that facing a few sectoids and drones doesn’t scare me.”

“Pray that’s all we face,” Wong muttered, mostly to himself. “I doubt the aliens are bothering with such paltry forces anymore.”

“Agreed,” Creed nodded firmly. “The days of sectoid and drone teams are over.”

“Remember that the aliens have to have limited resources,” Soran reminded them. “At least from what I’ve seen, every army, no matter how large, has a finite number of resources. XCOM dealt them a serious blow when you destroyed the dreadnought and it will take time to replace. They might need to conserve what forces they have until they can get more.”

Carmelita cocked her head at him skeptically. “For some reason, I have trouble believing that. We dealt a blow to the aliens, yes. But I highly doubt killing one crew of a dreadnought is going to set them back in terms of manpower not to mention their “finite” resources are probably more than all the countries of the world combined.”

“I guess we’ll find out.” Eden shrugged.

“That is a question I’m interested in as well,” a new voice interrupted, coming from his helmet. “This is the Commander to Spur Team, stand by for briefing.”

All of the soldiers immediately sat up straighter and several clutched their weapons tighter. Finally, the voice of the illusive Commander he’d heard so much about when he arrived. By all accounts he was an excellent tactician and leader, not to mention actually respected by the soldiers. He’d also apparently involved himself in the actual war itself much more than was typical.

Hopefully he’d meet him at some point.

“What’s the op, Commander?” Creed asked.

“We’ve received report of an entire town gone dark in South Korea,” the Commander answered. Soran noted Carmelita tense up at that. Unsurprising, given it was her homeland. “This is a larger town than they’ve hit before. Possibly up to ten thousand have been taken.”

“How did no one notice?” Carmelita demanded, her tone incredulous. “Someone had to notice.”

“I suspect that the aliens want to make a statement after their loss,” the Commander continued grimly. “I can think of several reasons why this didn’t elicit a quicker response. The most likely being the aliens devoted more resources or advanced units to increase their speed in subduing the town.”

“Or using more advanced technology,” Wong guessed, clasping his hands together.

“Possible,” the Commander agreed. “In any case, expect heavy contact once you touch down. I would expect the usual; sectoids, drones, thin men, mutons or possibly cyberdisks.”

Soran frowned. One of those names hadn’t been in the handbook.

“Has the South Korean government been informed?” Creed asked.

“They were the ones who contacted us,” the Commander answered. “They saved us an hour or two. So yes, they are aware and have dispatched several teams of the 707th to the town.”

“Are they aware of our arrival?” Creed asked warily.

“No,” the Commander answered reluctantly. “The units are on radio silence until they arrive on-site and prepare to engage. You may encounter them before they’ve received word of your presence. Solder Alba, if necessary you might need to intervene.”

“Understood,” Carmelita nodded. “I probably know several operatives deployed. They won’t be a problem.”

“Excellent. Find out what happened and execute any aliens you encounter. If possible, secure the site before the South Korean military arrives. I’d prefer they not acquire any alien tech.”

“We’ll do our best,” Creed answered. “However, what should we do if they insist?”

“Allow them several of the corpses left, and only the corpses,” the Commander instructed. “Any alien technology should be secured by our team. Make sure this is conveyed to the South Koreans. I’ll begin contacting the President immediately.”

“We’ll do our best,” Creed assured him. “Should we restrain our usage of explosives to preserve the tech?”

“Vahlen would no doubt appreciate it,” the Commander answered, sounding somewhat amused. “But no. Do whatever you need to survive. More alien technology will come, soldiers are harder to replace.”

“Understood,” Creed answered.

“You know what to do. Citadel Command, out.”

Huh. The rumors he’d heard about the Commander restricting the recovery of alien tech appeared to be true. It made sense in a way, no other country had begun using alien tech openly. He’d heard that Germany was beginning to incorporate some, probably as a consequence of an alliance with XCOM.

Israel supposedly was allied with them as well, though that was speculation he’d heard within the ranks, not from anyone with any official authority. He honestly hoped it was just a rumor. Israel with alien technology was extremely disturbing. Reading up on history, recent and ancient, he had no doubt that Israel would seek retribution on the Middle East if they had the means.

Quite honestly, they might be able to cause enough damage to cripple the region for generations, but the United Nations kept them in line. But he suspected it was only a matter of time before that organization fell, that would open the door for the possibility of an Israeli conquest.

Scratch that, it would open the door for any country to take advantage. From his point of view, the United Nations was the only thing keeping the more radical countries like Israel and North Korea in line, not to mention the other superpowers like China and America. He was extremely curious to find out if the rumors he’d heard about tension between the United Nations and XCOM were true as well.

Given what he’d just heard, he wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.

“This is Burning Sky to Spur Team,” their pilot informed them as the white lights in the skyranger flashed and turned a solid red. “We’re five minutes for the LZ. I’ll maneuver you over the most populated area. If anyone’s still alive, they’ll probably be there.”

“Understood, Burning Sky,” Creed answered, rolling his shoulders. “We’ll be ready.”

Soran looked around. “Quick question,” he interrupted, raising a hand. “What’s a muton?”

The soldiers looked between each other. “Ah, right,” Eden answered, letting out a low chuckle. “You’ve seen them before. I believe the handbook refers to them as “Alien shock troopers” or something like that. Hulking bipeds clad in green armor, very strong and dangerous. We got tired of referring to them as the “Green aliens” and someone called them mutons once,” she shrugged. “The name stuck, and no one had anything better. I suspect whoever writes those handbooks will update in a week or so?”

“Just like that?” Soran questioned, frowning. “You actually use the nicknames you come up with as official designations?”

The soldiers clearly hadn’t thought much about that before as they looked between each other. “Huh, guess not,” Marten answered, somewhat amused. “Although, I’m kind of surprised it took you this long to figure out. You think the name thin man was invented by some scientist in a lab?”

“At least some of them were,” Soran noted. “I’m pretty sure none of you came up with chryssalid.

“Nope, all Vahlen’s doing,” Eden answered. “I rather like it.”

Carmelita shot her a stern look. “There is nothing to like about those creatures.”

Eden actually sounded apologetic. “Ah, sorry. Didn’t think.”

Soran looked between them. He was clearly missing something, but he had to agree with Carmelita. The chryssalids were unsettling and unnatural to him. He didn’t know whether their…unique reproduction system was natural or a result of genetic tampering.

Either way, that species should have been eradicated long ago. No good could come from using them, even as weapons.

“Prepare to deploy,” Creed ordered as he stood and grabbed her rifle. Soran grabbed the laser variant of an SMG firmly in his hands. Amazing how light it was, much different than the weapons he was used to using.

He felt the skyranger slowing down until it was hovering over the town. With a hiss the ramp opened with a hiss and squeal. Ropes fell from hidden hatches above the tail to the ground. He looked around and saw several of the soldiers pulling out grappling equipment and had to snort.

At this height? Please, he’d jumped off cliffs higher than this. Moving swiftly, he grasped the rope and leapt off, descending into the silent town.

***

Soran hit the ground hard, though his legs absorbed the initial impact while the armor absorbed the rest. He grinned, he was liking this armor more and more. A lot more than what he normally wore. Though to be fair, what he’d wore was to emphasize agility and quickness and not much else. Assassination and stealth, those were key. If he ever got into a firefight, something had gone very wrong.

So it was going to certainly be interesting for sure.

The rest of the squad landed behind him, though not nearly as gracefully.

“Risky,” Creed commented as he unhooked himself and the rope ascended back into the skyranger which flew off. “Good thing you didn’t let go.”

Soran threw a sidelong glance at him, which was probably lost from the helmet. “I completed higher jumps in training. This was trivial.”

“Fair enough,” Creed muttered. “But if you break your leg I’m pinning it all on you.”

“Fine by me,” Soran agreed as the rest of them dropped behind and beside them.

With everyone on the ground, Soran looked around the area for the first time. They’d landed in the middle of a street, run down apartments and houses on each side. The road was cracked, broken and tore up. All inexcusable driving conditions in most civilized countries, though Soran guessed this was normal here.

Old, abandoned cars sat empty alongside the road. Soran did a quick look and didn’t recognize a car newer than 2003, an indication of this town’s economic state. He walked over and took a closer look at the buildings. Mold, rot and decay had set in and the buildings were slowly, but surely falling apart. It wouldn’t take much to reduce this place to dust.

He pursed his lips as he raised his weapon, ready for any aliens heading his way. He’d heard about the conditions some of the South Koreans lived in, but had never seen firsthand. The shadow wars between the countries didn’t come without a cost and the citizens of South Korea were paying dearly for the mostly symbolic victories against the tyrannical state.

He apparently wasn’t the only one with that thought. “People have it tough here, it seems,” Cai noted as Carmelita readied her laser shotgun.

“It’s rather hard to have a prosperous economy when the nation above you wants your death,” she retorted icily. “The people have never had it easy here. This is nothing new.”

But probably better if South Korea didn’t wage a pointless war against their neighbor. However, Soran knew now was not the time for that and suspected that any argument not brought up in her favor would likely end badly for him. He’d have to know how far to push before even broaching that topic.

But that was a thought for another time.

Creed motioned forward with his rifle. “This is Squad Overseer Creed to Citadel Command. We’ve touched down and ready to proceed.”

“Acknowledged,” the Commander responded. “Proceed.”

“Central, anything ahead?” Marten asked.

“Working,” came the voice of Central Officer Bradford, a man that had struck Soran as a rather by-the-book soldier. Reliable, but lacked creativity. Excellent for administrative purposes, but useless in nearly everything else. But the man seemed competent at his job as long as he stuck to it.

“Head signatures ahead,” Bradford finally answered. “Can’t tell if they’re friendlies or not. No electronic signatures, but I’d be ready for anything.”

“Onscreen,” Creed asked and the small map of the area in the top left corner of his HUD was replaced with the map displaying the heat signatures. They appeared a short distance ahead, a good number of the signatures appeared clustered in one of the buildings. It seemed roughly about a forth of the force detected.

“Excellent Central, thanks,” Creed nodded and motioned them forward.

“We could blow the building,” Carmelita suggested. “I can’t be the only one who noticed them clustered.”

Soran was surprised that was the first solution suggested. “They might be civilians,” he pointed out instantly. “We need to be sure before blowing it up.”

Carmelita snorted. “You’re new, so I’ll tell you what’s happened,” she waved her hand around the abandoned town. “No one is here. Everyone is gone. Everyone except the aliens.”

“Soran has a point,” Eden pointed out, walking up beside him. “We should at least make sure before reducing a building to ash.”

“Enough.” Creed raised a fist so they immediately stopped chatting.

Once he lowered it he continued. “Here’s what we’ll do.” He pointed at Soran. “You have a background in agility and scouting. Recon the area and report what you see. We’ll move into position around the building.”

An acceptable compromise. “Yes, sir.” He nodded and dashed off, sticking to the side of the buildings which threw shadows obscuring his movements. He was careful to make as little noise as possible, not as easy as he was used to with the armor, but he managed.

Height. He needed to get on the roof. As he reached the wall he contemplated saving some time but decided against it, not worth the risk. Instead he simply found handholds and footholds and scaled the wall, a relatively easy task given its decrepit state.

Once on the roof, he began sneaking on the ground until he had a good look on the building where the aliens or civilians were hiding. He took a breath, closed his eyes and concentrated. There was no way he would be able to get a visual without blowing his cover so he did the next best thing.

He listened.

It took a few minutes, but a low chittering and growling slowly became audible. He pursed his lips. The grunting he had an idea of, but didn’t know for sure. But he’d recognize the chatter of the mouthless sectoids any day. “Aliens in the building,” he reported to Creed. “Sectoids, possibly some mutons.”

“Copy.” He looked over to see Creed and the rest of the soldiers on the ground, hiding behind abandoned cars and apartment walls. “Wong, Rayna, level this building. Kakusa, Carmelita, be ready for anything.”

“Will do,” Cai pulled the rocket launcher from behind his back and aimed at the base of the building. “Ladies first.”

“How sweet,” Eden replied lightly as she pulled several frag grenades from her belt and tossed them into the building in quick succession. “Frags out!”

“Firing rocket,” Cai stated and a few seconds later a massive explosion erupted from the building which crumbled to the ground with a thunderous crash.

“Here they come!” Carmelita shouted as she began firing behind the building. Soran looked beyond the smoke to see six of the mutons converging on their position. Just as large and intimidating as he remembered. Their normally pristine green armor was caked with dirt and mud.

The aliens took positions inside more abandoned buildings and cars. Within seconds the battlefield was filled with green bolts of plasma and red lasers lighting up the night. Soran aimed at one of the mutons hiding behind a car. Instead of shooting at the moving alien, he shot the stationary car instead.

The alien reacted exactly as he expected and began bolting for new cover once he saw what Soran intended to do. “Get the retreating one!” he called as the alien raced away. Luckily Eden noticed and her laser beam cut through the alien armor, forcing it to the ground where it crawled away, leaving a trail of yellow blood.

Soran nodded in resignation. A mortal wound. He’d have preferred a clean death, but such was war. He turned his attention towards two mutons shooting out the window of an abandoned home. A home that was quickly being torn apart from the lasers cutting into the sides.

The rest of the squad’s cover fared little better. Plasma appeared to be doing more damage to the buildings than the lasers and if they kept up the assault, more buildings were going to collapse.

Creed seemed to notice the same thing. “Wong! Rocket on those two!”

“Cover me!” Cai shouted and Eden and Creed provided enough suppressive fire, lasers fired off in shorts bursts which allowed Cai to lower himself to one knee and line up a rocket.

“Rocket’s away!” He shouted as the missile screamed towards the building where it exploded into a burst of flame and shrapnel. The mutons screamed and roared as the shrapnel shredded their armor and the fire scored their exposed skin, blinding them. Their suffering was literally short-lived as they were killed by the falling rubble as the building collapsed on them.

Soran didn’t believe the mutons were particularly intelligent, but down half their force against an XCOM squad, they knew when they were outmatched. The muton furthest away turned and ran. Soran fired off some ineffective shots, but his laser SMG was useless as such long range.

“One ran off!” He shouted as the squad advanced slowly. “He’s probably bringing friends!”

“Copy that,” Creed replied wearily as he began pinning down a muton behind an old truck. “Carmelita! Get the one by the truck. Reyna! Finish up with the last one.”

“Copy!” Both women acknowledged and began moving. Eden tossed another grenade towards the muton hiding behind a crumbling building. The explosion didn’t hurt the alien, but it did provide a clean shot to Marten who melted the alien’s face off with the burning laser.

Carmelita dashed around the car with speed the surprised Soran. He hadn’t suspected she would be as fast as him. The muton hadn’t expected it either and clumsily attempted to turn only to receive the full force of her laser shotgun tearing through his armor and reducing his innards to liquid. Not quite dead and in a pool of blood, the muton attempted to crawl back as Carmelita stood over him.

Holstering her weapon, she pulled out one of the knives she had strapped to her chest and taking a reverse grip, knelt down and stabbed the muton in the eye. But not in one quick motion, very slowly and deliberately she sank the blade, ensuring the alien be in as much pain as possible before death. When the alien finally stopped thrashing and roaring, she stood and strode back over.

Soran shook his head and leapt off the roof. Once on the ground, he began walking to where the squad was regrouping. Carmelita was cleaning the yellow blood off her blade and once done, slid it back into its sheath.

“That was unnecessary,” he told her, unable to keep the disapproval out of his voice.

She simply looked up at him, the helmet blocking any insight into her mind. Her voice was just as emotionless. “They deserved it,” she answered, as if that explained everything. “Each of them deserve far worse.”

He contemplated probing further but was interrupted when a hand grasped his forearm. Frowning, he turned to see Marten who shook his head silently. More questions for later, and he was liking Carmelita less and less.

“One escaped,” Creed recalled as he reloaded his laser rifle with a fresh pack. “I don’t think it’ll be difficult to find.”

Soran shook his head. “More are out there. He went to get reinforcements.”

“Then we hunt them down,” Carmelita stated, reaching for her shotgun. “Let’s-“ She abruptly stopped when the sound of automatic fire filled the air off in the distance.

“The South Korean soldiers,” Marten muttered already running off in that direction. “We need to get up there.”

“Let’s go!” Creed ordered and they began running towards the gunfire.

***

To their credit, the South Koreans were putting up a good fight.

But against four mutons and three sectoids, not even the best of the 707th could last forever. At least three human corpses lay on the ground, their bodies torn open from plasma bolts.

They’d managed to get one of the mutons somehow, the body with a bullet hole through the eye indicated the cause of death. A lucky shot most likely. Bullets washed off the alien armor like water, barely making dents in the alloy. Even the shots that hit the heads of the mutons were doing barely more than irritating it. Conventional weaponry simply was ineffective against alien tech.

The sectoids were keeping to the back, as they could actually be hurt from the bullet. But instead they employed their psionic abilities, and judging from the screams, cries and curses, sounds not expected from an elite special forces unit, it was working.

Unfortunately for them, the squad stormed onto the sectoids flank and were quickly shot up by Carmelita in quick succession. The mutons heard the commotion and quickly scrambled to cover, which they had eschewed when facing the South Korean operatives. The burning lasers from the rifles instantly killed one and left smoldering gashes weeping with yellow blood on the rest.

The South Korean operatives took advantage of the opening XCOM provided and let loose with their own weapons on the aliens when their backs were turned. Even in their weakened state, the muton weren’t bothered by the hail of lead tearing into them. Roaring in pain and anger, the ignored the XCOM squad and began a last effort to kill the South Korean operatives.

Marten and Creed fired two scalding beams into the back of one muton and it collapsed to the ground, a sizzling hole in its chest. The remaining muton was targeted by Carmelita who fired two quick laser blasts from her shotgun, both at the knees. The lasers tore through the weakened armor and flesh.

The legless alien fell to the ground, bleeding from a dozen small wounds as he tried in vain to crawl away from the woman approaching whose armor was stained with the blood of his comrades, of whatever the aliens referred to them as. Carmelita showed the same amount of compassion and empathy as she had to the last one.

Without nearly as much ceremony, she pulled out her knife and calmly slit the throat of the alien and stood back up and let it choke on it’s own blood. An agonizing death, even if it could happen quickly. She apparently put that out of her mind as soon as she finished because she immediately began shouting out to the South Korean operatives who cautiously approached her in their own language.

She took off her helmet and Soran was once again surprised with what he saw. Cropped black hair framed a round brown-skinned face. She definitely retained Asian characteristics and also had a light scar on her cheek. Definitely a face most men would consider attractive, but definitely not the face of the cold-blooded killer he’d seen today.

Her pleasantly melodic voice carried throughout the silent battlefield and the remains of the South Korean operatives came down and joined the squad. Eight were still alive, a number that was either very good or very bad depending on how many units were sent. It seemed that at least some of them knew Carmelita, which confirmed his suspicion that she’d been part of the South Korean special forces.

After a lengthy conversation he sadly wasn’t able to translate, she walked over to Creed. “They’ve agreed to help us. They’ll follow your lead for now, if you have any specific orders, I’ll relay them.”

Creed thought for a moment. “Tell them the alien tech is dangerous and should only be handled by our people. Then tell them to have their weapons ready. I don’t think that was the reinforcements that muton ran back for.”

Carmelita nodded. “I’ll do that.”

Another interesting thing. She’d agreed to deny her country assets rather easily. Provided that was what she was doing. For all he knew, she was sharing vital information. No. She wouldn’t do that. The helmet cams recorded everything and he had no doubt the Commander was going to have someone translate this entire exchange word for word.

Creed motioned them forward, into the heart of the town. The XCOM squad took point while the South Korean operatives stayed closely behind. Soran was starting to wonder if they’d killed the muton after all. No. He remembered that the muton running away had dirty and soiled armor. The group they’d just fought had been the normal pristine green.

Before they’d ruined it, that is.

One of the Korean operatives suddenly stopped and raised a hand, saying something intensely. “Listen,” Carmelita translated, raising her weapon. “Something is out there.”

Everyone went silent and then Soran heard it; the faint sound of what could be mistaken for a miniature engine. Bradford had said no electronic signatures were detected, so either he was wrong…or…

Marten apparently arrived at the same conclusion. “Floaters!” He yelled ducking off to the side. “Take cover!”

Everyone ran for cover, just in time to as floaters burst through weakened roofs and windows. The mutilated creatures shrieked when they saw the soldiers and wasted no time opening fire. XCOM and the Korean soldiers returned with laser and automatic fire. Creating a laser trap was the best strategy for dealing with floaters and it worked beautifully here as well.

Driven only by rage and pain, the aliens were quick, fast and focused. But they were also easily tricked and were able to be pushed into traps set easily by an experienced XCOM squad. Within a few minute they’d pushed and tricked the floaters into flying into laser after deadly laser. The unarmored aliens provided virtually no resistance as the laser cut a clean line through them.

The corpses littering the ground, the last muton finally charged out, roaring. In pain or terror, Soran didn’t know and at the moment, didn’t care. It fired off a few bolts from the plasma rifle it wielded, but it was thoroughly and completely outmatched. Throughout the rain of lasers and bullets, Soran didn’t see who actually claimed the final kill, only that it was not him.

Silence fell over the town.

“Tell them I appreciate their assistance,” Creed told Carmelita. “Our teams will begin to collect the artifacts shortly.”

While Carmelita translated, Cai came up. “Good job,” he congratulated. “You did well for your first time.”

“I thank you,” Soran answered, looking around the abandoned town. “Though I wish we could have saved the people here.”

“So do I,” Cai agreed, nodding. “But until then we’ll just keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing since they made the mistake of coming to our world.” His tone turned cold. “And once we drive them off, we’ve follow them and hunt them to extinction.”

With that he turned and walked away, leaving Soran more concerned than ever before.

***

After-Action Report

Operation: Upper Egypt

Personnel:

Spur 1 (Squad Overseer): Specialist Anius Creed

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Spur 2: Specialist Carmelita Alba

            Status: Active

            Kills: 7

Spur 3: Specialist Marten El-Amin

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Spur 4: Specialist Cai Wong

            Status: Active

            Kills: 8

Spur 5: Specialist Eden Rayna

            Status: Active

            Kills: 4

Spur 6: Specialist Soran Kakusa

            Status: Active

            Kills: 0

 

Mission Director: The Commander

Pilot: Riley Ignis: Call sign – “Burning Sky”

 

Artifacts Recovered:

-2x Sectoid Corpses (Severe Damage)

-3x Sectoid Corpses (Moderate Damage)

-4x Muton Corpses (Severe Damage)

-8x Muton Corpses (Moderate Damage)

-3x Floater Corpses (Severe Damage)

-3x Floater Corpses (Moderate Damage)

-22x Alien Alloys

-40x Alien Weapon Fragments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Hanger

The skyranger shuddered and after a few seconds became still. Herman listened as the engines died down and the lights in the skyranger flashed to a solid red. Unstrapping, he stood and waited for the ramp to lower. The aircraft was surprisingly compact and yet also seemed to provide enough room for a small squad of soldiers.

Which was rather impressive, considering that militaries tended to…overcompensate sometimes. At least in terms of getting the most out of their vehicles. Something like this would have been deemed impractical due to the low amount of soldiers who could be carried. In fact, he could have sworn he’d seen designs similar to this skyranger about…was it five years ago? Designs NATO had rejected due to “Extreme cost.” Not that it mattered too much, but it was still interesting to note.

It would also be interesting to see what other abandoned ideas XCOM might have implemented.

With a hiss the ramp lowered and Herman walked out into what was apparently the hanger.  It was surprisingly empty, no fuel barrels or many vehicles. Looking over to the corner he saw another skyranger parked in addition to the one in front of him. Hm. He wondered how many XCOM had. Looking up at the cavern walls he raised his eyebrows in surprise.

A rather interesting and clever design choice, he had to admit. Instead of storing XCOM’s fighter jets in rows within the hanger, they were instead placed into slots carved out from the walls. There were six in total, and he didn’t see how they were able to be deployed, but he was impressed they’d taken advantage of the unusual base location.

The Citadel…that alone told him he wasn’t dealing with the typical military commander. Nearly all military personnel stuck with basic, generic names like “Alpha,” “Theta,” and so on. There were a variety of reasons for that, but calling an actual military base something out of a novel or movie wasn’t exactly common and typically discouraged.

Sort of a shame, but he had to admit it was a little neat to actually have a base called as such. The Citadel had a nice ring to it. Remembering why he was here, he glanced around wondering where he should go. There didn’t seem to be any welcoming committee here and the hanger was almost deserted as it was.

“Enjoy the flight?” A voice asked beside him.

Herman turned to see the man he presumed was his pilot approaching. Wearing a typical black aviation suit with his helmet tucked under his arm, the man appeared to be simply appraising him. His brown hair was mostly unkempt but his eyes were striking. At the moment, Herman couldn’t guess what he was thinking.

“No issues,” Herman responded. “Never flown on one of those before. I assume it’s always that smooth?”

The man didn’t crack a smile. “Only on missions when everything goes well.”

“That not happen often?” Herman asked, shifting to face him better.

The man waved the hand not holding his helmet dismissively. “Nah, but enough to make me somewhat apprehensive.” He extended a hand. “Jason Olgard, call sign ‘Big Sky.’”

Herman shook it. “Herman Diederick, representative of the Council.”

Jason eyed him, clearly being as guarded as possible. “Yeah, I know who you are.”

Herman gave him a small smile. “And I presume you have an opinion already?”

“Just curiosity,” Jason answered warily. “Wondering why the Council sends someone now.”

“They simply wish to make sure everything is up to standard,” Herman assured him, not even remotely convinced that the pilot would believe him. “Nothing more or less.”

His assumption seemed to be true. “Hmm,” Jason answered, keeping his neutral tone. “We’ll see.”

Might as well see what he could get. It never hurt to speak with people who questioned your motives, in fact, it was an excellent opportunity to change their minds. And he had the sneaking suspicion that he was going to be doing a lot of that around here. “You have doubts?”

“Let’s just say I’m worried,” Jason replied slowly, his face tightening to restrain emotion. “Things always seems to…what’s the word…deteriorate when the UN tries to get involved.”

Hm. Skeptical of the United Nations; not uncommon among military personnel and being part of NATO he could attest to some of the missteps of the United Nations. Unfortunately, that was often all people remembered. “You do realize XCOM is part of the United Nations,” Herman informed. “Even if it’s through the Council.”

Jason finally cracked a smile. “I’ve been on UN ops before, Representative, and I can assure you that this is not run like anything done by the United Nations.”

Probably true. The Commander preferred running things his own way and probably considered the procedures conducted by the Peacekeepers and NATO either a waste of time, or unnecessary. From the psychological profile he’d been provided on the Commander, he was very much a man of action. He didn’t spend any more days deliberating or discussing than he deemed was necessary. He saw what needed to be done in his eyes and immediately attempted to do it.

He could respect proactivity, but not at the expense of assurance. Herman tended to look more at the big picture including what happened after the mission or operation was completed rather than the short term effects. And if the War on Terror had proven anything, it was that the Commander did not look beyond his current objective.

Despite himself, he was growing more and more curious to meet him. Perhaps things would become clearer then. Still, he had to remember that he was not likely to be welcomed and that the Commander was a very intelligent man by all accounts. Despite his apparent dislike of politics, the Commander did seem to have a good grasp on them and would likely be very aware if he tried any kind of verbal trickery.

He’d probably not react well to it. Direct and straightforward, that was what dossier had said would be most likely to earn his respect. Best be polite at first and see where it got him.

“Well,” he finally answered, returning to the conversation. “I look forward to seeing how it differs. It might be a nice change of pace for me.”

“Hopefully you don’t find anything overly problematic,” Jason commented grimly. “The last thing we need is disruption.”

“Believe me, I understand how dangerous the alien threat is,” Herman assured him. “Nothing will be changed unless absolutely necessary.”

Jason gave one nod. “I hope you prove me wrong.”

Well, thing was off to an excellent start. He sincerely hoped that not everyone was like this. “I intend to do my best. Now,” he looked around. “I suppose I should meet the Commander. I suppose you know where he is?”

“At the moment,” Jason looked up. “No. I’m not the one to give you directions. Your escort should be coming any second now.”

“I suppose it’s late?” Herman asked.

“Yes,” Jason nodded, shifting his helmet under his arm. “But we’ve got a squad coming back from a mission. We’re more focused on that.”

Ah, that made sense. “I understand,” Herman nodded. “I’ll wait as long as needed.”

“I’ll stay until he comes,” Jason said, flipping his helmet in his hands. “Wouldn’t want to leave you alone here.”

“Appreciated,” Herman answered, genuinely grateful for the offer. “So how many pilots do you have?”

“Skyranger or Raven?” Jason attempted to clarify. Herman supposed that the Ravens were those fighter jets. Well, he had time.

“Both.”

“For the skyrangers, just three,” Jason replied indicating the aircraft behind him. “Tristen and Riley, “Fallen Sky” and “Burning Sky” respectively. Then me, of course. We just got some new pilots and Ravens so I don’t know all the names, but we have six in total, though the Commander is looking to expand further.”

“A rather small air force,” Herman commented. “I’d think that you’d need more.”

“We do, no question,” Jason agreed emphatically. “But it’s an issue of time, capacity and funds. The details of which I’m not privy to, though the Commander might be more open with you. We’ve managed fine so far, but we know the air war is only going to get more intense.”

Herman recalled the alien dreadnaught and had to agree. “The aliens can’t be happy losing their dreadnaught.”

“No question,” Jason answered. “I’d wager-ah, seems your escort has arrived.”

About time. Herman turned around and his eyes widened in surprise. “General Van Doorn?” He exclaimed in surprise, certain his eyes weren’t playing tricks as the bald and cheerful man walked up in black military fatigues with the XCOM logo emblazoned on the shoulders.

“A pleasure to see you again, Herman,” Van Doorn answered happily as they grasped forearms as had been their custom and pulled into a quick embrace. Stepping back, Van Doorn continued. “You don’t know how relieved I was when I heard you would be the one coming.”

“What are you doing here?” Herman asked in amazement. “Last I heard you were called off to some meeting.”

“Long story,” Van Doorn answered with a smile. “Suffice it to say that I ran into a situation where XCOM had to come and extract me. After a series of interesting events, I decided to stay on and help here.” He motioned to the door. “Come on, we can walk and talk at the same time.”

Herman walked up to his side and they began walking out of the hanger. He shook his head in disbelief. “I admit, I’m surprised you left NATO. And that no one told us.”

“Yes,” Van Doorn admitted wryly. “The Council wasn’t entirely happy with my decision, but this is where I belong. XCOM is our best chance against the aliens, whether the Council will admit it or not.”

 They walked in silence for a few seconds. “I suppose you know what I should expect,” Herman finally said. “Good or bad?”

Van Doorn pursed his lips. “The Commander is…well, let’s say he’s not in favor of the Council taking a greater role in XCOM. I’ve managed to make him a little more open to you, so he probably won’t be as…hostile. But don’t expect complete cooperation right off the bat.”

Herman sighed. “I expected as much. But you know why I’m here, so is there anything I will find.”

“Certainly,” Van Doorn agreed, surprising him. “But you and I both know that no military organization is going to be completely clean. I suppose it’s up to you to decide what you believe is worth reporting. You have a job and I understand that. There will be no opposition for me.”

“But I will from everyone else?” Herman finished wearily.

Van Doorn paused as the turned a corner. “That will honestly depend on how you conduct yourself. Be willing to work with us and you’ll gain more support. Dr. Shen isn’t opposed to you and neither am I, clearly. But everyone else is suspicious at least.”

“And what is your impression of the Commander?” Herman asked carefully.

The General hesitated before answering. “From working with him, I can say that he’s very determined, loyal to everyone under his command and…I suppose decisive is the best word. But he’s fair and will listen to everyone before making a decision.”

“Is that for show or does he actually mean it?” Herman questioned. Often times stuff like that tended to be more…symbolic than actually looking for feedback.

“I believe he does,” Van Doorn answered carefully. “That being said, he is very much under the impression that his way is always the correct one. He has counter-arguments for most points brought up against him and seems to have used them enough that it’s almost rehearsed. Not to mention that his views generally line up strongly with the majority of our Internal Council.”

Hm. The more they talked, the more he got the impression that Van Doorn didn’t know the true identity of the Commander. By this point it should have been brought up at least once, unless he assumed the Council told him. There was a way to find out; simply asking would do the trick. But if Van Doorn didn’t know, that would be a major misstep and cause a whole host of problems. Best to talk to the Commander first unless Van Doorn brought it up.

“I assume this Internal Council is the Commander’s body of advisors?” Herman asked as they walked into a lift that began rising.

“Yes,” Van Doorn nodded. “It’s members include our head of Engineering, Dr. Shen; our Central Officer, Bradford; our head of R&D, Dr. Vahlen and me.”

Vahlen. He’d heard that name before, though he couldn’t quite recall….he searched his mind for a minute until he recalled something. “Wasn’t Vahlen one of the scientists lost during the War on Terror?”

Van Doorn chuckled. “So I believed as well. Turns out it was just a cover, or so I’m told. But she’s perfectly alive and as brilliant as ever. A bit unsettling though.”

Yes. That matched up with what he now remembered about the woman. Cold, calculating, focused and brilliant. She was the kind of scientist who pushed ethics and morals aside in favor of pure scientific advancement. It seemed he was going to meet a host of interesting people.

 “I’d prefer not to upset the Commander on our first visit,” Herman finally said. “Anything I should do or avoid.”

“Speak to him as a soldier, not a diplomat or representative,” Van Doorn advised carefully. “He’ll respect you more, even if he still won’t like you. But he won’t hold back and neither should you, but be smart about it.”

“I’ll remember that,” Herman promised, preparing himself for the conversation ahead.

***

The Citadel, Office of the Commander

Van Doorn had left to bring the representative to meet him. Well, he couldn’t put this off forever. Still, he wouldn’t let this ruin an excellent mission. The aliens had been defeated, no casualties and he’d convinced the South Korean president to let XCOM secure the area so “More wouldn’t be hurt.” It couldn’t have hurt that the special forces soldiers sent in had been rescued by XCOM and had witnessed a lethal demonstration of uncontained alien technology. A shame that the population had been abducted, but they sadly couldn’t have done anything to prevent that.

That being said, he wouldn’t have been concerned if South Korea had insisted on some of the tech. Like Israel, they were generally concerned with matters closer to home than XCOM, the aliens or the world as a whole. But one issue was that he didn’t know exactly what the country would do with a sudden explosion of technological advancement. But the biggest reason for him was that this might give South Korea advantage in their shadow war with their neighbor.

Not that he would be particularly sad about that, but he was more concerned that would prompt North Korea to end the mostly one-sided war decisively. If South Korea was emboldened by their new advantage, a more public attack could allow North Korea to successfully convince China to back them as they put down the rebellious country.

And that was the last thing he needed or wanted.

These constant rivalries and tensions between countries all over the world were becoming more worrisome the longer this war lasted. It was only a matter of time before some idiot country got their hands on alien tech and used it to attack whoever they considered their enemy. No matter how hard he tried, it would happen one day.

Now, he did have some ideas on hand, but none of them particularly…legal. But if the stability of the world was began to collapse, he would have no choice but to at least try to direct it.

But that was a topic for later. Right now he had issues closer to home to deal with.

Ground rules for the representative had been established. He was to learn no more than was necessary and any additional inquiries he made were to either be directed towards the Commander, or explained in a way that would confuse him, while not technically lying. He would “officially” have unrestricted access throughout the base, meaning everywhere but the holding cells, Alien Containment and the new lab cells being built under the research area.

Zhang and XCOM Intelligence were not to be mentioned under any circumstances or insinuated in any way. In the event that the two met, Zhang was simply a soldier in the XCOM armed forces and that would hold as long as the Commander deemed it necessary. He would be notified of missions taking place, but all Internal Council meetings would be held without him. If he insisted, they would be held without his knowledge.

He had debated attempting to hide the public contingencies, but it would only look suspicious especially since the entire base had access at the moment. The only thing he was concerned about was the Thanatos Contingency, but depending on how reasonable this “Herman Diederick” was, he might be able to convince him of the necessity of it all.

Van Doorn had actually been excited when the name came to them. According to the General, Herman was a reasonable, loyal, level headed and a sound tactician to boot. All of which sounded far too good to be true, and if so, made him a very odd choice for a representative of the Council.

He didn’t believe the Council wouldn’t send someone they didn’t think they could influence, so that threw something of a shadow over Van Doorn’s words. Regardless, it might be useful for placating the Council, assuming everything could be controlled.

That was the best-case scenario, and those generally didn’t happen enough for him to be reliant on them.

A light on his desk blinked, indicating that someone was outside. Time to finally meet. The door slid open and Van Doorn walked in, the Representative at his side. Herman didn’t appear that old, late thirties or forties at first glance. His short black hair was ordered and his clean-shaven face was composed. The Commander didn’t fail to notice the scar that ran across his forehead.

Interesting. He also was clad in NATO issue military fatigues, though he must have removed any badges displaying his rank. The only identifying emblem was the United Nations emblem on his upper left chest. At least he could be assured he was dealing with a military personality and not a politician.

“Commander,” Van Doorn greeted as they walked in front of his desk and indicated the man beside him. “This is Herman Diederick, Major-General in NATO and Representative of the Council.”

“I know,” he answered the General. “I suppose I should welcome you to the Citadel.”

“It’s a unique base,” Herman answered, clasping his hands in front of him. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.”

“I can imagine,” the Commander agreed, keeping his tone deliberately neutral. He nodded at Van Doorn. “General, I’d like to speak with him alone.”

“I’ll be in Mission Control,” Van Doorn told him as he saluted and made to exit. “Spur Team should be returning in a few minutes.”

They waited a few seconds after Van Doorn left and the door closed before either of them made a move. “I suppose I’ve arrived at a bad time,” Herman finally said. “I’d rather not interrupt an on-going operation.”

“Quite honestly, there would never be a ‘good’ time for you to arrive,” the Commander answered, walking around the table and handed him a tablet. “But in this case, it’s no disruption. Our operation was successful and the squad is heading back now. The mission details are here.”

Herman took the tablet and read for a few minutes. “Nearly ten thousand abducted. I’m not sure that could be considered a success.”

The Commander sighed. “Until we have a way to predict where the aliens are going to strike, the best we can do is eradicate any that remain. We’re not dealing with some upstart nation; we’re dealing with a technologically advanced alien race.”

“Fair enough,” Herman answered, putting the tablet down and appraising him. “But I suppose I’ll have to be brought up to speed. In the meantime, I suppose we should address this situation.”

The Commander pursed his lips. “I agree. So, what has the Council told you about me? I’d also appreciate knowing their reasons for why they felt it was necessary to interfere in my operation.”

“This is still technically a Council operation,” Herman stated neutrally. “Whether you like it or not, they have the right to run it as they see fit.”

The Commander’s eyes turned to ice. “That’s a debate for later. Please answer the question.”

“What did they tell me…?” Herman mused, then looked directly at him. “Your identity for one, Commander.”

He wasn’t overly surprised. It was expected that the Council would no doubt use their most damning information to sway the one they sent. “And I suppose you have an opinion?”

Herman seemed amused. “Do you really want my personal opinion?”

The Commander’s lips curled into a humorless grin. “Yes.”

“In my own humble opinion, you should have been executed,” Herman stated bluntly. “Or even in some cell for life. Someone like you should not have been put in charge, no matter how skilled you might be.” He held up a hand, forestalling any initial reply.

“That being said, that was made without my input and I can do little about it. You don’t have to fear me using your past as a weapon or excuse against you. We have a much greater enemy and I’m willing to…overlook…your crimes for the duration of this war.”

Hm. Well, that was interesting. Though he didn’t fail to notice that his promise only lasted for ‘The duration of this war.’ That might have to do. “At least you’re honest,” the Commander answered, inclined his head. “I can work with that.”

“How many people know?” Herman asked, lacing his fingers together.

“My identity? None,” the Commander shrugged. “The Council wisely knew that would simply cause issues and simply told everyone I was one of the soldiers under the Commander. A story I’ve stuck to since.”

“I see,” Herman said. “In that case, what I’ve heard on you varies greatly depending on which councilor I’ve spoken too. Some prefer to let you do your own thing, others are concerned you’re making power grabs and authorizing operations outside of your authority.”

Typical. At least the Council didn’t have anything he hadn’t anticipated. “I suppose by “power grab” they mean my alliances with countries outside their little Council or are simply upset I don’t share every detail with them.”

“A combination of both, I believe,” Herman nodded. “You have to be aware that Israel is not on the best of terms with-“

The Commander raised a hand, cutting him off. “Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t care if the UN doesn’t like a country. If they are willing to work with me and actually contribute to the defense of Earth I will never deny them that. Tell me, why does the UN have a problem with Israel and not Saudi Arabia or China, both of whom regularly violate multiple human rights regulations, set up by the UN itself no less?”

“Politics,” Herman admitted. “We both know that and sometimes compromises have to be made. Israel refused to budge on anything and as a result the United Nations considers them problematic. It’s not that they actively dislike Israel, more that it is that countries unwillingness to work with anyone. Except you, apparently.”

“My point is that I’m going to keep trying to make alliances with countries outside the Council,” the Commander said firmly. “So if that’s going to be a problem, the Council might as well be prepared.”

“I suppose that’s going to depend on who you have in mind,” Herman shrugged. “Listen, as suspicious as you are of me right now, I’m not going to try and cause problems. But this is a United Nations operation and if you violate the guidelines I will do my job.”

The Commander sighed. “Do you really think it’s possible to run a war without collateral damage? That is what the Council is concerned about the most, right?”

“Of course collateral damage is unavoidable,” Herman insisted, sighing. “But every effort should be made to minimize it.”

The Commander shook his head. “It should be minimized, but that is not a priority, nor should it be. People die in war, it’s unavoidable. Ending it as quickly and efficiently as possible is the ultimate goal, and if innocent people die, that’s something I’m willing to live with.”   

Herman looked slightly taken aback. “I see.”

“No, you don’t,” the Commander retorted bluntly. “And most of the entire world doesn’t either. I’m well aware of my reputation, believe me, and I’m content with it. But the truth is that the majority of the world doesn’t understand war or what it takes win one. You can’t fight with constraints and rules if you want to achieve victory.”

He sighed. “You are a soldier, so you might have a better idea, but even you probably view me as a monster, no? That’s not an issue with me, but I do what is necessary, regardless of whether it is right or not. Understand that about me, I’m not going to risk the survival of the human race over a few petty UN regulations.”

Herman held back a few seconds after that speech before speaking. “Your point is made, Commander.”

“I’m glad,” the Commander answered, his tone growing more neutral again. “And like it or not, you are a greater potential danger to humanity than the aliens. You have the power to bring down me, or at least inconvenience me severely. I normally deal with risks like that decisively, but let me be clear here; the only reason I’m not considering you an enemy spy is because Van Doorn trusts you and believes you are reasonable.”

“I like to consider myself as such,” Herman answered slowly. “But again, I do have a job here and I won’t ignore it. But I’d rather work with you against the aliens than have animosity between us.”

The Commander nodded. “That is ideal. But I don’t allow people into my council unless I trust them. You want a greater role here? Earn it.”

“I suppose in your position it makes sense,” Herman admitted. “But I won’t stay idle until I meet some criteria of yours.”

“No, you won’t,” the Commander tossed him a badge which he caught easily. “You should be able to get into anywhere with this. Any issues, speak to me and it’ll be fixed.”

“Appreciated,” Herman answered as he put the card in his pocket. “I suppose I might as well ask; are you currently conducting or authorizing any illegal operations or projects?”

The Commander looked him in the eye. “No.”

Herman nodded. “Then until I find evidence otherwise, that’ll work.”

“You’ll be notified when our next operation is,” the Commander told him, going over to his desk. “That should give you an idea of how we conduct our missions.”

“Please do,” Herman agreed, inclining his head. “In the meantime, I’d like to walk around and speak to your staff.”

“Go ahead,” the Commander encouraged. “You’ll find everything in order.”

“I hope so,” Herman said as he picked up on the dismissal. “Until next time, Commander.”

He left, leaving the Commander alone.

Interesting.

It appeared Van Doorn had been at least partially correct about the man, which was both good and bad. Good in that he seemed a reasonable and level-headed person, and that he didn’t seem to be a complete tool of the Council. Which was honestly surprising, he’d have thought they’d take this opportunity to send someone devoted to bringing him down and while he had no doubt that Herman would fulfill his duty if he discovered something, that wasn’t his primary goal.

He’d have to question him more about the state of the Council. They were either being extremely reasonable, or there were greater disagreements than he’d believed. He knew the names of the Councilors and where they stood, but given recent events, loyalties may have shifted and they needed to be updated.

The concerning thing was that Herman was going to do his job and didn’t seem prone to intimidation. Which he could respect because at least he didn’t hide his intention. At the same time, that made it that more crucial that certain things remain under wraps, because if he caught onto something, he likely wouldn’t rest until he figured it out.

***

The Citadel, Barracks

Soran carefully put his laser weapon back into his locker. Satisfied everything was in order, he stepped back and shut the door until he heard a click. He liked how organized everything was here, there was hardly any clutter or overly cramped or open spaces. The other soldiers from his squad were putting away their gear as well and some of the other soldiers were watching or walking over.

“What was it this time?” A woman with chestnut hair and a British accent asked, walking over to Creed.

“Alien abduction,” Creed answered, turning to her. “Went pretty smoothly, all things considered. In South Korea as well, we actually had some help from them.”

“Interesting,” she mused, looking up. “Why there of all places?”

“Don’t know,” Creed answered as he put his rifle away. “But they got the whole town again.”

She scowled. “Damn it.”

“Has it ever been any different?” Soran asked, deciding to walk up to them. “Have you ever stopped an abduction in progress?”

She frowned at him and narrowed her striking brown eyes. “Who are-Ah, one of the new ones, yes?”

“Yes,” Soran extended a hand since that seemed to be the custom here. “Soran Kakusa.”

She took it with a firm grip. “Patricia Trask, a pleasure.”

Even without armor, she cut an imposing figure. Despite being slightly shorter than him, she was built far better and would probably outmatch him in a contest of strength. She didn’t seem that welcoming a person to being with, she appeared very…calculating, at least in her eyes which were quickly appraising him as well. Still, she didn’t strike him as inherently dangerous, unlike Carmelita.

Oddly enough, she seemed unsettled by something. She kept darting her eyes at Creed when he wasn’t focused on her. Her expression looked confused, as if she couldn’t decide what emotion to display. Soran didn’t know if that was normal, but she composed herself quickly a few seconds later.

Hm.

“To answer your question, no,” Creed said, turning back to them. “Unless I’m forgetting something, Patricia.”

Patricia shook her head. “No, we’ve never stopped one. Came close a few times, but we’re always too late.”

“Why?” Soran asked, leaning against the wall. “Is it always not detected until after?”

“Essentially,” Patricia agreed grimly. “We have no way of predicting where they will strike. Thus, our response is always reactionary.”

Interesting. “Then you haven’t been able to get into how their communication network?”

“Not yet,” Creed admitted. “Though that will probably be one of the next projects the research teams tackle.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Patricia cautioned. “They apparently made some big breakthrough recently. I’d imagine they’d focus on that first.”

Creed frowned and glanced over at her. “What did they discover?”

“Don’t’ know,” she shrugged. “But I heard the word “meld” mentioned a few times. No idea what that is. I’ll ask Vahlen when I see her later.”

“When will that be?” Creed asked, an amused look on his face.

“Later today,” she answered with a wave of her hand. Creed looked surprised.

“You were serious,” he stated, surprised. “Why are you going to her?”

Patricia grimaced and looked away. “Personal matter.”

“With Vahlen?” Creed asked skeptically.

“Like I said, a personal matter,” Patricia repeated and shook her head. “Anyway, you missed an interesting arrival.”

“Who?”

“The Council decided to send a representative,” Patricia answered. “Herman Diederick if that means anything.”

Soran frowned as did Creed. “Why?” Creed finally asked.

“I guess the Council wants a bigger voice in XCOM,” Patricia guessed. “Or just want a better idea of what’s going on.”

“No, why now?” Creed repeated, legitimate confusion on his face. “If they wanted that they would have had someone from the beginning. This had to have been prompted by something.”

“The dreadnaught?” Soran suggested. “Perhaps the Council was unhappy with the collateral damage?”

“They better have a reason beyond that,” Creed stated, his tone turning dark. “I’m tired of hearing that being turned into something negative.”

“Politicians don’t understand war,” Patricia agreed, pursing her lips. “They care more about public opinion than the fact we brought down an alien dreadnaught.”

Soran waited a few seconds, looking between them. “I suppose you aren’t fans of the UN?”

“I’m not a fan of politicians,” Creed answered bluntly.

“I’m not a fan of idiocy,” Patricia added with a nod. “And I find both of those tend to fit the UN quite regularly.”

Soran struggled to keep his face blank. Such blatant disrespect for the organization they ultimately answered too was…well, extraordinary. Sure, the UN might not be perfect but it was better than anarchy, which is what would probably happen if it didn’t exist. Even if it served as a deterrent and nothing else, an ineffective organization was better than warring countries.

Aside from that, if his superiors ever heard talk like this about them, there was no question they’d be punished severely. The fact that the Commander hadn’t cracked down on this kind of talk either meant he didn’t care, didn’t know, or agreed. In that case, it wasn’t hard to imagine the UN sending someone to oversee things.

“Then I suppose you’re not happy with the representative as well?” He guessed.

Patricia glanced at the door. “That depends if he begins interfering in the war.”

Creed shrugged. “I’m sure the Commander will handle it. We don’t know what goes on between him and the Council. This could all be planned.”

Patricia snorted. “I’d love to see his face when he reads the contingencies.” Creed chuckled at that.

Ah right. He needed to do that as well. He often found technical documents boring, but that comment had piqued his curiosity, especially if it seemed to indicate some of the content wasn’t exactly something that the UN would condone.

“Do you know what they do with the people they capture?” He asked, moving his hand in a circle. “From the abductions, I mean.”

Patricia and Creed exchanged a look. “Nothing good,” Creed said grimly. “But no one knows for sure.”

“Probably being experimented on,” Patricia guessed. “Though I don’t know what they could really gain beyond basic anatomy knowledge. They already know what will kill us.”

“Let’s hope we don’t find out.” Creed stated.

“Yeah,” Patricia agreed. “Well, I’ll leave now. I have an appointment with Vahlen.”

“Good luck with that,” Creed told her solemnly. “Sparring at the usual time?”

“Go with yes,” Patricia nodded. “I’ll let you know if it changes,” she looked at Soran. “Nice to meet you, I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“You as well, Patricia.” He nodded and she left. Creed walked away to finish putting his stuff in his locker. Well, it seemed he had some reading to do. These contingencies would probably be a good place to start.

***

Scotland, Wilderness

Cerian appraised the five individuals before him. Three men and two women. Three field agents, one technical specialist and one medical specialist. A much larger crew than he’d ever used before. But from their dossiers, they were all accomplished in their fields and most importantly, seemed reliable and discrete.

He’d decided to make his home something of a base until they needed to move or enough people complained. It was isolated, connected and defendable. He’d managed to make enough room for everyone, though that would probably be unnecessary since they would be spending the majority of time away from here.

Sadly, he’d had to move his projects into a different location and cease working on them entirely. He couldn’t do two things like this at once and his job took priority. Maybe he’d let Mary, the tech specialist take a look at it. The African-American woman had noticed it earlier and seemed interested to begin with. Something to remember.

Patrick was also here, and probably would be until things got underway. Everyone was here now, so no point delaying. He cleared his throat. “Welcome, all of you,” He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m Cerian and I’ll be overseeing this operation.” He tapped the file in his hand. “All of you seem competent, so I’ll just get right into it.”

He clasped his hands together. “I assume each of you have heard of XCOM?” Everyone nodded in affirmation.

“The people who downed the dreadnaught, right?” Baston, one of the field operatives asked.

“Correct,” Cerian nodded. “And if you hadn’t figured it out by now, XCOM is a United Nations organization.”

None of them looked surprised. Excellent, he wasn’t dealing with a bunch of idiots. Patrick coughed. “Technically, it’s a Council organization. As far as the official United Nations is concerned, XCOM is an independent organization.”

Cerian waved a hand. “Interesting, but unimportant for our purposes. The point is that XCOM is under UN regulations and as such, must abide within their sphere of influence.”

He pointed at one who had his hand raised. Darril, their medical specialist. “Yes, Darril?”

“Just a clarification,” he answered. “This Council is part of the UN and if so, why haven’t we heard of it?”

“Because it’s very secret and composed of all the countries who want their own private UN,” Cerian answered wryly and got a chuckle out of some of them. “It’s a club.” He saw Patrick frown and smiled. “Ask Patrick afterwards if you want more details, but the Council is not of interest to us.”

“So what do we have to work with?” Olivia, another field agent asked.

“Very little,” Cerian admitted cheerfully. “A challenge for sure, but I’m sure all of you are up to it. Frankly, this wouldn’t be an issue if anyone else was in charge of XCOM.” He looked at Patrick who nodded, growing grimmer. Patrick had wanted to keep the Commander’s identity a secret, but had been flatly overruled by him. This case already lacked evidence and he didn’t want to give his agents any cause to think this was anything other than an official mission.

Furthermore, he found everyone tended to work much better when information was shared. “Now I’m assuming all of you know everything is classified, but it bears repeating here,” He paused. “The Commander is alive and is in charge of XCOM.”

They all looked confused for a moment until Mary sucked in her breath. “Oh,” she breathed. “You mean the Commander?”

“War on Terror? Crucifixes and the Caliphate? Yes, the very same?” Cerian confirmed.

The five began muttering to each other in disbelief. “How the hell…” Darril began, then stopped and shook his head.

Cerian held up a hand and they stopped talking. “Yes, and it was made by the geniuses in the Council. But what’s done is done and now to the surprise of absolutely no one, they think he’d doing things he shouldn’t. Please direct all your complaints to Patrick here.” Patrick shot him a glare and he suppressed another smile.

“The Commander has been making several alliances with countries outside the Council,” Cerian continued, putting up a map of Europe on the whiteboard behind him. “As far as we know, the Commander has only made official alliances with Israel and Germany,” He pointed at the countries as he spoke. “Naturally, this is making the Council nervous. Israel for obvious reasons and Germany given what happened.”

Baston frowned. “Is that an issue?”

“Aside from making the Council angry, no,” Cerian admitted. “But it’s important later,” He motioned at Patrick. “Go ahead.”

Patrick took the center. “I assume each of you knows the circumstances of the fall of the German government and the rise of the military state now. There is some reason to believe that each of the events that led to this weren’t entirely the fault of the aliens.”

They waited for him to continue. “In nearly all the attacks, evidence was erased one way or another and we don’t entirely have a good idea of what happened before. The most obvious answer is alien intervention, but the interesting thing is that we don’t have evidence for that in every single instance. However, in Cologne we might have found something.”

“That was where the acid attacks were.” Ren, the last field operative recalled.

“Correct,” Patrick affirmed. “Two people were identified as thin men by the crowd. How they were discovered, we don’t know. But they were beaten to death soon after.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean anything?”

“The bodies of the aliens weren’t able to be recovered,” Patrick revealed. “However, we did manage to get an image of the male victim.” He put up a picture of a young bearded man, who didn’t look that out of the ordinary. The picture was taken at night and by his side was a woman. “Norman Adalard,” Patrick continued. “A young activist with no prior criminal activity or anything of note, really.”

“Who’s the woman?” Mary asked, eyeing the picture curiously.

“Our first target,” Cerian answered and put up another picture. It was low quality and only got part of her face, but enough to make out some features. Black hair just below shoulder length and clearly middle-eastern features. Sadly, the details of the face itself were blurred and grainy.

“Our mystery woman met with Norman at a bar and after talking for a bit, they left and presumably went to his place.” Cerian put up several more pictures. “These were taken the day after. Notice anything?”

“He seems unsteady and uncomfortable,” Darril noted. “A bit different than the one from that bar where he seemed rather happy.”

“The shades too,” Baston realized. “Sort of the signature thin man identifier.”

“Combined with his odd behavior, that is essentially screaming alien.” Mary finished, tapping a finger on her mouth. “Curious.”

“And shortly after, our mystery woman vanished and hasn’t been seen since,” Cerian finished. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she was involved with this.”

“Not necessarily,” Ren pointed out. “She might have been at the wrong place at the wrong time and bailed when the attack started.”

“Do you have suspects?” Mary asked, pulling out her tablet.

“We ran her face through our database,” Patrick answered, picking up a file. “We have four possible suspects.” He put up four pictures of various women.

“Alberta Rolan,” he began. “A Canadian immigrant from the Middle East during the War on Terror. Turned to crime once she arrived and has performed several heists. Highly skilled at seduction and manipulation, she’s been a wanted criminal for five years and hasn’t been caught yet.”

“Namr Ida,” Patrick continued, pointing to the second picture. “Iranian special operative who participated in over a dozen operations in the War on Terror. She went off the grid a few years ago and has been presumed dead. Or perhaps not, as the case may be.”

He motioned to the third picture. “Yawe Ham, part of the inner circle of the only major criminal organization in Israel. From what we gather, she’s the only one keeping the Mossad from eradicating the organization which makes me suspect she is either former Israeli Mossad or Kidon. Speaking of which…”

He indicated the last picture. “Ruth Shira, one of the only identified Kidon agents in the world. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about her except that she’s an expert manipulator and assassin. Unconfirmed reports either have her coming from a poor family who helped the Israeli military take down a criminal child prostitution ring, a teacher who worked in Iran for a time and reported several terrorists to the Mossad or simply a former criminal who hunted down terrorists instead of officers. No story is confirmed.”

“Any you’re leaning towards?” Darril asked, looking at the pictures and tapping his chin.

“At the moment….” Cerian paused. “Ruth and Namr. Both are intelligence types and would be the kind of women the Commander would want. I highly doubt Alberta would become involved in an affair this big and I don’t see how Yawe could participate in this and continue assisting the criminal organization.”

“I remember Namr,” Olivia recalled suddenly. “She was something of an icon. Proof that not every Muslim was a xenophobic terrorist.”

“I know,” Cerian nodded. “But I didn’t know her enough to know if this was something she’d do or not. But I’m leaning more towards Ruth in this case.”

“XCOM has an alliance with Israel,” Ren remembered. “Perhaps they sent her over to work with them.”

“Exactly,” Cerian nodded, pleased he’d picked it up so quickly. “And Kidon agents are ruthless, emotionless and dangerous. Exactly the kind of person who the Commander would prefer to use.”

“So we watch for her?” Mary asked.

Cerian nodded. “And until we get a hit, we search for more clues.”

“Were these the only hits,” Mary asked Patrick, looking thoughtful. “Or are there more?”

Patrick looked at his own tablet and took a minute scrolling through it. “There were sixty-three hits,” he finally said. “I eliminated all the civilian hits and military ones we had files on.”

“I’d like to look,” Mary requested. “You might have missed something.”

“Will do,” Patrick nodded. “Sending the list now.”

“Alright,” Cerian clasped his hands together. “Let’s get to work.”

***

The Citadel, XCOM Intelligence Control

Abby was torn between anticipation and nervousness. After a week of anticipation she was finally getting called in to actually join XCOM Intelligence. She’d not been idle the whole time, oh no. She’d spent every moment either training, reading up on the general field of intelligence work or performing her medical duties.

She looked down to make sure she was still presentable. Abby nodded, the official XCOM dress uniform was oddly unceremonial; gray pants and a slightly more heavy and ornate gray long sleeve shirt with her combat boots. She’d pinned the medal she’d received from the Dreadnaught operation on the left side of her shirt, though she wondered if that was considered showing off.

Well, her uniform would look bare without it. She had indulged herself a bit and not pulled her hair back, instead letting it hang but tucking it behind her ears. Hopefully Zhang wouldn’t care too much. She patted her waist to ensure her laser pistol was there and satisfied, took a deep breath and thumbed the door open.

It slid open noiselessly and she walked inside. It was fairly small, about the side of the Commander’s office. A table to the side held stacks of files all in neatly organized boxes. To the other side was a massive computer resting on the bottom with several desktops on table above it. In the center of the room was some sort of…holotable she guessed, showing the continent of Europe in a blue light.

A massive screen hung on the back of the wall and below it was a table, computer, desktop and chair where she assumed Zhang sat. Speaking of which, Zhang was standing by the holotable in conversation with a woman beside him.

She was smaller than Abby, though that wasn’t saying much since Abby was much taller than most women, in fact, she was able to look Zhang in the eye. Smooth black hair fell to her shoulders, loose like hers that framed her almost motherly face. Even from observing, there was something warm and friendly about her and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm.

There weren’t any scars or distinguishing marks on her brown skin she could see, and the brown camo fatigues she was wearing covered up the rest of her body. A laser rifle was slung over her back and two pistols were strapped to her waist with a couple knives strapped to her chest like Carmelita had.

Zhang noticed her and waved her over. “Agent Gertrude, welcome.”

Agent Gertrude. Yep, officially part of XCOM Intelligence now. It was sort of exciting. She walked over until she was opposite Zhang by the holotable. “Thank you, Director. I hope I didn’t miss anything important.”

Zhang shook his head, his scar flashing in the light. “No, I was just discussing some unrelated topics,” He gestured to the women. “Abigail, this is Ruth Shira, your mentor.”

Ruth gave a wide smile and extended her hand which Abby took. “Glad to finally meet you. I’m looking forward to this.”

Abby had to return the smile. “The feeling is mutual.”

Ruth chuckled. “I’ll ask you that in a few hours, but I like your enthusiasm. Such a rare trait in agents.”

If half the stories she’d read about intelligence work were true, that was something she could believe easily.

Zhang cleared his throat. “Before you take Abigail away, both of you need to be brought up to speed on recent events.” He looked at Abby a deadly intensity in his eyes. “As an agent now, Abigail, you will have access and knowledge of sensitive information and you are not to share that with anyone outside the Commander, me, or the agents assigned to the same operation as you. Understand?”

She nodded once. “Yes, Director.”

Apparently satisfied, Zhang turned his attention back to the holotable. “Excellent. Abigail, since you are not aware, XCOM has fallen to a cyber-attack recently causing the loss of some valuable data. Before that, we discovered evidence that the situation in Germany was being manipulated by several parties interested in the fall of the country.”

Abby blinked. How had they not heard of this? The Germany situation she could understand, but the cyber-attack? That meant that Zhang was disturbingly good at suppressing information and she wondered what other stuff the soldiers weren’t aware of. Zhang continued.

“One party that we believe participated in both events was an organization called EXALT. Heard of it?”

Abby shook her head while Ruth frowned. “That myth has been around longer than I’ve been alive,” she answered skeptically. “It’s been disproven and exposed a long time ago.”

“It was,” Zhang agreed. “But regardless, that’s the name connected to both events.”

“What is EXALT?” Abby asked, before things went too much farther.

Zhang looked at Ruth. “Want to answer?”

Ruth shrugged. “Sure, but I only know the basics,” She turned to Abby. “EXALT became very prominent during the mid-fifties. The prevailing theory was a global conspiracy consisting of a few individuals who manipulated world events.”

Abby frowned. “You mean the Illuminati?”

“Modern day Illuminati, I’d say,” Ruth amended. “But essentially the same thing. No one knew how they operated or were controlled. It scared enough countries into devoting enormous amounts of resources into finding this group and removing it.”

She paused. “Honestly, some of the evidence was very convincing, looking back. The only issue was that its leading proponent was exposed as a fraud a few years later. Israeli, Chinese and American agents found caches of evidence throughout the world which exposed the whole thing as a hoax. It was verified by essentially every intelligence community in the world, one of the few times everyone agreed on something.”

She snorted. “And despite all that, the legend of EXALT is one that refuses to die,” she looked at Zhang. “I forget anything?”

“That about sums it up,” Zhang agreed. “Though I’ve looked quite a bit into the original documents and did find some information about the supposed structure of EXALT.” He tapped the holotable and it flashed to a flat view of the world. “It appears that EXALT had one major hub per continent, sometimes public, sometimes not. They had one director, who was chosen is some sort of ritual contest where the contestants had to kill each other. I’m highly skeptical of that, but they did appear to have a leader.”

He tapped the table rhythmically. “The only other thing I found interesting was that it was something of a collection of dynasties. EXALT was supposedly only controlled by a few select families and no one else. I also find that somewhat hard to believe, since they wouldn’t be able to replace their number easily unless the families intermarried, which would become problematic in a few generations.”

“Are you saying you believe this?” Ruth asked, furrowing her eyebrows.

“I’m saying that we’re dealing with an organization called EXALT,” Zhang stated firmly. “And thus there are only two possibilities. One: This isn’t the EXALT of legend and they are only assuming the name, which I honestly find more likely. Or two: EXALT did exist and managed to fool the entire world and have existed in secret until now.”

“Either way, they have to be stopped.” Abby said firmly.

Zhang nodded in approval. “Personally, I don’t care who they are. They are posing a threat to our operation and must be eliminated. And until we do, I’m assigning the majority of agents to disrupting EXALT and putting this to rest once and for all.”

“I for one, would be happy to end this myth once and for all,” Ruth stated enthusiastically. “You have an assignment?”

“I need a confirmation first,” Zhang answered, looking down at his tablet. “But I will. It’s one I think Abby would be useful on as well. Expect to be called in by tomorrow at the latest. That should give the two of you some quality time.”

“It will,” Ruth confirmed, nodding.

“Then dismissed,” Zhang returned to looking at the holotable. “I’ll speak to you shortly.”

Ruth grabbed Abby by the arm and escorted her out of the room. “Come on, agent. Let’s see what you can do.”

***

The Citadel, Training Area

Five hours later, Abby would have probably punched the woman, Kidon agent or no, if she’d had the strength to do so. But after being put through continuous exercises testing her strength, speed and agility, she simply didn’t have the strength and collapsed to the ground.

Ruth stood over her, a wry grin on her face. “You getting up?”

“I literally cannot move,” Abby gasped. “How much more could you possibly have for me?”

“Oh, you finished everything essential a few hours ago,” Ruth answered nonchalantly. “But you were doing so well it felt wrong to stop. Besides, I was curious how far you would go.”

Abby pushed herself up a little. “I sincerely hope you’re kidding.”

“I’m not, actually,” Ruth reached down and grasped her forearm and hauled her to her feet. “The actual Kidon physical testing takes a couple of hours but no one really follows it. Most people give out around hour three. You made it just past the fifth hour. Congratulations, you are only one of twenty to actually do that, myself excluded.”

“I would punch you if I had the strength,” Abby warned, too tired to really care about what she was saying. “I still might.”

Ruth laughed, a sound just a warm as the rest of her. “Based on that display, I think I’d let you.” She let go of Abby and both of them walked to an empty table, both drenched in sweat.

“So did I pass?” Abby asked wearily as she took a long drink of water

“With flying colors,” Ruth assured her, wiping her mouth after she took a drink. “You need training on some more refined close-quarter combat and resistance to interrogation of course, but you’re more than capable of achieving these.”

“That it?” Abby asked warily.

“For the basics,” Ruth clarified, motioning with her hand. “There are some techniques you need to know about killing people, but those aren’t difficult to learn.”

She said it so casually it took her a minute to understand what she’d said. “Techniques for killing people?” She repeated cautiously.

“Well yeah,” Ruth said. “We’re not assassins for nothing. True, we do more than that in XCOM, but there are some things every agent should know. How to snap a neck, where the arteries are and the most efficient way to strangle a man twice as large as you.”

Abby blinked. “You’re serious,” she stated as she put her water down.

Ruth eyed her with amusement. “Surprised?”

“Well,” Abby shrugged. “It’s just you say it so casually.”

Ruth shrugged. “It’s my job. Killing people happens quite often so I’ve gotten used to it. You’re a surgeon, right? How many times have you performed life-saving surgeries on people? Did you ever consider it any big deal?”

She had a point. But still, saving lives was much different than taking them on a regular basis. “But still,” she shook her head. “You’re talking about people.”

“Hmm,” Ruth mused, looking away. “Depends on your point of view, I suppose. I’ve killed quite a few humans in my life, and I’d only consider a few of them worth calling people.” She looked back at Abby. “Though I can see your viewpoint, since most agents start out like you. It’s normal. Still, I am curious; have you killed someone before?”

Abby paused for a few seconds, then shook her head. “Only aliens.”

“Alright,” Ruth nodded earnestly. “Well, I suppose the next question should be could you kill someone?”

“If I needed to,” Abby answered slowly.

“As I thought,” Ruth said, shifting in her seat. “What about someone innocent?”

Abby thought very carefully for a few minutes before replying. Her initial reaction was an emphatic no, regardless of what Ruth thought. This was a clearly important question to her and Abby wasn’t sure how she’d react either way. Furthermore, the longer she thought about it, the less sure she became. Could she just kill someone in cold blood, an innocent no less? She finally just decided to be honest.

“I don’t know.”

Luckily, Ruth didn’t seem that displeased by her answer. “You probably won’t until faced with that choice yourself.”

“Do you think that’s going to happen?” Abby asked nervously.

Ruth pursed her lips, growing more serious. “It’s a distinct possibility, and one you should prepare yourself for, because it will happen sooner or later. And no, it’s not as clear cut as you’re probably thinking. It’s probably going to be an accident or bad luck.”

She turned to face her a bit better. “The first time it happened to me, I was on a scouting op in the Middle East. A rather notorious criminal had made his unofficial home there and I was to make sure he didn’t move without my knowledge. Everything was going smoothly until a small group of shepherds accidentally stumbled on my position.”

Ruth did look somewhat remorseful as she continued. “They had no clue who I was, but they were clearly terrified of me. I had a choice; let them go or kill them. There was a good chance that if I let them go, they’d go tell this criminal where I was or even just say I was in the area. This criminal had a sizable group of armed men following him and if he learned where I was, they would kill me and move on. Best case would be I survived, but lost the trail. ”

“Couldn’t you have just tied them up?” Abby asked, lacing her fingers together.

Ruth shook her head. “And do what? I had no clue how long I was going to be there and I had no food or water to give them. I was already in a difficult position because I knew people were going to come looking for them whatever I chose. I had at most a few days before the criminal was spooked and at least then I could track him.”

She shook her head again. “No. I couldn’t jeopardize the mission just to save a few innocent people. So I killed them and disposed to the bodies. Painlessly, of course.” Ruth waved her hand absentmindedly. “And I did the right thing. Several more of the Kidon arrived at my position and we eradicated the criminal and his soldiers and left with no one the wiser. Four people were sacrificed to save hundreds more. That’s something I can live with.”

Abby didn’t know if something was wrong with her because she did understand Ruth’s point. Was she a bad person for understanding why and not feeling outraged? Or was it alright since she still didn’t agree with it? To her credit, Ruth seemed to understand her internal dilemma and didn’t press her to speak.

“Do you regret it?” She asked finally. “Or wish you’d done it differently?”

Ruth frowned. “Killing them? No, I still believe that was the right decision. But the circumstances then were beyond my control. If I had brought that choice on myself, then yes I would.”

Abby supposed that was a decent enough answer. At least it didn’t seem that Ruth wasn’t completely heartless. Actually, she seemed a rather animated and cheerful woman. Prior to this conversation, she never would have guessed she was a professional assassin.

That was what probably made her a good agent.

“If it’s any comfort, the majority of people killed in this business deserve it,” Ruth finally said. “But you should be ready, just in case.”

Abby nodded. “I will, though I hope it never happens.”

“As do we all,” Ruth agreed. “Though I don’t want to worry you too much. XCOM Intelligence is a bit different from the Kidon. Not quite as much killing. Manipulation, sabotage and surveillance are a bit more prevalent.”

Abby frowned and sighed. “I think I’m in way over my head.”

Ruth snorted. “Nonsense, you’re young, bright and good with people. Training is only one part, the application is just as important. As long as you can apply what I teach you, you’ll do fine.”

“Can you get me ready for whatever operation is tomorrow?” Abby asked ruefully.

“As a matter of fact, I think I can,” Ruth answered with a slight smile. “I’m pretty sure I know what op Zhang is referring to and I think it’ll be a good exercise for you.” She stood. “Come one, let’s walk. We’ve done enough physical training for today.”

***

The Citadel, Research Labs

Patricia sighed in relief as she neared the doors. The buzzing that had plagued her had receded enough that she could ignore it without finding a distraction. It was extremely odd, the buzzing tended to fade the fewer people who were nearby. She didn’t know whether that was a coincidence or meant something.

Well, hopefully Vahlen would be able to help. The Commander had assured her that Vahlen would be more than happy to see what she could do. Though from what Patricia knew of the woman, it would be more to satisfy her own curiosity and less about actually helping her. Well, as long as she had an explanation, she didn’t really care about her motives.

The doors slid open and a rush of sterile and cold air rushed out, blowing her hair back a little. The scientists were busy looking through microscopes and at data from computer screens. Alien bodies and tech were resting on tables throughout the labs and Vahlen herself was standing by a container filled with some strange yellow substance.

Patricia frowned. At first glance it looked like that alien blood and she wondered what possible use Vahlen could have for it. Upon taking a closer look, she realized it wasn’t blood, but some sort of…liquid? Gel? It shimmered slightly when the light hit the right places and she thought she saw glowing…hexagons? What was this stuff?

Well, maybe she could casually ask during whatever Vahlen had planned. Speaking of which, the woman had seen her and waved her over. Patricia took a breath and walked over to the table.

“Operative Trask, good to see you on time.” Vahlen greeted with a curt nod.

“Thank you for agreeing to take a look.” Patricia answered, leaning on the table.

“No problem,” Vahlen dismissed while she made some notes on her tablet. “I must admit, I am somewhat curious as to what’s afflicting you.”

Patricia smirked and resisted the chance to roll her eyes. Of course you are. Well, at least she was honest, despite her questionable words of…was that supposed to be reassurance? Well, it didn’t matter.

“So what seems to be the issue?” Vahlen began, appraising her, tablet at the ready. “The Commander gave me some basic details, but not much else.”

Patricia pulled out a piece of paper she’d spent hours on recreating the symbols from memory. “This is the problem.”

Vahlen took the piece of paper and took a few minutes looking at it, pure curiosity in her brown eyes as she scanned the page. Patricia could almost see her mind trying to come up with explanations for them. “How did you get this?” She finally asked. “I’ve seen these on some of the tech we’ve recovered, we believe this is what constitutes the alien language, though I’m certain any preliminary results haven’t been shared with the armed forces.”

Surprise, interest, disappointment, potential.” She listed off in a row. Vahlen frowned in confusion.

Patricia tapped the piece of paper. “That’s what they mean. One word per line.”

Vahlen’s eyebrows rose, though her voice was more curious than disbelieving. “How could you possibly know that?”

Patricia scowled. “I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the past few days. I shouldn’t even know what these are, yet I do. I shouldn’t have any clue what they mean but I do. I can’t explain why, but I’m certain that’s what they mean.”

“Interesting,” Vahlen mused, making more notes on her tablet. “Tell me the exact circumstances of when you first saw these…words, I suppose.”

“On the dreadnaught,” Patricia began. “The first one appeared in my head when I shut off the power conduit. Once I did, it appeared in my head and I knew what it meant. More than that, I could feel what it meant.”

“What do you mean feel?” Vahlen asked, appraising her curiously.

“Those words I listed off,” Patricia motioned at the piece of paper. “I felt each emotion associated with the word. But it wasn’t my emotions, it was something, or someone else’s.”

Vahlen paused for a minute, clearly thinking. “I’ve seen the footage from the armor cams. You made reference to the interface of the power conduit ‘shimmering.’ Something I didn’t see on review of the footage.”

Patricia shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know why, it just…was. I knew what I had to do to shut it down.”

Vahlen pursed her lips. “Are you experiencing anything else?”

“There’s a constant…buzzing, ever since that mission,” Patricia admitted. “It fades when I’m intently focused on something or when there are less people around. I’ve taken every medication possible but nothing helps. The odd thing is, it isn’t painful, not yet at least.”

“Anything else?” Vahlen pressed.

Patricia hesitated. There was one thing, but it was so outlandish she didn’t know if it should be considered. Vahlen saw her hesitation. “There is,” Vahlen stated, eyes lighting up. “Tell me.”

“Feel free to dismiss it,” Patricia warned. “It’s probably just a massive coincidence. But a few days ago I was training, I think. But the buzzing stopped and…I don’t know what happened, but I knew someone was coming to see me. More than that, I knew who it was.”

Vahlen almost visibly brightened. “Go on.”

Patricia narrowed her eyes at her enthusiasm, but continued. “I pushed it from my mind, but a few minutes later, Anius Creed showed up and asked to have our sparring session. I don’t know how, but I somehow knew that was going to happen. I was so distracted I probably lost the match.”

“Were you expecting him?” Vahlen asked, looking thoughtful.

“Yeah, we do that every other day,” Patricia answered. “That’s why I eventually dismissed it. I figured my mind was just playing more tricks. But the thing is, it happened again but more intensely. It was today, actually. It was like I could feel his emotions and intention as well.”

“Fascinating,” Vahlen muttered. “Follow me.” Without waiting, she immediately made for the exit and Patricia hastily followed. Vahlen was a fast walker and Patricia had to adjust to keep up.

“You have an idea, don’t you?” She half stated, half asked.

“A theory,” Vahlen mused as she walked. “You were clearly affected by alien technology, it seems to be the conduit. However, what I find interesting is that if you were affected by something, everyone else who came into contact should have been as well.”

“Care to share this theory?” Patricia demanded, trying to keep her focused.

“Perhaps,” Vahlen answered distractedly, looking at her tablet. “Correct me if I’m wrong; you’re saying that the symbols you saw correspond to emotions?”

“I think so, yes.” Patricia answered.

“So that might mean their language is based on emotional cues and not literal meaning,” Vahlen muttered, more to herself than Patricia. “And the best way such a language could be communicated is direct mental communication.”

Patricia sucked in her breath, hoping that didn’t mean what she thought it did. “You mean…?”

“Yes,” Vahlen answered, sounding excited. “You might have made telepathic contact with an alien.”

Damn it. It actually made some sense, and if she had been contacted by an alien… “It’s not still inside me is it?” She asked, trying not to sound overly concerned.

“I don’t know for sure,” Vahlen shook her head. “But I doubt it. Unless you’ve been seeing more symbols you haven’t told be about.”

“So how did it contact me?” Patricia demanded as they turned a corner. “The only contact with alien tech I made was the conduits-“

“Which only you seemed to be able to access,” Vahlen pointed out. “And with each instance you received a new message, correct?”

“Yes,” Patricia nodded, growing more disconcerted. “I did.”

“The conduits we recovered were disabled,” Vahlen muttered to herself. “We need to get one running.” She stopped in front of a door. “Here we are.” Patricia looked up and realized they were at the Medical Ward.

Ok. A few possibilities ran through her mind, the most likely of which was that Vahlen wanted to take scans of her. Reasonable, especially if they helped figure out what the issue was. So even if that was the explanation for the symbols, it still didn’t explain the buzzing or instances with Creed.

Vahlen opened the door and they walked into the empty waiting room. Without bothering to ask permission, Vahlen immediately made for the back room and Patricia reluctantly followed. She had the vague impression that they should at least be telling someone what they were doing.

“Here.” Vahlen turned into one of the rooms which contained some kind of bizarre scanning equipment. Well, not bizarre, but she was pretty sure she’d never seen it before.

“Sit here,” Vahlen ordered, pointing at the little cot that slid into the machine. While Patricia went over, Vahlen went and gathered some cords which she recognized doctors stuck on you when they took brain scans and the like. So her assumption had been correct, it seems.

“Hey? What are you doing?” Patricia looked over to see a man in a XCOM issue surgeon uniform. His large arms were crossed and was glaring at Vahlen, green eyes boring into her.

“Taking brain scans,” Vahlen answered absentmindedly as she began working the machine. The man’s eyes widened.

“Careful!” He warned as he rushed over. “You even know how to operate that?”

Vahlen stepped back and let him take over. “Of course, but have it your way.” Despite her calmness, it was clear she wasn’t happy at being interrupted.

Once the machine had settled at a nice hum, he turned to Vahlen. He sighed as he appeared to recognize her. “Doctor Vahlen. As much as I appreciate your work, I would ask that you please ask before using this equipment.”

“Apologies,” Vahlen didn’t really sound overly apologetic. “But the circumstances warranted it. I saw no reason to take up your time.”

He ran his hand over her blonde hair. “Well, you’re here now. I might as well help you finish.”

Patricia looked at him. “Who are you?”

“Combat Medic and Chief Surgeon Blake Harkin,” he answered as he began putting some of the sensors on her. “I’m taking over for Abigail Gertrude pending her transfer.”

Ah right. Patricia had honestly been surprised when Abby had moved to XCOM Intelligence of all places. A spy was the last thing she envisioned the young medic. A shame, she’d been a decent person and good at her job. Hopefully Zhang would make sure she was safe. She supposed that she’d be working with Blake now since he was the new combat medic.

One all the wires and sensors had been attached Blake nodded at her. “Alright, lie back. This should only take about five minutes. Keep calm.”

She hated when people said that. It always backfired since it implied that yes, it was possible something could go wrong. So instead of actually being calm, she would always have that doubt in the back of her mind.

Maybe bad bedside manner was a requirement to join XCOM or something. Whatever, she lay down and the tray slid into the circular machine. The low hum was rather pleasant and Patricia resisted the urge to fall asleep. Before she knew it, the tray was sliding back out and she sat up.

“You got it?” She asked Vahlen who was staring at the screen.

“Yes,” Vahlen answered as she tapped on the screen, then glanced down at her tablet. With a nod, she spun on her heel and headed for the door. “Thank you operative Trask. This will be essential into determining your condition, I will contact you if I learn anything.” Without so much as a goodbye, she left both of them alone.

Patricia stared at the door in disbelief.

Ok then. She supposed the visit was over.

“She always do that?” Blake asked, sounding amazed.

“She’s a very smart woman,” Patricia answered slowly. “But…she’s not exactly good with people. Very focused on results and theories.”

“Scientists,” Blake shook his head in resignation.

“Scientists,” Patricia nodded in agreement. Well, as enlightening as this had been, she was no closer to knowing what was wrong with her. And she hadn’t gotten a chance to ask Vahlen what the “meld” was. Damn, she’d have to ask later. In the meantime, she supposed it was going to be another long day training.

She supposed there were worse ways to spend it.

***

Supplementary Material

XCOM Operative Alien Handbook: Sectoid

OVERVIEW: The alien named the “Sectoid” by Dr. Moira Vahlen was the first alien encountered in the initial invasion. Appearing to serve as support to the larger and more powerful aliens, these creatures can still pose a threat of left unattended to. Despite their vulnerabilities, they make up for it by utilizing the enigmatic forces known as psionics. They are the only recorded alien species being capable of wielding this power.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION AND CAPABILITIES: Standing at exactly 1.2 meters, every single sectoid encountered is a perfect genetic copy. It is unknown it this is a result of cloning or growing, or simply a trait of the species. The skin is an ash gray and the creatures move around unarmored and completely exposed.

Their spindly arms end in three-fingered hands that are capable of grasping most objects and instead of moving on two legs, they instead scramble around on all fours when moving. On their wrists are small plasma weapons that appear to be attached to the creature itself. Attempts to remove them have resulted in the weapon’s destruction.

Their bulbous heads are enlarged beyond what is typically normal for a creature it’s size. It lacks a mouth yet possesses vocal cords since soldiers have witnessed the sectoids making chittering sounds. It is unknown if these are their primary method of communication. 

The sectoid appears to retain the strength of a teenage human child. Despite their malnourished appearance, they are stronger than they appear. However, they can easily be physically overpowered and subdued with either a knock to a head or ARC Thrower blast.

Note 1: A variation of the typical sectoid has been spotted on several occasions. This “Sectoid Leader” retains the same characteristics as the regular sectoid with the exception of the arm containing the plasma weapons. The arm containing the weapon is augmented with a sleeve of black metal to house a much larger plasma weapon. It is unknown if these Sectoid Leaders possess advanced psionic capabilities

STRENGTHS:

  1. Plasma Weaponry: Despite advances in XCOM technology, plasma weapons are still more dangerous than any firearm developed on Earth. The damages this weapon can cause are extensive and often fatal.

Counter: The plasma weapons the sectoids wield are weaker than those employed by the rest of the alien forces (With the exception of the Sectoid Leader – See Note 1). As a result, XCOM has made enough strides in armor that a hit from a sectoid plasma weapon is now not immediately fatal (Except if struck in the head). Please note that repeated hits will still result in serious injury or death.

  1. Psionics: Sectoids are capable of wielding the phenomenon known as psionics. They are currently the only known alien species to do so and the effects are highly dangerous and unpredictable. Usage of psionics has resulted in mental breakdowns, hallucinations, mental instability and suspected mind control.

Counter: There is currently no proven or foolproof way to resist psionic attacks. While several soldiers have proven resistant, there is not any shown correlation between them. The most effective deterrent is disrupting psionics in the first place by keeping pressure of the sectoids and killing them as soon as possible (See TACTICS)

            WEAKNESSES:

  1. Physically Weak: Due to their small size and strength, sectoids are able to be easily overpowered by a normal human adult. Their large craniums make them more vulnerable to weapon fire and head injuries caused by blunt trauma.
  2. Unarmored: The sectoid is vulnerable every place on it’s body. Laser weaponry is particularly effective as it will cleanly cut the sectoid into pieces with virtually no resistance. They are also more vulnerable to environmental hazards such as fire and electricity (See TACTICS for further elaboration).
  3. Support Grenades: Sectoids are vulnerable to the flash-bang, more so than other aliens encountered. It is theorized that their large eyes are the source of this increased vulnerability. Offensively used smoke grenades are also effective for disrupting a sectoid group (See TACTICS for further elaboration).

TACTICS:

  1. Laser Trap: Due to the sectoids lacking armor or protection, a laser traps is particularly effective. Simply sustain lasers for no more than five seconds and aim as directed by the Squad Overseer. Use in open or uncovered spaces for maximum effectiveness.
  2. Flank: Have two to three soldiers suppress a group of sectoids in cover. As they do this, a second team will move around the side (Determined by the Squad Overseer), and open fire on the exposed aliens. Use on contained or clustered groups for maximum effectiveness.
  3. Offensive Smoke Grenade: Throw a smoke grenade into the midst of a group of sectoids. Ensure that the HUD is set to filter out smoke, allowing a clear view of the exposed sectoids. If they are exposed, fire. If not, use this opportunity to advance into a better position. Use on contained or clustered groups for maximum effectiveness.
  4. Flash-Bang: Throw a flash-bang to disrupt psionic activity and cause disorientation. Additionally, this opportunity may be used to advance to a better position. Use on sectoids in superior cover, who are contained or clustered, or Sectoid Leaders for maximum effectiveness.
  5. Psionic Disruption: Sectoids require an unknown period of time to ready their psionic abilities, which can be disrupted by suppression of the target. A sectoid under suppression has yet to use psionic abilities offensively. This tactic should be used at the discretion of the soldiers, without requiring instructions form the Squad Overseer. Use on sectoids using, or preparing to use psionic powers for maximum effectiveness.

PSIONICS: The following are psionic powers recorded and utilized against XCOM and other beings.

  1. Psionic Panic: The Sectoid forces the victim into a state of uncontrolled panic rendering their behavior unpredictable. This has resulted in soldiers opening fire on friendly forces, dashing from cover into enemy fire and complete mental shutdown.
  2. Psionic Disorientation (Mindfray): The Sectoid causes the victim's mind to become unstable, leading several soldiers to refer to this ability as a “Mindfray.” Victims have reported headaches, disorientation, blurriness, hallucinations, and are often displaying a lack of lucidity.
  3. Psionic Merge: The Sectoid has been shown to be able to psionically merge with others of its kind. It is unknown whether this is simply a more effective method of communication, provides physical or mental advantages or is a form of mind control.
  4. Psionic Mind Control (Theorized): The sectoid has demonstrated an ability to control, or at least influence the minds of primitive creatures and animals. It is possible that the Psionic Merge is a form of mind control (See – Psionic Merge). The extent and specifics of this ability are currently unknown. To date this had not been performed on humans, but it is unknown whether the sectoid is incapable of this, or XCOM simply hasn’t encountered one strong enough yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

Chapter Text

 

The Bastion, Antarctica

“The first plane has arrived,” Ethan informed her while she watched a screen displaying several news stations from various countries. It was a hobby of hers, seeing the effect of EXALT influence at work. Suppressing news was far less complicated than people realized; it was less about directly suppressing news as much as promoting unrelated or unimportant content. Get enough people talking about something trivial, and they would forget anything else important.

True, sometimes direct intervention was necessary, and much larger news required it. But Saudia has always considered it something of a…personal failing if that happened when it could have been avoided. Often times, it meant that someone had to die and that was a shame. It wasn’t the journalist’s fault that they’d stumbled on a covert EXALT op or were intelligent enough to make draw some conclusions. But unfortunately, they had no choice if secrecy was to be maintained.

She shook her head and shut off the screen and turned to face Ethan, who was in his dress uniform as well, minus the bandana which hung around his neck. “You know who it is?” She asked, tugging on the collar of her own uniform.

Ethan gave a grim smile. “Hasina.”

“Ah.” She had an…amicable relationship with her sister and now head of the Vyandar family. Even when growing up, they’d had quite a few fundamental disagreements. Disagreements that hadn’t dissipated with time.

Still, she was family and that would never change. But Saudia saw no reason to change her opinions simply because her sister was now the head of her family. Well, by now she knew which topics to avoid with her, though there was no guarantee Hasina would be so willing to keep it strictly business. Hasina took her responsibilities to her family seriously.

Too seriously, if she was being honest. Hasina had a tendency to put the good of the Vyandar family ahead of EXALT and while she completely understood the motivation, it simply wasn’t acceptable.

Her interventions over the years hadn’t really improved relations.

“Should I hide?” Ethan asked, his lips twitching as he suppressed a grin. For some reason, he found the whole situation he was in rather amusing. Something she was extremely grateful for. Much as he was justified, going off on Hasina wouldn’t exactly help things.

“Absolutely not,” she told him. “If she had a problem, she’ll just have to deal with it.”

“I’ll let you do the talking” he promised with a deferential nod.

She smiled and brushed her hair back with a gloved hand. “Excellent,” she gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Let’s get to the hangar.”

Ethan grinned and pulled the bandanna over his mouth and motioned to the door with his hand. “After you, Director.” She obliged and both of them walked out the door into the ornate hallway.

A lush red carpet lined the tiled hallway and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling in a row. The tables held expensive vases and other elaborate conversation pieces. The whole of the Bastion was a demonstration of wealth and power, much of which she found to be going a little overboard. As far as she knew, it had always been like this, updated through the times of course, and upon initially taking the role of Director, she’d considered removing most of the excess furnishings in favor of more practical arrangements.

But in the end, she’d left it as it was. She wondered how many before her had come to the same conclusion, it wasn’t the furnishing themselves that were important. Rather, it was the implication and demonstration of wealth and power that were most important. It reinforced the image of EXALT being superior and unstoppable to the personnel and soldiers employed and conveyed the same to their allies and enemies, as well as fear or wariness.

  Even the alien had been impressed. At least from what she could tell from his expressions, assuming that that creature even knew what human emotions he was imitating. “Do you have times when each of them is to arrive?” Saudia asked Ethan as they walked, preparing for a mentally exhausting day. If it was possible, she wanted to speak to the Heads of the Families before the meeting, which might or might not be possible depending on how soon they showed up.

“Matthew and Zara are about a half-hour out, at least according to their departure times,” Ethan answered, slowly as to emphasize that it wasn’t final. No need, really. She knew that EXALT personnel planes were notoriously difficult to detect with EXALT scanners, and impossible with normal equipment. Not to mention the Antarctic weather was never ideal. Still, she’d take that over the risk of some country detecting suspicious aircraft heading towards the Bastion.

As such, the most accurate way to determine when one of the planes was to arrive was based on the departure time. They’d established a baseline long ago and had since been using it for purposes of scheduling, though Saudia always allowed at least an extra fifteen minutes to account for bad weather.

“And the rest?” She asked while she opened one of the carved wooden doors.

“Diguon and Elizabeth are about forty minutes out,” Ethan recalled. “Darian is closer to an hour.”

She sighed. “I hope he has a good reason for the delay.”

“He didn’t provide one,” Ethan shrugged. “But something probably came up. He’s not overseeing the most stable of continents.”

She nodded. That was most certainly true. Not to mention the Eridan family was the second smallest after the Venator family. They did excellent work, as expected, but the lower number of personnel did mean that intervention took longer than usual. The realities of overseeing one of the more troublesome continents. After overseeing Africa for a few years, she could sympathize.

“My uniform alright?” She asked Ethan as they approached the hangar door. She paused and Ethan reached over and adjusted her ceremonial cape.

“There, perfect,” he complimented, stepping back. “All ready.”

She sighed. “I can’t believe I’m wearing this thing again.”

“Hey,” Ethan chided humorously. “I’m not complaining.”

“Shut up.” Saudia responded as she opened the hangar door and walked inside.

EXALT had no air force, and thus didn’t have a large hangar. There was one of the transport planes, her personal one, but literally nothing else. The only regular usage came from the weekly supply transport carrying fuel, supplies and food. Visitors were rare; rare enough not to warrant an expansion of the hangar.

It would be more crowded than usual, but each family plane should be able to dock without problems. Her arrival was good timing on her part; Hasina was just disembarking the plane now, flanked by three Vyandar EXALT soldiers.

Hasina herself wore the traditional uniform of the Head of the Vyandar family which was by far the least ceremonial of all the uniforms within EXALT. Leather boots, sand-blasted pants, gloves and long sleeve shirt covered by a forest green shawl. Both the EXALT and Vyandar emblems were embroidered on opposite sleeves and she wore the tribal necklace that had been passed down to each head of the Vyandar family.

It was quite easy to tell they were related. Hasina’s face was a bit rounder and her black skin a touch lighter than her own, but they were nearly identical in every way else. Unlike her, Hasina kept her hair moderately short; the raven locks barely falling past her ears. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she didn’t look entirely pleased.

Then again, she’d always been a serious woman. Much like Saudia.

The soldiers with her, one man and two women, were clearly native to Africa as well. Even if Saudia hadn’t noticed their forest green bandannas, she could tell simply from their skin, features and demeanor. They held automatic weapons at the ready with a pistol strapped to each of their legs. Their attire was similar to Hasina’s, though far bulkier, likely due to the body armor underneath.

Hasina said something to the male soldier, and seeing how he took the two women and walked away, she assumed he’d been told to leave. She’d probably done that in the hopes that she’d order Ethan to leave as well. How unfortunate for her.

“[Saudia,]” she greeted neutrally in Swahili, with an incline of her head. “[Glad to see you.]”

Saudia smiled, stepped forward and embraced her. Hasina seemed surprised at first, but then returned the embrace. Despite their differences, they were sisters and she’d never forget that. “[Sister,]” she murmured. “[It’s been too long.]”

They stepped back and Hasina gave a small smile. “[That it has,]” she responded wryly. “[Though we’ve both been…busy.]”

Saudia gave a grin. “[That we have.]”

Hasina glanced over at Ethan and barely inclined her head in his direction. “Ethan,” she acknowledged, now in English. “Doing everything to keep her alive, I assume?”

He nodded stoically. “Of course, Lady Vyandar.”

“Good.” Returning her attention to Saudia, she also reverted back to Swahili. “[There are some things we need to discuss before the meeting.]”

“[Business or family?]” Saudia asked.

She twitched her lips. “[Family.]”

Saudia nodded and motioned that they should walk. Hasina fell into step beside her and Ethan trailed behind. “[What news do you have?]” Saudia asked curiously. Despite being the Director, she didn’t feel the need to interfere or pry in the internal affairs of the families, including her own. She would only intervene if their disputes or issues began having an adverse effect on EXALT as a whole. Still, she disliked being out of the loop, even if it was self-imposed.

Hasina indicated Ethan behind her. “[I’d rather he not be here. This should only be discussed with members of the family.]”

And just like that Hasina couldn’t resist making comments like that. Saudia pursed her lips. “[He’s my husband.]”

Hasina’s face hardened. “[As your sister, I ask you to do this.]”

Fine. She didn’t want to argue to Hasina now, not before the meeting. But she’d have to have a discussion about her blatant disrespect soon. After years of putting up with it, it was getting old. Still, she turned toward Ethan. “Could you assemble the soldiers? I want them ready when the rest get here.”

Luckily Ethan knew exactly what was up and didn’t dispute her at all, for which she was grateful. “Of course, Director. They’ll be ready within ten minutes.” With that he saluted her and began walking off until she grabbed his arm.

“Thank you,” she told him, conveying her gratitude through her eyes. He appeared to understand and gently removed her hand and walked off to fulfill his orders. She turned back to Hasina who was looking at her with a raised eyebrow.

“[You do know I’ll be telling him everything later,]” she warned Hasina as they resumed walking. “[We don’t keep secrets.]”

“Hmm,” Hasina muttered. “[That is your decision, sister. But I will not be responsible for an outsider learning of it.]”

Even normally she wasn’t this callous. Something must have happened. Something that was upsetting her. “[How is everyone?]” Saudia asked.

Hasina shrugged. “[Mother is fine, the grandparents are as well. Everyone else is managing perfectly fine. Operation outputs have increased by five percent. Mostly thanks to Father’s advice.]”

Saudia nodded. Father was a genius at managing the multiple refining, drilling and extracting operations they managed. EXALT owed much of their current wealth to him and she was certain Hasina would continue his work, especially if he was advising her.

“[That’s excellent,]” she complemented. “[You should be proud.]”

Hasina twitched her lips. “[Perhaps. I suppose I’ll feel more confident when I’m not relying on him for advice.]”

Saudia snorted. “[It took him decades to learn what he did. You’ve only been doing this four years. Don’t feel guilty relying on him.]”

Hasina took a deep breath. “[Father is sick.]”

Saudia blinked and stopped walking, a wave of sadness washing over her. “[Ah,]” she managed. “[It happened.]”

“[Yes,]” Hasina confirmed sadly. “[I suppose the warnings were accurate.]”

“[When did you know?]” Saudia demanded.

“[A few days ago,]” Hasina answered with a wave of her hand. “[I would have told you…but you were dealing with the aliens and when you called for a meeting I figured I might as well wait to tell you in person.]”

“[Thank you,]” Saudia told her sincerely. “[You did the right thing.]” They were both silent for a few minutes. “[How long?]”

“[At least six months,]” Hasina answered wearily, her eyes unfocused towards the wall. “[At most a year, though treatment might help extend it. I’ll be talking with Darian to see if he can take a look.]”

Saudia nodded. That was a sound plan. The Eridan Family provided nearly all of EXALT’s chemical, medical and pharmaceutical needs and development. If anyone was able to help, Darian certainly would. Still, it would only delay the inevitable.

“[He’ll be more than willing to help,]” Saudia reassured her, resting a hand on her shoulder. “[Darian knows what he’s done for EXALT.]”

“[I know,]” Hasina sighed. “[But…I still have so much more to learn from him…I’m worried. And I know things are only going to get harder in the next few months.]”

“[Hey,]” Saudia told her firmly, looking her in the eye. “[You’ve done well so far, and no, it wasn’t just because of Father. Do you really think he’d have approved you taking over if he wasn’t sure you could do it?]”

“[No,]” Hasina admitted, a touch of bitterness in her voice. “[But then again, I wasn’t his first choice, was I?]”

“[The order doesn’t matter,]” Saudia insisted. “[Both of us know it’s because I was the eldest. Had it been reversed it would have been you instead.]”

Hasina pursed her lips. “[I suppose we’ll never know.]”

There was another long silence between them. “[I’ll make arrangements to visit,]” Saudia promised. “[After the meeting, I’m sure I’ll have to visit you officially anyway.]”

Hasina’s face softened. “[Good.]”

They were interrupted by the sound of the hangar opening and another plane rolling inside. All EXALT planes were exact copies and bore no distinguishing emblems or marks so Saudia didn’t know who had actually arrived. A few seconds after the first plane rolled inside another one followed

“[Here they come,]” Hasina commented. “[Guesses on who?]”

“[Probably Matthew and Zara,]” Saudia assumed, eyeing the planes as they moved to park. “[Unless the others made up serious time.]”

“[Zara,]” Hasina grimaced. “[Wonderful.]”

Saudia suppressed a sigh and began walking towards the first plane that had arrived, Hasina close behind her. She smiled when she saw who it was. Matthew, Head of the Solaris family and Overseer of North America, walked down the steps with two Solaris EXALT soldiers behind him. Dressed in an unremarkable American black business suit, the only indications of his loyalty and rank was the EXALT emblem embroidered in silver thread on the pocket. The Solaris emblem was a golden pin attached to the suit. She supposed he had no reason to hide it since it was displayed around America anyways.

His soldiers were dressed almost identically with the only major difference besides their navy blue bandannas were the black leather gloves they wore in comparison to Matthew who didn’t wear any. He smiled as he noticed them approaching and motioned his soldiers to stay put.

“Saudia!” He greeted while he strode up to them. She probably should have reminded him of her position, but seeing as no one else was around, she didn’t see the need too.

“Matthew,” she returned, giving him a quick hug. “It’s been too long.”

He chuckled. “Probably. But not much we can do about that. The world isn’t going to change itself!”

“True,” Saudia agreed with a nod. Matthew turned his attention to Hasina.

“Greetings to you as well, Lady Vyandar,” he said, inclining his head in a gesture of respect. “A pleasure to see you again.”

Hasina nodded in return, but little else. “The feeling is mutual, Mr. Solaris.”

He smirked. “Formal as ever. I can respect that.”

“I presume things are proceeding as planned?” Saudia asked. She knew most details of what operations he was conducting in North America. But her other responsibilities left little time to directly oversee them.

He grew quite serious, surprising her. He scratched his golden beard. “Yes…” he began hesitantly. “Canada and Mexico operations are proceeding extremely well. The United States…there are some things we need to discuss.”

She frowned. “Nothing bad,” he quickly amended, raising a palm. “But…well, things are a lot more volatile than I anticipated. We have a major opportunity here and I won’t move forward without your approval.”

Really? Well that was intriguing. Matthew had her trust and he knew it. For him to still want her permission meant it was big. “When you say major opportunity, you mean…?”

He gave a small grin. “I mean that if we play our cards right, we have a chance to control the United States.”

Even Hasina raised her eyebrow at that. “Well,” Saudia finally said. “We’ll have to speak after the meeting.”

“Without a doubt,” He agreed with a nod. “Though this should be discussed at Solaris Industries proper.” Looking past her he arched his eyebrow. “It seems Lady Venator has arrived.”

Saudia turned to see Zara with half a dozen Venator EXALT soldiers behind her. “I’ll greet her,” she said, looking back at them. “Both of you are free to head to the meeting room. I presume you know the one?”

Both of them nodded and began heading further inside the Bastion. Saudia turned and began approaching the entourage. The amount of soldiers Zara had brought with her seemed like overkill, but it was too expected with the family responsible for the vast majority of their military power.

Zara Venator, Overseer of Australia, was not who was normally envisioned to be a soldier, let alone the head of a family of soldiers. Just taller than five and a half feet, it was almost comical how much Saudia towered over her. But looking beyond her height, Zara was likely the most dangerous soldier in EXALT. If one thing could be said about the Venator family, it was that they never picked anyone unqualified. Zara had trained for this position since birth and had earned her position, despite the disadvantages she likely faced.

Her face was a mess of scars, like essentially every Venator family head. They had a tendency to be reckless and get involved far more than anyone else. Not to mention at least half the scars were probably from training. Her brown hair was also cut short, like most of the women in the Venator family. Despite that, she had an oddly childish face offset by the most striking blue eyes she’d ever seen. Zara was a woman who left no ambiguity. You knew exactly where you stood with her just by looking at her.

The Venator family had no dress uniforms. No matter the situation, they always wore full combat attire and no less than two weapons. Their dull silver body armor covered the padding underneath and their arms and legs were similarly covered; with silver plates covering everything but the joints, which were reinforced by additional Kevlar padding. Venator soldiers were also afforded more levity when customizing their armor; Saudia saw symbols, names and other likely personal things painted, spray-painted or attached to the armor on the soldiers.

Another major difference with Venator soldiers that each of them wore a ceremonial cape similar to her own on their left shoulder in addition to their orange bandannas. A dark orange cape with the Venator emblem embroidered in silver. It was a symbol of their status as the elite soldiers within EXALT and no other family saw cause of dispute it.

Zara hadn’t added anything to her own armor aside for the EXALT emblem emblazoned on her upper right chest in black. She extended her hand as Saudia approached which Saudia took. The grip was firm but not overly hard, indicating Zara retained at least some finesse. “Director,” she greeted firmly, with a deferential nod. “A pleasure to see you again.”

“You too, Zara,” she responded. The Venator family was notorious with who they wholeheartedly supported. Paradoxically, Saudia considered them the most loyal of all the families, despite their issues. They supported the ideals and goals of EXALT without question and each of them was willing to die for the cause. That same loyalty didn’t extend to people and if the Venator family had issues with anyone, they were made known and they would flatly refuse to work, intervene or take orders from them unless pressured by the rest of the families or some agreement was arranged.

It even extended to the position of Director. If they disapproved of the direction of EXALT, they would make their opinion known, albeit more subtly and were more susceptible to pressure from the families. Despite that, it was very rare for things to get that bad and Saudia had nothing to worry about in any case. The Venator family was one of her strongest allies, most likely due to her completing the Gauntlet, a grueling multi-staged trial only the most elite of EXALT even finished completely. She knew that feat alone had gained the respect of Zara.

“I see you didn’t skimp on a detail,” Saudia noted wryly glancing at the six men and woman behind Zara. “Expecting trouble?”

“Always,” Zara agreed, albeit somewhat in self-deprecation. “You’ll thank me if something happens.”

Saudia raised an eyebrow. “At the Bastion? You do know I already have soldiers here. Some of yours too, I might add.”

“Maybe I just want to feel protected,” she joked sarcastically. “Not all of us have Ethan looking out for them.”

Saudia chuckled and Zara joined in. It was something of an inside joke between them now. Zara had been rather interested in him when he’d first arrived to EXALT and had attempted to choose him as her husband. Ethan had been flattered and somewhat confused, but had ultimately turned her down. Saudia had asked why once and he’d said she was too “hotheaded and impulsive.”

Fortunately Zara hadn’t been offended and had even congratulated him when he and Saudia had married. Though she hadn’t exactly let him off the hook; in her own form of revenge, she usually flirted with him several times, making him very uncomfortable.

Saudia shook her head and grew more serious. “Really, I think you’re just hoping something will happen.”

“Boom,” Zara agreed dramatically. “You are a smart woman. Seriously though, what’s the point of an army if you never use them? My soldiers are bored of training exercises and frankly, so am I.”

“You know my stance,” Saudia reminded her. “Military intervention as a last resort.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zara waved a hand dismissively. “You and your pacifistic nature. Just saying we could get a lot more done if we became more involved. Beyond all the talking, bribing, persuading and politics.” The last word she almost spat out.

“Well, I think you’ll be happy with my plans,” Saudia promised. “Like it or not, we’re going to begin the final phase. And your soldiers will be essential in its execution.”

Zara clasped her hands behind her back and gave a wide smile. “Now that I’m looking forward too.”

Saudia nodded. “The ones who’ve arrived are heading in. You may join them when ready.”

“Excellent,” Zara turned on her heel and her soldiers fell into step behind her. Before she began walking, she looked back at Saudia. “Solaris is here, correct?”

Saudia nodded. “Yes.”

“Ah, excellent. I want to know if that new rifle prototype is ready for manufacturing.”

“He’s speaking with Hasina now,” Saudia added. “But you should have enough time before the others show up.”

“Good to know. Thanks, Director.” With that Zara marched off, entourage behind her.

Privately, Saudia wondered how long she’d last when the fighting actually started. The Head of the Venator family was a little different than the rest of the families. They were considered the “tip of the spear,” so to speak. Meaning that they often were involved in combat missions and operations. This tended to result in rather abrupt deaths when the Head was killed in combat. They still oversaw the major operations within Australia, but since it was a small continent and the family primarily focused on training soldiers, there was quite a bit of freedom in the role.

To date, the longest any Head of the Venator family had survived was twelve years. Not a single one had ever survived to pass on the mantle to his or her children. Luckily, there was never a shortage of willing soldiers to take the position. The Venator family was also quite aware of the high death rate and whenever a new head was chosen, a successor was also chosen as quickly as possible for the smoothest transition possible.

Zara had been serving nearly five years. Saudia estimated she’d probably last another five but not much more than that. Well, what would happen would happen, little she could do to change that. She checked her watched and waited for the rest of the planes to arrive.

***

The Bastion, Overlook of the Wasteland

The meeting room was a plain and bare room lit by soft white lights. But what it did offer was a beautiful view of the Antarctic wasteland. Saudia found it soothing, especially during the frequent snowstorms and it was one of the only places in the Bastion that didn’t include extravagant furnishing.

There was one small wooden round table with seven seats, one for each family head and one for the Director. No one else was allowed, though none were specifically forbidden from sharing what transpired. They were all professionals who knew who to share with and how much. There had never been any information leaks from the Bastion, proof enough for her to permit the heads to share with specific people.

The table could also be used as a holotable if needed, and she fully intended to utilize that feature during the meeting. Everyone had arrived and were now seated before here waiting for her to begin. Beside here were Hasina and Matthew; beside them were Elizabeth, Head of the Falka family and Overseer of Europe and Diguon, Head of the Mercado family and Overseer of Asia respectively. And opposite her were Zara and Darian, Head of the Eridan family and Overseer of South America.

Time to begin. Saudia rested her fingertips on the table. “Thank you all for responding so quickly. I understand recent events have increased our workload, but I’m grateful regardless.”

“No need, Director,” Matthew dismissed with an easy wave of his hand. “Each of us know this isn’t an ordinary meeting.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Saudia nodded. “Each of you know why we’re here so I’ll not waste more time. My meeting with the alien representative proceeded without incident and we have established an alliance. We will officially work with them to destroy XCOM and subvert the countries into accepting alien rule.”

From the knowing and smug smiles around the room, they clearly hadn’t missed her usage of the word officially. “In return they will provide us with their technology, weaponry and knowledge to use as we will.”

“Oddly trusting of them,” Matthew commented, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I can understand establishing an alliance, but to provide us with all that immediately? They have no guarantee we won’t just take the tech and abandon them.”

“Fear,” Zara stated with a grim smile. “They believe they can intimidate us into submission simply because they are more advanced. That is their guarantee. They are arrogant enough to believe their very presence is a deterrent.”

“Relying on fear works to a point,” Elizabeth commented, tapping on the clipboard she always carried with her. “But the aliens have to know we will reach a point that equals their own eventually. I’ve studied their tactics as much as possible. They are not without subtlety or guile. Their own operations in Germany proved they can also run an intelligence operation.”

Matthews’s lips twitched. “A very poorly run intelligence operation, but sure.”

Elizabeth wasn’t dissuaded. “That was their first attempt at something like this. The point is that they’ll learn from this. Just look at the progression of the thin men. The first ones deployed were crude and experimental. Their latest ones would fit into a population seamlessly.”

Diguon pursed his lips. “I have noticed the same thing,” he said, his heavily accented voice a sharp contrast to the rest of the room. “That particular issue needs to be addressed.”

“It will,” Saudia promised. “But returning to the original point; I agree with Matthew in that they likely assume the threat of our destruction will subdue us. But I also think that they would be perfectly fine if we stayed loyal to them. Furthermore, we have something they want that they’ve apparently been unable to reproduce.”

“Which is?” Zara prodded.

“Human psionics,” Saudia answered. “They have an interest in them, for what reasons, I’m not sure.”

“I can think of a few,” Darian commented thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. “They have the technology for cloning. It might be beneficial for them to clone an army of human psionics.”

“I don’t think we know enough about psionics to make that kind of prediction,” Matthew cautioned. “We don’t even know if it’s genetic or not.”

“I think it’s a much simpler motive,” Diguon interjected, adjusting his glasses. “XCOM will eventually develop a human psionic themselves. The longer the aliens drag out this war, the more inevitable it becomes. If they were to discover a way to mitigate or prevent humans from becoming psionic, then they would have removed what is arguably humanity’s strongest weapons against them.”

“I get the feeling there is a suggestion there,” Saudia commented, a little sarcastically. “Go ahead.”

“Very well,” Diguon leaned forward intently. “Are the aliens requesting our psionic subjects now?”

Saudia shook her head. “Not yet. But I’ve told them we will turn some over once they’ve been studied more.”

“We should not,” Diguon stated bluntly. “The aliens are simply a means to an end. When Earth burns, we must have a fighting chance to reclaim it. I fear providing the aliens with our psionic subjects will only hinder that goal.”

“I don’t think any of us are in disagreement on that,” Hasina pointed out ruefully. “But you would have to admit it would look suspicious if we refused to hand over any psionic subjects.”

“Hasina is right,” Matthew nodded. “I don’t like it either, but for now we must maintain the illusion of cooperation. But play our cards right and we can make it difficult for them.”

“While we’re on this subject,” Darian interrupted, curiosity tinging his voice. “How goes our own studies on the subjects?”

“We’re trying to pinpoint similarities between the patients in the hopes that will allow us to determine why they survived the Catalyst drug,” Saudia explained. “The Bastion scientists are having trouble finding the exact genetic markers, but I suspect they will within a few weeks. In terms of abilities displayed…” Saudia paused. “Subjects One through Three are demonstrating minor psionic abilities. Flashes of purple smokes, minor telekinetic abilities and complaints of ‘voices.’”

“And subject Four?” Darian asked.

“Subject Four is…volatile,” Saudia admitted. “She reacted violently to the initial awakening and she doesn’t appear to have any control of her abilities. We are unsure if this means she is more powerful, or is simply having a different reaction.”

“Interesting,” Darian mused. “If possible, I’d like to have some of my people join this project. I would particularly appreciate it if several subjects were sent to me. This is an ample opportunity to create defenses against psionic abilities.”

“Not possible at this time,” Saudia shook her head. “Your people are certainly welcome, but we simply have too few subjects to move around. Once we refine the process, you will receive your subjects. Until then, we must first understand psionics.”

“Perhaps the aliens could help?” Hasina suggested, looking at Saudia.

“Considering they want our psionic subjects, I somehow doubt they’ll be able to provide any help.” Elizabeth reminded her. “At least with humans.”

“I agree,” Saudia nodded. “Besides, I’d prefer to keep our internal operations secret from the aliens.” Saudia turned her attention back to the table. “Now, they’ve followed through on their promise and send a substantial amount of their technology to the Bastion. I’ve split the contents into three sections; Weapons, biological and chemical substances, and equipment.”

“Is it legitimate?” Matthew questioned. “You sure we aren’t receiving doctored supplies?”

“I can guarantee the weapons are authentic,” Saudia confirmed. “The equipment appears to be functioning as well. As for the substances…we can’t say for certain until closer inspections. But we don’t have a reason to believe differently since the rest of the tech appears genuine.”

“Very well,” Diguon conceded, steepling his fingers. “If the aliens have deceived us in any way, my people will discover it.”

“I expect nothing less.” Saudia reached down and tapped on of the buttons on the tables. Blue lights around the edge flared and the holographic image of several plasma weapons and components appeared. “The aliens have provided us with five “unbound” plasma rifles and two rifles that have been dismantled for us to research on a more intimate scale.”

“Unbound?” Matthew asked.

“Each weapon is bound to the alien wielding it,” Saudia explained. “From preliminary examination, it appears to be DNA based. After bonding, the weapon will self-destruct if someone other than the owner wields it.”

“Smart,” Matthew nodded approvingly. “Keeps the tech out of enemy hands well.”

“Yes,” Saudia agreed. “Matthew, you’ll be in charge of the weapons research. I’ll also expect you to coordinate with Diguon’s people since these operate on more complex technology.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Matthew looked over at Diguon. “I’ll send you everything once we gain some more concrete data.”

“Diguon, you’ll oversee the equipment we’ve received,” Saudia informed, directing her attention towards him. “It appears to consist of computers and scanning devices. Your specialty, correct?”

Diguon smiled. “Yes. We’ll begin work as soon as we receive them.”

“Excellent.” Saudia looked at Darian. “And what is probably no surprise, you’ll be overseeing the alien substances. From what the Bastion researchers have told me, this will allow us to finally begin implementing true genetic modification.”

“Truly?” his eyebrows shot up. “If that’s the case, I suppose I should begin acquiring more test subjects.”

“That might take time,” Diguon warned, eyebrows furrowing. “It took us a significant amount of time to acquire the subjects for the psionic experiment.”

Saudia held up a hand. “Not an issue. The aliens are willing to provide us subjects from their own stores of subjects.”

“Excellent,” Darian nodded, sounding more excited for the first time in months. “It’ll be nice to not have constraints.”

“The Bastion will retain at least a portion of the alien technology,” Saudia informed them. “However our primary focus will be on psionic testing. I expect frequent updates documenting your progress and it goes without saying that each family will receive the same updates I do. Understood?”

“Understood, Director.” Matthew answered, speaking for the rest of them.

“Excellent.” Saudia shut off the holodisplay. “Now onto the state of the world. We can all assume it’s changed significantly since our last meeting. Darian, you first.”

Darian nodded. “It’s really changed surprisingly little. The majority of the populace is more concerned about their next meal instead of being abducted. We still retain a limited amount of influence over the major countries, especially Brazil, Argentina and Colombia but I’m holding off advancing my agents.”

Hasina frowned. “Why?”

“Because while the populace is unaware, or unable to act upon the almost blatant corruption in the governments, others aren’t so fooled,” Darian answered, sounding almost amused. “There are several high-profile foreign journalists beginning to uncover the extent of the corruption. I’ve helped them in various ways and I expect when all’s said and done, nearly all of the major governments will be implicated in the highest profile scandal in years. Allowing the opportunity for some new people to assume leadership.”

“People I’m assuming you’ve chosen,” Saudia supposed, resting her arms on the table.

Darian inclined his head humbly. “With the help of dear Lady Falka, our people will have influence over every facet of the major South American countries.”

Zara snorted. “You have two major problems with this: One, while the South American populace might not care about the aliens, everyone else does. Who’s really going to care? Two: You really think they’re just going to step down once implicated when they have control of the military?”

“Don’t worry Zara,” Darian promised soothingly, causing her to flush. “I’ve taken care of it. Quite honestly, you’re right. But the point of the entire expose, beyond us taking control, is to turn the military against the governments. A feat that should be quite easy when the ordinary soldier sees how the ones they serve carelessly waste military lives and spend their days in mansions without a care in the world.”

He leaned forward, a wry grin on his face. “Soldiers are predictable. Present company excluded of course. I’m a psychologist, and furthermore, I’ve been to Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. I’ve spoken to the common soldier and trust me, I know what it will take to persuade them. Combined with the riots that will follow, the soldiers will feel obligated to take their country back not out of greed, bribery or corruption, but because they believe they are doing the right thing.”

He leaned back again, in clear self-satisfaction. “And no amount of pleas, warnings or money will deter someone with that mindset. You have little to worry about, Zara.”

Saudia was personally impressed things were proceeding so smoothly. Darian had approached her about this months ago and she’d agreed on the assumption that he would do his best to ensure it was a mostly bloodless coup. And so far, it seemed a distinct possibility that EXALT would soon extend their reach over South America proper. Once the major countries were under their influence, the rest would eventually fall into line.

“Excellent work,” she congratulated with a nod of respect. “You’ve done well. You next, Matthew.”

“With pleasure,” He answered with a smile. “For starters, Solaris Industries is now officially the largest weapons manufacturer in the United States. As a direct consequence, we now have a legitimate contract with the United States Military.”

“Congratulations,” Diguon said, inclining his head. “And it only took you a few decades.”

“Worth it,” Matthew answered, clearly satisfied. “As for the state of affairs, well, Canada is still inconsequential, though several of my people have increased in rank and status. But they are taking a “wait and see” approach with the aliens. Knowing the Prime Minister, he won’t make a decision until the rest of the civilized world reaches some sort of consensus.”

“No,” Zara injected scornfully. “They’ll make a statement when some countries wants to make peace with the aliens.”

While Saudia would have put that more…diplomatically, she suspected Zara was more right than she wanted to admit. Canada was a largely pacifistic country, something Zara despised. Canada had openly criticized the War on Terror and refused to take part, even after the United Nations intervened.

As one of the few countries to do so, Canada became something of a haven for refugees, Muslims and people of middle-eastern descent all of whom had faced suspicion and persecution from the rest of the world. As a result, Canada had one of the most diverse populaces, rivaling the United States after nearly all had stayed and were assimilated into the country. Along with Iran, Canada allowed the practice of Islam, although almost all of those still practicing were under increased scrutiny.

The country was also more difficult to effectively control and sow dissent. The side effect of a more pacifistic culture was that people were naturally more polite, open-minded and passionate. Though they tended to become a lot more aggressive when presented with opposing views since many were convinced that they were correct.

Fortunately, Canada wasn’t a serious contender or threat on the world stage and as a result, EXALT mostly didn’t interfere, though some people were still kept in the government to keep an eye on things.

“Perhaps,” Matthew finally answered. “But Canada’s official stance will probably not have that great an effect.” Shrugging, he picked up his tablet and began tapping on it. “Meanwhile, I’ve made great strides in Mexico. Thanks to Elizabeth’s help, we now have agents within all the major Cartels. I expect within a year we’ll retain a moderate amount of influence over at least half of them.”

“I hope you’re focusing on the right things,” Hasina questioned with a frown. “Infiltrating the Cartels might backfire, not to mention we’ll have little influence in the government itself.”

“The government isn’t a concern,” Matthew dismissed, setting the tablet down. “Half of it has ties to the Cartels already. No, I have a different plan for them.” He rapped his fingers on the table. “The drug trade relies on addiction, obviously, and the Cartels essentially control the majority of it in North and South America.”

He paused. “So the question is how to remove the Cartels for good, without military intervention,” he said, casting a sidelong glance at Zara. “No offense, Overseer Venator, but a military solution is difficult to keep discrete.”

Zara shrugged. “None taken.”

“So instead of specifically infiltration the leadership of the Cartels, I’ve placed our operatives in positions where they make the products directly,” he explained. “The head chemists, scientists and engineers answer to me.”

Saudia nodded. She’d been appraised of this operation before and looked over at Darian. “I assume you completed your role as well.”

“Completely,” he smiled in self-satisfaction. “Since we now control how the products are made, we can introduce our own versions with the Cartels none the wiser.”

“Specifically,” Matthew continued. “Reducing the addictive properties. It’ll have to be done very slowly if we want it to work, but once we removed the main source of income, the Cartels will be unable to sustain themselves unless they use their thugs to extort money, which is highly impractical.”

“That is going to be suspicious,” Diguon commented. “Not to mention it’ll give some of the smaller criminal organizations an opportunity to get a new client base for their own products.”

“And risk the wrath of the Cartels?” Matthew snorted. “No. That won’t happen. Not at first, at least.”

“That’s all well and good for the people,” Elizabeth pointed out, chewing her lip. “But won’t it be suspicious when their client base starts to not need their products anymore?”

“Of course,” Matthew agreed. “But that isn’t what will happen. This will be gradual; we’ll reduce the addictive properties a bit, have that circulate for a month or so, then reduce it a bit more. It might take years and is the reason I’ve waited until I had people in all the Cartels. This has to be consistent across the board between them to draw less suspicion.”

Saudia looked at Darian. “Has your modified product been tested?”

“Our control group in Argentina was given our version of meth over a period of six months,” Darian confirmed. “Results are almost universally successful.”

Hasina raised an eyebrow. “Almost?”

Darian sighed. “Our modified product relies on the customer taking that product, and specifically that product. Several of the test subjects accidentally took regular meth with ours and the ensuing shock to their bodies killed them. It’s an issue we’re trying to fix.”

“That won’t be a concern for at least half a year,” Matthew emphasized. “The chemical differences between the first phase of our products and what they’re using now are negligible.”

“I hope you’ve thought of a plan when the Cartels realize something’s wrong,” Zara said, lacing her fingers together. “Because they are going to notice. And when they determine something’s wrong with the product, guess who they’ll remove first.”

“Which is why I’ll do my best to direct the uncorrupted within the Mexican government at them,” Matthew answered. “Along with planting some rather incriminating stuff to turn the Cartels against each other.” He raised a finger. “However, now with our alliance with the aliens, I would propose we use them against the Cartels. Their little armies, specifically. I know the locations of their staging and training grounds and I can’t imagine the aliens would pass up the chance to acquire some healthy human subjects.”

Saudia smiled, it seemed like a fitting ending to her. The populace would be free of the addiction and the Cartel’s hold over the drug trade would be shattered. “That is an excellent idea. I’m sure I can convince the Speaker of the wisdom of that.”

“Using the aliens to remove their soldiers and our product to remove their source of income,” Hasina mused pleasantly. “We finally dismantle the Cartels.”

“As is the plan,” Matthew agreed with a smile.

“I’ll be curious to see how it works in reality,” Diguon commented, not sounding quite as enthusiastic. “But a start nonetheless.”

“Hopefully more,” Matthew answered. “Now, for the USA. Simply put, tensions are extremely high for a multitude of reasons. Lines are quickly being drawn, mostly over the typical partisan lines, and neutrality is vanishing. Now, there are several ways to take advantage of this, but an operation this large will need to gone over in greater detail, with the Director first.” He nodded at Saudia.

“Suffice to say, that we stand to control the United States if successful.”

“I assume you’re taking into account the upcoming presidential election?” Elizabeth asked.

“No, I’m going to ignore one of the biggest political events in years,” he answered sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “Of course I have plans to use the election. Campaigning has already begun.”

“One year early,” Saudia shook her head. American politics was both fascinating and utterly ridiculous sometimes. “You have your eye on several of the candidates?”

“Of course,” Matthew answered. “Several that I believe are viable.”

“How is the state of America?” Zara asked curiously. “I haven’t visited the country in months. Do the Republicans look to retain the White House?”

Matthew hesitated. “Before the aliens came I would have probably said no, simply due to the amount of domestic issues. Hate crimes, police scandals, corruption charges, shootings and scandals…it’s hard to retain public support through that, despite it happening on both sides.”

“It probably didn’t help that the Vice President was charged with corruption,” Elizabeth commented wryly. “I assume that caused some PR issues.”

Matthew shook his head. “You have no idea the amount of damage control the good President had to do. It permanently damaged her reputation, which is why she’ll not be running for reelection. The Republicans want her out of the spotlight as quickly as possible.”

“You said that was before the aliens,” Diguon recalled. “So what now?”

“I think it’s safe to assume a Republican administration will be more willing to fight the aliens,” Matthew answered. “Something they’ve made very clear. And given what has happened, that sentiment is rising rapidly. People are scared and are willing to overlook past mistakes in favor of protection and security.”

Saudia frowned. “And the Democrats aren’t disputing that?”

“Not exactly,” Matthew answered slowly. “They acknowledge the alien threat but they haven’t exactly made it into a primary issue like the Republicans have. They believe the focus should be on domestic affairs first.”

“So it’s on their agenda, just not the highest concern?” Saudia clarified.

Matthew nodded. “Correct.”

 She nodded. “We’ll speak more on your plan later. Elizabeth?”

Everyone directed their attention towards her. “Europe doesn’t have quite as much interesting events taking place,” she began. “However, I can safely say that anti-alien sentiment is sweeping across the continent.”

“To be expected after Germany,” Darian agreed.

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed. “And it’s putting pressure on the governments to begin military efforts against the aliens. The European Union in particular is being petitioned to endorse increased military activity.”

“And what are the chances that will happen?” Hasina asked.

“That depends on if the aliens attack again,” Elizabeth hypothesized. “Another attack like Germany will force their hand. Which is why, Saudia, I would suggest to our alien allies to hold off any attacks in Europe until things quiet down.”

Saudia nodded. “Reasonable.”

Elizabeth grimaced. “Germany is still completely out of our hands. The good Chancellor had essentially turned the country into a police state and completely shut down the borders. Any dissent is quelled and people suspected of alien ties are brought in for interrogation. Simply put, it’s a mess.”

A mess that was extremely personal to her, since Elizabeth was the one who’d botched the Germany operation. Something she’d been trying to atone for ever since. Saudia leaned back. “Is Germany still part of the EU?”

“Officially yes,” Elizabeth answered, pursing her lips. “But in reality no, they just haven’t followed any of the procedures for leaving the EU. Or the UN for that matter. XCOM is the only entity they support.”

“Perhaps the aliens could be directed there,” Saudia mused. “It would have to be done carefully, but we could use them to weaken Germany and make our allies happy as well.”

“Possibly giving us an opening to the country,” Elizabeth finished. “Possible. I’d have to look into it more.” She looked around the table. “That essentially covers Europe. That being said, my operative in Israel is reporting a lot of suspicious things are happening.”

“Like?” Matthew asked, shifting in his seat.

“People being reassigned, money being moved around, shipments of equipment missing,” Elizabeth frowned. “Israel is planning something, and I don’t know what. This is a warning that I may suspend some operations in order to find out what’s going on.”

“What could they possibly be planning,” Hasina wondered openly. “Are they wanting to create their own anti-alien army?”

“That wouldn’t make sense,” Matthew shook his head. “They’re perfectly capable of using the one they have now. Perhaps they’re planning an attack on Iran?”

“And risk the world uniting against them?” Elizabeth snorted. “They might be warmongers, but they aren’t stupid. A complete takeover would bring worldwide condemnation.”

“Agreed,” Saudia nodded. “Elizabeth, do what you need to. Diguon?”

The elder Mercado adjusted his glasses. “China has reacted predictably to the alien attack. As I suspected, it would take them actually being threatened before they began to make major military preparations. The Chinese military is beginning to mobilize and conduct their own operations on the aliens.”

“Will they open an alliance with XCOM?” Saudia asked, concerned. That was not a development she’d been aware of.

“Unlikely,” Diguon answered. “For what I understand, the Chinese government is not particularly happy with the Commander of XCOM and the feeling appears to be mutual. Regardless, any hope of an alliance disappeared when XCOM decided to contest the rights to the wreckage of the dreadnaught.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “I sincerely hope he wasn’t expecting to win. This is the epitome of an open and shut case.”

“Of course he wasn’t,” Matthew stated. “This was a blatant move to keep alien tech out of the hands of the Chinese. I’m not sure why he delayed the inevitable, but I can understand the reasoning.”

“A curious move,” Hasina commented, leaning on the table. “Especially since China is part of the Council.”

Saudia raised a hand to cut off that line of questioning. “That’s another topic we’ll discuss later. Suffice to say I agree. Continue, Diguon.”

“The point is that we should prepare for China to take a more active role against the aliens,” Diguon said. “Since we control most of their technology, we can utilize that when they fight the aliens. But I suspect the Chinese will figure out the tech is faulty after a few instances so we must use that sparingly.”

“How much can we influence them?” Saudia asked, thinking.

“That depends,” Diguon hesitated. “I have enough people inside to gather very reliable information, but in terms of actual military direction, he is only one voice within the Republic.”

“What of the surrounding countries?” Hasina asked. “Could the Chinese decide to utilize them as staging grounds?”

Saudia waited for him to deny it but his face turned grave. “That is a distinct possibility. China has not ruled out annexing nations if the aliens threaten the homeland.”

Matthew whistled. “They would not.”

“China rivals the United States in military and political power,” Diguon reminded him. “Combined with how many countries rely on them economically, they could very well do it and not be penalized. Who would stop them? The United Nations?”

“Good point,” Matthew muttered.

“However, I don’t think they would do that,” Diguon amended. “Even if it is very possible, they would lose a lot of support and much as they like to think so, they can’t win the war alone.”

“So we’ve got a possible Chinese expansion,” Zara commented. “Excellent. What about Russia?”

“Nearly identical,” Diguon answered grimly. “The President has wasted no time in publically declaring war on the aliens and vowing to do whatever it takes to defeat them. He’s received near universal support and a surge in volunteers for military recruitment.”

“But we expected that,” Saudia stated. “Especially since Russia is one of the larger supporters of XCOM.”

“But it is more concerning,” Hasina commented worryingly. “Because unlike China, Russia will annex countries if they deem it necessary. I would also not rule out their usage of nuclear weapons.”

“I have enough people to ensure that Russia will not use nuclear weapons,” Diguon promised. “But as for annexation…Ukraine, Belarus and Finland are prime targets if Russia decides to expand their borders.”

“Mongolia is off-limits then?” Darian asked. “Too close to China?”

“I assume so,” Diguon answered. “Which is why I also think China will refrain from taking it if they decide to expand. Neither country wants to antagonize the other.”

“And North Korea?” Matthew asked, scratching his beard.

“No change,” Saudia answered instead of Diguon. “South Korea strikes them, they publicly decry it and send a unit down to teach them a lesson. Our source within the country reports no change. The Supreme Leader is as secretive as ever.”

“We should remove that country or unify it,” Zara muttered. “North Korea is too dangerous to allow without at least some knowledge of what they’re doing. At least with Israel we know when something is happening. North Korea could nuke South Korea and we wouldn’t know in advance. No offense to your source, Director.”

“None taken,” Saudia dismissed. “And you’re right. Getting information out is notoriously hard, but it’s better than nothing. And unfortunately, China still protects them and thus no one will touch them.”

“To his credit, The Supreme Leader has kept things quiet,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “But we’d be foolish to think North Korea doesn’t have plans.”

“Until then, we focus on China and Russia,” Saudia stated. “Hasina, anything to report?”

“Yes,” Hasina laced her fingers together. “Thanks to an increase in production, we’ve made substantial profits from the oil, gold and coal trade. Our influence over Saudia Arabia has increased our funds tremendously and continued operations will allow us to continue expansion.”

“And Egypt?” Matthew asked.

“Handled,” Hasina answered easily. “They won’t pose any trouble. We’ve finished identifying some more resource deposits deeper in the continent and I’ve begun operations to begin extracting them.”

“I assume the native populace is taken care of?” Saudia asked.

“Of course,” Hasina confirmed. “The people are almost always grateful for relocation. Especially when there are modern accommodations, housing and medical care. Eventually we will modernize this continent.”

“Excellent,” Saudia nodded. “And last but not least, Zara?”

“Absolutely nothing has changed,” Zara stated with a wave of her hand. “My soldiers are ready and trained and willing to fight. Fifty more recruits passed the Gauntlet and I’m gathering fifty more recruits across the globe. Our army will only grow, even if it’s never used.”

“Nothing new with Australia?” Saudia pressed.

“Nope,” Zara shook her head. “People live their boring lives on the civilized side while we conquered the other half.”

Saudia didn’t really expect anything different, but she still wanted to confirm. “One last order of business: XCOM.”

This might be the most important issue at the moment. “Within the coming weeks I’m going to being authorizing combat operations in conjunction with the aliens,” she nodded at Zara. “This should give you an adequate challenge. XCOM soldiers are the best from around the world. I hope you prove yourselves.”

Zara gave a wide smile. “Oh don’t worry, we will.”

“Have we made any progress in infiltrating the Council?” Darian asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not really,” Elizabeth answered grimly. “This takes time, though we do have some lower ranking aides who’ve been able to pass along some basic data. Essentially just the members, names and general mood. Although we do have your source, Saudia.”

Saudia nodded. “Yes, and our scheduled info dump is coming up. He’ll likely be able to answer some questions we’ve all be having.”

“Like who the Commander actually is,” Matthew said. “I’ve looked into the possible candidates and everyone is either still serving or dead.”

“Perhaps the deaths were a cover?” Diguon suggested.

“Unlikely,” Elizabeth denied. “I also looked into it. Even from the ones who died, there are better choices still alive.”

“Peter Van Doorn is missing, correct?” Hasina recalled. “He would be an ideal candidate.”

“No,” Saudia shook her head. “Van Doorn went missing long after XCOM began operating. Not to mention the rumors about the hostility between the Commander and Council wouldn’t make sense if that was the case.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have suggestions to exploit that without more information,” Elizabeth said, tapping a finger on the table. “However, I do have ideas on how to hurt them beyond militarily.”

Saudia nodded at her. “Go ahead.”

“We’re in a dilemma,” Elizabeth began. “We must straddle the line between supporting the aliens without weakening humanity when the time to take control comes. My initial ideas were to counter the rise of anti-alien sentiment with pro-alien propaganda. However, I realized that would backfire when we move against the aliens.”

Her lips curled into a grin. “However, I did hit on this idea. Instead of anti-alien propaganda, we instead use anti-XCOM propaganda. We turn the population against XCOM and in turn, the United Nations, but not necessarily the aliens themselves. Then when we reveal ourselves as the alternative, public opinion will be in our favor.”

“An excellent idea,” Diguon complemented. “XCOM has given us plenty of material to use. Their contesting of the wreckage for one, and we can use that to portray them as anti-Chinese.”

“We can also use their alliances against them,” Matthew added. “For Germany we can push the pro-police state narrative and for Israel…perhaps the pro-interventionist narrative?”

“Both would work,” Saudia agreed. “I would also add that we could turn the anti-UN, anti-globalist and anti-establishment demographics against XCOM as well.”

“A few videos of XCOM gunning down civilians would also help,” Elizabeth mused. “Zara, after you kill a few XCOM soldiers I’d ask you not damage the armor too much. My film crews will need at least a few suits.”

“No promises, but I’ll do my best,” Zara answered with a nod.

“This is your area of expertise, Elizabeth,” Saudia told her warily, adding an edge to her voice to emphasize how serious it was. “Do not fail again.”

Elizabeth swallowed and nodded. “I will not, Director.”

Saudia looked around and nodded. “Then dismissed. We have work to do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Bastion, Library

“I believe that covers everything,” Saudia told him as they sat at one of the few round wooden tables in the well-furnished room.

“Fascinating,” the Chronicler answered as he jotted down notes on his notepad. Saudia had actually never looked at what he wrote down. She assumed he was using it for its intended purpose, but for all she knew, he could be drawing cats. Not an unreasonable guess since he was also a gifted artist.

But whatever his methods, he did his job perfectly well. The Chronicler was an older man, as his white hair and wrinkled face clearly showed. Despite that, he had the best memory of anyone she’d met; likely the reason he’d been chosen in the first place.

Saudia took a sip of her wine. “It was a pivotal meeting. Something that I feel will become more prevalent in the coming days.”

“I’m privileged to live in such interesting times,” the Chronicler stated reverently, putting his pad in his bag and resting his hands on that table. “I confess, I thought our victory would come after my lifetime.”

Saudia snorted in amusement. “You? I’d expect you to outlast me. I’m the third Director you’ve known, correct?”

“True, true,” he chuckled ruefully. “But even I won’t live forever.”

At times she wondered. The Chronicler had been alive her entire life and been essential in helping her as Director. He was as much a part of the Bastion as the building itself and the only one within EXALT that wasn’t tied to the families in some way. The given reason was to prevent biases in the records favoring one family or another.

Objectivity was an excellent reason, but she wasn’t entirely convinced it was the real one. The successor to the Chronicler would always be chosen by the current one, and as far as Saudia knew, that hadn’t been done yet.

Well, she trusted him and in the meantime would enjoy his company. “I’m wondering if I shouldn’t travel to North America,” he said, looking up in contemplation. “It seems as though many important events are taking place,” his tone turned wistful. “It’s also been too long since I’ve seen the United States.”

“If you wish, you could accompany me when I go to meet Matthew,” Saudia suggested. “I don’t see when there’d be a better time.”

“I appreciate the offer,” the Chronicler told her sincerely. “But I don’t get my impressions simply from briefings and reports like you and Matthew do.” His lips curled up. “It’s too…impersonal for me. I need to go to the cities and talk to the people. I can’t simply draw my conclusions from what my superiors tell me. No offense.”

“Fair enough,” Saudia nodded. That could be respected, even if she saw little point in it. Something she’d learned as a girl was that there were very few reasons to care about ordinary people. They were the equivalent of very young EXALT children; uneducated, unreasonable, and had little respect for order and authority. There were exceptions of course, people who rose above the mediocrity and these exceptions were frequently selected to join EXALT; where they could realize their full potential.

Public well-being was important, but only for reasons of efficiency. But even if she didn’t regard the average human highly, that didn’t mean the Chronicler was wrong for doing so. “My offer still stands,” she repeated. “I can speak to Matthew and you can…” she waved her hand aimlessly.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Hmm…” the Chronicler took a sip of his own wine. Setting the glass down, he appraised her with a smile. “I might just do that.”

She raised her glass in acknowledgement and they were silent for a few minutes. “Does it ever make you sad?” She asked, looking in her glass and swishing the red liquid around. “That almost no one will know the truth?”

He sighed and looked around the library, the shelves filled with hundreds of books older than her. The true story of the world scattered throughout. “They wouldn’t understand,” he finally said. “How would it feel, knowing everything around you has been carefully crafted? That the causes and events that you believe in are lies and illusions.” He shook his head. “I suspect most people would be justifiably angry.”

Saudia appraised him. “You didn’t answer my question.”

He gave a sad smile. “Perceptive as ever, Saudia. Honestly, it does a little,” he looked away, his white eyes aimless. “The suppression of knowledge is always a sad event, even if I recognize the necessity of it.” He looked back into her eyes. “I know you don’t regard most of the human race highly, but I don’t think they’re all unreasonable.”

“I’ve never said that,” she protested. “But we both know humanity is incapable of uniting without our intervention. It simply isn’t possible.”

“I know, I know,” he placated with a raised hand. “Trust me, I’ve memorized the unfortunate history of our species. I know what we’re capable of in terms of our greed, ambition and conquest. But I’ve also read and witnessed all the good we can accomplish without EXALT.”

He leaned forward intently. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told your predecessor; Much as you may wish it, you will not be able to change the world alone. You need to know this now more than ever.”

“You know I always involve the families-“ Saudia began when the Chronicler raised a hand.

“I’m not talking about the families,” he interrupted gently. “You’ve encouraged more cooperation than most Directors. No, you will need to look beyond your own. Not every ally you use to secure the world will, or should be, EXALT. It is simply impractical and unrealistic,” he paused. “Deep down, I think you know this.”

“As long as the major governments still exist, you have a point,” she admitted. “But when all those are destroyed there will be little opposition.”

“And what exactly will you do?” He asked, cocking his head to the side inquisitively. “Unite the human race with a few hundred soldiers? Somehow convince the world that an organization never before known should be trusted?”

She sighed. “A rather poor attempt at pointing out the flaws of our objective. Both of us know referring to the plan in such simple terms is wrong.”

“But not unrealistic,” he insisted. “Based on what I know, I don’t think this will work out as…smoothly as you hope.”

Saudia leaned back in her chair. “Why do I have the feeling that you’re trying to suggest something?”

He was silent for a few minutes while she patiently waited. “I’m not suggesting anything yet,” he finally said. “But…don’t dismiss XCOM as a minor inconvenience.”

She frowned. That had come out of nowhere. “And why not? Do you honestly believe they have a chance?”

He pursed his lips. “That depends on if you allow your arrogance to dictate the course of this war.”

A smile crept across her face. The Chronicler was one who spoke his mind and answered questions directly, even if they were insulting. “I assure you, I’m treating XCOM as seriously as they deserve.”

“Then I suppose you have nothing to worry about,” he assured her. “But never underestimate your enemy.”

“A fact that was drilled in by the Venators,” she added, recalling the long days in the Gauntlet.

He chuckled. “I can imagine by the end it was exhausting. The Russian instructor I had delighted in repeating it every few minutes.”

Saudia blinked. The Russian phase of the Gauntlet was the last trial before completion. Only the best of EXALT even attempted it since there was a very real chance of death. “You completed the Gauntlet?”

He looked surprised. “I never mentioned that?”

She shook her head. “No. I guess I just assumed…”

“That I was too old or not strong enough,” he finished, amused. “Well, when you met me, I would have been. But yes, I did. A long time ago, though. I had heard much about the trial and wanted to experience it firsthand. I feel the records are better for my experience.”

She snorted. Of course he would complete the Gauntlet for simple curiosity. She personally was curious what existed deep in the ocean but didn’t really need to actually see it for herself. “Well,” she raised her glass again. “You have my congratulations. Belatedly.”

“Appreciated.” He took another sip.

“Before I forget, thank you for looking after Martel,” she told him.

“Of course,” he answered happily. “He’d a bright kid. You’ve done well so far.”

“He wasn’t too much trouble?” She asked setting her glass on the table.

“Only if you consider endless questions trouble,” he dismissed easily. “Though he was a lot more interested in what you were doing instead of his mathematics.”

Saudia rolled her eyes. “How utterly shocking. What did you tell him?”

“He’s your son,” the Chronicler answered. “I told him you would answer your questions if he finished his studies and you wanted too. That seemed to placate him.”

“I’m sure it did,” she nodded. “I’ll tell him tomorrow, since it’s…” she glanced at the time. “Almost midnight. Well then.”

“You ever wonder if you tell him too much?” he asked, an eyebrow raised curiously. “I’m not sure he fully comprehends what you tell him.”

“Parents have an annoying habit of not sharing information with their children,” Saudia answered somewhat defensively. “I found it irritating as a child and will not repeat it with my son. Furthermore, children are capable of understanding far more than people give them credit for. All they need is the right upbringing.”

“I’ll trust you on that,” he said, standing up. “It’s been a wonderful conversation, but I need to sleep. You as well, I think.”

She stood as well. “I don’t dispute that. Goodnight, Chronicler.”

He inclined his head in a salute of respect. “You as well, Director.”

***

The Bastion, Bedroom

It felt good to finally get out of that uniform. EXALT might be the most visually striking organization in the world in terms of attire, but that didn’t mean she was overly fond of it. Now she simply wore a black t-shirt and shorts. She still found it somewhat amusing that the cloths designers somehow found a way to put the EXALT emblem on literally every piece of clothing.

Well, as long as it was comfortable, she didn’t mind. As she was brushing her teeth, she heard someone come into the bathroom. She spit out the toothpaste and rinsed off the toothbrush. “I was wondering if you’d be sleeping tonight.”

She turned around to see Ethan, still in full uniform, start taking off his weapons. “Just checking that no one smuggled anything here,” he told her as he hung up his rifle. “A lot of people came here today.”

Smirking, she walked over and helped lose the straps on his armor. “Always paranoid. I doubt any of the families would be stupid enough to kill me.”

He shrugged as he put his pistol away. “It’s my job, and it wouldn’t necessarily be on direct orders of the families. It could just be some disgruntled agent. Can never be too sure.” He gave her a wry smile. “Besides, I don’t take chances with my wife, let alone the Director of EXALT.”

She smiled and helped him out of his body armor. “I appreciate it. I suppose a little paranoia is warranted.”

“Healthy even,” he amended and stripped his gauntlets off. “I assume the meeting went well? Everyone seemed rather satisfied.”

Oh right, Ethan would definitely want to know what had transpired. She’d tell him, but she was honestly really tired now. Still, if he wanted it…”You want the long or short answer?”

He appraised her for a few seconds. “Preferably the long version, but you look exhausted so I’ll hold off. Short will do just fine.”

Saudia let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. Short version is that everything went great. Well, mostly. We have a good chance to secure South America, possibly North America as well.”

Ethan’s head shot up and he narrowed his eyes. “I know I asked for the short version, but…how? The United States…”

“I honestly don’t know specifics,” she admitted as she walked over to the closet and picked out a plain gray shirt for him. “But Matthew has a plan. One that he seems pretty confident in. Since we also stand to eliminate the Mexican Cartels, I’m inclined to trust him.”

“That a recent development?” Ethan asked as he finished undressing and stepped into the nearby shower. The sound of running water filled the air as Saudia gathered the rest of his cloths.

“Yes,” she answered. “Matthew estimates it will be at least a year before we begin to see real progress.”

“Aren’t you worried that these plans are…” Ethan paused from inside the shower. “Too long term? I mean, there’s an alien invasion happening, I’m not sure we should be planning years in advance when they can end this war within a few months.”

“A risk,” Saudia admitted. “But if the aliens were concerned with conquering this world, I think they’d have done it a while ago. But when the aliens are gone, we’ll need to have operations in place to secure order.”

“You know more than me,” he said, and she could imagine the shrug in his voice. “So anything else?”

“Russia and China might be looking to expand,” she admitted with a sigh. “Diguon believes China will hold back, but Russia…there might be complications.”

“Isn’t that his job?” Ethan asked. “You know, to have people in place for this kind of thing?”

“Yes,” Saudia agreed. “But I don’t know how much he’s delegated to the Russian side of the Mercados. His brother might know more.”

She heard a snort. “Then he’s incompetent or being outmaneuvered for his position,” Ethan commented dryly. “Either way, Russia is too important to go uncontrolled.”

“I know, and I he does as well,” Saudia defended. “But you should know better than anyone how difficult it is to influence the Russian military and government.”

“They are extremely paranoid,” Ethan sighed. “Alright. What of dear Overseer Falka?”

“Elizabeth’s going to begin our propaganda war on XCOM,” Saudia explained, going back over to the mirror and grabbing a hairbrush. Using it, she continued. “Nothing really new with Hasina, funds are increasing and everything’s in order.”

“So what’s Elizabeth’s angle?” He asked, shutting off the water. “I can see several ways she can successfully run a campaign.”

“From our preliminary discussions, I believe she’ll be uplifting the dangers of a secretive paramilitary organization, along with using what we already have on the United Nations. Throw in some doctored footage and it shouldn’t be difficult to turn the public against them.”

“Let’s hope she can pull it off,” he said. “By the way, why was Zara walking out with one of our plasma rifles? I thought those were for research purposes only.”

“They are,” Saudia answered, putting the brush down. “But she asked me for one for “personal use,” I didn’t see much of a reason to refuse. If anyone deserves it, it’d be her. Besides, the aliens will provide us more weapons if we need them.”

“No wonder she looked so happy,” Ethan commented as he stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel. “I suppose you said you’re authorizing combat ops soon?”

“Yep,” Saudia answered, turning back to him. “Something she’s looking forward to.”

“Which brings up something I’ve been thinking about,” Ethan said, beginning to dress in more casual attire. “Are you planning to use me in any combat operations?”

Saudia hesitated. “Yes, for some of them.”

He nodded once. “Good. I’d feel left out if Zara killed these UN puppets without me.” She was surprised at how much venom was in his voice.

“You really want to do this,” she stated, crossing her arms.

“I’d prefer NATO proper,” Ethan shrugged as he finished dressing. “But until we move on the UN, XCOM soldiers will have to suffice. I might not be able to bring my friends or the Commander back…” He tensed up and clenched his jaw. “But I can certainly avenge them. Trust me Saudia, the rest of us feel the same way. This is personal.”

She nodded as she walked over to him. Setting one of her hands over his she looked him in the eye. “I understand. Trust me, you’ll have plenty opportunities to avenge them.”

He smiled and swept her up into his arms in one smooth motion. She rolled her eyes and put her arms around his neck. “You do know I can walk to the bed myself, right?”

“Of course,” he replied easily as he began walking to the bed. “But you deserve a break.”

“Oh, fine,” she conceded, not really feeling up to protesting and rested her head on his shoulder. He gently placed her on the bed and she quickly pulled the blankets over her. Ethan shut off the lights and joined her in bed. Snuggling closer to him, Saudia soon fell into a deep sleep.

***

The Bastion, The Next Morning

Saudia walked towards one of the rooms that had been converted into something of a study room. It wasn’t uncommon, especially at the Bastion to find a room that had clearly been originally been something else. Part of this was that they were in Antarctica and adding a new room to the Bastion would be a nightmare in terms of time, resources and manpower.

So sometimes she got requests to turn a rarely used, or unused room into something the base personnel wanted. Unless the request was especially outrageous or the room was actually being used, she typically granted it with the stipulation that the people suggesting it put the work into remodeling.

It was a method of payment she felt worked best. EXALT personnel didn’t get a ‘salary’ as the rest of the world defined it. The families all provided housing, food, clothing, healthcare, essentially everything needed for survival. That didn’t mean the personnel received nothing for their service. While money could be acquire outside EXALT, most just submitted a request for one thing or another. It could be as cheap as a book or as expensive as a car; the cost was inconsequential for an organization as wealthy as them.

For her part, Saudia did her best to authorize the requests and make sure they were on the next supply plane. It was the least they deserved and nearly almost all EXALT personnel didn’t abuse the system set in place and typically only requested small items. They were also typically shared if more than one person could use them. Book swapping was especially common.

At one time she’d noticed an unusable number of games, pool sticks and other conspicuous objects all being requested at the same time. She’d approved them, having some idea of what was coming next. Sure enough, a few days later a request came through for permission to remodel a rarely used storage room into a game room.

She’d approved it of course, though she’d had an amusing talk with the requester basically saying “If you wanted a game room, I’d have approved it. No need to acquire every piece yourselves.” They’d had a good laugh over it and since then the Bastion personnel had been very straightforward with their requests.

She wasn’t sure who’d requested this particular study room originally, but now it’d been taken over by Martel as his own study quarters. He had his own room of course, but didn’t spend much time in it. When asked why, he said it was ‘soothing,’ an odd response until she realized this room was close to the heating generator.

The Bastion required constant heating to prevent fuel freezing and thus required a unique heating generator unlike any in the world. It was expensive to maintain, extremely so, but necessary if the Bastion was to remain livable. It constantly emitted a low hum that permeated through most of the lower floor. Saudia assumed that was what Martel was referring to.

She could understand that. Almost anything was better than dead silence and true to habit, her son was sitting on the couch, a math book beside him, a pad of paper on his lap and a pencil in his fingers. Anyone at first glance would suppose he’d inherited most of his traits from her, but in all honesty, he’d only inherited her black skin and hair. His face, eyes and features were almost exactly like Ethan’s.

And right now, a look of frustration was on his young face. She rapped on the wall with her knuckles several times to get his attention. He looked up and his face lit up. “Mom!”

Beaming, she strode over to him. “Hey there, got some time?”

“Yes!” He exclaimed excitedly as he scooted over allowing her to sit down. She looked over at what he was doing.

“What are you working on?” She asked, looking over his work.

“Math,” he grumbled, the sullen look returning to his face. “It’s hard.”

She smirked. “Well, Algebra wasn’t supposed to be easy.”

“Of course not,” he sighed dramatically. “Can’t you tell me about your meeting instead?”

“Don’t worry,” she promised taking his pad. “But let’s finish this first. Now, tell me where you’re having problems.” With some resignation, Martel nodded, knowing he wouldn’t get anything out of her until they were done.

So for the next forty-five minutes, she helped him. Math had never been that difficult a subject for her, so the problems in his text book were rather trivial. Still, for a child a little younger than eight, they were difficult enough. After a bit of explaining, Martel eventually grasped the concepts and with enough practice, she was confident he’d master them soon.

Still, he wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect. “I don’t understand,” he scowled. “How is any of this helpful?”

Oh boy. That question was bound to come up eventually. She’d answered it for herself years ago but wasn’t sure if it would satisfy him. Taking the paper and book, she placed them to the side and looked him in the eye. “You want the truth?”

“Yes.” He said without hesitation.

“Ok,” she nodded. “What do you want to be?”

“Like you!” He answered immediately. She felt a burst of pride at that, she never wanted anything less.

“Glad to hear it,” she told him, ruffling his hair. “But in that case, to answer your question, all these textbooks…you will likely not use much of what you learn ever again.”

That was apparently not the answer he was expecting. He tilted his head, clearly confused, but waited attentively. Withholding a response until she finished, she was pleased he remembered. “The reason you spend hours on algebra is not primarily about the material itself,” she continued. “But to perfect a way of thinking. Math teaches you to think analytically, orderly and logically. You want to perfect this until it not only becomes second nature, it is your nature.”

He looked up, clearly thinking. “So the process is more important than the solution?”

“You’re on the right track,” she nodded. “When you take my place, you will be faced with problems that can’t be reduced to a simple formula. In that case you have to rely on the thought process required. Gathering information, using the tools given and solving it in the most effective way.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “I think I understand.”

“I think so,” she agreed, standing up. “Come on, I think it’s time you see the control room.”

His eyes lit up at that. He was able to move throughout most of the Bastion, but there were a few places where he wasn’t allowed, and one of those was the control room, the place she coordinated most of her operations. He eagerly walked beside her as they made their way there.

“So what happened?” He asked as they walked.

“Well, we made a lot of important decisions,” she explained casually. “In short, things are going well.”

“But if they are, why are you being friendly to the aliens?” He asked, looking confused. “Aren’t they here to kill us?”

She sighed, not quite sure the best way to explain it. “I know. But we’re…using the aliens. They can help us achieve our goal.”

“So…you’re tricking them?” He asked, looking up at her.

She smiled down. “Yes, that’s pretty close. Once they take down the corrupt governments of the world, it will allow us to take control.”

 He was uncharacteristically silent while they walked. She glanced down to see he clearly wanted to ask something, but was holding back. “What is it?” She finally asked gently. “You have a question?”

“Yes…” he still hesitated. “Won’t that hurt a lot of people?”

She was silent for a minute. “Yes,” she finally said. “It will.”

“But our goal is to help people,” he protested. “Right?”

She wondered how best to explain it to him. She’d explained some of EXALT’s goals in passing a few times, but this was the first he was bringing it up. Hmm…how to do this. “That is one of our goals, yes,” she answered. “But our first goal is to unite the human race.”

“So it’s ok to hurt them if we can unite them?” He asked, still puzzled.

“Not ok,” she cautioned. “But necessary. In a perfect world, no one would be hurt. But we don’t live there; sacrifices have to be made. Do you know why we must be the ones to do this?”

He paused, looking up. “Because we’re better than them?”

She chuckled. “A little blunt, but…correct. Humans are innately rebellious and don’t know what is best for them. The average human is ruled by their emotions, greed and arrogance. Not conductive for our species, right?”

“Right,” he agreed, nodding his head.

“You’ve studied your history, I presume,” she asked rhetorically. It was one of his favorite subjects. “What usually divides us?”

“Ideology, nationality, race, wealth…” he listed off. “A lot of stuff.”

She nodded. “Humanity is simply incapable to rising above this without intervention. We are beyond all the flaws that plague our species. That is why we are above them. And why we are the only ones fit to command them.”

Martel nodded. “That makes sense…but does that apply to everyone who’s not us?”

She contemplated. “For the most part, yes. Exceptions exist, individuals that surpass and break the rules society imposes on them. Your father is one. And despite the majority of the human race being beneath us, we must never ignore the exceptions because that only makes us stronger.”

“Is that why we’re called EXALT?” he asked. “Because we’re the uplifted?”

She smiled. “No, that name used as a label to identify us. EXALT isn’t the first name chosen for us, and it won’t be the last,” she paused. “Though I do think it’s one of the better fitting ones.”

She stopped in front of one of the doors. Quickly entering a code on the keypad beside it, the door slid open and she motioned Martel inside.

“Wow,” he breathed as he looked around the room. Several monitoring computers lines the walls, some with analysts at them. Massive monitors lined the walls, displaying world news, stocks, cyber-attacks and various world maps. At the end was a hologram recreation of the world, which was slowly spinning on its axis.

Saudia walked towards it and tapped the globe which disintegrated into tiny blue cubes which recombined to assemble a flat view of the Earth on the holotable. Now she could see which operations were running throughout the world.

“What are those?” Martel asked, pointing at one of the markers on the map.

“Where agents are stationed,” Saudia explained, touching one and a short dossier assembled in the air along with a picture displaying the agent in question. The dossier itself contained the name, rank and current assignment. “Though these are limited to what country the agent is stationed in. We can’t completely track all their movements.”

“What’s she doing?” Martel asked, looking at the photo of the woman in question. A reasonable question since the information displayed only said “surveillance.” Saudia took a look at the name to recall from memory what it was.

Ah. “Namr Ida…” Saudia said slowly. “She’s keeping an eye on Israel. Making sure they don’t do something without our knowledge.”

“Can I use it?” He asked, eyes brimming with excitement.

“Not today,” Saudia laughed, picking up a tablet. “All this is live and I can’t risk you accidentally hitting something.”

He sighed. “I understand, Mom.”

“Hey,” she chided, kneeling down and handing him the tablet. “I didn’t bring you all the way up here just to show you the fancy equipment.”

He took it. “What’s this?”

“Some additional reading, if you’re interested,” she answered, smiling. “You’re going to run this one day and I think it’d be a good idea for you to know some of the decisions you’ll have to make.” She nodded at the tablet. “That has quite a few completed mission reports on them. Take a look sometime, I think you’ll learn something.”

He clutched it to his chest. “Thanks!”

She gave him a quick hug. “Alright, enjoy that. I’ve got some work to do.”

“Ok,” he answered. “See you later!”

He almost dashed out of the room, eager to look at her gift. She turned back to the holotable, growing more serious. Time to get back to work, best see how the psionic subjects were faring.

***

The Bastion, Subject Cells

Annette Durand lay on the bed, struggling to fall asleep in the midst of the voices clamoring for her attention. Their intensity and volume rose and fell at seemingly random intervals but they never left completely. There were always whispers at the edge of consciousness, sounds that were begging to be understood.

She’d learned that she tended to sleep when they dimmed. The opportunities were few and far between, but in the end she almost had no choice as exhaustion forced her into a few hours of blissful unconsciousness.

It had been a blessing at first. The first day she’d been crying in the corner, just wanting something, anything, to stop the voices assaulting her. Eventually she’d fallen asleep and prayed to never be woken up again.

Yet she had. And the voices were louder and clearer.

Sleep terrified her now.

She didn’t want to know what they were telling her for fear it would mean she’d finally gone insane. But no matter how much she tried, words, images and feelings were made clear in her mind. It was only flashes now, a recognizable word here and there, an intense feeling for a microsecond, but it was there. And only growing stronger.

The voices were a mix of male and female, younger and older, soft and firm, a broken chorus of screams, yells and whispers. The first few days she feared her head would explode from the physical pressure she could swear was in her head. She’d never had a migraine before, but she imagined it was something like that.

Sharp, constant pain for hours on end, like getting a screw drilled into your head slowly enough so every twist could be felt. There were no words she could describe what the first few hours had been like. Only screams.

It’d luckily faded slightly after a while. The pain returned when the intensity of the voices rose, but otherwise stayed at a dull, throbbing pain. Something she could deal with.

Funny how she would have considered that unbearable at home. This place had changed her in more ways than one.

It wasn’t just the voices either. There was something else inside her now. A power within her that she’d accessed for brief moments when she’d been at her lowest. It was uncontrolled, dark and dangerous, even to herself. The scars on her arms were proof of that.

But the feeling of utter power had stayed with her and given strength through the shocks, pain and voices. For a few minutes she’d been in control and had power over her tormentors. That feeling was more potent than any drug.

And she was going to learn how to use it.

If these people wanted to prod, shock, stab and torture, she’d turn what they’d created against them.

With a shout of frustration, she threw off the blanket and began pacing angrily. It was pointless! It didn’t matter what she did it was only going to get worse! One time she was going to wake up and the voices would be clear to her.

She needed to get out of here.

She paused and gave herself a reprimanding laugh. Yes, Annette, what a novel concept! Why ever didn’t you consider that before? Idiot. She scolded herself. Of course she needed to get out of here, that had been clear since day one. No, the question she needed to answer now was how she needed to get out of here.

She had no clue where she was. She had no clue how many people were here. She had no idea of the layout of this place.

This was an impossible situation.

No! She berated herself. Not impossible. You simply don’t have enough information.

Fine then. She shot back. So where am I going to get it?

She had no answer for that. She had to know what was beyond this cell first.

Think. Annette paused her pacing, taking deep breaths. How would Latrell handle this?

Her boyfriend would have been far better at devising a way of escape than she. A French GIGN police operative, his specialty was primarily focused on hostage rescue and riot control. Both of which involved lots of planning, into and out of seemingly impenetrable buildings.

Alright. She took another deep breath and sat down at the end of her bed, for once concentrating hard enough to push the voices to a corner of her mind. So what did she have? A few eating utensils they provided her, and…pretty much nothing else. She was fairly athletic, but nowhere near enough to be considered a threat by anyone roughly her size, let alone the guards who were undoubtedly stronger than her.

There was only one possible advantage: Her abilities. Problem with that was they were unpredictable. She’d been only able to use them in extreme periods of stress and was unable to recreate them.

No. a mocking voice in her head scolded. You’re just scared of the pain.

She shook her head. No, that wasn’t it.

Was it?

She looked down at her arms and hand, tiny white scars covering them. The skin was warped and twisted as if exposed to fire or acid. She felt no pain, and retained full functionality of her hands, but the sensation of her flesh opening up as the power released was almost unbearable. The only comfort was the rush of euphoria that followed.

Oddly enough, she remembered no blood or anything accompanying a normal injury like that. Though she’d never forced herself to watch it happen. So it seemed her only chance at escape was using her powers. Somehow. She had the impression that the voices were key to fully understanding her powers and if she really listened that might make her understand.

Or she would go insane.

She wasn’t really ready to risk what remained of her sanity yet.

Annette took a deep breath. Ok. Then the first order of business would be to learn how to consciously use her power. Each time it’d happened, she’d been furious at these people and willing to kill each one of them. Anger. Yes, emotions seemed to trigger it. A good a place to start as any.

It wasn’t difficult to get angry. All she had to do was recall all the times they stuck needles in her, fed her drugs, forced her into withdrawal. The way they treated her as some kind of domestic animal and whose well-being bore no more emotion than an insect was especially infuriating.

She gritted her teeth as she recalled lying in a pool of puke, mucus and waste as she went through withdrawal of one drug they’d injected into her. She’d suffered and writhed for hours until they’d finally come in and cleaned her up. And she’d hadn’t been referred to even as a person.

Because she wasn’t one. She was Subject Four.

That seemed to be the spark that opened the floodgates. As if a door opened, a flood of energy came into her, which had seemingly just been out of reach or locked up. She felt it running up along her body, looking for an outlet.

She gritted her teeth. As much as she wanted to release the limitless energy, she needed control. She forced the energy to converge into her hand. Closing her eyes, she imagined the energy as a purple mist, flowing around her arm, the power slowly growing into a ball of light.

She suppressed a scream as she felt a dozen tears in her flesh as she felt the power gather. Opening her eyes, she observed in amazement at her arm. The arm was torn open, but what came out wasn’t blood, but instead streams of purple energy. The gaps in her flesh flapped like gills, expelling more energy.

The energy itself seemed to let off a corrosive mist that warped the skin around her arm. She barely felt it and only watched in amazement as her arm essentially bubbled, melted and reformed in the span of a few seconds, repeating over and over. As destructive as the energy was, it also seemed to prevent her from falling apart altogether.

She curled the fingers of her left hand into a claw shape, as if to hold a globe or ball. Gather, she thought furiously as the pain intensified. Converge! Congeal! Stick! Combine! Pretty much every synonym she could think of to gather the power in one place.

Then it happened.

A little teardrop of energy that slowly grew. The center grew black as the orb grew to the size of a golf ball. A black hole outlined by purple. The power running along her body was threatening to unleash itself and her vision was tinged purple and red.

With a scowl she closed her fist around the orb, everything clicking into place. The euphoria filled her again, but this time she was in control. If she’d looked in one of the mirrors she’d seen a woman outlined in purple flame, energy flowing through her arms, irises glowing purple and eye sockets leaking smoke.

Annette Durand was in power and she was going to exercise it. Turning around, she looked at the sparse furnishings of her cell. A bed, experiment chair, toilet and showerhead. She curled her lip in disgust. Her cell had provided nothing but horror and she saw no reason to hold back.

Thrusting both her hands forward, she released some of the energy pent up. A purple shockwave tore into the furniture, though not doing much more than moving it back a little. Not good enough, she snarled and focused directly on the cot she’d slept on. With a shout she released a directed wave of energy at the cot which warped and compressed it into an unusable hunk of metal and cloth.

Not nearly done, she whirled around and zeroed in on the door, taunting her with the freedom she craved. Raising her hand, she once again willed the energy to conform and when she could bear it no longer, shot a bolt of purple energy into it.

It slammed into it with a spark but little else. Her fury growing, she repeated it again. And again. And again.

And again.

Her frustration became unbearable as the purple tint threatened to engulf her vision. Small pulses of energy coming off her unconsciously, she stormed over to the taunting door. The mirror that covered the walls covered it as well, showing her a woman being repeatedly denied.

“Open!” She screamed, unable to take it any longer and threw her fist into the mirror.

Her fist cracked through the bulletproof glass and another shockwave shot across the room. The mirrors closest to her were similarly cracked and even the furthest ones were scratched at the very least if the shockwave had hit.

Annette sank to the floor, her right hand feeling broken as the power and euphoria slowly faded, leaving her drained, in agony and defeated. The wounds that she’d suffered were now fully felt but she didn’t even have the energy to scream.

Her only visible expression of her pain were the tears falling from the corners of her eyes.

The voices were making themselves known again, growing louder as she slowly lost the will to ignore them.

…Lost cause…

…Shipment…

…Brazil…

…Victory or….

…XCOM…strength…

…Aliens won’t wait….

Stop! She begged as she began understanding more word. Please stop!

Subject Four…She gasped as she heard that.

Then the door opened, as some cruel joke.

The man and woman who’d experimented on her from the beginning stood over her, she unable to move.

“We didn’t even have to subdue her,” the woman commented, peering down at her with interest, Annette unable to move from exhaustion. “She exhausted herself.”

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the man nodded, making a note on his tablet. “Subject Four displays exceptional abilities when agitated. I think we can unquestionably draw a link between a higher emotional state and control over psionics.”

Annette was beginning to lose consciousness, but was able to make out a few more sentences. “So that pheromone had the desired effect,” the woman noted, taking out some kind of spray. “But I do wonder if it would have the same effect if we stimulated another emotion. Rage is easy, but what about…hmm. Sadness, perhaps?”

“Rage is the easiest,” the man corrected as the woman sprayed some sort of liquid on her wounded arms. “Not to mention it proved our hypothesis. But I’ll speak with the chemists to see if we can use another pheromone.”

“Good,” the woman nodded. “It’d be a shame to-“

Then Annette blacked out, the voices echoing in her dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Situation Room

“Where did it crash?” The Commander asked, re-watching the footage of the Ravens shooting another UFO out of the sky. Bradford had taken the initiative and ordered four Ravens once the UFO had been detected and by the time the Commander had arrived, they’d shot it down and were heading back.

“We determined the crash site is in the interior of Florida,” Bradford answered, pulling the map of the United States up on the holotable. “We’re working to get satellite coverage and a general area now.”

“A raider,” Van Doorn noted, as he watched the footage. “Then we should expect a tough fight.”

“Agreed,” the Commander nodded, turning towards the holotable and resting his hands on it. “The aliens are probably going to continue deploying more advanced units the further we progress in this war.”

“I do wonder,” Van Doorn pondered, also turning to the holotable. “What exactly the purpose of these UFO’s are? I know what we’ve designated them, but I find it unlikely that the aliens would completely follow our assumptions.”

“From the wrecks we’ve recovered, I’d say the majority are for reconnaissance,” Bradford commented, pointing at the holographic UFO recreation. “Most scanners are unable to detect them and they are often at extremely high altitudes. Their low crew count and heavily computerized interiors also suggest primarily non-combat directives.”

The corners of the Commander’s lips turned up. “If these are the non-combative aircraft, I do wonder what their combative UFOs are.”

“Not good?” Bradford suggested with a sarcastic grimness.

“No,” the Commander agreed. “Which is something that we need to anticipate. Our aircraft need to be upgraded. Armor and weapons. The aliens are going to start deploying UFO’s to counter our fighters eventually and we need to be ready.”

“Laser weaponry should be used,” Van Doorn stated. “We have the technology.”

“Yes,” the Commander nodded, gazing at the blue lights, deep in thought. “I’ll be speaking to Shen about this soon. In the meantime, have we got the green light on our airbases?”

Van Doorn nodded. “We have. We can station some of our Ravens in NATO’s Indian base.”

Bradford frowned. “I wasn’t aware NATO had an Indian base.”

“It’s not large,” Van Doorn answered with a shrug. “And no one was supposed to know about it. It was to be used only if the surrounding regions got out of control. It’s isolated enough that very few should notice our fighters leaving or arriving.”

The Commander nodded. “Excellent. Germany has also agreed to allow us to use one of their airbases. Israel as well. Within a few weeks we should have air support over Europe, Africa and now at least part of Asia.”

“That’s going to cut into our funds,” Bradford warned. “Especially since each additional Raven will have to be upgraded when Shen develops newer technology.”

“I know,” the Commander said. “But this is an investment we have to take. We have a limited window before the aliens up their air game. I’d prefer we retain air superiority.”

Bradford nodded and looked down at his tablet, tapping on it. “Understood, Commander. I’d also suggest we continue bolstering our ground forces.”

“We have a healthy supply,” the Commander noted. “Especially since we recently acquired a few more soldiers recently,” he grimaced. “And I think we need to screen our candidates better.”

Van Doorn looked over, concerned. “Why?”

The Commander sighed. “Bradford, when you approved the latest batch, did you look at a certain Shun Anwei?”

Bradford nodded, head tilted. “Yes, the MSS agent.”

“You approved a Chinese spy,” the Commander stated. “I’m not sure we should allow this.”

Bradford frowned. “She was one of the most qualified on the list. I didn’t see a reason to reject her.”

Van Doorn pursed his lips. “I do. With the Chinese not exactly…happy… with us right now, I can see concerns about allowing an agent of the Ministry of State Security into the Citadel.” He looked over at the Commander. “That is your concern, correct?”

“Correct,” the Commander confirmed. “I have no doubt she is qualified. But…like Van Doorn said, with China somewhat antagonistic towards us, we can’t dismiss the idea that she’s gathering information.”

“For what?” Bradford questioned. “China is part of the Council. They can request anything from us, or they could just talk with Herman if they want information about what goes on here. Besides, all communications are strictly monitored, incoming and outgoing.”

“The point is that we can no longer accept everyone,” the Commander said. “Not until relations stabilize a bit more.”

“While I understand the sentiment,” Van Doorn pointed out. “We already have several Chinese soldiers here. I don’t think adding one more will make much of a difference.”

“Not to mention we have quite a few Israeli operatives here as well,” Bradford added. “You think they are more trustworthy?”

“Of course,” the Commander stated without hesitation. “Israel is an actual ally. Furthermore, Zhang assures me of their loyalty.”

“Well, they did follow the Hades Contingency,” Bradford muttered. “I suppose that would remove most doubts.”

The Commander ignored that as he thought. “Well, I’m going to assign some type of surveillance on her, at least at first. If she proves herself, I will drop it.”

“She’s a spy,” Bradford recalled. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to notice.”

“Perhaps,” the Commander admitted. “But I trust Zhang to do this professionally. He should find it especially interesting since he despises the MSS.”

“And if she notices something?” Bradford asked. “I’m not sure how well she’ll take that.”

“If she does, I’ll tell her the truth,” the Commander shrugged. “She should know exactly why she’s a security risk. If she doesn’t then that will immediately raise suspicion.”

“That it will.” Van Doorn agreed.

“Yes,” the Commander stated. “With Zhang watching her, I feel very confident she won’t try anything and if she does…” he paused. “I’ll give her to Vahlen.”

Bradford shuddered. He’d spoken with Vahlen several times and some of the ideas she had about the application of the MELD substance had…disturbed him. The Commander had asked for specifics before he planned on speaking to her, but Bradford had said Vahlen wanted to show him herself.

Although he had mentioned spiders, which the Commander was surprised at.

“Speaking of which,” Bradford cleared his throat. “The first of the, ah, test subjects have arrived and are being moved to the experimentation cells.”

“Excellent,” the Commander smiled. Vahlen would be pleased with this. It had taken some work, but they’d managed to get one prisoner off death row from multiple prisons across the United States. As far as anyone was concerned, these men were dead. Germany had also provided several as well as a gesture of cooperation. All combined to ten test subjects. He figured that would be enough for Vahlen to work with.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Van Doorn said, looking at the Commander grimly. “We’re treading on very thin ground here. The Council would shut us down if they knew what we were conducting.”

The Commander shrugged. That had ceased to become a concern a long time ago, not to mention ‘shutting them down’ was unlikely and would essentially doom the world. “We have no choice here. Would you prefer we experiment on our own soldiers?”

“No,” Van Doorn admitted. “But I’m not sure this is any more right.”

“Or natural,” Bradford added. “Some of Vahlen’s ideas are…concerning.”

“I’ll decide that for myself,” the Commander stated. “Besides, that’s what the test subjects are for. We find out what works and what doesn’t. We take what works and use it. Simple as that.”

Bradford sighed. “I truly hope it works out that way.” He glanced over at the holotable. “In the meantime, we have a location.”

The Commander nodded. “I’ll assemble a squad. Van Doorn?”

“Yes.”

“Get Herman up here,” the Commander finally said after some hesitation. “Let him see how a combat op is run.”

Van Doorn nodded. “Will do, Commander.”

***

The Citadel, Barracks

Patricia sank into a chair, sweat beading her face as she took a long drink of water. It was odd, but she didn’t feel utterly exhausted even after a three-hour workout. Tired, yes, but not wiped out. She didn’t know if that should concern her or not, but it was a distraction from the ever-worsening headaches.

Of course Vahlen hadn’t updated her. Which either meant she’d not figured anything out, or what was affecting her was serious enough to consult the Commander first. And wouldn’t that just be her luck; to be the first person to be affected by some alien contagion.

She scowled, trying to wrap her head around what it could possibly be. Alright, do this logically: It probably wasn’t a contagion or disease since there had been others on the Dreadnaught assault. Unless it was gender-targeted? No, Abby had also been with her and she wasn’t affected as far as she knew.

Furthermore, it seemed like an odd disease if all it did was make her have headaches, see symbols and have some hallucinatory precognition. Not to mention she’d not seen any method of transmission. There hadn’t been any strange gasses or liquids she’d come into contact with. Of course it was possible that it was odor and colorless, but again, why would she have been the only one affected?

She nodded. Right. So this probably wasn’t a disease, which did come as something of a relief. But then…what was it? Those power conduits were what started everything; for some reason, they’d shown the symbols and when the symbols started, the buzzing and headaches had followed.

Hmm…Vahlen’s idea that an alien had been communicating with her was extremely disconcerting, yet it did make some sense. Who else had the ability to do that? But how-and why-would the aliens be using power conduits as methods of communication? And how did they communicate in the first place?

The sectoids could probably utilize some form of telepathy, but they might not be the only alien species to do so. She suspected it was tied to psionics in some way, since they’d used it for mental manipulation in combat several times. So…was she contacted through psionics?

Oh…oh no. She groaned as a new idea struck her. Perhaps the reason that the power conduits had started this is that she had inadvertently tapped into some sort of psionic network. That would explain the progression of the symbols and meanings as they’d fought through the Dreadnaught.

Surprise. The alien had been surprised that she had accessed the network and had instinctively sent the message. Or maybe the alien hadn’t expected anything. Either one would explain it.

Interest. The alien must have figured out she wasn’t one of them and was curious as to who. Or perhaps interested in how an unauthorized being entered the network. Again, both explanations would seem to work.

Disappointment. That confused her. Perhaps it was supposed to discourage her from entering the network again? Or it was disappointment in whoever allowed this flaw in the network. Yet she got the impression that the symbol had been directed at her. It didn’t make sense.

Potential. Another confusing word. Potential for what? Unless…

She took a deep breath. There was one thing she needed to know: whether the network could be accessed by anyone or only psionic users.

Because if it was anyone she was probably worrying over nothing.

But if it was only accessible to people who were psionic…

She took another breath. How would that even be possible? But…she’d seen something differently on the unlock screens. She’d known exactly what buttons to press and in which order, as if by instinct. What if it was designed in such a way that only psionic individuals could unlock it…?

And that would explain the potential symbol. She had potential to become a psionic human. Something she hadn’t thought was even possible.

She felt suddenly cold. Vahlen wasn’t an idiot, she’d probably had suspicions judging by how quickly she’d left after taking the brain scans. And if she was psionic…she didn’t know how people would react; how the Commander would react. He was a fair man, but he might very legitimately see her as a possible security risk or someone to detain until they studied her thoroughly.

And the headaches, buzzing and…apparent precognition and empathy…all connected to the mind in some way and since it seemed psionic individuals had the ability to exhibit telepathy, it would explain the odd sensations and random-

A finger tapped her shoulder and she started violently. She bit her tongue to prevent a startled yip, but her heart began racing rapidly as she looked up to see who it was.

Anius Creed stood behind her, his expression clearly not expecting that reaction. “Sorry. Thought you would have heard me coming up. Wasn’t trying to startle you, promise.”

Calming down some, she shook her head and opened her mouth to speak and gasped as a wave of emotion washed over her. Regret, sincerity, apology. Without question she knew she’d somehow tapped into Creed’s emotions. Again.

He frowned. “Are you alright?”

“I…yes,” she answered, not sounding remotely convincing, even to her. “You’re fine. I was just…thinking.”

He didn’t look entirely at ease, but he relaxed some and walked over and sat by her. “Here,” he gave her another water bottle and took her empty one. “I figured you could use it. Even if you were in one of your trances again.”

“Thanks,” she gratefully took it and after taking a sip, poured some of it on her face to cool it down.

“No problem,” he answered. “So what did you figure out this time?”

“Sorry?” she asked, looking over at him in confusion.

He indicated her face. “When you zoned out. That only happens when you’re trying to solve something.”

Patricia sighed and looked away. “Yeah. I guess I do look zoned out.”

“Completely,” he agreed, with a small grin. “Which is probably why you didn’t notice me coming. But you didn’t answer my question.”

She didn’t really know how she’d explain it in a sensible way even if she wanted to tell him. He was a fairly smart man, he’d probably believe her for at least some of it. What she wasn’t sure about was how he’d react to knowing she had somehow felt his emotions before. That would be…uncomfortable if the roles were reversed, even if it was something she couldn’t control.

“After the Dreadnaught…” she began slowly. “Do you feel any…different? Changed?”

“In what way?” He asked, shifting to face her better. “I mean, we lost a lot of good people. People you know longer than I did. I guess it just made me more determined to wipe out the aliens.”

“I was thinking more…physical changes,” Patricia amended. “Or mental, for that matter.”

He thought for a second. “No. I’m still the same person, at least physically. Maybe in a bit better condition, to be honest,” he looked at her with concern. “Why do you ask?”

She shook her head. “Just curious. You were the only one other than Abby who survived and that was an odd ship. Just wondering if you were feeling any adverse effects.”

“Uh huh,” he said with a sarcastic nod. “You see, normally I’d be glad my superior took an interest in my health, but I do feel it’s a little late since that mission was…hmm…a few weeks ago.”

Her cheeks flushed at that. Not exactly the best excuse. “Sorry.”

“No need for that,” he raised a hand. “Patricia, you’re a very bad liar. What’s going on with you?”

She sighed, cursing his concern. “What do you mean? I’m fine.”

His tone grew stern. “I don’t think so. You’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time training and practicing. I can certainly appreciate it…but you hardly eat, you’re not sleeping, or sleeping well at the very least. You seem constantly on edge and in some sort of discomfort…if you aren’t going to tell me, at least go to Vahlen or that medic. Because you are not fine.”

Patricia leaned her head back and closed her eyes, trying to think of a good response. Everything he’d said was true, but she didn’t really want to talk about it. Her problems were her own and she never shared them. She was fairly sure he wouldn’t be able to help even if she did talk, but it was doubtful he would let this drop.

“Fine,” she finally admitted. “You’re right.”

“And…” he pressed. “That it?”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, he winced under her gaze. “Yes. That’s it. Suffice to say that I’m well aware of my health and am taking the steps needed. You have no reason to be concerned. Drop it.”

“Ok, ok,” he placated. “Sorry, won’t bring it up again.”

She immediately felt bad after that. It wasn’t his fault, he was just concerned about her and her response might have been a little harsh. But as long as it worked. “Apology accepted,” she told him more softly, hoping that would defuse things a little.

Her wristband buzzed and she immediately stood and began moving to her locker. “Time to work,” she muttered as she began donning her armor.

“What do you think it is?” Creed asked, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms.

“UFO perhaps?” She shrugged as she pulled on her gauntlets and tightened everything. “But it must be routine, otherwise they’d have informed me beforehand.”

“Good luck,” Creed told her as she pulled on her helmet and the HUD initialized. “Try to not die.”

“I’ll do my best,” she promised, grasping her autolaser. “We’ll talk later.”

He nodded and she left the barracks and began walking towards the hanger. Moving at a brisk pace, she arrived at the hanger quickly. In a rare occurrence, she was the last to arrive since even the pilot was there. Fallen Sky, his call sign was. Seeing her enter, he immediately headed for the skyranger and the others saluted her as she approached.

She did a quick head count. Almost all of them were veterans and by now she could tell who was who judging by their armor. Some added marks or names commemorating missions or fallen soldiers. She kept her armor clear, but did have three black strips on her arm for the fallen of the Dreadnaught Assault.

Patricia recognized Sarah, Myra, Yousef and Friendly, the NATO soldier who’d come soon after Van Doorn. Wasn’t his name, of course, but it what everyone ended up calling him; he didn’t mind, in fact he’d been encouraging it. All the same to her. The last woman was different and not just because she was new.

She was outfitted as one of the Scouts, from her flash-bangs and laser SMG. But what really made her stand out was the German Shepherd at her feet. The dog was just sitting and looking up at her, tongue hanging out of its mouth. A black vest with pockets and unusually thick padding was strapped to the animal, indicating it was likely combat trained. Odd. Alright, she’d have to question the woman later, but since the dog was clearly coming along, she didn’t see a reason to pause for questions.

“Load up!” She ordered motioning at the skyranger.

“Yes, Overseer!” They affirmed and followed her up into the skyranger which departed a few minutes later.

***

Skyranger, En route to UFO Crash Site

Patricia waited a few minutes before addressing the woman. Clasping her hands together she looked over at the dog. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. Patricia Trask, Squad Overseer.”

“A pleasure,” the woman answered with a nod, her voice clearly had a middle-eastern accent. “Galia Loeb, Israeli Defense Force, Oketz Unit.” She reached down and rubbed the dog on the head. “This is Aluma.”

“A canine unit I assume?” Myra guessed, looking at the dog. “Haven’t really encountered those before.”

“Yep,” Galia answered as Aluma nuzzled her leg. “We’re usually used for tracking and drug busting. Aluma and I are a little more specialized. We’re strictly used for combat, which is probably why I was deployed here.”

“You really think that pup is going to take down a muton?” Friendly asked skeptically, eyeing the innocent looking dog.

Galia laughed. “No, probably not, but after seeing her rip apart armored men more times than I’d like to recall, I wouldn’t discount her in a fight.” Aluma suddenly got up and walked over to Patricia who extended her palm for her to sniff.

“She may look cute now,” Galia continued, sounding smug. “But you might change your mind if you ever see her charging towards you.”

“I’ll try not to antagonize her,” Patricia promised petting the dog on the head. “She seems like a smart girl.”

“לבוא,” Galia called and the dog immediately trotted back over. Well, it made sense she’d been trained in Hebrew and not English. “Aside from fighting, I think we’ll be able to find the aliens a little quicker with her.”

“She is right,” Yousef agreed. “German Shepherds are exceptional trackers.

“I think that can be applied to all dogs,” Myra muttered.

Galia snorted. “Trust me, it’s harder to actually train the dog to find what you want. Most dogs just end up chasing a squirrel or something.”

“I can vouch for that,” Patricia commented fondly recalling the dog her family had when she’d been a girl. A golden retriever, he’d been one of the sweetest animals she’d ever encountered, but he really was the dumbest animal on the planet when it came to following directions.

“So you know what to expect?” Patricia asked her, moving to more practical matters.

“Certainly,” Galia nodded as Aluma laid at her feet. “Israel has a mandatory training on killing the aliens. I presume most of the footage shared was from XCOM.”

“How did they get it?” Sarah asked, confusion in her voice. “XCOM doesn’t share with just anyone.”

“Our alliance with XCOM, I assume,” Galia shrugged. “I don’t know the Prime Minister and can certainly not speak for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he requested the footage for exactly this purpose.”

Hmm. That was a good idea. Sharing the footage from the armor cams for instructional videos on how to effectively kill the aliens was an ideal use. Patricia couldn’t imagine a situation where a military would refuse an offering like that. XCOM wasn’t a secret anymore, and neither were the aliens…she should probably make a suggestion.

Ah! She gritted her teeth as several words appeared in her mind.

En route…

…Florida…

…Laser fire…

Then disappeared just as quickly. Blinking, she wondered what that was. Not the right time to focus on that. She was growing more concerned she might have one of these episodes in combat. Focus. It’ll be fine.

I’ll be fine.

This is the Commander to Pacer Team,” the Commander informed. “You’re heading to Florida for this mission. We’ve downed a Raider-class UFO and the surviving crew needs to be dealt with.

Florida. Patricia turned cold remembering the word appearing in her mind. It couldn’t be a coincidence. How had she picked up on that?

“Understood,” she answered, hiding all the concern she was feeling. “Do we have a crew count?”

“Negative,” the Commander answered. “And we’re still working to acquire a satellite over the general area. Though we do know it’s crashed into one of the more isolated parts. Only a few farms around.”

“So our cover will be limited.” Myra stated.

“Likely,” the Commander agreed grimly. “The good news is that the aliens will be equally exposed.”

“Do we have any idea what to expect?” Sarah asked, fingering her laser SMG.

“We are anticipating Outsiders, drones and sectoids at the very least,” the Commander answered. “Bradford says we’re detecting an odd signature from the crash site. Be on guard, the aliens may start fielding more advanced units now.”

“Understood,” Patricia nodded. “We’ll wipe them out.”

“As expected, Overseer. Good luck. Citadel Command, out.”

The line went dead. Patricia focused on the map of the area she’d been sent. They needed to know where the UFO was before making any battle strategies. “Galia, you think Aluma could find the aliens?”

She could easily imagine the woman smiling. “I guarantee it.”

“Excellent.” The lights dimmed and blinked to a solid red.

“This is Fallen Sky to Pacer Team,” Fallen Sky stated. “We’re approaching the crash area. I’m setting you just outside it. Prepare for landing.”

Patricia stood and unhooked her autolaser flicking the safety off. “Form up!”

The rest of them complied and with a chorus of hisses and clicks, readied their laser weapons. Galia stood directly to her right and Aluma between them. The dog licked her lips as if she knew they were going hunting. German Shepherds were among the more intelligent breeds, so she wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the case.

She felt the skyranger swing around, rapidly descending until they hit the ground with a thud. With a squeal, the ramp descended onto the short grass without a sound displaying the fields of grass and fences.

Patricia raised her autolaser. “Deploy!” She ordered and charged out into the hot Floridian sun, the rest of the squad behind her.

***

Florida

Patricia motioned Galia forward. “Let your dog lead the way. Everyone else, weapons at the ready.”

Each of them nodded and formed a semi-circle around the ramp as the skyranger departed. Yousef and Friendly knelt to one knee while Patricia and Myra held their autolaser and rifle at the ready while Sarah stood between them. Galia reached into a pack on the dog’s vest and pulled out a withered sectoid hand.

The severed appendage had clearly been dried and drained of blood but Patricia had no doubt it smelled. Clever, the UFOs usually had sectoids so this was an ideal way to catch the scent; more so than hoping the mutt picked it up from random sniffing.

Galia knelt by the Aluma and held the hand in front of her nose which the dog took a few sniffs off. “חפש והשמד, Aluma.” She instructed softly, rubbing the dog's head with her free hand. “מצא אותם.”

The dog lifted her nose into the air as Galia stood back up and placed the hand back into the backpack. “Give her a minute,” she told Patricia. “It shouldn’t be long.”

While the dog worked on getting the scent, Patricia looked around. The area was open with large fields holding cows and horses that grazed and ran without a care in the world. A few lines of trees were here and there, but they were sparse and couldn’t be relied on for significant cover.

What stood out to her were the scattered stables and houses. Not all of them could be abandoned, which meant there was a possibility of civilians. “Citadel Command, this is Squad Overseer Trask, this seems to be a lightly populated area and we might run into civilians. Any instructions?”

There was a pause. “No special instructions, Overseer Trask,” the Commander answered. “Avoid contact if possible. In the event of civilian intervention, attempt to steer them away from the fighting. Do not risk your life for theirs and if they turn hostile, you are cleared to defend yourself.”

Essentially the Thanatos Contingency, she supposed the only reason he wasn’t specifically saying it was that he didn’t think it was warranted for a few farmers and horse breeders. “Understood, Overseer Trask out.” They resumed waiting.

“Would you do it?” Sarah asked after a few minutes. “Shoot a civilian?”

She said it as if it should be a moral dilemma or something. Perhaps it would have, had she not constantly been at war the past half-year. But her views had changed, if they had ever been different to begin with. “Sarah,” she began wearily. “I’m wearing armor that looks like something out a movie. I’m carrying a weapon almost as tall as you and am fighting aliens and trying to save people’s lives. If some idiot looks at me and decides that “yes, I’m going to attack this woman.” Then I’d end their life without a second thought. I have neither the time, nor patience for idiots anymore. Armed idiots even less so.”

“Ah,” Sarah answered quietly. “I see.”

“Honestly, they would kind of have it coming,” Friendly commented. “Stupidity has no place in war.”

“Hear, hear,” Myra muttered. “But I wouldn’t shoot to kill. Maybe just take the legs off.”

Patricia shrugged, how others dealt with that situation wasn’t of interest to her. “As long as the threat is neutralized.”

Aluma whined and nuzzled Galia’s leg. “She’s got it.” Galia confirmed as the dog began trotting ahead, turning around for her master. “לאט, לאט.” She chided the dog. “יַצִיב. עקוב אחריה.” She pointed at Patricia

Patricia had no idea what she was saying, but Aluma calmed down and waited for them to move forward. “You can take point,” Galia said, stepping back. “I’ve designated you as the leader. She’ll lead you to the aliens.”

Patricia nodded. “Keep your weapons up. This is an open area, but they might have decided to surprise us and take one of the houses.” She looked down at Aluma and motioned forward. “Lead the way, girl.”

Aluma yipped happily and lead them at a steady pace through the fields. The livestock avoided them for the most part as they hopped over fences and moved though tall grass. Smoke was in the air now and she could see it coming over a row of trees. They were just past one of the houses when the sensation of absolute terror washed over her and she instinctively swung her weapon around towards the house at a man aiming a rifle out his window.

The rest of the squad turned toward her and aimed their weapons at the man whose expression morphed from nervous to terrified. Instead of letting the emotion pass, she tried holding onto it, looking deeper. It was more than terror, she got an impression of nervousness and uncertainty. She lowered her weapon as she realized what had happened. This man was no threat to them.

Turned up the voice projector she addressed the man. “We are not here to hurt you. Take your family and lock yourselves in a secure room. Do not emerge until the fighting stops.” She paused. “And don’t point your weapon at us unless you intend to use it. You will not survive next time.”

Without checking to see if he understood she turned away and resumed following Aluma.

“He’s gone,” Sarah breathed. “How did you know he was there?”

She paused, wondering if what had happened was done on purpose or not. “Lucky guess.”

“Lucky for him,” Myra muttered. “That almost got him killed.”

They kept walking until Patricia spotted a gleaming silver thing in the distance. Immediately, she fell to one knee and raised a fist. The squad immediately followed suit. “Think I see it,” she muttered. “Dead ahead.”

“Yeah,” Myra agreed, moving beside her. “With only a sheep pen between us for cover. The house is too close.”

“We could move around, take the house.” Friendly suggested. “We have enough space.”

“That would take time,” Patricia pointed out. “I’m not sure how much we have. Not to mention we’ll be completely exposed if caught.”

“But they will be too,” Yousef added. “Unless they have a sniper, we’d be too far out of range.”

“Or they might have taken the house,” Patricia guessed. “It’s the most tactically sound thing to do.”

“Let me go up,” Sarah asked. “I’ll get you a better view.”

Patricia thought about it. Of all of them, she was the one best suited for scouting, and not just because that was her specialization. “Fine. We’ll begin moving around the side, out of the line of sight to the UFO.”

“On it.” She nodded and dashed off.

“This would be so much easier at night,” Yousef muttered as they began moving.

They advanced at an agonizingly slow rate as they moved on the ground through the field. Sarah’s voice came through as they were roughly a third towards the house. “Alright, got eyes on them.”

“Put it on squadsight protocol,” Patricia ordered as she stopped and a few seconds later, another screen superimposed itself over hers. What she saw didn’t look good.

Fortunately, it didn’t look like time was going to be a concern since the UFO was burned and warped seemingly beyond repair. Four drones flew above it, though their repairs didn’t seem to be doing much. Unfortunately, it looked like the aliens had come to a similar conclusion.

“They’re preparing,” Patricia muttered. There were three of those mechanized sectoids with massive guns for arms standing in a semi-circle outside, protecting the UFO. Sectoids were scurrying around, chittering to each other. She saw no outsiders, but figured they were still in the UFO.

The house appears to be empty,” Sarah said. “It seems they value the UFO more.”

“Good work,” Patricia shut off the squadsight. “Stay there and keep us updated while we move. We’re taking the house if they don’t want it.”

“Understood.”

They kept moving slowly until they arrived at the far end of the house. Or more accurately, the side since the front door wasn’t facing them and a swimming pool was in the back. A rather large swimming pool too.

“Can we cut in?” Myra asked, eyeing the walls.

“Better idea,” Patricia answered, nodding toward a window. “We cut those.”

Friendly aimed his weapon at the window and carefully and quietly cut it out with his laser rifle. Each of them went inside into a large bedroom. “Sarah, we’re in. Any updates?”

“Nope. Aliens are moving like normal. Though they seem to be getting antsy.”

Too late for them. “Pacer Team, this is the Central. We have satellite coverage over the area. Sending feed.”

Patricia smiled. “Much appreciated Central.” The screen popped up and she knew exactly how she was going to attack. “Yousef, Galia, Friendly, move to the garage and prepare to attack from there. Myra and I will fight from the second story.”

They all nodded in affirmation. Patricia and Myra charged up the wooden stairs and quietly worked their way over to the windows where they had a full view over the area. “This is going to be fun,” Myra muttered. “Should we concentrate on one?”

Patricia looked over. “Could you get a headshot?”

“Possibly,” Myra answered, eyeing one of the mechanized sectoids. “But I can’t guarantee it.”

“Understood.” Patricia acknowledged, thinking. Best case they both got headshots and took down two of those things at once. Worst case they missed, but the most likely is that both aliens would take damage, but ultimately live. So, possibly get two kills but likely none or one guaranteed kill?

“Concentrate on the far one,” she finally decided, figuring that would give Sarah the opportunity to join them. “Sarah, once you hear fighting, come join us. Carefully, of course.”

“Will do, Overseer.” She confirmed.

“Me and Yousef can target the one closest to us,” Friendly told her. “Galia could harass the middle one.”

“I could,” Galia confirmed. “Though I’m not sure how much sustained fire I could take.”

“We’ll be ready to assist after we kill the first one,” Patricia assured her. “Fire on my mark.”

She took a deep breath, her heart rate slowing and entered an unusually tranquil frame of mind. Time seemed to slow as she suddenly became aware of each person around her and their current state.

Myra calm and focused, waiting to fire.

Yousef nervous, but keeping it under control.

Sarah waiting in anticipation for the fighting to start.

Friendly eagerly anticipating killing the aliens.

Galia tense, already imagining the plasma fire raining down on her.

What was wrong with her?

Patricia raised her rifle, still feeling in a trance and Myra followed suit, perfectly in sync. The instant her finger pulled on the trigger, spitting out red bursts, every soldier began moving, not even needing her signal. They knew when to fire.

The instant the laser hit the alien, the trance broke and the sounds of the world returned to her. The combined fire of Myra and Patricia utterly destroyed the mech which collapsed to the ground. A similar explosion happen to the right as Yousef and Friendly destroyed another one.

The aliens reacted instantly and the last remaining mech looked up and a blast shield deployed over it’s face. Without bothering to look at Galia, it immediately targeted her. Green plasma burst from its cannons, splintering the walls and forcing her back.

Sectoids mobilizing,” Yousef warned. “We’re focusing on them.

“Understood,” Patricia gritted her teeth and peeked out. The mech was not focusing on Galia, giving her an opportunity to lay down a barrage of red laser fire. Most of the rounds hit, forcing the mech to take a step back, it’s chest sparking.

Patricia grinned wickedly. Time to die. As another barrage from Myra landed, she prepared to deliver the killing blow.

Until the mech started shimmering, the alien suddenly cocooned in a transparent veil that looked like running water. Patricia watched in surprise as the laser fire dissipated in the shield as if it was nothing.

Currently invulnerable, the mech raised it’s cannons and fired at her again. She ducked to the side as burning plasma fire rained around her. “Yousef! Friendly! Status?”

“Alive,” Friendly answered, sounding strained. “We’re pinning the sectoids for now. But I think one of them did something to the mech.”

She scowled. A psionic shield of some kind. Now she remembered something similar had happened on the Dreadnaught. That thing was going to be invincible unless they killed the sectoid.

“Overseer, suppress it for a moment,” Galia asked. “Aluma can deal with the sectoids.”

Time for that dog to prove her worth. “Go for it!” She shouted, swinging her weapon out the window again firing at the mech. “Suppressive fire!” The mech looked up at her, seemingly unimpressed as laser fire rained around it.

“לִתְקוֹף!” She heard Galia shout and the dog took off.

Aluma charged around the mech and directly into the line of sectoids. With ferocious barks, the dog leapt at the closest sectoid, pinned it to the ground and ripped it’s scrawny throat out. Without wasting time, she launched herself at the next one and proceeded to do the same.

The last two sectoids began scrambling back, firing randomly at the growling and snapping dog, teeth dripping with yellow blood. Galia was right, an angry German Shephard was terrifying to behold.

This gave Yousef and Friendly an opening and they sliced the remaining sectoids to pieces when their backs were turned. The shield on the mech dissipated and it quickly wilted under the combined fire of Patricia and Myra.

For some reason, the drones decided now was the time to attack and began flying over. All of them were quickly blasted out of the sky by Galia and Sarah. Then the battlefield was silent.

“Stay ready,” Patricia warned, scanning the area, autolaser raised. “We still have outsiders to deal with.”

“Unless none decided to show up?” Sarah said hopefully.

Yousef snorted into his helmet. “If there is one thing that will show up with UFOs, it’s an outsider.”

“Agreed,” Myra nodded, moving away from the window towards the door. “There’s always-“ She shouted in surprise as a crystalline hand burst through the wall, grabbed her by the armor and threw her towards the railing overlooking the main living room, showering plaster and drywall across the floor.

“Outsider inside!” Patricia shouted as she aimed her weapon at the outsider, trying not to hit Myra. “Converge!”

“Can’t!” Yousef shouted. “We’ve got another one out here!”

The alien picked up a dazed Myra by her collar and with seemingly no effort, leapt towards the opposite wall on the ground and slammed her into it with a sickening crack. Patricia fired at it but it simply absorbed the blasts and lowered its hand to Myra’s right arm and fired a beam from it’s hand.

Myra screamed as the laser burned into her armor and flesh. The outsider reached down and tore the arm off, then threw the limb away. Firing several plasma bursts into her legs, he turned to face Patricia.

Fury filling her Patricia scowled and leapt off the railing to the lower floor, not even noticing the height. The objects around her trembled as she hit the ground, though if she noticed, not from the actual impact. The outsider seemed surprised by the move and took a step back.

Not quite quick enough as she unloaded her autolaser into the alien. It raised it’s hand to discharge some of the energy, but she kept pumping more into it. More lasers joined hers as Sarah and Galia reached her. The combined power proved too much for the outsider and it shattered into a thousand pieces.

They heard a scream and Patricia looked back to see Friendly frantically running away as the last outsider approached, holding the corpse of Yousef in it’s hand, a hole through his head. It immediately realized it was outnumbered and raised Yousef’s corpse as a shield as it fired more plasma rounds from it’s rifle.

“I’ll draw it’s fire!” She yelled, her voice sounding amplified, even to her. “Surround it!”

She winced as her fire grazed the body, but it couldn’t be helped. This outsider had to die. It would happen sooner or later and the outsider seemed to realize this. Dropping the body, it began glowing orange.

Patricia’s eye widened. “Get to cover!” She screamed, running behind a wall. “It’s going to blow!”

A few seconds later a piercing shriek filled the air and then silence. Waiting a few seconds, Patricia peeked out to see the room filled with outsider shards, turned into deadly projectiles by the explosion. Luckily, it seemed no one was hurt from them.

Yousef’s body was ruined but aside from that everyone was alive. Her eyes widened. “Sarah! Myra now!” Sarah dashed over to Myra who was miraculously still breathing as blood dripped out of the stump of her arm. It was fortunate the alien had simply decided putting her out of commission was enough and stopped short of killing her.

“Citadel Command we need an emergency evac now!” Patricia called. “We have a soldier in critical condition!”

“Acknowledged, Fallen Sky will be touching down within the minute.”

Patricia looked at the woman who had somehow survived as Sarah sprayed her with the med-kit, which would keep her alive until she returned to the Citadel. But unfortunately, it seemed her time as a soldier was over.

Patricia hoped that she wouldn’t end up going out like that. Better to die in battle than live as a cripple. She hoped the Commander would at least make sure she was comfortable. Actually, what he did didn’t matter. She’d see to it herself.

It was the least she could do.

***

After-Action Report

Operation: White Sun

Personnel:

Pacer 1 (Squad Overseer): Specialist Patricia Trask

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Pacer 2: Specialist Myra Rodriguez

            Status: Gravely Wounded (Potential Medical Discharge)

            Kills: 1

Pacer 3: Specialist Glenn Friendlein

            Status: Active

            Kills: 2

Pacer 4: Specialist Yousef Li

            Status: Deceased

            Kills: 3

Pacer 5: Specialist Sarah Liber

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Pacer 6: Private Galia Loeb

            Status: Active

            Kills: 2

Pacer 6.5: “Aluma”

            Status: Active

            Kills: 2

 

Mission Director: The Commander

Pilot: Tristin Ward: Call sign – “Fallen Sky”

 

Artifacts Recovered:

-4x Sectoid Corpses (Moderate Damage)

-4x Drone Wrecks (Moderate Damage)

-3x Alien Sectoid Mechanized Units (Moderate Damage)

-44x Alien Weapon Fragments

-111x Alien Alloys (Stripped From UFO)

-2x MELD Canisters

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Situation Room

“An unfortunate ending to a rather successful mission,” the Commander commented grimly as he shut off the armor cams and switched back to the screen displaying the time Fallen Sky was due back at the Citadel. “We need to determine a more optimal strategy for UFO assaults.”

“What was that?” Herman asked, eyes still on the screen. The representative had remained quiet throughout the entire mission, mostly letting them do their job. Though he appeared completely enraptured by what was taking place.

Van Doorn raised an eyebrow. “They didn’t tell you?”

“I thought so. Not everything, apparently,” Herman muttered. “An oversight, I assume.”

“An outsider,” the Commander answered. “Named for its resemblance to aliens seen in the Outsider Incursion. These ones are different, they’re seemingly composed of energy and…well, they’re not fully known, even to us.” His tone hardened as he appraised the screen. “And they are one of the more dangerous aliens, as you can see.”

“Indeed,” Herman sighed. “I suppose Specialist Rodriguez will have to be discharged after such an injury.”

“Very likely,” the Commander agreed. “I’m surprised she survived at all. But I’ll ensure she’ll be taken care of.”

“Artifact recovery is finishing up now,” Bradford informed, looking at his tablet. “They’ll be out of there soon.”

“Good,” Van Doorn answered, his lip twitching. “We don’t want any more surprise civilians.”

Herman raised an eyebrow. “I thought Specialist Trask handled that well.”

“She did,” the Commander nodded. “Though it was lucky she noticed before he shot. It would have ended badly otherwise.”

“Yes…” Herman’s tone turned deliberately neutral. “About that…Technically, allowing soldiers to fire on civilians isn’t exactly…how do I put this…allowed.”

The Commander turned his gaze to Herman. “I allow my soldiers to defend themselves. Are you seriously suggesting they should do nothing if fired upon?”

Herman clicked his tongue. “To be honest…if this was a regular military branch, no. But in this situation, I feel it could be resolved without resorting to fatal action,” He rested his hands on the table. “XCOM equipment is designed to handle weapons of military capability. That man posed no threat to any in that squad. He could have been subdued without harm.”

Van Doorn pursed his lips. “He does have a point. Shen designed the original armor to withstand automatic fire.”

The Commander signed. Again, they were assuming the absolute best case scenario and not looking at the bigger picture. “In a perfect world, representative, I would agree that would be the best course of action. But the fact is, there are still issues with your solution.”

To his credit, Herman did look more curious than annoyed. “Explain?”

The Commander pressed several buttons and brought up the map of the area on the holotable. He pointed at the house where the civilian had been house. “The main issues are time and exposure. Look how close the house was to the UFO,” he pointed. “Doing it your way would greatly increase the likelihood that the aliens find us. An extended firefight is bound to make them apprehensive at the very least. Is it certain? Of course not, but removing the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible is the best way to ensure we aren’t detected.”

“Still, this isn’t a criminal we’re talking about,” Herman pointed out, resting his hands on the holotable. “That man was probably terrified and the sight of our soldiers probably didn’t help.”

“I’m sure he was,” the Commander sighed, looking down at the holotable. “So, do you think it would be worth the risk of blowing the mission to attain some sort of moral victory?”

“Perhaps not,” Herman admitted, his face grim. “But there needs to be some reevaluation on your civilian protocols. You’re not exactly…considerate towards them.”

“Because I’m not,” the Commander stated, fixing him with a stern glare to emphasize his point. “Civilians have no place in war and I will not change or compromise anything to give them special treatment. If they interfere with our operations, they will be dealt with. It’s as simple as that.”

Herman sighed. “And I suppose that is your way of saying you are not currently following the UN regulations regarding them?”

“Depends,” the Commander shrugged. “I’ve not looked at the regulations in years. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t fight a war on another’s rules.”

“Alright,” Herman sighed as he straightened up. “Consider this your chance to educate yourself about them. Next time I probably won’t find an excuse not to inform the Council.” He looked around. “I’ll leave you to it then, I have some other business to attend to.” With that he left the room.

“Commander,” Van Doorn finally said after he left. “Even if you don’t agree with the UN mandates, it might not be a bad idea to not flat out say so. It’s not exactly…helping.”

The Commander’s lips curled into a smile. “An idle threat. The Council cannot prosecute or remove me for opinions I hold. Until I actually do something that he witnesses that violates UN regulations, he has nothing to legitimately threaten me with.”

“I still am not sure it’s the best course of action.” Van Doorn cautioned. “Blatant disregard will not win him over.”

“If we’re going to disagree, I’d rather it be openly,” the Commander stated. “I’m not a politician and will not change my actual opinions to potentially make the Council less antagonistic towards me.”

He didn’t add that Herman knew he was the Commander and anything he said would probably not be a surprise, lessening that supposed threat even more. The Council knew exactly how he felt about controversial matters, what he’d said wouldn’t change that. Not to mention that it wouldn’t change minds. Those set against him would hold that view until he died or he removed them.

“Besides,” he added. “This keeps Herman focused on the wrong things. Our operations that do violate the UN regulations are ones he’ll hopefully never learn about.”

“That is your prerogative, Commander,” Bradford said tactfully. “Though I do agree with Van Doorn here.”

“Noted,” the Commander answered, leaning on the holotable. “Alright. Now that the good representative has left us, we can discuss the current state of our alliances.”

“Right,” Bradford looked down at his tablet. “Funding is steady and the Council is still continuing to support us, although several countries have noticeably reduced their funding and several more have increased it, which is essentially balancing out.”

“China?” The Commander asked, frowning. That was the most obvious, though he was curious as to the others.

“Yes,” Bradford confirmed. “Along with Canada and the United Kingdom.”

“I would suspect that the UK didn’t approve of our attempt to bar the Chinese from the wreckage,” Van Doorn commented thoughtfully. “They heavily support the UN, so this would seem an unfair circumvention.”

The Commander snorted dismissively. “I would say a loophole. There was nothing illegal about it.”

“Except that you opened the door to a genuine contest,” Bradford pointed out. “While XCOM might not have had any chance, the amount of countries involved will ensure it will be months before the issue is settled legally. I’d say that they don’t like you exploiting the system.”

“Fair enough,” the Commander acknowledged. “Though if something this supposedly undisputed takes months to resolve, I’d say that’s more of a problem with the system than me.”

“Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy, streamlined system,” Van Doorn sighed. “Throw in different countries and it only gets more complicated.”

“No,” the Commander shook his head. “It’s perfectly possible to create a more streamlined system that focuses on accuracy and efficiency. The issue is that too many people don’t want that and the average citizen doesn’t care enough to act.”

“An issue for another time,” Bradford interrupted. “The good news is that Russia has substantially increased their funding to us. Japan as well.”

Well that was interesting. Not Russia; of all the countries, they were emerging as one of the most reliable. No, Japan was the interesting one. Hmm…”Japan huh. Interesting.”

“Indeed,” Van Doorn mused. “While your move might have concerned the UK, it seems it might have had the opposite effect on Japan.”

“Interesting that they’re willing to risk China’s anger,” the Commander continued, looking down at the map of the world. “An increase in funding exactly when China decreases? That’s as close to outright disagreement as they usually get.”

Bradford rubbed his chin. “That it is. They usually play nice with the Chinese.”

“Everyone plays nice with the Chinese,” the Commander corrected, eyes sparkling with interest. “Mostly because they don’t want to risk their economy. So for Japan to do this is…encouraging.”

“So how should we take advantage of it?” Van Doorn wondered. “Japan is taking a risk here and it might not be a bad idea to reward that.”

“How?” The Commander asked, looking over at him. “If you’re suggesting allowing them access to some of the alien tech, I don’t think so. Even if their friendliness with China has diminished, they’re still too close, not to mention it would bring on an onslaught of requests for the rest of the Council nations to increase the amount of alien tech they get.”

“Requests that would be justified.” Bradford pointed out.

“Yes,” the Commander nodded. “They would be, much as I hate to admit it. Aside from which, if we send unaltered tech to another nation, the Council might figure out we’ve been giving them doctored tech.”

“Which would not be good.” Van Doorn finished, face turning grimmer. “Which means we can essentially do nothing practical for them.”

The Commander paused. There actually was a way they could open a full alliance with Japan without worrying about the Council’s response. The only problem was…well, the method itself. The Council was going to dissolve eventually, it was inevitable, especially with him in charge and its usefulness was coming to an end.

Perhaps now it was time to begin removing the Council from the equation. He’d held off discussing it since he wasn’t convinced it was the right time, but this opened the door to convincing Bradford and Van Doorn that the Council had served its purpose. This wasn’t a final decision, the rest of the Internal Council would have to be here as well, but Bradford and Van Doorn were key. Shen might be able to be convinced, but it would be more difficult. Zhang would support him as would Vahlen. So that meant that Bradford and Van Doorn were the swing votes, more or less.

“There is a way we could open an alliance without risking the Council,” the Commander finally said. “There is only one problem.”

“Which is?” Bradford asked curiously.

“Japan would have to leave the Council.”

Van Doorn blinked, his tone heavy with surprise. “That’s…that’s very risky.”

“But that might actually work,” Bradford murmured, clearly not quite sure how to feel. “We would have no additional obligation to provide additional resources to the Council…”

“And gain the support of Japan,” The Commander finished, trying not to sound too pleased.

Van Doorn whistled. “True. Still…A nation leaving the Council wouldn’t exactly reflect well on XCOM.”

“Not necessarily,” the Commander corrected thoughtfully. “There’s nothing that states a Council Nation can only leave if they’re displeased with XCOM. True, that’s the most likely reason, but it’s not the only one.”

“So theoretically,” Bradford followed with a nod. “Japan can cite any reason for leaving.”

“Theoretically,” the Commander emphasized. “Realistically, there aren’t many plausible options. Aside from that, it might look suspicious if we immediately opened an alliance with them after they left.”

“There is another concern,” Van Doorn stated, his face grave. “This would open the door for other nations to follow suit, especially if we theoretically opened an alliance with Japan if they left. Some nations might consider it an opportunity to gain access to alien tech and follow suit. If enough nations leave…”

“It could lead to the dissolution of the Council,” Bradford finished quietly.

Exactly. The Commander thought, hiding the smile he was feeling. He’d wondered for a while how best to remove the Council and out of all the options, this was the one he felt would have the best outcome. There was some justice and irony in the fact that the fall of the Council would be brought about by themselves.

And then all of them would be reliant on XCOM if they wished continued access to alien tech. And he’d be free of the United Nations once and for all.

Still, a bit early to celebrate. “We’d have to consider that very carefully,” he finally said, keeping a moderate tone. “If it leads to the end of the Council…again, we’d have to plan very well.”

“I’m not sure we should risk it,” Van Doorn said. “In the theoretical event that we are even interested in this, I’m not sure losing the Council is worth it.”

“Though that wouldn’t necessarily be the end of XCOM,” Bradford pointed out. “I’d expect that we’d still retain support, even if the Council were to disband.”

Thank you Bradford. “Though even then I’m not sure it’d be enough,” the Commander warned, keeping his tone neutral. Let them be the ones to convince him. “We run the risk of the countries focusing on their own military instead of XCOM.”

“Which means we’d need to gather additional allies to keep the same level,” Van Doorn advised. “Something we really should do anyway.”

And that was a perfect breaking point from this topic. Let them think about that, the seed had been planted and something like this would remain at the back of their minds for a while. “I think the rest of the Internal Council should be here before we continue discussing this particular topic,” the Commander said. “However, I do believe gathering more allies is important. Let’s move to that.”

“Agreed,” Bradford nodded. “This should be discussed with everyone.”

“A good idea,” Van Doorn concluded. “Now, I do think there are some additional allies we could look into.”

“Ok,” the Commander nodded at Van Doorn and gestured at the map. “Go ahead.”

“There are several South American nations we could court,” Van Doorn pointed. “Nothing near the firepower of Russia or China, but combined their funding could equal a major country. Colombia, Peru and Chile are the three biggest ones.”

“We’d have to see how much that would cut into our stockpiles,” the Commander noted. “Three smaller countries instead of a larger one…it might be worth it.”

“You would hold most of the negotiating power,” Van Doorn reminded him. “These aren’t exactly world players; generally, they’re ignored most of the time. Quite a few would consider the Commander of XCOM taking an interest in them as an honor.”

Hmm. That had merit and since it was unlikely they would have much contact with the Council, there was no reason for them to know exactly what he gave Israel and Germany. They would make do with what they got. Furthermore, the more countries allied with XCOM, the better.

He nodded. “A good idea,” he looked over at Bradford. “Could you look into setting up meetings?”

Bradford gave an encouraging smile. “Certainly, Commander.”

“Do you have a suggestion of your own?” The Commander asked.

Bradford hesitated. “I think we should consider accepting South Korea as an ally.”

He held back a wince. That was a good idea in principle but…”That might backfire.” The Commander answered slowly. “Not only would that antagonize North Korea…”

“But China might object as well,” Van Doorn finished, coming to the same conclusion as the Commander. “They might use that as an excuse to either leave the Council or force restrictions on us.”

“But South Korea would be a powerful ally,” Bradford reminded him. “Not to mention the President wants to eliminate the aliens as much as us.”

“Untrue,” the Commander stated. “Even if he says so, the first priority will be North Korea. I have no doubt that any deal we make will involve us supporting their war against their neighbor.”

“Which we wouldn’t be able to do,” Van Doorn pointed out, glancing down at the map. “As much as it may seem, we are not a political entity. We have no business getting involved in their war.”

The Commander frowned. “Officially. But seeing as how we ensured Germany remained an ally, I wouldn’t dismiss us becoming involved if the situation demands it.”

“Except that the only two options were alien rule or human,” Van Doorn pointed out. “This is a strictly human conflict.”

“With an objectively right side,” Bradford added. “The continuing war benefits no one.”

“Technically subjective,” the Commander amended. “Though I agree. But I agree with Van Doorn at the moment. South Korea is too risky an ally right now. If we secure additionally funding or North Korea invades…then it’ll be considered.”

Bradford sighed. “You’d think that an alien invasion would cause people to focus on the bigger picture instead of continuing their feuds.”

The Commander shrugged. “It’s human nature. Both nations have been mostly unaffected and even if they were…they’re not going to stop because the other might take advantage. So the cycle continues.”

“So it does,” Van Doorn sighed. “Anything to add, Commander?”

“Actually yes,” the Commander focused the map. “Turkey.”

Bradford frowned. “Why there?”

“Several reasons,” the Commander explained. “They’re a moderately sized country and would be able to provide us with a decent amount of additional funding. Aside from that, their military is rather powerful and well-organized.”

“They are one of the main contributors to NATO in terms of military power,” Van Doorn nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chin. “Good idea. They would make excellent allies.”

“Should I look into making arrangements?” Bradford asked, looking up from his tablet.

“Do it,” the Commander ordered. “The sooner we extend our reach, the better.”

“Will do,” Bradford confirmed. “I suppose I should get to work now.”

“We all should,” the Commander agreed. “I have to speak with Vahlen and Shen. Zhang is also planning a major intelligence operation.”

“I’ll help Bradford set up the meetings,” Van Doorn said. “My contacts in NATO should ensure we at least speak with Turkey.”

“Excellent,” the Commander saluted them. “Dismissed.” They returned his salute and he walked out the room.

***

The Citadel

Yep, he was still the Commander all right. Herman was somewhat surprised the man was so…blunt, but then again, their introduction had implied as much. He could respect that; in fact, it made his job easier. The Commander knew this, so it was still odd for him to still speak openly about his opinions when he was around. Most people would put up and illusion of cooperation; but not him.

Well, if he wanted to call his bluff, he was certainly welcome.

In the meantime, it was time to get more familiar with the Citadel. The Research Labs would be a good place to start, he was personally curious what exactly was being developed there. Dr. Vahlen was also a person of interest as well. He didn’t know that much about the woman, but what he’d heard was…concerning.

She appeared to be one of the types that would only go as far as allowed. Restrictions and rules could be worked with but given little supervision and accountability…they were perfectly willing to go far beyond what was considered normal or safe. Vahlen had been classified as such an individual and he suspected the Commander hadn’t bothered placing any ground rules.

Vahlen was likely one of the smartest people in the world, she wouldn’t have been chosen for XCOM if it were otherwise. But he wasn’t entirely sure she was the right person chosen, especially with the Commander in charge. Left unchecked she could create something that might breed even more trouble.

He felt the air noticeably change as he approached the research labs. Cleanliness and sterility slowly took over his senses, like a hospital, only far more potent. Well, he certainly wasn’t complaining, the smell had never bothered him and told him that XCOM was good about keeping cleanliness standards.

The glass doors slid open noiselessly as he walked inside and shut behind him just a quietly. He looked around enviously at the rows of advanced technology. If only NATO was so advanced, they could do so much more. But he understood why it wasn’t possible; this room alone probably cost billions of dollars.

A green pod against the wall caught his attention and he walked over, moving past several working scientists as he approached it. What was inside startled him. One of the sectoids stared back at him, the solid, unblinking golden orbs that were eyes making him uneasy.

Suspended in the green liquid, he wasn’t sure if it was alive or dead. There were no wounds he could see, but he wasn’t quite sure how it was surviving without any tubes or life support.

“Can I help you?” An accented voice asked.

He turned to see a woman in an advanced sealed white hazard suit minus the helm. She’d clearly been working on something messy judging by the brown and yellow liquid splattering the chest. Her gloves were also covered in the stuff. The woman herself had darker blonde hair neatly tied up that framed a stern and unblemished face.

Her eyes though were…unsettling. There was a detached manner to them as she observed him, like he was a specimen she was curious to dissect. Regardless, the description matched what he’d expected.

“Are you Dr. Vahlen?” He asked, inclining his head.

“I am,” she confirmed with a small nod. “I also presume you are Representative Diederick?”

“Herman will do fine,” he amended. “I figured it would be a good idea to learn about the research advances at XCOM.”

“I suppose you’d like a tour?” She asked, cocking her head at him. “The lab is small, but I could improvise.”

“Unnecessary,” Herman shook his head. “I can look around myself. Besides, I don’t want to interrupt…” he eyed her dirty suit. “Whatever you’re doing.”

She actually almost smiled at that. With a glint in her eye, she motioned him over with a soiled glove. “None needed, Representative. In fact, you’ll gain a better idea of what we’re working towards if I show you.”

He complied and followed her through the lab where the scientists in regular lab coats and attire worked. Unfortunate that chemistry and science in general hadn’t been a strength of his since it would help if he knew exactly what all this stuff did and what the arrays of formulas and markings actually meant.

They finally arrived at a sealed room with containing a table with one of the aliens splayed out with a harsh white floodlight fully illuminating the body. It was extremely muscular, with pink skin and was much taller than he was. Probably at least seven or eight feet. It had four large fingers and toes and an extremely bony and thick skull. Curiously, it looked like something had been removed from it’s mouth, judging from the cuts and tears.

“Should I be in here?” Herman asked, looking at the biohazard sign in front of the door. “I wouldn’t want to contaminate anything.” Or get some alien illness myself.

“Stand back and you’ll be fine,” Vahlen advised as she placed the suit helm over her head again. Unlike similar suits, this one’s helm had more in common with a riot helmet than a biohazard suit. It had a fixed curved glass shield over most of the face and the helm itself was white and hard.

Rather heavy-duty if he was being honest. She picked up a knife and observed the alien. Looking closer, Herman saw that she’d been cutting into it’s chest. It was fortunate that he wasn’t perturbed by the amount of blood and gore splattered around otherwise there’d have been…issues.

“This is a muton, correct?” He asked, looking to make sure he was right. It matched the images he’d seen, though without the armor.

“Correct,” Vahlen confirmed as she began cutting. “An extraordinary specimen at that. This will likely be the last one before our autopsy can be considered complete.”

He raised an eyebrow. “How many have you done?”

“At this point…” she paused, looked up, then returned to cutting. “Probably eight. We lost a significant amount of data at one point and much had to be recreated.” More blood gushed out as she continued cutting deeper. “This is mostly to gain samples, since we’ve mapped out all the vital organs and skeleton.”

Samples. Interesting. “Why do you need them?” He asked, looking at the creature curiously. “Creating some weapon to counter them?”

“Potentially,” Vahlen explained, sounding more excited than before. “This alien species is almost perfectly designed for combat. Physically strong, conditioned, intelligent, and is extraordinarily difficult to kill.”

She motioned at the skin with a gore-encrusted hand. “Their skin is resistant to sharp objects and acidic substances. I’ve broken several tools before I found the right blade. We’ve taken enough skin samples though,” her knife flicked up yellow blood as she cut deeper. “I’m more interested in it’s heart.”

He frowned. “Why?”

“Simply put, because it’s not the only one,” she explained without looking up. “It has another; a backup of sorts. Another reason it’s difficult to kill. I need to know how it works and to do so, I have to extract both hearts.”

Huh. She said it so casually, like removing organs was something she normally did. Although in this case it probably was. Still, it was new for him. “What are you going to do once you extract it?”

“Simulate it working,” she answered enthusiastically. “It’ll be difficult, but if I can restart the heart, I’ll learn so much about how it works.”

He shivered, as the mental image of a heart encased in a glass tube pumping blood struck him as extremely disturbing. But as interesting as it seemed to her, he didn’t see much practical purpose. “How is this useful information, exactly?”

She paused and looked at him incredulously. “Are you serious? To be the first to recreate the beating heart of a genus platomituos would be an achievement rivaling that of the Urgandu experiment. Not to mention it might prove Austin’s theory of cell formation and   transmutatione sanguinis correct! Furthermore this could remaster the Neuroparasitology field as we know it!” She eyed him suspiciously. “You do know what that is, right?”

Well, that outburst he hadn’t expected. He had no clue what any of that was and wasn’t sure he should be surprised or flattered that she apparently believed he might. “I’m afraid not,” he answered shaking his head. “Those terms I’m unfamiliar with.”

“Simply put, it will make future research easier,” Vahlen answered, returning to the autopsy. “That tablet might tell you more.”

Herman walked over and picked up the tabled with lists of formulas and sentences of English mixed with German. The English didn’t make much sense since every other word was German and what he could make out either was a generic word or referred to some concept beyond him. Did she actually expect him to know what this meant?

Perhaps it wasn’t completely her fault. She might just be not used to interacting with people who weren’t as intelligent as her. A trait he’d seen before in scientists. Still, he wondered how the Commander dealt with it, provided she treated him the same way. “I appreciate the offer,” he told her, setting the tablet down. “But I really can’t…”

He trailed off as Vahlen was now wrist deep in the alien’s chest. Her eyes blazing with intensity, focusing directly on her work, Herman watched in fascination as she lifted the two hearts out of the chest, both oozing yellow blood from the severed arteries. The hearts were connected, though it didn’t appear by much, just a couple veins and valves.

Vahlen delicately placed the hearts into a small glass jar and Herman heard a quiet hiss and it sealed. Looking very pleased with herself, Vahlen looked up, a lot more at ease now. “Sorry, did you say something?”

He shook his head. “Never mind.”

She stripped off her gloves and removed her helm. “Excellent. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Yes,” he nodded his head back towards where they’d come. “That sectoid. I assume you’re using it for something?”

Her face lit up. “Yes,” she answered as she began removing the hazard suit. “That is my other project. I should begin the testing very soon.”

“And what is this project?” He asked wearily, tired of how she appeared to miss the point of the question.

“A curiosity of the sectoids is that each of them is a perfect genetic copy,” she explained as she threw the soiled suit into a container. “A clone if that term is easier. This presents us with an opportunity to strike a devastating blow against-“

He raised a hand. “How?”

She looked a bit miffed, but just shrugged. “It’s simple. A targeted virus that will kill the sectoid species.”

He blinked. A bioweapon was not what he’d expected, even though he probably should have. They were banned under United Nations convention, but he was fairly certain that regulations hadn’t exactly been a concern when the Commander approved this. And the Commander had to know about this, else he was incompetent at his job. And Herman was certain that whatever the Commander was, incompetent was not one of them.

Still…there was a debate to be had about whether UN conventions applied to aliens. So technically there was a loophole that might be able to be used if he brought it to the Council. Hmm. He needed to know more about this virus first. “How does the virus work?”

She paused. “Since the virus is specifically targeted towards the sectoid genome, I’ve engineered it to be transmittable in every way possible.”

“Isn’t that risky?” He demanded, trying not to be too alarmed.

“What? No!” She emphasized. “There is no risk to humans, or any other alien species for that matter. Only sectoids will be affected.”

“And how exactly do you foresee this being used?” He asked, thinking of possible scenarios.

“The usage of this virus will have several useful outcomes,” Vahlen began, ticking the reasons off her fingers. “The most obvious is the removal of one of the more troublesome species. This will also put the aliens on the defensive as they try to figure out what’s happening to the sectoids.” Her lips curled up. “But what I am personally curious about is the damage to morale. It will be fascinating to watch the aliens deal with hundreds of sectoids dying in agony all around them, helpless to stop it. That would crush the morale of any human army, I wonder if the aliens will react similarly.”

Herman swallowed. “And just…how does the virus kill the sectoid?”

“The final version will have an incubation period of about a month,” Vahlen explained cheerfully. “Enough time to the virus to spread through most of the population. For the testing, I’m simply observing the effects once the virus starts. Is essence, I’ve designed it to…disassemble them genetically, for lack of a better word,” she paused, looking up. “It’s sort of like breaking a chemical bond; reducing the alien down to it’s base components. I’m imagining the effect is similar to an ice cream cone melting. Eventually the sectoid will be reduced to mush,” she shrugged. “That’s the hope anyway. I’m estimating the effect lasting roughly three weeks. Though again, that’s just an estimate.”

Herman stared in shock. He personally wasn’t against using a virus like that; the tactical advantages were clear. But…the method went far beyond cruel and unusual. Slowly reducing anything to mush over a period of weeks was incredibly hard to justify especially if the victims were sentient. It was inhumane, even when dealing with aliens.

He scowled. The Council would have to learn of this…but he wasn’t sure how best to change anything without immediately becoming the bad guy. The issue was that this was alien and not human related, so shutting down or changing a project like this would run the risk of painting him, and by extension the Council, as alien sympathizers. Given that the soldiers had seen their friends die to these aliens, he imagined they would easily wish a painful death upon them, even if the method was wrong.

“Do you believe that’s necessary?” He asked Vahlen. “Wouldn’t it just be simpler to have the virus kill them quickly?”

“Of course!” She answered easily. “But half the benefit of this virus is the psychological factor. Even if the alien forces are emotionless automatons, their leaders aren’t and this might force them to face their own mortality. Not to mention it will be useful for recruitment and propaganda. I’d imagine it’d encourage humanity once they saw the aliens literally melting before them,” she raised a finger. “Finally, this will benefit XCOM as it will show the rest of the world, including the Council, that we are capable of fully repelling this attack. Once we eradicate one alien species, we will move on to the next.”

She spoke of genocide so easily. No wonder the Commander kept her around, she had no qualms about anything she did. He wondered how much the Commander had influenced her and how much of this mindset she’d always had. But while he saw it as a genocide, he couldn’t entirely disagree with causing it.

How screwed up was it when he was genuinely considering letting a weapon that would kill a species pass without question. He swallowed. “I see…thank you, Dr. Vahlen.”

She gave a smile, her previous coldness apparently forgotten. “Anytime. Let me know if you need anything else.”

He quickly exited the research labs and made for his quarters. Once he arrived, he sat on the bed, mulling over what he knew and what should be done. He laid back on the bed, thinking furiously. Shutting down the project was out of the question; the tactical arguments were too strong and he, and the Council, risked being labeled as pro-alien. A label that would call into question the Council’s motives every time they wanted something done.

And that would give the Commander a very plausible and justified reason to refuse and cause more division. Not to mention he’d likely be able to do it with the full support of XCOM, further loosening the Council’s influence. No, too risky to cite UN conventions. A compromise was in order.

He nodded to himself. He’d hold off contacting the Council at the moment. He would have to speak to the Commander to see if they could come to an arrangement of some kind. In fact, he had an argument the Commander might even listen to.

***

The Citadel, Engineering Bay

It was impressive how quickly Shen’s engineers worked. Just in the past few weeks they’d added many additional areas throughout the Citadel. Shen and Vahlen had both requested areas specifically for studying and applying the MELD substance and he knew that both of them had been focusing on how best to use it.

He’d given them time to come up with some ideas. Now he was extremely curious to see what they’d been up to. The engineers were working hard in the main area, and the sounds of conveyor belts, power tools and mechanized equipment was as loud as ever. He paused, looking around for Shen.

After about a half-minute of looking, he still didn’t see him in the fairly open area. Well, instead of wasting his time looking around it would be better to just ask someone. He approached one of the engineers that appeared to be welding some kind of…armor? It honestly looked rather hand-made, not like the rest of XCOM equipment. Probably a prototype of some kind.

The woman herself also seemed much smaller than normal, more like a teenager than an adult. He tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me?”

She paused and looked back and started. “Oh! Commander!” Her voice was much higher pitched and when she took off the welding mask he saw that his first impression hadn’t really been wrong. She was a teenager, probably no older than fifteen. She quickly set the welding torch down and dusted herself off, looking up nervously.

He raised an eyebrow. “I am the Commander, yes. And you are?”

“Lily Shen,” she answered, some confidence returning to her voice. Ah, right, he wondered when Shen’s daughter would arrive. He gave her a smile, hoping to put her more at ease.

“A pleasure, Mrs. Shen,” he greeted, extending a hand. “I’m glad you arrived safely.”

“Thanks,” she blushed, taking his hand. “I didn’t think I’d actually meet you.”

“Oh I would have come by eventually,” he chuckled. “If only to see if you’re as talented as your father.”

“Oh God,” she blushed again. “I’m nowhere near him. One day maybe, but I’m not my father yet.”

He looked over at her project. “Maybe, but it looks like it hasn’t deterred you from projects of your own.”

“Well, it’s the only way I get better,” Lily shrugged, moving back over to her project. “Even if I can’t use the major equipment, I still have ideas I want to try.”

“Admirable,” he nodded in approval. “So what’s this?”

“You know Galia?” Lily asked, pulling on a strand of her short black hair.

“I do,” he answered, inclining his head. “In fact, she just returned from a mission?”

“Is Aluma alright?” Lily asked, her face filling with concern.

Ah, he had an idea what she was doing now. “Aluma is fine,” he reassured her. “She was very helpful as well.”

“Oh, good,” she sighed in relief. “I’d hate for something to happen to that sweet puppy.” The Commander almost chuckled as he remembered that “sweet puppy” rip out the throats of several sectoids. Lily gestured at the armor. “Anyway, this is sort of my attempt at keeping her safe. That padding she wears isn’t going to protect her if she gets shot. It’s not fair that everyone except her gets special armor.”

“Well, we haven’t had canine soldiers before,” the Commander pointed out ruefully. “Aside from which, it would cost us additional resources to create a special suit for one dog.”

“Right,” Lily agreed with a sharp nod. “That’s why I’m trying to make a set.” She glanced back at the armor. “Trying being the key word.”

“It’s not a bad start,” the Commander complimented. “Although a bit crude.”

“Only because I’m doing it all by hand; look at this,” Lily motioned him over to another table and pulled out a rolled up blueprint. “I’ve already designed it a precisely as possible,” she explained as she rolled it out. “But humans just aren’t as precise as machines.”

The Commander looked over, eyebrows raising in surprise. The document looked very well done. He wasn’t exactly an expert on engineering work, but based on other blueprints and designs he’d seen, this one could fit in seamlessly. “This looks excellent,” he stated complementary, looking over at her. “Why are you not using the machines?”

“Father forbade me,” she sighed. “He didn’t want me interfering or using XCOM resources without express permission. I get it, but it’s annoying.”

“Hmm.” He looked over at her. “I assume this isn’t the only project idea you have?”

“Oh no!” She exclaimed. “Just one of the easiest. I’ve got a lot more ideas up here.” She tapped her head. “I can show you if you want!”

He was genuinely curious as to what she had. But he did have to speak with Shen. Still, he wasn’t going to leave her with nothing. “Not at the moment,” he apologized. “I came to speak with your father. But you’re clearly an intelligent woman and XCOM needs as many like you as possible. You’re cleared to use whatever equipment you need. If anyone gives you trouble, direct them to me.”

Her face lit up. “You’re serious?!”

He nodded firmly. “I am. But your father does have a point about resources. I’ll trust your judgement for now, don’t abuse it.”

“I won’t,” she promised vigorously. “You won’t regret this. Give me some time and you’ll be amazed with what I can come up with.”

The Commander smiled at her enthusiasm. “I’ll hold you to that. I suppose you wouldn’t mind if I came by every so often?”

“Of course not!” She exclaimed.

“Good, now do you know where your father is?”

She pointed to a door that appeared to have been recently installed. “In the Cybernetics Lab. He’s been spending a lot of time there.”

“Thank you, Lily,” he told her. “Good luck with your projects.”

She beamed and waved goodbye as he walked away. Allowing Lily to stay might turn out to actually benefit him. Shen hadn’t mentioned her engineering skills, though it might have just been he was more concerned with her safety than what she could offer. Well, she seemed a determined woman; it would be interesting to see what she did.

The circular door slid open and revealed a large open room with three of what appeared to be construction sites of some kind, all with robotic assembly arms. At both ends were engineers working on what looked like prosthetics and outlines for suits.

Shen was at the far end, looking over blueprints on a workbench. He looked up as the Commander approached. He nodded respectfully. “Commander, I’m glad you’ve come.”

“As am I,” he answered. “I had an excellent conversation with your daughter. You should be proud.”

“I am,” he answered fondly, a smile on his face. “She’s turning into a remarkable young woman.”

“I’m fairly certain she’s smarter than me,” the Commander said. “Just so you know, I’ve authorized her using whatever she needs. She has some useful ideas and it’d be a waste to exclude her.”

“I appreciate it,” Shen thanked. “I did consider it, but wasn’t sure you’d feel comfortable allowing a minor using our equipment.”

The Commander snorted. “As long as she’s competent and doesn’t abuse my trust, I could care less about her age.” He eyed the blueprints. “Now, what exactly have you been working on?”

Shen adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. “There are several topics to discuss. The MELD substance had completely changed the field of cybernetics forever. I suppose I’ll start with the first developments.”

Shen reached over and pulled over a prosthetic arm. It was silver and clearly metal, but it wasn’t a bad recreation. “With MELD, we can finally create a prosthetic that can fully replicate a body part without fear of the body rejecting it. Our prosthetics will soon be indistinguishable from the real thing if progress continues.”

“You might have your first patient soon,” the Commander said grimly. “I suppose you’ve heard of Myra’s condition.”

“I did,” he nodded gravely. “And I’ll do my best to help her if she wants it.”

“Good,” the Commander nodded. “What next.”

“For more practical combat operations, I have several ideas,” Shen continued, walking over to what appeared to be the skeleton of a suit of armor. “This is what we’re calling an Exoskeleton suit, or EXO-suit. Once finished, it will augment a soldier’s strength durability especially once armored.”

“Sounds good,” the Commander appraised the suit. “I assume there’s a drawback.”

“Yes,” Shen sighed. “It’s very slow and that makes the one wearing it vulnerable. A soldier would be severely hampered while using it. This can be mitigated by increasing the armor and weaponry available, but that might not be enough.”

“Hmm,” the Commander rested his chin on his hand. “Is there any way around this?”

“Yes,” Shen hesitated. “But…well, I’ll get to that. One way is direct neural interfacing.” Shen motioned to spikes and holes in the armor where there might be tubes. “Soldiers using these suits will have to be wearing implants to even move at a reasonable speed. But the same issue is that there is too much biological interference. For a suit like this to truly be effective, it must be part of the soldier and not simply a suit of armor.”

The Commander frowned. “How would that be possible?”

“Hold that thought,” Shen held up a hand. “One way the EXO-suit could be reworked is as an augment to the armor we already have. It would slow the soldiers down a bit more, but not if we decided to leave it mostly as-is.”

“So it would be the skeletal frame overlaying the armor?” The Commander asked.

“Essentially,” Shen answered with a nod. “This would allow us to mount heavier weapons on them or add a small additional layer of protection.”

“Refine it a bit and I think it’ll be useful,” the Commander nodded. “I’ll trust your judgment on where you want to take this project.” He looked Shen in the eye. “Now, tell me what else you’ve done.”

Shen hesitated. “As I said, there is a way we can overcome the neurological issues of a fully armored suit.” Shen motioned him over a bit and showed the Commander a massive suit. Ah, he remembered noting it on the way in. He’d taken it as some kind of robot, but he now noticed it was missing its head.

The suit stood about ten or eleven feet high and appeared to be a robotic recreation of a humanoid. Its chest was open and there seemed to be a space a normal sized human could enter. But the insides were filled with gears, wires and quite simply, didn’t look remotely safe.

“Impressive,” he commented. “I presume that this could be used by our soldiers. But I’m not sure this is going to be much faster than an EXO-suit. Aside from that…using it looks dangerous.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” Shen explained. “This is what we’re calling Mechanized Exoskeletal Cybersuit. Or just a MEC.”

The Commander sighed. “So what’s the issue?”

“The way to overcome the neurological limitations is simple,” Shen paused and grimaced. “We remove the limbs of the pilots, rebuild the existing skeleton and fill the torso and brain with cybernetic implants. The result will be a pilot that will be able to…merge…with the MEC suit, for lack of a better word. They will become part of the suit. Or the suit will become part of them.

The Commander blinked as he looked at the robotic behemoth. He was impressed Shen had even considered this as a viable possibility. He’d have thought Shen would have issues with something like this. “The process to convert the soldiers” he said slowly. “Could it be done safely?”

Shen grimaced. “Yes. With MELD, augmentations of this scale is possible and safe. But…I’m not sure the soldier would be the same afterwards. Losing that much of your body would be traumatic, even with functional limbs.”

“How much of the brain would be modified?” The Commander asked, appraising the MEC.

“For this to work properly, the brain would have to be made to…” Shen scowled. “I hate using rely, but it fits best. Rely on the MEC suit to be whole. It’s the cost of allowing the suit to be used as fluidly as our limbs are now. As a result, the soldier might become…muddled outside the suit. They’ll be lucid, but not completely there mentally.”

“Could that be alleviated?” the Commander asked, as he thought.

“Eventually, perhaps,” Shen admitted. “But it’s either-or now. We can’t have both. An effective soldier or an effective MEC.”

The Commander was silent for a few minutes. “This could be a major asset to our combat operations…but I don’t think this is something that should be mandated. I feel the benefits are too great to ignore, but I want this program volunteer only.”

Shen sighed in relief. “My sentiments exactly. Even then…” he shook his head. “We need to make sure they know exactly what they’re doing. I doubt they’d be the same as before.”

“Perhaps Myra isn’t out of XCOM yet,” the Commander muttered. “I’ll have to speak with her.”

“That would be her prerogative,” Shen agreed. “And if she decides against it, I’ll prepare for regular prosthetic additions.”

“A sound plan,” the Commander agreed. “Continue work on the EXO-suits and MEC projects. I’ll speak with you soon. Excellent work.”

Shen inclined his head. “Thank you, Commander.”

The Commander saluted him and walked out of the cybernetics lab, the implications of the MEC program weighing down on him.

***

The Citadel, Training Area

Soran slowed the treadmill down until he was at walking speed. Interesting that even the most basic training equipment was so…computerized. There were more buttons than he really felt were useful not to mention it made it difficult to figure out where the necessary ones were.

Finally, he just stopped and let the treadmill carry him to the edge and he elegantly leapt down to the floor. He took a sip of water and sat down, not really winded. Physical activities had never been challenging for Soran, probably why he’d been selected for Japan’s most physically demanding unit.

Looking around, he saw a few more soldiers working at various stations or lifting weights. Something flashed by one of the opposite walls and he cocked his head, trying to get a better look. He focused across the room and raised his eyebrow in interest when he saw who it was.

Wearing black XCOM fatigues, Carmelita was doing some sort of knife training; where she slashed and cut at dummy targets. Setting the bottle down, he stood and began walking over. Perhaps this was an opportunity to talk to her, once she was finished of course.

The machine she was training with was more sophisticated as he approached. At apparently random intervals, new mechanical arms holding targets swung out and she responded by slashing with fatal efficiency. Her blades were coated with a red substance, so he could see where she was hitting. Not all the targets were human, either; he saw several sectoid and muton targets, armored and everything.

He paused a few yards away from her, not wanting to get too close. Upon watching her style further, she was very coordinated and precise. Cold would be a better term, detached and mechanical. Somewhat different that the impression she had given. At least it reaffirmed his feeling she was dangerous.

Still he was curious. He wasn’t convinced she’d always been this way and based on some comments she’d made, something had happened that had changed her. He was more interested in what that was.

She finally stopped and lowered her arms, breathing heavily. “Impressive,” he told her after a few second. “Your coordination is superb.”

She glanced over, not seeming too surprised he was there. “Appreciated,” she answered as she placed her blades on a tray and began cleaning the red substance off them with a cloth.

“I’m curious,” he said, leaning against a wall. “How long did it take to learn that?”

“Years,” she answered wearily. “But I had a good teacher.”

“You are part of the South Korea military, correct?” He asked.

“Yeah, part of it was with the 707th, the rest was on multiple black ops units,” she answered neutrally. “So you can imagine the training I got.”

He’d never heard of the 707th, but assumed it was a highly skilled unit. “Ah,” he recalled in understanding. “I suppose you were one of the ones causing North Korea trouble.”

She glared at him as she cleaned her blades. “You could say that. I presume that isn’t an issue.” Even if it was, her tone of voice made it clear she would take issue.

“No,” he answered with a dismissive wave. “I don’t have a stance on that issue. We’re all together now, holding national grudges is pointless.”

“Hmm.” She looked away and finished cleaning his blades. “Soran, right?” She asked, looking up at him, the light illuminating the scar on her cheek.

“Right,” he confirmed. “One of the newer recruits. We were on that South Korea mission.”

“Yes, I remember,” she recalled, sheathing her blades. “You did well.”

“Thank you,” he answered, inclining his head. “You were…efficient as well.”

“I should hope so,” she answered coldly. “My sole purpose is killing these creatures now.”

He paused before continuing. “You really hate them, don’t you? And not in the normal friend vs enemy way.”

To his surprise, she didn’t seem to take offense or react much in any way. “An interesting question, Soran. What prompted that?”

“It’s just…” he paused. “It seems more personal to you.”

Personal,” she mused, her tone neutral though danger underlined it. “Yes, you could say that.” He noticed her right hand gripped the blade strapped to her chest. “I could name several instances where it became personal. Perhaps the bombardment of Hamburg or that massacre of civilians that followed. Perhaps the fact that our people are abducted by the thousands for whatever experiments the aliens are conducting.”

He got that reasoning about the abductions, he agreed with it…but at the same time it was a little hypocritical. Especially since XCOM was doing the same thing to the alien bodies and captives. But it was understandable why humans didn’t consider that worth mentioning; it was probably the same for the aliens.

“But for when it actually became personal for me,” Carmelita sighed, her voice softening. “I lost someone I cared about. A lot. He died to one of the chryssalids; then he was shot again to kill whatever those creatures planted inside him.”

He suppressed a wince. No wonder she felt this way. Death by chryssalid was a horrible way to go. At least she hadn’t been the one to put him down a second time, at least for what she described. “I’m sorry,” he told her simply.

“So am I,” she muttered. “But I can’t change that. All I can do now is ensure that the aliens die, preferably slowly and painfully. They deserve nothing less,” She looked up at him. “That answer your question?”

He nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Why do you even care?” She asked, resting her arms on her legs.

He shrugged. “I like to know how people think; what drives and motivates them. I wondered about you, but asking was the only way to know for sure.”

“Hmm,” she appraised him. “So what do you think? What are your feelings towards the aliens?”

“They are the enemy, plain and simple,” he stated firmly. “I will do whatever I can to fight them. Though I can’t help but be…curious…” he glanced over at Carmelita, who was waiting for him to continue. “They must have some sort of society, history and culture,” he continued. “I do wonder how they function, how they think and reason.”

He sighed. “I don’t know if I should be thinking of that when we’re at war. But…” he shrugged. “It’s something that I wonder about occasionally.”

“I doubt they have much,” Carmelita finally said. “I think the majority are slaves or tools to the sectoids or some other alien overlord. The mutons don’t seem intelligent enough to think beyond a battle, the floaters are enslaved to whoever controls their machinery, the chryssalids are slaved to the sectoids and the thin men…” she paused. “Heartless killers and assassins that are used to fulfill whatever agenda is set.”

“You think the sectoids are the leaders?” He asked, curious and glad she was at least discussing this.

“Maybe,” she shrugged. “They’re probably a hive mind of some kind since all of them are cloned and psionic.” She pursed her lips. “I wouldn’t get too attached to whatever you learn, as we’ll destroy it once we win the war. Though I’ll be sure to bring you a live subject some time. Perhaps one of the thin men, they’d probably talk the most.”

He shuddered at the thought of torturing a thin man. That was not his thing. “I’ll leave the interrogating to the people in charge.”

“A wise plan,” she agreed, standing up. “I don’t expect you to understand how I, or the veterans feel, but you will. Everyone who enters XCOM eventually has their moment when they realize the only acceptable outcome is the eradication of these aliens. I’ll be curious as to yours. Good day, Soran.”

With that she left, leaving him alone.

***

The Citadel, XCOM Intelligence Control

The door slid open and the Commander strode in, hands clasped behind his back. Zhang and the agents across from him saluted as he walked by and took his place by Zhang at the holotable. There were four agents in total, all of which he’d seen or met before.

Ruth Shira, one agent who’d risen very quickly with Zhang and was one of the best agents in XCOM Intelligence. If she was involved, this operation was going to be important. Well, he’d known that as Zhang didn’t personally make sure he was at every intelligence briefing.

The African woman, Akello he’d never personally met, but she’d proven herself as a skilled hacker and technical specialist. Kalonymous was another he knew by reputation. He was the best disguise artist Zhang had and was said to be able to impersonate anyone. Abby was also here, a woman he hadn’t seen in awhile. Her transfer had come as a surprise, but he trusted she knew what she was doing, and that Zhang wouldn’t take anyone he didn’t feel qualified.

“This is your show, Zhang,” the Commander told him, stepping back to let him take the center. “Begin when ready.”

“Of course,” Zhang nodded and faced the agents. “This operation will be the first official one against the entity known to us as EXALT,” He pressed a button on the holotable and several shimmering holographic logos appeared. “From intel we’ve gathered, they operate through multiple shell companies and our main theory is that this is how they transfer funds and equipment.”

“I assume we’re going to investigate one,” Ruth guessed, smiling.

“Correct,” Zhang nodded in approval. “I’ve been monitoring all known ones and recently, this one has had a lot of interesting traffic at the primary factory.” He pressed another button and all the logos vanished except one. “Cельскохозяйственные товары,” Zhang stated. “A Russian agricultural company specializing in farm equipment. But based on photos from agents watching, it seems as though they’re moving more than just farming equipment.”

Zhang pressed another button and several photos appeared. Large black trucks loaded with unidentifiable cargo arriving and leaving. Staff interacting with suited figures wearing shades. Even if the Commander couldn’t tell what was in the cargo, just based off the shape in size, it wasn’t what was advertised.

“Do we know what they’re transporting?” Abby asked. “Do they actually make farming equipment or is it a cover?”

“They do appear to have a legitimate client base,” Zhang admitted. “Which helps us in showing just how different the cargo is for these people. Sadly, we don’t know what the contents are since I don’t want to spook EXALT yet.”

The Commander nodded. Smart, they could always intercept a transport later, but moving in might cause an exodus or shutdown. “So is this an infiltration op?” Kalonymous asked, a wry smile on his face.

“It will be,” Zhang answered firmly. “But we’re not moving directly for the factory itself. Security is too tight and since we don’t know the extent of it, we’re going to do this the hard way. Take the identity of the worker and use it to infiltrate the building.”

Ruth grinned. “And just who is the target?”

Zhang brought up the picture of a younger, brown haired man with a friendly face. “Madvay Vadim,” Zhang stated. “Distribution assistant manager. He will be our target.”

The image vanished and the holotable lit up with a map. Zhang pointed at a red dot. “Madvay has been in Paris the past few days on a vacation of sorts. We’re not sure if this is the genuine reason, but we need to move before he leaves. He visits this bar every night, stays for a few hours, then leaves.”

Zhang looked up at the four of them. “You four will be responsible for gathering his company ID and any other information on him. The more you gather, the more airtight our infiltration. How you do this will be largely up to your discretion, but we need his ID.”

Ruth nodded. “Abby and I will conduct the actual operation. Between the two of us, I’m sure we can get him to show us his ID,” her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Guys like to brag.”

Zhang eyed her. “I’d prefer he wasn’t killed.”

Ruth snorted. “Please, getting men to talk is my specialty,” she smiled and lightly punched Abby in the arm. “Though I think Abby could use some practice.”

Abby sighed. “Wonderful.”

“I’ll secure the cameras and security systems,” Akello said, looking around. “They won’t even know we’re there.”

“Excellent,” Zhang nodded. “I’ll also have a combat team in case things go really wrong. Though I’m sure you can take care of yourselves without them.”

“Of course,” Kalonymous flicked his wrist lazily. “I’ll stick outside as one of the locals. Watch for anyone suspicious and provide backup if needed.”

“And what exactly will you do if EXALT is watching?” The Commander asked. “I would be surprised if he didn’t have some kind of security.”

“We’ll scan the area before moving on him,” Ruth answered. “I know what to look for. Akello can also watch the cameras for any suspicious activity.”

“Once you have the ID, then what?” The Commander asked, looking at Zhang.

“We’ll have a short window to act,” Zhang answered. “Kalonymous will infiltrate the factory and gather as much information as he can on his own. Provided everything goes according to plan, I’ll send in additional agents to set up a transponder to monitor everything going on inside the factory. Then we’ll just have to monitor it for tampering. By the time EXALT discovers it, we’ll hopefully have enough data to pinpoint a more direct EXALT facility.”

Abby frowned. “What happens if we can’t set it up in time before Madvay returns?”

“We kill him and Kalonymous will take his place for a short time,” he grimaced. “It’ll cause EXALT to discover they’ve been compromised more quickly, but it shouldn’t hurt us that much overall. But I’d prefer for things to stay running as smoothly as possible.”

Ruth looked at the other agents. “I guess we’re ready when you are.”

“Good,” Zhang stated. “Because you’re moving out now. Good luck.”

Each saluted Zhang and left the room, leaving the Commander alone with him. “A good plan,” the Commander complimented. “Though I hope Abigail will not compromise anything.”

“She’ll do fine,” Zhang reassured him. “With Ruth looking out for her, I’m confident this will go well. I’m not anticipating much resistance, at least for the first part. It’s the factory infiltration where things will get interesting.”

“Speaking of interesting,” the Commander recalled, moving the holographic map towards the Middle East. “I noticed you’re taking a greater interest in Israel.”

“They’re planning something,” Zhang informed, frowning as he also observed the holotable. “And the implications concern me.”

“On how large a scale?”

“There are a lot of personnel, money and equipment being moved around,” Zhang stated. “The Prime Minister himself is ensuring everything related to this is classified; that’s the only way an operation on this scale could proceed with almost complete secrecy.”

“I might have to speak with him,” the Commander muttered. “Perhaps he needs to be reminded who is providing him his new technology.”

“He’d just deny anything,” Zhang warned. “He’s smart and if you go without anything to back it up, you risk losing his support. Nowinski is one who would do that.”

“Well, we need to know what’s going on,” the Commander insisted. “So I suppose you have an idea.”

“The only plan that would work is a full operation on Israel,” Zhang stated grimly. “Something I’ve been seriously considering of late.”

“Risky,” the Commander commented. “If it fails and Israel discovers us, we’d be screwed. Not to mention around half your force is former Mossad and Kidon. They might not go along with it.”

“The loyalty of my agents is not what concerns me,” Zhang shook his head. “If anything, they’ll want to know what’s going on as well. They are part of XCOM now and if Israel threatens to put us at risk, they are now a threat to eliminate.”

“Awfully loyal,” the Commander commented thoughtfully. “National loyalties aren’t usually forgotten so easily.”

“They believe their work will be the reason we ultimately win or lose this war,” Zhang said. “Being responsible for the human race quickly turns ones viewpoint to the bigger picture. Why remain completely loyal to one nation when the world is at stake?”

Zhang’s lip curled up. “XCOM Intelligence will be essential in this war. But it will not decide it. But telling them it does increases their effectiveness and willingness to obey orders they might otherwise question. Convince them it’s for the benefit of the human race and you’d be surprised with what they will do.”

“I suppose the Hades Contingency was a test of sorts,” the Commander commented. “I did wonder, what did you do to convince them or make it easier?”

“I ordered them and they obeyed,” Zhang explained easily. “I’d already been building up their importance in their head, but what I think helped was that each of them had a persona to play. It’s psychologically easier to carry out an act like mass murder as someone else; giving them false identities, disguises and personas helped make it feel less…real.”

“An application of the Stanford prison experiment,” the Commander nodded. “Clever. Dehumanization is an effective method.”

“It helps that a good portion of agents are Kidon,” Zhang agreed. “People are more inclined to follow the crowd, even if the act is questionable. It’s no different with agents. It’s why I always include several Mossad of Kidon agents with the others. After a few operations, they don’t question it and follow orders without question.”

“Groupthink is an interesting phenomenon,” the Commander agreed. “Of course, the trick is moving the group the way you want.”

“That it is,” Zhang agreed with a nod. “It’s a delicate process, but I feel that the current method is working. Abby will be a test of this theory.”

Interesting. “Is that why you wanted her? To see if you could change her?”

“Partially,” Zhang corrected. “I meant what I said. She has the makings of an excellent agent. But emotionally and psychologically? She’s a questionable pick at best. She’s a doctor, compassionate, kind and empathic. Not useful traits.”

“So you paired her up with one your most ruthless agents,” the Commander nodded. “You think it will work?”

“I’m curious,” Zhang admitted. “With Ruth, I think she’ll relate well with her and that will be essential in influencing her. But I think she will change eventually. I have some ideas to encourage a more…emotionless approach.”

“And if this social experiment doesn’t work?” the Commander asked.

“Then she will die,” Zhang shrugged. “People like her don’t last in intelligence work. You adapt or die. No in-between.”

“Keep me updated,” the Commander told him as he straightened up. “You’ve got me interested in the outcome of your little experiment now. But I’ve got an appointment with Vahlen, good luck with the op.”

“Appreciated, Commander,” Zhang nodded as he saluted. “I’ll be on call if you need me.”

The Commander left the room, leaving Zhang looking over the map of Israel, plotting his next move.

***

The Citadel, Barracks

Patricia took a breath and tilted her head back and let the warm water rush over her. She needed something to stop her from shivering from cold. There was so much that had gone wrong and so much that had happened that she didn’t know what even to think at the moment.

She was affected with something, and psionics or no, it was only growing stronger and worse. The headaches had worsened as they’d flown back, several times she’d suppressed screams as she physically felt the pain Myra was dealing with. It was only flashes, but it was enough to drive someone mad.

Now she could swear she was hearing voices that didn’t exist. Words appeared in her mind, broken and incomprehensible…but she understood them. That wasn’t, or shouldn’t be normal. And what had happened when she’d launched the attack…they’d all followed her lead without her saying so much as a word. Almost as if she exerted some sort of influence on them…and the fact she’d simultaneously tapped into all their emotions at the same time seemed to reaffirm it.

She didn’t know why, but everything had toned down now. But if the past few days were any indication, it would come back eventually. For once in her life, she didn’t know what she could do. She’d considered going back to Vahlen, but was worried she’d be pulled or dismissed from duty and that wasn’t something she wanted anymore. She couldn’t afford to sit out while scientists pored over her since they would probably find nothing useful.

But she had to figure this out. By herself if need be. If she was psionic, there had to be a way she could control it or at least suppress it. She shut off the water and leaned forward against the wall, hands extended. Yes, that’s what she’d do. Try to figure this out on her own and if nothing improved…she’d go to the Commander. He’d decide what to do with her then.

She stepped out of the shower and got dressed, wincing as a sharp pain in her head appeared and vanished just as quickly. It would probably start again soon. Pulling on a simple navy blue t-shirt she gasped as a wave of interest gripped her. Normally it would vanish a few seconds later but she wanted to try something.

Leaning against the bathroom sink, she looked into the mirror and instead of letting the emotion go, she focused on retaining it. The instant she focused on it a series of images hit her.

People at some kind of ceremony, no one she recognized…

Screaming as someone was subjected to a surgery or experiment, she couldn’t tell what…

A woman who looked oddly familiar…

Patricia leapt back in shock as she noticed her eyes. Instead of their normal brown, her iris were a glowing purple. Upon closer inspection, it looked like there were borderline microscopic veins spider-webbing on the eyeball also pulsing a faint purple all leading to the iris. As soon as she lost whatever connection she’d had, the glowing slowly faded, leaving her eyes their original color.

She shuddered. That…she needed to be careful of triggering that again. Of course, she wasn’t entirely sure what had caused it. Perhaps actively focusing on the emotion instead of letting it pass? This needed more experimentation.

Actually…she had an idea. Something that might help her figure this out. It might be worth asking him although she’d be relying on his discretion.

She exited the bathroom, calmer now that she had a plan, no matter how tenuous.

“Patricia?” She turned as Sarah approached her, looking concerned.

“Yes?” She answered, wondering what this was about. The woman bit her lip.

“How are you doing?” She finally said. “You seemed in pain on the way back.”

Ah, so she’d noticed that. “Just have been having migraines lately,” she answered, providing some truth as she shrugged. “Guess the stress on the mission was enough to trigger another one.”

“Sure,” Sarah sounded unconvinced. “Um, look.” She moved forward. “I don’t know if you noticed or not…but…you did something on that mission. Something that shouldn’t be possible.”

This wasn’t good. “What?” She asked, curious what Sarah had noticed.

“When you…jumped,” Sarah emphasized with her hand. “From the second story to attack the outsider. When you landed…something came out of you. It was like a purple shockwave or something.”

That was something she hadn’t noticed, though she’d not really been paying attention to her surroundings at the time. “What?” She frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Sarah nodded firmly, putting a USB drive in her hands. “I looked at the armor cam footage. It’s faint but it’s there.” She paused. “I don’t know how much you know or not…but you need to talk to someone to figure this out. I’m no scientist, but that shouldn’t be possible.”

“I’ll do that,” she promised, thankful that was all she apparently had to say. “Thank you.”

“Thank me if you come up with an explanation,” Sarah shrugged. “I’d feel better knowing there’s a plausible explanation.”

Well…her current theory was plausible. However, Patricia got the feeling that it wouldn’t make Sarah feel any better. At least she wasn’t accusing her of reading her mind or something.

Pocketing the USB, she continued walked through the barracks until she spotted him reading a book. “We need to talk,” she stated bluntly to Creed, not really caring how it came out. To his credit, he immediately put the book down and sat up.

“What about?” He asked, a perfectly valid question, but not exactly in the best place to get answers.

She motioned him to follow her. “Not here.” She heard him sigh as he got up to follow her. She pondered where they’d go to have a decent amount of privacy. The Training Area should be pretty empty at the moment; yes that’d do.

Creed held back whatever questions he had, which she appreciated. Luckily there were few people, all of whom were too focused on their current tasks to really care about them. Patricia walked over to an empty corner.

“Alright,” Creed finally said, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms. “I assume this is important?”

She sighed and leaned back against the wall. “Depends on how important you consider me. Suffice to say I consider it important.”

Creed nodded and motioned for her to continue. “So what’s this about?”

Patricia took a breath. “You were right when you noticed something was off about me.”

“I did say you’re a terrible liar,” he reminded her with a small smile.

“Yeah, well,” Patricia shrugged. “It’s not something I’ve tried to cultivate. But that isn’t important. During the Dreadnought mission…something happened to me. I don’t know for sure, but I think it made me a psionic.”

Creed straightened up in surprise, eyes widening. “How do you know?”

“I don’t,” she scowled. “But ever since the mission I’ve been able to know things I shouldn’t, predict who’s going to be somewhere when I shouldn’t. Feel emotions that aren’t mind. Words appear in my mind without context or meaning. If I focus, I can see glimpses of…I don’t even know yet…memories or thoughts.”

She continued explaining as best she could, telling about the symbols she’d seen when accessing the psionic network. Vahlen’s theory that she was contacted by an alien and how that tied to her theory of how that explained the meanings behind the symbols. She finished by describing the previous mission and the strange occurrences that had happened.

Creed just listened, in disbelief or not she couldn’t tell. But he was taking her seriously and not interrupting, which helped since she had to pause a lot to find the right words. She wasn’t a fan of prolonged one-on-one conversations, especially when she was doing most of the talking.

“So now you know,” she finished, sliding down the wall until she was seated on the ground, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “So how close was your guess?”

Nowhere near anything like that,” he answered slowly, shaking his head. “So…just how much can you…sense?”

She hesitated. “It’s usually just one emotion at a time. Like anger, joy or terror. Normally it’s not more than that. Though if I try to go deeper, it becomes clearer. Sort of.”

“Shouldn’t you talk with Vahlen or the Commander?” Creed asked. “I appreciate you telling me…but I’m not sure how much I can help you with.”

“I went to Vahlen,” Patricia reminded him. “I think she knows I’m psionic, but isn’t telling me for some reason. Aside from that, I don’t want to get pulled from active duty. A bunch of scientists are probably not going to be able to cure me.”

“So why tell me?” Creed asked curiously, cocking his head. “You didn’t exactly seem open to it last we talked.”

She hesitated, not sure how much she wanted to say. She finally shrugged, she didn’t see a point omitting stuff especially if he agreed. “I didn’t know how you’d react. I don’t know…” she scowled. “I guess I figured you’d find it very invasive if I told you I could read your emotions, even if it wasn’t my fault.”

“Have you?” He asked.

“Yeah,” she admitted. “For a while it was only you for some reason. But lately I’m beginning to do it with others.”

“Ah,” he looked away. Mixed emotions on his face. She prayed her abilities didn’t strike now of all times. Luckily, it didn’t.

“I’m sorry,” she tried apologizing. “But it just happens…I can’t control it.”

“I know,” he sighed. “It’s just a little disconcerting. There are things that should remain private. For someone to be able to penetrate a mind like that…” He shook his head. “It’s scary.”

“I know,” she nodded, heart sinking. “But it’s the same for me. I never wanted this.”

“Probably not,” he agreed, looking back at her. “But you have it now and I doubt it’s going to change. So,” he shifted to face her. “What are you planning? You do have one, correct?”

“Yes,” she nodded, pushing a strand of her chestnut hair out of her face. “I want to try and learn to control this. It’s the only way things will get better. I either need to control or suppress it,” she paused. “If that fails, I’ll go to the Commander and let him decide what to do.”

She hesitated, then looked him in the eye. “But if I really want to do this, I’ll learn much faster if I have someone to practice on.”

He got it. “You want to practice on me,” he stated with surprising calm.

“I don’t want to,” she answered emphatically. “I know what I’m asking and I wouldn’t if I felt I could learn as quickly some other way. You don’t have to agree either,” she added quickly. “I’ll figure this out on my own if you don’t want to. But if there’s anyone I’d trust to do this with, it’s you.”

He looked over at her. “Well, I’m flattered you think that of me, really,” his tone turned wistful. “But…I suppose it’s more of a personal thing for me. You’ll probably learn things I’ve tried to keep under wraps,” he looked away. “I don’t talk much about myself for good reasons.”

She also looked away. “I understand. I do and won’t press further.”

“I haven’t refused yet,” he reminded her seriously. “I’m thinking, not just for myself, but for you. Go into my head and you might not come out as well as I did,” he shook his head. “I don’t know if this goes both ways, but it’s a risk you should know.”

Patricia looked over at him. It occurred to her she actually knew very little about him. She’d never asked about his past and simply discussed the present and things they had in common. He’d never given the impression that he was carrying any sort of baggage. Although now that she thought more about it, that was probably deliberate and he’d just gotten very good at it.

“I guess that depends if you want to risk letting me see or not,” she finally told him. “I’m willing to risk it if you are.”

He looked at her intently for a minute, his face unreadable as he looked into her eyes. He leaned back into the wall, resting his head on the wall. “I became a SEAL to protect and help people. That applies to you and I won’t back out because I’m afraid of what you might see. If I can help you control this power, I will do so.” 

She swallowed, wishing he had some way of knowing how much that meant to her. She knew she was asking permission for her to view his entire mind, and most people would refuse. Good, honest people at that. There was little she could think of that was more selfless than that, and just to possibly help her. It might even ultimately fail, but he was willing regardless.

He looked drained after that admission, his brown-skinned face much lighter than before. She stood and walked over to kneel down in front of him. “Thank you,” she told him, trying to convey how important this was to her.

He gave a wan smiled and extended an arm which she grasped by the forearm and pulled him up. “Well, I suppose I’ll let you take the lead here,” he said. “I’m ready whenever you want to…practice.”

“Don’t worry yet,” she reassured him. “I’ll need some time to think about what might work.”

“Ok,” he nodded and flicked his eyes down. “You can let go of my arm now.”

“Right,” she realized she was still holding it firmly and let it drop. “Thank you again. I know how much I’m asking.”

“I just hope it works,” he answered.

So did she.

***

The Citadel, Research Labs

The doors hissed open as the Commander walked into the Research Labs. Everything was as he remembered, although there were a few more scientists than the last time he’d been here. A result of additional staffing and recruiting by himself, Bradford and Van Doorn. XCOM would soon be one of the largest scientific institutes in the world if recruiting kept up a steady pace.

Still, he didn’t see Vahlen anywhere, which mean she was probably in the new Genetics Lab. To avoid a repeat of the Engineering Bay, he’d looked to see where the lab was installed and was pleased that it had been done discreetly. Walking up to the far wall, he lifted a simple black panel and placed his hand on it.

There was a satisfying click and the wall slid back, revealing a short hallway further in. The instant he walked past the doors, they shut behind him. Interesting. The hallway was well lit and he kept walking until he reached another automatic glass door which slid open upon his approach.

This was what he assumed was the Genetics Lab. It was fairly open, with workbenches, vials and other lab equipment scattered throughout in no particular order. The one difference being that much of the equipment looked much different than what was in the Research Labs. Probably specific genetic equipment.

In the back of the room was an odd contraption. Giant glass tubes tinted yellow, probably able to fit a large adult, were arranged in a circle and attached to a machine that seemed to be able to rotate them around. Other chairs were nearby, equipment with needles and monitors attached to them. The Commander didn’t fail to note the restraints on them.

Something caught his eye and he walked over to a glass case and started when a massive spider jumped out at him. He scowled as the spider scurried around in it’s makeshift habitat of dirt and leaves. Out of all spiders, he hated tarantulas the most because they were so…furry. He shivered as he watched that thing scurry away into it’s little habitat. What the hell was Vahlen doing with those things?

For that matter, why were there other animals in the lab?

Looking up, he noted what appeared to be a hawk in a cage, along with a bald eagle and falcon. Looking at his feet, he also noticed a black cat with a white strip on it’s nose nuzzling his leg. Smiling, he reached down and held the cat in his arms, rubbing it’s head. The cat purred contentedly in his arms as he continued looking around.

Several sectoids, thin men and muton corpses were splayed throughout the room, some having equipment attached, some in body bags. It appeared several of the thin men (and woman, he noted) had been partially autopsied, mostly around the arms and legs.

“Commander!” Moira Vahlen greeted enthusiastically as she approached him, a tablet in hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

The Commander set the cat down. “As am I,” he answered with a smile of his own. “I’m very curious as to what you’ve been doing.”

“The MELD substance had redefined genetics as we know it,” Vahlen stated, eyes shimmering. “Thanks to it, I think we can improve and modify every part of the human body. We can mold the human body into whatever we wish, with enough time and resources.”

Well, that sounded promising. “So, I assume you have some ideas on genetic modification?” He asked. “And may I ask why that,” he pointed at the spider, “Is within the Citadel.”

Vahlen smirked at that. “Oh right, the fearless Commander is scared of spiders.”

He scowled. “Not scared. Just…”

“Paranoid?” Vahlen suggested, walking over and opening the lid to it’s cage. Reaching down, she palmed the tarantula and walked back over. “Don’t be scared. It’s remarkably tame.”

The Commander narrowed his eyes. “Bring that near me and I’ll kill it.”

Vahlen gave a dramatic sigh. “Oh fine,” she set the spider back down and brushed herself off. “But as much as you scoff, that spider is the basis for one of my ideas.”

“You want to combine spider genetics with humans?” the Commander asked incredulously. He did not like that idea.

“Yes,” she nodded emphatically. “You know how spiders are able to climb walls and ceilings so easily?”

“Don’t they have little tiny claws that hook surfaces?” the Commander recalled, thinking back to facts he’d learned decades ago.

“Hairs,” Vahlen corrected. “Thousands of tiny ones allow a spider to climb almost any surface. Now, most of the hairs aren’t as distinct as the tarantula, but I want to take this same genetic trait and apply it to our soldiers.”

Ah...that was rather brilliant. He felt that an ability like that would especially come in handy for XCOM Intelligence agents. “You really think you could do that?” He asked. Then shook his head. This was Vahlen, if she had an idea she’d make it work, somehow.

“It’s probably the most complex idea I have,” Vahlen admitted, glancing down at the spider. “But I certainly think it’s possible. No,” she quickly corrected. “It is possible.”

The Commander motioned further into the lab. “Continue.”

“Right,” Vahlen walked over to the cage of the bald eagle. “Human eyes are suitable, but compared to birds of prey like the hawk and eagle, they don’t even match up. They can see up to six or eight times better than us. I shouldn’t have to state the advantages of soldiers with hawk vision.”

The Commander was slowly catching onto Vahlen’s enthusiasm. The implications of the research meant they could overcome the limitations humans were generally restricted to. He imagined a squad of soldiers who could climb walls and had literal eagle eyes. “If you could enhance the clarity,” he asked. “Could you also add additional traits like the ability to see in the dark like cats?”

She smiled. “Already have, I believe you already met my feline test subject,” the Commander looked down at the cat nuzzling Vahlen’s leg. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to combine enhanced eyesight with night vision yet,” Vahlen admitted. “It’s either-or at the moment. Though in the future and with additional test subjects, I think we’ll be able to overcome that limitation.”

“Fascinating,” the Commander murmured as he thought more. “Please, show me more.”

“Right this way,” Vahlen motioned him by the corpse of a thin man. “Aside from the animal kingdom, the aliens themselves are a wealth of genetic possibilities. The thin man species in particular has been fascinating to deconstruct. They are the epitome of genetic malleability. I’ve hypothesized that their original form is far different than their current one indicates.”

“So what ideas do you have?” The Commander asked.

“The muscle density is the greatest advantage we can take,” Vahlen explained, pointing at the sliced open legs. “They can leap from distances that would kill an ordinary human and jump similar heights. We can apply this trait to our own soldiers.”

“Allowing them unprecedented mobility,” the Commander muttered. “They wouldn’t have to fear heights or jumps anymore.”

“They could still risk getting injured,” Vahlen cautioned. “But it will be much safer. Now, the thin man is highly resistant to toxins thanks to this gland,” she pointed at the thin man with his throat ripped open. “That is another advantage we can give our soldiers. We could use chemical non-acidic weapons without fear of blowback.”

If soldiers were able to proceed without fear of chemical weapons, that would open so many possibilities for more aggressive tactics. The future of combat was changing before his eyes and Vahlen wasn’t even done yet.

Calm down. The Commander took a breath. Just because Vahlen said it was possible didn’t mean it was guaranteed to happen. The modifications needed to be tested to weed out any side effects and she might discover some ideas just didn’t work.

But if even some of them did…

“Anything from the sectoid?” He asked, nodding towards the gray corpses.

“Nothing really tangible,” Vahlen admitted with a sigh. “Their main advantage is psionics and any genetic mods would have to relate to that at some way. I’m focusing on the more likely ideas before returning to the sectoids. However…” she waved him over to a muton corpse. “This alien has also proven rather useful.”

“How so?”

“This was a creature bred for conflict,” Vahlen explained, her face reverent. “It’s skin is resistant to small blades, arms and chemicals or fire. I can see some very practical applications of this for our soldiers. They need all the protection we can give them.” Vahlen walked over to a table and picked up a jar containing two…hearts.

“But what I found interesting is why the muton is more difficult to kill,” Vahlen continued, bringing the jar over for him to observe. “It has a natural backup system. A secondary heart in case the main one is injured or fails. I think we could also apply this to our soldiers, it might reduce our casualties significantly.”

The Commander whistled. “This is amazing, Moira,” he shook his head. “You surpassed my expectations. Both you and Shen. Well done.”

Her cheeks flushed pink. “Thank you, Commander. Though I do have to say that these ideas must be tested. I suspect you would agree that we should not test them on our soldiers.”

“Well,” the Commander smiled. “It’s a good thing your shipment of test subjects came in.”

“That they did,” Vahlen nodded, her lips curling up. “It will be a pleasure to bring some worth to those wastes of human life.”

“Where are they now?” the Commander asked, looking around.

“In the testing cells,” Vahlen hooked his arm in her own and guided him towards the far right wall. Well, he wasn’t going to complain. Vahlen put her hand on another pad and a door similar to the Genetics Lab entrance opened, revealing a blindingly white room.

There were twenty cells in total. All with thick glass walls and doors extending to the ceiling, allowing the test subjects to see each other. The room gleamed from white paint and harsh white lights. Each cell had a toilet, but no bed, just a blanket. White tile covered the floor, except for the drains in the cells and walkway.

The room seemed sterile and it would be, if not for the prisoners filling the cells. With one exception, all were men of various sizes and ages. Some were tattooed, others not. Some fit the stereotype of murderous prisoner and others looked completely normal. But the Commander wasn’t fooled. These were all dangerous individuals who had committed horrific crimes and deserved no mercy.

The test subjects noticed them and started shouting, though no sound came out. He realized that the cells must have been soundproofed, a smart move. Each cell also had a switch and speaker, allowing communication within the cell. Out of pure curiosity, the Commander went over to a nearby cell containing a burly man with a long beard, a tattooed arm and raging eyes. His white skin seemed paler in the harsh light. The Commander flipped the switch.

“I’ll give you one chance,” the man hissed, utter rage in his voice. “You let me out now and I’ll make sure your death is quick.” The Commander raised his eyebrow in amusement as he continued ranting, struggling not to smile at the utterly ludicrous statements coming out of his mouth. Vahlen walked over beside him, also observing the man

“I swear I’ll get out,” he continued furiously. “Then I’ll kill you, then that Nazi bitch!”

Vahlen stiffened at that and any amusement the Commander felt vanished. He fixed the test subject with the coldest glare he could. “No, you won’t,” he stated, then flicked the switch off.

He looked over at Vahlen and placed a hand on her right shoulder. “I’m sorry about that.”

She reached up and her hand covered his. “You have no control over him,” she said softly. “And I suppose I should get used to it.” Her face hardened. “He’ll be saved for last. There was a reason I had the cells made of glass. They will learn respect soon enough.”

The Commander nodded in approval. “I have faith you’ll administer justice properly.”

“That I will,” she promised, looking at the array of murderers and rapists before them. “I suspect some will wish they had died.”

“Let’s go back in,” he suggested, putting an arm around her shoulder which Vahlen didn’t object to and they both walked back inside. He let his arm drop as Vahlen closed the entrance to the room.

She took a breath. “I’m going to get started within the day. I should have some results soon after.”

“I look forward to it,” the Commander nodded. “Anything else I should know.”

“Yes,” Vahlen began tapping on her tablet. “Remember that soldier you asked me to look at?”

“Patricia?” the Commander recalled. “Yes, did you learn something?”

Vahlen pursed her lips. “I did; take a look at this.” He walked over until her was directly behind her and looked at the screen. It showed two skulls, both with odd waves coming out of their heads.

He frowned. “Vahlen, you know I’m not as technically smart as you. What is this?”

“Brain scans of a sectoid and Patricia,” Vahlen answered. “Back when I took one of the sectoid, I marked it as a psionic emanation since no other species we’ve recovered has been able to display it.”

The Commander took a breath. “You mean…”

“Patricia is psionic.” Vahlen finished with a nod.

The Commander immediately began plotting possible applications in his head. “How?” he asked.

“I believe she came into contact with alien technology on the Dreadnaught Assault,” Vahlen answered. “It must have…awakened her.”

“We need to replicate this,” the Commander stated, thoughts racing. “If humans are psionically capable, we need to learn how to recognize one and awaken them,” he shook his head. “This could allow us to truly take the aliens on. Psionics was something we had no defense for…but now…”

“I know,” Vahlen agreed. “And I have a theory of how we could recognize a psionic,” she hesitated. “But we should focus on only a few things. I honestly think genetic modification should take priority. Along with the sectoid virus.”

“Are you ready to begin testing that as well?” He asked.

“Yes,” she answered. “Today in fact. Should it prove successful, I’ll prepare it for field use.” She paused. “Herman also came by.”

The Commander narrowed his eyes. “What did he want?”

“He had questions,” Vahlen shrugged. “I simply played the incomprehensible scientist and steered him away from anything about the MELD substance. He does know about the sectoid virus, though he didn’t tell me his thoughts. I’m not sure he fully approved of it.”

Well, he had plenty of defenses for that particular weapon. Though he didn’t think Herman would pick that particular hill to die on, though it was possible. “Should I call Patricia back in?” Vahlen asked. “Take more scans?”

“Not at the moment,” the Commander shook his head. “Focus on the gene mods. If things worsen or change with her, I’m sure she’ll come to me or you. Though I might have Zhang check up on her every once in awhile.”

“Good to hear,” Vahlen sighed. “As much as this excites me, I do miss having some time off. Working day after day nonstop is exhausting.”

“I can agree with that,” the Commander sympathized. “Though maybe we should make some time. I’m sure we can find it somewhere.”

“I’ll let you figure it out,” Vahlen told him. “You’re better at these things than me. I’ll just get distracted by something I’ve forgotten.”

He smiled. “Alright, but you have to come, no questions.”

“You might want to get that in writing,” she suggested lightly. “But don’t worry. I’ll look forward to it.”

“Would there be anything you’d like to eat?” He asked, figuring it’d be a nice thing to do for her.

She looked up. “Rouladen,” she finally said. “It was always my favorite back in Germany.”

Rouladen. Right, he’d have to write that down before he forgot. He hoped it wasn’t too complicated. “Alright. Thank you, Moira. You’ve done incredible work.”

Vahlen put her tablet down and took his hands in her own. “I should thank you,” she said softly. “We wouldn’t have made it this far without you. You’ve allowed me to do so much more than I could have ever imagined.”

The Commander stood there, just enjoying being near her. He reluctantly let her hands down. “I should let you get back to work,” he told her quietly. “I’ll speak to you soon.”

“Of course,” she cleared her throat. “I’m looking forward to it.”

He left her to her work, feeling more optimistic about the direction was war was about to take. The next evolution of the human soldier was coming and he suspected the aliens had no idea what was in store for them.

Chapter Text

 

Solaris Industries, Seattle, United States of America

Saudia smiled as she looked out the window. It had been a long time since she’d had any professional reason to visit Seattle, so in a grim way, she was glad Matthew had requested her to visit. She did want to wander around the city a bit, but was anticipating that business would likely take all her available time here.

The Chronicler was going to be the one who went sightseeing this time. Sitting beside her in regular civilian attire, he would easily blend in with the crowd and was going to be taking a few weeks to…do whatever he planned. She didn’t fully know what he intended to accomplish, but he’d assured her he only wanted a few weeks. It was a possible security risk, of course. But given that he’d done similar excursions this in the past without incident, she knew the risk was low.

The taxi they were riding in pulled to a stop and she looked out the window up at the headquarters of Solaris Industries. A modest sized skyscraper in comparison to the rest of Seattle, it was nevertheless an impressive building with the slightly shaded glass windows encasing it. A near literal glass palace. There were no distinguishing marks on the building itself, except the company logo near the bottom.

It matched up with the persona Matthew had built up around himself and his company; Open, transparent and modest.

“Be careful if you’re going inside,” their driver warned as he stopped, looking into the mirror back at them. “Looks like they have company.”

Saudia looked toward the entrance and saw a large mob of people outside, some holding up signs and others yelling slogans and chants. Her lip curled up as she watched the crowd. Protesters. Not much of a surprise to be honest. Having one of the largest weapons manufacturers in one of the most liberal states in the country was bound to attract the attention of anti-gun, anti-war and liberal groups.

More so given the current debate on gun regulation. She personally wasn’t informed on the specifics of the issue, but was definitely aware that it was happening. Matthew was the expert on American politics.

“Is this common?” The Chronicler asked as he unbuckled, moving over by her.

Their driver snorted. “You been living under a rock or something? Yeah, this is pretty common. Especially with what happened a few days ago.”

The Chronicler raised an eyebrow at the driver, clearly curious as to what did happen, but shrugged and kept silent. “You want to get out here?” Saudia asked, knowing it wasn’t the best place to disembark for him.

“Yes,” he answered, surprising her. “Perhaps I’ll learn something.”

Saudia shrugged, it was his choice and she had work to do. Opening the door, she stepping out into the bright sunlight. Clouds on the horizon indicated a storm coming soon, but she’d be inside long before it hit. She’d paid the driver in advance, so he drove off a few seconds later.

“So long, Saudia,” the Chronicler said, putting on his sunglasses. “I hope your meeting is productive.”

“So do I,” she answered with a nod. “Come back here when you’re finished. Matthew will make sure you get back to the Bastion safely.”

“I know,” he assured her with a smile. “Now, I have some things to do.” With that he walked off into the crowd which was slowly becoming larger. Taking a closer look at the participants, she found it mildly interesting that it was a fairly diverse group. Many times, protesters ended up being largely one demographic or another. This particular groups seemed a healthy mix of black, white and Hispanic ethnicities.

She looked back at the entrance to the building. Several Solaris guards had surrounded the perimeter, keeping the protesters at bay. While not all employees at Solaris Industries were EXALT, every single one of the guards were and they’d likely recognize her, so she doubted she’d be held up very long.

The crowd had completely taken over the front and she saw twelve Solaris guards guarding the entrance with their hands clasped together in front and in firm stances. They wore a variation of their dress uniforms, black suits and pants. They closely resembled the American Secret Service, minus the sunglasses, which had not doubt been a deliberate choice by Matthew. They lacked the bandanna for obvious reasons and instead of displaying the EXALT emblem, there was instead the Solaris emblem.

As they were registered security, the guards were armed with Solaris pistols and additional non-lethal riot control measures. Legally, they could wield assault weapons, but Matthew had decided against that as he felt it would only escalate matters. It was also an image and political matter for him as well, since he was seen as one of the more reasonable people within the whole gun debate. Arming his security with automatic weapons would at least give the impression he was choosing a side; making it extremely difficult to keep his position neutral, as he’d intended.

Now, the guards had nothing to fear if the crowd got out of control. They had full license to defend themselves and the headquarters by any means with the full legal backing of Solaris Industries. Saudia had no doubt two or three Solaris guards could handle this crowd with the right equipment, let alone twelve. Not to mention that the building security included deployable turrets in the event of an emergency.

She decided going along the far side would attract the least amount of attention so she carefully made her way around the shouting crowd and approached the guard. “Authorized personnel only,” he told her as she approached.

“Saudia Vyandar,” she answered, looking him in the eyes. “I’m expected.”

His eyes widened, but otherwise didn’t react. She admired his control. “Apologies, Director,” he greeted, inclining his head. “You may enter. Do you require an escort?”

“I’ll manage,” she shook her head, eying the crowd going more agitated. “Besides, you have enough to deal with.”

The barest glimmer of a smile crossed his lips. “I would be more concerned for their safety, Director. If they continue to grow and think they have a numbers advantage, we’ll have to put a few more down.”

“Then for their sake, I hope they calm down,” she muttered, looking into the crowd. “Might I ask what brought this about?”

“Oh this?” He shrugged. “It wasn’t a shooting this time, believe it or not. Solaris Industries made an arrangement with the State of Washington to provide the state police with equipment and weapons. There’s talk that if it proceeds without incident, we might be providing weapons to the police on a national scale.”

Saudia frowned. “Why is that an issue?”

He looked at her, frowning. “The situation isn’t quite as simple as you think. I believe Matthew will be able to explain the situation better. He knows more about it than me.”

Saudia nodded. “I will. What is your name?”

“Brandon Solaris, Director.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you, Brandon. Matthew will hear of your service.”

“Thank you, Director,” he answered with a simple nod. “May your meeting be productive.”

With that she walked into the building. The reception area was standard, tile floors with marble tables and desks resting on top. There was some furniture in the lobby, but nothing she really felt the need to examine closely. Very little manufacturing took place here and was instead mostly used for administrative purposes, but she knew Matthew had several floors dedicated to research and development.

But she figured he would be in his office and headed to the elevator that would take her there. He'd put it at the very top, so it was several minutes before she finally arrived. Stepping out into the carpeted hallway, she tried recalling the way. Yes, directly at the end if she was remembering correctly.

Matthew had made his office take up about half the floor, though admittedly, only a fraction was actually “office” space. He’d essentially made his house here and the rest of the space included a bedroom, bathroom and a small kitchen. So she approached the entrance rather quickly.

As was expected for the owner of such a large corporation, there was a desk in front of the door, though no receptionist at present. Instead, guarding the door was a woman in full Solaris combat attire. Black Kevlar-padded pants and a combat vest and boots, her attire was similar to that of the American SWAT troopers. The black bulletproof shield resting on her back only reinforced that image.

A Solaris-issue assault rifle was held in her gauntlets and Saudia noted several knives and a pistol strapped to her belt. Though she lacked a helmet, her piercing gaze was enough to give would-be intruders second thoughts if not stop them outright. She wasn’t overly tall like Saudia, but of an average height.

The white lighting illuminated her alabaster skin and raven hair even more. Despite her demeanor, she did have a kind face behind her foreboding weaponry. Bright eyes, unblemished skin and her lips that showed dimples whenever she smiled contrasted with the woman in combat gear.

She noticed her approaching and relaxed a bit. “Director, welcome,” she greeted, her accent betraying her English origins.

“Hello to your too, Lidia,” Saudia returned with a smile. Lidia Solaris, Head of Solaris Industry Security, former SWAT officer and wife of Matthew Solaris inclined her head in response.

“Matthew is inside,” she told Saudia, turning to open the door. “I presume you know the way to his study?”

“Door on the left, correct?” She recalled.

“Correct,” Lidia confirmed. “I will ensure neither of you are disturbed.”

“I appreciate that,” Saudia thanked, then paused. She probably wouldn’t have much time to speak afterwards.  “How are the children?”

“Excellent,” Lidia answered, actually displaying her beautiful smile. “Both are down in the testing range with some prototypes. Both are becoming quite proficient with them.”

“Taking after their mother,” Saudia complemented with a smile. “You should be proud.”

“I am,” Lidia answered, adjusting the grip on her rifle. “Although I do think Riley is more interested in the business side of things. Matthew and I’ve been talking of including her in the business more.”

“If you think she can handle it, let her,” Saudia suggested. “Never too young to start.”

“That’s where we’re at,” Lidia agreed with a nod. “But we’ll see.”

“Well, I suppose I should speak to Matthew now,” Saudia said reluctantly. “But it was nice to chat for a bit.”

“It was,” Lidia agreed, resigned. “Sadly, our duty comes first. Hopefully once we remove XCOM and the aliens, things will calm down.”

That was the hope, though even with XCOM and the aliens gone, they’d still have to reestablish control over the rest of the world. A task that would likely end up being even more time consuming. Well, they had a lot to do before even beginning to consider that. Saudia walked into the official office and took the first door on the left.

It opened to reveal the study of Matthew Solaris and where he conducted the majority of his true work. It was very lavish, with ornamented carpets, drapes and furniture. Bookshelves lined one side of the wall, though a good portion of the shelves were empty. He never added a book unless he’d fully read it and liked it. Naturally, this resulted in the majority of books being fiction or documents on the history of EXALT.

A holotable sat in the middle of the room, Matthew standing beside it, looking down at what was displayed. Across from him, on the non-bookshelf side were several large screens displaying either information or American news channels. All were muted at the moment as Matthew had his attention elsewhere.

As she got closer, she saw the holotable was displaying a map of the United States, different states variously colored for some reason. Matthew turned as she approached and smiled. “Director!” He greeted jovially. “Glad you made it.”

“I wasn’t sure,” she joked as she walked up beside him. “You have quite a crowd outside.”

He snorted good-naturedly. “A nuisance, consisting of well-intentioned, but ultimately wrong people. Fortunately, their resolve crumbles when confronted by the opposite side. I’ll go out later and calm them down.” His lips curled into a satisfying smile. “I do wonder how they’ll treat me after actually speaking to me.”

Saudia shook her head. “So tell me, what’s going on? One of your people, Brandon, told me a bit but said I should speak to you.”

“This particular situation stems from the deal Solaris Industries just signed,” Matthew answered, rubbing his forehead. “I presume Brandon told you?”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Though it seems an odd issue to be protesting.”

“It would be, but you haven’t visited the states in a while,” Matthew agreed, shaking his head. “Though the reason this all started was a string of instances of police officers shooting unarmed, or surrendering suspects. Most of them were minorities and that alone stirred people into a frenzy. Several went viral on various social media sites and within days thousands of people are calling for justice for the slain victims.”

Saudia frowned, glancing over at Matthew. “Isn’t that a bit premature? Especially if the source is social media?”

“Where any clip can be made to fit an agenda? Of course,” Matthew agreed with a nod. “But these people aren’t thinking rationally or clearly. They watch the clip of someone getting shot and automatically make snap judgments. Some of the clips were legitimate, and some were either edited severely or taken way out of context. The end result is America now has a large and vocal group that despises the police and believes they’re racists, and they’re joined by the growing group calling for police demilitarization.”

Well this was interesting. “They don’t want police to have access to military equipment?”

“Nope, or any other sort of advanced weaponry” Matthew sighed. “But what they fail to realize is that this isn’t the 1950’s. The small-town neighborhood cop doesn’t exist anymore. Police exist to enforce the law, not to make friends. Times have become more dangerous and as weapons and technology advance, the police must adapt as well,” He laced his fingers together. “Personally, I think it’s mostly fear; they don’t like people in authority being more dangerous than them.”

“I assume there’s another side to this?” Saudia asked, looking down at the holotable. “The pro-police side or some such equivalent?”

“Pretty much,” Matthew confirmed, crossing his arms in resignation. “This larger issue here is that the neutral ground is quickly fading. Both sides are drawing lines that don’t leave much room for talking or compromise. I’ve stayed neutral so far, but I’ve got a lot of pressure from both sides simply because of my position.”

She knew he was telling the truth. If there was anyone who embodied neutrality, at least publicly, it was Matthew and Solaris Industries. Unlike most weapons manufacturers, his political affiliations were surprisingly bipartisan. He had surprised the media by being the only national weapons manufacturer not to become affiliated with the NRA and the Republican Party. Several times he’d backed legislation which he felt, and publically stated, was necessary and smart.

He’d built himself up as a voice of reason, a man willing to see both sides of an issue and made frequent appearances on various media outlets to give his opinion on various issues he was involved in. Although he never forgot the overarching goal of EXALT, she was aware of his much smaller goal: he wanted to supplement the NRA as the most influential voice of the gun lobby.

He personally despised the organization with a passion, and at least according to what she’d seen, he was well on his way to replacing them. The NRA had hated being publically refused, of course and had launched a smear campaign to discredit him. An incredibly foolish move, as they had no clue who they ended up dealing with.

Together with Elizabeth, Matthew had ensured that the organization’s corruption was brought to light and had emerged with more political influence than ever. The NRA still existed, of course, but they’d ended their crusade on him and now mostly pretended Solaris Industries didn’t exist. And now, as Matthew was the only one even sort of willing to compromise on weapon legislation, he had the attention, if not support of the Democratic Party, as well as the more moderate elements of the Republicans who were thankful to have an alternative.

She was once again thankful he’d declined to participate in the Rex Fecit when her predecessor had resigned and instead stated he wanted to focus on increasing EXALT’s influence over North America. She’d have hated to kill or discredit him, if she’d been able to at all. Matthew, along with Elizabeth, were the only two within EXALT who she felt would have been able to beat her for the position of Director.

But luckily, neither of them had decided to take part, letting their brothers and sisters try for the position of Director. Had the families not been forbidden from intermarrying, she was positive that she’d have chosen him as her husband. He was principled, intelligent and above all, believed fully in the goals of EXALT. Though if she had, she’d never have gotten to know Ethan and that would be an even greater loss. Regardless, Lidia was a lucky woman.

This issue regarding the police was interesting, but there was one question she had. “Why is this getting traction now?” She demanded. “I’d have thought an alien invasion would limit this sort of public unrest.”

“Simply put, because they have yet to feel the effects of an alien attack,” Matthew explained. “They’ve been spared major attacks so this whole issue is…I don’t want to say a foreign affair, but it’s the best description of their outlook.” His lips curled up. “It also helped reassure the people that the situation was under control when Germany beat back the alien influence and the alien dreadnought was destroyed.”

He looked back at the holotable. “Another reason is that this was a growing issue long before the aliens invaded in the first place. You really think people are just going to forget their cause and put their differences aside because our survival of a species is at stake?”

It was depressing how accurate that actually was. “Maybe?” She muttered hopefully. Well, that answer did make sense, somewhat. Another example of how the average human was driven by emotion, not reason. “Back to the issue at hand, I presume that the Republicans and Democrats have aligned predictably?”

“Pretty much,” Matthew sighed, his lips curling into an unamused smile. “And with the recent string of shootings, the majority of Democrats want to increase gun regulations and completely overhaul the way the police conduct themselves. The Republicans haven’t really made things better by flatly siding with the police in all instances and ignoring the issues that are present within the system. Let alone actually trying to reach a compromise on gun legislation.”

Saudia frowned. “How many shootings have happened?”

“Enough to cause a public outcry,” Matthew explained, tapping several buttons on the holotable and the holographic headlines appeared by her. “Three in particular have stood out. The first was the massacre of a church in North Carolina. The entire congregation was essentially wiped out in a rather impressive coordinated attack,” he pursed his lips. “The final death toll was one hundred-thirty-seven.”

“That’s terrible,” Saudia sighed sadly. “But if it was coordinated…?”

“They were ex-Cartel,” Matthew answered grimly. “I’m assuming they betrayed the Cartel and decided to go out in a suicide-by-cop way than face the Cartel’s retribution,” his tone hardened. “All of them were killed.”

“Unfortunate,” Saudia stated grimly. “They might have provided us with information.”

“Perhaps,” Matthew’s dark tone didn’t diminish. “Though I would have ensured their death one way or another.”

“And the others?” Saudia pressed, looking at the headlines.

“The Disney shooting followed,” Matthew explained. “A woman somehow smuggled an assault weapon up to the ticket booths and started opening fire. Thirty died and a whole host were injured,” he began tapping the holotable absentmindedly. “She was a former employee, so the accepted reasoning is revenge, though very poorly executed. She was captured and is currently on trial.”

“Are you planning on getting involved?” Saudia asked.

“She used a Solaris rifle,” Matthew stated grimly. “I’ve already publically given my statement of sympathy and at the same time encouraged a fair trial,” the ghost of a smile played on his lips. “Privately, I’m going to ensure she gets the death penalty.”

Saudia frowned. “Are you certain she wasn’t mentally insane when she did this? The courts won’t give the death penalty if she is.”

“I’m glad you asked,” Matthew told her his tone artificially light, walking over to his desk and pulled out a file. “Fortunately, I know quite a few doctors who are willing to take the stand and ensure any insanity plea fails. And in the event that it doesn’t…” he shrugged. “Accidents happen in prison and there are many who would do what the courts are too cowardly to carry out.”

She understood the sentiment, even if she personally considered it harsh. “I’m sure life in prison is harsh enough,” she said, not quite willing to completely endorse him.

“For you, perhaps,” he answered, shaking his head. “Anyway, the latest shooting was in response to an instance where two police officers shooting four unarmed African-Americans in Texas. In that instance, the police were completely at fault and were arrested,” he rested his chin on his fist. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for some people. A group of four African-Americans responded by going into one of the wealthier districts and shooting anyone they could. It was another well-planned attack and one that had clearly been in the works for some time. A daycare was shot up along with several families murdered. The final death toll was fifty-five.”

Saudia felt immense sadness at that. “Who were they?” She finally asked.

“They were part of a small black supremacist group,” Matthew explained shaking his head. “I hadn’t honestly considered them a legitimate threat until it happened. A mistake I won’t repeat.”

“Were they killed as well?”

“Yeah,” Matthew sighed. “But what really made the news was how the police responded. That black supremacist group no longer exists. They arrested nearly everyone and shot the rest. This was done in conjunction with the National Guard as well.”

“The President had to have authorized it then,” Saudia noted. “That could backfire.”

“The dear Madam President is not exactly concerned with political opinion at this point,” Matthew pointed out grimly. “She’s more focused on doing what she believes is right. A shame she had to be the President now when we’re finally making moves. I rather liked her.”

“So was there fallout?” Saudia asked.

“Not as much as you would think,” Matthew answered. “Though it didn’t help race relations much. A good portion of the black community wasn’t happy with the so-called “Pre-emptive attack.”

“So,” Saudia walked around the table until she was facing him. “The big question: How can we use this?”

“I suppose that is that is a valid question,” Matthew answered humorously. “But yes, there are several ways we can take advantage. I said we have a chance to take control of America and I was serious. Now, that is truer of one path than another.”

Saudia raised an eyebrow curiously. “Explain.”

“There are two paths open to us,” Matthew explained, shutting off the holograms displaying the headlines and replaced with images of people who she was unfamiliar with. “Both hinge on the upcoming presidential election. Campaigning will begin in the coming months and both sides are outlining their respective agendas.”

“The election itself isn’t until next year, correct?” Saudia recalled, looking at the pictures. “This seems early, even for American politics.”

“Because it is,” Matthew agreed. “It can mostly be attributed to the leadership in both parties despising President Treduant. The Democrats dislike her for obvious reasons and the Republicans feel her administration has been damaging to the party as a whole. Since she’s also begun ignoring the Republican leadership, it’s only distanced her more. They were lucky she agreed not to run for reelection.”

“Hmm,” Saudia pondered that. “What’s your impression of her? Would she be useful to us?”

“Nicole Treduant is someone who sadly wouldn’t be interested in our goals,” Matthew answered sadly. “Our influence on her has been limited simply because she is more personally driven than most presidents. But her authority is quickly fading and I suggest we move onto more promising subjects.”

“Noted,” Saudia nodded. “You have people scoped out?”

“Of course,” Matthew looked slightly miffed that she even asked that question. “There are five candidates, two Democrat and three Republican who I believe have the best chance.”

He raised a finger. “But first, I’d better explain the paths open to us. The alien invasion is going to be a central campaign issue, one both sides will try to say they’ll handle better than the opposition. The Republicans are going to push this as far as they can; the Democrats will make it central point as well, though I feel they can be influenced to focus more on domestic issues.”

He looked at her. “So, the decision the must be made is what kind of America will be most useful to us. Our alliance with the aliens will not last and when we make our move, it would be best if we were as ready as possible to repel them.”

He began pacing. “A Republican presidency would mean a more stable America, militarily, and allow a more coordinated defense of the aliens. I also see potential for the introduction of more authoritarian measures. Which would make it easier for the populace to transition when we assume control of the country.”

“I doubt the public would like that,” Saudia commented. “Americans in particular are rather finicky when it comes to their freedoms, even when it’s for their own good. Although,” she looked up in thought. “Fear is a powerful motivator.”

“That it is,” Matthew agreed, eyes twinkling. “And with an increase in attacks on American cities, I’d imagine people would be willing to give up some freedoms for additional security. Temporarily, of course.”

She smiled as she saw what he meant. “I’d imagine the aliens would see the benefit of striking one of the most powerful nations. Though I expect there’s a downside here.”

“We wouldn’t exert as much influence as I’d like,” Matthew admitted, frowning down at the holotable. “Bringing the country fully under our control would take much longer. Potentially years.”

“Why longer?” She asked. “Would it not be similar with a Democratic presidency?”

“Not if things go according to plan,” Matthew answered. “Because instead of focusing the election on the invasion, we turn it towards domestic issues. Police brutality, gun control, degrading race relations, states’ rights, those sort of issues. People are emotionally charged now and we can take full advantage of that.”

“By making things worse.” Saudia stated, getting an idea what his plan was.

“Exactly,” Matthew nodded, sounding satisfied. “We push further. Instigate more domestic terrorism, engineer more police shootings which will lead to riots and violent protests. All we need is to get people angry enough.”

There was merit in this idea. “We’ll have to pick our targets carefully,” she warned. “How sure are you that this would work?”

“As an experiment, I decided to stage one of these shootings,” Matthew explained wryly. “Elizabeth was a great help here. She made it look very convincing; anyway, I released it to the larger social media sites and lo and behold, everyone acted exactly as predicted. Soon the majority of the internet was calling for the head of this fictional officer. It was rather amusing to watch the absolute silence that followed once it was revealed it was fake.”

“I feel it would be more convincing if it was real,” Saudia muttered, crossing her arms. “Real bodies have a greater impact.”

“That they do,” Matthew agreed. “And no fear. I knew enough people to ensure that these continue happening. Those targeting minorities are the most impactful.”

“If we’re looking for more violent protests, which is the most militant?” She asked.

“The black community for sure,” Matthew answered firmly. “They’d be the easiest to use. They’re far more willing to take action than the Hispanic or Asian communities; they’d also get support from the anti-police groups as well.”

“So how is mass chaos going to ensure we control America?” Saudia demanded, crossing her arms.

“Simply put, as long as the aliens avoid America and the domestic situation worsens, that should be enough to put a Democrat in charge,” Matthew continued. “And we get someone elected who will do whatever it took to fix the situation. And to make any meaningful change, they would have to either amend the constitution or use executive orders.”

“Something that I don’t imagine would go over very well.” Saudia muttered.

“Ah, but that’s exactly the point,” Matthew explained with a smile. “Ideally, by this point America should be heavily divided and charged. Neutrality doesn’t exist and half of the people demand change, the others demand things stay the same. Both sides double down on their agendas no matter how right or wrong they are.”

“And if the president uses executive orders to force change…” Saudia murmured, beginning to see where he was going.

“…For example, to gut the police, military or amend and infringe on the second amendment, then people get angry,” Matthew finished, looking satisfied. “And imagine more orders were passed, those further infringing on the rights of states. Not only would the Republican governors protest, but I can see several Democratic states having issues as well.”

Saudia raised a hand. “You’ve built this up long enough. Get to the point.”

“It’s quite simple,” Matthew answered, inclining his head. “Play our cards right and we could force a second American civil war.”

Saudia blinked in surprise. “You honestly believe that’s possible.”

“It’s certainly possible,” Matthew confirmed. “Though it would admittedly take far more work and resources. But if it succeeds, we can shape the victors into the country we want America to be and not work within the confines of the system in place.”

Something like that would be among the largest operations in EXALT history. Yet she had several reservations; they couldn’t afford to pour almost all their resources into an operation on this scale and deal with the rest of the world. Not to mention there was a decent chance that this might not even work out as well as Matthew was hoping.

But the biggest issue for her was that this could potentially be a multi-year operation and she was fairly certain at that point that their alliance with the aliens would come to an end. In the scenario, a more unified America worked in their favor more than a divided one.

“It’s ambitious,” Saudia finally said. “Before I comment, I’d like to know your opinion.”

“That largely depends on time,” Matthew answered, observing the holotable. “I see little that could be done to speed up the elections, so we have a minimum of a year before we see any substantial progress. Thinking long-term, ensuring a Democratic president will allow us unprecedented control. But then we run into issues if our alliance falters or XCOM interferes further. In that case a Republican presidency would be preferable, and would ensure we retain some control if our plans for the aliens are disrupted.”

Saudia nodded. “I don’t think we can afford to wait years, much as it would benefit us. The world is changing daily and the aliens won’t play by our rules willingly. We have to think towards the coming war, we can ensure control of America once the aliens are defeated.”

“Then a Republican president it is,” Matthew stated with a nod. “With that out of the way, we must choose a candidate to support.”

“Who do we have?” Saudia asked as Matthew pulled up the portraits of the candidates.

“Former Navy Admiral Jonas Mallik,” Matthew began, indicating an older man with a white beard and hair. “Out of our options, he is by far the most predictable. The alien invasion is the issue he’s pushed the most and painted himself as the only one with the experience and resolve to defend America.”

“Any issues or is he just a generic candidate?” Saudia asked, appraising the picture.

“He’s a single issue candidate,” Matthew explained. “Depending on who you ask, that’s a good or bad thing. He’s iffy on much policy outside of military. But as alien attacks increase across America, I think that people would be more willing to overlook his lack of domestic policy.” He smiled. “Which gives us the opportunity to put people in his inner circle to shape it for him.”

“Can he appeal to a broader demographic than just military and Republicans?” Saudia asked.

“Not really, and that’s probably his greatest weakness,” Matthew admitted. “He’s not exactly diplomatic or open to negotiation, something else that is either a strength or weakness depending on who you ask. Our job would essentially painting him as the lesser evil to the Democrats and Independents.”

“But he would militarily be the best option?” Saudia asked.

“Not in terms of strict military use,” Matthew amended. “He would very much follow the rules of engagement and Geneva Conventions. No, I’d say that he’d be the easiest to control.”

“Which could be useful later,” Saudia nodded, liking the options already. “Who’s next?”

“Kerry Valdez,” Matthew continued, nodding towards a middle-aged Hispanic man with graying black hair. “Former governor of Georgia. A well-spoken and seemingly reasonable man who never really causes much controversy.”

Saudia cocked her head. “Seemingly reasonable?”

“He’s…hmm, how do I put this,” Matthew paused dramatically. “He’s a fanatic. Sort of. A Christian fundamentalist with some rather outdated societal views. You’d never tell it from the way he speaks, but listen to what he’s saying and it’s clear he considers himself some kind of messenger sent from God himself to fix things.”

Saudia grimaced. “So he’s a self-righteous, well-spoken politician. Wonderful.”

“Now, now,” Matthew chided lightly. “All politicians are self-righteous. Hell, both parties are incredibly self-righteous about their beliefs. Trust me,” he smiled in self-deprecation. “After receiving calls telling me to kill myself simply because of what I do, I can assure you that self-righteousness exists beyond Christian fundamentalists.”

“True, true,” she agreed, shaking her head. Even if African politics were arguably more corrupt, they seemed more honest than what took place here. At least politicians in Africa didn’t bother to hide that they were corrupt. “So, what advantage does he give us?”

“Militarily, he’s the best option,” Matthew explained. “I firmly believe he’ll do whatever it takes to defend America and if we can control several of his Christian advisors, we will probably have a decent hold on policy. Though in his case, I suspect we’ll have to rely on Congress to ensure that his proposals don’t cause too much damage.”

“So who is the third option?” Saudia asked.

“I think you’ve heard of her, actually,” Matthew said, focusing on the third picture. “Kamili Rono.”

Ah yes, she had heard of the Kenyan immigrant. The young diplomat had gained a reputation from participating in dozens of humanitarian projects, UN sponsored and otherwise. Interesting that she’d taken up politics, though it made sense. She could only do so much as one person, influence over a country would open up many more doors.

“What does she offer?” Saudia asked.

“Unity,” Matthew answered instantly. “She would be a mediator and has the best chance to firmly unite the country than all of them. She’s an excellent speaker who appeals to virtually all demographics. Provided we remove Democrat competition, I predict that she’d win by a landslide, maybe even without our intervention.”

“Though I doubt she’d be the strongest in regards to military action,” Saudia wondered. “She’s stated she’s a pacifist.”

“Which is a major issue,” Matthew agreed. “She’d reluctantly use military force, but it would be limited and she’s driven by her conscience and what’s best for the people. Admirable traits, but ones that don’t serve us at the moment.”

“How much could we influence?” Saudia asked.

“We could certainly get people into her inner circle,” Matthew stated grimly. “Though beyond that…she’s very stubborn and would likely dismiss most of what we’d suggest. I honestly see her as a candidate ripe for direct control. She’d be an excellent figurehead, but won’t serve us well on her own.”

“Direct control is risky,” Saudia warned. “Especially if she goes public with the threats or bribes. I believe she has the courage to do that.”

“I suppose that depends on how much we could dig up on her,” Matthew shrugged. “Make it convincing enough and she won’t talk.”

Saudia nodded. As much as she liked Kamili, she was simply too weak and uncompromising to be useful to them. Matthew was right in that she’d be an excellent figurehead, but utilizing direct control was a last resort, and they had other options. “We should use Jonas Mallik,” she told him. “He’s the most moderate of the bunch and most easily manipulated. That will serve our purposes well.”

He nodded. “It will be done, Director. Work will begin on removing the other candidates from contention.”

“And how are you planning to do that?” She asked, curious.

“For the Democrats, I believe several scandals on the various candidates will erode support for the party,” Matthew answered, waving a dismissive hand. “Money laundering, bribery. Oh, and sexual assault, can’t forget that.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You have something like that?”

“Oh, I’m sure it exists,” he amended. “But I don’t even need evidence to make it happen. All it takes these days is the allegation and the supposed victim coming forward with her story. Plays right into people’s emotions; stirs them right up. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, and it’s not difficult to get women to come forward for compensation.”

It was a sound plan. Matthew understood the political and social atmosphere of America better than her, so she’d defer to his judgement. “And the Republican opponents?”

“Hmm,” he looked at her. “I’d preferably require your assistance with that. Simply because it would be better if they died. No need to cause scandals that damage the party and it’s prudent to build sympathy instead. I suspect our alien friends would be useful.”

“That they would be,” Saudia agreed, thinking further. “I expect you to forward all relevant information to pass along.”

“Of course,” he acknowledged, inclining his head. “And one more thing before we conclude this excellent meeting.” He walked over to his table and grabbed a tablet. “I’ve found someone that you, and Darian, might want to consider recruiting.” He handed it over after pulling up some information.

She looked over the profile. A recent African-American graduate, a geneticist it seemed, who was an expert by all accounts. His young but stern face indicated professionalism, though he seemed a bit stiff from the picture, unsmiling and his glasses and bald head didn’t exactly make him look more inviting. “Richard Tygan,” she said out loud. “Never heard of him. You think he could be recruited?”

“Yes,” Matthew nodded easily. “I’d imagine he’d jump at the chance to examine alien technology and help us immensely in applying it. He’s younger and impressionable, so I think there’s a good chance we could mold him into a model EXALT scientist.”

Saudia nodded and put the tablet down. “I’ll speak to Darian. Thank you, Matthew.”

“My pleasure,” he answered with a smile. “Have an excellent flight back. Even if America does not come completely under our control, I’ll ensure we direct its future.”

“One more thing,” she said, raising her hand. Her tone hardening. “These anti-police demonstrations? I want them brought under control. If we’re going to have a united America, I’d rather you get started now.”

“Can do,” he assured her. “How do you want me to handle it?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Simple, in these shootings, determine the guilt or innocence of the officers implicated. If they are innocent, back them and release proof. If not, ensure they are convicted.”

“I can do that,” Matthew answered, pursing his lips. “But that process does take time and it might not completely remove the protesters, no matter how much evidence is shown.”

“Then discredit them,” Saudia ordered. “Plant people within the crowds to disrupt them. Expose their leaders as criminals or worse. But I want civilian casualties kept to a minimum,” she paused. “But if it becomes necessary…do whatever you have to.”

“Noted,” he nodded. “I should probably be able to do it without resorting to assassination.”

“Good,” she stated, turning around. “And I want these supremacist groups gone. All of them.”

She could hear the confusion in his voice. “Which ones?”

All of them,” she emphasized, her tone turning to steel. “I don’t care what race they are. The world has moved beyond them and their kind only encourages division and hate. They are no longer afforded the protection of civilian status. They are to be considered criminal agitators and must be purged.”

She turned around to Matthew. “Understand?”

He swallowed and she understood why. Stripping a non-militant group of civilian status within EXALT was rarely done, and even less so when said group was not directly interfering with EXALT. But she figured this qualified, and would remove some of the worst of humanity in the process. Their archaic mindsets had no place in the modern world and it was time for that to chance. America would not mourn their deaths and neither would the world.

There were bigger issues to deal with.

“Understood, Director,” he affirmed firmly.

“It must be permanent,” Saudia emphasized. “Use legal means if you wish, but I’m sure Zara and Elizabeth would appreciate the diversion.”

“I was thinking the same.” He answered, inclining his head in deference. “It will be done.”

“Farewell,” she said, walking away. “I’ll speak to you soon.”

She the left, leaving him to start the process of deciding the next president of the United States.

***

The Bastion, Communications Center.

“A shame you took the easy route,” the hologram of Zara said as she shook her head. Garbed in the same gear as the meeting, the only difference between the meeting then and now was the slight shimmer around her, betraying that she was just a hologram.

The room was designed in such a way that the participants in the meeting were tracked and their images streamed to whoever they were communicating with. The result was participates could have a meeting or discussion almost exactly like in person. It was one piece of technology Saudia especially loved.

“It would have taken too much time,” Saudia defended, as Zara paced back and forth. She’d expected Zara to not approve of her decision, but she’d listen to reason eventually. “I don’t imagine our alliance with the aliens will last years.”

“A challenge I and my soldiers are unafraid of,” Zara snorted. “But in terms of pure practicality, I see your point.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Saudia answered, relieved. “Had we more time, I would have done it differently.”

“A shame regardless,” Zara muttered. “I would have loved to disrupt the complacency within that corrupt country. It needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.”

“Something that I saw plainly over there,” Saudia sighed. “As much as I dislike violent revolutions, one may be necessary for America in the future.”

“It is mandatory,” Zara hissed. “Not just for America. You are only prolonging the problem. Once this war is over, America will revert to what it is now.”

“We shall cross that bridge when we arrive,” Saudia told her. “Besides, there are far less stable countries than America that we must deal with first.”

“Agreed, and I doubt you’ll be doing anything about them anytime soon,” Zara accused, crossing her arms. “Yes, yes, I know you have specific plans. But it is aggravating.”

“Not everything can be solved by war,” Saudia reminded her tiredly. “Violent revolution only works in the short term.”

“Who said anything about revolution?” Zara asked. “You know my stance. The Middle East must be purged. Completely.”

Saudia sighed. That particular opinion was one very unpopular within EXALT as it was insulting, sloppy and simply wrong. No country or government was beyond salvaging; sure, it would take time, resources and money, but it could be done. Zara personally saw little point in trying to execute plans that took years or decades and preferred a more direct approach.

Granted, she had spent more time in that region than Saudia and the things she’d seen had convinced her that the region was beyond saving. And when Zara meant purge she meant the elimination of everyone there. She felt the culture needed to be destroyed, not just the people. And that was something Saudia would not consider if there were other options.

The majority of deaths in a purge would be innocents, and that was unacceptable to her. She could live with a few necessary deaths, but only as a last resort. Within EXALT itself, if an operation took the lives of people outside the designated mission parameters, it indicated a lack of precision or just plain sloppiness.

It was a more personal reason why she’d ultimately decided against Matthew’s alternate plan. More innocent people would have undoubtable been hurt as a result of their actions and that would have been a personal disappointment for her. But had that been the more practical route, she would have taken it.

She’d done her best to keep civilian casualties to a minimum within her time as Director, but it was difficult sometimes. She figured that more hard decisions were coming the further the war persisted. In the meantime, Zara had to redirect her passion and anger into something productive.

“That’s not going to happen, Zara,” she stated firmly. “But we’ve talked enough about America. I think it’s time to draw XCOM out.”

“Excellent,” Zara grinned. “I look forward to it. Your plan?”

“It’s time to start weakening the Cartels,” Saudia told her. “Matthew has given me the location of a town controlled by them. We’ll lead the aliens to it for them to do as they please. XCOM learns of the abductions and goes to investigate. Then you strike.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Zara nodded eagerly, the beginnings of bloodlust in her eyes. “Have you informed our alien friends?”

“I’m going to do that in a few minutes,” Saudia told her. “I think it would be best if they know you’ll be taking point.”

“Ah, so I’ll get to meet this Speaker,” Zara grimaced. “Wonderful.”

“Behave,” Saudia told her sternly. “We can’t afford to make them suspicious.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zara waved absentmindedly. “Don’t worry. I’ll play the submissive human. “Yes, alien overlords, whatever you wish.” “Yes, death to all XCOM. Grr.””

Saudia smirked at her really awful imitation. “At least try to be subtle. Standing there looking foreboding will do the trick.”

Zara laughed. “Oh, please. Even I know I don’t look that intimidating.”

“Then just stand there and look pretty,” Saudia chuckled. “Maybe he’ll be distracted.”

“Shut up,” Zara shivered, looking at her, frowning. “You don’t actually think…”

“Only one way to find out,” she teased, enjoying her discomfort far more than she should.

Zara narrowed her eyes. “You play seductress with the alien, Director. If that thing looks at me like that I’ll castrate it and-“

“I’m sure you will,” Saudia chuckled. “I’m setting up the call now.”

Zara quieted down as the call went through. A few minutes later the image of the Speaker of the Elders materialized into the doppelganger, unchanged from their last meeting.

“Director,” he greeted in his oily voice, inclining his head respectfully. “I trust all is well?”

“At the moment, Speaker,” she returned with a nod of her own. “I presume things are proceeding well on your end.”

“As the Elders will it,” he answered smoothly. “I presume you’ve begun to adapt our technology for your own use?”

“We are,” she confirmed. “And beginning to make great progress.”

He clasped his hands together and displayed an eerie smile that was disturbingly human. “That is excellent to hear. Please, let us know if you require further assistance.”

They were still keeping up the overly helpful act. An interesting tactic, and didn’t exactly encourage respect for the alien’s leadership. There was no way they could be this naïve. Whatever, she’d exploit this as best she could. “I’m pleased you accepted our call,” she told the Speaker. “In fact, I believe it is time to begin operations against XCOM.”

The Speaker grew serious, his face reverting to a neutral expression that seemed distinctly alien. The way his features contorted gave the impression of someone pretending to be human rather than a displaying the emotion itself. Even if she’d seen it before, it was still disconcerting. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zara stiffen.

“State your plan,” the Speaker almost ordered, the pleasantness gone from his voice. “We are listening.”

Interesting choice of words. Not that she was surprised the Speaker wasn’t alone. “We have a location that we feel is useful to you. A small town filled with an above-average count of healthy human subjects. These people are troublemakers and criminals and you would be doing a favor by removing these criminals and acquiring additional test subjects for your own usage.”

“There is wisdom in that,” the Speaker nodded. “Very well. We will strike this town and that should be enough to draw XCOM out. What do you propose then?”

“A strike team will be waiting,” Saudia answered, motioning Zara forward. “This is Zara Venator, Head of the Venator Family and Overseer of Australia as well as the military arm of EXALT. She will be in charge of the ambush.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” the alien said smoothly with a smile. “Though I must warn you that XCOM soldiers are unlike any you have faced before.”

“My soldiers have toppled governments, started revolutions and ended them as quickly,” Zara stated coldly. “We are more than capable of dealing with the soldiers of a United Nations organization. Rest assured, Speaker, you have nothing to fear.”

She wished Zara hadn’t responded so aggressively to the aliens warning, a warning she felt was perfectly fine, but Zara didn’t like people (or aliens) even suggesting that she wasn’t up for the task. Fortunately, the Speaker didn’t seem offended. “Then we look forward to your victory, Overseer Venator.”

“The first of many,” Zara added. “XCOM will fall before us.”

“We will then inform you when we intend to strike,” the Speaker told them. “It will be within the next few days.”

“Excellent,” Saudia told him. “We look forward to continued cooperation.”

“As do we, Director,” the Speaker clasped his hands behind his back and nodded towards her once. “May your victories be swift,” the ghost of a smile crossed his face. “We will be watching.”

She wasn’t quite able to keep a straight face as she heard those words. The hologram vanished and those ominous words lingered in her ear. The fact that they’d chosen those words hadn’t been an accident and would know what they meant to her.

Perhaps they weren’t as naïve as she thought.

“Rather blunt,” Zara commented, looking at the place the Speaker had been staring. “That whole performance is just an act. They think they are superior to us and only give the illusion of cooperation.”

“Of course they do,” Saudia sighed. “But we can work with condescension. It’ll make the day we remove them from this Earth much sweeter.”

“That it will,” Zara agreed. “I’ll await your orders, Director. In the meantime, I’ve got soldiers to prepare.”

“As you were,” Saudia nodded towards her. “I’ll be in contact.”

“I’ll be waiting. Zara, out.”

The hologram vanished, leaving her alone. Turning on her heel, she began heading for her room. While she had some time, it might be a good idea to look into this “Richard Tygan.” The faster they learned the secrets of the aliens, the better.

***

The Bastion, Subject Cells

How many days had it been?

A few hours? A week?

Annette didn’t know anymore. Any semblance of time had been torn apart as whoever was keeping her began intermittently cutting off the lights at odd times. The blackouts sometimes lasted hours, other times minutes. Although she couldn’t even rely on her perception of time anymore since she knew they were pumping drugs into her cell.

That had almost been as terrifying as the voices; knowing she was helpless to resist whatever they decided to use on her. She’d been terrified recently that her feelings weren’t her own and instead were the result of some chemicals. As a result, she’d tried focused exclusively on keeping calm, no matter what she was feeling.

There hadn’t been any more episodes. Psionics is what they were called, apparently. Whatever, it didn’t explain anything and she didn’t want to keep being triggered on the whims of some scientists.

But she’d come close. Very, very close.

The first experience she’d been aware of had been pleasant, as it was intended to be, she supposed. She’d felt oddly happy and had stumbled around the cell with a ridiculous smile on her face, giggling like she was a teen again. She’d remembered happier times, times of childhood, family and friendship. Stuff she hadn’t thought about in years.

They must have figured out happiness wasn’t going to be a good trigger and they stopped whatever they were doing and reality came back to her. There weren’t many side effects this time, especially since she hadn’t used her powers, but she’d still been terrified of how easily it was to send someone into a state like that.

Calm. She had to stay calm and not submit to anything she was feeling because it might not be her. She would only use her abilities on her terms, not at the will of some scientists. She felt that she was getting better at negating the more negative effects of the voices. There hadn’t been any headaches for a few hours, the longest she’d gone without some kind of pain.

Annette had steadfastly ignored the voices, even as they grew louder, some of them almost screaming. Despite the risks, she was growing more curious what they were saying, if they were saying anything at all. And that was terrifying since she felt that it was a trick these scientists were playing on her.

Well, she wasn’t going to fall for it. She wasn’t going to be turned insane just because they willed it. Gritting her teeth, she looked around the room for the hidden camera she knew was there. Despite not seeing it, she tapped her head at one of the corners and shook her head, hoping that conveyed the message.

Although it might not do anything at all. For all she knew, they were learning just as she was. Maybe they didn’t know what she was actually experiencing. She shook her head. No, they had to have some idea, especially since she wasn’t the only test subject. Not everyone would have been able to resist as she had, it just didn’t seem like someone wouldn’t have described what was happening to the scientists.

She looked down at her arms, opening and closing her fingers, marveling at how everything still worked. She looked like the victim of an acid attack or fire survivor. Dozens of miniature scars dotted her arms within warped, wrinkled and raw flesh. She remembered the scientists attempting to fix her arm, they had sprayed some stuff on it that had helped, and had also fixed her left wrist after she’d apparently dislocated it from smashing the door.

She curled her fingers of her left hand, wondering why it didn’t feel worse. Must be a side effect of using her powers. She wondered if the disfiguring effects would spread to the rest of her body. From showering she’d noticed patches of warped skin and miniature scars on various parts of her body. She assumed it would continue the more she used her powers, and at the rate it was disfiguring her, she wondered if at some point her body would simply fall apart. This kind of damage couldn’t be endured forever.

She laid back on the bed, trying to once again figure out how to get out of this hopeless situation. Yet no matter how hard she thought, nothing came to her that would work. Her powers wouldn’t let her break out of the room. She had no idea where she was, and had no doubt that if she was caught, she’d wish she was dead.

Who was she kidding? She did wish she was dead. She wished they’d just killed her that night she was walking home. At the time she’d thought the two men were going to rape her or worse and had taken off, the whole time cursing how little she had to defend herself. With only a knife, she’d known her odds weren’t good and focused on getting away.

All for nothing, as she’d been unwittingly directed toward a one-way alley. Preparing to fight, hands shaking, she’d raised the rather pathetic looking blade at the two men who’d exchanged a look and almost smiled. At this point she remembered she had a phone and frantically pulled it out, trying to reach the police when the men had taken action and shot her with some kind of taser.

She blacked out and the next thing she knew, she’d woken up in here.

The experiments had started the day after.

She should have been carrying a gun. Latrell had kept insisting she did, going so far as to use his position to get her a permit. She’d refused, not comfortable with guns in the first place and confident nothing was going to happen to her. She was a fairly intelligent woman, she could admit that, but not anyone worth kidnapping or committing any sort of crime against.

She wasn’t even particularly high up in her position either, just a personnel and importing manager in one of France’s many corporations. True, she was good at her job, but it wasn’t exactly a position that attracted much interest outside corporate circles. Although now that she’d had some time to think, her mediocrity was probably the reason she’d been abducted for these experiments.

She was no one and they knew it. A disappearance like hers would result in an investigation at most and then the police would eventually determine it was a murder or just chalk her up as missing. Then they’d forget about her and move on to the next case.

Annette felt tears gather in her eyes as she remembered everything she’d left behind.

She missed all of them now. Latrell, his family, her mother, even her father, strange as that was to admit. They might have had major disagreements, but she knew he’d loved her. Now she’d probably never get to see and yell at him again.

She sniffed as the tears fell down the side of her face onto the bed. Sure, her life hadn’t exactly been the most exciting, but she’d been happy. She’d had a good job, a group of good friends, a loving if flawed family and an amazing boyfriend. She’d been happy.

Now she’d never get any of that back. She was essentially trapped in this small room forever.

Even if she did manage to get out of the room it was still pointless. She was just going to be captured again anyway so why even bother?

To get yourself killed.

She let out a broken chuckle through her blurred vision. Was this was she was reduced to? Contemplating not how to escape this place, but the best way to commit suicide? Well, did she really have any other option? She was going to die eventually, someday her usefulness would come to an end and they’d kill her.

It might be better to die on her own terms.

Although there was one option she could take; a final resort before she could resort to planning her own suicide.

She could listen to the voices.

As soon as that thought entered her mind she began sobbing and curled up into a ball. She cursed herself for even thinking of that. They wanted her to do this! This…all she was feeling right now was engineered by them to bait her into crossing the point of no return.

But the despair was crumbling her resolve to resist the emotional manipulation as she laid curled up for unknown minutes; because deep down, she felt that it was irrevocably rooted in truth.

She had no more options if she ever wanted to escape.

It didn’t matter it she held out forever or a few hours. It would accomplish nothing in the long run. If she didn’t break, someone else would and all she would have done is gotten executed knowing she’d resisted them. That might have been good enough for some, but not her. If she was going to resist, it had to accomplish something.

And if listening to the voices was the key to escaping…could she really ignore it?

As if they knew the internal war she was fighting, the voices whispered on the edge of her consciousness; taunting her with vague sounds that she would be able to understand if she just paid attention.

Just a moment. That’s all that was needed.

And what did she have to lose? Her mind? At this point, it might be better this way. If she went insane she’d be free in a way, no longer worrying about the hell her life had become. Better if that forced these people to conclude she was a lost cause and terminate her once and for all.

She sat up, taking shaky breaths and feeling her resolve grow. The grief and sadness slowly faded, though she didn’t know if that was the result of the chemicals fading or if she’d ironically somehow managed to resist them after deciding to do what they wanted.

But she no longer cared is she was getting manipulated or not. There were no more options; no more putting it off. It was time to take a chance or resign herself to the life of a captive.

She got off the bed and knelt on the floor, calmly resting her hands on her knees. A meditative pose she’d seen that somehow felt right for this situation. Slowing her breathing down until it was a steady rhythm, she closed her eyes.

And listened.

The world went quiet and a blanket silence fell on her.

Utter silence.

Then at the edge of her consciousness she heard the faint sound of words. She immediately focused on them.

Wonder what the Director is thinking, keeping the subject alive this long. It served it’s purpose long ago.

More words came, but these were different, it didn’t sound like the source was the same. Tell me about it. The subjects get more dangerous the longer we keep it. Let’s hope the scientists get what they need. I don’t want these things living up to their namesake.

Annette gasped as a flood of images appeared; most were half-formed, vague, rooms missing details. A hideous creature with leathery wings and shrieking. All the images were going an instant later as the first voice continued. Who came up with the name, anyway?

Long story apparently, the second voice said and kept speaking but Annette noticed something that seemed like a blanket above her, or more like a balloon about to pop. Focusing it on it, images came into view, much sharper and clearer than the half-formed images she’d seen earlier.

It was a hallway with bright white lights above it and gray floors and walls. Directly across was something like a cell. Rather like hers, if she was being honest. But what seemed interesting is that this didn’t seem to be a static image. Almost without thinking, she looked to her left and was surprised when the image shifted as well.

A man was beside her, or at least from the image she was seeing. He was speaking, though she couldn’t hear anything. He appeared pretty well dressed, wearing pants, a striped suit and tie with suspenders. Various electronic equipment was on him, earpieces and some computing gear strapped to his arms and waist. A red bandanna covered his lower face and he appeared to be of Chinese descent.

This was so weird, but she was curious just what she was doing. Time to see what was behind her. Willing the image to completely reverse, she realized she was also in front of a similar looking cell to the one across from her. Only this one had someone in it. A woman, it appeared, brown hair, white cloths and…kneeling…on the floor.

She audibly gasped and the image blurred and threatened to vanish as her heart started pounding.

This couldn’t be possible. It couldn’t be.

Holding onto the collapsing image, she raised her own physical hand and saw the woman raise it as well. Not a woman. Her. The image faded and her eyes snapped open with a gasp and frantic breathing. Unwilling to sit still, she jumped to her feet and began pacing frantically.

Had she just-did she seriously…was that some strange sort of hallucination?

It seemed insane…but there wasn’t any other way she could explain it.

She’d seen inside someone’s mind.

And the voices…they weren’t random whispers in her mind. They were people; their thoughts, words and memories. And if she could understand them…she paused her pacing, thinking furiously.

Could she control them?

To a degree she must, otherwise how would she have turned the head to her cell. So if she could figure out how to control people…

A smile crept across her face as the beginnings of an idea formed in her head as the voices lingered in the back of her head.

But now she could understand them.

Now she had a chance to escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Paris, France

Abby and Ruth sat out in an open-air café while they waited for evening. Fortunately, it was a cloudy day, so neither of them were too hot. Both wore civilian clothes, quite a change for Abby who hadn’t worn anything other than armor outside the Citadel for months. Quite honestly, she felt exposed and vulnerable and had to stop herself from subconsciously reaching down for her non-existent pistol.

At the moment, they were only a few miles from the bar where their target frequented. A few hours more and they would converge, execute the op and leave with hopefully none the wiser. Abby fingered the vial in her hands as they watched the civilians walk and mill around without a care in the world.

She’d chosen the sedative herself and knew exactly how long it to take effect. There’d been some debate, but they ultimately decided around four hours was enough time for Abby to realistically convince him to take her back to his place of residence, with enough time to allow for driving and potential traffic. It wouldn’t do any good for him to pass out halfway back if he was driving. Alternatively, she’d get him drunk enough so she would drive him back.

Four hours. She was going to have to hold his attention for that long. Abby felt nervous again as she kept remembering that. Ruth had said she was confident in her ability, but Abby wasn’t too sure.

“You’ve got that look again,” Ruth commented as she sipped her coffee.

Abby looked over. “What look?”

“Your nervous but trying to hide it look,” Ruth clarified with a smile.

It was eerie how good she was at this. “How could you possibly guess that?” Abby asked, raising her cup of tea. “For all you know, the tea just might not have agreed with me.”

Ruth smirked. “Because one, I’m a Kidon agent who’s spent a good portion of her life reading people and two, because I’ve had that tea and it’s pretty good.”

“Well, you got me,” Abby sighed. “But I can’t really help it.”

“Nerves before an op, it’s perfectly normal,” Ruth encouraged. “Nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all been through it.”

“I doubt you were the one the entire op rested on,” Abby pointed out. “The entire mission depends on me.”

“True, my first mission was a bit easier,” Ruth admitted. “But you’re selling yourself short. And giving this guy way too much credit.”

Abby set down her drink. “So, what was yours, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” Ruth shrugged and set her coffee on the table. “There was this drug dealer in Jerusalem. Terrible guy, sold the stuff primarily to kids and teens. Thing was, he was really good at covering his tracks and had an excellent lawyer who got him out of jail time over and over. The Mossad were sick of it and wanted him gone. So, they involved the Kidon and I got my orders to kill him, but with one catch.”

Abby had an idea but asked anyway. “And it was…?”

“It had to look like an accident,” Ruth smiled fondly. “Now, back then I was young and wanted to impress my superiors. They would have been satisfied with a framed overdose or suicide, but I wanted it to be perfect. I found him a few days of looking around and began setting a rather elaborate trap.”

Abby was curious, despite herself. “The first thing I did was kidnap his lawyer and drive him down to an area overrun with several gangs. They’re very territorial and I don’t imagine what they did to him was pretty. His death appeared on the news a week later. Sad, really. Unfortunate he’d chosen to associate with such terrible company, the police might have spent more than a few hours looking into his death. But it was so clearly a tragic homicide.”

Ruth shook her head. “Anyway, getting off topic. So I waited as he left to go do his business and subdued his girlfriend. She talked pretty quickly and I soon knew when he’d be coming back. So I waited and when the time was right, jacked her up on a whole host of drugs and chemicals. LSD, meth, a whole bunch of stuff. She overdosed rather quickly, but that was the point. Though personally, I’m not sure if she died from the overdose or when I stabbed her several times.”

Ruth took a sip of her coffee. “So once he got back, I subdued him, and got him high on just LSD. Got his prints all over the knife, so implicated him in a murder. His house was a haven of drugs already so I didn’t even have to plant anything. Anyway, he’s so far gone now so he pretty much let me guide him wherever. I walked him down to his car, started it, and sent him off.”

“He crashed, I assumed?” Abby asked rhetorically.

“Not at first,” Ruth clarified. “He drove rather drunkenly around the street for a few minutes,” her eyebrow rose. “However, the Kidon have this very handy gadget that, if placed under the accelerator and hooked to it, can be remotely trigger and cause a massive speed boost. Self-destructs afterwards as well, which is handy.”

“So you triggered it and he sped to his death,” Abby stated.

“Exactly,” Ruth nodded with a smile. “His car crashed spectacularly. I waited a few minutes to let him suffocate or burn to death before calling the medics. Though I was pretty sure the impact alone killed him. Anyway, it was eventually ruled a murder-suicide and everyone was happy.”

“And you think that was easier than this?” Abby asked, staring at her incredulously. “You killed three people!”

“Three criminals,” Ruth corrected emphatically. “And yes, of course it’s easier. Killing people is easy, but manipulating people? A little harder, no matter if your target is an idiot or Einstein.”

Abby frowned at her. “You didn’t think that was a bit overkill? Quite literally?”

“Like I said, I was young and wanted to impress people,” Ruth admitted, looking out into the crowd. “I would probably be a little less flashy if done today.”

It was talks like these when Abby felt she should be much more scared and worried about this woman than she was. They’d be having something resembling a normal conversation and Ruth would give a story like that as an example or use it to illustrate her point. Most of the time it involved killing someone or worse.

The thing was, Ruth was just so nice and didn’t act like the killer she was at all. She’d been extremely helpful and supportive and did everything possible to help her transition to her new role. She’d seen unbalanced people before and Ruth didn’t exhibit any of the signs associated with that. After spending some time not just with Ruth, but the other Mossad and Kidon agents, she now had some theories as to why.

The simplest explanation is that it was just part of the job for them. Their missions were often lethal and over time they’d just become desensitized to it. From what little she knew about the Kidon, the other possibility was that they were more or less groomed not to feel anything about their targets.

She wasn’t quite willing to bring up the subject of the Kidon right now. “Well,” she finally said, taking a sip. “I guess this could be much harder.”

“Please,” Ruth said, looking back over. “You’ll do fine. Remember the constant rule.”

“Of course,” Abby sighed. “All men are idiots when it comes to women.”

“Exactly,” Ruth confirmed.

“You think you’re not overgeneralizing a bit?” Abby asked, that particular question bugging her ever since Ruth had first mentioned it.

“Not really,” Ruth shook her head. “Trust me, I’ve followed this rule for years and it becomes ridiculously easy after a point. Men want attention; give that to them, make them feel important and that’s ninety percent of your work done,” she eyed Abby. “I’m slightly surprised you haven’t figured that out yet. You’re an attractive woman, surely you must have met someone?”

“Oh, I have,” Abby waved her hand absentmindedly. “But I was in med school to get my degree. Not hook up with people. Besides, I had no desire to start something that wouldn’t last,” she fixed Ruth with a smirk. “And all the men I worked with were very intelligent, some more so than me.”

“Oh, I completely believe you,” Ruth clarified, setting her drink on the table. “But notice I said they’re idiots when it comes to women. Big difference.”

Abby was silent for a minute. “Look,” Ruth turned further to face her. “I don’t think you have much to worry about with this guy. Chat him up, smile, compliment him, give him everything he wants to hear. It’s easier than you think, you’ll see.”

“Let’s just hope he’s not the womanizing type,” Abby frowned. “That’ll make things difficult.”

“Oh, no,” Ruth chuckled. “Those are the easiest. All you have to do is sit back as listen to them brag about themselves, while occasionally commenting on how great they must be. It’s the quieter ones who are more skeptical of sudden attention that are more difficult. But that isn’t this guy so don’t worry.”

Abby raised an eyebrow. “So if this is completely foolproof, I suppose you have a perfect track record?”

“Not quite,” Ruth admitted with a smile. “In my entire career there have only been two who I’ve failed to successfully seduce. Though one was a Chinese spy and the other a former KGB operative. Seduction typically doesn’t work on intelligence personnel, so I usually use other means. But events sometimes happen that do force my hand.”

She doubted this whole mission would be quite as simple as Ruth was making it out to be, but she was too self-assured for Abby not to feel a little better about it. Though what she was doing did personally make her uncomfortable, especially when in this case it was very much rooted in truth.

Because she did see Ruth’s point very well, and in fact had experienced it several times. She vividly recalled asking some of her male colleagues in med school for help on one thing or another a few times and them being very quick to instantly agree, no matter how difficult or time consuming it was.

After a few times, it became clear to her that they were primarily helping her for the sole reason of either asking her out or just having sex. It had unnerved her a little how far they were willing to go just for the possibility of either. She’d eventually stopped asking for help altogether because the longer it went on, the more it felt like she was taking advantage of their interest even if it wasn’t her fault.

She’d never really thought of using her attractiveness as a weapon before, but upon thinking upon it further, Ruth was right in how useful it could be. Still, it felt exploitative on a personal level and she wasn’t looking forward to seeing how accurate Ruth’s rule actually was.

“You two ready?” the voice of Akello interrupted her thoughts, the voice coming in her earpiece.

Ruth switched hers on and Abby copied it. “Whenever you are. You inside?”

Abby heard a snort. “This is honestly pathetic. It took me about five minutes to get in. I’ve got full control of the cameras and systems.”

“Excellent,” Ruth stood and tossed her cup in the trash. “Time to start.”

***

Scotland, Wilderness

As he and his team waited for intel, Cerian busied himself with learning as much about the organization, personnel and history of XCOM. Patrick had provided him everything the Council had on it, although had admitted to him that the majority of it was likely out of date as the Commander didn’t feel the need to keep the Council updated on anything.

He shook his head at that. No wonder that Commander thought he could walk all over the Council. They were too scared of demanding anything and as a result he’d effectively shut them out for good. The fact that the Commander hadn’t given any non-verbal updates should have been a massive red flag that things might not be so good.

To be fair, the Council was divided, but to Cerian, that set off an even bigger flag. He wasn’t particularly surprised that Russia was at the forefront of the pro-Commander side, but the fact that they weren’t even trying to hide it indicated that they had something planned and weren’t afraid of antagonizing the other nations. And because Russia was one of the most powerful countries, it gave some of the smaller countries the courage to stand by them.

Politics aside, it was quite a fascinating few days of research. The Council hadn’t skimped on hiring the best either. Shen he hadn’t personally heard of, but he was apparently well known in the field. Interesting that he was a Taiwanese immigrant, Cerian wondered what his opinions to China were. He also had a daughter, apparently, stuck at some school apparently. No mention of the mother though, which was odd. But Shen had been involved in a lot of high-profile military and civilian projects, some of them UN.

It was the same with Vahlen, though she was one he’d heard of. There had been speculation that she’d been a victim of the Caliphate during the War on Terror. Apparently she’d just been recruited for XCOM.

She’d always been involved on the cutting edge of controversial and experimental military tech, so she was a natural pick for a position with so many possibilities. Although, some of the stuff she’d worked on, or had been alleged to work on was…very questionable. Fringe science was a term he’d usually dismissed, but the more he looked into Vahlen’s past, the more he got the impression that she was a fringe scientist at heart.

She was involved in an extremely high number of classified projects that the Council only had limited records on. Such projects were alleged to be creating super soldiers and world-ending plagues. Stuff out of science fiction that Vahlen seemed determined to bring into reality.

Combined with the Commander’s complete lack of ethics and morality, pairing them together would only lead to disaster.

But that was for the Council to deal with. His job was to find evidence of XCOM interfering in international affairs.

“Cerian!” Mary practically exclaimed, as she rushed in almost out of breath. A laptop clutched in her hands, she quickly brushed her short black hair back in attempt to look presentable. It was quite apparent from her disheveled appearance that she hadn’t eaten or slept for a while.

But any trace of fatigue was gone and her eyes sparkled. Well, let’s see what this is. “Yes?” He asked calmly, putting down his tablet and giving her his full attention.

“Ok, listen,” she began excitedly. “You forwarded me the list of XCOM soldiers right?”

Cerian nodded. He’d allowed all the agents access to the files as soon as he’d received them. Fortunately, the soldier list was something that was current, at least in regards to the Council nations. Most countries notified the people affiliated with the Council about transfers to XCOM as well, with a few exceptions such as Israel.

“Short version is that I got a hit,” she explained, taking a seat beside him and opening up her laptop. He immediately focused on it.

“On who?” He demanded as the video came into focus.

“An XCOM soldier,” Mary answered. “Abigail Gertrude. I thought that was odd so I looked who she was with.” She focused the image in further. “I can’t see her face, but the body matches with our mystery woman.”

Cerian felt a smile creep across his face. “Now that is very interesting. And in civilian clothing no less. Where is this?”

“Paris,” Mary answered immediately. “I’ve been keeping an eye on both of them. The woman never reveals her face, but Abigail clearly hasn’t learned the same discretion.”

“Where are they now?” Cerian demanded, looking at the current feed where they appeared to be in some kind of restaurant or coffee shop.

“Some café,” Mary confirmed. “They’ve been there for at least an hour, according to the logs. This is the only lead I’ve found at the moment.”

Cerian immediately rose to his feet and hit the buzzer that sent out a quick shriek throughout the house. “We’ve got a hit everyone! Gather up your equipment and head for the helicopter! Now! This is time sensitive!

There were confirmations shouted from the various rooms and the rustle of gear being gather. Cerian fixed his gaze on Mary. “Don’t let them out of your sight, camera or otherwise. I want to know everything that happens, no matter how small.”

“Yes, sir!” She nodded. “I’m ready to go now, if that’s fine.”

“Get something to eat,” he began, then paused. “Actually, hold off. I’ll get you something when we get to Paris. But excellent work.”

Her eyes focused on the screen, she nodded. “Can it be pizza? American pizza?”

“Yeah,” he nodded absentmindedly, thinking of the best way to handle this. Ren, Baston and Olivia approached him, all geared up with packs of equipment.

“We’re ready when you are, sir.” Olivia said, speaking for them.

He raised an eyebrow. “Where’s Darril?”

“Here!” Darril called out as he rushed out, stuffing a vial into his pack. “Apologies sir!”

He jabbed a finger at them. “Olivia, Ren. Both of you will don civilian attire and go with me into the field. Unless XCOM is moving into an abandoned area, we’re staying incognito. Blend in with the crowd and keep in constant contact.”

“Got it!” They both confirmed.

“Darril, Baston, both of you will stand by in case things go south,” Cerian ordered. “Do not intervene unless ordered or your life is in danger. Got it?”

“Yes, sir!” They confirmed.

He grabbed his sniper rifle, finding solace in the comforting weight even though he’d probably not be using it. “Let’s go!” He shouted over his shoulder as they marched behind him to the helicopter. “We need to intercept them before they leave the city.”

Time to find out what XCOM was doing here.

Provided they actually were XCOM.

Cerian smiled as the helicopter lifted off. It had been years, and it felt good to be doing something important again.   

***

Paris, Personne Ne Se Traduit

The club was surprisingly packed. Abby felt that she shouldn’t have been quite as surprised as she was. Actually, it honestly made sense, with the alien attacks, she’d imagine that would drive more people to drink. Not to mention it was Paris and still had a large amount of tourists.

It worked to her advantage though, no one would question her if they noticed she wasn’t a native. There was a pretty diverse crowd here, people of all races and nationalities. It also wasn’t going to make their mission any easier.

“How are we going to find him in this?” Abby muttered to Ruth who stood beside her also watching the crowd.

“We’re early, remember?” Ruth reminded her. “We’re just going to get into position. Akello will let us know the moment he enters.”

“Yep. Copy that,” Akello commented in her earpiece. “He doesn’t typically show up this early, though.”

“Right,” Abby responded as they went over to one of the tables as pounding music played, almost vibrating through the air. It was a fairly open place, squares of tables with dividers between them. An expansive bar that stretched throughout the area, a large dance floor and several game tables at the far ends. Thanks to Akello looking at the footage of previous nights Madvay had come, he would spend the majority of his time at the bar itself, occasionally chatting with women who came up to him.

The chaos wasn’t as distracting as she was expecting. She could concentrate without too much trouble. She supposed after being in warzones, an overly loud club didn’t hold her attention quite the same way. Fortunate, since she was going to need to be at the top of her game for this.

“Been awhile since I’ve been in a place like this,” Ruth commented, laying her arms down on the table. “Past few months it’s either been small bars or infiltration missions. Nothing this scale in a while.”

“You like this?” Abby asked, looking over at her. Ruth had a contented smile on her face and playfulness in her eyes.

“I like the energy,” Ruth said, resting his chin on her fist. “It’s invigorating, especially when hunting. Not to mention the targets are always easier when drunk.” She brightened. “Speaking of which, we should probably get something. Two women sitting alone without anything might draw the wrong attention.”

Abby nodded, blending in was a good idea. “I’ll go get something. You have a preference?”

“Orange juice,” Ruth answered, looking over at the bar. “If they even have that. Don’t worry too much, but no water or alcoholic.”

“Got it,” Abby reassured her and began making her way through the crowd of people. Some moved out of her way politely, others didn’t, and some were just too drunk to notice. She just focused on getting to the bar. It was busy, but she managed to find a spot and sat down. Someone would come to her eventually and she wasn’t in a hurry.

As she looked over the menu, she did feel kind of depressed hearing all the cheers, laughter and enjoyment around her. It was just so odd how things were so…normal. How could people just continue on when the world itself was threatened? It didn’t seem fair or right that these people could move through life without any worry but other, better people died to grant them that luxury. Shouldn’t they be doing something to help?

But wasn’t that the point? People like her made the sacrifices and others like Liam, Luke and Mira gave their lives so people lived in peace. But it just seemed wrong for people to pretend it wasn’t happening.

A quick rapping caught her attention as she refocused her eyes on one of the bartenders who was looking at her with amusement. “Can I help you, miss?” He asked with a smile, his French accent clearly pronounced. His brown hair was styled short, and his green eyes twinkled mischievously.

She cleared her throat. “Ah, yes. Sorry. You have orange juice?”

“Why, yes. Yes I do.” Almost instantly he placed a bottle on the counter. It looked like some sort of foreign company, but she could tell for sure. She must have been looking at it a bit too long because the bartender smiled. “Don’t worry. Non-alcoholic, it’s our most popular brand here. Worth every euro.”

“Ok,” Abby shook her head to clear her thoughts. “Just sweet tea for me.”

“You got it,” he walked off and Abby looked at the bottle. Oddly enough, it appeared to be written in Hebrew. Or was it Russian? Whatever it was, she couldn’t read the ingredients to see if the bartender was telling the truth. Something seemed off about him, especially since he’d somehow known what she was going to ask for.

“Here you go,” he told her, setting a glass with tea in front of her. “Anything else?”

“Oh, this,” Abby fished out the credit card she’d been given and handed it to him. He took it and walked back. Taking a sip of her tea, she had to admit it was pretty good. Just the right amount of sweetness.

“All done,” he handed the card back. “Now, may I have the vial?”

She froze. The only vial she had contained the sedative and the only way someone could know about that was…

She narrowed her eyes and looked at the bartender much more closely. It was subtle, but whenever he blinked, sometimes his irises didn’t quite match up. It seemed extremely difficult to believe but…”Kalonymous?”

“Well, at least I know my disguise works,” he answered happily, lowering his voice as he returned to his Israeli accent she’d become familiar with. “I figured it was best to cut out the middleman. No need to risk compromising yourself. I’ll add it to his drink myself.”

Without breaking eye contact, Abby causally resting her palm on the table, setting the vial down. He’d pick it up without having to do something as obvious as handing it to him. “Have a good night,” she told him. “Thanks for the drinks.”

“Of course miss,” Kalonymous answered, regaining his uncannily accurate French accent. “Enjoy!”

She took the drinks and walked back to where Ruth was seated, taking care not to spill her drink. Sliding into her seat she slid the orange juice over to an incredulous Ruth. “How the hell did you manage to get this?” Ruth demanded as she looked it over.

“You didn’t tell me Kalonymous was posing as the bartender,” Abby answered, taking a sip of her tea. “I guess he knew what we liked.”

Her face lit up. “Ah, so he did manage to get in. Excellent.”

Abby cocked her head. “You didn’t think that would have been good to know?”

“That was best case scenario,” Ruth explained. “Especially in a place like this. I figured he’d have been resigned to just watch the streets or something. We’ll definitely know when Madvay shows up now.”

“I’m wondering,” Abby said, looking again at the partying crowd. “What are you going to be doing when I’m chatting him up?”

“Watching and listening,” she answered with a small smile. “Depending on how well you’re doing, I might just take up some of the offers that are sure to come if I move around a little.”

Abby pinched the bridge of her nose. “You aren’t actually going to have sex during the middle of this, are you?”

“Hey, only if you don’t have issues,” Ruth reassured her. “You take what you can get in this job. Besides, it’s good practice and one of the few times I get to have fun.”

“You have an interesting definition of the word fun,” Abby noted, raising an eyebrow. “You’re not going to kill them, are you?”

“God no,” Ruth chuckled. “Trust me, I only go after men who pose no threat to me. If there is even a sliver of doubt he might be violent, I just avoid him. Dead bodies draw attention.”

“How smart,” Abby remarked sarcastically. “I would say good luck, but I don’t think you need it.”

“No,” Ruth answered as she flashed a seductive smile at one of the men who passed. “I certainly do not.”

***

Going into this loud, obnoxious place reminded Cerian why he’d chosen a nice quiet spot in Scotland beyond being essentially forced into retirement. How anyone could enjoy themselves with their heads physically pounding from the music was beyond him. He was probably getting too old for this.

“So this is the place?” He stated, more in hope than as an actual question.

“Yes, sir,” Mary said into his earpiece. “Tracked them to here. I’ll begin taking control of the cameras now.”

Cerian hesitated. “Could you do something about the noise?”

He pointedly ignored the stifled chuckle from Olivia behind him. “I’ll see what I can do,” Mary promised, also sounded amused. “Although that might draw attention.”

“Forget it,” he sighed, looking back at Olivia and Ren. “Both of you enter after me. Move around, participate if you want. But I want eyes on them as soon as possible.”

“Got it,” Ren said, running a hand though his wavy brown hair. “And once we do?”

“Keep me updated and do not approach,” Cerian ordered, turning toward the entrance. “You know the drill. There are probably Kidon agents with them, and they’re likely in the crowd. Be on your guard.”

“Will do,” Olivia stated, biting her lower lip. “Though this is a club. We’re both probably going to attract some people.”

Yes, she was right. His age was going to be an advantage here in that he didn’t have to worry about that issue. Younger agents were more vulnerable in that respect. Still, both of them were professionals and could handle the distractions. “I’ll leave how to handle that up to you,” he told them, eyeing them sharply. “But no trysts.”

“Oh, fine,” Ren sighed dramatically. Cerian smirked and began going into the club. A lot of people; that would both help and hinder them. Hinder by making it more difficult to find them. But when they did it would be much easier to blend into the crowd. It was large, so some walking around would be in order.

But first he had to plan. Sitting down in an empty chair, he looked into the crowd. Nothing so far, but he wouldn’t expect many competent agents to be wandering around unless they were looking for someone. Pulling out his phone and pretending to use it to distract anyone possibly watching, he kept thinking.

Unless they were trying to get into restricted areas, they would be in the main areas. So that meant they were probably sitting down somewhere as well. At least the two women, excluding any additional people XCOM might, or might not have sent. “I’m inside,” he muttered. “No signs yet. Moving to the bar.”

“Would have been rather anti-climactic if you had,” Ren commented. “I mean, when do missions go that smoothly?”

“I’m poised to enter now,” Olivia informed him. “Taking the left side.”

“I’ll move to the dance floor,” Ren said. “Anything new, Mary.”

“Working,” was the tense reply.

Cerian made his way through the throng of people, not seeing anything familiar in the crush of faces. The bar itself was very…sparkly, if that made any sense. No, immaculate was a better word. A polished wooden bar that shined when the lights hit it. He didn’t look up at the flashing neon lights over at the dance floor. All it would accomplish was giving him a headache.

Taking a seat, he looked over the menu while he waited for service. Yep, about what he expected. While it had been a while since an op like this, he fell back into the routine so easily. “May I help you?” A bartender who was clearly a native Frenchman asked him, with a disarming smile.

“[Yes, an Adelscott and a bottle of water if it’s alright,]” Cerian replied in French. “[Also a plastic cup if you don’t mind.]”

The brown-haired bartender nodded quickly. “[Of course, sir. One moment.]” He went off while Cerian looked down the bar. Not that much unexpected here either, a few groups of people chatting. Some people sitting alone watching the TV’s, sometimes cheering when the team they were rooting for scored. In fact, a few tables were also watching. Potentially a good stakeout point.

“[Here you go, sir.]” The bartender returned with his drinks. Cerian handed him some cash in payment.

“[Appreciated, keep the change.]” That might look suspicious otherwise, but it was only a few cents. Not really worth noting. Grabbing the drinks, he made for a more secluded corner just for the moment. Sitting down, he opened the small beer bottle and poured it into the cup he’d requested.

“Well this is interesting,” Mary’s voice came through.

“What is it?” Cerian asked quietly, making sure no one was watching.

“Someone else is already in the system, I can’t assume control without them noticing.”

Cerian pursed his lips. At least this proved there was something going down here. “Can you secure it” He asked as he poured water into the now empty beer bottle.

“Always up for a challenge,” was the response. “I can put them on the defensive at the very least. But It’ll tip them off we’re here.”

Damn it. “I don’t want to spook them,” Cerian said, putting the empty water bottle down. “Nothing else you can do?”

“I can try to trace it,” Mary said slowly. “But if they’re even remotely competent they’ll be using proxies. Here, let me try piggybacking off of them. I won’t have control but I’ll see what they’re looking at.”

“Do it,” he said, standing up with the beer bottle filled with water. “I’m moving around now.”

They continued moving around for the better part of half an hour, sitting down for a few minutes, looking around, then moving again. He didn’t see Olivia or Ren, which he counted as a good thing. He also didn’t see anyone overly out of the ordinary or anyone who set off any internal alarms.

“I think I might have found them,” Ren informed. “At least a woman matching Abigail’s picture.”

Cerian raised the bottle to his lips as a distraction. “Where?”

“About halfway down the bar, I believe table three on your left.”

“Moving,” he told them, standing up. Fingering a hidden camera, he began making his way towards the table. The crowd remained consistent so he was able to move without drawing more attention. Passing tables one, two…

Table three he glanced casually to his left. Two women were chatting intently with each other, looking into the crowd, though not currently on him. The blonde was definitely Abigail and she had a drink with some sort of dark liquid in it. Probably not alcohol. Tea? As he kept moving he quickly placing the camera down on the table opposite them without looking.

As for the other woman, she could be none other than Ruth Shira. The last alleged picture of her was about half a decade old, but the resemblance was uncanny. She was older, but it was definitely her. She also had some sort of bottle in her hand, what it was, he couldn’t make out.

That was all he needed and he looked away and let the crowd consume him. “Camera placed,” he muttered as he looked onto his phone displaying the video feed. “Confirmation on Abigail Gertrude and Ruth Shira. Be on guard, Kidon agents are in play. Exercise extreme caution.”

“Damn,” Olivia sighed. “Well, what now?”

“We watch and wait,” Cerian ordered. “Find a spot and stay there for the moment. Watch people that don’t move, guards, the bartenders. They could have people anywhere.”

“Acknowledged,” Ren stated.

“They’re keeping most of the cameras on auto,” Mary updated. “But they have one fixed on the entrance. I think they’re waiting for someone.”

“Then we wait,” Cerian stated. “Don’t screw this up now.”

***

“We have confirmation of target entrance,” Akello updated. “Following.”

“Good,” Ruth took a sip of her drink. “No hostiles spotted so far.”

“That normal?” Abby asked, looking around.

“In this case, no,” Ruth clarified. “This guy might not even be part of EXALT. He might just actually be a high ranking member on vacation, so I’d assume that wouldn’t warrant special attention.” The corners of her lips twitched. “That being said, if he is EXALT there is a suspicious lack of security.”

“He’s going to the bar now,” Akello updated again. “Kalonymous is giving him his drink. The clock starts now.”

“Showtime,” Abby muttered. “I’ll give him a few minutes, watch him for a bit.”

“Good hunting,” Ruth smiled. “Remember the plan.”

“Of course,” Abby nodded. It was simple, yet not set in stone. Things had to right, first.

Taking a deep breath, she stood and began walking over to the bar. Taking a seat on the corner, she got her first good look at Madvay. His appearance was much like the picture Zhang had shown them. Short styled brown hair, pale skin, blue eyes and a round face. He had some distinct Russian features such as a flatter chin and slightly protruding nose. Overall, he wasn’t a bad looking man.

Resting her arms on the bar, she watched him passively, glad she could do that without it looking suspicious. If anyone saw her, they’d just assume she was checking him out, which she was. She was curious how long it would take him to notice, if he did. While she watched, she wrapped a strand of hair around her finger, toying with it. Men seemed to like that for some reason.

“Let me know if you want to get him a drink,” Kalonymous said under his breath as he walked by, not looking at her.

She tilted her head forward in acknowledgement. That was a good plan, if he failed to notice her. She stirred her tea with a straw and flashed him a smiled as he looked over. He raised an eyebrow in surprise, but otherwise didn’t react as he returned his attention to the TV. Must have thought it was a coincidence or thought it was for someone else.

So, that told her he wasn’t used to attracting attention. Good to know, Ruth warned her about being too aggressive especially with shy men. Going from nothing to well, her, might make him uncomfortable if she went at it the wrong way. He apparently wasn’t completely dense as he looked back to see her still looking over at him.

She gave a little wave, and he went from slight surprise to something resembling interest. He gave her a smile of his own, a rather nice one if she was being honest. She rapped the bar hoping that would get Kalonymous’s attention. She didn’t break eye contact as she sipped her drink.

“Good luck,” Kalonymous told her softly as he walked past. Abby looked away and fished some Euros out of her pocket and laid it on the table to avoid drawing suspicion. Pushing herself off the seat, she figured if she made a roundabout route to Madvay, that would give Kalonymous enough time to deliver the drink, as well as say who it was from.

Pushing her way past some people, she quickly made something of a rectangular route down towards the entrance area, then right until she was roughly where Madvay would be, then headed back up to the bar. She didn’t spot Ruth or anyone else along the way, though she couldn’t help but wonder if that really meant no one was watching. After all, she was new at this.

Ah, perfect. A seat open just beside him to his right. He’d returned to primarily looking at the TV, but she noticed he glanced around every so often. Looking for her, a good sign. Another bottle was beside his glass, so Kalonymous must have given it to him. With a smoothness that surprised herself, she slid into the seat beside him.

“Enjoying the drink?” She asked casually as he noticed and turned to face her.

He raised the glass. “That I am, Madam,” he answered, his voice heavy with a Russian accent, though not incomprehensible. “Though it is a surprise, I must say.”

“Well, not an unpleasant one I hope,” Abby teased, resting her arms on the table. “You looked rather bored.”

“Heh, very true,” he agreed, motioning at the TV. “Very bad game. Even if I have no stake in it,” his lips curled up. “You seem to be much more interesting.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Abby chuckled, raising her glass. “Galia Pritchard.”

“Madvay Vadim,” he answered. “A great pleasure.”

“So where are you from, Madvay,” she asked, easing into another topic. As they were speaking a woman slid into a seat a few down from them and waved over Kalonymous. “Am I wrong to guess you’re as much a native here as I?”

“Completely correct, Galia,” he nodded. “I’m an…overseer, of the equivalent in a major Russian company. On a vacation right now, enjoying it before getting back into the chaos.”

“Oh really?” She said, doing her best to overemphasize her interest. “I didn’t know you were an important businessman.”

She was somewhat amused when he straightened up a bit more at that. “Well, I don’t know if important is the right word,” he downplayed, pretending to sound modest. “But I know what I’m doing very well.”

“Clearly,” she agreed, nodding and let out a dramatic sigh. “I can only imagine how difficult it is to rise. I’ve dealt with the culture before and it’s extremely competitive and stressful.”

“You American, right?” He asked, appraising her. “What do you do?”

“I’m a surgeon,” she explained. “Doing a brief stint here since the European countries have been hit hardest by the aliens.”

He whistled. “Wow, I had no idea I was speaking with such a talented woman.”

She allowed a blush and brushed her hair back. “Why thank you. It’s nice to hear from such a charming gentleman.”

He gave a mischievous smile. “I do my best.”

Well, things were going surprisingly well and if this kept up, she’d have him taking her back to his place in no time. She’d distracted him so completely that he didn’t notice how his drink was oddly refilled. Keep getting him drunk and he’d soon do whatever she said.

So, taking a sip of her tea, she smiled, nodded, and let him talk.

***

“She’s laying it on rather thick,” Olivia commented in Cerian’s earpiece. She’d inserted herself a few chairs down from Abigail and whoever this Madvay was. Every so often, she’d update them on what was being said.

Cerian took a sip. “Mary, you got anything on this Madvay Vadim?”

“Yeah, but I’m not seeing any connection here,” Mary sounded confused. “He’s telling the truth. He’s fairly high up in a Russian agricultural company. Mostly supplies farming equipment and is one of the largest in the country.”

Had Kidon agents not been involved, Cerian would have been tempted to call this whole thing off and instead chalked it up to an XCOM equivalent of shore leave. Abby was clearly trying to…if not seduce him, at least lower his guard around her. By the looks of things, she was doing a good job.

Sitting at the bar, he found it curious that Madvay’s drink was always getting refilled without prompting. Now, it was possible that he’d paid for unlimited drinks or something, but once he notice that, it wasn’t hard to connect that it was always the same bartender who refilled his drink.

A possible agent? Perhaps, and if so he had to be very careful not to tip him off. He’d hate to get poisoned or something. “Mary,” he finally said, looking down at his phone. “Can you get an ID on that bartender? Brown hair, seems to hang around our couple.”

“I’m trying to ID everyone around there,” Mary answered, frustrated. “But he’s not turned his face towards the cameras. It’s like he knows where they are.”

Right. So until proven otherwise, he was mentally marking the bartender as a Kidon agent, or at least affiliated. “Careful of the bartender, Olivia,” he cautioned. “I think he’s with them.”

He saw her faintly bob her head at nothing in particular. So, XCOM clearly wanted something from this man, and he had no idea what. Did they want his identity? His credentials? But even if that were the case, why target some Russian farming company? What possible relevance could that have to the war?

Involving clearly exceptional operatives only compounded his confusion. He would never use Kidon agents for anything other than important missions. So that either meant their commander was an idiot, had nothing but exceptional agents, or Cerian was simply not seeing the whole plan.

“No sign of Ruth,” Ren updated, as he was currently moving through the club, trying to keep track of the Kidon agent. “I shouldn’t have spooked her, but I can’t find her.”

Abigail and Madvay were still talking, and the bartender didn’t seem alarmed, so he doubted she was spooked. Losing a tail was probably second nature to her, especially if even half of her profile was accurate. Even an amateur could lose a tail in this crowd.

“Wait! Spotted her!” Mary hissed. “Take out your earpiece boss! She’s coming for you!”

Within seconds it was out, something he’d mastered years ago. Damn it. If she was coming to him, that didn’t bode well. He heard, didn’t see, someone slid into the seat beside him. Instead he took a sip of his drink.

“You’re awfully quiet in a place like this,” an accented voice said to him. Turning to his right, he looked at the woman speaking to him. Yep, it was her.

Damn.

She didn’t look confrontational, smug or anything he was expecting. Oddly enough, she looked interested, though interested in the way a cat toys with a lizard. Her hair was loose and the black locks fell to her shoulders. Probably to hide the earpiece she had as well. Up close and personal, he could definitely tell she was older than she looked. The way she carried herself and the miniscule discolorations on her face clearly indicated makeup to perhaps cover up signs of age.

She was still a beautiful woman, but the prettiest ones were usually the most dangerous. Spies especially.

Play it cool. “Well, there’s a reason for that,” he gave a lopsided smile. “I’ve got no one to talk to.”

“Well, I can rectify that if you want,” Ruth offered, tilting her head to the side.

“If you wish,” Cerian shrugged. “I certainly won’t turn you down.”

She chuckled. “An odd place to go if you want to be alone.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And why do you assume I want to be alone?”

“You sit away from people, sipping that beer repeatedly,” she answered. “You don’t make eye contact and sometimes just stare off into the distance. The world just vanishes for you.”

He was incredibly confused now. She seemed to have no clue who he was, which meant he’d done his job well. But at the same time, what were the chances she’d just want to…come up to him? Why was she talking to him like a regular person?

No, she had to be acting, just as he was. Putting some defensiveness in his voice, he answered. “You’ve been watching me.”

“You caught my attention,” she answered lazily, flipping some strands of hair behind her head. “Everyone else is so focused, so energetic, drunk, everyone has a reason for being here,” she took a sip of her drink. “Except you it seems.”

Hmm. Maybe he could see if he could get something out of her. “Well,” he looked away. “I guess I don’t really have a purpose here. Not a good one, anyway.”

“Is there a bad reason?” She asked, her sincerity sounding remarkably genuine.

“For me?” He paused. “Tell me, Mrs…?”

“Sarah,” she supplied.

“Sarah,” he continued. “You paying any attention to the world at the moment?”

He was surprised, but he thought he saw a genuine flash of interest in her eyes. “The aliens? I’d be more concerned if people weren’t paying attention.”

“Yeah, the aliens,” Cerian gave a sigh. “The stuff that’s happening could drive anyone here.” He took a perfectly timed sip of his ‘beer.’ “Especially if you were affected by it.”

“Ah,” she looked away. She actually seemed somewhat distracted now. “You lost someone.”

Hmm. She actually seemed to be buying into his story, then again, he was able to give a convincing performance. He slumped his shoulders. “Everyone, pretty much,” he admitted, putting suppressed pain in his voice. “Wife, children, friends. Hamburg, you know.”

“I know,” she nodded solemnly. “I lost friends there too.”

Oddly enough, Cerian believed her there. In their line of work losing friends was not unexpected, though he doubted it was from the Hamburg attack. “I mean, it wasn’t solely Hamburg,” he amended. “You heard of the Berlin Massacre? The attacks in Cologne? My family was too active for their own good.”

She looked away and he noted her subtly clutch her drink a bit tighter. “I’m sorry,” she said. It actually sounded like she meant it. “I hope your family will be avenged one day.”

“By my hand, if possible,” Cerian added, taking another sip. “I enlisted.”

Ruth looked over at him, frowning. “You did?”

“Yep,” he gave a sigh. “I ship out tomorrow. Trying not to think about what I got myself into. But I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and have others fight on my behalf.”

She appraised him, almost not sure what to think. “Admirable,” she finally said. “It’s sad more aren’t like you.”

He gave her a wan smile. “Hey, if the aliens win, I’d rather die fighting to my last breath than live under their rule.”

“Well,” Ruth pushed herself off. “I wish you well. Good luck…”

“Trent,” he supplied.

“Trent,” she nodded. “Thank you for your service.” With that she formed her right hand into a fist and placed it over her chest, then walked away.

After he insured she was gone, he picked up the earpiece.

What the hell had happened?

That entire exchange had been incredibly bizarre. He still didn’t know why she’d come up to him in the first place, but by the end it’d seemed that they were both meaning what they said. He’d convinced her of his story and she’d seemed sincere in wishing him well.

He couldn’t help but think he’d just talked himself out of something. What that was, he had no clue.

Time to see how things were progressing.

***

Her time was running out and the more drunk he became, the more chance he was going to pass out on her. He’d turned out to be surprisingly talkative after an hour or so and was very descriptive of what he did. So she plied him with questions, how many people worked there, what did they do? Any suspicious people? How much security?

He’d more or less answered each of the questions in some way, though he was quickly becoming less coherent. Time to wrap this up. “I don’t think we should continue this here,” she told him sweetly. “I think we’ve talked enough about your job.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” he answered, slightly swinging around. He still wasn’t completely slurring his speech which was a testament to how well he held up after…what was it? Four, five drinks? “My place?”

“Of course,” she leaned in, grinning. “Just where else?”

He grinned and grabbed her hand, taking some initiative for once. She’d wondered if he’d picked up on her subtle flirting and it seemed he had to some degree.

She motioned to the door. “Lead the way,” he shakily stood up, and she grabbed him to steady him.

“You know,” he stumbled. “I think I might not be in the best shape to drive,” he gave a lopsided grin. “I’d hate to crash you.”

Well, well. A responsible driver at that. She was wondering how to bring that up. It was almost a shame she was using him; he genuinely seemed like a decent guy.

“Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “I’ll drive.”

“Right,” he scowled as she fished for the keys in his pocket. His face brightened. “Here!” he dropped them in her hand and once again steady, began walking towards his car.

Well this was interesting. On his keychain was the his company ID. Well that was easy, now to see what else was at his house. They finally arrived at his car, a small red model she’d never seen before. It didn’t matter, they both got in and she started the car.

“Where to?” She asked after buckling up, looking over to him. “Sadly, I don’t know where you live yet.”

“Oh, right,” he blinked several times, his pupils dilating rapidly. Hmm. The sedative was going to take effect very soon. But he recalled it and told her the address.

“Any kind of gate code?” She asked before he passed out completely, not that it would be a huge obstacle, but it would waste time.

“Nope,” he got out, blinking rapidly. “All clear…”

She began driving and after a few minutes looked over at him. “You alright?” she asked, not quite able to keep the smugness out of her voice.

“Fine,” he managed, barely able to keep his eyes open. “Just…really…tired…”

“Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “It will all be over soon.”

“What?” He asked, sounding confused.

“We’ll be home soon,” she amended, hoping he didn’t remember her previous sentence. She waited for a response but after a few minutes, she looked over to see him with his eyes closed and his mouth parted slightly.

Time to give a quick test. Pulling over, she took out the small knife she’d been carrying and made a shallow cut along his arm. Nothing, not a single reaction. He was completely out. She let out a sigh of relief. “Akello, you there?”

“Loud and clear, Abby. Nice work.”

She flushed with pride. “Thanks, but since he’s out, I need directions.”

“Right on it. I’ll meet you there.”

She relayed the directions and it wasn’t far away at all. About twenty minutes later, she pulled into a fairly nice hotel and pulled into the parking lot. His room was one that could be accessed from the outside, so they didn’t need to worry about them being spotted carrying his unconscious body into the room.

“Akello, I’m here.” She informed looking around. If there were security cameras, that could pose an issue.

“I’ve set the cameras on a loop,” Akello told her. “Look to your right.” Abby complied and saw Akello approaching her, laptop in hand, smiling. Getting out of the car, Abby approached her.

“Nice job,” Abby complimented. “That didn’t take long at all.”

The young African snorted. “I could do this with my eyes closed. You didn’t do so bad yourself.”

“Well, here’s your first piece,” Abby handed her the ID. “He’s in room 401, so I’d appreciate it if you opened it. He’s going to be heavy enough as it is.”

Akello nodded and Abby opened the passenger side door and after some tugging, slung Madvay’s body over her shoulders. Dragging might have been quicker, but this was easier. Still, he wasn’t exactly a feather.

It wasn’t a big room, fortunately, and she unceremoniously tossed him onto the bed. Akello was already by Madvay’s desktop computer. She quickly went through his pockets, found his wallet and set that to the side. There wasn’t much else of interest, so she began stripping his clothes off.

Biting her lip, Akello looked over and her eyes widened. “What are you doing?” She asked incredulously.

“Setting a scene,” Abby explained as she worked. “He wakes up naked and assumes we have sex. Matches up with his memories from this night, so he doesn’t think anything’s wrong. Combined with his hangover, he’ll just assume it happened and he can’t remember it.”

“Are you sure that will work?” Akello asked, typing on the computer. “I mean, I’d think that’d be the one thing you don’t forget. Especially with you mysteriously gone.”

Finished, Abby stood up and tossed his clothes haphazardly around the room. “He’s not going to wake up for another eight hours. He’ll understand why I left, especially since I’ll leave a message telling I was called into work. Since I told him I’m a surgeon, he’ll believe that.”

“Clever,” Akello commented. “Well, in the meantime, I’ll enjoy going through his files. A lot of boring stuff, but we can get a lot from these.”

“Got this too,” Abby held up the wallet. “Might be something interesting here.”

Akello’s eyes lit up. “Give that here,” she asked and Abby complied. Pulling out some sort of rectangular box, she began sliding the cards into it which were ejected from the other end.

“What is that?” Abby asked.

“Takes digital images and imprints of cards,” Akello explained as she put a hard drive into her pack. “We can then alter the images or just create new, perfect copies. Perfect for forging and stealing identities.”

“Neat.” Once she was done, Abby placed the wallet and keys into his pants pocket, essentially leaving it as she found it. “You got what you needed?”

“Yep,” Akello shut down her laptop and looked up. “A successful mission, I’d say.”

Abby let out a sigh of relief. “Went better than I expected, honestly.”

“Seriously,” Akello agreed. “Looks like no one will ever know we were here.”

“Well, I’m not complaining,” Abby shrugged. “I guess our next stop is Russia.”

“To Russia we go,” Akello repeated and they both walked out to regroup with the rest of the team.

***

Cerian, with Rey and Olivia behind him arrived at the meeting point. They’d designated a low-budget hotel where people didn’t ask too many questions. Cerian knocked on the door. “We’re here.”

“Passcode?” Baston asked through the door.

Very funny. He would have given some sarcastic answer had he not been concerned about attracting attention. “Open the door. Now.”

“Fine,” there was a click and Baston opened the door. Him and Darril had assault rifles in their hands in the unlikely event they were discovered. All three of them quickly entered the room and shut the door.

“Good job, everyone,” Cerian said as he locked the door and turned to face them. Mary was sitting barefoot and cross-legged on the bed, her laptop resting on her legs. Several boxes of pizza were on the bed and she currently was eating a piece.

“That went pretty smoothly,” Olivia said, slumping down into a chair and yawning. “Though I still don’t have a clue what they were after.”

“Well, they’re clearly interested in the company,” Cerian stated, pursing his lips. “But why is definitely the biggest question right now. I think we’ll find more concrete answers if we keep tracking them.”

“You get an image of that bartender?” Ren asked as he started eating a piece of pizza.

“No,” Cerian sighed. “And I certainly wasn’t going to risk it after Ruth showed up. I can describe him, but I’m not sure how much good it’ll do. He’s probably not on any systems if he is a Kidon agent, anyway.”

“Speaking of which,” Mary raised her half-eaten slice of pizza. “What the hell was that with Ruth?”

“I have no idea,” he answered honestly, sitting down at the end of the bed. “It was bizarre. I don’t think she had any idea who I was.”

“Odd,” Mary shrugged. “Whatever, you completely played her. Well done.”

They all burst into a half-sarcastic round of applause. “Yeah, good for you,” Olivia commented. “At least you didn’t have to listen to two and a half hours of absolutely nothing.”

“Oh, come on,” Ren chided. “You didn’t find it a little funny listening to her obviously sweet-talking him? I’ve got to steal some of those lines. She wasn’t half-bad.”

“I think we should also figure out why an XCOM soldier is involved in an operation like this,” Cerian reminded them. “This was an op clearly designed by a professional. As in an Intelligence professional. XCOM might have something of an intelligence division now.”

“And they didn’t tell the Council,” Darril shook his head. “Wow.”

Olivia snorted. “Genius if you ask me. Why reveal such an asset?”

“We’ll sort out XCOM’s Intelligence division, or lack thereof later,” Cerian interrupted, raising a hand. “Mary, you know where they’re going?”

“Well, the car they’re using seems to be heading to an airport,” Mary answered. “And if I had to guess they’re going to Russia. Specifically where that company is located.”

“Then we have our next destination,” Cerian stated. “Mary, keep track and I want the rest of you looking through any intel we have on this company. Personnel, security, all of it. Understand?”

“Yes, sir!” They affirmed.

“Take a few minutes to recover,” he ordered, leaning back. “Then we get to work.”

 

 

  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Medical Ward

The Commander, flanked by Shen and Blake Harkin, strode down the hallway in the Medical Ward. The new Chief Medic wasn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of them visiting, let alone allowing them to perform the MEC procedure on her; but he’d allowed them to visit Myra, weakened as she was. Not that the Commander was giving him much choice, since he felt Blake was being overcautious. Soldiers were tough, more so than medics liked to believe.

“Commander, I must stress that she might not be physically able,” Blake warned again, his tone attempting to remain respectful. “And from what you’ve told me about this…procedure, it could be highly traumatic for her.”

“Which is why I’m letting her decide,” the Commander reminded him, not looking back. “This is an option for her to consider. Nothing more.”

“That being said, she’s going to feel pressured to go through with it,” Blake insisted. “No disrespect intended, sir.”

“None taken,” the Commander nodded, moderately pleased he wasn’t afraid to question him. “It’s an issue among military personnel. Which is why I’m letting you stay. I’m sure you’ll feel compelled to add your medical opinion.”

“Oh,” Blake verbally seemed to shrug. “Well, I appreciate that.”

They reached the room and Blake opened the door and entered first. Myra was awake on the bed staring into the ceiling, a thin sheet covering her body. A few IV tubes were connected, but she was off life support and breathing assistance. It was difficult not to focus on the stump of her arm that already seemed smaller.

Upon hearing the door open, she quickly tried to reposition herself into a more professional position until the Commander raised a hand. “At ease, soldier.” She complied and sank back down into the bed for few seconds, then tried to get into a more comfortable sitting position at a much slower pace.

“I didn’t expect to see you, Commander,” Myra said, her voice cracked and tired. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Harkin tells me you’re recovering well,” the Commander said, taking one of the seats that had been placed in the corner and setting it by her. Sitting down at eye level, he continued. “But I want to be sure for myself.”

Myra looked up at the blank ceiling. “I’m still tired,” she admitted. “But no pain. Unfortunately no pain. I can move this arm,” she raised her good hand. “And my body. But I can’t feel anything below my waist.”

The Commander looked over at Blake. The good doctor had failed to mention this. “You didn’t mention she was paralyzed,” he stated coldly. Blake swallowed.

“As I explained to Mrs. Rodriguez, it’s not a permanent paralysis,” he explained hastily. “With dedicated physical therapy, she will probably be able to walk again with assistance.”

“Yeah,” Myra snorted. “A real comfort, that. With assistance.”

The Commander sighed. While it might not have been worst-case scenario, he would have preferred knowing if one of his soldiers was that wounded, even if only temporarily. He’d have to deal with that later, since he was sure Blake hadn’t meant to omit that information. Probably just didn’t consider it important enough.

“I’ll get to the point,” the Commander said, standing. “As things stand right now, you’re incapable of combat and will receive an honorable discharge. I’ll personally ensure your expenses are taken care of.”

Myra sighed, looking down sadly. “Figured as much. A shame, I’d stay on if I could.”

A good start, though he’d suspected as much. “I’m not finished,” he told her, raising a hand. “XCOM engineering has developed prosthetics than are arguably as good as an actual limbs. You’ll receive them regardless of what you decide.”

She looked over at him, an eyebrow raised. “What I decide?”

“Yes,” the Commander nodded. “Because there is another option for you,” he motioned Shen forward. “Tell her about the MECs.”

Shen adjusted his glasses. “We’ve been working on more advanced technology to utilize against the aliens. Our most promising is the MEC project,” he handed her a tablet with drawings and concepts. “It’s something of an exoskeleton, but on a far larger scale. There is much we could do with such a modifiable machine. It could be outfitted for close-quarters, long range or artillery.”

“You need pilots,” Myra guessed, looking at him. “It looks impressive, but how could one person control something this size?”

“The pilots would have to be altered to properly sync with the MEC,” Shen continued, his tone reserved. “This requires…” he trailed off. The Commander didn’t.

“It will require the amputation of your limbs and reinforcement and reconstruction of your torso and brain,” the Commander finished. “You’d get replacement limbs and implants designed to interface with the MEC suits.”

Myra coughed. “That is…not what I expected.” She frowned as she looked at the pictures. “Just how useful would this realistically be?”

“We’ve run dozens of simulations with various armor configurations,” Shen answered. “The current prototype is designed to withstand an artillery barrage. How this will compare to the aliens, we still don’t have field data. But it’s not wrong to think that this could alter the course of the war in our favor.”

“I believe the MEC project will be essential in the war,” the Commander told her. “It is an extreme sacrifice but one that could be key to ensuring the survival of the human race-“

He paused as Myra raised a hand, a slight smile on her face. “Skip the speech, Commander. You don’t have to convince me, I’ll do it.”

He blinked. In all honesty, he hadn’t expected she would refuse. But this quickly? “I won’t force you to do this,” he reminded her. “It’s a choice and one I would understand if-“

“No need,” Myra shook her head again. “I understand that and I believe you when you say I have a choice. But I also know you don’t ask without reason; if you believe that these MECs will be essential in winning the war, than I do as well. You wouldn’t ask this if you weren’t convinced it was necessary.” The corners of her lips twitched up. “I know we have our differences, but you don’t lie to your soldiers.”

There was silence for a minute.

Moments like these were why he worked to get soldiers what they needed and ensure they were taken care of. Aside from simple decency, respecting those under you cultivated loyalty and in turn, trust. And what reassured him most was that he wasn’t lying to convince her, he stood behind everything that he’d said. If the MEC project met his expectations, he truly believed it would change the course of the war.

He was somewhat amused to hear Blake practically stutter out a response. “Mrs. Rodriguez, while your dedication is commendable, I think you should know that there might be side effects.”

“Yes,” Shen nodded solemnly. “I think you should hear-“

“Is the procedure dangerous?” Myra interrupted bluntly.

Shen and the Commander exchanged a look. “No,” Shen admitted. “We have ensured that the procedure isn’t dangerous.”

He didn’t mention that Vahlen’s first attempt had killed one of the test subjects accidentally. The Commander hadn’t been present, but it had apparently been an…unpleasant experience. Vahlen had assured him that she’d noted the error and that it wouldn’t happen again. To prove it she’d repeated the procedure, this time successfully.

The modified test subject was now in the cells and Vahlen had said she would expose him to a variety of stimulants and chemicals to see if the brain reacted any differently. A few days in and already down two prisoners. Ah well, it was an unexpected expense; he’d have figured Vahlen would have gotten a bit more use out of them before they needed to be replenished.

But such were the risks of new technology. He might as well order another batch. More test subjects couldn’t hurt. But hopefully Vahlen’s monitoring would help either predict issues with Myra or create ways to relieve any discomfort. There had also been a marked change in the way the test subjects had reacted to Vahlen entering.

Before it had been jeers, taunts and threats. When he’d entered a second time with her, the reaction had almost been negligible. All of them had watched warily, not with fear, not yet. But they were starting to understand just what their fate was. Perhaps they thought appeasement would work and compliance would be rewarded. It wouldn’t, but neither him, nor Vahlen sought to correct that misconception.

“Will my ability to function be inhibited?” Myra continued asking.

“Technically, no,” Shen sighed. “You should be able to perform normal functions. But you won’t be quite as…lucid, as you are now.”

“You won’t be the same person,” Blake warned, crossing his arms. “You can’t if you want complete synchronization with the MEC suit.”

Shen shot a glance his way. “While I do feel that is a concern, I also think it’s wise to note that we don’t know for sure. You could be completely unaffected or you mind could be reduced to an automaton. That’s what you need to consider most. Are you willing to risk losing your personality? Or any chance at a normal life?”

Myra contemplated for a few minutes. “I appreciate the concern,” she nodded at Shen and Blake. “From both of you. But my answer remains the same,” She nodded down at her legs. “Shen, I lost any chance for a normal life when my arm was ripped off and legs were paralyzed. I’ll never have a normal life, whether or not I have the procedure done or not.”

Her tone turned softer. “Aside from that, I can’t leave now. Not after everything that has happened. Not if I can still help in some way. But the best reason is that it’s the right thing to do.” She looked at the Commander. “You’re always going to have a first subject; a guinea pig, and if things go wrong with me, it’ll help make things safer for future soldiers.”

The Commander nodded. “It will.”

Myra indicated him. “Yes. You of all people understand sometimes sacrifice is necessary. And this is one risk I fully understand and will take.”

The three men exchanged looks. “I suppose it’s settled then,” Shen finally said. “Very well. You will undergo the procedure as soon as possible.”

“Just tell me when,” Myra nodded.

“I guess I won’t change your mind,” Blake sighed. “But I admire your bravery.”

“As do I,” the Commander saluted and inclined his head towards her. “Thank you.”

Shen and Blake exited the door and the Commander moved to follow when he heard Myra’s voice. “A moment, Commander.”

He closed the door and turned around to face her. Myra appraised him thoughtfully. “Question,” she said. “Why did you ask me? Certainly there are others who are in better condition.”

The Commander paused before answering. “The practical reason is that you were the best candidate for this trial. Aside from that, I didn’t think you’d willingly leave and this afforded you the opportunity to stay.” The Commander paused. “On a more personal level, this isn’t something I want to offer everyone.”

Myra didn’t look surprised. “Quite honestly, Commander, I don’t think you’d have trouble finding volunteers for these type of projects. Even if some of us have reservations about your past, you’ve proven someone worthy of following. You have our loyalty.”

“I know,” the Commander sighed and leaned against the wall. “Which is why I’m limiting who I select. Blind loyalty is dangerous and I’m well aware of my position and the pressure I unwittingly exert. You’re more skeptical of me than most, and oddly, that makes you more qualified in my eyes. For something like this I need to know you actually want to do it and aren’t following out of blind loyalty or fear.”

Myra gave him a wan smile. “That’s more reassuring than you know, Commander. Keep that attitude and you will retain our loyalty. Keep the skeptics around, they keep you grounded.”

“That they do,” the Commander agreed, looking over. “It’s difficult sometimes. I sometimes don’t know if the people are agreeing with me are being truthful or simply afraid of my position. It’s a problem I’m not sure can ever be fixed.”

He wasn’t completely sure why he was telling her this. Perhaps he just wanted a normal conversation where he wasn’t the Commander and Myra seemed to be indulging him. As much as he wanted to become more involved with the regular soldiers, it was becoming more difficult as time simply didn’t allow for casual conversations between them.

Because at heart, he was still a soldier. The longer this war went on, he felt that he was contributing less and less even if that wasn’t true. He missed personally leading the charge; sharing in the terror, danger and thrill of combat. He missed feeling like he was actually contributing to the mission instead of watching it on a screen.

He disliked it when leaders commanded from the back without understanding the risks soldiers faced daily. But people had designated him as “too important to lose” and while he understood it, he didn’t know if he agreed or not. He’d never considered himself as a genius or someone who was coming up with new and creative ways to move armies. What set him apart was that he had no restrictions; he had no rules. That was the only reason that he wasn’t joining the soldiers on missions as often as he liked.

Because if he died, then the war would be lost. Humanity would fall because the leaders lacked the will to do what must be done. They’d gone against their better judgment when they’d put him in charge and if he died, he had no doubt they’d replace him with someone safe, compliant and lawful.

And condemn the human race in the process.

“I think that if you’re asking those questions, you’re doing something right,” Myra finally said. “I guess you have to trust that they’re telling the truth,” she shrugged. “I don’t know what goes on in your inner circle, but if you treat them with the same respect you treat us, I’d say you have little to worry about.”

He smiled at her. “Thank you, Myra. That’s more reassuring than you know.”

“Don’t forget where you came from and you’ll be fine,” Myra reassured him. “I’ll see you after the procedure, Commander.” She saluted him as best she could and he returned it solemnly.

With that he left the room, many ideas running through his mind. It wasn’t fair for the soldiers to risk themselves with no risk to himself. That was going to change, as much as possible.

Something to remind them why they followed him.

Something to figure out later, as his earpiece beeped indicating something was happening in the Situation Room.

Back to work.

***

The Citadel, Barracks

Soran regretted putting off reading the contingencies until now. He’d expected it to be dry and boring, like nearly all military documents were. Honestly, it wouldn’t kill them to hire some actual writers to make it a bit more appealing for the average soldiers. Then people might actually read those documents.

But quite honestly, he didn’t know whether it was simply written better or because it was so brutally straightforward. There was a hard list of bullet points stating the situations and responses thereof.

And the responses…the Thanatos Contingency in particular was uncompromising. He had to shake his head. The sheer gall it must have taken to write this was worthy of commendation. He wasn’t sure if he should be impressed or appalled at what was written, but it was certainly not boring.

No wonder there were rumors of tension between the Commander and the Council. He wasn’t positive, but he was pretty sure these violated UN mandates in several places, but he was getting the general impression that the soldiers, along with the Commander, didn’t really care anymore. Many of them were just focused on winning the war, justifiably so.

He did wonder if they considered what would happen when the war was over. Soran personally wasn’t convinced that the Council would simply forget them, especially if they utilized methods like the Hades Contingency. The thing was, if humanity was going to survive, it would be primarily XCOM that would be responsible for it.

Which would leave the organization itself with a large amount of political leverage, something he was sure the Commander would exploit. It would be interesting if after the war, the Council tried to disband XCOM. Something that he personally found unlikely. Like it or not, XCOM wasn’t going away.

Another thing that he’d been noticing is that the newer soldiers were “assimilated,” for lack of a better word after a few missions. Nationalities weren’t as big a deal as he assumed they would be. There weren’t any rivalries between soldiers outside of the sparring ring, at least none based on nationality. When Israeli and Iranian soldiers were seen having a normal conversation and laughing together, it was a sign that nationality wasn’t important.

It seemed to an unspoken implication when soldiers arrived: We don’t care where you came from, only what you’ll do to help. An admirable quality that was…quite surprising and should be concerning to their homelands. He wondered if these nations realized that their soldiers likely no longer were loyal to them, but XCOM specifically.

He’d caught himself thinking that way several times. As an XCOM soldier and not any of his previous identities and titles. That feeling of a common cause was one he’d only felt several times in his life and he didn’t expect to feel it here of all places. He wondered if there was a similar phenomenon with NATO as it was also a UN coalition composed of various nations.

Hmm. Maybe not, since the common cause with XCOM was literally the survival of the human race. Past national rivalries seemed petty in that perspective, but really, what was NATO’s cause? Protecting countries that already had strong militaries? As a deterrent to nations like Israel or Russia? Not to mention that they probably only recruited from UN members whereas XCOM recruited from everywhere.

“Not what you were expecting?” Soran looked from the table up to see one of the soldiers approaching him. Wearing the standard XCOM military fatigues with several knives strapped to his belt, he was one of the larger men at the base. Soran recalled him as one of the newer recruits, though he wasn’t sure of his name.

His blue eyes stood out in stark contrast to his black skin and hair, the latter of which was simply a buzz cut. He had a neatly trimmed beard that covered his cheeks and chin, a fairly full one at that. Soran raised an eyebrow. “You even know what I’m reading?”

“The contingencies are probably the only XCOM issue document that could engross you so fully,” the soldier pointed out. “I did the same thing.”

Soran set down the documents. “And what did you think?”

He shrugged. “Definitely more interesting than the standard bunch. But I don’t really concern myself with contingencies. Worst-case scenarios rarely happen and aren’t worth getting worried over.”

“You think the UN knows about these?” Soran asked, cocking his head.

“Doubt it,” the soldier shrugged with a smirk. “I mean, I wouldn’t. The UN would pitch a fit, rightfully or no. It’d just be a distraction and ultimately amount to fear-mongering.”

Hmm. Considering that some of the contingencies dealt with the potential authorized execution of civilians, UN forces and foreign governments, Soran couldn’t help but the think the UN might be justified in being a little concerned. “You don’t these are open to abuse?” He asked, a question that had been on his mind since reading the Zeus Contingency.

The soldier appeared to consider it. “Of course,” he finally said. “Every contingency is open to abuse in some ways. You can’t get around that?”

“I suppose that’s my concern,” Soran admitted. “With these contingencies in place, the wrong person could order us into subduing a country. Or worse.”

“I see your point,” the soldier admitted. “But I really don’t think it’s a concern, at least not with the Commander. He seems like a good, sound leader. Creed trusts him not to make idiotic decisions and that’s a pretty good endorsement for me.”

Soran frowned. “Not that I’m disputing that, but what makes his endorsement worth more?”

“Ah, right,” the man gave a wide smile displaying his pure white teeth. “I don’t think we’ve formally met,” he extended a hand. “Samuel Roche, United States Army Ranger.”

Soran took it firmly. Ah. Yes, that made more sense, a recommendation from a SEAL was likely to mean more to a Ranger than the average person. Although… “Forgive me if I’m wrong,” he began. “But I thought…well, that the Rangers and SEALs…”

“What?” Samuel chuckled. “Have a rivalry? Oh, we do. Internally. But strictly professional, mind you. Sure, there are a few that take it a little more personally, but as a whole we mostly try to outdo each other. Nothing more or less.”

“Well, that’s good,” Soran said. “Guess I should be careful who I listen to. At least when it comes to Americans.”

“Hey, even if it did, I doubt it’d last,” Samuel pointed out. “We have bigger things to worry about than kill counts and mission streaks.”

They actually did that? It seemed somewhat morbid, and unprofessional to brag about your kill count. Then again, he might have been joking.

Although…he’d heard soldiers talking about how many aliens they’d personally killed without anyone batting an eye. But that was alright because they were aliens and thus human norms didn’t apply to them.

Right. “Soran Kakusa,” he introduced himself. “Japanese 1st Airborne Brigade.”

“Impressive,” Samuel inclined his head. “The Japanese don’t just promote anyone to that unit.”

“No,” Soran recalled what he’d done to get there. “They certainly don’t.” He looked over at the Ranger. “Though that isn’t quite as impressive as joining the Rangers.”

“All a matter of perspective,” Samuel dismissed. “No more or less impressive than yours. We’re just in different units.”

“Which of the states are you from?” Soran asked.

“None,” Samuel answered, surprising him. “I’m an immigrant. Haitian, actually.”

Well, that was interesting. He considered dropping the next obvious question, but Samuel didn’t seem like he would take that much offense. “Did you leave before-“

During,” Samuel corrected slowly and deliberately, tone softening. “I wasn’t very old, but my father and I managed to get out before the virus killed the remaining population.”

Well, he had a new level of respect for the Ranger. Not only had he escaped the Haitian Purges, but had also made it to America, presumably become a citizen and then joined one of the most elite units in the United States military.

“You definitely had it harder than me,” Soran said honestly, shaking his head. “I won’t accept false modesty this time.”

“Fair enough,” Samuel smiled. “Where are you-“

He cut himself off as the wristbands started vibrating, both of theirs. They both looked at each other. “Well,” Samuel shrugged. “Looks like we’re both going to hunt some aliens.”

“Best to get ready,” Soran said as he got up. “Wouldn’t want to hold everyone up.”

“Very true,” Samuel agreed, moving to his locker and pulled out his autolaser. “I hate latecomers.”

***

Skyranger, En route to Abduction Zone

“It’s an abduction that happened in Mexico,” Creed told them as they sped toward the country. “I don’t know more than that. The Commander will be updating.”

Aside from Samuel and Soran, the rest of the squad were veterans of XCOM. Soran didn’t know many well, but he did remember their names. Roman Mendoza was actually from Mexico, so it wasn’t a surprise that this mission would include him. The man had been quieter than the rest so far, a sentiment Soran could understand.

Rob Gorman was a United States Marine, and he looked more than happy to be working with a SEAL and Ranger. It was interesting how a position influence how they were treated so much. But he’d probably do his job well and not cause issues.

Vickie Webb was probably the least experienced aside from himself and Samuel. She’d been on several missions, but didn’t have quite the track record of Creed and the rest. But she seemed reasonably competent.

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that anymore,” Roman noted. “Isn’t North America covered under these satellites?”

“They can’t get everything,” Vickie sighed. “Or it could mean that they’ve figured out how to sneak under our radar.”

“Incorrect, Specialist Webb,” the Commander interrupted through their helmets. “The satellites are the only reason we know an abduction is taking place at all. It’s an unmarked village that’s a haven for the poorer citizens and criminals. No government would care about it, if they even know it exists. But this gives us a chance to strike another blow against the aliens, no matter where it is.”

“Why would they target somewhere like that?” Samuel asked, concern in his voice.

“A good question,” the Commander agreed. “It is odd. They normally target more populated and fairly healthy areas. It’s a change of pace that we need to investigate.”

“It’s probably run by the Cartels,” Roman suggested. “They like to run their operations in places the governments abandon. Perhaps the aliens are taking an interest in them?”

He could almost feel the skepticism from Creed. “And just why would the aliens care about a bunch of thugs and drug dealers?”

“Scoff if you like, but the Cartels are among the most organized criminal organizations in the world,” Roman countered. “Trust me, I’ve dealt with them before. They don’t tolerate incompetence or inefficiency.”

“It still doesn’t explain why the aliens would care,” Vickie shrugged. “Did the Cartels do something to them?”

Soran could swear he could have heard the Commander snort, but it might have been static. “The Cartels would stand no chance against the aliens. No, I doubt they’re interested in the organization itself.”

“Perhaps the narcotics?” Soran suggested as a thought struck him. “If this place is one of their manufacturing labs, they would be able to haul in a lot of high-quality drugs.”

Creed glanced over at him. “Not a bad suggestion, Soran. Didn’t think of that.”

“It’s possible,” Roman agreed slowly, as he clasped his hands together. “Though I’m still not completely sure what they’re gaining from this.”

“Perhaps they want to weaponize it?” Rob suggested, looking to Creed. “In large enough quantities, it could neutralize a population.”

“They already can neutralize a population,” Soran reminded him, gesturing with his hand. “How do you think they’re abducting entire towns?”

“While you have a point, Rob does as well,” Creed interjected. “I would see it being more effective for neutralizing soldiers in combat. Throw some of that at them and then kill them while they’re high and distracted.”

“I think you’re overthinking it,” Vickie suggested lightly. “Maybe the aliens are using for themselves. Who says aliens don’t enjoy getting high?”

They all chuckled at that. Soran had the mental image of some of the sectoids sitting around with cigars smoking weed and taking injections of heroin. Yep, that sounded about right. The Commander also sounded amused. “While I wouldn’t be concerned with that possibility, I’d prefer any kind of drugs kept out of their hands. Provided this is a Cartel drug lab in the first place. Standard orders apply; go in, secure the area and wipe out any aliens.”

“Understood, Commander.” Creed affirmed.

“Excellent, Citadel Command, out.”

They flew in silence for a few minutes and Soran fiddled with his laser SMG. He was considering just taking a rifle next time, more firepower was more useful than mobility in most situations, especially when the rifle didn’t weigh much more. “This is Big Sky to Bull Team,” Big Sky informed over the intercoms. “We’re approaching the abduction zone. Prepare for aeriel insertion.”

The lights flashed to a solid red. Showtime. “Understood, Big Sky,” Creed confirmed as he stood. “We’re ready when you are.”

Soran felt the skyranger descending as they moved into position. Samuel was to his side, his laser sniper rifle at the ready and Creed in front of him, battle rifle also drawn. A few minutes later the skyranger showed until it was hovering and the ramp opened and a wave of warm air hit them.

“Deploy!” Creed ordered and charged out as the ropes descended. Soran grasped one and jumped off, weapon at the ready as he descended into the complex of rotting shacks and bodies.

***

Unknown Location, Mexico

They all landed within the span of a few seconds. The first thing Soran noticed were the bodies splayed along the streets. Old, abandoned and rusty cars lined the streets, most with flat tires or none at all. Some were completely overtaken by vegetation or stripped completely. The roads were also cracked and practically unusable now. The whole area reeked of poverty and abandonment.

But there’d clearly been at least some people living. The buildings, while haphazard and rotten, they’d clearly been furnished to some capacity, even if it was only a bedroll with a few sheets. Some dirty and torn toys were scattered around the houses, indicating that some of the inhabitants were children. There were also wrappers and some uneaten food lying around. Fresh food, so what happened had to have been recent.

“This is Squad Overseer Creed to Citadel Command,” Creed informed them as he raised his weapon. “We’ve touched down. Multiple casualties already.”

“The alien usually don’t leave corpses,” the Commander answered. “Be on guard.”

“Yes, sir.” Creed motioned them forward. “Roman, check out the body. Everyone else, take position. Overwatch protocol.”

“Yes, Overseer!” They confirmed and Soran carefully approached one of the abandoned cars and crouched in front of the hood. Any weapons fire would likely tear through the rotten shelters, and while this metal wasn’t in the best condition, it would give him some legitimate cover.

“Are they Cartel?” He heard Creed ask Roman as they knelt in front of one of the bodies.

“I think so,” Roman confirmed. “These weapons are top quality, and this one is wearing a bulletproof vest. Not many civilians with both, so they must have been guarding something important.”

“Definitely died to a plasma wound,” Creed added, looking closer at the corpse. “Based on his expression, I’m guessing he was left to die after being shot.”

Soran looked across the street and spotted another body with blood splattered on his chest. How sad. Well, at least the aliens were efficient.

Hold up.

The body was splattered with blood. Plasma weapons cauterized the wound to an extent, essentially preventing blood loss. So if he was splattered with blood, either he’d killed himself or…

“I’m going to look at this body,” Soran called out to Creed.

Vickie looked over at him. “Why? That interested in seeing more corpses?”

“Wait,” Creed held up his hand for him to stop and pointed at Roman. “Stay here, Roman. Weapon up.” Roman nodded and raised his laser rifle as he watched the street.

Once Creed was by his side, Soran walked over to the body and knelt down. No, he’d been wounded, no question. A trail of dried blood ran down from a hole in his forehead. “They were killed with ballistics,” Soran noted. “Odd.”

“Yes, it is…” Creed sounded puzzled. “The only form of ballistics the aliens use are from the cyberdisks, and I’ve seen the damage those can cause. No way this is a cyberdisk; far too clean.”

“Then who?” Soran asked, equally confused. “I don’t think the aliens chose to abduct when they were under attack from a rival group.”

“I doubt it,” Creed agreed. “And the body is fresh, so this wasn’t done a few days ago?”

“The aliens do utilize a form of telepathy,” the Commander interjected. “Perhaps they used it to force them to attack each other.”

“Possible,” Creed mused, looking further down the street. “But we haven’t seen the aliens utilize direct mind control before.”

“It doesn’t need to be mind control,” the Commander reminded him. “You’ve heard what happened Ramsey. Psionically induced panic would work as well as direct mind control.”

Soran frowned. “What was that?” He wasn’t familiar with that story.

“Patricia told me,” Creed explained. “It was one of the first encounters of psionics. The sectoid forced one of the soldiers into a panic. It worked and he shot another soldier.”

“Ah,” Soran mentally shivered at that. Psionics had always disconcerted him and stories like these were a good reason why. The fact that the sectoids were fairly proficient at these didn’t help matters. He hated the little gray buggers, with their mouthless faces and shriveled bodies.

He shook his head to clear it of thoughts of sectoids and psionics. Then paused as a new thought struck him. “Perhaps we’ve got it wrong,” he looked over at Creed. “If they’ve gotten stronger, it would make sense to do some field testing. This might not be an abduction, but instead a field exercise.”

“Let’s hope not,” Creed muttered grimly. “Because then it looks like a successful one if that’s the case. Although something still seems off,” he pointed at the head. “That headshot is clean. Whoever killed him knew how to aim.”

“Just a theory,” Soran defended, standing back up. “If this person was mind-controlled, this might have been the bullet from his friends that put him down. Do you have another reason for why some of the bodies were shot with ballistics?”

“There was similar situation during a France operation,” the Commander interjected. “But that wasn’t due to the aliens. And I’d be inclined to believe the same organization is behind it, except that some of these men died from plasma wounds.”

“What organization?” Rob asked curiously.

“EXALT,” the Commander answered. “We’re still learning about them. But this is a separate issue from the aliens. I don’t see a reason why they’d expend resources on an entire village, not to mention that they don’t have plasma weaponry.”

“So what’s our move,” Creed asked, motioning them to advance. “I think everyone is gone. With an area this small, I don’t think it would take long to take them, especially if it’s mostly civilians.”

“This is Central, Overseer Creed,” Bradford spoke up. “We’re detecting life signs in your area, some we can’t make out. We assume these are the aliens.”

“Where?” Creed demanded.

“Sending you a map of the area,” Bradford answered. “There’s a warehouse just ahead. Most of the signatures are coming from around there.”

“Understood,” Creed looked back at the squad and motioned them forward. “Advance, but watch for movement.”

They all affirmed and began moving slowly through the shelters, rubble and corpses. Ahead there was a warehouse, a clear improvement over the current conditions. It wasn’t falling apart and seemed relatively clean compared to the rest of the area. The warehouse door was in a pretty terrible position, right in front of a crumbling house, which was arguably one of the best in the village. They would be in a terrible position if they were ambushed.

“This is probably a trap,” Soran muttered as they set up outside the warehouse door.

“Which is why we aren’t going in,” Creed told them, as he tested lifting the door open. “We’re just going to stay on the outskirts.” Stepping back, he appraised the door. “Locked,” he nodded at Rob. “Cut it out, you take the right side.” Rob nodded and they raised their rifles at the door and used sustained beams to cut through the door.

Creed kicked the square of cut metal inward and it fell down with a loud clang. At the edge of the door, Soran peeked inside as they both reloaded their rifles. It was very open, with tables covered in substances and powders he assumed were drugs. To the far left were some rooms that he assumed were for administrative purposes. There were some steel catwalks above the room, but they offered little protection.

“Looks like you were right about this being a drug plant,” Vickie muttered. “Look at all this stuff.”

“All this stuff that’s still here,” Creed noted, concern in his voice. “So the alien apparently didn’t want it.”

“Overseer Creed, be advised all the signatures we’ve detected have vanished,” the Commander warned. “Find a defensible position now!”

“Fall back,” Creed ordered stepping back. “We wait-“

Soran saw a flicker or orange coming from inside the warehouse and frowned. Was that-?

“Rocket!” Roman screamed and Soran leapt to the right, swearing he could feel the heat as it passed him. All of them managed to dodge out of the way except Vickie, who barely had time to scream as the rocket directly hit her.

“Look up!” Creed ordered pointing over to the right as Soran saw a figure aiming another rocket launcher at them kneeling in front of a shack across the street. And he looked just in time to see another rocket fired. This time everyone got out of the way in time and the rocket sped past into a shack and exploded with a loud boom. A volley of laser fire from Roman eviscerated the figure and it was dead a few moments later.

The sound of automatic fire filled the air directly behind him and Soran looked into the warehouse to see it filled with…soldiers? Human soldiers? There were at least ten, and all of them looked heavily armored, some wielding rifles and others SAW caliber weapons. Steel armor covered their legs, arms and chest with heavy padding on all the joints. All of them had some sort of orange shoulder cape and oddly enough, orange bandannas, some of which seemed to have symbols or markings on them.

“Barricade!” One of the soldiers, a woman, ordered as she motioned at them.

With a shock, Soran realized she was wielding a plasma rifle. How had she…? He was forced to back into cover as a few of the heavy gunners laid down suppressive fire on the entrance.

“They’re coming in from the right!” Roman yelled as the squad tried returning fire. Soran looked to the right to see a trio of soldiers approaching. A few more followed behind them, taking cover behind cars and shacks. The leader of the trio slammed a large metal pole down and a second later it shot out metal sheets to the side, effectively creating new cover.

“Who are these guys?” Rob shouted as he fired a sustained beam at a soldier hiding in a shack. A scream indicated it was a hit. Roman fired a sustained beam at the shining new cover, but the laser curved upward as if reflected. Soran cursed, these soldiers had clearly come prepared. How could they possibly have known about XCOM, let alone developed specialized tech to use against them?

“Ask that later!” Creed snarled, leaning on the opposite side of the entrance as Soran. “Soran and I will hold down here. Take care of the flankers!”

“Yes, sir!” Roman acknowledged and he began shooting at the trio hiding behind the makeshift cover.

“The leader’s got a plasma rifle,” Soran told Creed urgently as he peeked in to see the other soldiers had also set up makeshift cover.

“I saw,” Creed confirmed. “And those metal shields are resistant to lasers. We’ll figure that out later. Twin sustained beams, that should cut through them.”

“On three?” Soran asked, readying his weapon.

Creed nodded and on three Soran took aim at the far left soldier and began firing a sustained beam and quickly moved right, Creed followed suit. The first soldier was caught off guard and the beam decapitated him, but the remaining soldiers got wise and ducked under the beams.

Soran scowled. Creed had gotten one as well, but getting two out of ten was not good. Under a hail of bullets, he quickly reloaded a new power cell into his rifle. He could hear the bullets clanking into the wall he was taking cover behind. Suddenly, he felt a lot less safe. He snuck a glance inside and saw the remaining soldiers advancing. That woman was clearly in charge, going off how she was clearly directing and ordering the rest of them.

“Status on the flankers?” Creed called over to Roman.

“Almost done!” He called back from behind a rotten shack. “Two dead-“ He was cut off as two sniper shots rang out and he stumbled back. Soran saw his helmet now bore two black marks, and cracks ran along the visor. The remaining soldiers took advantage of his weakened state and began focusing all their fire on him.

Samuel also took advantage and targeted the standing troopers with his autolaser. The red bolts tore one almost in half and forced the others to fall into cover. It did little to stop the sniper fire, which again fired off two shots.

Barely conscious, Roman pushed himself behind a rusted car and clutched his battered helmet. Soran looked back into the warehouse to see one of the soldiers readying another rocket. Hissing, he raised his rifle and shot a laser beam directly into her forehead and the soldier fell back. The woman made eye contact with him as her comrade fell.

The bandanna obscured her face, but her eyes were filled with fury and glee. Despite her short stature, he couldn’t help but be a little unnerved. He could swear she was smiled as she raised her plasma rifle and fired it.

“Shit!” Creed cursed as Soran saw him looking to his left. Heart sinking, he saw more soldiers approaching them. “They’re boxing us in!”

“We can’t stay!” Samuel called furiously. “We’re too exposed here!”

Not exposed, trapped. Soran amended mentally, though he completely agreed.

“Fall back!” Creed ordered. “Soran! Grenade!” Soran nodded and waited for a lull in the storm of bullet fire and took aim directly at the woman then tossed the grenade. It was a perfect throw that landed just by her feet. There was no way she could escape. The soldiers around her dived to the sides but she didn’t bother.

In one smooth motion she reached down, scoped the live grenade in her hand and tossed it behind her without looking. All within two seconds and the grenade exploded behind her another second later. “Not bad!” She called out sounding oddly excited, which he assumed was directed at him

“I’m suppressing these ones here!” Samuel called out. “This way!”

Soran and Creed dashed past him and took positions behind a rusted truck and also began suppressing to give the rest of them a chance to fall back. Some bullets thudded into his back, but the armor absorbed them. For now, anyway.

“Rob, got you covered!” Soran called out as Rob was still shooting from his position inside a shack.

“Understood,” he called back. “Moving!” He jumped out and began running until a plasma bolt clipped him and he spun into the street. Two more plasma bolts followed and also hit their target. The woman marched around the corner, flanked by several more of the soldiers.

“We’re down two,” Soran told Creed. “We can’t hold them off forever.”

“No,” Creed reloaded his rifle and managed to shoot two more. “We can’t. Big Sky, we need an evac now!”

“Understood, coming in.”

Roman was still disoriented, but was doing his best to shoot at the soldiers. That sniper, or snipers, really wanted their kill as more sniper fire rained down around him, fortunately not hitting him anymore. They were managing to keep these soldiers from advancing, but they were simply outnumbered and were outplayed from the start.

Samuel managed to score a couple more kills as his autolaser tore through the flimsy cover of the shacks some of the soldiers had hidden behind. A roar above his head made him look up and he saw the skyranger flying over.

It pulled a one-eighty turn and angled itself at the ground. “Suppressing,” Big Sky said calmly as ballistic fire shot out of the skyranger at the general area of the soldiers. “Move to the evac point!”

“Go! Go!” Creed shouted and motioned them towards the area under the skyranger. “Roman, you good?!”

“Yes, Overseer!” Roman shouted and they all began running, turning occasionally to fire a wild shot. Their armor was able to take a few rounds, but anything sustained would eventually get through.

“Landing now,” Big Sky told them and the skyranger slowly lowered to the ground, ramp already opening. Almost there…

“Ah!” Soran glanced back to see Roman collapse to the ground, his lower left leg splattered in blood. Soran began rushing towards him as the skyranger landed. “No! Go!” Roman screamed holding up his hand frantically as the soldiers bore down on them. Soran hesitated, not sure what to do.

“Go!” Roman shouted again as they got closer. “They’ll just kill both of us!”

He was right. Plasma and bullets filled the air around him and there wasn’t any time. “I’m sorry,” he told him and dashed to the skyranger. Roman pushed himself up to rest on his good knee and began firing at the approaching soldiers.

They simply took cover, rendering his shooting useless, but it did force them to stop their advance, giving the rest of them time to board the skyranger. Two more sniper shots rang out and Roman collapsed to the ground. Blood dripped from the shattered helmet indicating the snipers had gotten their wish and their kill.

As the skyranger closed up as they sped away, Soran couldn’t help but feel like that was the better way. At least he’d forced them to kill him and wasn’t captured.

In mournful and shocked silence, they flew back to the Citadel, trying to figure out what had happened.

***

After-Action Report

Operation: Playful Cocoon

Bull 1 (Squad Overseer): Specialist Anius Creed

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Bull 2: Specialist Roman Mendoza

            Status: Deceased

            Kills: 4

Bull 3: Specialist Rob Gorman

            Status: Deceased

            Kills: 3

Bull 4: Specialist Vickie Webb

            Status: Deceased

            Kills:  0

Bull 5: Specialist Soran Kakusa

            Status: Active

            Kills:  3

Bull 6: Specialist Samuel Roche

            Status: Active

            Kills:  4

Mission Director: The Commander

Pilot: Jason Olgard – Call sign: “Big Sky”

Artifacts Recovered:

None: Mission failed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Situation Room

“Get the rest of them up here,” the Commander instructed Bradford neutrally, not looking away from the screens showing the armor cams of the surviving soldiers. “We need to discuss this.”

“Yes, Commander,” Bradford swallowed and walked off, already speaking into his earpiece.

This should not have happened. Even without optimal positioning, they should have been able to fight off any human military force that came their way. Or so he’d thought. Apparently he was wrong on that front, judging from the results staring him in the face. It hadn’t just been a setback, this was a decisive loss that hadn’t happened since that Haiti mission when they’d first encountered the mutons.

Once he’d seen it was going to result in a defeat, he’d enacted the Zeus Contingency, although he doubted it had done much. It had taken too long for the Raven to arrive there and all that the pilot had reported was an abandoned village. They’d cleared out quickly, or had hidden in the buildings. He’d ordered the Raven to raze the area, of course, but he doubted much had been accomplished.

He heard heavy footsteps walk up beside him. Van Doorn; no one else was in the room. “They were good,” the General admitted, lips pursed and features overall exhibiting concern. “Better than they had any reason to be.”

“I suppose you don’t have an idea who they are?” The Commander asked, crossing his arms.

“I know of no unit or organization with that particular color scheme or equipment,” Van Doorn admitted. “That being said, I do not know every military group in existence.”

“These soldiers had special forces-like efficiency,” the Commander pointed out. “Far more so than a typical mercenary organization.” His tone turned grim. “I would be surprised if this wasn’t a government unit of some kind.”

“They’re on their way up,” Bradford informed him, walking over. “I’m working to get stills of the fight, to see if they have any markings.”

“Good,” the Commander thanked. “Who is working to get the images?”

“Ariel Jackson, Commander,” Bradford answered. “She helped contain the EXALT virus.”

Ah, yes. He remembered her now. “Good, let me know if there are any updates,” the Commander told him. Bradford’s hand went to his ear.

“Hold on, I’ll be back,” Bradford walked off again.

“I don’t suppose you know who the woman is?” The Commander asked, looking back at the screens or the assumed leader. “I’ve never seen her before.”

“That bandanna didn’t help,” Van Doorn reminded him. “But no, I didn’t recognize what little of her face I could see.”

“Or why she was carrying a plasma rifle,” the Commander muttered, turning to the holotable. “That’s probably the most concerning.”

“Alien weapons self-destruct upon death,” Van Doorn recalled, crossing his arms as his eyebrows furrowed. “So the only way this woman could have acquired it is if she found it, or it was given to her.”

“Or someone else has managed to develop plasma weaponry before us,” the Commander supposed. “It is not outside the realm of possibility, though highly unlikely.”

“I doubt it,” Van Doorn disagreed, shaking his head. “If so, why not equip all their soldiers with plasma weapons? Furthermore, who could possibly be ahead of us in alien weaponry?”

He had a point. A good one. “I don’t know,” the Commander admitted. “But what is the other possibility? That the aliens just left one rifle unattended or worse, are allied with these soldiers.”

“I’m not sure these soldiers are allied,” Van Doorn said carefully, resting his chin on his hand. “Because wouldn’t the same questions apply? Why not supply your allies with the weaponry that will ensure your opponent’s defeat?”

“To keep them dependent,” the Commander answered immediately. “What I’m doing with Israel and Germany now. Give them some of our technology to fiddle around with, but not enough to give them an advantage over us.”

“Hmm.” Van Doorn didn’t comment on that and instead looked down at the holographic map of the world.

The doors hissed open and Shen, Vahlen and Zhang walked through. “What’s happened?” Vahlen demanded as she strode up to him, concern in her eyes. The Commander motioned them to gather around the holotable.

Bradford saw them gather and walked over to the right end of the table. With Vahlen on his right and Van Doorn on his left, the Commander took a breath and spoke. “A short time ago I sent down a team to investigate an abduction zone. They were ambushed by an unidentified human military force and ultimately driven back.

Vahlen started and twisted her head sharply at him. Shen also looked surprised, but kept better control than Vahlen. Zhang simply narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “A human force?” He repeated slowly.

“Correct, Director,” Bradford confirmed, handed him a tablet which the Commander assumed had stills taken from the fight. “Jackson is converting the videos to holographic form so we should hopefully have better information shortly.”

 “How many did we lose?” Shen asked quietly, sorrow showing on his aged face.

“Three,” the Commander sighed. “And we weren’t able to recover the bodies. I ordered an airstrike on the area, but given how long it took to actually happen, we have to assume they left, probably with the bodies.”

Zhang muttered what sounded like a Chinese curse, and Vahlen added one in German. “Then that means they have our armor and weapons,” Shen realized with a sigh. “And I never had thought to add self-destruct features to them.”

“A mistake,” the Commander nodded. “But one I also bear responsibility for. I should have ordered it as a precaution, even if I didn’t see the need.” He shook his head in frustration. “I didn’t think we had to worry about aliens recovering our weapons; after all, they’re still more advanced than us, so that wasn’t a concern. And I also didn’t think a human military force would be able to best us.” His hand unconsciously curled into a fist. “A mistake that will not be repeated.”

Shen nodded grimly. “I’ll begin converting all of our existing weapons and armor with self-destruct capabilities. Though I must ask, how do you want them done?”

The Commander glanced at Vahlen, then back at Shen. “Ideally, I’d prefer some way that would take out as many aliens or soldiers as possible. But you’re the engineer, Shen, you have a better idea of what’s possible.”

Shen adjusted his glasses. “I’ll see what I can do, Commander.”

“I have an idea as well,” Vahlen interjected, looking towards Shen. “I’ll talk to you after.”

“Excellent,” the Commander leaned on the holotable. “Both of you working on this is preferable.”

“Returning to the mission itself,” Van Doorn redirected, looking thoughtfully at Shen. “I think it’s time to increase the size of our squads. They might have been able to hold out if they weren’t overrun by sheer numbers. One or two could have made all the difference.”

“A good point,” Bradford nodded at Van Doorn. “The aliens are also likely to increase their force size once they know sheer numbers can overwhelm us.”

“The squad size is a limitation of the skyranger, correct?” The Commander asked Shen.

“Correct, Commander,” Shen confirmed. “And yes, it is possible to upgrade it further, though only by two. Any more and a new aircraft will have to be constructed. And I don’t think XCOM can afford anymore new aircraft.”

The Commander frowned at that. “Implying that we already have new aircraft?”

“Ah, yes,” Shen coughed nervously. “When designing the MECs, I knew that we would need some way to transport them to the mission areas. The skyranger obviously wouldn’t do, so I had to come up with another design. I just finished it a day ago and sent it off for manufacturing, I was going to tell you later today, but…you asked us up here first.”

The Commander cocked his head. “And just what are the specifications of this transport.”

“At the moment, it’s designed to hold up to four MEC suits,” Shen explained, handing him his tablet to see the designs. “They’re transported using by hooking and hanging them in the aircraft itself and then dropping them when they’re ready to deploy.”

“Good to know,” the Commander muttered as he looked at the designs. “And this is going to cut into our funds, I assume. Will you be able to upgrade the skyrangers we have?”

“Yes,” Shen answered slowly. “But not all at once. We have enough funds to begin conversion immediately of one, but we’ll have to wait for our next allotment from the Council before converting the others.”

“One will do for now,” the Commander nodded. “I’ll see if we can get additional funding from Israel and Germany in advance.”

“Commander,” Bradford swallowed. “Jackson has finished some conversion. We know who these soldiers are.” He began tapping on the holotable.

“Who?” The Commander demanded, more puzzled than curious. That was remarkably fast. “Actually, how?”

The holotable lit up, focusing on three holographic soldiers, the woman leader flanked by two subordinates. “Look at their shoulder capes,” Bradford suggested. “Is that what it looks like?” The Commander was skeptical when he saw the symbol, but after seeing it on both other capes, it was pretty obvious.

“EXALT,” he spat. His face like stone, he glanced over to Zhang. “I don’t suppose you happened upon anything saying EXALT has an army at their command?” He wasn’t quite able to keep all of the sarcasm out of that question.

Zhang shook his head. “No, Commander. I’m still conducting operations against them, but at the moment we still know very little.”

The Commander looked down, trying to let the frustration bubbling inside get to him. Zhang wasn’t at fault for this, not really. He’d known they had some kind of special forces or military power, but he wasn’t quite expecting it at this level. Well, at least this made a lot more sense than some country attacking in retaliation against him.

“Well, EXALT has just become a much larger priority,” the Commander stated, keeping his voice neutral. “Zhang, Bradford. I want both of you working together against EXALT. Zhang, I want all updates on your current operations against them. Understood?”

“Yes, Commander!” They nodded in unison.

“Good,” the Commander returned his attention to the holotable. “Now, we need to figure out how they knew to expect us, and why they’re wielding alien weaponry.”

“You know,” Van Doorn suggested grimly. “Your theory about them allying with the aliens doesn’t seem so far off now. We’re predictable. The aliens know we show up whenever they abduct a town, so it would be easy to tell EXALT where we were heading.”

“It would also explain how EXALT knew we were using laser tech and developed equipment to negate it,” the Commander added as he remembered the fight. “And I suppose the aliens would have just given them a few plasma rifles.”

“Why would EXALT work with the aliens?” Vahlen wondered, clutching her tablet as she frowned at the holograms. “Surely they don’t think they’re are here to help them?”

“I doubt it,” the Commander stated coldly. “They probably think they can use the aliens; bleed them of technology to further their agenda. The only issue is that it relies on the aliens being complete idiots and not anticipating a betrayal of some kind. And since the aliens are not stupid, it means they’re also using EXALT. A negative result for us all around.”

“Unless they would actually prefer alien rule?” Bradford suggested. “Fringe groups do have some odd values and wants.”

“We’re not dealing with a fringe group or an internet group of alien sympathizers,” Zhang disagreed harshly. “This is a professional organization that is potentially centuries old. No, they think that they’re the special ones that can somehow manipulate the aliens.”

“Arrogance,” the Commander mused. “Perhaps we can use that against them.”

“We need to find them first,” Bradford reminded them. “Until then, we need to issue something on EXALT to the soldiers. Even if you don’t want to release-“

“No,” the Commander raised a hand. “Release everything. They need to know what we know. EXALT relies on secrets and anonymity. Remove that and they, and we, will have a better chance of beating them.”

“There is another possibility to consider,” Zhang interrupted slowly. “They have a mole; within us, the Council or United Nations. They might be allied with the aliens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting their information from them.”

“Is this a suggestion, or do you have something?” The Commander demanded.

“I have nothing,” Zhang reassured him. “But I think we should consider the possibility,” he hesitated. “If you want, I can begin some…investigations.”

The Commander didn’t reply for a minute. “I’ll speak to you about that later, Zhang. That’s a discussion for another time.” He glanced over at the General. “Van Doorn, see if NATO has anything on EXALT. Maybe get Herman to speak to-“ he paused. “Actually, no. I’ll speak to him myself.”

He looked at them. “That’s it. Dismissed.” He gave his salute and all of them returned it. All of them walked out of the room except Vahlen who stayed by his side. Once the door had hissed closed, he turned around and leaned on the holotable. Vahlen also turned to him, now slightly taller than him from his leaning.

“You alright?” She asked, moving to lean on the table beside him.

He pursed his lips. “I got complacent,” he finally said. “Overconfident, I guess. I assumed what was going to happen and as a result, people died. I’ll be fine, but I’m concerned with my performance now.”

“You don’t need to be,” Vahlen said, looking at him. “It won’t work again. No tactic works on you twice.”

“But eventually, it’ll happen with something else,” the Commander stated sadly. “And I don’t know what that is. I’ve been lucky it’s only been soldiers I’ve lost and not worse. I’m not sure what I can do to prevent that. Sure, I’ll be fine for a while, extra vigilant and everything, but then I’ll get complacent again, intentionally or not.”

“You’re not infallible,” Vahlen reminded him. “And this isn’t all your fault either. If I’m not mistaken, Van Doorn and Bradford were also in the room, were they not?”

“They were,” he admitted. “But I’m the one who makes the calls.” He pushed himself up and walked over by the screens. “I’m not effective here,” he admitted quietly. “I can make decisions about our deployments, nations to influence and court, our use of resources…but making judgment calls through screens is impossible. I’m not there and that’s what’s bothering me.”

“Don’t let one mission negate all your previous ones,” Vahlen told him sternly, walking behind him. “You’ve done exceptional for the most part.”

The Commander snorted. “Moira, you overestimate my level of involvement. I usually leave major decisions to the soldiers who are actually there. They have a much better grasp on the situation than I ever could just watching. The most I can really provide is information on the terrain or if more aliens are coming. Marginal stuff, really.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Vahlen asked tentatively, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Depends,” he shrugged. “For me, yes. I keep feeling that I’m contributing less for the actual soldiers risking their lives,” he raised a hand to cut off her inevitable reply. “Yes, yes, I know that’s rationally not true. But it feels that way sometimes. I make decisions, yes, but I’m not as good making connections and logistics as Bradford and not nearly as good a diplomat as Van Doorn. I can read people and exploit their weaknesses, but I feel many of the decisions I make could be done by others.”

“Absolutely not.” Vahlen stated firmly, shaking her head. “You give yourself far too little credit. What sets you apart is that you aren’t afraid of doing whatever it takes to defend us. You really think someone else would have determined that the Hades Contingency was necessary? Do you think they would have had the courage to stand up to the Council? The MEC project? My own experiments? Do you really think things would be the same if you weren’t in charge?”

“Probably not,” the Commander admitted. “I’m just saying what it feels like right now.” He shook his head. “You’ve not exactly caught me in a good frame of mind. I’ll probably be past it in a few hours.”

“So the important question,” Vahlen walked in front of him and looked him in the eye. “What are you going to do?”

That question was one he’d wondered and now, oddly enough, he actually did. “When Zhang locates where EXALT is hiding, I’m going to take a squad and wipe them out,” he stated coldly. “There will be retribution for today, and I will personally ensure it is carried out.”

Vahlen gave one firm nod. “Do what you need to.”

He gave a wry smile. “Really? You aren’t worried I’m going to die or something?”

Vahlen sighed and took his hands in her own. “Of course I am,” she admitted softly. “But I also know why you’re doing it and trust that you’re going to come back.”

“Huh,” the Commander said. “And here I was ready to defend myself.”

The corners of her lips curled up. “You have enough to worry about without me being overprotective.”

“Interesting word choice,” he commented wryly.

She shrugged. “What else do you call it when you worry about someone unnecessarily?”

“Fair point,” he conceded and they stood there for a minute. He coughed. “Thanks, Moira. It’s…relieving to have you to talk to.”

Vahlen smiled and leaned up to give him a quick peck on the cheek. Looking very self-satisfied, she stepped back. “Anytime, Commander. I’ll let you get back to work now.” She walked past him, leaving him standing there. The door hissed closed and he realized he probably should move.

Shaking his head, he turned around. Not the right time to think about that. He had work to do now. Best get to it.

***

The Citadel, Hallways

Something must have happened, judging from the increased pace and frantic movements of some of the staff as they rushed past him. Herman frowned as two techs ran beside him without so much as a nodded greeting. That, combined with the fact that the Commander had asked to see him meant something was going on.

He eventually reached the Commander’s office and hands clasped behind his back, walked up to the door which opened noiselessly. The Commander was leaning against the wall, a tablet in his head. Hearing him come in, he pushed himself off the wall and walked over.

He looked worn out; not tired, but run down at the very least. The dark circles under his eyes indicated he didn’t get much sleep, but his eyes seemed unusually vibrant. Almost angry. He didn’t sound tired though. “Herman, thanks for coming.”

Herman inclined his head in greeting. “Just as well, I was going to come see you soon anyway.”

“Hmm,” the Commander shrugged and continued. “We’ll get to whatever you want to talk about. But I’d like to ask some questions.”

Herman gave a light grin. “Is this an interrogation?”

“No, no,” the Commander denied, shaking his head. “Just something you might be able to help with.”

Alright, if he couldn’t tell he was joking, it must be serious. Adopting the same attitude, he answered. “Go ahead, Commander.”

 “We recently sent out a team to investigate an abduction zone in Mexico,” the Commander told him, handing him a tablet. “It turned out to be a trap set by an organization called EXALT. We were forced to retreat.”

Herman looked at the tablet which had pictures of the enemy soldiers. Well, this was interesting. “I haven’t seen that in a long time,” he muttered as he flipped through.

“What?” The Commander demanded, eyebrows furrowing. “You’ve seen them before?”

Herman looked up. “Not the armor or equipment, no. But those bandannas, I was involved in an African operation once and we encountered some mercenaries that also wore them. Theirs were green, not orange, but it’s an interesting coincidence.”

“This mercenary group,” the Commander demanded bluntly. “Do you know anything about them?”

“We just assumed they were mercenaries,” Herman clarified. “All of them were killed when we took a village they were holding. They didn’t have any identifying markings and their clothing was more practical for desert and jungle work,” he motioned at the tablet. “Nothing like these soldiers.”

“Have you heard of EXALT?” the Commander asked, looking at him intently.

Herman put the tablet down. “I’ve heard of it, certainly. But from my understanding, most of the intelligence community views it as a myth. Sorry, I don’t know anything about it, real or otherwise.”

“Of course they do,” the Commander muttered under his breath. “Well, we have proof EXALT does exist and is working against us.”

“Who are they affiliated with?” Herman asked. “Actually,” he raised a hand. “How much do you have?”

“We initially thought they were working on their own,” the Commander explained, flicking through his own tablet. “They were one of the parties involved in the destabilization of Germany. We know now that they’re very well organized, well equipped and exhibit an as-of now unknown degree of influence over various countries.”

Herman frowned. These sort of conspiracy theories weren’t exactly new. But most of time they were dismissed by most rational people. Which was a large reason why EXALT was considered a myth, the idea that a small group was secretly manipulating world events was incredibly hard to believe.

And yet, the Commander seemed convinced that they existed and were responsible for attacks on them. “How do you know for certain?” Herman asked, crossing his arms. “Forgive me for being skeptical, but this is a borderline conspiracy theory.”

“We captured an EXALT operative who gave us the name and another who was receiving funding from them to destabilize Germany,” the Commander explained. “We also acquired their symbol from another source, a symbol that is on the capes of the soldiers who ambushed us.”

He handed the tablet to him which showed what he assumed was the EXALT symbol. “But isn’t it a leap to assume that these people are influencing governments and such? That’s much different from a rogue intelligence agency.”

The Commander sighed. “Perhaps, but it’s the next logical step. We extracted information about shell companies controlled by EXALT. Once we compromised Germany for them, all of them were shut down in some form or another. We’ve been tracking where they’re moving to and I’ve begun operations against them that way.”

Herman put down his tablet. “Where?”

The Commander hesitated, clearly debating what to tell him. “A Russian farming company.”

“And I don’t suppose you’ve spoken with the President about the operation in his country?” Herman asked wearily.

“Of course not,” the Commander shook his head. “I don’t know how far their influence goes and will not risk compromising the operation just to be nice. I doubt they’ll even know we were there.”

Herman sighed, then frowned as a new realization struck him. “How exactly are you conducting espionage operations without an intelligence force? Unless…”

“Don’t get too excited,” the Commander grunted. “I have a few soldiers who have intelligence backgrounds. A few Mossad and Kidon agents. I felt this was worth investigating, but it’s nowhere near a full time operation,” he smirked. “How would I have time to run it? And unfortunately, no one else has intelligence experience besides me.”

“Perhaps that should change,” Herman wondered. “I’m not exactly sure I completely believe that EXALT is a world-altering organization, but since they are clearly moving against XCOM, it might be prudent to have some sort of dedicated covert operations group.”

The Commander looked surprised at that. “Believe me, I agree. But the issue is that the Council would never allow it. You should have seen the reaction to when I helped identify the causes of the instability in Germany. It was, and I quote, “Outside my jurisdiction.””

Herman eyed him. “For some reason, I doubt that words alone would stop you.”

“I have to pick my fights with the Council,” he defended. “A good portion already distrust me, and would never give me the authority to spy on them.”

Herman leaned against the wall. “Would you?”

The Commander snorted. “If I felt they posed a threat to XCOM, absolutely.”

“Reasonable,” Herman conceded. “Listen, perhaps I could help with this. I might be able to convince the Council of the necessity of this, especially with this EXALT organization entering the mix.”

“Really,” the Commander eyed him with interest. “Oddly considerate. But if you can get them to approve of an Intelligence program, under my control, mind you, then please do.” He shook his head. “And if it helps, tell them we suspect that EXALT is currently allied with the aliens.”

Herman blinked. “What?”

“It’s not confirmed,” the Commander warned, raising a hand. “But one of them was wielding a plasma rifle and they had an uncanny knowledge of our equipment, weaponry and tactics. Stuff they couldn’t know about without inside information,” he paused. “Anyway, the reason I brought you up in the first place was to see if you could ask the Council for anything on EXALT. Anything you can get will be useful.”

Herman nodded. “I’ll do my best.” With that he turned around and made to leave.

“Wait.” Herman turned back around to see the Commander eyeing him. “You said you wanted to discuss something with me?”

Oh, right. “Yes,” he answered with a nod. “But it’s not quite as urgent compared to this.”

“Unlikely,” the Commander agreed, waving his hand indicating him to continue. “But I would like to hear it all the same.”

Alright, here he went. Taking a deep breath, he walked back by the Commander. “It regards the virus you have Vahlen working on for the sectoids.”

“Ah, she spoke to you about that?” He asked, not sounding at all concerned. “I’m rather impressed she was able to do it.”

Impressed. Yes, that was one word that could be used. Disturbed was what he personally felt, but that wasn’t why he was here. “Yes, I do have some concerns about it.”

Even if he didn’t, he would almost hear the Commander’s sigh in his voice. “And they are?”

Herman paused dramatically. “It’s not efficient enough.”

The Commander cocked his head, that answer he’d clearly not expected. “Explain?”

Herman placed his hands behind his back. “With the way the virus is designed now, it will take weeks before it even takes effect. That’s understandable and a clever way to spread the virus unnoticed. However, drawing out the death of the sectoids provides no tactical advantage whatsoever.”

He cleared his throat. “If anything, it increases the chance that a cure will be able to be discovered and thus render the whole virus useless. Whereas if the virus killed within a few days, it would be almost impossible for the aliens to develop a cure or antidote.”

The Commander was silent for a few minutes, a small smile on his face. “Clever,” he commented, though Herman was pretty sure it wasn’t in response to his actual argument. “But contrary to what you say, there is a tactical advantage to the horrific means of execution. Fear.” The Commander’s eyes bored into his unsettlingly. “The effect is demoralizing and breeds terror within the species and the other alien races. Because if we can wipe out one species, what’s to stop them from being next? Aside from that, I feel it a fitting end to a species looking to destroy us.”

“Yes,” Herman coughed. “But if a cure-“

“I’m not concerned about that possibility,” the Commander interrupted. “Vahlen has assured me that it is incurable and because of how the virus works, any kind of genetic modification or tampering with the virus will result in the death of the subject. Simply put, it’s impossible to cure in the traditional sense. The only “antidote” is to change the genome of the sectoid, which would prevent the virus from taking hold at all. Which would only be able to be done on future clones of sectoids.”

Well, he should have known the Commander, and Vahlen, would have considered that possibility. They’d have been foolish not to. Well, he’d at least tried. “That being said,” the Commander interrupted his thoughts. “You do raise a good point. The aliens will catch on eventually and it will become more prudent to kill as many as possible. So how about a compromise; we deploy the virus as-is and after the initial wave takes ahold, we switch to a more…efficient version that works as you said.” He gave a grim smile. “We accomplish our goals psychologically, and then kill as many as possible.”

Well…it wasn’t quite what he wanted. But more than he expected, he’d actually not expected the Commander to back down at all. “That seems…prudent…Commander.”

“I’m glad you think so,” the Commander nodded. “You’re dismissed now.”

He nodded and left the room. Alright, he had a lot to discuss with the Council. He supposed that was as close as he was going to get to changing the Commander’s mind, but that at least showed he was willing to compromise, provided he worded everything right. He’d suspected that appealing to the Commander’s sense of morality probably wouldn’t work. Especially since he wasn’t convinced he had much to begin with. So what would work? Practicality and efficiency, that seemed to be arguments he respected. Arguments backed up by solid reasoning.

He sincerely hoped he would be able to convince the Council to authorize some sort of Intelligence branch, not just because it would make him more trustworthy in the Commander’s eyes, but because that wasn’t something that couldn’t be done part time. Mistakes got made that way, mistakes that killed people and the Commander had enough stress without worrying about other operations.

But he was right that the Council would not want him to have complete autonomy and he was certain that the Commander would put up a fight if they insisted on more oversight. And EXALT, hopefully they had something on that.

Hmm, what was the op in Africa? It might be a good idea to request that, even if it was just a coincidence. Never hurt to check.  

***

Isolated Location, Russia

“Come on,” Ruth muttered as she and Abby laid upon the sparse grass as they observed the factory. “Show us something.”

They’d arrived in Russia a couple days ago and spent most of that time getting into position before the actual infiltration. As Abby was finding out, that involved a lot of sitting around and doing nothing. At least the weather was pleasant, not to hot or cold. But quite honestly, she was getting bored.

The factory itself was in an oddly isolated location. Deep in the Russian wilderness. Surrounded by forests and hills, it was very scenic and beautiful. The factory rested on a large field of grass while they watched from one of the forested hills a mile or so back.

“Finally,” Ruth muttered while she gazed through the binoculars. “Abby, make note that the guard changes every four hours. I think we have enough to back that up.”

“Got it,” Abby confirmed and made that note on her pad. “Anything else?”

“We’ll probably have ten to fifteen minutes before they’re all in position,” Ruth added. “But hopefully, we won’t need to rely on that.”

Hopefully. This place was much larger than she’d initially assumed. It was slightly larger than some factories she’d seen in America, and much better guarded too. It did make sense, especially if they were connected to EXALT in some way. There were only two entrances, at the front and back. Otherwise, the building was surrounded by an electrified chain fence. To make matters worse, it was frequently patrolled by armed guards, a lot of them.

They’d counted at least fifteen different ones just on the outside, and an unknown number which resided in the factory itself. “A lot of security for a company,” Abby commented as she watched a pair of guards stop a truck that was entering through the front checkpoint. “Even if is a large one.”

“No way could they afford this kind of security with only one or two factories,” Ruth agreed. “But, well, not like we expected anything else.”

“How soon do you think we’ll move in?” Abby asked as she leaned back against a tree. “He’s going to be coming back soon.”

“Um-hmm,” Ruth nodded absentmindedly. “Trust me, I’m well aware of that. But we only need to infiltrate the facility once, plant the transponder, and leave. With any luck, it’ll siphon information off their computers to Akello for a few days until they figure it out. In the meantime, perhaps some of those black trucks will show up.”

“Let’s hope,” Abby sighed. “I think we’d actually learn more if we focused on the trucks. They’re clearly going somewhere.”

“Really, and here I thought they were just vanishing into space,” Ruth commented dryly. “But I get it. Which is why I’ll shoot the tracker on the trucks the next time they come,” she backed away. “We’ve got enough for now. Let’s head back.”

Abby grabbed her pack and followed Ruth through the woods to the makeshift campsite a few miles away. Kalonymous was nowhere to be seen when they returned, but Akello was sitting by the portable antenna typing on her laptop.

She looked up as they approached. “Learn anything?”

“Shift changes,” Ruth answered, tossing her pack down and moving over to the food pack. “It turned out to be exactly like I said, we just confirmed it.”

“Well, good for you,” Akello answered, shrugging and returned to her laptop. “Meanwhile, I’ve been poking around their cyber defenses.”

“And?” Ruth demanded, looking at her with interest as she took a drink from a water bottle.

“Their security is good,” Akello answered, a touch of admiration in her tone. “Like, really good. Better than it has any right to be.”

“You can’t get in?” Abby asked, going over to sit by her.

“Oh, I will eventually,” she reassured them, waving her hand dismissively. “But it’ll take some creativity.”

“Where is Kalonymous?” Ruth asked, looking around the small camp. Abby raised her head. Ruth was right, he should have come out.

“Don’t worry about him,” Akello commented as she typed. “He went into the woods about an hour ago. ‘Practicing,” he said.” Ruth relaxed a bit at that so Abby assumed she knew what that meant.

But she didn’t. “And what does that mean?” She asked Ruth.

“That means he’s almost ready for the op,” Ruth explained as she sat on the ground opposite them. “He does that. Gets into character, practices the voice, mannerisms and patterns of the person he’s imitating. He’s the best disguise artist I know for a reason.”

“A reputation I work to uphold,” a distinctly Russian voice said, startling her. She could swear that Madvay had somehow followed them. Turning around, she saw a disturbing look-alike. His hair was styled exactly the same and he’d somehow turned his skin a lighter color that matched Madvay’s exactly. The eyes were also the same and the voice was nearly perfect.

The only issue was that his face wasn’t really close to what Madvay’s actually was. But from a distance…and in combination with the voice…he could easily be mistaken for him. “That’s really creepy,” she said, not quite sure what else to say. “No offense.”

“None taken,” he assured her, keeping the same voice. It was eerie hearing him act like normal with that voice and look. “I take that as a compliment.”

“I guess we’ll move in tomorrow,” Ruth said. “We have everything we need. The IDs, disguise and transponder. So you and Abby will go in, set it, and get out.”

“So what are you going to do if someone recognizes you?” Abby asked. “Or rather, recognizes it’s not you?”

“Got you covered,” Akello called out. “I made a separate ID with some fake name that he can show if he wants to. A dummy card, but it’ll fool most people provided it’s accompanied by a good performance.”

“Which I can provide,” Kalonymous answered with a deferential nod.

“I suggest we get some rest,” Ruth said, standing up. “We’ve got a busy day tomorrow. Now-“

“Woah,” Akello exclaimed suddenly.

Ruth’s head snapped over. “What?”

“Someone else is also trying to get in,” she explained. “Like, get past the security as well.”

“Who?” Ruth demanded, striding over.

“No idea,” Akello admitted. “Though if they’re trying to get in, I’m guessing they aren’t EXALT.”

“Can they find us?” Abby asked, gesturing at the screen.

“Nope,” Akello reassured them. “Should they somehow manage to trace where this computer is, they’ll find it somewhere in the United States. And if they break that, it’ll be somewhere in Australia-“

“Right we get it,” Kalonymous interrupted. “You used a lot of proxies. A no would have been fine.”

“Hmm,” Ruth murmured. “Could you…coordinate with this person to break into the system?”

“Yes…” Akello answered slowly. “But I would have to actually be speaking to them for anything to really be effective.”

“So can you?” Abby asked.

“I can open a chat log,” Akello said. “You want me to?”

“If you’re sure they won’t be able to figure out who you are,” Ruth answered. “Or let me put it this way: could you find the identity of this person?”

“After a few days, perhaps,” Akello answered, frowning at the screen. “Though it would require-“

“Good enough,” Ruth cut her off abruptly. “Open communications with them.”

“Understood,” Akello nodded, her lips curling into a grin. “Let’s see what they want.”  

***

“I count fifteen,” Cerian informed as he watched the factory through the scope of his sniper rifle. “Probably more inside.”

“Pretty heavy security,” Ren noted as he watched through the scope of his rifle as well. “But is that really unusual for a large company? Especially in Russia?”

  “Depends,” Cerian answered, frowning as he watched. “In this case, I find it unusual, but it’s not really raising any red flags for me.”

“Then I guess the question is why XCOM is interested in it,” Ren shrugged.

That question was definitely one he was no closer to solving. They’d done thorough research on the company before arriving and…nothing appeared out of the ordinary. There hadn’t been any legal issues facing the company and they were one of the more known distributors in the Russian farming industry.

By all rights, XCOM shouldn’t be interested in this. There was no one employed who had any connection to the government or any kind of foreign entity. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the aliens either, which made this whole situation bizarre.

He was convinced he was missing an important piece. Patrick had been just as confused as him when he’d given the update. He’d provided them with everything they had, or course, but he didn’t know why any more than Cerian did.

One theory was that XCOM had somehow discovered some kind of criminal activity within the company, which might explain the security and how they were doing so well financially. But there were some glaring problems with that, namely that again, there was no reason why XCOM would even care. And if it was, why would they not just tell the Russians?

“When do you think they’ll make their move?” Ren asked, sounding bored.

“I’d think they’d want to do it sooner than later,” Cerian answered adjusting his scope. “But when they do, we’ll know it.”

“Hopefully Mary can get into their network,” Ren sighed. “Then we might figure something concrete out. Probably more than just watching for them here for hours.”

“Break time,” Darril interrupted as he snuck up behind them. Cerian looked up at him and Olivia standing behind them. Rising to his knees he handed the rifle to Darril.

“No change since the last time,” he updated as Ren gave his rifle to Olivia. “Nothing suspicious from XCOM either.”

“So, probably another six hours of nothing?” Olivia commented ruefully as she laid on the ground and took her position. “Well, not much we can do.”

“Yep,” Cerian sighed. “We’ll see you shortly.” He and Ren set off back to their own makeshift camp. It only took them a half hour to hike there and they didn’t get much of a greeting when they did. Mary was typing on her laptop as she leaned against a tree, only stopping to wave at them as they sat down on bench.

“Anything happen here?” Cerian asked rhetorically, not really expecting a response.

“Not really,” Mary shrugged and looked back at her screen. “This company sure does have good security though. I haven’t been able to get in yet.”

“Why is that so unusual?” Ren asked as he took a drink of water. “Aren’t these large corporations supposed to protect against people like you?”

“Well, yeah. In theory,” Mary explained. “But most of the time they don’t exactly follow through on promises.”

“That still isn’t so strange,” Cerian added as he opened a small bag of chips. “Shouldn’t they be commended for taking cyber security seriously for once?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mary sighed in exasperation. “But it had to be when we actually need to get in-hold on.”

Cerian paused. “What is it?”

“Well, well,” Mary looked surprised and began renewed typing. “I think I’ve found our XCOM hacker. Looks like they’re trying to get inside as well.”

Cerian put down the bag and walked over and kneeled down behind her shoulder. The screen was filled with lines of code, looked like some form of C++, though he couldn’t be sure. It had been a while since he’d refreshed his knowledge on programming. “How are they doing?”

“Apparently as good as I am,” Mary answered distractedly. “The issue isn’t that I can’t get in, it’s just that it’ll take a long time. We have time, but I’m guessing XCOM doesn’t.”

“If they create a breach, would we be able to go in as well?” Cerian questioned looking at her.

Mary pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “Unlikely…” she finally said. “Unless I knew exactly what they did to break in and could replicate it. For some reason, I’m not sure they’d share it with me.”

“Would you be able to detect when they got in?” Cerian wondered, thinking. If they could…it might be a way for them to predict when XCOM would strike.

“No,” Mary shook her head. “I’ll be able to tell if they go offline or not, but not if they actually broke into the system. If they get in, the signal probably won’t be any-“

A window on the screen popped up:

cout (User 1) <<  Who is this?

cin >> _

The underscore flashed, apparently to allow her to respond. Well then. An interesting turn of events. Mary looked up at him. “What should I say?”

“This our XCOM hacker?” Cerian clarified, just to make sure.

“Positive,” Mary nodded. “No one else is in the system.”

“I won’t dictate,” Cerian told her. “Just let me see before you send it.”

Mary nodded and returned to typing.

cout (User 2) << An interested party.

They waited a few seconds until a response popped up.

cout (User 1) << You’ll have to be more specific.

Mary sighed and responded.

cout (User 2) << I don’t, actually. But I’m a freelancer if you must know.

cout (User 1) << Touchy, but have it your way. Why are you interested?

Mary paused for a second.

cout (User 2) << I could ask you that same question. What do you want?

cout (User 1) << Answers.

Well, that did make some sense. Though it was still too vague to really read into it that much. Provided this person was even telling the truth. A new message popped up.

cout (User 1) << And you?

Mary paused, looked into the air as she contemplated, then looked down and typed a response. Once it was typed, she looked up a Cerian for approval, He gave a nod.

cout (User 2) << Someone I know went missing. I’ve tracked the culprits here.

There was a pause of a few seconds before a response popped up.

cout (User 1) << Who are they?

cout (User 2) << How do I know you’re not with them?

cout (User 1) << You don’t, but we might share a common enemy.

“You think asking who is too blunt?” Mary asked, looking up at him.

Cerian rubbed his forehead. “No, not in this case.” Mary nodded and returned to typing.

cout (User 2) << And who is that?

cout (User 1) << EXALT

Cerian’s eyes widened. Now that was not what he was expecting. Mary seemed just as confused. “The hell is EXALT?”

“A myth,” Cerian answered as he tried to figure out if it could be interpreted differently. “Or at least that’s what everyone believes.”

“Well, it seems real, whatever it is,” Mary shrugged. “You think that’s why they’re here?”

“It’s better than what we had before,” Cerian admitted. “But it makes no sense. EXALT was a conspiracy debunked decades ago. But I don’t know why XCOM would be interested in it now.”

“Maybe it’s something different?” Mary suggested. “I should reply before they get suspicious.”

“Do it,” he nodded. Mary was probably right, it was likely it was some other group that had taken the name for some reason. But then that still didn’t answer the question of why XCOM was interested in them. They must have acted against them somehow to warrant this kind of reaction. Or maybe it was an alien program?

He glanced back at the screen where Mary typed her response.

cout (User 2) << You know them?

cout (User 1) << You could say I’ve had issues with them.

cout (User 1) << Both of us want something from them. For now, we have the same goals. I suggest we align for the moment, get what we need and leave.

cout (User 2) << How do I know I can trust you?

cout (User 1) << You can’t. But if it makes you feel better I’ve already tried to locate you and failed. Your identity will remain safe.

“Cheeky,” Mary muttered. “Should I do it? This might be our only opportunity to get into the system.”

“Can you ensure nothing will give us away?” Cerian asked.

“Yes,” Mary nodded. “I’ll be extra careful.”

“Do it,” Cerian ordered, standing up. Mary nodded and began typing. Cerian left her to her work and walked over and saw by his tent. EXALT. He wasn’t foolish enough to believe it was actually the organization of myth, but if XCOM had decided they posed enough of a problem to warrant entire operations devoted against them, then they must be disruptive on some level.

So the next logical step was to find all known organizations that had something to do with the word EXALT. Patrick was going to love the next update. Well, XCOM was probably going to move on the company very soon now, so they had to be ready to watch and see what they were doing.

He leaned back and closed his eyes. Best get some sleep while he could.

***

“You think they’ll notice they’ve never seen this vehicle before?” Abby asked as they drove up to the factory. The car they were driving was the only one that they’d been able to get and had taken them here in the first place. It wasn’t the prettiest thing and fairly old, but it served well.

“You vastly overestimate the memory of the average security guard,” Kalonymous chuckled without looking over at her. At least he was using his normal voice for now. “They only care if your ID passes inspection.”

“Let’s hope Akello made sure everything works,” Abby muttered. After making contact with the mysterious hacker, they’d pooled their skills and had been able to penetrate the company network. Akello had used it to modify the personnel files to make sure they were in the system if questioned.

She hadn’t been able to get much more than that, since going into the more encrypted files would undoubtedly tip them off that something was happening. But it had definitely made the infiltration easier.

“Akello is one of the best,” Kalonymous assured her. “I wouldn’t worry.”

“Moment of truth,” Abby muttered as they pulled up to the checkpoint and she got out her forged ID. Glancing down to ensure that the pack containing the transponder was tucked underneath her legs. Satisfied that it was, she looked over as Kalonymous lowered the window. One of the guards approached them.

“идентификация.” He stated, extending a hand.

Kalonymous simply handed the ID badges over which he took and walked back to his station. A minute later he returned and handed them back with a nod. Stepping back, he waved them through as the gate opened.

“That went well,” Abby commented, relieved, as they drove to the parking area.

“Don’t get excited yet,” Kalonymous cautioned as he parked and then unbuckled. “Wait till we’re inside.” They got out and approached through the employee entrance. The cards allowed them entry without incident and once they were inside they were greeted with a series of hallways with stark white lights and walls. Unpainted concrete floors extended as far as the hallways, though did seem to stop at the various exits.

“Floor plan should have us take a left,” Abby recalled. “We did enter from the southeast employee entrance, right?”

“That we did,” Kalonymous looked over at her, respect in his eyes. “I’m surprised you remembered so exactly.”

She snorted. “I memorized every part of the human body. A building is trivial when compared to that.”

“Very true,” he started walking down the hallway and nodded in greeting as they passed some workers who barely nodded as they went past. They finally arrived at an elevator and pressed it to go up.

From the schematics, they were not going to be going into the main production area of the factory, just a very short, direct path to the security room. Once they took the elevator to the second floor, it would be several lefts and they’d have to use Kalonymous’ security pass to go further.

In the event that the pass did not work, they’d try to enter manually and find some way to break in. Worst case scenario, they have to risk contacting Akello and having her force the doors to open. Which was extremely risky with all the security around and the greater chance that someone would intercept their conversation. She wouldn’t put it past EXALT to have listening devices planted or have some way of intercepting signals.

They rode the elevator without incident and soon arrived at the hallways leading them to the entrance. It seemed fine until they realized there was a guard in front of the door. Both of the paused just before the hallway turned.

“Damn it,” Kalonymous muttered under his breath. “This might be difficult.”

“You think he’ll let us pass?” Abby asked, just as quietly.

“Perhaps me,” Kalonymous answered distractedly. “If you speak he’ll know you’re not a native. Here, hand me the pack in case I can’t get you in.”

She handed it over. “Worst case?”

Kalonymous shrugged. “We have to kill him.”

On that cheery note, they rounded the corner and approached the guard. He wasn’t heavily armed, just bearing a pistol strapped to his waist and wore an oddly formal suit. There were some odd attachments to his wrists and he had an odd looking eyepiece that extended over his left eye. The lens was blue and it flickered as they approached. Some kind of identification software? Did such a thing exist?

His hands were clasped behind his back, but he raised one in a clear signal to stop once they were close. “держитесь пожалуйста,” he greeted in a surprisingly calm voice. Kalonymous stopped and Abby followed suit. He appraised them, first looking intently at Kalonymous and then at Abby.

After an uncomfortable timespan, he nodded, seemingly satisfied. “добро пожаловать. идентификация пожалуйста.” He extended his hand and Kalonymous handed him their IDs. He turned his right arm up and slid the first card into a thin card reader into it. A few seconds later it flashed green and he pulled out and put the other one in with the same result.

With a nod, he gave the cards back to Kalonymous. “вы очищены, чтобы войти. не займет слишком много времени.”

Kalonymous nodded towards him. “мы будем сделано в ближайшее время.”

The guard turned to the door and slid his own card into a slot by the door. Abby could hear the click as it unlocked and he opened it and motioned them inside. Once they entered, Abby took a quick look around. The security room was surprisingly robust, it more closely resembled something that she’d see in XCOM Intelligence instead of a farming company.

All the equipment looked at the very least up to date. There were screens displaying various areas of the factory. The security personnel sat at chairs, making notes and performing other unseen tasks on their own computers. All of them were so focused on their work, they didn’t even notice the two of them entering.

Abby slid the pack off her back and looked around. All that was really required was that it needed to be plugged into a power source. Akello had said it would go faster if it could also be plugged into one of the computers, but that wasn’t a requirement. Still, they wouldn’t have an opportunity like this for a long time.

She gave a wordless nod toward Kalonymous towards a computer at the far end. If Kalonymous could distract him for long enough, she’d be able to set up the transponder and connect it to the computer as well with a small chance of being noticed by anyone else.

Kalonymous seemed to get it and nodded, then began walking over to the security analyst. She hung out in the back, pretending to fiddle with one of the panels. She could hear him chatting in Russian, then there was the sound of a chair moving backward. Footsteps behind her, she waited until she felt the light gust of air as they passed her.

She waited a few seconds then walked over to the computer as casually as she could. Kneeling on the ground, she pulled out the transponder. No larger than a shoebox, it fit snugly over the computer, a very natural fit and one that wouldn’t look out of place at all. She’d practiced this dozens of times last night and it paid off. She made almost no noise as she fitted it in place and began attaching the cords.

One. Two and…three. Now for the power. With a spark, the transponder flashed green from a small LED light. Online. She smiled to herself and rose to her feet and stepped back. No one had noticed and she casually made her way back to the panel. Perfect timing as well, since Kalonymous was walking back, having an intense conversation that she couldn’t even begin to follow.

Kalonymous smiled and said what she assumed was goodbye and gave a small wave. The man responded similarly and went back to his place. “Online,” she muttered, not looking at him. He simply smiled.

Once the man had returned to fully focusing on his job, they left. They passed the guard without incident and only until they were around the corner did Abby breathe a sigh of relief. They’d done the hard part, all they had to do now was get out.

But she didn’t think they had anything to worry about now.

***

“I guess we know why they were interested in that guy,” Olivia commented as they walked back. “At least, I’m assuming they used his ID to get inside.”

“And out,” Cerian added as he slung his rifle over his shoulder. “Very smoothly, I might add.”

“Hopefully Mary is tracking them now,” Olivia said hopefully as she cast a wistful glance up. When Cerian had made the shot containing the tracking chip, she’d been skeptical it could have been done. The look on her face had been worth it. “Though what are we going to do with this? I doubt they’ll be there for much longer.”

“It’ll serve perfectly fine for the moment,” Cerian reassured her. “I want to at least try and learn what XCOM is doing here before I update Patrick. Until then, knowing their location is enough.”

“And what happens if they find the tracker?” Olivia asked curiously, looking over. “They aren’t exactly amateurs.”

“Which is why I invest in the best gear possible,” Cerian reminded her. “Trust me, if they find that tracker I’m getting a refund. That thing was insanely expensive and my shot placed it somewhere they won’t look.”

Olivia shrugged. “If you say so, boss. You think Mary found anything?”

“Hopefully.” Mary had been working on accessing some of the more encrypted files when they’d left. She’d apparently had to be careful so as “not to arouse suspicion” whatever that meant. Hopefully it meant that she had something.

As they walked in silence for a few minutes, Cerian kept noticing Olivia looking at him occasionally. She finally broke the silence. “You’ve done this a lot before, haven’t you?”

Ah, so it was going to be this talk. “I did. For many years in fact.”

“So…” she paused. “What did you do? Just reconnaissance?”

“Occasionally,” he answered honestly. “But I was used mostly for my skills as an assassin.”

She turned her head sharply. “Really…” she answered cautiously, clearly not sure how to respond. “For the UN?”

“Does that surprise you?” He asked humorlessly, even though his lips were curled into a smile. “That the UN could employ people in such a despicable position?”

“I didn’t mean-“ She began.

“No, it’s fine,” Cerian cut her off. “Trust me. I wasn’t a fan of the way my skills were often used, but to be fair, they didn’t use them often. The times they did ask me, they had usually tried every alternative, at least later. When their initial methods failed, they turned to me.”

“So who did you go after?” Olivia asked after a few seconds.

“Whoever posed a threat to innocent lives,” Cerian answered, recalling the faces of his targets. “That wasn’t a UN mandate either. That was my personal goal. And if my targets didn’t meet that standard in some way, I refused.”

“You refused the UN?” Olivia asked incredulously. “How did you still keep your job?”

“The first time, I didn’t,” Cerian explained, this time glancing over with a genuine smile. “They wanted me to take out some African leader who was openly turning his country into a dictatorship. Once that was accomplished, this man started a little crusade against them; openly spiting them and refusing to even talk. The UN had supposedly tried everything and wanted to remove the problem and bring “freedom” back to the country.”

Cerian adjusted his rifle as it started to slip from his shoulder. “Thing was, he was a democratically elected leader who just so happened to despise the UN. He wasn’t doing anything against the citizen or oppressing them in any way. It didn’t take long to really figure out why he was so hostile; he was afraid the UN was going to take over his country and impose their rules.”

“Were they?” Olivia asked.

“At least some,” Cerian guessed. “Anyway, as you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t shoot the guy. I went back to command, told them why I didn’t and what approach should be taken in negotiating with this man. They didn’t like that and kicked me out. I’d kind of expected that and already had some other things lined up. But, lo and behold, they called within the week asking for me to return.”

“So what happened?” Olivia asked, taking a candy bar out of her back pocket and starting to eat.

“Someone in the UN actually took my advice,” Cerian answered. “The UN was approaching the entirety of the negotiations wrong. They were making demands, not looking to work with him. So, once they changed their tactics, he suddenly became a lot more receptive when he knew the sovereignty of his country wouldn’t be threatened.”

“How did no one figure that out before?” Olivia wondered, pursing her lips in bewilderment.

“Because for some, compromise is a sign of weakness,” Cerian answered. “Especially with an organization like the UN. To have one little country stand up and demand the UN treats them as equals implies that the UN is weak. So if intimidation and threats fail, assassination is the obvious next course of action,” Cerian laced his fingers together. “But sometimes, swallowing your pride and recognizing that you’re not the center of the world is good for all parties.”

Cerian sighed. “But honestly, I think that they respected me taking a stand, even if I didn’t make it easy for them. Now, that obviously didn’t happen every time, but I do think that I helped ensure that assassination was only used as a true last resort.”

“Huh,” Olivia looked away. “You really never struck me as the assassin type.”

Cerian snorted. “And just what is the ‘assassin type?’ Having walls full of guns? Plotting in a dark room in an overly dramatic voice?”

“No,” Olivia answered, ignoring his sarcastic answer. “You’re not emotionless, not…cold or mechanical,” she glanced over. “I’m serious. I’ve taken down several assassins and they all exhibit similar characteristics.”

Cerian pursed his lips. “You took down hitmen. Assassins are those who remove threats to the population by lethal force as a last resort. Hitman remove targets indiscriminately regardless of whether it’s right or not. Some do it on orders, others are paid, but they are not assassins.

“That’s the first time anyone’s actually tried to make it sound noble,” Olivia commented neutrally.

“I wouldn’t say noble,” Cerian corrected. “Though I did try to bring some respectability to the profession. There is a stigma attached that will probably never fade. And I don’t have an issue with that, it does act as something of a deterrent to governments who are considering utilizing it.”

“I never really thought of it that way before,” Olivia admitted, looking forward as they kept walking. “Learn something new every day.”

“You were an MI6, correct?” Cerian recalled. “You must be familiar with this kind of work too?”

“I was mostly the woman sent in once the spies had located a hideout or group of criminals,” Olivia answered. “I didn’t do as much sneaking around as this. It’s an interesting change of pace.”

“You seem to be adapting fine,” Cerian complemented. “It’ll get more exciting later.”

“Hey, don’t jinx it,” Olivia commented lightly. “In this line of work, exciting usually means us getting shot at or dying horribly.”

“True, true,” Cerian chuckled. “I hope Darril or Ren made some food.”

Olivia shuddered. “I…hope not. I have yet to meet a man in the military that knows how to cook something other than ramen.”

“Well, aren’t you generalizing,” Cerian said, trying to sound sarcastic, yet offended. “I’ll have you know that I’m not a bad cook.”

She snorted. “You don’t count. You had your own home and kitchen. I’d be worried if you weren’t halfway competent.”

“Hey, Cerian!” Mary called over as they approached, waving them over.

“Is there food?” Cerian asked as he knelt down by Mary.

She looked up, confused. “What? No. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve found a lot of interesting things here.”

“Like what?” Cerian asked, sitting on the ground.

“There is a lot of money being processed through here,” Mary emphasized. “We’re talking in the billions of American dollars.”

“Is it illegal?” Cerian asked, frowning.

“Technically, no…” Mary answered slowly. “But the thing is, they’re not making digital transfers. Several of the payments come in the form of liquid assets. So not money per-se. There are several suspect companies, but I want you to guess who their biggest customer is. Go on, guess.”

Cerian sighed, but figured it was worth indulging her especially since she’d done exceptionally. “First, are we talking governments or strictly corporations?”

“Business, corporations, whatever,” she waved her hand. “But no governments, thankfully.”

“Fine,” he sighed. “Let’s say…I don’t know, the NRA?”

“Closer than you think,” Mary answered with a smile. “Solaris Industries.”

“The American weapons manufacturer?” Olivia asked incredulously. “They just signed an agreement with the United States military.”

“That they did,” Mary nodded, sounding very self-satisfied. “And if you notice, all of their payments are in the form of assets. And I just wonder what sorts of assets they’re paying with?”

A shell company. So, this put a whole new light onto why XCOM was interested. “We need to shut this place down,” Cerian said. “We need to get everything this company has.”

“How do you want to do that?” Mary asked, biting her lip. “I mean, it’s going to be hard to prove this without evidence, and while these records do show highly suspicious activity, I don’t think it’s enough for a conviction.”

“Then don’t do it officially,” Cerian ordered. “Send it to the Russians. I think they’d be very interested in knowing a weapon smuggling ring is thriving in their country. If they act, the UN can then ask to become involved officially.”

“What about Patrick?” Olivia asked.

“I’ll update him too,” Cerian nodded. “But the UN can’t act and move without Russian approval. Shutting this place down will go quicker if the Russians do it on their own.”

“Will do,” Mary nodded. “It’ll be done soon.”

“Excellent work,” he complemented. “All of you. I think we all deserve a short break.”

There was a chorus of agreement and they all settled in for the night, proud they had achieved at least something of a victory.

***

Three Days Later

“The tracker we managed to place on the outgoing trucks matches up with the records we’ve received from the transmitter,” Ruth updated for Zhang who watched from Akello’s computer screen. “If I had to guess, I’d think this is EXALT storage area of some kind. You’ll have to use the satellites to be sure.”

Zhang gave a brief nod. “Good. I will inform the Commander. Are you continuing to receive information from the transmitter?”

“Yes, Director,” Akello confirmed. “We’re getting more every day. Much of what we recovered has other leads we can follow up on. Kalonymous is going through them now.”

“Most of them are in Russian,” Abby added. “I’ve been working on the ones in English.”

“Anything of note?” Zhang inquired, looking down at something in his hand.

“There are heavy financial ties to Solaris Industries,” Abby continued. That particular bit of information had come as a surprise to her, and also kind of made her sad. She didn’t care much for the corporation itself, but she respected Matthew, the man who ran it. He seemed the standard for what people in business should be. She might not agree with all of his positions, but at least she could respect him from how he treated others.

She wondered how far up it went. Matthew didn’t seem the type to be involved in something like this, but it had to be someone pretty high up given the amount of money being spent. Well, that was for Zhang and the Commander to decide what to do with this information.

Zhang didn’t react much to the new, though that seemed to be standard for him. “A concerning piece of intel,” he mused, actually sounding concerned for once. “Especially since Solaris Industries is slowly becoming the largest weapons manufacturer in the United States, both financially and politically. Is there any indication Mr. Solaris himself could be involved?”

“I didn’t find any names,” Abby answered with a sigh. “Personally, Matthew doesn’t seem the type to do this. But with the amount of money being spent…I don’t know. It has to be someone very high up in the company.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Zhang promised. “Your work is done here. I want you to converge on this EXALT facility and scope out the area before our attack.”

Ruth frowned. “An attack? So soon? We might be able to get more-“

“We have enough information to begin investigating other leads,” Zhang interrupted coldly. “Aside from that, this attack will send a message to EXALT. One of retaliation.”

Abby frowned, a wave of cold swept over her. That didn’t sound good at all. “What happened?”

“We made contact with EXALT military forces,” Zhang answered grimly. “They ambushed us and drove us away. We lost three soldiers and the Commander feels that a retaliation strike would serve as an excellent start to our counter-attack.”

“Damn,” Ruth muttered. “In that case, we’ll have something by the end of the day. They still don’t know we’re here, so I wouldn’t expect much resistance.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Zhang finished and ended the call.

Ruth strode over to where Kalonymous was sitting down. “All right, we’re heading out now. Do your reading on the way.”

“Yes, miss Shira,” he responded in a patronizing tone as he reluctantly got to his feet.

Within a half hour, they’d packed up all their gear and were in the car and driving in the direction of the EXALT facility. At first Abby had found the scenery rather beautiful, but now it didn’t grab her attention like before. It was just another hill, tree or valley.

“Everyone wave goodbye as we pass,” Kalonymous joked as they went past the factory for, hopefully, the last time. The smile on his face slowly faded and his hand lowered. “The hell?”

Abby looked over in the direction of the factory and blinked. The area was swarming with Russian soldiers. At least a couple dozen with military trucks and cars parked in the lots.

“Oh, that’s not good.” She breathed. Well, there went any chance of the upcoming raid being easy. EXALT would be a high alert now, and would cut any kind of intel to the factory, effectively removing any chance to learn more from their files.

“Really, Russia?” Akello asked to no one in particular. “You had to pick now of all times to move on the company?”

“If this wasn’t going to negatively impact them, I’d almost wonder if they were doing this on purpose,” Kalonymous commented as he drove past. “Seriously, this is going to make things much more difficult.”

“How did they even know?” Abby wondered.

“My guess is that they’ve been watching for a while,” Ruth answered, pursing her lips. “And it’s just our bad luck that they decided to move now.”

“Guess we’ll have to make do,” Kalonymous said with a sigh. “Zhang is just going to love this.”

“On the bright side, at least there’ll be more EXALT soldiers to kill,” Ruth suggested. “Let’s hope everyone’s up to the task.”

On that happy note, Abby settled in for the long drive over. Half-nervous, half in anticipation for the fight ahead.

***

Supplementary Material

XCOM Operative Alien Handbook: “Thin Man”

OVERVIEW: The alien that soldiers within XCOM have referred to as the “Thin man,” was first encountered early in the invasion during a mission into China. True to its name, the initial incarnation of the alien was unnatural thin and disproportionate to human standards of physical appearance. While the aliens have continued to improve upon this particular species, their overall role has not changed, which is primarily infiltration and espionage.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION AND CAPABILITIES: Thin Men are currently classified as one of three types. The first of them is referred to as a Generation I Thin Man (Gen-1), the second as a Generation II (Gen-2) Thin Man and the final as a Generation III (Gen-3) Thin Man.

Generation I Thin Man: These exist as the alien’s first attempt to create human doppelgangers to infiltrate our species. While the disguise could pass from a distance, even regular civilians would be able to spot obvious clues as to this creatures extraterrestrial origins.

Generation I Thin Men stand exactly 1.95 meters and have unusually thin arms, legs and torsos. They resemble a typical Caucasian with short black hair. They tend to walk jerkily, as if the body they wear is unusual to them. Their heads have clearly larger skulls than the average human and are disproportionate to the face itself, spots of some kind also adorn its neck, making it easy to spot. The eyes are also reptilian, a clear clue that the aliens have not been able to remove. The aliens attempted to negate the obvious physical differences by having these Gen-1 Thin Men wear various hats, sunglasses and high –collared clothing.

To date, there has not been a recorded instance of a Gen-1 Thin Man communicating with other humans in a recognizable human language. They have been observed communication via shrieks and wails. It is unknown if this is their primary method of communicating. To date, all encountered Gen-1 Thin Men have been male and are almost identical in appearance. Genetic observation performed by Dr. Moira Vahlen has confirmed that these are not clones like the Sectoid species, but rather, a complete, intrusive and total genetic modification.

Gen-1 Thin Men are capable of wielding all types of weaponry and are particularly good shots. They also have the ability to spit a lethal toxin at soldiers. It is unknown how often they can utilize this ability. Gen-1 Thin Men are exceptionally agile and can leap great distances and survive falls that would kill most humans. Due to their lack of armor, only one or two shots are needed to kill them. It should be noted that upon death, some Gen-1 Thin Men emit the toxin they shoot around their corpse, rendering the immediate area toxic.

Note 1: Gen-1 Thin Men are most likely to be encountered in combat situations. The reason for this is unknown.

Generation II Thin Men: These exist as the second, and more refined version of this species. While the alien does tend to stay around a height of 1.8 meters, there is a far greater range of diversity between the bodies recovered. Based on the bodies recovered, the aliens seemingly have the ability to modify skin color, hair color, essentially every factor of appearance with the exception of the eyes, which still retain their reptilian look.

Gen-2 Thin Men are far better proportioned, though a careful analysis will note some lingering thinness in their arms and legs, though the aliens have negated this physical abnormality by having the thin men wear clothing that covers the arms and legs. The head has also been improved, and is nearly indistinguishable from an actual human. The spots that adorned the neck of Gen-1 Thin Men have been removed, improving the alien’s ability to infiltrate.

A curious characteristic of the Gen-2 Thin Man is that this is the only recorded alien communicating in a human language. They appear to have the ability to adopt languages and accents to solidify their cover and allow for a deadlier ambush. They are capable to posing as male and female humans and retain the abilities of Gen-1 Thin Men in terms of combat and agility.

Generation III Thin Men: To date, there has never been a documented encounter of a Gen-3 Thin Man. This entry is merely theoretical, hypothesizing the next evolution of this alien species. A Gen-3 Thin man would be identical to a human in every way, and be capable of independent interaction and high-profile infiltration and espionage.

It follows that the Gen-3 Thin Man would retain the agility and abilities of Gen-2 Thin Men, if not improve upon them. What this would entail is theoretical and impossible to predict due to the high genetic mutability of this alien. It is not implausible for the aliens to use a Gen-3 Thin Man to replace a prominent human figure, political or military leader.

Note 2: Please note again that this section is theoretical. There has not been any indication that the aliens have, or are developing, Gen-3 Thin Men.

Note 3: While rare, a variation on the Gen-1 Thin Man has been spotted in several missions. This Thin Man appears to have been created for the purposes of long-range combat. These “Thin Man Snipers” wield plasma sniper rifles and have had cybernetic enhancements to their eyes and head, presumably to improve coordination and aim. It is also worth noting that these Thin Men are often slightly more armored than usual.

STRENGTHS:

  1. Plasma Weaponry: Despite advances in XCOM technology, plasma weapons are still more dangerous than any firearm developed on Earth. The damages this weapon can cause are extensive and often fatal.

 

Counter: While not the strongest variant of plasma weaponry the aliens utilize, the plasma carbine that Thin Men of both generations wield is dangerous in any situation and lethal at close range. While XCOM had made strides in armor to render a single shot non-lethal, it is not recommended you test the armor for repeated shots.

 

  1. Agility: The Thin Men of both generations are exceptionally agile and are able to leap distances of up to ten feet or more (That have been recorded). They have also been observed leaping from four story buildings without injuring themselves, offering them a massive tactical advantage in a prolonged battle.

 

Counter: It is advised that soldiers wielding laser weaponry use sustained beams in horizontal cuts by the legs to make it difficult for the thin man to dodge conventionally. Usage of flash-bangs has also been observed to be effective in limiting their agility.

 

  1. Infiltration (Gen-2 Only): Due to the alien’s improvement and genetic manipulation, these thin men are able to blend into crowds with greater ease, rendering the chance for a surprise attack extremely, especially in crowded areas.

 

Counter: Despite advances in appearance, Gen-2 Thin Men do retain some of the jerky walk that plagued the Gen-1 Thin Men. While much more subtle, it is consistent and should be easy to spot. As the aliens have not been able to fix the eyes, watch for eyewear that covers the pupil, especially in odd places or times such as at night, a cloudy day, or indoors.

 

  1. Toxin: The Thin Man has the ability to spit toxin at a small area. The toxin acts as both a poison and an acid and is lethal to unarmored individuals caught in it’s radius. It is also theorized that because of this ability, Thin Men are immune to poisons and toxic gases.

 

Counter: Step away from the field as quickly as possible and quickly spray all wounds with a med-kit which is capable of neutralizing the toxin quickly and safely. Alternatively, kill the Thin Man before he has a chance to spit at you in the first place.

 

WEAKNESSES:

  1. Unarmored: The Thin Man wears little to no armor due to it’s primary role as an infiltration and espionage unit. The most protection is various civilian clothing. Laser weaponry is effective and will cut into them will virtually no resistance. They are also vulnerable to environmental hazards such as fire and electricity.
  2. Support Grenades: Thin Men are vulnerable to the flash-bang, as it will disrupt their ability to focus and move as quickly. Offensively used smoke grenades are also effective for disrupting a group of Thin Men.

 

TACTICS:

  1. Laser Trap: Due to the Thin Men lacking much armor or protection, a laser traps is particularly effective. Simply sustain lasers for no more than five seconds and aim as directed by the Squad Overseer. Use in open or uncovered spaces for maximum effectiveness.
  2. Flank: Have two to three soldiers suppress a group of Thin Men in cover. As they do this, a second team will move around the side (Determined by the Squad Overseer), and open fire on the exposed aliens. Use on contained or clustered groups for maximum effectiveness.
  3. Offensive Smoke Grenade: Throw a smoke grenade into the midst of a group of Thin Men. Ensure that the HUD is set to filter out smoke, allowing a clear view of the exposed sectoids. If they are exposed, fire. If not, use this opportunity to advance into a better position. Use on contained or clustered groups for maximum effectiveness.
  4. Flash-Bang: Throw a flash-bang to negate agility and cause disorientation. Additionally, this opportunity may be used to advance to a better position. Use on thin men in superior cover or who are contained or clustered.

 

PSIONICS: To date, there have been no recorded instances of Thin Men of any generation utilizing psionic abilities.

  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Bastion, Communications Center

Progress on the alien metals and weapons is proceeding well,” Diguon updated, his hands clasped behind his back as he updated Saudia. “Thanks to the XCOM gear Zara recovered, we should begin to match XCOM within weeks.”

Zara snorted, causing her hologram to shimmer for a moment. “You better. I lost a lot of good soldiers to them. We barely managed to make it out before that airstrike. Speaking of which, that might have been helpful to know beforehand.”

“We didn’t know XCOM would raze the area,” Saudia defended, pursing her lips. “Had we known that, you would have as well.”

Diguon glanced at Zara, dispassionately as ever. “But you did make it out. How close it was doesn’t matter. Aside from that, the barricades worked exactly as expected.”

“Yes, excellent job on that,” Saudia commended, inclining her head towards him. “Both of you performed exceptionally and handed XCOM a resounding defeat.”

“As is our job, Director, Diguon acknowledged, lowering his head.

Zara wasn’t quite as thrilled, at least from her posture. Her crossed arms and intense, almost angry gaze didn’t exactly scream pleased. “I wouldn’t celebrate too soon, Mercado,” she warned, jabbing a finger at Diguon. “We might have won that battle, but only because they weren’t expecting us. Five of them managed to kill more of my soldiers in one battle than in the past five years combined.”

“I thought there were six soldiers?” Saudia recalled from the report.

“I’m not counting the one that was blown up by our rocketeers,” Zara clarified, taking a step back.

Fair enough. Saudia could understand that, but for this particular engagement, it was less about the soldiers lost and more about defeating XCOM. She did mourn for their loss, but they had died for the cause, and she would never forget that. “Our next attack will go much smoother,” Saudia reassured Zara, raising her hands as if placating her. “Especially when Diguon and Darian develop more equipment from the alien tech.”

“Assuming of course that we dictate when the next conflict is,” Zara contested, taking a step toward Saudia, who fixed her with a glare. “You really think XCOM is just going to ignore what we did? They’ll be hunting us now, especially now that we’ve given them a reason to do so.”

“As if our previous encounters weren’t incentive enough? I’m well aware XCOM will seek retaliation for this,” Saudia answered calmly, her cold eyes boring into Zara’s intense ones. “But the fact is that they will not be able to instigate a fight without us knowing about it. They do not have our reach or resources. XCOM cannot effectively fight a war on two fronts. Elizabeth has assured me that her people have not found any evidence of XCOM or the United Nations espionage of us, let alone tampering with our equipment. All operations are proceeding normally.”

Diguon pursed his lips. “That…is not quite accurate, Director. One of our Russian companies has recently come under investigation from the Russian government.”

Saudia frowned, that news was new to her. “How?”

“Elizabeth and I are working on that question now,” Diguon answered grimly, as he stroked his chin. “But I wouldn’t ascribe this to XCOM right away. While unlikely, it’s possible that the Russians have been watching it for some time and have decided to act now.”

“Right after we hand XCOM a defeat?” Zara demanded sarcastically, crossing her arms again. “Pretty interesting coincidence.”

“If it is XCOM, then they should be ashamed of revealing their hand so early,” Saudia commented, shaking her head. “Because now we know someone is investigating. And we can prepare for that.”

“That we can,” Diguon agreed, picking up a tablet from an off-screen table. “All our Russian outposts are on high alert in case someone does show up at any of them.”

“Good to know. Now, as for the company, how much was compromised?” Saudia demanded. “I presume all the protocols were followed?”

“To the letter,” Diguon assumed her with a sharp nod. “All our sensitive documents were purged and replaced with dummy ledgers. The Russians, and anyone else, will find nothing incriminating, let alone information that would trace them to us.”

“Do you know what tipped them off in the first place?”

“Our sources within the administration have told me that FIS acquired documents,” Diguon answered, referring to Russia’s Intelligence branch. “Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what they contain. But I do know that the source was anonymous.”

That was good, it made things much easier. “Good to hear,” she nodded, reassured that things would be brought under control. “The Russians will find everything in order and assume the documents were forged.”

“Most likely, at least officially,” Diguon nodded warily. “Although, this might not go away as quickly as we hope. Elizabeth told me that the President has apparently taken an interest in this investigation.”

That, on the other hand, was not good. Even if the investigation itself was closed. “Tell Elizabeth I want this confirmed,” Saudia ordered, beginning to pace as she considered possible responses. “The last thing I want is the Russians interfering.”

“Why would he take an interest?” Zara asked, looking confused. “Unless…”

“He knows something about us, or at least suspects,” Diguon finished as he set the tablet down on a table. “A possibility. But one I’m not concerned with at the moment. The President is overly paranoid and if he’d ever suspected us, I’d think we’d been receiving much more interference.”

“The Russians will be dealt with in time, and I trust Elizabeth and you will keep this contained,” Saudia said as she laid her hands on the wooden table in the middle of the room. “We have more immediate matters to deal with. Returning to the subject of XCOM, they need to be distracted now. I’m going to be speaking with our alien allies in a short time and begin our first coordinated attacks on North America.”

“And what is the focus going to be?” Zara asked. “Tactics or terror?”

“I have some locations that will accomplish both,” Saudia answered. “It involves the chryssalids.”

Zara shuddered at that, and even Diguon looked disconcerted. “We want to wound North America, not destroy her,” Diguon pointed out. “If you suggest that aliens use the chryssalids, you might unleash a plague that could interfere with our future plans.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Saudia answered. “Which is why the locations will not be in major city centers. North America will not be damaged irrevocably. But this will help spread terror and influence the coming election in the USA.”

“And if XCOM interferes?” Zara demanded.

Saudia’s lips curled into a smile. “XCOM cannot be everywhere.”

“Better if we ‘accidentally’ leak one of the attack locations,” Diguon suggested. “They’ll be focused on that and fail to look for more disturbances.”

“Exactly,” Saudia nodded. “And now for something that should increase our own research advances, I’m going to approach this Richard Tygan and recruit him for our cause.”

“You sure he’s worth the risk?” Zara asked, cocking her head. “I don’t feel comfortable allowing an untested and unscreened man into our organization, much less a scientist.”

“The science and our goals for the aliens will be enough to bring him in,” Saudia answered. “He’s young and wants to help. How better to help humanity than turn their tech against them?”

“If Matthew thinks he’d work, that’s good enough,” Diguon nodded. “Still, sudden recruitments aren’t done for a reason.”

Saudia sighed. “Unfortunately, we have little choice if we want to gain a time advantage. Should he prove troublesome, he will be disposed of. The world will not miss one geneticist.”

“Keep me informed,” Zara said as she stepped back. “I’ll let you have your conversation with our alien allies now. Until next time, Director.”

Her hologram faded and a few seconds later, Diguon’s did as well. That meeting concluded, it was time to being the next one. A few minutes later, the image of the Speaker appeared, looking as smug and collected as ever.

That little smirk on his face aggravated her for some reason. It screamed of superiority over everyone else. She wouldn’t mind removing it in various ways, but that wasn’t the goal for today.

“Greetings, Director,” the Speaker inclined his head in her direction, the words rolling smoothly off his alien tongue. “On behalf of the Elders, I would like to congratulate you on your victory over XCOM.”

“Thank you, Speaker,” She answered courteously; falsely. “XCOM put up a good fight, but in the end they succumbed to us.”

“One of their more admirable traits,” the Speaker agreed, giving his eerie smile. “They are excellent soldiers, if nothing else. We are pleased to see our alliance is being…rewarded.”

For now, for now. That would change soon. But now, they still needed the aliens on their side. “If I might make a suggestion,” Saudia began. “I have an idea for a potential attack that would strike a blow against North America.”

The Speaker cocked his head in clear interest. “A continent composed of several influential nations, curious. Please continue.”

“That it is,” Saudia agreed. “Now, as for my plan. Have you heard of the island of Newfoundland?”

***

The Bastion, Subject Cells

It was slow going, but she was getting better at it every day. Annette had been able to replicate her brief mind control over the guard several times, but wasn’t able to maintain it for very long when doing so. She still didn’t know the finer details of it either, such as how to make sense of the rush of images, sensations, words and feelings that rushed through the mind.

Annette knelt on the floor and started breathing deeply. This had become a habitual position for her whenever she attempted to use the mental powers at her disposal. Her preliminary plan at the moment was simple: extract every piece of information she could from the guards, or anyone else who came her way. Then, once she had it, plan an escape and execute it by controlling the guards.

The only roadblocks she was having were actually finding memories or anything specific, really. She wasn’t quite sure how she could ever make sense of it, but she knew that it was her only chance of escape. Following and reading current thoughts were easy now, ever since she’d listened to the voices, it hadn’t taken long to figure out that they were the current thoughts of people.

She’d assumed that they were trying to communicate with her when that wasn’t the case; all she was doing was simply hearing them. Distance also seemed to affect how strong or weak they were; she could follow a conversation between the two guards in front of her cell as if she was there, but she had to strain if she wanted to listen to some guy a couple stories above her.

The flood of information had been overwhelming at first, and in fact, still was. At best she could only pay attention to only two streams of thought. Conversations were easiest, but individual streams were also possible, albeit those caused her more awful headaches. But a useful side effect was that she’d learned how to block out most of the voices instinctually, allowing her to sleep moderately well for what felt like the first time in weeks.

Another benefit of listening to the voices was that now, it was if some barrier had been broken, allowing her to access her power in a more physical manner. She was getting better at summoning the energy at will, though was deliberately keeping it as contained as possible. EXALT were watching, after all.

EXALT. That word had been used in such strange contexts by various people’s thoughts until she’d finally figured out that it wasn’t being used as a word, it was a name. A name that was responsible for her capture. A name that meant nothing, but at least she had a name for her enemy.

XCOM. That was another word she’d noted being used more recently. Apparently, EXALT had won some battle against them, and she wasn’t sure what that meant. Were there new wars breaking out? Which countries did these organizations belong to? Oddly enough, she couldn’t tell just from the streams of thought alone.

Most of it was in English, but she’d noted streams in Chinese and Russian, which implied EXALT was a multinational, or at least multilingual, organization. Maybe. She still wasn’t entirely sure. But one thing that was incredibly odd was the constant references to ‘aliens.’ If she didn’t know that was impossible, she’d have guessed there was actually an invasion happening.

“Alien” must be some slang for an illegal immigrant, they were sometimes called that in America and she’d heard it occasionally in France as well. So…did it mean that this was some kind of alt-right anti-immigrant organization? It did sort of work, the name EXALT could appeal to some kind of nationalist pride.

But that didn’t explain why they were conducting experiments on her and others. What purpose could that ever serve? She hadn’t been able to figure out where she was yet, but it was only a matter of time before someone’s thoughts wandered and let something slip. The only issue was that she’d have to be listening.

As her breathing became steady she closed her eyes and let everything wash over her. The easiest way to envision a black void and then it would begin to fill with ‘signals.’ Distance was important here, but did not translate into the real world. Nothing was linear here and the minds of the two men guarding her could be in random places in the void.

Based on the strength of the signals, she could also determine how many people were in her general area. She detected twelve right now, most of the guards, but there was one who she was fairly certain was another prisoner like herself. She’d considered trying to….contact him or her or do something but she wasn’t sure if it was a trap or not. Or how they’d react to someone else entering their mind without their permission. They might know some kind of defense and could hurt her in a way she couldn’t stop.

She had to get more adapt at this mind reading skill before attempting to contact another potential psionic. In the meantime-

She gasped. There was someone new, someone whose mind was…cold, closed, focused. Her eyes snapped open and she quickly shook her head. She’d never felt that sensation before, everything usually flowed and was smooth. Not whoever this person was. She felt the familiar call of the power within her as the familiar feeling of fear entered her.

Almost instinctually, a faint purple pulse traveled down her left arm and her hand stiffened as purple sparks jumped from her fingers. She consciously relaxed and began breathing deeply again. Releasing the power was tempting, but she didn’t want to do anything until this person was gone. Slowly, her hand relaxed and she looked down at it, observing the tears in her flesh already beginning to heal.

It was interesting how it no longer hurt as much. She supposed that repeated usage had led to her becoming desensitized to it. Something she wasn’t too sad about. With a squeak the door opened and in walked a man flanked by her two guards.

She’d never seen him before, that she was certain. Short brown hair and a stern face that was impenetrable. Something seemed wrong with one of his eyes, almost like it was…fake? No, it was moving and blinking and the pupils seemed to work. An artificial one? Did that exist?

“Subject Four,” He said with a deep, yet neutral voice. “Please turn around.”

She swallowed. She could hear the voices and one that sounded remarkably like his among them, but she was too nervous to concentrate. “What are you going to do?” She asked, her voice cracked as she recalled she hadn’t actually spoken to anyone in…days, or was it weeks? The only usage it had received was when she screamed.

“That is not your concern,” he answered, fixing her with a cold stare. “You are not to be executed if that is what you’re wondering.”

In fact, that had been what she was wondering. But she was sick of taking orders. “No,” she spat, crossing her arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

He didn’t even look annoyed. “Suit yourself.” He said and one of the guards pressed a button on his wrist. She screamed as the electrical current ran through her body, the white hot pain forcing her to the ground and causing her vision to flicker. It stopped a few seconds later and she was blearily aware of the man behind her forcing her arms behind her back and restraining them.

With what seemed like no effort, he hauled her to her feet. Once she was up, she took a few shaky steps to get reoriented, her mind still swimming. Disoriented, she stumbled forward when he grabbed her left arm and lead her out of the cell. She should have just come instead of trying to be defiant, especially since this would have been a perfect time to try and notice details about the building for when she could escape.

Unfortunately, now she was too dizzy to make any sort or observations, only stumble forward as they led her around corners, up elevators and down stairs. After a while she was mostly recovered, though she still feigned weakness so they wouldn’t be suspicious. They were approaching another glass chamber, though this one seemed…different.

It was a massive square enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass. Objects, boxes and other things were scattered around inside, along with three other people who looked as exhausted, wounded and beaten as her. Other prisoners? Were they also psionic?

The men opened the glass door and tossed her inside. Giving him a hateful glance, she turned her attention to the others now with her. Two men and one woman. One of the men was light-skinned and has short brown hair. He was pretty large, towering over the other two. He might have been former military, probably from America or the EU perhaps?

The other two were clearly related in some way, though she couldn’t tell if they were siblings or a couple. Their brown skin seemed to indicate they had Middle Eastern origins. The man was tall, though not nearly as much as the other man. He had short black hair and a oddly neat beard. EXALT must have provided some kind of shaving or cutting tools for the men. Oddly considerate.

The woman looked the weakest out of all of them. Annette was certain she was taller and she looked physically frail. Petite. Annette was somewhat surprised she was still alive. She wouldn’t have pegged her as one to make it through. Her black hair fell just beyond her shoulders, but was very untidy.

She began to walk toward them and stopped. EXALT were undoubtable listening and she didn’t want anyone to hear the questions she was going to ask. But there was a way that might be possible. She closed her eyes and focused on the closest voices to her. Yep, they were all definitely different from the regular voices. Much more defined and easy to locate.

She focused on one of the men. She’d never tried communicating before, so she figured a greeting might be a good start. Hey, she projected towards the man, trying to draw as much attention as possible. She knew what made the voices stand out to her, but wasn’t sure if it was universal or not. Can you hear me?

There was a fluctuation in his thought stream, a moment where everything stopped. She felt the briefest flicker of surprise. What is this? The voice had an unfamiliar accent, so she was pretty sure she was talking to the Middle Eastern man.

I’m the one who just walked in, Annette answered, and despite the risk of distraction, she opened her eyes and nodded toward the man who was now looking at her. He cocked his head and gave the briefest of nods. I figured it was safer to communicate this way, Annette explained. They’re always listening.

The man shifted, bumping into the woman who looked up at him and then her. So you can do it too, he communicated. Perhaps we all can.

She didn’t bother to hide her confusion, and closed her eyes as she felt the connection wavering. What?

Hear people’s thoughts, influence them. I can’t really contact as you’re doing, but I can respond.

What is your name? A new, female voice entered her mind. It must be the woman.

Annette. She answered

Fatima, the woman communicated. I think you’re communicating with my husband.

Annette instinctively nodded, trying to focus on both minds. Yes, what’s his name?

Said, she responded. Tell him I say hello, so he’ll know we’re communicating.

Ok. Annette focused on Said’s thought stream. Your wife says hello.

Fast of her, he commented, she thought she detected some faint trace of amusement. Good to meet you…Annette. I wondered if we were the only ones left.

I think we are, Annette answered. But I don’t know. Who’s the other man next to you?

Matthew, was the answer. He’s not as good at communicating. Not as talented as us in that respect.

“Would you stop that?” A new voice said aloud. Annette scowled and opened her eyes as she looked at Matthew who she assumed was the one who’d spoken. “It’s nice you can do that,” he continued in a softer voice. “But it’s going to look odd if we just stand here looked silently at each other.”

He did have a point. The last thing she wanted was to have EXALT figure out their mental abilities. Because then they might decide it was safer to just kill them. “Fine. Did they stun and drag you here as well?”

“Sedated,” Matthew corrected smugly. “They don’t come physically into my cell anymore.”

“Why is that?” Annette asked.

“I killed them,” he answered simply. “They didn’t like that. Would have probably escaped if not for this damn chip.”

“You could probably say that for all of us,” Said muttered. “Or the fact that the guards would shoot us instantly. Or that there is no way to get out of here.”

“Sure there is,” Annette contested, frowning. “It might take some running-“

“Annette dear, we’re in Antarctica,” Fatima chided softly. “We’d die if we left here.”

Annette froze. If that were true…how could she ever escape unnoticed? “You sure?” She asked softly, not quite willing to give up yet.

“One of the guards let it slip,” Fatima told her. “I’m sure.”

Annette leaned against the wall as best she could with her bound hands. “Damn it.”

“Hey, but at least we get to listen to interesting conversations,” Matthew shrugged wearily. “Some of the stuff they talk about is interesting. You know what the call us?”

“Subject insert name here?” Annette guessed sarcastically. “Or just test subject?”

“Maybe to you, and only officially,” Matthew answered, the faintest smile on his face. “But no. At least to themselves the name is something a little more creative.”

“Get to the point.” Annette growled.

“Pushy,” Matthew chided lightly, appearing to enjoy this exchange. “Fine. They call us the Furies.”

Annette’s eyebrows furrowed. “I assume that means something beyond the obvious?”

“Quite,” Fatima agreed softly. “It’s rather symbolic of them, actually. The Furies were demons of Greek mythology. They were the punishers of Hades and were feared and hated by all. But they were extremely powerful and terrified their enemies.”

“Not terribly subtle,” Matthew muttered. “I’m terrible with this sort of stuff and they might as well be hanging a banner over it.”

“We are assuming that there is some actual symbolic meaning behind this,” Said commented as he moved up by Fatima who rested her head on his shoulder as comfortably as she could manage with the restraints. “I’m more curious as to which soldier started it. If it was an American, I’d wager he came up with it because it ‘sounded cool.’ That is the term, yes?”

He shot a questioning glance at her. She shrugged. “Don’t look at me, I’m not American. But I’d ascribe that more to younger people into the games, comics and movies today.”

“You look pretty young yourself,” Matthew commented. “You sure you want to make that assumption.”

“I’m twenty-five,” she scowled at him. “Old enough to be out of that crowd.”

“Well, the point was I found it interesting,” Matthew continued. “Also interesting, it was apparently you that inspired it. Guess you did something pretty spectacular.”

Annette thought back to some of her previous demonstrates, unwitting and otherwise. “Perhaps,” she muttered. Furies. That did seem a fitting name for her, especially once she escaped.

With a click her restraints suddenly fell off and clattered on the ground. She began rubbing her wrists as she looked curiously at the ground. What was this? A light shimmered above her and then materialized into the hologram of a man in a lab suit. He held a tablet and appraised them coldly.

“Test subjects,” he began. “Please step behind the yellow line. Should you refuse to comply, we will utilize the chip.” Annette looked behind her and did indeed see a yellow line at the end of the room. She sighed. Rebelling would accomplish nothing and she wanted to know what they were doing this time. Apparently, all of them felt the same way and walked behind the yellow line.

“Subject Seven, remain outside,” the scientist ordered and Matthew stopped and turned around.

Once the three of them were inside, new glass walls fell from the ceiling, directly on the yellow lines, pinning them in. “You four have been observed over the past few weeks as we made notes on the manifestation of your abilities,” the scientist continued. “Today you will put those abilities to the test. Failure to comply will be painful.”

Annette swallowed. Wonderful, at least this might give her an idea of how much EXALT actually know about psionics. Matthew rolled his shoulder and walked out into the middle of the room. Annette noticed that quite a few were watching them, they mostly looked like soldiers with odd colored bandannas and a surprising amount of ethnicities. Several scientists and other distinctly dressed people were also in the crowd.

A small turret-like machine descended from the ceiling and aimed at Matthew. Although upon closer inspection, it didn’t look like a weapon. The barrel was much larger and tubular than a gun, more like something that would launch a grenade. It looked just large enough to fit a baseball inside.

“Catch the ball.” The scientist ordered and the turret spat out a white ball directly at Matthew. It hit him square in the head and he took a step back. So it must not be that hard. He glanced up at the turret and sighed.

“Really? This is the best you could come up with?”

No one responded, but the turret shot another ball at him. Instantly, the air around Matthew’s right arm became distorted, as if seen through a heat wave. It was an extremely faint purple that shimmered in the bright light that grew more distinct with each second. His eyes had a faint purple overlay, but otherwise were normal.

He extended his hand and the ball suddenly stopped and hovered about a meter from his hand. A faint, purple field had enveloped the ball, seemingly keeping it in place. Matthew twisted his hand over and the ball moved right over it. The field keeping the ball suspended disappeared and it fell into his hand.

Annette blinked. So, telekinesis was possible. She’d never actually considered that possibility, accepting that her more destructive powers were all that she was able to do. Apparently the range of abilities was much greater than she’d initially thought. Did that mean she could learn how to do that?

“Good,” the scientist said. “Now for something a bit harder.”

Two more turrets descended, forming something of a triangle with the first turret, effectively flanking Matthew in the center. Still enveloped in shimmering psionic energy, he nodded as he prepared for the next wave. The turrets fired and he raised a hand and the balls immediately slowed and were gently lowered to the floor.

Matthew looked almost bored as he did so. So much so that he failed to hear a sharp metallic sound cutting through the air. He stumbled back and clutched his arm, looking in disbelief at the cut on it. It wasn’t deep, but he barely jumped aside as another blade flew through the air from a new turret that had dropped from the ceiling.

He snarled and extended his hand again and the blade stopped. With a flick of his wrist he sent it flying towards one of the windows and Annette got a small amount of enjoyment at seeing those closest flinch as it bounced off. Two more of those turrets dropped down and began firing.

But now Matthew didn’t seem so worried. With his right hand up in the direction of the turrets, he was managing to direct them away, if not catch them outright. She had no idea how he was managing any of it, but whatever he was doing was working. The purple shimmer around him deepened in color and his eyes were now fully purple, glowing with a dangerous intensity.

He extended his hand towards one of the crates that was in the room and flung it up towards the turrets. The crate leapt from the ground and flew at them with deadly force. Unfortunately, the turrets simply pulled back up and the crate hit a flat ceiling.

“Clever,” the scientist commented. “And proficient.”

Shut up,” Matthew snarled, his voice layered. “Are you satisfied?”

“Almost.” Yet another turret descended from the ceiling, but unlike the others, this one actually looked lethal. It took her a second to realize she was looking at some kind of rocket launcher. Would they really-?

It fired at him and Matthew barely raised his hands in time to stop it. Bracing himself and with his hands extended, he barely seemed to be keeping the rocket at bay. With a shout, he crossed his arms and the rocket went flying upwards and hit the ceiling and sputtered out as it fell to the floor.

Annette stared at it. So it hadn’t even been armed. So they really weren’t planning on killing them, at least not yet. Matthew has fallen to one knee and the aura around them had faded. Now he just looked tired.

“Well done,” the scientist complemented. “You may rejoin the others.” The glass wall containing them raised and he stumbled in and collapsed to the floor. “Subject Four, Subject Twelve please step out.”

Swallowing, she stepping into the larger room and didn’t look behind as she heard the glass wall close behind her. Time to see what they had in store for her. Said also joined her, looking somewhat apprehensive. Given that they were both out, Annette had an uncomfortable feeling about where this was going.

“Don’t worry about me,” Said told her, not looking down. “Whatever they do, just play along. And don’t hold back, they’ll know if you do.”

Before she could ask what that meant a burst of static interrupted her. “Subjects Four and Twelve, you are to fight psionically until only one is standing.”

Damn it.

She began to retort that, no, she wasn’t going to do that. But then Said’s words made sense. Just play along. Alright, sure. Play along, for now. She wasn’t going to kill him, no matter what they ordered her to do, but she could put up a show for them.

His thought stream was fairly unique and she was able to pick it up quickly again. You sure you think this is best? He walked over to the far corner, to buy more time as he formulated a response.

Think of it as a training exercise. He thought back at her. And you’ll have to try very hard to actually hurt me.

She still wasn’t happy about this, but as a training exercise…if this did help her, and him for that matter, it might actually be a benefit. She fixed him with a stare. She sincerely hoped that he was as confident in his abilities, otherwise she might accidentally kill him on her first try.

But at the very least, she had a good pool of emotion to draw upon. Hate. For this situation, at EXALT, at these people who kept toying with them, pitting them against each other for their amusement. She focused on the feeling, feeding it until it reached a point where she could hold it in no longer.

She took a firm stance and let loose the power contained. Immediately her vision was tinted purple as bands of energy ran up and down the length of her arm; the familiar pain of her skin tearing and melting only feeding into the loop. She caught a glimpse of herself in the window and realized just how consumed by the power she looked. It was if she was encased in a swirling armor of energy.

Said’s manifestation of power was far more subtle. All that appeared different was that his eyes turned to a glowing purple like hers. Albeit far less intense. He’d better be ready, cause she wasn’t waiting any longer. She gathered a purple ball of energy in her hand in thrust it toward him. Instantly he raised a hand and a shimmering purple field appeared in front of him, absorbing the ball of energy.

The field vanished instantly after and he gave her a small smile. So, psionics could also protect as well as attack. His confidence made much more sense now. Glaring at him, she circled around as she gathered energy for a push. He simply watched as waited, never breaking eye contact.

She quickly planted her foot in front of her and thrust out both hands, sending a purple-tinged shockwave of energy his way. Said quickly raised his hands and a shimmering field materialized, but the sheer force of the shockwave forced him several steps back.

Annette didn’t relent. She threw more bursts of energy his way. He managed to block them, but was losing his calm demeanor. She got an idea; why did the power always have to converge around her? Could it manifest elsewhere?

She raised her right hand and directed the energy towards forming a psionic ball of energy over him. It materialized and she brought her hand down and the ball followed suit, slamming into the ground and emitting a massive shockwave which threw him into the glass.

She winced. It’d worked a little too well. He didn’t appear pleased with that as she advanced on him, looking to win this to get it over with. He raised both hands in her direction, energy rippling around his wrists, and she gathered power of her own until she just…stopped. She couldn’t move.

Said still had his hands extended towards her, his hands encased in transparent gloves of energy. He must have frozen her somehow. And from the looks of things, he could keep this up indefinitely. But there was one advantage she had. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on his thought stream. Once she found it, she hesitated and then focused everything she had into one, single word.

STOP

It wasn’t even a command. Just a word backed by strong emotion. A distraction, nothing more. But it worked and he winced, giving her the opportunity to break free. A shockwave burst from her, shattering the shield holding her like glass. Without wasting an instant, she thrust her arms forward at him, unleashing a continuous stream of psionic energy and gas.

He raised his hands and a field appeared in front of him, absorbing and deflecting the worst of it. Annette didn’t care and kept walking, more energy pouring out of her. The stream of power forced him to the ground, beads of sweat fell down his face as she slowly overwhelmed him.

The shield flickered once, then collapsed and the energy hit him and threw his back against the glass that he hit with a crunch. She immediately ceased the stream when she realized what she’d done. Was he- no, he was fine. He was trying to get up, and as she approached, he raised a hand.

“You win,” he told her, slumping to the ground, panting heavily. She took a deep breath and let all the power within her fade until her vision was normal again.

“Oh, no-“ she swayed as a wave of exhaustion, hunger and thirst swept over her and she collapsed to the ground. Without the power to keep her sustained, she had nothing else left. She’d overexerted herself again, hopefully it wouldn’t kill her. But then again, this time they might decide it would be better to let her die.

With that, she blacked out, the last thing she saw were the bright lights of the ceiling.

***

The Citadel, Herman’s Room

Time for an official update to the Council. He’d been here long enough to give some general impressions and to give them updates on some of the projects taking place here. Ultimately, he’d decided to speak with Tamara as he felt she’d take a more level-headed approach to stuff like the virus and the necessity of an Intelligence branch.

He set up his laptop and waited for it to connect as he sent out the call. Everything was in full swing following the defeat. The Commander was conducting a massive operation to find EXALT and seemed to be heavily working with Van Doorn and Bradford to find them. The impressions he’d gotten from the soldiers were almost universal. They were angry and they wanted revenge.

An understandable reaction, and as long as they were pointed only in the direction of the aliens and EXALT, then he was fine with it. Hopefully the Commander would be targeted in his reprisal; knowing him, he wouldn’t hesitate to attack if EXALT ended up being in the middle of a city or something.

The screen flashed and the face of Tamara appeared. Her face brightened as she saw him. “Ah, Herman. Good to see you!”

He nodded. “You as well, Councilor. I figured it was past due for an update.”

“I agree,” she nodded, growing more serious. “But I’m glad you choose to report to me. The last thing we need is things blown out of proportion.”

“Agreed,” Herman answered. They began with what he’d seen of the entire XCOM operation and that, for the moment, nothing seemed illegal or out of place. He didn’t spend too long on that subject since there were far more important ones. He then told her about the EXALT encounter and subsequent defeat.

“Have you ever heard of this organization before?” Herman asked after he had finished describing the issue.

She pursed her lips. “Yes, of course. And unlike many, I do think that they do exist in some form. But not nearly on such a scale as you describe.”

“Well, I would request anything you have on them,” Herman said. “Whoever they actually are, they’re acting against XCOM and pose a legitimate threat. Both I and the Commander would prefer to remove them as soon as possible.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Tamara answered. “Though the Council might not have much on them. It is largely considered a conspiracy theory.”

“Maybe telling the Council that XCOM suspects EXALT is working with the aliens might incentivize them,” Herman suggested. “Or would that not matter?”

“Unnecessary,” Tamara shook her head. “The Council wants the aliens gone and sees XCOM as the best chance for that. The split is over the Commander, not the organization itself. We protect our investments.”

Hmm. Time to see how well that held up with his next request. “I’m glad you think so,” he said smoothly. “Now, I do have something that I would like the Council to seriously consider authorizing.”

Tamara cocked her head, but otherwise her expression remained neutral. “Go ahead.”

He took a breath. “Regardless of what EXALT actually is, it’s apparent that they primarily act through subterfuge and secrecy. Both areas in which XCOM is currently ill-equipped to handle. The Commander has reportedly run some covert operations on the side, but does not have access to a legitimate intelligence branch.”

“You want an Intelligence division?” She asked, actually sounding surprised.

“Not exactly,” Herman clarified. “Only authorization to create an Intelligence branch. The Commander would be more than happy to put one together. If it matters, I personally think this needs to be done if we want EXALT to be removed quicker. Not to mention some of the dangers of the Commander doing this part time might be increased stress and reduced efficiency. Most of all, if he’s stretched too thin, he’ll make mistakes and people will die. Something that benefits no one.”

Tamara leaned back in her chair, looking somewhat conflicted. “I can tell you right now that this isn’t going to go over well with some people. The last thing they want is to give him more power and giving him command of an intelligence branch is probably high on their list of greatest fears,” she sighed. “Look, I agree of the necessity, but realistically, the Council won’t approve it, no matter how hard I push”

“But would my recommendation be enough?” Herman asked. “To be fair, Councilor, I do have a better grasp of the situation than anyone on the Council.”

“That’s not how this works,” Tamara growled, though it didn’t seem to be directed at him. “They don’t care about that. They only want to know about stuff if it reinforces their position and gives them a reason to dismiss the Commander. That’s the only reason they want you there; not to help XCOM and certainly not to help the Commander.”

Herman pinched the bridge of his nose. “So essentially, anything I say is essentially pointless unless it fits one agenda or another?”

“Pretty much,” Tamara agreed grimly, not even bothering to exclude herself from the implication. “And nothing gets done anyway because all the sides do everything they can to block and impede each other. Which is why your first focus shouldn’t be on enforcing rules, it should be actually helping the Commander win the war.”

“It might be a better use of time,” Herman agreed. “But I’m not going to forget the reasons I was asked here in the first place, regardless if you think they’re unnecessary or not.”

“Fair enough,” she nodded. “Well, anything else?”

Ah, right. “XCOM is developing a biological weapon to use against the aliens,” Herman explained carefully. “It targets the alien known as the sectoids. If used correctly, it could effectively wipe out the entire species.”

Tamara’s eyes widened. “The entire species? If a virus like that gets out of control-“

“XCOM’s chief scientist has assured me it will not,” Herman clarified. “Take that for what you will. But what gives her some credibility is that the sectoids are all genetic clones and she’s made the virus target the sectoids on a genetic level. That supposedly will make the virus harmless to anything else.”

“I see,” she nodded, the corner of her lip curling up. “Interesting. It seems Vahlen’s abilities were not exaggerated, and she would be one to come up with such a thing. How does it work?”

“I’m not sure how the Commander is planning to deploy it,” Herman answered. “But once he does, there will be an incubation period of a few weeks to spread the virus as much as possible. Then once it does, it will slowly….decompose them, for lack of a better word. Vahlen told be that it would effectively reduce them to mush.”

“Painful, but effective,” Tamara nodded, not appearing to be disconcerted. “How long will it take to actually kill them?”

“At the moment, a week or two,” Herman answered. “The Commander and Vahlen both seem to believe that the process will terrify and demoralize the aliens. I’ve convinced the Commander to speed up the rate of mortality after the first deployment.”

“Yes, that sounds like him,” Tamara commented, almost amused. “Him and his terror tactics. But if it kills the aliens, I have no issue with it.”

Herman was tempted to drop it, but did have to ask. “And the rest of the Council?”

“I think it would be best if this particular development was kept under wraps,” she suggested neutrally. “Ennor would pitch a fit for obvious reasons and several others who are as not as knowledgeable or mistrustful of the sciences would misguidedly believe that this virus might pose a risk to us. Revealing this to the Council at large would only cause more problems.”

That seemed to be the case with the Council. No matter what happened there would always be more problems. Well, he’d done his duty and reported to the Council. What they did with it was not his concern, even if it was kind of a cop-out for him. But he had no desire to get any more involved in Council politics than he already was.

“That is all I have to report at this time,” he told her.

She inclined her head. “You’ve done well. Keep it up and we’ll win this war. I’ll take your suggestion to the rest of the Council, but I would not hold out hope.”

“Understood, Councilor,” he responded wearily. “A good day to you.”

“You as well.” With that she cut the feed. Herman sighed and closed the laptop. And thus, he was in a situation where he was effectively useless, exactly what he didn’t want. He essentially had two options, work with Ennor who had a misguided personal vendetta against the Commander and Tamara who would likely overlook everything as long as it helped win the war.

Neither extreme was particularly appealing to him, but at the moment, Tamara was the one who would cause the least damage. It seemed that his best chance of influencing anything while still keeping the organization intact was trying to reason with the Commander and temper his more radical ideas. At least the Commander was open to discussion, he just had to be very careful how he approached him.

Well, he might as well get good at it.

***

The Citadel, Barracks

“He usually doesn’t call us up,” Patricia commented as she geared up. “What do you think’s different?”

Creed shrugged as placed the breastplate over his chest. “Don’t know. But I’d guess it has something to do with this EXALT group. A major reprisal seems fitting.”

She hoped it was, for his sake. Even if he hadn’t shown it, Patricia was able to feel just how defeated and guilty he felt over the defeat. She’d known to back off for a couple days and let him figure it out on his own. Now when she focused on him, he felt…sharp, focused and determined.

As much as Patricia wanted to begin honing her abilities further, she knew doing so after that defeat was not a good idea. Should this mission deal with EXALT and they emerged victories, she would feel better about bringing it up. Though over the past few days she’d gotten much better at honing in on specific people. It was almost instinctual, she’d look at someone and her brain would catch up and she’d be able to get a sense of what they were feeling.

Although as a side effect, the headaches were worsening, though she could deal with that pretty easily. It was still annoying, but a few pills and she’d be good for a while. She didn’t want to become reliant on them, but for missions she’d made an exception. It wouldn’t do any good to be plagued by a headache during a firefight.

“Here, let me tighten that,” she walked over and tightened the straps on his breastplate until the armor was secured. “That good?”

“Seems solid,” he answered with a nod. “Let me check yours.” She turned around and let him fiddle with the straps on her own armor. “All set.” He finished, stepping back and grabbing his gauntlets.

She rolled her shoulders, testing the tightness. Satisfied, she nodded at him and pulled on her own gauntlets until they were smug. Every part of her armor on, minus the helmet, she went over to the weapons locker and pulled out her autolaser and secured it to the back of her armor. Grabbing her helmet, she turned to face Creed who had likewise slung his laser battle rifle over his shoulder and had his helmet tucked under his arm.

“Let’s go,” he said, motioning to the door. Taking the lead, she walked out with him to her right. They stepped into the elevator and Creed thumbed the button to the floor where the Commander was located.

“I haven’t forgotten, you know,” Creed said after a minute of silence. “Don’t think I have.”

She glanced over at him, not following. “Sorry?”

He motioned at her. “Helping with your…abilities. I’m pretty sure you wanted to get started before now.”

He was actually feeling guilty about this, she realized as she focused on him again. Which in turn made her feel bad. “Hey,” she turned to him sternly. “Don’t you feel bad about that at all. I knew it was better to leave you alone for a few days. Please don’t feel guilty about it otherwise it’ll just make me feel like a terrible person.”

He cracked a smile. “Are you doing it now?”

She scowled. “Yes.”

“Sorry, can’t help it,” he shrugged. “I don’t like not following through.”

Patricia gave a loud sigh. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. Would you want me to feel guilty if the roles were reversed?”

“Good point,” he answered as the elevator came to a stop. “We’ll discuss this after the mission ends, alright?”

“Sounds good to me,” she agreed, and they stepped off the elevator together. It was only a short distance to the Commander’s office and they arrived a few minutes later. The door slid open automatically and they both walked inside.

She immediately recognized Carmelita and Marten who both nodded in their direction. Carmelita was toying with one of her blades, twirling the weapon in her fingers absentmindedly, while Marten was just leaning against the wall. It appeared the Commander hadn’t arrived yet.

The last man was one she hadn’t met before. A rather lithe man, he was just taller than her and had an oddly scarred face. He was Israeli, judging from the flag on the collar of his armor and he definitely looked it. His brown skin was darker than normal, at least compared to Galia and his black hair was neatly trimmed back. A crisscross of scars ran down the right side of his face, probably knife wounds. She wondered if Carmelita had noticed.

He also had one of the laser sniper rifles attached to his armor. Interesting. She’d noticed that snipers were somewhat lacking and that had no doubt been a reason why he’d been recruited. She wondered what unit he was from. He turned to her as she walked up. “I don’t think we’ve met. Patricia Trask,” She extended a hand.

He inclined his head towards her as he took her hand and gave one firm shake. “Mordecai Korhn, Israeli Unit 669 sniper.”

Well then. Definitely a professional. Unit 669 was considered one of the best special forces units in the world. They were an interesting unit because a large part were medics and surgeons, and every single one were proficient paratroopers, divers and climbers. As far as she knew, they were primarily hostage rescue and counter-terrorism, though mostly the former since terrorism was widely down these days.

“A pleasure to meet you,” she answered. “The stories I’ve heard of your Unit are impressive.”

He gave a faint grin. “The tip of the iceberg, Mrs. Trask. I can assure you I have far more interesting ones. Though I have certainly heard a lot about you. I’m curious to see if you live up to the stories about you.”

She did a double take at that. About her? “What stories?” She demanded.

He actually felt amused. “A poor choice of words, perhaps,” he amended quickly. “But anyone who is mentioned with as much respect and trust as you is certainly worth keeping an eye on.”

She hadn’t had a clue that was even something that was going on. Sure, she tried to be as good a leader to her subordinates as possible, but hadn’t really expected much in return. She didn’t consider it anything special. If anything, she was only doing the bare minimum. Still, it felt good to hear, and since she didn’t feel any falsity within Mordecai, she assumed he was telling the truth.

She was about to say something else when an unexpected coldness hit her. She involuntarily tensed and goosebumps rose on her skin. This was far stronger than anything she’d felt before. It was icy fury and determination, no less intense than unbridled rage. If anything, more frightening.

“Apologies for keeping you,” the Commander greeted, walking out into the room, tightening his own gauntlet. To her surprise, she realized he was wearing his armor as well, the dull silver paint distinct from the rest of their colored and cameoed armor. Was he coming on this mission?

All of them immediately snapped to attention as he walked in front of them. He frowned at set his helmet down on the desk. “At ease. For once, we don’t have a strict timetable here and since this mission will be slightly different, I felt it would be better to give the briefing here than on the skyranger.”

Patricia relaxed and waited for him to continue. As he adjusted his gauntlet, Carmelita spoke up. “Will you be accompanying us on the mission, Commander?”

“No,” the Commander responded dryly, the biting sarcasm bringing a grin to her lips. “I just decided to get suited up for the hell of it,” he gave a dramatic sigh. “Yes, I’m going to be coming. Far past time, I feel.”

Patricia couldn’t help but feel a little worried at that. On one hand, it struck her an incredibly noble of him to come along and share in the risk. But on the other, if something happened…No, surely he had to know that. Besides, he’d accompanied them into battle before, albeit with the odds somewhat in their favor.

She considered speaking up about it, but the Commander had probably heard the exact same arguments from his Inner Circle and wouldn’t want to hear them again from her, or anyone else. Well, she immediately felt a little better knowing he was coming. Hopefully this went as well as last time.

Everyone else seemed to get the same idea and no one questioned him coming along. The Commander finished adjusting his armor and once he was done, stood in front of them, arms clasped behind his back. “XCOM Intelligence has located what we believe to be an EXALT facility of some kind. What exactly that entails, we don’t know for sure. That is what we’ll be finding out today.”

“Where?” Creed asked.

“An isolated location in the Russian wilderness,” the Commander answered, beginning to pace in front of them. “If I had to guess what’s stored there, I’d think weapons. We recently finished conducting an operation where EXALT was using a farming company as a way to smuggle weapons into the country. They loaded them onto trucks and left. We tracked those trucks to the location we’re assaulting today and cross-referencing with some files we recovered, are certain that EXALT is using the facility for something.”

“What sort of defenses should we expect?” Patricia asked. “Do they know we’re coming?”

The Commander pursed his lips. “They do not know we’re coming, no. At least that’s what XCOM Intelligence believes. But expect them to be on high alert. That shell company they were operating out of was recently taken over by Russian forces. They’re likely to be on edge, even if they’re not expecting us.”

He shook his head. “But to answer your original question, we don’t know for sure. Our agents on the ground report at least ten soldiers. They aren’t as heavily armored as the soldiers encountered in Mexico, but they are assumed to be at least as skilled. There is no sign of any automated defenses or gunning stations. We have no intel on the inside of the facility.”

“So how are we going to execute this,” Mordecai asked, cocking his head at the Commander. “Frontal assault or as silent as possible?”

“This is not an intel retrieval mission,” the Commander emphasized harshly, though it wasn’t directed at Mordecai. “If we get something from their computers, excellent. But this is first and foremost a response to EXALT for the soldiers we lost. I would prefer we take some prisoners, but I want this to be a message and warning to EXALT.”

She felt a burst of approval from Creed and the feeling was also present in the other soldiers as well. “Besides,” the Commander added, a trace of humor in his voice. “I think it will be difficult to have an infiltration with Myra present.”

Patricia cocked her head and appraised the Commander, surprised. Myra? She’d had expected her to be discharged and gone. Sure, the when she’d visited she’d seemed to be doing alright, but to recover so quickly and be ready for combat?

Carmelita apparently had the same idea. “Myra’s still active? And recovered?”

“In a manner or speaking, yes,” the Commander nodded. “But she isn’t the same woman you knew. Not physically at any rate, probably not mentally as well. We’re still observing the side effects.”

“Of what?” Marten asked, speaking up for the first time.

“Myra volunteered for an experimental program,” the Commander answered. “It allowed her to remain with XCOM but not without a price.” He grabbed his helmet. “Come. It’ll be easier to show you and I’ve said all that I need to about the assault. Follow me.”

With that he walked out of his office towards the hanger, the rest of the soldiers following behind.

***

The Citadel, Hanger

The first thing she noticed was oddly enough, not the giant robotic suit standing by the skyranger. No, it was the aircraft also parked by the skyranger. It was clearly inspired by the familiar aircraft, but it was as if someone had cut out the back two-thirds of the aircraft and just put some sheets of metal over the sides. She could see odd hooks and gears inside, so it must be for transporting something mechanical. If it was being used at all.

“Wow,” Creed muttered, surprise and awe in his voice. “What is that?”

“Some kind of transport, perhaps?” She guessed. “I don’t know what-“

“No, Patricia,” Creed interrupted. “Not that plane. Look at the giant mechanical suit.”

Patricia immediately became conscious of the massive suit and wondered how she could have missed it. It was massive, first of all, it had to be at least ten or twelve feet with equally proportioned arms and legs. The chest was open, though it didn’t look like any pilot was supposed to fit into there without becoming seriously hurt.

There were some kind of tanks attached to the back, along with the largest laser weapon she’d ever seen. It was a least as large as Creed and probably heavier, it also looked like a larger version of her autolaser. Attachments with nozzles and barrels were on the arms, adding some bulk to the already large machine. More guns? Missiles?

“This is a MEC,” the Commander said, stopping in front of the machine. “XCOM Engineering’s most advanced experimental warfare project. Mobile, armored and lethal. Simulations place it as a piece of machinery without equal. Today will be the first field test.”

“Is it automated?” Marten asked, eyeing the machine. “It seems rather robotic.”

“No,” the Commander shook his head. “No artificial intelligence exists that would be competent in a battlefield scenario. Furthermore, I wouldn’t trust it if it were. A computer will not be able to respond to the stresses and ever-changing landscape of a battle. The MECs have human pilots.”

“How?” Patricia asked, inclining her head at the open chest area. “I don’t see how they could fit into that. Let alone control it as well as you say.”

“They can’t,” a voice answered from a figure that walked toward them from behind the MEC. The voice sounded familiar, but there was an electronic tinge to it, slightly artificial. But it only took her a second to realize the woman walking towards them.

“Myra?” Creed asked, eyes widening. Patricia echoed the shock and surprise he felt.

Myra’s limbs had been replaced by skeletal prosthetics, the limbs angular and hinge-like. They were oddly thin and the only complexity seemed to be on the hands which looked robust and normal. But in general, the prosthetics looked…basic.

It wasn’t the only thing that had changed about her. Her chest seemed covered in a sheet of metal, though that might just be armor of some kind, but it gave the illusion that the only human part of her was the head. And even that seemed different. There were some kind of implants above her eyes and neck.

But when Patricia looked into her eyes she saw…nothing. Just plain detachment and apathy. It was disconcerting to her. There should be something. She tried to get a sense of what she was feeling and came away with…nothing. Again. Myra was there…but not much more. It didn’t even feel intentional, just…Myra wasn’t feeling anything.

“What happened to you?” Patricia asked.

Myra gave her a smile, but it didn’t look like a genuine one. “I volunteered. They told me what was required and I agreed to it. I’m doing fine, Patricia, no need to worry.”

Maybe physically, but something seemed off about her. She seemed too…calm about this. And she said those words with the same odd detachment, not helped by the robotic tint to her voice.

“Is that…necessary?” Mordecai asked, eyeing Myra warily. “Amputating all the limbs?”

“Yes,” the Commander nodded. “They are required for Myra to properly sync with the suit. A suit without direct neural interfacing would be slow, cumbersome and ultimately little more than a massive target. It’s an enormous sacrifice, but a necessary one for the MEC program.”

Well, at least the Commander made sure Myra wanted to do it before cutting her limbs off. And Myra had done what probably all of them would do, which was agree. She certainly would have, even knowing the possible outcomes so she really couldn’t fault her for that. They’d have to talk later.

“Have you…tested it?” Carmelita asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Myra’s tone almost turned wistful with longing, and Patricia actually felt a twinge of…something from her. That alone gave her some hope Myra wasn’t all gone. “It’s an amazing feeling. EXALT will be unable to stop me.”

“Suit up,” the Commander ordered and waved the rest of them to following him into the skyranger. “We’re heading out now.”

As they followed, Patricia took a glance behind her and saw Myra getting into the MEC. Various clamps and sockets attached themselves to her arms and legs and Patricia was fairly certain she saw several rods go into her neck and head as well. With a hiss, the MEC suit closed the chest piece and a helmet came together around her head.

Unfortunately, that was the last thing she saw as they boarded the skyranger. She hoped that the MEC was as powerful as the Commander promised. Guess she’d find out soon. Once they strapped in, the skyranger lifted off and took them to enact the first of hopefully many strikes against EXALT.

***

Russia, EXALT Facility

The skyranger set down in an open field that seemingly didn’t have any civilization nearby. At least that’s what Patricia thought when the Commander gave the order to deploy. The wind whipped the tall grass around her legs and the trees in the distance groaned and rustled.

The starry night was beautiful and reminded her how much she missed being outside. The Citadel wasn’t a bad place to live, but being underground all the time did deny her some things that everyone else experienced every day. It didn’t even cross her mind that much, until times like now.

“We’ll be initiating Eagle Protocol,” Fallen Sky said in their earpieces. “Good luck, Commander.” With a blast of air, the skyranger took off behind them and flew off into the sky. The Commander, wielding his sniper rifle took a quick look at the wood above.

“Gray Sky, you almost here?” The Commander asked as he glanced up at the sky, talking to the new pilot who was piloting the MEC transport.

“Almost here, don’t worry,” he replied. “Approaching drop point now.”

A few seconds later, the transport came hovering over, settling just a bit above them. Patricia heard several clicks and the MEC dropped from the transport and hit the ground with a thud. Myra didn’t seem affected and began walking over to them, the movement much smoother than she was expecting.

It wasn’t quiet though, and squeaked and clanked from all the pieces and mechanics working together. Myra reached back and detached her laser weapon from her back and held it in her mechanized hands with surprising familiarity.

“Ready to go, Commander,” Myra said, he voice sounding even more monotone when the helmet synthesized her voice even more.

He nodded and began walking towards the trees. “We’re to meet up with the agents in here. The hill overlooks the facility and might allow us to ambush them." All of them nodded and followed the Commander into the forest.

The streaks of moonlight that managed to get through the trees gave a foreboding aura to the forest that Patricia was not completely immune to. Anyone looking in would likely be terrified at the sight of a squad of armored soldiers walking through the trees with very little sound.

And it really wasn’t that hard. There weren’t many leaves or brush to accidentally step on and give themselves away. Even Myra was navigating very well and twisting herself to get through some of the tighter spaces. Patricia was beginning to see the point about Myra being “linked” to the suit. She was moving as if it was her actually body; demonstrating a finesse that would be impossible if it were just controlled with crude exoskeletons or manual controls.

The Commander raised a fist and they all froze. Creed fell to one knee and raised his battle rifle while she stood above him, her autolaser at the ready. Marten and Mordecai had also fallen to one knee, their weapons also raised. Carmelita stood by the commander and simply raised her laser shotgun into the distance.

The Commander didn’t appear concerned, though he didn’t tell them to relax. Patricia took an opportunity to close her eyes and get a sense of the area. The majority were a mix of anticipation and eagerness for something to happen in contract to the Commander who felt just as cold and patient as before.

Not just that…she frowned and focused further. Waiting. He was waiting for something, or more likely, someone. Several figures in front of them appeared, snapping Patricia back to reality.

“At ease,” the Commander said quietly. “They’re friendly.”

All of them relaxed and Creed got to his feet and eyed the new arrivals warily. The one woman she hadn’t seen before. She looked middle-eastern, probably one of Zhang’s Kidon agents. But the other woman she recognized right away.

“Abby?” She asked, not expecting to see her here of all places. Though it did make sense; she was in XCOM Intelligence now. She looked much different, wearing black special forces-esque attire, some blast padding, pants, gloves and binoculars hung around her neck. She did kind of stand out though, since her blonde hair was still vibrant and reflected the moonlight above.

“Patricia!” She exclaimed, smiling in response, looking surprised and happy to see her. She began walking forward when the woman beside her moved the back of her hand and lightly touched her chest, stopping her.

“Save the reunion for after,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Abby shot her an apologetic look and refocused her attention on the Commander. But the woman did have a point. There would hopefully be time to catch up later. “We’re ready to move when you are, Commander.” The woman told him. “Follow me to the overlook.”

“Lead the way,” the Commander answered and they followed until Patricia spotted another figure who was lying on the ground looking through a sniper rifle. The woman stopped. “It’s a bit more exposed out here. Keep low.”

All of them fell to their knees and advanced crouching until the more or less all arrived at a sharp overlook of the facility. Though facility seemed like something of an exaggeration. The building itself wasn’t that big and appeared to be little more than a two-story warehouse, at least in height, with some shuttered windows and garage doors.

No, what was interesting were the defenses around it. The perimeter was just a chain fence, but from seeing some sparks jumping off it, Patricia supposed it was electrified. There only appeared to be one entrance that had a barricade set up in front. Within the fence itself were multiple barricades and cover stations, no doubt likely to be used in the case of an attack.

What made it work so well was that it was built in a completely empty field, so any attempt to attack the building would require running out into the open for a very long stretch. She wondered how the Commander was going to solve that problem.

The soldiers themselves were dressed more like security guards than actual soldiers, their uniforms seemed very ornate and professional instead of allowing protection. It honestly looked like they were wearing suits underneath some basic Kevlar. They all wore red bandannas around their faces, different from the orange ones of the other soldiers. Maybe it was a regional thing?

“Very exposed,” the Commander muttered aloud. “Clever.”

“They knew how to plan,” the woman agreed. “But I don’t think they’ll stay with a force like this. Especially with her here.” She gestured at Myra. “I’d bet that they’ll focus their fire on her.”

“Let them try,” Myra muttered, her voice physically vibrating the air.

“Unfortunately, there is little choice other than a frontal assault,” the Commander said. “But there are ways to mitigate that. Kalonymous, Mordecai, let’s thin them out a bit.”

“With pleasure,” Mordecai answered and dropped to one knee and aimed his rifle down upon the building. The Commander was laying down beside the man with the sniper rifle Patricia guessed was Kalonymous. Both of whom also had their weapons trained on the facility.

“Targets lined up,” the Commander muttered. “Execute on my order.”

“Copy,” Mordecai answered as he adjusted his scope. “I’ve got his friend for a follow-up.”

“Same,” Kalonymous agreed. “I’ll remain here when you move in.”

“Understood,” the Commander nodded. “Myra, once they’re sufficiently frenzied, go in there. They’ll probably retreat into the building, giving the rest of us a chance to move in.”

“Understood, Commander,” Myra nodded, gears whirring as she took a stance preparing to charge.

“Patricia, lay down some covering fire after we shoot,” the Commander instructed. “See how many you can clip.” Patricia grinned and swung her weapon over the two snipers as she prepared to fire.

“Three…two…one…” The Commander lingered on the last word.

“Fire.”

Three beams of energy shot out and Patricia heard fair shouts of surprise in the distance and saw bodies fall to the floor. A second later they each shot again and several more bodies fell to the floor. As the rest of the EXALT soldiers started scattering, she let loose with her autolaser, spraying red bolts back and forth across the area.

“Now, Myra!” The Commander shouted and Myra charged off the overlook and towards the facility. Now in cover, the EXALT soldiers were beginning to fight back firing ballistic weapons at them. Patricia smirked, they might have had the advantage in Mexico, but this time XCOM controlled the battle.

The three snipers kept firing shots, red beams of light raining down on the area. “They’re in good cover now,” the Commander noted.  “Switch to the suppression method. Take zones and fire when they’re about to take a shot.”

“Left zone mine,” Mordecai called.

“Right is mine,” Kalonymous confirmed.

“Locking down the middle,” the Commander finished. “Patricia, take a forward position! They’ll be focused on Myra and we’ll do what we can.”

“Got it!” She confirmed and waved the rest of the squad to follow her. “Spread out and hold fire till we’re close!”

They all shouted in affirmation and they quickly charged down the field under the starry sky. They almost went completely unnoticed. What little fire that the snipers were not suppressing was directed at Myra who was being utterly merciless in her attacks. Patricia didn’t know the specs on that weapon, but it was melting steel crates like they were nothing and usually killing the soldier hiding behind.

There were sparks from bullets flying off of her armor, but they appeared to be scratches, nothing more. And Myra responded by targeting one specific target at seemingly the exclusion of all others and killing it with mechanical precision.

They were almost at the gate and there was still plenty of cover remaining. “Fire!” Patricia ordered, planting her feet and letting loose a burst of laser fire at a duo of EXALT soldiers hiding behind a barricade. The barrage missed one but slammed directly into the chest of the other, throwing her back onto the ground, a smoking hole in her chest.

“More coming in from the sides!” Marten yelled as he and Creed began laying down fire on the right side of the building. Patricia heard a scream and assumed they’d scored a hit on some of the soldiers. They had nothing to fear from the left as Myra was moving that way, the EXALT soldiers frantically running for cover without even trying to shoot.

“Oтступать! Отступать!” One of the soldiers yelled, the foreign language not enough to hide the fear in his voice.

That call was apparently to retreat, since the remaining EXALT soldiers dropped canisters that immediately emitted smoke disguising their position.

Cease fire!” The Commander ordered. “Let them box themselves in.”

They all paused firing, not lowering their weapons, but taking time to reload and waiting for the smoke to clear. Patricia heard one of the garage doors close and something faintly like a lock click into place.

“Think they’re calling for help?” Creed asked, quickly glancing over at her.

“I doubt it,” she answered. “They probably think they have a better chance of surviving using choke points.”

He snorted. “This is going to turn into a kill zone for Myra.”

She smiled. “I don’t think they were expecting a twelve-foot robotic suit to attack them.”

“Move forward,” the Commander ordered, coming up behind her, now holding a laser rifle in his hand.

Patricia nodded and took slowly advanced to the garage door, taking a position on the right corner of it. Creed too the other side. The Commander looked around, appraising the area. “Marten, Carmelita. Secure the building. Make sure there’s no other exits.”

“Yes, Commander!” Carmelita nodded and she and Marten jogged off around the right side of the building. The Commander walked up and grabbed the handle and gave an experimental pull.

“Locked,” he muttered, sounding completely unsurprised. “You think you can get this open?” He asked, looking up at Myra.

“Eventually,” she answered, moving down to take a knee and she tapped the garage door.

“Commander, we’ve only located one other entrance,” Carmelita updated. “It’s a locked door, but we can cut through it. Instructions?”

“Cut the locks and prepare to move in on my order,” the Commander answered. “Myra, give them a scare. Then wipe them out. I think Shen gave you some tools for close combat.”

Patricia could swear Myra sounded amused. “Acknowledged, Commander. This building will be their tomb.” Patricia shivered at that. Myra brought her metal fist back and slammed it into the garage door, seemingly shaking the entire building and leaving a sizable dent.

Curiously, Myra put her laser weapon onto her back again. Then slammed another fist into the garage. Patricia closed her eyes and focused on the area inside.

Four people set up behind the barricade. Ten more up above. Not enough. Not Enough. We can’t stop them. We’re going to di- She gasped as the stream of thought overwhelmed her with the sheer feeling of terror.

“Fifteen inside,” she warned in a rush. “They’re ready for you. But they’re terrified.”

The Commander glanced at her. “How do you know that?”

“Trust me!”

“Fine,” he nodded. “Myra, show them what you can do.”

“With pleasure,” Myra grabbed the garage door handle and pulled away, tearing the piece of metal and part of the structure along with it with a crack of stone and groaning and steel. With an indifferent callousness, she tossed it to the side and was immediately assaulted with hundreds of bullets flying her way.

The Commander had taken cover behind another barricade, but none of them were able to even peek out into the storm of lead and steel. Amazingly, the bullets just seemed to flow off Myra like water. Scratches were piling up on her armor, but it didn’t seem to be damaging her. The way she simply observed the soldiers who were firing at her was disconcerting for her and must be terrifying for them.

“Systems still operational,” Myra updated neutrally. “Superficial damage only.”

“Wait for it…” the Commander muttered.

The sounds of assault weapons slowly faded until they stopped as the soldiers realized that nothing was really happening. The attachments on Myra’s arms whirred and moved forward on her arms. Twin nozzles emerged from the metal boxes, revealing tubes that seemed to contain some liquid.

Myra looked around at the soldiers frantically reloading their weapons and raised her arms, a red light glowing from within the barrels.

“My turn.”

Cones of flame burst from her wrists, engulfing the soldiers closest to her who likely died instantly. The weapon fire immediately started up again, but now the soldiers were now running away as Myra moved within the open area. She was in no hurry, focusing on the soldiers who become disconnected from the main group.

Patricia winced as she watched Myra incinerate a soldier who was cowering behind several boxes. “Should we help her?”

“I don’t think she needs it,” the Commander answered dispassionately as he watched Myra charge a position held by three soldiers who were frantically firing at her. She simply raised her wrist and swept it across their cover, setting all of them on fire and leaving them writhing on the floor.

By now the fire was catching on the building, everything Myra went passed was charred or currently burning. By now EXALT realized they’d confined themselves in a death box and were dashing for the exits. Several reached the door and were promptly killed by Marten and Carmelita.

Myra was now surrounded by bodies, living and dead that were charred or still burning. The screams and smells of those still alive were haunting, but she didn’t feel the least bit remorseful or bad about watching them burn.

With fire burning around her, the surviving EXALT soldier crawling away in a vain attempt to escape, Myra looked over at the Commander. “Hostiles eliminated.”

“Come with me,” the Commander ordered and walked into the burning building, Creed and Patricia beside him. He pointed at a room at the far corner that was close to catching fire. “Creed, get any electronics out of there.”

“Yes, Commander,” he answered and dashed through the flames and bodies.

“Patricia, find a decent prisoner,” the Commander asked, turning to her. “I want one alive.”

Patricia walked over by Myra who was looked at one of the soldiers who was crawling away, leaving a trail of blood and soot behind. His leg was burned beyond repair and his arms were warped and scorched. He’d do. She knelt over him and wrapped her forearm around his neck and held him in a chokehold until he passed out.

With a grunt, she hoisted him over her shoulder. “Package secured,” she said, nodding at the Commander. He also nodded back and motioned for her and Creed to follow him outside.

 “Carmelita, Marten, converge in front,” he ordered as he turned back to Myra. “Burn this place to the ground,” he growled, letting some of his fury live in his voice.

Myra nodded and cones of flame burst from her wrists as she began systematically burning the building down. The Commander, laser rifle in hand, turned around and walked away from the carnage and exited the building.

Once they were outside and reconvened with Marten and Carmelita, they all turned wordlessly toward the building that was slowly turning into an inferno. The Commander clasped his hands behind his back as he watched the fire consume everything inside; the hungry flames reflecting off his helmet’s visor.

Myra emerged from the growing inferno, her suit steaming from the heat. But there was nothing even remotely resembling concern in her voice. “Objective completed, Commander.”

“Well done,” the Commander answered, not looking up as he watched the flames. “We sent a message today. One that I think will be received loud and clear.”

“What happens if someone survives?” Marten asked. “I mean, we didn’t make sure all of them were dead, right?”

“Anyone who survives that will never pose a threat to us again,” the Commander answered firmly. “And they will tell the story of their defeat. Perhaps that will put some fear into them.”

They stood together for a while like that, watching the fire until the skyranger came to pick them up.

***

After-Action Report

Operation: Vengeful Robot

Note: Really Bradford? This was the best you could do? – The Commander

Personnel:

Hornet 1 (Squad Overseer): The Commander

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Hornet 2: Specialist Patricia Trask

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Hornet 3: MEC Soldier Myra Rodriguez

            Status: Online

            Kills: 21

Hornet 4: Specialist Carmelita Alba

            Status: Active

            Kills: 2

Hornet 5: Specialist Anius Creed

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Hornet 6: Specialist Marten El-Amin

            Status: Active

            Kills: 3

Hornet 7: Specialist Mordecai Korhn

            Status: Active

            Kills: 2

Mission Director: The Commander

Pilot 1: Tristin Ward – Call sign: “Fallen Sky”

Pilot 2: Barney Kimon – Call sign: “Gray Sky”

Artifacts Recovered:

-1x EXALT Computer

-1x EXALT Captive

- Assorted electronic equipment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Mission Control

“Our unofficial alliance is growing, slowly but surely,” Bradford updated, clearly pleased as he and the Commander observed a holographic map of the world. All countries that had at least some kind of relationship with XCOM were highlighted faintly in green. Council nations were in yellow and areas in satellite coverage were marked with blue.

“Van Doorn came through on Turkey,” the Commander noted appreciatively. “You did as well on South America. Excellent job.”

Bradford inclined his head. “Thank you, Commander. They seemed eager to be taken seriously for once.”

“Good,” the Commander nodded. “We need to begin sending their allotment of alien tech.”

“I agree.” Bradford waved his hand over to another analyst who rushed over.

“Yes, Central?” he asked eagerly.

“Begin allotting the tech for our new allies,” Bradford instructed, handing him a tablet. “Make it proportional, based on their input and size.”

“On it,” he nodded and rushed off to do his task.

“Are our systems secure?” The Commander asked, as he looked back at the holotable. “EXALT may retaliate in a less physical form after our victory.”

“I’ve done everything to ensure our systems are ready for another attack,” Ariel Jackson said as she walked up. “All we can really do at this point is sit and wait.”

“Let’s hope so,” the Commander answered grimly. “I don’t want to lose another batch of research.”

“Hey, no worries,” Ariel answered easily, flipping her hair with a smile. “I put some failsafes in the unlikely event they do get through. Trust me, our research is secure.”

“Good,” the Commander nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“We should consider our next batch of allies,” Bradford suggested, motioning at the holotable. “The additional funding is useful, but won’t supplement the Council completely yet.”

“Have you considered the Scandinavian countries?” Ariel asked, as she bit her lower lip. “They’re a small power that many overlook.”

The Commander glanced over in mind surprise. “You’ve thought about this?”

“Yeah, I did when Bradford asked me to look into contacting the first batch,” Ariel answered with a shrug. “I thought it might be useful if I made some suggestions myself.”

“I’ll consider that,” the Commander promised her.

“Central, call coming in now!” One of the techs called out. “You’re going to want to come over.”

Bradford sighed. “I’ll be back,” he said and then walked over to where the tech was sitting.

The Commander watched him go. “Is that normal? It occurs to me I don’t spend much time here.”

“More or less,” Ariel answered lightly. “He gets called over for all sorts of stuff. Thing with us is that we have to take every possible hit in case it turns out to be aliens. Or EXALT, for that matter. Anyway, then Bradford has to come over to make the final decision and ultimately, send it to you to approve or deny.”

“It sounds stressful,” the Commander commented as he looked around the room with the analysts and techs tapping on their keyboards and looking at screens.

“Not as much as you might think,” Ariel amended as she leaned against the holotable, tucking her hands into her packets. “It’s a lot of staring at screens, which is mostly boring, frankly. But we have to because if we miss something, more people die. So I guess it is in that sense, but…well, we’re rather detached from it all. We look for patterns and signals, but those really don’t convey just how serious the whole event is.”

“Have you made any progress with the alien code?” The Commander asked. “You or Zhang?”

“A bit,” she answered, sighing in frustration. “I’ve never seen anything like that coding before. I’m almost convinced that there’s a more abstract piece we’re missing. Maybe it’s tied to psionics, and that is a problem I haven’t even begun to think about how to solve.”

“We’ll crack it,” the Commander stated, trying to reassure her. “It’s only a matter of time.” He glanced over at some of the screens with various news world news stations on them. “Is something being monitored now?” He asked motioning to the screens. “I assume that’s work related.”

Ariel picked up her tablet and began tapping on it. “Yes and no, we mostly use it as background noise since we do most of our analysis from official statements. But it’s related. I assume then that Central hasn’t updated you about Germany?”

The Commander frowned and glanced over at Bradford, who was speaking urgently into his headset. “No. He hasn’t.”

“Not surprised,” she nodded. “It’s literally developed in the past few hours. Essentially, the dear acting Chancellor is heavily implying that ‘dissidents’ are soon going to cease to be a problem. Given that most of his ‘detractors’ are the press and political rivals, I think you can see some concerns with the wording.”

“I suppose the question is if he could actually do it,” the Commander muttered, walking over beside her to look at the headlines on the tablet. “You consider that to be a viable possibility?”

“He has control and the loyalty of the military and police,” Ariel answered, narrowing her eyes at the tablet. “The acting Chancellor is clever. He’s using the aliens as an excuse for every questionable measure he’s enacted since the attacks. Creating the insinuation that if you question him, you’re indirectly supporting the invasion. Not exactly the most conductive environment for a democracy.”

The Commander pursed his lips. This was one of the largest problems with regime change. Sometimes it led to dilemmas like this. It wasn’t inherently bad, in times like these; some freedoms might have to be curtailed, but such measures should only be taken against actual dissidents. Saboteurs, enemy propagandists and petty terrorists were dissidents that could, and should be removed by any means necessary.

But jailing political or press opponents simply because of their views was the wrong way to go about removing them. There were better ways that didn’t make you look like a power-hungry dictator. The Commander didn’t really think, at least what he knew of the man, that acting Chancellor Habicht was a power-hungry dictator. The more likely reason was that he was just sick of being questioned repeatedly by a large group of people.

Despite being in a high position militarily, Habicht had really only interacted with, and was questioned by a small circle of people at, or above him. The shock of having thousands of people openly dislike and question him might have pushed him to take the easiest solution possible, which also looked highly suspect.

“I hope he doesn’t think we’ll still support him if he keeps this up,” the Commander muttered, not directly at Ariel. “I’ll have to speak with him about his methods soon.”

“Preferably before he actually acts on his insinuations,” Ariel added. “But we’re monitoring that situation. I might bring Zhang in on this as well.”

The Commander nodded. “That might not be a bad-“

“Commander, may I speak to you?” Bradford interrupted, striding up, tense as he’d ever seen him. His face was a mask of surprise, but why the Commander couldn’t guess at the moment.

“Yes,” the Commander answered. “What is it?”

“Not here,” Bradford shook his head. “Preferably somewhere private.” The Commander and Ariel exchanged a look. She just shrugged, clearly as confused as him. The Commander followed Bradford until they reached a small enclosed room. It was almost empty and seemed to be mostly used for storing stuff no one knew what to do with. Boxes, damaged chairs and papers were scattered around the room.

“What’s this about, Bradford?” The Commander asked as the flustered Central Officer locked the door. “Has the acting Chancellor already started arrest journalists?”

Bradford blinked. “What? Oh, Ariel told you about that?”

“Yeah, I might have to arrange a meeting soon,” the Commander confirmed.

“Arrange it later,” Bradford answered, shaking his head. “I just received a call from President Savvin.”

Well then. That was not what he’d expected. “And just what did the Russian President want to discuss?” The Commander asked slowly, carefully.

“He wanted to meet with you,” Bradford answered. “That was it. Preferably as soon as possible.”

“And why does he want to meet with me?” The Commander demanded, leaning against the wall.

“I don’t think it’s related to our operations in Russia,” Bradford quickly reassured him. “At least it didn’t seem that way. But if I had to guess…he might want to work directly with XCOM. Russia is one of the more reliable Council members. It makes sense that the President would feel similar.”

A Russian alliance. Combined with the other countries, that alone might help supplement any loss from China. Maybe. If that was actually what the President wanted to discuss. Regardless, he needed to speak to him if for no other reason than to satisfy his curiosity. Kirill Savvin did not meet without reason or with just anyone.

“Arrange the meeting,” he ordered Bradford. “Today if possible. But I need to know what he wants.”

“Today?” Bradford eyes widened at that. “Are you sure it’s not too-“

“Today, Bradford,” the Commander repeated emphatically. “EXALT should be quiet for the next few days and I want to take advantage of the lull. I don’t want to put it off only to find out we can’t because things are too busy here.”

“Will do, Commander,” Bradford nodded. “You’ll be informed as soon as the meeting is arranged.”

“Excellent,” the Commander answered and unlocked and opened the door. Things had just gotten a lot more interesting. And potentially dangerous.

***

The Citadel, Barracks

The atmosphere following the routing of EXALT was jubilant. All the soldiers were in high spirits when the squad had returned and had spent most of the remaining night talking and laughing. Noticeably absent was Myra who had gone…somewhere. Patricia hadn’t figured out when, though she resolved to find her later.

She had taken the opportunity to catch up with Abby during the unofficial celebration. She was…different than when they parted and she left for XCOM Intelligence. Much more…focused? Reserved? Something to that effect, probably her mentor rubbing off of her.

That other woman, Ruth, she was the epitome of what people wanted from an agent. Charismatic, manipulative and ruthless. She’d seemed to have mastered the art of expression, especially since during the brief time they’d chatted, she’d put on a very friendly persona which Patricia would have completely bought, had she not decided to try to get a sense of the woman’s emotions.

What she’d sensed was nothing but stark coldness and apathy with some bits of curiosity. The emotions that one would have when observing a potential target or enemy. Completely at odds with the friendly woman she painted herself as. While Abby definitely seemed to respect and admire her, she’d let on that she was more or less aware that Ruth wasn’t exactly a perfect person.

Humph. She’d not wanted to cause trouble that time, but she felt like she had say something. Abby was an intelligent woman, but she could be a bit naïve sometimes. She was a good person, which sharply contrasted with the kind of woman Ruth seemed to be. Still, that could come later. Right now she had other objectives in mind.

Creed was sitting on one of the couches, reading something on a tablet. Everyone else was either sleeping or in their own corners chatting with each other in soft voices. He looked up and immediately set down his tablet as she approached. “You want to do this?”

“If you’re up to it?” She quickly amended. “If you need rest-“

“Nah, don’t worry,” he interrupted, raising a hand to cut her off. “I feel pretty good now, actually. There’s something soothing about watching a building filled with your enemies burning to the ground.”

“Myra certainly held nothing back,” Patricia agreed. “I wonder how the aliens will respond when she comes along.”

“Hopefully flee,” Creed said ironically as he stood. “But I don’t think retreat is in their vocabulary. But Myra will have to be a bit more careful when she does get deployed again. Plasma is slightly more dangerous than bullets.”

“I’m sure both her and the Commander are aware of that,” Patricia said, looking around the barracks. They stood together is silence for a few minutes.

“So…how’s this going to work?” Creed finally asked. “We doing this here?”

Patricia shook her head and tried to think. It occurred to her that there weren’t many good places to go if they wanted some privacy. However…”You think the training area is empty?” She asked, glancing up at him.

His eyebrows furrowed. “Probably, since most of the soldiers are either passed out or sleeping. Lead the way.”

She did and they exited the room with no one seeming to notice or care. The hallways to the training area were mostly deserted as well, and the one or two people they passed didn’t really acknowledge them. The only other constant was the low hum of the generators that permeated throughout the Citadel. Though all of them were so used to it now that it barely registered anymore.

Fortunately, the training area was empty when they walked inside. All the equipment was in its proper place and the room seemed impeccably clean. She didn’t know it’d always been like this or if she was just hyper-noticing everything because she was nervous. She had almost no idea what this was going to be like, if it even worked in the first place. Well, it did work, but whether she could control it or not.

“You never answered my question,” Creed said as he walked past the sparring floor. “How is this going to work? I think of something and you try to read my mind?”

“I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” Patricia answered slowly. “But I guess that’s as good a place to start as any.”

Creed visibly swallowed. “Right, let’s do this.” They both walked over to one of the tables and sat down opposite each other. Patricia laced her fingers together and set them on the table as she tried to relax.

“If it makes you feel any better, I’m nervous about this too,” she admitted, hoping that would make him a little less anxious. Even without focusing directly on him, she could sense it spiking. Maybe it was the reason for her discomfort?

“That’s reassuring,” he joked lightly, resting his forearms on the table. “Well, I’m ready whenever you are.”

She took a breath and closed her eyes and directly focused on him; easy since he was the only one nearby. He seemed like the equivalent of a storm in a bottle, at least emotionally. Prodding just at the surface, he was much more nervous about this than he let on, but was very careful in keeping it contained and controlled.

She wondered…could she help with that? Moving a bit further into his walled maelstrom of emotion, she was immediately assaulted with images.

A hail of gunfire over his head. Pinned down, not much time; not enough people. They’re going to get away. Screams as a man fell, his body riddled with bullets. Two coming his way. He raised his rifle and shot at them, feeling a brief surge of relief as both fell to the ground.

Patricia gasped as the scene abruptly changed. What was that?

He gasped as he struggled for air, knowing that it wasn’t going to end anytime soon. A test, this was a test nothing more-nothing more. His head was slammed back into the water as he desperately held what little breath remained and tried not to thrash any more. Necessary, he couldn’t break, couldn’t-

The scene abruptly shifted once again.

He stood in front of a mirror, marveling at how different he looked without the uniform. His ravaged body hidden under the sleek black suit. This wasn’t worth the anxiety. He’d faced firefights and more trials than any reasonable person would be expected to. This was just a date, yes, if he could kill several men, why should he be nervous asking a woman out?

Memories. Not just any memories, but those tied to the emotion he was feeling now. Anxiety, anticipation, some amount of fear. Were these playing in his mind now? Or were they just lurking under his subconscious, fueling it? Alright, she had some idea of what was going on and pulled out just beyond the swirling rush of images and feelings.

Now the big question: Could she do anything about it?

She mentally shrugged. Ok, the most obvious solution was to counteract them…somehow. So, what was the opposite of anxiety? Calm? Well, that would be a good starting point.

She went back into the swirl of Creed’s emotions. It was interesting, since there wasn’t as much visitation as she might have expected. It was just the sheer power of feeling that conjured up images of storms and walls. She felt a new memories appearing but instead she focused on one word.

Calm.

Calm.

She just imagined and visualized everything soothing she could think of. Oceans. Rain. She inadvertently began adding her own experiences. Rubbing the belly of her dog while his tongue was hanging out of his mouth. Reading a book on a hammock as a light breeze washed over her. Paige laughing at her while she overanalyzed some stupid joke and then laughing with her.

She was not expecting the wave of sadness that rushed over her at that. How much different things had been. How different she’d been from what she was now. But whatever she’d done seemed to be working. Creed was calming down within his fortress and things were smoothing out. Calming down…calming down.

Now there were a whole new host of Creed’s memories that threatened to show themselves to her. Even if it wasn’t her fault, she was pretty sure he wouldn’t be comfortable with it and pulled out with as much speed as possible.

With a gasp she opened her eyes and leaned down on that table, feeling more drained that she had in…days. Her hands were clenched and she her body was tense throughout. Taking another breath she glanced up at Creed who looked just as drained as she did. His face was unnaturally pale, but at the same time seemed…fine.

“What did you do?” He asked, or more accurately, whispered by how quiet he was.

“Are you alright?” She asked, worried that she’d hurt him

He shook his head, seeming to break out of his tense trance. “Actually…I feel fine. Oddly fine…just…tired, if that makes sense.”

“I…guess it does.”

“It just….” He paused. “I just…started thinking of stuff I thought I’d buried a long time ago.”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “That…might have been me.”

“I wondered,” he answered neutrally. “You were tensing up several times.”

“Well, you were clearly anxious about all of this,” Patricia tried explaining. “I thought I might be able to help.”

“Well, I think you succeeded, at least in making me calmer” Creed said, taking a breath. “That’s…really odd. I didn’t notice anything until…stuff started coming back to me.”

“Sorry,” she apologized trying to convey her sincerity. “I didn’t mean-“

“No, it’s fine,” Creed interrupted. “I was just…surprised. It makes more sense when you explained it.”

She appraised him, pursing her lips. “You’re being really calm about this. I just altered how you feel.”

“Well, that might partially be your fault,” Creed answered with a small smile. “You did want me to be calmer, after all. Perhaps I’ll feel differently about this later. It’ll be an interesting thing to document later.”

“Right,” she answered in a small voice, not exactly sure how she felt about it.

“But I knew what I was getting into,” Creed continued. “I’ll be more prepared if you do it again. So, I guess you did figure something out today.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Patricia muttered. “We’ll see how useful it is.”

“Look at it this way,” Creed said, smirking. “After the war you’ll be an excellent psychiatrist.”

“Oh, God,” she muttered. “Please no.”

“Come on,” Creed said, helping her to her feet. “I think we both could use some sleep. Unless of course you want to try again.”

“Later,” she answered with a sigh. “I don’t think I have the energy at this time.”

“Fair enough,” Creed chuckled as they both walked out of the room.

***

Russia, Moscow

It had been such a long time since he’d actually been at the capital of Russia. The last time he’d come to kill a president, now he was coming to speak with one. He wondered if President Savvin harbored any hard feelings towards him, although considering that they’d requested a meeting and that he was directly responsible for the new president’s position, he’d be surprised if the President felt that way.

That, and the previous president had been a lying, manipulative, traitorous piece of scum that fully deserved the death he’d administered. And while the Duma had officially declared outrage, he’d gotten the impression that no one was really mourning the loss since he’d been sure to distribute the evidence to the press. And left some on the body, for the investigators.

It had been one of the more satisfying and successful missions he’d carried out. Time to see how the Russians treated him now. As expected, there was a small group of Russian soldiers waiting for him with a black limo behind them. They didn’t stand out too much since the airstrip was filled with soldiers at their posts. At least no civilians would notice the skyranger that’d brought him here. The President at least had the foresight to know that a public meeting would cause trouble.

With the soldiers was a woman he was pretty sure he’d never seen before. Dressed in the black uniform of a CT agent, she looked impeccably professional. Making a good first impression, anyone who was a CT agent automatically gained some respect in his eyes. She appeared roughly his age, with cropped brown hair and an overall stern demeanor. He wondered who she was.

“Commander,” she greeted as the soldiers around her snapped to attention. She extended a hand which he took and gave a firm handshake. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” he answered. “I will admit I wasn’t expecting this when I started the day.”

“We’ve been considering reaching out more directly for a while,” the woman explained. “Considering recent events, the President felt now was the best time.”

The Commander raised an eyebrow. “And by ‘recent events,’ you mean…?”

She motioned to the limo door and one of the soldiers opened it for him. “That is a matter that the President would like to speak to you about personally.”

He inclined his head. “Very well,” he answered and stepped into the limo and took a seat. He’d actually never ridden in any of these before, and was somewhat surprised just how open it was. The woman also got in and took a seat beside him. He buckled up, then noticed the woman staring at him, amused as the limo started moving.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” she told him, resting her gloved hands on her lap.

“Just a habit,” the Commander answered. “I’ve never ridden in these before.”

“Fair enough,” she chuckled.

Her English was extremely good, very clear even with the distinct accent. “You’re a CT agent I see. May I ask your name?”

“I was, a while ago,” she answered, her lips curling up. “But the President felt my talents of diplomacy were best suited for this kind of work. I am Tamara Vasilisa.”

Ah, now that name he knew. The names Ennor had provided all those months ago were actually becoming useful now. How interesting that she was the one meeting him and was apparently a CT agent. “I didn’t realize I was speaking to the Russian Councilor,” the Commander said. “Otherwise I would have greeted you properly.”

She didn’t appear overly surprised. “Your sources are knowledgeable, I see. I suppose I should not have expected otherwise.”

“I prefer keeping tabs on people,” the Commander leaned back. “Especially when they belong to an organization that seems divided on me at the moment. Very useful to know friends and enemies.”

“I certainly hope you would include me on the former,” Tamara said as she laced her fingers together. “I do my best to keep the more troublesome elements of the Council in check.”

“I do not consider Russia my enemy,” the Commander stated. “I don’t know exactly what happens within the Council, but I do know Russia has more or less been supportive of my leadership, for which I am thankful.”

“The President and I appreciate that,” Tamara answered, inclining her head. “We both understand that the aliens are the true threat.”

“A pity that’s such a controversial stand,” the Commander murmured. “I’m curious. How does Russia stand militarily in regards to the invasion?”

“On high alert,” Tamara answered. “United Russia holds the majority in the Duma and thus the President was able to officially declare war and begin increased production of military equipment.”

“Is he facing any opposition within the Duma?” The Commander asked, resting his chin on his hand.

“Very little, surprisingly,” Tamara answered. “The Liberal Democratic Party has fully approved the increased military spending and improvements, though they seem not to realize that we’re not planning on conquest, only defense for the moment. But their votes are useful. The Communist and Socialist parties are more or less split, not that we need them to pass, but their infighting will only weaken the parties and hopefully split them further. But for now, the votes cast our way are also useful. The public pressure is also a very useful leveraging tool in bringing those parties in line.”

“Good to hear,” the Commander nodded and they rode in silence for a few minutes, then turned his head forward as he felt the limo come to a stop. “I see we’ve arrived.”

“That we have,” Tamara agreed and opened the door and stepped out and the Commander followed suit. Well, well. They were at the Kremlin. The building was as impressive as the last time he’d been inside, and now that he was entering legally, he could admire the architecture and construction.

“Come with me,” Tamara motioned him towards the entrance and they both entered the Kremlin.

It was busy with lots of uniformed men and woman combing the area, performing various tasks. They did go through some checkpoints, but Tamara was able to get them through in seconds. “No guards for me?” he asked as they walked.

She snorted. “You are many things, Commander, but an idiot is not one of them. I trust you to not do anything stupid or go someplace you aren’t authorized.”

“Trusting,” he commented. “Especially considering the last time I was here.”

“True,” Tamara agreed. “But this time you’re here to talk with our President, no? Not kill him.”

“If all goes well,” the Commander agreed and they continued walking a labyrinth of stairs, corridors, hallways and elevators until Tamara finally stopped in front of an ornate wooden door.

“And here we are,” Tamara paused, then wrapped her hand around the brass handle and opened the door and they both walked inside.

The floor was a polished brown wood, with expensive red and blue rugs at various places. A stone fireplace was at the far end with a small controlled fire inside. At the far end was a wall of bookshelves and in front of the bookshelves, a desk that he assumed was the President’s working area. Two flags flanked the chair, the Russian flag and the Russian military one as well.

Kirill Savvin, President of the Russian Federation, stood off in front of one the windows, holding a file in his hand. Dressed in a suit with a blue tie, and black pants, he looked surprisingly normal compared to Tamara and the Commander’s military garb. The President was an older man, around sixty and it showed in stern face and utterly cold hazel eyes. The sunlight reflected off his bald head as he turned to see the new arrivals.

Very slowly and deliberately, he set the file down and walked over to them. “Commander,” he greeted, extending a hand, his accent far more pronounced than Tamara’s. “I’m pleased you could meet so soon.”

“As am I, Mr. President,” the Commander answered, inclining his head. “I felt it best not to delay. It isn’t often this chance presents itself.”

“You and I both see little point in wasting time,” President Savvin commented. “Please sit down.” He gestured to the twin couches in the middle of the room. “We have much to discuss.”

The Commander complied and sat down on one of the brown leather seats. The President sat opposite him and Tamara took a seat beside the Commander. Clasping his hands together, the Commander got right to the point. “Councilor Vasilisa has told me that this meeting was inspired by recent events, but she wanted you to explain exactly what those were.”

“You are aware of the organization known as EXALT, correct?” President Savvin asked, appraising the Commander. “We recently received intel that suggested they were using a Russian company as a front and as of this point, we’re working on recovering the data that was wiped. But I feel you already know some of this, since you’ve been conducting operations within my country for some time now.”

Hmm. Confirm or deny. The President wasn’t an idiot and would likely respect honesty. “We’ve been working to disrupt EXALT, yes.”

“As I suspected,” he nodded. “And judging from the remains of an unmarked facility we investigated, I’d say you’d succeeded.”

“You work fast,” the Commander complimented.

“I take the national security of my country very seriously,” President Savvin stated. “And whether EXALT is as widespread as the rumors would say, it doesn’t matter. I want them purged from my country. So, I must ask: Did you leak the information to me?”

“No,” the Commander answered. “We’re still going through it. We don’t know if they have people in place who might warn others and disrupt what was supposed to be a surprise operation. Simply put, we don’t know who in your government is trustworthy.”

“A reasonable precaution,” he nodded. “An issue I wish to solve as well. I have people I absolutely trust working on this, and I feel it would go better if XCOM and Russia pool their resources. We both want EXALT destroyed, I see no reason to work apart.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Mr. President, but how can I trust you?” the Commander asked bluntly.

“Because I know your identity and could think of several ways to utilize this information, aside from that, the fact that you are still alive,” he answered.

“Decent answers,” the Commander agreed. “Though you could simply be working to gain my trust. Learn more about XCOM.”

“Then I would suggest you use your best judgment then,” President Savvin suggested. “Do you really think I’m an EXALT operative?”

Hmm. No, not really. If that were true, his position would be compromised no matter what happened and he couldn’t imagine not using that information against him. Now, the President had his own agenda, but that he could deal with.

“No, I don’t,” he finally said. “And in the interest of ending EXALT, I can see what I can do to transfer some relevant information to the Kremlin.”

“I’m pleased to hear it,” President Savvin nodded. “Now, this leads into a more…permanent topic.” The President laced his fingers together. “The United Nations is weak and will fall sooner or later, be it to the aliens or infighting. The Council will likely suffer the same fate and that might leave XCOM in a difficult position financially. So I have an offer for you, Commander: An official alliance with Russia. We can provide you with funding, resources and the very best from our special forces and military. In return you provide us with some of the alien technology you’ve acquired for our own scientists to begin analyzing.”

He’d actually done it. The Commander had been wondering if the President was actually going to propose an alliance or simply talk about EXALT. While he was extremely pleased and flattered at the consideration, there was one major problem. He sighed. “I’m afraid I will have to decline, Mr. President,” he answered slowly. “But hear me out here. My position with the Council is tenuous enough, as Councilor Vasilisa has no doubt told you, and as Russia is a Council nation, favoritism would not be received well.”

He pursed his lips. “There is only one reason I’ve been able to keep much of the alien tech out of the hands of China, Australia and Mexico. Because I’ve refused to do so with any Council Nation, regardless of their support. Should I open an alliance with Russia, it will open the door to others demanding resources and further refusals will only look selfish and slowly remove whatever goodwill remains.”

“I wondered if you might say that,” President Savvin answered slowly, a grim smile spreading across his face. “And it reflects well on you that you have the political wariness to not accept my offer as-is. I’d have to question your intelligence if that were the case. Fortunately, I have an alternate solution. Tamara?”

Tamara handed him a tablet showing a map of Russia and some bordering countries. “While you wouldn’t be able to open an alliance directly with us and keep technology out of the hands of the more troublesome council members, there is nothing saying that you couldn’t form and alliance with say…Ukraine. Your alliance with Israel and Germany is proof of this.”

The Commander felt a smile growing on his own lips as well as he saw where this was going. “Now that you mention it, Poland and Finland are also countries that might benefit from such as alliance.”

“And should the equipment going to them unfortunately end up on Russian soil-” Tamara began.

“You can stop with the doublespeak,” the Commander interrupted, amused. “You plan on using proxies. I know how this works. A rather clever tactic, I must say.”

“And one you can perform legally,” the President pointed out.

“Correct,” the Commander agreed. “Though I do wonder, how exactly will you handle the funds and alien tech transfers?”

“Leave that to us,” Tamara assured him. “Should you decided to open alliances with these countries, your funding will increase substantially.”

“And I’ll send a squad of CT agents to XCOM as well,” President Savvin promised. “You’ve seen how useful one was for you, six would provide a substantial boost to your forces.”

“More soldiers are always useful,” the Commander agreed. “I will have to confer with my own Council, of course. But if I were you, I’d be keeping an eye on the bordering countries.”

“We will be watching with great interest, Commander,” President Savvin nodded. “Know that Russia will support you, whatever you decided.”

The Commander stood. “I’ll count on it, Mr. President. Good day.”

***

The Citadel, Barracks

What immediately struck Soran more than anything else after the victory was how everyone appeared to just be focusing on the fact that they’d utterly, and ruthlessly executed that EXALT facility and apparently forgetting that it had been mostly due to a massive mechanical…suit? Exoskeleton?

He really wasn’t sure what the right description was. The suit itself was called a MEC, so he figured he might as well use that, since robot was clearly incorrect. He would have liked to have taken some retribution on EXALT himself, but had understood why the Commander had chosen the most veteran soldiers for the op.

That being said, the footage from the armor cams was…enlightening. For a number of reasons. Instead of celebrating, he’d spent the last few hours just watching the MEC, which was actually piloted by Myra, utterly destroy the EXALT soldiers. He’d only seen displays of power like that a handful times in his life, and none of them quite like this.

This MEC had to have been in production for some time, and since there hadn’t been any malfunctions and Myra seemed to be very much alive, albeit significantly altered, it seemed there’s been some testing beforehand as well. Which begged the question: How long and by what means?

He could see why it would be kept under wraps, especially since the extensive prosthetics and amputations would be controversial for a number or reasons, but also because the only way to ensure the participants safety was to actually test it on human subjects. The Commander wouldn’t risk his soldiers on an experimental program that would result in death, so he had to be finding other means.

He supposed it didn’t matter in the long run. And there was a very high chance no one other than himself would really wonder how the MECs had been made in the first place. As long as they worked and killed aliens, that’s really all most of the soldiers and personnel would care about.

Still, it did make him wonder.

He was very curious to speak with Myra herself, however. Even if she didn’t know everything she would likely be able to at least tell him what it was like. He shut down his laptop and placed it under his bunk. If nothing else, he wanted to at least take a look at the MEC itself and last he knew, it was still in the hanger.

Myra herself had been absent from the main celebration, for what he assumed were obvious reasons. Though he did wonder if she’d be returning to the Barracks or finding a new place to sleep because of her prosthetics.

He got up and walked out of the Barracks into the deserted hallways. It was pretty late, or early, depending, so there were not many people up and about. Fine by him, he enjoyed the silence after the last few celebratory hours.

He did wonder just how public the Commander would make knowledge of the MECs. He could see it becoming public if he just never told anyone that they were piloted by actual humans. That would start attracting attention that the Commander would likely want kept hidden. Or maybe the population wouldn’t care either, especially if they saw footage of the MEC in action.

However…should EXALT learn about what the MECs really were, he could see some rather damning propaganda videos that could be released, real or not. But for that to happen, they’d have to either have sources in the Council or XCOM itself. As far as he knew, there weren’t any in XCOM, but the Council was another matter and he wasn’t quite sure how the Council Representative here was going to tell this to the Council.

Well, that was for the Commander to worry about. He really should get around to speaking with that representative sometime, it might be interesting to hear what a civilian like him thought about XCOM.

The hanger door swished open and he stepped into the largely empty hanger. It really was amazing just how clean and organized everything was. True, there were only three skyrangers and…whatever that MEC transport was, but still, there wasn’t any scrap, tools or waste spread out anywhere.

The limited aircraft also made the entire area feel much larger than it actually was. The slots built into the walls containing the Ravens probably helped with that, which was actually another clever design decision. He saw the deactivated MEC by the transport and began heading over too it.

His footsteps echoed throughout the empty hanger, or so he thought. Because he spotted another figure also by the MEC, either cleaning or repairing it. Hmm. Either an engineer or Myra, and he was betting on the latter at the moment. Well, he had wanted to speak with her, so this worked out perfectly.

She hadn’t bothered covering up her prosthetics, and only had some kind of gray covering over her torso. He could swear it looked armored. The legs looked incredibly basic and modular, though he had to admit that functionality was really all that was needed. But he would have thought that Shen and his team would have come up with some kind of more…natural version.

At least the hands looked expertly made, at least judging by the way Myra was fiddling with a screwdriver on the MECs leg. It didn’t seem impressive, but he knew that the hand had plagued prosthetics creators for decades. He supposed what made him somewhat uncomfortable was that pretty much every part of her had been replaced with something mechanical.

One, or two replacements, he could understand and move along. But all her limbs? Not only that, it also looked like her head and neck had also been extensively modified. Pieces of metal were embedded in her neck and he thought he saw something that looked suspiciously like a jack in the back of her head. Though he couldn’t tell for sure since her shoulder-length hair covered it pretty well.

She must have heard him come up because she glanced over at him and stepped back from the MEC. “Coming to see for yourself?” She asked, a light electronic tint to her voice.

He glanced up at the towering MEC. It’s chest plates were open, so he supposed that was where Myra actually got into the MEC. He had no clue how she retained such control over it since it was so much larger than her body. “I saw the footage,” he answered. “Yes, I wanted to see for myself.”

“Hmm.” She glanced up at the MEC herself. “Yes, there’s nothing even close to it. Soran, right? I’ve seen you around.”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I’m one of the newer ones. Though I’ve seen you before. I honestly didn’t expect you to still be around after that mission.”

“Neither did I,” she answered, stepping back. “But it all worked out in the end.”

There was silence for a minute or so.

“What was it like?” Soran asked, looking back at her. “Controlling it?”

“Hmm…” She looked down at her prosthetics and curled her metal fingers into a fist. “What’s the strongest you’ve ever felt in your life? Multiply that tenfold. You look around, at the soldiers below you frantically shooting their weapons at you and understand that nothing can hurt you. I was unstoppable. Invincible. Alive….” She trailed off. “Out of the suit everything seems…muted, now. Slower. Weaker.”

“That makes sense,” Soran nodded. “I suppose you’d get used-“

“No,” Myra grimaced and held up a hand. “You don’t understand. The suit was-is part of me.” She brushed her hair apart and he saw that his glimpse had been right. Some kind of jack or plug had been implanted into her skull. It wasn’t large, but it seemed to lead directly into the brain. “These prosthetics aren’t for show,” Myra continued, letting her hands drop. “It’s not the same now after being plugged into a machine.”

“You volunteered for this?” Soran asked, cocking his head. “Why? Couldn’t you have just received a regular prosthetic?”

“Perhaps,” she gave a shrug, her face expressionless. “But the Commander offered this to me. He believed it would change the war in our favor and it seems he was right. At least that’s how it feels.”

“But still…” Soran shook his head. “You didn’t consider what might happen if it went wrong?”

“If I did, I don’t remember why,” she answered neutrally. “I trust the Commander. And this was the logical thing to do. Besides, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to protect those you care about?”

He thought about it. Quite honestly, he’d never seen himself as the sacrificial type. He’d never become invested in causes or ideologies. He preferred to act logically and rationally, and yet, Myra did have a point. “Yes,” he finally said. “I suppose I would.”

“All of us here probably would,” Myra nodded. “After all we’ve seen what the aliens would do to us…” she trailed off, her hands slowly falling to her sides. He waited for her to continue and furrowed his eyebrows as he looked at her face, with nothing but a vacant expression and sightless eyes.

“Myra?” he asked, taking a step closer. “You alright?”

She was still breathing and keeping her balance, but seemed to be completely unaware. He snapped his fingers. “Myra!”

Still no response. He was seriously considering getting someone when Myra straightened. “Reboot,” she muttered and slowly turned her head towards him, her expression just as vacant. “Sorry, did you say something?”

She sounded completely normal, but whatever that was clearly wasn’t. “Are you feeling alright?” He asked carefully.

“I’m functional,” she answered. “Why?”

“You…” he waved his hand. “Sort of spaced out.”

“Ah, a glitch,” she nodded. “It’s happened from time to time. Nothing to worry about.”

He blinked. “You’re not worried about that.”

“Not anymore,” she answered nonchalantly. “I don’t feel as you do anymore. I sometimes get shadows of the more disruptive emotions, but I no longer feel any need to focus on them.”

Soran swallowed. “You don’t feel anything anymore?”

“Not like I used to, no,” she answered, walking in front of him. “I know what did elicit responses from me and what I used to feel, but I find that pointless now. Much more simple this way, not having to worry about anything. Not becoming outraged over trivial things.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” Soran demanded, surprised she was so calm. “Just…did you know this might happen?”

“It was a risk, yes,” she answered with a shrug. “But one I accepted. I feel no anger and neither should you.”

The way she said those words almost absentmindedly highlighted something he’d briefly noticed as soon as they started talking. Myra didn’t seem completely…there. She still…functioned as she put it but her words, responses and tone were listless, dull and empty. It was like talking to a sleepwalker.

A more cognizant sleepwalker if that make any sense, but at least like talking with someone continually distracted.

“I see,” he finally said. “I suppose, well, I didn’t think that was a potential side effect. It surprised me. But…” he trailed off as Myra had gone back to working on the MEC, seeming to have blocked him out entirely.

He couldn’t tell if it was intentional or as a side effect of her apparent wandering mind. But at the very least, it meant their conversation was done. Turning on his heel he began walking out of the hanger, considerably less enthused than before.

He wondered how the other soldiers would react when they learned more about Myra’s condition. He didn’t really know her that well, but she was one of the veterans from the very beginning. Knowing the soldiers here, they’d likely applaud her for her sacrifice, even if it cost or compromised her personality.

True, it was war and sacrifices had to be made. Still, he wondered if there were lines that shouldn’t be crossed, even if it gave XCOM an edge. But he supposed as long as there were soldiers willing to volunteer, then these kind of projects would always continue. Those who volunteered had to be admired, and as he’d admitted to Myra, he himself might have done so as well.

He would just hope that someone would make sure he wasn’t used. He could see how some might take advantage once they knew they could effectively create a bunch of soulless mechanical soldiers. He wasn’t convinced the Commander wouldn’t do something like that if the situation demanded it, but as it stood now, he’d probably keep the volunteers limited.

Well, he’d have to do his part to make sure these programs didn’t run completely unchecked.

***

The Citadel, Situation Room

“I suppose the most important question to ask is if they can actually pull it off.”

Zhang appraised the holotable displaying a map of Asia. “I see no reason for the Russians to lie about this.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” the Commander agreed. “And if they can follow through…”

“Then we can’t really pass this up,” Zhang finished.

“I would be careful about this,” Van Doorn warned, frowning at them. “Russia isn’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. They think they can get more out of this than us.”

“Of course,” the Commander nodded. “But whether they get more is debatable. Even half of what they promise would nearly guarantee financial independence from the Council within a few months. Furthermore, they need us more than we need them. They won’t renege on our deal or try to extort us for more.”

“Unless it will benefit them,” Van Doorn added. “The Russians will take advantage if they spot weakness.”

The Commander snorted. “The moment they try something like that they can say goodbye to any more of our tech. The President isn’t stupid, he knows that if he holds up his end, I’ll hold up mine.”

“The hardest part will be setting up alliances with the three countries,” Zhang said, pointing to the map. “That will take time.”

“We should also consider the implications of a technologically advanced Russia,” Van Doorn said, looking at the Commander intently. “Because of all the Council nations, they would be the most likely to use their newfound military strength to expand their borders.”

“Not as long as things stay relatively calm,” the Commander responded, shaking his head. “Even if the UN is toothless, there are other countries who are not and a conquest would not only bring about worldwide condemnation, but also possible reprisal. No one wants that right now.”

“Are you sure about that?” Van Doorn pressed. “If we’re wrong we could be enabling an international incident.”

“President Savvin respects me,” the Commander stated. “He knows that territorial wars are not in anyone’s favor, least of all Russia. I could be wrong, of course, but I sincerely don’t believe he’ll begin a conquest.”

“If nothing else, it’ll keep China in check,” Zhang added, crossing his arms. “Assuming Russia can make enough improvements to gain a technological edge.”

“Agreed,” the Commander glanced over at Zhang. “I’d much rather have an advanced Russia than China. At least Russia is completely focused on the alien threat.”

“Let’s hope you’re right,” Van Doorn sighed. “And what happens if the Council discovers our subterfuge?”

“The only way that would happen is if one of us talked,” the Commander answered, resting his hands on the holotable. “We’ll set up alliances as normal, deliver the tech and Russia will do the rest. As long as we don’t know the details, we can claim plausible deniability.”

Zhang gave a small grin. “Ah, the Council would love that.”

“I suppose there are some benefits to political-speech,” the Commander chuckled. “Though I’d prefer we didn’t actually have to worry about that.”

“In the meantime, there is something to actually worry about, or at least keep an eye on,” Zhang straightened up and picked up his tablet. After tapping on it a few seconds, he handed it to the Commander. “We finally have some pictures of what Israel is actually doing.”

The first picture was a few soldiers guarding a dusty street that was apparently abandoned. But unlike most of IDF, they were actually wearing some kind of body armor, colored in tans and browns. It wasn’t nearly as refined or complete as XCOM armor, but they were clearly utilizing the alien alloys in an actual physical sense.

The Commander flipped to the second image and this one showed soldiers in regular armor test firing some kind of weapon. It wasn’t laser, but neither did it appear a fully ballistic weapon. “You know what they’re testing?” He asked, looking up.

“They seem to be trying to create some kind of magnetic based weapon, at least from what my source can learn,” Zhang explained. “They’re having trouble keeping the weapon from breaking after a few uses, though.”

“Interesting,” Van Doorn mused. “If they’re actually looking in Gaussian weaponry, it actually might put them on a somewhat even playing field with the aliens.”

“I should talk with Shen to see how possible it actually is,” the Commander said. “Though I suppose the more important question is still what Israel is planning to do.”

“That, we’re still in the dark on,” Zhang admitted. “However, war games have ramped up in abandoned areas and if I had to make a guess, I’d say that Israel is planning to attack another country.”

“Unlikely,” Van Doorn dismissed firmly, shaking his head. “Israel doesn’t have the manpower to hold onto more than a few countries. Not to mention they’d turn most of the world against them.”

“Not necessarily,” Zhang disagreed, leaning back against the wall. “Even if the UN does condemn them, what exactly are they going to do about it? Especially if they do end up developing Gauss weaponry?”

“Good question,” Van Doorn pursed his lips. “Honestly, I doubt they would involve NATO especially since they’d likely be outmatched. I’m more concerned about the ramifications for XCOM. Especially since we were the ones who enabled them to become a threat.”

“You have a point,” the Commander muttered. “They’d likely call for me to condemn Israel, or at the very least, end our alliance.”

“Would there really be any doubt on that?” Van Doorn asked, eyeing him warily.

“That would depend on Israel’s reasons,” the Commander answered slowly. “But that decision should be made when we come to it. No point worrying about it now with the aliens and EXALT actively working against us.”

“In this case I’m going to have to disagree with you,” Van Doorn stated firmly. “Should this scenario, however unlikely, actually happen, XCOM cannot be thought to support it in any way. This shouldn’t be a discussion.”

“I don’t make important decisions based on politics,” the Commander responded coldly, fixing his gaze on Van Doorn. “Should this happen, I will hear Israel’s reasons and should I conclude they are in the wrong, I will condemn them. But I will certainly not do it because the Council asks me too.”

Van Doorn sighed. “I know you view them favorably, but that cannot influence how you treat them elsewhere. At best it will look like indifference, at worst favoritism. They are not always right or infallible.”

“If I really trusted them fully I wouldn’t be having Zhang watching them would I?” The Commander shot back, crossing his arms. “I prefer knowing all the facts before making rash decisions, not reacting based on what others think.”

“Which is admirable,” Van Doorn insisted. “But we’re talking about an unprovoked conquest. Tell me, who actually threatens Israel right now? Honestly? This isn’t during the war on terror when Israel was indeed in real danger. Every single power in the Middle East has been reduced to shadow, except Israel.”

“Who no doubt despise them even more,” the Commander answered. “But you have a good point. Which is one reason that I’m watching them. And if it makes you feel better, this is something I won’t make without the majority of the Inner Council approving of. But it won’t be done until we have all the facts.”

“May I remind you that this is simply based off my opinion,” Zhang reminded them, a sly smile on his lips. “When I offered it, I didn’t exactly expect such a heated discussion on it.”

“It’s heated because it’s plausible,” Van Doorn muttered. “But yes, everything is hypothetical now.”

“Agreed,” the Commander nodded, taking a breath. “Let’s focus on what’s actually happening.”

“A good idea,” Zhang agreed. “Now, if we’re going to take up Russia’s offer, this is what we’ll have to do.”

***

The Citadel, Several hours later

The Commander groaned and rolled over onto his back. Despite a valiant effort, he couldn’t sleep, as usual. After lying in bed several seconds, he sighed and sat up and swung his legs off the side. Well, no point staying here then. Best to be productive.

He dressed and walked out into his office and sat down in front of the computer and pressed the power button after it didn’t turn on. Odd. He didn’t recall turning it off.

Nothing happened.

He pressed it again and still nothing. He leaned down to check, and yes, the power was plugged in. Great. Just what he needed now. He pressed the intercom button. “Bradford, something’s wrong with the computer. Can you send someone up to check?”

All that came through was static. Loud static as well. He frowned at the intercom. That wasn’t right. He tried fiddling with the wire and it immediately stopped. He sat back. “You get that, Bradford?”

“Miss me?” The familiar mocking voice of Farida greeted over the intercom. He immediately slammed a finger on the end button. And leaned back in his chair.

Well, so he had been able to fall asleep, so that was something. Now he just had to find Farida, or more likely, she’d find him. He wasn’t quite sure how long he was going to entertain her this time. He really wasn’t in the mood to be yelled at again.

Standing up, he walked to the door and opened it.

And stepped out somewhere completely different.

The cold steel walls of the Citadel were completely gone and replaced by what seemed to be a perfect recreation of the Kremlin. He was just in the lobby, but it was eerily quiet and there wasn’t a soul around.

At least it wasn’t another desert. It was nice to have a change of scenery for once. Though he did wonder what his subconscious had in store for him this time.

“Ah, you made it!” An oddly familiar voice greeted behind him. The Commander turned around to see a familiar thin man giving him that doppelganger’s smile and his hands clasped in front of him.

Well, this was new. Usually the only consistent members of his dreams were Farida, and sometimes members of his team form the War on Terror. Not creations of his mind like that thin man. Who he specifically remembered melting into mush the last time they’d “spoken” and it’d tried to debate him on the Hades Contingency, more or less.

Well, he was back and didn’t appear any different. Still wearing those black clothes and spectacles. Even the hair was exactly as he remembered it. If his subconscious really wanted to change things up, it could have at least brought in an EXALT operative to debate him, because right now he wasn’t quite sure what this was in response too.

“You again,” he stated as the alien approached him. “I didn’t think to see you again.”

“Our last conversation ended….” The alien paused and glanced up knowingly, then back down at him. “…abruptly.”

The Commander sighed. “And are you coming back for a repeat? Because I have Farida to deal with in addition to you, so it might be simpler to just end you now.”

“No need to worry about your former wife interrupting us,” the alien answered smoothly, an oily smile on his face. “I’ve ensured she’ll leave us alone for the time being.”

The Commander raised an eyebrow. “Really. How very impressive,” he paused. “You realize that I could just remove you now?”

“I seem to recall that not working the last time,” the alien pointed out. “You ended up having to resort to more violent methods. You surprised me last time. It will not work again.”

He was not talking like any normal projection. By now he would have gotten to the point, but instead he was actually talking to him as if he was real. Which was…odd. More than odd, disturbing. Especially since he was getting the impression he was missing something pretty obvious.

“Leave,” he ordered, not wanting to deal with this now.

The alien simply stood and shook his head. “Come now, Commander. Do you really think that would work?”

“Then would you prefer I return to the more ‘violent methods?” The Commander demanded icily.

“You really are an interesting human,” the alien commented. “Had this been anyone else they would have figured it out already. But these dreams are normal for you. I suppose a demonstration is in order.”

The Commander opened his mouth to question that and was suddenly hit with what felt like a concussive blast of wind and was thrown back into the concrete wall. Metal immediately burst from the walls and wrapped themselves around his waist, wrists and ankles, effectively securing them.

The alien slowly walked over to him. “You are not the only one with power over dreams, Commander. Your talent, while impressive, isn’t a match for mine.”

 The Commander felt flesh creeping over his lips and imagined that had this been real, he would be terrified. But as it stood, he was almost indifferent. Cheeky little alien. He thought, no doubt inflicted upon him as some kind of revenge.

The alien cocked his head. “Not so much fun being on the other side, is it?” He asked, somehow managing not to sound smug. Just like stating a fact.

The Commander furrowed his brow and a few seconds of concentration later, was able to open his mouth. The metal suddenly became as weak as paper and he broke out with no problem. Eyeing the alien warily, he answered. “Perhaps, but this is still my dream. Not yours.”

“True,” the alien nodded. “Which is why you’ll always be able to fight back, no matter how powerful I allow myself to be.”

They stood in silence for several seconds.

“You’re real,” The Commander finally said.

“And it only took you several tries to figure it out,” the alien agreed, with a slight grin. “I would have expected the revelation quicker, but your circumstances are a bit more unusual.”

The Commander frowned. “So the last time…”

“Yes, that was me as well,” the alien confirmed. “Not quite the way I wanted to end our talk.”

The Commander crossed his arms, eyeing the alien skeptically. “Really. If that was really you, how was able to dispel you so easily?”

The alien glanced up. “Ah, that,” he looked back down and continued without any change in tone. “Simply put, I underestimated you. I didn’t think you to be completely cognizant of what was going on, let alone being able to dispose me in that manner.”

“You seem more prepared now,” the Commander noted.

“Because I am,” the alien inclined his head. “Last time I only devoted a small amount of energy to projecting myself here and in my arrogance, didn’t think to give myself protection as well. It has been decades since one of us has been defeated, mentally or otherwise. But now I am prepared for whatever you might do.”

So, if the alien was in his head…Fuck. That was utterly compromising no matter how he put it. He wasn’t sure if the alien could read his mind, per-se. But if it could... “So why are you here?” He asked, circling the alien. “Come to see what you can learn from me?”

The alien sniffed, as if offended he would even ask that question. “I cannot read your mind in this state, Commander. Perhaps if I devoted more of my power, but I see that as a feat that would cost too much for too little reward.”

Well, that was good. Assuming of course the alien was telling the truth. “You didn’t answer my question,” he reminded him. “Why are you here?”

“To talk,” the alien answered simply. “Along with a more personal curiosity.”

The Commander crossed his arms. “And what if I don’t want to?”

“You will have no choice until I leave.”

The Commander reached down by his waist and un-holstered the laser pistol that had materialized and pressed the barrel to his head. “Try again. That’s not how this works. There are only two ways I can leave: Farida dies, or I die.”

The alien didn’t look the least bit worried. “Normally, yes. But as long as I’m here, all you will accomplish by ending your ‘life’ is putting yourself into a coma or worse. And you wouldn’t want to deprive XCOM of your leadership now, would you?”

“You’re bluffing,” The Commander stated.

“Perhaps,” the alien mused, walking beside him and turning his head with a knowing smile. “But can you really take that chance.”

No, not yet at least. And he had no intention of leaving quite yet anyway, but he was curious to see how the alien would react. Perhaps he could learn something from him as well. Because he didn’t think that the alien came here just to ‘talk.’

“I’ll concede that point,” he said, putting the weapon down and turning to the alien. “But enlighten me, what could we possibly have to talk about?”

“A great many things,” the alien responded. “Perhaps I wanted to see if you really think you can win this war.”

“At our current pace, certainly,” the Commander answered. “I would say we have more victories than defeats against your kind.”

“Hmm,” the alien pursed his lips. “You do understand this is not reflective of an actual war, correct? Several of our spacecraft landing and you sending in your soldiers is not a war.”

The Commander gave a humorless smile. “Well, it seems to be the only one you’re willing to wage.”

“Do you honestly believe that you are the most important issue we have to deal with?” The alien demanded, pacing. “You are confined to one planet. We oversee dozens.”

“We tend to take the survival of our species very seriously,” the Commander pointed out. “I could not care less about what other issues you are supposedly dealing with.”

The alien paused pacing. “I’m curious. You still seem to think our ultimate objective is the eradication or enslavement of your species. What exactly do you have to prove this?”

The Commander sighed. “Didn’t we have a similar conversation last time? Do you honestly not see? You attacked us, then attacked our cities to slaughter the population, you kidnap humans for whatever experiments you run and have killed my soldiers throughout this entire campaign. And yet you wonder why I want your kind dead?”

“We did not start this war, Commander,” the alien told him with a knowing grin. “Tell me, who initiated the first military strike? Because it wasn’t us.”

The Commander scowled. “You abducted an entire town filled with hundreds of humans. That’s as good a declaration of war as any.”

“A fair point, I can understand the reasoning,” the alien nodded, surprising him. “But no human is used in vain. All serve a greater purpose, which in your case, will be the survival of your species.”

The Commander chuckled. “You cannot be serious.”

“You would not understand,” the alien shrugged, answering calmly. “And I don’t see why us using humans is worse than you using the corpses and bodies of our soldiers.”

“Because our survival depends on it,” the Commander answered. “Despite what you say, I find it hard to believe that you’re gaining anything useful from the thousands of human corpses other than ways to kill us.”

“Oh, I assure you, we’re gaining much more,” the alien answered. “But I believe I’m getting off topic here. Who is this war currently serving, Commander? Because I don’t think you believe you can win against us anymore than I do.”

“Better for us to die than live under you,” the Commander answered coldly. “You might win, but I’ll ensure many of you will die in the process.”

“How violent,” the alien actually sounded sad. “Your species has proven themselves resilient. We don’t need to continue this conflict anymore. Surrender to us and I promise your species will be treated as if this war had never taken place. Imagine how much greater you could be working with us instead of trying to kill us.”

It was odd, but the Commander got the impression that the alien was actually being genuine. It still changed nothing, but it was interesting. “While I appreciate the very generous offer, I’m going to have to decline,” he answered, crossing his arms. “We don’t need you to advance. We’ll forge our own path without your help. We will not be dependent to you, nor will we be subservient. Humanity will not capitulate until there is no choice, and most of us not even then,”

He paused. “So I have a counter-offer for you, assuming you really want this war to end. Leave. Leave us and return in fifty years or so, and come peacefully. I believe humanity would be willing to work as equals, not as yet another species under your…collective.”

The alien started ahead. “That is simply not possible,” he said, something in his voice changing. “Fifty years may be long for your species, but it is but a moment for us. And we need to use every second we can.”

“Then we are still at war,” the Commander stated firmly. “Sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

“I am not surprised,” the alien sighed. “But I cannot fault you for feeling that way, as misguided and egotistical as it is.”

“Then are we done here?” The Commander asked wearily.

The alien looked at him, that eerie smile still on it’s face. “Almost. I did come for another reason. A personal experiment of mine, simply to see if it would work. And by the sounds of things, I think it did.”

The Commander frowned. “What are you talking about? And how do you know?”

“Because we’re speaking,” the alien chuckled, a broken and hollow imitation of the real thing. “Perhaps it worked a little too well.”

“Why do you feel the need to be so cryptic?” The Commander demanded. “That doesn’t help.”

“Write out the first words that come to your mind,” the alien suggested, pointing at him. The Commander looked down at the pad of paper and pen that had materialized in his hands. Let’s see…first things that came to his mind. End the dream. Fine, that would do. Glaring at the alien, he wrote on the paper.

“Done,” he said, lowering his hands to his side.

“Look at it,” the alien suggested.

He sighed and looked down at the paper. His eyes widened when he saw what he’d written. It wasn’t English, or anything close to a recognizable language. It was in the flowing, hieroglyphic language he’d seen from the alien tech they’d recovered. Glyphs and symbols that the scientists were still trying to figure out.

And he could understand it perfectly.

He took a deep breath and looked over at the alien calmly observing him. “[What did you do to me?]” He asked, aware they were now speaking in the alien language.

“[I wanted to see if I could transfer something,]” the alien answered nonchalantly. “[As I said, an experiment. Perhaps a test for you as well.]”

“Why this?” The Commander demanded, switching back to English. “You do understand what you’ve just given me?”

“I do, and I’m interested to see how you utilize it,” the alien answered with a smile. “It will not affect the outcome of this war, so I see no reason to withhold this simply because of traditional wartime rules.”

Oh, Vahlen was just going to love this. He imagined that all of them would be torn between concern and amazement that the alien would actually give something like this up. It made no sense. At all. “Thank you?” He asked, not really sure how else to respond. “And is there some catch I should be aware of?”

“If there was, would I tell you?” The alien asked, amused. “But no. Until next time, Commander.” With that he vanished, leaving him alone.

What the hell had happened? For one, he was starting to get the suspicious that this was just a dream because there was just no way their enemy would just give them one of the keys to understanding their technology. And if they were still that confident of their victory, even after that…it didn’t bode well, no matter how he looked at it. Especially if they controlled dozens of planets as the alien had claimed.

“About time,” the voice of Farida called behind him. “Are you that weak that you couldn’t get rid of something inside your own head?”

He gritted his teeth and concentrate on her voice. He was far beyond putting up with her insults now. He raised his wrist and twisted sharply and the sound of her neck snapping echoed throughout the abandoned Kremlin. He wished his subconscious would shut up, sometimes. But he only had to ponder that for a moment.

Then he woke up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Office of the Commander

Oh, boy. How the hell was he going to explain any of this?

So I was having one of my dreams and I had a conversation with one of the aliens. Yes, really. No I’m not crazy. We had a nice chat and he also did something to me and now I can understand the alien language. No, I’m not making this up, stop laughing.

In all seriousness, how was he going to explain it? It didn’t appear that the alien was still in his head, so on that front he was probably safe. Maybe. He’d have Zhang and Van Doorn watch him closely for erratic behavior for a while. But since this apparently wasn’t their first meeting and the last time he’d come away fine, he didn’t think he had to worry too much now.

Still, precautions were necessary.

Now, assuming the alien had been telling the truth throughout that entire exchange, there was a lot of interesting details to work out. He suspected Vahlen would be more fascinated than worried by the event, especially since he could now understand the alien language. The rest of them? Probably not as enthused.

At the very least they were going to make some progress on the alien code, assuming of course that the alien hadn’t played a joke on him by giving him the knowledge to understand some dialect that was dead. Wouldn’t that be funny. Humph. Well, that appeal to surrender had certainly been endearing, if a little odd.

For a species that apparently wanted peace, they sure didn’t know how best to express that desire. The alien didn’t strike him as entirely unreasonable, or an idiot, so he wondered if that conversation had really been endorsed by this alien collective as a whole. The alien had pretty much admitted he’d wanted to speak on his own and labeled the whole transferring language process as an “experiment.” It seemed far too informal to be anything other than a personal interest, if that.

That being said, if the alien somehow had convinced him to surrender, he had no doubt his superiors would complain. Though he doubted they’d be quite as benevolent as the alien let on. Too bad hadn’t thought to ask for a name, assuming these aliens had names. Referring to this clearly powerful alien in such a generic term seemed…insulting, not to mention inaccurate.

However, the fact that the alien had even reached out indicated that XCOM was making enough problems for them to be concerned, despite what the alien had claimed. Armies that were winning didn’t usually offer such good surrender terms, let alone ones that was clearly more advanced than their opponent.

He was beginning to suspect that there might be some truth to their reasoning when the alien had said something to the effect of “We have more important matters,” since it would explain why this whole invasion was being managed so poorly. There was no denying it, they should have won this “war” in a matter of weeks. Frankly, they probably still could, but not without significantly more casualties.

But by not putting their best forward, they’d given humanity a chance to advance and now that they had MECs, laser weaponry, alloy armoring, soon to be genetically modified soldiers and the alien code, XCOM and humanity stood a very real chance of putting up a fight. Especially if tech kept advancing.

He scowled. This had brought up questions he’d put aside since he’d been so busy, but was now being forced to reconsider. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any better answers now either. Well, this whole incident had shot his plans for the day, which had been primarily to interrogate that EXALT operative they’d recovered.

He would still get around to that, but not for a least a days as at the moment, there were more important things to worry about. He suspected Herman was going to come by at some point about the MEC and that would be an interesting chat. Fortunately, the representative was not being as disruptive as he’d expected. He was clearly in support of the Council, but was smart enough to think for himself. He wondered if Herman had asked about an Intelligence branch. Most likely he’d been shot down, but it was the thought that counted, at least in this case.

A light on his desk blinked, indicating someone approaching. Vahlen. He hadn’t requested anyone else. Sure enough, the doors swished open revealed Vahlen dressed in her typical XCOM scientist garb. He wondered if she had any other cloths, since it occurred to him that he’d only seen her in those.

What was different was that her hair was loose, falling just to her shoulders. He realized he’d never seen it like that, since Vahlen kept it tied up when she was working. It was rather attractive, he had to admit. He wondered what had prompted it, but he certainly wasn’t going to complain. Still, it didn’t completely distract him from more serious matters.

“You wanted to see me?” Vahlen asked, stopping in front of his desk.

He stood and rubbed his forehead. “Yes. I figured I’d tell you first.”

Vahlen frowned. “Tell me what first?”

The Commander glance up at the ceiling. “Remember when I told you about the dreams I have?”

She nodded. “Yes, I do. Are you doing alright?”

“No worse than usual, I think,” he answered, flattered that she was concerned. “But well, this time it was different.” He paused. Better to just get it out right away. “I think one of the aliens made contact with me through them.”

Vahlen blinked. “It…talked with you?” She said almost in disbelief. “…How?

“Are you asking how it made contact in the first place, or how it talked with me?” The Commander asked, crossing his arms, as he sighed

“Both would be useful, I think,” Vahlen answered, somewhat rhetorically. “Are you sure-“

“Do you really think I would bring this up if I wasn’t?” The Commander interrupted, not wanting to waste time. “I don’t know how, but I would assume that the contact was initiated psionically. I know we still don’t know much, but psionics is the only explanation I can think up at this point.”

“Psionic abilities have been documented to influence the mind,” Vahlen recalled slowly. “Something like this is theoretically possible…but would indicate that the one responsible for the contact is either very powerful or skillful.”

“I got that impression,” the Commander agreed. “It didn’t sound like I was speaking with a subordinate. Though he still appeared to me as a thin man.”

“So would this mean that the master alien species is one we haven’t encountered?” Vahlen asked, mostly to herself. “Or just something to throw us off?”

“No idea,” the Commander shrugged. “It could appear as anything. I suspect it choose a thin man to normalize our conversation, but it could be a sectoid for all I know.”

“Then why wouldn’t it appear as such?” Vahlen asked. “We already know what those look like.”

“But we don’t know who the master species is,” the Commander pointed out. “Something that the aliens wisely want to keep hidden.”

“I…assume that they didn’t learn anything,” Vahlen wondered slowly. “I don’t like to ask but…”

“I’m well aware I could be compromised,” the Commander agreed, giving a small smile. “No need to worry about offending me. But…I don’t think this alien really wanted to learn anything from me. It said it wanted to talk and…that’s pretty much what we did,” he pursed his lips. “The alien said that he probably could take information from me if he wanted…but I don’t know if he was telling the truth or not.”

He leaned on the table and looked at Vahlen. “I don’t think the alien learned anything from our exchange, since he’d actually appeared a few months back. Except back then I didn’t know he was an alien and assumed he was another projection. Since they don’t appear to have used any kind information they shouldn’t have, I doubt that this time is different.” He shrugged. “But again, I don’t know for sure.”

“Alright,” Vahlen tapped a finger on her chin. “So, what did you talk about? Did you learn anything?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” the Commander muttered, grabbing a pad of paper he’d set on the table and began writing. “Our conversation mostly boiled down to him trying to convince me to surrender unsuccessfully, but I’ll tell you specifics later if you’re interested. No, this is the most important thing I got out of it.”

He handed Vahlen the pad. On it was a line of symbols and glyphs. Her mouth parted slightly as she took it, eyes widening as she analyzed the page. “Commander, what is this?”

“Your name,” he answered simply. “As best as I was able to translate. Their language is not the best at direct translations, I think Ariel was right in that it is complemented by some kind of psionic component, something is clearly missing. I need to experiment some more.”

“How…?” She whispered, then swallowed. “How do you know this?”

“The alien gave it to me,” the Commander sighed. “An ‘experiment’ or so he says. Don’t ask me why he did it, but I now have the entirety of the alien language in my head.”

“This is incredible!” Vahlen exclaimed, her face lighting up. “We can use this to break the alien code! Not to mention translating all the markings on their equipment.”

“Provided that there isn’t multiple dialects,” the Commander cautioned. “But yes, if the aliens have the audacity to give us this advantage, we’re going to take full advantage of it.”

“I assume you’re going to tell the others about it,” Vahlen said. “They have to know where you got it.”

“Definitely,” the Commander agreed. “Best if everyone knows what’s going on. Though I think we need to reopen some research on psionics. Perhaps you could examine Patricia again, see if anything’s changed.”

“Yes, Commander,” Vahlen nodded. “I-“

The intercom beeped and the Commander pressed the answer button. “Yes, Bradford?”

“We have a message coming in from the Council,” he answered. “You can answer when you’re ready.”

Hmm. Well that was unexpected, though it had been a while since they’d last spoken. Something must have come up or they had some new grievance to bring against him. This definitely wasn’t going to be a normal chat.

Not that it had really ever been. But tensions had been a lot lower in the beginning. He turned to the screen behind him and prepared to receive the call. “I’ll let you take the call,” Vahlen said as she made to leave.

“You don’t have to,” the Commander told her, glancing back. “I have no issue with you participating.”

Her lips twitched. “I didn’t come prepared for a Council meeting.”

He gave a sniff then smiled. “If you’re worried about how you look, I can assure you that you look good. I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

She brushed a few strands behind her ears. “Well, thank you. I’m glad you think so. But I didn’t really do anything to it.”

Ah, there she was taking him literally again. “The point is you look fine,” he waved her over by him. “Come on, let’s see what the Council has to say to us.”

He several buttons on the table and moved to stand in front of the screen, Vahlen to his right. It flashed on and the harsh blue lighting that accompanied the Speaker greeted him, the silhouette as familiar as ever. “Speaker,” he greeted, inclining his head. “A pleasure to see you again. It’s been some time.”

“That it has,” the deep synthesized voice of the Speaker answered, who also briefly inclined his head towards the Commander. “Much has happened since we spoke that, though I am pleased to see you well.”

Well, how nice of him. Regardless of his opinions of the Council, the Speaker had proven to be the most reasonable person he’d met on the Council. He didn’t know whether the man was really like that or just that dedicated to impartiality. Whatever the case, he was someone who deserved respect.

“Same to you as well, Speaker,” he answered. “I presume the state of the Council hasn’t changed?”

“Tensions have lowered after our representative was sent,” the Speaker answered. “Though the sides have not changed. You have done nothing new to provoke the ones opposed to you, though they most likely suspect you’re not being honest to begin with.”

The Commander had to smirk at that, regardless of its truth. “Even with your representative here? I suspect nothing will please them then.”

“Representative Diederick was not a unanimous decision, nor one especially liked by the nations opposed to you,” the Speaker clarified. “In the end, very few were happy with the final candidate, though Russia was able to push the measure through.”

Well, well. That would explain why the representative they’d sent was much more reasonable than he’d assumed. So Tamara was the one behind it, though if Russia held enough influence to ensure this passed, he wondered why they didn’t strike sending someone at all. Perhaps she’d done the best she could, but he still wondered.

“I see,” he finally said. “I wasn’t aware your representative was the cause of so much controversy.”

“The Council would prefer to keep their internal disputes quiet, as you would no doubt understand,” the Speaker answered. “Regardless, Representative Diederick has not reported anything suspicious to the Council, and is not the purpose of this call.”

The Commander clasped his hands behind his back. “And may I ask what the purpose is?”

“Twofold, Commander,” the Speaker answered, clasping his hands together. “The first of which concerns your…allies not affiliated with the Council. We were hoping you would enlighten us on what is happening within Germany and Israel. A growing number of councilors are becoming…concerned.”

Hmm. How much to tell. There really wasn’t anything that damaging he could really report. At least with Germany. The weapon tests Israel was conducting didn’t have to, nor should be, be mentioned. “Israel has not shared its future plans with XCOM,” the Commander answered honestly. “Though I wouldn’t expect them too anyway. International affairs are not XCOM’s concern, as the Council has made quite clear.”

That was rather satisfying to say, and he just realized that he now had an out whenever they wanted information about other countries. He could just use their own words against them, creating deniability even if both of them knew it wasn’t plausible. Their own fault, unfortunately.

“As for Germany, we’re still watching the situation,” the Commander continued. “I can assure the Council that if the Chancellor continues his crackdown, then I will personally deal with it.”

“While I have no doubt your assurance is genuine, the Council would formally request that you sever ties with these countries until we know more about Israel’s future plans and Germany restores civil freedoms,” the Speaker said, almost straining to sound neutral. “Knowingly or not, XCOM is providing these countries with alien technology that might enable them to continue their plans unchallenged. I would assume that XCOM would not want to become associated with deeds these countries may commit.”

He felt Vahlen stiffen in indignation and had to agree. Really, did they honestly expect that to work? And they must not have heard about the recent alliances with the South American countries otherwise they would have included some ridiculous reason to sever those as well. There was absolutely no way he was going to be solely reliant on the Council nations again.

“While I deeply appreciate the Council’s concern for XCOM’s…image,” the Commander answered, trying not to sound too sarcastic. “I will not sever ties until I have all the facts. Israel has not provided any reason to distrust them and as I said, the German situation is still developing. I will have to speak with both the Prime Minister and Chancellor before even considering severing ties.”

“Very well,” the Speaker conceded. “Though know that the Council will not support you should the situations worsen.”

Oh dear. However could he continue? Knowing that the Council wouldn’t support him. He couldn’t keep a smile off his face. The Council hated the idea of his alliances since the beginning. Literally nothing had changed; the Council just wanted to say it to him again.

“With that settled, may I ask what the second topic is?” The Commander asked, ready to move on.

“Yes,” the Speaker nodded. “We have acquired information that shows a fishing port in Newfoundland has gone dark several hours ago. We suspect alien activity.”

“That was fast,” the Commander commented.

“The port is one of the largest seafood distributors in North America,” the Speaker explained. “It’s estimated that around thirty percent of seafood for the continent goes through them. Which raises suspicions that this was not a random strike.”

“Perhaps they’re getting smarter,” the Commander muttered. “Targeting the food is a good move.”

“Since the port is a much higher profile than the normal targets, we were able to determine they’d gone dark far quicker than usual,” the Speaker said. “We don’t know how the attacks were carried out, but if you send a team soon, you might stop them before they cause too much damage.”

“We’ll do that,” the Commander promised. “Thanks for the intel.”

“Put it to good use, Commander,” the Speaker answered. “Good luck. We will be watching.”

With that he ended the call. “Alright. Time to get to work.”

He turned to Vahlen. “Can you tell Bradford to get Van Doorn and Herman and meet me in the Situation Room while I compile a squad?”

Vahlen nodded. “I’ll do that,” she promised. “That seemed to go well.”

“Better than normal,” the Commander agreed as he sat down. “The Council actually came in useful for once. Let’s hope we can salvage this before the aliens destroy the port.”

“I’ll tell Bradford now,” she said and turned to leave. “Good luck, Commander.”

He gave her a smile. “Thanks, Moira. We’ll get everything sorted out with my head after the mission. I know you’re probably wanting to run some tests.”

She simply gave a smile and walked out and he focused on his computer screen. Time to get to work.

***

The Citadel, Mess Hall

“We barely managed to pass the Florida phase,” Samuel finished as he took a sip of water. “I still despise that state and it’s horribly humid weather.”

“That’s a bit more intense than what I went through,” Soran answered appreciatively, shaking his head. “Though it’s smart to actually put soldiers through simulations like that.”

“Agree on that,” Samuel agreed. “Even if I despised it at the time, I definitely put those skills to use later. Still is nothing compared to what the SEALs go through.”

Soran grimaced. He was well aware of the mental and physical torture the SEALs went through to be part of the unit. He suspected prisoners were treated better than SEAL trainees were. After doing research into the group, he now had a newfound respect for what they went through. But it was definitely not for him. “I doubt that anything can really compare to Hell Week.”

“True,” Samuel chuckled and cocked his head. “You knew about that?”

“Yes,” Soran confirmed with a nod as he ate some more of the soup. “I wanted to learn more after hearing about their…reputation.”

“Makes sense,” Samuel agreed as he rested his arms on the table. “They’re probably the only special forces unit that has worldwide recognition. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know who they are.”

“Unless of course they have no knowledge at all,” Soran pointed out. “Not all civilians really care about the military.”

Samuel smirked. “You clearly haven’t been to America then. Even if people don’t like the military, they at least have some basic knowledge.”

“I suppose it’s different in Japan,” Soran shrugged. “They’re a more…pacifistic society. The military is officially only supposed to be used for self-defense.”

“And unofficially?” Samuel asked.

“As I understand it, that’s why we exist,” Soran explained, referring to himself. “As long as it can be shown that Japan has been damaged in some way, there can be some kind of retaliation. Though I suspect that is mostly to appease the civilian population. I would not be surprised if operations were being conducted in secret.”

“And you’re alright with that?” Samuel asked curiously.

“Would it matter if I wasn’t?” Soran asked, frowning. “All governments conduct operations outside civilian view. Why should I expect anything different from Japan?”

“Awfully pessimistic,” Samuel said wryly. “But I see your point.”

That wasn’t exactly what he wanted to convey. “That’s not pessimism,” he corrected, slightly confused. “It’s just how things have always worked, stretching back centuries. I don’t view it as pessimism, nor do I feel particularly strongly about the matter. Governments keep secrets, and as long as they don’t manage to wreck the country in the process, I trust that they’ll be worked out.”

“I wish I had your faith in the government,” Samuel commented, taking another sip of water. “But not much I can do except cast my vote.”

“Ah, right,” Soran recalled. “A presidential election is coming up, correct?”

“Correct,” Samuel sighed. “And I’m going to be happy to be away from it all. It’s not going to be pretty.”

Soran frowned. “Why?”

“Because there is quite a bit of tension in the country now,” Samuel answered. “Combined with an alien invasion, I suspect there’s going to be a lot of demonizing the other side without much compromise or common ground. Not that it’s really been different.”

“So you don’t know who you’re going to vote for?” Soran asked to clarify.

“America is going to become involved in the war officially, one way or another,” Samuel answered. “So I’d rather have someone I at least somewhat trust. I’ll probably vote for Kamili, at least in the primaries.”

That name sounded familiar. “Have I heard of her?” Soran asked as he tried to recall. “I think I recognize the name.”

“Possibly,” Samuel nodded. “She was a diplomat, a rather prolific one at that, mostly focusing on third world countries. An all-around exceptional woman, not much political experience, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.”

“Isn’t that dangerous though?” Soran asked, lacing his fingers together. “I would think that you’d want a candidate to have some kind of political experience. Especially if they’re looking to run a country.”

“A good point,” Samuel agreed. “Though she would be one to surround herself with excellent advisors. Furthermore, she does offer something I haven’t seen in a long time; unity. I do believe that she’d manage to heal the rifts and at least try to fix the issues plaguing it. And while I know she doesn’t approve of war, she’d do her best to end it quickly.”

Soran eyed him skeptically. “I highly doubt this war is going to be ended quickly.”

“Probably not,” Samuel agreed. “I’d imagine this will be more or less decided before it even gets that to the actual election. A lot can happen in a year.”

“That it can,” Soran noted softly. They ate in silence for a few minutes, the only disruption coming when a woman came up beside him.

“May I sit?” She asked him, her voice moderately accented. He glanced up and got a good look at her. She was clearly Asian, and as he was the only Japanese operative here, he supposed she was either Chinese or Korean. Unlike most of the soldiers here, her black hair was fairly long, falling a few inches below her shoulders, framing her oval face. She looked rather friendly and had a pleasant smile, though her green eyes were decidedly less so.

Interesting. Who could this be? “Of course,” he motioned to the seat beside him. “Take a seat.”

“Appreciated,” she answered and did sit beside him and began eating.

After a few minutes, Samuel spoke. “I don’t believe we’ve met, ma’am.”

“Apologies,” she said, glancing up with a small smile. “Shun Anwei, Ministry of State Security agent.”

Well, well, wasn’t that interesting. The MSS were one of the most highly regarded intelligence organizations in the world, and counted among the most dangerous as it was a Chinese organization. While he had little issue with the MSS, or Chinese for that matter, others weren’t so forgiving. Samuel might be one, judging by how he pursed his lips after she spoke.

“Soran Kakusa, 1st Airborne Brigade,” he answered, inclining his head towards her.

“A respectable position,” Shun nodded, then focused on Samuel. “And may I ask who you are?”

His voice was a bit tighter, though not much. “Samuel Roche. Army Ranger.”

“Ah, so have a SEAL and a Ranger,” Shun chuckled. “Interesting.”

Samuel appraised her. “Not quite as interesting as an intelligence agent working directly in combat missions,” he noted flatly.

“Not all of us are the cloak and dagger type,” Shun responded neutrally. “I would consider it a flawed organization if intelligence groups didn’t have some kind of combat-trained personnel. Which I believe I am adequate at.”

“I suppose we’ll see,” Soran said. “Though I doubt you will let us down. XCOM only recruits from the best.”

“That they do,” Shun agreed. “Though Samuel here does have a point. I do know there was some discussion on whether I was the best candidate to send instead of our more…traditional soldiers.”

“I would have thought China kept a closer lid on their discussions,” Samuel commented. “For you to hear that sounds odd.”

She snorted and gave him a smug grin. “Don’t believe everything you hear from American propaganda. I was well aware who else was being considered and they told me it was a close decision. But they felt that I was best choice in the end.”

“Why is that, I wonder?” Samuel asked, his voice growing very rhetorical.

“Because I have a long record of successful mission and likely have a kill count as long as yours,” Shun answered, not completely taking the bait. “Do you want me to provide a certificate of approval?”

He gave a humorless smile. “That won’t be necessary.”

Soran blinked as he felt his wristband vibrating. Another mission. “Duty calls,” he shrugged at Samuel, not really wanting to leave the situation quite like this. Though it turned out he didn’t have too since Shun also stood.

“It appears I’ll be coming along as well,” she said, glancing up at him. “Perhaps you’ll see what I can do.”

“Good luck,” Samuel told him. “Kill some aliens for me.”

Soran gave a mock salute. “Will do.” Then he left the Mess Hall with Shun at his side.

They walked in silence for a few minutes. “I don’t think your friend trusts me,” Shun commented, sounding more resigned than anything. “Probably thinks I’m here to spy on him by order of the Chinese.”

“Don’t blame him,” Soran told her. “It’s not entirely his fault that he’s been taught to think of the Chinese as wrong at best or evil at worst. It’s no different than you being taught that America is a capitalist dystopia.”

She snorted. “Come now, I know that isn’t true. Though I do see your point. Chinese propaganda doesn’t paint America in the best light. But still, at least I don’t treat every American as a potential spy.”

“You’re in intelligence, he’s in special forces,” Soran pointed out. “Of the two, I’d guess that intelligence operatives are more open to viewing the other side a little more neutrally.”

She glanced up at him suspiciously. “You’re one to talk. Japan doesn’t exactly view us favorably either.”

“The views of the Japanese majority are not my own,” he answered neutrally, looking ahead. “I don’t view China as much better or worse than Japan. We have our own long list of mistakes, which I think sometimes gets forgotten when dealing with other countries.”

“That’s an…interesting perspective,” she commented slowly. “I didn’t really expect it.”

“I don’t see a reason to view your position differently than a Russian or American with the same,” he continued. “The MSS functions in the same role as the CIA, MI6 and the CT agents of Russia. I don’t see why yours should be demonized while it performs the same operations as those organizations.”

“Because they view us as a threat,” Shun sighed, sounding torn between anger and frustration. “And for some reason don’t realize that they pose as much a threat to us as we do to them. And yet we always end up the bad guys.” She sighed and shook her head. “Sorry, this isn’t a conversation to have before a mission.”

“It’s understandable,” he empathized. “But prove yourself and you’ll do fine here. The soldiers here respect deeds and after you prove yourself, your nation won’t be an issue.”

“I hope you’re right,” she sighed. “But it’s good to know that some people will give me a chance.”

“Everyone deserves one,” Soran agreed. “No matter where they come from.”

“If only more thought like you,” Shun chuckled as they reached the barracks. “Alright, let’s go hunt some aliens.”

***

Skyranger, En route to Abduction Zone

As usual, no one had told them anything when they’d arrived in the hanger, though the fact that Patricia was in charge likely meant that it was a fairly high-profile operation. Shun was the only legitimate “rookie” on this mission, since the rest of the soldiers were veterans to an extent.

Pete Chandler was one of the few South Americans in XCOM, part of the Venezuelan Marines. He seemed like a decent guy, from the few minutes of conversation they’d had. Definitely one of the more easygoing soldiers he’d encountered.

Karl Lulling was one of the KSK agents that had joined after the Hamburg attack, and Soran was happy that they’d finally have a sniper on a mission. A quiet man, but he was clearly skilled at his job. Patricia had said he’d participated in raiding an alien transport that had crashed and had acquitted himself well.

He’d actually chatted with Eden Rayna’s sister quite a bit, and Eden seemed more or less like the exact same kind of personality. Very energetic and friendly. However, unlike her sister she was now wielding a laser shotgun instead of a rifle. Hopefully her engineering experience would come in handy, provided that SOER operatives understood engineering in the traditional sense.

“Do we have any information on the area?” Shun asked, resting her hands on her knees.

“That will be given to us when the Commander deems it fit,” Patricia answered, glancing over at her. “I expect it will be shortly.”

“I see,” Shun nodded, apparently satisfied. Interesting; he wondered if that was instinctual. Most people would ask more questions, but she apparently just accepted the word of her superior.

“XCOM responds to most of alien sightings or abductions,” he explained for her benefit. “As soon as one is spotted, a squad is formed and immediately sent off. That’s why information is distributed so late.”

“I see,” she nodded. “Thank you, Soran.”

“One of the new ones, I see,” Eden commented cheerfully. “Welcome to XCOM, if no one has before. I’m Eden.”

“Shun Anwei,” she answered cautiously. “And thank you.”

“So what unit are you from?” Karl asked, resting his laser sniper rifle against his knee. “Military or special forces?”

“An MSS agent,” Shun answered slowly.

“Huh, never heard of it,” Pete commented. “Well, can’t know all of them. Welcome anyway.”

“Same,” Eden affirmed.

Despite the semi-warm welcomes from them, Soran didn’t fail to note Karl and Patricia eyeing the young Chinese agent after that. Even if Pete and Eden didn’t know or care, a KSK agent and…what was Patricia anyway? Regardless, both clearly knew what the MSS stood for, especially when the Chinese flag was emblazoned on Shun’s collar.

Fortunately, they didn’t feel the need to comment or question it. It was definitely interesting to observe how military and intelligence personnel were treated differently by soldiers. There were already several Chinese soldiers in XCOM and they seemed to have assimilated quite well at least from what he’d seen.

And yet here came a woman from an intelligence agency and suddenly that was suspicious. She was fighting against several stereotypes here, but the biggest one was clearly her nation. Especially when contrasting with a now-deceased XCOM operative who’d also come from an intelligence background: Mira Vauner.

She was now something of a hero in XCOM, although pretty much everyone who’d died in the Dreadnought mission was considered as such. But in reading and listing about her, she’d come from a branch that, at least originally, was designed for the sole purpose of assassination. To him, it seemed far worse to be associated with something like that than a regular intelligence agency like the MSS.

But of course, the reason was that Israel was normally regarded as a ‘good’ country, and thus its soldiers would be assumed to be such as well. China did not share that same courtesy. He didn’t consider it fair or right, but it was interesting to watch all the same. Hopefully they’d stop worrying it about it soon.

“This is the Commander to Raptor Team,” the voice of the Commander came through their helmets. “You’re en route to Newfoundland. Intel from the Council has shown that one of the ports responsible for a large part of seafood distribution in North America has gone silent. Your objective is to go secure the area and wipe out any aliens as quickly as possible.”

“Do we have anything on numbers or forces?” Patricia asked.

“No, but I would expect a force of at least fifteen to twenty. Also be aware that this might be another trap by EXALT.”

Soran grimaced. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But at least this time they’d be somewhat prepared. They also wouldn’t box themselves in. Patricia learned from the mistakes of previous missions, if there was anyone who wouldn’t repeat such a mistake, it would be her.

“Should we expect civilian contact?” Karl asked, leaning back.

“Possible, but that doesn’t affect your mission parameters,” the Commander answered. “From previous abductions, I would be surprised if the aliens leave any civilians alive. This is not a rescue mission and will not be treated as such.”

“Understood, Commander,” Karl nodded.

“It would be preferable not to cause too much destruction to the equipment there,” the Commander advised. “The production is going to take a hit regardless, but damaged equipment isn’t going to help. But not at the expense of your lives. Got it?”

“Yes, Commander,” Patricia answered with a sharp nod.

“Then good luck. Citadel Command, out.”

A few seconds went by. “This is Big Sky to Raptor Team. We’re approaching the landing zone in two minutes. Prepare for landing and deployment.”

A ground deployment, well it’d been awhile since that’d happened. “Understood Big Sky,” Patricia confirmed. “We’ll be ready.”

The lights flashed to a solid red and Patricia stood and walked to the end in preparation for the landing. Eden took her side and Karl and Pete stood behind her. Soran and Shun stood behind them. Shun fiddled with her weapon, a prototype from engineering that seemed to be some kind of hybrid of a sniper rifle and regular rifle. A Strike Rifle, it was officially called.

The weapon seemed rather unwieldy, but then again, he wasn’t trained to use it. More power to her if she could use it. He’d stick with his laser rifle now. The skyranger shook as it landed and the ramp opened with a hiss and then a crack as it hit concrete.

“Deploy!” Patricia ordered and they charged out to reclaim the port.

***

Canada, Newfoundland

The silence was even more pronounced than usual. Soran wasn’t sure, but he thought that the gentle lapping of the waves hitting the docks probably had something to do with it. It seemed to draw attention to the fact that the place was a ghost town.

“We’re on the ground,” Patricia informed Citadel Command. “Preparing to move forward.”

“Copy that,” the voice of Bradford confirmed. “We have satellite footage over the area. We’ll notify you if we see anything.”

“Understood,” Patricia answered, raising her autolaser as she prepared to march forward. “Karl, take the roof and begin overwatch.”

“Understood, Overseer,” Karl nodded and began climbing one of the shipping crates and used that to leap onto the roof. Taking a knee, he raised his laser sniper rifle and began scanning the area.

The whole shipping port was highly claustrophobic and contained. If they got caught in the wrong place, it would be a death trap. There were so many places to hide and set an ambush it wasn’t even funny. The majority of the buildings weren’t large, mostly smaller warehouses and a couple dilapidated-looking offices.

That was mostly to the left and in front of them. Several shipping containers also sat out in the open. “Overseer, just past this warehouse is a marketplace area,” Karl informed. “Nothing spotted yet, but it would be a good place to defend. Several of the stands have roofs that we could use as sniper nests.”

“Awfully convenient,” Pete muttered. Soran had to agree.

“We could get trapped in here easily,” he warned Patricia, raising his rifle in anticipation.

“I know,” she answered, sounding oddly distracted. “But we have to move forward.”

Soran looked to the right, where the water and docks were. Crates of seafood and sailing supplies lined the docks, some haphazardly tipped over. Several ships were docked as well, nothing large, just the ones specializing in fishing. Although he did see a barge at the far end, but it appeared likewise abandoned.

“We’ll have a better chance of surviving an ambush if we take the docks,” Soran said. “There are too many choke points here.”

“I’m not convinced it isn’t too appealing,” Patricia murmured. “We’ll take our time and advance slowly.” She motioned towards the docks. “Eden, Pete, move alongside the docks. Soran, Shun and I will begin clearing the warehouses.”

Eden nodded. “Understood, Overseer. We’ll wait before advancing further.”

 “Excellent,” Patricia nodded. “Everything clear, Karl?”

“Clear for the moment, Overseer.”

“Soran, Shun, take the left side,” Patricia ordered as she moved to the right side of the warehouse door. While he steadied himself on the corner of the door, Shun took the opposite corner and raised her weapon as she watched the side. Patricia had let her autolaser rest on the ground by the barrel as she’d placed her forearm on the wall for some reason.

He frowned and considered asking if she was fine when she apparently snapped out of it and knelt down and hooked her fingers under the door and gave an experimental lift. It wasn’t locked, so she motioned for him to do the same. He did, and began counting down. Three…two…one.

They lifted at exactly the same time and raised their weapons to…

Nothing.

The warehouse was empty, only a few crates and fishing nets occupied the floor. “As I thought,” Patricia muttered, raising her autolaser. “Advance,” she muttered and they went through the warehouse. As they walked Soran suddenly froze as a thought occurred to him.

Patricia hadn’t given him any signal she was counting down…and yet they’d acted in perfect harmony. So if she hadn’t given him a signal…how…? And what did that mean? Just like I thought.

She expected nothing? And she was right?

“Take position,” Patricia ordered as she took the right of the warehouse entrance. Soran took the left and Shun knelt behind a crate and aimed her weapon towards the middle of the door, in case anything was directly on the other side.

Patricia knelt down again and hooked her fingers under the door and Soran copied her again, trying not to think about what he was doing. As if by instinct, he and Patricia lifted in perfect harmony, again revealing nothing.

“Anything, Eden?” Patricia asked, as she swept the immediate area with her autolaser.

“Negative, Overseer,” Eden answered. “Hey Karl, take a look at that barge over there.”

“On it,” he answered.

Soran looked forwards and understood what Karl had meant about a marketplace. There were around six stands, each with various seafood he assumed was being sold. Some had some wrinkled steel walls, and some were just posts that secured the roof. And as he took a look at the roofs, he understood why they had short walls. They were clearly used as another means of storage.

Fortunately, the area was fairly open, allowing plenty of maneuverability. Patricia pointed forward and they moved towards one of the stands. Shun started climbing onto the roof and he and Patricia stayed put until she was in position.

“This area is clear,” she confirmed.

“Overseer, they definitely did something to that barge,” Karl updated from the warehouse roof. “Part of the hull is busted open.”

Soran and Patricia exchanged a look. “Were they after something else?” Soran wondered, curious.

“Central, you know if there was anything unusual being brought in?” Patricia asked.

“Checking the import lists now,” Bradford answered tensely. “The only barge that was supposed to come in today was just a whaling vessel. Nothing of import.”

“Then I guess we should check it out,” Soran suggested. “We might find something.”

“Possible,” she muttered. “Something seems off here. We should have encountered something by now.”

“Maybe they left?” Soran suggested.

“Perhaps,” she sounded unconvinced. “But that would be a first. They usually at least leave some kind of token force for us to fight.”

“Maybe they don’t want to waste their forces anymore,” Shun suggested. “If the result is usually a loss, it makes sense not to keep it up, right.”

“The thing is that aliens haven’t really used that kind of logic,” Patricia pointed out. “But perhaps you’re right. Still, Soran’s idea is good, we should check the barge.”

“There’s two stalls that overlook the docks area,” Karl pointed out. “Shun and I can keep an eye out while you move in.”

“Good idea,” Patricia agreed. “Move there and Soran and I will regroup with Pete and Eden.”

“Copy that,” Eden confirmed. “Holding position until you arrive.”

Karl lowered himself from the roof and Shun slid down the ladder to join him. Both of them went over to the right row of stalls and Karl took the middle one while Shun took the furthest one down.

“In position, area clear.” Karl confirmed as he scanned the area, sniper rifle raised.

“Copy,” Shun agreed as she did the same.

“Keep watch,” Patricia ordered. “We’ll be advancing shortly.” She turned towards the right and took the path that led down to the docks. Soran followed close behind, keeping his back to her to make sure no one came from behind. Once they’d descended down the small flight of steps, he turned around as they approached Pete and Eden.

“Forward,” Patricia muttered. “Slowly.”

They advanced at a methodical pace, their fingers on the triggers just waiting for something to happen. The wood creaked under their boots as they walked under the slick wood. They were approaching the last fishing ship before the barge, and now Soran could clearly see the gaping hole big enough for a truck that was torn into its side.

It wasn’t clean or symmetrical in any way. It was if some animal had torn into it, or ripped into it with all the delicacy of a bull. Inside was pitch black, a black hole that showed him nothing.

“You know, I didn’t know shark hunting was so popular here,” Eden muttered as they passed a post. Soran only now just noticed that the corpses of sharks were hanging off of them. In fact, there were several more at random places around the docks. “In fact, isn’t that illegal?”

“Depends on the part of the world,” Soran shrugged. “I know it’s illegal in Japan, but apparently not here.”

“Kinda sad,” Pete commented, as he stared up at one of the carcasses. “I rather like sharks.”

“Quiet!” Patricia hissed as she raised a fist. “You hear that?”

Everyone went silent and Soran concentrated hard. Yes, there was definitely something coming from within the barge. Something tapping on metal and wood, what sounded like a faint clicking.

“That’s not good,” he breathed.

Hold!” Patricia snarled and swung her rifle around. “There’s something else here.”

Before any of them could begin to ask what, Patricia unloaded a barrage of laser fire into the shark carcass. The hissing of the laser breaking the silence spectacularly. Soran heard a faint screech and watched in fascination as the embryo of a chryssalid fell onto the ground.

The alien animal wasn’t fully formed yet, it was still curled into a fetal position, though it appeared to have it’s claws and jaws. A white sap covered it, but it was clear that it was growing at an incredible rate.

“Chryssalids,” Soran hissed. “And if there’s one…”

“I think you just let them know we’re here.” Eden murmured as the sound of chryssalid screeches began filling the air, coming from the barge.

Patricia turned her autolaser and blasted another shark corpse. “Get ready!” She snarled. “They’re coming!”

Sure enough, six chryssalids charged out of the hole, hopping out of the jagged metal. Snarling with saliva dripping from their jaws, they charged the four. “Laser field!” Patricia ordered, firing into the group.

The three of them fired sustained lasers at the group, moving their weapons in different directions and were rewarded with the screams of pain from the aliens as they collapsed to the ground, missing bodies and limbs.

Streaks of red light rained down from Karl and Shun, who put the surviving chryssalids out of commission. Not a few seconds later, several more charged out, ignoring their fallen brethren and charged across the docks to them.

Two were taken out by Karl and Shun, while Soran severed the head of the final one and it fell to the ground unceremoniously. He eyed the hole where more were probably going to come out as he reloaded. “Let’s hope it stays like this,” Pete muttered as he reloaded.

Another four jumped out and charged their position. Pete sniped one, while two were blasted back by Patricia. Two thin beams rained down on the last one, hitting its leg and head. Soran glanced up to see Shun had fired the shots. She was definitely an excellent shot.

“Behind you!” Shun yelled and Soran whipped his head back around to see chryssalids leaping up from behind Karl. Shun desperately shot at the encroaching aliens, and managed to kill two, but not before another chryssalid sank its jaws into Karl’s throat and ripped it out. Shun sniped it, but more were already coming towards her.

“Fall back!” Patricia ordered, as more chryssalids came pouring out of the barge. “Regroup!”

Shun leapt down, the chryssalids in hot pursuit of her. Soran shot one that leapt at her and severed the front legs of another, leaving it screaming in agony.

“They just keep coming!” Pete shouted as more kept coming out. They were going to get overwhelmed. Even altogether, they couldn’t stand up against an onslaught of at least twelve chryssalids.

Patricia swung her autolaser in a wide arc, letting loose a barrage of laser fire. “Focus!” She snarled. Soran wasn’t sure if that was addressed to him or not. But he raised his rifle, focused in on the approaching chryssalids and fired. Without thinking he moved to the next one and did the same.

Blinking as he looked at the pile of corpses in front of them, he realized that they’d killed all the charging chryssalids within a few seconds. What the…? He glancing over at Patricia and his eyes widened as he saw an almost transparent distortion around her. Was that…?

Not the time. More were coming. A roar that seemed to shake the ground echoed throughout the area. Soran watched in disbelief as the largest chryssalid he’d ever seen stepped out of the barge.

Almost as tall as the damned barge, the massive chryssalid was a deeper shade of purple than its smaller brethren, and seemed to have a more developed head. Its eyes were not the pure yellow orbs, but instead pure white. It’s clattering of teeth echoed loudly across the docks as it looked at the tiny humans before it.

“Citadel Command, institute the Zeus Contingency,” Patricia stated, sounding oddly calm. “This area is compromised.”

“Copy that,” the Commander affirmed. “Get out of there.”

More chryssalids, this time at least fifteen leapt out and converged under the massive chryssalid. Was this some kind of breeder? Did chryssalids even need them? More were coming along the sides, leaping off the warehouse roofs and were promptly shot down as the squad retreated.

Soran blasted two more in the face, and hissed as two more chryssalids charged in from the front. Faced with overwhelming numbers on two fronts, it was inevitable that some would slip through the cracks.

“Pete!” He shouted as he tried getting a bead on the aliens.

Pete leapt back as a chryssalid claw barely missed him. Said chryssalid was promptly shot by Shun, who gave him a quick nod and Soran took care of the other one. The skyranger roared overhead as it approached the landing zone. Eden shot two more that were approaching, but Soran’s heart sank as he looked to the barge and saw the creatures still coming out.

Where the hell were they coming from?

He turned around as a scream grabbed his attention. Pete had caught his leg in a fishing net and had fallen to the ground. Despite all of them concentrating fire, they weren’t able to kill all the encroaching chryssalids before one stabbed its claws into his arms and ripped out his throat, screeching in triumph.

“Hold.” Patricia growled, though again it didn’t seem directed at them. For whatever reason, all the nearby chryssalids stopped and stared at Patricia who held their gaze while the rest of them gunned down the aliens.

“Run!” Patricia ordered. “To the landing zone! Now!” They took off for the last leg of the route. Patricia occasionally turning around to offer strafing fire at the chryssalids that were still approaching. The Queen Chryssalid was also coming, though much slower. As they charged up the ramp to where the skyranger was waiting, the Queen Chryssalid roared and began moving much more earnestly.

The massive claws of the Queen wreaked havoc as they were accompanied by the sounds of splintering wood and shattering crates as she charged as fast as possible, as if knowing they were escaping. All of them charged into the skyranger, still shooting at the chryssalids converging upon them.

As the skyranger took off and the chryssalids screeched as their prey left, Soran dearly hoped that the creatures felt as much pain as possible when the rockets hit. No one deserved to die like that. He wasn’t sure if anything remained inside the soon-to-be reanimated corpses of Karl and Pete, but he hoped they wouldn’t have to suffer too long.

All of them sat in silence as the skyranger sped back to the Citadel, all reflecting on what had happened.

***

After-Action Report

Operation: Crystal Giant

Personnel

Raptor 1 (Squad Overseer): Specialist Patricia Trask

            Status: Active

            Kills: 14

Raptor 2: Specialist Eden Rayna

            Status: Active

            Kills: 9

Raptor 3: Specialist Karl Lulling

            Status: Deceased

            Kills: 6

Raptor 4: Specialist Pete Chandler

            Status: Deceased

            Kills: 10

Raptor 5: Specialist Soran Kakusa

            Status: Active

            Kills: 14

Raptor 6: Specialist Shun Anwei

            Status: Active

            Kills: 12

Mission Director: The Commander

Pilot 1: Jason Olgard – Call sign: “Big Sky”

Artifacts Recovered:

None

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Citadel, Situation Room

Herman watched as the Commander shut off the video from the armor cams of the soldiers. Despite the retreat, he wasn’t sure if he, or the Commander, would really count this as a defeat. True, they’d had to pull out but that had clearly been some kind of chryssalid breeding ground the aliens had set up. There was no way that would be taken out conventionally with only six soldiers, even XCOM ones.

Well, maybe if the Commander had a few more of those MECs, the outcome might be different. Speaking of which, that particular project needed to be discussed. Though not at the moment.

“We’re going to have to find some new soldiers,” Bradford sighed sadly. “At this rate losing one or two per mission isn’t helping our roster.”

“I have some lined up,” the Commander answered absentmindedly. “We’ll have more shortly.”

Herman rested his hands on the holotable. “I assume this is the first time they’ve set up a breeding ground like this?” He looked around questioningly. “At least I assumed that’s what it was.”

“It couldn’t have been anything else,” Van Doorn agreed. “Not with how many were attacking.”

“Agreed,” the Commander nodded, turning back to the holotable. “Though I wonder if these chryssalids differed from the ones we’ve fought before. Vahlen said that chryssalids have a genetic timer that kills them after an hour or so, and I highly doubt all of those were newborns.”

“That…Queen was probably the source,” Van Doorn suggested. “Perhaps the aliens had a few in captivity to use for such a purpose. It would follow that the offspring would retain the same lifespan.”

“Makes sense,” Herman agreed. “Hopefully they don’t have too many of those.”

“I’m sure they have as many as they need,” the Commander noted with a resigned glance towards the holotable. “They might be able to just clone another one. But at least we’ve prevented an outbreak.”

“Yes…” Herman agreed slowly. “Though I don’t think the Council is going to be happy with you razing the port.”

“Not if they’re smart,” the Commander shrugged noncommittally. “There was no other solution. Overwhelming force was the only other alternative and hundreds would die before that nest was destroyed. Much safer and more efficient with an airstrike.”

“I agree,” Herman nodded. “But I’m warning you that the Council may not see it that way.”

The Commander looked predictably displeased at that notion, though not entirely unsurprised. “Then that is their own fault.”

Herman could guarantee that sentiment was not going to win any favors. In this case though, the Commander was right. Razing the port was the best solution and two soldiers had died to ensure that the surrounding regions were safe. True, it wasn’t an ideal outcome, but it was far better than the alternative.

“A shame we couldn’t have gotten a visual on the nest itself,” the Commander muttered, more of as an afterthought. “It might shed some more light on how they reproduce naturally.”

“Vahlen would be very interested in that,” Bradford agreed. “But we’d have to find some safe way of non-explosive neutralization.”

Chemical weapons was the obvious choice, and that was probably going to be the Commander’s first answer. Perhaps the most effective, but not the safest or even best means. “Perhaps an air-dispensed sedative?” Herman suggested quickly, glancing over at the Commander. “Has that been tested?”

“No,” the Commander answered, giving him a nod of approval. “I’ll speak to Vahlen about the viability of implementing that. Though I’d prefer we test it in a controlled environment. Not in the field.”

“Perhaps if Vahlen has a breakthrough on her chryssalid project?” Van Doorn suggested off-handedly. “Provided it’s successful, we could test it on her grown-“

What chryssalid project?” Herman demanded incredulously. It was clearly a slip-up by Van Doorn, but if they were actually growing these things…

“Don’t get too upset,” the Commander interrupted wearily, clearly anticipating his completely justified reaction. “Vahlen’s conducting research on chryssalid reproduction. Provided it’s successful, we might develop a way to counteract or kill the egg implanted in the body. And yes, this will most likely involve growing a chryssalid in some fashion.”

Well, that was better. “And just how are you going to grow a chryssalid?” Herman asked. “Why do you even need to in the first place? Couldn’t you just experiment on the egg itself and test ways to kill it without risking an outbreak?”

“In a vat, of course,” the Commander answered neutrally, eyeing him oddly calmly. “Ideally, I’d prefer testing on a human subject. A prisoner if that makes you feel any better. But since the UN and you would likely have…issues…with that line of research, vat grown will suffice. As for why? You’d have to ask Vahlen that, she could answer better than I.”

Herman furrowed his eyebrows. “Are you certain it’s really necessary? Because I wouldn’t put it past Vahlen to perform a procedure like this just to prove it can be done.”

“She most certainly would,” the Commander agreed immediately. “But she wouldn’t do anything to impede XCOM’s progress or risk our lives. And if that is her motive? I have no issue with it, provided it doesn’t interfere with more important matters.”

Which was exactly what he was afraid of. No wonder the Commander retained such loyalty if he let his subordinates do whatever they wanted. The thing was, he didn’t know if this was some tactic the Commander used to gain their loyalty, or if he genuinely believed it. He could see it go either way, and it was likely a combination of the two.

Hmm. How best to illustrate that letting Vahlen do whatever she wanted was probably not a good idea? Because taking the obvious path of “Look at what she’s done before!” would probably backfire, as the Commander was likely aware of Vahlen’s past works. He might even support it. Playing to efficiency was probably a safer bet.

“While I respect the autonomy you allow her,” Herman finally said, keeping his voice as respectful as possible. “Wouldn’t it be better for XCOM if she was solely focused on approved projects and her side activities lessened until the war is over?”

“Except that all her work does relate to the alien threat in some way,” Bradford pointed out slowly. “She’s not going off on random tangents or unrelated theoretical studies. Even if we can’t see it now, her unofficial work might come in handy later.”

“Exactly,” the Commander nodded. “The Sectoid virus is a result of one of her side activities. I think we’d all agree that something practical came out of that line of research.”

Of course it was, and that was the problem. Because Vahlen didn’t stop once she reached a certain point; should something capture her interest, she would take it as far as she was allowed. His main fear of Vahlen continuing her chryssalid experiments, was that the next step was growing chryssalid soldiers to use against the aliens. As ludicrous as that idea was, Vahlen might be able to make it happen, and then would probably want to actually use them. There was no conceivable way that could end well.

Well, he had to hope if something like that ever did get brought up that everyone would do the sensible thing and kill that idea before it got any legs. In the meantime, the only thing he could really do is offer his perspective, as outnumbered as he was here.

Bradford had his hand up to his ear, clearly listening to someone on his headset. With a nod, he lowered it and turned to the Commander. “We have an incoming call from the Council.”

The Commander cocked his head at Bradford. “That was fast.”

“I don’t think they were expecting us to blow the port,” Bradford suggested with a shrug. “Should I have them patched through now?”

“Might as well,” the Commander answered, pursing his lips. “Best to get this over with.”

Ah, this was going to definitely be a productive meeting. In all seriousness, Herman was interested to see how things played out from the perspective of the Commander. Having spoken with councilors and the Speaker, he suspected that the Council would retain the secrecy it showed when dealing with the Commander.

The Commander stood in front of the screen, Bradford and Van Doorn flanking him while Herman sort of stood behind Van Doorn, feeling like in an unwelcome accessory. But the fact that the Commander was letting him listen in meant he was slowing gaining ground. Best to take the victories when you could.

The screen flashed and revealed a silhouetted bald man, shadowed in cold blue light. Well, it was a lot more dramatic than he’d expected. He’d thought that the Council would like to keep itself anonymous, but not the Speaker. And certainly not by using a painfully stereotypical poorly lit room. Even still, something about it did seem to just…work.

“Speaker,” the Commander greeted, inclining his head. “I presume the Council wants an update.”

“Correct, Commander,” the Speaker answered, his voice almost the same except for some synthesizing. It definitely added to the dramatic presentation. “The Council was not expecting the port to be…destroyed. They would like an…explanation, to put it lightly.”

“Of course,” the Commander nodded. “We deployed a squad to the port thanks to the information the Council provided. Unfortunately, the port was overrun with chryssalids, we believe the aliens had established a nest which was guarded by…let’s say a much larger chryssalid. We lost two soldiers and simply didn’t have the forces to take on potentially hundreds of aliens. The only responsible solution was to leave and raze the area to prevent an outbreak,” the Commander paused. “As I’m sure the Council agrees, a chryssalid outbreak would be nothing short of a disaster. Far more so than the destruction of a shipping port.”

Interesting. The Commander was being rather cordial, which in retrospect, wasn’t that surprising. The Commander was a professional, and likely wouldn’t get too emotional when dealing directly with the Council. Still, he could detect nothing really hostile in the Commander’s tone, although that last line was definitely loaded. But it didn’t seem directed at the Speaker himself.

“I see,” the Speaker nodded, as he clasped his hands together. “While you no doubt did what you believed was prudent…the Council would prefer that you refrain from such drastic measures in the future without consulting them first.” It was interesting that the Speaker didn’t sound entirely…pleased? With what he said. His tone was still as neutral of ever, but Herman got the distinct impression he wasn’t happy.

Neither was he, for that matter. Still, he wanted to hear the Commander respond before making a comment. “There wasn’t time,” the Commander explained calmly, his lips twitching. “Had I waited for your approval, the chryssalids could have dispersed and spread, rendering the strike useless. It was an unnecessary risk.”

But a majority of the Council does believe protocols should be followed,” the Speaker answered. “And they consider ordering airstrikes as something that permission should be required for, regardless of the circumstances. They would like to remind you that XCOM, and you, ultimately answer to them.”

“Of course, how could I forget?” The Commander answered, not even bothering to hide his sarcasm. “Speaker, had I not ordered the airstrike and an outbreak had occurred, the Council would no doubt also pin that failure on me as well. I would also like to remind the Council that they are not dictating the course of this war, I am. That is why you installed me, is it not?”

That was blunter than Herman would have put it, but he couldn’t really fault the Commander in this instance. Whatever councilors were behind this were acting like children just looking for a fight. “Speaker, I stand by the Commander’s decision in this case,” he said, stepping forward. “An airstrike was militarily the only responsible course of action. For anyone to say otherwise would mean they are ignoring the facts, knowingly or otherwise.”

“There is a consensus,” Van Doorn agreed. “I would advise the Council to consult their own military advisors for what they would have done in this situation.”

“The area was clear of civilians,” the Commander added. “The only casualties were alien.”

The Speaker was silent for a few moments. “The Council sees your…point…Commander. This will be…overlooked…this time. But the Council cannot guarantee the same should there be a repeat. There may be consequences in the future.”

“Duly noted,” the Commander answered coldly. “Though I am curious, just how many councilors feel this way?”

While he could understand the motivation, Herman doubted the Speaker would answer in a satisfactory way. “Ten countries,” the Speaker answered. “This issue spearheaded by the councilor of Canada.”

Herman blinked. That…was a lot more specific than he’d expected. While he knew the Speaker was supposed to be neutral and answer questions on both sides, he expected such questions that dealt with the Council directly to be avoided at best or refused at worst. Very interesting, and going off how none of them seemed surprised, he figured that the Speaker’s candor wasn’t unprecedented.

“Thank you, Speaker,” the Commander answered, some of the ice in his voice thawing. “Please convey to Councilor Meredith of Canada that I did not intend to damage a vital part of the Canadian economy. That being said, please also convey that I will not blindly follow the orders of a man who has never served in the military a day in his life. You may also convey that point to the rest of the Council.”

The Commander nodded at Bradford who ended the call.

Herman blinked, the last few seconds still processing through his mind. Oddly enough, the second most prominent thought in his mind was that the Commander also seemed to have a knack for the dramatic, since that ending couldn’t have been better timed.

The most prominent being that the Commander knew the name of a Councilor, and if he knew one…

“How did you know his name?” Herman demanded.

“Councilor Ali Ennor,” the Commander answered, deadpan. “We had a nice chat and he told me all the names of the countries that have been causing trouble.”

Herman scowled. “It was a serious question, Commander. I’d ask that you answer as such.”

“Fine,” the Commander turned directly to face him. “What you just saw was more or less what I’ve had to deal with ever since I’ve started. Instead of sitting back and taking it, I decided to find out exactly who I was dealing with. Thanks to some mutual friends, I know everyone on the Council, and will be updated of any changes should they panic and replace everyone.” His eyes bored humorlessly into Herman’s, the Commander’s tone growing much harder. “How I acquired these names is none of your concern, suffice to say that I broke none of your laws to see it accomplished.”

He hadn’t expected the Commander to give a detailed answer, but he wasn’t walking away from this without something. “Leave out names if you want,” Herman conceded. “But if you could learn the names, others could. This poses a security risk, not just to the Council, but to XCOM as well. Because if someone could get to the Council, they could also learn the identities of certain people within XCOM.”

The insinuation was clear, but surprisingly, the Commander gave a wry smile. “Have no fear, Representative. The method of acquisition will not be replicated by anyone else. You have my assurance on that.”

Herman pursed his lips. “Then I hope the Council feels the same way, since I am obligated to report this.”

“Go right ahead,” the Commander nodded. “Ennor will believe you at least.”

That seemed an odd endorsement, but he’d sort it out later. “I’ll leave you to your work,” he finally said. “But after I speak with the Council, we have some…other matters to discuss.”

“That we do,” the Commander agreed, turning to the holotable. “Give your report to the Council. We’ll speak after.”

With that, Herman turned away, wondering just how best to handle this situation.

***

“I wouldn’t have been quite as blunt,” Van Doorn stated once Herman had left. “Antagonizing him is not going to help, regardless of how justified it is.”

The Commander snorted. “That was not antagonizing, he asked and I answered. Just not to his satisfaction.”

“I agree,” Bradford nodded. “I doubt this will change his opinion overmuch. I’m more concerned about you revealing your knowledge of the councilors names. Was that really a wise move?”

“It’ll distract them,” the Commander explained as he picked up his tablet and began typing. “Aside from that, it’ll make them more wary about what we actually know. The ones against me will no doubt blame the other side who will push back against that. The immediate outcome is that the Council will be focused internally and not on us.”

“Unless Ennor decides to reveal your meeting,” Van Doorn pointed out.

“That would help us more than him,” the Commander answered noncommittally as he kept typing. “He has no proof, not to mention he’s made his opposition to me very public. “Revealing” our meeting would not only look fabricated, but desperate as well.”

Bradford rested his hands on the holotable. “Let’s hope things play out smoothly then. We also need to decide our plans for Russia soon too.”

“Vahlen, Shen and Zhang are on their way up now,” the Commander informed, setting the tablet down. “There are some things we need to discuss, Russia being among them.”

Van Doorn glancing over at him, raising an eyebrow. “Something else has come up?”

The Commander’s lips twitched. “You could say that, but I don’t want to explain it twice.”

“Should we be optimistic or worried?” Bradford asked consciously as he adjusted his headset.

“More optimistic,” the Commander suggested. “But being cautious in this case doesn’t hurt.”

“In the meantime, we should decide what we’re going to do with our EXALT friend,” Van Doorn said, clasping his hands behind his back. “I would prefer we use this opportunity to influence the Council and turn him over, since there’s little I believe we can learn from him.”

“Jackson’s still working on the computer,” Bradford added, picking up his own tablet. “Though as we suspected, it was wiped and she’s trying to salvage what she can.”

“So we probably won’t gain anything,” the Commander sighed. “Van Doorn, we still don’t know much about EXALT except that they’re powerful and widespread. Even something as simple as names can be useful.”

“Let’s hope he talks,” Van Doorn muttered. “It’ll get messy otherwise.”

“Zhang has Ruth working on him,” the Commander reminded him. “We’ll know how susceptible to pain he is when I go down there. Which I plan to do today.”

“Perhaps we can press him on the Solaris connection,” Bradford suggested, glancing at the Commander. “Although, we really don’t have anything to incentivize him to cooperate with us.”

“Which is a problem,” the Commander admitted. “This will be one of more challenging ones if he’s resistant to pain.”

“What do you plan to do if that’s the case?” Van Doorn asked.

“If we can’t get anything, I’ll give him to Vahlen as another test subject,” the Commander answered neutrally. “At the rate she’s going through them, it might actually be more beneficial that way.”

“Speaking of that, I would check up on her progress,” Bradford suggested slowly, his tone becoming concerned. “I spoke with one of the scientists. It seems Vahlen isn’t exactly being…how should I put this…considerate with the test subjects.”

The Commander gave him the most unimpressed look he could muster. “Really. And this should be concerning why? If I wanted them to be comfortable, I wouldn’t have put them with Vahlen, would I?”

“I’m saying that you should check up on her,” Bradford defended. “There is a line between uncomfortable and sadistic. And Vahlen might not recognize when that line is crossed.”

He debated contesting why he should care further, as he had a few thoughts on that particular subject. But it would really accomplish nothing except an unnecessary debate. He fully intended to go down and see Vahlen any, and if anything, he was more curious what she’d done in the weeks since he’d had her start.

The doors hissed open and Zhang and Shen walked through, and both quickly took their place opposite him at the holotable. “Anything new with our prisoner?” The Commander asked Zhang.

“Ruth and Abby are working him now,” Zhang answered emotionlessly as clasped his hands behind his back. “Initial testing seems to indicate that he’s trained in at least some interrogation resistance. However, how extensive it is has yet to be determined.”

That was good, wearing a subject down was possible, and once he spoke with the soldier in question, he’d know how best to extract the information. “Why do you have Abby working on him?” He asked, more out of curiosity.

“So we know how far he can be pushed, should it come to torture,” Zhang answered neutrally. “Aside from that, she will also prescribe drugs that might be effective to break down his mental barriers. I would suggest we use this opportunity to refine our interrogation methods, since all indications are that this is a fairly low-level operative.”

“Noted,” the Commander nodded. “Though I’d prefer we at least