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I get up. I must've only slept for an hour or so. Went horizontal with dawn light, still morning. Mini splat. Bed. Unknown ceiling, white. Hotel room. Why not base? Knock on door. Loud, insistent. "Coming"

"THIS IS THE POLICE! OPEN THE DOOR OR WE'LL SMASH IT DOWN!" Wait, what? Ugh. Wait. Gun under bed. SHIV packed. Meh.

The door breaks. Men in uniform storm in. One gets his shoe, hopefully not his foot, melted off by a plasma gun. Scream. Shouts. Flashbang in door. Helmet LCD comes on automatically. I raise my hands, guys, chill out. Rain sounds, plink, plink, plink. Oh, they've shot me sixteen times across the torso.


Uh? No, the alloy cannon is under the bed. Oh, guess I still have my sidearm strapped on the armor. I get shot a few more times. One guy gets ricocheted in the hand. I punch the wall. The wall now has a dent in it.

"WILL YOU IDIOTS STOP SHOOTING ME ALREADY? IT DIDN'T WORK THE FIRST THIRTY TIMES, IT WILL NOT WORK THE THIRTY FIRST." I'm wearing Titan-class power armor, it's made of alien alloys, unicorn farts and Teddy Roosevelt's prepuce. Handgun bullets are mostly acting as a tummy-scratcher.

Someone brought a heavy duty shield that three riot police are standing behind. I slowly take my sidearm and throw it behind me. When the weapon lands with a thud, I get shot five more times. "Okay, I put my gun down, can you do the same before someone gets seriously hurt? THANK YOU."


"Okay, I have to start resisting first." I step forward and punch the shield. The shield now has a dent in it. That was loud. "There, now I stopped. Now enough with the shooting before someone gets seriously hurt."

This seems to not really register - they keep shouting various commands at me. I'm severely tempted to turn around, get the alloy cannon, and muesli these people. Wait, they're people. Not human-lookalike aliens, not fanatics who have intentionally given up their humanity, people. They may even think they're the good guys. Bad XCOM agent. No muesli. Dammit, I'm hungry. Double dammit, I shot people yesterday. Arguably. What worries me is that it wasn't any harder than shooting aliens. Moving thing, two arms, two legs, pull trigger, thing has a hole in it, stops moving. It should've felt worse. Guys, please, don't tempt me. Please.

I sit down on the bed and settle my behind down a bit. Beep. That gets me shot three more times. "Okay, how about I play along if you STOP SHOUTING AND TRYING TO SHOOT ME! There are civilians past these walls and these walls are thin! What do you want?"

I'm shouted at that I am being detained. I ask if I am under arrest, and can I get my rights read, and I'm told that I am being detained again. I should invite these guys and the Councilman to dinner, maybe with one of those pull-my-string toys. My mind wanders to that scene in Real Genius with the classroom full of tape recorders. "Okay, look, let's compromise. I'll do what you want as long as you stop shooting me and stop asking me to take my armor off. You've dented all the seams anyway, it's going to take a machine shop to get me out of this thing." That's actually somewhat true.

And now there are five cops in the room. One's confiscating the SHIV and putting it in an evidence bag - good for him the poor thing is packed and in standby -- two, including the one with the wounded hand, are calling who knows who on the hotel room phone, one is handling my plasma pistol like it was radioactive (it is, but only a bit) and the last is questioning me, or trying to. First he tells me that I am accused of terrorism, multiple murder, arson, and apparently assault and battery on a police officer -- because one of these morons shot himself in the arm when the bullet bounced off, go figure -- then he asks me who I am, if I have ID, and so on. I oblige. Fair enough, I did help blow up the X-ALT base yesterday.

"Didn't you guys see all the mutated people inside? They were alien collaborators! Actually I think they were mostly out to steal technology from us AND the aliens, but..." "SILENCE!" "Dude, you asked."

Whoever they were calling must've been in the lobby, because a minute later, an older man in formal attire shows up. He's obviously wearing a toupee. "Are you from the Council?"

"You're in a lot of trouble" he says, and then proceeds to syllabate my full legal name, the one that doesn't fit on half my IDs because my grandparents had an argument and now I have more middle names than the King of Spain. "The accusations against you are serious, and of a kind that is not copacetic with the full ceremony of a due process. I am here to offer you a way out. Now, as you probably have surmised, the negotiations with the aliens have ended in failure." Wait, how does he even know that was a thing? Who is this guy? I just nod, for now. If negotiations have failed, it means we've won - the alien carrier is either in XCOM hands or dust.

One of the cops goes off to get his hand looked at. The others keep their guns aimed at me; at least they're smart enough to take turns, two on and two off. The fact that I am bulletproof to their handguns still hasn't registered, though.

The man turns on the hotel room television, which happily enough only ended up with one bullet in it. The audio is a series of hisses, but the video shows a meteor shower covering the southern hemisphere and people dancing in the streets everywhere like it's the fall of the Berlin Wall. I smile. "But no use crying over spilled milk. As you can imagine, it's important that things get back to normal as soon as possible. However, we are willing to overlook certain transgressions if you would make, here and now, the concluding statement of your tenure as Headmaster of XCOM. Don't worry about the squalid setting; we'll have a body double lipsynch your lines at the appropriate venue within the hour."

"What, you threw a parade for us and I'm not invited?"

"Best that this sort of media event be carefully planned, which we know to not be one of your strong points. Here's the text." He shows me an ipad. "Huh, you are from the council. Glad you guys finally noticed that the whole playback thing wasn't working out." "You could say that." I read the text. On this 14th anniversary of a great tragedy for the Western world, blah blah, more joyous occasion for the world to come together, blah blah, return to your life and trust the democratic process, blah blah, okay. Pretty bland so far. Hmm. "... rest assured that the surviving interlopers are being dealt with appropriately, and will greatly assist us to usher in a new era of technological progress?" Then there's an absolutely rambling bit about turning Toronto into an interplanetary city under joint NATO control and building a spaceport. "...Of course, we'll have to cut that part. We can do that in post-processing, just go with it." The speech ends with promising peace of mind and security to all.

I look at the guy. "I got a big hole in the brain, but you're pretty nuts, you know? You even look like a Max Headroom villain, never mind sound like one. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a kid of the eighties, but..."

"Just - read the script. And try to not sound so morose, we can't autotune that out."

"Or what?"

"Or we'll have more of these gentlemen, with the appropriate uniforms on, pay a visit to your friends and family - all over the world - by honest mistake, of course, except most of them aren't wearing alloy armor."

"Excuse me, did you just threaten my friends?"

"Unfortunately, this is the only way we could guarantee cooperation out of someone of your unique... mentality. Like I said, you seem poised to want to be at war with the world. I am here to offer you a way out from that."

"Guess you got me." I get up from the bed - nobody shoots at me this time - and start to read the prepared statement. The man pulls out a microphone to connect to the ipad, asks me to start over, tsks a few times when I add commentary to the most outrageous bits, then tells me curtly "we'll fix it in post". He looks at his watch - nice, mechanical. Guess he's in a hurry. I try to get into it, gesticulate a little. By the end of my declamation, I'm standing just outside of the window. "Thank you."

"Do I have your word that I'll never see you again?"

"You have my word as a trader that you won't see me again." That's peculiar wording. I offer him my hand to shake. He has a weak, but sincere shake. Not a shifty face, just a bit pale. Honest-looking eyes, purple.

I toss him the ipad with the microphone - bad aim, it almost hits the ground. There's a spark around it, and it levitates for a moment, then it lands softly.

"Then we got a deal. Now, would you like me to show you the way out?"

"Thanks, I think we're done here. Officers, hold this person until you see the speech on television, then you may-"

"I insist."

Still holding his hand. He didn't flinch at the unnaturalness of me holding his hand for twenty seconds, either. I lift the guy overhead -- I could do that without the power armor, frankly -- and send him through the window shoes first.


And now they shoot at me again. "Easy guys. You don't want me dropping him. Now, tell you what - you escort me out and keep the shooting to a minimum, and I take this guy to someone who'll prove that he's an alien invader in disguise."

"Stop! I can't die now!"

A woman comes in - if this guy was the stereotypical exec, she's the stereotypical personal assistant. She walks in in a hurry, and dismisses the supposed cops. The man smiles. "Miss Wong! Please, you must-"

The woman stands in front of me, makes a gun with her thumb and index, and pretends to shoot my hostage. He convulses and flops in my hands limply. "Sorry to deprive you of your barbaric yawp against the corporate oppressors, Headmaster. Oh, wait, you no longer hold the title, I suppose. And it's Doctor Wong, thank you very much."

She bends over and picks up the plasma pistol. Okay, that can actually hurt me... eventually. I drop the body. She keeps the plasma pistol trained at my groin. She looks at me intently, and twitches a little - I've seen psionic aliens do that; they can't quite understand how I'm walking and talking.

"Who are you? Let me guess, the boss of X-ALT? Another lich in human form? The Administrator from Team Fortress?"

"I am Doctor Wong. I am also the new Mistress of the Traders. I'll have to find a new boss figure, but upper class white caucasian males aren't in short supply after all."

"You're a lich."

"He was an Ethereal. I am fully human, I assure you." She smiles. "You know, it's too bad you forced a contingency plan upon us. You'd have liked the primary. The reptilian we spliced our infiltrators from would've been an interesting creature to meet, for example. And of course, the whole faster-than-light business. Oh well... it means you won't live to see Mars colonies after all. Unless you sign with our life insurance, of course. Alas, you deprived your species of centuries of progress..."


"Oh, I'm just teasing. What do most rich people want? To take it with them, of course. Our Soul Sphere, of which your friend has so thoughtfully destroyed the only backup before it went unstable, provides a fully integrated digital afterlife. Once we got our hands on that particular piece of technology and demonstrated it, ensuring cooperation was easy. The hard part was getting it out of the aliens, of course. Thanks for your help, in that sense."

"You're a lich! You possessed a human body!"

"Again? No, I'm as human as you. Except, you know, I still got all my neocortex - pay attention. You outfighted the alien warriors, and good job on that. Your friends outmagicked the alien priests, and good job on that. We outfoxed the alien traders, and while we couldn't have done it without you, we have done it. You've done a fantastic job winning the game, Headmaster, but someone had to make sure the aliens didn't walk off with the prize. The real negotiations started when you stormed the alien base. I used to represent a consortium of South American arms traders... you know which ones, surely? Eventually, the alien Traders figured out that you were doing a better job of handling their irreplaceable infrastructure than the Priests were. So, we came to an agreement, then to a series thereof. Of course, each of your victories strenghtened our negotiating position. The Traders were fascinated by us. In their travels, they had found plenty of life, little sentience, and very few truly spacefaring civilizations - it looks like the speed of light is still an insurmountable barrier for most; even getting this ship for this particular subculture was very much a fluke. They met hive minds, communistic societies, even a few simple free market economies - but no spacefaring race had, has, a better-developed financial system than we do."

Wasn't there a XKCD strip about this? I just nod.

"Much like the Warriors with you, and the Priests with your friend Kite at the end, they decided that it was fitting that a species who was doing such a good job at holding them at bay despite obvious technology imbalance, and closing said imbalance so quickly, embodied their founding principles so well. And so... we found it easy to come to a deal. We get a guaranteed afterlife, and psionic training. They get bodies, planets, and better technical personnel than the Sectoids. No Ascension nonsense, and only the minimum amount of war necessary to put the population through the optimal amount of stress. In a few centuries, we'll even have FTL again -- that was a setback, but like my putative boss said, we can forgive that transgression."

"You're a trader. Okay. What do you want from me? Why the exposition?"

"We still require your cooperation - well, really, just your noninterference. Don't worry overmuch about that silly speech, it's not as if anyone could tell your voice. The Ethereals are a bit... literal. To them, a vocal imprint carries a lot of information that the masses of Earth simply cannot access. Now, as to what I can offer you: A chance in Hell to see Kite again. She went down with the ship, you see."

I gulp. She would. So would I have.

"Now, when I mean Hell - that's both the carrot and the stick, you see. Kite was absorbed into the Soul Sphere, as part of the carrier ship's safety systems." The woman closes her eyes; they flutter. "The spheres are normally quantum mirrors of each other. She's in the one you have in your containment chamber, with our patrons. And - we have full control if it. Cooperate, and she will enjoy a long existence within our collective. You may even get her back when we rebuild our technology. Defect, and we will summon Hell around her. In your custody, in your responsibility, forever out of your reach. In fact..." A pause. "As of right now, she is literally at the gates of hell."


"Some trader you are. That's extortion."

"You were a better warrior, Kite was a better psion, I am a better trader. The aliens only had the advantage of having been around longer. So, what will it be? All you have to do is not do anyhing stupid. And page Shen to follow my instructions."

That's what she wants. The sphere is under our control - either Bradford is still in control of the XCOM base, or she thinks he is. One message from me and he'll shoot the thing into the sun if that's what it takes to destroy it. Of course, it would mean losing Kite, and centuries of technology.

The woman looks at me, plasma pistol still aimed at me. "Do hurry up. I've sped up Kite's clock - one minute of us talking is one month of suffering. Under my control. Oh, and additional security is on the way - with something other than peashooters."

"You put Kite in a time-accelerated psionic torture chamber? Linked to your own brain?"

She smiles mirthlessly. "Yes. Get this through your Swiss-cheese skull, "Headmaster." I am beginning to torture her as we speak. You cannot win; meet our terms, it is the best deal you can get."

Her eyes flutter; she's holding all the cards, and she knows it. She doesn't need situational awareness.






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Page last modified on April 24, 2016, at 09:24 AM