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Military forces in South Africa ask us if we have any engineering help to provide. After the obligatory District 9 joke, we hand over our "reaper" ammunition -- we have been using the stuff in our shotguns and some of our assault rifles, after realizing that the best offense against alien armor and tissues is close quarter combat: these rounds are basically assault-rifle chambered grapeshot, guaranteed to do nothing to anything farther than ten meters away and completely obliterate anything closer. The best part is that no exotic materials are needed to replicate these; it's just some old fashioned gunsmithing that Riley had Kip help with about a month ago after breaching all sort of protocols and sending him the early alien autopsy data. Heck, if it was up to me I'd put the design on Thingiverse. We can easily make more with the money they are willing to pay for the technology, so we ship off all our stock and a copy of the notes.

In just two days, we're told that South African soldiers and militia have taken down a number of Slendermen trying to plant bombs around Cape Town -- and we didn't have to lift a finger. No doubt this stuff will make its way into the hands of criminals, but... well, at this point just about anything is a lesser problem.

We duly add this to the textbook; me and Vee are given some time to recover, Vahlen says she is almost done with the basic beam weapon system -- and her mood has improved considerably, even though I have put a temporary veto on further genetic engineering work -- and we have to decide what to do with the two extra live danglies we ended up with, so that's another thing for the whiteboard to decide -- what do we do with them?

The relative peace is interrupted by a stream of German profanities each of which would take a paragraph to transcribe. While she was consulting with her colleagues at home about the beam weapons project, someone managed to perform a man-in-the-middle attack on the data link, and delete the whole archive! The last backup was a week ago. Damn it. Someone out there has a significant part of our work on laser rifles... and we don't!

Dr. Vahlen storms off to insult Bradford and Shen about shitty IT security; I am spared her wrath by an urgent summons from the Council.

"Headmaster, our intelligence sources indicate that a previously unknown organization is attempting to undermine XCOM field operations. We believe this group harbors some... misguided... sympathies for the invaders and is intent on acquiring alien technology and artifacts critical to your efforts. Early reports indicate this organization calls itself EXALT. We trust you will isolate the source of this new threat, and eliminate it."

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Human collaborators? Are you sure? Maybe it's just technology thieves! I mean, I doubt that we're that well kept a secret, and-" Dammit, I'm talking to an empty screen again. At least this time the Councilman's lips synched. Which reminds me -- is there anyone on base who can do lip reading? We got the analog camera to record this message, and in the previous one, I am damn sure something else was being said. I put the videos, sans audio, on the public media server and ask if anyone wants to try to dub it, or at least read the lips.

Is this related to the guy we failed to protect in France? But for what little he said, they were trying to scavenge tech off them, too. Weird. I doubt that the Council message is a coincidence, though; this has to be whoever got our laser data. According to Dr. Vahlen, they may or may not have copied more information -- the affected server also had older version of other projects that hadn't been wiped yet, but she is fairly sure that only the beam weapons project got stolen.

The data packet from the Council chides us for not making use of the Meld resource for augmentation -- excuse me? -- and provides preliminary intel about an EXALT cell, probably the ones who stole data from us. Huh, they're in northern Ontario. Is Riley involved? Not in the sense that he's working with them, of course, he wouldn't do that, but did they get to him? Okay, calm down. It's just a coincidence.

The Canadian government isn't going to let us conduct an operation against people, even if they are collaborationists; someone'll have to go there and snoop around. I wish I could have Riley and Stephen take a look, after all they are from there, and well -- this is cloak and dagger stuff, I want someone I can trust.

We've been putting out fires all over the world, but people are still freaking out -- most governments having imposed curfews and set up a media blackout on our work hasn't helped, either. If it was for me, well, damn it, I've always been a leftie but this is a great time to make like the Swiss and give a machine gun to every household.

Vahlen is hard at work restoring her progress -- after the initial outburst, she seems a lot more relaxed, even more so than earlier. Her staff seem mildly terrified, however; I suspect she shouted up a storm at them. Did she put on a bit of weight? Oh, wait, she's wearing some prototype under-armor, I think.

"I have difficulty understanding how such an advanced species could show so little empathy for the lives of other sentient beings... It goes against everything we have ever imagined. The technology is there, but with it comes a callousness we would never have expected. What could have brought them to this..." Heh, this from the person who specifically designed a taser to knock me out. Dr. Vahlen is mellowing out, in her own way. Wonder why.

Nothing to it; we have to send a covert operative to at least take a look at what the EXALT cell is doing. Brigitte Lefevre is from Canada and comes from a law enforcement background, so she'll go -- a quick check with Bradford confirms that we have no capability to set up fake IDs and we're not allowed to develop same. I wait until Dr. Shen wanders by, and have the same conversation with Bradford again, only a little louder. He expresses a bit of bewilderment, but scribbles "I'm not stupid" on a clip pad.

Brigitte leaves on the flying boat after a brief conversation -- she thinks that if the covert operation goes well enough, it's best if she return in her home country, given that she picked up enough from us and she'll be needed for counterintelligence. I have to agree.

Part of me worries that Riley or Stephen got involved with this shadow organization -- the last thing we need during an alien invasion is a batch of crazy people doing cloak-and dagger stuff to... Oh, wait, that's us. That being the case, screw them, we were here first!

The rest of me worries about having to fight EXALT in the field. Most of our troopers are here because they flunked out of military schools, basic training, or academies in interesting ways; quite a few did so because they found they couldn't shoot another human being. I'm quite honestly one of them; I've pummeled someone into a hospital bed a few times in my life, but still have the occasional nightmare about the one time I hurt someone permanently. What statistics got done show that our average reaction time with Slendermen is just that little bit worse than with the other alien types, just because they pass for human at a quick glance.

There isn't much to do for a few days other than watch the skies and listen in from any comms from Canada.

"...No, don't patch that through. We're here to track alien activity, not investigate haunted houses." Bradford slams the old-timey phone that his mission control post came with. It's reassuring to know that we're doing enough of a good job that there's still room for entertainment news -- apparently Ghostbusters 3 is back in production (which has caused some conspiracy theories), although any Independence Day sequel plans went out of the window. After a bit of putzing around with our internet feed, we're getting Fox News; after a bit of putzing around with a standard sidearm, a face recognition system, and some ballistic glass, we've set up a way to allow that as one of the target practice range options.

The best thing I can do for everyone is put a bit of time on restoring the data on beam weapons; Dr. Vahlen resents the interference until I show up in a technician's uniform and say that I'm just there to look at the hard drives. With luck we'll be able to put together an actual laser gun within the week.

It's interesting how the world at large so far has refused to shift into total war gear... most governments have emphasized business as usual, after the first wave of security measures. Basically, winter 2001 all over again, except globally and not just in the US. Maybe it's a good thing; I can't tell. The office pool, so to speak, is split as to whether it's because we're doing a good job or because the governments have already been infiltrated and we're a token gesture.

Jonny says he's working on something -- while we have the technical capability to get past the censors if we put some work into it, it looks like the sort of thing we'd be able to do exactly once before we're all fired. As it is, I honestly like having a deejay on staff. At some point someone used our considerable downlink capability to download a few terabytes of music, but having someone play Radar O' Reilly on base, rather than a genetic algorithm, isn't bad.

Building more dangly-derived maneuvering boosters for our interceptors takes up a significant fraction of our resources, and causes more Kerbal jokes. The mechanical engineers on that project have started talking about a new fighter craft, which I think is a little farfetched. Even so, I have to invite the Grey Market folks again. They show up the next day -- odd, since this group seems to be from South America, but I suppose that they have the money to get a trans-pacific flight on no notice. They are extremely interested in the alien surgery and stasis tank things we've found -- I make very sure they are steered far away from the Meld; the equipment they go home with is largely inert, but I can't help worrying about what they'll do with it. At the same time, well... that's for later to worry about. This pays for the maneuvering thrusters, which is what I am most concerned about; we're doing well with close combat fighting, but our air capability is terrible.

"Some of this technology is incredible, I don't know what we're going to do with this stuff once the aliens are gone" Bradford comments. At least he's optimistic. I'm worried about what South American businessmen with painfully obvious fake names are going to do with it now.

Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. We work on doctrine some more. We practice some more. We knock on the sky, and listen to the sound. And we set up a hotline with the Canadian government so that we can coordinate about EXALT. One time I take the phone and coldly tell whoever our liaison is that if they try to use the invasion or EXALT as a way to postpone the elections, we're going to treat it as evidence of alien mind control. I think it'd have sounded a lot more badass if Riley'd said it. The bridge bunny in charge of this station gives me the silent look of disapproval Bradford's folks have decided to take with me when I do something that doesn't fit the mold; he started being okay with me being in charge when we encountered those nightmarish zombie-making bugs, or at least, he started acting like it...

For now, there are lasers to build. The guns work, we just haven't figured out how to make them not overheat; Vee's suggestion about giving people metal hands is... well, a last resort. The mecha drawings she's been commissioned by Dr. Shen to do are getting more and more detailed, although I think the scale is wrong.

All the messing around with cryonics in the Foundry has resulted in two things -- a lot of excellent ice cream (Although liquid helium doesn't improve the flavor of flash icecream over liquid nitrogen, making meringue with it does make the eater sound funny) and a way to reliably replicate alien grenades. This is the first alien technology we have mastered one hundred percent; before anyone can talk me into doing otherwise, we disseminate the schematics to Council nations over the least secure channel we have. The things aren't hard to make, even -- if anything the explosive is less sophisticated than some of the military stuff we have access to, it's just being packed cleverly after cryotreatment.

Dr. Vahlen says that the aliens so far have demonstrated very focused mastery of wildly different technologies; the nav computers are something that might've come from our industry in fifty years, the yarnalls operate like they were designed by a society that skipped electronics but perfected micromechanics enough to not need it, and the grenades while using cryotreatment are vaguely medieval in their arrangement, like something the Roxolani would invent after having access to space. Maybe these aliens are scavengers after all.

It's yet another all-nighter when they figure it out -- we have a prototype for a genuine, bona fide, field ready laser gun. I say "they" because the work passed my horizon of complexity fairly early on, although I take some solace in having helped with a few ancillaries. Dr. Vahlen is burned out enough that she's decided that interrogating the ork will take extra time, and we leave her to it -- as a "break", she's going to do something with yarnall-derived technology that Kite recommended I not ask about until it's done. We guess she wants to study the micromechanical circuitry; the rest of her team will focus on the alien nav computer, to see if there are parallels or the aliens are indeed suffering from a bad case of schizo tech. Now this project I know I can help with, navigation systems are my specialty after all. The Foundry folks summarily kick everyone out and rename the workshop area "PEW PEW CENTRAL" for a day, at the end of which they emerge with shiny new laser rifles and pistols... pistol, singular, which is handed to Kite. We still are having thermal issues, and cannot reliably make sustained-fire or long-range weapons, so our heavy troopers and snipers will have to keep working with what we've been issued.

We have frickin' laser guns. Sure, we're broke again, and we've had little luck with developing better armor, and alien cults are running rampant in India and there are rumors of an EXALT base under Ayers' Rock, but we have frickin' laser guns and alien grenades. Morale is pretty high, high enough that we've had to start a Skippy's list of things that operatives are no longer allowed to do after someone had the bright idea to test the first batch of alien grenades by going fishing.

Just when my final checkup is done -- I'm cleared for combat duty again, and Dr. Vahlen is totally wearing something yarnall-derived under her coat; is she working on adaptive armor? -- Bradford calls on the PA that we've got word from Canada. I stop worrying about what Vahlen is doing wearing yarnall pieces and make my way to mission control.

"... and I don't want to hear anything else about forming an ace patrol, we don't have time for alien dogfights!" Wait, what? After that aside, we're informed that Brigitte has indeed infiltrated an EXALT cell and gotten out. However, they found the data tap she's set up, and are now chasing her out -- we will have to cover her until the transmitter provided by the Canadian government has finished sending out the data. What is this, the 1980s? I guess that it was the best IT could do on no notice.

Time to go. Laser guns. Alien grenades. New toys. Fighting for all humanity.

I can't do it. Sorry, guys. I can't shoot at people. The Skyranger is hot to leave, and I accidentally on purpose trip on the ramp and sprain my ankle -- by the time I realize I sprained my ankle for real, the VTOL has already left, one soldier short.

I'm a coward. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


Kite watches Kay stumble, and says nothing, though she's smiling as the Skyranger takes off... yes. There are some kinds of innocence best preserved, even in war. Once 'safely' in flight she looks over the squad and shrugs. "So, how many of you are murderers?"

Webb splutters, half a second earlier and it would've been a spittake. "What the hell are you talking about, Ma'am?"

Kite chuckles, since Webb asked the question, he gets the stare, "It was a simple question. Have you or have you not ever deliberately ended the life of another human being?"

"Well, er, no..."

"Could you?"

"I... I don't know."

"Then you'd better work out quick how to convince yourself you're not about to be shooting at humans, because I assure you, if you are not shooting to kill, there will be trouble."

"Then how are you calm about this, Ma'am?"

"To me the aliens don't need to die because they're aliens, but because they're the Enemy. Whoever EXALT is, they're human, but they're still the Enemy. Try looking at it that way. Or whatever way it works for you. But just make sure you hit the ground ready to kill." (As written by Kite Winters)

(OOC NOTE: Kay was still in sickbay with 0 days remaining when the covert extraction mission showed up; I could've waited a little, or not. Decided not to, especially since extraction missions are supposed to be urgent.)

Kite is going to take Kelly, Petrov and Webb in; the plan is to get Brigitte out of there as soon as possible, with the actual data recovery being treated as an optional. It's said that battle plans last until the first shot is fired; in this case, we don't even get that luxury. The Skyranger lands near a restaurant... there's already been some sort of firefight; we knew that, as the RCMP has set up a perimeter and started rounding up EXALT members, but we didn't expect what was waiting for the squad at the landing site.

At the landing site, a large tracked robot with a large-caliber rifle meets the team. Thankfully, before someone reacts and blows it to bits, it projects the X-COM insignia onto a building wall, but placed over a blue and white field, instead of black. "ATTENTION X-COM TEAM. Hey, remember me? Yeah." The voice is familiar - it's Riley! "Look. I'm sorry I bounced out on you guys - but I realized something. All of these shadow governments aren't going to be what kick some alien ass, it's us. You guys with your boots on the ground, and you guys in your labs. So I'm going to do the same thing you're doing: figure out how to fight aliens. I'm not a fucking space marine, I'm a bad shot and a coward. What I CAN do, is build this shit. Enjoy your new sniper drone - and I apologize for stealing the rifles. I'm not going to disclose much about my operation, but let's just say I waved the flag and got a few friends to help out."

The drone then pops open a panel on its side, with a touchscreen, stating ENTER X-COM COMMUNICATIONS INFORMATION.

"Just punch in the current comm codes and you can direct it with NAVCOM commands. Kay should know how to drive. Targetting's @QA or @QR for absolute or relative positions. Give 'em hell."

Bradford insists that we take this thing home for analysis, and Dr. Shen agrees. As it is, we're a man short; the protocol me and Riley used is obscure enough that it's unlikely EXALT will be able to mess with it this time around, especially given that the RCMP are corraling them.

We compromise on parking the robot on a corner and setting it to pick off anyone that tries to get on the restaurant's top floor. The front business was hiding a Tor exit node used by EXALT; Brigitte has set up a Toughbook copying their hard drives in and running a network tap. She says that she'll give a full report to everyone later, but in the meantime, it's apparent that EXALT have been up to interesting things. She seems vaguely contemptuous, though. "They're really pushing the secret society angle, but as criminals... well, they're just not that good, that I can tell."

We will soon see what she means. She meets with the team in the kitchens, then calls for everyone to get upstairs and protect the laptop. Brigitte is surprised to see the squad show up with laser weapons and a robot, but decides to hang onto her sidearm for this one. THOR will stay between the Skyranger and the building, and position in a corner, then snipe anything that comes in from ground level; given that the RCMP has intervened -- Brigitte claims that she had no say in the matter -- it'll just be a matter of holding the line until they get here. That sounds both sensible and callous to me; maybe in ducking out of this mission I did the right thing for the wrong reason.


"It looks like EXALT is working quickly to integrate alien genetic material into their troops; until we know the extent of their capabilities, I advise extreme caution." The first images we get are from THOR's feed; our enemies are definitely humans, and rather snappy dressers, but we can see something unnatural behind their foulards. Overall the impression I get is that of the love children that Dilbert and a Slenderman might have. One of them shoots a salvo at THOR, denting it; the others get behind the building. Brigitte climbs a drainpipe up the restaurant's upper floor, and calls for everyone to hurry -- the team will have to race EXALT to the laptop. How'd they get there with heavy weapons, but without making noise?

Unable to climb up, THOR enters sentry mode, and after some hesitation drops one of the attackers. Our first human kill in this war, made by a machine. Drone killings aren't a new thing by now, just... I'm still uneasy.

Everyone else hurries to the roof; Brigitte gets a shot in at the one of the runners -- he takes it in the gut and barely flinches, then shoots back, to no results. He's reached the laptop! I quickly think about all the last-minute things that can go wrong with the laser rifles.... until Webb runs forward and thrusts the laser rifle in the enemy agent's masked face. The capacitors whine and discharge, and the man's head gets severed and the wound cauterized in one movement. Okay, the laser guns work, as melee weapons, anyway. Webb dives behind a table.

Kelly and Petrov follow, with Brigitte rushing forward as if looking for something -- the movement gives Kite time to find a good firing position behind a column; the plan is to simply hold the line from here. On the ground, THOR tries to target the third EXALT agent, and scores a hit as the agent starts his climb to the patio -- climb that turns fatal as the rest of the squad slices him with coherent light. So far we're doing good; the lasers work well.

"Find a good position and hold it!" Brigitte calls. "I have to look for something." We roll THOR over to a corner and have it resume overwatch; the Canadian policewoman jumps off the roof after locating a way back up. "What are you doing??" Kite asks.

"I need to find the wifi router!"

"For what?"

"We're in a good spot tactically, I have to see if something I heard is true! Cover me!"

Her dash inside the restaurant draws some fire; thank goodness for underarmor. One EXALT operative gets out to chase her, and is shot by Kite. We see the bullet hole in whatever 1960s era flak jacket their operatives seem to be using, but the blood seeps rather than spurts. These people are in shirtsleeves, and they seem to have better armor than we do! Either there is some genetic manipulation at play, or our standard armor sucks that bad; both options are clearly troubling.

"Found it!" Brigitte quickly does something to the router. "NOW! Rush them! Their weapons have DRM, and I just tripped it!"

"What? That's nuts! Belay that, hold positions and open fire!" Kite responds. "Maybe they tricked you, we have to make sure!" Petrov calls out. Brigitte seems to the point, and hides behind a shelf -- but not before taking out the operative Kite hit earlier.

"Kelly! Behind you!" Whatever Brigitte did, it must be something; the enemies seem confused, and we can see them putzing with their guns rather than paying attention. This allows Kelly to turn around and burn a hole in an operative's neck while THOR takes out one of their snipers. This is being strangely easy so far... I say nothing, not wanting to jinx it.

Kite and Petrov see no targets, and wait patiently -- the one EXALT operative in our field of view does indeed seem to be having to reload his gun, and pops into view while doing so. "DRM confirmed!" Brigitte calls. "Kite, he's all yours!" She executes a perfect headshot. "I think I can do that again, keep me covered!" Brigitte calls.

Kelly, Webb and Petrov circle the wagons -- or the restaurant tables as the case may be -- around the laptop, with Kite behind them to provide cover and THOR on the ground to keep watch over Brigitte. I am worried that it'll shoot at her, given that she's in civvies as much as the EXALT operatives seem to be.

"Watch out! Here they come!" Bradford tells the squad that the last of the EXALT cell is rushing towards them -- some sort of suicide charge maybe. Two have got rocket launchers! "Hunker down, let them come!" Kite calls. Two climb up from behind, the first being dropped in a veritable light show. "Let's see if the DRM trick works again." Brigitte plugs the spare laptop into the router and executes a command to reset it again. "Free shots! Go for it!"

This time Kite assents; Petrov peeks out of a corner to take out the operatives with the heavy weapons, killing one and wounding another -- the "Fwhop" of the ersatz alien grenade matches what we've heard and seen, so that's another experimental weapon that works -- while Kelly runs forward and finishes the wounded heavy. Kite cleanly dispatches another operative as he tries to get to Brigitte, possibly to engage in melee. How many left? Webb reports one -- her laser's capacitors are discharged, but emboldened by the DRM discovery she calmly reloads in full view of the EXALT operative rather than hunkering down.

The gambit pays off -- there's a third rocket-toting EXALT member, but all he can do is stare upwards powerlessly as his weapon refuses to fire. "We'll have to go get him before he blows the patio up!" Kite calls. She's too far, but Petrov and Kelly can reach.

Kelly moves to do so, but spots three more stragglers before climbing down. "Fuck!" She slides behind a table, hoping they didn't see her. Petrov takes a shot at the enemy heavy from where he is, hitting him but not taking him down. The lasers do cauterize wounds as they make them; the organ damage will finish the job in tens of minutes, but tens of minutes can be an eternity in a firefight. However, not having to lead the target is making a lot of difference in accuracy.

We hear them move. Brigitte is trying to trip the router again, and hunkers down behind the structural column holding it. "Fuck! They turned DRM off! I'm getting back upstairs!"

"Aaaah!" Webb is taken by surprise by an EXALT operative who managed to climb up a pipe right next to her and the laptop, unseen and unheard despite the previous wounds. "Oh god! Oh my god! Get off me!" Her panicked reaction works in her favor -- did she just pistol-whip to death a man one and a half her size?

The surviving rocket launcher man is aiming at the roof when Kelly burns a clean hole in his forehead. These laser guns are worth their weight in gold.

"Find a safe spot while I cover you." Kite drops another operative -- there can't be many left, we can hear dog barks and shouts from the RCMP. I watch Kite frown at the former.

The rest of the squad does so. We wait. According to Bradford, there's only one left. Maybe we can catch him alive?

Looks like the bastard went off to get a sniper rifle off a fallen comrade. Kite takes him down moments before the K9 units show up, and the squad beat a hasty retreat, largely to make sure there's no friendly fire.

THOR is rolled up to the Skyranger -- Kite and dogs aside, the team is in high spirits; the mission went perfectly, without any of ours getting so much of a scratch. Webb is going to be training with Vee and me, and Kite has caught up to Vee in terms of overall kills -- given her levelheadedness on this last sortie, Bradford suggests that she be the official counterinsurgency instructor from now on. That's the closest thing we have to a promotion, so I'm all for that. The Council has authorized us to assign medals, but since they are not recognized by any military -- which is why I did away with military ranks, they would only generate confusion -- it'd mostly be souvenirs for those who graduate. I've proposed that trainees vote for their favorite instructor for this or that specialty instead.

Brigitte feels that she has learned all she can from us, and wants to return to Canada after debriefing, to join the RCMP unit that did the mop-up opposite us. I don't think it's a good idea, but it is within her rights.

Overall, I am glad I didn't go. I'd have been a liability. Now me and Dr. Shen -- given the source, I am taking the lead on this one -- have a gift horse to look in the mouth of.

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