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Mission17

GEOSCAPE

I quickly go over Dr. Shen's papers. "You know, if it was me showing this to you, you'd call it wildly unrealistic."

He nods wisely. "Headmaster, we're in a hollow island off the coast of Japan, fighting alien monsters. Giant robots and magical girls had to come into the picture eventually."

Wait, magical girls?

The second half of the file is replete with Dr. Vahlen's notes about another potential use for Meld, from her early work to what little we could gleam from X-ALT operatives before their bodies were whisked away. Oh.

After reconciling memetics with physics, and noting that Kite was the first to volunteer for genetic enhancement, I have to concede.

"Given that we are the world's worst kept secret by now... I guess you have a point, Doctor. This sort of thing would work to keep people's hopes up, especially with the cretinous way that most governments are reaction -- Russia is threatening to pull out of the project given that we went to Mumbai instead of Novosibisrk, and... Honestly my fear is, we either end up under the aliens' boots, or under our own. We're trying to beg the Russians to not suspend their constitution and declare martial law."

Dr. Shen lets me talk as I work through the point he was making, then he answers in a surprising imitation of a Brooklyn accent. Where is this guy from, anyway? "There've got to be a few sparks of sweet humanity left in this burned-out globe. We just have to mobilize it. We need something that everyone can get behind. Symbols."

I recognize the quote. "If that's what Vee wants to do, go for it. But we're not wiring up the Statue of Liberty." I sign both Shen and Vahlen's requests, and try to tell myself I did not just hear a thunderclap.


Kip was still getting used to life at X-Com's island base.

The 'onboarding' lecture for new recruits, “plebes” or “rookies” in current military jargon, was short and simple, consisting of bunk assignments, a list of Training Class times and a “Yes Aliens are Out to Get You” Instructional Video, which looked to done on someones cell phone. After watching said, he counted as a blessing. Seeing some of those victims was not something he'd like to repeat in High Def.

He also received a map of the base with the various levels and areas listed. Most of the labs had “Do not enter on of pain of Chemical/Biological/Nuclear/Meld Exposure” warnings on them, with those sicky face stickers parents like to put on their house hold cleaners to keep kids from drinking the Windex.

His first day on base, sitting in the mess shall filling out the some of the more unusual government paper work forms for being enlisted with x-com. While trying to figure out what “Reverse Organ Donation, Mechanical Implantation, and DNA Reconstitution: Consent Form” really meant, he witnessed a fellow pleb come screaming out of one of the men's lavatory heading for the med center, curiously holding his fly. As Kip scratched the back of his head in confusion, several of the veteran staff chuckled to themselves and passed around winning bets. He heard one of the cooks say:

“That's never gonna get old.”

He made a mental note to carry his side arm to the washroom from now on.

...

His Second day on base was spent getting checked out on standard equipment at the firing range/armoury/weapons test lab. As he walked over, Kip peeked in at a few racks of conventional weapons, there was a post-it note under the stock issued assault rifle:

“FOR WHEN YOU CAN'T HIT THE BROAD SIDE OF A BARN”

Further down the display was another he inspected another case, filled with glossy new laser weapons, and discovered yet another note:

“FOR WHEN YOU CAN HIT THE BROAD SIDE OF A BARN”

With a Smirk he turned to another case, filled with grenades, LMG's and a huge Rocket Launcher. He quickly spotted the note for this case, which read simply:

“WHAT BARN?” and a nice little doodle of a smoking crater.

...

The hours of day 4 had been filled with Augmented Reality training, and the instructor wasn't kidding about not pulling any punches. Most of them ended with him getting strangled by tendrils, cooked to a cinder by plasma fire or gnawed on by some critter out of Lovecraft's nightmares.

He'd Almost gotten some praise during that last AR run, when one of his shots had set off a car's fuel tank, blowing a trio of Slendermen to bits, until the replay showed that he'd been firing blindly into the fallout after one of his smoke grenade that had fallen short. The instructor asked what the had been thinking Kip, putting on his best space cowboy accent remarked “They don't like it when you shoot at 'em. I worked that out myself.”

.....After the instructor had decked him, and him muttering about “no respect for the browncoats” while confirming his nose was bloody, but not broken (again), Kip went on to explain:

“I was listening for the sounds of fire, conventional weapons have the 'bang' of powder, the laser weapons we've gotten our hands on make the hiss-crack of thermal shock and the 'alien' plasma weapons have the roar of burning atmosphere.”

“The AR's directional audio tech is decent, and after spending most of the morning getting my Ass Virtually shot off by just about all of it”

“Old tactics for differentiation of friend from foe in poor visibility when SOP has the bad guys using distinct weapons or full auto. You pick single shot or burst fire and shoot anything you that doesn't sound like you. Worked out well for indirect fire in WW2, and jungle fighting in back then as well as Korea and 'Nam. History books show a lot of friendly fire problems after troops had to use captured weaponry though. It's one of the reasons that the American's kept getting yelled at for trading their M-16's for captured AK-47s at the time, despite that latter’s more rugg-”

The instructor was tapping a foot with impatience and Kip decided to skip to the end.

“It's a decent tactic until such time as we steal enough of their Plasma stuff to use in the squads, or start building our own. As for the 'Kaboom', Blame you Sim's Random Number Generator. I'd decided to hose down the nearest source of plasma fire I could pick out by ear, so it was just a lucky shot”

The argument saved him from a further knock down, drag out beating, for the time being at least.

But the next AR mission saw him get blasted off his feet and into a crate full of half charged Arc Throwers as part of a base infiltration sim, so he wasn't sure if someone wasn't getting a little bit even, or his luck was just back to normal.

...

As he lay in his bunk that night drafting out a request for different armour specs (If these “aliens” are using Directed Energy Weapons instead of Kinetic Penetrators, then we should be worried more about heat convection and dissipation rather then standard milspec impact spreading kevlar and trauma plates) Kip stopped to ponder the last few days.

Aliens are invading the earth, the folks in charge of defence have this whole place held together with duct tape and a prayer, and X-com's recruits were next up on the firing line to defend the whole planet with noting but a ray gun and a smile.

He thinks on that for a moment, then turns out the light for the evening.

“These folks are my kind of crazy”

“Note to Self: Throw out my red t-shirts in the morning”

(As written by Kip Hawley)


"They want us to be desperate, to try something crazy with something we only half understand. Is what I think," Vee prodded the mechanical remains of a dangly. "I think that's what happened with these guys. But still, it can work, as they've shown. We just need to be a bit more cautious." (As written by Vee)

(Add more here)


Dr. Shen allowed me to help with the mech-trooper project. There are decisions to make, statistics to look at -- we are in danger of losing Russia from the Council, and the Australians aren't that far behind; a mixture of popular panic and government wanting to look like it's taking bold action are fueling a desire to deal with the matter alone -- and Bradford to keep an eye on. He's been extremely meek in the past week or so, after the terror attack; I expect that any trouble from that end will happen at the Council report, in just a few days. This time, we forgo vampire taps and set up a redundant camera system. Bradford objects.

"Are they recording us?"

"Pretty much constantly, personnel evaluation is part of the project. There are many things that can off-site experts can learn from a dispassionate analysis of on-site personnel."

"Then we're recording them. That's just fair. Anyone who doesn't understand that is encouraged to ask any third grader for a full explanation."

"Headmaster, you're acting like a third grader. This project exists under the authority of the Council."

"So I am. A responsible adult would've had an accident happen to you already. Bradford, on the grander scale, I don't give a frack if everyone in here me included dies horribly, as long as it helps safe humanity. But on the smaller scale I want to figure out what's going on. Why we can requisition literally all the shitty guns we want but no artillery or even a second troop transport, for example. Why we get to operate with almost no oversight, which I appreciate, but practically pushed to become alien-tech-runners for some shady Chileans. Stuff like that."

"It would make sense that the Council wants dirt on you in case you get too ambitious, frankly. That's the case for just about everyone who works here, Headmaster -- they got all the misfits in one platoon, so to speak. Which was the entire idea." He has a point. I wonder what they have on Bradford. Someone that clean-cut has to have hangups somewhere. I bet he faps to furry porn and thinks that in 2015 it's still something to be embarassed about.

"So I want to see if any dirt on them is gettable. The marginal cost is zero, so let's do it."

"I assume you don't trust me with it. I'll tell Dr. Shen's guys to-"

"Central Officer Bradford, you had me defenestrated and arguably left out to die. I'm trusting you with this specifically because of that. I'd rather deal with a devious bastard whose face I know. So after the Council report we're going to sit down with you, Kite and everyone else and review the video. And then I hope we can bury the hatchet. How does that sound?"

"Uh, thanks, Headmaster."

The next thing on the agenda is visiting the science labs. Dr. Vahlen is very impatient to try Meld; the possibilities she glimpsed at looking at X-ALT agent corpses, she tells me, are endless.

"Now, what you must understand, is that we are not quite talking about the sort of genetic modification zat we have been working on before the invasion..."

Dr. Vahlen explains to me, with some asides necessary to get me to grok the longer words, that Meld allows taking stem cells from aliens and growing some of their organs or tissues in a host body without triggering rejection. The important thing is that, as far as she can tell, the Meld infusion will have to be recurring; I ask "Like in Bioshock?" and am surprised to learn that Vahlen has played the game. She suspects that it's one more way in which X-ALT agents are kept on a leash. Fortunately, her effort have made it so that the Mech Trooper program will not suffer from this limitation -- the Meld particles bond with the cybernetics to prevent rejection, but since the cybernetic implants do not grow, this will only have to happen more than once in case of upgrades or heavy damage.

"I'll approve you continuing work on the Meld if you tell me what you and Kite have been doing with the yarnall tentacles, deal? Dr. Shen only wants enough of the stuff for one suit, so you get the rest, basically."

"I heard that you had found a volunteer for the Mechanized Exoskeleton Cybersuit. How did you manage that?"

"Manage? Vee all but talked Shen into designing the damn thing around her in the first place!"

Vahlen gives me a sweet smile that unnerves me worse than my worst fears about the tentacles. "Oh, I see. You will be pleased to know that the requisite amputations have been scheduled for later today."

"... Not really. But I think Vee is. About the yarnalls, er... Just send me an email, okay?"

Dr. Vahlen seemed very interested in this last tidbit of information. I get the impression people on base are having some fun behind my back... I don't mind, but I do wish they'd tell me; I'd love something to mess with Bradford with.


(OOC NOTE: Vee, your move here! Like we discussed, I am scheduling the MEC treatment)

"We'll consult with Dr. Vahlen for the requisite amputations, and begin installing the cybersuit interfaces as soon as possible."


I can't believe that Dr. Shen was talked around to supporting this project so quickly; he was extremely reluctant to mess with Meld in the first place. He says that having a volunteer makes all the difference; I have to agree. Now we have three days to build a giant robot... I realize that my responsibility is to see the big picture, but how on Earth can I possibly think about anything else? Bradford effectively gets free reign for a while.

From an operations standpoint, it means that Vee will be available -- assuming the VR rehab takes -- before the next council report rather than after. That's good news; the Russian government is posturing about handling the alien invasion by themselves and withdrawing from the project. I leave orders with Bradford to be as sweet-sounding as possible and promise increased satellite coverage to the Russian and Australian government before anyone else. He answers that the Council is pressuring for better coverage of South America as well; we currently don't even have interceptors there, and while panic in those countries remain low -- no attempt was made to disarm the populace, since it would be unenforceable anyway, and this probably looks like the Nth instance of turmoil in Chile and Argentina rather than a word-shattering event -- although there is no log of this. I have to wonder if the arms dealers we had to work with at the beginning of the month are exercising pressure on Bradford or the Council.

Well, we have four satellites ready, and the team working on reverse engineering the alien NAVCOM has reported some success; we still have no idea why alien technology is so all over the place, but we've been at least able to figure out some of their communication protocol. This will hopefully help with figuring out the crystal drone, in turn; for now, it means we can hook up one of their NAVCOMs to a satellite relay and have the satellites do attitude correction early or late when we think they're being looked at -- this means more satellites in orbit. We break ground on the new satellite nexus as soom as we can, meaning we'll have to build a power plant first.

I spend the next two days helping Vee's cybersuit ready; the Meld stuff is way beyond my horizon of complexity, but battlebots I can do. I'm told that she is recuperating well, and using VR stuff to learn how to operate the big suit; we've got a set of normal-sized artificial limbs ready if she needs them, but they look very bare bones. Some of the students take it on themselves to decorate them, which results in a bit of damage to one of the legs and some very nice hand-engraving. In the meantime, Bradford lets the South Americans on base again -- by the time I find out, it's too late, and have to live with it. He assures me that he only sold them stuff that was damaged beyond repair; they seemed extremely interested in the stasis tanks and surgery gear. Dr. Vahlen says that we have no use for the stuff, and there's no Meld left over in there, so I guess we pulled one on them for once...

Research on laser weapons continues; now that we have a basic system in place, the logical thing is to apply more of the same. Lasers hit hard and are easy to aim; heavy troopers can use the upgrade, and we may be able to come up with a version that doesn't need alien materials for the battery pack -- in that case, that design could be mass produced and distributed.

We've turned the engineering bay into a bigger, badder version of Inertia Labs -- Vee's cybersuit is ready just in time for her to get off the VR equipment; the work was done fairly haphazardly, which means that the cleanup crew has enough bits and pieces left over to finish a second SHIV. So now we have a giant robot, two autonomous tanks we built, and one Riley sent us. That's a lot of robots. Kinda makes me wish we could just send drones out... I think at this point Vee would feel cheated, though!

Dr. Shen bolts something rectangular and heavy on the mech suit's arm. "What's that?"

"Oh, that's a surprise. It's actually the first thing we designed, I've kept it ready for a couple of weeks. You get to see when Vee turns it on."

"Dr. Shen, it's not some sort of grapple to allow the mech suit to combine with the tanks, is it?"

He smiles. "No, Headmaster. But if that makes you feel better you're the eleventh person who suggests it."

"I wasn't suggesting --"

I look around. The Foundry is an industrial hallucination of waldo arms, 3D printers, laser cutters, and right now a small mechanical army on the shop floor. "Eh, what the hell."

We're all fairly giddy when Dr. Shen rounds up the engineering team for a group picture; I helped, so I get to be in it, way in the back.


Well...things certainly have taken an interesting turn or two.

The shock of finding Kay running the joint had lead to a Rib cracking hug and some catching up when the Commander had barged in to his quarters...luckily the intercom message got there first or the cannuck would have been caught literally with his pants down...which would have made things a bit....awkward to say the least. It was good to see old friends, though it was a shame to miss out on Riley and some of the others being gone by the time he got here. Just his luck on the timing.

With the next missions count down clock already running down there wasn't time to share stories. Work had gotten slim back north, and Kip had dropped off the radar when going through Boot camp for the Canadian Armed forces. He'd only gotten into the swing of things when that Mystery message from Riley had gotten through (still not sure HOW he'd found him). The Data had been scrubbed by some one, so he hadn't known that the original numbers were alien targets when he'd gone over the ballistic data and come up with the specs for the Reaper Ammo now in use.

Knowing now that it had only been a couple weeks later that he'd been transferred made sense. Someone had gotten to that message and cleaned it, and he was willing to bet that it was the same someone that had arranged for his transfer out here. Kay's equal shock in finding him showed it wasn't X-com proper that had tracked him down....so who was it, and why?

Isolating friends and family of existing members make some sense for information containment, in an Orwellian sort of way, and tagging Kip for getting unofficial combat data from an internal source should have ended up with him in a brig somewhere, not thrown in to a virtual Playground of hightech ways to make someones inner Geek nerdgisum and raise terror levels world wide. Press-ganging any information leaks into front line work made sense in you get blame the aliens for disposing your leaks and save the cost of a bullet.

After catching up with Kay that made sense on why they'd let civilians like Jonny stick around despite being all sorts of insubordinate and risky, and if he had time to go over the personnel logs similar links might come up. After Kay explained the Branfords attempted take over, the Canadian had to be restrained from taking a straight razor to the man then and there, national stereotypes of kindness be damned! But there was a mission to go on there would be time later to flay the mans hide, and hey...after all this time he was going to meet Vee Face to Face.

“What's that Thumping sound?”

(As written by Kip Hawley)


"... and using the immunology data we could FINALLY glean from seeing Meld used operationally, I believe that our medkits' effectiveness can be improved significantly."

We're all sitting in the situation room waiting for the Council message to begin -- this ends up being a good time to make point of the situation for us, too. Dr. Vahlen is making a good job making me feel guilty about not having wanted to use Meld before. Can we afford to not consider that advantage?

"My main issue is that, on one hand, the Meld is all but being left out for us to find -- what if there is a back door in it?"

"I have to agree with the Headmaster here" Bradford notes, to my surprise "but for other reasons." Ah, that's more like him. "Our core charge is to develop effective tactics to fight aliens; if we modify our troops past that which we can make sure national armies can do, it defeats the point." His pager rings, and he quickly leaves the room. "Not an emergency, but excuse me a moment."

We have managed to fight off everything that came at us; even so, our funding countries are getting more and more restless. I don't know if they expected miracles; we have produced some usable doctrine, reverse engineered some of the aliens' systems, and turned out a few graduates which have gone on to train troops at home. Maybe they feel that this organization has done its job already?

"What about Vee, though?"

"What about her?"

"We've written half our book around Vee and Kite. Anything Vee does from now on will be of much lesser value from a training standpoint."

"So we've turned a value adder into a value multiplier -- a Mech Trooper in the field can allow rookies to make that one more mistake and survive it to graduate."

Bradford comes back; he's sweating. Speaking quickly, he says he'd like to formally withdraw his comment on Meld, and recommend full-steam-ahead on its study. Odd. This isn't even a formal meeting...

I go over the specs for the mech suit. I helped with the spine and legs, but Dr. Shen specifically disallowed me from looking at the secondary components until the whole thing was done. I think he was afraid I'd complain about the expense; what I have figured out, having done that a few times in the past, is that a lot of the engineering and science teams pitched in extra hours to get more done with less. Hasn't he figured out that the whole point of me being in charge is that I'm not the manager type?

The main screen turns on; we get a signal. Bradford quickly yells at one of the bridge bunnies, "Are you using your tracking terminal to play Civilization?!? At least I hope you were going for a military victory." That's our little signal to turn on all the recording stuff.

"We are extremely impressed with the progress of the X-COM Academy project, Headmaster...." Okay, this has to be a recording. We listen anyway. The Councilman has nothing bad to say about our work, but sounds outright angry. It's as if he wanted to.

We are informed that as a reward for increasing our satellite coverage over the continent, a team of interrogation specialists from Argentina will be joining the science team to help out with autopsies and questioning. That sounds very ominous; oddly, the Councilman doesn't bring up the fact that we have been lagging in that respect.

"Remember, we will be watching."

The communication closes, and two Betamax tapes pop out of old toaster style cassette recorders. "Okay, I want this combed over. See if we can read the Councilman's lips, he sounds more and more like a badly dubbed samurai movie." I wish this was CSI rather than X-COM; we could do some crazy image enhancement thing to look around the silhouette. Of course, that's... heh, not even science fiction, it's just silly. However, we do have good image post-processors to use for that. What I didn't mention is that we delayed the launch of the satellite that was supposed to cover Nigeria to free up time for this... I won't be able to forgive myself if there's an alien attack there, but - we have to figure out what's going on.


There is little in the way of a graduation ceremony for Susan Kelly and Brigitte Lefebre; they leave with a slightly better-formatted doctrine file than last month's graduates (the printing out is purely symbolic, of course, but got to give them something) and a handshake from Kite and Bradford because Vee is still retraining.

Dr. Vahlen is surprisingly happy with the interrogation experts; while I am not fond of their methods, we've more than caught up with interrogations and autopsies. Notably interesting is the fact that while neither danglies or orks seem to have been infused with Meld, they are clearly the same root organism, mechanically modified in the former case and subject to Frankensteinian grafting in the other. Dr. Vahlen thinks that the Meld infusion happened far enough in the past that the bodies adapted. The tattoos on the orks are interesting; it's the second instance we see of invaders having some sort of culture. While the sectoids and slendermen are clones that as far as we can tell have been batch-grown in addition to being batch-bred, it's quite possible that the orks are actual individuals. The ork specimen seemed to treat danglies as just another part of the environment, however. Are the aliens divided by caste, with the lowest being clones? Shades of Brave New World there.

I order the interrogation experts to be kept an eye on when they're not assisting the science team... and get an earful from Bradford about it; he accuses me of racism. Either we put a tail on all scientists to prevent leaks, or none... and I am the first to admit that no creative work benefits from being a constant suspect. I have to concede the issue.

We can't make heads or tails of the crystal android shard yet; it sits there inert, taunting us. We even tried to see if the alien NAVCOM talks to it, to no effect. Dr. Vahlen feels that more work into the alien power system would let us figure out how to jumpstart it without shattering it; I give my approval. An interesting thing is that we've been able to give the ork a captured plasma rifle with a drained power cell, and figured out how to operate it -- the weapons will still need adaptation for use by our soldiers, but we have figured out that the aliens also have weapon-based DRM, only theirs is more drastic. Probably a coincidence... Given that we can't make plasma rifles, as much as I'd like to be able to use what we capture, we're better off applying what we found by improving laser technology, since that's eventually something that can be mass produced.

Now that we have satellites over South America, it makes sense to get another interceptor stationed there; given the amount of dangly boosters we've been able to acquire, it also makes sense to outfit all the airplanes under our charge with cannons rather than missiles.

Work on Elerium continues -- we know enough to use a captured alien power generator for ourselves without danger, but we still have no idea how it's connected to the crystal android, or just how it produces high energy densities without apparent degradation.

New soldiers come in from pre-training today... let's see, Lexi Douglas, Neil Hughes, Kip Hawley... Kip Hawley?

"Trooper Kip Hawley to the Headmaster's office! Actually, scratch that, I'm coming over to the barracks."

On the way, I leave a note to Dr. Shen that he is to delay the science team's request for analysis equipment, and whip up some armor. Fortunately, we have a mostly-intact ork set to copy from. Odd that while most of the support staff is from Japan or the Philippines, very few of our students are; my guess is that they either don't have much in the way of a discipline problem, or do not want to admit to their international guests that they do.

A series of angry emails between Bradford and our Russian liaison, at the apex of which the man threatened to use any excuse possible to withdraw Russia from the project and was only calmed down by what amounted to a large bribe in the form of re-allocating resources to the liaison's office, leads Bradford to suspect a X-ALT cell in Russia; either that, or the necessary covert operation will scare the liaison into ceasing to be an asshat. I approve, and send Petrov out -- he is our best trained Russian operative. This operation is intended to actually be as non-covert as we can get away with, so I send him off with alien grenades and a laser pistol.

We're slightly under budget, but I would prefer to stay away from arms dealing for now.

It's been quiet; if UFOs are landing, they're being very stealthy or our member countries are dealing with it without us. Given that our mission is to make ourselves obsolete, that's probably a good thing... Out of the blue, the French government demands a complete Arc Throwers, complete with schematics, for crowd control. Why? Everything's been quiet; even the usual early-summer riots in Paris have been more muted than usual. Given that the Arc Thrower is essentially a safer Taser, I fear that it will be used for ill -- surely the French are aware of how less-than-lethal systems changed American policing.

I consider holding off on the request, even when our liaison promises a boost to both our budget and the science team. The authoritarian trend following the invasion mirrors that after 9/11, so I suppose it should have been expected, but it's still the wrong way to go about it... After a bit of talk with our French soldiers, who point out that with Le Pen's party doing well martial law is a possibility, I send an Arc Thrower and a binder with the schematics (they can do their own OCR, thank you) to the French government. Unbeknownst to what passes for a chain of command around here, I also send the same package to CNT-AIT and No Pasaran; the next street protest should be interesting.

I think the liaison caught me -- the letter of thanks is circumspect, and the budget increase doesn't materialise, although we have three new volunteers from CERN to help us work on Elerium. I wanted to issue them crowbar with the welcome kit, but find that someone beat me to the joke.

Just when I am catching up to the news, the abduction alerts sounds...

OPERATION

I'm sending Kip out on this one -- he has to learn the ropes fast. I'm sure his familiarity with firearms will be a lot of help, and I expect he'll want to spend time in the Foundry, but right now he's a rookie same as everyone else, at least until he sees the aliens up close in person; quite a few hardened warriors have lost their marbles at dealing with the inhuman, after all.

We've always joked that Kip is a misfortune magnet -- I don't want to tempt fate, so we're sending him out with the new carapace armor, nicely re-fit to him from captured ork BDUs, under-armor, and an arc thrower. By the time I realized that I effectively sent him out with untested armor that we can't even properly fabricate yet, and made him the only person in the squad equipped for close range combat, it's too late -- the Skyranger left. I hope everything goes well...

Admittedly, he's also the one person in the squad who is capable of fine manipulation: we're sending out Vee in her brand new mech suit, THOR, DONDER and BLISSEM. So, a squad of scary murderbots... and Kip.

What the hell was I thinking?

The Skyranger drops in Liverpool, largely because the other abductions are happening in semi-remote areas in Africa and there is just much more potential for loss of life an infrastructure here. The team reaches the site at night. It's a graveyard. Of course.

"Set THOR up in sentry mode, let the other two battlebots scout ahead, and... uh... play it safe!"

"RAWR!" Vee is positively giddy. I was worried about loss of humanity, alienation, the inability to have privacy that comes with having a lot of monitoring equipment embedded in your body... The MEC interface we've worked out is almost transparent, however; fine manipulation for the battlesuit is still out for now, but Vee is already relearning to draw with her mouth -- largely because she thinks it's more interesting than doing so with the base augments.

Apparently the aliens crashed an illegal rave. Coincidence, or were they banking on a delayed response from the authorities? One thing we absolutely don't know is how much the aliens have learned about us.

"Onward, Donder! Onward, Blissem!"

"Dude, it's June."

The two tanks move ahead at half speed, and one spots two yarnalls -- the things quickly disappear from sight. This time around, they have no valid targets; hopefully they won't just wander off and cause victims. I am hoping that they become confused.

We get THOR into position behind an ornamental fountain, and signal Vee and Kip to advance cautiously... she apparently copies that as "Stomp ahead waving an aircraft minigun around like a magic wand".

One of the yarnalls appears, but by the time it decides that there are no valid targets for its tentacles, the two SHIVs have pumped it full of holes.

"Sectoids, two o'clock!" Huh, that's going to be easy...

One of the sectoids is wearing a mech suit. It looks like a cross between the robot from District 9 and, well, Vee's suit -- it's sleeker, a little smaller, and has guns for arms rather than manipulators and a discrete weapon.

"What the hell?"

"What is that thing? It looks like -- Take ALL our development servers offline, NOW! All IT staff, drop whatever you're doing and look for bugs!" Bradford immediately suspects a data leak. I'm inclined to agree; the legs on the battlesuits are identical, and I've seen Vee and Shen design them. I can see aliens copying our technology, but this is the first time we've deployed...

"Calm down. It may be a coincidence; we don't know yet. Okay, Kip? You herd the bots, pick the little guys off then provide fire support. Vee --"

"Vee, It's all yours. Get it!" That was Raymond Shen, breaking his usual calm for once.

"... Get it? That's your plan?"

"Ilse, I am confident that this is one instance in which our technology will be superior. Besides, it worked in Ghostbusters." Now it's my turn to stare at Dr. Shen. I helped build the suit's legs, but just what they crammed into it is still a mystery to me.

Vee runs forward; the alien mech takes a wide stance and fires its plasma gun arms at her, but she dodges expertly despite her suit's bulk. Stopping a few yards in front of the thing, she returns fire with the minigun, letting the kickback settle her into a standing position. The alien MEC sparks and shudders, smoke coming out.

Kip catches one of the Sectoids out of cover and burns a hole through its head -- the critter seemed to be staring at the mechs intently. THOR drops the other one, who was only slightly less similarly distracted -- my guess is that the aliens are also evaluating their prototype's performance.

With the visible threat eliminated, DONDER scouts ahead and finds a Meld canister, while BLISSEM stays behind Kip and enters sentry mode in case the other yarnall shows up.

"The MEC-1 Warden is able to handle vehicle weapons without sacrificing speed or agility..." Dr. Shen explains, not bothering to conceal the satisfaction in his voice, "and we have applied our own hard-earned lessons in tactical doctrine in its design; in addition to automated threat assessment and damage control systems from the SHIV program..."

The alien mech remains in its firing stance and shoots its plasma guns alternately in a narrow arc, grazing Vee and severely damaging BLISSEM.

"... we've taken to heart our advantage in close-quarter combat with the Kinetic Strike Module."

"WAHA!"

The generator on Vee's back revs up as starts moving, and holding the minigun in her off arm, she runs forward and tackles her alien counterpart. As the thing struggles to get back up with arms that were only designed for shooting, Vee lifts the suit's oversize forearm as a small cloud of exhaust air comes off it.

"Roketto PAWNCH!"

WHAM! I'm very glad we got multiple SHIVs covering this. Vee uses the minigun to push down on the alien battlesuit's gun arms to prevent being shot point blank, then a pulsejet on her forearm fires and she breaks her alien counterpart in two with a single punch.

Dr. Shen nods with infinite confidence as he discreetly offers me a handkerchief. I'm actually drooling. For a beautiful moment the bridge is full of kids watching their favorite giant robot cartoon. I start applauding, and everyone follows, even Bradford -- the noise dies down only after DONDER's operator points out danglies.

We advance the battlebots, keeping the damaged BLISSEM behind; Kip scoots to the side, behind a line of gravestones.

The second yarnall appears, again too far away from everyone to have found a target; machine-gun crossfire brings it down.

"Big guys coming in!" Apparently, that was a diversion to allow a trio of orks to flank DONDER; Kip called them before the bot's operator did.

We decide to send DONDER out to face them; the bot is ultimately expendable. The little tank actually smacks into the ork's armored bulk before shooting at it point blank, which leaves DONDER exposed to the remaining two brutes, but deals with the first one immediately.

True to form, the orks shoot DONDER to pieces; the operator takes off the headphones and throws them on the desk in frustration. "Hey, you did good there, this is what those things are for! We can make more in a weekend."

Kip keeps moving to the side, intending to flank the danglies while BLISSEM covers him and Vee takes cover behind a small mausoleum to reload. One of the orks is put down by a headshot from THOR as it comes out of hiding.

"They're all over me!"

The danglies must have seen Kip, because both boost towards him -- one slides behind a car, while the other is taken down by BLISSEM with Kip not quite managing to hit the target.

"... Finally, the admittedly misnamed jetboot module lets us close in on targets who would in turn not be able to reach the Warden suit" Dr. Shen notes. Another exhaust cloud, and Vee crouches then jumps up with a puff of compressed gas and another rocket burst from her arm. Just as quickly, Vee jumps off the mausoleum and stomps the last ork to death. In one hit.

"GOOMBA STOMP!"

These are the same orks that survived multiple laser beams to the face and car explosions. Again, there is cheering.

"No other contacts reported. If you have a clear shot at the last dangly, take it!"

BLISSEM's operator beats Kip to it. For the first time in the history of this operation, we go home with no wounded -- sure, we lost a robot, but that just means a bit of shop time. Vee's armor absorbed the damage flawlessly, and the only injury was Kip's back after Vee tried to slap it and succeeded a little too much.

The IT team reports that no data breach occurred. At a loss for explanation, we go over everything we can think of, and find something -- the crystal android shard showed some transmission activity, although it was at micropower range as far as we can tell. So did the Meld canisters.

"The Meld. They used the Meld in Vee's body while she was acclimating to the suit, to reverse engineer it. The shard..."

"... is an antenna, yes. That makes quite a lot of sense. Now, Dr. Vahlen, this is more within my area of expertise; all we need to do is figure out where it's transmitting to."

I can't help feel pride. Now it's they who have to copy from us. And given how short the mecha wrestling match was, we're better at it. Fuck yeah, humanity!

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