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Mission19

"... and according to our metadata analysis, X-ALT is not operating from Africa."

"So we've got X-ALT, AND warlords wanting to work with the aliens?"

"We don't think the warlords are a credible threat. It's possible that they may interface with X-ALT, but we are better off leaving national governments to deal with them... On a lighter note, the Russians are blaming the warehouse fire on vagrants."

I could really have used debriefing Petrov before he left. Damn it! SIGINT is important, but knowing more about the cell he infiltrated... Notably, I was curious to see what happened between him and his country's authorities; that's probably why they wanted to exercise revocation privileges and get Petrov back two weeks earlier. At least the Russian government has, at least officially, calmed down -- we won't have to worry about that for a while.

Vee will be out of the fight for six days; she's fine, but the cybernetic implants have been jostled around her shoulder and hip joints, and need time to settle -- meaning she won't be able to wear base augments for a while either. Unsurprisingly, there are enough volunteers to help her out in the meantime that they have to hold a raffle.

"Headmaster, Dr. Shen, come to the lab at once. I have figured out something extremely important about Elerium." That warrants another "drop everything" -- I tell Bradford to wrap it up with the Russians and join us as soon as possible.

"... Elerium is essentially a stable, crystalline antimatter container. Now, element 115 does exist in an island of stability for superheavy elements, but that just means it would generally have a half-life of minutes rather than microseconds. However! When given it this particular structure -- which must've happened at pressures orders of magnitudes greater than those necessary to make diamond out of carbon -- it enters a hyperstable state that allow it to hold antihydrogen in its lattice -- Look at positrons orbiting on the first, second and ninth quadrings! Simple harmonic stimulation releases antihydrogen in a very controlled fashion -- nuclear fusion on the tabletop. The possibilities of Elerium are... limitless."

"So it's a battery, rather than an energy source."

"Not... quite. If it was merely a battery, some decay would follow. Rather, at intervals, the crystals sort of... refresh themselves, renewing their structure; this does not recharge them, but does prevent deterioration. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that this is correlated with the same ultra-low-frequency signals that the crystal shard seems to react to."

"So it is an antenna. I think... we have our next objective."

My limited knowledge of engineering means that while Vahlen and Shen start talking way above my horizon of complexity, Bradford is looking at me for a clue -- I have to shrug. The point is, not only we know how to use the Elerium we recover, but we have an idea on what to make of the crystal drone shard -- it may lead us to being able to tap the aliens' communications! Vahlen is confident that this was the missing link, and everything else is just a matter of filling in the values. I can only say "please do it", and ask if either of our research heads need anything. I've noticed that she loses her accent when she geeks out... then again I've been told that so do I.

Later, Bradford politely chides me about that, since it started a round of bickering over which team needs more of the extra space and manpower I apparently just offers. I'm embarassed to admit he has a point.

"You know, Bradford - I don't get you. Three weeks ago you wanted me thrown out of the base, and now you're helping me. Why?"

"A week ago you were helping Dr. Shen building Robocop 2, and now you told him to do what's best. Why?"

"Because I only have a bachelor's degree, this stuff is way too theoretical for m -- is there a parallel?"

"Sort of. When that terror attack happened, with Lovecraftian bugs and... and zombies and... I just figured, this was too much to take responsibility for. I can help, I just can't -- I can't make the right calls. I didn't train for this."

"Nobody did. It's the whole point, innit? Put all the crazies in one platoon and hope they come up with something good? I thought you were here as the designated only sane man."

"Er... Not quite, Headmaster. I'll tell you about it if it's a direct order, but-"

I put a hand on his shoulder. "Look, this is NOT a military. We're not in the field so I am not going to order you around. Thanks for your confidence, I got my own stuff going on, you have yours, and you'll tell me if you think I've earned it. Fair?"

"Thank you, Headmaster. I should probably try to call the Russian liaison again."

I still think it's mostly the fact that Kite scared the crap out of him, and can't discount the fact that he's trying to mollify me to spring something else later on, but... Well, we have aliens, synarchists, warlords, and evil arms dealers to deal with, at least this particular hole in the ground is standing together for now.

The urgent issue right now is that we have to do something about the situation in Africa -- if this was a public-facing organization, I am sure I would be facing accusations of racism right now. The fact of the matter is simple; given population density and the average range of alien abduction missions, if I have to choose protecting 800 people near Vadodara or 80 in the middle of the Nigerian savannah, I'll have to take the first option every time. Nevertheless, nations leaving the Council because of perceived neglect would look bad -- at the very least we will have to divert our satellite network efforts there.

Then there's the issue of the data leak; at this point we suspect that the crystal drone shard has been studying us as much as we've been studying it. Even more worrying is the possibility that the Meld is; it would explain why the aliens casually drop it around -- letting us have a few super-soldiers around would be a small price to pay for them to be able to infiltrate our infrastructure. Bradford insisted that we lock down all our information infrastructure, even though it's arguably too late to do so, and I reluctantly give the okay -- it does mean no internet for a few days, and in 2015 there's no easier way to drop morale. For solidarity, we also turn off the privileged terminals in the control room; rather than browsing Fark through seven proxies, the bridge bunnies will have to play Galaga on slow moments. Our Meld stockpile has been locked up as tight as we can, but I am seriously considering vitrifying the room.

Nothing to it but wait, I suppose. Some days I feel lonely. I have been running on fumes lately, trying to do strategy and help out with the reverse engineering -- I literally don't even know what anyone else is doing right now... Lily has been testing the new "shredder" rockets, Kite was teaching Dr. Vahlen about vac-beds and for some reason that involved borrowing the big waldo arms in the interrogation room, Vee was doing watercolors, Jonny and Kip I have no idea... I hope Riley and Stephen are all right.

I wake up -- must've dozed off at my post. The base is brightly lit, but silent. I get to the mission control room; all the posts are lit, but nobody is there. The globe is a reassuring shade of green; all clear. The room is oddly silent. I make my way to engineering -- the Forge is working at minimum capacity, maintenance mode, a gentle hum interrupted by the occasional zap-scratch of a spot welder. I look at the whiteboard. All recent entries bear my name. So do all the chore assignments. I am alone. The date is January 17, 2017. The war was over a year ago, and they left me here - I wasn't suitable to return to the world...

I wake up for real, in my bunk. As nightmares go... well, that's not actually that bad; the usual fare has the Earth in chains, or cinders. Our barracks are small, but by dint of some effort everyone gets a little dorm room -- five by ten feet, with fold-out bed and desk, and a little sink that I suspect a lot of people use to pee -- and permission to remove dividing walls and make doubles and triples. It's worked out fairly well, and helped people feel like this is a school rather than a collection of misfits who get given experimental weapons, thrown out onto the breach, and see what sticks. Wow, sounds like it'd be a pretty good game of Paranoia...

No messages. Dr. Vahlen's estimates about the crystal drone shard, now that we know what to try to make it react with, are two to four days -- roughly when we'll have the new SHIV good to go. Council report is in nineteen days. We already sent Petrov home, so anyone else graduating at this point is gravy. Our budget looks good enough that if Bradford wants to invite the arms dealers over, he'll have to be very sneaky about it. Nobody's tried to usurp my command for a couple of weeks. So far so good... which is of course why I'm very, very wary of getting out of bed. It's 7:02. Thirty more minutes, Mom....

It's actually around nine thirty when we intercept a UFO above Brazil. We have an interceptor nearby, equipped with missiles and evasion boosters -- let 'er rip! I've been driving myself crazy trying to come up with a secure communications channel between us and the interceptor pilots; whatever we do, it'll have to assume that both the aliens and the Council can listed in. So, how can we...

Raven Six takes off and starts hammering at the UFO -- it's a large saucer. Even with the maneuverability boost, our bird takes enough hits to put it out of commission for a few days -- the UFO crashes at the outskirts of a fazenda, plowing a visible hole in the surrounding forest and paradoxically making sure that nobody'll do any clear cutting for a while.

I'm taking Kite, Kip, Webb and rookie Blanka Zajac from Stargard, Poland for this one -- the idea is to recover as much alien technology as possible, as well get another batch of graduates ready. There's still the mythical hope of a by-the-book mission. Kip gets extra armor because, yeah, we're going to do that -- I haven't told him that he's been getting two layers of under-armor, but I think he's figured it out by now. The good news is that other than Kite (we haven't worked out a long-range laser yet), everyone is fully kitted out with alloy armor and laser weapons. She's wearing her anti-yarnall collar, of course.

OPERATION

The plan is simple: Kite covers us, and everyone else carefully advances. We don't really care about collecting Meld, so we can take our time -- any aliens would have to either get past us to get to the forest, or run through a field in which for all I care they can engage in all the cattle mutilation they like before either we or the locals cut them down.

For a whole two minutes, all is silent. Did we get here too late? Did everyone in the UFO die in the crash? We've almost got to the big saucer shape -- all its power seems to have gone out. Maybe this is a total loss.

Kip spots a pair of sectoids, one of which is in a mech suit. Vee is still at home recovering, and we have no heavy weapons! Fuck. "Take cover!" That's a problem -- we were spreading out to surround the UFO, figuring any survivors were inside, and left ourselves exposed. Webb fortunately is a better sprinter than me, and doubles back to help me cover Kip. Kite says nothing, and calmly takes aim at the alien mech. I remind myself to not be a hero.

Kip runs to cover -- his best bet is actually to charge the threat and dive behind a tree. The mech's pilot (rider? operator? torso?) reacts by vaporizing the tree -- Kip manages to hide behind what's left of it and hunker down. We try to get there as fast as we can; I manage to fire in the robot suit's general direction to distract it. So much for not playing hero... Blanka is right behind me, and tries to aim -- she hasn't realized I don't have a clear shot either. A good thing about these laser rifles is that the battery packs last for a couple hundred shots, so spray and pray makes a bit more sense.

The mech charges at us! I and Blanka miss, but Webb manages to at least peel some of the paint off -- shit, I'm right in the open! I roar at the thing as it aims its cannons at me, then duck at the last moment, feeling the plasma heat above my head. "Everyone! Get that fucker!"

We barely see the other other Sectoid do that "blow a kiss" gesture, and -- the air around the mech shimmers! It looks like the reentry shields we've seen on UFOs... Fuck, this is new. Guess they didn't like being behind in giant robot suit technology. "I can't get a clear shot!" Kite calls "Coming in closer!"

The mech stands in the middle of us, taunting us with apparent invincibility. Of course this had to be the sortie in which we didn't bring heavy weapons. Okay, don't panic. Maybe the shield won't work. Maybe this guy is a lousy shot. Maybe... "Kip, get his buddy! Everyone else, explosives free if anyone's got any!"

That requires Kip to basically run in the mech's face. Possibly into a grenade.... or not, we were supposed to have one, but nope. Of course it does. Fortunately, Kip is the only one of us who came into this knowing how to aim -- he must've hit the range with the laser rifle pretty hard after his last sortie, because he cuts the Sectoid's neck clean off. Just like magic, the shield around the mech dissipates in a shower of sparks... The thing looks disoriented; we all charge it, making as much noise as we can in order to distract it from the obvious target.

Kelly blows its knee up, and I end up smacking into the thing as I empty my capacitor into it -- unbelievable, it's my kill! I can smell burnt flesh as the mech starts falling towards me, and push it away with both hands until it reverses its fall and tumbles backwards. Blanka was covering Kite as she advanced; that makes tactical sense, but she seems angry at herself for not having participated in felling the monster.

Okay, focus. You're being a bad role model, Headmaster. I quickly thank Kelly for the assist, and tell Blanka and Kite to keep their attention on the UFO while we set up. Kite switches frequencies, and -- since she's the ranking operative for the mission -- chews me out a bit for recklessness. I deserve it. Nobody got hurt, but diving in melee range of an enemy mech and almost causing its carcass to fall on me was about as stupid as extinguishing a fire by stomping it with a solar panel. Vee can get away with that shit now --maybe-- but not me.

Damn, I want a rocket punch. Or a space halberd. Probably hurt myself if I had a lightsaber, though.

We regroup to Kip's position to discover that the "buddy" sectoid was standing right next to a Meld canister -- was it using the stuff to power its new ability? We'll have to take the corpse to Vahlen.

We take our sweet time walking to the UFO after Kip taps the Meld container; the rear section is completely shredded, and only one of their forcefield doors has power. The idea is to get into position, leave Kite to pick any hostiles off through the many holes in the fuselage with someone to cover her, and have the other three operatives do something I'm told is called "slicing the pie". Pie sounds good; getting through this without any structurally superfluous holes also sounds good, and for once we are not in a hurry.

"Kite, I'm going to cover you. Kip, Webb, keep an eye on Blanka and if anything's too big to handle, run outside!" I feel like a coward for making this call, even though I just charged a mech-toid.

We step off on the UFO's ruined plating, me catching some breath as I let the rest of the squad go ahead -- Kip points left, noting that there may be more aliens outside the UFO. The vehicle, or what's left of it, seems eerily silent; Kite aims her sniper's rifle in that direction.

Wait, hold on. We're SPLITTING THE PARTY. Never split the party! "Belay that! We're going to walk around the UFO first."

I made the right call -- there's movement behind a palm, and...

It's a mini-UFO! It's about the size of a king mattress, and hovering in the air in the way mattresses don't. I reflexively shoot at it, and my laser beam briefly illuminates something smaller, before blowing it up -- an appendix to the UFOlet? a different machine?

Looks like they want to remind us who's wearing the pants in the arms race -- we send out drones, they counter with mini-UFOs. Kite puts a slug in it from afar, and the thing sort of.... shivers. Looks like it's made out of interlocking plates, from what I can see.

Then it opens up! Now it looks like a floating sea creature, a cross between a slug and a pufferfish. That thing sticking out looks like a laser beam... I don't know if it's better than ours, but it's definitely bigger. Kite hit it first, so she gets to name it... Wells? That sounds odd.

Okay, we got another robot fight on our hands. Hopefully this one won't have a shield. "Stay in cover!" I lay down suppression fire, and watch its multiple sensors try to track the light show while everyone else repositions. Webb misses, but Kip and Blanka put enough holes in it that it folds back up into a disk shape before --

"ORKS!"

Two hulking brutes run out from the bushes, using the disk as a shield. The good news is that we were already shooting that way. The bad news is that we're now outgunned, even if there's three of them and five of us.

Kite had time to aim a shot -- her slug goes right through one of the holes our lasers had burned into the Wells' armor, and sets off an internal explosion. Okay. Now there's us squad of poor squishy humans against two charging orks. I have to make myself not get up and charge back.

Kip throws a smoke grenade -- yeah, yeah, it's pink, but the idea is that it's as transparent as possible to our laser beams -- and I crawl to the side, with Kelly and Blanka ready to cover me in case the orks pop their heads out from behind the wreckage. I duck behind a slab of metal, and take a shot -- the low RAUGH tells me I hit one of the two. The smoke is effective; the ork returns fire, and only manages to hit a tree-

OW!

Fuckfuckfuck that hurt there's two of them and one can actually aim fuck. The alien alloys of my armor are excellent heat conductors, and take the burning sensation away from my arm.

Kite adds a bullet to the conversation and I see my attacker recoil in pain. Time to take a chance; I rush forward and slam myself into the wounded ork, Arc Thrower first. It punches me in the temple, but I'm wearing a helmet. Seeing this, Blanka runs forward -- dammit! Stop being a bad example, me! and finishes the other ork with a well placed shot. Good kill.

"Kay, pull in the damned horns! We're here to kill, not to die!" That's Kite on the command channel. "There can't be many left. Now since you're the only one who was stupid enough to get hit, you're going to stay here and cover me in case I have to play skeet, while Kip, Webb and Blanka go look for any strays."

And so we do -- Kite sets up to get anyone who runs out of the UFO's ruined behind, I set up to make sure nobody gets behind her, and Webb takes Kip and Blanka inside the UFO once more. I try to not look at the Wells wreck and keep my eyes open -- I'm scolded, but the armor took most of it and I'd rather not use the medikit unless I have to.

The three operatives slowly clear the UFO room by ruined room, and eventually get to a working door -- if the pattern holds, this should be where the crystal drone that operates (is?) the ship resides. We already have two shards; a capture is deemed entirely optional. Kip and Blanka breach the room, watch the thing put itself together, and Webb all but calmly walks in its face and shatters it with a laser beam.

Vahlen is mildly annoyed about us not recovering a third shard and missing one of the Meld canisters, but as we get back to the Skyranger, nobody is in the mood to care -- we got a pretty decent haul in, new stuff for me and Shen to go over, and best of all for the first time in the war we've been on a sortie and nobody got hurt!

Kite finds herself in rare agreement with Bradford about the fact that I'm still a danger to myself, but -- we've done it! A UFO was taken down and its occupants neutralized, with one capture even, and no casualties or wounded on our sides. I hide an extensive but shallow burn on my arm that had the time to get all pink on the way home, thinking that eh, it's about as bad as a day in the prototyping lab for me.

Dr. Shen congratulates the team on landing, before taking me aside and reminding me that this is not a one-person operation. He says I should step back from helping the engineering team... after the debriefing, since I am the only one who saw the Wells' "extension", even if just for a moment. I tell him about my dream. He says I should listen to it.

I'm given the same advice as the med team: relax a bit, we've earned it.

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Page last modified on January 02, 2015, at 05:11 AM