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Mission21

GEOSCAPE

We come home, full of questions and empty of adrenaline. No injuries; BLISSEM will have to be repaired, but honestly? Who cares. Having an alloy deck to hide behind works well; I can't tweak THOR's firmware to adjust for the change in weight, but I'm ordering DONDER taken apart and rebuilt with an alloy deck as soon as we can spare the raw material. The members of my squad and I go through a longer-than-usual debriefing as we let Bradford know about the new tactics, and Kite walks off to the living quarters -- I make sure her significant other is off duty; it's entirely possible at this point that the aliens did mess with her head, and she's going to need a long hugging session. Or whatever else it is that they do.

Manufacturing tinfoil hats will have to wait, however; when the debriefing is over (while the debriefing is, strictly speaking, pants optional, nobody felt like being silly this time around) Bradford takes me aside, and fills me in about what transpired while we were deployed.

The problem is that the Nigerian government chose, for some unfathomable reason, to cover our halting of the abduction mission in the most negative way possible -- our intervention did nothing to reduce widespread panic. The other problem is that Los Angeles is one instance of police brutality to a high-def remake of the Rodney King riots, and Mumbai is in the throes of paranoia -- fears that psychic aliens have landed and have escaped local forces has caused literal witch hunts there.

We are being pressured by a number of oil company executives who somehow got our BBS address to focus on Nigeria, lest energy production be further disrupted... Now we got four countries all but demanding that we focus our effort on them. It's an excellent excuse to increase the satellite coverage to them, but can we build enough in time?

I don't know what to do. The best lead we had, the crystal drone shard, hasn't really brought us to anything yet. We can keep putting out fires, but it's a losing game... I end up in the mess hall, nursing a small cup of chocolate ice cream after having conferred with Bradford and Shen about a plan that will hopefully allow us to have enough satellites and satellite controllers to appease everyone. Bradford is going to have the difficult job of telling each of the nations that are upset with us that we are focusing our aerospace efforts exclusively on them. Of such things is diplomacy made.

"We've got it! We've got it!" Huh?

Dr. Ilse Vahlen, holder of more PhD's than I have provisional patents, waltzes in after slamming the door open. Literally, she's twirling. The other personnel in the mess hall stare... except for the science team folks, who -- worryingly -- do a good show of synchronized crawstep and show themselves out in record time.

"I've triangulated it! Headmaster! Look at this!"

Dr. Vahlen literally twirls to where I'm sitting. I try to be polite and stand up, and -- get enveloped in a tighter hug than the ones I give. Under her lab coat, Dr. Vahlen is wearing some sort of corset made out of the skeleton of a carapace armor chestpiece and -- Well, at least we know where all the yarnall tentacles went. I hope. I'm not sure I want to know...

She lets me go, and while I pick my jaw up from the floor, she explains that it's a prototype for a "skeleton suit", which will involve a Turrican style grappler, this is just her personal variation on it. Between the fact that she's talking at 180 beats per minute and her accent, I have a hard time following. Nevertheless, I listen carefully.

".... und you see, with three more general data points, one of which we had a rough time stamp for dating to the audio log of when Ms. Winters and Ms. Foxoboro were affected, we were able to use the two crystal shards we have recovered to come up with a rough but effective radiolocator equivalent. Of course, I vill not discount the engineering team's efforts to row out to sea with two jonboats containing one of the crystals each to take reading, but ultimately it is the noise-canceling algorithm that we developed which...."

Dr. Vahlen has to repeat the whole thing twice; the second time, she's speaking slower, and isn't wriggling her corset's tentacles in clear and very distracting excitement (she said that she's still trying to teach them fine manipulation and they are overreactive, but even so), so I actually understand what's going on. I ask her if it's premature to make a general announcement, she answers in the negative, and gives me as series of work orders to sign regarding a lab expansion, and could she please have half of the ammo storage room now that we're switching to lasers? Uh, sure... The scientist thanks me profusely and, with a grin of absolute victory on her face, walks off. I can see the tentacles dangling under the lab coat. I mean, damn.

When she's gone, I stand up, get a ladle and wok from the kitchen personnel, and start banging it in front of my walkie talkie; general assembly. While people gather, I look at the tablet that Dr. Vahlen dropped off with the information we have. Looks like her team and Dr. Shen's have started working together if the "autopsies" on drones and Wellses are any indication -- they're proceeding quite fast.

Eventually, almost two hundred people are gathered in the mess hall. It's a bit early for lunch, but the cooks get busy anyway, might as well eat.

"Ladies! Gentlemen! Tumblr people with custom pronouns! I got bad news and good news! By the way, we should have online access again in thirty-six hours, it was supposed to be twenty-four but all our IT folks are busy setting up the satellite downlinks."

There's some throwing of peanuts at that, some at me and some at the IT folks -- hey, I get it.

"Bad news one: The aliens are indeed deploying mind-affecting powers against us. We already knew that they used a form of radio-telepathy to communicate, but they seem to now be able to electromagnetically induce panic in unaltered human brains. We have once more received reports of actual mind control, and we fear they are more credible by now... Clearly, what study they were performing on us has borne fruit."

"Bad news two: They are also adapting their tactics to our methods. Now, ordinarily job security is good news, but in this case it means we may have to go back and revise our doctrine. Remember that there's no such thing as a stupid question or a stupid idea when we're on downtime, what you dream up for the whiteboard today may save our asses in a month."

"Good news: We know where they live. Thanks to the effort of our R&D personnel, we have triangulated the position of the alien base. Now, I have no idea how they passed by us, but they did -- it's possible that they've hid their command under the Earth while we look for them in space. Maybe they've been there for millions of years, I honestly have no idea. What we do know however, is a set of coordinates."

I draw a decent illustration of England, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark on a tablecloth and return the catalina sauce to the table I got it from while two of the rookies improvise a stand for this. Bradford will no doubt put together a proper presentation later, but I want this meeting to feel cozy -- we're all in this together.

"Now, as far as we know, they don't know that we know" I count the levels of reflection on my fingers, to some laughter "and if we can keep it so for a few days, we'll be ready to launch a surprise attack." Actually, let's hold off on the presentation altogether; in case they have anything of ours bugged, it's unlikely that they'll be able to decipher condiment art. "Dr. Shen's team is turning the captured crystal drone shards into a transponder that should let the Skyranger appear as one of their ships, at least for a bit. We're going to drop a demolition charge on what we think is the landing are, and... Well, the general idea at this point is" I point at the tablecloth "EVERYTHING IN THAT GENERAL DIRECTION MUST DIE!"

There is much stomping of feet and clanging of plates, and I bask in it for the minute it takes for it to die down. "All right! Any questions?"

"Uh, those coordinates, it's basically where Rapture is supposed to be! You know, from Bioshock?"

"Oh? I'm pretty sure it's a coincidence... Uh, anyone think it's more than a coincidence?" A few hands go up. "Okay, let's put that on the whiteboard. The actual whiteboard, nothing about the alien base assault plans go on anything networked. Any other questions?"

"If the aliens are psychic, how do we protect ourselves from it?"

"Uh, Dr. Vahlen asked me to use 'psionic' rather than 'psychic', on grounds of there's nothing mystical about it -- it's a technology and we may be able to snatch it out of their slimy hands eventually. The answer is, we'll start doing experiments in earnest. Basically we're going to throw science at the wall and see what sticks! M K Borri, we're done here. No, not really. Jokes aside, we don't know yet -- the hope is to capture a psionic alien as soon as possible, and well... let Dr. Vahlen and Instructor Winters do their thing, really."

There are snickers.

"Any other questions?"

"Can I have my salad dressing back?" Huh, I didn't know catalina sauce went on salad. "Er, sure. If this is it, remember that we're in brainstorming phase as far as the base assault and psionics go, so -- all ideas are welcome, talk about it and write stuff on this wall for now."

I help rustle up some dry-erase markers while the troops eat; rank hath its privileges, so I'll get saved a portion of everything. I hope.

Of course, when I come back there's a spoon-bending competition going on. I shake my head, smile, and count my blessings in that at least I get to eat in peace... One of the earliest suggestions is to use more SHIVs, which is a good point -- those can't be jammed when they're in sentry mode. At the very least, we're going to strip down DONDER and rebuild it with alloy plating.

I give Dr. Vahlen the go-ahead for her "skeleton suit"; it's going to be a lighter carapace armor, with a grappling hook made of kevlar wire intermeshed with yarnall tentacle fibers. She's not going to work on her personal variant any further, but I can't help to notice that lately she's been sleeping in the common quarters and, while she says she's annexed her apartment to the lab complex because she needed more room, there's something a bit baroque about the door and I haven't seen it open yet. All I could get out of Kite is that while she's given up on sane for the time being, things under her supervision are safe and consensual.

We spend the next few days getting ready for the alien base assault; I don't know who all is going yet, but if it was my call, we'd set up a staging area near the base and just swarm the place with every man jack of us. Dr. Shen says that the "skeleton key" isn't likely to work when we get close to the base, but should at least get the Skyranger to do a drop.

We were almost done rebuilding DONDER, and Vee was only a day or so away from being fit for duty again, when the aliens preempted us.

Terror attack in Cologne! Multiple Lovecraft bugs -- okay, screw that, we're calling them Herbies -- detected from parking cameras. Bradford is... about to have a panic attack, actually. Can't blame him, honestly. Those things would freak everybody up.

I'm taking Kite, Webb -- who will graduate at the end of the month -- Jonny and Blanka. Kite's in charge tactically -- she's our best sniper and has gotten used to both keeping an eye on the big picture and keeping people like me and Vee somewhat level headed. If me and Kite don't make it back, the standing orders for the alien base assault is to wait until Vee is ready, get all our heavies and SHIVs, and level it.

OPERATION

It seems that an abductor ship literally dropped Herbie cocoons on top of a section of Autobahn overpass -- unfortunately, the locals decided to duck and cover rather than generate roadkill. We get there to find the highway almost, but not quite evacuated -- at least the aliens have been cordoned off by a mixture of Wermacht units and abandoned vehicles. Okay. We can do this. Kite is the first out of the Skyranger; she's definitely got the whole lead by example thing down pat.

We've all got laser rifles (minus Kite, who is packing dum-dum rounds for this one), carapace armor, medkits... we're a little better prepared this time.

The Skyranger drops us in the closest safe area we can see; the first order of business is to escort Kite to high ground -- the billboard ahead of us should do it -- so she can cover us.

We sprint forward -- I wonder if we should've brought a SHIV... There are plasma shots in the distance; there's more than just herbies.

OH GOD! Three herbies -- two get off a corpse that was too mangled for them to infect and look around; one goes straight for me. I shoot it right in the mouth, and although I see and smell the burn, regret not bringing a shotgun. At least it's enough to stop it charging. "Hold to explosives!" Some poor bastard is right behind me, hiding behind a car door as if that helped any, paralyzed by fear.

Kelly runs in behind me -- and misses. Fortunately for my fat ass, Blanka doesn't.

That leaves two herbies and one DJ with a rocket launcher. "Explosives free!" Dammit, he's too far away.

We watch the two creatures grab two civilians from the vehicles they had hidden in, break their neck, and give them the kiss of undeath. We're too far to do anything about it. God damn it.

Kite genuflects on top of a flatbed truck and puts a bullet in the one of the things' heads -- we can only see one of its glowing eyes now, but it's still standing and moving.

I do what I know how to do; run up to the other herbie and shoot at it. If I don't drop it, it'll go after me at least...

"Duck away! Firing rocket!" Thanks, Jonny. I crouch, waiting for the blast.

WHAM! Heat and noise. The rocket -- the only one we have, dammit -- took out the two bugs, a BMW, and hopefully the bug larvae in the bodies. Kite looks around and signals us to advance. We do. The overpass merges into a ramp, by the look of it the whole thing was cut off about fifty meters ahead by artillery fire -- hopefully herbies don't like tall drops, if that's the case we may have them contained.

Blanka steps off -- there's two more herbies past the onramp! Webb shoots one; the other disappears behind the wreckage. We gotta go find it. I steal Webb's kill -- it's the second herbie that lands in my face in as many minutes; I'll probably have jelly legs for a week when the adrenaline wears off -- and let Kite get closer to the billboard.

We advance, and get to the semi-collapsed section of the overpass. Someone definitely shelled this -- it'd be nice if we knew it it had been humans or aliens. There's one herbie unaccounted for. Kite reminds me to not charge in. The truth is -- I do this shit because I have to believe I'm indestructible, if I stopped, I wouldn't be able to go on a sortie again. It's not as cold as it ought to be, because of all the fires.

Further ahead, past a cab-over truck, I hear the sickening noise of someone being killed and... infected? impregnated? I was too slow and now they're dead, or worse.

"Watch the side!"

A Wells with two attendant drones takes off from the bed of a pickup truck and hovers above the battlefield -- Blanka and Webb shoot at it, with little effect. We'll have to depend on Kite to get rid of the drones; the wreck analysis showed that they use their plasma spot welders to cover gaps in the bigger robot's armor. Kite finally gets to the billboard, but has to help a woman down it before she can set up.

I run behind the truck to face the herbie -- my back's on fire! The Wells hit me with its plasma cannon. Damn. FUCK YOU! I AM THE ROBOT OVERLORD! YOU WILL SERVE ME OR DIE, MACHINE! Okay, calm down. Some kid is looking at me -- he's terrified, and me screaming defiance doesn't help. I tell him to clear out towards the Skyranger, in Italian. He gets the idea.

Webb and Blanka sprint forward to cover my side while Jonny puts the LMG on top of a wrecked car. There's still a bug on the loose, but right now the priority is getting those bots!

Okay, everybody's got my back. Stop. Think. Rather than charging ahead, I stick my medkit under my armpit and release all the stuff in it at once -- whatever magic the nanosutures are working, I feel immediate relief from the cold due to the expanding gases. I'll be okay. The bug is right behind that container, if I can just--

Jonny and Webb focus fire on the Wells, and Blanka finishes it with a grenade -- there isn't much for the drones to repair. So, they turn around and start taking potshots at civilians. Fuck. Whoever's operating them must have learned that the drones can't do much to armor, but are still deadly. Or are these autonomous?

The bug runs past me, and kills an older woman who was cowering on the other side of an overturned car. Now we've got one herbie and two zombie. I stare in horror -- the medkit works wonders, but it leaves you effectively unable to move for a few seconds, and AAAARGH!

The first zombie attacks me. It moves slowly, but with insane strength. I can see the broken neck, the big egg pulsating inside the esophagus. It hurts. God damn it hurts.

My world goes red... then clears up. "Calm down. Back up." Kite got the zombie with a professional's precision, the "headshot" rupturing the egg and making the body fall backwards. I wipe the blood and gunk off my helmet. Bug in front of me. Kill it.

"Back up I said!" Kite has the high ground, she probably knows what's going on better than me. Webb turns around, shoots her laser pistol at the Herbie, and while it's turning around towards her Jonny finishes it off with a grenade -- good plan. That gets rid of the egg, too. Must update doctrine. Ow. "Thank you."

I slink off. Behind me, the zombie -- that just took a grenade to the stomach -- gets up, full of shrapnel and bleeding heavily but still dangerous. Webb and Blanka shoot at it -- it's still up. This shouldn't even be POSSIBLE! It comes towards me with the inevitability of death. I am petrified. Kite shoots at it -- the bullet severs its neck, but the headless horror keeps advancing. Towards me. Slow. But I'm too fucked up to run. Inescapable.

"IT'S NOT MY FUCKING FAULT YOU'RE DEAD!" I jam my pistol in the neck hole and empty the capacitor. The zombie falls. I slump pretty much on top of it. It smells... strangely sterile, like an old hospital. Must be the bug egg.

Kelly gets out of cover and bounces a grenade off a bus, the airblast knocking down a drone -- one left. We think. "Go, go go!" Kite calls. She knows that the drone can't kill anyone of us in one shot, except maybe for me since my armor has a huge hole in it. Damn, that zombie almost ripped my arm off. Feels like it anyway.

Blanka gets it by the time Jonny gets there. I get up, and Kite reflexively aims her gun at me -- I must be in bad enough shape that it probably looked like a zombie rising. I raise my hand.

"Everything by the numbers" Bradford says into our helmets. He sounds calm. The numbers being, 18 civilians trapped, 11 saved, 7 dead. Jonny helps me to the Skyranger -- he's getting pretty good at carrying me, heh -- and I sleep for most of the trip back.

I know why I'm reckless on deployments. I'd be too scared to get out of the plane otherwise. This time I listened to Kite, and it probably saved my life -- or at least my arm, if it wasn't for the sutures, the zombie would've ripped me in two.

Somewhere in the haze, I'm told that our deployment was caught on camera, and instant polls actually report that confidence in humanity's survival has actually increased across Europe. I'm told I will need a week to recuperate, and that I should thank Dr. Vahlen for the recent improvements to the med bay that she finally got around to do in view of the upcoming base assault. That means waiting another week. I'm severely tempted to have a cybersuit built for me, just so we don't have to waste time.

I'm in bed when I'm asked to vote on whether to give Kite the honorary title of Captain, since she's arguably the best squad-herder we got. I abstain, being as I don't want to influence the vote unduly, but am happy to see that it passes.

Dr. Shen is asking me to reconsider about getting a second cybersuit made. I need to go in for surgery on my arm in twenty minutes, and he wants to know what sort of surgery it'll be. Tactically, if I agree to undergo cybernetic augmentation, we'll gain four days.

---

“Note to self, change IFF tag on Kay's suit to read “ROBOT OVERLORD” in case the whole MEC thing gets done again.

(As written by Kip Hawley)

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Page last modified on March 12, 2016, at 09:05 AM