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I fall back asleep, waking up briefly when the Skyranger lands. There is applause. Bradford says he's got the Council on the line already. I pass out again. I wake up, and Vahlen says something about a beacon.

"Prognosis is at least sixteen days for combat readiness -- another hole in the skull, basically. You know, at this rate we're looking at just printing the Headmaster a new skullcap, of alien alloy if we can pull it off given how often this keeps happening. Given that we'd rather not mess with Meld beyond what we know works, however... Of course, we can also use MEC trooper technology to repair the brain damage, but a full procedure would - "

Hey, Shen, wait a minute! I'm not -- I pass out again.

"Headmaster, the satellite network is complete, and I got the Council on the line. It's... rather important news, apparently. You're uh, pumped full of stimulants for now, and should be awake for a bit. Can you speak?" Bradford turns.


Guys, if it's not too inconvenient, I can't feel a damn thing, can you tell me if I still have my arms and legs on, or if I'm paralyzed, or just drugged up to my eyeballs?

Later, I guess. The big screen comes on to show the poorly lit bald people. There's a news ticker under it, for some reason. "Business as usual in the US despite alien incursions... Nigerian merchants struggle to keep up with emergency-goods demand... Blatant attack in Mumbai leaves hoax theorists marginalized..."

"We are extremely impressed with the progress of the XCOM Academy project thus far, Headmaster. Your recent results were beyond our expectations... and that is not a statement this Council makes lightly." I nod in acknowledgement. One of the bridge crew is holding up a card that says [LIPSYNC ERROR] at the edge of my field of view. The booming voice continues. "It is in a spirit of deep gratitude that we are revealing your existence to the world in a ceremony next week, pursuant to your retirement from the project. Excellent work, Headmaster. You have blazed the trail for Earth's armies to follow; the way forward is clear."

Wait, what?

Kip was in the base's walk-in freezer.

Due to the insulation and lack of people coming and going it was one of the quieter places outside of a sealed labs during testing, it was as private as he could get on the undersized and staffed base.

He'd bribed the cooks to leave him be for a bit, not with cash, as it wasn't much use on base, and he didn't have all that much to his name anyway. He'd bribed them with an onion soup recipe that he'd picked up from Riley a couple years back, one of those family cure all types that folks go for. They let him be and took to making meals for the wounded, leaving Kip was alone with his own cure all, a good bottle of rye.

He was off duty after the last mission, The tablet he'd been writing his after action report was laying next to the far wall with a matching dent from where he threw still worked.

“Must be one of Kay's” He muttered.

The Headmaster, no...KAY, not some title, a Friend, was in intensive care with slim odds on ever walking unaided again, Johnny was likely sleeping off some pain killers for the burns taken. Vee and DONDER were in the shop getting bolted back together. Kite was restricted to quarters under guard. Rumour had it that Bradford had wanted to stick her in one of the cells with the aliens while the lab techs checked her out, but was talked down with the dual explanations that she would be a risk to existing alien test subjects in her current state, and the fact that if he gave the word it would be a race between Vee's spring loaded iron boot and the rest of the squad's fully recharged lasers for who'd 'respectfully disagree' with his ass given such an order. The Squad Protect their own.

And Kip? Barely had a scratch on him. Aside from some muscle pulls from keeping his word to Kay about getting those people dragged out, tubes and all in the case of the aliens abductions, he was just peachy.

And loathed every moment of it.

Looking down at the nearly empty bottle of Crown in his hand he sighed, his breath misting in the cold air. He'd, for years, had some very simple rules about drinking. He was at the moment doing a very good job of breaking most of them.

Out There, He was calm, collected, a tad goofy now and then, even with the heat on, trying to keep everyone and everything on the level and moving forwards.

But in the quiet times, when hands were idle and the mind had a chance to wander over the events, was a different story. The Events replayed is crystal clarity in his mind even if his eyes were a bit fuzzy at the moment. Every missed opportunity, every failure, every “if only I had done this..” rushed past again and again.

From broken cups to broken bones to broken hearts, each failure would flash back to mind in in that stunningly realness of the moment.

And each time, it Burned.

'People aren't Perfect', that cold part of his mind that, no matter how much whiskey he had soaked it in, kept on being rational would say. He wasn't some fortune teller reading how things would go and cherry pick the best possible options. Small comfort, and just the echo of every trite speech from those old enough to know better would Burn all the more. Even when there were true, Especially when they were true, they were still just covering the fact that the Universe doesn't care about what Should Be, only what Is.

Gathering up his tablet and bottle with a bit of a waver in his stride, the chill of the freezer and the booze keeping his rarely seen temper in check Kip got back to work on his report. The hangover from this falter in stick self control would be his private little penance for not being perfect, but there were still work to do.

As he worked through the mission report he laid out the basic nuts and bolts of movement in the alien base, and started to describe the details of his witnessing the metal attacks on the others, hammering the spell check now and then, because drunk or sober, he needed it. He chuckled darkly, the booze and his grim mood making him chalk that one up in the “still not perfect” list.

That cold part of him ignored the sting that came with such thoughts and honed in on what he was typing. The Psionic (that word was rapidly losing any humour it ever had in its use around the base) creature had targeted Kite and aimed her directly at Kay. At the time it seemed like a target of opportunity, but something about that irked him as he highlighted that text, focusing red rimed eyes on it.

Why Point Kite at Kay? You have an entire squad of targets for mind control, Vee Being the most obvious pick by sheer scale, Kay being right up in the beasts face at the time, or Johnny or Kip himself, with enough ordinance between us all to frag the rest of the squad with a flick of a finger or toss of a grenade.

But the critter picked the Sniper in the back, and pointed her, not at the giant mech suit or fella with the rocket launcher, but Kay. Then once both of those were engaged and Not a threat, steps out of the cover he'd been hiding behind to burn a hole in Kay the same time as ordering Kite to do the same. Overkill if trying to take down one member of a fireteam.

....That...spoke that cool part of his mind....isn't Tactical targeting.....that is STRAGETIC targeting.

Kay was the bigger threat, NOT to the alien about to get a laser to the face, but because Kay is the Headmaster, and Leader of X-com!

Kip Sent out the report in a hurry, flagging it to the Bradford and the Doctors, as well as the rest of the squad from the mission. Then staggered for the door.

If the Counsel removes Kay from the post, the aliens might be getting what they want. (As written by Kip Hawley)

"Did you like it? What you saw in my brain?" Kite paced back and forth in front of the cell. She was not supposed to be in here. But rumours get around, and when someone gets away with taking the official administrative commander of the base somewhere at knifepoint, well, a kind word and a smile opens doors.

The sectoid commander didn't answer. But its eyes were more interested in following her movements than those at the array of instruments behind her.

"Did it make you feel good? Trying to make me kill one of my best friends? Does your kind even have 'feeling good' anymore? Sure, you tear up our people, we tear up yours, but we desecrate the dead who can't feel it anymore."

"But we've seen it in you. In all those you brought with you. You're someone's little cloned dog. They built you from a kit. To go and sow fear and death."

"I don't know if you can hear me. I don't know if through you, whoever pulls your little grey puppet strings can hear me."

"But I hope you can. And I hope they can. And I hope you can make it clear to them, as you approach your final moments and die in, so I'm told, one of the most agonizing ways that human ingenuity has ever developed, you make it clear to your masters that they should not have come to earth, because that death is all they will find here." (As written by Kite Winters)

To me, it's a big blur. Apparently, I got another piece of my brain blown off. Once a day they give me caffeine to wake me up and give me an update, but it's very... blurry. Apparently Dr. Vahlen is ecstatic; she tells me in no uncertain terms that I'm being very useful with her latest research into psionics, to be used in comparison to other soldiers. Apparently, while I had the hallmark of a good candidate for the first round of psionics testing (basically, I'm some flavor of psychopath or sociopath, but have managed to be a functional member of society by making myself "do" empathy) the relevant section of my brain has a hole in it.

I authorize construction of what's essentially a sensory deprivation chamber for the purpose of psionic testing -- everyone except for Kite is very skeptical, despite what we've seen from the aliens, so this will have to be done with great precision; the inside will be about as insulated as a neutrino detector. I tell Riley to tell his brother to get some pictures of the one in Sudbury, and am reminded that Riley isn't there. The Sectoid commander interrogation is scheduled shortly. Why does Dr. Vahlen have a whip and what is she holding it with?

While I was out, they tried to put me in contact with the Sectoid Commander. Apparently it tried to eat my arm. Good to know I still have an arm. Despite me pushing it off, it thought I was dead.

We must construct additional pylons. Dr. Shen gives me something to sign. I sign it. Two arms. Yay. We need a power plant. We need to dig deeper. Apparently I broke into song when they told me that, and it counted as a yes. Wait, weren't I being retired? If that's the case, why am I still being asked to approve projects?

Apparently, I've authorized sending Julie Cook to Detroit to investigate another EXALT cell. The alternative was sending someone to India and right now I'm more worried about what they may be doing at the Canadian border... why is Canada important? Riley and Stephen are there.

It's the American Independence Day. Things have been oddly quiet. There are people I don't recognize in the hallways, and I haven't seen Bradford in a while. Guess what movie gets shown on the Hologlobe.

The alien crystal thing has been pulsing. We have to hook it up to our existing radiotelescopes. There's no power for that, so it'll have to wait. Apparently, me telling a random orderly the inaccurate-by-dream story of my startup, Robots Everywhere, was taken by Dr. Shen as an authorization to build more SHIVs. I hear my own words, cut and pasted, played back to sound coherent.

Why are they treating me like some sort of oracle? I thought I was being retired. Guys, I'm not Dalek Caan. Seriously.

"So why not just go Independence Day on us?"

"That's the thing. The aliens haven't attacked en masse because, frankly, they've seen the news. If they invade, Earth turns into Syria, Afghanistan. Either they rule over a glass parking lot, or they face centuries of guerrilla war. That's what all the alien attack simulations we've ever done since the eighties suggest -- we'd win in the end."


"They probably ran simulations on us running those simulations. So they're playing terrorist, with orbital insertion capacity. They're wearing us down rather than give us a chance to do it to them."

"Eventually one government do the math and find that it's more economically convenient to defect to the aliens to gain an advantage over the others. That would explain why attacks have been calculated to prevent a unified response. They're setting up an iterated prisoner's dilemma."

"And once anyone defects, it will just snowball from there?"

"Possibly, but that's not even necessary -- even the resources of, say, North Korea would give the aliens enough of a power base."

"So what do we do?"

"For now? We keep blowing them up. For the long term? We have to find out where they're coming from, and blow up that."

"So we keep doing what we've been doing. For how long? Months? Years?"

"We have to stall the clock until we figure out how to throw a wrench in it. So we keep fighting defensively... and we keep looking."

"Looking for what? All we know so far is that they have demonstrated adaptive behavior, and X-ALT may already have signed up to work with the aliens rather than just trying to steal their stuff."

"Actually... the Sectoid 'sorcerer' may give us a partial answer. I was expecting that to counter their mind-affecting abilities, or even replicate them, we would have to depend on Meld -- we would have to follow their script. Imagine my team's surprise when we found that, given the appropriate stimuli, a small subset of unaugmented human brains might..."

"Headmaster, Julie Cook's cover has been compromised - we don't know by whom. You have to authorize an extraction mission!"

"... Kip got it, he's good with guns... why am I sore?"

"You spent most of yesterday helping dig the elevator shaft. With a hand pick made of alien alloy swarf. Singing. For eleven hours. Then you passed out."

"... you mean I got up and did some work?"

"Yes, but - Look, you're physically fine. You're adjusting to the brain damage, though. We've had to babysit you for a few days. As far as everyone knows, you're on light duty and still calling the shots, thanks to some clever video editing."

I look at Central Officer Bradford. "Why? You've been wanting to get rid of me the whole time, why keep up a charade to keep me. Also, isn't the Council sovereign? If they dismiss me, I have to go."

"You're being kept here as a test subject for psionic work, officially. Officiously, it's good for morale if most everyone think you're back in business -- the whole mind control thing is currently being kept from our own student body, until we have any sort of solution. Fortunately the aliens haven't done much with it. Unofficially... look, there's something strange going on. Why do we have, preinstalled, a suite of audio/video editing software that coupled with our hardware could make George Lucas look like Ed Wood? Why all but the first Council reports we've received show marks of having been edited, after we got Jonny to do the editing for your day schedule from your ramblings?"

"Do you think the Council has been infiltrated?"

"No, but I don't think they're being straight with us. I mean - I knew they wouldn't be straight with YOU, but they stopped being straight with me, too."

I look around. This isn't the infirmary. It's what was supposed to be my office, which got turned into a secondary lab, then into Dr. Vahlen's personal sex dungeon, then into a privacy room for couples or groups, then into a mixture of the last two by general consensus. Now it's a hospital bed. I can still see the leather straps on the wall. Makes sense -- it's the only room in the ant farm that isn't monitored. "Is that because you're dating again?" Bradford blushes. "What's Dr. Vahlen say?"

"Mistr- Dr. Vahlen's opinion is that thanks to the unique situation on base, we've managed to do years of research in months. The Council have agreed to postpone the unveiling ceremony until after we've got the isolation chamber completed, in the hope that we can announce some countermeasure to alien puppeteering when we make that "public" at least to defense officials."

I smile. "Arright. How much lucid time do I have?"

"Probably a couple of hours. Here's a summary of what went on in the last few days that you've forgotten about, and here's the things we actually need to consult over..."

I get the idea that we've had this conversation a few times before. For one, I half-remember Bradford blushing a lot more.


Kip leads a squad to Detroit - everyone else has to stay here to help keep up the pretense that we're not all getting evicted at a moment's notice, so he takes a SHIV along. Squaddies Sato, Zajac, Matthews, and King will go along to retrieve Ms. Cook -- her cover was blown by text message, apparently, so the extraction operation is rushed; her job is to retrieve or at least break the network taps she deployed at the beginning of the operation, and vamoose.

I have put the full report on record, because its possible implications are frightening, but here's a summary.

(exalt operation, detroit, smashed slum, extraction; genemodded exalt guys with lasers show up; kip in charge, SHIV, Sato, Zajac, Matthews, Emily King, rookies; no casualties; altercation with police when leaving because they were told exalt were govt agents; UFO landing alarm sounding before Skyranger is even back)

Kip took to the Base Gym after the Debrief on Detroit was over. Not one to really go in for pumping iron or hitting the bag like all the gung-ho Marine types, he just needed something to keep him occupied, and running the treadmill was something he'd found kept him from idling. The pace set high enough that it took the bulk of ones attention on putting one foot in front of the other is exactly what he needed.

He didn't particularly enjoy running as a team lead, but with so many rookies running around as well as the turn over for experienced troops it was hard to keep playing grunt. With Kay on light duty, everyone was trying to help fill in where they could. He had tried to joke with the SHIV operators during the Extraction that they'd given him the run of the mission because “It's Detroit, I'm sure HQ thinks no one will notice a new crater or two here” But it's not quite as funny when the locals are willing to put up with alien sympathizers just because they can keep the damned lights on and the 'good guys' can't.

The mission was another fine piece of work, ducking laser blasts from roof hopping mutates while keeping Ms Cook uncooked. Zajac and Sato were so pumped up from taking pot shots at X-ALT that they even jumped up to take the Interception run in Newfoundland, leaving the actual Canadian behind to deal with the government fallout and the ensuing mountain of paperwork that dealing with the L.E.O.'s.

Kips report to Bradford stated that he couldn't begrudge the pair of troopers more action and another kick at the can before heading back to jobs in their home countries, that kind of zeal is something they the planet needed. Bradford had just looked thankful that he'd gotten a mission report that didn't contain the words “Dakka” “Defenestration” or “Bite My Shiny Metal Ass”.

The Central Officer was less enthused about X-ALT playing up the Men In Black card to get past Local Law Enforcement (the exact quote from the report was “Who needs mind control when you have people that are just plain gullible”), but Bradford pointed out it was not within their chain of command to “go knocking common sense into their heads with a rifle butt”. Kip had decided to leave out his follow up suggestion of giving the offending police officer a colonoscopy with his armour's grapple gun in hopes of finding his brain off the record, HQ's PR department had enough to deal with at the moment.

(As written by Kip Hawley)

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