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"We're coming down to the wire here. Now that we've backed the aliens into a corner, I think we'll see what they're really made of. Personally, I expect nothing short of pure desperation in their resistance - they invested too much to go down without a fight."

"Dr. Shen, you seem really optimistic."

"I suspect we've seen the best they could throw at us. At this rate, if things continue as they have been, we will win by attrition. Something else worries me."

"What's that?"

"We've been taking apart the... dreadnought, was it? while Dr. Vahlen's team performs the interrogations. Some parts have obviously been manufactured on Earth. The laser cannon especially, is clearly derived from our aircraft weaponry - except that there is no obvious way for the aliens to have had access to it; no Meld was used in its manufacture, and they never recovered an interceptor."

"So X-ALT is working with the aliens?"

"Possibly in a sharing-technology capacity. But how would they get a hold of a fighter laser that just got decommissioned?"

I see where he's going. "Someone on the Council? But why. You said it yourself, we're winning!"

"Or maybe that's what we are supposed to believe."

"Heh, I just said you were being optimistic..."

"I am. I'm rather hoping someone demonstrates to me that I'm being paranoid."

I nod - I'm trying to come up with a good argument for that. In the meantime, let's get back to work on the dangly thrusters. We don't have many and we can't reliably replicate them, but manufacturing a few more flying armor suits should be possible. "Now, with how precisely these can be throttled, suppose that we take a quadcopter IMU and..."

"... So, as we were able to evince from the interrogation, the Armored Dangly creature is no more human than a baby born with anencephalia. While we can confirm that there is human nervous tissue in the body, tests with a live specimen show that it has no detectable sentience or propriocognition. The human-tissue danglies are not abductees, they were merely grown from abductee samples. The aliens are not in the business of making unwilling cyborgs from us out of spite - that would be poor strategy on their part. Know that what you're shooting has human DNA, because it's true, but also know that it won't have any amount of human intelligence, creativity, I suppose you could say spirit if you are so inclined."

The one willing cyborg in this whole mess, Vee, isn't there to listen to Dr. Vahlen's explanation about the human danglies; I'm not sure where she went. These seminars are optional, and only about half the students are attending - the other didn't much care. The one about the elite ork interrogation is going to get a lot more attention, since these orks seem to be more clever, if not more intelligent - by the look of it, this was achieved by training and negative conditioning, rather than more surgery. That the elite orks have earned their pips, so to speak, and were wearing armor with at least some decoration indicates that the aliens as a whole do have some sort of culture.

Kite could probably answer that, but she's been... distant since surviving the mind-blast. Kip is assisting with preliminary testing on the Soul Sphere -- it does look like a powerup from Doom after all -- but has been cautioned against trying to poke at it.

Gabriela seems to be quite literally in Hell, specifically Dante's Inferno, that she studied in Catholic school in San Luis Potosí. Whatever the lich did to her mind, it only took after a REM phase -- and it got her stuck in a fiery pit. We're keeping her heavily sedated for now.

The Firestorm came back. By the look of it, it bounced off the shielded UFO even with the drogues open, fell, and the drogues correctly yanked the main parachutes out at the specified height. I'm fairly sure that the Canadian authorities got a good look at it, but it wasn't tampered with (that we can tell), and we got it promptly shipped back to us as soon as it was brought in an area with cell phone signal and messaged its location to us. Given how uncooperative the Canadians have been, this is odd.

"I have to admit, the moniker of 'lich' is appropriate. This being shouldn't be alive. at all."

"Looks damn well dead to me, it blew itself up!"

"What I mean is, most of its internal organs are atrophied past the point of functioning. It... he, as you can see we are dealing with a male... kept himself alive essentially out of sheer willpower. Of course, that is a somewhat less incredible feat when you consider that the creature's brain natively allows for-"

This thing had around six seconds to get into Lily's head, figure out how to communicate with her, and talk her into siding with him - nothing like the neural control of a sectoid sorcerer. As far as we can tell, there wasn't even any rough brainwashing involved -- influence, sure, but the lich made his point to her.

We need to catch one alive. We need to know how many there are. It may look like we're kicking ass, but for all we know there's a fleet of six billion ships coming upon us. Maybe they only wanted our DNA, and now that they can build a better dangly and a better laser gun thanks to us, they don't need us anymore and can just blow up the planet.

"Maybe they want to see our psionic potential. The only hints of an alien culture we've seen, have been around liches and sorcerers -- it's possible that they treat psionic ability the way that we treat sapience, it's their discriminant as to what constitutes a person rather than an animal to be butchered. "

"What, they want to uplift us?"

"No, I don't think so. Rather, much like ourselves when we say we want a live specimen -- they may want to try to talk to the organ grinder rather than the monkey."

"They seem to have the same notion of heaven and hell than we do."

"With respect, I doubt it, that's culturally specific - the creature probably just took what was in Lily and Gabriela's mind."

We go back and forth. Kite and Kip are with me in the first row of the lich autopsy; nearly all the students are watching this, for the occasion a university-style medical theatre has been set up. I want everyone to get the best look we can at what I suspect is our true enemy. Vahlen continues her impromptu lesson, and we continue to speculate.

"... Doctor Vahlen, you do know you've been using your tentacle corset the whole time right?"

Guess that's no longer a secret. We're treated to a very well coordinated multiple facepalm. I hadn't seen Bradford blush yet, too.

Thanks to having captured one of the elite orks, we can now reassemble alien battle rifles in small, medium and large sizes; the problem is balancing that against a need for more Firestorms, since our supplies of alloys are limited. Dr. Shen did finish a flying SHIV, which got named RUDOLPH as soon it got running lights, and has been letting his staff have a round of battlebots with the older models; the self-repair routines are working well enough that the overhead is minimal. That we can manufacture self-repairing robot tanks with plasma blasters, without using any alien technology, is... tempting, to be perfectly honest.

The perception that we are winning the war has been bolstered by the fact that rumor is that the Council wants to decrease our funding, and that the world news have gone back to giving at least some time to non-alien-invasion-related events.

"I accept the fact that there could be risks in studying this alien device, but the enemy leaves us with no other choice."

The Soul Sphere has been put in a faraday cage so tight that it could double as a neutrino detector. We start poking it today. Our infiltrator in France confirms that X-ALT is, oddly enough, getting ready to pull out of the country - they are planning to go dormant for a while and "let events develop". We won't know more than that until the agent is pulled out; all we've heard is some alien infiltration on a dam, and something about Furies. I immediately think about the sentient human-alien-hybrid tanks from Battlezone, but who knows.

Gabriella is expected to make a full recovery phsyically... except that she hasn't woken up. I've half a mind to contact the priest of her parish and ask him to perform an exorcism; if she was the churchy type, there's a chance of her belief and a familiar voice breaking through her nightmare. Kite has been at her bedside a number of times - she confirmed the contents of her dreams, but doesn't think that she is able to affect them yet. She's been psi-sparring with Kip; tomorrow we'll know if the next group of candidates has any psi ability.

"Same trajectory?"


"The Firestorm is still being fixed, and the Canadian and American governments already repossessed our interceptors..."

"Bet they're in a hangar next to the Avro Arrow. I guess keep an eye on it. Maybe they can be arsed to deal with it."

"Looks like it landed near Guelph, Ontario... Nothing we can do about it. Wait... Looks like AA fire forced it off the ground already!"

Canadian military and police have no forces there that could have done that - must've been someone local. I'd say Canadian rednecks are profoundly undergunned compared to American ones, but after meeting Kip, I know that to not be true. Hmm. For a moment, I hope...

If they are risking to send a lich to look around in a small UFO, it'd be a great target -- of course, we can't get to it. We watch the UFO land near Guelph unopposed, and leave after a few minutes, just in time to let the air force take potshots at it. We have no idea what happened there; Bradford hopes it doesn't do too much damage.

Polina, Tova, Sarah and Archie are graduating - they have seen enough action to get back to their home countries and in turn teach how to fight the aliens. Oddly, the flying boat brings us no replacement; this leaves a little bit more room in the barracks, save for one room which is repossessed by Dr. Shen to store the new mass-produced drone tanks in.

Doctrine had to be changed again to cover liches; more so than sorcerers, they are now the priority target. The dreadnought is explained in as much detail as we can, and after a quick vote, the decision is made to include in the dangly file the information that some danglies may have been grown from human cells - the file details how these beings do not have human minds.

I expected more outrage at that; our doctrine file exists mostly for military use and, well, this is the first war in which we haven't fought other humans; danglies, like everything else, are simply the enemy.

Work begins on a containment facility for the Soul Sphere; we're calling it a Gollop Chamber at the request of the guys who did the design. It's built as deep as we can go, the only other facility on that level is our geothermal plant - hopefully, that will be sufficient to shield it. Vertical piping allows it a narrow view of the sky if we so choose, with huge stone cylinders moving aside to uncover the hole. Calisthenics has been replaced with digging this as an option - we have enough robotic diggers, of course, but digging a hole is excellent exercise.

Whatever the small UFO did a few days ago, it's followed by a much larger trace - this is big enough to be seen optically; it looks like an anime space battleship, bristling with guns on all sides; if it's intended to land, it better have some good landing legs. It's around the size of the defunct ISS, except this is all solid metal rather than solar panels.

"Its active sensors are blanketing its surroundings, it's like it's searching for something..."

"Can we intercept it?"

Given its erratic movement - Shen notes in admiration that if that thing was working on chemical rockets, it'd be using one moon launch worth of fuel every thirty seconds -- our best bet is to launch our Firestorms scattershot and hope that one is close enough for an active interception after its suborbital hop.

The battleship finds what it was looking for: our satellite. For the next forty minutes, we are blind. NORAD calls us to let us know that they've got a F-102 armed with a nuclear Falcon missile out of mothballs, and will launch it if our interception fails; ICBMs do not have the ability to hit a moving target and would surely hit the ground below.

The engineering team sets up the transceivers on the Firestorms to act as a local positioning system and relay to ground stations as they reenter, so that one of them can perform the interception. It was a contingency plan from the beginning, in case we had to use the drone spaceplanes to go hunt a target in high orbit; hopefully it will work within the ionosphere.

"Target is padlocked!"

The spaceplane reports a number of firings and a number of hits on its frame before signaling shutdown and drogue opening; we tell as much to NORAD. They reply not two minutes later that the alien battleship has stopped weaving around and is on an unpowered reentry trajectory - it's going down! The mission control room explodes with cheering.

"From what we could get out of its NAVCOM, there are no liches or dreadnoughts on this flight; the crew is mostly sectoids and orks. Definitely a military mission. The Headmaster will assign crew to assault the wreck..."

I'm going to take Kip and Vee with me for this one, as well as Grant, Kowalski and Semyenov. I understand wanting to blind us, but this doesn't make sense strategically. No dreadnoughts; are they still making them, and we faced a prototype? Are they running out of resources? But if so, why hold the big gun in until now? That spaceship alone could've trashed a city Independence Day style by itself, and without suborbital interceptors we couldn't have stopped it even two weeks ago.

The plan is to briefly land in Seattle, send one of our two spare microsatellites to Wallops Field via overnight courier to be launched by an Antares rocket, and get coverage back in forty-eight hours.

Vee stomps on the Skyranger with the "Dreadnaught-booster" upgrade to her cybersuit ready; we don't expect any of the big bots on this mission, but it will be a good field test for the new systems. The extra armor doesn't slow it down any; we've moved from a diesel generator, to high energy batteries, to... "Yes, that is an Elerium power plant, essentially half a Firestorm engine block. It provides power for the upgraded linear actuators, and the new EMP pulse system."

Vee steps away from the Skyranger. "Basically, it'll electrocute anything around me, and hopefully force robotic enemies to reboot."

"Wait, how about the suit itself?" Vee smiles. "I turn all the software stuff off" the suit makes, I kid you not, the Windows 95 shutdown sound "trip the EMP with a mechanical switch" and to that there's a flash, and a pungent smell of ozone, and all the lights and the automated forklift next to Vee shut down "and then take the suit out of sleep mode!" She lifts her particle cannon and smiles. "I'm taking advantage of my meat bits, which they can't do."

"Oh, makes sense. So where's the mechanical switch?"

"Like I said, I'm taking advantage of my meat bits!"

Kip harrumphs at me. I should probably leave it at that. We're all decked out in power armor; Kip and Kowalski have the heavier plasma rifles that we got off the orks, while I'm still using my scatter laser. Unfortunately, it turns out a plasma shotgun is apparently not feasible - it'd behave more like a flamethrower, and my decision to make one anyway was overridden by the fact that every single weapons dev team member I asked told me that they don't want to encourage me to walk up to aliens any more than I already do. I take one of the plasma rifles as well; it's been adapted from fitting an ork's hand to ours, and I like the large grip. Plus, it's made of alien alloys; I can still use it as a club.


"How's it like being home?" I ask Kip. He says that I'm a few hundred kilometers off, but this place does look like where he's from before reforestation: there's a huge crate in the ground, and the landscape looks lunar. Probably because of the huge space battleship that made this crater only a little while ago. There's stuff on fire and pools of toxic coolant spilled all over the place, so the Skyranger lands on the back section of the battleship - by the look of it, the aliens either used to carry smaller UFOs on it, or were about to set up being able to. "I want one of these, dammit." Heidi reasons that in case the big guns turn on again, it's best to park the Skyranger where they have a blind spot.

Of course, this thing is never taking off again.... however, the lights and shield doors are on; it must have redundant power supplies.

Vee breaches... and finds herself face to face with a sectoid MEC that was coming to check on our landing; its attendant slinks away behind a bulkhead. She doesn't stop, and clotheslines it with her rocket fist. While it's down, Kip walks over, raises a hand, and mimics crushing its throat - the armor spasms out of control as its occupant dies. "See your rocket punch and raise you a force choke!" So much for the bulkhead that the sectoid was hiding behind - the little alien dodges the falling metal and skitters over to look at the dead MEC.

For a moment, I have a vivid image of the sectoid cry over its dead companion.

"Headmaster, SHOOT!"

I pull the plasma gun's trigger just in time to see the sectoid aim at my head. "Thanks, Kowalski." I'm about as surprised as he is that I hit it. Dammit, focus! It only looks humanoid. It's not sentient. What got into me?

"Right. Advancing." Vee moves over to the next bulkhead, where we find a destroyed power plant -- probably the reason why the Skyranger didn't get shot to pieces -- and a Meld canister, which she secures. "Coast is clear."

"Vee, hold it!" Bradford calls. "We got your feed on instant replay, there's movement at your two o' clock, down the ramp."

"Got it." She gives her grenade launcher over to remote control, and it fires -- orks and at least one more sectoid MEC scatter. The MEC jumps up to where she is. "Hurry up, guys!" I call. I run forward, and hide behind a door frame when I spot the MEC that jumped up on the dais. When did they get jump packs?

I fire, not really used to the recoil that a plasma gun has compared to a laser. That's a hit, and from ten paces! Well, there's also that the plasma globs are the size of my stretched hand...

The rest of the squad gets into a firing line behind me, and I duck - the MEC charges blindly, the way I might have, and ends up being melted down by combined plasma fire. Kowalski got the last shot.

"Spread out and take down the orks when they climb up!"

Vee takes point on the dais and we position ourselves to both sides. "Right hand rule." The phones in our armors will compile a map for us as we go, but this UFO looks big enough to get lost in, and I'd rather not rely on sensors.

An ork jumps up on the dais - it looks like there's one of those air elevators, rather than the MEC having jetboots - and is promptly sent backwards in a hail of plasma; a second MEC becomes visible from activating his shield, which is enough for Vee to cripple it with her particle cannon and Semyenov to finish it.

"We got all the time in the world, the more they come to us, the better" I remind the squad. "What else is down there?"

"Wells, drone, two yarnalls" Bradford tells us. The battle scene is being relayed through our camera to the hologlobe, and voxelized so that they get a bird's eye view - and can identify threats with a calm mind.

"Kowalski, rocket! Grant, cover him!" I call.

"Can't get a direct shot!"

"Right then, everyone light 'em up!" There's a parapet - we slide towards it, raise our rifles, and start shooting down.

Kip bags a yarnall before it cloaks... and three armored danglies and another MEC show up from the side! "Fuck, ambush!"

"Fire and maneuver! Keep shooting!"

"SORCERER!" Fuck, a good ambush!

"Grant is compromised!"

We got cocky, and now we're paying for it.

Grant is aiming at me, two of the danglies boosted upwards with one landing behind us, and the third hid behind the debris Vee made earlier and managed to land a hit on her. All our crossfire did was take out the drone and put the wells in defense mode.

Then we get lucky - the MEC, who has gained a shield from the intervention of probably another sectoid, rushes towards Vee. "I see the little guy! Next to the sorcerer!" Kowalski calls. He already had the rocket launcher out, and fires in the sectoids' general direction.

The MEC recoils at the loss of its shield, which is enough for Vee to walk up to it and wrestle it off the dais, missing the sorcerer by inches.

"Why don't I fuck with your head for once, eh?" Kip flips off the dangly that got behind us, then closes his fist - the dangly boosts upwards in a fleeing reflex, and smashes its head on the ceiling.

Time to dare to be stupid. I dash across the dais, shoot at the sorcerer... and miss. The danglies rain plasma on us; when Kowalski is hit, the sorcerer looks at Kip with what I imagine is disdain, and my normally unflappable friend ends up cowering behind a bulkhead. That's when Grant shoots Semyenov point blank; the poor bastard's leg almost melts. An ork that was downstairs with the other aliens pops its snout up, and finishes the guy before we have a chance to react.

"NOOO!" Kowalski pushes off and, showing a lot more self control than me, lobs a grenade at the sorcerer. Grant drops her gun, looks at her hand, and starts sobbing.

We're all pretty much out of batteries. Me and Vee try to take out one of the danglies - she exposes herself, and the wells gets a good shot, chewing through her armor.

I'm about to call "Get out of here!" when the other ork, a berserker, climbs up to the dais next to where I am. I beat him over the head with the blunt front of my plasma gun, and empty it on its helmet. "PICK ON SOMEONE YOUR OWN SIZE!"

The wells is advancing, yellow targeting beams shining out of its body. Vee runs forward, skids between it and the landed dangly, then says something in a foreign language - rather than the Windows shutdown sound, her suit emits a brief sound file of an angelic choir. The dangly recoils, and the cybernetic disc folds up and falls to the ground, still intact but disabled. "Fear my meaty bits!" Vee shouts.

The dangly above us growls at Kip. Kip, who seems to have gotten a grip after the sorcerer died, growls back, and the cyborg recoils.

Grant takes out the dangly near Vee, while Kowalski shoots at the one above while it's confused.

Vee walks over to the wells, and calmly punches the cybernetic disc into the ground, then stands up on it and says something else in a foreign language.

"What's that?"


Sounds Greek to me. We regroup at the dais to reload and lick our wounds. Semyenov is well and truly dead, but after we use our medikits to lick our wounds, only Dee's armor is compromised. I wish the arc thrower had a low-voltage setting, I could use it as an arc welder.

"We said left hand rule, right?"

"No, we said right!"


"... Guys, that way."

We follow Kip down a a door giving to a short corridor - looks like power is starting to go out. The corridor stops abruptly, a section of the ship is flat out missing - looks like the crash blew up one of the main guns. We turn around, and keep going; ahead are three small towers that used to project the ship's reentry shield. The bridge is up ahead, although no lights are on. There's little choice but to advance on the narrow corridors besides the ship's exposed keel, and we keep going on the right one. "Careful, a grenade here would really fuck us up."

I use the last of our medical gel as epoxy to patch up Vee's armor, so that she can take point again. Kip is the best shot among us, so he's going to get up on one of the towers while we advance. Low growls resonate through the metal hull.

The front section is largely on fire; whatever caught, it makes the metal too hot to touch for more than a moment, so taking cover is difficult.

We set up a firing position, and Vee goes ahead to scout - hiding in the corridor between us and the burning wreck of the bridge is one wounded ork, who manages to get a shot in at Dee before she punches it into the flames.

"Is that it?"

"Not to my count, keep going" Bradford advises.

"All right. Kip, Diane, you're the only ones with full armor. Go on ahead with me, if we find anything you can't handle, we run back to this position. Maciej, Vee, set up on the towers and be ready to cover us.

"No, you're staying back. You're bleeding." I look at myself. Kip's got a point.


Kip and Grant advance. "There they are! Three orks, one's berserk!" They're on the other corridor - we're not sure how they got across. "Fire at will!"

The berserker runs forward, but it'd have to cross fire to get to us. Me and Vee lay down suppression fire while Grant takes one of the orks down - the other hunkers down to hide from the barrage.

"Come out to play!" Kip calls, and points at where he figures the ork is - whatever Kip did with its head doesn't do much damage, but makes it poke its head out for a moment. That's enough for Vee to aim her grenade launcher.

We look around -- there's a berserker looking for us. It's probably going to come down this corridor, so we find cover and get ready to fire at it when it shows up. Vee fires her gun in the bridge's general direction, and elicits a roar in response. "Come and get us!"

It does. After getting shot up, it all but lands on Vee in tatters - she throws it back into the fire, and the impact breaks the bridge off from the ramps that were holding it up. The rest of the ship lurches, and we make a quick retreat, stopping only to get Semyenov's body into Vee's hands.

Taking off, we see that the battleship is a worse mess than when we landed - not much to salvage on this one.

"Guys, I think we accidentally the UFO."

"What do you mean accidentally?"

I have one more letter to write to a family. Semyenov was mostly a covert agent - he helped us ferret out X-ALT in Russia; this was his first UFO assault.

Kip's leadership in that crazy gauntlet was inspiring; he recovered from a sorcerer's mental assault in a manner of seconds. He doesn't speak much on the way back, though.

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