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We're surrounded by mechanized infantry brigades from the American and Canadian armies; I have to guess that the latter were invited, being as we're ten minutes from the border and they seem to be working in concert.

Gabrielle is still unconscious and tied to the lich tightly, with Kite keeping an eye on both of them - the plan is for them to get home in the Skyranger while we fly the intact UFO on a shallow suborbital hop back home. This requires me to wire the Skyranger's NAVCOM into the UFO, which is just the sort of thing Montgomery Scott could pull out of his behind by the end of the episode. We've done this in a lab setting with the small UFO we captured, so all I have to do is listen to Dr. Shen's instructions and improvise a little where the connections are different - the alien NAVCOM has a remarkably small amount of schizo-tech in it.

I used to be good at what I do, but Scotty I ain't (he's fictional, for one), and there are several holes in my head which I'm sure aren't helping my ability to do creative engineering any, so thank the facilities guys for a good video link so Dr. Shen can direct my hands. So we're stuck in the middle. At least the floodlights are making it easier to work.

"We have orders from your superior officer authorizing this materiel transfer!"

This should be good. "Good to know! Hello, I am the Headmaster of the XCOM Academy! So, who exactly gave the order?"

"The Chairman of the Council!"

I'm almost done wiring the Skyranger's NAVCOM up to the UFO; we've already done this once in a lab setting, so I know what connects to what -- still a nice bit of McGyvering, but not a miracle.

"Okay, let's hear it! Put him on the horn!" Jonny gestures to me, I nod, and he takes over the discussion from me as I work.

"He's not -"

"You said you got your orders half an hour ago, put him on the damn horn! Call him back if he's hung up, this is important enough to move two cavalry brigades, it's important enough to make a phone call."

There are a few seconds of silence.

"This Council of Nations has convened to approve." Beat. "We urge you to keep that in mind as you proceed."

"Uh, Mr. Chairman, acknowledge that. We're standing down in a moment, let us power down the UFO, dangerous and finicky job, you see. Gonna be a couple of minutes. Before you hang up, what did you have for breakfast?"


"Sorry, say again?"


Jonny smiles broadly, stands up, and starts talking into the PA like he would on a stage mic. "Oh, that's interesting. Eggs-traterrestrial? |Eggs-terminate? Guys, I'm a DJ, I can recognize autotune when I hear it, you know. Tell you what, why don't we just take this thing home to our base, you know, neutral territory?"

No reply from the other side, just noise as the megaphone is passed around.

"By the way, for assurance and quality control purposes, this conversation has been recorded and will be sent to ALL the Council member nations. You know, the ones who aren't here?"

There is no reply from the armored columns. Then, the previous voice takes over again. "Acknowledged that, Strike one! You are still under orders to stand down!"

Brilliant! We're good for takeoff; Dr. Shen sent us the vectors for a safe suborbital hop, and we can do the landing math en route. I tell everyone to brace.

"Order acknowledged and look at us ignoring it! Speaking of orders, you're ordered to stand clear, this thing is really loud when it takes off!"

We leave in a shower of lights from below, but nobody tries to shoot.

The army showing up could have been a problem. Once safely in the air, for a given value of safe, Kite went up to where Heidi was flying the Skyranger and turned the ship's comms off. Heidi was flying with both hands on the stick, using Gabrielle's armor GPS for guidance since the Skyranger's NAVCOM had been ripped off and wired onto the UFO; the troop transport was flying back to the island using airliner lanes rather than the shallow suborbital hop it normally made, which so far had made for a boring flight.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Ma'am?"

Kite sighed, "I'm about to ask you to do something that the Headmaster will retroactively approve of as soon as I explain the situation, but Bradford and Vahlen would both insist should be done where they can be watching. In a few minutes, I am going to say 'Go Time.' If the next thing you hear from me isn't me saying, 'All clear,' open the rear hatch and dump us out to fall to our deaths."

"This is neither a yes or a no, mind you, but I'm gonna need you to tell me why I shouldn't respond to that by seeing if an Arc Thrower works any better on you than it does on the Headmaster."

"If it works, Gabrielle doesn't die the way Lily did. If it doesn't, the Gabrielle we know would prefer that over being taken that way. If it goes -really- bad, we're all fucked anyway because we're sure to end up running into more than one lich at once sooner or later, but at least you and the plane get to fight another day."

Heidi's first reaction was to scoff, but she stopped herself. Few of the 'students' of X-com ever saw Kite show fear. Murderous resolve, sure. Unholy blistering fury, all the time. Vindictive malevolence, several times a day. While logically, it was easy to say everyone feels fear sometimes, it was something else to see it when theoretically safe.

"And if I say no?"

"Since I can't guarantee I'm going to win this, I don't have the option of hitting you with the arc thrower and putting the ship on an autopilot, especially since the autopilot box got ripped out of the cockpit. So it means that it waits until if it goes wrong, it's in the heart of our base, and the best case suppression outcome means a hell of a lot more than three corpses."

"What do you mean? You're scaring me."

"If this goes wrong, then all I can do is try to convince Kay to order Vahlen to keep Gabi sedated until she and the lich are both killed. If this goes Very Wrong, the psychic space raisin gets us both. Since I'll be shucking my armor first so that the bitch can't use me to fly her in for a nice landing, if you vent the bay, all three of us drop instead of the lich being able to broadcast the Academy's secrets that are in my head, as well as those in Gabrielle's."

Heidi sighed, "You have seven minutes. If I don't get that all clear, I'm not coming down there."

Kite nodded, "Good."

It definitely didn't feel good taking her armour off in the presence of an alien, even an unconscious and theoretically restrained one. But preparation. The armour wouldn't do her any good if things went bad right now, and it could potentially make things a lot worse.

Kite crouched, putting her left palm on Gabrielle's forehead, the right on the lich's. "There's a lot of people who'd give me reams of shit for not reciting a vulcan mind meld chant if they were here right now. But you see, Vulcans, they were advocates of peaceful communication and de-escalating conflicts whenever possible. And I think you'd agree we're well past that point. It's go time."

Darkness and fog. Well, that wasn't too surprising with bodies unconsicous. Dimly heard, dangerous sounds in the distance, reaching into Kite's thoguhts and pushing hindbrain buttons of primal fear. She smiles, and turns to walk towards them. Heavy footsteps clank against a floor that isn't there. Kite took her armour off, but here she is armoured once again, though not in any suit that passed under Shen's eyes in the design stages. Simple steel, and lots of it, clanking her way forward through the dark.

"You want me scared, you managed to pull that off." She can't see the lich or Gabrielle yet, but at least one, if not both, can definitely hear her. "Can't say that's likely doing what you expected."

A bit more walking through the dark, and Kite started to be able to see them. The lich bent over Gabrielle, one hand almost stroking her, at odds with the other three holding her wrists and throat. Still struggling, but weakly. Good. Could be better, but could be a whole lot worse. "I mean, I'm sure you know that it's one of the fundamental aspects of cognition, the whole fight/flight/freeze thing. Goodness knows you've gone to enough trouble to fuck with it in your clone armies."

The lich turned away from Gabrielle to focus on Kite's approach, drowning her in a wave of overwhelming fear, crushing, choking, strangling terror pervading every fiber of her consciousness.

Kite grinned, lunging forward to tackle her enemy, breaking its grip on Gabrielle and bearing it to the ground. "You see, I don't work quite right." She punches the thing repeatedly, not the face, but the joints: elbows, wrists, and shoulders. She doesn't know if these aliens have 'transcended' prioperception enough for hurting its self-image to actually affect it's ability to fight back, mind to mind, but given that it hasn't managed to hit back yet, it seems a good sign. "I only have one of the three reactions." Kite strikes again, imaginary bones break under imaginary gauntletted hands. "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you which one."

She keeps talking as she keeps attacking, mostly to make sure there's a voice in here for Gabrielle to hear other than what the lich was trying to force-feed her. "Now, I suppose this is a bit of cultural projection here, but even if you don't have it yourselves, you've probably picked up that among humanity there's a prevailing sense that it's wrong to keep hitting someone when they're down."

"I'm not an anthropologist, but the big money's on this coming form how long humanity's been the alpha species on earth. It's the sort of thing you can say when you control everything, our distant ancestors were prey, and we'd really like mercy if someone were to make us prey again, so we tout it as a virtue and hope it catches on. But when you've been prey, personally? Well, it takes on a whole different cadence, doesn't it?"

"From that perspective, wrong to hit someone when they're down? That's silly! It's the best possible time to put the boot in, and make sure they don't get back up. Just to make things clear? You're not getting back up."

"You're going to die. You're going to scream in agony, while I force you to endure every last moment until the good doctor feels she's stripped every scrap of information we could possibly want out of you."

Kite smiled, hearing footsteps behind her. "Gabrielle! Good of you to join us! Just quickly, which side are you on?"

The lich actually screamed as Gabrielle brought a heavy boot down on its hip, shattering several bones. Kite laughed, "That's what I like to hear. Help me keep this fucker pinned so we can at least mostly wake up." Kite shifted her position to let Gabrielle take over part of the hold.

"You've done a pretty thorough job of roughing the bitch up. Mind if I take a few swings just to be sure?"

"Not at all! Not at all. Just don't hit the head, their bones are fragile after all and we want it thinking, feeling. Alive. But scared. There's nothing wrong with giving it a bit more to be scared of."

Kite withdrew slowly, chuckling after she and Gabrielle coughed a few times in perfect synchronicity. She could feel, and hated feeling, the steady trickle of energy passing from them both into the alien. But it wasn't the alien in control, ripping the life from their blood and bones as it willed. Now it was the two of them, force-feeding it the bare minimum to keep it alive, to force it to continue an existence it no longer wanted, for fear of what was coming.

Kite let herself flop backwards onto the deckplates, laughing a cruel little giggle. "Heidi. All clear. Take us home."

(As written by Kite Winters)

The arrival of a live (arguably) lich has sent the base in a tizzy that I hadn't seen since our first alien capture; we get back to base first, and land the UFO barge with relatively little incident. Officially, it's being dismantled for parts; in reality we're going to complement the atmospheric shields with a proper canopy. The plan is to use it to help rebuild Earth's comsat networks eventually. I discussed turning it into a gunship on the way over, but Dr. Shen is skeptical - we still have no idea about what actual orbital combat might entail.

Steward is led to the medical wing for a good look - Dr. Vahlen wants to know how he's walking around. I have the usual collection of holes in me, but this time around everyone is too busy to yell at me for it: the science team has to do a quick MRI of Steward's brain and then get ready for containing a lich, the engineering team has a UFO to hide, and the operations team has the same UFO to hide in the realm of paperwork.

Bradford tells me that they'll put me under for removing the med-gel from my abdomen and stitching me up again, and let me sleep after. I'm too tired to obect.

I wake up to discover that the whole place is in lockdown: the interrogation of the lich is about to begin. Dr. Vahlen has decided to let Kite, Kip and Gabrielle talk to it -- her -- before making with the invasive brain scans; since we don't want to have to isolate more than one person, the "interviews" will happen separately. Gabrielle is still sedated, so hers will simply involve getting readings before and during probing; if she gets any extra information when she comes to, all the better. When one psionic crewmember is interfacing (communing?) with the lich, the other will stand guard and be ready to hit the big red button. Even past that level of precaution, for the duration, everyone has been disarmed, all the SHIVs have been locked into sentry mode and let loose in the corridors on a wall-following algorithm, and much to my annoyance no food has been left in the outpatient wing where I am with Steward who, as it turns out, got shot up pretty badly but will not require intensive care. He tells me that someone came over to propose the MEC treatment to him, but he doesn't know who. Hmm...

Well, now we know that the crystalline body suits work; Dr. Jewell was on the right track after all, and some of the embroidery on the lich's robes was not ceremonial after all. Gabrielle is still sleeping -- it's natural sleep, so there's that, but we still have a SHIV in her room just in case. We're almost done building the containment chamber for the Soul Sphere. Once again, I have a letter to a family to write.... emergencies over, so no sense in putting it off. I guess that if we absolutely have to let someone be able to turn invisible by the simple expedient of wearing a perception filter, Kip is the safest to give it to. This first type of crystalline bodysuit is called a "SEP Armor" by the simple fact that by now everyone on base has read the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy, which explains why our doctrine file now has "Don't Panic" in large friendly letters across the back cover.

Every time we managed to get information off an alien, they changed their tactics; Bradford is convinced that their back is almost broken, from what little we got out of the lich. I'm worried that they'll just carpet-nuke the planet. Vee's take on it is that the aliens are a splinter group from a much bigger civilization. The invaders are outcasts from this civilization, quite likely those with very loose ethics and morality, and are attacking earth to harvest it out of desperation.

The implants from the lich's brain were surprisingly simple; someone has made them into an addition for Kite's collar, and we discover that they still do at least part of their job when in proximity to a brain rather than inside one. Or maybe it's just wearing a fallen enemy's totem of power. I swear, this psionics stuff does look like magic at times.

We've finished the containment chamber. And that's when things went wrong. We were just ready to start getting readings off the thing, when we turned on the monitoring system -- telemetry, just to be safe there's no direct wiring between the chamber and the rest of the system -- when the skylight that goes from the chamber to the surface opened half way. Dammit! It's on a linear actuator, and it went to the default midpoint position.... We get one brief pulse of unknown bandwidth out of the device, then nothing. Dr. Vahlen thinks that we will have to risk asking one of our psionic crewmembers to try to talk to it. We get another crystalline bodysuit built, this one intended to bolster capacity.

Half an hour later, it starts hitting the fan. We knew where to look, and could detect a miles-long ship coming out of hiding from the far side of the Moon. The good news is that it's not sporting a swastika. The bad news is that if that's the alien mothership, it's moving in a pattern consistent with a trans-Earth injection... but much slower than its apparent size would indicate. I doubt the aliens came in with a space zeppelin. We follow tidal distortions for another three hours before determining that yes, the alien mothership - what the lich called the Temple, we assume - is capable of shielding part of its own mass. It's coming in very slowly, we assume on some kind of ion thruster.

Ominously, it will reach reentry on the morning of September 11th.

We may have an address for X-ALT's base -- for all good it'll do. last piece of the puzzle is in Japan; a cell has been located operating out of a construction site in Osaka. Oddly, this cell was just being set up when they got the order to start packing; we hope that their IT is improvised enough to let us impersonate them long enough to get a definite location.

There's also the matter of showing to the population that we're the good guys. I don't know who came up with the idea of dressing up like a sentai team, but... well, off they go, I guess.

We put up a big countdown on the Hologlobe, counting down to when the first plane hit the north tower, fourteen years to the day. The hour and minute are just a hunch, but something is coming. We've given a likely flight path for the alien's mothership to all the observatories we can, but they can't see anything.

Eventually, we get a ping from an observatory in Nigeria -- one graduate student who stayed to finish his project found the site. That is followed by a report that a number of oddly gaunt gentlemen in grey suits were converging on the place, claiming to be us. We tell the astronomer to lock himself in a closet.

The Japan team will take the flying boat, since Osaka is nearby; Jonny will take some rookies and the Skyranger. I'm still healing.


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