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The interrogation of the lich continues. She calls herself a, or the, Ethereal One. She also calls herself a failure.


After confirming that the bad guys are indeed aliens rather than X-ALT, we board the Skyranger. I don't really know these guys - Bradford has been in charge of the rotation lately, and said that despite none of these students having gone on a mission yet their simulator scores will allow them to graduate soon; best that they get some first-hand experience using our armor tech than what they'll have to make do. While it's true that we are coming off a dull period, it's in part because conventional forces have been able to respond to most alerts -- and I like to think we have something to do with it.

So, we're going out in power armor, chitin plating, and lightweight stabilized plasma rifles - all the punch of a laser assault rifle with backpack battery, but much lighter. I'm using my alloy cannon, of course.

Rasmus Baros, a paroled Greek convict. His main claim to fame is having shared a cell block with Vasilis Paleokastas. I think he could kick my ass with one hand behind his back. Lucy Kelly, from an IRA family, washed out of police academy for what I'm assured were political reasons. Abby Evans and Robert Murphy, military like most of our guys, stuck in beween getting washed out for indiscipline and moving onto the specialization tracks for skill. They know Slenderman tactics better than I do. I'm bringing one mass-produced SHIVs along - number 13, which doesn't faze Lucy any, now I feel a bit culturalist - because everything shows that an expendable scout increases everyone else's efficiency, and they might as well come off an assembly line. I explain that our drones are better than what's available outside XCOM, so we'll try keep its weapon muzzled.

Hongou Marazuki is a Japanese grad student who ended up in Nigeria after being passed over by more prestigious observatories - it was a good tradeoff because they let him work to his schedule. Much to his surprise, it seems to be us and him who have detected the alien carrier, and that's it; much to our surprise as well. Bradford has rung the big bells, but any preparations going on right now are happening only on what good faith we've managed to generate. Using the power armor, we jumped on top of the main observatory building, with the Skyranger doing a brief pass and then landing in the parking lot; all we have to do is get Hongou in it. The Slendermen took pot shots at us when we dropped, but don't seem to be interested in getting too close to the Skyranger's thrusters. First things first, we unpack the SHIV and send it outside to take a look.

Six outside, one in the server room. Unfortunately, the observatory's lot is being used to store various odds and ends necessary to run a modern facility in the boonies, so there are a lot of hiding spots - water tanks, containers, even a diesel tank for the backup generator. "Follow me. Keep in cover, but remember - you can take a hit, Dr. Marazuki not so much. So, if there's shooting, you stand between it and him, got it?"

"My efforts here have been focused on studying the alien flight paths, in the hopes of determining exactly where it is they came from..." Marazuki says he's not a doctor yet. We take a quick vote, and his callsign for this mission is "Doc", so there. I kick the door to the server room open, and make a neat hole into the one slenderman's back - it was taking aim at the SHIV. My hope is to capture one of these alive; now that we can peek into their heads, maybe we can get some information. If the aliens have decided to roast the earth now that they figured they can't brainwash it, I'd like a week's notice.

Evans follows me, with everyone else bunching up around the astronomer; they're very vulnerable to a grenade or whatever vapor that slendermen barf out, but we're inside the server room and the only window has me and Evans in front of it. Now it's time to watch the SHIV get shot to pieces.

Five slendermen catch it in a crossfire, letting us learn exactly where they are - two on the roof of the living quarters, one behind each water tank, one on the cupola. There's a sixth somewhere. Surprisingly, the drone tank doesn't crap out. I have it stand down for now - let them think they blew it up. "Kelly, Murphy, stay with the doctor. Everyone else, follow me out!" I point towards the water tanks. "Everything in that general direction must die!"

Can't quite climb out of the window - but it makes for a good shooting gallery. Baros takes one down, me and Evans miss our shots but make a nice hole in the server room's wall; Kelly and Murphy shunt the scientist into a closet. One slenderman barges in from the hole, and shoots Abby in the chest. She takes it, kicks the alien down, and executes it.

"Move slowly, take the doctor to the Skyranger. I'm going to run out and give them something to shoot at!" I find myself saying. I'm in charge of tactical here, so Bradford doesn't yell at me, for once. A moment later, I'm on top of the cupola, shooting down wildly.

Lucy runs out, takes a plasma bolt to the helmet, and guns down the slenderman that shot her. This time Bradford calls me - he says this is not the sort of tactics they're supposed to be learning. I agree between reloads as I keep the slendermen behind the water tanks pinned down. On the other hand - they're taking the hits for the unarmored civilian, which is as intended.

Murphy takes his slenderman down, but he's exposed - he stopped to aim. Doctrine is to always take the easiest shot, and he can take some fire in the power armor and chitin plating, but...

Baros is more cautious - he keeps cover behind what's left of the server room structural wall, but misses his target.

A slenderman manages to hit Evans in the head - she's down. I get her vitals on my HUD - she's going to make it, if I drop what I'm doing and stabilize her. "That was a lucky shot, keep going!" I call to the team, but it doesn't help much: Baros and Murphy cower behind a wall and a truck respectively, whimpering. Dammit. Okay, regroup. "Get between the server room and the dorm! Find a spot and shoot behind it!"

Baros pops his head out to obey, and has it blown off by a plasma shot. I may be the only one who's seen it. Okay, time to jump down and start blowing stuff up. The legs of my armor make a sick noise on landing, but I don't hurt. "Raaaaagh! Leave my guys alone!"

Dr. Vahlen clinically informs me that these slendermen seem to be slightly more coordinated than what we've observed so far. I don't register it at first -- all I know is that one man died and one woman might because I stink at being a leader. I think my leg armor fell off. Okay, stick to my strength. I run between the water tanks - never could run very fast, but a load doesn't slow me down - and shoot a slenderman. Another I break the skull of between my cannon and the water tank.

Bradford takes over comms from here. Murphy comes to his senses and gets Marazuki into the dorms; Bradford use my camera and the SHIV's to tell Kelly when it's safe to get out of the truck and take out a slenderman hiding behind a crate.

I'm about to make a dash for Evans - she's bleeding out. Bradford tells me that the slenderman on the other side of the cupola is coming for me, to take cover. My armor may or may not take another hit.

Turn around and kill. Run and risk your life to save another's.

"RUN FOR IT! WE GOT YOU COVERED!" Murphy and Kelly shoot a barrage past me. I run. I slide. I get my medkit out. "I got you! I got you!"

I don't. Rookie Evans dies in my hands, maybe because I was too slow, maybe because I hesitated, maybe because I moved her sliding over, I've pumped the cauterizing gel into a corpse.

I'm a bad leader. I have the blood of two people on my hands. Kite should've been here, Kip should've been here, we should've taken two SHIVs... anything but leaving four green warriors in the care of a crazy person. These people learned from me and now half of them are dead.

I look at Evans' body. It looks like a thing. The thought of rigging her armor to stand up and walk back to the Skyranger comes to me. I can fix everything, right? Right?

"Headmaster, we got incoming on your location. This is NOT a good time to go ape. You got a practical problem. Solve it." Dr. Shen on the comms, trying to sound professorial.

I take Evan's leg armor plating and lock it on what's left of mine.

We're in what Marazuki says are guest rooms -- it's one room with a bunch of bunk beds. It's good enough, and besides, there are rarely more than three or four people using the facility so privacy is just a spare blanket or two away. There's at least one slenderman on the roof of this building. At least it's a clear shot to the Skyranger if we can get through. We make our way through the beds, kicking some down to take cover behind.

"Okay, time to regroup." I imagine Kelly and Murphy are angry at me. I think we're just all exhausted. "Murphy, you take point - you're the only one without holes of the three of us. Kelly, shadow the doctor. I'm going to provide suppression fire. Doctor Marazuki - when we say run, run! The Skyranger's right over there" I point at the window.

I climb up the beds to get to the roof hatch, and chase off the Slenderman - the alien jumps down, and draws fire from my comrades. Marazuki stays down.

There's that guy, plus three more that are sort of slinking about near the Skyranger. The parking lot has a truck in it - they see me take position, and slink behind it. I start shooting in that general direction; my alloy cannon is the opposite of a sniper rifle, but even I can manage to hit a truck.

We trade fire, blindly. Kelly has to cover Marazuki with her arm. Okay, engines hot. The truck blows up, taking one of the slendermen with it -- the other two saunter away.

"Okay, doctor, RUN FOR IT!"

I jump down and get behind the last water tank - two slendermen there. I shoot one, and slam into the other -- he resists, pushes back. These aliens are fragile, but strong, and he got purchase on my arm. Out of ammo. The Arc Thrower earths itself on the water tank.

Marazuki starts moving.

The third slenderman, the one who stayed behind, takes aim at the scientist...

Kelly runs back, finds a spot where she can see it but it can't see her, and blows its arm off.

I'm struggling against the slenderman by the water tank when Murphy steps off from behind it and shoots it dead. Damn. Nice.

"Proper use of cover, fire and maneuver. Great job, Strike one!" Bradford enthuses. "Marazuki is safe in the Skyranger. Clean up and get out of there."

There is one Slenderman left. Kelly and Murphy pin it down while I hide to its left; Kelly feigns needing a reload just for long enough that the alien pops its head out, and I taser it.

In the Skyranger, Marazuki passes me a sd card. "From what I've observed so far, it's clear the aliens have developed a propulsion system that allows for faster than light travel..." If there is such a thing as FTL propulsion, it's probably very hard to make and maintain; it'd make sense to have one FTL wetdock that can hold a flotilla. I doubt we'll get our hands on it. "I find myself wondering how far these creatures have travelled to undertake this invasion...the resources involved are staggering. Thank you for coming to my aid...I only hope my data is beneficial to the cause."

Marazuki is sped to the research labs - we have to integrate his data with ours to try to get an ETA for the aliens' base ship. Dr. Vahlen assures him that he'll get his thesis done in the next 24 hours, for good or for ill.

Bradford orders Kelly and Murphy to grab me and sit me down in one of the conference rooms where he was lecturing our worst performers on remedial tactics. I don't complain.

Afterwards, he tells me to not blame myself for the deaths - the troopers should've known better than to act like me. It turns out that my behavior in battle has been used as an example of what not to do.

I have blood on my hands. Kite tells me to channel my hate. The truth is - I don't even feel hate. I'm just blank. Two people who were entrusted to me died because of me, and whatever else happens in my life, I have failed.

"At least the Council has activated civil protection protocols."

"What worries me is that barely anyone else has detected the ship. It looks like... Kip's ghost armor effect."

"No kidding."

"No, I mean it. Same ping on the brain's theta wave, just on a much wider scale. It's like... thinking about death, your brain wants to do something else, anything else."

"How are you fighting it?"

"We named the bogie YOU ARE NOW BREATHING AND BLINKING MANUALLY. It's on track to get to us on the morning of the 11th."

"I guess not much point in telling the Headmaster about the pink slip that finally came through either?"

"Right now? No. And in a few days' time it won't matter one way or the other."

"I have to agree with the council on this one, though. The Headmaster is no longer fit to lead. I don't know if it's the brain damage or what."

"I did not get Council countersign on the pink slip, though."

"Moot point by now. Either there won't be a XCOM Academy next week, or we won't need one."

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Page last modified on February 26, 2015, at 09:10 AM