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Mission6

GEOSCAPE

Watching the news tell us that the aliens still haven't attacked us in force; we were unable to reach Cairo, and the news from here are still mostly about factional infighting, with only a brief mention of "unusual aircraft caught on film, experts baffled". Predictably, most of the faction leaders think it's a new form factor for American drones.

The new Indian engineers are put to work immediately; with their help, we can expand our satellite tracking systems. The new systems won't be ready for another two weeks in total, but the ability to detect UFOs is a prerequisite for any other action we might take. The thermoelectric plant is nearly ready; with luck it will take care of our power needs for the foreseeable future.

I had a brief talk to Dr. Vahlen about my theory on what we have dubbed "Sectoid mind-merge"; she asked me to not share my notion of it being a moment of intimacy with anyone else, and told me to ask Bradford and Lena why. I do so, and receive a very harsh lesson in how hard it is, and how important it has been historically, to make sure warriors dehumanize their enemy; I am told that, given that we're fighting nonhumans, I have had ninety percent of my work done for me in that respect and I damn well better not undermine it. I concede the point. Still, it is the only hint we have seen that these beings have some sort of culture.

Dr. Shen has finished extracting the implants from the Sectoid corpses we've recovered; we start turning them into microsatellite attachments, and by we I mean that I am allowed to give a hand, to see how my shoulder is doing. Looks like plasma burns are a worse problem than we thought; I was prognosed with six days rest, and expected to see that reduced, but six days it'll have to be. Hopefully there'll be cuddles.

When the thermoelectric power plant is finished, I make sure that any excess output is directed to the sauna that some enterprising Scandinavian students had built over one of the steam vents. The overhead is minimal, and there's no reason why we can't have nice things -- Lena asks me to be allowed to get a say in who can and cannot use it, as part of her training regimen, and I allow it while simultaneously giving the Scandinavians coordinates for the next steam vent to tap.

Dr. Vahlen is mildly surprised that people did sign up for voluntary taser testing; I tell her that she can start with me, and she asks me if it's something I get off on. I have to tell her that in honesty I don't know, it's just that I know myself to be fairly resistant to electrical shock. I'm elated that other people volunteered, honestly.

Kite and Stephen are getting proper care for their wounds. Keeping our fighters together with their loved one is important; barracks space is limited but I will see what I can do for everyone else. The booze we "confiscated" is already finding its way through the troops, I hope responsibly, and Vee is enjoying hero status for her fantastic combat record so far. I am a bit worried that she's taking unnecessary risks.

The new annex to the engineering facility is completed; this gives us room for five more heads and ten more hands. Having increased automation will reduce costs significantly; since this has partially obsoleted two of the first-generation 3D printers this place came with, I've allowed them to be used for personal projects if there time for it. I am not into modeling things that have no moving parts, but it's a way for people to relax that doesn't involve overexertion or chemicals, so I'm all for it. Dr. Shen again cautions me about showing favoritism for his team, and while I am recuperating, gives me some "homework" in the form of reading the short scifi story "Superiority" as an example of what not to do. I wonder what an alien invasion will do to our science fiction down the line. If we survive, and if the needs of survival let us keep enough of a culture that there will be scifi stories.

Lena, having been taken down a notch by Kite, settles into her role as a drill sargeant with the understanding that her authority only extends to the gym and the morning hours we're dedicating to conventional tactical training while we develop our own combat doctrine; asking Vee to write her thoughts on same, given that she has the best record so far, has produced interesting results which however hare better suited to a roleplaying game than to a combat manual. Dr. Shen seemed quite intrigued about one particular suggestion she made. Granted, we're in an island off Japan, in a subterranean secret fortress, fighting space aliens, so giant robots are probably on everyone's mind, but according to him her spin on the concept is something that is actually compatible with physics. Granted, we were all watching Appleseed at the time.

The floatplane brings in a group of people holding zaibatsus and representing companies that I've never heard of, whose net worth apparently dwarfs Google or Microsoft. They tell me that they are here with the Council's tacit blessing, and would be very interested in acquiring any and all alien technology we feel we do not have a tactical or research use for. They even offer to buy the shelled-out nav computer we recovered last week, which we've determined to be a total loss. I'm not interested in setting up a grey market in alien tech just yet, although I do give a thumbs up to the one guy who showed up in gold-plated shoes. We do invite them to dinner, but after taking one look at our chow hall, they quickly get back to the floatplane.

The next day, three people from the research team burst into the workshop demanding alterations to one of milling machines to turn it into a loom -- they've had a breakthrough with the alien materials! It's not yet the armor we were hoping for, although they are working on it, but a form of nano-scale chainmail that can be made with existing chemicals. It's a great start; I give the okay for the retooling, even after I'm told that "under-armor" made of this stuff will reduce upper body mobility enough to prevent grenade throwing. The fact that this underarmor requires no alien materials to fabricate is huge; I give orders for immediate dissemination of the recipe under an open source license as soon as the research team agrees on which one to use and how to handle attribution. Bradford tells me he'll take care of it. Imagine minesweeping volunteers wearing trousers made of this, for one.

Dr. Vahlen's team is asked to keep working closely with Dr. Shen, in the hope that they'll get along better, and to tackle the mystery of the yellow stuff we've been finding scattered about. We have quite a few containers of it already, and if it turns out it's The Blob, I want to know before it wakes up and decides to gobble us up. This means that the Arc Thrower -- that's what we will be calling our improved taser -- will have to wait, but we still need to build a proper jail, and can't do that until the month is over anyway.

A few days pass in relative calm; I'm back to active duty -- which means a significant amount of pain as this puts me back under Lena's command for PT, and as she explains to me privately in a somewhat chirpy voice right after I'm given a clean bill of health, she'll be harder on me and my friends than on everyone else because we have to present a good example -- and we haven't heard an alert since Bangalore. I worry that this means we're missing something, but the satellites aren't pinging anything and there isn't anything notable in the news. I asked the Council to be made privy to at least some intelligence reports from member states, but got the usual lack of response.

Kite will be out of sickbay tomorrow; I think if she and Lena choose to have a rematch, the whole base will be around the boxing ring.

We are scheduled for an interview with the Council in three days. I know Bradford has done a great job at compiling a report for them, certainly better than I would have, but I'm hoping to get a bit of face time with those people; it's been next to impossible to have an actual conversation, and there are things they must know, as well as things I must know. My main worry is that after a full month we have no graduates to return to the member states yet -- we need Lena here to teach us, still. Most importantly, we don't have much to show in terms of combat doctrine, although having Thin Men photos distributed and put on wanted lists should help local forces deal with infiltration. We haven't done a proper autopsy yet, but Thin Men also appear to have been cloned in batches. I sincerely did not slide a picture of Justin Bieber with the caption "Possible youth variant" in the folder to be distributed out, and will personally reprimand the guilty party. In fact, I will wait until whoever did that fesses up before issuing a correction, so that it can have a proper apology attached. Bradford seems to agree that this is proper procedure in this case.

We still need some sort of rank system past Rookie, Squaddie and Graduate. Lena keeps her rank of Sargeant, but I am hoping for that to be a one-off thing.

Given that we need to be on alert twenty-four hours a day, we've gradually split everything into three shifts, staggered by eight hours so that the "afternoon" for one shift is the "morning" for the shift after an the "night" for the shift before. Having no natural light helps; fortunately, we are on an uninhabited island and allowing people time topside isn't a particular problem. Given that we've had to intervene on three continents so far, not trying to stick to a time zone may be useful... I am still unable to figure out who's in charge of the supply planes, other than there's two of them. One of the things I will have to arrange with the Council is some form of shore leave (the island is tiny enough that we might as well consider it a ship). The maintenance folks get to go home on occasion, but apparently neither trainees nor cadre do.

On that note, I'm opening the kitchens to anyone who isn't doing any other work, has no sleep debt, and feels like cooking. We have people from twenty countries in here, let's make use of it! Even sushi gets old after a while.

I spend two days being supremely nervous about the Council report. Bradford assures me that we are doing as good a job as we can be expected to "given what we have to work with"; I prefer to hear him sniping at me than overly cooperative. What I didn't expect was him getting out when I am called to the situation room for an incoming encrypted transmission. "Main screen turn on; we get signal."

"Hello? Is this on? I can barely see you, can you see me OK?"

"We are extremely impressed with 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."

The main screen show the silhouette of a bald man who could very well be Joe Kukan for all I know; the secondaries display our accomplishments -- one graduate; no casualties; two abductions stopped; one UFO downed and raided; and so on -- and a global grade for us, a straight A. Heh, I'm going to actually pass that one along to everyone's report card?. Panic levels in the world are manageable, with small spikes in four countries; most of the world isn't aware of an alien threat yet, even.

"You know, thanks, we're doing the best we can. Now, I see you already got Bradford's report, but there are a few things we have to discuss --"

"Remember, we will be watching."

"Good! Please take a look at this highlights file from the mission vlogs. See how the Sectoids move in couples, and --"

I'm suddenly alone in a dark room, then the world map comes back up. Damn it. I suspect that I've been trying to talk to a recording; I don't even know if the report Bradford has showed me is the same he's shown to the Council. So, that was it for March 2015. Tomorrow is April Fool's, and we haven't had an alert in four days; I haven't issued directives about it, but I suspect most everyone will be too tense for a proper prank war. Then again, everyone else has had four days to get ready for it, and I haven't...

"From what I've seen of their technology" Dr. Shen opines over lunch, with me still having shaky legs from the performance review "if the aliens wanted to conquer Earth, there isn't much we could do to stop them. I'm guessing they have something else in mind." That's a good point. We postpone lunch by five minutes in order to set up a whiteboard in a high traffic area, for anyone to brainstorm the issue.

At least there aren't any urgent problems on the horizon. And now, having just written that, a cold shiver goes down my spine.

There were very few April Fools shenanigans, overall; for a few days, nothing much happens -- Dr. Shen forges on with his experimental warfare project, to the mild irritation of Dr. Vahlen who files in a number of complaints about having her laboratory invaded by what she calls brutes in overalls; she would rather keep working on the yellow stuff, which seems to be some sort of nanite suspension, but I note that we are better off trying to turn what we already know into something we can use right now. She says she's not interested in bogging the project down with Wunderwaffen research.

Exercising with Lena is certainly kicking my ass - I was horribly out of shape. She keeps up the drill sargeant act at all times, though -- I think she'll be happy to rotate out. Hopefully she'll have learned with us as much as we've learned from her. We "owe" her back to her home country, and besides, the whole thing ended up in wine and biscuits but I am very aware of the fact that Bradford tried to use her to stage his little coup. Riley thinks I should kick the guy out; truth be told, I'd rather keep the devil I know than whoever the Council would replace him with. At least he's been very professional since. In the meantime, the Indian workgroup has set up the annex to our satellite uplink -- we need to get actual satellites made now, but we should be able to cover two or three more countries by the end of the month.

Since Dr. Shen has invaded the labs, I give the okay for Dr. Vahlen's people to "retaliate" and build a proper loom for the workshop area, so that we may manufacture underarmor in quantity.

"Headmaster, the Council is requesting your attention. Secure transmission is coming in now."

"Headmaster" makes me sound like I'm Optimus Prime or something... I like it though, it's very British. Anyway, maybe I will get a chance to talk to them this time. Also, I'm going to be recording what video we get from the Councilman; there's no excuse for it to be that dark and grainy, so what are they hiding?

OPERATION

The conference call is a bust; I strongly suspect that I was basically sent another video message. We are to go to France, which is a good thing since we did neglect them earlier, and investigate a hijacking attempt on a military convoy. The vehicle cameras saw Thin Men, which is why we are being called in, but the incident began by a number of cars crashing into each other to trap the personnel carriers in place -- aliens smart enough that they already figured out how to drive are scary; humans who are helping the aliens are scarier. Maybe the abductions were their way to recruit disposable slaves?

I try to answer the Councilman that we are on our way but would like five minutes of his time, but he cuts me off. "We're confident that you will handle this matter with... discretion." I will have to review the tape (actual analog tape, to make sure nobody edits it before we get back) to try to determine if I am indeed trying to talk to a recording.

Lena will remain home and continue the training program for this one; she's not exactly subtle, and as much as I want to trust the Council, I want to take my friends with me. This is the first time the five of us are deployed together.

We know Thin Men are involved, so we take all the medikits we have in stock to deal with possible poisoning: that's three, Vee prefers a grenade, and I try out the magic underwear.

We touch down in a suburb of Paris that probably looked like a battle zone before this happened. Bradford tells us that we have little intel to go on; it's night, and French authorities have made it obvious that it would be best if the matter was dealt with before sunup.

The convoy is up ahead -- there are a number of personnel carriers, the first and second of which have cars crashed into them. Riley and Kite take position behind a car husk that we suspect was here long before this incident, Stephen keeps an eye out for ambushes, Vee and me enter what looks like a dilapidated garage through the back, hoping to get out from the front and advance without being exposed. I still can't keep up with her.

Kite jumps on top of one of the personnel carriers, hiding behind what's probably a dummy turret -- the higher vantage point lets her spot a Thin Man, which quickly scurries off. Stephen is going to cover here, while Riley gets on the roof of the garage; Vee kicks open the garage's customer entrance door while I do the same with the main gate. There's two more of the damn things up ahead; time to start missing horribly.

Stephen generates some suppression fire for me and Vee, who contrary to my expectations both put a number of holes in the thin men's bodies; I guess exercising has done me some good, I've hit something at twenty paces! This disturbs me; the Thin Men look inhuman enough if you know what to look for, but... Could I do that to a human being? Both possible answers worry me.

We clear the way for Riley to cover us from the rooftop. Stephen advances, and sees some movement; Kite and Riley keep watch over us while we step forward to the next building, trying to stay away from the noxious clouds generated by our previous kills. Me and Vee try to slam ourselves at the next building's wall; I am left a little behind and remain in the open. This causes the Thin Man Stephen spotted earlier to come out of hiding and go after me -- and be promptly mowed down by our snipers. I think Kite got the kill.

I'm standing on top of a dead French Gendarme. "These bodies don't look like they were hit by alien weapons fire -- these men were killed by conventional bullets!" Bradford calls through the comm. I'm still hoping against hope that this is aliens playing scavengers after a terrorist attack, or vice versa. I step ahead -- there's someone up ahead, hiding in a car! Looks like I'm the designated bait for this operation... again, if anyone gets shot at I'd rather it be me. Is that a human? Looks like it... I hate having to ask, but friendly or hostile?

Riley gets to the next rooftop, surgical mask on even if the cloud of barf has dissipated; Kite keeps covering us from her position, and I ask Stephen to help me cover Vee as she advances to talk to the guy. We signal him to keep his head down; I actually would rather Riley talk to him. If whoever this is needs putting down, Riley is likely to be the most level headed in handling it. He runs on the roof to get to the building's corner, and spots another thin man.

We advance with some caution; our target (rescue? quarry?) is staying put, and it's best if the aliens see us as targets than someone with no armor. Given how reptilian the Thin Men look once you take the suit and sunglasses off, it's possible that they follow movement. I shoot in the thin man's general direction, more to try and make sure it keeps its head down than anything else, and everyone positions in such a way that we can both cover the survivor and threaten him.

The thin man runs forward, hides behind a car and.... "Gaaah! What the hell WAS that!" I didn't see green stuff fly -- He SPAT at Vee! Whatever it is, it's the same stuff that they release on death. She's coughing heavily. Stephen sees it when I do, and breaks out the medkit -- there's a one-shot oxygen canister in there, hopefully it'll be enough to flush her lungs. Bradford ignores Vee's plight and instead states the obvious, saying that we are to take the survivor into custody. Kite is going to stay back to make sure our path back to the Skyranger stays clear.

Riley says he'd rather stay on the roof and keep his line of sight open, which makes sense, so I'll go talk to the survivor. "You might as well leave me here" he says with a cough "I have nothing to say to you people." This was in French; Riley quickly translates for me.

"Excuse me? We're risking our life to get you out of this. You don't wanna talk? Okay, just keep your head down and we can talk later. You're not under arrest, but you've been exposed to alien toxin so you have to come with us and see one of our medics." The man says nothing and keeps coughing, I wonder if he understood me. I repeat that in Italian, just in case. I tell Kite to keep him in her sights anyway, just in case.

Bradford says that we need to bring him in whether he likes it or not. I hope this guy didn't hear the comm; the last thing we need is having to run after this guy with aliens shooting at us.

Stephen shoves the oxygen tube in Vee's mouth, to some protests, and tells her to quit her bitching -- the ersatz cure seems to work. Riley tries to drop the Thin Man that spat at Vee, but doesn't manage to; I tell the survivor to stay close to a wall and head towards Kite, and stay in the open to cover him.

"Aaagh!" Sonofabitch - not again! The Thin Man rushed forward and shot me point blank! The underarmor works... still feels hot as hell, though. Two of the damn things jump up a good three meters from behind the building, landing practically in Kite and Riley's faces -- Kite fires reflexively, but she's too startled to hit.

Stephen dodges plasma bolts to get in the back Thin Man's face and drops it. I think it's our first kill with a standard-issue assault rifle, and Stephen used it at close range.

"This is only the beginning... it's only a matter of-" The survivor has a coughing fit. At least we have water in the Skyranger. "What are you talking about? Save your breath and get to safety, idiot!" Riley shouts at him in what I hope is passable French. One Thin Man on the roof with Riley, one right behind the corner. Vee climbs up to help Riley deal with his alien, while I do what has become standard procedure -- walk up to the damn thing, stick the shotgun in his mouth, and pull the trigger. "Spit this out if you can." Heh, Bruce Campbell I will never be...

Time to go home -- the plan is to get the survivor in the Skyranger as soon as possible, then follow. Riley will stay on the roof to pick off would-be ambushers, with Vee covering him; Kite will keep overwatch from the armored vehicle, and Stephen will escort -- or drag -- the survivor to our airplane. I'm going to slowly walk back and make sure there are no stragglers.

Riley is shot getting into position! A sectoid is on the roof of the first building -- did we miss it? Damn it! He can walk, but the shots went through the armor. "Use your kit!" Change of plans. I am going to run up there and snap the little grey fuck's neck, if it gives me a heart attack.

"You're nothing but a bunch of puppets..." the survivor says, according to Stephen. "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Okay, calm down, rescuee or prisoner of war. Can't smash against wall. Break Sectoid face instead.

I'm not fast enough to get to the Sectoid before it can fire again, but fortunately Kite was left in just the right spot to put a slug through its head. Riley should be fine... for now. My breath is heavy. Riley takes a deep breath and calmly gets a Thin Man that had also climbed up on the roof -- we think there are one or two left. Unfortunately, our survivor is the closest target they have, and he has no armor.

Vee gets off the roof after Riley assures her he'll be fine; we circle the wagons around our target, moving deliberately and giving Kite time to reload. The remaining Thin Man fires at the rescuee -- through a door and a skylight, no less -- and one of the green bolts grazes him. He'll live, but we got lucky. Means it's time for me to make noise.

The Thin man takes another shot -- despite our survivor having hunkered down in the car, the plasma bolts go through a wall, a window, a door and the car's door and melt a hole in the guy's chest. This was an one-in-a-million shot. Bradford is furious, and tell us to get out. "No way we're getting any intel out of him now." Well, fuck you too. I beg to differ. "Let's pull out! I'll drag the body home."

I barely get to the body -- dammit, there has to be SOMETHING I can do! The alien must have locked its muscles in place, because he takes another impossible shot, the green crap flying clear through a brick wall without denting it to hit me. I see red for a moment. God damn it hurts! "Aaaaagh!" No, dammit! This is how it goes in nightmares!

"GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE IT RELOADS!" I shout to everyone. They run past me. This is MY nightmare, not theirs.

I return fire -- score a hit -- it flinches, but doesn't go down. The Thin Man sharpshooter returns fire -- I see the green bolts fly through the wall and the car door as if they weren't there. It doesn't even hurt this time.

The last thing I see is Stephen, taken by madness, unload a magazine into Vee.

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