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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: #5

“The supply cache should be right behind this building.” – said Kaiser Scheppa. He was a Scout, so it was natural for him to take point during a concealed approach to an objective. Unlike the other three XCOM operatives on this mission, who wore standard XCOM fatigues with armored vests colored to fit an urban environment, Kaiser preferred a neutral brown scout’s coat with a long hood. It was equally useful in protecting from bad weather and unwanted attention.

Skyranger has dropped them off just a few minutes ago, so they did not have much of a chance to run into any Lost yet. There was still hope of quietly evacuating the supplies from the area without having to deal with any resistance.

Now the squad was standing before a tall building. Its first floor used to be a bar or cafe, but now, like the rest of the city, it was in ruins. Kaiser slung his sniper rifle onto his back, and said: “Continue through the first floor. I’ll get us a better view from the third.” – and began climbing up a fire escape ladder.

Leafstar took point and moved through the building, slowly panning his cannon from side to side, scanning for targets. Broken glass was crumbling under his boots.

Tesla followed, and they took positions near a doorway to the street. At the same time, Kaiser approached the other side of the building on the third floor, and looked out the window. He saw a big courtyard with a few rusted vehicles by a bus stop, and some ADVENT supply crates further in the distance.

“Objective sighted.” – reported he on the radio: “No contacts.”

Leafstar peaked out of his cover, but suddenly slid back in, and said over the radio, quietly, but emotionally: “ADVENT! We got ADVENT in the AO!”

Flashfox was still guarding the rear on the other side of the building, but as soon as he heard that, he took that as a signal to begin combat. He rushed into the building, kicking the door out of his way, and sprinted towards Leafstar and Tesla, who made desperate signs to Flashfox to get down into cover and keep quiet.

That broke Flashfox’s tempo, and he slowed down in confusion, trying to figure out what is happening. Leafstar whispered loudly to him: “Keep it down, you idiot! You will give away our po…”

Suddenly, Leafstar grabbed his head, fell on his knees and started crying out and muttering to himself, seemingly in intense fear. Flashfox ran up to him, trying to figure out what is happening.

He looked out the window and saw a sectoid making passes with its hands towards Leafstar. A purple glow has lit up sectoid’s head and hands. Flashfox yelled: “The bloody skinny is using psychic voodoo on Leafstar!” – and was about to shoot the sectoid with his shotgun, but a burst from an ADVENT mag rifle just above his head has forced him to crouch under the window frame. He heard heavy footsteps from the outside, and guessed that an ADVENT trooper was approaching the window from the other side.

Flashfox has pulled out his Arc Thrower and set its power level beyond maximum. Firing it in this state would overload the battery, making the Arc Thrower unusable for a few minutes, but the arc would cover a wide area, making it a nearly guaranteed hit. If anybody else had tried to do this, Arc Thrower would have probably exploded in their face, but Flashfox knew how to do it safely.

Without hesitation, he stuck the Arc Thrower out the window and fired it. It discharged with a bright blue flash and a loud electric crackle. The thud of a fallen body confirmed the hit, and Flashfox yelled to Tesla: “I knocked one out, go get them! I’ll look after Leafstar!”

Tesla sprung into action. He ran up to a rusty truck, taking cover from the sectoid, and took a moment to dispatch the stunned trooper with his shotgun, aiming at a vulnerable spot between the helmet and torso armor. The bukshot payload has turned the trooper’s neck into bloody pulp. ADVENT’s atrocities have long expunged any notion of mercy from Tesla’s conscience.

Meanwhile, Kaiser on the third floor was trying to figure out what was happening below. He couldn’t see the ADVENT trooper from his position, but he did notice the sectoid as it ran away to hide behind the building’s corner. Kaiser pulled out his Holotargeter and zeroed in on the sectoid’s silhouette. Kaiser’s custom Holotargeter could keep the lock on the target longer than average. Lighting up a target before executing it with one clean shot was the way Kaiser liked to do things.

Kaiser kept looking at the Holotargeter’s compact screen as it was establishing a lock on the sectoid, who still kept to cover behind the corner. Suddenly, the sectoid exposed itself for a moment to make a pass with its hand. Purple glow has engulfed the street for a moment.

Down below, Tesla was about to charge after the sectoid, but he heard – nay, felt – movement behind him. He turned around and shivers ran down his spine. He whispered: “It can’t be happening…”

*** 

The ADVENT trooper, who was stunned by Flashfox and then mercilessly executed by Tesla just a few seconds ago, was getting back up. Yellow blood gushing from the gaping wound that was the trooper’s neck. The trooper was moving unnaturally slowly, but there was no guessing as to its intentions – it lumbered towards Tesla, who froze like a deer in headlights, paralyzed by fear.

Kaiser stabilized his sniper rifle on the window frame and took aim at the sectoid. The holo mark he applied just a moment ago lit up the sectoid’s silhouette, making it that much easier to line up a good shot, even against a target mostly concealed by cover.

Kaiser exhaled and pressed the trigger. The bullet pierced the corner of the concrete wall, wounding the sectoid in the back. It let out a snarl, and moved out of Kaiser’s sight, leaving a trail of yellow blood in its wake.

The undead trooper has almost reached Tesla when he finally snapped out of his stupor. He screamed and shot the zombie with his shotgun. The trooper’s corpse has swayed slightly, but otherwise remained unfazed and continued towards Tesla, who tried to take a step back, but just pressed himself stronger onto the truck.

A shotgun blast has split open the trooper’s head from behind, and nearly blinded and deafened Tesla. The trooper’s body fell down on the asphalt like a sack of rotten potatoes, finally at rest.

It took some time for Tesla to realize somebody was shaking him by his shoulders. “What?!” – he nearly yelled.

“Are you okay?” – repeated Flashfox.

“Yeah.” – Tesla replied, all shaking and giddy from adrenaline: “Undead zombies raised by alien mutants. Why wouldn’t I be okay?” – he leaned on the rusted truck and asked: “Leafstar?”

Flashfox pointed behind his back: “Yeah, he’s still there, still muttering nonsense to himself. We should probably regroup with Kaiser…”

As he was saying that, a green beam of plasma has dashed through the dark of night, crumbling a part of the concrete wall of the building. Flashfox dashed inside, yelling: “Leafstar, you alright?!”

Tesla felt his blood boiling and growled through clenched teeth: “Okay, that does it, the skinny bastard dies!” – and ran towards the origin point of the plasma beam on the first floor of another tall building nearby.

Tesla jumped inside through a window, breaking the glass with his body, and saw a wounded sectoid just a few steps away. Yellow blood was running down its back and leg. The sectoid snarled and tried to point its wrist-mounted plasma blaster at Tesla.

“Too slow, you ****!” – yelled Tesla, jumping at the sectoid and slicing it with his sword he pulled from his back in one sweeping motion. At the last moment the sectoid tried to protect itself with its arm, and the sword cut through the plasma blaster, the arm under it, and finally through sectoid’s skull it tried to protect. The sectoid collapsed to the floor.

“That’s what you get.” – said Tesla with satisfaction and sheathed his sword. He looked around making sure he’s safe for the moment, and stashed the remains of the sectoid’s weapon into his backpack. No way it can be fixed, but the eggheads on the Avenger would give anything to take a look at the alien plasma technology.

 

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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: #4

It was Bradford’s turn on the night shift, and for the next few hours he was supposed to be the only person on the Bridge. He leaned back in a chair in front of the Hologlobe, his legs resting comfortably on a nearby computer desk, and a mug of hot coffee warming his hands.

His mind has slipped into a state of relaxed concentration, where a part of him was paying constant attention to the Hologlobe, while the other was free to wander, analyzing hypothetical situations or reliving memories of the past.

Looking at the XCOM’s new Hologlobe has always reminded Bradford of the old one in their first underground base that was captured by Alien invasion forces twenty years ago. If not for Jayko…

Familiar footsteps have brought Bradford back to the present. Commander has walked down the stairs from his quarters to the bridge. He nodded to Bradford and approached the Hologlobe, and used the controls to rotate and focus it on the ADVENT facility that was recently raided by XCOM to rescue Pratal Mox.

“That was a clean mission, Commander.” – commented Bradford after a few minutes of silence.

“Yes… Clean.. Suspiciously so, don’t you think?” – said Commander pensively.

“Respectfully, sir, there must be a limit to your mistrust.” – reasoned Bradford.

“There is, and we have not reached it yet.” – Commander was stubborn as ever: “What if Ethereals have regained control over Mox, then allowed us to rescue him, just so he can turn on us at a critical moment?”

“Doctor Tygan gave Mox a thorough examination and did not notice anything suspicious. Just the usual signs of stress and mistreatment.” – said Bradford calmly, sipping his coffee.

“Let’s hope he’s right, for the sake of all of us.” – said Commander, seemingly unconvinced: “Anyway, I have new orders for you.”

Bradford livened up and got on his feet, while Commander has refocused the Hologlobe on ruins of Calgary on the US West Coast.

“I just got off the comm with Volk. According to his intel, ADVENT has abandoned a supply cache in this area.” – Commander pointed towards a location in Saddle Ridge: “For now it is free for the taking.”

“Not counting the Lost that still infest the entirety of the city.” – said Bradford, toggling the map filter to display the Lost signatures gathered during previous Avenger’s scans of Calgary.

“Naturally.” – nodded Commander: “Even without ADVENT in the equation this would not have been an easy op. I want our best operatives on this.”

“Right now our operative roster does not have any particular standouts, but we do have a lot of people to choose from.” – said Bradford, bringing up the list of active personnel on a nearby monitor: “Did Volk say anything about the likelihood of ADVENT returning in force to recover the cache?”

“It’s likely, so we will not take any chances. I want a diverse squad that can operate against any threat in an urban environment.” – ordered Commander.

“In that case, the best people for the job would be Flashfox, Tesla, Kaiser Scheppa and Killerleafstar. All corporals, and most of them have worked with each other before.”

“As you say.” – agreed Commander: “I trust you to handle the details. Extract those supplies.”

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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: #3

“You weren’t exaggerating when you said you were good at stealth” – whispered Sofia to Maris. They were crouching by a door and using their XPads to bypass ADVENT security protocols. According to intel gathered by Tesla and the Reapers, Pratal Mox was held prisoner in the cell behind this very door.

“Be quiet and get ready to go in. I’m almost finished hacking the lock.” – said Maris. They were still in the heart of a high security ADVENT facility and he did not want to take any chances, even with Outrider watching their back. Sophia did have a point, though. It was Maris’ and Outrider’s expertise with concealed entry that has allowed them to infiltrate the facility without raising any alarms.

The door has opened with a quiet mechanical sound. Sophia pointed her shotgun inside the cell and turned on the flashlight that was mounted on it. The cone of light has lit up the body of a person lying in the middle of the cell. Sophia has approached carefully, her ear catching Maris whispering into his radio, probably updating Outrider on their progress. She turned the person on the back, and according to the description provided by the Skirmishers, it was Pratal Mox. He was breathing and had seemingly no injuries, but Sophia’s attempts to wake him up were unsuccessful.

“Intel was good, Mox is here, but looks like we’ll have to carry him.” – reported Sophia over the radio. Maris got inside, but as soon as they lifted Mox from the cell’s floor, alarms started blaring.

“What’s going on? Is this a trap?” – yelled Sophia to Maris over the sirens.

“No idea! Cover me!” – yelled Maris in response: “Firebrand, come in! We need evac from a western side of the facility, ASAP!”

The exit from the facility was only across the hallway from the cell, but these few steps seemed like an eternity. Skyranger was already hovering above when they got out, Maris and Sophia carrying Mox, and Outrider covering them.

They got on board the Skyranger without delay, and were already halfway to the Avenger by the time Sophia has realized they just broke in and out of an ADVENT military installation without firing a single shot.

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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: #2

The Avenger did not have a dedicated Infirmary facility, so wounded had to be bunked in general quarters. Don was lying in his bunk, trying not to move unnecessarily. His wound did not require sedation nor anesthesia, just a lengthy recovery time. Boredom was driving him crazy. His mind kept drifting to his previous mission.

The general they were trying to assassinate was about to escape, and Don got reckless for a moment. He climbed to a roof and fired his cannon at the general. He clearly got some good hits, but it seems ADVENT high command was made out of much sturdier stuff than regular mooks, as the general didn’t even flinch, and had no trouble escaping on a dropship.

While Don was contemplating the impossibility of any living thing surviving a cannon burst, he got nailed in the back by an ADVENT Pathfinder that happened to be in a flanking position. Thankfully, Don’s armored vest absorbed most of the impact, keeping Don alive, but still out of commission for a few weeks.

“How are you holding up?” – a familiar voice has interrupted Don’s thoughts. Don slowly turned his head and saw Deadput leaning back on a sofa in front of Don’s bunk. Don turned away:

“You know, you don’t have have to keep visiting me. I’ll be fine. It’s not…”

“Yes, it is my fault.” – interrupted Deadput sharply: “I was the one covering that flank. I even knew that Pathfinder was there.”

“I would have rushed for the general anyway.” – stubbornly stretched Don on one note.

“Yes, because you’re a stupid hothead.” – chuckled Deadput: “And covering stupid hotheads like you is my job. I should have at least sent my GREMLIN to look after you.”

“So why didn’t you?” – asked Don angrily. He was getting tired of this conversation, and being confined to bed for days is yet to improve anyone’s mood.

“I uh..” – Deadput suddenly looked away in embarrassment and confessed: “I rushed for the general too.”

Don laughed out loud, then flinched in pain a moment later, regretting the laughter.

“Yeah, we’re totally two of a kind, you and I.” – said Don through laughter and cough.

“I brought something for you.” – said Deadput suddenly, pulled out a small object out of his pocket and passed it to Don: “Do you think you know what to do with this?”

Don’s eyes widened in surprise: “Where did you get this?”

He reached out and grabbed the object. It was an old world music player with a seemingly intact set of headphones.

“I bartered it during our brief stay in the Reapers’ HQ.” – said Deadput, pleased with Don’s reaction, who was mesmerized by the small electronic device in his hand.

“Did you get it.. for me?” – asked Don, only now able to look away.

“I noticed you were tinkering with Old World tech in Engineering.” – said Deadput: “Reapers didn’t have batteries for this thing, but I’m sure you will be able to figure something out.”

“Thank you!” – said Don with feeling: “What.. What did it cost you?”

“Nothing I couldn’t have spared” – reassured him Deadput, standing up and walking way: “Hurry up and get better, idiot hothead.”

“Thank youuuu.” – quietly held Don, cradling the small treasure on his chest.

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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: #1

“I’m sad to report the General got away, Commander.” – Bradford reported. Commander asked grumpily: “What, the magical force field has materialized in broad daylight right in the middle of a town street and stopped our operatives dead in their tracks?”

Bradford remained unfazed: “No, sir. They were preoccupied with other ADVENT forces in the area.”

“Any casualties?” – asked Commander seemingly with no concern for the answer, but Bradford knew it was all a pretense. He put doctor Tygan’s report on top of other documents on Commander’s desk. It was a short report.

“Squaddie Don took a moderate wound. He’s stable, but he’ll need a good few weeks to recover.” – said Bradford, unnecessarily pointing at the report with his hand.

“Good.” – Commander leaned back in their chair with relief, put one leg on another and invited Central to sit as well with a hand gesture: “Tell me how it went down.”

Bradford pulled out a notepad from his pocket and sat down. He opened it to check up on his notes:

“Since the mission was to assassinate a high priority target in an urban environment, Deadput and Kaiser took sniper rifles. Their plan was to nail the General from a rooftop, while Don and Flashfox would provide cover and scouting.”

“Sounds good so far.” – Commander nodded: “During the briefing you mentioned there was supposed to be a Skirmisher battle party in the AO. Did they decide to abort?”

Central shook his head: “No, sir, they were there alright. They went ahead of our squad and got close to the general. They could probably take them out, but they chose to prioritize other targets. Per your orders, we did not share our intel on the general, so they were unaware of their importance. And by the time they could figure out what’s what, the general has already escaped on an ADVENT dropship.”

Commander has leaned forward, hiding their face in their palms. Wiped their face and looked at Central with exhaustion: “I know what you’re going to say, John, but we cannot trust them. For all we know, they let the general escape on purpose. And one of their officers just got captured by the Chosen Assassin. What if the Ethereals will figure out how Skirmishers have managed to break free, and regain control?”

“You’re not willing to take that risk, sir? Even if it means the ADVENT will succeed in putting up a network of jamming towers that will make it that much harder for the Avenger to avoid detection and perform scans? Even if the person who tipped us off is going to get captured and tortured?” – pressed Bradford.

“No, John. Not yet. Not while Mox is in ADVENT’s hands. He knows too much.” – Commander took a covert action assignment from their desk and passed it Bradford: “Send Tesla and one of the rookies to work with the Reapers on finding where ADVENT is holding Pratal Mox. One way or another, we must deprive them of this source of intel.”

“Sir, you can’t possibly mean…” – Bradford took a step backwards in disbelief: “The kind of storm will break loose if Skirmishers find out that XCOM has assassinated one of their officers!”

“This is war, John. Skirmishers know it better than anyone. War is all they know.” – said Commander pensively, then tried to reassure Bradford: “We’ll try to recover Mox alive, if at all possible. Killing him is the absolute last resort. We’re not monsters, but we’ll do what we must to survive.”

“Understood, sir.” – Bradford saluted and marched out of Commander’s quarters.

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Resistance Rising

Resistance Rising: Pilot

The Skyranger’s apparel has lowered and touched the Avenger’s deck with a clanging sound. Rookie Sophia Orr has gently helped Kaiser Scheppa down the apparel. ADVENT has put a lot of holes in him just an hour ago, and she was surprised he was still alive, let alone conscious and walking almost on his own. The only explanation that comes to mind is that XCOM field medkits contain something really strong.

She passed poor Kaiser onto the hands of approaching Avenger’s crewmates, and sat down on the deck in complete exhaustion, staring blankly on her bloodied hands.

Flashfox walked out from the Skyranger on his own. With a pained grimace, he unclicked his bullet-ridden armored vest and let it fall on the deck. The vest fell down near Sophia and she flinched in surprise. He noticed that and wanted to say something encouraging, but the moment he turned to her, his wounds started bleeding again. He grunted and started walking towards medics, holding his sides with his arms.

Killerleafstar, a big guy that looked even bigger thanks to the armor and the minigun he’s been carrying seemingly effortlessly, sat down near Sophia, grabbed her by a shoulder and showed his big grin. “Scared, huh?” – he asked, rhetorically. He continued: “Well, it’s always scary for the first time. And the second. And the third. And keeps being scary, ain’t no way around that”.

Sophia made a mental effort and forced herself to stand. Tried to smile through the tears that she has only now noticed were flowing down her cheeks and said: “You didn’t seem scared”. The giant replied: “I’m good at pretending. Come on, let’s clear the deck, wrench monkeys gotta lower the platform”.

***

The Avenger’s bar was brightly lit with daylight panels. “My treat” – said Killerleafstar, putting a beer bottle in front of Sophia. – “Congrats on surviving your first mission. Too bad it was a total wash.”

Sophia, who has been calm and somewhat prostrated until now, has suddenly bursted into a nervous tirade: “It wasn’t my fault! I don’t understand what happened! Ask Flashfox, he was there!”. Killerleafsar interrupted her by slamming his unreasonably big palm on the bar counter. The bar got quiet for a moment, with heads turning towards him. Once the commotion has returned to the usual levels, he continued more softly: “I know it ain’t your fault, kid. I was there too, ‘member? At least we got everybody out alive, even if a lil’ bit worse for wear. I’m sure Tygan will patch ’em right up, good as new. He’s a doctor, you know.”

Sophia nervously smiled and said: “Yeah, there’s that.”. Her expression got replaced with one of concern almost instantly: “What about that transmission, though? The one we failed to interrupt?” Killerleafstar’s looked away with a grim curl of his lips and said: “Yeah, I got word from Central. That egghead that tried to contact us got himself captured. Don’t think we’ll ever see his likeness. He got cooked.”

Sophia cursed with affection. And said: “Shit happens. I can accept that. We’re a small ragtag band of crazy idealists and people who got nothing to lose anymore. We will not always succeed against the force that has conquered the entire planet in just a few years. What I don’t get is what the hell was that “force field” or I don’t know how else to call the whatever force that stopped us from getting to the transmitter in time.”

Killerleafstar nodded: “Yeah, ’bout that. What the hell was that, kid? If it was just you there, I’d say you gone and lost your nerve. But Flashfox was ‘there too, and he ain’t the kind that gets scared easily.” Sophia replied, frustrated: “I don’t know. We just couldn’t get in there. We approached the door frame.” – she made passes with her hands showing the squad’s movement on the bar counter, using beer bottles and a bowl of saltine crackers as grand strategy chips: “We could hear the hum of the transmitter from the other side. We wanted to get in, but just couldn’t walk through it. And then Bradford..” – Killerleafstar has interrupted her with a stern voice: “That’s Central Officer Bradford to you, kid.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry. Central Officer Bradford” – she enunciated more clearly than was necessary, still annoyed at the unreasonable interruption: “got on the radio and said we were almost out of time. Just seconds left until the transmitter would get shut down. So Flashfox has ordered me to use my HE to blow us a pass through the wall. There was no time to think, he said. So I followed his command, and aimed the HE near the wall directly against the estimated position of the transmitter.”

Killerleafster agreed: “Yeah, I saw that explosion. I was wondering what the hell was up with that. I wish you’d given me a warning. I could’ve put my cannon to good use there.”

Sophia reminded: “There was no time. Besides, nobody could have guessed a sectoid and his ADVENT bodyguards would burst through the hole just like that.”

“Yeah, how you’ve gone and pissed ’em off was kinda even funny, ain’t gon’ lie. But that was one thing. How Flashfox has gone and gotten himself shot by those ADVENT goons was a second thing. What I wanna know is what in the blazes possessed him to shrug that all off and run past the sectoid and the advent goons right into the hole. He was trying to get himself killed or somethin’?”

Sophia said: “I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask him that.”

“Okay. Anywho, was this before or after poor Kaiser fella got himself shot? I mean, the second time?” – asked Killerleafstar, with the tone of an accountant desperately trying to put debit and credit together.

“Before, I think. I was too busy following up on your grenade throw that blasted that Sectoid.”

Killerleafstart smiled proudly: “Damn straight. That was a good throw. Caught the bastards right in their faces. Them sectoids are tough sons of bitches, though. They walk around naked, for crying out loud. How the hell one can survive a point blank grenade explosion?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” – blandly said Sophia, trying to erase her own memories of the horrible look on the sectoid’s face as she riddled his chest with bullets at point blank range.

“I’m guessing Flashfox got so reckless cuz he wanted to get to that transmitter and complete the mission. Commander kept pressing on how important it was for us to get to it, so we could get that egghead from ADVENT’s clutches.” – speculated Killerleafstar.

“We’ll know soon enough, with any luck. His wounds didn’t look so bad.” – said Sophia, trying to cheer herself up, more than anything else. She felt guilty for Flashfox’ wounds. It was her grenade throw that lead to that crazy fight, after all.

***

Commander has finished reading the mission report and put it down in front of the archive computer’s screen. “Is this some kind of joke, John? “Invisible force field of unknown origin has prevented our operatives from getting to the transmitter in time”? What the hell am I supposed to do with it?” – he asked softly, but with such a cold and threatening undertone that even John Bradford started feeling uneasy.

“We don’t have any explanation for this, Commander. It just happened. It must have been some kind of new technology, the kind we have never dealt with before.” – he tried to reason: “It’s not surprising ADVENT would try and protect their transmitters, particularly those that cover an entire region.”

“I suppose so.” – Commander was forced to agree. “We can’t afford any more of “just happened”s like this one, though. If we are to lift the XCOM project from the ground, we’ll need qualified personnel. And if people that try to reach out to us get captured and “disappeared”, we’ll be left on our own. So I want both Tygan and Shen investigating this “force field” of yours. Something tells me it was just a one time fluke, though.” – Commander took a pause for a deep breath and a sigh: “That’s all for now. You’re dismissed.” – he waved Bradford away, and turned to the computer’s screen.

“There is one other matter, Commander.” – reminded Bradford in a firm voice: “What should we do about rookie Orr? Her actions compromised the mission and her squad, and we’re still not sure how much truth is in her report. Should we dismiss her from active duty? Interrogate? Or…” – Bradford made pointed his finger at his head, imitating a pistol shot.

“Promote her.” – replied Commander while still staring at the screen.

“What?!” – Bradford nearly yelled in surprise. Commander looked Bradford in the eye with a relaxing smile. “I trust her, John. We go way back. That should be good enough for you. As for her ability – you’ve seen her in action yourself. No hesitation. She acts quick and to the point. And she didn’t miss a single shot during the entire mission. Not too shabby for her first field op, don’t you think? Enroll her into our marksman program.”

“Yes sir!” – Bradford replied and marched out of Commander’s quarters, still in surprise.

***

“Get down!” – yelled Don to Elena Dragunova, who found herself surrounded by a large group of Lost. Just a minute ago she whispered to Sophia and Don to stay put, hoping the Lost will move past them, but they seemingly knew exactly where they are. Either that, or it was just bad luck. Dragunova did not believe in luck. Nor she had any trust in the ability of XCOM operatives. She did believe in bullets, and the brave-not-bright american seemed determined to send a lot of those in her direction. So Elena thought it was for the best to keep her head down. Worst comes to worst, XCOM can distract the Lost while she slips away.

“Get down!” – yelled Don, running out from behind a bus and firing his assault rifle at the Lost in full auto. It turned out far more effective than Elena expected, and just a couple of seconds later Don was left standing against one final Lost, with four of their brethren laying down on the street.

For a moment they were just staring at each other, Don repeatedly trying to pull the trigger of his now-depleted rifle, and the Lost grinning his exposed teeth in a horrific grimace pulled over its dead and dry face.

As soon as Don has made a move to pull out a fresh magazine for his rifle, the Lost bellowed a hoarse roar, and started running at Don. They were just a few steps apart and there was no way Don could reload in time. Fortunately, he did not need to. With a deafening blast, Sophia put a bullet from her magnum revolver right into the Lost’s left temple, knocking them a few good steps away.

“Good shooting” – she chuckled at Don, who kept trying to reload his rifle with shaky hands.

“Are you done feeling good about yourselves, XCOM?” – said Dragunova in the most unpleasant tone: “You’ve just alerted every Lost in this area. We have to move quickly. Follow me.”

Dragunova waved her hand and disappeared in the ruins of a cafeteria the Lost came from.

“You’re welcome.” – muttered Don. And added, quieter: “Ungrateful b…”

***

Elena took a position by a window, and signaled XCOM operatives to hold where they are. She nestled her vektor rifle on the window frame, took aim for a second, and then fired several rapid shots, switching targets and taking brief pauses between them. She quickly reloaded her rifle in a few honed moves and continued firing.

“Volk didn’t lie about reapers’ marksmanship skills” – thought Sophia, enchanted by Dragunova’s shooting. In the meantime, Elena – without saying a word – jumped through the window and ran down the street.

Sophia and Don have exchanged glances and followed her. And just in time, as Elena did not notice one final Lost, approaching her from the back. Don and Sophia put them down quickly.

“Even you can’t do everything alone, Outrider.” – said Don to Elena: “Let’s work together.”

Dragunova has smirked with disgust and said: “Let’s get one thing straight, XCOM. I’m here only because Volk has ordered me to. Let’s just get this over with and get to that rendezvous.”

***

“Holy hell, Maris, and you said your specialty is stealth?!” – asked Deadput in a high tone. It was going to start getting dark soon, but the street was brightly lit by burning remains of a ferry truck.

“Settle down, rookie.” – grimaced Maris with annoyance: “Don’t attract unnecessary attention.”

“Look who’s talking! You’re the one that blew up that flamethrower ADVENT dude, and then the truck!” – pressed Deadput: “You’ve already attracted all of the attention there was to attract!”

“Well how the hell was I supposed to know it’s gonna explode?!” – replied Maris, who was starting to get riled up as well.

“You literally just saw Mox make another one blow up!” – said baffled Deadput: “What, you can’t put two and two together?!”

“I figured…” – started Maris without confidence in his voice.

“What, Maris?! What did you figure?!”

“I figured he had explosive bullets in his gun or something..” – said Maris with defeat, knowing full well how dumb that sounds. Deadput tried to settle his dropped jaw and said in even tone: “Let’s just go.”, nodding towards Mox who was tactfully waiting for them all this time, aiming out any additional ADVENT patrols.

***

“And then he said: “I thought he maybe had explosive rounds in his gun” – said Deadput. A burst of laughter has shaken the Avenger’s bar. Killerleafstar even had to wipe a tear. Maris was sitting at the bar counter, red as a beetroot, and pretended they were laughing at somebody else.

“Maybe we should ask our chief engineer to come up with some explosive rounds for him as well” – said Killerleafstar.

“Obviously he doesn’t need any, anything he shoots already explodes!” – parried Deadput to everybody’s amusement.

“I’ll make you explode..” – muttered Maris through clenched teeth.

“Don’t listen to these buffoons, they’re just trying to have some fun in this mad world where undead zombies are real and at any moment you can get killed or worse” – said Sophia in a friendly tone, sitting down next to Maris.

“Whatever… you know what the worst part is?” – said Maris with a grudge in his voice: “I really am good at stealth. You’ll see. Just you wait.”

“Even better than reapers?” – asked Sophia half teasing, and half with genuine interest.

“I wish. They’re something else.” – said Maris: “It’s spooky, like they’re not even human. I was walking down a corridor recently. I could swear there was nobody else in it. But then I nearly stumbled over that Outrider person. It’s like she just teleported in front of me. I still have no idea where she came from. Or was she already there to begin with?..”

“Did she say anything?” – asked Sophia with interest. She still felt enchanted by her marksmanship skills, and was considering approaching her about getting some lessons or at least pointers.

“Nah. Just looked at me like I was a piece of cow dung, and walked by me.”

“Sounds like Outrider.” – chuckled Sophia: “Yeah, she gives me the creeps. And you can tell she’s not happy about being here.” – Sophia changed the subject: “What about that Pratal Mox you were escorting? Was he also creepy and unlikable?”

Maris smiled: “No, he was awesome. I mean, he’s ex-ADVENT. Not sure if we can ever fully trust his kind. And what if we win the war? What then? Will they be able to just settle down on a farm in South Dakota and live happily ever after? I doubt that very much.”

He continued: “Suspicions aside, he handled himself very well in combat. So calm and confident, you could feel strength and ability emanating from him. They guys a battle leader, alright. Too bad the poor sod got himself captured by that ADVENT thing.. what do we call it, again?”

“Uhh, Central Officer Bradford mentioned its name during the debriefing, but it was unpronounceable ADVENT speak. I think its title is Assassin, so let’s just go with that.”

“Right. Too bad, really. We really could have used somebody with Mox’s skills, even if he did look ugly as sin.”

Don, who was sitting quietly nearby and listening to the conversation, nodded: “From the way you make him sound, I’m starting to wish it was Outrider who got captured by the Assassin.”

“Don’t be so awful.” – said Sophia: “Say what you will, Outrider did risk her life for us. For XCOM.”

“So did we.” – said Don stubbornly.