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.