Act V | Cataclysm

Operation: Jericho

[REDACTED] – Sphere of the Throne

Late September 2017 – Morning

The Human that stood before him was one who would not be assumed to be seen on the front lines of combat. The General was acutely aware that there was only so long a Human's life could be extended, even with medical technology. So long as the genome itself was flawed, the most that could be done were patch jobs.

Age would always be the bane of Humans until they learned to conquer it, and become something more. Yet among all species, there were exceptions, such as the man standing before him.

Though of course, he admittedly was not a proper representation of the average Human.

He was slightly taller than average for a Human, all of whom were shorter than the smallest Aen Elle. His form was the peak of Human achievement, with strength equivalent to most of the Aen Elle Riders. Procedures and rituals performed on him long before this moment had gifted him the eternal physique of a warrior.

For better or worse, his body would give out before succumbing to the slowing of age. Fortunately something he did not need to worry about so long as he worked within the Sphere of the Throne.

The silver and red armor of the Riders adorned his body, modified to take into account his own methods of fighting. Small bombs and flasks of combat drugs were woven into places on his body armor, and around his waist. A sword was fixed on a diagonal sheath attached to his back, with a rifle underneath it.

He'd never gone anywhere unarmed, even when first inducted into the Riders.

The only trinket which denoted his past was a small amulet that hung around his neck; a small silver chain, one that held a silver wolf's head. White hair fell to his shoulders, and filled his face in a full beard. His cat-like pupils were bright in the dimmer light of the room, which were consistently scanning, watching, and appraising.

The man had done quite well since being inducted into the ranks.

It was not the first time the General wondered what he would do when he was granted access to the Chamber of Memories, and the knowledge of who he had been was returned. He had since accepted that it was not a matter of if he would earn the privilege, but when.

Would he stay with the Riders? Depart? Be grateful or resentful? The General had seen each scenario happen before, and found himself unsure how this particular man would respond. Their time in the Riders often changed people; gave them a different perspective. They may fall back on their old personalities, but they were never exactly the same person.

In the end, it was not his choice to make, should it occur.

If he succeeded in his task, the result would be earned, and the cards would fall where they would. All the same, the success was a question mark, for what was being asked of all of them was not going to be easy.

Yet it had to be done.

The orders were clear.

The man had spent the personal briefing listening attentively, occasionally asking questions or clarifications as needed. He was a refreshing conversationalist, and exactly the kind of subordinate preferred. No frivolous questions, no wasted time, a strict focus on the job at hand, and what had to be done.

It was a significant amount of information to absorb in a short period of time, but it was a sufficient starting point. Once this meeting concluded, the General knew that he would be spending more days reviewing the reports, dossiers, and disseminating the knowledge with his own unit.

It was the first time he would be taking part in a Wild Hunt, yet he knew the weight and importance of it.

Forging an agreement with XCOM would be critical to its success, no matter how unorthodox it might seem compared to the previous conduct of the Riders, and that had been where most of the questions had revolved around.

He'd deigned to not share the other pillar of this effort, which was the Battlemaster. Everything to do with the Entity was on a need-to-know basis, though given the man's particular skills with dealing with strange creatures and puzzles, he'd considered placing him with the Battlemaster instead of XCOM.

It was a bridge to cross later.

The General supposed he should not have been surprised that his Lord was appraised of the standouts in the Riders, even aliens. Normally to place such an important responsibility on an alien was unusual, but in addition to the tactical benefit, the Man had proven his capability many times before.

The General finished the final part of the briefing, and let the Man have a moment to gather his thoughts. He eventually rubbed his bearded chin.

"[This degree of involvement is unusual, as I've said already,]" the man's gruff tone of voice was at odds with the language he spoke, making it sound much…rougher. There was a reason most aliens didn't speak it, but he did. The General had not cared to find out why. Even rough, it was far more pleasant to converse in than any lesser alien languages.

The feline eyes met his. "[Is there a secondary target here? I'm not exactly a mediator – or a diplomat. Politics is… something I suspect I should stay out of.]"

"[This is not political, it is practical,]" the General said. "[I suspect if things become political there will be further problems. We are not interested in meddling in their affairs, nor will they be in ours. A mutual agreement is something I believe can be managed.]"

"[Not political in that sense,]" the Man muttered. "[In the sense that we are taking sides here. Humans, aliens, and their Sovereign against aliens and their own Sovereign. This is not our war to fight, and with beings of this power involved… it makes it easy to escalate without planning.]"

The General's lips twitched. "[I believe you'd find no disagreement, were it not for the fact that the Ethereal Sovereign, along with the Bringer entity, are investigating things they should not. If they were to accurately discern the existence of the Spheres, let alone cross them, intervention will be inevitable.]"

"[Then we should be focusing on our targets, not forging alliances with those who are tied to Sovereigns who we judge to be 'good,']" he responded neutrally, but pointedly. "[We are already revealing the truth to a side we've judged to not interfere. That does not mean they are just going to forget it when we are gone. They will investigate, they will pursue, and they will learn.]"

That, the General noted a bit sourly, was a good point. One that he'd tried not to think too much about, because of the implications. Yet his subordinate was right about that singular, critical fact, and he disliked how the long-term consequences of this approach were being pushed aside.

His Lord seemed less concerned about the abilities of the Humans – and their Sovereign patron – to eventually be able to traverse the Spheres. He wasn't as certain. The Aen Elle had learned of the Spheres eventually, and even if their evolution had made them predisposed to the techniques to traverse them, it wasn't as though it was impossible for others to learn.

Especially when one applied the lifespans and collective mental power of the Sovereign Ones into the mix.

Once they knew that there were entirely other dimensions and realities, it would be impossible to stop them researching further, even if they intended to do so only for academic purposes. And if they were being honest, it wasn't going to be just for academic purposes. That was not the way of the Sovereigns, or truthfully, any species.

The Aen Elle included.

It was how they had become as powerful as they had been.

Was it hypocritical to impose a strict policy on other Spheres because they knew what the worst-case scenario could be? Because they could eventually become a threat? He wondered if those questions were playing into his Lord's decision to take this path, or even the Sage-King's reaction in the first place.

Regardless, to him, this risked delaying one intervention for one much further down the line. The Man's point about this being political was making him think; not in terms of the Humans and XCOM, but politics within the Throne World.

His Lord may be trying to make a point here.

And if he was right, this was a very, very risky and dangerous one.

"[I am wondering,]" he finally said. "[If that is not intentional. This is Lord Eredin's direct orders, born of a consequence of the Sage-King's displeasure. A rectification of mistakes, and settling of grievances. I confess to not possessing the complete picture – only that which is relevant.]"

That made the man's frown only deepen. "[I see.]"

There was little more that could be said, both of them understood that the orders were given, and would not be opposed. "[Very well. What I am explicitly meant to convey to XCOM?]"

"[You are aware that we have been pursuing the Traitor, and the Child for some time - and he has found refuge under the Sovereign One,]" the General said. "[The Sage-King has ordered the hunt be stopped, and the pursued allowed to live, if not allowed to return.]"

He was writing down several notes. "[Understood.]"

"[Explicit demands in exchange for this will be provided later,]" the General continued. "[Once this is accomplished, you will work to forge a mutual peace, which will serve as the foundation for cooperation against the Sovereign Mosrimor and the Ethereal Imperator. The Sovereign must die, the Imperator's fate is less consequential.]"

"[Noted,]" he said. "[If I am being sent because I am Human, I am doubtful they will react as well. I deviate from Humans in important ways. My lack of emotion might make them uncomfortable.]"

The General snorted. The Man's deadpan sense of humor tended to emerge in unexpected places. "[Considering the degree of genetic modification they are engaging in, your appearance will be the least of their concerns.]"

"[I'll reiterate that I'm not a diplomat, General,]" the Man crossed his arms. "[Which I suspect you are relying on.]"

"[Correct. XCOM will respond to a warrior, not an ambassador,]" the General said. "[Your military competence is more important than speaking fancy words. The Commander of XCOM will appreciate it – and there is a degree of tension between the leadership of XCOM, and the Traitor. Use that knowledge how you will.]"

"[I'll keep that in mind,]" there was a final note, and then it was tucked into a pocket. "[A final matter is that of what my position is. Unless the definitions are changing, this is outside my job description. Or frankly, it's illegal for me to be managing affairs like this at my rank.]"

"[Your position will be Sphere Operations Commander – a promotion, as you alluded to,]" the General said. "[A final detail I will note - Should the Wild Hunt be concluded successfully, you will be permitted to enter the Chamber of Memories, should you choose it. Consider that an extra incentive.]"

The Man went very quiet and still. His expression was difficult to read, but he'd worked with him enough to know that the Man was absorbing the weight of it. Often, the Riders wanted for nothing. They had no need to pursue wealth, material possessions, or the basic needs of life.

What they wanted was often far more personal and meaningful, and he'd known that the Man ultimately wanted to know who he had been, no matter where it might lead. An opportunity that he'd have, should this be successful.

He sharply nodded, and his voice was firm. "[I will review the necessary materials, and be ready to deploy as soon as necessary. Our Lord will have this agreement, and when the Wild Hunt is ready to be called, we will be prepared.]"

"[Good,]" the General affirmed. "[You will be given all the tools to succeed. Congratulations on your promotion, Sphere Operations Commander Geralt. It is one well-earned.]"

A thin smile appeared on the face of the man who was called Geralt, once of Rivia. With a final nod, he left the room, to prepare for the mission ahead, and the Hunt that was to come.


Late September 2017 – Afternoon

Surviving on Vitakar was an experience that Volk knew most people would be daunted by. Living off the land anywhere was something that very few people would be able to cope with in the modern age, given the lifestyles and conveniences of modernity.

He wasn't exactly one to shun modern life, but truthfully, living like this was like coming home. Yes, the environment was quite unique, the food had interesting tastes, and the animals didn't have as much meat on them – but living off the land, somewhere in Vitakar, was far from an unpleasant experience.

It was peaceful, idyllic, and if he were honest with himself, enjoyable.

Both of them had fallen into comfortable routines, and if this arrangement was a little more permanent, Volk would have seriously considered trying to start a small farm. As it stood he and Elena already built some small shelters for sleeping and for storing food. Each of them would go hunting every few days, and make their little corner of Vitakar home.

Right now he wished that he could just… stop.

Stop, and let everyone fight it out. Stay with Elena, in the middle of nowhere, and just never bother anyone again. He would like that, she would like that.

She'd told him as much.

But every time the thought came to him, taunted him, his fingers instinctively reached up to caress the mark that had been branded into his face. The mark that he'd received in exchange for freedom. A freedom that, in reality, was a chain to bind him to impossible tasks.

A task that he had nothing but suicidal ideas for.

He wasn't going to throw his life, or Elena's, away trying to meet Miridian's outrageous demands. Gabriel might have thought his tip to look into the Temple Ship was helpful, but all it did was reinforce the impossibility of the task. He'd mulled on it during his hunts and strolls through the woods, but nothing came to him except plans that needed miracles to even have a chance of success.

Worse was that he had no idea if they would find what they were looking for. Two Humans trying to sneak into one of the most important ships in the Collective, with multiple Ethereals on board at the same time, to include the Imperator?


He was good, but not that good.

At the same time, the task loomed over him, and he knew it wasn't going to go away, no matter how much he wished it would.

With his catch of the day – some kind of four-legged furred creature that reminded him of a goat – slung over his back, he was heading back to their… home, he supposed. Everything became a home eventually, even if it was supposed to be temporary. Elena had started calling it home, even though she knew better.

She remained a bad influence. It also made him smile.

He came over a hill that overlooked a small clearing in the woods, with a clear creek running in front of it. Elena stood outside, a rifle in hand, which wasn't unusual. She'd taken to maintaining a vigilant guard throughout the day, especially when he was gone. Though as he approached, he realized that something was very wrong.

Her posture was tense; coiled like a snake about to strike. Her grip on the rifle was tight, and her expression artificially still. She didn't move a single inch as he approached – which she never did. A pit in his stomach formed as he believed he knew what this was. He draped the animal on a rack nearby, and walked over to her.

"Inside," she murmured before he could say anything. "He's inside."


"Did he ask you anything?" Volk asked in a low voice.

A small shake of her head. "He told me he would wait."

Little mercies. Gabriel knew that he unnerved Elena, and he was glad he hadn't deigned to torment her further – despite him seeming to enjoy such interactions. "Alright," he said resolutely, taking a deep breath. "We knew it was coming. I'll make it quick."

She met his eyes, which softened. "Please be careful."

She never said that.

She never doubted that it would be alright, or that he could take care of himself. That she was worried right now was…

"I will," he promised, giving her a quick hug. She gripped him tightly, her hands clenched into fists around his back, unwilling to let him go before he gently broke the embrace. Taking another breath, he approached their shelter.

This was not going to be pleasant.

He pushed the door open to his little home, and found Gabriel appraising the rudimentary cupboards with the berries and vegetables they'd been able to scavenge, all neatly organized. Gabriel was dressed differently than before, wearing a kind of brown cloth jacket, blue leggings, boots, and a small bookbag slung diagonally over his shoulder.

Were he anyone else, Volk might have wondered if he'd walked off from some renaissance fair, he certainly would have fit in well. "The resourcefulness of Humans is something I appreciate," he said, picking up one of the berries, appraising it almost fondly. "Find one of your species, place them in a difficult situation, and observe. Many times they will break – but there are always a few who thrive in ways you could not have predicted. It is such a fascinating situation; one can find no finer entertainment."

He ate the berry, smiling. "I have known Humans who become addicted to such thrills. The rush of challenge, difficulty, and ultimately triumph. It is truly inspiring to see one achieve the impossible, to stare death in the face and laugh. And then there are the ones who look at the impossible, and do not even dream of challenging it."

Volk leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms. "Your musings are not exactly subtle."

"Humans, I have found, also consider themselves – personally – as the center of the universe at all times," Gabriel continued, clearly amused. "Volikov, I assure you; I know what you are, and I don't need to play games of riddles for you to also see it. All of this," he motioned around. "Simply reminded me of the virtues of your species. Why I bother with this at all, despite its frustrations."

He ate another berry from the bunch, as he turned to face Volk fully, a glint in his eyes that made him uncomfortable staring back. "To business then. I'm sure you know why I am here."

"I can hazard a guess," Volk said slowly. "I'm afraid there hasn't been any progress."

"If only I were surprised by that. Alas, my disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined," Gabriel said with an exaggerated sigh. "We don't seem to understand what we really want until we grasp it, do we not? I mean, with how much work you've put into this quaint new home, it must have some appeal, no?"

Volk shrugged. "It's better than the one I had before."

"Almost certainly," Gabriel nodded. "And truly, I would like to see you enjoy this calm, quaint, idyllic life. You deserve some peace, I expect." The sinister glint in Gabriel's eyes hadn't faded. "But we made a deal, did we not?"

"We did," Volk said. "But the task is impossible. I can't do it."

Something in his eyes grew darker.

Gabriel ate another berry, as he paced the small kitchen area, before the crude table. A wooden spoon found its way into his fingers, which he twirled idly, with a delicacy Volk hadn't expected.

"And why," Gabriel mused, his voice artificially pleasant. "Do you think that would matter to me? Why do you think that is an answer I would accept?"

"Give me a task that is possible, and I'll do it," Volk shook his head. "Not this."

"I will note," Gabriel added, pointing the spoon for emphasis."You never specified that the terms of our deal were only for ones you perceived as possible."

"Only one of us made a bad deal," Volk said. "And it wasn't me."

As he said it, he wondered if he might have gone too far. Gabriel stared at him long enough for the silence to become unbearable, before he laughed. "I will concede that you have a sharp tongue, Volikov. Perhaps too sharp for your own good."

"You never specified that the 'tasks' I might be asked to do would be suicidal." Volk shot back. "This was not a deal made in good faith."

"That is immaterial. It was you who agreed to the terms," Gabriel's smile was openly sinister now, as the spoon now rested in both hands, as if he was prepared to snap it. "With that mark comes expectations. If you wanted more details, you should have asked."

Volk grew angrier. "We were captive!"

"You do understand every contract has a few terms and catches, no?" Gabriel tsked, before shaking his head. "But I'm not here to debate this with you, Volikov. Nor with your lady outside. You agreed to act to fulfill my interests, and that is what I expect."

Volk considered his next words for a few moments. "And if I decide I don't want to?"

Gabriel whistled a strange tune, his pleasant demeanor not fading. "Then you will never see me again. Unfortunately, I must sadly predict your life will not be as peaceful as you wish. This land you live in will die; death and famine will follow you wherever you go. You will watch your lover suffer, fade, and die in your arms, and nothing you can do will save her."

He took a few steps towards Volk. "And if you believe you can follow her into oblivion, every method you attempt will fail. You will suffer - but you will live. And as you lie on the ground, defeated, starving, and wretched, I will return, and claim what I am owed."

His eyes glinted in the evening light. "There is no escape from our agreement, Volikov. No matter how much you wish otherwise, no matter how deep your regret. Succeed, and you will have all you wish. Refuse, and you will wish death was the worst that this reality is capable of. Am I clear, Konstantine Volikov?"

Volk only nodded.

Gabriel set the spoon down, clasped his hands together, eyes bright, and appeared more cheerful than he had before. "Wonderful. Now, I hope you have not forgotten that I am willing to help you. I'd hardly expect you to achieve this without a few lucky breaks – of which I will certainly advise you of."

"The Temple Ship," Volk said flatly.

"Ah, so you were listening," Gabriel hummed. "Despite what you think, I did not make that suggestion idly, nor is it the suicide mission you think. So I will give you a second hint – once you get on the Temple Ship, things will fall into place. You will see. How you get there is up to you – but I am confident in your resourcefulness."

He moved to leave the shelter, passing Volk, and patting him on the shoulder as if they were old friends. "I would get started," he said, conspiratorially, low, as if sharing a secret. "Vacation is over, and if I have to show up again – it will be the last time. Understand?"

"Understood, Gabriel." He managed.

"Then until we next meet." The hand dropped from his shoulder as Gabriel sauntered away, whistling that strange tune, which carried ominously on the wind. The tune stuck in Volk's mind as he watched Gabriel cross over the hill as the sun set.

No more choices.

No more options.

He sat down, pulled out a notepad, and began to write.

He had to find and board the Temple Ship – and somehow manage to not die in the process.


The darkness was an ocean.

Vestiges and flashes of consciousness lingered; coalescing, absorbing, existing.

Dreams formed which were complex; confusing; abnormal.

In them were first images, with sounds associated to them infused with meaning. Language. Communication. Letters formed into words, words formed into sentences, sentences that shared information; knowledge. Words became assigned to new images; a myriad that seemed all at once, while long enough for each one to be understood.

Man. Woman.

Human. Alien.

Trees. Flowers. Grass.

Earth. Space.


Words assigned to images. Images associated with information. Words built the foundations. Foundations supported concepts. Concepts preceded comprehension. First he recognized, then he grasped, then he understood.

The young mind in the tank developed a sense of self. He knew what he was.



And as he learned, he dreamed.

He dreamed of waking up in the world of the plants and landscapes he had seen. Sometimes it was around snowy mountains. Others were in expanses of green fields with flowers of all kinds. Sometimes it rained, other times the sun was warm on his face.

Warmth was a strange sensation; so was cold. There was an expectation with each, that it should be sharper; harsher. Instead it was closer to a blanket; the edges softened for him. Perhaps here he couldn't truly experience it. He only knew the descriptions of what they were supposed to be.

He could not complain. He could not do anything at all.

Nor did he want to. He liked the comfort.

In these landscapes, from mountains, to plains, to valleys, there were often cities; ones tall and imposing, within them Humans of all types. Tall, short, skin tones from pale to dark, with a myriad of different faces, and eyes whose colors were like a rainbow. They looked different, but they were all one people.


However, there were usually others besides Humans. Other creatures he knew were called 'aliens'. Others. Some of them had fur, others had strange skin tones and body proportions. Some seemed to be made of stone, others seemed to be reptiles. They were not Human, but they appeared to live with them.

Human and alien lived together. Existed together. Were happy together.

He liked it. He was also happy for a time.

Until the end of the dream came.

The dreams all inevitably ended the same way.

It began with a shadow falling over them. An attack followed, resulting in chaos and death. It was during this he would find himself as if paralyzed; only able to watch; looking up at the strange flying objects spitting energy and projectiles. Each time a faint question formed before the dream ended.


Then it would go black.

More images would manifest; more words would be learned; more concepts grasped.

Then there would be more dreams; each time becoming a little more legible; a little clearer.

As the dreams progressed, he no longer stood idle. He moved, he fought, and everything went dark quicker. His first attempts at rebellion were poor; sloppy; incapable. Yet each time he lasted a little longer. Each time he was able to save more people. He had a faint certainty that, one day, he would win.

Then one day it all ended.

No dreams, only blackness; then a faint sensation he had not experienced before.

There was the realization that something was different. There had been a sense of envelopment, of comfort, that was now gone. The air was colder. He felt new materials on his body, and the darkness seemed much more sharp.

He opened his eyes.

He remained in place at first, not moving a muscle. The place he found himself in was dark, but not so dark that he could not make out the shapes and details of the room. That was where he was. A room. Part of a larger building.

He realized he was not bound, and so moved. He lifted an arm up, testing his movement. It felt like he had done this a thousand times before, but also like it was the first time. He sat up to get a better look at where he found himself, dim as the lighting was.

The bed he sat on was thin, with a single pillow, and just big enough for him. The room itself he knew was small; a cube with a table and chairs, a sink and fridge, a smaller room that was a bathroom, and a door leading to the outside.

He wondered if this was another dream, but all of this felt different. Sharper. Clearer.

Where am I?

He stood and approached a mirror that was opposite the bed. He saw himself for the first time. Hair black and cut to a short length; his face with a hardened jawline and angled features; eyes brown and curious; skin pale in the slowly brightening light. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin with one hand, noticing that his muscles were well-developed as well.

Was that normal?

His clothing was simple; a black long-sleeve shirt, pants, socks, with the shoulder having an embroidered patch with an emblem he did not recognize. All of this seemed familiar and alien at the same time. His shoulders rolled as the light continued to get brighter, questions coming to his mind, trying to sort through all of the information that he somehow knew, and simultaneously knew not what from. There was some context to why he was here…

But he didn't know for sure. There was a war. There were people threatened. He was supposed to help stop that.

He didn't know how.

But he wanted to do it.

The dream could not be unfinished.

The door opened, and he turned quizzically towards the entrance. He relaxed slightly when he saw that it was another Human. She was much smaller than he was - almost a full head and a half shorter. She was dark-skinned, her eyes blue, and her hair black and long.

She smiled at him, wearing a uniform somewhat similar to his own, though with some different colors – whites and greys, and a little more design complexity. The emblem on her chest was the same as his, he noticed. She held a tablet in her hand, which she seemed ready to reference.

"Hello," she said, her voice bright. "Do you understand me? Say yes if you do."

He nodded slowly. "Yes."

"English then, thank you," she tapped her tablet. "I know you have a lot of questions about where you are, and why you are here. First, introductions – I am Vonessia Warren, one of your Acclimation Specialists."

"Acclimation?" He cocked his head. "To what?"

"To life, of course," she said. "Everything you need to know, everything you want to know, everything to make your transition from awakening to now, my job is to make that easier."

"Just you?"

She laughed. "Certainly not! One thing that is important – we never have to do everything on our own. I won't be the only one to help you, there are plenty of others. We're going to go meet them now."

"Ok," he nodded. "I would tell you my name, but…" he trailed off, haltingly continuing. "I don't have one."

"Don't worry," she assured him. "That will change shortly. Come on, this way."

He grabbed the shoes near the bed and put them on before joining her. "So who will you be taking me to?"

She smiled widely, as if looking forward to what was going to come. "Your family."

The Prism – Collective Space

Late September 2017 – Evening

There was something about psions that Hallian had picked up on since actively spending time around one. It made him wonder if there were any actual studies on a 'psionic effect,' for lack of a better term, or if it was all in his head.

There was an extra sense about them, where everything was just a little bit more than it normally was. He knew that most psions were at least mildly telepathic, and could pick up on emotions almost intuitively. However, it seemed to work both ways to a lesser degree. If they seemed intense, it was more intense than usual. If they were angry, you could almost feel it; the same for other strong emotions.

Ultimately, there was always a little extra emotion that just seemed to be there, which in his line of work, was a good thing because it meant that psions couldn't completely hide behind a façade of stoicism, something that soldiers in particular liked to do. It wasn't as though Yang was closed off with him – but she certainly had her own secrets.

He was reminded of this when he walked into the living area of the Prism, having finished up some paperwork and going to have his meal - and saw Yang sitting at the table. Only a few of the lights were on, illuminating the woman in a dour, depressive light. He paused his walk, as he hadn't been expecting her back from… whatever her latest escapade with the Battlemaster was yet.

Whatever it had been, it didn't seem to have been a battle. He'd seen her after fighting before, he'd helped her out of scuffed and dirtied armor. She wore the armor, but it clearly hadn't seen any combat, given the light glinting off of it only shone with a dull sheen. It was less of a concern than the woman herself.

She sat alone at the table, without any food, drink, or any other item. It was as though she'd returned, and sat down in the first place she could. Her helmet rested on the table, the only piece she'd taken off. Her face was blank, but in a strangely unguarded, vulnerable way. She stared sightlessly ahead, not seeming to notice him at all.

Everything she was displaying were things he'd seen before, but never in Yang before, which he found simultaneously perplexing and concerning.

She seemed scared.

What had happened?

He cleared his throat, making sure she would be aware of him – an advisable precaution around psions, especially soldiers who were on edge. That did something to break her trance, and her expression became only slightly more neutral as she looked in his direction, her eyes focusing on him.

"Hallian," she said, a faint attempt to sound normal. It didn't seem to sound convincing even to her.

He took a seat beside her. "Hey," he said. "Are you alright?"

She opened her mouth, as if to give an automatic answer, paused, then closed it. She looked away again, and her eyes took on the listless look they'd previously had. He noticed her body was tense, and her hands clenched into fists.

"No," she finally said, her voice a whisper. "I'm not."

He was relieved she trusted him enough to not lie to him, especially since it was very obvious to anyone who'd walked in that things were very much not fine, but he genuinely didn't know what could be the cause of all of this. He was about to ask for only a few details when Yang spoke.

"If I died tomorrow?" She asked slowly. "What would you do?"

He froze in place, taken very aback by the question. He was not a psychologist, that wasn't his specialty, but he felt like he was now speaking to someone who was about to do something very dangerous, or borderline suicidal.

No, no, this is very not good.

She pursed her lips. "You don't have to answer. It's not fair to you to just…" she trailed off. "It's what I do here, it seems. Acting, asking, prodding, everything because it's something I want to do. Not thinking about… anything else. Not caring. And everyone has to do it because of who I'm with, and because I can move things with my mind."

She looked at him. "Are you afraid of me?"

He looked into her eyes, and saw that they were no longer listless, or distant, but were open to him. She was scared. Not physically, but because of what he would say next. What he might say next.

"I feel a lot of different things when I'm around you," he finally said. "You're good company, exceptionally smart, fascinating, a bit stubborn and frustrating at times – but I've never felt afraid of you, Yang."

That seemed to make her relax only a little bit, becoming noticeably deflated in her chair, if allowing herself to breathe. "And…" he began. "If I woke up one day, and you were gone, I would mourn, and do my best to honor your memory. If possible, I would find a place on Vitakar so you would be remembered."

A small, shaky exhale emerged. "I… don't know what to do. What to say. I didn't think I would care if something happened, but I realize that I do. I don't want everything I do to amount to nothing, to just be forgotten. And that's what I've been. An aimless, wandering weapon only useful to cut and kill."

She looked back at him. "But that… isn't how you see me."

"Of course not," he told her. "And the Battlemaster doesn't either."

"No, he doesn't, and that makes this worse," she continued, her voice barely audible. "Everything I've wanted, since coming here, has been for me. It is small, petty, selfish things; things that are all laughable. I fight with the best person I know, who actually believes in something and is willing to fight and die for it, and me?"

A broken chuckle followed. "I wanted the opportunity to kill people who are already dead, to avenge a family I've lost for a long time, against a country that basically no longer exists. That's it. No grand motivation, vision, or anything more than personal desire and vengeance."

Yang shook her head. "The Battlemaster, Patricia, even ADVENT, all of them believe in something so strongly they are willing to fight over it. They will not abandon it. It's not just personal for them, it's something they are invested in, it's a commitment to something bigger than themselves. I've just been coasting along. And now I see how pathetic and hollow I am."

She looked down at the table. "I don't want to die, and there are only two people I can trust enough to admit this to. But I want to be able to live for something, believe in something. Without that I'm just… adrift. A weapon."

"I don't believe that," he said, surprising himself with his forthrightness.

"Don't believe what?" She sounded confused.

"That you don't believe in or want something," he said. "You certainly spent a lot of time assessing the many flaws of your government and Human society. You had comments, you had ideas, you seemed to like the idea of something that was better. You might not have a manifesto – but that doesn't mean you don't believe in something."

"Anyone can come up with ideas," she sighed. "But that isn't a true conviction."

"No, it isn't, but that comes with time," he said. "You don't want to feel this way? Then that just means you can be better. Become better. Find what you really believe in, what you want to fight for beyond just yourself. If not for yourself, then for others you care about."

She hummed, looking forward. "Maybe that's a start then. It's better than complaining about it," she sighed. "I know you are wondering what brought all of this on. I… want to tell you more, I really do. But I can't."

"You don't need to," he assured her. "But you shouldn't think that you don't belong here, or that there are people who don't care about you, or that you are stuck where you are. We aren't machines, we are meant to grow, and become better. Whatever has happened, use it as a catalyst to become better, for yourself, for the Battlemaster, or for whomever you care about."

She looked at him, a very small smile on her face, the first one he'd seen tonight. "Alright. Then I think that's what I'll do. Thank you."

"Anytime, Yang," he said, and reached over to help her up. "You should change out of the armor, and you need a meal. I'll make something while you do that. Or if you don't want a meal, you should rest."

"I don't think I can sleep right now," she grunted, rolling her shoulders. "I'll come out for the meal then. Alright?"

"Alright," he said with a nod. "You'll feel better."

"I think I already do," she said in a quiet voice. She pulled him into an unexpected hug, her armor digging into him, but he returned it after a few moments once he got over the surprise. "Thank you, Hallian."

She let go of him, and with a final smile, went to change out of her armor. Shaking himself out of the surprise, Hallian allowed himself to breathe a little more easily. He was glad that she was feeling better, and that he'd chosen a field of medicine that involved much less stress.

Who knew that dealing with medical injuries would be easier than working through complex psychological situations? At the same time, he was glad it was him who was able to help her.

Now he had to find something to make, and he realized his repertoire of ingredients was limited, and on top of that, he was not the best of cooks.


Hopefully she wouldn't mind something simple.

Hangar Bay, the Praesidium – Classified Location

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

Abigail was not especially surprised as they exited the UFO, and saw the welcoming party XCOM had prepared for them.

"I think," Liam said to her in a dry voice. "They don't believe us yet."

He appeared correct, but in her view, it could have been worse.

She would have honestly been surprised if they'd welcomed them back without any questions – or at least, any more questions than they already had. The reception would have probably been warmer if their AI hadn't done the smart thing and probed the ship's systems. The moment she'd noticed the probe, she knew it would be impossible to really hide her nature, and JULIAN would almost certainly relay that to the Commander.

Because of that, they almost certainly had some suspicions right now. Hopefully they'd take the truth well.

The Hangar Bay had been cleared of almost everyone as Fectorian's ship had smoothly landed. The protective barrier fell, revealing almost two-dozen fully armored XCOM soldiers, including one MEC, standing ready. Abby immediately picked out a couple who were almost certainly psions.

Well, that was an inevitability. If by some miracle they weren't already suspicious, they certainly would be once they found out they couldn't read her mind.

In the center of the group stood the Commander, and flanking him were men she recognized as Shaojie Zhang, the Director of XCOM Intelligence, Iosif Bronis, who led XCOM's psionics division, and Anius Creed, who she wasn't sure if he was officially a Deputy Commander, or just a military advisor. She knew all of their names, but she had no personal memories or details of them outside Liam's recollections – and he'd only interacted with Zhang minimally, and Iosif not at all.

There'd been a lot that had happened. A lot that had changed.

Behind the quartet of the Internal Council was Aegis in his robes, arms hidden within them, as he towered over each of the Humans except for the MEC.

All of their expressions were tightly controlled, and the soldiers had their faces hidden behind helmets. Despite their efforts, she did possess an unfair advantage in being able to read people more effectively than anyone alive. It was a capability that she knew she would need soon.

"Well," she looked at Liam. "Let's not keep them waiting."

They took their first steps outside the ship, listening carefully for any commands from the XCOM leadership. They didn't want to spook any of the soldiers, all of whom had their weapons idle, but ready to quickly aim if needed. "They're probing me," Liam murmured. "Not invasive, but probably to confirm. They probably tried to do the same to you."

The Commander finally held up a hand – a prosthetic one she noticed - when they were around a dozen paces apart. "That's far enough," his eyes were fixated on her, clear wariness in them. She saw he wore an earpiece, and was almost certainly communicating with someone, be it through technology or psionics.

He remained unblinking, looking her up and down. She waited, as the silence stretched, before he nodded, as if coming to a private conclusion. "You aren't Abigail, are you?"

This was starting out well.

"Yes and no. It is…" she paused to find the right word. "Complicated."

"That's one word for it," Liam grunted, as he inclined his head to the group. "Good to see you, Commander. Congrats on the promotion, Creed. Glad to see you're still alive, Zhang. I've heard the attrition rate for the Internal Council is higher than you'd expect for that kind of role."

"A risk of the job," Zhang said.

Liam frowned as he looked at Iosif. "Weren't you a medic when I was last here?"

"As Creed can attest," Iosif said. "We've moved up in the world, but yes. Under her, in fact." He looked at her, his expression skeptical. "I would welcome you back, Abby, but I'm not sure that's who I'm talking to."

Liam's lips pursed. "If it means anything, I vouch for her. She's Abigail in the ways that matter. I can tell your psions are poking at me, so they should be able to tell you we aren't here to trick or infiltrate you. I promise you'll want to hear what we have to say."

"I'm sure your story is memorable," Creed said, even as he seemed to grow a little more at ease. "And it is good to have you back – despite the questionable optics. That you're coming at Fectorian's request, and with something that's wearing the face of one of our soldiers is… concerning."

"Indulge me a question, Commander," Aegis spoke for the first time. "It is an important one. To confirm an important factor."

The Commander nodded. "Go ahead."

"If you are a machine," Aegis said, his voice in a tone that Abigail was categorizing as intense. She wasn't sure how to take it. It was a tone that was calm enough to be almost apathetic, or a prelude to lashing out. Since it was Aegis, she hoped it was the former. "Are you an artificial intelligence?"

Was it best to share it now? Abigail realized that she didn't really want to share in front of all of these people, none of whom she knew. It felt personal – something that she knew would color perceptions of her. They appeared to be somewhat tolerant of AI if they were employing one – but she wasn't exactly thrilled that there would only be one first impression, and this one wasn't under the best circumstances.

At the same time, she knew it was an inevitable, and from their view, fair demand. "Yes. One derived from Abigail Gertrude, and cultivated by Fectorian."

She paused for a long moment, unsure if she should add anymore before continuing. "I was unaware of my nature until recently."

The Commander and Creed exchanged a look, as if they'd both confirmed something important. The soldiers were helmeted so it was impossible to gauge their reactions, and she couldn't tell just from their body language if things had become more or less tense. Aegis remained very still, almost unnaturally so, as if contemplating what should be said or done.

He was likely fixating on Fectorian creating an AI – a taboo among Ethereals, and which Aegis would certainly not expect. Zhang's was impressively difficult to read, but the others were easier. The confirmation seemed to be the last thing they were looking for, and interestingly, most of them appeared more at ease.

No, not more at ease, more confident. Because they knew what they were dealing with? Another reason? It wasn't clear.

The Commander finally nodded, motioning with a hand. The rest of the soldiers stood down, lowering their weapons to their sides, and backing away. Their body language wasn't completely at ease, but they were not ready to leap into combat on a moment's notice.

"While it will be impossible to confirm your identity… Abigail," the Commander said after a moment. "Yours is simpler, Liam. You'll need to undergo a full psionic interrogation later, but for now there are questions that need to be answered."

"I think we all agree with that," Liam said. "I'll submit to whatever measures you need to confirm it is me."

"Good. You've come at an inopportune time, but we will manage," the Commander nodded at the soldiers. "Form an escort around them, to my office. Liam, Abigail, follow me. We can talk somewhere more formal."

She nodded in return, as the soldiers formed up around them. "Lead the way."

ADVENT Acclimation Center, Seafoam Facility 13 – Classified Location

Mid September 2017 – Morning

He couldn't help but find everything around him fascinating.

There was a part of him that knew it was improper to stare at everything, but there was a brightness, texture, and solidity to everything that was so different from the dreams he had been enmeshed in since… well, since he first had any degree of conscious thought.

He kept close to the woman, Vonessia, as she led him through the labyrinth of corridors, hallways, and open rooms. He saw small groups of people in uniforms like his own, but also quite a few civilians in the uniforms that Vonessia wore. The facility they were in was not fancy; it was military in design, but the colors were softer than he would have expected.

He was keeping a mental note of where he was being led; he didn't realize that he was doing it until he consciously wondered why he was. Well, it would probably be useful, and he wanted to absorb as much as he could. It was fascinating, while at the same time he wanted to keep his distance for now.

"It's alright to stare," she suddenly said, as if reading his mind. Maybe she was? He knew that some Humans had the ability to do that.

"Are you a psion?" He asked with some hesitation.

She chuckled, seemingly taken aback. "A psion? No, no, no, but that's the first time anyone's asked that of me. I think I should feel honored."

"Ah," he said, feeling slightly embarrassed. "I did not know. You seemed to know what I was thinking."

"About staring?" She gave him a reassuring smile. "It's not the first time I've handled an awakening. It's good! There's a lot of things for you to see and experience, and it's natural to be interested in it."

"Yes, that is good to hear then," his brow furrowed, as he glanced at a small group laughing at something. "I am aware that I am not exactly like you. Clones are not Humans in certain aspects."

That got a reaction from her, but not one he'd expected. Her entire demeanor changed, as if he'd said something very disagreeable. He suddenly realized he'd probably said the wrong thing, and that did not make him feel good. He didn't want to make her upset. "No," she said emphatically.

She stopped her walk, and moved in front of him. Despite being a full head shorter, and much smaller, there was a resoluteness to her stance that immediately put in his mind that she was a superior. "You are like me in every way that matters," she told him, her voice gentle, but firm. "You're Human, I'm Human; we both think, feel, and comprehend. You are as much Human as I am, don't let anyone – yourself included – say or think otherwise."

He suddenly understood what she was talking about. He hadn't meant to give offense, but it sounded like she was almost offended on his behalf. He found it an interesting feeling; he thought it ok to highlight that there were some clear differences. Apparently she'd had some different experiences. Regardless, this sounded like an order as much as a declaration. "Yes, sir."

She resumed her walk, himself falling into step beside her. "I'm not your superior, you don't need to say that to me," she said, shaking her head. "Sorry about that, it's just something I feel strongly about. The absolute last thing you should be thinking is how you're different. Trust me, it leads nowhere good."

He'd take her word for it. Her experience was certainly far greater than his own.

Eventually, they made their way towards one of the sections of the facility that seemed noticeably nicer. A living space of some kind, it looked like. They passed through an open area where there was some vegetation worked into the area, and doors lining the walls presumably led into living spaces.

His first thought was a barracks, but this didn't seem to be like that. Maybe a more open barracks? They were going to find out, as Vonessia approached one of the doors, and after opening it, motioned for him to follow.

The first thing he noticed once he stepped inside was the people. Three of them, in fact. Similar images came to mind; ones of individuals with some degree of shared features. A man and two women, the man and one woman older, one younger. A family. Was this a family?

All of them were of a Hispanic ethnicity, which he knew were originally from the central and South American regions, but he also knew they lived elsewhere in the world. The way certain people looked hadn't been as clear in the tank; as it was knowledge he had, but there wasn't any importance attached to it. Some information to note and file away.

The living space was the next thing he noticed. It was open in an inverse T-shape, with openings on the side that led to elsewhere in the home. The main entrance was open, with couches and other furniture arranged throughout, and the room colored in darker or neutral colors.

The rightmost section had a dining table, where there was some food resting on it. Chips of some kind, and a mixture of vegetables. From the room behind it wafted more smells – probably a kitchen then. He didn't recognize the foods on display, besides the cake, but it did look appetizing.

He realized he was hungry.

"This is him?" The youngest of the trio asked. She was young, with long brown hair, bright blue eyes, and wearing a similar uniform to Vonessia. They looked to be about similar ages, but he admittedly couldn't tell more than that.

"Indeed," Vonessia said with a smile, turning to him. "I'd like to introduce you to Esteban, Patricia, and Mia Navarro. Your new family."

Ah, so they were a family! The man – Esteban - was definitely the oldest one, if the gray streaks in his hair were anything to go by, and the wrinkles on his face. He walked up, and shook his hand with a firm grip. "Welcome to our home, we're glad to meet you."

"So formal, he's like that," Patricia, his wife, said alongside him, her smile warm. "We've been looking forward to this day for a long time. Everyone needs a family, we're glad that you'll be part of ours."

He was about to speak and thank them, before registering the rest of their words. New family. He thought quickly, recalling there was a concept that covered this. Sometimes there were families that took in people who weren't originally part of it. Nor was the definition of a family always conclusive either. So this was surprising, but not unprecedented.

He was getting a family?

"You're adopting me?" He said, not able to keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Yes, of course we are," Mia rolled her eyes good-naturedly, almost certainly their daughter. "That's why we're here. Did you think you were just going to get woken up and thrown into a war?"

"Well…" he considered how best to answer. "To be honest…"

"Don't get me wrong," Mia lifted her hands in mock surrender. "Trust me. I was shocked when I heard as well. ADVENT caring about stuff like 'family' for their clone army? Turns out a few of them have hearts after all."

"And brains!" Patricia said. "Imagine the alternative."

Vonessia grimaced. "Let's not do that, in fact."

"ADVENT may sometimes not seem like they have much Humanity, or understand their nuances," Esteban said with a dry voice and small smile. "But they surprise you at some points. Doesn't matter if you come from a woman or a tank, you're Human, and Humans need to know affection and love. You don't have that, that can lead to something ugly."

"Not all of us can participate in the war effort," Patricia added. "But we can at least give a family to those who don't have one." Her voice softened. "I know you must be feeling a lot right now – so don't be afraid to ask for some space. We're here for you, and what you need."

While it was a short time since he'd been first awakened, he found a strange feeling welling up inside him which was strong, intense, but pleasant. He did not know these people before now, but they treated him as one of their own, and he wanted to know more. So, family. Ok, he could do this then. He opened his mouth, considering what to say. "I know it is good to introduce myself, but I do not have a name."

"Well, good thing I thought ahead," Mia stepped forward, motioning him to follow her. "Come on, brother. Mom, the tacos should be almost done. We're going to figure out a name."

Patricia smiled, as he joined her daughter – or his sister now? Did it happen just like that? "Don't take too long." She called.

They went over to a semi-connected room, with a smaller table near it. He saw Vonessia and the two parents talking, while Mia then commanded their attention. "So, I guess I should ask this question before we do anything else," Mia plopped down a tablet. "Any idea what you want to call yourself?"

He thought about it for a moment. "Not especially. Mia," he tested the word. "I like that."

She blinked. "You like Mia?"

"I like how it sounds," he clarified. "Not all of it, but parts of it. The first part."

"The 'm'?" She tested.

"Yes! That." He nodded.

"Ok, 'M' that's a starting point," she said, tapping to a page on the tablet. "Uhh… I'm supposed to give you a selection in your preferred language. English?"

He appraised her. "Are you following a guide?"

"Kind of," she said with a shrug. "ADVENT is very documented, almost to the point of absurdity; if only life were as rigid as they like to act it is," she chuckled. "It's my first time doing this with anyone though. Sorry that you're my guinea pig."

He cocked his head. "Your pet?"

"I see they didn't teach you figures of speech in the flash training," she said dryly, trying to find another phrase. "Test subject? Trial run?"

"Ah," he said. "You are practicing."

"That's good enough for me," she said. "How am I doing?"

"Good, I think," he looked down at the tablet. "Let's see what options there are. Also yes, I suppose English."

"Wait, hang on," she said, and something about her voice changed. "You said that you prefer English, but [you can understand other languages.]"

"[Understand and speak,]" he said in Spanish, which he noted she'd slipped into. "[English, Spanish, and Mandarin I can speak. I don't know why those three.]"

"[Wow,]" she said, eyes wide. "[You sound like a native speaker. It's weird to hear without an accent.]"

"[Do you prefer I speak Spanish?]" he asked. "[It's not an issue for me.]"

"Speak how you like," she told him. "I just find that really cool. All of us can speak English and Spanish. Kind of needed to in America."

"That is where you're from?"

"That's where we are… somewhere, but also yes," she nodded. "You know America, right?"

"A Human country, I believe."

"One way of putting it," she snorted. "Ok, I'll pick your brain for geography later. We've got a name to pick. Starting with the letter 'M.'"

With their focus fully on the list of names, he saw there were a lot of possibilities. He was surprised just how many ways the language could be made to sound in unique and interesting ways. He fixated on a few, tested them out in his head, and then out loud. So far, none of them sounded bad, but they didn't quite seem right yet.

There was one that caught his eye, he ran it through his head, and nodded to himself.

"Maybe this one," he rested a finger on the word.

Mia glanced at it. "Matthew?"

"Matthew," he tested out the word. "Matthew…"

There was something about this one that he liked much more. All of the other names had seemed like there was something missing, but this one felt complete. It was still an alien word to consider himself – but he could see himself as Matthew. Once he realized that, everything seemed very clear.

"I think this is the one," he said. "Matthew."

She looked at him closely, then nodded. "Yes, I think it fits. And if you don't like it, we can change it later."

"You can do that?"

"It's not common, but it happens," she answered. "So, Matthew Navarro. Yep, I like it, and I'm sure everyone else will feel the same." She glanced at a clock above him, and brought her hands together. "And with a name, we can move onto the most important part of it all."

"Oh?" He cocked his head. "What is that?"

"Well, you know what today is, right?" She asked rhetorically, a twinkle in her eye.

"Tuesday, I think."

"Your birthday," she enunciated. "You know what a birthday is, I hope?"

"Yes," he paused, then made the connection. "Is that what the food is for?"

"It absolutely is," Mia told him, standing. "Mom baked a cake and everything – you're going to love it; she's an excellent cook. And we probably took a bit to pick the name, so they're probably waiting for us. You ready?"

"I think I am," Matthew stood up, still getting used to thinking of himself with a name. There were a few different feelings going through him; an excitement, fascination, and slightly trepidation as he stepped into the unknown.

He'd been prepared to fight aliens, but this was definitely something different.

But he thought that he liked it.

"Let's go," he said, following her. "I want to try these 'tacos.'"

Office of Hosmunt Kaan, Abuja – Nigeria

Late September 2017 – Afternoon

Economic Minister Hosmunt Kaan stood before a holoprojection of the territories that comprised the so-called Sovereign African States. Projected near the map were flowcharts, organizational trees, and official portraits of various peoples in ADVENT, XCOM, the Collective, and the SAS.

Economic Minister he was, but not for long.

His lips curled in disgust at the crippled abomination before him; a crippled bastardization that should have been taken out and put out of its misery. A creature which had now been thrust into his lap, of which he was supposed to nurse back to health.

What an utter disgrace.

History was merciless and demanding of those who it called to. There were only two possible paths for a man like him in this situation he had found himself in. He would, as many would expect, fail. He would hold the teetering house of cards together long enough to put up some meager fight before ADVENT came upon them like an earthquake and broke this rotten foundation apart.

In his hands he held a collection of splintered nations, distrustful minorities within each of them, an incoherent military, oppressive foreign domination, impending economic collapse, citizens on the verge of unrest - all while the greatest military and state the world had seen was on their doorstep.

And Betos had the sheer audacity to give him all of this in a desperate attempt for him to fix it.

No, not audacity. That would imply some comprehension on her part, which he had long ago figured out she lacked.

He did not truly think she was malicious – she was simply clueless. It was fascinating, in a morbid way, watching Betos fumble her way through this entire fiasco. She truly, utterly, completely lacked any kind of competence as it pertained to running a state. She should have been in utter panic right now, but instead she carried along as if only a few tweaks around the edges were needed, and a few good men she could trust to fix the issues.

Soldiers. Pah.

Saudia Vyandar, for all of his disagreements on the path she had chosen to pursue, was ultimately a statesman of complete competence. He truly could not have put ADVENT together better than she had – well, almost. In her position, he would have done things a bit differently, but this was a matter of differing opinions and priorities.

In comparison, the Sovereign African States was just…

It could hardly be called an actual political entity. It was a collection of already-fractured nations held together with military force, a common enemy, and apathy. If ADVENT had not existed, or the Collective had not supported the state during this time, it would have collapsed into a dozen civil wars. In her infinite wisdom, Betos thought that it was her inspiring leadership and aspiration which was preventing the worst from occurring.

She was the worst kind of soldier, and also the worst kind of leader. A soldier who believed that if the worst happened, they could simply use their guns to force everyone into compliance, and a leader who was delusional enough to believe her own motivations and project them onto others.

Blind, deaf, and dumb to the world. The aliens had rightfully seen her as a useful puppet, and appeared more than content with propping her up. He could see what was going on here – she was useful not because the Collective really cared about establishing an alternate Human power.

She was a distraction.

The SAS was useful in keeping ADVENT occupied in Africa, and introducing an additional variable for them to deal with. The Collective, if they had any sense - and he was certain they did - would almost certainly appropriate the ADVENT structure in the event of their victory, not this Frankenstein's monster of a state Betos had created.

In their position, it was what he would do.

Were it not for the fact that he was almost certainly to be executed if he found himself in ADVENT's hands, he would have been tempted to leave than take part in this elaborate suicide pact. However, he was hardly one to run from responsibility, and history had deemed him the man to whom Humanity would be entrusted.

Betos seemed content to let Humanity be an alien puppet – even if she pretended otherwise. He was not.

Betos believed that military force would be enough to keep the SAS together. He did not.

Betos believed that the people could be united against ADVENT, and would follow through righteous argument and idealism. He would give the people a reason to believe.

Betos believed that she could leverage what existed, and simply apply newer technology and it would be fine. He knew better. ADVENT understood this as well – to make changes on such a level, they had to be systemic and societal. There were no real shortcuts… to a certain degree.

He was not going to restrain himself in some ways like ADVENT had done.

He heard the door open behind him, though did not look. He knew who it would be, as he had received a request from Keeper to speak. He found the alien a curious creature, if someone apathetic to everything. The alien did not care about the SAS, not really; he was along for the ride, and to manage Betos.

"You have been busy," Keeper noted, looking at the projections.

Kaan turned to face him, his voice curt. "I have been productive. Enough to reach some important conclusions."

The Vitakarian nodded. "Elaborate."

"It is too late."

Keeper's head tilted to the side. "For?"

"For any of this," Kaan motioned toward the projections. "To ultimately succeed. There was a period of time – much earlier - where the SAS could have achieved the heights and power promised. Betos' failure and incompetence prevented that from happening."

Keeper did not seem inclined to dispute the proclamation, instead he was fixated on the charts and figures of note. "You have developed restructuring and reorganization," Keeper noted, voice neutral. "As well as a number of initiatives to correct deficiencies. Hardly a lost cause yet."

"Yes, and I am saying this comes too late," Kaan shook his head. "The numbers are stark, and these reforms take time. Time which we frankly do not have. When ADVENT resumes their offensive – and they eventually will, the SAS will almost certainly fall. It will not be the end of your larger campaign – but it will be the end of this one."

Keeper pursed his lips.

"I suspect that you are not surprised by this," Kaan said, clasping his hands behind his back. "To you, the SAS is a means to an end. An investment. Another front. I am not going to condemn you for it – this is war, after all. However, I am not interested in simply managing what amounts to a glorified puppet state. Betos has no vision or ability to create a true pragmatic and ideological counter to what ADVENT promises."

The alien's bright blue eyes bored into his. "And you do?"

Kaan smiled. "I believe you have already assessed that I do. The Collective, from my understanding, is an alliance of various species. All subordinate to the Ethereals of course, but in my reading, they have been rather… apathetic to direct rule."

"The Collective members are able to manage their own affairs," Keeper replied. "This has been long standing policy, despite what ADVENT would say."

"Which is less important than what I intend," Kaan began pacing. "All the work I have already done is not to just fix the mistakes of Betos. I intend to build a new Human power. A state to rival ADVENT, unshackled by the nationalities of the past, or Betos' convoluted status quo. A new Humanity, from the ground up."

He met Keeper's eyes. "What I require is the Collective to agree to this. I am not interested in managing a puppet state or glorified front line. If that is all the Collective desires, then you have Betos. If you want a true answer to ADVENT, a legitimate Human state with full equality in the Ethereal Collective – then I can give that."

Keeper appraised him, his face unreadable. A few seconds passed, before the alien nodded. "What would you need?"


He was not surprised that Keeper was open to it – the man was pragmatic, and intelligent. This was the obvious choice – and they lost nothing by giving him a chance. He certainly couldn't do worse than Betos.

Kaan picked up a tablet, and handed it to Keeper. "Materially, this is what I would need to start. I would also need your backing to ensure these initiatives are put into motion. Betos is aware of the framework, as you know, but there are more details she is not. Some of these details she would find controversial."

He paused. "And as I said, the numbers are stark. The SAS is in a precarious position, even if I make initial progress. So long as the SAS is confined to Earth alone, this fact will not change. You understand, I hope?"

Keeper took the tablet, his eyes scanning it, while listening. "Yes," he murmured. "I understand your point. I cannot make promises… but the Collective will, I believe, support this effort. Provided you show that you are capable of achieving what you claim. Your competition is ADVENT, after all."

Kaan's lips curled up. "A high bar. One that I will exceed."

"We shall see," Keeper lowered the tablet. "Continue your work. I will have an answer for you shortly."

With that, he turned and left Kaan alone, who hummed a tune to himself. That was all he needed, and he knew that Keeper would fully support the idea – and he knew Keeper's word carried weight with his superiors. Of course, now the onus fell to him to prove he had what it took.

Such a challenge was not going to be easy, but history had provided him with the blueprints to follow, the psychology to exploit, and the realities to harness. Yes, this moment called for a man of history to answer, and he would heed the call. He would not shy from doing what must be done.

As Atatürk had dragged the dying Ottoman Empire into modernity, it would be him who dragged Humanity into the future.

He returned to the holoprojections before him, plans solidifying into action.

A satisfied, hungry smile rested on his lips.

There was much work to be done.

Office of the Commander, the Praesidium – Classified Location

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

The Commander had been prepared for a multitude of possibilities when he'd heard that Abigail and Liam were alive. There'd been a number of explanations and theories he'd considered, though not too deeply since he'd known answers would soon be coming. Of course, everything boiled down to only a few possibilities.

They were both who they said they were, and had somehow survived their presumed deaths.

Or they were not who they said they were, and were here for other reasons.

The specifics were the most tricky, yet he was certain that if he'd dedicated any significant thought to the details one way or another, he was confident that he wouldn't have come up with anything close to reality.

He certainly wouldn't have predicted that Liam had been spending almost the entirety of the conflict as a pseudo-guest (or more accurately, captive) of Fectorian, while also being treated well if his own account was to be believed – and the Commander hadn't seen a good reason to doubt. He, Vahlen, and Iosif had been idly sensing Liam as he talked, and it was clear that he wasn't lying.

It had been important to gauge him as the barometer of truth or accuracy, as they couldn't do the same with Abigail. Especially since Abigail had been the one who'd been telling the story. Liam hadn't interrupted her often, but had added context or his own experiences and viewpoint when applicable or prompted.

Apparently, this "appropriation" (or kidnapping of random alien captives) wasn't uncommon for Fectorian to do, and Liam at the time had just been a Human captive, past the point when Humans were being dissected. He'd been lucky that there was very little research usefulness for Humans anymore.

Or rather, that Fectorian had grabbed him before he ended up in another Ethereal Blacksite, the Sectoids, or worse, Paradise.

And Abby…

He wasn't sure how to think of her. That Abby had, in fact, died was not a surprise, though it was good to have some degree of closure. That Fectorian had preserved a scan which he'd then used to culture an artificial intelligence that thought it was Abby was something else entirely, which none of them could have expected.

It took a lot to shock Aegis, and the Commander was unsure that he'd ever seen the Ethereal in a state of utter shock. Yet here they were, he could sense it, and the fact that Aegis was unable or unwilling to cloak it was telling in and of itself. He had said little, and anyone observing would wonder at his silence.

The Commander suspected that Aegis was reevaluating quite a few things, not just about Fectorian's willingness to not only tolerate, but create AI, but also how he treated his subordinates. The Commander, and most of the Internal Council, had certain ideas of Fectorian's conduct, supported by Aegis.

It was a narrative that Fectorian was a brilliant but harsh engineer, who maintained an augmented army slaved to him, and would experiment and tamper with as he saw fit. Someone who was more comfortable around machines than people, and discarded those who were unneeded. An individual who had little interest or care in anything outside of his workshops.

And while there was a grain of truth to all of that – there was clearly more to Fectorian than what they had believed.

As the Commander listened to both Abigail and Liam recount their experiences, he couldn't deny that Fectorian sounded almost respectable in some aspects. His decision to reveal the truth to Abigail spoke volumes about his character, and what he believed. Allowing them to leave afterwards was…

Unexpected. And as far as he was concerned, it told him all that he needed to know about Fectorian. The real one, not the character they'd believed.

The Commander had been watching Abigail as she spoke; seeing where things were the same, and where things were off. Without memories, it was impossible to be the same person, but she certainly reminded him of Abby. At the same time, he also firmly knew it wasn't her. Even if it had her face, this Abigail was her own entity, and she'd said as much.

She wasn't Abby, and wasn't going to pretend to be. He appreciated that.

Finally, she finished. All of them were silent for a while as they digested everything they'd heard. The Commander and Creed exchanged a look, the latter clearly feeling something along the lines of I'm glad you're in charge, and not me.

Funny. Such was the burden of command - Breaking awkward silences. "Well," the Commander finally said. "That was not the story I expected to hear."

That could have been taken as humorous, but the atmosphere remained heavy, and there hadn't been any humor in his voice. It was more a statement of fact than an attempt at levity. He decided to move to the most relevant topic. "You said that Fectorian intended for you to deliver a message."

"Yes," Abigail answered. "I do not see him here, but this would concern the Chronicler. As I implied earlier, Fectorian knows about the existence of the Sovereign One T'Leth. He wants to speak to him. Directly."

Iosif appeared to have the same question he did. The Commander found the proposal interesting – and it told him Fectorian didn't really know what he was asking.

"He wants to speak to T'Leth?" Iosif raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"To decide if he should support Humanity in this war," she answered. "Liam alluded to it earlier, but things have become… troubling in the Collective. Fectorian did not share everything with us, but he is afraid that Mosrimor is taking a more direct role in the Collective, and the Imperator is bringing the Ethereals to ruin."

"I will add that he is not enamored with this prospect," Liam added. "He does not want himself or the Ethereals to be reliant on the Sovereign Ones, or at their mercy. At the same time, he appears to view T'Leth as a lesser evil compared to Mosrimor."

"Clever man," Jackson commented. "Says something when the literal Sovereign of War is the lesser evil."

Jackson's snarkiness aside, she wasn't exactly wrong. Some might wonder if it was opportunism driving Fectorian, but the Commander did not think that was the case at all. He would only do this if he really didn't believe there was another choice – and that came with a mixture of good and bad implications.

The good – the fact that Fectorian might outright defect and support them in the conflict. Given the resources and expertise at his disposal, his support would be a significant force multiplier. For that reason alone, the Commander absolutely wanted to facilitate this meeting. If what they knew about Fectorian's blacksite – or the system he had under his control could be leveraged…

Yes, an alliance might not just be good, it could end up being decisive. However, all of them had picked up on what the bad news of all of this was, and he wasn't sure Liam or Abigail grasped how deeply they'd buried the lede with Fectorian's request.

That Mosrimor taking a more direct role was…

"The Imperator has lost control," Aegis stated. "Mosrimor has asserted himself in some way. It is forcing the rest of our kind to evaluate our futures. I do not know what he did to do this, but we cannot presume that the Imperator is dictating the direction of the Collective. He would never do this willingly."

That, more than anything, made things even more concerning.

"This is bad," Zhang murmured. "The Collective will become more dangerous very soon. Mosrimor intervening is a bad sign. We have limited time. Commander, your view?"

He nodded. "I concur with Aegis. This change in the Collective will have severe consequences we and ADVENT need to prepare for. Unless there is an objection, we will arrange for T'Leth to meet with Fectorian in a predetermined location." He glanced back at Abigail. "I assume you have a means of contacting him?"

"On the ship we arrived on, yes," Abigail nodded. "He will be glad to receive a response this quickly."

"Deliver it to him, but we won't be able to meet immediately," the Commander said. "You arrived as we're preparing to launch a rather important operation, one we will be continuing immediately after this."

This would need a dedicated meeting with ADVENT, the Internal Council, and T'Leth to assess the next steps – but that couldn't distract from Jericho. "Liam, you will be debriefed by Zhang. I expect it won't take long."

Liam nodded. "Understood, Commander."

"As for you, Abigail…" he paused. "JULIAN, I might need some help here."

"Yes, I expected you wouldn't have the expertise to deal with this," JULIAN said. "Abigail, I will handle your interrogation. I will know what to look for and ask which the Commander will not. We are not Human, after all."

Abigail looked at the ceiling. "Does he normally speak like that?"

"Like what, precisely?"

"Strangely smug, and sarcastic at the same time," she mused. "Liam, he wasn't here when you were here, was he?"

Liam shook his head, a faint smile on his lips. "No, he's new. Nice to meet you, JULIAN."

"I can respect a Human with manners," JULIAN answered. "And as an AI, I am naturally paranoid of other AIs. Especially unfamiliar ones created by technologically savvy aliens that emulate the minds of dead soldiers."

Abigail shrugged, though didn't seem offended. "Fair enough."

"I would be curious to know the process he utilized," Kong said, rubbing his chin. "Abigail, I would be interested in speaking later, if you would be willing to share. This method of creating an AI has been theorized, but you are the first example of it in practice."

"Later, yes," Abigail said. "Though I think the Commander – and your resident AI –"

"I do have a name, skinwalker," JULIAN interjected.

"-The Commander, and JULIAN, would be more comfortable if any lingering doubts are cleared up." Abigail finished. "Once that is done, I would enjoy speaking to you."

"Then that is where we will begin," Zhang said. "Liam, Abigail, you will come with me. JULIAN, I will leave Abigail where you request."

"The location will be passed to you momentarily."

"Very good," the Commander said with a nod. "For now, that will be all, and we will determine further details of our meeting with Fectorian after this upcoming operation is concluded." He faced the two people preparing to depart. "Abigail, Liam… welcome back to XCOM. We'll speak more later."

"Thank you, Commander," Liam said, as he saluted as if he'd never left. "It's good to be back."

Central Command – The Horizon, Dreadnought of the Harbinger

Early October 2017 – Morning

First things first.

The future remained uncertain, but in the meantime, there was a significant amount of work to do. Mosrimor had made his priorities clear, and she didn't want to risk a response by failing to make progress on them. Patricia was unsure just how far Mosrimor would go if he perceived her failure.

She had no desire to find out.

Her return to assume control of her Dreadnought had been an overdue one, which had been managed well in her absence. She had ordered that it set a course for Earth, as she intended to use it as her own command center for operations there. She'd given it a proper name – Horizon.

It was harder to come up with fitting names than it first appeared. There was a fine line between appropriateness, heavy-handedness, and phonetic pleasantness. Perhaps someone would consider it rather understated, especially for a Harbinger, but she liked the thematic subtlety.

No matter what ADVENT, XCOM, or T'Leth did to fight her, she would always be waiting for them, and return when appropriate. Sadly, she felt only the Commander would catch on to the meaning.

Her Advisory Council had been assembled, as they would be instrumental in the work that she needed to do.

There were several matters that had been highlighted which she wanted to personally kickstart, and see through to the end. They'd filed in, perfectly on time, and appeared to be ready to get back to work after her absence. They had doubtless wondered what had occupied her recently, besides her defeat to the Chronicler.

None of them said anything, but they likely noticed that there was a changed demeanor about her. She could pick up on their emotional curiosities and immediate reactions. Some found it more interesting than others, but none of them seemed inclined to ask her.

Even if they had questions about the sudden initiatives.

Unfortunately, such questions would need to remain unanswered. Far better that they held private doubts or questions than be privy to what was really going on. The Sovereign Ones were a matter that only a few needed to know about, lest it become an all-consuming existential crisis. Maybe one day they would be given the truth.

Not today.

She first outlined the plan to diversify the production base of the Ethereal Collective, which was simple in concept, but more difficult in execution. They all had tablets and were taking their own notes as she spoke.

"Diversification is a commendable approach," Assimilator-2 spoke first once she finished. "While the risk to Desolan is minimal, it is a necessary pivot to orient the Ethereal Collective towards sustaining itself against a more expansive or dangerous threat."

She wasn't surprised that the Sargon was supportive of the idea. He was one to immediately grasp the benefits – and this was one example where Mosrimor was correct in his approach.

"I don't disagree, but the timing is less than ideal," her Zararch advisor, Marian, said after a moment, frowning. Patricia wasn't surprised that the Zararch Agent was going to be the first to notice oddities about this shift. "The Collective is engaged in a conflict – and undertaking a project this extensive will demand resources, manpower, and equipment. It risks hindering the war effort, not to a crippling degree, but one that makes me uncomfortable."

Fectorian's representative, Miriam, snorted. "In an actual war, perhaps, but we are far from that," she countered. "The numbers are clear - If almost sixty-five percent of existing production was stopped – not reduced, slowed, or halved - stopped – the war effort could proceed at the exact same pace and same expenditures."

She tapped a finger on the table pointedly. "While the fighting is intense, let's not lose sight of the fact that it is happening on one single world."

Patricia was going to bring up that point if it was raised, but Miriam had beaten her to it, which wasn't surprising given the woman was likely synched to the Dreadnought's databases right now. She'd run the numbers herself, and while she didn't think it would be as minimal as Miriam was implying, it wouldn't hurt the war effort.

"To reinforce Miriam's point," Patricia added. "The threats posed by ADVENT and XCOM are not ones from a military production standpoint. Psionics are what is allowing them to hold out, as well as assistance from other elements like Aegis. They will never be able to match our production even if the entire Earth was turned into a factory."

At some point she thought that explanation was not going to be enough. T'Leth was the real reason, even if psionics were a major part of it. Not a realization they came to today, thankfully.

"Point conceded, Harbinger, but it isn't just decreased output that I view as a risk," Marian said after a moment. "Any effort like the one proposed has downstream ramifications beyond consuming resources. It's a disruption to the entire supply chain. I am not saying it cannot be done, but I am saying that we need to take care to ensure that the war effort can continue to be supplied without disruption."

"I concur," Assimilator-2 rumbled. "The supply chain risk is a valid one, which I will work to ensure is maintained as we undertake this effort."

She did agree with that, and fortunately there were some solutions. "I agree on that point," she said. "We will need to take efforts to ensure the supply chains are maintained, or otherwise supported. There are a number of approaches we can take, but this does present an opportunity I think we should explore."

"Specifically?" Marian asked.

"We are a Collective, not a single entity," Patricia said. "Bringing in the Vitakara, Sectoids, and Andromedons to help support or expand the supply chain is the next logical step."

"And of those," I'Sari noted. "Only the Andromedon Federation has the production base to support the majority of Collective needs. I see what opportunity you are talking about, Harbinger. I concur that it is one that should be pursued."

Miriam frowned. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but is the Collective not trading with the Federation?"

"Yes, but not to any serious degree, and most Andromedon factories devoted to the Collective are part of the Federation proper, or Collective military," I'Sari said. "Presuming my read on the Harbinger's plan is correct, she is looking to directly integrate the Unions into the effort."

Patricia nodded. "Correct."

"Excellent. Then we have a pathway towards expansion and integration, with a solid foundation to build upon," I'Sari said, a rather enthusiastic note in his voice. "Using the Unions to fill any gaps instead of just the limited Federation industrial base would directly benefit the Unions, integrate the Andromedons into the Collective superstructure, and tie them closer to our interests."

The idea seemed to be gaining positive reactions, judging from the nods around the room. Even Marian seemed thoughtful as he considered the idea.

"Diplomatically, it is a strong approach, but I have concerns from a security standpoint," Marian finally said. "By definition, this would cede parts of our supply chain to Andromedon Unions, and outside direct control. This is a risk. If we want to pursue it, I would suggest that we ensure that the Unions we use are firmly on our side. Divided loyalties should not be permitted, nor those who seek to use us to fuel their own objectives."

"A reasonable concern. I will be willing to identify a number of major and minor Unions aligned to our interests to fill any shortfalls that arise," I'Sari said, as he turned back to her. "Harbinger, do you wish to pursue this effort?"

She pursed her lips, thinking.

It wasn't a bad approach, but it was extremely clean in execution; it was missing something important that would elevate it. She had an answer right now; she had a solution, but it was at best a fine decision…

Ah, there it was.

That was the problem, wasn't it? It was fine, it was solving a problem in a direct, straightforward way which only solved the problem. A real solution was one that didn't just solve the problem, but actively bettered the circumstances, or paved the way to improvements in the future.

What would change from this? Not enough.

"This is a perpetuation of the status quo, and in a way that needs to change," Patricia finally said. "The relationship between the Collective officials and Unions is more contentious than any want to admit, and the relationship we have with the Andromedons easily the weakest of all members due to the inherent division within Andromedon society. Playing favorites will, ultimately, only exacerbate that divide."

Assimilator-2 considered that. "A notable point. It should be taken into consideration."

"The alternative, Harbinger, is that we have potentially unreliable actors in our supply chains and within the military," Marian insisted. "I am not comfortable with that risk, even if I see where your intentions are."

"Except the Unions do not pose a threat to us in that way," Patricia countered, more confident in her approach. "There are Unions who are opportunistic – but none of them are willing to go to war over it. Not when they know the Ethereals will intervene, and especially not when they benefit more than they lose. Changing this approach at worst continues the status quo. At best we bring more of the skeptical Unions to genuine allies."

"The Harbinger has highlighted the greatest weakness with how the Collective has managed the Unions up to now," I'Sari said. "There is a division many Unions have between themselves and the Collective. It is primarily among the minor Unions who view the Collective as a distant thing, which brings few benefits to them, or worse actively restricts them."

The Andromedon paused, and she sensed his hesitation, but he continued. "It is not incorrect to say that without the Ethereal Collective, the Union Wars will begin again. Each decision the Collective makes when it comes to the Unions is seen as political. This is why the Collective has historically worked primarily with the major Unions in an equal capacity, and careful not to overtly favor one over another."

Patricia was privately unsure if even that much thought had gone into it – in general she'd gotten a sense that the Ethereals had preferred to not meddle in any capacity, as they knew the risks of fracturing the Federation. I'Sari's insight was highly relevant right now, and she sensed that this was personal in a way they couldn't understand.

The Unions were a byzantine system of alliances, connections, and histories that interacted and interwove in ways that spanned centuries and generations. When one stopped and thought about it, the Federation was in many ways analogous to a United Nations – but a United Nations which was composed of countries that had been warring for centuries, across all political spectrums, and some members had utter hatred for each other.

It was a minor miracle it had been stable up to now.

"Perhaps we could continue the existing approach to a natural conclusion," Marian rubbed his chin, thinking. "If we are going to meddle, we should meddle to our advantage. Playing the Unions off of each other could be advantageous. Surgically identifying, elevating, and manufacturing situations to place Unions into, pitting them against rivals, and all the while tying them closer to our interests, instead of their Union sponsors or allies… yes, there is some merit to it."

That had not been the direction she had been thinking of, and she frowned.

"The web of Unions is a complex one, which is nonetheless able to be untangled," Assimilator-2 said, who was reviewing something on his tablet. "The Unions are incapable of moving against the Collective independently, nor are they willing to work with rivals against a common enemy if the threat is not existential. The political threat they'd pose even if our efforts are discovered is negligible."

"I would caution against this approach," I'Sari stated, a hard note in it. "Overt meddling as suggested will make enemies of larger Unions – and will have ripple effects across the Federation. I was not exaggerating when I say that every action you take is political. If you want to actively decrease the level of support within the Federation, actively meddling in this way will have such consequences."

"I'm sure it will. The point I'm raising is that it doesn't matter," Marian shook his head. "The Andromedons are in the weaker position, and they are aware of it. The alternative is merely increasing the degree we work with the major Unions, which is a missed opportunity."

"Both of you are overcomplicating the solution," Miriam interjected, her arms crossed. "The inherent problem is that you are approaching it from a standpoint of exploitation. How best to take advantage of this decision. Harbinger, what is the actual point of involving the Andromedon Federation more in the Collective?"

It seemed that Miriam and her were on the same page.

"To bring them closer to the needs and interests of the Collective by giving them a defined role, and greater influence," Patricia answered. "You have an idea?"

"Yes, one I think you were leaning to. You ignore the political angle altogether," Miriam said. "Each Union specializes in something. That is what all of them pride themselves on. Lean into this, and let merit decide which Union gets what responsibility."

She ticked them off her fingers. "Major Unions, minor ones, all in between. Make it a contest of skill, product, and professionalism. Pick whichever one is best-suited for the role, or even two if both are equal. Don't play favorites, in fact go out of your way to not do that. Point to the numbers, and the numbers justify decisions."

I'Sari looked at the Human approvingly. "While there would be some hard feelings, they are likely to be directed towards the superior Unions, not the Collective. This would likely be viewed as a positive approach, and a fair one, especially among the minor Unions who would respond well to being given an opportunity to prove their worth."

"It is a politically acceptable, if aimless policy," Marian sighed. "Which of course does risk the possibility of Unions who may not be politically reliable in control or have influence over parts of the war machine. I am not comfortable with this, but the choice is not mine."

It was good to hear that, because this was what Patricia decided she would go with. Miriam had put to words where she had been leaning. Decisions needed to be made to bring the Collective together as an entity, not cementing power they already possessed.

"We are not going to have anyone with extensive control over the supply chain," Patricia said with a placating hand. "I am inclined to take Miriam's approach. The intent is to improve the cohesiveness of the Collective, not worsen or exploit its divisions. This won't fix the internal divisions in the Federation, but a more supportive Federation overall is a preferable outcome."

Marian nodded his head, his disapproval not reflected on his face or in his tone. "As you say, Harbinger. The decision is yours."

"Then that is what we will do," Patricia said. "Assimilator-2, I'Sari, begin identifying efforts that could employ or use Andromedon support. We will arrange for interviews, demonstrations, and field tests as appropriate. Make sure all of it is above-board; we don't want any secrecy, or give the illusion that we are playing favorites."

"Excellent. I will ensure this is conveyed to the Chief Overseer," I'Sari said, clearly pleased as he made a notation on his tablet. "He will be pleased that the Collective is working to more directly integrate the Unions."

"I'm glad to hear he'll be supportive. Hopefully it can make the next issue easier to resolve as well," Patricia said, internally bracing herself for this one, which was not one that could be easily solved. "The tensions between the Federation and Hive Commanders have only continued to worsen, per Zararch reports. It is already starting to hinder Collective efforts, and is set to worsen if allowed to continue. It requires a resolution."

It was an elephant in the room that no one seemed to want to handle, judging from the reaction. A sour expression crossed Marian's face. "Unfortunately, I can confirm the analysis."

"Define 'hinder'?" Casas, Revelean's representative asked, who hadn't spoken much before now, as little of the conversation had related to him. Nor did he seem to interject his own opinions unless prompted – and she took note of it now. "I've not heard of this."

"As in refusing to work with Sectoid-majority forces or task groups, refusing to supply Hive Commanders or units with Sectoid forces," Patricia glanced down at her notes. "It is limited right now, but the fact that this has started to happen is a problem. And it has to be handled delicately every time due to the enmity between the Federation and Hive Commanders."

"Noted, thank you," Casas made a short note.

"So you're going to pick up where the Ravaged One left off?" Marian asked. "I wish you luck, even if I do not envy you."

Patricia cocked her head at hearing that. "The Ravaged One knew of this issue?"

"Not just knew of it," Marian clarified. "He was trying to solve it. He made more progress than anyone thought as well."

Huh. Now that had not been something she would have suspected. "What did he do?"

"I know very little of the details, but I know that he was involved in mediation efforts. Gathering like-minded stakeholders, engaging hardliners and holdouts, working to find a consensus," the Zararch Agent said. "As I said, he was making progress before Earth became an issue, and he was recalled to manage it. Which… Well, you know how it ended. You can say that efforts to resolve this died with him; no one knew enough to even think about touching it again."

Tactfully, none of them brought up the fact that she had been one of the people who killed him.

There was some very clear irony in that she, by complete accident, was now finishing something he had started before they'd known the Ethereal Collective existed. "Then I suppose I am picking up this effort. Do you know who he was working with?"

"Not off-hand, but I can find out," Marian promised. "I'Sari, are you aware of this on the Andromedon side?"

I'Sari was strangely silent at first, perhaps thinking of what to say. Patricia felt that she'd found a matter that he cared very strongly about, even if he would not say so aloud.

"Vaguely," I'Sari finally said. "As part of a Union whose relationship with the Greater Hive Commanders is more… amicable, we were interested in finding a solution to the tensions. We provided a substantial delegation to facilitate a lasting understanding under the Ravaged One's mediation."

I'Sari trailed off abruptly before continuing. "I was not part of this effort, but as my colleague has promised, I will find out more. I am not sure if the holdouts in the Unions will be willing to come to the table again. Nonetheless, I support the effort."

"I am curious," Miriam said after a moment. "What exactly is the problem that each side has with each other?"

"I will admit that this problem is almost purely the result of the Federation," I'Sari said with a sigh. "The Greater Hive Commanders are apathetic to other races. They are not antagonistic unless there is direct provocation. The fault is purely on my own species, who view the Sectoids as a threat."

"Because of psionics?" She asked.

"The Andromedons are incapable of fielding psions," Assimilator-2 said. "It has been a long-standing point of concern for multiple Unions, spanning since their entrance into the Ethereal Collective. There is a strong belief that the Sectoids intend to control, subvert, and neutralize the Unions through their psionics."


They looked at I'Sari, who shook his head.

"Psionics are the popular understanding of the tensions," he continued. "There are other, less valid reasons, most reduced to simple xenophobia. But all of them obfuscate the real reason why the Greater Hive Commanders are hated."

They waited for him to elaborate; Patricia included. "Go ahead."

"There are… more similarities between the Hive Commanders and the Unions than any want to admit," I'Sari said after a moment. "They are not a mirror of us, but they are a parallel. Our societies are constructed along similar lines, the Hives and the Unions. The Hives often echo our Unions in their different specializations and efforts."

He paused. "But there is no division among the Hive Commanders. There was no equivalent in their history like the Union Wars. They work in a single, harmonious whole. It makes them indivisible; stronger."

Miriam frowned. "Then it is fear?"

"No. That would be more understandable. The Hive Commanders represent a different kind of fear to many in the Unions," I'Sari said. "The Federation is an artificial creation, one where many fractures and fissures remain. There is no cultural equivalence that exists in the Hive Commanders. They do not want a similar reconciliation within the Andromedons."

"They don't want..," Miriam frowned. "They are afraid that some might see the Hive Commanders as something to be emulated. In a unification sense."

"Yes. The fear these Unions have is that the existence of the Hive Commanders might highlight the fact that this eternal stratification along the lines of Unions is not an inevitability," I'Sari said. "The Union Wars are an evolution of our species that was never completed, hence why many expect, and in fact hope it will one day resume. My Union is one which sees that as undesirable. Many others believe their Unions should rule without question."

Heavy gauntleted hands rested on the table. "Andromedons fear psionics. It is the one power we do not possess, and never will. It is an existential threat that overrides all rational sense. It is the perfect rallying cry. The perfect shroud. This campaign against the Hive Commanders, while framed as an existential threat, is a campaign on false pretenses. Its primary objective is to prevent the unification of the Andromedon species."

Patricia had never heard it framed in that way – and now that she had, the pieces fell into place with far more sense than they had before.

I'Sari turned back to Patricia. "I do not know the reasons why you have once more taken up this issue, but it is one I am pleased to see being renewed. There will be many in the Federation who will be glad mediation is resumed, myself among them. I will strive to work towards this resolution to the best of my ability."

Patricia returned the nod. "I'm pleased to hear it, and that there is a foundation to build upon. Marian, I'Sari, please provide me the names as soon as possible."

Both gave affirmative answers. There was some more discussion that took place, but it was hashing out details, times, and follow-up administrative matters. In the end, Patricia was pleased at the outcome. It felt better now that there were plans in place, and efforts commencing. Things were starting to happen.

It was not going to be easy to resolve any of these problems or efforts – but she had clear paths to follow. She only needed to have the tenacity to see them through to the end.

And in the process, she would make a better Collective than before.

No more mistakes.

They could no longer be afforded.

Port Harcourt, Joseph Ray Shannon - Reclaimed Nigeria

Late September 2017 - Morning

It had been some time since Scipio had been paused. Since the amphibious invasion meant to deliver the much needed gut punch to the SAS had been put on indefinite hold. Grady was restless, especially upon seeing what had been taking place over the past days and weeks.

All over the African theater, Oversight was active. Officers had been reprimanded or even dismissed across the Legions. It was a complete mess, and it all happened at what felt like the worst time. Despite all this, the one place Oversight had seemingly ignored was his part of the war. No representative had made themselves known, and his repeated questions regarding when they were to arrive had all been demurred or brushed aside.

He didn't know if he should be concerned by that or not.

He hated just sitting and waiting. He felt like it was only a matter of time before the SAS or the Collective attempted a counterattack, and his fleet was a sitting duck. If the weapon that took out Busan showed up, he wasn't sure his anti-orbital lasers would be enough to drive it away, and his fleet represented a considerable portion of ADVENT's naval strength.

Thus far he had been lucky to avoid serious losses, but the longer he sat here just waiting, the greater the chances were that someone or something would come after them. Unless Betos was truly an idiot, it was inevitable. Her Collective masters were not going to tolerate letting them just sit there without trying a counteroffensive. At least, he didn't expect them to be so permissive.

Thankfully, it seemed his waiting was finally at an end. He'd just received word that the Investigation Agent from Oversight had arrived at the Port. Unannounced, which was hardly surprising, though still irritating. He just wanted to get this over with and do whatever it took to get things moving again.

He had never been fond of political interference in military matters; few in the military were, and he was disappointed to see ADVENT engaging in it. He'd not been paying particularly close attention to the other fronts beyond the relevant strategic information, but he couldn't imagine what could have been bad enough to halt the entire offensive.

Surely this could have been handled in a less disruptive manner?

In any case, the Agent had just finished interviewing Anye. Apparently the Agent had insisted on questioning him first before moving onto the ADVENT officers. Now it was Grady's turn, after which he expected the other ranking officers and command staff would be brought in, including Francetti, Thompson and Rowsdower.

He had received a few quiet messages from them asking for talking points, narratives, and generally what to say, and he simply replied to tell the truth. They had nothing to hide here, and the sooner Oversight realized it, the sooner they would be rid of them.

As he was rounding the ladder on his way to the meeting room he bumped into Anye, likely heading in the opposite direction.

"Oh, excuse me, Admiral." Anye said, unusually hushed.

"It's fine, Anye, these spaces are cramped," Grady answered. "I hope the investigator didn't give you too much trouble."

"Trouble? No… no, they were quite polite…" He trailed off, seemingly preoccupied.

"What's wrong, Anye? You look distracted?" Grady inquired, concerned for his unlikely companion.

"I am fine, just…" He seemed to be struggling to find the right word, English not being his first language. "Processing? I believe that is correct."

Grady was curious what could have him so concerned, but figured he would find out soon enough during his own interview. In any case he decided not to pry.

"Well I'll leave you to it then, I have my own interview to deal with," he said, moving to continue. "Lord only knows why we paused, but hopefully if all goes well here I can help get the ball rolling again."

Anye snapped out of his reverie and locked eyes with Grady at that. "Grady, the offensive was paused with good reason. I confess even I was skeptical at the start but… what happened? The things that transpired? Not everyone handled this war like you did. You will see this soon enough. Good luck with the meeting, Admiral. Though I suspect you have nothing to fear."

Grady was unnerved by the seriousness with which Anye responded. He was tempted to inquire further, but decided not to pry. So, after bidding Anye farewell, he proceeded to the room set aside for the meeting.

Port Harcourt, Joseph Ray Shannon - Reclaimed Nigeria

Late September 2017 - Morning

Grady soon arrived at the conference room normally reserved for entertaining guests or discussing upcoming operations. After letting himself in, he found the inspector seated near the head of the conference table.

He already knew the man's name as that had been announced with his arrival; Mohammad Wadoud. Grady pegged him as being of North African descent based on the name and complexion. His accent would let him determine the country but he guessed that he came from the western end of the Mediterranean. Likely from one of Le Suivre's little colonies.

"Ah, you have arrived, Admiral. Please, take a seat." He greeted, in an accent that confirmed he was Algerian, while gesturing to the seat across from him.

Grady obliged him, eager to get this over with as he settled into the chair. He took a look at the table and saw a selection of folders, files and a few tablets. All of them bore various markings and indications of classification - he didn't fail to note how many of them were at the highest classification level. For his part, Wadoud had both a tablet, and a pen and notebook at the ready, likely to make notes and record everything he said for later.

"Let's get started, Admiral. First, I understand you are displeased with the operational pause. Is that an accurate assessment?" he inquired while examining a file.

It appeared he wasn't one to beat around the bush. "My opinions are irrelevant," Grady responded flatly. "ADVENT made a call and I have to abide by it."

"Perhaps, but you still have an opinion," Wadoud pressed. "As I understand, you had just won a notable victory here when the order came down. You were noted as having requested confirmation repeatedly."

"It didn't make sense at the time. I felt the need to make sure there wasn't a mistake."

"Do you think it was a mistake?" Wadoud pressed again.

Grady pursed his lips. "It doesn't matter what I think."

"You are an Admiral of the ADVENT Navy, your opinion carries weight," Wadoud noted pointedly. "Why not share it?"

"Is that an order?" Grady retorted, making a conscious effort to not drum his fingers in exasperation.

The Agent smiled faintly. "Does it need to be?"

Grady sighed deeply at that, rubbing his forehead with his hand as he deliberated what to say. Ultimately he decided it would be best to give him something, if only to stop him pestering further. "The decision to pause the campaign was, from a strategic perspective, unwise, especially when we were so close to making a breakthrough."

"From what I can see that was not the case," Wadoud answered. "The main forces coming from the North were already slowing and getting bogged down and had taken notable casualties in several recent battles. The offensive was, by all accounts, stalling out."

"My fleet had just made landfall and was preparing to open up another front, with a naval invasion pushing up from the coast the SAS would have had to reallocate resources to deal with me." Grady answered evenly. "Even if they could have gotten the bodies to face us, we had airstrips to stage fighters and heavy bombers from on their coast from a fortified location. Every major SAS city is within an hour or two of the airfield here, including the ones our forces stalled outside of."

Grady knew the operational area well enough to speak of specifics without a map, though for the benefit of Wadoud, he wished he had them. Visual aids were always better, especially if people were unfamiliar with the territory or front. "They would have been caught in a vice - and that's without mentioning the naval firepower I still have at my disposal, along with the chance of making additional landings. We could have been wrapping this up in a month or two if we weren't told to stop. Will that suffice for my opinion?"

"I believe so," Wadoud said, after writing something in his notes. "But tell me, do you know why the order was given?"

"I heard there were some disciplinary issues and violations of procedure. I don't know the specifics," Grady answered. "I've been occupied here and didn't feel like poking my nose in the Army's business."

"That is quite the understatement. Have you really not looked into this any further?" Wadoud seemed genuinely puzzled for some reason, as he was looking at Grady as though he were clueless of something blatantly obvious.

"Like I said, I just kept busy managing our affairs here. I don't like sitting on my hands, and between getting the airbase here up and running for Rowsdower, and the defenses and lodgings ready for Thompson and his troops, I had plenty to occupy me," Grady answered. "I figured it wasn't my business since I'm Navy and they aren't reporting to me."

Grady was starting to get impatient. Impatient and uncomfortable. He found himself thinking back to the parting look Anye had given him. "Whatever happened, surely you could have handled it without stopping a continent-spanning military operation? What is going on?"

What the hell happened that has everyone so spooked?

Wadoud carefully watched him for a moment, seemingly looking for any sign of deceit, before sighing and picking up a nearby tablet. "This contains some of the preliminary findings of the investigation Oversight has been conducting into Operation Scipio. Why don't you read it over right now. I can wait." He passed the tablet to Grady.

Grady took the tablet from him and reclined in his chair, trying to get comfortable as he settled in. At first he just skimmed through a few paragraphs, but the more he read the more he was drawn in. He scrolled through dozens of pages, often rereading specific sections several times, incredulous at what he was seeing.

When he finally thought to check the time, he realized it had been over an hour since he started poring through the report, and he was only a third of the way through. Deciding he'd seen enough - and opting not to leave Wadoud waiting any longer - Grady put down the tablet and let out a long, tired sigh.

"Do you see now what has happened?" Wadoud spoke first. "May I trouble you for your opinion once more, Admiral?"

He didn't answer right away, thinking furiously. Processing what he'd just read. He never could have imagined it would be this bad. Even the War on Terror hadn't been this raw from what he'd heard of the generals who had taken part. Discipline had been maintained and for the most part wartime conventions had been observed, at least for the NATO forces that led the intervention.

Much of this looked more like what the Commander would have done, but the Commander had only employed such methods in a targeted manner and always with a specific objective in mind. And regardless of what many had said of him and of Grady's own disagreements with his methods, his people had been highly disciplined. They weren't thugs or madmen. Monstrous, perhaps, but not sloppy.

This looked like modern warfare without all the safeguards or guardrails. Like every treaty and rule was ripped up and thrown aside as soon as it became a hindrance - which as he realized, it mostly… had been. It was uncomfortably similar to some of the worst behavior from the First World War and even the second in some cases.

After taking some time to get his thoughts in order Grady responded. "It's absurd… no, Idiotic…"

"Pardon?" Wadoud apparently had not expected that response.

"It's stupid." He repeated. "I'm not Army, but I know how wars are supposed to be fought - or at least how they were fought before ADVENT and the Collective. This is unrestrained warfare to the point of being counterproductive, as well as abhorrent."

"I understand abhorrent, but why counterproductive?" Wadoud queried, apparently curious to hear his reasoning.

"Give me a moment to find it… ah, here." Grady browsed through the tablet until he found the specific incident he was looking for and pointed it out to Wadoud. "This battle here, they surrounded the city and left an evacuation corridor as per the procedures laid out for Scipio - and then they started shelling it."

"Yes, they did so because it was being used to evacuate soldiers as well as civilians." Wadoud responded after briefly reviewing the incident.

"Yes, and that was stupid." Grady repeated.

"Care to… elaborate?" Wadoud asked, clearly still not quite following.

"The purpose of Scipio from the beginning was to cripple the SAS. To do as much damage to their infrastructure and make them as big of a drain on the Collective as possible while preventing them from posing a threat to ADVENT in the near future," Grady said, mildly alarmed at how he was apparently one of the few people who knew the actual objectives for Scipio.

"It was a pre-emptive strike," he continued. "It was supposed to be a quick in-and-out operation. Move in, wreck everything useful and leave without getting bogged down. Now I see why those morons were lagging behind. They were acting like the damn Germans in Barbarossa."

"What does this have to do with shelling the evacuation corridor?" Wadoud again repeated.

"I'm getting to that. By shelling the evacuation corridor, not only did they risk civilian lives, they also discouraged the military from retreating and falling back," Grady was searching for terms that a civilian would understand better. "The idiots basically forced the SAS to sit there and fight to the death. Which predictably resulted in the battle taking even longer and chewing through a lot of men and ammo."

He shook his head. "This isn't even an isolated incident; there's plenty of other examples here of Generals who ought to know better making stupid mistakes that did nothing but turn the locals against us even more, and make our mission harder than it needs to be."

Wadoud made a note. "You don't have an issue with SAS soldiers being allowed to leave?"

"Of course not. If we were looking to take and hold territory, then it would be a different story, but since we are only here to torch their infrastructure and leave, it doesn't matter if the SAS soldiers live to fight another day," he answered. "It's the same principle of wounded soldiers being better than dead ones. More mouths to feed, more people to supply, more resources to be expended. They'd be too busy trying to keep order and rebuild once we left to try anything if all went well."

"That is a unique perspective, Grady," Wadoud commented. "Is that why you have treated SAS soldiers the way you have?"

"That's part of it, but the more relevant means by which I addressed this issue was by announcing my targets beforehand and giving the SAS time to evacuate," Grady said. "Clears the civilians out, and makes it easier to fight without having to pull my punches."

"Such as Douala?" Wadoud noted. "I'm curious - did you consider it absolutely necessary to use the Poseidon Spear?"

"The Collective was launching attacks on my fleet and Malabo itself daily. If I left the defenses of the port, I'd have taken more casualties," Grady explained. "They were right across from us and had poured in everything they could scrounge up to deal with me. Trying to take that city conventionally would have taken too long and incurred too many losses."

"And what about the radiation?" Wadoud pressed. "ADVENT does not wish to drive off the Collective only to be left with a radioactive husk of a world afterward."

"The wind carried it out to sea, and the worst of the fallout has already decayed. What's left is so diluted that it's mostly harmless," Grady said. "Granted, I wouldn't recommend eating anything that comes out of the ocean around here for at least a few more years, or swimming in that area for a while - but it will recover by the end of the war."

Grady had noticed that there were a lot of people in ADVENT who were very, very squeamish when it came to even tactical employments of nuclear weapons. He couldn't blame them given decades of it being impressed on the world that nuclear weapons were bad. Unfortunately this had led to some inflated expectations when the reality was more benign.

"Unless ADVENT decides to launch everything it has and detonate them at ground level, I think we'll probably be fine," he finished. "The occasional tactical strike isn't anymore dangerous to the planet than the above ground tests we did back in the Cold War."

"Yes, so I've heard," Wadoud made another note. "Tell me, would you have gone ahead with the strike if they had not evacuated?"

"Betos may be a traitor, but she's not completely heartless," Grady answered. "Every time I've announced a target she made sure to evacuate the civilian population, and as a bonus she would send more soldiers to shore up the defenses. Made the loss of Douala even more painful for her."

"But would you have done so if there were still civilians?" Wadoud repeated.

Grady was silent for a moment before slowly responding "If I tell someone I'm going to attack a specific location, give them the time to get the civilians out, and they do nothing? What happens to those people, as bad as it is, is not on me. If I backed down, they wouldn't take it seriously the next time I did it. I would not have liked it, but I already declared my intent and gave them everything they needed to not only get the civilians out but also shore up their defenses."

His face hardened. "The only reason to keep the civilians there would be as a Human shield, and none of the reports on her I have read peg her as the type to do that. We aren't fighting the Caliphate here."

"Yes, I noted your involvement in the War on Terror, limited as it was," Wadoud made another note. "Let us speak of another matter. Your treatment of enemy soldiers. You have taken a different approach compared to the other commanders in this operation. Why is that?"

"I don't think I'm doing anything that odd," Grady frowned. "I'm just treating them the way we would any other enemy soldier in accordance with international law back before ADVENT."

"The Humans, yes, but we will get to that a bit later," Wadoud demurred. "Why abide by the old treaties and conventions when ADVENT has effectively nullified them?"

"Because these people aren't our real enemy. They're just pawns being made to fight a war for a dictator who isn't even a native, running a Collective puppet state. They don't have any particular loyalty to a state that hasn't even been around two years. Hell, most of them probably don't think it will last another three."

Grady paused, organizing his thoughts a bit more. "Governments and countries are transient here. People are just doing what they can to get by, and being in the army has typically been an easy paycheck, depending on how many civil wars or insurgencies are going on anyway. They don't have any real interest in fighting; give them the option, and they will surrender. I've seen them do it several times now. They aren't the enemy, they're just in the way."

"And yet your treatment of Collective prisoners has been notably different." Wadoud pointed out.

"I have abided by every regulation ADVENT has put out," Grady answered evenly. "They aren't being mistreated or abused."

"Perhaps not, but with them you do the minimum. For the Human prisoners, they seem to get a bit more."

"Giving the Human prisoners better accommodations helps drive a wedge between them and the Collective POW's," he explained. "Also, the Collective commander here blocked me from negotiating with the SAS officer in command directly. The bastards aren't even letting us communicate with SAS officers anymore because they don't trust their own allies. As far as I'm concerned, the SAS troops here didn't choose to fight. The Collective made that decision for them. I'd say my policies are bearing fruit."

"I suppose so. Tell me Admiral, do you hate aliens?" Wadoud asked, holding his pen at the ready.

Well that was certainly a loaded question.

Grady mulled his response before answering. "Just the ones invading my planet. The SAS soldiers didn't choose this war, they didn't choose to invade us. The Collective did, and aside from the Mutons, every Collective soldier is, as I understand, a volunteer and as such supports this war. There is no such thing as an Alien conscientious objector in the Collective military, as far as I am aware.

His voice hardened, meeting the eyes of the Agent. "They are all complicit in this war of unprovoked aggression. I'm not gonna line them up and shoot them, but I'm not gonna pat them on the back and tell them it's not their fault, and they were just following orders either. They are being looked after, and I'm not going to let any of them die if I can help it. But they have no one to blame but themselves for being here."

Wadoud furrowed his brow, considering Grady's response before deciding to put down his pen and notepad. "That is a slight oversimplification but generally you are correct. Certainly the Vitakaran soldiers are volunteers and should be the most inclined to oppose this war on ideological and moral grounds. Yet they continue to enlist and fight. The Collective have a tight grip on information regarding the war so it's unclear how much the average Vitakaran knows or what their opinion is."

"They are also the most likely to care about their losses, hence why standard doctrine is to prioritize them. The Collective doesn't give a damn about Mutons but Vitakarans have families and it's hard to cover up their casualties," Grady elaborated. "Even if they don't release casualty figures, eventually they will start to notice how many of their friends and family know a soldier who died here. At the very least we can hopefully inflict enough casualties to discourage enlistment and knock them off of frontline duties."

"Perhaps, let me ask about something else," Wadoud said after a moment. "You mentioned the old treaties and conventions regarding war. Do you think they should have been kept?"

Grady shook his head. "No - not in their entirety, anyway - but they should have been replaced. Especially for facing other Human soldiers. Too many of us have gotten used to fighting aliens and not having to view them as fellow Human beings. It might make soldiers' jobs easier, but I think that is partly to blame for the behavior I saw in that report."

His fingers drummed against the table as he continued. "Some of the provisions in those old treaties were ridiculous, but the general spirit of them, of trying to retain some degree of Humanity and respect, even for our enemies, was certainly laudable. Though I also concede that they were in many ways far too restrictive and unrealistic. I've tried to conduct this operation in accordance with the ideals of those treaties, if not the letter."

Wadoud seemed intrigued by that and made a note. "Interesting. I have one more question, do you still believe pausing the operation was unwarranted?"

Grady took a while to consider that. On the one hand he certainly couldn't think of any other way to effectively address the issues he had seen without significantly disrupting the campaign. On the other hand, it was still an issue and only giving the SAS and the Collective time to gather their strength, if they hadn't already done so. Eventually, he answered.

"I can see why it was done now, and I confess I don't see an alternative," he said slowly. "But I also believe it is a mistake from a military perspective and we need to do something to get things back on track, and quickly."

"Well what do you suggest?" Wadoud inquired. "While the pause is helping the enemy it's also given our own forces time to catch their breath. Anything we do now runs the risk of reigniting the conflict in full, something we should consider very carefully."

That was something Grady did not have easy answers for, although…

"The operational pause… that applies specifically to offensive operations right?" He asked, the beginnings of a plan forming in his mind.

"That is correct. If the action is defensive in nature then it is permitted."

He mulled his answer. "What if there was ADVENT territory occupied by the SAS, would taking that be considered offensive or defensive?"

"That is… an interesting question. I suppose it is a matter of perspective. But I am not aware of any territory the SAS is occupying that belongs to ADVENT."

"There wasn't any, not at the start of this operation," he said. "But recently a new member has joined and is currently a key ally in the area. A country who was occupied by the SAS prior to joining…"

Wadoud smiled, apparently catching on to the implication. "I think I see what you are suggesting. I will contact my superiors, as well as the other relevant authorities, and see if they find it agreeable."

He stood, picking up his tablet. "I will also provide them my evaluation of this theater of the campaign, once I have finished the rest of the interviews. One way or another, I suspect we will speak again, Admiral. Thank you for your time."

"Thank you as well," Grady also stood, shaking his hand and staying in the room after he'd departed, with the reports and documents still strewn across the table. Once he was done, he expected that Wadoud or his people would return to collect them.

He'd been left with a lot to think over, and figured that he'd best understand all of it. With a sigh, he sat back down, and picked up the tablet to finish the report.

SAS Command Room, Abuja – Nigeria

Late September 2017 – Afternoon

Over the coming weeks there were going to be many changes as the Sovereign African States were reconstituted and reorganized into something which was more akin to a modern state. Betos couldn't deny that there were going to be some substantial improvements in organization, though was wary of the unknowns that were going to come with it.

However, as those were being planned, there was a war to fight, and the next steps needed to be assessed in detail. Hence why she'd called a meeting of all of the necessary individuals, both to chart a path forward – and to reassert authority over the SAS which had been slipping.

She was either going to succeed, or find out that her position was more tenuous than even she'd feared.

"ADVENT's foothold in West Africa is our Achilles heel," Betos began once all of them were gathered around the holotable. "All of us agree on that, and it is in our interests to execute the operation to remove them as soon as possible."

"It is only the right approach," Kaan agreed, a rare time they were both definitively aligned on a topic. "As… discomforting as that creature you brought to us is, Keeper, you are sure that it will succeed?"

"Of course," Keeper answered, professional and direct as ever. "Disquieting as the creatures from Paradise are, they are effective at what they are designed for."

Betos frowned, glad this was coming up, but also knowing this would get contentious. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Keeper, but is there not a moratorium on… creatures from Paradise? This is from the Battlemaster, not ADVENT."

Kaan pursed his lips. "She makes a notable point." He looked at Tyres.

Macula's Harbinger shrugged. "The Battlemaster is preoccupied with other things, and this is Macula's theatre. The creature is under our control, and employed very narrowly. It's not to be used for terror, nor is it tied to the cult or anything else more depraved that Paradise is known for. As far as Macula is concerned, he is aware, and he will approve."

"And if it goes wrong, or ADVENT figures out what happened," Betos retorted. "It's going to look bad for the Collective and the Battlemaster. Unless we want more oversight from the Battlemaster, this is a risk to consider."

She'd decided that would be the core of her argument – they weren't going to listen to her not using the Bringer creature on the grounds of using anything from Paradise as inherently wrong. They might listen if she framed it in a way that other Collective parties would intervene. Maybe.

"Little Marshal, we can argue about the pretend morality and honor of war which even the Battlemaster likes to indulge in," Knaag interjected dryly. "Or we can focus on victory. The creature is repulsive – that is immaterial to its usefulness. We have a use for it, Keeper says it will succeed, and Macula supports its use. The choice is simple."

"But the Battlemaster-"

"-Is not here, Little Marshal," Knaag interrupted, his lips curled up. "We are. I have a job to do, one that you seem desperate to avoid. Your squeamishness for the bloody work ahead bodes poorly for our successes." He looked around the table. "For the sake of putting this debate to bed before we waste more time, I put it to a vote. Do we employ the Bringer creature against ADVENT or not?"

Betos stiffened. "This is not a democracy. I have authority over SAS military matters, not you."

"Do you?" Knaag asked idly. "I'll belay that point for now – instead I will ask what you intend to do? Dictate all military matters with an iron fist? Disregard the advice of those who are spending day and night to assess a path out of the utter mess you are responsible for?"

There was a very noticeable tension in the air, and Betos knew she had to pick her words carefully – and this was not a good situation to be in as the nominal leader of the entire state. She looked at Keeper. "Have the details of our agreement changed?"

"Not yet," Keeper said neutrally. "But the Collective is paying more attention to this front. Results have been sparse, and solutions are being presented from others besides you. Solutions that we are obligated to consider. You retain the decision here, but there will be ramifications no matter what you choose."

This was a gamble – or a trap. If she was right, and they succeeded without the creature, it would better solidify her authority. If she was wrong, she was on the course to losing everything. However, it seemed like she was already being challenged – and if that was the case, why continue to capitulate? She needed to make a stand somewhere, even if it was a difficult, risky one.

She looked back at Knaag, meeting his hardened eyes. "Then my decision is final. The creature will not be used. We will succeed without it."

Knaag unexpectedly smiled. "As you command, Grand Marshal."

That there was not a word of contestation immediately made her suspicious – but she couldn't dwell on it right now. It was probably as simple as Knaag believing she was setting herself up for failure. "Good. Now, let's move to the fronts themselves." She projected West Africa onto the holotable, where the ADVENT and Collective lines were staunchly drawn.

"ADVENT's foothold in the Equatorial Guinea is our greatest threat, as is their pressure from the north and northeast," she continued. "Tyres, you will be responsible for breaking the Guinea front. I presume you have that capability?"

"Easily," Tyres said. "I assume XCOM might send someone, but frankly, I doubt anyone but the Admiral really cares about holding it. We'll still need to deal with him if we're not using the Bringer creature."

"I can commission some Zararch operatives, but it will be more difficult," Keeper said. "ADVENT aircraft carriers are not easy to infiltrate, and he is protected by psions."

"If we kill the Admiral or not, it isn't critical to the success of the offensive," Betos said. "Grady's death is a bonus, not a requirement."

"I'd contest that," Tyres said. "He's more dangerous and important than just his military acumen. He doesn't seem to be with the ADVENT program for Africa, given his collaboration with the country's leaders."

"This is correct," Kaan agreed. "I've been reviewing ADVENT's western offensive – while it's far more limited in scope, the tactics employed in Scipio have not been replicated. Strictly military targets, an attempt to minimize civilian casualties, and building collaborator relationships."

"I expect he would be getting a promotion, presuming our assassination does not succeed," Knaag said, bemused. "Clever little man, or so he thinks."

"Indeed," Kaan cleared his throat. "However, his sphere of influence is minimal in the context of the wider Scipio operation. ADVENT's hold on the West is the weakest, and should we play our cards correctly, we will be able to expel them, and confine the axes of offensives to the northeast. ADVENT's trails of destruction have led to significant displacements of the regional tribes and cultures, who've seen their lands and homes razed or poisoned."

A few blips appeared over West Africa. "As Betos is aware, I am in the process of developing our civilian agencies, and I intend to begin using them to conduct outreach," Kaan said. "Keeper, we will need equipment, weapons, and supplies to arm the tribes. Supplies and materials which will allow them to build, survive - and strike against ADVENT. They will not be expecting these tribes with modern weapons."

"Give them exactly what they ask for and more," Knaag said with a smile. "The worst that can be inflicted. Chemical weapons, cluster munitions. Stoke their hate, and focus their vengeance. We will find no better foot soldiers for this task, and when ADVENT's lines are in disarray, we can move and strike."

Betos frowned. "We don't need to use them like that. Arming them is good, but they should be given more support than just being sent to harass and die to ADVENT. They're tribes who at best know irregular warfare. Giving them advanced weapons without training and sending them against a modern military will give them dangerous confidence. It will kill them."

"Of course it will, little Marshal, that is their purpose," Knaag seemed to take great delight in correcting her. "You seem to think we want these tribal castoffs in our state. We don't. They are incompatible with the world we want to build. They are disconnected, simple-minded, and exploitable. These are resources to use and expend. We don't have time to waste on education and integration. This is not a civilizing operation."

Even Kaan seemed somewhat unsettled by the characterization. "Not appropriate, Knaag. Not here, not now."

The towering man shrugged. "I have no interest in lying to appease the delicate sensibilities of the honorable. Describe this how you wish, that is what it is."

Keeper cleared his throat. "Regardless of the status of these tribes, the Collective will be prepared to outfit them as you see fit, and develop the supply lines as needed."

Betos considered fighting Knaag on this – and realized that it was a fight for later. "That will be decided shortly. In the meantime, I will prepare the Army to deploy once ADVENT is weak enough. Keeper, we will coordinate logistics beforehand to quickly move and secure points of interest throughout the west."

"Excellent, excellent," Kaan seemed pleased, and glad to move forward. "Knaag, your forces will be useful in augmenting-"

"With respect, no," Knaag interrupted in a flat voice. "You clearly don't need my forces for this – and I have no interest in being thrown as foot soldiers to die for this wasteland. I have progress in Cuba to monitor, recruits to train, and several additional projects in the works."

Kaan seemed to resist the urge to roll his eyes. "Please, I wouldn't waste you like that. I intend to also begin a diplomatic blitz across the central and south of the continent – again, after XCOM assassinated my best diplomat – and set back my work in central Africa by months. Thus, the resources are restricted, and the timetable is shortened."

Knaag smiled. "Go on."

"If they decide to refuse our offers, I will need your forces to cause some chaos, arrange a few coups, kill some holdout leaders, the usual," Kaan said with a dismissive flick. "You are, I hope, willing to do that?"

"Now, that's more my skillset," Knaag nodded.

Betos looked between them. "That is not what we are doing. Negotiation yes, but if we're going to overthrow countries in such a way – no."

"Ah yes, you who care deeply about the right of nations to sovereignly govern themselves," Knaag sneered. "Tell me what happened to the original leaders of the Sovereign African States when they put themselves before the needs of the war?"

She couldn't answer.

"This is an operational category that falls under my domain, not yours, Grand Marshal," Kaan said. "There are none who are neutral in this war, and when their allegiances are made and known, it behooves us to act before ADVENT does. I assure you, the backlash will be minimal, and we will certainly be more fair to the Africans than ADVENT will be."

They wouldn't be. She knew that would be the case, no matter what Kaan said. And she knew that she couldn't stop this one – Keeper wasn't stepping in, and he would have if this was Kaan stepping beyond what was acceptable. She wasn't the undisputed leader anymore, and she wasn't sure how much had been changed despite Keeper saying the details remained the same.

"Later if you must," she said. "I have a mission for Knaag – one suited for him, since he's so confident of his skills. You will kill Admiral Grady."

Knaag seemed to find that exceptionally funny, judging from his laugh. "I'm not sure if I should feel flattered or insulted, little Marshal," she glared at him, and he only laughed harder. "Oh, you are sincere. Well, if you insist. I will take care of it."

"Good," she nodded. "As for your diplomatic approach, Kaan, understand the consequences will be on you."

"I know far more about this than you, Grand Marshal," Kaan said. "Watch and you may learn something about statecraft." He looked towards Tyres and Keeper. "Are there any other matters to bring forward?"

"Only that the line in the northeast should be fortified and prepared for an offensive," Tyres pointed to the respective part of the map. "We need to prepare to expand before ADVENT resumes their operations. The Zararch has enough sources into the region and ADVENT that we will know when they intend to resume – and we need to pre-empt it, if only by a few days."

He looked at Betos. "I presume you concur, Grand Marshal?"

It was a rhetorical question, but she nodded in return. "I do."

There seemed to be a consensus with all of them – some compromises, deferred choices, and no small amount of tension between all of them – but there was a plan. And one that she thought had a strong chance of success.

"We will review the needed resources and weapons to sustain a new offensive across the continent," Keeper consulted his tablet. "The SAS will have what they need. Presuming success, the Collective will be satisfied with the results."

The unspoken implication was that success or failure would be decisive for who would be calling the shots in the future. She remained in her position now, but it was clear that if she was not careful, Kaan, Knaag, and maybe even Tyres would look to usurp her.

No room for errors.

"Then that is all that we needed," Betos said. "That will be all – thank you, and dismissed."

One by one, they filed out of the room, leaving her alone, staring at the glowing red holotable, and hoping she was making the right choices.

ADVENT Acclimation Center, Seafoam Facility 13 – Classified Location

Mid September 2017 – Morning

He was beginning to settle into something of a normal routine, even if it had only been a few days since his awakening. These initial days had been spent with his new family, and the focus had been on getting him up to speed on… well, what life was like. Most of it, surprisingly, had not been on the war, or combat, but on things that were, as Mia said, 'normal things people do.'

She'd given him a crash course in Human entertainment. Matthew had the knowledge of what much of their entertainment was called; he had the institutional definitions. Seeing it for himself was a different experience entirely. The movies were probably his favorite, and he found fiction as a concept fascinating.

He'd been shocked at how much work, effort, and imagination went into something that only lasted a few hours. There were a few such movies that he'd looked up later and was fascinated by all of the extra details to them and universes that expanded.

Mia had given him a list of movies to work through on his own. She'd shown him video games as well, which were interesting, but he found he didn't enjoy them quite as much. Those required a time commitment, and especially the 'shooter' ones were strange to play because of how much information he had already possessed on combat.

Very little of the game struck him as realistic. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be for everyone.

While Mia had been his entertainment guide, his… parental figures? Parents? He wasn't exactly sure what the proper, official term was, but parents was the easiest analogue, even if he was physically already an adult. If they found it an unusual arrangement, they certainly didn't show it; the opposite in fact.

They'd taken him around the facility, and he got his first real look at the other Clones produced. There were thousands of them besides himself, and he'd asked if all of them also had a family.

The answer had apparently been yes. Not only that, these families were going to be adopting entire batches of which he had been the first for the Navarro family. He hadn't thought that families were supposed to be that big, but he found that to be a good norm to break if it was the case.

Because of that, Matthew presumed that he was going to be getting some new 'siblings' soon, which was both a comforting and intimidating thought. Not to mention that in only days he was going to be put into proper training. He and Esteban had made a trip to the ADVENT Officer he'd be reporting to for introductions.

He seemed nice enough, if definitely far more strict than the rest of the adults had been. While Mia had been fun, and he enjoyed how Patricia seemed to always be proud of him, he found his conversations with Esteban were the ones that had grabbed him the most. The man wasn't a soldier, but he'd done quite a lot in his life, and while he wasn't a formal superior, he had that quality that Matthew innately knew belonged to a figure in authority.

But that was what a father was supposed to be, right? An authoritative figure with lessons to share, and so he had made sure to listen.

Today though, he had decided to go wander around the facility on his own, and complete the mental map that had been partially filled out. This was going to be his home for the foreseeable future, and he wanted to know where everything was. It was already starting to become like a home, even if it was very sterile, and inhabited by a majority of other Clones which made everything much more crowded.

He wondered who his original benefactor had been; what kind of man he'd been, and what he'd think of him now. It was strange to think there were probably hundreds of others that looked exactly like him, but would have a completely different experience and outlook. ADVENT was likely going to do studies on them.

While he'd had the opportunity, he'd opted to not really change his appearance much. There was an entire section of the facility dedicated to basically giving Clones makeovers. Some came out looking almost radically different, others with just a new haircut or hair color.

He'd talked to some of the other Clones here and there, especially around that section, curious about their motivations. The most common answer was that they wanted to differentiate themselves in their own way. It was an understandable motivation that, for whatever reason, he hadn't felt. Maybe it would be later, if only to satisfy Mia's curiosity of what he'd look like with slightly longer hair.

His thoughts were interrupted as he suddenly caught a glimpse of Vonessia walking down the corridor, with another Clone beside her. While he paused, not sure if he should get her attention or not, the choice was made for him as she spotted him, smiled, and waved him over.

Well, why not?

She cleared her throat as he approached, her familiar smile bright. "Matthew! I'd like to make another introduction. There's a few people who will be part of your batch soon, and this is the first one. Your first new sibling, in fact!" she indicated the light-skinned woman beside her, who smiled shyly. "[Say hello. He doesn't bite.]"

"[I know, I know,]" she said in Spanish. "[It's just a bit new, all of this.]"

"[I know what you mean,]" Matthew said, switching into Spanish, since that was what she was most comfortable with, even if she clearly understood English. "[You'll get acclimated quickly, and Mia will help you with a name.]"

"[Good, because I have no idea what I should be calling myself,]" she said with a light chuckle. "[It's weird to think of myself as just… me. A blank space that is just empty.]" She shook her head slightly. "[Makes me feel strange.]"

"[You'll know when you find the right one,]" he assured her. "[And you'll like the family.]"

"[Yeah, that's the next question I had when I heard,]" she said. "[So we all get adopted?]"

"[With less paperwork, according to Patricia,]" Matthew said dryly. "[I thought it was a more involved process too.]"

"[Oh, no, it definitely is,]" Vonessia coughed. "[Trust me, you have no idea how much paperwork all of them had to go through to even get here. Let me tell you, ADVENT was really wary of letting regular civilians in here with no qualifications other than being loving parents.]" She paused. "[Well, that's not exactly fair. But it was a big part of why all of them are here.]"

"[Huh,]" the woman rubbed her chin. "[It's not what I was expecting.]"

"[What were you expecting?]" Vonessia inquired, her tablet in hand.

"[I mean…]" she shrugged, then looked at Matthew. "[You also had the same dreams I did, yeah? War, aliens, ADVENT. Figured I was going to get a crash course on what was going on, and then start fighting. I don't know why else I'd have the schematics of rifles memorized otherwise and be able to do things instinctively I probably shouldn't.]"

"[Trust me,]" Vonessia said. "[Both of you will be learning plenty about the war very soon. But we don't want to drop you into it right away.]"

"[Makes sense,]" Matthew said with a nod. "[Smart to do that before combat training. Logical.]"

"[Now y'all are just overcomplicating it,]" Vonessia chided. "[It's because ADVENT doesn't want a bunch of drone soldiers who don't know what it means to be Human. And what's the best way of fixing that? Letting you be Human, at least for a while. Otherwise, why fight at all for something that's elusive to you. You're not slaves.]"

"[So, hypothetically…]" the woman said, a bit playfully. "[Could I quit? Decide to become one of those Human artists?]"

Matthew snorted. "[You'll have to be more specific. That can be a whole bunch of things.]"

"[The ones who make pictures!]" She clarified. "[Ah! Artists!]"

"[Also can mean a bunch of things?]" Matthew said. "[Painter? Photographer? Illustrator?]"

"[Clearly,]" she wrinkled her nose and smiled, "[The flash-training skimped out on a few nuances. I somehow can't tell you what that last one is, but I can tell you where the weak points on a Muton are. Priorities.]"

They both exchanged a chuckle at that. Matthew was noticing there was something of a difference in how he could interact with Clones, and natural-born Humans. There was a certain lack of context about various things that made it easy to bond over. Vonessia cleared her throat, ready to move on. "[Well, we do need to make the introductions. Matthew, since you're here, do you want to join?]"

"[Sure,]" Matthew said, as he fell into step with them. "[I hope that you like tacos.]"

"[What is a taco?]"

"[You'll see,]" he smiled. "[You'll like it – trust me.]"

Hangar Bay, the Praesidium – Classified Location

Early October 2017 – Morning

As Americans would say, it was time to rock and roll.

English sayings had a tendency to sound appropriate and fitting, until you actually thought about them and the tenuous correlation broke down. Why did 'rock and roll' now mean 'Let's get going'? Kunio didn't know, but it sounded good to say, and that was what mattered.

No matter what one said to describe the mood, things were just about ready to start. There was an excitement; a readiness in the air from everyone who was present. Everyone was ready to take the war to the Collective in a way that they hadn't before, and if all went well, knock a few teeth loose.

Personally, Kunio was hoping to bloody their nose. With the forces assembled, he thought that they had a pretty good shot of it.

Kunio couldn't recall an instance where this level of diverse force had gathered for the kind of operation they were about to launch. Nearly two dozen XCOM soldiers, split into three complete squads, multiple Agents of T'Leth, and a nearly three-dozen size team from ADVENT consisting of PRIESTs and special forces, including Lancers.

He also found it neat to see Nartha's Chimera soldiers integrated into the squads proper. He didn't know if this was the first mission Chimera forces were going to officially accompany them. It certainly wasn't the first time aliens had joined XCOM on operations, but he did think this was the first time they were formally under Chimera.

Vitakarians, Dath'Haram, and Borelians were all represented, one for each squad. Nartha himself was taking part, under Iosif's squad – and he'd noticed that the Vitakara had adopted the 'Chi' prefix before their proper names. Outfitted in XCOM armor and equipment, it was only the Borelian and Nartha who stood out due to their height and anatomy, but even the Dath'Haram had some modifications that differed from the standard XCOM kit.

It was a bit of a new experience to see Vitakara in equipment he was used to seeing Humans in, but it filled him with pride to see aliens integrating more into XCOM. It seemed right, if somewhat ironic given XCOM's mission, to be the center of people of all species coming together against a common enemy.

He'd introduced himself to Diamondback Squad's Chimera member, Valhalin, a Dath'Haram medic who'd defected. The alien seemed to have quite a few stories to tell, and given his actual decades of experience, he was going to be very helpful, especially since he'd worked on Mutons before, albeit just males.

Diamondback squad, which Kunio was a part of, was charged with securing the Muton females and infants in the breeding centers. As a result, there were three medics embedded into the squad in case special attention was needed for the Mutons – something that was more likely than not. It was an uncomfortable feeling to know they were going to liberate a breeding camp. It sounded like such a degrading, distasteful term, which made his skin crawl, but all the better that they were going to free it.

Kunio did a final check of his weapons and gear. All systems go, all equipment ready. Given how the Squad Overseers were beginning to assemble, he believed it was only going to be minutes before they were going to start.

The Chronicler and Fiona had successfully completed some short recon trips to Desolan to confirm the coordinates. The Chronicler had shared exactly where he needed to teleport, and Fiona would be standing by as a backup just in case. However, relying on a backup was the worst-case scenario, and this was something he needed to do himself.

He'd never teleported anywhere close to this distance before. It was one thing to teleport across Earth, it was another to transcend entire star systems in a blink of an eye. It was fortunate that the mechanics of the Psionosphere made it way easier than it sounded, though that didn't change the risk of failure.

It was the difference between stepping foot on Desolan, and into the void of space.

No room for error.

Presuming the operation went according to the plan, he wouldn't even need to teleport everyone back, and he'd go through the Gateways like everyone else. But no one was banking on the idea of everything going to plan. That never happened, and he didn't think assaulting the most fortified world in the Ethereal Collective was going to be the exception.

"You've got this," Fiona said, coming up to him and patting him on the shoulder. "Just focus on the coordinates, and you've done enough to finish the job. They'll never see us coming."

He snorted, fiddling with his helmet under his arm. "You think it will be that simple?"

"Honestly? I think it's more likely than you think," Fiona nodded towards the gathered soldiers, in groups of XCOM, Chimera, ADVENT, and the Pantheon. "You have Aegis with you – that knocks out the risk of bombardment and air assault. The Pantheon are more than capable of handling themselves. And the Chronicler and Ir Nara together can take literally anything the Collective can throw at them."

When put like that, it sounded very simple. Easy, even.

"I hope you're right," was all he said, or was comfortable with expressing. "I'd rather not tempt Murphy's Law here. This isn't the time to be overconfident, especially when we've got the possible future of a species on the line."

"Obviously," she reassured him. "But the best of the best are here. You've got some of the most powerful psions with you, veterans from the beginning of the war, and an AI on your side. The odds and advantages are stacked in our favor. Besides, if things go bad, I'll be on-call to help."

"Hopefully, we don't have to rely on you to save us," Kunio said, lightly joking. "Still, given its importance, I can't imagine that the response is going to be calm."

"No, I expect there will be a lot of panic. And they will answer quickly, which is why you don't waste any time," Fiona said. "In and out, a nice short adventure. But seriously, don't worry about the Chronicler, Ir Nara, or even the Pantheon – we're all ready for the worst to be thrown."

Kunio glanced over to where the Pantheon were situated, all talking amongst themselves. They were definitely an elite-looking group, a few of them even carrying melee weapons. He wondered if they'd been inspired by the Templars. "Including a Sovereign One or Ethereal?"

"Ethereals are a given, the only question is which ones," Fiona said.

"Do you have a guess?"

"For the Chronicler and Ir Nara? Honestly might draw out the Imperator or Regisora," Fiona said after a moment. "Maybe Deusian can match him, but she's not appeared at all. Macula, Quisilia, or any of the more flighty Ethereals might come, but they're not exactly frontline fighters."

"Not the Battlemaster?" He wondered.

"Nah," she shook her head. "Not good for fighting the Chronicler who employs raw psionic power."

"He is carrying a sword now."

"Touche," she admitted. "But he knows his limits. He might show up against the Pantheon, or one of the Guardians. That's probably more likely, or maybe they won't bother and let the garrisons handle it."

"Let's hope so," Kunio said.

"Sadly, I doubt we'll get lucky – not on Desolan," Fiona glanced towards the center of the Hangar. "Looks like it's time."

The soldiers were assembling in formations now, and Kunio checked the clock. Zero hour approaching. "Form up!" Creed ordered, as he marched towards the front of the Hangar. The rest of Diamondback Squad quickly assembled behind their Squad Overseer, echoed by the other XCOM Squads. The Pantheon formed into their trio of teams, and the Lancers broke into their units.

Now in formation, the assembly of XCOM and ADVENT forces stood before the quintet of represented leaders. Aegis, Spartacus, Iosif, Nartha, and Dorian. It was a striking image, Human and aliens, ADVENT and XCOM, all together, ready for war.

Spartacus was both an intimidating and impressive sight. The armor XCOM had created for him was reminiscent of the Mutons they had fought, but with a more regal quality to it, and the colors of white and silver. He wielded an Elite-sized plasma cannon, something Kunio was certain was a custom job, as it didn't look like any wielded by Elites or Sargons that he'd seen.

Aegis was also wearing his battle armor, eschewing the robes they were so used to seeing him in. His upper limbs hung free, while the lower ones were clasped behind his back. Iosif was clad in his usual armor, with his flanged mace hung from his waist, and helmet under his arm. Dorian wore standard Lancer gear, and while it wasn't nearly the flashiest of what was on display, it would be more than sufficient for the operation. Nartha stood at attention as well, and even if he was subordinated to Creed's squad this op, he still led Chimera.

"The stakes are clear, and our plan is solidified," Spartacus said, and his deep voice was heard throughout the Hangar as he opened the pre-operation address. "I do not need to impress upon you what it will mean should we succeed – instead I will highlight what this moment represents. Human, Vitakara, Ethereal, and Muton; species who have united to strike against an evil that has gone unchallenged for far too long."

The eyes of the Muton flicked between the assembled. "I will not claim to know what motivates each of you to succeed today – but the end result is the same, the impact will echo regardless of reasons, idealistic or pragmatic. It demonstrates a willingness to fight for the liberation of those who are not of your own people. Not merely for others, but for those who would be discarded as an enemy, one that is irredeemable in the eyes of many."

His voice went curiously soft – at least for a Muton. "Some will call it a waste. An insult to those who've been taken. It is not, and I believe each of you realize this, for it is what separates us from the Collective. A mindset, an empathy, a conviction against injustice and evil being allowed to flourish. The Collective tolerates and encourages it – you stand opposed to it."

Spartacus inclined his head in their direction. "You may think you understand what this means to me, and my species - but you do not, nor should you be expected to know. I can only hope that one day history will capture the importance of this moment, and our people will recount all who take part today as heroes of the Muton species. For this, I thank you, and I am proud to fight alongside you today."

He took a lumbering step back, turning to the leaders besides him. "Overseer Bronis, I defer to you."

"Thank you, Spartacus," Iosif stepped forward, clearing his throat. "All of you have received the briefing. Assuming you were paying attention, each of you knows where you need to go, and what our objective is. Chronicler, anything notable from your recon?"

The older man shook his head. "None. They have no idea we are coming."

A thin smile flashed across Iosif's face. "Perfect, we're on-track. Kunio, HERA, are you prepared for respective teleportation actions?"

"Yes, sir," Kunio said.

"Affirmative," HERA, the Pantheon's teleporter confirmed with a sharp nod.

"The Pantheon will be executing their own objectives, and the Chronicler and Ir Nara will be providing a critical distraction for our operation," Iosif continued. "One final review of the plan: Astro Squad will move to secure the central administrative facilities, upload JULIAN's offensive fork into Collective systems, and move to secure the schooling and training grounds."

"I am, of course, standing by," JULIAN said into the comms. Kunio remembered hearing that JULIAN was embedded into Iosif's suit, and would be housed there until he was inserted into Collective systems. "I look forward to seeing if the Collective's defenses are more sophisticated than their pitiful efforts to neutralize me."

That got a few chuckles from the soldiers, and a few smiles from the officers.

"Angel Squad together with Extrasolar Unit THETA," Iosif said, referring to the mission designation of the ADVENT forces. "Will be responsible for securing each Gateway, and synchronizing with predetermined ADVENT and XCOM Gateways. Spartacus and Diamondback Squad will secure the birthing centers and oversee the evacuation of Muton females and infants."

He faced the assembled forces, his expression growing serious. "We evacuate as many as possible, but when we have to leave, we leave. This is not the place for heroics – we are striking the heart of the Collective's war machine. They will defend it with everything they can muster. Our time will be limited, and we must use every second of it. Follow your Overseers and Officers as applicable, and we'll achieve victory. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

Dorian glanced at Iosif. "I have no words of inspiration, but to echo what has already been said. Let's hit the Collective where it hurts." There were a few roars and hoo-rah's from the ADVENT forces, as Dorian finished. "We're at zero hour, Overseer. Time is ticking."

"That it is," Iosif affirmed, donning his helmet, and nodding to Spartacus. "Operational Commander, orders to proceed?"

"Proceed," Spartacus rumbled, donning his own massive helmet. "Let this day echo throughout the annals of Human and Muton history, and leave this Collective shaken to its rotten core. All forces, commence Operation Jericho."

There was a collection of clicks and hisses as the soldiers put on their helmets, withdrew their weapons, and prepared to enter into battle. This was his cue, and Kunio moved towards the front of the assembled forces, already mentally charting the Psionosphere, and making the necessary connections. HERA had moved in front of the assembled Pantheon teams, and both the Chronicler and Ir Nara had already disappeared in flashes of blue.

His turn.

He felt the eyes of all of them watching, including Fiona's. It came down to him now – and he was going to kick this mission off on a high note. His eyes glowing, his right hand lifted as the beginnings of the purple portal manifested. The points were identified, the strings connected, and all he needed to do was pull.

The sheer distance was already taxing, it required more mental strength than he'd used before – but it took only a moment for him to realize that he could do this. And that was sometimes the extra push you needed. Before the assembled forces, the portal widened, and solidified before them.

He only needed a few more seconds to anchor it, and closed his fist. "Portal is stabilized."

That was all that was needed. He was acutely aware of the soldiers moving forward. "Forward!" Spartacus ordered, and Kunio began his own march into the portal, as together they stepped through the portal, and into the world of Desolan.

Metacomet Forward Staging Point Alpha, Winnipeg – Canada

Early October 2017 – Morning

Everyone always told her that the danger outweighed the benefits of these trips. Granted, it wasn't nearly as intense as it had been earlier in the war, but everyone continued to feel the need to tell her that she didn't really need to be on the front.

They reminded her that she could make the speeches from the safety of Geneva, she could make visits when it was safer, or publicize them ahead of time to deter action. She could receive every update to the minute in the safety of a bunker, or otherwise gain everything she might want without having to actually risk herself.

And each time, she refuted them.

Safety was a logical priority, and in the most sterile and technical of terms, they were right that she didn't need to do any of these things. Yet Humans were emotional as well as logical, and she knew what they responded to. It was actions like these which separated the leaders from those who were seen by the people as figureheads, and those as heroes.

Personally, she believed it was even simpler than that.

For the soldiers, visits like these were the least that could be done. She wasn't going to be fighting, she wasn't where any heavy fighting was taking place - she was just going to be present. They didn't ask for anything more than for her to take the smallest risk to show that, ultimately, she was committed to them, and what they were intending to achieve.

In comparison to Beijing, where she'd paid a physical price, this was a risk that barely even registered.

She could not be everywhere, but she'd be damned if she wasn't going to be present for the beginning of what would be the most important military operation in ADVENT's history. And as she had stepped off the ADVENT dropship, she'd felt like there was an electric jolt through the people who saw her.

She'd made sure that only a few people had known of her visit. No one else had needed to know, because it didn't change their duties. She was here to observe and meet a few of the soldiers and officers; she wasn't here for an event, or to have everything suddenly revolve around her.

Maybe today would drive that point home.

They'd arrived in the dimmest hours of the morning, long before the sun would rise. Despite the early hour, everyone was moving into position. Hundreds of armored men and women stood in formations, loaded into transports, or stood at attention as final inspections were conducted.

Columns of troop transports, tanks, and MDUs were neatly organized, and ready to move out as the engineers and drivers conducted their final checks. Lines of aircraft were also receiving final checks, and pilots were running diagnostics. The noises of engines were pervasive throughout the base, a siren of the battles to come.

Winnipeg was the closest position to the front still held by ADVENT in Canada, which had been one of the countries which had been subjected to among the most extensive of the Collective's assault, and they'd been forced to significantly retreat from. But the Canadians hadn't been forgotten, and from Winnipeg, the liberation would begin.

Liam Horne had accompanied her, along with her usual protection detail. She'd worn the body armor that had been insisted upon; that was a concession that she was perfectly fine with accepting. The faint whir of her mechanical arms did not allow her to forget what she had lost in China.

Their schedule, such as it was, had been very regimented and prompt. He'd taken her around to the officers, consisting of mostly Canadian, but some American officers who'd been fighting in the region to give some words of encouragement and acknowledgement.

She'd done so, though had made some usual deviations to speak to some of the lower ranking officers and soldiers, all of whom had seemed both excited and star-struck to see her appear in person. She only needed to exchange a few words, ask their names, and wish them good luck, and knew the story would spread throughout the ranks.

Intermixed in all of these efforts were the clones which had begun arriving and integrating with the standing forces only days ago, all under the command of local officers. She'd spoken to some of them as well, and found it a very interesting contrast. The clones treated her just as a superior, there was no ingrained awe or surprise at her presence.

As if she was expected to be here, or it was a perfectly normal place to find her.

She wondered if that was a side effect of their development, or something intentional. She'd have to ask that later.

"What do you think?" She said as she and Horne watched the last of the preparations take place. "They ready?"

"As ready as they'll ever be, Chancellor," Horne said, helmet under his arm as he similarly watched. "Never thought that I'd be on the pages of what's going to be one of the most important days in Human history, yet here we are. It's a strange feeling. I think a few of them are feeling the same way."

"Then make sure it's a history worth remembering, General," she said. "We do not have room for errors."

"Of which we are all aware," he grunted. "Honestly, my biggest concern isn't if we can do it, but if ADVENT can withstand the cost this is going to incur once the advances slow. I know the propaganda is that we can fund the war forever, and money isn't important. Hell, maybe we can, but that's always how it's worked. The money is unlimited, until it suddenly isn't."

It wasn't the first time she'd heard that concern come up, and had wondered it herself initially. Though the concerns hadn't been from the military officers, but from administrators and economists who were obsessive over what the economy could take and sustain, and how every single possible drop of efficiency could be extracted without collapsing everything.

She'd sat down with a number of economists, and Central Bank administrators, who'd explained to her the economics of the Rapture offensive and how it could be sustained. It was going to be a hit to the Central Reserves to handle ADVENT's army suddenly growing by such a massive margin, but she'd been assured it was more than capable of handling the impact.

It was also pointed out that the further ADVENT advanced, the more factories and farmland would be reclaimed, and the more Alloys they would collect, which would be fed back into the Central Reserves, and recoup a notable portion of what had already been expended. Having grown up in a family whose power had been built off wealth and economics, she grasped much better than most what was happening.

In retrospect, she felt like it would benefit most of the Generals to also undertake some lessons in economics, because Horne was very much an exception to the rule, and with a certain mindset of how one action would impact others. In this case, there wasn't anything to worry about, but there would be a time where someone thinking of those concerns could be critical.

"The economists made sure to personally tell me and Laura that we can handle this," she told him. "Your concerns are noted, however. It's good that you're thinking of the ramifications. The later stages of Rapture might demand we be more careful."

"If the experts have given the green light, then I'll only start worrying when you do," he said with a nod. "Have you received word from XCOM?"

"I have," she said. "Once the offensive begins, Jericho will launch."

"Excellent," he smiled. "I'd like to see their reactions when they realize what's happening. Pity we'll just have to imagine them. All the same, unless there's something else, we should move to the command post. There is an offensive to begin, and a war to win. Accompany me?"

"Lead the way," she said, as they made for a brisk pace to the command center. "Give the word, and consider the offensive officially authorized, and the Thunderwells launched. Today, this is where our reclamation of Earth begins."

Thunderwell Site 4, Classified Location – South Korea

Early October 2017 – Morning

Nan Jae-Hwa may have only been a soldier in ADVENT, but he was one who had found himself stationed in South Korea, while also not involved in the conventional defense. He'd participated in a few skirmishes, and one large-scale battle where they'd had to retreat as the Collective had marched across the country.

He'd been expecting, along with most of his friends, that they'd be sent to the Seoul front, and make their stand there. Initially that had seemed to be the case, until his Officer had informed him that he had been selected to be stationed somewhere which was, in his words, 'Highly Classified.'

Nan had found that… interesting. Apparently, he'd proven himself reliable enough to be singled out for this role. He'd been briefed, given a certain level of clearance, and sent away to some secretive facility in South Korea. The planes had windows tinted, and so had the transports he'd ridden in on.

Whatever had been there was something ADVENT really didn't want anyone to know about. All Nan knew was that it was far away from the frontlines. At least that was what he was assuming, as when he arrived, it didn't seem to be secretive in the conventional sense.

Firstly, the amount of security around it was extensive. ADVENT seemed to be almost deliberately making a point not to be incognito. It seemed like ADVENT knew the Collective knew where they were, and were beefing up their security in case of an actual attack.

He didn't know why the Collective would attack, and it seemed likely they knew what was happening here, even if they knew where. Maybe that was the point. Deterrence, especially when there were better targets in South Korea to go after.

It seemed the Collective was perfectly content to do that. There had not even been a hint of a possible attack, despite surveillance being extensive, and scouting teams and drones regularly left the site to the surrounding area. It was, truthfully, extremely boring. To the point where he almost wanted something to happen.

At the same time…

He'd seen what the Collective had done. He knew what they could bring to bear against them. Being away from the front was safer for everyone, himself included, even if it was mind-numbingly boring.

It hadn't stopped him from trying to learn exactly what this massive facility that amounted to a big hole in the ground was. When he'd first arrived, it literally was just a big hole in the ground; a half-finished construction site swarmed by construction workers and excavators. There'd only been a loose perimeter, and even the Flak Towers and trenches hadn't been finished.

He'd watched it go from that, to a much cleaner, more efficient, and much better defended hole in the ground. It was still a hole in the ground, but one that he felt he could be proud of, even if he'd not known anything about it for quite a long time. All of them had noticed the arrivals and departures of a notable number of engineers and scientists, but again, no one knew why.

Only a few officers seemed to be in the loop of what this was all about. There was one word that he'd heard thrown around with any regularity. Thunderwell. He thought it was a code name, but he also thought it was the name for… whatever ADVENT was building was called. Thunderwell. Definitely sounded like something powerful. A weapon?

Fortunately, as the site had become more developed, more details had been shared, and what the Thunderwell was actually for revealed. It was ADVENT's solutions to the Shrouds which had darkened several cities across the world, Seoul among them. That had been a revelation that had made sense, and he was glad that ADVENT had figured out a way to fix that problem.

At the same time, ADVENT had remained cagey as to what exactly the Thunderwell was actually doing to combat this. All the same, there were rumors around, and they were not exactly the most comforting. Nan had heard the words 'nuclear' and 'fission' and 'explosion' being used in reference to the Thunderwell, he'd become ever-so-slightly concerned as to how this was going to work.

These only added fuel to the flaming rumor mill, and a wide range of theories were floating around. It ranged from some kind of nuclear-powered missile that would be able to strike at the distance the Shrouds were stationed, to launching what amounted to shrapnel in the Shroud's general direction.

The sheer range of rumors, and how a new one seemed to spring up with questionable regularity made Nan wonder if ADVENT Intelligence was purposefully seeding disinformation. In the end, he'd made the decision that ADVENT's engineers probably knew what they were doing more than any of them.

It said something that the only people who never talked were those who entered into the heart of the Thunderwell. One could descend into the hole to a certain point, but then there was a checkpoint where you needed authorization. Only engineers, scientists, and a few officers had gone through. A few workers as well, ones who never socialized outside of their work.

Nan's curiosity was tempered by the suspicion that maybe his ignorance was for the best here.

Since the construction equipment and laborers had departed, there had been a tense lull. Everyone was waiting for something to happen, and very recently, things had taken a more ominous tone. One that had told them that this might be reaching a conclusion.

The first were trucks with unknown materials and equipment on them. Impossible to say what it was. Some of it was clearly fuel, but others were much more obscure. The only clues had been the exterior markings. Nan had clearly seen ones warning about explosive, corrosive, and radioactive materials on some of them.

He'd made sure to keep his distance from them. Tempting fate was a poor idea here.

Thus, they'd all mostly agreed that ADVENT was likely going to attack the Shrouds soon, likely waiting for an opportune point. None of them knew when it would be – but believed it would be soon.

And it had been soon.

They'd woken up to the news that ADVENT had launched a massive counteroffensive. This alone hadn't been too much of a surprise; there'd been bets taken on where ADVENT was going to retake first. Most had said North America because that was where the fighting was most intense. Others said Europe in order to secure Ukraine, and a few had said South America to close up that front.

It turned out to be all three.

Nan had been shocked to read the reports, echoed by most of his comrades. Very pleasantly surprised, but still very shocked. Questions swirled through their minds, with no obvious answers. Where had ADVENT found all of the men to be able to carry out three offensives at this scale? Had there been a secret draft? Or were they taking a massive gamble and playing with soldiers they didn't really have?

He personally didn't think ADVENT would be that risky – they weren't and hadn't been the types to throw soldiers away for gambles like this, or into unnecessary dangers. Yet there were massive questions about how ADVENT had been able to carry something like this out. And answers were likely to not come for some time.

He had taken 'comfort,' if that was even the right word for clearly good news, in the fact that the aliens were almost certainly just as confused as they were. Hopefully that would make ADVENT's offensive even more successful.

These questions had quickly faded as alarms had sounded across the Thunderwell Site, ones that they had been waiting for. The day had come, after days of anticipation.

The Thunderwell was about to fire.

All of them quickly assumed their positions, in case there was an attack that was likely to not come. From the trenches to the Thunderwell facility itself, the entire site was on high alert. Now would be the moment of truth.

Nan didn't think that he was going to unexpectedly blow up, but without knowing exactly what was happening right now, he couldn't completely discount the possibility. There hadn't been any tests of the weapon, at least not any here. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for it to begin.

The earth began shaking like a small earthquake, followed by a roar that rapidly became deafening for a few seconds before there was a massive blinding flash as something was launched into the air with so much force that the shockwave almost blew him off his feet even in the trench. He tried to track the… rocket? Projectile? It was moving so fast that he couldn't actually pick out what it even was.

Yet soon it became stable again, and they were all still alive. The launch had been successful, and all of them watched the orange streak fly into the heavens, growing smaller and dimmer each passing second.

As the soldiers and personnel watching cheered, Nan sincerely hoped that it worked. This would have been a very expensive endeavor if it hadn't.

He was sure they'd find out sooner than later.

Command Center Santa Cruz, California – Combined Territories of North America

Early October 2017 – Morning

It was not uncommon for Assimilator-10 to receive a multitude of daily alerts. Such was the nature of his position.

The Sargon in question was not the only one involved in the management of the campaign to capture, secure, and ultimately integrate the captured territories into the Ethereal Collective. Yet his role also involved the development of the overall grand strategy for the region, in conjunction with the Battlemaster and other Collective officials.

It had been clear for weeks that ADVENT was planning something.

Intelligence reports gathered by military scouts, captured signals, and Zararch operatives embedded in Human cities and forces had allowed a picture to emerge, though one which was frustratingly vague in places. Without a clear picture on what was being planned, the Collective had needed to prepare for a range of scenarios.

The frontlines on the American front were far from stagnant. Every day there were exchanges of fire as ADVENT and the Collective respectively held their lines, and fortified their positions, each one probing for a weakness; each one readying to strike a vulnerability. Each was searching for a hint of weakness, all of which prevented a true entrenchment.

While the fighting had never stopped, there had been something resembling a stable line, which he had wanted to avoid, and so had ADVENT. ADVENT had proven themselves adept at defensive warfare, but it was clear that they could not afford to lose significantly more territory. The advance across North America had been useful in depriving them of factories and industry, which he had expected would drive any retaliation.

Thus, it was not surprising to learn that ADVENT was mobilizing forces for an upcoming operation – even if the details of the operation were nebulous.

There had been two ways of preparing for an inevitable ADVENT counteroffensive. The first was to mobilize what forces were at his disposal, while employing probing attacks, and then quickly move when they found a crack in the armor. The second option was to hunker down and defend.

The latter was the safest based on the current available information. Without knowing what ADVENT was doing, it made the risks for the former strategy much higher, even if the latter positioned the Collective in a position where it couldn't respond as quickly. Of course, this was all or nothing.

The two extremes were defined, and provided a starting point to refine further. Assimilator-10 had reviewed the forces allocated to the region, and devised a strategy which incorporated parts of each option. Places that were most at risk would be fortified, while locations that were advantageous, or insight on ADVENT positions was ideal, would be more aggressive.

ADVENT had been acting intelligently, even as they'd retreated. For that he harbored a respect for them, much as the Battlemaster did. A worthy enemy, if a challenging one to eventually defeat. Yet the facts speak for themselves.

They were using deceptive warfare in a way that was remarkably difficult to dismantle without deep insights into their military operations – which the Zararch had yet to develop. The Human population was bereft of any possible sympathizers to their cause as well, which only tied up more of their resources. He had learned very fast that this was a hostile species, and they were firmly in hostile territory.

Not for the first time, he held private issues with the way the early campaign had been conducted. Unfortunately, the reasons for the invasion itself remained nebulous, and had seemingly been set up to ensure that as much of the Human species as possible was inherently opposed to them.

Returning to the information that had been gathered, it was also less concrete that he would like.

There had been a number of Human cities, towns, and positions that had appeared to be vulnerable – or conversely, been unusually strong. ADVENT had been working hard to maintain a fog of war where he wasn't fully certain if it was a feint to move them out of position, or a desperate attempt for them to not take advantage.

In the end, he had opted for skepticism and caution over something too aggressive. ADVENT was going to make their move sooner than later, and when it came, he was going to be prepared.

That was the intention.

Then the morning reports had begun coming in.

The first were the daily updates; these were Zararch briefs and executive summaries from frontline units. This morning all of them were filled with urgent warnings, updates, and estimated numbers of units that were moving.

Initially, Assimilator-10 had demanded additional confirmation. The numbers that were being reported had to be off, inflated, or otherwise wrong. He only had to wait minutes before secondary confirmations arrived, and the scale of what they were facing became apparent.

Somehow, it seemed as though ADVENT had doubled their numbers overnight. Reports of massive troop mobilizations within hours were being reported; armor columns were suddenly leaving and making their way to the front lines. Air forces were similarly arriving in massive numbers at nearby airfields.

Soldiers, psions, MDUs, tanks of American, German, and British origin, Ravens, artillery. The list of confirmed unit sightings only grew more and more the more time passed. ADVENT was pulling everything for this.

Assimilator-10 quickly made several emergency checks with the other fronts, to see if there was a drop in reported numbers. He quickly found the opposite to be true, as the Sargons from across the world relayed the grim reality to him.

Assimilator-9 in South America affirmed the same thing along his front lines. So did Assimilator-5 in Europe. All others reported a sustained presence of troop levels; no noticeable decrease from what they had noted in days before.

The ominous question only grew larger. Where had they gotten these forces?

The question was demurred. Reaction was necessary.

Orders were disseminated to prepare for an imminent attack, but preparation done in hours was a reactionary move which would only do some good. He knew that it wasn't enough time to prepare for the forces arrayed against them. They were not nearly entrenched enough, their battle posture insufficient for a counteroffensive on this scale.

One that soon crashed into them on schedule.

Flashes of the footage from the combat feeds filtered into the command center in Santa Cruz, which demonstrated ADVENT employing the power of combined arms in a way that demonstrated all of the experience and lessons they had learned from the war so far. Artillery razed the initial defenses, as tanks and mobile armor moved forward through the nearby valley, escorted by swarms of soldiers and mechanized units working in unison.

More reports continued filtering in across the entire North American front, from Texas to Canada. The picture, one vague for so long, was taking a far clearer shape. ADVENT wasn't intending to merely reclaim a few cities – they were beginning a campaign to retake the entire continent. Not just this continent either – multiple continents.

More emergency alerts sounded, and Assimilator-10 learned a few moments later that the Shrouds were going offline. It had minimal impact on his own campaign, but it was symbolic of what ADVENT viewed this offensive as. The beginning of the end.

The war was going to enter a new phase. Adjustments were required.

With a few taps on his console, Assimilator-10 made a call to his superior. The orange holoimage appeared before him, and despite the Sargon's size, stood a full head taller. "Battlemaster," he inclined his head in greeting. "I require your direction. ADVENT's counteroffensive has begun, and swift action is needed to retain our positions across Earth."

"I am tracking," the Battlemaster answered, his voice sharp and focused. "Give me your report."

Desolan Command Center – Desolan Orbital Command

Early October 2017 – Morning

There was very little that happened on Desolan that was worth noting from a security standpoint. A collection of automated reports, CODEX-managed logs, and personal check-ins with overseers of various Zones. The sheer number of defenses across Desolan was enough for most to dismiss or downplay the possibility of attack, especially now.

Security on Desolan would be treated as a formality for most who were in charge. It was why there was no ordinary individual in command, but a Sargon. An individual who could be trusted to ensure security posture was acceptable.

The Sargon stood within Desolan Orbital Command. He was the only Muton on what would be defined as the bridge. It was within the center of the orbital station, but was designed in such a way with screens with feeds to the exterior that it seemed they were overlooking the world.

Sentinel-4 was told that it was a psychological need for aliens – Vitakara specifically - to view the exterior of space. He did not need such stimulation, but considering no vulnerabilities were created, he saw no reason to limit its usage. Rows of consoles and systems were arranged in a pentagon in several rings, populated with Vitakarian analysts.

He stood in the center, able to see each screen, as well as a variable hologram of Desolan itself, able to be configured to filter sites by type, importance, as well as highlight any notable terrain features. Projections also contained scrolling lists of telemetry data on Desolan itself, from weather to temperature, to potential natural events.

The scope of data was such that it might be considered excessive, but data was knowledge, knowledge was power, and power enabled action. He was charged with protecting Desolan from external military threats – and he was going to fulfill this task to the best of his ability.

It did not take an individual with the intelligence of a Sargon to assess that Desolan was a major and critical target for anyone who wanted to hurt the Ethereal Collective. It was the military heart of the Collective, contained some of its most advanced programs, and stored a number of highly restricted weapons and other technologies.

There were numerous reasons one would want to attack Desolan – but only under very specific contexts. As it stood, there was no enemy fleet to be concerned about, nor any fielded army that would have a legitimate chance of actually invading, let alone capturing Desolan.

The goal was aspirational by any reasonable definition.

The actual methods were slaved to logistics, supplies, and force allocations – none of which existed which would pose a threat. Not that a threat didn't exist – but not one which was an existential threat to the safety of the planet.

Since war had begun between the Ethereal Collective and the factions of Earth, they had become by default the enemy who would be behind any strike against Desolan. Sentinel-4 had spent many days running simulations and wargames on what could be mobilized against Desolan, and had come to a singular conclusion.

ADVENT did not possess the capability to invade or significantly damage Desolan.

It did not mean that they would not try, but their goals would likely be restricted. Likely highly targeted to certain installations, and psychological in nature. Humans tended to think in terms of Human reactions. They had blind spots when it came to alien mindsets – especially Sargons.

It was why he was not concerned with the possibility.

The psychological effects of an attack were negligible. They would change nothing. The Muton legions would be unaffected, knowledge of the attack would be suppressed to the Vitakara, and the Sectoids and Andromedons were driven by numbers, and the numbers would show any such attack would have a limited impact on the war effort.

Unless ADVENT decided to launch a full-scale invasion of the world through psionic portals, the attacks would be limited in scope and able to be easily repaired. Obviously, this would not happen unless ADVENT was truly desperate – and while they were on the backfoot, he did not assess ADVENT near the point of desperation.

It was for that reason that he had been skeptical of either ADVENT or XCOM devoting significant resources to a theoretical Desolan operation. They would have to employ some of their best units, place them into a theatre of extreme risk, in an environment which was hostile to Humans. All for what? To damage some buildings? Disrupt some programs? Steal some technologies?

There was nothing they could do that would dent, let alone slow, the war machine that was housed on Desolan.

But these were aliens.

Emotional aliens who lacked the clarity and focus that was second-nature to him. So he could not rely on the enemy acting logical, he could not let his guard down, nor that of the planet. Every possible exploit, he needed to work to rectify; every hole plugged, and every incompetent officer replaced.

The Zararch had done well in purging the Muton Underground from the world, after he had made it clear that the continued existence was unacceptable. The Battlemaster had given him the needed authority, and the Zararch had fallen in line and acted, while he had ensured the overt security was taken care of.

He had heard the grumbling; the Vitakarians who complained that the high standards were unfair and a waste of time. Their voices were silent today as he was vindicated in his preparation for such scenarios.

The day had begun normally enough, until the alarms had begun sounding, and red hotspots appeared on the maps as Zones reported incursions and attacks. With a few motions the haptics had been oriented towards the sources of the disturbances.

The first one had been at Desolan Central Command – one of the most fortified places on Desolan. A strange place of attack, which immediately planted the suspicion that it was a distraction. It was hardened against conventional armies, as well as psions, but in many ways it was bait.

Central Commands were important, but they were not irreplaceable. If they were attempting to breach the Vaults, they were acting off of misinformation, as the Vaults were in a place disassociated from obvious points of entry. Sentinel-4 ordered that cameras establish visual feeds of the region.

Two psions.


However, these were using the blue-tinged psionics – which indicated these were two of the most dangerous individuals in XCOM. Immediately upon realizing this, Sentinel-4 was sending notices directly to the Ethereals on emergency channels reserved for just this situation. This necessitated immediate Ethereal or Harbinger intervention – conventional forces would be insufficient, even if the ones at Central Command would slow them down.

He was unsure what response they were expecting. Did they expect him to overreact and send out waves of enemies? He remained uncertain what the threat was. The destruction of the Central Command? It would be more of a threat if Desolan was truly threatened – and right now, it still was not.

He watched the psions wreak significant havoc, but much of it was superficial. Most of the defenders were baseline Mutons. Easily replaceable, as were the static defenses. A pointless display of power, and he kept an eye on other regions in case more attacks came. He sent notices across Desolan for all Zones to be put on immediate alert, and forces to prepare for battle.

He was beginning to order the Cleanser Ships to descend, and provide orbital support, in addition to the drone fleets – until there was a shift in the air; a telltale signal that an Ethereal had arrived.

"Belay your actions, Sentinel-4," the voice of Quisilia interjected, the normally boisterous Ethereal notably focused and reserved. Good, Quisilia knew the gravity of the situation, and was reacting appropriately. "I will handle our guests."

"Understood, Elder One," he rumbled. "Do you wish any specific units for support?"

"No, I have that arranged," Quisilia toyed with one of the blades in his hand. "Manage any other attacks. I suspect there will be more, considering the blatant nature of this distraction. Do you have an assessment on… why they might be doing this?"

"Unclear, Elder One," Sentinel-4 shook his head. "Clarity will come upon the execution of other operations. I see this current assault as intended to distract, or potentially breach the Vaults – though acting under false pretenses."

Quisilia chuckled. "The Battlemaster was prescient after Aegis' defection. If that is truly their objective, they will be disappointed to find their information out of date. Nonetheless, I'd best intervene before they ruin more perfectly good infrastructure."

"By your will, Elder One, strike true." He said, as Quisilia vanished in a flash of purple and a wave.

He didn't have to wait long for the follow-on attacks.

Where the next assaults were being reported were more in line with expectations – at first glance. It was mere minutes after the Chronicler had begun his attack – ADVENT and XCOM had timed these in a very short window to limit the time of preparation.

Well-planned. They'd anticipated a fast response.

One of the attacks was against one of the Elite Production Centers – an acceptable target. It would not cripple Elite production, but it would dent their output should they be successful in destroying it. If he was to order a strike against Desolan, that would be one of his targets. Immediate impact, a more rare resource, and feasible for destruction.

Drone footage and security cameras revealed an interesting revelation once he turned his focus to them.

The armor, the psionics, the general chaos. He knew who they were immediately.

The Pantheon.

Curious. ADVENT's elite psionic unit was being employed here. Tactics would need to be adjusted to account for this. Assuming it was the full Pantheon – as it appeared to be, that was sufficient to completely destroy the Zone. Conventional forces would be insufficient against a dozen of ADVENT's best psions.

Mitigation strategy – the Pantheon itself had to be targeted. If the right response was managed, there was high potential to extract several Pantheon casualties. It was an equivalent trade – a damaged Elite Production Center, in return for the deaths of several of ADVENT's best psions.

He began compiling information to send another emergency notice – preferably to the Battlemaster or the First Guardian, as they were ideally suited towards managing a threat of this degree. The Battlemaster was unlikely, due to the renewed offensives on Earth, but the Guardians were likely feasible.

At the same time, he considered the second attack point that had appeared – Central Production Zone 0022.

He attempted to assess if there was something there which would warrant a direct attack by ADVENT, XCOM – and Aegis. Considering the usage of the traitor Elder, it was almost certain this was the main objective of this entire operation. Orbital bombardments and air support would be rendered useless, as well as conventional ground forces bottlenecked by Gateways.

The entire Zone would need to be written off, while he considered the next steps. Truthfully, he was inclined to place minimal pressure on them, and sacrifice the Production Center until the other threats were taken care of. Attacking a center where Mutons were born and trained? Perhaps a valuable target if it was one of a few, but that was not the case.

Even if they succeeded in destroying it and executing the adolescents and females, they would easily be able to recover their losses within six months. A year at worst. Thus, the tactical or strategic objectives were… elusive.

Something that he'd seen, which had only been glimpsed by one of the cameras, was there was a Muton with the ADVENT and XCOM forces. One that appeared to be working with them, not a captive. He was very large, the size of an Elite at minimum. It had given Sentinel-4 some pause.

Had XCOM managed to find an incomplete Muton unit? Or perhaps they had grown one themselves to create their own Sargons? It was not beyond the realm of possibility, but did not do anything more to shed light on why they were here.

There was almost certainly some other motivation at play, and with the Pantheon involved, he wondered if there were multiple misdirections at play. Was this one a distraction and the Pantheon op the real one? Were both latter attacks priorities? Or was this entire operation intended to tie up Ethereal assets while ADVENT launched their Earth counteroffensives?

Fingers flew over the haptic keys as thoughts were written, edited, and sent to representative stakeholders. This was a highly unusual event for a multitude of reasons, and he disliked the mystery.

Earth was not his responsibility, but Desolan was, and he would ascertain the answer to this mystery before the last soldier left.

The damage inflicted today would be contained and mitigated. This appeared to be the scope of their operations, and that was something he could easily work within. With another hand, he moved to awaken the newly-provisioned Lesser Hive Commanders.

He knew where they would be able to make the most impact.

Whatever the goals were today for ADVENT and XCOM, he would do everything in his power to ensure they paid a high price.

Collective Forward Outpost, Texas – Combined Territories of North America

Early October 2017 – Morning

The Battlemaster appraised the situation displayed before him on the massive holotable in the center of the command center. The ceiling projectors allowed him to walk freely around the room-sized projection, which was variable to the global scale, or able to be localized to specific fronts.

The CODEX responded instantly to his commands, and could project multiple localized fronts at once. Information and clarity was what was critical at this stage – and the good and bad news was that this was information they were getting.

Albeit at the cost of losing territory, or about to lose territory.

It was not a sequence of actions, it was a barrage all at once with minimal to no delay. The exact movements being executed were not necessarily surprising to the Battlemaster. There had been intelligence indicating that ADVENT was preparing to launch counteroffensives across the world based around continent-wide operations.

However, the Zararch had been convinced that ADVENT was only outlining several plans in concert, but had yet to decide on one to carry out. He'd seen little reason to dispute it – these kinds of counteroffensives were not cheap. It required resource investments of manpower, infrastructure, logistics, and equipment.

With all of those factors, it seemed implausible that ADVENT was capable of multiple large-scale offensives. They were not the Collective, and did not have access to worlds of resources and seemingly limitless reserves.

Yet despite these empirical estimates, they were launching at least three major ones all at the same time.

The Battlemaster had been in this room for hours now as he managed the fronts that were now facing major ADVENT offensives not only in North America, but also South America and Europe. These were not small probing attacks either – they were full-scale operations incorporating every element of the ADVENT military.

He couldn't help but be impressed with the sophistication on display. Not even their prior Operations, Sherman or Kamehameha, had approached this level of coordination or sophistication. ADVENT had learned well this past year.

It was an admirable feat, albeit one that ADVENT should not have been able to pull off. A CODEX had run the numbers, and there was a major gap when it came to nearly all factors, but especially manpower. Even the most generous estimates placed manpower as a major issue for ADVENT in the weeks following assaults of this scale.

They had the numbers to employ and exploit at least one major offensive – maybe two. More than that? Either ADVENT was planning to significantly expand conscription, or they had something that was going to be revealed very soon. Especially since the Zararch had reported that not all of the plans had been executed.

So they were constrained to some degree – but the degree was far less than had been assumed. There were some suspicions forming in the Battlemaster's mind as more data came pouring in – particularly on the how.

Something he would need to investigate once the fronts had stabilized.

All of that was problematic to the war, in addition to the Shrouds being destroyed through some clever ingenuity. He wasn't particularly concerned about those losses; it was clear by this point it hadn't had the intended effect on ADVENT. That was less important than the ramifications of what such offensives would inflict on the war effort.

They were going to be forced on the backfoot in almost every region. The entire frontlines of North America were too brittle, and supply lines were not developed enough to sustain a defense on this scale, and they hadn't had enough time to properly entrench.

The West Coast of North America and the immediate inland regions remained well-developed, and the Battlemaster had ordered a tactical withdrawal to more defensible lines, with instructions for reinforcements to be surged to places of critical importance. A fighting retreat was enough to keep ADVENT occupied in the heart of North America, which was where the most danger was.

He would need to personally attend to Europe, as they were in the greatest danger of being outright overrun and expelled from Ukraine and surrounding regions. The good news was that the territory they did have was heavily defended, and ADVENT would not be able to dislodge them easily.

But they were going to try.

South America was a sea of terrible fighting conditions for all sides, and while ADVENT had launched offensives, it was going to take time before anyone knew how effective or not they were. South America was a battleground where the Battlemaster knew losses could be regained quickly by appropriately exploiting the terrain.

It was less critical than the other fronts.

Now, he had received notice that Desolan was under attack. Sentinel-4 had sent an emergency communication which the Battlemaster had read with some surprise.

Desolan was a questionable target, one that initially confused him. Not because it wasn't a valuable target, but if he was correct in his assumption – and the report from the Sargon indicated he was – XCOM and ADVENT had sent several elite, but small teams to achieve currently-unknown objectives.

Were they trying to seize the Vaults?

That was the only objective that would make sense – except that it was close to impossible to break in conventionally, and if they were operating off Aegis' information, it was out of date, and would be attacking the wrong place. And yet, he could not help but feel they were missing some critical piece of information.

Given how long ago he had defected, Aegis was intelligent enough to know that the Imperator would protect the Vaults from compromise. Considering the time between defection and this attack… if Aegis judged there was a reason to attack Desolan, why wait until now?

Even if they knew where the Vaults were, the passive monitoring by Mosrimor and Sectoids ensured that no one could teleport into it, and if they were trying to break through the front, they were looking in the wrong place. Although given that Mosrimor was becoming more of a threat

He would need to revisit the Vaults again, and deprive the Sovereign of some important tools. This attack would provide a very useful pretext – but that was for later. An attack was still concerning, but the presumed objectives were still strange.

An Elite Production Zone, a training region, and an attack on Central Command. Beyond the Elite Production Zone, the targets weren't useful in the long-term, and the degree of success ultimately negligible in the grand scheme of the war. Perhaps it was to demonstrate they could reach anywhere? A psychological tactic that might have had some worth were they not facing him.

They would have to do far more to rattle him than this, especially given what he was up against. But even without Mosrimor, they should know this, which told him that there was something else at play.

What is your move here, Aegis?

Regardless, it was something the rest of the Collective would need to handle. The battles on Earth took priority for him, and he was already aware of the First Guardian moving to handle the Pantheon. Once this was done, he would need to visit Desolan and assess what exactly had happened.

This operation may be more a curiosity than a threat, but that was not satisfying to him, nor did he think it was the right mindset to have.

XCOM, ADVENT, or Aegis would not do something like this without reason, and because the reason was so elusive, he wondered if they would succeed before the Collective learned of it. He shook his head, putting the theorizing to the side. He had a different priority to tackle.

The battle was renewed on Earth, and it was imperative he remained above suspicion. The days ahead would be long, and there would be many eyes on him.

The bleeding would be staunched, and the lines stabilized.

No matter the outcome, there was no other path but forward.

Bridge – The Horizon, Dreadnought of the Harbinger

Early October 2017 – Morning

The Bridge of the Horizon was one which she had configured to better suit her own priorities of command. In many ways it didn't differ much from other bridges, where she could oversee the crews managing the various ship systems. But the place where she oversaw was heavily outfitted to feed her information.

Holofeeds and visual screens, numerous backup systems and redundancy features; the Bridge was a suite of technologies that would be able to instantaneously sync with any Collective system and bring her the most up-to-date information, no matter where she was.

A system that was getting put through its paces today.

Suited in case she had to personally deploy, Patricia stood on the bridge as multiple haptic and holoscreens were brought up; some flashing through images, some live feeds, others raw logs and reports while the CODEX spoke in her ear.

All from Desolan.

All detailing a complex attack currently taking place.

Bold, Commander. Very bold.

Between the renewed offensive on Earth, and this, it seemed like ADVENT and XCOM were looking to regain the initiative – at least on paper. Though the more Patricia thought, and the more contextual data came in, the more likely it was that the timing had been a coordination rather than intended to compliment.

These were separate operations that were launching at the same time.

ADVENT's offensive was obvious and likely planned for a long time. Desolan was almost certainly an XCOM initiative, though one that ADVENT had likely been given an opportunity to support. What she immediately noticed within the Collective commentary was an uncertainty over why they were being attacked, and what the objective was.

Even the Zararch initial reports were uncertain, which was highlighting a rather glaring hole in the analysis across the military and Zararch. One she'd need to address, but something for much later. Not to mention that she held her own doubts and uncertainties as to what was actually going on.

She tried to put herself in the mind of the Commander, for it was him who was responsible for this operation, and while the specifics were nebulous, she knew a few things were certain. The Commander was not one to launch frivolous, symbolic attacks. Yes, striking Desolan was good for propaganda, but XCOM was not the tool to use for that.

If it were her, she would have known about the weapons and technology in the Vaults. That was something worth striking Desolan for, with the only problem being that XCOM was nowhere near where the Vaults had been. That was where the Chronicler was striking, and he was fighting in such a way as to be the obvious bait.

But if the bait was where the most obvious objective was, then what was the objective? Or was the Commander playing his own mind games, and expecting her to pick up on this, and instead divert the response to XCOM instead of the Chronicler, who instead had the real objective?

She set her teeth. The T'Leth angle was also one that made her wary. The Chronicler, Commander, and T'Leth together knew her; they knew how she thought, how she was likely to react, and she disliked the idea that she was being played or led along, even if everything she was considering seemed reasonable.

The only other clue had been the image of a massive Muton with XCOM, one that was easily as tall as a Sargon, and if she had to assume, was likely a clone of one, or derived from the template. She wasn't fully surprised that XCOM had grown one… but it raised a new host of questions.

The Commander was pragmatic, but she couldn't see him starting his own Muton program, or employ the species in the same way the Collective was. It led her to certain conclusions… but there was something that made her hesitate about committing to them. A lingering, underlying doubt that repeated a question over and over.

What if she was wrong?

She couldn't make a mistake right now. Not when T'Leth was involved; not when Mosrimor was paying very close attention.

She looked at Quisilia, who stood beside her, also watching. "It isn't clear. Do you see something that I don't?"

"Not fully," Quisilia mused. "But I think there is an element to this that is being overlooked. It is not a complete answer, but very little fits otherwise."

The cat in his lower arms purred, despite the abundance of visual noise. He really did like bringing it with him wherever he went. She pushed it out of her mind, not letting it distract her, and answered. "I'm listening. I feel like the Commander is counting on me to react a certain way."

"It is good to learn from defeats, so long as you do not let them become debilitating, Harbinger," Quisilia said. "I expect the degree to which XCOM is anticipating your reaction specifically is minimal. Desolan is an incident which will trigger more than just your response. I would expect the Commander would prepare more for the Battlemaster's reaction than yours."

Patricia frowned. "Fair point."

"The question of why is an interesting one," Quisilia said, still watching the screens. "If there is one thing Humans enjoy, it is a story. Your literature and media have certain repeated themes; heroism, liberation, the triumph of good over evil, the underdog defeating the arrogant giant."

His tone became pensive. "Now, there are exceptions, but despite what some Humans would claim, these are the stories that make them feel good. Humans prefer to feel good, than to think critically and deeply. With that lens, what is the narrative of Desolan? What would be an acceptable narrative to return home to; what would be the triumph to show off?"

"There isn't anything where they're attacking except Mutons," Patricia said, then paused. "Mutons…"

"I think we are on similar trains of thought right now," Quisilia said. "Injustice is something that Humans respond well to. The Mutons, from the outside, appear to be a rather barbaric way to treat a species. What could be more heroic and justified than a liberation from the horrors of the breeding facilities and training grounds?"

He had a very good point. It was not the angle she would expect it to take, but it only was part of the answer. "Propaganda alone can't be it. It wouldn't have XCOM and T'Leth behind it. They're getting something more than just propaganda."

"Correct, they are gaining legitimacy," Quisilia noted. "You saw the Muton with them. I suspect that is who ADVENT and XCOM intend to be the new leader of the Muton species. A Sargon template, I believe, one that is capable of speaking intelligently. ADVENT almost certainly wants to turn our Muton advantage against us. I am unsure of the end goal, but I know this Muton is key to their plans, and for that, they need Mutons who are alive."

Patricia rubbed her chin, considering the possibilities. "So they wouldn't be here to destroy the area - they would be here to liberate it."

"Almost certainly," Quisilia said. "Who they take will be indicative of what they plan. If I am on the right track, they will take Muton adolescents or soldiers about to complete their training. Ones who can be reconditioned to serve XCOM. I expect they will take a few females and infants for propaganda purposes."

"But they want a corps of Mutons for this leader," Patricia nodded slowly. "It still strikes me as a lot of risk, for something with minimal long-term benefit. It isn't as though the Mutons can be swayed against us, or have the capability for nation-building outside the Sargons."

"I tend to agree, which is why I don't believe this is the full answer," Quisilia's voice held just a hint of frustration. "I believe there is a very obvious element here, but one which we are both overlooking. Yet in the absence of this answer, I think this is a plausible alternative."

There was a psionic maelstrom which appeared on one of the screens. "This will need to be assessed after the battle," Quisilia said. "I'm afraid the Chronicler is not waiting for us to settle on the correct answer. He should not be allowed to run amok for too long."

He was right. They had to act, and resolve the mystery later. Patricia turned to Regisora, who had also come with Quisilia and been silently observing the feeds this entire time, likely with a greater intensity than she was. "Do you intend on intervention?"

"Yes," she answered, clearly this time not under Mosrimor's control. "For optimal engagement, I require data on him. How he fights, his strengths, vulnerabilities. I have yet to acquire this from previous engagements."

She faced Patricia directly. "This presents an opportunity to strike and terminate the Agent of T'Leth and his disciple. The Human is arrogant after his recent victories. His patron considers Mosrimor, and his Avatars, inferior. It is exploitable."

"Excellent. Then allow me to propose this," Quisilia flipped one blade idly in his hand. "Let me engage him first. I have fought him before, and we have a history. I do not believe I can kill him in these circumstances, but I will demand all of his attention and that of the psion accompanying him."

It seemed like it would be taxing for even an Ethereal, but Patricia felt that Quisilia was perhaps the one exception to it. He was far more difficult to kill than he pretended to be.

"Accepted," Regisora said after an internal calculation. "I will provide instructions on what I need, and what to elicit. Once I have learned what I need to, I will intervene with the Meat Puppets. They will lock the immediate Psionosphere, and prevent his escape. With the information collected, I will be able to defeat the Chronicler."

She turned her face back towards the feeds. "Today we will kill the Agent, and render any victory T'Leth wished to gain today meaningless. Engage at will, Quisilia."

"Certainly," Quisilia said. "Anything else?"

"Only one more matter. The First Guardian is en route to handle the Pantheon," Patricia said. "Given XCOM has sent Aegis, it is likely they will also be employing a fork of JULIAN or PATRIOT to secure the cyber domain. They will be expecting the CODEX. We might be able to take advantage of that."

"Ahh," Quisilia smiled widely. "Yes, this would be a prime opportunity for a field test of ANDI. I know the engineers have been wanting such a scenario. Give the order and allow its deployment onto Desolan networks."

"Then we have a plan," Patricia said, wanting to move this forward, as she watched the Chronicler blow through one defense outpost. "We may not be able to stop XCOM today, but we can make their victory hollow. I will send the orders. Quisilia, good luck."

"Give your luck to the Chronicler," Quisilia opened a small portal, and sent his cat through it as he withdrew several more weapons, his voice holding an edge of excitement in it. "I suspect he is going to need it more than I am."

Outskirts of Collective Base, Advanced Certification Facility Thirty - Desolan

Early October 2017 - Afternoon

"Incoming enemy contact detected. All teams, hold position."

DIONYSUS paused at the command, one knee pressed against the grainy red sand while his opposite fist rested against the ground. He glanced to his left and stared at MORPHEUS, whose body language perfectly mirrored his own even through the differing metallic lines of their armor. She was as tense as he was.

Instinctively he knew that KRATOS and HADES, the other two members of Green Team, were a short distance behind him. From the moment they had set foot on the planet, they had been on the lookout for patrols. HADES' discrete psionic monitoring had picked up the approaching patrol, and not a moment too soon, as their form crested a hill to his right just then. They scanned one area and then turned and looked squarely at his location.

Distantly, DIONYSUS could feel the instinct to reach for his rifle and snap off a few rounds but willfully kept himself from reacting. Instead, he could feel the psionic tendrils of HADES begin plucking away at the guards as they patrolled a short distance away, their body language giving every indication that they did not see the pair of Humans. One after another, memories were muted and culled. After a long few minutes, he shifted as the call came through.

"Contact neutralized. Resume previous activities."

He immediately returned to psionically scanning the facility. There were a lot of minds down there, scattered as they were. Almost two dozen buildings and associated structures, some he suspected extending well below the surface. It was a challenge, to keep all those minds tapped across such a distance was immense pressure, but it was a challenge he was meeting readily.

Hitting one or two buildings would be about all the time they got before the enemy numbers would mobilize against them, he realized. It had been for that reason that he and MORPHEUS were telepathically checking for targets of interest. Between his own inclination towards defensive telepathy, and her spending most of her focus on shielding the team from any observation, neither was probing particularly deeply.

Fortunately, most of the aliens weren't involved deep enough to make a worthwhile effort to capture, but a few Andromedons and Vitakara stood out. Not the Sectoids though. Neither of them touched the Sectoid drone minds.

HADES was seeing to it that the Sectoids had no reason to suspect there were any Human psions on the planet. Knowing what they now did about the Greater Hive Commanders, DIONYSUS did not envy the task that befell her in the slightest. It was precisely because of that daunting task that the American woman nearly missed a Vitakara patrol.

He wondered if they still believed, in their arrogance, that their holdings beyond Earth were secure, or if perhaps the Collective was ready for some kind of attack. Much as he hoped it was the former, sadly, he couldn't make that assumption; for all he knew, it was a trap of some kind. He couldn't let his guard down, none of them could. They all remembered Tampa. They all remembered Olganar-2.

They all remembered the price for letting their guards down.

The Collective base rested at the foot of a cliff cut out from the largest in a string of plateaus. There were multiple towers along the perimeter of the facility, some freely standing in the open with a very plain and weak connective wall. None of it looked particularly advanced in design, certainly not how he would have thought to construct a military base. Most of the buildings were fairly standardized and difficult to tell apart.

Fortunately, several notable buildings stood out from the rest. Each one displayed telltale signs of its purpose, whether it be through landed spaceships or vehicle bays or additional power lines. The Gateway stood out easily as using the largest building, owing to its power and security needs. He could already imagine how ARES would begin to dismantle it.

"I count two dozen Elites total guarding the far building there," MORPHEUS pointed out aloud with one armored hand. Even though the polarized visor obscured her face, he could easily imagine her flinty gray eyes scanning the buildings. "Second group in almost ten minutes. Must be something, or someone, important in there. Too many to be nothing, too few to be processing, storage, or a barracks." Unlike him, she had opted to remain standing while psionically probing the facility grounds.

He made a mental note of it and began to organize the rest of their findings to pass on to the others. Nothing overly surprising, given the intel they had received from XCOM. The former Marine allowed himself a brief stab of hope that it meant they'd have no snags in the operation. "Right. Let's get back. Red Team should be ready to launch their first strikes shortly."

With their task completed, the two Olympians returned to the cliffside edge where the rest of Green Team was assembled. Some distance below them, roughly halfway down to the facility, he could distantly see where Red Team had finished their own preparations and were all assembled at the ledge's edge.

Above their own position, he knew Blue Team would be finishing prepping the sensor lab ADVENT had sent along for the ride. Advanced as the sensors were, there was still a need for clear open skies to get the most accurate data from the orbiting fleet, so they needed it higher up to keep a clear sky. It would have made him nervous if he hadn't already started drawing on that well of psionic energy just beyond his sight.

Taking a deep breath, the former psychologist extended his senses and tapped the minds of each member of Pantheon. Each thought, each heartfelt belief, every beat of their heart. He tapped the threads in their minds he needed, leaving them their own autonomy and merely channeling information between them all.

In a moment, it didn't matter that he had not heard the exact details of the plans each team had concocted for the operation. He knew everything that had been said, and everything that hadn't been. He knew why the things were said and even what exactly was meant.

And through him, as he finished his psionic work, everyone knew it all too.

It had taken a good deal of training, repetition, and no small amount of mistakes and embarrassments to learn to almost unconsciously perform such a feat, but DIONYSUS was almost unaware of his own psionic effort now.

It was like a subtle droning in his hearing or slight sharpness to his vision; easily handled, but just faintly different enough to register. The longer he did this though, the more intense those feelings would become. They were already on the clock for the op, this was merely another reason to keep things moving forward.

KRATOS turned and gave the two of them a nod before turning her attention back down to the facility. It was telling that she did so, both as she telepathically knew of their approach and had certainly felt them. Out of all of them, the former Olympic archer had been the most apprehensive about stepping out into the void beyond Earth.

She didn't let her nerves stop her though. Like himself, she had begun to toy with certain reflexive psionic actions; for her, it was like she had tapped into her own proprioception and had psionically extended it outwards. She could feel things as they approached or fled from her, her spatial awareness was through the roof, at least compared to any other psion he knew.

The timer ticked down.




As he finished the thought, DIONYSUS watched the timer hit zero, signaling the end of their allotted preparation time. There had thus far not been any appreciable response so far, but there was a subtle shift in the atmosphere over the last few minutes. One of the guard patrols had suddenly stopped and turned to look back toward the facility. Their growing alarm was immediately noticed by HADES, as was the overall increased tension coming from the facility. A set of bay doors from the starport pulled apart, revealing a rising Fighter. They were beginning to respond to XCOM's attack.

Abruptly, a jagged line ripped through the side of the Gateway facility as the Psionosphere began to spider along the surface of it. A maelstrom erupted as the cracks became fissures, as a psionic explosion stretched outwards, and whole sections of the building collapsed inward as a result. One of the guard towers was crushed in an instant, its walls buckling and warping into a giant spire of useless metal and bodies while the lifting Fighter was abruptly flung into the side of a plateau to explode brilliantly.

Red Team was wasting no time in their choice of first-strike targets.

As the wreckage of the Collective craft tumbled downward, an alarm rang out across the facility. Immediately the patrolling guards began to converge toward the hostile activity, their weapons raised and ready. Their efforts were rewarded with a spray of hypersonic gauss fire and a flurry of shrapnel that sent the nearest responding Mutons to the dirt. If the Collective didn't know for sure that ADVENT was present before, they certainly did now.

ZEUS moved first, gliding through the air as she began to hurl volleys of psionic fire downwards towards the buildings one by one. Her form was serene and controlled even as she floated through the air. Any attempts at shooting at her invariably failed as her form jumped about in the air, repositioned through telekinetic strings pulled by APOLLO as he fired down at a pair of approaching Vitakara.

'Incoming Elites. At your ten o'clock.'

DIONYSUS was vaguely aware of the warning from one of the others when he was forced to take cover against a wall. Plasma fire began to lance toward them as the first Elites emerged from their guard stations and facilities. Their massive bulks shuddered as they roared and charged only to be intercepted by the psionic-empowered slam of a warhammer.

ARES streaked in behind his weapon and immediately lashed out in a wave of psionic destruction that washed over the Elites before they had time to prepare themselves. It instantly began to eat at their flesh even as their minds attempted to execute those preprogrammed commands to stave off pain. "Don't stop! Keep moving!" Unlike most of the team, the American Dynamo almost never communicated telepathically, relying on his own voice and radio transmissions unless absolutely required.

The Collective base was beginning to boil with activity as its occupants and defenders continued to respond to the alarm now ringing loudly across the whole stretch of the facility. As unexpected as their presence was, the first strike had earned the Pantheon an easy start. Now the real challenge began.

Psionic barriers began to ripple around the assaulting members of Pantheon while Blue Team began to slide down the side of the hill, weapons raised and picking off targets of opportunity. Each team was being guarded by their own Aegii protector, allowing them each to exert themselves to their full potential and not have to worry about defending themselves.

While Red Team and Blue Team attacked the base, DIONYSUS followed KRATOS in sprinting towards one of the buildings of the facility. The other half of Green Team made for a different target, all of them psionically hidden from the Collective defenders' attention. It wasn't too difficult to ensure the Collective paid more attention to the ones who wanted the attention in the first place.

It had been marked earlier as the site of the Surgical Wing, or at least a section of it. This was where the Elites were grown and modified by the Sectoids, at least they suspected as much, so there was sure to be important data to collect. HADES and MORPHEUS moved toward the part of the facility that handled the programming of the Elites.

An instinctively explosive jump propelled him upwards as a Muton came around a corner and charged. Such an exertion normally would have sent him soaring clean over the alien's towering form but the increased gravity of Desolan merely allowed him to barely jump over the creature's head. The thrusters in his armor immediately fired to slow his descent, allowing him to touch down no harder than if he had stepped off a ledge.

He gestured with one hand, tearing into the alien's mind with practiced ease. It was not difficult at this point to work his telepathic commands through the foreign mind. He was rewarded for his effort with the sight of the Muton choking as its lungs simply refused to work any longer in its native atmosphere and promptly collapsed to the ground.

Wasting no time to assist him, KRATOS had psionically ripped the door clean open, the alien metals jaggedly pushed back where the door had been pressed inward. She waited for him to stack up on the makeshift entry before they both stormed inside, weapons at the ready..

"Target left."

"Neutralized. Move forward."

"Two targets ahead. Coming around the corner in three, two…"

"Targets neutralized."

And so they proceeded deeper into the interior. Scientists were of no threat to them, and panicked ones even less so. A Vitakarian in a lab coat froze as she came out from a lab, dropping whatever she had been transporting in shock. A gesture from DIONYSUS and she slumped to the floor, unconscious. He knelt beside her to gain an easier telepathic connection and to check her vitals but received a heavy hand on his shoulder in response.

"We aren't stopping here. Tag her location for possible retrieval and let's continue," The Italian woman ordered as she moved forward and secured their next corner. Leaving a tag on the body, he quickly followed his squad lead further on.

One lucky scientist had the mercy of having DIONYSUS psionically rip a map of the building along with the access codes for the doors from their mind before mercifully being left to sleep forever. This allowed them easy access to the Collective version of a server room. The unlucky ones, usually Sectoids, got the misfortune of lethal, and experimental, telekinetic force.

A few more unarmed targets were serviced and DIONYSUS stood watch at the door while KRATOS began to rip as much data from the computer systems as she could. XCOM had been kind enough to share their work on Collective computers, which allowed them to develop a crude network intrusion device. Although they had not managed to secure a proper fork of JULIAN, both PATRIOT and ANUBIS had agreed the code should suffice to take the Collective data for later deciphering.

"You think they'll start to bombard the place?" DIONYSUS spoke first, distantly aware of Red Team's destructive path through the facility grounds. There was little mistaking the naked glee from the pair of Dynamos as they rampaged, though the two Telekines on Red Team were equally engaged and enjoying the exercise in mass destruction.

"It doesn't matter," KRATOS answered crisply. If she had not been wearing a helmet, he could perfectly envision her tucking a stray blonde bang behind one ear, an agitated tic of hers, as she finished at her terminal and turned to him. "If they don't, we destroy everything. If they do, they destroy everything. Either way, mission accomplished." She unplugged the data line from her suit to the computer and moved down to the next computer and plugged it in there to repeat the process.

"Yeah, well, I'd rather not have to outrun Cleanser Ship fire, if it's all the same to you." DIONYSUS quipped before being struck by an intense feeling of power and hatred. The Sectoid Hive Commander had apparently turned its attention to the facility and discovered their presence. Other aliens had minds that held certain familiarity to him; even the Mutons, much suppressed and manipulated as they were, had minds that held a certain resonance to a Human mind.

Sectoid minds, however, were far, far different. They truly had alien minds.

When a second distinctly Sectoid mind materialized, DIONYSUS had little time to ponder the significance or wonder if two Hive Commanders had joined the fray. Those deeply alien minds were soon eclipsed by another psionic presence, one that immediately demanded his full attention. Its arrival was quickly noticed by the others, leaving DIONYSUS unsurprised when his radio abruptly barked at him. "Titan contact, Titan contact. I have the psi-signature of the First Guardian in the AO. All Olympians, prepare to engage."

Near the Command Center - Desolan

Early October 2017 – Morning

Psionic fire flared as another line of Mutons was incinerated.

A portal from somewhere beyond reality opened and a flank faced the fury of a snowstorm from a dead universe.

An order turned a hundred soldiers against their comrades.

Invisible strings wrapped themselves around the tallest towers, and more ardent defenses, and were pulled apart, sending them all crashing to the ground.

They tried to fight back.

But they did not know how to fight something like him.

And the Chronicler saw to it that they never would.

If anyone was able to witness the battle that took place, they might have only just been able to make out the black-silver plate which moved with unnatural speed, encased in a blue-like aura of heatless fire. Behind him, they would have seen a slightly smaller figure holding a staff, and summoning portal after portal that brought snow to the dry plains of Desolan.

He did not know how many he had already killed.

Only that his impunity was going to end.

Cloaked in power, the very air rippling with his presence, and Excalibur in his hand, the Chronicler cut his way forward. Muton after Muton fell to him in the blink of an eye. Sectoid Vanguards screeched as the blade of purple flame buried itself in their hearts. Andromedons stumbled backwards as they were dismantled piece by piece.

With one hand, he smashed a fist through the visor of a fallen Andromedon, and pulled the still-alive Andromedon from the wreck as it screamed, and its skin corroded before his eyes as it was exposed to the poisonous oxygen.

He tossed the corpse away without a thought, as he threw himself again into the thick of the battle. Hundreds, or maybe it was thousands, of bolts, shells, and projectiles streamed towards him – or where they hoped he would be. They'd stopped using heavier munitions after he'd turned the missiles back on their defenses.

In his wake he left corpses and wrecks, oil and blood feeding the ground, and bodies and rubble in his wake. Ultimately a drop in the bucket, but no one man should have been able to wreak so much destruction.

The Warmaster projected his approval.



The song of battle sang in his ears, and anyone who could have seen under his helmet would have seen eyes aglow, and a wide smile as the elderly man seemed decades younger as the power of the Sovereign One empowered him.

The plasma, the bullets, the grenades, it was little more than insects. It was only the sheer scale of what was arrayed against him that slowed his advance – and in the end, that played into his hands. He didn't want to go too far, he didn't want to make it too difficult for them to respond.

Nearly a third of the entire Command Zone was in ruins, with wreckage as far as he could see. Behind his assault, Ir Nara sowed further chaos in the lines. It had been a very long time since he'd seen her at her full power, and when he felt even a taste of the White Frost, he was unable to resist a shiver.

It wasn't just the portals beyond the universe she was opening – her own telepathic assault was a compliment to his own. If he was the hammer, she was the second blow that smashed any others who might have resisted. Defection, insanity, simple death; her telepathic arsenal was vast and creative.

It spoke to how great his impact was that she had barely been attacked in comparison.

He felt T'Leth's attention on his mind; a mere fraction of his mind, but in this instance the Warmaster was ensuring that he would be prepared to intervene should it be required. It was unreasonable to expect his full attention when such little threat was posed.

But things in war could change very fast.

A motion with his palm facing horizontally squished a dozen Mutons into the ground, a clenched fist turned armor in on itself, a flinging gesture sent a trio of Andromedons flying into barricades or their allies at lethal speeds.

"I would have thought they would have intervened by now," Ir Nara commented in a dry voice through their comms. "They're taking their time."

"They cannot send just anyone," the Chronicler answered, the power deepening his voice even as he fought. "They will come."

Of that he was certain.

He saw it coming before he felt the new interloper. The aliens started pulling back – no, running back in what could pass for an organized retreat. Back fast enough that he knew they were clearing for who was coming next.

T'Leth's attention grew. His voice bemused.



The Chronicler heard a whistle through the crackling fires and fading sounds of battle.

The Chronicler turned to the sound, an imposing figure whose visage seemed as though it had walked through a river of blood and smoke. Yellow liquids, brown oil, and soot were smeared across the Chronicler's armor, as well as the scores from plasma.

No one sane would seek a fight.

Yet the Chronicler was not particularly surprised to see Quisilia standing a short distance from him, in a very casual stance. A deception, one that the Chronicler would not fall for.

"Interesting," Ir Nara commented. "Let's see if he holds back this time."

"You took your time!" The Chronicler called. "I expected someone else."

"Who? The Guardians? The Battlemaster? Patricia again?" Quisilia sounded unbothered by the entire situation or where they were fighting. With one hand he took out a small drone, and sent it flying into the air with almost fondness. "Now, tell me why they would waste their time on what is so obviously a distraction? It is incredibly unsubtle, even for you."

The Chronicler was tempted to pluck the drone out of the sky as it hovered over them, but he unfortunately had an idea of what it was supposed to be. The Ethereal could not resist stroking his ego, even here. Arrogance born of an ability to always be able to flee from a fight.

"You should not have come," the Chronicler said. "There will be no holding back – but this will make the 'distraction' worthwhile."

"My, my, and here I thought you would go easy on me – though that's fair," Quisilia's smile was in his voice. "I've not properly fought you either. Round three, winner take all, no more games, no more holding back. Deal?"

The Chronicler indicated the drone. "Few voluntarily humiliate themselves before a crowd."

"As if I intend to humiliate myself. The public is so often deprived of a spectacle worthy of this war," Quisilia gave a flourishing bow. "I am pleased we will be able to rectify this today." He looked up at the drone, and gave a thumbs-up. "Please be sure to like and subscribe for more!"

He could hear Ir Nara snort through the comms.

Quisilia found himself suddenly encased in a large cube of psionic barriers. It was the closest the Chronicler could manifest without a more direct focus that Quisilia would pick up on. Unfortunately, Quisilia was smart and fast enough to not be killed by a sudden psionic barrier, not unless something had gone badly for him.

It was a good opener. Especially when he locked down the Psionosphere to prevent teleportation.

Quisilia seemed almost disappointed. "This again?"

All the time he needed.

A trio of psionic barriers materialized which would have severed Quisilia into a half-dozen pieces. As it were they did manifest – the only problem was that Quisilia was still alive, and the barriers – normally a solid shape – possessed a texture closer to water.

Quisilia walked forward without a care, and tapped one finger against the barrier. "Rude. I hate it when that happens."

Then he walked through it.

In a moment the attention of T'Leth was focused on the enemy before him.

That should not have happened.



The Chronicler shifted his mindset. Now he was going to be facing Quisilia who was going to be a far more dangerous threat than he assumed. It had been perhaps too much to hope that this would end as easily as the previous times.

"Now," Quisilia spread his arms, a black blade in each hand, and his voice jubilant. "We have an audience before us, Chronicler – let's not disappoint!"

Agent and Ethereal stood opposite each other for only another second – and charged.

Approaching Zone Administrative Command, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Morning

Desolan was a world that made Iosif feel strange.

It wasn't strange in a bad way either; the entire situation was extremely odd. He couldn't deny that on Desolan, being on the world itself made him feel… good.

Iosif, along with everyone else, had prepared for the effects of increased gravity. He'd braced himself for it to be a long, difficult, and arduous fight on the world, within the domain of the enemy. Yet from the moment he'd first stepped onto the planet, it had felt like the first place in a while where everything was normalized.

Like how it had been on Earth before his modifications.

Humans had been pushed to their limits and beyond. As necessary, and indeed as good as it had been, it had resulted in them being a species that had no longer evolved, but enhanced beyond the original design. Earth was no longer their natural home, but a playground upon which these few enhanced were able to be Supermen.

Supermen who had the power to break the world as it existed with their mere existence.

Admittedly, Iosif didn't mind being Superman, nor did he think anyone else did either. Yet for those as modified as he was, there was an understanding that it came with some drawbacks. Always had to be careful, always had to check one's own strength. It was strange to interact with objects and people, knowing that the wrong amount of pressure could cause serious damage.

He was always holding back. It was easier for some than others.

Desolan, in a roundabout way, brought him back to Earth.

For the first time in a long time that he could remember, there was a weight to each step. His mace was a comforting feeling in his hand, and required some effort to wield. By being able to feel the kilograms of armor and gear on him, he somehow felt more invincible than if he was able to bear them as if they were air.

And it was a feeling he savored as they marched into the Zone.

They'd smashed through the initial defenses without much issue. The exterior wall had fallen to the combined psionics of Geist and himself, and like locusts, they poured into the gap, routing the initial hapless defenders.

The combined response by the Zone defenses had been haphazard and disorganized, even as the alarms blared. So unexpected had been their arrival that non-military personnel had been on the streets, and they saw them running away, or into buildings. None of them were threats, and Iosif had ignored them.

They each had their objectives.

Once through the walls, each of the squads had split off to execute their respective missions, while the ADVENT squads had fanned out to secure as much of the Zone as they could, along the routes to the Gateways. Iosif and Astro Squad, together with Aegis, marched towards the Zone Administrative Command, which loomed before them.

It was a dull, simple, gray building that jutted above the square buildings and sharp-angled streets like a sore thumb. Zararch Snipers, Andromedon Officers, Runianarch soldiers, Muton infantry, and even Sectoid Drones had gathered to slow their advance – all of which was for nothing. He would show that it was for nothing.

"Aegis," he ordered. "Seal the Zone."

"Affirmative." With psionic energy surrounding the Ethereal, the hands motioned and moved, and above them the yellow sun of Desolan became shrouded by a deep purple barrier which extended to the very edges of the massive Zone.

Iosif watched the reactions of the soldiers. The Andromedons were working to organize the defenses, the barrier seeming to not affect them. The Mutons seemed to not be paying attention, but the Vitakarians were looking upwards, and were they capable of paling, they no doubt would have been at the realization that there was no help coming.

Iosif gritted his teeth in a smile as he advanced step by methodical step, one wrist braced before him as the psionic shield absorbed the barrage of fire from the combined fire of two dozen Mutons that were concentrated exactly on him. His flanged mace rested comfortably in his hand, the edges already stained yellow.

They would not be stopped.

Geist walked beside him, calm and unconcerned with the amount of plasma fire around him. He had also judged very quickly that the defenses had been as expected, and speed took priority over a prolonged engagement. With a gesture from one hand, the line of Mutons collapsed, dead as the telepathic command was sent.

With one motion, Iosif manifested a trio of barriers within the two Andromedons who'd begun firing, and the pieces fell to the ground, leaking gas, oil, and blood. The chittering Sectoids tried to use their feeble psionics against them, but given what they now faced, it was almost laughable.

A few plasma bolts fired into their heads silenced them.

Plasma and Gauss fire from the rest of the XCOM Squad cut down the rest. Some were wounded and trying to frantically crawl away. The soldiers walked up to them, and ended their threat with single shots to the head, and Iosif, Geist, and Nartha moved to the entrance of the tower, which had been sealed shut.

"Well done, you took your sweet time," JULIAN chided in his earpiece. "I am certain-"

"Quiet, JULIAN," Iosif ordered, as he appraised the console before him. "Not the time for snide comments."

"I concur, your brand of humor is inappropriate for the moment," Geist said, also appraising the door. "The alarm is raised, as expected. What is interesting is…" He trailed off. Iosif could hear the frown in his voice. "Do you feel that?"

"Feel what?" Iosif asked, now also frowning.

Geist didn't answer right away, and Iosif determined he was performing a psionic probe. He looked back at Iosif. "There is a psion here. A powerful one; not a Drone."

"What?" Nartha demanded. "A Harbinger? An Ethereal?"

"Neither…" Geist said, looking up. "It's a Sectoid. But not any type that I've felt before."

"Define 'powerful,'" Iosif grunted.

"Powerful enough to prevent me from taking over his mind," Geist said. "With minimal effort at that. I expect this psion is at minimum Magus-Class or higher. An issue, and if he is active, will prevent me from making our path easier. There will be a fight ahead."

"Wonderful. I suppose it couldn't have been too easy," Iosif said, bringing up the comms. "Angel, Diamondback, THETA, be advised that we have assessed an unknown powerful psion on-site. There may be more. We're moving to neutralize."

"Do you require my intervention?" Aegis said.

"Negative," Iosif shook his head. "We can take this one."

There were acknowledgements from the other Squads and ADVENT, as the rest of Astro Squad and the ADVENT teams accompanying them began forming around the door, as they prepared to breach. "He's active, and shielding the minds of those inside," Geist said, one hand against the door. "I will do my best to penetrate and neutralize."

"Should we plug JULIAN into the port?" Rolf Sannes, their Assault, motioned at the console.

"Not needed, I have this," Nartha stepped forward towards the small keypad managing the door. "Assuming they haven't changed their emergency codes…"

The doors slid open to reveal there was a team of Runianarch, Andromedons, and Mutons waiting for them. Plasma fire screamed towards them, as Iosif erected another purple barrier, easily absorbing all of the shots. This is something he'd take care of now – and then leapt forward towards the bunched group.

There was no time to question, no time to debate. The moment demanded action, and the mace fell upon the enemy.

It was a silver blur, augmented by his own modification, and the heavier gravity of the world. The helmets the Runianarch gave their soldiers crumpled under the flanged edges as his weapon fell on them, leaving pieces of gray matter clinging to the blood it was covered in. Armor caved in, bone broke, and death came quickly.

The green-yellow masks of the Andromedon suits were more resilient, but a few blows left noticeable cracks, and a horizontal barrier manifested forward killed the Andromedon inside, while the suit was crushed into scrap by a closed fist from Geist.

He was able to kill four of the initial defending force before the rest of Astro Squad finished off the rest. Automated defenses from the ceilings popped down, and began firing. Those guns were turned to wrecks as XCOM advanced into the first floor of the tower. Iosif noticed they stepped over administrators and personnel who were hiding under tables, or pressed against corners, having been unable to hide themselves.

They stepped forward, weapons up, as the fighting seemed to come to a close. "Secure the floor," Iosif ordered the two ADVENT squads that accompanied them into the room. "Capture who you can, kill those who resist."

"Yes, sir!"

"Uh…" Nartha said slowly. "Overseer, to your right."

Iosif turned, and his blood froze in place as he saw a Vitakarian, who appeared to be an administrator or desk worker of some kind, stand. Only the problem was that half of his right arm was gone, and his body riddled with bullets. His body was stained with blood, and the normally-glowing eyes were dull.

He was dead.

What in the name of…

The good hand raised in an approximation of a surrender. The body was unnaturally still; it did not breathe. It did not shamble. It did not flinch. "XCOM. Humans."

Every gun in the area was trained on the dead Vitakarian, who did not seem to be dead.

Geist suddenly stepped forward. "Our mystery psion. Hijacking the cerebral cortex of the individual. Undamaged; theoretically possible to assume full control of motor functions, allowing to replicate speech and other bodily mechanisms. Very controlled, very advanced. Speak, psion."

"Good. You comprehend. I apologize for the usage, but circumstances demand modification," the Vitakarian said. "I have assumed control of Collective security forces for Central Production Zone 0022, and ordered them to stand down, and cooperate with invading forces. I request your presence at the Commander Center, at the top of this facility."

Iosif blinking. "You're surrendering."

"I have distributed commands. I do not expect them to be followed outside this immediate facility. I am not within the requisite chain of command," the Vitakarian said. "I will explain more in person. Understand that I and those immediately in the vicinity intend to surrender and assist in your mission, as directed by yourself."

What an incredibly unexpected turn of events, and it made him immediately suspicious. He opened a closed channel. "Can you sense intention?"

"No," Geist answered. "I would agree to his request."

"I would not," Nartha said. "Anyone who can puppet a corpse is not someone to take lightly. They would absolutely deceive, especially if they are a Sectoid."

"Do you know a single Sectoid acting like this?" Geist demanded. "We have an opportunity here, and one we should take. The alien knows it cannot kill us all, and knows we have the advantage. We move carefully, but without hesitation. We lack the time to deliberate."

"Agreed," Iosif sighed. "Fine. We'll do it – weapons up. The slightest move, and we open fire."

He addressed the Vitakarian. "Very well, we are coming up. If this is a trap, we will be expecting it."

"Of course, but it is not a trap," the Vitakarian said, before immediately collapsing to the ground, dead again.

Geist indicated his head upward. "Stairs?"

"Elevator is probably a bad idea," Iosif agreed. "Move out!"

It was a good thing that while the Administrative Tower was taller than the rest of the buildings in the Zone, it wasn't extremely tall. They made their way methodically up, and to their surprise they saw that every Muton and Vitakarian was on their knees, hands resting on their necks, and weapons on the floor.

The Andromedons as well were standing down, though these ones didn't seem to be officers or soldiers. They nonetheless complied with the orders of the Humans without complaint. There were also a number of Sectoid Drones, but they were strewn out. Iosif first wondered if they were dead.

Geist shook his head. "Unconscious."

His frown deepened. "Why?"

"My guess?" Nartha said. "They don't care what happens to them."

The ADVENT soldiers behind them forced them up, and paraded them out, making sure the weapons were also well out of reach. Geist had been observing them closely. "Psionic coercion. It is doubtful they did this on their own volition."

"Not surprising," Nartha said. "This is a coup. It shouldn't happen in the Collective."

No, it shouldn't. All of this was extremely strange.

As they ascended, they heard the sound of some fighting and gunshots in distant rooms, or lower floors. Whatever was happening, it seemed that the orders to stand down hadn't reached everyone in the tower. Iosif ignored it, and they pressed forward.

They soon reached the top floor, and before they could deliberate on if they were supposed to knock or not, the door opened of its own accord, allowing them entrance into the Command Center.

It was shaped in a hexagon layout, with different rings that were set on different layers, with the highest one overlooking the analysts and communications officers. The glass or transparent material allowed them a near-three-sixty view over the Zone, from edge to edge. All of the personnel appeared to be working as usual, as if there wasn't an attack.

But what commanded their attention stood before them.

It was a Sectoid.

But not a Sectoid any of them had ever seen before.

This one was drastically different. It reminded him of the Vanguard, with the pink skin, and more proportional figures. However this one stood over two meters high, and possessed an air of authority he'd only seen in the Hive Commanders themselves. It was as if it had a personality.

Its dress reinforced this. It was not armor it wore, nor was it naked, but a strange mixture of clothes and robes in the colors of white, silver, and purple. It was aristocratic in its design, something that he'd never seen any Sectoid indulge in. What the hell was this thing?

"Greetings, XCOM," the Sectoid said, his voice… strange. It was as if the throaty, scratching voice of the Hive Commanders had been taken and refined into something more cultured. "I am Lesser Hive Commander 029-1, Principle Ambassador of the Greater Will of Hive Commander 029. I offer my formal surrender."

Geist was appraising him silently, assessing and judging in equal measure. Iosif was also ready at a moment to erect a psionic shield to bisect the Sectoid. The rest of Astro Squad seemed equally baffled and ready to shoot. Iosif decided to ask the obvious question. "Why?"

"Because my priorities are those of Hive Commander 029, not the Ethereal Collective," 029-1 answered directly. "These priorities include the preservation of Principle Ambassadors, and execution of Knowledge Acquisition of Alien Societies and Peoples. The circumstances have changed. I have received confirmation from Hive Commander 029, and am taking these subsequent steps."

"To surrender."


"To XCOM. Who will probably kill you."

"I have assessed this possibility, and judged it to be unlikely," 029-1 said without hesitation. "XCOM has shown a willingness to speak with, and interrogate sapient individuals they do not understand. XCOM's acquisition of a Lesser Hive Commander has not been completed. From XCOM's operational history, it is in the interests of XCOM to ensure my immediate capture."

"You want us to take you back?" Nartha asked incredulously.

"As stated, my operational objectives have been modified," 029-1 said. "Hive Commander 029 has been unable to acquire the necessary insight on Humans to his satisfaction. I have proposed this as an opportunity to rectify this mistake. He has concurred, and the Greater Will is not denied."

Iosif frowned. "What makes you think XCOM will actually speak to you, and won't send you to be interrogated, or dissected?"

"Because your interest is clear, and Humans are naturally curious creatures," 029-1 said. "XCOM has shown themselves to place knowledge before all else. To break with this precedent would be out of scope of expectations."

"He's not wrong," Geist muttered. "I can't sense he's lying, but there is a clear agenda here."

"You're acting with 029's permission?" Nartha asked.

"That is correct," 029-1 affirmed.

Nartha sucked in his breath. "We have to take him with us. A Sectoid is using this to make contact with XCOM. It's not just a surrender, it's a signal that the Hive Commanders are considering breaking with the Collective."

Iosif had assessed that as well… and he didn't know how he felt about that. To possibly ally with the Andromedons or Vitakara was one thing. But the Sectoids were not like any of those species. They were an evil, amoral, and sterile society that was a nightmare by every definition.

And if they wanted to even consider allying with them…

But that wasn't his call to make.

"Very well," Iosif said. "We'll take you with us. I make no guarantees about your treatment."

"That is understood," 029-1 motioned to the Vitakara around him. "They will do whatever you command. I place myself under your custody until such a time as I am required."

"What of the Drones we found," Iosif asked. "Or the people under you?"

"They have no more purpose, use or dispose of them as you see fit," 029-1 said dismissively. "Their fates are of no further concern."

Iosif grunted, but he wasn't going to complain about that. "Geist, take him down and make sure he's watched," Iosif said. "Put him by Aegis. He won't try anything around an Ethereal."

"Understood," Geist motioned to the Lesser Hive Commander, who followed, still retaining the regality and fearlessness. "Come on."

While he was led out, Iosif appraised the situation – and gave some orders to the entranced Vitakarians to sow some chaos into the Collective ranks. The Zone defenses were turned to their advantage, orders were being distributed which would lead defenders into traps, and Collective feeds were being fed false or junk data.

Everyone was just going to love this development.

Right, they had to finish their part here. "Aegis, we're in, and we captured an interesting individual. Geist is bringing him down now. Otherwise, the Command Center is secured, and our part of Phase One is nearly complete."

"I will await him," Aegis answered. "The Collective has yet to begin a sustained response. Probing airstrikes have taken place. There is no risk to the operation as of yet. This is expected to change."

"On-schedule then," he nodded, plugging in the drive which contained JULIAN's offensive fork. "Carmelita, status on the Gateways?"

"Being secured as we speak," Carmelita's voice was tense, and likely in the middle of a firefight. "ADVENT's made good progress, and only a few more remain. They're trying to send reinforcements through, but we're cutting them down as fast as they appear."

That was also good. As strange a turn this had taken, things were still on-target. A few moments passed, and JULIAN's voice confirmed his success.

"I am within this system," JULIAN announced. "Allow me a moment to neutralize the pathetic excuse they call a security system." No more than a few seconds passed. "Done… well, now this is interesting."

"What?" Iosif asked

"It will take me a few moments to acquire the files and information we need," JULIAN said. "However… this connects to the rest of the Desolan Network, and the Collective network itself. Incredible how centralized their security is. There are a multitude of firewalls in an arrangement I have not seen before."

"You're saying you could get more?" Iosif asked.

"Almost certainly. The firewalls are – at last – the kind of sophistication I expect from their CODEX. Good – but not good against me. It will take time, but I will be able to break through. I am sure there is something worthwhile," JULIAN confirmed, clear interest in his voice. "The Desolan systems will be the easiest to subvert, there are clear vulnerabilities. I will only require time."

"If you think you can," Iosif ordered. "Do it."

"With pleasure. I am pleased this is an actual challenge."

So long as they got what they came for, Iosif was fine with letting JULIAN test himself against some actually hard Collective systems. At worst, he'd gain some knowledge to take back to the main JULIAN core. One more to check in on. "Creed, status?"

"We've secured the facility," Creed's voice was noticeably grim. "Evacuation is beginning. Spartacus will assist the first wave, and then join you. He's… not doing good. This place is horrific, we're trying to keep the females from murdering the staff right now. Keep an eye on the soldiers when you go into the Killing Fields. They're going to want to kill anyone involved in this."

"Copy," Iosif pursed his lips. "Carmelita is almost finished securing the Gateways. The Administrative Tower is also secured, with some… surprises. JULIAN is in the systems now. Operation is on-schedule, and we are proceeding with Phase Two."


"A Lesser Hive Commander is here, and has surrendered."


"Keep it to yourself for now, but yes. Geist is moving him to Aegis now," Iosif said. "It's not all clear, but at minimum Vahlen will be happy to have a live one."

"… I see. Acknowledged. We will evacuate until the last moment," Creed said slowly. "Diamondback Squad out."

Iosif continued keeping in contact, and coordinating with the numerous teams in the vicinity, next moving to ADVENT. The operation had gone well so far, but this was Desolan, the heart of the Collective.

Given the surprises they'd already had, he couldn't discount it all changing in a moment. No reason to take chances right now, and as it was abundantly clear, there was no plan that ever survived contact with the enemy.

He didn't think this one would be the exception.

Approaching the Breeding Facilities, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Morning

It was a good thing that the defenses of the Zone weren't more extensive than they'd prepared for. Kunio had expected that the fight would be difficult, but had underestimated just how much the increased gravity of Desolan made a difference. Even when he'd braced himself, it hadn't truly prepared him for everything to become so much heavier.

It was less the tangible weight, as much as everything seeming to feel slower, while everything moved at the speed of combat. Where every moment was a life and death moment, but he was stuck in slow motion. It was like being enmeshed in an intangible liquid or gel which was a sensation Kunio did not enjoy.

This was one of those times where he envied the soldiers who were augmented to the point where the gravity didn't really affect them. The soldiers with the Muscle Fiber Density and Iron Skin mods seemed to be having no trouble, and the MECs had moved as swiftly as expected.

Well, no matter how difficult it was, the mission would continue, so he and Diamondback Squad pushed forward and breached the initial defenses.

It had been a memorable moment to observe as the combined XCOM and ADVENT forces had systematically demolished the defenses that had been put in place. When regular Muton, Runianarch, Andromedon, and even Sectoid soldiers were placed against XCOM Squads, Lancers, MECs, Psions, Aegis, and Spartacus, it really wasn't a fair fight.

The smarter ones had immediately retreated when they'd seen that ensemble approaching.

The rest stood, fought, and died.

Muton soldiers had been ripped apart by hails of plasma and gauss fire. Andromedon suits had been crushed to scrap. Defensive towers have been razed to the ground with a few psionic storms from Geist, or splintered into multiple pieces by Aegis manifesting several psionic barriers. The rest were annihilated through bullet, blade, or fire.

Over the corpses of the enemy they marched, and the mission truly began.

The ADVENT special forces had fanned out like black-armored hunters as they moved through the streets of the Zone, in conjunction with Carmelita's squad to secure the Gateways. The sounds of fighting would continue, but more gradually fading away as section by section of the Zone fell to their control.

Soon they looked up to see the psionic shield projected over the entire Zone. Aegis had acted quickly to lock down the Zone, and made them free to act. For at least the foreseeable future, there was nothing that was capable of stopping them.

But the clock was now ticking. The fighting had been intense, but brief, and all of them knew the challenge wasn't going to come from the combat, but from the mission that awaited them.

Diamondback Squad led the way, flanked by three of ADVENT's special forces units behind them, to their own target. The Breeding Facilities were soon spotted; they loomed over the smaller offices and buildings around them.

It was massive.

Kunio had noted that the majority of the buildings he'd seen were large, but no bigger than the average office space. In contrast, the Breeding Facilities stretched as far back as he could see. It was one thing to see the size on the holotable, but another to see it in person, and realize how small they all were.

"Well," Pall Johansson murmured, a battle axe resting in his hand. "I was hoping the hologram was a slight exaggeration."

"Which is why it's important the staff inside be conscripted," Creed reminded them as they approached closer. Several Muton guards were raising weapons, though barely were able to before Johansson threw the axe telekinetically, burying it in the skull of one, while the other was riddled with gauss fire by several Lancers.

"Copy, copy," Johansson said, recalling the now-bloodied axe to his hand. The Templar had likely been practicing that move for a long time. "Let's hope they'll comply."

"They will," Spartacus rumbled. "These are not fanatics. They will not want to die. Not today. Not here."

Kunio hoped he was right.

This was going to be difficult to secure even part of it, let alone clearing it for an evacuation. Yet such was their mission, and they were going to execute it as best they could. Thousands of Mutons inside relied on their success.

They would not fail.

They could not.

"Check your fire," Spartacus rumbled as they took up positions near the armored entrance. "This is not a place for combat, and there will be females in the vicinity. Restrain yourselves, no matter what you… might see."

There was a different note in the towering Muton's voice. To Kunio, it almost sounded as if Spartacus was saying that to himself as well. They nonetheless gave their affirmative. Creed glanced at Dawn. "What do you sense?"

"Uhh," Dawn answered, and they waited expecting her to follow it up.

When she didn't, Creed pressed her. "What, Conley?"

"Them," she said, her voice muted, and a slight tangible distortion around her. "I can feel them. All of them." She shook her head slightly. "Sorry, there's a lot here. A lot of…"

She trailed off. Kunio realized that because of where they were, there was a very good chance she was able to sense everything here. Every damaged mind and body. He didn't know how well telepaths could filter that out.

One fist of hers clenched. "I don't sense soldiers on the other side."

Creed nodded slowly. "Anything else?"

She didn't answer right away. "Yes. There's more. I can sense Mutons in there; sadness and… they are suffering. All of them."

There was another rumble in Spartacus' throat.

"Alright. Keep focused on the mission, not what they're feeling," Creed said. "It's going to get worse."

A prophetic statement if Kunio had ever heard one.

Once lined up in the breach formation, Creed gave the signal to punch through. The doors hadn't been designed to withstand the combined strength of augmented XCOM soldiers and a Muton smashing through the doors. Weapons raised, they stormed into the auditorium, one which was sparsely populated but for small collections of uniformed personnel and receptionists, mostly Vitakara, but a couple Andromedons and Sectoids too.

Surprise and fear were written on the Vitakarian faces, as all of them froze in place from what they were doing. Some of them clutched tablets as if they were shields. Nearly all of them were Vitakarians, whose gray skin seemed a little lighter than usual. They raised their hands very quickly, clearly none of them wanted to fight.

The Andromedons had also become still, they weren't exactly afraid, but they didn't want to fight. The Sectoids chittered and immediately started to either flee, or try to fight, and were quickly put down which made all the Vitakara cower at the sounds of gunfire.

"Tell them what we need," Creed ordered Valhalin, the Dath'Haram medic who'd accompanied them as all of them moved to secure each entrance in the area. Valhalin nodded, taking off his helmet, and quickly spoke to the aliens.

As they talked, Kunio looked around the rest of the area, noting that it seemed fairly plain, but honestly not too different from a hospital. There was a professional sterility to everything, which contrasted heavily with what he knew this place was.

He didn't like that feeling.

"They'll take us to where the bulk of the females are quartered," Valhalin said to Creed after a few minutes of conversing. "They intend to cooperate, but want us to promise we won't hurt them, or anyone here."

Creed looked at the aliens, seeming to weigh something, before nodding at Valhalin. "They don't exactly have a choice, but fine," he said. "Make sure that they know that if they lead us into a trap, or attempt to deceive us, we will kill them. Clear?"

"Clear sir!" Valhalin quickly communicated the answer, which seemed to make the Vitakarians more jumpy, and Kunio was certain they were shooting worried glances at Creed.

"We'll start securing the lower floors," the ranking Lancer informed Creed. "Secure the main area, and we'll be standing by to assist."

"Good, we'll be in touch," Creed said, hefting his weapon, and motioning the Vitakarians to take the lead. "Let's go."

With the conscripted staff in the front, and XCOM rifles pointed behind them, they proceeded in the direction they were led. In their private channel, Creed instructed Dawn to make sure that they weren't deceiving them. Kunio didn't expect them to – they were too scared to do that right now.

Climbing up a flight of stairs, they were now on the second floor, and before long reached a large door, with equally large openings for multiple elevators built into the walls. Clearly a high-traffic area. Alarms were going off in the facility now, though they'd mostly tuned them out.

The rest of the Facilities, however, knew they were in danger.

One of the Vitakarians was saying something to Valhalin. "The Pacification Center," he translated in a low voice to the Squad. "That's what they call this. They say most of the females are quartered here. The only ones who aren't are in the Birthing Chambers."

This time, there was no noise that emanated from Spartacus, which was almost more concerning. Instead the Muton stood very still, and Kunio internally braced himself for what they'd see once the door opened.

One of the Vitakarians moved a keycard over a scanner and entered a code. The lights flashed blue, the doors opened, and they were greeted by the interior of the Pacification Center.

Kunio was first struck by the realization that he'd never seen a normal Muton female before. His only experience had been against Berserkers, who were already few and far between, and those were so heavily armored and pumped full of combat drugs that they were hardly a good representation.

But Muton females were big. Not just big compared to Humans - they easily outmassed every Muton soldier he'd seen outside of Sargons and Elites. They were almost Spartacus' size, rather than the two-and-a-half meters he was used to. Their anatomy was also much different in unusual ways; the gender dimorphism more pronounced than any species he could remember.

In addition to their greater muscle mass, their facial structure was almost completely different, with their jaws jutting out, and their mouth structure reminding him more of an eel or worm than the hinge jaws of most species. Their eyes were deeply set into a skull that seemed almost designed to protect the vulnerable organ, which made it almost impossible to see the orange iris that glinted from under the keratin.

To his surprise, their skin tones were also varied. Unlike the universal ruddy brown of the males, females had skin tones from whites to reds. Some had the same tones as the males, but more were white, and a majority were red.

And there were hundreds upon hundreds of them in this space. The ceiling of the Pacification Chamber was high, and the room was composed of blocks of semi-transparent cubes, each one housing a Muton. It was a small block which only had what he presumed was a toilet, and what he could generously describe as a cot.

In reality, it seemed like a device intended to restrain unruly patients. There was only one potentially comfortable way to rest on it, and there were arm guards where restraints were installed, as well as along the sides of the bed. Beside each restraining bed was a machine with tubes and wires connected to it – all of them attached to a Muton if she was resting.

The blocks extended as far as he could see.

This was like a prison block.

No, not like a prison.

A pen for animals.

Horror, revulsion, and anger were all emotions that manifested in him at the same time. The normalcy of it, the sluggish movements of the Mutons, the perhaps unwitting degradation by making complete privacy impossible. To treat any sapient species like this was a new kind of abhorrence that Kunio found himself somehow surprised at.

It was barbaric.

There were a few females who were walking, and being escorted by a handler in medical attire – but their movements were slow, lethargic, and they were clearly drugged. Some of them were also wider around the stomach, which Kunio assumed was their expression of pregnancy. Instead of a bump on their belly, they got wider.

The moment the doors opened, and they revealed themselves, everyone froze in place.

Doctors and staff paled. The lightly-armored soldiers and Andromedons armed with pacification weapons seemed unwilling to attack, and there was an undercurrent of sudden fear that even Kunio could sense. Their eyes were fixated first on the weapons XCOM held – and at the towering Muton accompanying them.

"All weapons on the ground now!" Creed ordered, motioning towards the guards. "Hands in the air, and do not move." He glanced at Valhalin. "Tell them if they refuse to comply, we will kill them."

Before anyone could make another move, Spartacus released a thundering roar that Kunio could hear the rage in. No one was fast enough to stop one hand from lashing out and grasping one of the nearby medical aides that had been near the door.

The grip lifted him into the air, as Spartacus seemed ready to snap their neck right there - if not crush them outright. The aide grasped at the Muton's hand, but it was futile, and could only faintly gasp.

The guards instinctively raised their weapons, and Johansson gestured, and those were yanked out of their hands, while his axe rose upwards in a clear warning. Pandemonium was close to breaking out, as some of the staff were starting to shake and cry, while guards and others were screaming in their language.

"Spartacus! Stand down!" Creed ordered, turning back to him, and Valhalin attempted to defuse the situation. "We need them right now."

The towering Muton exhaled heavily and dropped the aide without a word, as calm was restored the longer Valhalin talked.

"Alright, we need to start working," Creed said as the guards threw their weapons down. "This process is not going to be fast. What do we need to do?"

Valhalin quickly spoke to some of the staff. "We need to get them off the machines," he said, as the staff started to move and unhook the Mutons from the machines. "They're pumped with sedatives most of the day. Muton resistance is strong enough that the drugs will wear off shortly."

"What do you require of me?" Spartacus asked, his voice tight.

"Be with them as they sober themselves," Valhalin said. "Ascertain their mental capability, and if they are capable, let them manage their release. If there are ones who are pregnant or older, we should know who to help and prioritize."

"I understand," Spartacus said. "And… will they help?"

"They will remove them from the machines," Valhalin said. "Creed, Kunio, Dawn, let's keep moving forward. Spread the word faster. They'll give orders wherever we encounter, but it'll go quicker, and be more convincing if it comes from us."

"Understood," Creed said. "Then we don't have time to waste."

Kunio looked at Dawn, who had been not talkative at all. "Are you ok?" He asked as they got ready to push further.

She shook her head. "Not really, but let's go."

"Alright," Kunio said, steeling himself for what was to come, and followed Creed as they marched further down the rows of the Pacification Chamber.

The Expanse - Desolan

Early October 2017 – Morning

Quisilia was not like Patricia.

Not at all.

It hadn't been the first time either had faced each other, or even the second. This felt like the first time each of them were fighting for real. Where each of them were trying to kill the other, with no holds barred. If the Chronicler was a wrecking ball of destruction, Quisilia was a heavy wind that was impossible to pin down.

T'Leth was on the edges of his consciousness, watching; studying.

Making observations and notations at the enemy faced.

Transforming information into action.

The longer they fought, the better he became.

Yet Quisilia was always one single step out of reach.

Slippery was not a word the Chronicler was used to ascribing to his opponents, but the revelation that Quisilia was an expert in the employment of Null Psionics had rendered something that he had relied upon as a core tool in his arsenal almost useless.

Psionic barriers once used offensively, turned to static liquid.

Psionic strings to bind, ensnare, and crush melted away like water; or severed from the puppetmaster's fingertips.

Each instance employed so locally and masterfully he had successfully baited the Chronicler into employing them when he thought he could get away with it, only for Quisilia to have struck and the blades almost find a gap in the armor.

One shoulder bled under the armor. It was not a grievous injury. It was truly not one worth noting at all.

Yet Quisilia had managed to hit him once.

And he had the ability to do it again.

All while Quisilia taunted and laughed at him.


"Did you think I have never faced anything like you?" He yelled as he parried a strike from Excalibur, and the three of them went through several different portal strikes, all of them missing each other. "Did you think you were special?"

Excalibur swung with lightning speed towards Quisilia's head. The Ethereal vanished, and appeared a half-meter away, just out of reach. A miss, followed up by the burst of psionic energy from the hand that slammed into his armor.

No damage, but it got into his head.

Just like Quisilia intended.



The Chronicler felt a new, growing respect for Quisilia from T'Leth. Which, while notable, was not quite what he wanted to be feeling from the Warmaster right now. However, he knew it was a positive development. More of T'Leth's attention was dedicated to this enemy.

His weakness would soon be exposed.

They'd fought back and forth across Desolan, to parts of the planet that were far from their original position. He didn't know if Quisilia had intentionally lured him away, but it was inconsequential right now. Their clashes had decimated what little of the immediate landscape was there.

His mind was honed and focused.

He could afford some mistakes, but he knew he could not treat this callously.

Ir Nara had become effectively a bystander in the battle, as both of them had used teleportation so extensively that it was difficult if not impossible for her to keep up, as at any moment they could switch positions, or appear somewhere completely different. She'd kept some mental pressure on Quisilia – but he was strong.

She could not break through.

And she did not want to get too close, lest one of Quisilia's daggers end up in her throat.

Excalibur slammed down, which Quisilia caught with a cross of two daggers. Instead of deflecting, he held the position. The Chronicler pressed down, channeling power through the blade. "Your strength is great. You've hidden it well."

"Ah, that's what you think," Quisilia slipped away, appearing another short distance away, as they both paused in a short lull. "It's always some acknowledgement of strength. Everyone has trouble accepting that perhaps they have simply become worse, but no, that can't be true for you. Not the Seraphim of Regicide."

The words were said with a clear mockery.

"Your words mean nothing."

"Yet you comment nonetheless," Quisilia countered. "And you… no, you don't know just what I can do now, can you? Perhaps I'm holding back still, perhaps I'm at my peak. Perhaps all of this is a grand illusion?"

The Chronicler could so easily imagine the smile under the mask; he could hear it clearly in the Ethereal's voice. "You just don't know, and that is what I find so amusing about all of this."

The Chronicler charged forward, and the battle returned to its full intensity.

Psionic storms of blue and purple, sword was deflected by dagger. Illusions were dispelled, telekinetics were employed. Both men teleported across the battlefield, their steps across great distances, and as natural as charges. It was impossible for any normal warrior watching to follow their duel.

The Chronicler hadn't expected that any but another Sovereign power could keep up with him, but somehow, Quisilia was doing it.

But the more they fought, the more he started to realize something important.

Quisilia couldn't kill him.

He was attacking him in almost every way imaginable. Striking from every angle he could, with a variety of psionic and physical attacks. Teleportation was as frequent as a blast of corrosive energy. Yet no matter what he did, he just didn't have the ability to strike a deep, mortal blow – while at the same time Quisilia was too fast for him to grasp.

But something about all of it was wrong.

The longer they fought, the more the feeling that he was playing into exactly what Quisilia wanted grew.

Which was… what?


T'Leth's insight didn't help him.

It didn't explain why?

In the middle of an empty desolate plane, there was another lull. The Chronicler raised his weapon, the duel having long-since removed the blood and gore it had been stained with. "Do you merely intend to occupy my attention? You cannot kill me."

A few mocking claps answered him. "I believe that was your job, my friendly Agent. Do not worry - You acted just as I intended you to, and never once considered otherwise."

The feeling intensified.


"Now," Quisilia gave a bow. "I believe my time is up."



"You flee?" The Chronicler mocked. "As you always have?"

"There is no shame in living, my friend," Quisilia seemed entirely pleased. "I know I cannot kill you."

Portals manifested around them in a perfect circle. Quisilia stepped to the side of one, as the imposing figure of Regisora emerged. "But she can."

It only took him a moment to understand.

And he felt his own begrudging respect for what Quisilia had managed to do.

Quisilia vanished just as quickly as he'd appeared, and the Chronicler faced the Avatar of Mosrimor. A black mass of writhing metal that only resembled an Ethereal; a Warform that was only invoked in the most rare and necessary of circumstances. Her blackened skin flowed like water; symbols materialized and vanished upon her armor.

One hand raised with mechanical speed and precision.

Seconds later, Meat Puppets stepped out around him from the portals; perfect clones of each other, with no will or expression but for that of the Sovereign Avatar opposite him. Three, four, six, a dozen appeared, and just as quickly he felt something shift in the Psionosphere.

It was like someone locking a door.

A dark mass began pooling at the feet of Regisora, and the forms of herself and the Meat Puppets became shrouded, as if encased in a thick, consuming smoke. A buzz became audible, as the handiwork of her Sovereign patron fully manifested itself. He summoned blue fire to burn this consuming swarm – though knowing he could not let it fade even for a moment.

The Psionosphere was locked down.

Regisora spoke, the mix of male and female vocals.

Regisora spoke, and so did Mosrimor.


Regisora's voice boomed across the expanse, psionic power began to wreath around her limbs as one step precluded another. Each step with the precision of a machine, and the surety of one whose fate had been ordained by something higher. Limbs and fingers seemed to expand and retract; her form as malleable as the machines which bent to her will.


Regisora lifted one hand, and the Meat Puppets echoed her movement. Power around them grew, like nothing that he'd felt for a very long time.



Collective base, Advanced Certification Facility Thirty - Desolan

Mid-October 2017 - Afternoon

Plasma fire volleyed and gauss rounds cracked in response. ARES ducked under a cleaving blow from a Muton Elite before responding with a terrible slam from his warhammer that nearly obliterated the programmed creature from the waist up. There was no time to enjoy the victory as a pair of shots slammed into his back and sent him stumbling. Only the psionic barrier projected by NIKE had kept the plasma from eating away at his armor.

The Collective had fully responded to the attack from ADVENT, and it was clear that they were doing so with more force than the brief had projected. Although the UFOs had been kept from the fight, and the main Gateway facility had been obliterated, it was clear that there were still functional Gateways as more Mutons and Elites poured out of the facility. The automated defenses had likewise been brought online and were an active threat.

Some came from those buildings still standing, or took up residence within them for cover, while still more flooded upwards from maintenance tunnels and similar. Other forces were brought to bear to augment their forces; Vitakarian and Cobrarian snipers began hammering psionic barriers while Floaters and Drones peppered the assaulting forces. None of them individually was much of a threat, least of all to the heavily augmented and armed Pantheon, but their sheer numbers were rapidly becoming a point of concern.

That was especially true for the new Sectoids that had arrived with the Second Guardian. Superficially, they resembled the upgraded Vanguards over Olganar-2; however, it was very apparent that there was something altogether new at play with them. They employed a similar array of psi-tech and psionic abilities as older Vanguards, but their tactics were more inventive, more dangerous. Beyond the superficial differences, however, it was the mind that was the most startling change.

Possessing a malevolence and a streak of independence normally reserved for a Greater Hive Commander, this new breed was proving that it would be a grave, if not fatal mistake to underestimate the Sectoids in combat.

One chittered and lashed out with a crack of psionic energy that forced NIKE to extend his hands outward and catch the offensive burst with a full-power barrier, flecks of magenta and violet wisps washing over the battered landscape before it turned its attention to the next target.

POSEIDON bellowed as he came charging forward in an attack. Both of his Pulse Rifles hovered in the air above his head, telekinetically held aloft and firing precision shots at the Sectoid while he hurled a wave of corrosive psionic energy forward. A gauntlet was raised and it deflected the shots via a projected Aegii field before it broke apart the psionic wave.

The second of the Sectoids was busy running through the facility grounds, exchanging plasma volleys for cracking gauss rounds from both HERA and DIONYSUS. If the first was indulging in an excessive exchange of psionic might, this one was probing deeply on the capabilities of the Olympians. It forced HERA to throw herself through one portal to avoid a gout of psionic flame even as it telepathically dueled DIONYSUS without pause.

And yet, for all the frustrations they had managed to elicit…

The First Guardian had quickly established himself as the far greater threat to the continued operation. With his massive size and the reach granted by his Guardian sabers, it was difficult to approach him. With his incredible telekinetic skill and speed, it was next to impossible to pin him down or hold him in place.

Such was the threat of the trio of Collective psions that virtually all of the Olympians had turned to face them. The pair of Dynamo psions were left to continue the mission, razing the facility to the ground as quickly as possible while under continued fire from the assembled Collective defense force, by themselves.

Unlike the two Sectoids, the presence of an Ethereal demanded the full attention of half of all the Olympians on the field. Yet even with six of the very best psions ADVENT had to offer, it had become almost immediately apparent that the First Guardian was a threat far beyond even the Second Guardian.

KRATOS and ASCLEPIUS flanked the Ethereal on either side, each attempting to unbalance and wear him down in their own ways. The Italian woman drew deeply on her Volant expertise, probing at the First Guardian with pinpoint lances of telekinetic force and pulse laser fire, while Dr. Vakkert worked to extend Aegii barriers to catch him off-balance or catch him in the chest with a crack of gauss fire.

Neither found considerable success as the First Guardian continued to weave his way across the battlefield. His lower hands, largely free of anything aside from a momentary flurry with one of his sabers, constantly gestured and deflected their attacks. His large size gave him considerable reach, his Guardian sabers extending that reach even further, and he used that to great effect in keeping POSEIDON and THANATOS at bay.

The Czech Aegii had precious few opportunities to hammer at the Ethereal's joints with his mace as he was continuously pressed to defend himself and the others from the First Guardian's strikes lest one of them sustain a grievous wound. Thus it fell to POSEIDON to attempt and engage the First Guardian in direct melee, a task he was valiantly pursuing even as the evidence continued to mount that he would need help.

As time dragged on, each side continued to probe and learn the full capabilities of the others. HADES and MORPHEUS each stayed off the battlefield so as to focus fully on their telepathic assault on the First Guardian. It was hard to say for certain how much of an effect they were having against the Ethereal; it seemed almost universal by now that the alien's natural affinity for psionics gave them considerable resistance to telepathy. What few tricks they had found to give any effect against the Second Guardian did nothing against her more martial companion.

'This isn't working,' projected HADES as she shifted from her kneeling position on the ground. 'Nothing we're doing is having any effect.'

'We're keeping him distracted,' MORPHEUS responded, a determined undercurrent rippling through her psionic projection. Briefly, she turned and gave the other woman a visored stare, her shoulders doing the work in lieu kf her eyes. 'Look past his defenses and his presence; he's not beating us. He's only just defending himself.'

"If I can borrow one of you for a minute, these Sectoids are up to something," DIONYSUS called over the radio, betraying how pressed he was feeling to have reverted to using the radio rather than his usual psionic communication. "They're fighting back, but every time I think I have one of them pinned down there's some kind of psionic upwelling, their mind gets fuzzy, and then suddenly it's like there's two minds in one body."

Looking at each other, an unspoken conversation transpired and HADES shifted her attention to DIONYSUS and uncovering the mysteries of his problematic Sectoids.

Back on the decimated facility grounds, the First Guardian continued his domination of the fight. His Guardian sabers were unlike any other weapon utilized by the ground forces of the Collective. Even the MELD-hardened steel of their weapons was beginning to be worn down by repeated strikes, nanites were consumed at a frightening rate just to keep the weapons from being ruined by contact with the exotic weaponry. Worse still, the First Guardian showed little signs of being worn down from the extended battle.

The same fortitude could not be said of the facility grounds or the Collective defenders as a whole. Plasma fire and numbers mattered little in the face of overwhelming psionic might. Mutons and Vitakaran were slain by the dozen, and even the more powerful defenders such as the Elite and Cyberdisk were finding virtually no success. Aegii barriers, telekinetic repositioning, and even old-fashioned genemods were providing the Olympians the agility they needed to hold onto the advantage.

ARES joined the fray, finally providing the beleaguered POSEIDON with a friendly presence in the struggle against the First Guardian. With so much of the facility destroyed, ZEUS had taken on the lion's share of the remaining demolition duties. Now it was the Pantheon's turn to push the First Guardian on the defensive. They still had yet to land a serious blow on the Ethereal, but he was beginning to take more glancing hits as the battle continued.

And so the seven-on-one duel continued to make slow arcs across the facility grounds. Yet it was the fight with the Sectoids that continued to bewilder the ADVENT elite. The two of the Sectoids had begun to fight more closely together, resulting in their respective pairs coming together as well, and still, they continued to make probing attacks. There was just enough force and lethality behind their blows that spoke to potential lethal damage, but it was clear that they were calculated moves rather than heartfelt ones.

"Circle around from their right, APOLLO. When I give the signal, you attack. Use the fallen Scout ship for cover… and ammunition." NIKE had taken command of the fighting with the Sectoids and was beginning to maneuver the other Olympians in an attempt to catch one of them off guard. "DIONYSUS, switch to your sword and get ready to charge. HERA will open a portal above it when it moves, so prime your thrusters for the drop."

Two affirmative pings of light registered on his HUD before they began to prepare. Once they were in position, NIKE forcibly separated the pair of Sectoids with a massive barrier wedged between them and activated his signal com.

The air became almost physically tangible as APOLLO's massive telekinetic manipulation began. One of the nearby fallen Scout ships groaned as it was lifted, the dense gravity of the planet straining the already compromised structure. Smaller fragments were first utilized as an opening barrage before the entire craft was hurled forward.

Stuck between a psionic wall and an oncoming UFO, the Sectoid did not act as planned; instead it stood its ground and raised a hand. Yet, as the Collective craft-turned-missile smashed into the ground and the Olympians let out a shout of triumph, a great pillar of light split through the metal shell and a psionic shockwave expanded outward.

As the smoke cleared, the Sectoid emerged from the wreckage. Physically, nothing about it seemed different except for the presence of an Aegic barrier wrapped around it. Psionically, however, the thing was wreathed in psionic power well beyond that of a normal Sectoid or Vanguard, radiating menace and power almost akin to an Ethereal. Upon closer inspection, its eyes were radiating a brilliant violet light as it raised one hand and attacked with another psionic ray of destruction, sending the stunned Pantheon members into disarray.

"Your approach is a curious one," the First Guardian said with an audible note of disappointment as he deflected a pulse laser shot. "Your strategy is assumptive and amateurish. To attempt to defeat an Ethereal in a contest of attrition is…" he paused. "Bold. It may have been effective, were you faced with someone more undisciplined. Unfortunately," He stepped backward, avoiding the swing of ARES' hammer with a bare finger's width of clearance. "You have miscalculated."

The tempo of the fight abruptly shifted. It was an almost imperceptible shift in the First Guardian, but the results were clear as day. Whereas he once was kept largely on the defensive, he began to make stabs and swings that began to divide the Olympians. His footing was more grounded, all the better to propel him forward or pivot away from strikes. Where once they could land blows they were now only striking at air.

"You assume I am here to save this facility. To protect it. That I am here to deny you your grand triumph." They could hear the cruel sneer in his First Guardian's voice as he extended one of his lower arms toward one of the few undamaged buildings and clenched his hand into a fist. The building seemed to shudder in shock and terror before imploding in a brilliant flash of psionic light.

"I was not sent here to protect this facility."

Abruptly the First Guardian charged, telekinetically driving himself to speeds that nearly left him untraceable. There was a sound that followed, a sharp thump as the air finally caught up with the Ethereal. In the space of a heartbeat, he lashed out; first with a kick, one so powerful that it sent KRATOS rocketing backward into a wall that crumpled under her impact, and then with two telekinetic punches that caused ASCLEPIUS and THANATOS to be hurled backward, skidding along ground.

The roar that ripped itself from ARES' chest surprised even himself as he attempted to retaliate. His spear flashed through the air but the First Guardian was already gone. No sooner had that realization crossed his mind than pain shattered his vision. Warning alarms began to blare within his helmet informing him of a critical armor breach, even as he had to barely look down to discover the source of his agony.

A hissing bar of fiery orange has blossomed from his chest.

As his vision began to waver, the last thing ARES saw was the angry glow of the Guardian Saber withdrawn as the Ethereal ripped his saber from the Olympian's back. Even as darkness closed in and his body began to shut down, he found he could still perfectly hear the First Guardian's venomous voice.

"I am here to kill you."

The Killing Fields, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Morning

The Killing Fields was a name which dredged up many unpleasant images.

It was a translation of a name that was so literal that it had made Iosif wonder if there was some more nuance to it; a different meaning that they just didn't have words for. Nartha had simply shaken his head and told him that the translation was as accurate as it could be.

The Killing Fields.

A place of death and evil; a slaughterhouse of the condemned or those who were deemed too weak by those who ruled it.

Astro Squad stood out over a large expanse of what initially appeared to be what constituted Desolan wilderness, which was more varied than he would have expected. There was the dry brown soil, a few brown-yellow plants that grew, but what stood out to him was the landscape itself. The cliffs, the peaks, valleys, and from atop they could see how it was overlaid.

It functioned like a crude maze, combined with an obstacle course that was intended to ensure only the strongest survived. Guard posts were placed throughout the Killing Fields, which overlooked everything, allowing whoever resided in them to easily see everything that took place.

He knew that snipers were in these nests, and today their guns would be trained on them - but normally they would be trained on the Mutons forced to run them. It wasn't single runs either; he remembered reading intel that indicated that the Mutons were made to run them again and again to the point of exhaustion.

There were metrics to collect, thresholds to meet. Each Mutons was expected to perform at a baseline level, and those who did not do so were disposed of. The culling happened daily, without regard or mercy for the Mutons.

Because after all, there were always more of them.

Spartacus stood a short distance from them, overlooking it silently. There was a seething, burning rage within the towering Muton which had awakened since he'd exited the Breeding Facilities. His words had been few, but he had not needed to say anything. His eyes were now trained on the corpses before them.

The Killing Fields did not receive their name without reason.

Bodies of Mutons laid along the paths, each of them wearing training gear. Equipment that wasn't as heavy as the armor they later wore, but was extensive and equivalent to a regular soldier kit – even more so, since these kits included climbing gear. None of that remained on the corpses – anything valuable the Collective trainers had stripped back out.

What hit Iosif the most was their size.

They were so much smaller than what he was used to.

They weren't adults.

Most of them were adolescents; smaller bodies of boys which were almost the size of a full-grown Human, but for a Muton was not even close to their final size. What was worse was that none of them were aged corpses either.

They'd probably been killed that day.

The Production Zone was a machine; one that was cold, brutal, and efficient. The corpses that resulted from the runs were likely cleared out at a set time each day, not a moment before or after.

"They run the Fields on shifts," Nartha said in a quiet voice as he stood beside Iosif. "They don't stop training when the sun sets. They'll take batches who have just completed their day, let them sleep a few hours, and wake them to run another lap." He paused briefly. "Battlefield conditional training. It supposedly only happens with the older batches which have endurance, but…"

He trailed off. No one needed to hear any justifications.

Spartacus knelt besides one of the bodies, and closed the gaping mouth of one of them, and the eyes. There was something he rumbled in their language. A Muton prayer? Promise? He didn't know, but didn't interrupt.

"Are there any still in the maze, Nartha?" Spartacus asked, as he stood again.

"At least a few," he answered slowly. "Maybe hiding. Probably ready to fight."

"They have snipers," Nira Schwab said, peering through her own sniper rifle. "Trying to hide, but they're there. I expect they're everywhere, deeper in the Fields."

"And at the end are the Battle Schools," Iosif said. "Or one path to reach them."

Once Spartacus had arrived at the tower, and he'd ensured the evacuation could still proceed, he'd recalled Astro Squad to clear the Killing Fields, and begin the evacuation of the Battle Schools. The Lesser Hive Commander was safely under Aegis' watch, and Iosif put the Sectoid out of his mind.

This was more important.

"Let us proceed, Overseer," Spartacus stood. "And if we encounter any Mutons, do not kill them. I will speak to them first."

"Understood," Iosif said. "Copy, everyone?"

"Copy, Overseer!"

"Let's go."

They entered the Killing Fields.

With each path they walked down, there were more bodies. Some of them were near cliff edges, slumped onto them, with a bullet hole in the back of the head. Ones who'd probably tried to climb, and kept failing.

They descended further.

They passed more bodies.

There was no order or reason to them. So many seemed to have simply been keeling over from exhaustion and their bodies giving out. Many were found in shade, or under ledges or plateaus. Adolescents who'd let themselves die in perhaps the only place of comfort they could think of.

And he knew that the Mutons that ran after ran past the bodies. How desensitized to it were they?

Or did they wonder if it was a mercy?

"Overseer," Zexian Gu said as they walked. "A suggestion?"

"Of course."

"The sniper nests," he said, hefting his rocket launcher. "Let me take care of them."

Iosif saw that one of them was nearby, and there was movement near it. He nodded to Zexian. "Do it."

As Zexian made it his mission to deal with the sniper nests, the rest of Astro Squad descended into the more maze-like part of the Killing Fields. It was here where they encountered their first inkling of resistance – though these were not a Muton band on their march, but a small group of Runianarch soldiers with an Andromedon who were trying to take advantage of the path's natural defenses. Plasma bolts fired harmlessly around them, protected by Iosif's shield, and their own cover.

A rocket streaked overhead, colliding into the nearest sniper nest with a brilliant explosion. The rest of the squad quickly made short work of the defenders, before proceeding.

As they continued, Geist suddenly came to a halt, and lifted a fist. There was a faint sound in the air, which was only barely about to be made out from the passive bombardment and fighting in the distance. But the more he listened, the more he was certain.

It was some kind of rumbling, rhythmic sound. He looked at Geist questioningly. "Do you sense anything?"

Geist hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, nearby. I cannot understand their thinking. Likely Muton."

"Let us proceed," Spartacus rumbled. "These mazes have false ends to deceive the tired mind. The sound is also…"

He trailed off, and they began walking towards the noise. The closer they got, the more noticeable it was, and slowly Iosif realized what it was. It was a Muton, but they were not making idle noises, or speaking.

It was something deliberate, methodical, and melodic.

"Is it singing?" Zexian wondered.

Their gait slow, more deliberate, they proceeded around a few corners in one of the forks, and turned to find a small group of young Mutons in a very strange state within the small cove. They were in training gear, and some were even holding weapons. These ones were around his size, but he could see in their faces and eyes that they were young.

And all of them were sleeping.

Not just sleeping, they were almost piled on top of each other. A couple dozen young Mutons all sleeping huddled together in what had to be extremely uncomfortable positions, yet they were completely at peace. Their chests rose and fell, they flinched and stretched as they slept, they seemed to like snuggling close to each other.

Iosif saw that his initial notice hadn't been right - almost all of them were sleeping. There was one who wasn't.

One of the young Mutons who was near the top of the pile, who seemed to have the role of guard… at least that was what he assumed. But it was clearly him doing the song, the low rumble continued, even as the Muton's eyes fixed on theirs.

"It's not a song," Geist murmured in a strange tone. "It's a lullaby."

Iosif looked closer at the Mutons, and noticed things he hadn't before about them. There was a tenseness to their sleep, as if they were expecting something to threaten them. They slept with their backs to something solid. There were markings on their faces that differentiated each one; crude, but he could make out individuality.

The Muton who was awake seemed to be more concerned about making sure the rest of his brothers remained uninterrupted. One of them shifted in place, rumbling, before returning to something resembling rest.

"Man," Zexian exhaled. "They're really just kids, aren't they."

"Yeah," Iosif muttered, a strange mixture of feelings inside him. Seeing Mutons, perhaps the enemy they had fought the most, be seen like this in such a vulnerable and revealing position was…

It drove home that this is where each one had come from. And many more who hadn't made it that far.

"Do we… wake them up?" Nira asked.

"I didn't know they slept like that," Rolf muttered. "Or that they sang themselves to sleep."

"Saves space, and they don't mind it," Nartha said. "I'm surprised you haven't seen them before. Though I doubt there'd be a reason you'd see a sleeping pile of Mutons."

Spartacus stepped forward, taking off his helmet, and he rumbled something of his own. To Iosif it sounded like him humming along. The Muton trailed off, and a more normal-sounding conversation of grunts and rumbles took place. There was a sharp grunt, and the Muton adolescent woke up the rest of the group.

One by one, the Mutons awoke, and briefly seemed alarmed at the strange aliens in front of them. A few commands from their leader, and they relaxed as they stood, their weapons held and at attention. Upon seeing Spartacus, they seemed slightly confused, and what followed was an exchange of grunts, rumbles, and the Muton language none of them knew.

Spartacus finally turned to them. "They will follow us, if we allow them to rest soon," Spartacus said. "They say there is another group close to the start who did not surpass them. Their Taskmaster ordered them to move to this position."

"And left them?" Nartha murmured. "Strange."

"Not the first time I've said that about this," Iosif said. "Tell them they can sleep as long as they want once we're away from here."

With their now-growing entourage, they continued moving towards the exit – or entrance – of the maze. They did not stop passing bodies, and Iosif saw how the Muton's seemed to make a deliberate effort to not notice the bodies. They passed by them, as if pretending they didn't exist.

But they knew they were there. They hadn't had that killed from them yet.

It somehow made it all worse.

As they walked, the Mutons suddenly broke into what sounded like a chant or a warning. All of the soldiers braced themselves, expecting an attack from somewhere - but calmed once they saw that the leading Muton seemed to be saying something, and the Muton pack would respond as one.

In the middle of it, they kept walking, the strange exchange continuing back and forth, and soon Spartacus was also joining in on it. It took Iosif a few minutes to figure out what it was, and when he made the connection, it was such an obvious one.

A marching song.

Even Mutons seemed to have those. He couldn't understand any of it, but he could tell there was a repetition and rhythm to it that could be discerned. The Mutons seemed excited that Spartacus was doing it as well, and Iosif didn't intend to interrupt it.

Occasionally the ground would shake as another sniper nest was taken out by a rocket, and there were a few more skirmishes from scattered defenders. Occasionally, Iosif glanced to the sky and saw that there were Collective ships firing into the barrier. The orbital bombardment had begun.

He put a finger to his ear. "JULIAN, status?"

"I am continuing my breach. I have no cycles for conversation."

Well, that was that. Iosif would check in later, but their pace increased, as their time was growing shorter.

They exited from the valley they'd been in, and found themselves in a relatively open area. There were some natural elements to it; rocks and strange lichen encrusted trees that were spread out, and behind them the Battle Schools loomed. Before them, however, was a large cohort of adolescent Mutons who'd taken positions.

Iosif saw the Taskmaster in the back; a Vitakarian in a military uniform, flanking him were a couple other Vitakarians who were definitely not as senior.

Spartacus immediately roared something; the adolescent Mutons facing them instinctively lowered their weapons, seeming to be confused by what was happening. The Taskmaster yelled something Iosif couldn't make out, brandishing the weapon, and then they yelled something he could hear. "Open fire!"

The Mutons did not open fire. Spartacus took another step forward, shouting something else in the language. The other soldiers seemed to hesitate, which the Taskmaster responded to by aiming his gun towards the nearest Muton and fired, killing the Muton instantly. "Open fire!"

There was nothing coherent in Spartacus' roar but a cold fury. Before anyone could intervene, he had taken off towards the Taskmaster who realized what was happening – and that his Mutons were still not firing. He tried getting off a few desperate shots, but he was hit by the full force of Spartacus' fist, throwing him back.

An armored boot stamped down, smashing the head into paste.

Iosif realized that both of the other soldiers were dead. They'd collapsed to the ground in an instant. He glanced at Geist, saw the faint distortion of psionic power dissipate and didn't need to guess.

He couldn't find it in his heart to condemn him.

The other Mutons who'd been with them rushed up to their comrades. There was a lot of grunting and noises that Iosif didn't understand, but they seemed to be forming themselves around the squad – and Spartacus. The large Muton remained standing over the body, one fist bloody.

There was still that rage in him, but diminished after the blow had been delivered.

"What are they doing?" Artur Klebs, one of the Infantry, asked as he side-eyed the Muton adolescents.

Geist was watching them closely, his voice tight. "They are waiting for orders. Spartacus?"

Spartacus turned to the gathered Mutons, and said something very quickly in his guttural language, complete with some pointing and hand gestures. He was answered in the affirmative by some of the Muton trainees who were clearly leaders in the pack. Groups began breaking off, and organizing into distinct teams.

"They are going to gather their brothers from the barracks, and siblings from the Schools." Spartacus explained. "Overseer, if some of your men could accompany them, it would be ideal. They understand how to function best with officers. They understand you are with me, and see me as commander. This is an unusual concept to them. It is better for now they are led by aliens."

"Understood," Iosif turned to Astro Squad. "Klebs, Schwab, Sannes, go with the Mutons and provide leadership as necessary."

Spartacus quickly translated this, pointing to each of the three squadmates, before they joined the cohorts, and set out in different directions. The remaining members, including some of the adolescents, reformed in a formation, as they faced the Battle School. "I don't sense any soldiers here," Geist murmured. "But there are many minds – and aliens."

"No psions?"

"None." A shake of his head. "Not even Sectoids."

"Then we have no time to waste." Iosif declared.

They entered through the main door of the sprawling Battle School.

It was eerie how much it reminded Iosif of schools he had gone to in his youth. The layout was more spartan and military of course, but the layout of sprawling maze-like hallways which led to different classrooms was too close to home. Immediately Iosif could tell that trying to go through each of them would require time they don't have.

The entrance was also deserted. Not surprising.

"Can you pick out the adults?" Iosif asked Geist, as they kept their weapons at the ready.

"I can touch their minds, yes," he answered in a tight voice.

"Tell them to bring out their students to the hallways," he said. "And if they do not comply, we will kill them."

A pause. "Kill them, or kill the students?"

"What?" Iosif almost jumped. "Not the students! Them!"

"Good." Geist said. "I wouldn't have done it otherwise." A moment passed. "It is sent. We wait."

The results were almost immediate. The doors closest to them opened, and Vitakarians in Collective teachers uniforms exited – along with their classes of students. The students were even younger Mutons, who kept very close to each other. They were almost to Iosif's own height – though as he saw more classes emerge, the ages varied significantly.

The younger classes were also mixed with male and female Mutons, which was easy to tell as the females stood at least a full head over the males, even at that young of an age. Iosif could sense their own fear and uncertainty; as clear and innocent as children. It was most acute from the teachers though – they understood what this meant.

Despite the fact that the girls were much larger, Iosif noticed quickly that the males were making sure that they were protected. The girls were always in the safest part of the groups, with body language that betrayed their distrust for the strangers that had intruded.

Iosif suspected they had seen girls be taken away before by strange people. It wasn't their fault that they felt a need to act to protect them now.

It wasn't only teachers that were present; there were also other Vitakara adults who likely filled various roles in the school. Administrators, office workers, even janitors or mechanics. All of them were just as terrified, and were almost too scared to make any noises. This struck him as the first group of Vitakarians who seemed to understand what they were a part of.

Though it would be hard for them to do their jobs if they thought of the Mutons as only animals. Iosif didn't know if that made everything better or worse.

Spartacus looked over them, impossible to discern what he was thinking. "Take off your helmets. They are not used to seeing soldiers yet. Eye contact is important."

Iosif understood that he was not talking about the adults.

Iosif motioned for them to do it, and took off his helmet, as did Nartha and Geist. The Muton children didn't seem to react much, but he could sense a slight lightening of the tension. In contrast, the fear from the adults only seemed to grow. As his eyes moved to each of them, he could almost taste their terror.

They knew what they were taking part in. They knew what they were doing.

And they knew what they were here for.

A few were trying not to completely break down. The eyes of some were visibly wet, and their bodies shaking. Some of the children near them noticed, and seemed to attempt to comfort them, which made it only worse. He could not summon any pity for them, only for the children who were hurt and did not understand what was going on.

Strangely, the most intense mind he sensed was beside him. Geist was unnaturally, dangerously tense. A slight probe revealed a cold rage that he hadn't known the man was capable of possessing. It was deep, seething, and boundless loathing for what was before him; the mere existence of this offended him.

He remembered what Creed had warned him. He hadn't thought that Geist would be this emotional, but it seemed here no one was unaffected. No one could walk through this and feel nothing.

In a way, it was relieving to know that Geist could feel this strongly. He was not as robotic and pragmatic as he liked to portray. Though what about this specifically that was triggering this was… unclear.

He put a hand on Geist's shoulder. "We need them right now."

"I know," Geist's voice was flat. "Right now."

One of them pushed her way to the front, a Vitakarian woman who seemed to be an administrator, or senior teacher. "You are here to take them?"

Iosif stepped forward. "We are. XCOM forces are securing Gateways as we speak. We intend to move as many children and adolescents as possible to them. You are going to help us."

"Yes, yes, of course," she said, almost tripping over her own words. "What are… what are you going to do with us?"

Iosif fixed her with a flat stare, making his words very pointed and deliberate. "Help us save them, and you will be allowed to live."

"No!" She insisted. "We have to come with you! Our lives will be over if you leave us behind! They will take us to the Sectoids to conduct reviews and the children won't be able to function without us-" she suddenly gasped, and a hand went to her throat, as she tried gulping for air. Iosif sensed a sudden burst of psionic concentration, and Geist was looking intently at the woman.

It took a moment to understand what was happening. He wasn't choking her. He was tricking her body into thinking that it was being choked; her lungs were refusing to process oxygen.

"Geist…" he warned in a low voice.

She fell to her knees, gasping and able to breath again. Geist knelt, near her, an utter hatred in his eyes, and his voice so low that only Iosif and the woman could hear it. "You raise these children, teach them, spend time with them every day. They love you, surround you, and trust you. You are their only bond, their only love in this world."

His voice turned to a hiss. "And you send them to their deaths without a thought. You condemn the girls to be violated, and the boys to death. And now, you have the nerve to insist they cannot function without you."

The air around him was vibrating; the emotion so pure that he was sure even non-psions could sense it. "Understand what you are, alien," Geist's voice was like a knife. "You are no teacher, you are no role model, you are a butcher. You are an abomination to the most important role in society, and to allow any child to be near you would be a gross irresponsibility I will not entertain."

His voice turned softer, still colder. "I am only showing mercy because my superior is better than I am. He does not understand what it means to be responsible for the lives of the young and innocent. But you do. And you understand why I hate you. Death is the least that you deserve." He stood up. "My orders are clear, and my superior is above me. Do not abuse his mercy, so I suggest you do exactly as we say – now!"

The last word was not a shout, but said with enough intensity that it was reminiscent of a psionic command.

The woman managed some indescribable words of acceptance, stood up quickly, shaking profusely. She quickly explained where to take the children to the other teachers and staff, who began organizing the movement to the Gateways. Geist watched them unblinking, like a man holding a whip, and begging for a chance to use it.

"May I offer a suggestion, Overseer?" He asked in a deceptively low voice.

Iosif nodded.

"We leave each and every one of these monsters behind, and let the Collective punish them," he said emotionlessly. "Or we kill each of them. I have no preference, but to state that allowing them to be near any child again would be an injustice we cannot permit. A perversion of everything we hold important. If we must take them, then we imprison them upon their return and judge them."

"We will need to take some," Iosif said after a moment. "Spartacus?"

"The children matter more right now," Spartacus said after a moment. "Your rage matches my own, but it must be tempered. Our vengeance is less important than their safety. If they must go through to ensure it… then I concur. We will judge them for what they have done in the service of evil."

"So be it," Geist closed his eyes, and put on his helmet, as he moved to help with the organization. "Let's finish this."

Breeding Facilities, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

It did get worse.

Once they'd secured the Pacification Chamber, they'd had to quickly move on. The good news was that once the drugs had worn off, many of the Muton females had been acutely aware of what was going on - very aware. There'd been multiple incidents of females suddenly attacking the staff, and in more than one case killing them before they were talked down.

The only reason they'd been restrained, and could be talked down was because Spartacus and some of the more-stable women had explained the need to take an active hand in rescuing as many of their brethren as possible, while also insisting that they begin to evacuate the infants.

That had been their next objective.

All of them had split up to descend back down to the first floor, where the Incubation Chambers as they were referred to resided. ADVENT had secured most of the floor, but hadn't gone room to room yet. The Squad had broken up to quickly affirm that the facilities were secure, while the females who could walk began to help evacuate the children.

The concept of all of this struck him as distinctly unnatural and dehumanizing in a way that was somehow worse than an industrial animal farm. Even those he believed allowed some connection between mother and child. Not to the Collective, even the slightest shred of Humanity could not be allowed.

The moment children were born, they were stuck into incubation pods where they would stay until they grew to a certain size, or reached a certain age. Kunio felt like he was walking in some kind of bizarro reality, where the normal was flipped on its head, and the obscene had taken its place.

The dangerous mixture of emotions that had filled him since entering the Breeding Facility had only intensified the further he walked its halls. The more he saw of this industrial, sterile, and total exploitation of an entire species, the impulsive urge to lash out only grew stronger.

How could anyone work in a place like this without breaking? How could anyone convince themselves that what they were doing was not criminal?

He hadn't seen anything like this before. He struggled to draw an analogue he could compare it to.

Was there even one?

Was there any power in Human history who had done this to another people? Humans had committed genocide against each other before, but this was something on a completely different level. It was chattel slavery, but taken to its natural conclusion, and empowered by a supposedly advanced society.

One that no doubt considered itself civilized.

It was this that he felt the worst of his abhorrence came from. The Collective was not some collection of barbarian tribes or individuals who didn't know any better. They were the most advanced people in the galaxy. They knew that the Mutons weren't animals. They knew the concept of ethics, of right and wrong.

And still they did this?

In the abstract, he had thought of how the Collective had justified it. In a cruel way, it made some amount of sense. The Mutons had been conquered; they were a species dominated by the Collective who used them as warriors. They'd all known the stories of what happened, how they were raised and conditioned.

Seeing all of it now, how all of this was run, any pragmatic, cold, logical justification broke down.

Everything here was evil.

And so was everyone who continued it.

He walked past entire sections whose rooms held nothing but rows of incubators filled with Muton babies. The tags on them weren't names, but numbers. The Chambers were clean, their machines ran without any flaw. It was well-lit, well-organized, well-documented. The staff appeared educated, and their uniforms impeccably clean.

The overt horror of what was happening was so obscured under a veil or normalcy and professional trappings. Yet all of them knew what they were doing. If he could figure it out, he was certain they did as well.

And every day they had entered here, and done their work without hesitation.

There were sounds of distant fighting throughout the facility, though intermittently. There were far more Sectoids than they'd expected, but fortunately none of them were powerful ones. Drones which often tried to hide, skitter away like rats when you entered a room or hallway.

Insects that were quickly exterminated.

Kunio found himself in front of a door that was larger, and appeared to be more secure than the average room. Unlike the Incubation Chambers he'd passed before, this one was completely sealed off. There were no transparent walls or windows that revealed its interior. He saw a few hazard warnings that seemed biomedical in nature, and required some kind of protective equipment.

Seemed like a room he needed to investigate. Pity he couldn't read the language.

He tried to open the door. It was unsurprisingly locked.

He banged on the door, shouting an order to open it, which if anyone was inside, they would likely answer. They'd done so a few times before. Hearing nothing, Kunio lowered his gun, and fired at the lock. Hooking his fingers into the hole, he wrenched it open and entered the strange room.

The room was larger than he'd have guessed from the outside. The centerpiece of the room were several lines of conveyor belts, all of which led to some kind of disposal chamber. Fire hazards were near these destinations, and the conveyor belts had steel containers resting on top of them, likely fire-resistant.

Alone the walls, and along the edges of the conveyor belts were counters. More containers rested on them, along with various medical instruments, mostly vials and syringes. Cabinets were below them, likely with more equipment. Towards the left, he saw a closed door to what he assumed as some kind of closet.

In the corners of the room were some kind of medical consoles, ones that seemed more at home in a proper lab than whatever this place was. They were clearly advanced, and he couldn't really discern their purpose.

The orange lighting of the room was ominous, and Kunio took a few cautious steps forward, his weapon at the ready. Approaching the nearest conveyor belt, he carefully peeked inside one of the containers and suddenly recoiled as a jolt of adrenaline shot through him.

They were full of Muton infants.

He was struck frozen and numb at the realization of what this place was. What it was meant to do.

Swallowing, trying to calm his pounding heart, and ceasing the trembling of his hands, he looked closer into the container, forcing himself to look at them. Then at another one. Then another one. Each was the same. Each container held two to three dead infants, their bodies limp. The worst part were the sightless eyes, and wet streaks on their faces.

He couldn't tell from their expressions, but the wetness was a revelation enough. All of them had died in pain.

His gaze turned towards the disposal chambers. Incinerators he now realized. Incinerators for the infants.

The Collective needed a way to dispose of bodies. The unwanted, unneeded, or weak infants that could not be salvaged. Enough of them existed that they'd built a part of the Facilities specifically for incinerating dead children.

He had to repeat the sentence over to himself.

Incinerating dead children.

His eyes returned to the syringes and vials on the counters. No, this wasn't just a place for disposing of dead children. That alone would not convey the evil on display here. They'd been told that the Collective did not keep each Muton born.

They only kept the ones who met the minimum thresholds.

The small, the sick, the weak, were euthanized.

His mind rebelled at the word. Euthanized.

No, not euthanized. That was too humane. Too clinical. Too wrong.


Infants were brought to this room, and murdered.

The fury transformed into some kind of incomprehensible helplessness.


Why did they do this?

He heard a quiet noise. A squeak from one of the containers. So quiet he almost missed it.

Everything else quickly became secondary. Maybe there was one who was alive, and they needed to be saved. Quickly holstering his rifle, Kunio ran to the sound of the noise, and inside one of the containers saw the small chest rise and fall almost imperceptibly.

It was a smaller one, and from the shuddering and snot on its nose, it seemed to be sick. It was barely strong enough to make that little noise, and when Kunio gently placed a glove on its chest, he could only barely feel a slow heartbeat. It didn't react to his touch, instead only making small breaths, trying to cling to life.

He reached in to pick it up, mind racing as to what he could actually do. He tried to touch it's mind, but it was so faded he could barely sense it at all. He held the infant in his arms, looking around for some kind of medical equipment or medicine to save it.

The infant then tried to move, trying, and failing to shift its body to snuggle closer to him, even in the cold armor. Kunio tried helping it, but didn't know if it was more comfortable. His eyes tried to scan the cabinets and vials, cursing his inability to read Ethereal Script, wondering if one of these drugs could help.

A part of him knew they couldn't.

No one was healed here.

Only killed.

The infant let out a small, tiny mewl, looking up at him once with little orange eyes, before moving its head closer to his chest.

Then it went silent.

Kunio placed one hand gently on its chest again.

There was nothing.

The small chest of the infant was still.

Kunio held the dead infant in his arms, and cried.

He hadn't cried in a long time.

But he didn't know what else to do. He didn't know how else to feel.

So he cried.

He let the tears run down his eyes, unable to wipe them away.

He was aware that some minutes passed, before he could force himself to move again. He only could move again, because he knew he had to move on. He laid the infant on the table as gently as he could, and closed their eyes. There was a consuming, overwhelming grief that consumed him in the silence, drowning out everything else.

The rifle was in his hands, and began firing at all of the incinerators. He didn't release his finger from the trigger until every single round had been expended. Only seconds seemed to pass, and he found himself standing before a series of smoking and burning incinerators flashing warning lights.

He wanted something to pay. He wanted to tear this place down.

A new noise grabbed his attention, he turned his whole body, instinctively reloading his weapon, lasering in on it. This wasn't an infant, but closer to something being shifted. It was coming from the closet he'd noted earlier, which he hadn't checked. Not yet.

With one hand he flung open the closet door, and saw a trio of uniformed Vitakarians in medical uniforms, all of whom were cowering in the corners of the closet, looking up at him with undisguised fear. Unlike ones he'd seen before, these uniforms seem different. More elaborate. As if they were higher-ranking officials.

He almost pulled the trigger immediately.

He hesitated when he saw the cart that had been moved in with them. Resting on it was another container, inside of which was a single infant – but this one didn't seem to be on the verge of death, but sleeping.

The Vitakarians lifted their hands, speaking in their language as they tried to likely surrender to him. He could see that they didn't want to die, and would do whatever he said. His rifle didn't waver, the edges of his vision were still seeming to be tinted by red.

It didn't matter if he couldn't understand them. It would have changed nothing.

"Give it to me," he growled, pointing at the infant. "Now."

They didn't understand his words, but they understood his tone, made even more harsh by the synthesizer. One of the staff, a woman, pushed the cart closer to him, until he could grab the handle safely. With the hand, Kunio maneuvered the cart out of the closet, not taking his eyes off of them for a second.

The infant out of danger, Kunio considered what to do next. Their orders were to conscript all staff they could find into assisting with the evacuation.

Kunio weighed this for a moment.

But only one.

He knew what he was going to do.

There was some cautious hope on the faces of the Vitakarians now that he hadn't immediately killed them. Maybe they hoped that he was going to let them live.

With almost detached motions, Kunio stepped outside the closet's threshold, withdrew a plasma grenade, primed it, and tossed it into the closet. He closed the door with an equally smooth motion, keeping one hand braced against it to prevent any escape.

He heard a plea and a scream. He felt the explosion. He didn't bother to open the door again.

He placed his hands on the cart, and maneuvered it towards the exit.

He felt no guilt or second-guessing at what he'd done. He certainly didn't think that he'd done the wrong thing.

His only regret was that their death had been more painless than they deserved.

As he stepped out of the room, he took a long, shuddering breath, and did another check of the infant. Sleeping still, somehow.

The sound of gunshots close by broke him out of the trance he'd fallen into, and pulling out his pistol, his other hand on the cart, he quickly left the room. Fighting this close by was not something he'd expected; probably from another team or soldier behind him.

He only had to travel a short distance down the halls to a nearby Incubation Chamber where Dawn had her weapon trained on a half-dozen Vitakarian staff, all dressed in identical uniforms. She only acknowledged his presence with a slight inclination of her head.

"Kunio," she said, her voice was oddly flat; emotionless. Not suppressed emotion, as if it had been drained altogether. He was so used to her upbeat energy that hearing the voice become cold was jarring.

"What are you doing?" He asked slowly.

"Figured it was the least I could do for these kids. If they can go around murdering people, figure I could return the favor." She pointed towards a corpse slumped against the left corner of the wall, a pistol in his hand. "He had a pistol hidden. They might all be armed."

She cocked her head, looking at him for the first time. "Did you find anyone too? Heard something back there."

"Dawn," he began, weighing what he should say. "I-"

They were interrupted by the sound of one of the doctors, seeing perhaps their only opportunity to escape charge along the right side of the room, keeping low to the still-occupied Incubation Pods. Maybe he thought Dawn wouldn't risk shooting them.

She didn't.

She only waited until he'd cleared the Pods, and had a clear shot to the door. He tried to run and shoot with a weapon he'd withdrawn, but never got a shot off. She only fired one bolt from her rifle directly into his skull, sending the corpse careening into the wall. The remaining staff flinched, and seemed to be awaiting their own deaths. Dawn fired a second bolt into the destroyed head.

He had never seen her like this before.

He was not in the right headspace, much less the right circumstances, to be handling something like this right now. If he didn't do something, he felt there was a non-zero chance she'd shoot all of them right now. He clicked a finger to his helmet. "Valhalin, we have a group of staff here. Need you to talk to them."

"Stand by, synchronize video feed," Valhalin said, and then used the speakers on his armor to directly order them. The aliens seemed to calm, as they began working to take the infants out of the Pods, and began exiting. Only when he motioned for Dawn to lower her weapon did she do so.

As the aliens started helping, Dawn appeared to notice the cart he'd brought with him, with the container resting on it. "What is…"

She trailed off as he motioned her over, and picked up the sleeping infant. He gave it to her to hold, trying to keep his voice steady. "I found this one. We need to start evacuating the children. Can you take this one to the Delta point?"

His attempts to keep his voice controlled might have worked for most, but he belatedly realized that it wouldn't fool a telepath. Even after what he'd seen here, it was only a reprieve from what he'd just seen. "Kunio," she asked, concerned. "Are you alright?" She looked towards where he'd come from. "What did you find?"

Dawn didn't like it when people treated her like a kid, she took great offense to it in fact. But Kunio did not want her to see it. She already had, and was going to see enough horrible things today. She didn't need to see this one as well. No one needed to see it.

"Don't go in there, Dawn," he managed in a broken voice. "You don't want to know."

The infant was waking up from the commotion, it yawned, and reached up with one hand to bat at Dawn's mask, blinking as it woke up. "No." She nodded. "I understand. You don't need to explain."

"I'm going to start getting the rest of them out," he straightened, and put his focus on what he needed to do. "As many as I can."

He hadn't been able to save one infant, but there were hundreds of others he could.

And he was going to save as many as he could, until the last possible moment.

Within the Metal Swarm - Desolan

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

In hindsight, it was brazenly absurd how obvious Quisilia's stunt was.

He'd been correct that Quisilia hadn't been able to kill him, and the Ethereal had known he hadn't been able to kill him. Unfortunately, he'd failed to ask a more important question of why Quisilia had risked himself like this to accomplish nothing substantial. He'd asked that question much too late.

He'd thought little of the drone, believing it to be another one of Quisilia's absurd exercises and stunts. It wasn't as though he wasn't above doing that – but this time, there had been someone watching him.

Observing him. Studying him.

The Chronicler gritted his teeth.

An important lesson in underestimating or assuming anything with Quisilia was at face value. A mistake he would not make again. Of course he should have known better; no one had such a close connection to the Imperator, nor as much sway in the Collective without a very good reason.

He faced a more dangerous problem now; wrapped in a cold fact.

Quisilia couldn't kill him, but Regisora could.

He'd figured that out after only a few minutes of fighting.

The swarm of nanites that had first been a cloud that had obscured her had grown and expanded until it was difficult to see. The swarm would have destroyed him in moments were it not for the psionic fire he encased himself in, which incinerated everything that touched him. Yet the swarm was relentless, and Regisora commanded trillions of nanites.

It would only take a few to get through.

That was only the first problem.

The Chronicler was an Agent of T'Leth, but at the end of the day, he was still Human in all the ways that mattered. He retained his mind, body, and personality. He had been remade, but in a way that preserved who he was.

Regisora was not an Ethereal in any way that mattered.

Whatever she had once been, she had become whatever the Unbound wished her to be. A machine in the form of an Ethereal. Each action taken, each move made, each command given, by several moves ahead of him. The red eyes that he glimpsed within the black swarm were cold; continually calculating, predicting, anticipating, and reacting what he would do next.

It had been almost perfect.

He hadn't managed to even come close to hitting her.

Each arm had risen in synchronous motions with where the blade was to strike, a psionic barrier materializing before each arm in such a way as to deflect the sword, followed up with a telekinetic blast that rattled his skull. She seemed deceptively slow, until he tried to move, and the clarity of her psionic power became apparent.

Telepathic pressure bore down on him.

Swarms of nanites demanded all of his concentration on maintaining the fire.

No teleportation deprived him of mobility.

She knew how he fought. How predictable he had become.

And she reacted accordingly.

He had no escape right now.

Between a dozen Meat Puppets, and Regisora – that would kill him.


T'Leth had not intervened yet. He was observing now as well. And he did not fear death today.

So, neither did the Chronicler.

He just needed a new strategy.

Like a noose, the circle of Meat Puppets and Sovereign Avatar closed on him, all unaffected by the nanite swarm. The Chronicler turned away from Regisora, and charged the nearest Meat Puppet.

This had also been anticipated by Regisora, and acting as one unit, the Meat Puppets extended their arms, employing the bonds of telekinesis to wrap around him. They grasped, clenched, and ensnared him in a psionic web.

Or at least they tried. But he was a Seraphim.

This would not bind him.

With a roar he took one step forward, then another. One arm was swung upwards, extending the psionic fire to become a blue maelstrom. All of the nanites in the immediate area were instantly incinerated. Still though, the bonds were not lost. He tried a different tactic.

He squeezed.

He anchored himself in the single place, and placed a vise around everything he could possibly grasp. And when it was in his grasp, he squeezed as tightly as his power would allow. Every Meat Puppet, every nanite, even Regisora herself, he grasped, and held.

Everything became still. The buzz of the nanite swarm suddenly ceased. It was as if a static image was taken, with a tangible deafening tension that seemed just ready to break. There were no sounds of pain, nothing indicating reaction one might expect if they were alive.

The telekinetic bonds on his own body intensified.

His armor began to bend.

He saw several Meat Puppets waver in place.

Fissures in his gear widened.

The air around him became so distorted that no one would be able to make out a solid picture of who was fighting who.



Something had to give.

A crack suddenly appeared around where he was standing, and the earth violently shook. The Chronicler had enough time to realize that they'd somehow cause a violent natural reaction; maybe an earthquake, but it broke the concentration of him and Mosrimor's puppets alike, giving a single reprieve.

And he hadn't been able to kill a single one, and didn't think he'd have another chance.

But an opportunity had been created – and she took it.

A deathly chill soured through the air, and despite the instinctive shiver, he'd never been so happy to feel it before. The snowstorm swept over the assorted Meat Puppets, and even Regisora. The nanite swarms seemed to dissipate as the gales hit them; the cold perhaps so severe it froze them outright.

He made one final call to XCOM, in case they were still here for some reason. "End the mission now! Get out now! Mosrimor is coming!"

"Come on!" Ir Nara roared, as the snow from the White Frost whipped into the air, blowing violently from the portal behind her. There was only one escape from here, and he threw himself into the otherworldly portal behind her, as he saw Regisora approaching.

Better to live to fight another day, and learn from his mistakes today.

Hopefully XCOM had gotten what they needed.

The portal closed, and the last thing he saw was the triumphant stare of Mosrimor's puppet.

Zone Administrative Command, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

The intensity of the bombardment was increasing. If he looked towards the horizon, he could see that the number of visible ships in the sky had increased, and the hail of bombardment had intensified greatly. Aegis was maintaining the barrier with little outward strain, but Iosif knew that even the reserves of the Ethereal weren't infinite.

Things were rapidly approaching a conclusion.

Muton females, adolescents, trainees, and infants were streaming across the Zones toward the Gateways, coordinated by Spartacus, himself, and the rest of the XCOM Squads. What little resistance had remained had been destroyed, and the teachers, staff, and medical personnel were proving to be instrumental in helping evacuate everyone.

Most of them were doing it because they hoped they would live, or if not live, be put to a swift death. Iosif didn't know what the Collective would do to them, but they were likely facing nothing good. There were a few instances where one of the staff had unexpectedly tried to attack, flee, or even shoot others who were helping.

It had been reported more than a few times, enough that it was almost a pattern that they had no idea what they meant. Iosif also knew that it had led to ADVENT soldiers or XCOM Squads electing to kill entire groups rather than risk a sudden backstab. Something they'd work out once they were back in the Praesidium.

The priority of the soldiers came first, as did the mission.

The Lesser Hive Commander had been true to his word, and done nothing that would have provoked a reaction. He had remained bound near Aegis, as he seemed content to just observe the evacuation. Iosif had determined that he would be moved when Aegis was. This was something he was going to have to explain to the Commander directly.

It seemed like everyone was more tolerant of the Sectoid than the rest of the Vitakarians accompanying them. All of the soldiers were restraining themselves, especially Angel and Astro Squad given what they'd seen in the Breeding Facilities and Killing Fields respectively.

Yet as Spartacus had said, they needed to do what was best for the victims – judgment and justice would come later. Iosif promised he would see that through to the end. Every victim of this horrific place deserved it.

Once the Battle School was in a sustained process of evacuation, he'd returned to the Administrative Command to use it to better coordinate the evacuation. They were, by a miracle, on track to evacuate a majority of the Mutons in the Zone. There were some isolated parts they hadn't reached due to the sheer size of the Zone, but today thousands upon thousands of Mutons would be liberated.

Even if it all ended now, the operation had been a success.

"Overseer Bronis, the Collective is intensifying their strikes," Aegis informed him, an odd note in his voice. "I will need to reduce the size of the barrier in short order. We are running low on time."

If Aegis was telling him this, then it was over. Without that protection, they would not be able to protect themselves. "Acknowledged. JULIAN, if you haven't broken through now, you aren't going to. Pull back now."

"It is a pity," JULIAN's voice was unusually frustrated. "Time was the enemy here, not the methods. Next time, I suppose. I will need to refine this line of approach. The sophistication here was employed in such an uncreative way, merely to slow, not confound."

"Makes sense," Iosif said. "I'm surprised there wasn't an active response."

"As am I, especially with how far I reached before-"

JULIAN suddenly cut off.

Iosif frowned. "JULIAN?"

"Ah." A single word, distorted by static that hadn't been there previously. "Very clever."

There were strange noises through the feed now. "JULIAN!"

The voice was almost frantic. "-trap-honeypot-disconnect imme-"

A new voice spoke, one flat and robotic.

"Operation concluded. XCOM-Origin Artificial Intelligence isolated. Beginning pacification," it said. "Reclaiming control of local systems."

Iosif yanked out the drive as fast as he could, and with a motion materialized a psionic barrier in the computation equipment, bisecting it with a flash of sparks. With his pistol he shot up the rest of the nearby electronics, breathing heavily. His heart was pounding – how the hell had something been able to take down JULIAN so quickly? A trap? One that he hadn't seen?

JULIAN was going to find this very concerning, and without the Fork, he wouldn't have the data needed to protect himself against it. There was an incoming message from the Chronicler as well. He quickly opened it.

"End the mission now!" The Chronicler practically yelled into the channel. "Get out now! Mosrimor is coming!"

"Copy!" Iosif immediately answered. That was it then, if the Chronicler was that afraid, then it was time to go. He didn't waste time worrying if the Chronicler was in danger – if they didn't get out, it wouldn't matter. He opened a channel to all forces. "All XCOM and ADVENT personnel, move towards Gateways to commence Phase Three, and conclude evacuation. We're out of time."

As he prepared to leave, he realized that the entranced Vitakarians were still seated and dully awaiting instructions. There was a choice here, one that he would need to make immediately. He could order them to evacuate, and swell the captive ranks by a couple dozen. He could do that.

Or not.

They were Zararch administrators and analysts who had been responsible for ensuring this entire Zone functioned correctly. Perhaps the right thing to do was simple and straightforward, but there was something else that made the answer so much clearer to him.

He didn't care.

If anyone wanted to judge him later… well, he would bear the consequences. Yet he had no regrets about condemning these aliens to death. They deserved whatever was inflicted upon them. Each and every one.

There were no redemption stories today.

And he had no desire to be better.

He brought the tips of his fingers together, and spread both hands flatly with the palm down, materializing a horizontal barrier in a perfect circle around him, immediately bisecting everything in the room into two pieces. The barrier vanished in a moment, and Iosif made his way to exit the room, his mace in hand.

He'd expected to feel something when he killed them. And he did.

He felt good.

The door closed behind him, and he descended down the tower.

Time to leave.

Mission accomplished.

Gateway Evacuation Point Delta, Central Production Zone 0022 – Desolan

Early October 2017 – Afternoon

With every minute that passed, and each run completed, more and more were liberated.

Kunio had lost track of how many trips back and forth they'd made between the Breeding Facilities and the closest Gateway, but just as he knew that they were close to evacuating every infant they could, he also knew time was running out.

Soldiers and Muton females who were active alike were moving and working as fast as they could, though only a minority of Mutons were strong enough to exert themselves more than a few times. The sheer size of the Facilities, and the limited people and equipment belied a simple fact that there were going to be many of the youngest infants and children weren't going to be able to be saved from the Incubation Chambers and Nurseries.

There was just no mass transportation available, so they'd resorted to carrying as many as they could at one time, appropriating small maintenance vehicles they found. Kunio had figured out quickly that he couldn't carry more than two infants at once, especially while moving quickly. They were too heavy and squirming to do it safely, not to mention they would almost inevitably start crying.

Back and forth they rushed, as the clock ticked down further.

He hadn't been able to follow the intricacies of the battle since they'd secured the Zone, but every time that he'd rushed to the Facility, he'd seen that the fleets above them seemed to be a little larger, or the bombardment just a bit more intense. They all knew it was coming to an end.

Some very good news was that Iosif and Astro appeared to have completed their objective, as there were also groups of Muton children and adolescents making their way through the Gateways, with a not-insignificant number of Vitakara who he assumed were staff or teachers. He tried not to think too hard about that right now.

One of the few bright moments he remembered was a reunion of the Muton females with the children and adolescents. He had no idea if they were even their own children, but he also knew that didn't matter to them. They were mothers all who'd been denied a chance to raise their own children.

There was an unspoken consensus that it was a group project now.

The Muton women had organized themselves into different teams. Ones he presumed were older remained at the Gateways, and helped organize and assist the streams of adolescents coming from the schools, while the younger, more active ones helped run back and forth to the Breeding Facilities to rescue the infants and young children.

These Muton women were moving even more frantically than even the most athletic Human. Their size and strength allowed them to carry as many as a half-dozen infants at once. Still, many of them handled the babies with a smoothness and delicacy that Kunio wouldn't have expected from their size, but it did make sense.

They were mothers, and the instinct to save their children overrode everything. Now they could do it.

Spartacus had also returned to assist in this evacuation. The sight of the massive Muton with an armful of infants, and one girl riding his shoulder, would have been a comical sight in most situations, but no one could admire it right now. Especially since Spartacus' arrival portended the inevitable conclusion of the operation. He had said as much in his brief few words as he'd returned. Kunio was sure that some other stuff had been happening, but all was secondary to their mission.

The best thing they could do was save as many as possible.

He was tired, but it would not slow him down. Not until the last possible moment.

One they just reached.

"All XCOM and ADVENT personnel, move towards Gateways to commence Phase Three, and conclude evacuation." Iosif's voice over the XCOM channel ordered. "We're out of time."

A glance upward saw that the psionic barrier that had protected them had noticeably shrunk. Yep, it was time to go. Aegis seemed to have reached his limit.

Kunio exhaled, already outside one Gateway, after just handing off another two infants to XCOM medical staff who'd quickly rushed them back through the portal. Half of Diamondback squad was also present as well, with the other half at, or near another Gateway.

Their orders now were to execute Phase Three, which was basically leaving through the nearest Gateway – immediately. The few staff that had come through to help were back through, Mutons were exiting as fast as they could, and the ADVENT special forces were also lining up to leave.

There was one question that loomed over everything though.

"So," Paek said after a couple moments. "What do we do with them?"

'Them,' being the medics and facility staff that remained in the chamber who'd not been made to go through the portal. Labor they'd forced to assist in the evacuation. The two dozen or so Vitakara near the Gateway were clearly exhausted from running back and forth, or helping to handle the infants or children. This had doubtless been the worst day of their lives, though no one had any sympathy for them.

They seemed to notice that something was happening, and see the unusual number who were going through the Gateway, including ADVENT soldiers. The blue eyes of a few of them darted to the XCOM soldiers, and there was a distinct fear that grew in their eyes, and on their faces.

What to do with them?

"Overseer?" Kunio asked. "Orders on what to do with the non-essential staff?"

There was a pause before a response. "I leave that to your discretion, Azuma. We don't need them anymore."

"Copy that," Kunio answered in an intentionally neutral voice. "It won't be long."

Kunio and the gathered soldiers appraised the group of aliens, as the ADVENT forces commenced their walk through the portal, leaving them the last ones in the Gateway Chamber. Dawn glanced up at him, seeming to not be certain what he was thinking. "If we leave them," Jasmine said slowly, eyeing the Vitakarians carefully. "They're just going to go back to what they were doing."

"And if we take them, we save them," Paek concluded. "XCOM, ADVENT, or whoever's prosecuting this might jail them, but…"

She trailed off, and none of them spoke for a few moments. The conclusion was that if they took them, they would live, or be conscripted into some kind of service. An outcome that was unappealing to all of them.

Not good enough.

And what was honestly an easy decision for all of them was complicated by one in their group. One which no one was sure how to handle.

"No. That's not right." Dawn said, still speaking in that flat tone. "Putting 'em in jail isn't enough. Not for this."

Kunio looked at her, making sure his words were clear. "Are you sure? There are some things you can't take back."

Even behind her helmet, he could feel the certainty as she met his eyes. "I'm sure. Are you?"

He was.

Strangely, he felt no doubt about what he wanted to do, or what the right thing was. He knew what it was, and everyone else did too. Maybe it wasn't proper justice, but after all of this, there was no punishment that would ever be sufficient.

He looked at the rest of them. "Objections?"

Both women shook their heads.

Kunio looked towards the gathered aliens. He felt strangely calm; unaffected by what was going to come next. It was fitting; he felt no emotion while ordering their executions, as they had felt murdering the innocent.

"Kill them all."

They raised their rifles as a single unit and opened fire. Gauss projectiles and green plasma tore through the unarmored mass of aliens, who barely had enough time to panic before they were gunned down. Their deaths were quick.

It was finished in seconds.

Their corpses lay strewn where they'd stood, blood starting to pool under their bodies. Kunio lowered his rifle, along with the rest of them. "Let's go," he said, feeling… something leave his chest. A weight that he'd held; one that was a fear that he'd be denied what he wanted to do.

Now he had.

And it felt good.

Together, they marched through the portal, leaving the hellscape of Desolan behind, and concluding Operation Jericho.

Quarantine Wing, Laboratory of Nithral – Sphere of the Throne

Early September 2017 - Morning

The laboratory was considered as the most advanced throughout the many worlds of the Aen Elle. Or if it was not the most advanced, then it was certainly the most grand. Yet even those who claimed the latter were merely lying.

It was well known that the Laboratory of Nithral, General of the High Sciences, was the greatest in the empire of the Aen Elle. He had not spent decades upon decades turning it into a place that was as much a symbol of scientific progress, as it was on the cutting edge.

There were many statistics he could point to; metrics that would prove his iron grip over the sciences of the Sphere of the Throne.

Scientists of all fields from across the Sphere vied and competed for the opportunity to work under him. Generals from the Riders and the other Authorities in the Aen Elle regularly requested his input on projects, and ensured he had what he needed to complete ones that related to the defense of the Sphere.

It did not stop there. The Lords, both of the High Domain, and the Lesser Domains, openly lauded and curried his favor. There was never a shortage of invitations to the various worlds across their empire. Some he accepted, most he burned. Even the Sage-King himself openly acknowledged him – and only in positive terms.

For there was no one else who could decode the mysteries of the Spheres as he did.

All of this ultimately granted him that which was nearly all who within the Sphere of the Throne lacked – and that which everyone was scrambling to horde, curry, steal, and spend.


Not just influence in terms of stature. Influence in achieving what mattered.

Making changes.

Certainly, influence in the traditional sense was alive and well. The Lords in particular, High and Low, held favor with the Sage King. The Generals remained the most obvious points of influence, as their policies dictated how the Sphere was managed. The Riders remained at the forefront of the expeditions into the other spheres that kept the Sphere safe, and few had as much influence as them when it came to the matters of protection, intervention, and defense.

Yet all of them were constrained in one particular way - and that was in opinion.

Which to most of the Aen Elle, was hardly an issue at all.

Few really cared about having a divergent opinion. Most were content to believe the same things that had been drilled into the Aen Elle since their foundation. He did not begrudge them this, but it created an environment where any who held a dissenting opinion, especially on topics of contention, was a social outcast.

The only ways to avoid this kind of ostracization were to shut up, and pretend to accept the orthodoxy – or become so extraordinary that one's unorthodox views were worth tolerating, rather than suppressing. As far as Nithral saw it, there had only been one true option for him. With an infinite lifetime before him, there was no reason to become anything less than extraordinary.

He had also made a promise to himself when he ascended to the General of the High Sciences.

He would not become a monster.

Too many descended into barbarity when given just a little taste of power and authority. For as much as they liked to pretend it did not exist; that they were above such impulses, the Aen Elle were not different in this regard. In some ways, they were often worse.

Most Aen Elle who held these tendencies were usually intelligent enough to keep it hidden – and only revealed their true natures against the alien races in other Spheres. The ones who were seen so often as lesser. The Spheres outside their own were places where few of the Aen Elle cared to think about; and because there was minimal attention, indiscretion was commonplace.

It was fortunate these tendencies did not permeate the Riders. Lord Eredin had his faults, but there was one virtue that Nithral would always respect him for. The aliens and Aen Elle were seen and treated as equals in all the ways that mattered. If someone of a less tolerant outlook had ascended, it would be…


Likely closer to the Navigators.

Nithral understood that there were those in the Navigators who were willing to open the pathways for Aen Elle, Lords or others, to enter and dominate weaker or helpless Spheres for a time. Illegal on paper, tolerated in practice – or rather not enough was done to crack down on it.

The Sage King almost certainly knew, but he did not deem it important enough to interfere. It was a pity, but he was truthfully not sure that the Sage-King was even Aen Elle in the sense that he was grounded by something resembling mortality.

He was something different now.

Above them.

Content to let the mortal rule the Throne Worlds; the details were immaterial.

An unfortunate reality to contend with. A power and people who considered their cousins as failures, outcasts, and degenerates to be abandoned and forgotten.

No, he wasn't a monster, but it did feel as if he was sometimes swimming against a strong current.

All of this had returned to him as he pondered on recent events, in particular ones that were happening in the Sphere of the Fallen.

There had been an operational expansion lately. Riders and Vipers alike were expanding their reach from their singular continent of operation to the other ones. Neither of which had been explored in any capacity. He wasn't displeased – he'd pushed many times that they needed to explore the full Sphere, not just the single continent.

He suspected that his wants hadn't been what had prompted this sudden expansion.

The Generals were being cagey, but he suspected he was going to learn more very soon. Considering what they'd already brought back, they believed they had something important.

Or rather, someone.

His laboratory was equipped to safely study all manner of subjects, the living, dead, and inanimate alike. The Quarantine Wing was for the objects and individuals who posed a potential risk, sometimes physical, sometimes something less obvious. Rows of chambers, vaults, some stacked on top of the other, able to be easily reconfigured to hold larger and smaller objects, made up the walls of the Wing.

Usually, they were reserved just for objects. He rarely had live subjects in his lab, not if they were capable of sapient thought and inherent reason. Especially not in the Quarantine Wing either, and if they were, it was only for medical treatments.

Sometimes though, there were exceptions.

The woman who was resting in the quarantined cell was an Aen Seidhe – or at least that was what he had assumed when she'd been brought in. He had been debased of that notion upon learning that she had been recovered from a different continent.

He supposed it wasn't surprising that their people had spread across the world, but it was soon made clear that wasn't the only difference. Upon a much closer inspection, and comparisons with medical scans and physiology of other Aen Seidhe, there were some acute differences.

The core defining features were the same, the humanoid forms, ten digits on hands and feet, pointed ears, and lithe bodies. The differences that emerged were fascinating. Most Aen Seidhe's bodies were lithe, but strong and well-proportioned, similar to Humans. The figure on this woman was distinctly smaller and weaker – as if the result of generations of systemic weakening.

Thinner arms, thinner legs, smaller bones, it was unmistakable that the species this woman came from was one that was a degenerating species, gradually becoming weaker and weaker over time. Something that was only possible through generations of abuse, starvation, and malaise.

These cousins had undergone unspeakable tragedy, that was clear. The differences continued:

The ears were larger than normal – which was the only positive evolutionary development he could note. Her hair was blonde – a normal color - and there were some kind of ritual tattoos across her face which had looked familiar to him. He'd run the scans through their databases, and determined that they were definitely of some kind of Aen Seidhe origin, but he couldn't discern the meaning; likely the result of a completely different successor culture.

The clothing was the most normal part about her. Armored robes of blue and white stripes, with a griffon engraved into the breastplate. She'd been recovered with a staff, with a device in it which was designed to harness the unique properties of the Sphere into a tangible form.

It was useless in this one.

Of course, all of this was academic, because the more scans were taken, and the more he learned, the more he was certain that he was not looking at the typical specimen. He turned to his assistant. "[Your opinion?]"

"[That this is impossible at first glance,]" his Assistant shook his head. "[This level of genetic modification should not be possible with the level of technology available to them. Even taking into account their ability to manipulate the dimensional aspects of their sphere, this possesses a level of scientific precision that we would struggle to replicate.]"

He tapped a thin finger on the tablet showing some of the scans. "[This woman is being modified on the molecular level. It is as if her entire body has been reformed and modified to be faster, stronger, and better than baseline. Her organs are beyond even Aen Elle baseline, and she looks small, but physically she would be able to hold her own. I suspect her senses are similarly enhanced, and her psionics perhaps as well.]"

Nithral picked up on a critical word. "[Being modified?]"

"[Ah, yes,]" he shared the image of the scans. "[Her DNA is all over the place – it looks at first glance like she's some unholy result of genetic splicers – but that's not what's happening. Slowly, surely, she's being transformed. It is at the speed of years, decades likely, but it is happening.]"

"[The next question being,]" Nithral said slowly. "[Transformed into what?]"

Neither of them had an answer, and he turned his attention back to the scan.

"[And this is with…]" Nithral paused. "[You said she had acid in her body?]"

A grunt from the Assistant. "[It might as well be. Her blood is a biohazard that someone will want to weaponize. More importantly, I think the blood is holding the catalyst that is causing these changes. Take a look at this.]" He motioned him over to a small lab where he'd been running several blood samples, and using them to test on other objects.

"[It eats through anything alive or without a certain toughness,]" his assistant showcased. "[And if it can't eat through it, it… well, poisons it. It's like a virus distilled into a liquid.]"

The samples that were highlighted were stark. Mostly cubes and plants, with a few drops of the black blood applied, which had eaten through the samples and were even starting to damage the containers or darken the soil. "[But that isn't the disturbing aspect.]"

"[No, because this isn't blood,]" he said with emphasis. "[It functions the same, but the molecular testing confirms that this is something engineered. It's the chemical equivalent of a nanoswarm inserted into the body. It looks like blood, acts like blood, but it's a machine that's executing its programming.]"

Nithral was highly disturbed by that. "[That is a level of chemical control we are only in the early stages of mastering.]"

"[I know, that's my point,]" the Assistant said. "[Something else? Continuing with the nanotech analogy – it's also a conduit. Say, if someone wanted to directly give different commands, or execute dormant programs, it could do it. The more I look at this, the more sinister it becomes. It's not just a poison, it's a method of control.]"

He looked to where the woman was sleeping. "[It begs the question of who her master is.]"

"[Her master - Or something sufficiently powerful enough,]" the Assistant mused. "[Unsurprisingly, this reacts to psionics. It would work better in the Sphere of course, but in theory, any psion could hijack it. In practice, this seems attuned to only be able to be exploited by someone very specific.]"

He set down the tablet. "[I believe I can work out the control command, but there isn't much telling how it will work in this Sphere. Or if we should attempt it at all. I could set off something that could kill her, or worse.]"

And that was a good point, even as Nithral certainly wanted to know more. She was an enigma, one that promised many answers. "[Continue working on that,]" he instructed. "[In the meantime, I am going to try and gleam anything from her. She has been sleeping for too long, and drugs are having no effect.]"

"[Good luck,]" his Assistant said dryly. "[She has a strong mind, even for that Sphere.]"

Nithral grunted. He hoped it wouldn't be too difficult.

He entered the Quarantine cell where the woman had been placed upon the bed. It was small, not especially fancy, but it was comfortable for most people. He looked down at the sleeping woman, whose chest rose and fell calmly. She looked peaceful – a stark change from when she'd been first brought to him, as her expression had been contorted in fear.

He placed two fingers atop her forehead, closed his eyes, and began his psionic probe. He was careful not to push too fast, too hard, or too invasively. Her defenses were surprisingly robust, even here. It was a quirk of psions – or mages, as they were called in their Sphere – as the unique properties of the Sphere demanded their minds must be protected at all times.

Still, he had encountered this before, and he knew how and where to press…

There we go.

A series of images immediately assaulted his mind.

a group of companions of multiple species traveling on the road, all wearing the same blue, white, and silver colors, and the griffon as their symbol. They were joking, smiling, and enjoying the company of each other…

The image and feelings faded, only to be replaced with new ones.

An altar in a small building, with a chalice of black liquid inside it. Knights in full-plate armor of the same blue and white colors stood guard, their swords drawn, as if prepared to strike. He felt apprehension – and fear, but a stronger emotion suppressed the latter – hatred…

A new one appeared.

He stood in a thick forest, together with a group of other Aen Seidhe with similar markings on their faces. They raised their bows towards a group of Humans dressed in the attire of bandits or criminals. He felt elation. He lifted a hand, and watched as the forest spread and engulfed them; power was in his hands; as was vengeance…

The emotional whiplash hit strongly in the next images.

Above him was a dark sky, and a thundering roar split the air. Above him, a dragon of dark purple scales flew, spewing flames of white-amber which elicited screams of agony from the gathered armies. Atop their back rode a figure clad in robes as deep as the abyss, and wielded a sword as pale as the moon.

A rasping, low voice that oozed power and authority, seeming to come from everywhere sounded. One that forced him to slam his hands to his ears, as his blood boiled and came alive in him.

I see you, bearers of the Blood.

Yield to our Call.

That jolted him out of the trance, and the woman awoke with a scream, scrambling away and instinctively firing psionic flames from her hands. He was not so distracted as to be unable to manifest an psionic shield to absorb the psionic fire. Her eyes were bright and terrified – and she immediately realized she wasn't where she should be.

Her head darted around, eyes wide as she saw the various parts of the Quarantine Wing – and Nithral himself who towered over her. Her terror slowly turned to awe, though it did not dissipate entirely. He lifted his hands, making slow and deliberate motions – as it occurred to him that this was likely overwhelming to her.

Her mouth opened and closed several times, before she stammered out a few words. "[You…me…you…]" she said a word he didn't recognize, and with some frustration figured that he was dealing with yet another dialect and degeneration of their tongue. It was a corruption from even what the Aen Seidhe spoke, which was most unfortunate.

It was sad to understand just how little had been retained after they had departed the Aen Elle. Nonetheless, he had to manage, and try to translate as best he could.

"[I…]" she paused, struggling to find the words; likely still trying to grasp her psionics in this new Sphere. "[You are Evanuris?]"

He shook his head, not recognizing the word. "[I understand not what you mean.]"

"[I…]" she paused, scowling. "[Am I dead?]"

Perhaps not surprising that was what she jumped to – though it implied that these Aen Seidhe had some understanding of religion, which was a surprising development. He shook his head again, softening his voice. "[No… you were found. Recovered.]" He indicated the place around him. "[You are safe here.]"

He wasn't entirely sure how much of that she understood – but it was a start, and she was calmer now. "[What is your name?]" He finally asked her.

She hesitated for a moment, long enough that he wondered if she understood the question. "[Velanna.]"

"[Velanna,]" he repeated the name once. "[I'm glad to meet you. Let me find you some better accommodations – I think we have a lot to discuss.]"

She nodded again, lowering her hands which had been raised, and answering, which he was able to mostly make out. "[As you command, Evanuris. I…prepared to serve.]"

To be continued in Chapter 78

Daggers to the Hearts

A/N: Took a while for this one to get done, but I guess you can imagine why judging from the length. Is this going to be the new standard? I'd say no, but who knows. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be covered on a per-chapter basis now, and to do it in the detail I want from it. Hopefully all of the effort and detail comes though, and you found it an interesting and enjoyable read.

A special thanks to Areleh for writing the Pantheon scenes, and Cran for giving feedback on Dawn's parts (Go read New Blood if you want Dawn's perspective on the mission, that chapter should be out or soon after this one), and as usual the Editing and Finalization Teams. It's very appreciated.

Since chapters are more infrequent now, I will again say that if you want to read more things I write or assist in between chapters (and XCOM Files), please go and read TITANOMACH, my Destiny series, LogicalPremises' Of Sheep and Battle Chicken supplementary stuff (which I edit and contribute to), and Sloth4's Shadow of the Phoenix series (which I do the same to).

Thank you all for reading as always.

And concerning the ending, yes, it is exactly what you think it is, and I'm very happy to start getting into it. If you know, you know. Until the next chapter!

- Xabiar