[FFML] [Fanfic][Ranma/X-COM Crossover] The Road to Cydonia Chapter 33

Justin Wagner jbraveboy at gmail.com
Tue Mar 30 09:02:36 PDT 2010


FFML Refs:

As always, Previous chapters of TRTC can be found on FFN
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2314624/1/The_Road_to_Cydonia

or on my site (which also hosts a UFOpedia and Character Info)
http://www.wagnergrp.com/JBW_Website/Fanworks/trtc.html


Notes:

Yes. Its been a long time since I updated TRTC. Graduation and getting
my first taste of publishing research and lots of other real life
distractions shifted my focus. I'm sorry about that, because I know what
its like to read a fanfic that isn't complete and then see it hasn't
updated in forever. To my thanks go out to my readership for bearing
with me.

Also, as a point of interest:

One of my helpful readers, EternallyLostRyouga, is interested in
commissioning a piece of TRTC related fanart based on suggested scenes
or other input from the readership. It is part of a trio of commissions
based on Claymades's, Lathis's, and my own Ranma 1/2 based fanfics. If
you have an ideas for the art commission, please pass them onto myself
(or to ELR) via PM or email. I'll also keep an eye on any reviews for
their opinions on this as well.

Now, for the new chapter!

-----

...

-----


For six years, mankind has waged a Secret War against an enemy from
Beyond the Stars. In late December of 2006, the two newly formed martial
arts assault squads, India and Juliet, participated in the elimination
of the last major alien base on Earth. With this bastion removed, the
Sirius Conspiracy crushed, and the loss of the Joketsuzoku village
avenged, only one great obstacle remains: the alien command center on
Cydonia, Mars. Only then can Earth be safe. With that great battle
looming ahead of them, India and Juliet also look inward to their
individual hopes and dreams. This is their story.

-----

The Avenger fighter-transport has a cruising speed of Mach Eight and it
left little more than a burning blue-white streak in the dark night sky.
The trackless expanse of the South Pacific raced by three thousand feet
below the man made UFO; the dark wind swept waves bearing no witness to
the passing of one of UNETCO's fastest and most powerful weapons of war.
Outside, it was just one tiny speck against a star strewn sky.

Inside the ship, men and material were packed tight.

Two HWP hovertanks were opened up at the top and undergoing last minute
maintenance checks. Their smooth sides were being covered with netting
and dark brown and green camouflage. One of the tanks, already mostly
disguised, also had a rig attached for infantry level heavy weapons and
reserve ammunition supplies. The large plasma cannons mounted atop each
HWP hummed softly as the impulse and projection mechanisms ran
diagnostic tests to make sure they were operating at peak efficiency.
They were individually small, as armored vehicles went, too small for
anyone to even ride on their sides. Nonetheless, each packed power
equivalent to a main battle tank and the ability to survive anti-tank
ordinance that would crumple a conventional armored platform four times
its size and ten times it weight.

Further back in the ship, twenty two men and women were anxiously
prepping their gear and muttering about rumors as their situation
developed in stark and shocking detail. They were in varying states of
battle dress and bore expressions ranging from grim acceptance to muted
distress to fuming anger. Exactly thirty minutes ago, they had been
woken up if off duty, or alerted if on duty, and mustered to form an
immediate emergency relief mission. There had been no time for normal
mission briefings or the typical dissemination of information. Only the
officers knew, and even then only in part, exactly what was going on.

Captain Bruce Banks stood in the center of the ship, brown eyes dark
with determination and cold fury. The dark skinned American looked out
over the assembled soldiers, Seiran Mountain's finest, and nodded
imperceptibly to himself. Without even asking, without so much as
raising his voice, he had everyone's full attention. A few feet behind
him, Captain Ben-Solomon had his helmet on, communicating directly with
Command and Control back at the base.

"Alright, listen up," Banks spoke up, his deep voice filling the cramped
confines of the Avenger. "At twenty three twenty hours our Wyndham base
in northern Australia detected multiple enemy incursions in allied Earth
airspace on a vector towards the Indian Ocean from the South Pole. They
were able to identify these as an assault wing of six alien battleships
and three terror craft."

There was a sharp intake of breath, shared by many in that confined
space.

No one had ever detected such a large scale single incursion by the
enemy. Rarely, battleships would sortie in groups of three or four, as
they had when assaulting Morlenbach several years ago, and on occasion
terror ships would do likewise if striking a particularly juicy target
or expecting interference from X-COM. A wave of no less than nine
assault craft was unheard of.

Banks continued after a moment of letting the severity of the situation
sink in. "That isn't the half of it, boys and girls. Two of those craft,
a terror ship and battleship, turned to engage Wyndham while the other
seven continued towards the Middle East. At twenty three twenty four,
our time, Duiwelskloof confirmed another alien incursion off the coast
of South Africa: six abductor class craft and an escort of four large
scouts."

He took a deep breath, and, impossibly, continued to dispense bad news.

"Ten minutes later, Valencia detected another incursion above
Antarctica, heading towards South America. Hyperwave decoding identified
three battleship class craft and one supply ship. At almost the same
time, with Europe on high alert, they detected an attempted stealth
incursion in one of our old blind spots over the central Atlantic Ocean.
It was an identical strike force headed for Irhil M'Goun."

"At this very moment," Banks explained, "Wyndham, Irhil M'Goun, and El
Dorado are all under attack by alien forces. Four alien battleships have
also begun engaging Coalition forces in the Middle East, and within
minutes, we expect two terror ships to land within the city limits of
Baghdad. Despite the destruction of all four of their escorts by
fighters launched from Duiwelskloof, we also estimate that the terror
forces in Iraq will be joined by the four abductors moving up the east
African coast inside fifteen minutes."

"Sir," Lieutenant Stirling of Foxtrot Squad spoke up, everyone else
still stunned silent. He was American, clean shaven, with fair hair cut
short and a serious demeanor. Stirling was a demolitions specialist and
had been a squad leader for almost two years.

"If we were scrambled to assist Wyndham and similar forces were sent to
assist Irhil M'Goun and El Dorado from US and Europe..." Stirling
trailed off at the end. He seemed to have already guessed what the
answer to his question would be.

"For the time being, Command is not providing ground support for our
relief efforts in Baghdad," Banks replied evenly. "We will attempt to
provide air support when the battleships have landed. The rest of you
have probably guessed what that means for us... After this assignment,
we will immediately be transferred to assist in the containment of the
Baghdad terror site. Until that time, the city will have to hunker down
and try and survive."

-----

The Road to Cydonia

Chapter XXXIII Auribus Teneo Lupum

 -----

Written by: Capn Chryssalid jbraveboy at gmail.com

-----

"I am now activating India Squad," Ryouga's voice came in clearly over
the encrypted hyperwave communications net. "Nabiki, I'm going to be
running our briefing entirely over the HUD."

"I can handle it," she assured him from her desk at the Floor, back in
Seiran.

The atmosphere there was professional, but it didn't take a trained
empath to detect the undercurrent of anxiety in the control center. For
her part, Nabiki tried to keep calm and handle the night one problem at
a time. Above all, she tried not to think about the other XCOM bases
under attack, or the massive terror site in the Middle East. One crisis
at a time; anything more than that and it just became too emotionally
overwhelming to consider.

Ryu, Kuno, and Mousse (the latter running a bit late) keyed in, logging
onto their Watchman Accounts. The programs recorded their gear loadout
via Smartlink and patched them into the TeamComm encrypted
communications network. It also recorded their battle data: everything
they saw, heard and did, along with their vital signs and other
information. Everything was recorded and sent on to HQ for analysis and
archiving.

"Everyone ready?" she asked, as the last of them got their helmets on.
The 'buckets' were usually the last bit of gear the guys put on.
Everything else would already be keyed and ready to authenticate.

"Ready," Ryouga confirmed.

"Yep," Ryu replied.

"Good to go." Mousse.

Kuno was the last to respond. "Yes. Ready."

"Loading profiles," Nabiki said, and her screen registered the
individual weapon manifest of each UNETCO soldier in India Squad.
Mousse, as usual, carried the most gear, and his profile took a second
longer than the others to fully authenticate. The computer double
checked the information with the data from the Armory Archives, and one
by one the devices pinged green.

"Weapons are now hot," Nabiki advised. "Everything's green. We're good
to go."

"Good. I am now activating our Black Boxes," Ryouga spoke up, starting
the mission briefing. "Nabiki, bring up the following and prioritize it
in this order: a full map of the area surrounding Wyndham, the latest
tactical update on Wyndham base, and a topographic map of the local
Sector 2-B. I also want a live oversight map available at all times."

"The recon drones aren't in the area yet, and our normal sats are being
jammed," Nabiki explained, "But I'll have that feed as soon as I can. In
the meantime... let me get that other stuff."

It took about fifty seconds to find, load, and prioritize the requested
data. As Consultant for India Squad, Nabiki had become familiar with the
systems used to manage data upload and download. It was a critical part
of her job to provide instant access to any mission relevant data, to
provide aid to the squad's commanding officer, and to support anti-
psionic countermeasures. Luckily, she'd gotten pretty good at it. She
was also the only one who could effectively talk India Squad's CO out of
getting lost if he became isolated.

The main map appeared on the screen on her left, and she took a moment
to study it. Wyndham was located in Kakadu National Park, in a heavily
converted uranium mine built in the 70s. Like most UNETCO facilities, it
was hidden on government owned land. Nabiki remembered the so called
"Bird Sanctuary" they'd hidden El Dorado under, back when she'd first
learned of XCOM; bases almost always had a public face like that and
Wyndham was no different. It had been considered still secret and
undetected by the enemy. Obviously Intel had dropped the ball there and
that information was out of date now.

Above ground, Wyndham had originally consisted of a few small buildings,
an inactive ore processing site, a large bunker, open air excavation
pits, and a flanking body of water filling a rectangular basin. The land
around it was mostly scrub and bush. It was rocky and rough terrain,
rolling but not terribly hilly. It was also tucked away between two
large rocky outcroppings to the west and south. To be exact: this was
how it had been.

The latest recon images painted a slightly different picture.

Wyndham had a Grav shield and two sets of self contained base defenses
in the form of Plasma Cannons. These had been located within concealed
and armored spiderholes to the north and east of the base itself. Both
had been hit hard by the alien battleship on its main approach; Turret A
was a glowing molten streak that resembled nothing more than a splash of
yellow paint on an orange and brown canvas. The aliens rarely turned
their weapons on the surface of the Earth, but when they did, their
power became quite clear.

Turret B had fared no better. While not totally annihilated, the area
around it had been melted and fused into glass and silica, and the
armored turret itself blown apart from the inside. A long dark plume of
smoke rose up from the ruins. Another shot from the alien craft, this
one partly off target on Turret B, slashed a long burning scar in the
Earth that extended for half a mile.

The base itself had been physically breached: a pin point strike had
sliced open the main access elevator and another had torn open the
armored doors of Hangar One. The alien battleship now rested, like a
three story silver discus, where the old above ground administration
building had once been. It had disgorged its troops, who quickly
followed up their assault on Wyndham proper. Luckily, the base (like all
UNETCO bases since the fall of Morlenbach) had been designed with
multiple chokepoints to slow or thwart an attacker.

"The situation isn't pretty down there," Ryouga said, having explained
most of the situation to India Squad. He also seemed to be trying to win
an award for understatement. "Nabiki, highlight the Terror Ship."

She did so. The ship in question had crashed some eleven miles from
Wyndham. It had taken the brunt of the base defenses, including being
forcibly repelled by the Grav shield, but the aliens built their ships
tough. It was mostly intact and had managed a semi-controlled landing.

"Intel believes that up to 80 percent of the crew of this ship are still
combat capable," the lost one continued, "Hyperwave decoding has also
confirmed that this ship is exclusively crewed by Ethereals, and that
they are set to make their way to assist in the attack on Wyndham. They
are also likely to be providing additional psionic support for the
Mutons and Ethereals making the base assault. Our job will be to engage
them, stop them, and then destroy them."

"Nabiki," he then addressed her. "Overlay the tactical assessment from
Recon. What do they have on likely points of approach?"

"Gimme a second," she replied, checking for that. "Ok. Got it."

The map overlaid with several lines, representing vectors of approach
given the terrain. Ryouga would have already seen this map from when
Colonel Banks handed out the squad assignments. It looked like there
were three main approaches to the base: one hooked around a large hill
strewn with broken rock, another paralleled a road, and another snaked
down around the south.

"We are going to take this hill to the north, here, designated P-17,"
Ryouga said, highlighting the point on the shared map with a ping. "Our
main targets are the enemy Sectopods. We are to engage them with heavy
lasers and special techniques and pinpoint them for blaster bomb
strikes. Heavy resistance is to be expected. Alpha and Bravo Squads will
be handling the other two approaches. Charlie will spearhead containment
of the landed battleship. Delta will be support, but remember that
Kinoshida's squad is still pretty green."

Delta Squad, formerly under the command of Lieutenant Lofquist, had
taken heavy losses over the last few months. Sergeant Kinoshida had
inherited the squad and reformed it, but all three of the new members
were fresh out of regular special forces and basic UNETCO retraining.
Normally, new squads would cut their teeth on a few downed UFO recovery
missions before getting put up against terror units, much less terror
units made up of god damned Ethereals.

" All the other squads are relieving the base directly. Now, we'll have
two HWPs in addition to our personal loadout," Ryouga continued. "One
plasma-type and one fusion ball. I want the fusion ball launcher set up
as a reserve. The plasma type, we can put out front once we've sited a
nice spot for it."

Nabiki quickly keyed up the two HWPs in question. They were being
transported over on another ship, one of the Type-2 Lightning strike
craft, along with Delta Squad. Both were hover platforms, and could be
effectively air dropped once a site had been cleared. India Squad had
been given Seiran's only Fusion Ball HWP; standard procedure generally
favored giving individual troopers blaster bomb launchers. The thought
was that, in terms of space, a HWP really only had one fourth the
firepower of four men with Blaster Bomb Launchers. The upside was that
the HWP was automated and not everyone was proficient in using the
"Golden BBs" (or "Silver Footballs," as the Americans often called
them).

"Our fire teams are Mousse and Kuno and Ryu and myself," Ryouga added.
"The usual setup. We'll advance ahead with the plasma HWP. You guys find
a spot for your HWP and then join us. Remember: these are purely combat-
class Ethereals, not the types we've been fighting before. You can
expect a barrage of uninterrupted psionic attacks from the moment we
engage to the moment we head back home. Watch your HUD, listen to
Nabiki, and remember your training."

"Yes, sir!" three voices chorused.

A second later, Ryouga asked, "Are you ready, Nabiki? We'll be relying
on you."

Nabiki blinked, momentarily confused. She hadn't really thought he'd
been referring to her before. But, then, she was part of the team,
wasn't she?

"You can count on me, lost boy," she said with a smirk. "I'll keep you
boys pointed in the right direction."

"I trust thou are not relying on thy moral compass for our bearings?"

"Stuff it, Kuno-chan."

The five members of India Squad laughed while they could, and it felt
good.

-----

The human sense of smell really wasn't worth much, in Zraz's opinion,
but as blunt and in-acute as it was, it could still pick up the stinking
wrongness of the figure before him. This particular Deep One was
supposed to be what the "localized" alien colonists considered subtle
and discrete. It was just the sort of backwards abomination Zraz
expected out of them.

The thing was hideous and coming from an alien trapped in human form,
that was saying something. Its skin was pasty and too-thin, semi
transparent like some kind of deep sea fish, and devoid of hair. The
once-human eyes now bulged out of their sockets and looked to be wracked
by cataracts. Thankfully, the thing kept itself wrapped in rags and
heavy clothes that looked to have been scavenged from some abandoned
fisherman's shack or wharf. They probably had been, actually. To top it
off, the damned thing still stunk of salt spray and rotting fish.

Zraz, like almost all Mars-bred aliens, knew very little of their "on
planet" kin. Which was ironic, really, since part of their mandate in
the solar system was to assist the crashed colonists. That had been a
couple hundred thousand years ago. Primitive sentient life had been
developing, and the Martian Mind had decided to let things play out
before reinitiating colonization, since the new human-creatures had
potential that could be nurtured and cultivated. The Old Mind, already
damaged and all but inoperative, had been kept in long term sleep mode.
In fact, Zraz had even heard via the Mind that many Ethereals thought
that it was outright malfunctioning, or, some whispered, even insane.

Regardless, all the on-planet colonists had remained in stasis.

This was why contact with the T'leth colonists was all but rumor to most
of the Mars born. That part of the overall operation was really in the
hands of the Sectoids, and they seemed more interested in hybridizing
humanity than going through the trouble of bringing their primitive
colonist cousins back up to code and re-integrating them into the Mind.
Zraz had known some of this ever since gaining Command rank. Some of it
was information uploaded into him by the Mind, and some of it was
hearsay from other Commanders.

He really hadn't cared or put much stock in it before.

Zraz had been born and bred to be a field operative and military
officer. He wasn't supposed to be a planetside administrator. The Mind
had loaded all the relevant information into him, and he had accepted
his new role, but it didn't really suit him that well. Dealing with this
backwater Deep One was just the latest example of why he looked forward
to finishing his latest tour of duty. Being human - physically - was
something he had mostly gotten used to (it actually wasn't all that
bad), but the work was grating sometimes.

The Deep One stared at him, unblinking, as it contemplated his requests.
The colonists had a long established connection to some of the bizarre
human religions planetside. The Mars Mind had never devoted a lot of
effort into that sort of thing, but the T'leth Mind had made it a
priority. Despite only operating at minimal levels, it still had
resources and work of its own to do, and it had been sticking its
fingers in certain world affairs for a very long time.

I was supposed to only set up and maintain the oceanic Synodium Devices.

T'leth was technically responsible for maintaining those twelve Synodium
Devices, but it always found time to stick its malformed nose in
terrestrial business, too. The Mars Mind kept everything running
smoothly, but its ancient predecessor found little niches where there
wasn't existing overlap. It kept the Synodium devices ready, of course,
although the master controls were all coded to the Mind on Mars. Without
them, and without the Molecular Control Network, the terraforming
process would take centuries. Twelve was the minimum they needed online,
but they'd probably double it before the actual process began in
earnest. That way it could all be done in less than a year.

Molecular Control was an old technology. As old as the Sectoids, which
meant it was far, far older than the Snakemen. In modern times, it was
only used for large scale terraforming. It wasn't meant to be used on an
individual level like these colonists were doing. When the Mind had
uploaded that bit of information - that the T'leth aliens were using
Molecular Control on themselves - Zraz had been shocked. When he saw
Jyusenkyou, he knew it was some sort of malfunctioning Molecular
Control, but he hadn't imagined that the damned colonists were actually
purposefully trying to use it on themselves.

Madness.

The result was the disgusting abomination that stood nearby. Naturally,
it had wanted to meet in an abandoned house near the water. The T'leth-
spawned were like that. The darker and more secluded the location, the
better, and wherever they went they brought a sense of decay and
corruption. Zraz was not keen on seeing what kind of world they actually
made when they got the green light from Mars to begin terraforming.
These colonists weren't just backward, they were... creepy and bizarre.

Which brought his thoughts back to why he was seeking them out. The
T'leth aliens had their grubby like webbed claws in some of the more
unusual religious activity world wide. They spread cults and strange
artifacts among the humans, usually to twist or pervert them in one way
or another. With normal alien-human operations in East Asia smashed six
feet into the ground by UNETCO, and orders to "fill out" a new Sirius
Group of sympathizers, Zraz had decided to make use of the what few
existing unconventional resources they had left.

The mostly still-human Deep One held out a malformed hand. Twisted
yellow digits held a black stone that throbbed and hummed.  It was
another unstable product of misused Molecular Control. Zraz had to keep
from sighing. These damned colonials were going to kill themselves...
and worse, ruin the planet for everyone else, Sectoid, Ethereal and
Snakeman.

The black stone translated the garbled speech of the Deep One:

"It can be done. We can share. Asia. Asia is... important to us. We have
much here. But... careful. Be careful. We do not want attention."

The Deep One cocked its head.

"I have been told. Told. Soon. The Synodium Devices are ready."

"Only your twelve," Zraz reminded the creature. "If you start them up
now, you can bet you'll get some attention. The Mind wants everything
set up before you get the go ahead codes."

The Deep One shuddered, foam forming at the edge of its twisted mouth.

"Waiting. Waiting. So long. Waiting."

"We'll have things wrapped up planet-side in half a year," Zraz assured
him. It. Whatever the formerly human fish thing was. "We can start up
the Molecular Control Network in a year, maybe two. But for the time
being, let's talk... cults. I'm thinking: a new Cult of Sirius.
Something more subtle, something that can use our contacts in the
existing human organizations."

The vile abomination bared its pointy teeth in what could almost be a
smile.

-----

Juliet Squad advanced deeper into the Wyndham Base, Ranma taking lead.

Shampoo followed close behind with Ukyou at the rear of the formation.
While India had been detailed to assist in intercepting the advancing
enemy reinforcements outside the base, Juliet had been ordered to enter
the facility and relieve what was left of the defenders inside while
clearing it over alien infestation. The aliens first target once inside
had been the Mind Shield, and with it down they were able to psionically
interfere with communications throughout the area.

"Expect uninterrupted psionic interference."

That had been the phrase bandied about by command and the squad leaders.
Ukyou hadn't felt too worried by it at the time. They had trained
extensively over the months to resist psionic attacks and suggestions
and they had had plenty of sorties against psionic Sectoids and even a
number of Ethereals. How bad could it be?

The muffled sound of gunshots mingled with the low beeping of her
psionic detection alarm. It was all in her head. There were no gunshots.
Probably. There was almost no way to tell for sure. Training had taught
them to trust in their instruments and in their instincts. Instinct was
a natural defense against psionic suggestion and manipulation. For a
martial artist, trusting in instinct was easy, so Ukyou relied on her
sakkijutsu, and it told her there were no gunshots in the distance.

There was no movement behind that wall or on the periphery of her
vision.

Those shadows weren't really moving.

That wasn't a pair of eyes, watching her from the other side of that
office window.

Those weren't soft footsteps behind her, stopping intermittently.

She wasn't afraid of this place.

Flickering lights cast her two teammates in sharp relief, and Ukyou and
Shampoo stopped and moved when Ranma motioned for them to take
supporting positions. They knew the drill and followed orders instantly
and without hesitation. Ranma wasn't their fiance here, he was their
leader, their lieutenant, and he would see them through this horrible
place.

The three breached one of Wyndham's formerly sealed residential units,
emergency authorization codes giving them access to the entire facility.
It was a carbon copy of the housing facilities at Seiran - all XCOM
bases used the same basic blueprints and were constructed in a modular
fashion - and Ukyou found herself feeling almost at home. Except these
rooms were eerie and empty of life. They came on a unit, much like the
one Ukyou knew Genma and Nodoka stayed in, but... it wasn't their room.
She saw a flash of blue, but knew it wasn't Nodoka, coming to greet her
guests.

"Clear," Ranma announced. "Keep focused."

Shampoo quickly completed the check of the attached rooms, finding
nothing.

"That's the last potential intrusion point we've been able to identify.
The rest of the rooms are all locked." Rachael, their coordinator back
at Seiran, spoke to them over the TeamComm. While Ranma led them in the
field, Rachael provided critical information support and kept them on
track with mission updates. Actual command in the field was thus a
something of a synergy between commanders and their supporting tech.

"Then we'll move on to the next level," Ranma decided. "Still no word
from the panic rooms?"

"Nothing, Lieutenant. Almost the entire network here is down except for
the encrypted security archives and the local monitoring stations."

"Gotcha. Keep at it." Ranma motioned his subordinates to follow, and
they joined Ukyou in the main hallway. The lights flickered again, and
Ukyou felt a rumble, like an oncoming train. It was all in her mind.
Tightening her grip on her plasma carbine, she licked her lips. Her
ammunition supply was highlighted; she hadn't fired a single shot yet.

They hadn't even found the enemy yet and she found herself hating this
mission more than any other. Alien feelings: fear, mental exhaustion,
anxiety, anger... Ukyou could feel them being pulled out of her mind. It
had been like that for what seemed like hours. It wasn't a psionic
attack like before. It wasn't a like a blow, but rather a creeping
violation. There was something vast and terrible here, and it was in no
rush to bear down on her.

Like all UNETCO bases, Wyndham was set up in rows and corridors, with
the modular base facilities set up so it was easy for defenders to set
up chokepoints. The last reliable Intel had indicated that, despite
retreating deeper into the base, there were still XCOM units fighting
deep within the base. Juliet was just one of several squads moving to
assist them, but they now found themselves taking the same routes an
invading alien enemy would.

They needed to be cautious.

Ukyou found herself wishing Konatsu was back on his feet and out of the
medical bay. The squad really wasn't the same without him. He was a
superb point man, able to scout ahead easily, setting a pace they were
all happy with. Ranma always seemed to either go too slow or too fast.
Ukyou could tell he was in a hurry, but that every time he rush ahead,
he found himself questioning his pace and whether it was dangerously
reckless or sloppy. No doubt, if Ranma had been here by himself, he
would have rushed ahead heedless of danger - but he was the leader of a
squad, and responsible for them and for the mission as a whole.

"Got something!" he announced, and a second later, Ukyou heard a beep on
her motion sensors. Juliet squad had been coming up on one of the
security checkpoints and immediately found something to break the
monotony.

It was a Muton, burned nearly to a crisp by plasma fire.

The hulking alien was the size of a very large man, seemingly naked. Its
armor and its skin were one and the same, and provided for an amazing
level of protection. They were foot soldiers for the Ethereals,
genetically and cybernetically enhanced to wage war. This one had run
afoul of at least two direct heavy plasma rounds, enough firepower to
burn away what looked like thirty or forty percent of its substantial
mass, despite the natural armor.

The checkpoint up ahead was a crumpled mess of shredded metal.

The aliens had burned and blasted their way through, and Ukyou could see
more Muton bodies, and pieces of bodies, nearby. Red and black stained
the walls. A mute statue burned near the rubble. It was a suit of
powered armor, still on its feet, bits of flame and smoke rising from
where it had been breached. A heavy plasma rifle hung, just barely, from
a strap around the torso, one hand still on the trigger.

'Help me...'

That wasn't a voice she just heard.

'It hurts. Help me...'

Her instincts blared a warning, and Ukyou moved, immediately swinging
her battle spatula to cover her side. Ranma and Shampoo also made sounds
of surprise as a combination of plasma fire and something else came from
behind a fallen sheet of alien alloy. Returning fire as she found cover
against the wall, Ukyou could see a green skinned shape ducking low and
taking shots at them. A bolt of plasma tore into the flat of her
spatula, dissipating but leaving a scar in the specialized weapon.

There was something else, too. She could feel it.

Her eyes trailed around the scene, the world slowing as her martial
senses kicked in. There! Adjusting her aim away from the obvious target,
the Muton, she unloaded a trio of semiautomatic shots at a darkened
corner. Something indistinct, pressed up against the wall and hidden in
a corner, moaned in her mind.

Celatid.

There were almost certainly more, too.

"Celatids!" she warned, backing up. An instant later, sickly green
globules rained down from the far side of the room, following a shallow
arc. Ukyou deftly avoided the corrosive projectiles, spinning in place
to reorient her spatula to cover her other side and intercept another
plasma bolt.

A scream split the air, and the Muton stumbled back, one arm shielding
its face.

Shampoo had scored a hit, burning away most of the creature's face down
to the skull. It was still up and alive, however, and bringing its
weapon to bear, firing blindly. Two shots from Ranma's plasma carbine
downed the alien, leaving the three members of Juliet squad to focus on
the hidden Celatid threat.

This was much less serious now.

Ukyou saw one of the floating fleshbags, dodged another glob of spit,
and took it out with a snap shot. Ranma and Shampoo also advanced,
easily able to dodge the projectiles and shoot down the Celatid
ambushers. They were strange creatures: terror units used by the Mutons.
They resembled nothing so much as a giant pulsating kidney or liver.
Intel believed them to be mindless killing constructs, capable only of
attacking living beings and budding like amoebas.

Their spit - a corrosive "universal solvent" - was deadly even to
powered armor. It would break down matter rapidly into a smattering of
carbon and organic residue, and the way the projectile came apart in
midair would make it all but impossible to normally dodge, especially in
a firefight. Juliet squad was far from normal, however, and to the three
martial artists the rain of acid was easy enough to weave through.

As the last Celatid splattered, exploding as plasma superheated its
insides, Juliet squad dove to cover. There was more incoming. A bolt of
plasma hit the wall to Ukyou's right, scorching the alien alloy. Those
were too fast to avoid - faster even than a bullet. They were getting
better at "reading" the intent of the shots, however, even from aliens.
That was the real trick to using sakkijutsu to dodge an arrow from
behind or a bullet from point blank range.

My center of mass.

Ukyou's form blurred as she moved to the side.

My lower torso.

Bringing her battle spatula to block, Ukyou returned fire.

"Shampoo! Suppression fire!" Ranma's orders were followed without
hesitation. "Ukyou, you're with me!"

Leaping over a charred security cordon and through a shattered blast
wall, the two martial artists ducked low. Shampoo's ranged fire tore
through the air overhead, forcing the Mutons to pull back and slow their
own attack. Ukyou felt Ranma's own battle intentions, jumping ahead and
covering Ranma as the two of them closed the distance of twenty feet
under fire in a second and a half.

Back to back, Ukyou blocked two plasma blasts from one of the aliens.
She and Ranma spun in midair and then on the ground. A blinding Kenran
Hinode seared the entire area around the two of them, and Ranma's
"sticky grenade" ki blasts bounced wildly away from the two martial
artists, hitting two Mutons crouched behind cover and another in the
open. The aliens howled as the ki adhered to their bodies, burning and
hissing with termite-like intensity. Blinded and roasting from the
attacks, the aliens nonetheless retaliated, firing with heavy and medium
plasmas.

A single shot from one of the heavies would be fatal, and even a medium
could kill through personal armor. Ukyou and Ranma broke apart and
avoided the first rush of shots with superhuman speed. Their carbines
flashed as they fired, nailing the standing Muton four times in the
chest, and one of the crouching ones twice in the face, disintegrating
its skull entirely in a spray of gore. The third managed to get totally
behind cover - ducking back behind an overturned weapons locker.

With a growl, Ranma sprung and struck the man sized locker itself.

It flattened against the wall as if hit by a car, deforming from the
impact and crushing the Muton behind it. Ukyou knew the blow, easily
sufficient to kill a human, wouldn't be nearly enough to finish off this
particular breed of alien. Pulling the crumpled metal away, Ranma shot
to his side, avoiding a blast of green death before stepping in close
and disarming the alien by twisting its grip on the rifle and snapping
its fingers.

A hard elbow to the temple deformed the wall behind the alien's skull
and stunned it. A pinpoint blast to the face with his plasma carbine
finished the job. The Muton twitched, still trying to fight even with
most of its brains decorating the scenery. It took a step forward,
swiped with one arm, and fell forward. Dispatching a Muton in hand to
hand was all but unheard of - they were many times stronger than a
human, and vastly more resilient. They were, for all intents and
purposes, the alien equivalent of a powered armored trooper.

Ranma had all but torn it apart in hand to hand.

Last on the scene, Shampoo walked up, busily reloading her rifle.

"I didn't get even one?" she Chinese girl asked, sounding a little put
out. "I know I hit at least two of them."

"Stay sharp. They know we're here now, so be ready for anything." Ranma
inclined his head, the helmet catching a bit of flickering light. He
took a moment to reload his carbine as well, and so did Ukyou, while
Shampoo stood watch.

Ahead of them was the main access way to the engineering facilities.

Wyndham's inner facilities were set up in quadrants, with a circular
access hall connecting them. There were three wings in all, oriented
north, south and east. Two were manufacturing facilities. Wyndham hadn't
been expected to carry heavy combat operations in something like a year,
so it was instead used for manufacturing, stockpiling, and basic
research. It was mundane stuff by UNETCO standards, based on their
briefing.

Wyndham manufactured laser weapons in large numbers, many for export
("sale" is another word) to allied nations. Much of the storage was used
to support that, and large numbers of laser cannons and the like were
kept in the adjoining warehouse space. The other major product was more
benign: Wyndham was a major manufacturer of medical kits and other
pharmaceuticals, and much of its research was also medical in scope and
design.

There were two ways down to the engineering and research level: the
first was the secondary access lift. It was a large elevator for bulk
transport that itself connected to the external access lift. The base's
defense lockdown had hard sealed the entire lift complex, shutting it
down and sealing it off. The only viable way to progress deeper into the
base was a descending incline from one level to another.

The UNETCO defenders had obviously made a stand here, after the aliens
took out the two adjacent security cordons. Juliet squad was making
better progress than Hotel or Foxtrot, and were the first to find the
macabre scene. The walls of the open space bore the marks of the
firefight that had taken place: there were charred alien corpses from
where the enemy had been cut down. Deeper still, towards the bottom of
the incline, there were smashed automated defenses and the bodies of
slain comrades.

The smoldering wreckage of a hastily emplaced HWP lay next to two
armored bulkheads. Ukyou knew the type from Seiran. They could be pulled
out of the floor and locked in place, giving you some cover to fight
from behind. The defenders here had taken a toll on the aliens but
ultimately ended up overwhelmed. There were telltale signs of multiple
plasma grenades having gone off and maybe even a blaster bomb. Those not
inside powered armor were all but unrecognizable in the grim melee.

That wasn't a scream she just heard.

Ranma led them past the carnage to one of the labs that Rachel and
Seiran Command identified as having been breached. The circular venue
that led to the labs had been sealed with blast doors, but the aliens
had nonetheless advanced in good order. Juliet squad passed a set of
doors that hadn't been fully closed and slipped through without
incident. Up ahead and to the left was a larger vault like apparatus,
leading to the east wing. It looked open and undamaged.

"Careful," Ranma warned. "I gotta bad feelin' about this."

Ukyou was tempted to note that she'd been getting a bad feeling about
this place since they landed. Shampoo just huffed, her voice cracking in
and out too quickly over the TeamComm audio. Pushing the vault doors
open wide, Ranma motioned for them to follow and cover his sides.
Inside, they found themselves in a main reception area, with dull un-lit
signs indicating sub-wings of the lab complex. There were six in all,
divided by three floors. Each research department had exactly four
individual laboratories, making for a grand total of twenty four.

Only the unsealed areas would need to be searched.

"We're short one, so we'll have to improvise," Ranma observed,
retrieving a small device from his belt: a single M86 Proximity-
Detonated Mine. "Ukyou. I want a claymore up by the entrance there...
and hook an alarm into it. I want to know the moment it goes off.  And
set up a quick disable for when we double back. I don't want it slowing
us down when we head out."

She nodded, getting to work.

Ranma held onto his M86, and Shampoo guarded their position. Ukyou was
the demolitions handler for Juliet, and she worked quickly, setting an
M18A1 to cover the vulnerable entrance. Setting it up to a surveillance
alarm came next. Area-denial was a common tactic in XCOM, and UFO
entrances and exits were frequently mined by cunning teams who knew the
aliens could rarely resist slipping out to cause mischief. Tactically,
the enemy also liked to attack from behind, making deterrent mines very
attractive.

"Done!" Ukyou announced, and stepped back as Ranma tossed his M86 near
the door for added measure. The pyramid shaped explosive required very
little finesse - a few seconds after hitting the ground and activating,
it shot out several ultra-fine tripwires that stuck to walls and
anything nearby. It was less powerful than a Claymore, but didn't need
any prep time.

"Should we split up?" Shampoo asked, relaxing a fraction. There was only
one way in or out of the lab, and it was now trapped. Ukyou could
understand why her teammate felt a bit relieved. The unending whispers
and psionic interference, however, tempered any attempt at relief.

"No. Not with all this," Ranma tapped the side of his helmet. He was
obviously referring to the very same psionic assault Ukyou had been
mindful of. "We're sticking together, but I am upping the pace a bit."

Both girls nodded.

"Let's go," he ordered, turning and leading them to the first laboratory
department identified as compromised: the diagnostics division. It was
laid out very simply, just like all the labs. There was a connecting
hallway with the lab rooms branching off from it at regular intervals.
The lights were out, leaving a curtain of darkness broken only by the
near dead glow of computer screens and independent battery powered
lights and lamps.

Ukyou and Ranma checked the first open lab and the latter winced at the
sight. There were dogs, maybe five or six of them, in a kennel of sorts.
All had been killed. Lowering her rifle a bit to get a closer look while
Ranma and Shampoo swept the area, Ukyou could confirm that they had been
shot at point blank range. Plasma weapons. They had been large breed
dogs but the weapons hadn't left much to identify.

'Why kill them?' she wondered, looking around for some sort of answer.
The aliens had obviously gone out of their way to hit this lab, but
nothing else seemed damaged or hacked into.

"Anything?" she asked, her sakkijutsu silent for the moment.

"Nothing," Ranma replied, heading for the door. "Let's finish up."

"I have something!" Shampoo suddenly interrupted. "Heading our way! Down
the hall!"

The rest of the squad quickly moved to cover the hallway, moving with
lightning speed. Ukyou's motion sensor also picked it up: at least one
contact moving at low speed, heading west towards them. What they
actually saw, however, was no alien.

"Help... me..."

The man was leaning against the wall, blood streaming down his left leg,
staining the white lab coat red. He was obviously wounded, and Ranma
cursed. It was one of the base civvies.

"Shit! We've got wounded!" His shoulders slumped slightly as he quickly
switched to external speakers. "Shampoo, Medikit! Sir, are you ok? Are
you alone?"

That wasn't footsteps Ukyou heard behind them.

"No," the man said, looking up at them. "Not... alone..."

It hit Ranma like one of Akane's slaps to the face. Even several feet
away, Ukyou could feel the psionic bolt slam into their leader,
paralyzing his mind and body. It felt cold and poisonous and hateful,
and a cold shiver ran down her spine.

The man's hand turned, revealing something round in it.

"No!" Shampoo cried, and tried to raise her rifle to take a shot.

A second later, a flash of bright light, and there was only darkness.

-----

India Squad was the 'heavy assault' squad of the two, and for good
reason. As suited as it was for rapid advances against the enemy in
close quarters, it was equally effective out in the open. All four
members had trained extensively to utilize their most destructive
techniques under different conditions. Still: one could rightly ask, why
was India outside Wyndham instead of inside?

"Bakusai Tenketsu."

Sundered tree trunks and some forty tons of stone and earth rained down
from a trio of earth shattering explosions. Bits of scrub and bush fell
like hailstones amid the resulting cloud of dust, and fingernail sized
bits of branch and rock landed half a mile away. One lone tree
pirouetted through the air end over end, a ragged maze of roots shedding
dirt from the force that had uprooted and thrown it. By lucky
happenstance it landed square on one of Ryouga's targets.

The old tree split in half at it crushed the Sectopod.

The alien war machine was little perturbed by the impact, however, as it
focused more on extracting itself from the pitfall it had ended up in.
The explosion itself was merely inconvenient to the machine; it in no
way possessed the force needed to truly damage it. The problems arose
from being tossed into the air or falling into the array of depressions
that has suddenly formed underfoot.

A moment later, a fusion ball zipped down, made an abrupt right turn,
followed by another, before slamming into the slightly more lightly
armored rear of the trapped terror unit. A steaming hot cocktail of
anti-matter and matter met, fused, and released its energy right into
the Sectopod's aft compartment. This, the armored terror unit could not
fully resist. The top half of the walker tore apart into three larger
pieces, one of which went up in a secondary explosion.

The second Sectopod, still rolling from the massive explosion that went
off underfoot, finally managed to stomp one foot down and cut short its
momentum. Readjusting and compensating for the attack, its psionic
sensors picked up sentient presences nearby. Trying to get up on both
feet to pivot and engage, a blue flash raced by. The Sectopod fired a
combination of flares and plasma grenades at the proximity warning,
surrounding it with an expanding wave of sunfire and radiation.

As the dust and fire began to clear, the Sectopod toppled forward.

Damage warnings blared in the semi-presence that guided the device. It
was not an Artificial Intelligence - it was a literal intelligence, a
fragment of an ethereal, an avatar, given purpose and knowledge. Like
all the Ethereal's preferred minions, it was a proxy for their will; a
body they could use and throw away. At the moment, this Sectopod's body
was in trouble. Something had severed critical mechanical components in
both of its legs, very nearly cutting them in half.

Another shape blurred overhead.

Four thunderous explosions bloomed along the crippled Sectopod's back,
each sufficient to flip an armored APC ten feet into the air under
different circumstances. Even the hardy construction of the alien menace
crumpled under the conditions just subjected to it. The Sectopod was
almost instantly reduced to an unrecognizable mess of burning, twisted
metal.

Mousse and Kuno didn't stop moving.

A staccato drumbeat of plasma fire came from downrange. Trees exploded
from the inside and ground turned into scorch marks of black and red
glass. A blaster bomb went off near a position on one of the flanking
hillsides, turning it into a crater large enough to park a car in. A
battery of return fire streaked overhead at mach seven, leaving nothing
more than a trail of superheat air, turned to steam, in its wake.
Blaster bombs etched these marks overhead, cutting up the sky into
jigsaw shapes.

Ryouga and Ryu crossed Kuno and Mousse's vector, blurring as they ran at
over fifty miles per hour. The Yamasenken master jumped, kicking with
his feet before landing, and scythes of cutting vacuum held together by
ki saturated an area up ahead. Indistinct shapes moved like ghosts,
titian colored mirages against the battered landscape. Deadly accurate
plasma fire came within half a foot of the martial artist's landing
spot, forcing Ryu to roll and bail off to the side.

Ryouga landed on all fours, and a jolt of furious green energy ripped
through the earth, growing faster and faster as it streaked towards its
target. Once there, the ground contracted, as if inhaling, before
exploding outwards like the face of a volcano. Ghostly shapes moved
through the explosion, floating and zipping through the air in defiance
of gravity and natural law.

Mousse's sleeves rippled, unleashing a cone of fire to cover their
advance. The ball of sticky, caustic thermobaric death washed over the
area, finally revealing the clouded face of the crashed Terror Ship.
Even half smashed by Wyndham's base defenses, it resembled nothing less
than the gaping mouth of hell. Fire and smoke rose from the hole blasted
in its middle, and a literal barrage of enemy fire came from deep
within.

"That's a lot of fire!" Ryu dryly observed.

Mousse gave a satisfied snort. "Not for long. They've been painted!
Incoming!"

Two more blaster bombs curved up and into the now revealed and sighted
hole in the alien ship. Massive explosions gutted the vessel from the
inside, peeling away bits of ship-class alien alloy armor. A psionic
screech shot through all four members of India squad as one of the more
powerful Ethereals, probably a leader, expired in a wall of crushing
force and flame.

For a moment, the incessant psionic assault all four men felt faded, but
then it snapped back in full force. The Ethereals were relentless. Shots
and techniques went awry, missing when they should have hit. False
readings and whispers made one question when the shot seemed genuine.
Ryu even stumbled when he slammed into a rock that he hadn't seen. An
ever increasing sense of dread, even in the face of what seemed like an
allied advantage, wore at their minds.

This was what it meant to fight combat class Ethereals.

They were in your mind, sometimes two or three of them, probing and
pushing for a way in. Sometimes they would just pass by, look for a
weakness, and move on. Other times they would just keep pressing and
pressing, the pressure building and building. Mousse hesitated as three
of them suddenly focused on him.

"Mousse is being hit hard!" Nabiki warned them.

"On it!" Ryu barked, moving to tackle the stunned Chinese martial artist
before he ended up shot. A plasma grenade spun through the air, landing
nearby. The two barely managed to scramble away before it exploded,
throwing molten metal and gas hotter than the sun across a two dozen
square feet.

"Bravo and Charlie incoming!" India's controller quickly added. "Watch
your six! Check your fire!"

Ryu and Mousse glanced up and saw titian robes...

No: they were too large, too bulky. The two blinked, and saw suits of
MARS powered armor flying overhead. With the enemy sufficiently
suppressed, they were swooping into deliver the coup de grace. Green gas
pellets blanketed the open face of the crashed alien ship, followed by
powerful psionic attacks and direct injections of well heated plasma.
Another Ethereal died, this one a lower ranked soldier, and it shrieked
in Mousse's mind as its seemingly frail body burned down to the bone.

"India Squad, report."

"All quiet, lieutenant." Ryu then added, "Finally."

"It seems we finally shut them up," Mousse replied, referring to the
unending psionic attacks.

"The more terrible the enemy defeated, the greater the glory!" Kuno
trumpeted. "A worthy enterprise for my noble blade!"

"Form up and fall back," Ryouga ordered, turning and making for the
rendezvous he just pinged. Nabiki routed the location to the HUD
topographic maps on their helmet visors.

"What next?" Ryu asked as he ran. Next to him, Mousse was still shaking
his head to clear the after effects of the psionic screech.

"We're going to make one last sweep to make sure the area is clear, then
we support the Wyndham Assault teams. Anyone feeling fatigued?"

"A little winded," Mousse answered first. "But good to go."

"Sixty percent maybe." Ryu speculated.

"I have but scratched the surface of my legendary stamina, Lieutenant!"

"Good," Ryouga nodded to himself. "Ryu, you and Mousse swing around to
the south. Make sure that hill is clear."

"It got nuked. I think its clear."

"Make sure. No survivors."

"Hai, Lieutenant," Ryu replied, his grin all but audible. India Squad
could cover a lot of ground extremely quickly when it wanted to. Even
giving the cratered and beaten hilltop a look through wouldn't take
long.

"Kuno. Meet up with me and we'll head to the landed Avenger."

"As you say, lieutenant."

Ryouga finished handing out orders and took a moment to catch his
breath. He keyed off the outgoing audio to the other three members of
India as he focused on the steady intake of air. Not a surprise - he had
used up more of his reserves than any of them. To make matters worse,
the tissue damage from Cologne's blood vine was flaring up again,
painful enough to evoke a wince from a man who trained by taking multi-
ton boulders to the face.

'Damn you, Cologne...!'

"Lieutenant," Nabiki spoke up, interrupting his thoughts. He could have
turned off his audio to her as well, but it wasn't prudent. Besides...

"I'm fine, Nabiki. I just need a few seconds."

She seemd to give him a second before speaking again, this time in a
lighter tone. "I didn't know you could rearrange the landscape like
that, Hibiki. You aren't going to pull out any of those little volcano-
explosion-whatever blasts when we get back to Nerima, are you?"

"It isn't like I go out of my way to cause property damage, you know."

"No, those city blocks were just in the way of your mighty finger."

It was a silly statement, and against his prevailing mood, he grinned a
bit.

"This isn't the sort of situation for holding back," he explained.
"Naturally I'll be a bit more careful next time I fight Ranma near the
dojo."

"See that you do, Mister Human Natural Disaster," Nabiki then asked, as
if an afterthought. "How big of a breaking point can you make go boom,
anyway?"

A sly smirk formed behind his helmet.

"It depends on the ground, but... pretty big." He switched topics, his
tone turning professional again. "What's the status of the assault?"

Kuno appeared in a flash, his armor looking scuffed but none the worse
for wear. He gestured with his index and middle finger, and Ryouga
silently returned the greeting. The kendoist nodded, and headed for the
landed Avenger at a brisk pace of twenty miles per hour. Ryouga followed
carefully, always mindful of his... directional impairment.

"Not great," Nabiki answered, double checking her data back at Seiran.
"Hotel and Golf are right where they're supposed to be, but that's no
surprise there. Foxtrot is making its way to the engineering level. Echo
is mopping up the hangar. Juliet is in the east lab. Still no word on
survivors or whatever is left of the Wyndham squads."

"Did we knock out the enemy Commander?"

"The general psionic warning is still Class-A... so it doesn't look like
it. The big bad is probably still in the battleship somewhere," Nabiki
speculated. "Alpha and Delta squads are having a slow time of it in
there. They'll probably requisition you guys to help."

"That bad?"

"Delta lost both its rookies," Nabiki explained, her voice tinged with
concern. "Kinoshida's wounded, but still up and fighting."

"Delta's been getting hammered these last few ops."

Back at Seiran, Nabiki could only nod in silent agreement.

"Any news from the other bases? What about Iraq?"

"They aren't disseminating info on those sites yet. I could place a
request...?"

"No. Don't bother. We'll find out eventually."

Together, he and Kuno slowed as they approached the landed Avenger. The
pilot and copilot were the only two men on guard, testament to how
stretched thin their squads were at the moment. Seiran had sortied every
man and woman it could to relieve Wyndham, and what was left would head
back only long enough to refuel before heading out to the mideast.

It was looking pretty rough.

Ryu and Mousse were also present, having arrived just moments before.
The two members of India squad were standing next to the Avenger's
copilot, talking with their helmet visor's transparent. Ryu was calm,
but Mousse was also trying to fix some of the battle damage to his
sleeves and robe. Leave it to the master of hidden weapons to have, of
all things, replacement robes hidden under his robes.

He briefly wondered if those robes had spare robes under them, too?

"India Squad is assembled and ready for reassignment," Ryouga announced
up the chain of command. "Are we headed underground?"

A moment later, the response came in.

"Negative India." It was Captain Ben-Solomon. "We're pulling Delta out
of the battleship assault. You are to move in and join Charlie in
securing the second and third tiers."

"Opposition?"

"Medium. A mix of Ethereals and Mutons. Be advised we are using psionic
attacks of our own on the Muton crew. Priority is on Ethereals and
securing a line to their Commander. Expect heavy psionic interference."

"Yes, sir," Ryouga crisply replied. "We'll head over immediately."

It was Kuno, of all of them, that grunted at the immediate reassignment.

"No rest for the wicked, as they say," he muttered. "Although,
naturally, I only come along because of my attachment to you roguish
vagabonds. It is difficult being such an altruistic soul!"

"Roguish vagabonds?" Ryu asked with a small laugh. "Really?"

Mousse just retracted a hidden blade from his repaired sleeve.

"India Squad. We have our orders," Ryouga barked. "Ryu, take point!
Let's get moving!'

The three martial artists nodded once, and took off, accelerating at
superhuman speed. They'd be at the landed alien battleship in a minute
and a half at a normal pace. Once there, it would be right back into the
teeth of the enemy.

Wicked or not, there wouldn't be any rest for some time yet.

-----

Irhil M'Goun was gone.

Commander Yasuda watched the live feed with a stony expression. UAV and
satellite imagery revealed a massive blast crater and a collapsed wall
of earth where the underground facility had once been, sequestered away
in an isolated corner of Morocco. Hiding her mouth behind her right
hand, the Commander of Seiran Mountain closed her eyes and tried not to
think of the personnel losses.

'Self destruct? It had do be, but was it the aliens or our people?'

By all accounts, the attack on Irhil M'Goun had stalemated with the
alien invaders unable to breach the last line of inner base defenses.
Andermatt had organized a counterattack and were about to enter the
facility after mopping up the landed alien craft. Moments later the
entire base went up in a pillar of nuclear fire. Losses were looking
downright catastrophic, and not just in terms of human lives.

M'Goun had, until just recently, housed a not insubstantial stockpile of
irreplaceable Elerium 115. It continued to supply critical manufacturing
in support of the larger and more modern European bases at Andermatt and
Griefswald. XCOM staff were the best of the best in all fields,
scientific, military and occupational. Their engineers were some of the
most talented men and women on the planet.

An entire base full of them had gone up in smoke.

It was Morlenbach all over again.

Then there was the clusterfuck in Iraq - despite harrying attacks and
daredevil interception attempts across half of Africa and the Indian
Ocean, the aliens had landed and begun attacking Coalition forces in the
city. It was the toughest nut the aliens had ever sent forces to
terrorize and they had answered the challenge by bringing their best (or
worst) to bear, and in sizable numbers. The presence of Chryssalid
pockets in the city was especially troubling.

Commander Yasuda had no idea how Information and Media Control were
going to cover this terror site up. Intelligence indicated that American
ground forces were continuing to try and engage the enemy directly, and
that a number of Allied craft had been destroyed, including entire wings
of aircraft and several ships in the Gulf that had launched missiles at
nearby UFOs despite requests from UNETCO not to engage.

The Americans were going to be furious.

One would almost think it was a good thing to rile up the world
superpower but things weren't entirely as they appeared. Terror Sites
were twofold: to intimidate world leaders and to discredit XCOM. Nations
didn't have to sign pacts with the aliens to hurt XCOM and the overall
global defense network. A sufficiently enraged world power could try and
go it alone, like they had all tried back in 1999.

It would end up now like it did then.

Even with the technology XCOM had uncovered and begun to disseminate,
there was still no way to produce Elerium terrestrially. Laser armed
ships wouldn't cut it against anything larger than a scout. Nations
would still only have the ability to intercept UFOs over their own
airspace - a serious problem when a UFO could cross a country in half an
hour. It would only break apart UNETCO and the millennial accord. Even
if the US mobilized all its resources, it would only encourage other
states to make deals - with the enemy no less - to try and maintain
parity.

XCOM knew from interrogations that the final phase of the enemy's plan
didn't involve some sort of grand worldwide invasion. No: the aliens
would pick and choose. Infiltrate and connive. All it would take, Intel
believed, were a handful of rogue nations to play into the alien scheme.

The Visitors were no invasion.

They had always been here. They expected to always be here. They could
not be effectively confronted in a conventional war... not yet. Not with
their influence in human society, human governments, human genetics. Not
with the UNETCO accords breaking and fraying apart. Noriko only hoped
that the Americans could reign in their fury and swallow their losses
tonight.

Hell, if the Italians stuck with the program even after that affair in
Rome...

Commander Yasuda cupped her hands under her chin.

She didn't have a fraction of the psionic skill her two Captains had,
but there was something tugging at her mind: a sense of unease. They had
all their forces at Wyndham. Based on reports, the battle outside was
going much better than the battle inside. Captain Banks expected the
whole operation to finish mopping up in twenty minutes.

So what was this feeling she had, like things were about to go wrong?

-----

It was cold.

That was Ukyou's first thought as she came to: it was cold. Cold enough
to make her shiver, even inside her insulated suit. Blinking the stars
from her eyes but unable to properly rub them with her helmet still on,
she grimaced as a shot of adrenalin and medical stimulants ran through
her veins. Sucking in a long sharp gulp of air, she let it out with a
ragged sigh followed by a wet cough.

"Shampoo?" Ukyou looked up and saw the other girl on her hands and
knees, looking down. She, too, wore her personal armor so Ukyou's
recognition was based on the small embellishments the Chinese Amazon had
on her person: a bit of string clipped to the side, near where her ear
would be, and a pink and red symbol she'd had etched onto the shoulder.

She saw Shampoo holding up a blue medikit, and nodded, understanding.

"You'll have to use speakers," Shampoo said, taking a moment to point at
the side of her helmet that looked to have been scorched by a fire. "My
antenna's scrambled."

"Ranma!" Ukyou suddenly gasped, turning to try and find him. He had been
right in front of them! He must've taken most of the blast!

Shampoo scooted over and Ukyou saw him: he looked to be breathing
beneath his armor, but it was damaged all along the front. She watched,
helpless, as he arched his back and shook his head. Looking down, she
confirmed they were still under a constant psionic barrage. If he had
been knocked unconscious... yes, and he had been psionically targeted
before, too!

"He was up before," Shampoo explained, carefully feeling her left side.
"But the attacks got worse. We'll have to carry him."

Ukyou nodded in easy agreement.

"Rachael, what's our status? Are there any teams incoming?" the martial
arts chef asked, trying to contact Command. "Rachael?"

"Getting anything?" Shampoo asked, leaning in a bit.

Static.

"No. I... I think I can hear something, but its...no," Ukyou winced at
the white noise. "I don't know what's wrong."

"Ranma said he had to get the Mind Shield back up," Shampoo said,
getting back on her feet. "So that's our mission now."

"What?" Ukyou asked, surprised by both her comrade's statement and her
tone of voice. "No! We should get back to the surface! Make contact with
Command and help Ranma!"

"Ranma was in command, and Ranma gave us our orders!" Shampoo snapped
back, quick checking the status of her plasma rifle. "Look back there!"

The Chinese girl motioned to the dark stains on the walls and ceiling
ahead of them. The man - if it had been a man - had been all but
vaporized by the plasma grenade going off in such an enclosed space.
Everything nearby had likely been scarred. The discolored patches on the
walls weren't from blood - it was from cooling metal and fused silicate.

"We get the Mind Shield up, and they won't be able to do that unless
they have line of sight, remember? Ranma will be back to normal. That's
why he gave us the order."

Ukyou sucked on her lower lip, not liking the situation. It was
dangerous... too dangerous. She could hardly imagine Ranma giving any of
them that order. They should be backtracking either to the surface or to
one of the areas secured by the other squads. They needed to get their
communications fixed and check in with Command and their Coordinator. It
was too reckless to run around without oversight in a psionic rich
environment.

"Are you assuming command?" Ukyou asked, narrowing her eyes a bit behind
her visor.

Shampoo responded quickly, "I am. You help Ranma get back on his feet."

Ukyou thought it over for a moment but eventually relented. For now.

Getting on her knees, she suddenly felt overcome by a lightheaded
nausea. It was almost as if something was wrong with her air supply...
except that system checked out fine. A corner of her HUD also displayed
her vitals. She wasn't badly hurt anywhere, except for a few fragments
that had been stopped by her armor and a couple light burns. What was
this feeling, then? Her heart rate spiked.

'Was it the drugs?' she glanced over at Shampoo. 'How much did she give
me?'

Ukyou felt a cold shiver run down her spine.

"Well?" Shampoo asked, rifle at the ready. "Let's go."

"Right, right," the Japanese girl protested while she thought. Once up
and moving, her body began to quickly recover, drugs or not. Thankfully
Ranma relaxed when she started to lift him by his shoulders. Holding him
upright with one arm, Ukyou reached to the side and retrieved her battle
spatula from where it lay against the wall. It was looking pretty beat
up from those plasma blasts earlier. Only its heavy alien alloy
construction kept it intact.

For a normal girl of her size, supporting Ranma's weight, armor and all,
would have been uncomfortably difficult. Ukyou may as well have been
carrying around a three ounce doll. Even with his armor and equipment he
was far lighter than a martial artist of her caliber could lug around,
for hours if need be. That wasn't a problem.

It was Shampoo.

She was charging ahead, reading the map on her HUD to find the quickest
route down to the next level where the Mind Shield facility had been
located. Ukyou could understand her haste... no one liked inching
through an area, watching every wall and checking every little detail.
But with Ranma out of action and her at less than fifty percent - only
her left arm being free - it was too much. Shampoo was being too
reckless.

'She's going to get us all killed.'

-----

Ukyou was going to get them all killed, Shampoo just knew it.

She was lagging behind, purposefully going slow. Ranma was big, but it
wasn't like either of the girls couldn't support his entire body in the
palm of their hand for hours at a time. He wasn't even moving much
anymore. There was no excuse for Ukyou being so slow and so sloppily
exposed as they advanced.

'The enemy could be anywhere.'

Shampoo fingered the trigger on her plasma carbine, sweeping the next
room quickly for any sign of movement. Sepia colored eyes quickly
checked the static map they'd been given of Wyndham. They were coming up
to the next access incline.

"Shampoo," Ukyou spoke up, breaking the other girl's concentration.

"What?" she hissed over speaker, annoyed that her comms were out.

'She's too loud. Why is she speaking so loudly?'

"Are you sure we shouldn't try and find Foxtrot? I think they're north
of us. Or they were before we got knocked out."

"The doors that way are still sealed," Shampoo reminded her. "Do you
want to waste time getting them back open? What if something comes up
behind us?"

"I don't think we should be doing this at all."

'She's a coward.'

"Don't tell me you're afraid?"

"There's a difference between fear and prudence."

"Just stick behind me," Shampoo ordered. "We'll hit the enemy from
behind while he's fighting the Wyndham squads. Its always best to be
aggressive in this sort of situation."

Ukyou grumbled unhappily but Shampoo ignored her.

'She's acting strange... could she be...?'

-----

'There's something wrong with her.'

Ukyou watched Shampoo's back as she advanced down the inclined hallway
that connected the research and engineering wings with the
communications and command complex. The other squaddie was jumpy, like
the proverbial cat. There was definitely something wrong with her;
Ukyou's instincts could tell.

'She's being influenced by them.'

Ukyou held her battle spatula close to her chest, taking some small
comfort in its proximity and protective width. If Shampoo was being
manipulated by the aliens, then she was either leading them into a trap,
or... or maybe she would just snap and turn on them while they were at
their most vulnerable. Ukyou had heard about it before. The aliens
didn't just take over your mind, they could make you do things. They
could drive fear and panic into you by manipulating your brain
chemistry. They could make you see things and hear things, driving a
normally calm and collected trooper berserk.

Did Ranma really give that order to reactivate the Mind Shield?

She hadn't heard it. Only Shampoo had.

Was her comm system scrambled?

Why were the medikit stims making her lightheaded?

'Shampoo...'

-----

'Ukyou...'

Shampoo felt a cold chill of fear run up her spine.

'What's happening to you?'

-----

Ranma warmed his hands with his breath. It wasn't just cold - it was an
unnatural rigor that cut through ki hardened senses and skin. There was
no way it was real. Walking through the abandoned hallways, he could see
and feel the walls shift and change with every step. The pipes and in-
set lighting were melding into the ceiling and the floor and starting to
become replaced by wood paneling.

A layer of frost gave the wood a slick sheen.

"A psionic trap," he said, recognizing it.

He analyzed it, knowing that knowledge was the essential factor in
breaking free. Captain Banks had taught him this. He had trained for
this. This wouldn't go like it would have months ago, back before XCOM.
He knew what he was up against.

"That battle aura thing you have provides some defense, that's true, but
if an enemy breaks through that then you're nearly defenseless. You have
to learn to understand and defeat psionic attacks - to recognize their
form, their function and their weaknesses."

The voice of Captain Banks was as clear now as it had been then.

"You've read about the kinds of telepathic attacks you'll encounter:
direct attacks, trap attacks, and hybrid techniques. However, only
experience and training will give you the tools necessary to defeat the
enemy under these conditions. We will begin our exercises by progressive
exposure to ever more elaborate entrapments. Remember that perception is
skewed when undergoing psionic attack. What feels like a few minutes may
in fact be hours or a few seconds."

The Captain had begun by trapping his student with a simple room...
except the door outside was on the ceiling. It was easy enough to get
through. Ranma had used his natural abilities to leap up, gain a
handhold, and open the door. Passing through it, he ended up in an
identical room, falling after climbing up and passing through.

This time, he was unable to jump to the top. Once again, he used
physical force to claw his way to the door. Again he fell, and again the
room adapted. Lined with alien alloy, there was no way to gain or even
force a handhold. It was only then that the exercise truly became
difficult.

It was only then that he began to really learn.

"Analyze the situation. Is this a direct attack, trap attack, or hybrid
attack?" Ranma thought out loud, advancing carefully. The walls were all
wooden now, and starting to take on a familiar look. It seemed to be a
trap attack.

That was bad.

Direct attacks were the easiest to foil using brute force, which
happened to be the specialty of basically everyone in the two squads
(minus Konatsu). It was a simple mind duel. One force pushed, the other
pushed back, until one or the other prevailed. The backlash against the
loser could be crippling when the duel was serious: the brain would
hemorrhage or the body would start to catch fire or the nervous system
would go haywire. Things like that. It sounded bad, but it was the
easiest technique of the three to detect and break out of.

Trap attacks were more insidious, but thankfully, less likely to be
encountered. Most aliens preferred direct attacks, either telepathic or
telekinetic. A trap attack was dangerous for two reasons: it could be
set up and used on an enemy and then the trap maker could leave, freeing
himself from any potential backlash. It wasn't as deadly as a straight
up duel, unless you happened to be in a dangerous spot when you got
tagged by it. A trap attack needed to be disarmed by disturbing or
disrupting the intent of the trap, which meant observation, anticipation
and investigation were more important than brute force.

If this was a trap attack...

Ranma fought back a shiver as the biting cold blew past his face. It was
like walking into a freezer (and he would know, having been trapped in
one for hours before). Up ahead, the walls opened up, revealing a floor
with tatami mats and a small shrine at one end, now empty. He recognized
it instantly, despite the growing layer of rime on the walls.

"The Tendo Dojo," he observed.

At the far end of the dojo, a door opened.

"So, its like that, huh?" Ranma smirked and cracked his knuckles. "Who
am I gonna fight? Saffron? Herb? India Squad?"

A large silhouette appeared first against the backlight, resolving into
the stern visage of Genma Saotome. The thought of fighting his annoying
old man only got Ranma's blood pumping even faster. If that was it, then
this would be easy. A moment later, an unexpected form also stepped out
of the light: that of his mother. Nodoka and Genma Saotome stepped to
the side, seemingly content to watch.

Ranma lowered his guard somewhat as Soun Tendo emerged, also eventually
moving to stand against the wall. Ryouga and Mousse and even Kuno
followed. These, too, Ranma had expected to fight, but the other martial
artists simply stood aside. They were dressed like before, like back in
Nerima. They all were. Shampoo came out next, wearing one of her Chinese
dresses from the cafe, and even Ukyou wore her favorite okonomiyaki
outfit.

"What is this?" he asked, annoyed by the lack of action thus far. "You
guys gonna stare me to death or something?"

A small frame finally appeared within the door and Ranma's initial quip
died on his lips.

Akane.

She stepped forward where the others had hung to the side. The youngest
Tendo daughter wore the same white gi she had when he'd first sparred
with her, more than two years ago. But this was her eighteen year old
self, the one he had... the one he had become closer to lately. She took
a few halting steps forward, and the door behind her darkened slightly
before becoming replaced by more of the Dojo's wooden walls.

"Ranma," she spoke, the first of the entire procession to mutter so much
as a word. "Ranma..."

"Akane," he said her name softly, before catching himself. "What is
this? You want me to fight Akane?" He scoffed loudly. "Are you just
trying to waste my time? I could dance around her for hours!"

"Ranma...!" Akane wiped something away from her bottom lip.

His sakkijutsu instantly spiked with a warning, even within the psionic
illusion.

Taking a step back, unsure, he then watched as she reached up to the hem
of her gi and began to slide it down. For just a moment, it looked like
she was going to disrobe... but then a familiar piece of armor became
clear, hidden under her white sparring clothes. That green and red and
the distinct design - it could only be one thing. One damned thing.

The battle dougi.

The Gods' damned battle dougi!

Tearing the last of her white gi aside, Akane stood before him, once
again wearing that cursed battle armor from before. Back then, it had
given her incredible martial arts prowess... due more to its enchanted
nature than Akane herself. Of course, at first, he had wanted that power
for himself, but then it became obvious the suit had a certain perverted
preference for being worn by girls. The whole debacle it had caused
between himself and Akane was something he'd rather have forgotten.

"I'll never forgive you if you hit me!"

What a thing to say in the middle of a duel while busily pounding his
face in.

Beating it then, knowing its weak spot, had been difficult without
actually causing any physical harm to Akane herself. Of course... this
wasn't the real Akane. He didn't need to hold back or restrain himself.
He could beat her quite literally, by simply pounding her into the
ground.

Couldn't he?

"Ranma!" Akane muttered again, stalking towards him. "Fight me, Ranma.
Fight me."

Something... felt wrong, and it wasn't just his opponent or this place.

Predictably, Akane came right at him at full speed, augmented by the
dougi. It was just like he remembered. Even back then, he'd gotten
better at reading the armor and Akane's combined moveset, and now he was
a good deal faster and stronger than before. Lightning fast blows
whizzed by his head as he twisted and dodged; his arms only snapping up
to block when Akane fell to her hands and attacked with her feet.

The blows damn near broke his arms.

Feet skidding along the floorboards, tearing up two tatami mats, he
ducked under another flurry of spinning kicks before rolling out of the
way. The dougi had used Akane's strength to the utmost before, but this
was ridiculous! She'd never hit this hard before, not when he was trying
to block her! Except...

"Ranma...!" Akane wiped something away from her bottom lip.

Just great - the Super Soba, too?!

Putting the theory to the test, he caught one of her fists in his hand,
directing the impact into the ground through his body. It was one of the
perks of the art, being able to redirect physical forces. Cologne and
Happosai were better still at it. The old freak had been able to stop a
house leveling blow with just one finger, and Cologne was able to use it
to make herself nearly invulnerable to single physical blows. Ranma's
body shook from the forces bearing down on and through it, and the
ground at his feet shook and buckled.

"Damnit. If it were just the super strength, or just the dougi..." He
eyed the midriff of Akane's armor, knowing the weak spot there. "But
both of them at the same time? Can I really stop her without hurting
her?"

Does it even matter?

Dancing in and out of her reach, taking two near miss blows to the torso
and face, he considered it. There was really no reason to hold back. It
had pissed him off back then, not being able to just HIT BACK. There was
no reason not to now. This was just part of some alien's mind game. It
wasn't real. He could cut loose.

Hit back.

Except... he didn't want to hit her.

Or did he?

Hit her.

He did sort of... but...

Jumping back, he concentrated, not on one of his techniques, but on the
appearance of the psionic construct all around him. After several
iterations of Captain Bank's trap room, it had become impossible to get
to the door without outright manipulation of the environment. Focusing
past Akane, to her feet, he willed the wood to melt and give way.

Akane tensed to jump after him but her feet sunk into the now viscous
floor.

"Strength is useless when you have nothing to move against. The more you
try, the more you'll sink," Ranma explained, quickly glancing at the
other fake family and friends in the dojo. He needed to find out how to
break the intention of the trap. That was the only way out.

"Ranma!" Akane snarled, and frost began to collect around her legs.
"Fight me for real!"

"You know you don't really want that," he replied, glaring at her. "You
never wanted me to fight you for real. You just wanted to beat me to
feel good about yourself."

That's right: fight back.

Say what you've always wanted to.

"Are you saying we're different in that respect, Ranma?" Akane hissed,
pulling her feet free from the now frozen and solidified ground.
"Doesn't beating others... Ryouga, Mousse, Kuno, me... doesn't it make
you feel like a man? Doesn't it make you feel good, too?"

He tensed at the accusation, but...

Its true.

"Why should anyone care how you win, as long as you do," Akane
continued, advancing on him again. "That's what our school of martial
arts is all about!"

Her blows came in fast, short cutting strikes and snapping legs. A foot
tore into the side of his face just below the eye, blinding him
momentarily and throwing him off balance. He managed to block -
painfully - a tiger strike to the neck, but then another kick smashed
into the back of his head, sending the pigtailed fighter to the floor.
He hit, bounced, and narrowly escaped a descending heel that would have
crushed his skull.

'She... she's...!'

Trying to get some more distance, trying to concentrate, trying to
dodge, Ranma barely felt it when Akane managed to get a hand on his
pigtail. Gasping, he crashed to the floor as she pulled at it, flipping
him into the ground and then spinning him in a tight circle before
introducing him to the wall. His nose actually broke - a feeling he
hadn't had in some time - splattering hot blood over most of his face.
Finally, his pigtail tore off entirely and he rolled against the wall,
fielding another dozen spinning crescent kicks in a desperate bid for
space and time.

'She isn't just beating me... she'll kill me...!'

Fight back. For real.

Its just one blow. She isn't real. This isn't really Akane. Fight back.
I have to. Hit her. That isn't Mister Tendo watching us. Hit her. I
don't want to lose, and I damn sure don't want to die! You have to. This
is a duel, right?

Hit her.

Akane's right fist streaked by, missing his face by millimeters and
slamming into the wall with a thunderous crash. Seizing the opportunity,
Ranma's left palm curled into a fist, and in a flash of speed, buried
itself in Akane's stomach, hitting the taijitu symbol that covered her
midsection. The young woman's eyes widened from the blow, delivered with
surprising force, and she flew back off her feet, shredded bits of the
dougi shedding away like flakes of snow and ice.

"I had to," Ranma all but snarled. "You made me..."

Akane landed on her feet, eyes dark with rage.

"Ranma!" She hissed, and bit by bit, the dougi began to reform around
her. "That won't work this time!"

Her fingers spasmed and twisted energy began to form something in her
right hand. Ranma gaped, shocked that his finally working up the resolve
to fight back for real hadn't done any good. He could only watch as a
longbow formed in Akane's hands, so like those she had used from time to
time - usually when she suspected he was up to no good.

Still... what could she do with just a bow? It was useless.

An arrow appeared in her other hand, and without a moments hesitation,
the armored girl took aim at him and let fly. A thunderclap shook the
dojo walls when she fired. Only a moment's abrupt caution kept Ranma out
of its way. The formerly pigtailed martial artist landed a few feet
away, staring in shock at the tear in the floor where the arrow had hit.
The same floor that his and Akane's super powered blows had barely
dented. The arrow had literally ripped the floor apart, revealing
crackling psionic energy that took a few moments to bleed in and
retexture itself as part of the dojo.

'This isn't real. It doesn't have to make sense. But there's no doubt
that if I get hit...' Ranma's thoughts turned dark. 'I'll die.'

Another shiver of razor sharp cold air made him wince.

This was bad.

-----

Joshua Ben-Solomon, Captain, was currently in several places at once -
or rather, his mind was. Most of him was still safe and sound inside his
body, itself protected by escorts and powered armor and well away from
the areas of heavy fighting. He needed most of his mental processes
there, not only as a failsafe, but to coordinate blaster bomb attacks in
and around the field of engagement.

However, while most of him was "at home" so to speak, three other parts
of him were engaged elsewhere. Two were currently occupying Muton hosts
within the landed alien battleship. It would do a soldier well not to
underestimate the physical fortitude, skill, and relentless drive of the
Muton race - literally their only weakness was psionics, and it was put
there on purpose. They were pawns of the Ethereals as much as they were
thinking, reasoning, sentient beings. The psionic knife, unfortunately
for them, cut both ways and the humans had usurped the powers of their
masters.

With a roar, the two subjugated Mutons charged an entrenched nest of
their fellows, turning on their comrades. The aliens were quick to
respond - quicker than humans tended to be, in fact. It had been mere
moments since he seized control over the Muton's minds, carefully
assuming control over both of them at the exact same time. India squad
had identified between three and four aliens entrenched in one of the
battleship's quadrants, near the lift to the western engine pylon. They
had passed on the visual data and the location to him, and he had
quickly launched a multi-pronged psionic attack.

The aliens counterattacked instantly, having sensed their comrade's
disconnect with The Mind. The Muton soldier was hit the instant he
turned, heavy plasma rounds lifting him off his feet and blowing the top
half of his armored body into a black ashen cloud. The second Muton, a
medic, took a blow to the torso that would have punched halfway through
a bank vault door. The creature's organic armor, effective against
plasma, dampened and redistributed the sudden blast of radiation and
concussive force, even from a center of mass shot. It was crippled, but
alive.

Diving to the side, escaping another plasma bolt, Ben-Solomon ordered
the creature to fire its stun bomb launcher. It was a weapon often found
carried by medics in the field, and the aliens used it just like XCOM
did (although these days, they used weapon attachments to prep and fire
the stun bombs rather than a dedicated launcher): the bombs were
extremely effective in blanketing area for tactical denial, for crowd
control, and for stunning psionically compromised allies. Some XCOM
analysts had even suggested remote detonated stun bomb compartments be
added to personal and powered armor, so Command could put to sleep any
agent thought to be compromised in the field. The idea had some merit,
Ben-Solomon could admit, but it was still quite unpopular and for good
reason.

His puppet Muton managed to get off the shot, firing wildly for the
ceiling.

A small dark purple pellet hit the unyielding exotic alloy,
disintegrating on impact and releasing a complex cocktail of gasses into
the atmosphere. These would react with the air and become inert after
less than a minute, leaving very little residue behind, but before they
did they adhered to the bodies of all organics nearby, seeping in
through even the armored skin of the remaining Muton and the withered
corpse-like epidermis of his Ethereal handler. Immediately, a powerful
paralytic poison set in, freezing mind and body. The breaking of the
pellet also sent out a burst of short ranged psionic static, inhibiting
higher mental processes even before the toxins worked to finish the job.

Ben-Solomon felt his connection to the Muton waver and then instantly
cut off. He retreated the disconnected parts of himself, the fractions
that had been in the two aliens, and focused more on the third fragment.
This one, he had detached and placed inside one of his subordinates, the
lieutenant of India Squad, who had helped coordinate the psionic attack
in the first place. Mental probes, manipulation and subjugation was far
easier when you had line of sight rather than just a basic location.

Telepresence wasn't easy, after all, especially under combat conditions.

Having a shard of his mind within someone nearby, someone who could by-
proxy see the enemy, was an immense help. It was one of XCOM's favorite
psionic tricks. A skilled master could "chain" his psionic activities -
by first controlling one alien, using it to spot another, and taking
control of that one, too. The second alien would reveal more aliens in
hiding or deeper in enemy controlled territory. By the time one was
gunned down, the attacker would be leapfrogging back into the enemy
ranks, sometimes all the way to the alien command staff, which could
then be taken out via blaster bombs or a suicidal mind controlled
minion.

It was taxing, but very rewarding when it could be pulled off. Only
recently had the aliens started to adapt to the tactic, spreading out
their units into smaller cells when in the field and being much more
cautious of psionic attack. XCOM was also well aware that the enemy
could try the same technique against them, and likewise used control and
squad dispersal to minimize the effects of a psionic "chain attack"
effect.

Via the piece of him in Ryouga's mind, the Captain watched as India
Squad rapidly advanced into the slowly dispersing cloud and closed with
the stunned aliens. Only the Ethereal was still semi-active, despite the
point blank stun bomb. One of India Squad's martial artists juked
sharply to the side, avoiding a shot by the dazed alien before finishing
it off with an archaic sword strike that neatly opened the body from mid
torso to cranium. There was no surviving an attack like that, even with
the Ethereals' notorious biological telekinesis. The two stunned Mutons
were finished with plasma fire to the head - the only guaranteed way to
do the job.

A moment later, the swordsman staggered.

"Kunou?" Ryouga barked, feeling the disturbance with his passive battle
aura.

"Came and went," the kendoist replied, shaking his head. "Cold..."

Ryu hissed as it washed over him.

"Its probing us!" Ryouga realized, and directed his thoughts to both the
squad and the Captain. "Captain! Mousse is...!"

"I know!"

Mousse had the lowest psionic strength of anyone in the squad.

A heartbeat later and the entire battleship shook as a blaster bomb went
off in the third tier above them. Captain Banks was also supporting the
attack, and he had finally managed to get enough control over one of the
Ethereals there - probably the navigator - to get it to fire off its
blaster launcher within or near the control room. The superstructure of
the battleship was tough, and it served to funnel the explosion along
halls and through open doors. The alien leadership had just been gutted
in their nest.

But... then why was Mousse clutching his head in pain?

"Damnit!" Ryouga roared, powerless to help. "Ryu, Kuno! Restrain
Mousse!"

Both martial artists reacted instantly to the order, pinning their
comrade in arms to the wall and holding his arms and legs in place. The
Chinese Amazon's head slumped limply, his form unresisting. Unseen to
the normal eye, his aura was in turmoil, shifting and pulsing and
wounded. Ryouga saw it - felt it - and understood what it meant.

"Sir," Ryu asked, a bit tentatively. "What if...?"

Ryouga scowled behind his helmet. "You know 'what if.'"

-----

There was No time

Mousse saw the world, frozen in time and space.

Have to Take it

He saw Ryouga and Kuno and Ryu standing around him in states of shock,
the former turning towards where the master of hidden weapons was
himself stuck in time. Ephemeral wisps of the stun bomb's gas still
lingered in the air, but they didn't move, frozen like faint green
clouds. Finding himself able to move his eyes, he could see the end of
the corridor, the one that led back to the main left of the battleship,
was a puddle of darkness.

Must have Your Body

An unexpected shiver ran down Mousse's arms at the sudden thought that
cut, like a serrated knife, into his brain. It sounded like his thoughts
and felt like his intentions, but they were too sudden, too forceful,
too wrong. Mousse felt the bonds on his body slacken; he could move his
fingers first, then his neck, then his arms and legs. He quickly
realized some of what was going on.

"Mental domination?" he thought/asked. "I won't allow it!"

You have no choice

Ice began to collect on his arms, now that they were able to move again.
A sense of hurried panic filled Mousse's mind, augmenting the natural
impulse: escape, get mobile, escape! He had to get out of here! This was
some kind of trap!

"Stop!" A voice boomed, and something coalesced in the air, drawing in
the frozen clouds of stun gas to form a rough human outline. "Squaddie,
do not move!"

Mousse paused. 'That voice was...'

Trying to trick

'Him! No, that wasn't'

What he wanted

'He knew that'

He needed to get out

'Of this'

Back the way he came

"Mousse," the voice said again, and he knew he should have remembered
it, but it seemed so distant. So long ago. "Do not move. You can not
move!"

Begone

The cloud instantly broke apart.

'I didn't just think that! That wasn't my thought!' It all came back in
a rush. Kuno, stumbling from a psionic attack. Ryu cursing as it hit
him, too. And then it...

It...

'It hit me!' Mousse mentally snarled. 'You're in me right now! Hiding!'

Your body will house me

'You're dead! You were just blown to pieces! Don't try and hide from
that in me!' Mousse willed himself not to move. That other voice, it had
been Captain Ben-Solomon.

You will

'Fuck you!' the male Amazon cursed. 'I won't let a coward use me like
that!'

I will have a body for I desire it

'Just die!'

I can never die; not even one of my kind have died this day for all your
flailing attacks. It is inevitable. Surrender yourself to me and you
will be given joy; refuse and know only suffering. You will submit to me
now

'You sound like you're in a rush there,' Mousse observed with a chuckle.
'See, right now, I think what gives me the most joy is screwing you
over, you bastard!'

Mousse's limbs began to lock up again, but by bit, and the frost fall
off. A looming sense of dread replaced it, driving him to try and run.
He remembered the Captains words, steeled his mind, and willed himself
to stay. Instead, he accepted the forces binding him, forcing him still,
even in the face of an unnatural alien terror.

You will die

'You will.'

I told you: I can not die

Just then, the other frozen figures began to move. Ryouga turned his
head, and his hand slowly started to point at the hidden weapons master.
Kuno and Ryu also moved, heading towards him, reaching for him. Another
spike of panic filled Mousse's mind. What were they doing? Why were they
headed towards him?

They will kill you

'No!'

They will kill you to harm me

A shiver filled Mouse's veins with sudden power.

Escape - fight back and escape

-----

Shampoo stared down the barrel of the plasma rifle, her gaze meeting the
ejection end of a plasma pistol held by her one time comrade, the
treacherous okonomiyaki chef. Ranma lay discarded on the floor, dropped
the moment Shampoo turned to confront Ukyou on her suspicious behavior.
The instant she saw Ranma out of the way, Shampoo drew her own weapon,
knowing Ukyou was reaching for hers.

The two froze there, ready to fire.

Ukyou's face couldn't be seen past her polarized helmet visor, but
Shampoo could all but imagine the manic expression the other girl must
have: her eyes wild and bloodshot, her mind scrambled by alien psionics.
She had to die. It was the only way to save Ranma. It was the only way
to save the mission! It was the only way to prove herself!

Shampoo adjusted her aim to try and compensate for the cover provided by
the other girl's battle spatula. It could deflect a shot from a plasma
carbine, even at this range, and Ukyou had trained extensively to use it
as her primary means of defense. That didn't mean she couldn't be beat
at range, however.

Yes

Shampoo played it out in her mind: she would adjust her aim to hit
Ukyou's exposed left arm. She was a better shot than the ambidextrous
chef. She could do it. She could make the shot. The plasma bolt would
either graze Ukyou, burning most of her arm, or blow it apart
completely. Shampoo could then close and use her superior strength,
barreling into the Japanese girl and throwing her off her feet.

In her mind, she imagined it. Ukyou was in midair from the body blow,
trying to hold the flat of her spatula to her body as a shield. Her left
arm was gone at the elbow, her plasma pistol flying slowly through the
air. One, two, three shots at this range. Ukyou would probably be able
to block the first one, or even two, but the third would get past and
hit near the shoulder. The blast would surely kill her.

Shampoo tensed.

You have to

-----

Ukyou adjusted her aim, knowing just what the insane Amazon had planned.
she had known all along that Shampoo couldn't be trusted. The aliens had
gotten to her. Did the Chinese bimbo really think she couldn't feel all
that killing intent, literally radiating off from the other girl?
Madness. She had to have completely lost her mind. The moment Shampoo
had spun around, Ukyou had known what was going to happen. Tossing Ranma
aside to keep him out of the field of fire, to save his life, she had
brought up her spatula to defend her body.

And then Shampoo drew her weapon.

The Chinese girl's face couldn't be seen past her polarized helmet
visor, but Ukyou could all but imagine the manic expression the other
girl must have: her eyes wild and bloodshot, her mind scrambled by alien
psionics. She had to die. It was the only way to save Ranma. It was the
only way to save the mission! It was the only way to survive!

Shampoo would try and charge right in after taking a sniping shot at a
vulnerable area. Ukyou was sure of it. But she was in for a surprise...
the moment Shampoo moved, and the moment Ukyou saw her quick step, she
would run right into the bladed end of Hera-sama. The spatula didn't
look it, but it was razor sharp. Shampoo would be cleaved in half before
she even knew she'd run headfirst into a trap.

Ukyou tensed.

You must

-----

Akane hit the floor with a crash.

Ranma landed on top of her, fist drawn back to deliver a finishing blow.
His left arm was a crippled and broken mess, and he'd had to fight the
last two minutes without it. It was only then, as desperation set it,
that he started to use more of his techniques and will more of the room
to directly attack his opponent. His face was a bloody mess, one eye
swollen near shut and one ear hanging by a thread of skin and connective
tissue.

It wasn't real, he knew that, but it still hurt like hell.

Pausing, just a moment, Akane's head came up and butted him in the face,
forcing a new spray of blood into the back of his mouth as his front
teeth shattered. His body reacted to the attack instinctively, his right
arm curling up and delivering an elbow to the girl's face. Akane spat
blood, a spray of crimson spurting against the matted tatami mats and
paneled wood of the dojo floor.

Kill her

The fight had been hard.

Kill her

The aliens had powered up his opponent in every way imaginable: they had
used someone he cared about, someone he thought he even loved. They had
used her at her most ugly, dredging up his worst and bitterest memories,
giving her the power and intention to kill him. Saffron, Herb, Ryouga,
Ryu... any of those guys, Ranma wouldn't have hesitated to pound into
the ground, but Akane? This Akane?

Damn them.

But it wouldn't stop him. He was Ranma Saotome! He would NOT LOSE!

Kill her

"Akane!" He roared, reeling back to finish the fight once and for all.

KILL HER

-----

Mousse was still as death.

Holding the right side of the Chinese weapons master pinned to the wall,
Ryu exchanged a worried look with Kuno, standing to the young man's
left. Mousse had struggled briefly, but intensely, and then gone
completely slack. It didn't even feel like he was breathing.

"Lieutenant..." Ryu began to say.

"I know," Ryouga cut him off.

"His heart rate," Nabiki said it instead. "Its slowing. He's barely
breathing, if we don't do something... he'll die."

-----

You will die

Mousse was silent.

Creature

Human

You will die

Nothing.

What do you gain by this? Are you trying to kill yourself?

With a snap, a new form took shape out of ethereal air. White sinew
wrapped and knitted together, slowly dyeing itself a titian orange.
Shape and substance and color spread, weaving together into an empty
robe that rippled with psionic power. There was no body within, only a
frigid presence and an unearthly shiver that numbed the senses.

"If you refuse to cooperate, little creature, then I shall take what I
desire by force," Shiver stated, disembodied voice devoid of emotion. As
it came closer, bit by bit, a shape started to fill in the empty space
within the robes: pale skin, long dark hair, and blue eyes.

"I shall take your form, your body, and with that new anchor I shall
spread myself among your comrades," it declared, now with Mousse's own
voice. "But you...! I will have you suffer for this resistance. For this
agonizing delay."

With the speed of a snake, an arm - the real Mousse's - struck, fingers
wrapping around the Ethereal's throat. Letting out a long weary breath,
finally breaking the meditative state he had placed himself in, the
Chinese Amazon's aura spiked before pulling back under his robes. Thick
glasses glinted with malice.

"What can you do?" The Ethereal asked, cocking its head. "Choke that
which needs not breathe? You are helpless."

Mousse said nothing.

Instead, the robes along his right arm tore to shreds as a dozen blades
shot out, impaling the Ethereal's human body and ripping into its robes.
It lurched, pierced so quickly and so terribly, that there was no time
or chance to move in any coordinated fashion. Impossibly, Mousse's
hidden blades extended from the shredded remains of his robes, digging
even deeper into his victim.

The Ethereal sneered in defiance.

And then the razor sharp ends of the blades, some buried deep in the
alien's torso, others doing straight through it, violently split. In an
instant, the alien's actualized form tore apart. There was no blood.
Instead, a hissing black gas burned away the ruined body.

The torn remains of titian robes fluttered in the air.

Damn you... you...!

-----

Nodoka Saotome shook from where she stood, reeling slightly as if
struck.

It was the only movement any of the assembled characters in the false
dojo had made since Ranma and Akane began their fight. It was only an
instant, a mere moment's weakness. In the heat of the moment, it was
easy to overlook or miss entirely.

It was what Ranma had been waiting and watching for.

Seamlessly, the trajectory of his fist shifted, and he concentrated his
battle aura and what was left of his confidence into his arm. His
instinct, his gut, every honed sense he had was screaming that this was
it. This was what he had been looking for. This was the center of the
intent that held together the psionic trap. It was a hybrid trap after
all - a presence was in it, adapting and keeping it together so it
wouldn't fall apart when confronted.

An instant's weakness was all it took.

A red and yellow ki blast nailed Nodoka to the wall behind her, the
force of it shredding away her kimono. His mother. Of course. He had
fought with everyone here before, even Akane and Mister Tendo, but never
his mother. She was the plant. The one he would naturally never suspect.
Everyone else had been pulled from his memory as a candidate to fight,
as someone who would instigate him, as someone it would shame him to
lose to, except one.

As Nodoka fell to her knees, black smoke rose from her nearly nude form.
Flesh peeled away and bits of orange peeked through the disguise. Under
him, the Akane he had been fighting shook, like a puppet whose strings
had become entangled, and went limp. He ignored it, standing up and
directing another murderous ki blast at the creature that had worn his
mother's body.

No

Kill

"The only one whose gonna die here," Ranma thought-projected, unleashing
another blast that flattened the Ethereal against the wall. "Is you!"

-----

Shampoo and Ukyou's fingers twitched.

They felt it, too.

Shampoo glanced down at the rifle, and at where it was aimed. Behind her
helmet, her eyes shot up at where Ukyou stood. She hadn't moved, but
Shampoo could feel a sudden hesitation and confusion.

KILL HER

The impulse bore down on her mind with all for force and subtlety of a
freight train.

KILL HER OR SHE WILL KILL YOU

Shampoo didn't believe it. Not anymore. The cold was still there, like a
freezing storm, but unlike before it couldn't seep in through the
comforting aura of warmth she had erected against it. Unfortunately, it
was impossible to tell if Ukyou had done the same thing.

She could still be compromised.

"Hey," Shampoo said, speaking just above a whisper. "Stupid spatula
girl."

"What is it?" Ukyou replied, but added, "You Chinese hussy."

"No-skills pancake chef."

"Can you repeat that in Japanese, sugar?"

"Can you ask me that in Chinese?"

Both girls lowered their weapons.

KILL HER

"I almost killed you, you know," Ukyou said, her stance relaxed. It was
over.

KILL HER

"More like I almost killed you," Shampoo corrected her teammate.
Together, they turned to where Ranma still lay, his battle aura out and
blazing despite his being nearly unconscious on the floor. Both of them
knew what that meant.

The cold ebbed away, retreating into the darkness.

And their comms came back on.

"...Kuonji, anybody, please respond!"

Ukyou answered first, keying her supposedly deactivated TeamComm back
on. In fact, it had been on the entire time. It was her senses, her
hearing, that had been manipulated. The white noise from before...

"This is Squaddie Kuonji. We were under psionic attack but have resumed
control of the situation."

"About time!" Rachael, their controller back at Seiran, gave a harried
sigh of relief. "Lieutenant Saotome is still under a psionic compulsion.
He isn't responding to any of my pings or shocks. I can't break him out
of it myself."

"This is Shampoo," the other member of Juliet spoke up. "We'll take care
of it."

Ukyou nodded. "What do you have in mind? I don't think pinching him will
help."

Shampoo chuckled confidently. "I wouldn't expect a mere pancake maker to
understand."

"And I wouldn't expect a girl who never graduated from high school to
explain it, either, but please," Ukyou said, false modesty and sincerity
mixed with humor. "Try and enlighten me."

"I can feel it hiding in his battle aura," Shampoo readily explained,
walking purposefully over to Ranma's limp form. "And I want some
payback."

Ukyou rested her battle spatula, blade first, against the floor.

"You're not the only one, sugar."

-----

SMALL CREATURE

Nodoka was gone. Shiver was all that remained.

The Ethereal was psionic fury incarnate. Ranma had encountered the
aliens before on pervious missions. He had heard that there was a
difference between normal Ethereals - alien overseers, researchers and
bureaucrats - and true combat-class Ethereals. He was seeing it now,
firsthand. It wasn't so much a difference in power as it was experience
and application.

The dojo walls rippled, and a wave of psionic force tore the skin from
Ranma's body, flaying him alive. The pain, very real even in this fake
place, nearly sent even a man with his constitution and threshold for
agony into mental shock. Instead, he focused, and his battle aura
collapsed into him, regenerating the damage as fast as it could be
delivered.

"You finally wanna fight?" Ranma asked, grinning madly. "That's fine by
me! Bring it on! Come on!"

The Ethereal was a storm of titan energy, formless and horrible in its
intensity.

I SHALL REND THE SMALLEST SCRAPS OF FLESH FROM YOUR BONES

A duo of mental lances bore down on Ranma, meaning to pin him to the
floor like an insect, but impossibly the human managed to catch the
nearly invisible bolts of mental energy. His left arm back in working
order, Ranma's hands clenched at the blazing tips of the psionic spears.
He knew this technique - it was one of the telekinetic attacks Ethereals
used in the real world.

It obviously didn't get it.

IMPOSSIBLE

YOU CAN NOT MATCH ME

"This is my mind, you know. My world," Ranma reminded it. "I ain't gonna
let things go the way you want 'em to, not anymore!"

INSIGNIFIGANT CREATURE

Ranma felt it recede, pulling away from the fight, trying to escape.

"Oh no you don't!" The martial artist slammed his palms down on the
floor, and willed. He thought of the most impenetrable space he could
think of. The walls shifted and contorted in response to his desires:
tatami mats jumped up into the air, reforming before falling in place.
Walls turned from plain wood to taking on a more metallic sheen.

It became the indestructible Tendo Dojo back at Seiran.

The Ethereal's mental storm wavered.

WHAT IS THIS

"You ain't going nowhere!" Ranma announced, smirking viciously. "Right
guys?"

Then, from a corner of the room, another presence made itself known.

"Just what I wanted to hear," Mousse said, walking forward and cracking
his knuckles. "Nice choice of location, Saotome."

"Is very appropriate," Shampoo said, also entering the fray from the
ether. "What? Why Shampoo speak in this stupid language again?!"

Ukyou also appeared, laughing at her companion's discomfort. "I'd say
its your true self made manifest, Shampoo..."

"Sorry," Ranma apologized but only half heartedly. "My head is still
working in Japanese I guess. Glad you could make it, though."

"You felt our ki?" Mousse asked, impressed despite himself. "And
constructed a semi permeable mental barrier? You're annoyingly quick
witted as usual, Lieutenant."

Ranma gave his Chinese some-time-rival a smirk.

And then turned his attention back to Juliet Squad. "Things ok outside?"

Shampoo shrugged.

"Just fine," Ukyou replied, glancing at the now trapped Ethereal in
Ranma's mindscape. "No thanks to this jackass. He must've thought it'd
be funny to have me beat up on Shampoo."

"Or that it funny Shampoo finally put stupid spatula girl out of her
misery."

"It tried to kill you, Shampoo?" Mousse's voice was surprisingly calm.
"I see. Let's kill it slowly."

The Ethereal pulsed, once again trying to escape.

FILTHY LITTLE HUMANS

YOU CAN NOT CONTAIN ME AGAINST MY WILL

The four began to close in on it.

I WILL NOT BE

I CAN NOT BE

KILLED

I...

I..

I.

-----

Ranma opened his eyes.

The psionic warning indicator was silent as the grave, and despite the
residual pain in his body - a carryover from the pain caused in the
mental trap - he felt extraordinarily good. Shampoo and Ukyou were
standing over him, also just now fully coming back to their senses.
Ranma had felt them leave, and Mousse as well, retreating back the way
they had came.

He smirked.

The Ethereal wasn't just gone.

"You lose," he whispered.

-----

Through millions of miles of space, it was felt.

For the first time in memory, an Ethereal had died.

Actually died. The loss of a body was inconsequential; it was not true
death. This was different. For some reason, Shiver had not been able to
return to the Mind. Even those Ethereals killed in psionic duels with
empowered humans were still within the Mind, and could return in new
bodies and recover. This time something was wrong. Something had
happened to the Commander of the Third Assault Wave.

He was dead.

Beyond the ability of the Mind to revive.

The news was troubling, even upsetting, but not taken to be anything but
an anomaly. Shiver had extended himself too much and been unable to
return. The Mind soothed the concerns of the minority who worried it
was, perhaps, some new sort of human weapon. Of all the sentients
connected to the Mind, of all the beings Called to Mars, only one
laughed.

Alone in a room within the alien scout ship, deep in the depths of
space...

Cologne laughed.

Her cute little students had actually killed an Ethereal Commander. True
death.

Everything was going perfectly.


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