. . .


Human Space (John's Story) (VIII)


. . .

"A Chryssalid Titan," May whispered under her breath as she watched the battle unfold in the combat arena. The servitor was over nine meters tall and by necessity it was much more heavily built and stocky than a normal-sized 'lid. The legs and lower body had to be to account for the increased weight. Yet it was not some lumbering beam-sponge, for all the crackling electricity dancing over spines set in ultra-heavy massively overgrown armor – the result, May knew, of a runaway exoskeleton tumor growth that would also kill the creature in time. It skittered quickly from out of its burrow at the behest of its Saturnian masters, aiming to use size and surprise as its primary weapons.

"What do you expect from Sats? Of course, they'd have a Titan there."

"Their mascot IS a smiling chryssalid."

"Godzilla would be more accurate for those nutjobs."

The rest of the teens assembled around her were rather chatty, pointing and muttering amongst themselves as their peers below became mixed up in a glorious servitor melee. Xeno blood painted the ground in shades of jade and copper. May frowned slightly at the sight of one of the marsie mutons, ripped in half by the giant chryssalid. China didn't use chryssalids as a matter of principle. The damn things had killed millions back in the war in the most horrible of ways. There were still pockets of "wild" chryssalids in the mountains and the western provinces. Mutons, though, were good soldiers. They had killed millions, too, true… but their default state wasn't just a step or two above animals and they had laid down their arms when the war ended. The ones she had taken with her team into the CAS were dead now, of course... a shame.

"I still can't believe something like that doesn't break the mass/volume rules." English smarty-pants spoke up, standing just to her left. May glanced over at him for just a moment before returning her eyes to the display.

"It is kind of ridiculous," she agreed. "But rules are rules."

"The way I heard it," he continued, crossing his arms as he watched the fight below, "they only bring an egg with them. It feeds on the moss, just like a juvenile 'lid absorbs nutrients in a host body, and gets that big while in the field."

"This isn't the first time they've grown a kaiju-" May didn't like using the Japanese term, but it was common parlance at this point across human space. "-during the games. I'm more interested in those fake-humans they used to draw out the Marsies."

The English boy grunted in agreement. "What were those things?"

On the screens above, the massive 'kaiju' lid began to advance on the martian team. Chryssalids, as every school child knew, reproduced by parasitically infecting a host. They rapidly absorbed and metabolized nutrients through their carapace during their first molt. That was how they 'ate.' Most chryssalids only had that single host-meal before emerging, after which their carapace hardened and became impermeable. The adult chryssalid was then driven by the all-consuming need to reproduce… before it literally died of starvation. To make a contrast, a human being could survive without food for weeks, but a normal chryssalid's hyperactive metabolism typically ate itself alive within forty-eight hours… unless it found a safe place to hibernate.

They were like butterflies: psychotic parasitic butterflies with armor fit for a light tank.

Titan was the only human power that used chryssalids. Half the nations on Earth still bore the scars of wiping them out after the Contact War and Mars had publicly renounced any use of them in war. Titan, though… the Saturnian Union had no such qualms. They maintained a few subspecies as cannon fodder, preferring them over mutons for many roles, alongside a single specialized brood-commander strain. Chryssalids of one breed or another were the core of Saturn's vast and prolific bioweapons division. They were far from the weirdest things in Titan's arsenal, either.

Those decoy-humans… they were good enough to even fool martian psionics.

How in Sol's Shadow did they manage that? And if Saturn had that kind of biotech, then what else was out there?


. . .

The Chryssalid Titan was both terror weapon and distraction, and it was a damned effective one. While the monster advanced, trampling or smashing through little things like trees and buildings in its path, other servitors used it as mobile cover. At least one of the weird decoy-humans was among them, lumbering and firing with one remaining arm. In the confusion, more of the Titan's servitor forces were also joining the fray, trying to swap their old rivals from the formerly Red Planet.

In the labs on Europa, the Saturnians produced a modified and modded form of sectoid: slightly more robust and better able to operate as a front-line combat unit. Supported by a small cadre of muton berserkers, as much for melee defense as anything, these enhanced sectoids operated with military precision under the guidance of their psionic handlers. Together with the rampaging Titanlid, they forced the Martians into a controlled and hasty retreat, one John Shepard watched with a clinical eye. He and the others were already moving into position and taking their own little surprise with them.

The Sats were full of tricks, but they weren't the only ones with new toys.


. . .

The giant chryssalid tossed aside the crushed remains of a bad-muton and smashed clean through the walls of the stadium. It was not a deeply thinking being; it possessed instinct and an animal intelligence, firmly guided by bonded psionic handlers. However, for all these failings, it was not stupid. It understood what weapons were, what could hurt it, what could not hurt it. A dull ache called for it to reproduce, for it to infect, but it was suppressed by the powerful minds that leashed it and the biological controls that constrained it.

Besides, it understood it needed things its own size to fill that need, and no such things existed. There were only little things, things it had to crush and impale and chew and destroy. The Chryssalid Titan understood it would never reproduce. Nor could it. It had been engineered to grow, to grow, to grow some more, and then to serve, and lastly to die. Very soon it would die. It did not lament this, as it did not have feelings in that sense, nor was it truly self-aware. It simply was, like a force of nature.

A force of nature that wished only to serve.

What it did not expect was to suddenly face quite so many small bad-human crystals. It could sense them, as the only vestige of the Gift it had left was the ability to hunt down those with what it now lacked. They glowed like tiny fires, waiting to be snuffed out. The ones it served seemed to think there would only be eight of the bad-humans. Why were there so many here? This was…

This was bad.

The bad-human crystals were everywhere.

Yet, before the crystals could attack, a bright flash turned all eyes upwards. That included the eyes of the Great Chryssalid. High in the sky, a ship had appeared, a Ship-of-the-Masters. The Chryssalid was quite comfortable ignoring it and getting back to crunching crystals, but though its psionic link, it sensed its handlers discomfort. That ship did not belong. It was a bad-ship. Bad-Ship-of-the-Masters. It did not belong here. The feeling echoed in the mental network, growing louder and louder, until the Bad-Ship was given a name.

T'leth.

Pieces fell from the bad-ship. Big pieces.

In moments, they crashed into the ground, the pieces-of-bad-ship. From them, emerged new bads. The crystals, too, once bad, now turned to engage the recent arrivals. The Chryssalid felt the call of the masters. The bads from before were goods now. Ignoring the bads-turned-goods it had been born to fight, it thundered past them and towards the new-bads. They had flesh… and it was time to rip, to tear. Time to kill. The Titans unshackled their beast and commanded it to rampage.


. . .

John Shepard emerged from his immersion tube with relative ease. Unlike most in his situation, his CAS Arena-body had not been destroyed, so his disconnect with it had not been abrupt or disorientating. He had disconnected soon after giving commands to his servitors in the field and turning things on auto-pilot. Dismissing the match statistics board, he virtually hopped out of the sensory deprivation tube and onto the floor grille. Thumb pressed to his neck, he reflexively vomited up the last of the solution and double-checked the psi-link with the rest of his team, and his connection to the broader Mars psi-networks in general.

Intact. Intact. Intact.

'All clear… but for how long?' he wondered, sensing in his mind's eye as more and more of his comrades also exited their tubes. 'The god damned Recipe for Hate… I can't believe it's actually here.'

The 13-14-year bracket CAS Mars Team were already thinking at high speed among themselves.

Everyone had seen it. T'leth was unmistakable. They had all learned to recognize it in their early Academy years. Sixteen kilometers long, half as wide, and built like a huge sprawling slab of asymetrical real-estate in space, it was twice as large as the average Temple Ship by mass, human or ethereal. It had also warped right-in over the planet, close enough that the ancient spires and cathedral-like crenellations could be seen from ground level.

'The Dreamer must've really gone insane,' Annika's mental voice stood out as she asserted her authority over the team's psi-net. 'We'll shred it to pieces this close to the planet. Mars is the most heavily defended planet in the galaxy.'

'Our ground batteries will shoot it down, yeah.' That was the mental voice of Nicholas Barzda, the psi-adept from Typhon. 'And it'll crash right on top of us!'

'Acceptable losses in that case,' Annika opined, her blood and thoughts icy cold, even when it came to her own death. 'Mars is the shield of the Sol System. Exchanging a single city for T'leth is a trade anyone should be willing to make. And better here than Cydonia.'

'Check the idle chatter,' John thought over them all. 'Focus your thoughts. Contacting command… they want us to secure the area and keep the other teams as-safe-as-practicable. I have access to command-codes for inbound combat assets. Patching us into local base security. Annika. Assume Second. Nicholas. Tertiary. You all know what to do.'

There was no hesitation or confusion; they moved like a well-oiled machine.

The emerged into the meeting and observation deck for the teams to find them in the midst of either processing the information spreading over the psi-nets or trying to get their own houses and teams in order. John pinged them all with a mental command, catching their attention. Only a few responded by linking into the Martian Team psi-net hierarchy.

"What the hell is going on?" one of the boys in the room yelled.

"Was that really the Recipe for Hate?" another asked.

"Is it actually here?" one of the girls looked frantic. "Here?! Right above us? Right now?"

A thunderous rumble from outside proved auspicious, as it allowed John to intervene.

"Link into our network right away," he ordered, and sent the ping again. His team were already spreading out over the room to restore order. "As you've guessed, Mars is under attack, and yes, it is T'leth. There is no need to panic. Our ground emplacements will rip it apart in short order. That leaves ground assets like us to hunker down and clean up the pieces."

"Ground assets?"

"Oh God! I can feel it … is that T'leth's psi-presence?"

"It's huge!"

A distant impact almost felt like they were being bombarded, but it only happened once, and then nothing more.

"What was that?!"

"I repeat. Connect with us so we can coordinate our response," John used his best commanding voice. Moments ago, they had all been rivals and opponents in the arena. Right now, they were all human and it was time to start acting like it. "You are more vulnerable by yourself then you are as a group and I will not allow anyone who falls to become a Scorpion. I have received orders to judiciously terminate any psionic before allowing them to be consumed by the Dream."

"Standard operating procedure, then," a sandy-haired boy from the NAU said. "Right then. Link up."

Individuals had been joining on and off since John started speaking, but then the NAU team integrated whole-cloth. The connection felt good. They were already organized amongst themselves and fit in seamlessly with the existing mental hierarchy. The NAU team, the Bloody Corgis, were already organized and ready to go, lacking only equipment. An accompanying information dump revealed their names and specializations. Most importantly, John confirmed branch command of their subdivision to their existing team lead: Eigil Henriksen. Not their best soldier but their strongest psionic by a good margin and a support-type. Good.

A strong psionic was the foundation of any collective defense.

"We're in, too," May Yinwu answered a moment later. 'Come on, boys. Link up. And if any one of you bitches turns, I'll kill you myself!'

The Chinese team likewise linked up and into the network hierarchy. As John had expected, May reigned supreme over her team by virtue of her psionic prowess, despite having generously half the physical mass of any of her male teammates. Their team organization and other network information followed, and John took note of May's second and third in command, the boys Ji and Hao respectively. The former was an assault class, the second a heavy. The Chinese team passed mental muster for the rest of John's own squad as well, and it brought the link's numbers up to thirty-six, including each team's second-string.

The two other teams to share their space here were the Indonesians, led by a boy Wakil. He and the rest of his team seemed be having the hardest time dealing with the fact that they were in a real warzone and not just a carefully simulated one. John nearly frowned. This was the whole damned POINT of the CAS Games: it wasn't just some big show, it was intended to get young men and women accustomed to combat, to warfare, to killing the enemy and even to facing death. Technology could and would improve, MELD and other tricks could improve the physical form, but a certain degree of it would always be wasted if the mind was not trained alongside the body. Just like a muscle had to be exercised to grow stronger, the mind had to be exposed – carefully but thoroughly – to combat to make a human being both a healthy member of society in peacetime and an unflinching soldier in war.

That was the purpose of the CAS Games.

Finally, Wakil managed to organize his subunit of the psi-network. John reviewed their info and his and re-assess his earlier opinion. Wakil wasn't their normal captain. That was why there had been confusion. Apparently, their formal team leader had gone near catatonic and frozen up. From his stats, he wasn't half the psionic as his second-in-command anyway, so it was no loss. Wakil would do nicely.

The last team to share their observation area were the boys and girls from Brazil, led by a tall copper-skinned girl, Patrícia Valiente. Brazil had high hopes for their team this year and they'd performed well in individual assessments thus far (much better than their team as a whole). Patrícia's psi-defenses were impeccable, on a level with a highly-trained adult psi-operative even. Better than John's own, if he were being honest, and in a psi-link, there was little opportunity to be dis-honest. She'd be a great anchor for the team, or for any team for that matter. He made a mental note to take her with them if the time came to narrow the group down to a smaller fighting unit. There was another outstanding member of their team that John recognized: António Poeta. The kid had scored top marks in sniper contests in their age bracket.

It took too long – almost half a minute – but they were organized.

"Form up on me. We'll be switching entirely to psionics form here out," John ordered, and started directing them as he moved. 'Priority is to make contact with the other teams in the other observation decks and get them into a secure shelter. Along the way, we will assist security forces in holding the building and safeguarding non-combatants. I will be calling in reinforcements and servitors as soon as we get into the clear. Uploading rules of engagement.'

Luckily, they weren't far from one of the facility's concourses. There had been a window here, a sky-light looking up into the martian skyline. An impact had smashed part of it in, melting through the impact-resistant plastic 'glass' and depositing a few presents. John nodded thoughtfully at the convenience and smiled to his fellows. With a gesture and a mental command, they descended into the empty concourse, past green trees planted in neat overlapping terraces in the martian style.

On the floor were a trio of icosahedral geodesic spheres.

On approach, the spheres beeped and opened wide, revealing their contents: weapons and armor, courtesy of Command. Delivery had been a bit of a bitch, what with them being indoors, but drop-orders were common enough in XCOM rapid response doctrine. Most anything could and would be delivered on demand to a team, even in the field. When possible, a portal would be used. If it wasn't possible or practical, they'd be dropped from orbit or launched by drones. A particularly naughty officer might even call for gear to be dropped from orbit directly on an enemy position, crushing it with the impact. While everything inside was protected by a small inertial-compensation field, the drop-spheres could hit the ground with the force of an old-timey 20thy century artillery strike.

John's second skin rippled eagerly, in tune with his own emotions, as he lifted a clam-shell type armored mantle and harness over and onto his shoulders. His eyes flashed purple as the integrated psi-amp linked to his own innate psionics. Carapace armor went back to the First War with the Alien, way back in his grandparents' grandparents' day. The modern version was a light armor – arguably the most important was the mantle and the psi-amp – that relied heavily on fields for adequate protection. A blueish hue spread down from the harness along with tendrils of thickening etherium alloy, linking into the gauntlets over his hands and down over his stomach to connect with the armor over his legs and waist. When it finished integrating and attaching to his Second Skin it then powered up the secondary kinetic barrier and the VI-MMI (mind machine interface).

'Everyone take an outsider crystal. If you're rated to manage multiple outsiders, take two,' John sent the command down the psionic hierarchy, snagging two of the pale-lavender crystals for himself and sticking them into pockets in his armor. Right now, their servitor supply was limited. They didn't even have any sectoids. That could change, but hopefully it wouldn't have to – their mission wasn't to seek and destroy, just to shepherd the other teams and non-coms. Most likely, the other Martian Teams in the other age brackets had the same objective.

It was an important assignment, too, John knew. The only reason for T'leth to attack was to raid (or maybe to hit Cydonia, but that was crazy), it only hit human settlements to snatch humans to add to itself. The adults, it would try and drive insane on the spot and add that way. The children it would try and abduct and turn into Scorps. That couldn't be allowed to happen. All the boys and girls at the CAS Games were expected to be the crème of the crop of the next generation of XCOM, to say nothing of their own national militaries.

T'leth couldn't be allowed to subvert them.

Yet John could already feel the dread ship's presence in the back of his mind: The Dreaming Ethereal. It was maybe two hundred kilometers away from their position. This was well within the extreme danger-zone of psionic influence for the Recipe for Hate. It couldn't be allowed to linger. It wouldn't be. Every city on Mars had ground batteries to repulse enemy Temple Ships and there were two fleets in orbit. T'leth would be scrap in minutes.

The Dreamer had come to Mars, but it would only find death waiting for it.

A sudden emptiness almost knocked John to his knees. It was as if a weight had been abruptly lifted off his back, nearly throwing him off balance. It took a moment to realize it was the Dream. It had faded.

'Did they destroy it already? If they did, then we'll be…' he looked upwards, at the sky, through the atrium's broken dome. 'What?'

It was gone.

T'leth was gone.

All that was left were a smattering of enemy battleships, hanging so low over the city that they couldn't be safely shot down from orbit. But the Temple Ship itself was gone. Had it blinked out already?

'No need to stay overhead and get pounded,' Annika's thoughts answered John's own confusion. She walked up to him and pointed down at the spires sticking out of the ground, dropped like needles from an evergreen tree. Except these needles were the size of buildings, and in some cases, were embedded into other buildings. 'Each one of those probably has a portal to T'leth. It only needed to stick around long enough to drop them on our heads.'

John frowned but nodded. It made sense.

But… this wasn't normal. This wasn't how T'leth had attacked New Jakarta. It didn't fit with the Ethereal Records. This was new and Ethereals – even dreaming ones – rarely gambled on trying anything new and innovative. But Annika had the right of it. The invasion wasn't over. It was only just beginning… and already, right off the bat, the Recipe for Hate had made a mockery of all their overlapping defenses, intended to prevent just this.

'Let's get those other teams!' John's thoughts echoed across the psi-network. 'And prepare for contact in close! One of those spikes landed in this building!'


. . .

It didn't take long for the mission to go tits-up.

The hulking andromedon stumbled out of cover as a duo of null lances shredded its heavy armor, spilling toxic waste from the control canopy as the organic being within it all but exploded. Backup systems attempted to kick in, up until a muton shoulder-slammed the exo-suit, knocking it flat onto its back and firing down into the prone power armor with a plasma carbine on full-auto. The armored servitor ignored the bubbling burns from the andromedon's toxic soup of an interior, spilling everywhere, shearing away mottled patches from the muton's legs.

'There! There!'

John's thoughts were simple, but carried with them more precise actions, intent and command. The young men and women under his command advanced, and with them, the servitors surged forward into the gap. A MECtoid thundered forward with heavy footfalls, plasma accelerators on its arms discharging fast enough to build up a distinct ionized charge that could be seen in the air. It was flanked by a slithering viper in XCOM colors and armor that all but leapt into cover behind a smoldering food cart, leaning out with slender arms to fire downrange, blowing out the legs of a charging enemy berserker in red and black.

Near the corpse of the fallen andromedon, John saw – and felt - the brave muton from before struggle.

In hand to hand with the massive servitor was an abomination coughed up from the darkest depths of T'leth… a Lobsterman. Three meters tall, though typically hunched over, John had only ever seen the creature in vids. The back of the creature was more like a horseshow-crab than a lobster, covered as it was in a heavy armored shell. Huge pincher-claws lined with cybernetic inlays and implants covered the belly like shields, or attacked in CQC with deadly power and precision. A second set of arms beneath the claws were more than capable of carrying a heavy weapon, and beneath that, a half dozen swimmerets twitched across the segmented belly. Like a lobster as well, the creature had five pairs of legs, the last three of which were used like legs to move around with surprising speed and agility. The oversized plastic-armored eyes appeared expressionless and blind, but John knew they could see across a wider swath of the electromagnetic spectrum than any human servitor except a SPARK.

Drawing strength from two of the fallen enemies nearby, and one of his own dead servitors, a light and relatively harmless application of Psi-Drain that bolstered his psionic Focus, John immediately channeled the psionic energy into the tips of his fingers. It was imperative not to try and hold too tightly to the Focus from a passive Psi-Drain. That was a very slippery slope and one he knew not to walk down, certainly not at his young age.

Lobstermen were notoriously resilient when it came to normal psi-attacks.

Crackling purple energy danced between the tips of John's fingers, almost painful. Dumping the last of the Focus he'd gathered into the attack, he released it all and guided it with his mind's eye. In hand-to-hand, a lobsterman would beat a muton nine times out of ten and already the fearless servitor was in dire straits. One giant claw had broken and mangled the muton's left arm, the other claw snapping as it closed in on the servitor's armored face. John could taste the muton's determination and rage as it fought for its life, and beyond its sense of self-preservation, its burning need to serve and protect the humans it called master.

John's Volt screamed over the muton's left shoulder, just barely missing as it slammed into the larger lobsterman. The chitinous alien chittered in a high-pitched screech as the unleashed psionic power, concentrated into a single point, exploded first its left eye and then its right. Alien plastics bubbled and cracked open, releasing steam from superheated flesh before popping like overinflated balloons. Thrashing, it quickly – so quickly – brought a claw up to block the psionic lightning and protect what was left of its face and upper brain-stem.

John's eyes flared purple as he pressed the attack home, down the last drop. The Volt surged anew, and this time the lobsterman's armored claw absorbed the brunt of it. Flesh beneath the shell seethed and cracked and tore open, superheated to the point where it couldn't contain it anymore. With a crack like thunder, the claw itself exploded from the inside.

Glancing back at the human, John's muton grinned ferally beneath its breathing apparatus and kicked the flailing lobsterman. Even with one arm a ruined mess, it attacked, aiming to bathe the suffering crustacean in viridian plasma. Yet the lobsterman was not dead, and did not go quietly. Blinded and crippled, it still proved able to adjust the aim of its second set of arms, firing wildly with a sonic rifle. One pulse managed to hit the muton, sending it sprawling. Another tagged an over-ambitious viper, blowing her upper torso into bloody giblets.

A trio of particle beams converged on the now exposed lobsterman, ablating the armored underside of the xeno in gruesome fashion. Scorched and ruined plates fell to the ground around it, and so did bundles of corded and coiled guts, streaming out of the dying monster. Still the skittering servant of T'leth fought on, even with half its smoking body cavity tangled around its armored legs. When at last it succumbed, it was with a long and mournful groan that echoed off the walls of the vast food court. It died still standing, head slumping forward, antennae still twitching.

'Grenade.'

May sent the mental warning, and through her eyes – not his own – John saw one of the slavering, animalistic T'leth sectoids cocking back an arm to throw a pulse grenade. While not a conventional explosive, a skilled psionic needed only adjust her technique slightly to affect it with a Psi Detonate. May was more than capable.

The non-explosive warped physically at her command, detonating in the aquatoid's webbed hand from the rear of the enemy pack. An immensely violent vibration instantly shredded the sectoid analogue into boneless paste, engulfing two other invaders in the disruption field. The field only lasted a moment, but when that was over and it dissipated the result was explosive, with an overpressure wave that blew the boneless and shattered bodies away from the point of impact.

Emerging from cover, sensing opportunity, the now small and streamlined team of human teens advanced. The remaining invaders, those that survived the conflagration, were picked off by concentrated overwhelming firepower and psionics. A blazing Rift engulfed a pair of wounded tasoths as they tried to rally and launch a mental attack of their own. Flat footed and still stunned, they were shredded like wheat in a thresher, their midsections coming apart at the molecular level where they intersected the Rift. What was left of them ended up swept into the burning event horizon of the rift itself, more high speed matter to batter anything nearby.

Tasoths were despicable creatures in John's estimation: vaguely lizardlike, related to the Viper and Thin Man, they were completely boneless but unlike the other two they were also lacking in any sort of differentiated internal organs. Their bodies were a loose, muscular mass wholly animated by cybernetic implants. Even by servitor standards, they were little more than organic robots, devoid of feeling, thought, or understanding. Even the Lobstermen had actual minds and thoughts animating them. Tasoths were too abhorrent to be allowed to exist.

Shooting one of the creatures as it crawled away, still alive and reaching for a sonic blaster despite its lower half being blown to pieces, John scowled. T'leth had vomited up a true litany of horrors on Mars. It was difficult, at times, to remain clinical and in control of his emotions. As if in response to his moment's mental struggle, those closest to him in the team's psionic network felt it, too, and reciprocated.

"Afraid to get a little hot-blooded, Marsie?" May Yinwu strode past him, stamping her boot onto the back of the dying plasma-gutted tasoth's head. "If this were my home town, I know I'd be pretty fucking pissed off."

"We're clear, sir," Patrícia Valiente confirmed, her voice echoing her thoughts. "That appears to be the last of them."

"Henriksen?" John asked, turning to their medical specialist.

The NAU teen stood near a cluster of bodies, not invaders, but local security. The men and women had been in armored second skins, not kitted out for heavy combat. Still, when the crisis hit they had formed a quick combat team and attempted to shut-down one of the nearby spires that hit the building before it could flood the place with enemies. The implants in John's eyes scanned the corpses, piled up where they had made their last stand at the other end of the food court, providing ID numbers and names... all five were marked as confirmed-KIA and the information uploaded to Command. The damned x-rays had torn them to pieces.

"At least they got the civvies out safely," Barzda noted, marking a few other bodies on the team's expanded field of view now that the fight was over. "Most of them anyway."

"We need more servitors." Annika was already double-checking the status of their underlings. "This bunch is running on fumes."

Left after that last firefight were two mutons, one barely able to stand, its legs mauled by andromedon acid. The second was in good condition, though, and examining its wounded comrade with its eyes – John could feel it was also concerned that they needed reinforcement, the other was insistent that it could still fight despite the injuries. Their one sectoid commander was still present and accounted for, keeping close to May and seemingly disinterested in all the dead aquatoids around it. Their MECtoid was KIA. The frame of the MEC was still mostly intact, but sonic attacks had turned the core into a charnel house. Their one remaining viper was inspecting one of her fallen sisters with a sad look, tongue flicking out of her mouth as she poked the dead serpent's nose. John felt an impulse to admonish the servitor, but she quickly turned to him for guidance and he felt no hesitation in her mind.

That was good.

Servitors could panic, after all, and they did have morale. This was especially a problem when they went into the field by themselves and without psionic support from a human or ethereal. XCOM (and Mars) invested more heavily in their servitors than most polities in the Systems Confederation, and that included considerations for their mental wellbeing.

Their physical investments had also paid off, he felt. Martian Vipers were fully armored with a hardsuit around their torso and lamellar softsuit for their arms and lower body. A visor covered their eyes, mounted on a slim helmet that protected their head and neck but that left their mouths free to spit poison. While a viper's ability to trap an enemy in coils was still valued, Martian-pattern Vipers were also equipped with a molecular blade on the dominant arm and a grapple-mounting on the other. This gave them more options in CQC and even greater mobility in the field.

Likewise, Martian Mutons wore heavier armor than their predecessors or counterparts in other militaries. More importantly, they were also provided some basic MELD investment to enhance their survivability. Mimetic skin was only standard on Black Ops Vipers, but Mutons were given enhanced regeneration as standard in addition to their natural abilities. John was taught that a modern-day Muton was the equal of a war-era elite. That, plus their heavy armor, had been enough to carry them through these last few firefights.

Still, they needed more to push forward.

"Get a portal up. I'm contacting Command." John said, and thought. On cue, Annika and Patrícia converged, the former holding her hand up and the latter her hand down. As skilled as they were, some of the best of their generation, they still couldn't open a transit-capable portal by themselves. The rest of the combat team and servitors took up defensive positions while the two girls made the connection: a difficult and intensive process even under the best of conditions.

Watching them, John found it hard to imagine there were people (and ethereals) who could open portals just by themselves. Except that he had seen it. He had instructors who could do it. His mother, alone in the family, could do it albeit with some difficulty. Generally, those with the talent specialized in it as an invaluable support-role. For those without the power, skill and age, they had to make do by using cooperative psionics.

A purple dot winked between Patrícia and Annika, growing wider and wider until it stood taller than either young woman. Command promptly informed him of the connection, checked to make sure it was clear, and sent through a test-pulse followed by a drone. John quickly disseminated the information to the rest of his team on what to expect.

He also updated them on the situation. T'leth had bugged out after being hit by ground batteries. Huge sections of it had broken off, landing around the city and causing even more chaos. More troubling, it was clear that half of the batteries around the city had not fired at all. Sabotage. It had to be. In its wake, T'leth had left behind a number of battleships in-atmosphere and dropped dozens of battle-spires. As expected, each one had a streaming portal back to the Recipe for Hate, and the battle for the city would be ongoing until every single one was destroyed.

"The Eden Prime team is fighting, too?" Barzda sounded surprised when Shepard relayed the news. "I thought all the foreign teams were supposed to be hunkering down?"

"The Saturn teams, the Valks, Luna, the Aussies and two teams from Haven and Liberté are all active in the immediate area," John said with a faint and growing grin behind his helmet's faceplate. "Liberté is Durand's ship. I wouldn't be surprised if she took the first portal down herself to get in on the action."

"That'd be something to see."

"Lady Durand is only a class-A by modern standards; nothing to go crazy over."

"Is that jealousy I feel, May?"

"Fuck you."

John scoffed, using a bit of mental energy to impose himself on the rest of his team, just to let them know the idle chatter hour was over. He'd been keeping an eye on their reinforcements. The first two servitors through were seekers – opening up more opportunities for scouting and ambush, though mostly scouting – and then next three were sectoids. One was a commander, too, with a kinetic barrier equipped harness. The other two would be best used as support. Two more mutons followed, but no more vipers. The mutons paused and beat their chests in greeting, eagerly accepting John and the others as their battle-masters and opening their minds to the humans.

The last through the portal resembled a MEC…

But it was not a MEC, though the chassis was similar. Larger than a suit of normal XCOM powered armor, it had to squeeze to get through the fading over-stressed transportation portal, carefully side-stepping to safely get through without clipping. Glossy black with a pure white tint, the power armor was clearly not just self-ambulatory armor (though that did exist). In place of where the helmet would be John saw a SPARK mounting: a normally featureless smooth head with built-in sensors, attached via a neck to the brain buried deep within the chest cavity of the armor. This SPARK had opted to add a 'face' overlay to her helmet, in the form of a woman with white hair, blue eyes, and a heavily stylized silver and gold winged tiara-helm. A valknut rune of three interlocked triangles stood out on her holographic cheek-guards.

'Pinging your read-only hyperwave,' John thought to the arriving AI. 'Authenticate.'

"Hearing you loud and clear!" the armored SPARK answered in a processed but distinctly feminine voice. The face turned to him and smiled brightly. "Awaiting Impression. Impression made. DEMI-5081. Fifth-generation Defense-spec Spark, at your service!"

May's face was inquisitive as she examined the mech. "What's a Valk-yards Spark doing here?"

"Valkyrie is the Confederation pioneer in AI research and development!" DEMI exclaimed, glancing back for a moment as the portal behind her twisted and collapsed. Psionics existed largely outside the realm of a synthetic lifeform to comprehend, John knew, and some were endlessly fascinated by it. DEMI shrugged her power armored shoulders. "I am equipped with the most sophisticated Bulwark system in known space. My high defensive abilities are the perfect complement for your team!"

"You sound… livelier than the SPARKS I'm used to working with," John noted, but his eyes lit up when DEMI opened an ejectable compartment attached to her left arm to present him with a psionic marksman rifle. The young psion's eyes lit up at the gift from Command. Psi-beams beat particle beams any day of the week.

"Personality artifacts build unit cohesion," DEMI explained, and her body charged up as the force-field projectors activated out of recessed slots across her arms, legs and torso. "As one of the newest Sparks, I was intended from the start to have a highly sociable and outgoing personality."

"How old are you…?"

"Seven months, sir! Well above legal age to participate in combat!"

John felt an eyebrow raise slightly at the young AI's eagerness. At least Command hadn't stuck him with some old monotone Gen-III from mothball storage. A child-AI for the squad of child-soldiers. It was consistent. Plus, looked at clinically, DEMI would probably mesh with them more seamlessly than older alternative AIs. Mid-mission, that would be of paramount importance. Most of their squads had been seen to safety, and the majority of the non-Martian teams were guarding over civvies.

"Let's move out, then," John said with a sniff. "Annika. I take it that was our last portal?"

"Afraid so. It'll be a while before we can manage another," John's second-in-command answered, looking spry despite the exertion. She was already double-checking her particle rifle, and flagged herself mentally as good-to-go. Patrícia seemed to be largely following her lead, and was also flagged as ready to proceed.

"We'll make do, then."

The food court was just a stone's throw from where one of T'leth's spires had landed, adjacent to the main concourse. As the team moved forward towards their objective, they could see outside the transparent wall of the court and into the city beyond and below. Though a dense environment would make for a more defensive terrain, Martian architecture stressed open venues and wide spaces, along with wider, flatter buildings. Even from afar, they could see beam-fire and explosions as local forces fought off the invaders from the Hate.

"There's a Scorpion up ahead," Annika warned, as she took position to his right, alert and ready for a fight. She and John were behind DEMI, who led with her Bastion-shield almost filling the hallway. John could just barely feel what Annika already had: a creeping, cold sensation on the periphery of their psionic network. It felt human… but wrong. Very wrong.

A fallen man… or woman. A victim of T'leth.

Probably, he or she was defending the spire and the portal.

"We trained for this," John reminded her, though even he felt a sliver of fear creep up his spine at the thought of the confrontation to come. Scorpions were more powerful than any normal human, having gorged on the lives of who-knew how many victims, psionic and psi-blind alike. Driven mad by the Dreaming Ethereal, massively empowered by repeated Psi Drains, and then frequently augmented to the same degree as even a veteran XCOM operative…

Still. It was certain to be alone, and there were seven of them. Himself. Annika. May. Patrícia. Barzda. Henriksen. And now DEMI. Plus, their servitors: two sectoid commanders, three sectoids, two seekers, a viper, four mutons – one combat impaired but regenerating – and three small multirole drones.

This was a good team. A solid team. They had all the bases covered.

Up ahead, the multi-wave antenna behind DEMI's head twitched. "Contact!"

John saw them, in his mind's eye. His orders were already being disseminated. "Mark and engage! Let's show them all what we can do!"


. . .

Backgrounds

Shepard, Annabel - Sole Survivor

Shepard, Hannah - Ruthless

Shepard, John - War Hero