A/N: So two things I want to mention. First, this chapter is going up early because a promise is a promise, and I wasn't planning on breaking the one I made... thirty minutes ago? Second, this chapter was borne out of the requests I received to show more of the stuff that happened while XCOM was chilling in Patch. Sounded like a good idea to me, and so here we are.
Van Doorn already knew the answer to the question before even entering the room. If the operator had managed to regain contact with Bradford, or anyone else on Remnant, the Field Commander would have been notified immediately. His daily routine of walking into Mission Control and asking the technician on duty served to remind the operator that continuing to make attempts at hailing Remnant was a very important task: Field Commander Peter Van Doorn hadn't given up on the Remnant operatives, and neither should they.
As expected the radio tech shook his head and looked up at Van Doorn. "Nothing, sir."
"Nothing yet, Amani." the General corrected, "Keep at it."
The technician saluted and returned his attention to the console and Van Doorn left for the next step of his daily routine. In the days following the incident ('The Disconnect,' as XCOM personnel had begun to call it), Mission Control was fully staffed with officers, operators, and other personnel frantically working around the clock to regain contact with the Central Officer. Eventually, both Van Doorn and Councilman Bailey agreed to scale back the resources assigned to the task, allowing for operators to start focusing on more Terran hotspots that warranted XCOM's attention, until eventually only one console in the corner of the room was left trying to ping the soldiers trapped on another world.
And it would remain that way for days, weeks, months… even years, if need be. Hell would have to freeze over for Van Doorn to give up on Bradford. And even then, he would still attempt to get a signal out through the cold.
A few minutes later, the General arrived at Bailey's private quarters and offered a curt knock on the door. The councilman was still very much part of the international council, but he had come to an agreement with Van Doorn that it was best for him to set up a more permanent residence onboard the Temple Ship. The rest of the council trusted him, Van Doorn trusted him, and so he served as a very useful stabilizing element to make sure both parties were in agreement with one another.
Bailey appeared shortly and nodded his greeting at the General. "No news, I presume?"
"Doesn't mean we'll stop trying."
"Of course." Bailey said, ushering Van Doorn into his quarters so they could speak in private, "The international coalition's top minds are working tirelessly to… re-establish contact with Remnant. Until then…"
"We maintain our vigil." Van Doorn sighed, "It's unfortunate that we lost Vahlen, Tygan, and Shen to the Disconnect. They're not the only brilliant scientists and engineers on Earth, of course."
"But they are the cream of the crop." Bailey agreed. "In other news, you have… excellent timing, Field Commander. I just concluded my weekly call with the council."
Van Doorn raised an eyebrow. "I thought you had daily calls?"
"I do. Once a week, however, the calls are more… comprehensive."
Bailey took a moment to decide how he wanted to present his findings from the council to Van Doorn. "As you know, XCOM has been... instrumental in assisting the International Security Council's efforts to mount a... coordinated defense against Grimm incursions. The program you launched to... equip and train national defense forces across the globe has yielded immediate results. The world leaders are… more than happy to abide by your 'twenty percent' rule."
The 'rule' was more of a request than a requirement. Shortly after losing contact with Remnant, XCOM started to request that they keep one out of every five soldiers sent by council nations for training. Not only did it allow XCOM to slowly recoup the losses suffered from the Disconnect, but the recruits were excited to work with the saviors of Earth, and determined to earn their place in the barracks. It was good to hear that the nations weren't resentful of XCOM's efforts to bolster their ranks.
Van Doorn offered Bailey a grateful smile. "That's good to hear. Councilman."
"The news gets better. As of this morning, a... unanimous decision was made to increase funding to the XCOM project by 30%. The budget increase comes with the... requirement that at least half of the new funds are used for the Grimm defense program."
"Not a problem at all, sir." The General said, "If our work to equip special forces is proving effective, XCOM is more than happy to ramp up our program."
The Councilman paused for a moment, and mild concern crept into Van Doorn's chest. Clearly there was something extra on Bailey's mind, and his hesitancy to say it made the General wonder if he wasn't going to like what his colleague had to say.
"Would you consider… alternative means of improving the military strength of the council nations?" Bailey asked.
And there it was. It seemed like the nations wanted their own psi operatives, MEC troopers, and gene-modded soldiers. Not that Van Doorn could blame them, but Bailey's request gave him pause all the same. Sure, everyone was united against a common threat now, but if that changed in the future and countries started to once again fight amongst themselves… XCOM's soldier tech could make wars a lot more deadly.
Bailey sensed Van Doorn's misgivings. "If it makes you feel any better, I share your… misgivings. That technology was instrumental to Earth's survival against the aliens. However, we might be opening a… Pandora's Box now that the danger has passed."
"Those who play with the devil's toys will be brought, by degrees, to wield his sword." Van Doorn sighed, "And while I would feel much better if this technology was only under XCOM's roof where it can be easily controlled, it doesn't speak very well to our claim that we want to cooperate with the international coalition to keep the world safe."
"There's also the fact that your… Major Durand is not available to help guide the new psionic soldiers." Bailey pointed out, "She was the spearhead for XCOM's… psi research, if I remember correctly from Bradford's reports."
Van Doorn nodded. "That is true, but we do have some other operatives who seem to be filling the vacuum left behind by Durand. Geist is our most experienced psi op, and he's filled the role of the pilot for the Temple Ship as well as the psionic guide for the rest of the operatives in the program."
"That one comes across as more… zealous than the Major." Bailey noted, "He is skilled, to be sure, but he almost treats his… gift with religious reverence."
The General could only agree with Bailey's concerns there. Geist was undoubtedly a valuable asset for XCOM, but Van Doorn could see him slipping down a cult-like path if left unchecked."I'm keeping an eye on him, don't worry. In the meantime, I will talk with my staff about including MEC, bio, and psi branches to our training programs. I can't promise you anything right now, Councilman, but you have my word that I will give your request the consideration it deserves."
"Thank you, Commander." Bailey said, standing up to walk Van Doorn to the door, "In the time that I've... come to know you, I've learned that your word is all I need. Take care, Commander. And remember… we will be watching."
Van Doorn couldn't help but smile at Bailey's old habit, and he offered the Councilman a salute before leaving for his next engagement for the day. After all, XCOM needed to remain a well-oiled machine for when the Central Officer found a way to lead his merry crew back across the vast expanse of time and space.
Bradford walked into his office with a heavy sigh and nodded at his two friends waiting patiently for his arrival.
"Sorry for taking so long." He apologized as he stepped around behind his desk and reached up into the cabinet. A polite cough caused Bradford to pause and look back at the table where he saw three cups filled with steaming black liquid. He glanced up at the smiling Shen and couldn't help but chuckle.
"Well, I was going to offer you both a drink, but I can see that you're one step ahead of me." He sat down at the desk, breathed in deep to sample the aroma (Jasmine, of course), and took a sip of his tea before turning his attention back to Vahlen and Shen. "I guess this is better than alcohol, anyway. Shall we begin?"
Vahlen pulled out her scroll and placed it on the table. An array of icons materialized in the air between the trio, each showing the face of a different operative or huntsman working with XCOM. Bradford reached out and swiped his finger left-to-right across the available icons, sending them spinning in and out of existence.
"Done?" Vahlen asked.
"Had to get it out of my system. I know we were starting to develop improved haptic interface tech from the Temple Ship, but you have to admit that it doesn't get old. I'll have to give my regards to Miss Scarlatina when I see her."
"Dr. Vahlen can feign exasperation all she wants." Shen said with a twinkle in his eye, "But she doesn't know that I've seen her do the exact same thing when she's taking a break from her work."
Vahlen cast a mild glare at her partner. "… Done?"
Bradford swept through the icons again, this time slow enough so he could scan the images and find the one he wanted to examine first.
"It's been a while since we sat down together to formally review the status of all our key personnel," Bradford said as the images drifted through the room, "And a lot has happened since we landed on Patch. It's probably best if we make sure we're thorough so that we're all on the same page, Doctor."
Penny's cheerful face slid into view, and the Central Officer tapped it once to expand Vahlen's dossier on Ruby's friend. "Let's start with our double-edged sword. I know that you two started work on repairing her hardware, but the fact that I haven't seen her running around the Avenger tells me that you're not quite finished."
The two scientists exchanged a look, and Vahlen reached forward to scroll down through Penny's file and tapped on an embedded image, causing the visual to expand and occupy the entirety of the holographic interface projected onto Bradford's desk.
The damage to her programming was more extensive than we anticipated, but we made good progress. And you might have noticed that we still have two Penny's on the Avenger.
MacAuley grunted as he and Senchin hoisted Penny's mechanical corpse onto the table in the machine shop while Vahlen and Shen watched. Other than Nicho and a few other trusted operatives, all work in the shop was postponed and all machinists were put on forced leave while Vahlen and Shen got ready to examine Penny's hardware. Bradford had asked Yatsuhashi to join them in the event that Penny remained corrupted upon reactivation. While it was highly unlikely, given that the Atlesian Knights were only hostile so long as the infectious signal was transmitting from Beacon Tower, Dr. Shen agreed with Central's decision to leave nothing to chance, and they both agreed to not ask anyone from RWBY or JNPR to volunteer for the task. A camera overhead swiveled to look down onto the lifeless body as the 'medical' team stepped forward to assess the damage.
Dr. Shen heard Penny's voice chirp into his earpiece as she directed her commentary specifically to the personnel standing around the table. "I expect that most of the damage will be electrical in nature, as my platform looked mostly unharmed before we used the Odin to deliver the Electromagnetic Pulse."
"Which is why I tagged in Senchin, kiddo." MacAuley answered, "If he can repair the Amity Colosseum's main power bus while hanging from a grapple hook and getting swarmed by Grimm, then getting you fixed up should be a piece of cake."
Shen took his time to carefully peer over Penny's inert body. In his usual thoughtful tone, he stated, "The damage to Penny's body appears superficial. Indeed, there are only a few burns and tears in the synthetic skin.. The blistering might be difficult to repair, but it does not detract much from her overall appearance. It's possible we could find some material in Vale to replace the damaged dermal layer. Perhaps we could even use a standard medical bandage for the short term. Either way, the immediate priority is to get Penny functioning once again. The cosmetics can wait for later."
Dr. Shen suddenly frowned. As impressed as he with the exterior, there didn't seem to be an easy way to get under her skin. "Penny, what is the best way to… ah… open you up?"
"You'll want to ignore the severed wires coming out of my back." Penny explained. The dangling wires hadn't escaped Shen's notice, and he recalled Ruby explaining that she had to cut the sword lines just in case Penny reactivated herself during the battle before the signal was disabled. "The only way to safely open up the main panel…"
Half an hour passed by while Senchin worked, with MacAuley gophering for him as Penny's instructions required more and more tools from the shop. Vahlen and Shen busied themselves for the duration of the operation by examining the design of Penny's mechanical architecture, taking notes and (with Penny's permission) snipping off small pieces of material so that they could conduct a chemical analysis of the polymers at a later time. Yatsuhashi had stepped back from the table early on and opted to meditate in a kneeling position with his sword laid out before him.
"Alright, you're at the last step!" Penny cheered as Senchin wiped his brow. "Take the connector attached to the grey wire you just repaired, and move it back to receptacle 2B!"
With a steadying breath, Senchin followed Penny's final instruction. Almost as soon as the connector snapped into place, Penny's hardware shuddered with a forceful jolt. Yatsuhashi was on his feet in an instant, sword at the ready and his eyes laser-focused on the robotic patient.
"St-t-t-t-tarting diagnostics." Penny sputtered, her face still pressed into the table. Her limbs moved in short, controlled bursts, and Shen heard a faint whirring sound coming from her head. "Dia-ag-ag-agnostics complete. Major fragmentation de-de-de-detected."
"That doesn't sound good." MacAuley muttered.
Even Penny couldn't muster her cheerful voice when she added, "… It looks like the EMP did a lot more damage than we had anticipated."
"Subjects ident-i-i-i-fied." Penny said, and her arms flailed as she attempted to turn herself around, "Is that you, Ruby R-R-R-Rose?"
"… Perhaps I could repair the software damage by recombining with myself." Penny suggested, "We could overwrite the damaged programming while preserving her memories and personality."
Beagle shook his head, "I dunno kid. There's something to be said about having a backup ready to go. What if this happens again?"
"You could still do a software uplink, though." Senchin suggested, "In fact, if we want to add foreign programming to better protect against another intrusion. I'm sure Gidjit would be happy to help you."
"Hel-lo-lo-lo? Who is th-th-there?"
"And I did pick up some Terran software architecture from XCOM's archives…" Penny mused, "It would certainly help solve the problem from before."
"R-R-R-Ruby?" Penny whined, and the flailing limbs finally succeeded in getting her into an upright position. She looked around with vacant eyes as she scanned the room for the Captain, "Are you there, Ruby? I w-w-w-wanted to apologize. I was a bad friend-end-end."
Beagle put a hand on Penny's shoulder, "It's okay, kiddo. We know you didn't mean it. Just take it easy, and we'll get you patched up, okay?"
Penny stared at Beagle, then finally nodded. "I will try."
"Give me a minute to contact Gidjit, and I'll hitch a ride with him down to the shop. We might want to move me somewhere out of the way, though. So the machinists can get back to work."
"Sounds good. Give us a minute to let Penny get her bearings, and we'll see you in Vahlen's personal lab on Deck Four."
"Did I… did I hurt anyone?"
Shen felt his heart twist at Penny's words. Her software reconstruction efforts must have made some progress in the last minute, as her awareness and vocabulary improved significantly. So too, evidently, did her memory.
Penny noticed the concerned looks from everyone standing at the table, and she hunched her shoulders in shame. "The memories are still fra-a-gmented… but I remember enough."
"It's not your fault." Beagle said. For once the Captain didn't have a single trace of the usual sarcasm or dry wit in his tone. Shen didn't even realize it was possible, but if anyone deserved a rare streak of unfiltered kindness from Beags? It was Penny.
"But it is." Penny argued, "I was not… strong enough to resist the… the…"
Beagle shook his head. "Rose almost killed the Valkyrie kid when an alien managed to get in her head and make her think it was a good idea. I've never once seen Nora, or anyone, blame Ruby for it."
"No." Beagle interrupted, his voice firm, "There are things in life that we simply cannot control, kiddo. What we can control is how we handle ourselves in the fallout."
Penny didn't seem to have an answer for that.
"I do not kno-o-ow you very well, Captain Beagle," Penny said, staring at the officer, "But I am glad that Ruby Rose has friends like you."
"You're not so bad yourself, kid." MacAuley answered from her rear as he worked to close up the open panels, "Now hold still for a moment so we can get you down from that table and over to Vahlen's lab. You're sounding better already, but I think we both know that there's still a bunch of stuff rattling around in your mainframe, if you get my meaning."
Penny dutifully held herself stiff, casting a glance at Vahlen. "I… think I do? I am looking forward to working with you to repair my systems, Doctor."
"I'm looking forward to you meeting the other Penny in a non-hostile situation." Shen said with a twinkle in his eye, "Something tells me she'll be able to help you feel better in ways the rest of us can't."
"All done." MacAuley announced.
A smile crossed Penny's face at the mention of her copy. "Yes! It will be nice to have a chat."
"Doctor's office first." Beagle reminded her, "Though Penny'll be there, too. C'mon."
Penny slid herself off the table, and squeaked as her legs refused to support the weight of her frame and sent the girl crashing to the floor.
"It appears that my system is still in need of serious repair." She said. Dr. Shen watched Yatsuhashi bend down and scoop Penny up into his arms, "I apologize for the inconvenience."
"Think nothing of it." The gentle giant smiled, "Everyone falls as we walk through life. That is why it is important to surround yourself with friends who will be there to pick you up."
"The upload and sequence validation will take some time." Dr. Shen commented as the video concluded and the dossier panel opened up once again, "Partly because we asked Penny not to rush it."
"And partly because we asked her and Gidjit to be thorough with their software firewalls." Vahlen added, "But Penny's platform is functioning now. I think she's just happy to be alive, and happy that she didn't hurt anybody. Ruby visits her frequently."
Bradford nodded. "I'm not surprised. And I think Penny could use a friend right now. Besides herself, of course."
"We really should come up with a way to differentiate them, though. Talking about Penny and Penny is a bit confusing." Shen mused.
With the flick of a finger, the dossier list started scrolling again as Bradford commented, "I think Mac's been trying to make the nickname 'Nickel' stick for our Penny. Not sure how much traction he's gained for it, though. Now then…"
The Central Officer looked thoughtful for a moment as he scrolled through the list of names a few times, trying to determine who to assess next.
"Let's have a look at Annette." Bradford decided as the list landed on XCOM's premier psionic/huntress, "I won't lie, I've been fascinated with how quickly she's picked up huntressing."
"Is that even a word?" Vahlen scoffed as Bradford pulled up the Major's file and scrolled down to the media collection.
Shen shrugged. "I guess it is now."
Annette grunted in pain as the flat of Qrow's blade slapped her across the face. It still amazed her how fast he could move while wielding something that looked (and felt) so heavy.
Qrow adopted a relaxed stance with his sword slung over his shoulder and grinned as Annette jumped back to put some distance between herself and her assailant, "You're pretty good, kid, but you've gotta get better at reading your opponent. It's not really important when you're fighting most of the Grimm, but some of the faster ones? And then there's rogue huntsmen you need to think about."
"Give me a few minutes, and I'll have it figured out." Annette quipped as she readied her weapon and prepared for Qrow's next assault.
But something didn't feel right.
A weird feeling, a disconnect in the corner of her mind like she'd been jolted awake from a falling dream, or someone giving her a tap on her far shoulder. Annette pivoted just in time to feel Taiyang's fist breeze past her cheek. She ducked and brought her shoulder up into her opponent's ribs, but Taiyang flowed with the attack and swept Annette's feet out from under her. La Volonte switched into a shotgun, and Annette shot at Taiyang's feet to both force him back and to use the recoil to give herself some momentum to reposition.
"Nice!" Tai complimented, dodging as Annette fired her shotgun several more times, "That's the sort of creative thinking we expect from a huntress!"
Her shotgun shifted back into a sword, and Annette crouched, felt the Aura pool up in her feet, and lunged forward at Taiyang. Before she could take a swipe at her target, Qrow came out of seemingly nowhere and parried the blow for his partner. The shotgun trick worked well last time, so Annette willed her weapon to shift forms, only to hear a click click as something within La Volonte jammed mid-change.
The words 'Fucking Qrow' passed through her mind as the lanky fighter shoved her back with a boot to the chest.
"Everything else is gonna feel like a cakewalk compared to fighting against you and your stupid bad luck." She complained. A couple of hard taps against the side of her sword was all Annette needed to fix the jam, and Annette steadied herself and waited to see what Qrow and Taiyang might do.
Qrow chuckled at Annette's quip, "That's the idea, kid."
There. That tingle again. Annette couldn't figure out what it meant, but the slightly uncomfortable feeling kept her on edge so that she only took a few hits when the front of Qrow's weapon dropped open and started to spray scattershot in Annette's direction before her twitchy muscles launched her out of harm's way. As she continued to juke and dodge, Annette couldn't shake the feeling that she had a backseat driver offering her suggestions for how to act. A passenger telling her to move this way instead of that, to shoot her shotgun one second and dodge behind Taiyang the next.
And whatever sixth sense was telling Annette what to do? It was working. Once her techniques and tactics stopped getting shut down by Taiyang and Qrow at every turn, Annette started to just… flow. Sure, her motions and strikes were still rough around the edges, but the battle started to click, and it became easier to keep the rhythm going. Even when Qrow would nail her with a shotgun blast or Taiyang delivered a solid shoulder check, Annette managed to roll with the punches, recover, and maintain her tempo.
Taiyang grinned as he barely deflected a slash from Annette's sword. "You're doing great, Major! Keep it up!"
So what was this thing helping her? Was it a semblance? Some sort of danger sense that came with having an Aura? Annette remembered hearing about Ruby and Blake's fight against FNKI, and how the jazz player managed to dodge Blake's sneak attack against all odds. When it was just the odd twitch in the back of her mind, maybe she could believe that. But this felt more… active. Could it be something psionic, maybe? The idea that an Ethereal had somehow taken up residence in her head passed through Annette's mind for a fleeting moment, but she dismissed that notion almost as quickly as it came. Whatever supernatural power was in there, it was helping her, not trying to kill her.
Annette blasted her shotgun to give herself a recoil boost before dropping into a power slide just as she saw Qrow start to bring his weapon to bear. Rather than risk getting her weapon jammed again, she shot her hand out in an attempt to grab the huntsman's ankle and trip him. The plan almost worked, but Annette didn't account for the display of acrobatics Qrow put on as he recovered from the surprise with an overhead flip. Annette rolled to her feet, sword ready to parry an attack. Her sixth sense twitched, Annette pivoted to meet Taiyang's assault, but she didn't expect the punch to be so… explosive.
As she felt her Aura fizzle and her feet lift off the ground, Annette caught a glimpse of Taiyang's outstretched palm and the rippling tattoos snaking along his bicep. Her senses snapped back to her current predicament when she hit the floor with an unceremonious thud. Her weapon clattered out of her hand, and she skidded a few yards before sliding to a halt at Qrow's feet.
"Well that looked like it hurt." Qrow commented with a raised eyebrow.
Annette groaned and slowly started to pick herself up. "Your buddy cheated."
"Cheated?" Taiyang asked with a chuckle, "Since when is a semblance considered cheating?"
"And since when do your enemies care about fighting fair?" Qrow added as he pulled Annette to her feet.
"Yeah, yeah…" Annette dusted herself off and took a deep breath, "Give me half an hour to get my Aura back, and we can go at it again."
Qrow shook his head. "No can do, kiddo. Got some business in town to take care of, and Tai's promised to spend some quality time with his daughters."
"In all seriousness, though? You're getting the hang of this a lot faster than any first-timer I've met." Taiyang grabbed Annette's sword and tossed it back at her, "Maybe it's because you've already had the chance to develop your combat instinct, but it takes most of my students a lot longer to pick up the flow of a fight like that."
Should she tell them about her battle buddy? Not until she had a better idea of what it was, Annette decided. Besides, Qrow just told her not to fight fair, didn't he?
"Alright. Maybe I can find somebody else to beat me up."
Qrow stretched his arms and stuffed them in his pockets as he headed back to the ship. "ABRN should be going on patrol soon. You can probably hang with them and find some Grimm to wail on."
"Now that I think about it, the Major has been on patrol with ABRN a lot, hasn't she?" Shen commented.
"Durand's grown ravenous for any opportunity to train." Bradford said, and he panned back to the list of dossiers, "And it probably helps that Arslan has taken a serious shining to her."
Vahlen made a few keystrokes on her tablet. "I'll make a note to keep tabs on her battle fever. If it gets worse, I can have a talk with the Major and try to figure out what's driving her so hard."
"I won't complain about it for now, since I'll take any advantage I can get, but that might be a good idea later down the line." Bradford considered which dossier he should pull up next. Watching Major Durand square off against Qrow and Taiyang reminded Bradford that he hadn't checked in with Tai lately. He'd mellowed out considerably since their initial encounter, and actually became one of his favorite Valeans to talk to among the new faces.
He cycled through the pages until he found Tai's, and opened it up to look through Vahlen's notes.
"Anything to report on Mr. Xiao Long?"
He and I had an interesting conversation last week.
Taiyang sighed as he ducked through the doorway that lead him away from Deck 5's main hallway and into some of the darker, quieter recesses of the ship. The sound of his dog's barks, and the fact that Zwei had stolen Taiyang's favorite orange bandana, led him onward.
"Zwei." The huntsman groaned, "If you wanted to play fetch or go outside, you could have said something. We're both mature enough where we don't need to resort to this."
The only answer he received was Zwei's cheerful bark. Taiyang rolled his eyes and stepped through another doorway and found himself in a room far more furnished than anything else this deep into the ship's belly.
"Zwei serious-…. Oh."
Yang craned her neck to look backwards over the top of the couch and raised an eyebrow. "Hey dad. What's up?"
That was definitely his daughter sitting there next to a smug-looking Zwei. And yet, not quite his entire daughter. Words failed Tai as he tried to stammer out a coherent sentence, "Your limbs… they're uh… you know… sort of…"
"Oh. Right." Yang looked down at the empty sockets where her arms and legs usually locked into her body. "Yeah, Doc's doing some routine maintenance on them."
Taiyang stepped into the room, his eyes still fixated on the void where a small part of his brain still expected to see flesh. "Doesn't… doesn't she have, like, spare arms or something?" He asked, "You know, so you could still function while you wait…?"
Yang shrugged. Or at least, Tai was pretty sure it was supposed to be a shrug. "Probably. It just feels good sometimes to go Full Potato and lounge in here while I wait. Zwei makes a very good valet by the way. Speaking of…"
Zwei nodded, hopped off the couch, grabbed a can of soda from a nearby case, and returned to the couch with the drink in his mouth. Yang pulled the straw out of the empty can wedged into her chest so that her dog could deposit the new one. Zwei used his teeth to pop the tab, and Yang dropped the straw back into the fresh drink.
"Thanks buddy." She said with a wink.
Was this real life? Or did Taiyang die during the Battle for Vale, and this was some sort of twisted purgatory? Dazed, he stepped around the couch and sat down next to his daughter. She seemed perfectly happy sipping on her soft drink with Zwei curled up next to her, as if she were blissfully unaware of her complete lack of arms and legs. If she was this well-adjusted and at peace with the issue, then what right did he have to make a big deal about it? Then again, that was easier said than done, and-
"I got used to it after about a month." Yang said, interrupting her father's internal train of thought. "Sucked pretty hard before that, but… it helped that I have a good team."
Taiyang looked over at his daughter, and behind the familiar gung-ho expression, he noticed a hint of uncertainty in her eyes. Uncertainty, he realized, about whether or not her father would ever be able to look past the mechanical limbs and see his baby girl the way he used to. He let out a quiet sigh, as if he were trying to expel the negative emotions swirling in his gut, and offered Yang a genuine smile.
"Of course you do." He said, taking a seat next to his daughter, "I wouldn't expect anything less from my little dragon."
Footsteps echoed down the hallway, and the Xiao Long's looked over the couch to see Dr. Vahlen wheeling a dolly into Yang's hideaway.
"Everything's looking fine, Sergeant. Oh!" Vahlen jumped at the sight of Taiyang sitting on the couch. "I'm terribly sorry to intrude. I didn't realize-"
Taiyang laughed. "It's quite alright. Technically I'm the one intruding, it seems. Though Zwei's the real culprit here."
The little dog barked proudly.
"Well, I have Miss Xiao Long's augmented limbs with me." Vahlen said as she wheeled her dolly into the room. "While you're here, would you mind helping me with the reattachment process?"
Taiyang nodded and got up from his spot on the couch. He pulled out the limbs and set them on the table in front of Yang while she watched with amusement.
"So you were the one that cut up my daughter?" Taiyang asked. Vahlen's eyes grew wide at the blunt comment, and Yang groaned.
"Tooootally inappropriate question, dad."
"I'm still asking it." Tai said, his eyes turning back to lock onto Vahlen, "So… were you?"
Vahlen hesitated for a moment before she regained her professionalism (or was it courage?) and nodded. "I was. Do you know why?"
"As a show of solidarity with her partner." Taiyang answered, surprised that the doctor had taken the opportunity to counter with her own question.
Vahlen glanced at Yang, and Tai noticed his daughter nod slightly before Vahlen spoke again while she resumed the process of prepping Yang's legs. "Yes and no. While it's true that she originally offered her partnership with Blake as the reason, she and I discovered that the reason was more complex as we talked over the following months." The Doctor gestured towards the leg, and Taiyang picked up the hardware and followed Vahlen's guiding hands as she directed the assembly process. "On a deeper level, Yang feared what might happen to Blake if she was 'left behind' in the way that you were when Raven disappeared."
It was a good thing that the leg clicked into place before Vahlen dropped that knowledge bomb, because strength drained from Taiyang as soon as she said it. "… I'm sorry. What?"
"Doc's been doing routine maintenance on my limbs for months now, Dad." Yang said with a light laugh, "She knows more about me than any of my friends from Signal."
Tai looked over at Vahlen, who nodded in agreement and continued with her story.
"Yang watched how you suffered through your abandonment, Mr. Xiao Long." She explained, gesturing to the second limb despite her partner's sudden weakness, "And it affected her deeply. She did not let it drag her down, however. Rather, she drew strength and resolve from it, a promise to herself that she could do better. Would do better." Seeing that Taiyang was still in no condition to help, Vahlen grabbed the leg herself with a small grunt and maneuvered it into position over the socket. "She took a dark experience from the history you both share and learned from it. And when she saw a close friend at risk of repeating history, she took fate into her own hands and made a choice." Click. "You should be proud."
Taiyang didn't know what to say. He looked over at his daughter, and saw her looking back with an even gaze. When Taiyang finally found his voice, it was barely above a whisper, "You and your sister… you've grown so much, and I haven't been there to see it, to help you with it."
"It's okay, dad." Yang said, a gentle smile on her lips, "You've always been there for us, whether you realize it or not. That's the point that the Doc's trying to make. No matter how much we change, no matter how different we might look, there's not a chance in hell that we'll ever forget where we came from."
"… I love you girls. So, so much."
"I love you too, dad." Yang looked over at the table with her arms, "I'd love you even more if you could help get those reattached so I can give you a hug for this heartfelt moment."
Both Taiyang and Vahlen broke into laughter, and the emotionally-charged atmosphere gave way to comfortable levity.
"Alright, alright." Tai said, grabbing one of the arms from the table as Vahlen guided him through the attachment process, "But seriously, though, it almost seems like I don't know my own daughters anymore. You've been through so much while you were away."
"Well, it looks like we'll be spending a lot of time on this ship together." Yang said. Her arm clicked into place, and she flexed her fingers to check the nerve connections, "You can always hang out with me and Rubes in the lounge for a drink or something. Have some Daddy-Daughter time."
Tai nodded at the suggestion, but his attention was focused on the other arm he held in his hands. Now that the shock of Vahlen's story had subsided, he gained renewed interest in the tech. Atlas had similarly advanced prosthetics, and Tai wondered how technologically advanced XCOM was compared to Remnant's most cutting-edge kingdom.
"It's a combination of Terran bioengineering and alien nanotechnology." Vahlen offered, noticing Tai's fascination.
Taiyang looked over at his daughter, "How long have you had these?"
"Got my arms lopped off… how long would you say it's been now?" Yang asked Vahlen, "Eight months?"
"That sounds about right." The doctor agreed as she helped Taiyang lock the arm into place..
That long? Tai knew he shouldn't be surprised. After all, Yang acted like having mechanical limbs was natural as breathing, and he doubted it was this easy for her when she first made the change. Of course, it helped that she had a good team, like she told him.
And, Taiyang realized, good medical support.
"Thank you." He said, looking at Vahlen, "For taking care of my Little Dragon when I wasn't able to."
Vahlen looked up in surprise at the comment. "I didn't do as much as you might think, Mr. Xiao Long. Yang was more than capable of taking care of herself while on Earth. I just… helped when necessary."
Yang gave Vahlen a light punch on the shoulder as she stood up to stretch. "Ehhh, I wouldn't sell yourself short, Doc. A lot of people would be dead if it weren't for you. Or did you forget about my run-in with the Ethereal?"
Taiyang sat down on the couch, and grabbed the can of beer offered to him by Zwei.
"If you've got the time, I'd like to hear about it." He said, cracking the can open, "Might as well get a head-start on this whole 'reconnecting' thing."
"Doc?" He added as Vahlen turned to leave the two alone together, "Would you mind joining us? Surely you can spare some time to relax for a bit?"
Vahlen checked her watch and nodded, "I suppose I've got half an hour to rest before I need to get going."
"He's a good man." Shen observed, "And while his hardships are unfortunate, I think you and Miss Xiao Long did an excellent job of demonstrating how those hardships are an important part of his identity."
Bradford nodded. "It wasn't easy convincing him to let Yang go off and join Blake on her mission to Menagerie, but Ruby managed to talk him out of demanding he go along for the covert op."
"Yang owes her sister a beer for that one." Shen deadpanned.
"Why don't we take a closer look at the huntsmen teams?" Vahlen asked, "They'll be the most direct supplements to our fighting force, after all, so we should establish the best way to use them in combat."
That made sense. Bradford pulled up the dossiers once more and flipped through the icons until he had both Arslan and Coco staring at him from their holographic cards. "Which one should we look at first?"
Shen took a sip of his tea. "ABRN. I see Reese down in my shop quite a bit, but I'd like to know more about her team."
"We might as well take a closer look at the relationship between Arslan and Annette." Vahlen agreed, "Their bond could be very helpful, or it might be destructive if Miss Altan's interest in the Major is too… intense."
Bradford almost choked on his tea. "What, like a romantic relationship?"
Vahlen rolled her eyes. "It doesn't have to be. Even if it's platonic, a strong enough bond could cause Arslan to react poorly if anything happens to Annette."
Fair enough. Bradford tapped on Arslan's icon and pulled up the bodycam footage from one of ABRN's patrols with the Major.
"Keep moving, team." Arslan called back, "Lily's network is reporting a pack of Grimm up ahead. The sooner we get there to break up the mob, the less Grimm we'll have to deal with."
"It's not even that bad of a march, guys." Reese said, suppressing a giggle.
Nadir rolled his eyes, "Says the girl riding on a hoverboard."
Reese shrugged. "Not my fault you picked the most boring weapon imaginable when choosing your's."
"Reese…" Arslan chided, "You should probably be going on ahead and scouting to make sure we don't run into any nasty surprises. Remember, keep quiet and don't engage."
"Ugh, fiiiiiiiiine." With a low hum, Reese floated off towards where the proximity system reported the Grimm.
Annette chuckled,"I'd make a comment about how your team seems more focused on wisecracking and bickering than staying coordinated, but XCOM can be just as bad from time to time. The trick is knowing when to turn on the professionalism."
"It's… a bit of a problem that our team has." Arslan admitted. She waved her hand in another attempt to get Nadir and Bolin to pick up the pace, "I know that my teammates have the potential to be effective. I've seen it. But… it's hard to pull that determination to the surface sometimes."
"Gotta start putting your trust in them rather than telling them to do something and then playing Team Mom when you feel like you need to clean up their mistakes." Annette said, "Once they realize that you're relying on them to get the job done, that you believe in them to get the job done, they might be motivated to work together to exceed expectations."
"And how am I supposed to do that?"
"Shit. They saw me. I need backu-oohhhhhh that's a big Beringel."
"We gotta move." Arslan said. "Now."
Bolin and Nadir could complain all they want, but even they knew that the arrival of a Beringel meant bad news for Reese. The four operative-huntsmen dashed through the sparse woods towards the sound of a fight. To their right, Arslan saw a handful of Beowolves that were evidently also drawn towards the battle.
"Nadir." Arslan said, nodding towards the Grimm.
"On it." The huntsman split off and charged at the wolves, spitting rounds from his rifle before formshifting it into a sword to engage at close range.
"Not what I had in mind for a team-building exercise." Annette mused, "But there's something to be said about forging in the fires of combat. At least we know why the Grimm were bold enough to get this close."
The trio came into view of the main fight, with Reese focusing on keeping herself safe while the pack of Grimm snapped at her heels. The Beringel leading the Grimm chose to let its wolves chase the flying girl and instead pelted her with rocks and dirt from afar.
"Bolin, get the Beringel's attention." Arslan ordered, "Fight defensively until we get the situation under control."
Bolin skidded to a halt, kicked up a couple of stones with the end of his staff, and struck them in quick succession with his weapon to send them hurtling towards Reese's assailant. Arslan and Annette wasted no time diving into the horde of Grimm to disrupt their deadly game of chase.
"Cavalry's here, Reese." Annette called out, "Let's send these fuckers back to the underworld."
Arslan didn't know what that meant, exactly, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that the general gist was 'kick their ass.' A wide sweep from La Volonte created a large enough clearing for Arslan to step up, plant herself, and deliver a shockwave with her opening strike. A roar from behind told Arslan that Bolin managed to accomplish his goal, and Reese used the disruption among the Beowolves to land next to Arslan and Annette.
As Annette lashed out at the closest Beowolf, Arslan glanced at her partner, "Strike and withdraw. We can keep these guys off-balance if we don't give them a single target for too long."
To make her point, Annette backpedaled while Arslan shot out her rope dart and yanked herself into the fray. Reese shifted her hoverboard into a pair of revolvers and began to pick away at the wolves while they were distracted by Arslan, and Annette kept an eye on their flank and rear to make sure nothing caught them by surprise.
"We've got more inbound." Nadir warned, "I'm trying to keep on top of them, but… there's a lot."
Arslan launched herself back to safety with a punch to a Beowolf's skull and answered Nadir while Reese tagged herself in, "Fall back towards us and help Bolin deal with the Beringel."
"Wanna see a magic trick?" Annette asked. Given that she was already sheathing her sword, Arslan figured she didn't have much of a choice.
"Just get ready to jump in when I'm done." Annette said, her eyes glowing a faint purple as she called out to Reese, "You might want to clear out for a moment, kiddo."
The coloration in her eyes grew brighter, and Arslan noticed similar energy pooling up in her hand. A few moments after Reese motored to safety, Annette's hand shot forward and the ground beneath the center of the Beowolf horde erupted.
"Go." Annette said, and both Arslan and Reese dashed in to eliminate as many of the stunned monsters as possible. Purple lances shot past Arslan as Annette continued her psionic onslaught. An assault rifle chattered, and Arslan looked back to see Nadir running in to take some of the heat off of his partner.
"Go help them with the big guy." Annette said.
"What about the pack?" Arslan asked.
Annette's eyes flashed again, and she gave Arslan a toothy grin. "I got some advice from Lily that should help."
With a sweeping wave of Annette's hand, fire erupted around the remaining Beowolves. Amid the pained howls of the Beowolves, the huntress brandished her sword once more. Arslan heard Reese let out a low whistle before the two turned their attention to the gorilla in the room.
And not a moment too soon, it seemed. Bolin's luck finally ran out when he caught a well-timed fist to the gut that sent him careening through the forest. Reese blasted herself forwards and upwards to throw herself into Bolin's path while Arslan hooked herself to a tree and arced herself around to catch both of them as they fell back to the ground.
"Everyone alright?" She asked as Reese and Bolin regained their footing while Nadir did his best to evade the Beringel and buy his teammates time.
"Bit winded." Bolin admitted, "I need a moment."
Arslan nodded, "Fair enough. Reese, let's go."
Shotgun blasts announced Annette's arrival to the main event, and the force of her attack took the Beringel's attention off of Nadir.
"Go right." Arslan ordered, and Reese took off to flank the monster while Arslan shot out her rope dart to pull herself into danger. While she didn't trust herself to go toe-to-toe with the Grimm's equivalent of brute force incarnate, Arslan could at least use her agility to distract and disorient that beast while the rest of her team wore it down. The Beringel didn't even stagger or flinch as she yanked on the rope to pull herself towards her foe, and Arslan yelped as she narrowly dodged a cinder block fist that came swinging at her face. Nadir's rifle chattered from her right, and the Beringel roared as it turned to punish the offending huntsman.
"Oh no you don't!"
Reese zipped in from above and raked the blades of her board across the Beringel's back, and Arslan redeployed her rope dart to pull herself out from under the Grimm to deliver a palm strike to its hind leg. Nadir kept up his assault, slapping in fresh magazines as soon as the last ones ran dry. Arslan's dance with the Beringel fell into a comfortable rhythm where she used her honed hand-to-hand skills to deflect the gorilla's heavy blows. With an immediate threat that refused to get out of its face, the Grimm was all but forced to focus its attention on Arslan while Nadir, Reese, and Annette pelted it from afar. In fact, it almost seemed like her success at tangling with the muscled titan had emboldened Arslan's body and soul. She'd never felt this focused, this energized as she ducked and swayed past the monster's steely fists.
You're doing great, Altan. Keep it up.
Arslan didn't even trip when she felt Annette inside her head. For whatever reason, the Major's presence felt inspiring rather than crippling like it did the last time Arslan asked for a 'demonstration' of psi.
Well, the rest of ABRN could probably use some encouragement too."Maintain the pressure! We've got this in the bag!"
The Beringel had other plans, though. Rather than try to smash Arslan directly, the monster slammed its fist into the dirt and sprayed a wave of soil into the huntress's face. A second fist caused the ground to shake, throwing the huntress off-balance.
Amid the haze, Arslan made out a shadow moving swiftly and she felt the massive thud of the Beringel impacting with something two feet in front of the huntress. And as the cloud of dirt was dispersed by the shockwave, Arslan looked up to see Bolin standing his ground with his staff standing between his face and the monster's muscled fist.
"Durand!" Nadir shouted. He took aim with his rifle and fired a shot at the Beringel's neck. The round impacted, and fire bloomed out and seared the exposed flesh.
"Meurs, putain de merde!"
Moments later a flash of purple ripped through the damaged hide and turned the gorilla's head into a bloody mess. Arslan looked over to see Annette, her arm still outstretched as beads of sweat rolled down her face.
The dead Beringel fell over, and the five huntsmen stood in silence for a moment to savor the incredible feat they'd just accomplished.
"Well I'll be damned." Annette grinned, "You guys do know how to fight like a team."
"And I'll be damned," Arslan countered, "Your voodoo bullshit is even more ridiculous than I thought."
Annette threw a light punch to Arslan's shoulder. "Someday you'll get to see a Psi Vortex. Then you'll know the true meaning of voodoo bullshit."
"Those kids are a bit rough around the edges." Bradford mused as Annette's bodycam footage stopped playing, "But they've certainly got the energy and willpower to improve as a team. I think Durand will be a positive influence on their development."
"Do we actually know what their semblances are, though?" Dr. Shen asked, "I don't recall ever seeing them in action."
"Altan is able to, for the lack of a better explanation, project her Aura into something similar to chi to enhance her fighting abilities." Vahlen explained, consulting her tablet once more, "Reese is able to alter her personal gravity without Dust, which is how she stays on her board without strapping in. Bolin has vibrational precognition, allowing him to have an enhanced sixth sense beyond what Aura usually provides, and Nadir can amplify his Aura's presence to draw attention towards himself."
Both Bradford and Shen stared at Vahlen while she double-checked her notes.
"They just… told you that?" Bradford said, incredulously.
Vahlen nodded. "During their preliminary evals, yes. Why is that so hard to believe?"
Bradford didn't feel like pursuing that line of thought further. He scrolled through the dossiers and settled on CFVY.
"I'm definitely interested in this team."
"Is it because they're definitely interested in us?" Shen asked, clearly amused.
"So you want to know more about XCOM, huh?"
Coco raised an eyebrow as she stared at Beagle from across the table. The rest of CFVY sat with them, and Beagle's familiar partner-in-crime, MacAuley, was present as well. Coco was able to convince the two operatives to have a sit down with her team if she supplied some alcohol, so a quick trip to the bar yielded a glass for all parties involved.
Before Coco could give a biting retort that yes, she had just said exactly that, Yatsuhashi answered, "It is important to know your enemy, but it is equally important to know those who fight at your back."
"Not only that, but I'm a bit of a technology geek myself!" Velvet said in her usual cheerful tone, "I'm really looking forward to seeing more of your weapons in action!"
MacAuley took a swig from his glass and sighed dramatically, "It's a shame we're cut off from Earth, then. You would've loved all the cool shit we had on the Temple Ship."
Beagle tutted disapprovingly at his friend, "Now, now, Mac. No point in humble bragging. Besides, we've got the R&D Dream Team here to help us advance our tech with a distinctly Remnant flair. I'm sure they'll cook up lots of fun toys for us to play with." He turned back to Coco, "So anyway… XCOM."
"XCOM." Fox agreed.
"We're an extraterrestrial combat unit." Beagle started, "Hence the name. Not sure how much you've been told about our little war on Earth, but a bunch of jackass aliens waltzed in and decided they wanted our shit. XCOM was -is- a coalition of the best of the best that the nations of Earth had to offer. You might notice the little color patches behind our necks on our armor?"
"Those represent the flags of the countries we hail from. You probably noticed that there's a metric fuckton of flags around here-"
"A metric fuckton is a lot more than an imperial fuckton, by the way." MacAuley interjected.
"-and that's because everyone came together to give those alien fuckers their walking papers. So we're a big family. A crazy one at times, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of people more tightly-knit than the men and women who fought, watched their friends die, and carried on to save the fucking world when faced with extinction."
"We face extinction every day." Fox observed, "Especially now in these uncertain times. What makes your fight so different from our own?"
Beagle didn't move his eyes from Coco as he called out, "Penny? You there, kiddo?"
"Of course, Captain Beagle! How may I be of service?"
"You've got any records from the Long War in your database?"
"Absolutely! Did you have a particular one in mind?"
"How about Enduring Shield?" Beagle asked.
"Pulling it up now! If you could put your scroll on the table, Captain…"
Beagle fished out the handheld device and laid it down in front of CFVY. The scroll lit up and started to project the footage saved from the requested mission.
"Sir! Atlas is down!"
"Shit… Five, get Seven patched up. Two and Three, you're on overwatch while Five does his thing. Twelve, I want those Heavies flanked ASAP."
Plasma flew in from seemingly all directions as the camera's owner dashed to cover, his heavy breath audible in the recording. Other operatives came into view, taking up positions as ordered by the lead soldier. A walking robot stomped off and disappeared from view as it jumped off the side of the platform where the operatives were holding against the of the soldiers, heavily armored and heavily armed stepped out of cover and spit hot fire down towards… whatever was attacking.
The camera panned to follow the direction of the fire to reveal a squad of evil-looking monsters, their bodies seemingly cut off at the waist with powerful jetpacks fused into their backs. Below them, other aliens skittered towards the embattled soldiers. Some carried guns, while the wicked claws on the insects looked designed for painful melee. The autofire from the soldier bounced off of their armor of the fliers while they moved erratically and took aim with their own deadly weapons. Green plasma rained down upon XCOM's position, and the camera panned back to show the downed soldier getting back to his feet.
"Yeah, just gotta rub some dirt on it and I'll be fine."
Beagle paused the video. "That sort of shit? The things-are-going-FUBAR-but-we-gotta-keep-going shit? That's what we do."
"That's just one example." Fox pointed out.
"Penny, switch to Operation Solemn Vengeance."
The screen fizzled out, only to be replaced by a new image. A strange, smoking ship lay crashed in the background. Green plasma flew from both sides this time around as operatives advanced on the besieged aliens holed up just in front of the ship. The familiar-yet-different voice of one Blake Belladonna echoed through Beagle's scroll.
"Damage suggests the Elites now carry HEAT-class ammunition. Be advised."
"Is… Is that Blake?" Velvet asked, "She sounds like one of those MECs…"
"What, you think her robo-limbs are for show?" MacAuley grinned, "You should watch how she fights."
Two large objects slammed into the ground in front of the downed ship, and large robotic bipeds rose from the smoke and beady eyes locked onto the camera.
"Oh come on! How is that even remotely fair?"
"That one's Ruby, in case you were wondering."
"Yes, we got that one." Coco said with an eyeroll, "Thanks."
"Not sure what you're talking about. This is a pretty standard Tuesday for Strike Five."
"Strike Five… that's Captain Beagle's squad, isn't it?"
"Remind me to never accept an offer from your CO to join you guys on an op."
Coco looked up over the video and glanced at Beagle with a questioning look.
"Not my fault that I've got a reputation, kiddo." The Captain defended, "Just goes to show that I'm a stubborn bastard that refuses to fall victim to The Curse."
One of the robotic goliaths opened up to reveal a doom cannon, but a snapshot from Ruby caused it to choke. The squad chattered about how to take down the other and leapt into action. One of XCOM's MECs deployed a blast shield to protect the operatives (including the cameraman) while Blake ran the other MEC suit straight at the alien construct. Defensive smoke was thrown to hide the operatives and a psionic soldier used his supernatural powers to help reinforce their mechanical defender. The doom cannon fired, and heavy plasma fire pounded the defensive MEC over and over again, even causing Yatsuhashi to wince slightly at the level of overkill.
Except, as the smoke and dust cleared, the overkill turned out to be not enough. The camera moved from the safety of the blast shield just in time to see Blake and another soldier crash into the robot while it was focused on attacking the rest of the squad and tearing it to pieces.
"Two and Six have the second contact locked down. All units, fire on Two-Three's target!"
It became XCOM's turn to beat the hell out of the robots. A fusillade of plasma fire and rockets erupted from the squad and melted away the protective plating of the first construct.
The video froze again. "You can see that Rose's team learned to fit in with the rest of us real nicely, and that we've got a few more tricks up our sleeves in this one compared to first video."
"That's partly because the aliens threw some new shit at us, too." MacAuley explained, "Those doombots? Yeah, they weren't around when the war first started."
"Captain Rose actually fought the first one we'd ever encountered." Beagle added.
MacAuley took a swig from his glass, "Let's go back in time a bit to show how we deal with a really fucked-up situation. Penny, Devil's Hydra."
A massive insect, similar to the ones in the first video but easily eight times as tall, towered over a squad and chased them along the docks of a coastal village as they worked to delay its advances in an effort to retreat. The massive creature let out a shrill cry while its children charged at them and attacked with their scything talons.
"Pennybot! Engage lancer mode!"
"Affirmative! Target locked!"
"Ruby again?" Coco asked.
"Her whole team, actually." Beagle answered, "You might, uh, notice that Belladonna's not strapped into a MEC on this one."
Coco wasn't sure what Beagle meant with that comment, so she just continued to watch the video. The small hovering platform dove towards the towering creature with its red-hot spear and the desperate battle continued. The vicious aliens adapted to the new threat, neutralized it, and continued the onslaught. Another one of the soldiers, the MEC, threw himself at the monster in an effort to waylay it while the 'Pennybot' sacrificed itself in an effort to nuke the bug.
When the ocean breeze cleared away to show the MEC impaled on the dead alien's talon, Coco's breath caught in her throat.
"It gets worse." MacAuley warned.
Beagle nodded. "And yet, they don't give up."
What other choice did they have? The retreat continued into the marketplace of the village, and groaning humans shuffled along the streets towards the team.
"Zombies?" Velvet asked, incredulous.
"Because what kind of horror bug isn't complete without the ability to create shambling thralls that host their children?" Beagle said.
Ruby's squad eliminated the zombies that stood in their way. The camera looked ahead to show the evac transport with its engines hot, and Coco let out a mental sigh of relief. When the camera shuddered, though, it looked as though Coco had let her guard down too soon.
Blake's shriek confirmed her suspicion.
The camera whipped around, and Coco heard Velvet choke at the sight one of the bugs with its talon plunged into Blake's gut.
"Holy shit." Coco whispered, "Holy fucking shit."
"Since the Master Sergeant is still with us, she obviously survived. But now you know why she's got those robo-limbs. Penny, Glass Shroud."
Another hectic firefight where XCOM systematically worked as a cohesive and technologically-advanced team to fight back against unfair odds.
"Penny, Silent Crone."
Soldiers going down, operatives screaming for support, and yet they continued to stay focused and keep the aliens at bay while they mounted an emergency evac.
"Penny, Brutal Scepter."
Operatives escorting an unarmed VIP through a burned out observatory to get to the evac point.
"Penny, Blinding Mountain."
CFVY's first opportunity to see a psionic rift, courtesy of Major Durand.
"Penny, Crimson King."
Another operation that showed casualties of the war, and XCOM winning the conflict in spite of the losses.
"Penny, Bloody Hammer."
With each video that Beagle called up, CFVY bore witness to more and more of XCOM's talents, their tech, and their dogged determination to survive against what should be a superior foe. Several operatives took notice of Beagle's show-and-tell and wandered over to have a look at CFVY's reaction or to throw in a clever comment or two of their own. Eventually, Beagle grabbed his scroll and shoved it back into his pocket.
"If you're wondering why you made the right choice joining up with our crazy band of idiots, know this: when it comes down to the wire, when our backs are against the wall, and when we know the only way out is forward? Nothing will stop us. Nothing can stop us. Our enemies will try to send us straight to Hell, but they don't realize that we've already been there, and it wasn't anything special.
"So welcome to The Team, boys and girls. If you like getting shit done, I think you're going to like it here." Beagle finished.
Silence followed as CFVY took a minute to process everything they saw.
"That was… impressive." Yatsuhashi admitted, "If I wasn't confident in your skills before, I am now."
MacAuley clapped his hands together and grinned, "Excellent! Because I think we could use a change of pace for now and let you all familiarize yourself with the other side of XCOM."
Velvet's nervous look only served to make MacAuley's grin grow wider as she asked, "What side would that be, exactly?"
"You see, we have this very important, 'living' document that Bradford maintains. The operatives know it as The List…"
"You know," Bradford mused, "I was slightly surprised at CFVY's complete lack of surprise when Beagle pulled his pirate stunt. I had no idea that he introduced them to The List, but now it's making more sense."
Shen chuckled and poured himself another cup of tea while Bradford checked a few more stats on CFVY's file, "They'd have learned sooner or later that our operatives are an interesting bunch. May as well learn it at their own pace, no?"
"I'm not saying it was a bad move. I actually agree with it."
Vahlen snorted, "The Central Officer agreeing with Captain Beagle. I should mark this down in my calendar."
The dossiers came back up, and Bradford lazily scrolled through the options. He raised an eyebrow when he noticed one that escaped his attention the first time (and the second and third).
"I didn't know you had a file on our dear friend Oobleck." Bradford said, amused. Since when did Vahlen keep tabs on the other faculty members aboard the Avenger? It made sense, but… it just felt weird.
Vahlen raised an eyebrow right back at him. "Of course. I also have files on Port, Goodwitch, and Branwen. We need to track everyone's skillset, do we not?"
Well, perhaps it was time to take a look, then.
"COMRADES. IT IS TIME FOR THE SCIENCE TO RECOMMENCE."
Vahlen, Tygan, and Shen looked up as one Bartholomew Oobleck strolled into the lab. The animated professor zipped over to their table to have a look at their latest project, and his eyes lit up behind his glasses when he saw the hard light shielding.
"Ah yes, this certainly bears further investigation!" Oobleck cheered, "The protective additions to the Avenger were brilliant, I must say. I can only imagine what you're planning as a further evolution on this technology."
"Personal shielding." Vahlen commented, her eyes still focused on the table, "The projectors we found on Amity were… industrial in size, and not very practical for soldiers to carry into the field."
Oobleck nodded emphatically as he peered over Vahlen's shoulder. "Very true. Very true. And do you have an idea for how to solve the issue?"
Shen glanced over at his partner and saw Vahlen's eye twitch slightly. While the Chief Engineer never seemed to grow tired of Oobleck's energy, he knew that not everyone shared his endurance.
"We have several leads." Tygan said. Shen breathed a quiet sigh of relief when Oobleck ran around the table and took up a position behind the junior scientist, "At the moment, we are examining the wiring in the projector to determine what kind of material gains are built into the hardware."
"And perhaps reducing the gain might also reduce the size of the electronics necessary to project the field." Shen finished. He looked up at Oobleck and smiled, "How much experience do you have with electrical systems?"
"Not much!" Oobleck admitted in his usual high-energy tone, "Though I am a scientist myself, my work with Sergeant MacAuley at Beacon was the first time I had the chance for hands-on work with wires."
"Oh boy…" Vahlen sighed. Shen made a note to talk with his friend later to try and help her learn how to deal with Oobleck's intense personality. For now, though, Shen waved Oobleck over to his side. For whatever reason, Oobleck chose not to zip around to stare over the engineer's shoulder and instead moved to stand next to him. Vahlen's jealous glare did not escape Dr. Shen's notice.
Shen gestured at the projector on the table in front of him. His wasn't torn apart like Vahlen's or Tygan's yet, he figured it would be a good way to involve the newcomer.
"I'm having a little trouble with the casing on this." He lied, "If you could be so kind as to assist…?"
"It would be my utmost pleasure!"
Dr. Shen watched as Oobleck set to work examining the casing, the tools available, and Vahlen's case for guidance on how she managed to open hers. The professor made a few attempts at using a tool or two on certain parts of the projector (to no avail, unfortunately) before glancing again at Vahlen's work.
"Perhaps mine is a bit… jammed?" He asked, almost hopeful for a way to justify his failure.
Vahlen's answer was immediate and terse, "Doubtful."
Oobleck glanced back at Shen for help. The Chief Engineer nodded, handed Oobleck one of the hand tools, and gestured towards a particular panel on the projector.
"I think my colleagues had better luck starting with this section." He said. Sure enough, Oobleck had the top layer of the casing ripped off less than a minute later.
"Aha! The wires are exposed now. It shouldn't be long before we get to the real meat and potatoes of the problem!"
"You know, I'm starting to think that Captain Beagle is right." Tygan said from his end of the table, "Idioms appear to have a surprising amount of overlap between Remnant and Earth."
"Aha!" He cheered, "I think I see the power source! Or one of them, at least."
"You mean the transformer fifteen centimeters to the left of the entry box?" Vahlen asked, "We identified that about ten minutes before you arrived."
Oobleck shook his head, "No, not that. I have no idea what that is-"
"-the power source." Vahlen repeated.
"-I'm talking about the small compartment that is… down and to the right? It's marked with the two chevrons on the casing."
This time, Vahlen walked around to peer over Oobleck's shoulder. "What are you looking at?"
Oobleck pointed to a small, easily overlooked panel tucked away in one corner of the projector. It was small enough to be mistaken for a part of the outer casing, and nothing related to the inner workings of the technology.
"Most huntsmen weapons have a similar bit of hardware like that." The professor explained, "It's not big enough to fit a full Dust crystal into, but it's a common activator that allows the hardware to convert a smaller… thingy into a bigger one."
Shen had to chuckle at Oobleck's floundering finish. "Very technical, professor. Though I think the correct term is a thingamajig."
But now that Oobleck pointed it out, Shen recalled Ruby showing him something similar in Crescent Rose. As she explained it, the small device allowed her to channel her Aura into her weapon to rapidly formshift her weapon and to perform some of the more impressive feats of athletics the huntsmen are capable of. One of his first efforts with Vahlen to adapt aura into a power source for the upgrades they gave to RWBY and JNPR involved the small module, but quickly found out that the modules in RWBY's weapons didn't quite mesh with XCOM's technology.
He wasn't sure why a hard light projector that was meant for protecting spectators in a stadium would need an Aura conversion module, but perhaps there were other ways the technology was used. And maybe that would be the insight he and Vahlen needed to get the Aura integrated into their tech.
Maybe it was an igniter of some kind? They had already tried powering up one of the torn apart projectors to see how the electronics behaved during operation, but they didn't think to pay attention to this particular part of the system.
"Should we fire it up again? Shen asked. Vahlen just nodded wordlessly, her eyes still focused on the module as if she were trying to reveal its secrets by staring at it hard enough. Tygan tasked himself with grabbing their sensing equipment so that team could collect data on the gadget's function once they powered it on, and Oobleck busied himself with run-on sentences about the technology once he realized that the group was very clearly interested in the discovery he made.
"Yes, well, I may not know the exact science behind how the thingamajig -or rather the Dust Trigger Module, as I've heard it called- works BUT I do know that it is a very important piece of technology that is closely intertwined with how we've learned to use Dust because most Dust applications that I've cracked open, while they're mostly just gibberish and a bunch of strange parts to me, almost always have one of those thingies which I bet are used to amplify the Dust's effect, and while I know that the hard light shielding has some other technology in play, I bet the same concept applies to whatever makes it tick which, when you think about it, is impressive with regards to-"
"How much coffee have you had this morning, Professor?" Tygan asked while he set up the scanners.
"Five cups. Why?"
Tygan tried to hide an amused smile. "Just curious."
Several minutes later, and the R&D team was ready to start their test. Tygan stood next to the projector to ensure it stayed angled away from the rest of the equipment on the table, Shen manned the station that supplied power to the table from the ship's supply, and Vahlen took up her usual position behind the monitor's providing data readouts from the sensing equipment. Oobleck stood awkwardly next to Tygan, though he seemed unsure of what he should be doing.
"Are we ready?" Vahlen asked.
Shen nodded. "Ready as ever I suppose. Power is set to its lowest possible setting so that the projector doesn't destroy this room. Or the deck above it."
Tygan flipped a toggle on the side of the projector, and an energetic blue sheen immediately shot out from the business end. The internals began to light up once the projector activated, and the sensors started to feed data to Vahlen's terminals.
"I am seeing some radiation from the Trigger module." Vahlen confirmed, "The spectral data is similar to that from the power supply we previously identified, so I do believe it functions similarly."
Tygan leaned down to have a closer look at the module. "There are no visual cues that it's functioning. It must operate outside the visual spectrum."
"It has signatures on multiple frequencies." Vahlen confirmed. "Never seen a pattern like this, if I'm being honest."
"Then again, we didn't do as much research into Aura tech as we would have liked." Shen pointed out.
The test continued, and Tygan probed various parts of the power grid at Vahlen's direction as she worked to get a better handle on how the Dust Trigger Module behaved. Shen watched as the familiar crease of furrowed eyebrows that only crept onto her face when she grew frustrated.
"This data is helpful… but it's not enough." She announced. "We need to find a way to add some variance to the system so I can gather some comparison data."
Oobleck lit up at the request, and a twinge of concern ran down Shen's spine. "I can help with that!"
Before anyone say anything, Oobleck reached into the projector's internals and touched the module while his arm glowed faintly. Shen didn't see any power surges at his juncture station, but something caused the projector output to spike, as the hard lights extended far beyond what their original system had allowed. Vahlen yelped and instinctively ducked as the light sheared through several fixtures in the room and sent them tumbling to the floor with a crash. Oobleck yanked his hand away from the module when he realized that he was creating chaos, and the projected light retracted back to its original length.
"I… uh… didn't realize that the module was that potent." The Professor apologized. The usual excitement in his tone was notably missing.
Vahlen stood back up, dusted herself off, and looked at her data feeds. "At least we got some interesting statistics out of the spike. I can pinpoint the exact moment you… 'fed' the system with your energy." Vahlen looked up and smiled at Oobleck, "It'll take me some time to parse the data, but we might be able to use it to adapt Aura amplification tech in some of our designs intended for the huntsmen teams. Thank you, Professor."
And, of course, Bradford chose that moment to walk by the open door. He backpedalled a moment later and poked his head into the room. Everyone stood in silence as the Central Officer's eyes swept over the damage before settling on Vahlen with an amused look.
"Do I even want to know?"
The Chief Scientist sighed dramatically. "Sacrifices must be made in the name of Science, Central. Surely you must know this by now."
"That wreck in your lab makes a lot more sense now that I've got some context to go with it." Bradford said, "I figured it had something to do with Oobleck, but I was still amazed by the extent of the destruction he had caused."
"Bartholomew Oobleck may sometimes be energetic to the point of frustrating ineptitude, but his heart is in the right place." Shen noted. He glanced into his cup, glanced at teapot, and shook his head.
Bradford pulled up the dossier list again. "Right then, shall we-"
"Boss, you got a minute?"
Shen perked up at the sound of Volt's voice over the intercom. He hit a toggle on the comm interface to change the communication to point-to-point so that the rest of the ship didn't listen in on their conversation.
"Only if it's important." The Chief Engineer answered. But he knew Volt well enough to know that the man wouldn't ask for Shen's attention without good reason.
"Oh, it's important. I could also use the Doc's eyes on this, if she's with you."
"She is." Vahlen said, "What appears to be the problem?"
"It's not a problem, ma'am. Well, it might be? It's… ah… an anomaly at the moment."
"You'll have to be clearer than that, Sergeant."
"Oh shit, you're with Central? I apologize if I interrupted something, but we're getting some signals on the UHF band that look familiar from my days as a console jockey in Mission Control."
Shen perked up at the mention of the Ultra High Frequency band. That radio frequency required a direct point-to-point line of contact, so whatever Volt was seeing had to be closer than the horizon.
"Well?" Vahlen asked, "What does it look like?"
"You're not gonna believe this."
"Spit it out, soldier."
"Looks like the signature of a Harvester-class alien ship. Coming from what I'm assuming are the ruins of Mountain Glenn."
Bradford didn't miss a beat before punching the console to switch it back to broadcast mode. "General quarters. Major Durand, I need a ground team prepped for combat ASAP. Beags, get the Avenger landed outside the settlement perimeter. Firebrand can take the team in by Bullhead. Let's move, people."
A/N: Aaaaaaaand that's that. Gonna start getting into the weird shit next time. Until then, come say hi on the Discord! It's fun chatting with all you guys about anything and everything.