Author's Note: It's been over a year since I submitted the previous chapter. Lots of things can happen in that span, both in the world and my personal life. But I've never forgotten this story and vow to continue and conclude it no matter what happens.
Disclaimer: FF:TSW characters are (were?) property of Square Pictures. X-COM was originally registered under Microprose and remains to this day one of my favorite old-skool DOS-based PC strategy games!
Chapter 19: Searching High and Low
He said nothing, simply watching as the woman was dumped on the empty bed in the cell across from his own. The two men who had brought her in ignored him thus far, but on the way out one of them could not help but taunt at his expense.
"How the mighty have fallen, hey general?" he remarked, and his companion chuckled nastily.
He replied only with a scowl and the pair left, nosily slamming the door behind them. Only when their footsteps faded completely did he go to stand behind the energy barrier and gaze out at the new arrival.
The number of people who knew that Douglas Hein was still alive could be counted on one hand; the horror that was the fall of New York Barrier City was never far from him, but so long as everyone thought he had died aboard the Zeus station, then that he could at least live with.
A small groan interrupted his thoughts and he looked on as Cheyenne stirred, groggily sitting up and examining her surroundings. Hein had known about X-COM ever since their arrival; his internal contact had given him plenty of data on the squad, their advanced technology, and the aliens that they pursued. He waited now before addressing the captain and assessed her reaction.
"'Hein?'" she replied, cocking her head as her smooth brow developed a few furrows. Where had she heard that name before? "You mean, General Hein?"
The subject of the conversation took another draw on his cigarette and nodded. "The same."
"The same Hein who died in the Phantom War?"
He gave her a neutral look and answered her question with another."What have you heard?"
Cheyenne crossed her arms. "You were aboard a space station and it was destroyed. You're supposed to be dead," she said, her manner forward and direct as ever.
At the mention of his pet project, Hein took a final draw and savored the nicotine rush before dropping the butt on the floor and crushing it under his heel. "Rest assured, captain, I'm very much alive. Just how do you know about me?"
A name was spoken and a corner of his mouth lifted. "Tobias, eh? My old rival. I would inquire about your team, captain, but I'm afraid these conditions aren't exactly ideal for an interview."
She sensed that things might not have been exactly chummy between the two men and would have liked to know more but he was right. It would have to wait. "Not to change the subject, but I'd like to know just what's going on here."
"I'm as in the dark as much as you. I woke up in this cell a little over a day ago." As he spoke he absently rubbed his right forearm, which was apparently giving him some discomfort. It was a little reminder of the crash-landing in the Nevada desert, among the foothills not far from what once Las Vegas. He had barely managed to escape from the doomed Zeus station but suffered a broken arm and some other minor injuries during the landing. Discovered and watched over by Major Alton, he made a full recovery but images haunted him almost every time he tried to sleep, leaving him weary and gaunt.
So he decided to leave.
As soon as he was well enough, he fueled up a jeep, loaded it with the basic necessities and took leave of his benefactor. Luck was with him, for after days of aimless driving, he ran upon a deserted mountain house. He settled in but it still took months for him to make peace with his turbulent subconscious. It didn't take a genius to know that it was guilt. Guilt over the countless needless deaths he was ultimately responsible for. And guilt over the fact that, deep down, Aki Ross had been right all along.
Through reports that he that he heard on the radio (he eschewed television or any sort of visual communication), he knew that the general populace thought him deceased, and he took great pains to appear to remain that way. The charge of treason and the very real possibility of execution forced him to watch his every step, and so Douglas Hein lived an isolated life of self-exile and for over a year.
But someone had found out.
In the dark early morning hours, he had awoken to discover that he was not alone in his small bedroom. A pair of shadowy figures stood at the foot of the bed. Silently cursing his usually-sharp senses he swiftly groped beneath his pillow but before his fingers could even touch the grip of his loaded Sonnet there was a muted crack. A pair of needle-like electrodes pierced the bedsheet, his thin undershirt and bit into the skin of his chest, delivering a jolt that shocked him into rapid unconsciousness. Bound and blindfolded, he could only recall bits and pieces of his journey that had ended with him in the cell he now occupied.
The sound of approaching footsteps put a halt to his reminiscing. The cell block door opened and in walked the same two men who had brought the captain. They stepped aside and flanked either side of the doorway, and now a third man entered. He was of average height yet well-dressed in dark slacks and a casual jacket. His hair was light brown and cut in an immaculately clean style. Below it was a not-unhandsome face with a well-shaped nose and thin-lipped mouth that seemed suppresses a slight smile. It was his gaze, however, that was memorable. His intense dark brown eyes had the uncanny ability to both take in everything at once and scrutinize in minute detail; they were at once intelligent and utterly insane.
"I apologize for the rough nature of your procurement, captain. But we had to act quickly." His tone was smooth and urbane. Charming, even. Cheyenne found herself taking an instant dislike to the man.
"Who are you?" she demanded, her brilliant green eyes narrowing. "How do you know me? And just why the hell am I here?"
"Tsk tsk, no need for such language," he said, voice playfully reproachful but it was not hard to catch its dangerous undertone. He clasped his hands behind him, striking a pose eerily similar to that of Hein's not a few minutes ago. He took a step closer; behind him his watchful followers remained unobtrusively in the background. "I am Toryn the Founder, the heart and soul of the Cult of Spirit. Both of you should count yourselves fortunate, for you shall soon witness the birth of a new world, and the beginning of man's salvation. We were forestalled once, but this time, God's will shall be done!"
Hein snorted. "'Toryn the Founder?' Is that is what you call yourself now, Ferin?"
Nonplussed, Cheyenne blinked. "You know him?"
"Former USMF lieutenant Gaal Ferin was infected by a Phantom on a routine mission, but inexplicably beat the contagion and survived. Unfortunately, as you can see, his state of mind was...affected." Hein faced the man squarely, his scowl clearly visible even behind the shimmering red bars of his cell. "You escaped a high-security quarantined facility. How did you manage to evade capture all this time?"
Uncowed, he fastened a sardonic gaze on the general. "It's true that I was touched by the Lord's messenger, yes, but I was shown the true path. I was instructed to carry out the word God, but thanks to men like the you, and others who blindly followed, mankind was swayed from the path to true enlightenment."
Cheyenne bit her tongue. She decided for the moment to humor this madman. Maybe after his idiotic rant was over she would get some answers and be able also formulate some sort of escape, since a rescue appeared to be out of the question for now. "Okay...let me guess. You want to take over the world and all that, huh? So what's your plan, genius?"
Toryn smiled. "I forgive you your ignorance. We have been in contact with our star-born brothers almost since their arrival. With their assistance, the great purging of all sin from this world will finally become a reality. The only thing they ask for in exchange is aiding them in their return to their proper home."
It took a moment for Cheyenne to assimilate the full impact behind this statement, and at first she couldn't say a word. Then she found her voice. "You're helping the aliens? That's insane! They can't be reasoned with, or trusted! You're going to cooperate with a species who wants to eradicate the entire human race? Once they get what they wanted, the only thanks you'll get is your death!"
"I thought that would be your reaction." He pursed his lips and appeared to mull over on how to proceed. "We were denied the chance to obtain our goal...the Lord's angels that were sent to show us the righteous path were eliminated just over two years ago." Here he threw a withering glare at Hein. "He has granted us a chance for redemption even though more lost souls continue to impede us. I would ask you to reconsider, to join our crusade, captain, but X-COM has attacked our stellar brothers and has therefore proven untrustworthy."
"Before your inevitable demise, there are some things I must know." He brought a small vial out of a pocket. Faintly-glowing green fluid gently sloshed within it as he gingerly held it between his thumb and forefinger. "Within a minute of injection of this rather potent neurostimulant the subject becomes extremely susceptible to suggestion; no secrets shall be held from me. But it does have a rather unfortunate side-affect of causing uncontrollable babbling. You could very well reveal some things that are quite private and embarrassingly personal."
"I don't give a damn," the redhead snarled. "Destroying the aliens is my sworn duty. I'd sooner die than lift a finger to help you. You can go stuff it."
Toryn shrugged. "So be it." The next instant a compact weapon appeared. It was a flechette gun, a highly illegal weapon whose explosive ammunition of minuscule razor-sharp shards could easily blow off a limb. The barrel was unwaveringly trained upon her chest. "It would be a pity to waste such a wealth of information after we've gone through so much trouble to obtain it. But I have secured an alternate means of extracting answers from someone as headstrong as yourself."
The pistol vanished back into its concealed holster and he glanced at one of his men, who reached over and tugged open the door. Both Broderick and Hein began to notice a faint, unpleasant vibration in the air. They also noted that both of the other cultists were sweating despite the cool air in the cell block, and the next moment the reason was plainly evident.
Standing in the entrance was a being no larger than a child. A maroon-colored robe of an unidentifiable fabric draped from its scrawny shoulders and dragged slightly on the floor, concealing its feet. Nothing was visible within the deep shadow of its monk-like hood save two points of glowing green. A wave of nearly-palpable wave of psionic force proceeding ahead of it, the Ethereal glided into the room. It made not a sound as it stood off to one side, but seemingly watched everything taking place in the room.
Toryn beamed ecstatically. If he was affected by the creature's telepathic powers, he managed to hide it quite well. He nodded to his followers. "Brothers. Prepare the good captain for questioning. See that she is...comfortable. She'll need her strength." Spurred by the silent, malevolent presence of the alien, his followers rushed to do his bidding. As they did so, Toryn turned and gave Hein a smirk. "Don't worry, general. You're next."
"There, that should do it." Aki finished setting the Black Boa's auto-pilot and sat back in her seat, trying to get somewhat comfortable in her bulky flight suit. Beside her, Neil put the finishing touches on the search program. He typed in a final command and executed it with a showy flourish.
"Done and done, doc.The parameters are set...computer's standing by, all scanners are ready on your mark. So, what's the plan again?" His gray eyes grinned.
She gave him a small smile. "Weren't you paying attention during the preflight, Neil? Or were you still trying to act like Eri wasn't giving you the eye?"
The tech started to splutter an excuse, but Aki held up her hand. "Anyway...we start over the central part of the country and deploy our relay drones here-" she indicated different points on a holographic map of the United States- "here, and here. They'll link up with our existing communication satellites and provide us with a vast network for real-time scanning. If we do get an anomaly we can descend to take a closer look."
Martin's voice came in over the cockpit speakers. He was sequestered down in the ship's hold, surrounded by the electronic module's complex equipment. "And I take it that the response times will be much shorter since we're not down on the surface, right?"
"Precisely. Another reason to be up here is that we can deploy our drones faster and place them more accurately from orbit, rather than launching them from the surface." She glanced out to port, trying to catch a glimpse of her escort. A mere half a kilometer away and slightly above, Atwood's matte-black Firestar held position. Aki had made a mental note on him since leaving Houston; his interceptor had maintained a consistent distance and matched the Black Boa's speed and course precisely. She was grateful that the young pilot suggestion to fly escort was acted upon by all present. "Tyler, have you picked up any contacts on your scanners?"
"Negative, doctor. Just the random satellite and minor space debris. If there are any aliens, they're lying low."
"Good. Let's hope they stay that way, at least until we're done." Neil muttered. If any enemies did make a guest appearance, Tyler could at least keep them off the unarmed Boa's back until Aki boosted away to safety. That was the plan, anyway. The Deep Eye was about to add another comment when the cockpit's com system chirped.
Aki touched a switch. "This is the Boa. Go ahead, control."
It was the major and she sounded quite grave indeed. "Dr. Ross, I'm afraid that we're in a bit of a situation down here..."